The US faces cuts in intelligence spending despite threats ranging from al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia to nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, the top US intelligence official said on Thursday.
With newly powerful Republicans in Congress eager to slash spending on many fronts, senior intelligence officials faced questions about the future of US spycraft even as Washington tries to gauge the impact of turmoil in the Middle East.
“We all understand that we’re going to be in for some belt tightening,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing.
Last year, the US government disclosed it spent just more than US$80 billion on intelligence last year, double the amount in 2001 — the year of the Sept. 11 attacks on the US by al-Qaeda militants.
Much of the increase came during the eight-year presidency of Republican former US president George W. Bush as the US went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and stepped up security at home. US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, took office in 2009.
“We must see greater efficiencies in your existing budgets to either fund new or expanded intelligence programs or return those savings to the American people,” Representative Mike Rogers, the new Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in his opening statement.
Clapper, repeating warnings made by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the massive US deficit was weakening the US position against potential rivals including China, which owns about US$900 billion in US Treasury debt.
“The debt does pose a potential threat to our national security ... The financial relationship we have with China is illustrative of that,” he said.
Clapper, in his written statement, said al-Qaeda, under heavy US pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was shifting more focus to affiliates in Yemen and Somalia that could grow stronger without a more sustained effort to disrupt them.
“The result may be that regional affiliates conducting most of the terrorist attacks and multiple voices will provide inspiration for the global jihadist movement,” he told the committee.
Clapper said the threat of cyber warfare was increasing and that its impact was difficult to overstate, while CIA Director Leon Panetta said the Internet was “the battleground of the future” that the US must be prepared to win.
Nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran remain a serious concern despite global efforts to halt them. Tehran is keeping the option open to build a nuclear weapon, while Pyongyang is already capable of building one, Clapper told the panel.
“North Korea would consider using nuclear weapons only under certain narrow circumstances,” he said.