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Intelligence Heads Provide Update On Threats Facing U.S.


It's primary day in New Hampshire. Most polls closed just minutes ago. We'll bring you election updates throughout the evening. But now we go to Capitol Hill, where the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, warned senators today that global instability is on the rise. The so-called Islamic State's ability to direct and inspire attacks is increasing, and despite the recent nuclear deal, Iran presents an enduring threat to the United States. Here's how Clapper described the list of major threats facing the country.


JAMES CLAPPER: In my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I don't - I cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises that we confront as we do today.

MCEVERS: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been on Capitol Hill listening, and she's with us now. And, Mary Louise, it does not sound like there were many bright spots here.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Not many, no. At one point, Clapper actually referred to his testimony as a litany of doom, and that felt about right today. You mentioned this is an annual ritual with Clapper, as national intelligence director, joined by the heads of the CIA, the FBI, other spy agencies. They are constrained, of course, in what they can say publicly. And so when you cover this threat assessment as a reporter from year to year, you are listening for subtle shifts in the words that they choose to use that may indicate new intelligence underlying their remarks.

MCEVERS: What did you hear that was new on terrorism? I mean, we mentioned ISIS and its ability to direct and inspire attacks is on the rise. Beyond that, anything?

KELLY: Well, Clapper described ISIS as the preeminent terrorist threat, which is so much stronger language than I have heard him use in the past, and he attributed that to the ground that it holds in Syria and Iraq and to offshoots in other countries. And domestically, he raised the concern about last year's attacks in San Bernardino, for example, that that may prompt copycat attacks. He cited one worrying figure that I had not heard before, which was that last year, 2015, the FBI arrested about 60 U.S.-based ISIS supporters. That is five times as many as the year before.

MCEVERS: And what about some of these offshoot groups that you mentioned? Any insights into the spread of ISIS beyond this power base in Iraq and Syria?

KELLY: Actually, CIA director John Brennan got a question exactly along those lines, and his answer in short was Libya. He called Libya a magnet. He called it the most important theater for ISIS outside of Syria and Iraq and said that there are several thousand ISIS fighters there. That squares, by the way, with recent remarks that we have heard from the Pentagon where officials have, over the last few days, been talking about possible military planning, military action against ISIS in Libya.

MCEVERS: And this was John Brennan's first public appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee in two years since the whole blowup when the committee accused the CIA of illegally spying on Senate computers. I mean, did that come up at all?

KELLY: Oh, yeah, that came up.


KELLY: That was actually a most heated exchange today. I mean, to remind people - this was the episode at the time that the so-called torture report was released.


KELLY: Senators accused the CIA of snooping on their computers, on their staffers' computers. Democrat Ron Wyden today made clear he is still angry. This is him lambasting the CIA's Brennan.


RON WYDEN: When you're talking about spying on a committee responsible for overseeing your agency, in my view, that undermines the very checks and balances that protect our democracy.

KELLY: And Brennan shot right back to that, said he respectfully disagreed, that he had apologized already for an instance of inappropriate access. But he said do not say the CIA spied on Senate computers - not true. So a flash of temper in today's hearing.

MCEVERS: And quickly, what about Iran? Do U.S. spy chiefs agree that Iran so far is abiding by the nuclear deal?

KELLY: They agreed that so far it is abiding by the nuclear deal. That's the good news. On the other hand, they said Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, so very much still a mixed bag.

MCEVERS: That's Mary Louise Kelly, national security correspondent. Thank you very much.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.