Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper has identified cyberattacks as the biggest threat to the economy and national security of the United States, despite the looming threats of extremist terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and the growing nuclear ambitions of countries such as Iran, China, and North Korea.
The nation's highest intelligence official told the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on worldwide threats that although America is not currently at risk for a catastrophic, Armageddon-style scenario that will cause the meltdown of major infrastructures, such as financial institutions or power grids, Clapper said government agencies and private companies in the U.S. are already being subjected to an increasing occurrence of low and moderate-level cyberattacks whose destructive effects accumulate over time to negatively impact the nation's economy and national security.
"Cyber threats to U.S. national and economic security are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of impact; [and] the ranges of cyber threat actors, methods of attack, targeted systems, and victims are also expanding," Clapper said.
Particularly of concern to Clapper is the growing role of politically motivated attacks aimed at infiltrating U.S. government and military networks. He said the cyberattacks, which come in large part from Russia, are "more severe than we have previously assessed," but Clapper did not provide more details. Aside from Russia, hackers backed by the governments of China, North Korea, and Iran have been found to target government and commercial networks "on a daily basis."
"Politically motivated cyberattacks are now a growing reality, and foreign actors are reconnoitering and developing access to U.S. critical infrastructure systems, which might be quickly exploited for disruption if an adversary's intent became hostile," Clapper said.
Perhaps the most high-profile and "the most serious and costly cyberattack against U.S. interest to date" is the massive intrusion into Sony Pictures' internal network, which was attributed by federal investigators to North Korea allegedly in retaliation for a movie by the film studio that satirized its leader Kim Jong-un.
Earlier last year, hackers from Iran are believed to have wiped out the hard drives and servers running casino firm Las Vegas Sands' slot machines and rewards programs after Sheldon Adelson, owner of the firm, had predicted that a "mushroom cloud" will rise over Iran if it pursued its nuclear weapons program.
Clapper admitted, however, that the U.S. has its own "offensive capabilities" to infiltrate and bring down the networks of its enemies, but he said policy makers are still wrangling over when and how often to launch offensives.
Meanwhile, the White House announced a new agency that will consolidate and analyze all the intelligence about existing and future cyberattacks and provide guidance to all concerned agencies. The Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center will report to Clapper and will apply "hard-won lessons from our counterterrorism efforts to augment that 'whole-of-government' approach" to collecting and interpreting intelligence about cyberattacks from foreign entities.