By Pam Benson, Jamie Crawford and Joe Sterling
Iran took center stage on Tuesday as top U.S. intelligence officials and senators discussed what could trigger a military response to the Islamic Republic's nuclear activities.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, speaking to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, said Iran continues to develop its nuclear capabilities but has not yet decided to make weapons.
When asked by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, what would be the "red line" for Iran to cross to trigger a more forceful U.S. response, Clapper said, "enrichment of uranium to a 90 percent level would be a pretty good indicator of their seriousness." Clapper added there were "some other things" Iran would need to do, but did not elaborate.
CIA Director David Petraeus agreed further enrichment would be a "telltale indicator."
Lawmakers voiced worries that any effort to stop Iran's nuclear program could be too little, too late and some said something needed to be urgently done to prevent Iran from crossing the threshold and developing nuclear weapons.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the committee chairwoman, said, "2012 will be a critical year for convincing or preventing Iran's development of a nuclear weapon.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, worried that harsh sanctions against the Islamic Republic haven't changed Iranian behavior, not even the threat of military action by the administration. It reminded him of what happened with North Korea in recent years.
"We know that North Korea, despite all of the rhetoric, possesses nuclear weapons," Coats said. "And I just hope we don't have to talk ourselves into a situation where we're not able to back up what we see."
Iran, Clapper said, has "so far" not changed their behavior in the face of the sanctions imposed against them, but "as the pressure ratchets up, there is the prospect that they could change."
In his report submitted to the committee, a 31-page assessment of threats around the world, Clapper said that "counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber-security and counterintelligence are at the immediate forefront of our security concerns" and that the "multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats - and the actors behind them ... constitute our biggest challenge."
The assessment indicates al Qaeda's terror network is weakening and the embattled Afghan government is making modest strides.
A U.S. effort to open up discussions with the Taliban to bring about the end of the war in Afghanistan came up during the hearing. A good faith measure being discussed involves the release of five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, said he believes the detainees are too dangerous to be released from U.S. custody.
Any proposed transfer had not been decided and would be part of ongoing consultations with Congress, Clapper told the committee.
"I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions" about the potential risks of such a deal, Clapper said. He added the final destination and conditions for controlling the detainees would weigh heavily on a decision.
Petraeus said CIA analysts had provided assessments of the five detainees and the risks associated with their release. The analysts looked at "various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere, not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented to ensure that they could not return to militant activity."
Clapper was also asked about the future of Syria and its embattled President Bashar al-Assad. He said it was only a "question of time" before Assad is removed from power.
"I do not see how [Assad] can sustain his rule of Syria," Clapper said. But, he said, the strongman could be still a "long" way from losing power given the fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition.
Petraeus pointed out the Syrian opposition is growing. The resistance to al-Assad shows a "considerable amount of resilience and indeed is carrying out an increasing level of violence" as it engages with the military on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo, the nation's two largest cities, the CIA director said.
He called the relationship between the United States and Pakistan "strained" and "fraught," and will require more diplomacy and engagement to move forward. He said the two countries continue to share intelligence, nonetheless, and information between the two countries is still "going back and forth."
Clapper said the relationship with Pakistan is a "challenging relationship but an important one," but the interests of the two countries are "not always congruent."
After a firefight that killed two dozen Pakistani troops in late November, U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against suspected terrorists in the border region has been frozen. The United States only recently restarted drone strikes, but key border crossings for moving NATO supplies into Afghanistan remain shut by the Pakistanis.
The intelligence community now considers the cyber threat one of its top security concerns, right behind terrorism and proliferation.
The assessment indicated Russia, and China, as well as Iran, will be top espionage threats in "coming years."
Entities in China and Russia "are responsible for extensive illicit intrusions into U.S. computer networks and theft of U.S. intellectual property."
Foreign intelligence services have launched operations targeting U.S. entities and "we assess many intrusions into U.S. networks are not being detected." It also cites "insider threats" to classified information, saying "trusted" people are using access to computer networks for "malicious intent."
It says the U.S. government and the private sector must work together to counter the threat.
Two senators expressed their frustration with the failure of lawmakers, the administration and private industry to unite behind Congressional efforts to pass legislation to protect cyber networks.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, voiced his irritation that every year the committee hears from intelligence directors and presidents that cyber security is critical but, he said, nothing gets done.
Added Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland: "We just remain foggy and keep punting."