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US faces increasing threats from weakening world order and isolationism, intelligence agencies warn

[WASHINGTON] America's traditional adversaries will take advantage of the weakening of the postwar order and isolationist tendencies of the West to assert greater influence, a new strategy document from the director of national intelligence warned on Tuesday.

Russian efforts to increase its influence are likely to continue, and China is continuing its pursuit of "economic and territorial predominance in the Pacific region," the report said.

The document, compiled every four years, is meant to guide the intelligence agencies' broad strategic goals. While it outlines the threat to the United States in broad terms, it includes little in the way of details about specific threats from China, Russia or other countries.

The leaders of US intelligence agencies are expected to testify to Congress in early February with a more fulsome assessment of the threats facing the country. Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, will most likely field questions at that hearing about China's intensifying espionage activities and Russia's continuing efforts to interfere in democratic institutions in the United States and the rest of the West.

Adversaries are using not just traditional means of asserting strength in security matters, but also hybrid and asymmetric means to gain political, military and economic power, according to the report.

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"Traditional adversaries will continue attempts to gain and assert influence, taking advantage of changing conditions in the international environment — including the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals, increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West, and shifts in the global economy," the report said.

In setting priorities for the intelligence agencies, the 2019 document echoes much of the direction of the strategy released in September 2014.

But the new document raises bigger concerns over counterintelligence threats. The United States faces counterintelligence challenges from both foreign spy services and insider threats — government employees and contractors who use their access to intelligence networks to "wittingly or unwittingly" hurt US security — according to the document.

Technological advances have helped foreign intelligence agencies "to field increasingly sophisticated capabilities and aggressively target the government, private sector partners, and academia." Those new technologies provide not only foreign intelligence agencies easier means to steal secrets, but can also threaten critical infrastructure and weaken American influence.

In a speech to intelligence officials Tuesday, Mr Coats said the new strategy urges the agencies to better use advanced technology to improve the tools that analysts and operatives use.

Mr Coats recalled listening in 1967 to Richard Helms, then the CIA director, talk about how the agency had developed a method to keep its fax machine messages secret.

"He told us CIA had learned to encrypt its signal and could transmit a document at a rate of six-plus pages a minute," Mr Coats recalled. "Imagine that! He pointed out that the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could be sent from our headquarters to the State Department in a little over 60 hours."

New 5G technologies will speed information transmission well beyond today's internet, let alone Helms' secret fax machine. That technology, Mr Coats said, will change how the world, and intelligence agencies, operate. He predicted that artificial intelligence and machine learning will enable US spy agencies to process all of the data they collect "instead of being buried under it."

"It's a constant struggle to process data, analyse it and convert it into knowledge and understanding for our customers," Mr Coats said. "It's one of our greatest challenges."

Mr Coats also included in the strategy a new section on transparency, promising to share more information with the public.

Almost all the work of the spy agencies remains shrouded in secrecy, protected by classifications meant to protect sources and methods, but also obscuring the analysis done by intelligence officers.

Mr Coats said he was committed to building public understanding of the intelligence community's mission, and he wanted to see the agencies share more information with the public.

"We will be open about how we help protect the nation," he said, "and whenever possible, we will share with the public the insight we offer to policymakers."


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