TOPICS > World

The global threats that keep the CIA up at night

February 10, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
America's top intelligence officials brought an updated assessment of worldwide threats to the U.S. to Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Their top concerns included cyber attacks, the Islamic State group, the war in Syria, North Korea's nuclear activities and a resurgent Russia. Hari Sreenivasan sits down with David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA, to explore the current geopolitical instability.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first, yesterday America’s top intelligence officials were on Capitol Hill yesterday to discuss their updated assessment of worldwide threats to the United States. Among their top concerns, cyber-attacks, the Islamic State group, the war in Syria, North Korea’s nuclear activities and a resurgent Russia.

We’re joined now by David Cohen, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He’s been at the CIA for one year, after five years at the Treasury Department overseeing sanctions implementation and efforts to combat terrorism financing.

So, when I rattle off those lists of concerns that the community has, what are the top three that keep you up at night?

DAVID COHEN, Deputy Director, CIA: Well, I think that was a list of six, and I think all six of those keep us up at night.

I mean, obviously, we’re spending a lot of time focused on the threat from ISIL. We’re also very much engaged in what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, the threat from Russia. And just this past weekend, we saw North Korea launch a rocket after a nuclear test they conducted about six weeks ago, so all these issues are, you know, top of the list for us at the agency.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. Given the time you spent a lot of time at Treasury looking at sanctions, right now, especially in the political climate, there is quite a conversation happening about Iran after the nuclear deal.


HARI SREENIVASAN: So looking at it now through your lens at the CIA, what intelligence do we have? How are we so confident we can catch Iran if they were to cheat?

DAVID COHEN: Well, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA, that was agreed to over the summer has within it a whole series of measures that would allow the IAEA the unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program, from the very — from the uranium mills and mines all the way through whatever enrichment facilities they may have, to their centrifuges, an extraordinary window into what Iran is doing that the IAEA will have and the international community will have.

And that’s one very important part of it, but we have also been very much focused on Iran’s nuclear program for a number of years, and so we will be able to, obviously, supplement what the IAEA is able to discover through our own efforts as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the money that’s sort of been freed up past the deal? We have heard even Secretary of State Kerry after the deal say, listen, I can’t account for every dollar, where it goes.

At the CIA, are you seeing evidence that any of those dollars that had been freed are going to fund terrorism organizations?

DAVID COHEN: Look, one of the major reasons that Iran entered into the nuclear deal was because of the sanctions and because of the huge economical toll that had been created over the years by the sanctions program.

So I think it’s our assessment that Iran is intending to use the sanctions relief, the vast majority of the sanctions relief that it will be obtaining to repair its economy, to try and deliver some modicum of economic growth to its people. And we will be watching very carefully how Iran is making use of that money. We’re watching it very carefully.


Let’s talk a little bit about ISIS, or ISIL. We had a report that we saw just today from fighters trained by the CIA saying that they feel abandoned on the battlefield, especially in light of recent events. How do you support them?

DAVID COHEN: Well, look, I’m not going to get into anything that the CIA may or may not be doing with respect to the battlefield in Syria.

I will say that the Russians, in particular, since they have come in to Syria last fall, you know, came in saying that they were there to fight Da’esh, to fight the terrorists, have spent most of their time trying to bolster Assad.

And what that has meant is helping the Syrian regime to bomb the moderate opposition in Syria, which has been putting pressure on the Assad regime. That is not fighting Da’esh, and it’s taking a toll on the moderate opposition. But, you know, the State Department has a program to work with the moderate opposition.

Others around the world, frankly, in the Middle East and beyond are working to try and support the moderate opposition. They have been taking it on the chin recently, but they have also been quite resilient. You know, this conflict has been going on now for, you know, five years, close to five years.

And the moderate opposition has, you know, faced first the Syrian regime. They faced Hezbollah working with the Syrian regime. They faced the Iranians working with the Syrian regime and now they’re facing the Russians working with the Syrian regime, and they are a resilient bunch.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All these things lead me to say that we are living through a period of incredible geopolitical instability right now. And part of the reason that we’re aware of that is because of the spread of digital technology.

One of the concerns that’s always come from the intelligence community is that you’re not getting enough help from the technology companies. So, I wanted to ask, if you find a suspect somewhere overseas that has some sort of a social media presence, are the Facebooks, the Googles, the Twitters of the world helping you in any way?

DAVID COHEN: Look, I’m not going to get into the sort of particularities of how we — how, if we find a suspect who is on social media, how we’re able to tap into that.

There is an ongoing conversation with the media companies, some of which we’re involved in, but also, you know, the FBI and others in domestic law enforcement are very much engaged in this conversation.

We set up this new directorate specifically because we have recognized that we need to do a better job of leveraging and operating in the digital domain. I mean, I think your viewers know this as well as we do that increasingly we live our lives online. Increasingly, the information that we have access to is digital information.

And we, as the Central Intelligence Agency, felt that we needed to do a better job of both harnessing the digital information that we have, of thinking about how we operate in the digital domain, and making sure that we are making use of digital technologies to the greatest extent possible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, I have heard that one of the things that you say to the new folks that are being sworn in is that this is an agency that’s governed by law, right?


HARI SREENIVASAN: And one of the practices that’s very difficult for Americans to swallow is drone strikes that kill targets overseas, and at times, there are civilian casualties as well. A lot of people are going to say, you know what? That seems like extrajudicial killings. That doesn’t seem that would be following what American law is.

Should the CIA be in the drone strike business?

DAVID COHEN: Look, I’m not going to comment on whether the CIA is involved in any of those sorts of activities.

I will say, however, that the embrace of legal constraints on what we do, domestic law, international law, is something that we are quite happy to have and to operate within a system of laws. And what makes the CIA, what makes the United States different from many countries around the world is adherence to the rule of law.

And, as you said, Hari, when I swear in new officers, one of the points I make to them is that we operate within a legal construct, we operate within the laws, not fighting against it, but willingly, happily embracing the fact that what we do is governed by law. That’s core to the CIA. It’s core to what this country is all about, and it’s not something that we chafe against at all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Cohen with the CIA, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID COHEN: Thank you.