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US intel chief says risk of global conflict highest since Cold War

Updated 3:33 PM ET, Tue February 13, 2018

Washington (CNN) - US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned Tuesday that the current risk of a global conflict is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

"The risk of interstate conflict, including among great powers, is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War," Coats told lawmakers during a hearing on worldwide threats before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"The most immediate threats of regional interstate conflict in the next year come from North Korea and from Saudi-Iranian use of proxies in their rivalry," he said. "At the same time, the threat of state and non-state use of weapons of mass destruction will continue to grow."

Specifically, Coats noted that US adversaries and "malign actors," including Russia and China, will use several tactics, including cyber and information warfare to challenge US influence around the world.

Russian election meddling

The intelligence community remains unanimous in its assessment that Russia will target the 2018 US midterm elections, according to Coats.

Coats, CIA director Mike Pompeo, NSA director Mike Rogers, FBI director Michael Wray, DIA director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency director Robert Cardillo all reaffirmed their confidence in the conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and will attempt do the same in the 2018 midterms.

"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda social media, false flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," he said. "There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations."

Sen. Angus King urged the intelligence community to persuade President Trump to accept their conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and continues to threaten future elections.

"My problem is I talk to people in Maine who say the whole thing is a witch hunt and a hoax because 'the President told me'," King said.

"I just wish you all could persuade the President as a matter of national security to separate these two issues, the collusion issue is over here, unresolved, we'll get to the bottom of that. But there's no doubt, as you all have testified today, we cannot confront this threat which is a serious one with a whole of government response when the leader of the government continues to deny it exists," he added.

CIA director Pompeo said that the US has some offensive capabilities to use against those who would challenge US elections. Pompeo didn't go into details, saying he could talk further about them in a closed session.

North Korea

Coats also highlighted the increasing threat posed by North Korea -- particularly due to the rogue regime's unwillingness to "negotiate its nuclear weapons and missiles away," given that capability is viewed as "critical to its security."

"North Korea continues to pose an ever more increasing threat to the United States and its interests," Coats told lawmakers.

"We expect to see North Korea press ahead with additional missile tests this year and its foreign minister has threatened an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific," he added. "Pyongyang is committed to fielding a long range nuclear armed missile capable of posing a direct threat to the United States and modest improvements in North Korea's conventional capabilities will continue to pose an ever greater threat to South Korea, Japan as well as US targets in those countries."

Despite hopes that the presence of a North Korean delegation at the Olympics in Seoul -- led by Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong -- might yield diplomatic progress, US intelligence officials said Pyongyang's strategic intentions have not changed based on their assessments.

"The American people should all remember that Kim Yo Jong is the head of the propaganda and agitation department," Pompeo said. "There is no indication there is any strategic change in the outlook of Kim Jong Un and his desire to retain his nuclear capacity to threaten the United States of America. No change there."

"The strategic calculus is not changing and we should not be misled by the events that are taking place around the Olympics," added Lt. Gen. Ashley.

According to Pompeo, the CIA has analyzed the impact of conducting a potential preventive strike on North Korea, as well as "what we think happens in the event that the US decides not to do that, and continues to allow Kim to develop his nuclear weapons arsenal."

He also said the CIA has examined what it would take to bring North Korea to the negotiating table but declined to offer additional details in the open session.

Cyber threats

Intelligence officials emphasized that they remain concerned about the increasing "potential for surprise" in the cyber realm as "both nation states and malign actors become more emboldened and better equipped in the use of increasingly widespread cyber toolkits."

Russia, China, Iran and North Korea will pose the greatest cyber threats to the US during the next year, Coats said, adding that "these states are using cyber operations as a low-cost tool of statecraft, and we assess that they will work to use cyber operations to achieve strategic objectives unless they face clear repercussions."

"The risk is growing that some adversaries will conduct cyber-attacks -- such as data deletion or localized and temporary disruptions of critical infrastructure -- against the United States in a crisis short of war," according to Coats' written testimony.

While Coats said that concerns of US retaliation and "still developing adversary capabilities" should mitigate the threat of a major cyberattack aimed at disrupting critical infrastructure, the intelligence community remains "concerned by the increasingly damaging effects of cyber operations and the apparent acceptance by adversaries of collateral damage."


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