Commercially available information technology will play a stronger role in "asymmetric" threats from terrorist groups and enemy states over the next decade, the nation's top intelligence officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.
"As demonstrated by September 11, we increasingly are facing ... adversaries whose main goal is to cause the United States pain and suffering, rather than to achieve traditional military objectives," said CIA Director George Tenet, during a hearing on global threats to U.S. national security. "Their inability to match U.S. military power is driving some to invest in asymmetric niche capabilities."
Tenet said those capabilities include access to "a tremendous amount" of open-source information on how to produce weapons of mass destruction. "Terrorist groups worldwide have ready access to information on chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons via the Internet, and we know that al Qaeda was working to acquire some of the most dangerous chemical agents and toxins," he said.
Tenet added that the United States' space-based advantages are eroding as adversaries gain access to openly marketed, high-resolution imagery from commercial satellites. "Foreign military, intelligence and terrorist organizations are exploiting this -- along with commercially available navigation and communications services -- to enhance the planning and conduct of their operations," Tenet said.
Vice Adm. Thomas Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said threats stemming from information operations will "expand significantly" over the next decade, as potential enemies use inexpensive technologies to attack the United States on many fronts.
"Information operations can employ a range of capabilities, including electronic warfare, psychological operations physical attack, denial and deception, computer network attack and the use of more exotic technologies such as directed energy weapons or electromagnetic-pulse weapons," Wilson said.
Wilson said the global availability of hacking software over the Internet, for example, could provide "almost any interested U.S. adversary" with basic computer network attack capabilities.
"Although our classified networks are relatively secure from these kinds of attacks, most of our unclassified networks -- including some that host sensitive information -- are not," Wilson said. "The opportunity for terrorists to take advantage of attack tools is escalating very rapidly."
Tenet agreed that cyber warfare will become an "increasingly viable option" for terrorists and other adversaries as they become more familiar with potential critical infrastructure targets, and more adept at using technologies that could damage them.
"Although the September 11 attacks suggest that al Qaeda and other terrorists will continue to use conventional weapons, one of our highest concerns is their stated readiness to attempt unconventional attacks against us," Tenet said, noting that as early as 1998, Osama Bin Laden had publicly declared that acquiring unconventional weapons was a "religious duty."