WASHINGTON — The global economic crisis is the largest near-term security threat to the United States, President Obama's national intelligence director told Congress on Thursday, signaling that the new administration is broadening its definition of national security beyond traditional military and homeland security concerns.
Retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair said the worldwide economic downturn could spawn political instability across the globe, hamper U.S. allies and drain support for the American-led international free-trading system.
"Time is probably our greatest threat," Blair said in prepared remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee. "The longer it takes for the recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to U.S. strategic interests."
In other testimony, the intelligence chief painted a sobering picture of deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan — where Obama will soon decide whether to send additional U.S. troops — and in neighboring Pakistan.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hasn't tackled endemic corruption, which is undermining his government's legitimacy, Blair said. Nor has it gotten a handle on the pervasive opium trade or built effective provincial-level institutions, he said.
Despite efforts by U.S. and allied military forces, "Afghanistan's Taliban-dominated insurgency has increased the geographic scope and frequency of attacks" during the past year, he said.
And while no improvement in Afghanistan is possible unless Pakistan controls its border, the civilian-led Pakistani government faces enormous challenges and is losing authority in parts of the country, he said.
Blair took his post two weeks ago. His decision to open his first congressional testimony with a focus on economic security marks a break with the Bush administration, which defined security largely in terms of threats from terrorism and weapons proliferation.
Obama and his national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, are reorganizing the national security apparatus to deal with a broader range of threats, such as cyber-attacks, economic disruption and climate change.
Blair did cite one potential benefit of the global economic slowdown: declining oil prices could "put the squeeze" on foreign policy "adventurism" by oil producers Iran and Venezuela. Crude oil prices, which peaked at more than $147 a barrel last year, closed below $34 a barrel Thursday in New York.
On other topics, Blair said:
- Al Qaida's central organization "is less capable and effective than it was a year ago." He cited blows against the terrorist group's Pakistan-based command structure, setbacks to al Qaida in Iraq, and waning Muslim public support for the group.
Al Qaida still aspires to attacks on U.S. territory, but "we lack insight into specific details, timing and intended targets," he said.
- Yemen and East Africa, particularly Somalia, are emerging as potential new bases of operations for Islamic extremists.
- Some U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that North Korea has an "ongoing" covert uranium enrichment program in addition to its known program to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.
- U.S. information systems are increasingly under attack from groups and countries, with many electronic forays originating in China and Russia.
"Over the past year, cyber exploitation activity has grown more sophisticated, more targeted and more serious," he said.
- Iran is expanding its regional power and ambitions, threatening U.S.-allied Arab states.
- The recent Gaza conflict between Israel and the radical Islamist group Hamas has hardened attitudes and complicated peace efforts.
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