An array of stern-faced men sat together and talked out some of their worst fears. It wasn't a therapy session, but a series of warnings from America's top intelligence officials, typified by one sentence in particular: "The United States is under attack."
That alarming declaration came from the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was referring to the Russian government's targeting of the U.S. 2018 midterm elections. Coats was testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, alongside the heads of the CIA, NSA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," Coats told lawmakers Tuesday. "There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm election as a potential target for Russian influence operations."
While the stark prediction made headlines, it also overshadowed some of the intelligence chiefs' other fears, laid out in the intelligence community's annual World Threat Assessment Report, published ahead of the chiefs' testimony [PDF].
Let's talk about some of those:
1. Now More Than 30 Countries Maintain 'Cyber Attack Capabilities'
In perhaps a sign of how dire the concern is, cyber threats took top billing in the threat report. The intelligence community wrote that "The potential for surprise in the cyber realm will increase in the next year and beyond as billions more digital devices are connected -- with relatively little built-in security -- and both nation states and malign actors become more emboldened and better equipped in the use of increasingly widespread cyber toolkits."
Those nation states include more than 30 countries, according to an accompanying graphic in the report -- more than double the number in 2012 and up from just two or three a decade ago.
Of these 30, the U.S. sees Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as "pos[ing] the greatest cyber threats.
"The use of cyber attacks as a foreign policy tool outside of military conflict has been mostly limited to sporadic lower-level attacks. Russia, Iran, and North Korea, however, are testing more aggressive cyber attacks that pose growing threats to the United States and U.S. partners," the report says.
2. ISIS in for the Long Haul in Middle East
The terrorist organization has suffered some serious defeats in the previous year and have lost control of much of the land they used to dominate, but that doesn't mean they're going anywhere.
"ISIS core has started -- and probably will maintain -- a robust insurgency in Iraq and Syria as part of a long-term strategy to ultimately enable the reemergence of its so-called caliphate," the report says. "This activity will challenge local CT efforts against the group and threaten U.S. interests in the region."
3. Nearly Two Decades Later, Things to Get 'Modestly' Worse in Afghanistan
Seventeen years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and leave al Qaeda without a "safe haven," trouble is forever brewing in the Southwest Asian nation.
Despite optimistic soundbites from military officials, the assessment says that in 2018, "the overall situation in Afghanistan probably will deteriorate modestly... in the face of political instability, sustained attacks by the Taliban-led insurgency, unsteady Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) performance, and chronic financial shortfalls."
Next door, Pakistan is expected to "maintain its ties to militants," who "continue to take advantage of their safe haven in Pakistan to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan, including against U.S. interests." Grand.
4. Fear the Robot
Just because American spy agencies are enthusiastically exploring what machine learning algorithms can do for them in intelligence analysis, that doesn't mean they aren't wary of what it'll do in the wrong hands.
"The widespread proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI)—the field of computer science encompassing systems that seek to imitate aspects of human cognition by learning and making decisions based on accumulated knowledge—is likely to prompt new national security concerns; existing machine learning technology, for example, could enable high degrees of automation in labor-intensive activities such as satellite imagery analysis and cyber defense," the report says.
5. What Is 'Counterspace'?
No, it's not room for your dishes. Counterspace, in this context, refers to weapons that could target satellites and other space-based objects in the case of a major conflict. This is a rather complicated subject, into which Code and Dagger has wandered previously, but essentially the U.S. is concerned that Russian and Chinese public pushes for international agreements on the "nonweaponization of space" are diplomatic slights of hand.
"We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems," the report says. "Military reforms in both countries in the past few years indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains."
Beware the literal star wars.
6. Flashpoint: Water
The report dedicates a section to environmental concerns, noting, "The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent -- and possibly upheaval -- through 2018."
That last one, water scarcity, is no longer relegated to plot devices for dystopian sci-fi. A growing lack of water "compounded by gaps in cooperative management agreements for nearly half of the world’s international river basins, and new unilateral dam development are likely to heighten tension between countries," the report says.
7. Then There's Superbugs
Experts have warned for a while about the danger in bacteria and viruses becoming more and more resistant to drugs, and the intelligence community has taken notice, even if in exceptionally dry language that undercuts the implied disaster.
"Increasing antimicrobial resistance, the ability of pathogens—including viruses, fungi, and bacteria—to resist drug treatment, is likely to outpace the development of new antimicrobial drugs, leading to infections that are no longer treatable," the report says.
8. In Colombia, More Cocaine Than Under Escobar
Things have been looking up for America's South American friend Colombia for a while, especially since the government made peace with the leftist militant organization FARC, ending a decades-long insurgency.
But that peace has come with costs, and one is that the "influx of FARC dissidents, drug traffickers and other illegal actors in remote areas will challenge security forces during the next 12 months," the report says.
It adds that cocaine production in Colombia is "at an all-time high."
[Do you have a tip or question for Code and Dagger? Reach us at CodeAndDagger@protonmail.com. And if you like what you read and want to help keep the site running (kind of) smoothly, click here to learn how you can support the site. ]