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Here's Twenty Years Of Spy Chiefs Scaring The Hell Out Of Congress

Congress held its traditional Worldwide Threat Assessment Hearing on Tuesday. According to the last two decades of testimony from our spy leaders, we're all screwed.

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WASHINGTON -- Capitol Hill celebrated the time honored tradition Tuesday of the annual World Threat Assessment hearings, in which the nation's spy chiefs -- often appearing annoyed at having to subject themselves to hours of congressional prodding -- parade in front of their Senate overseers and tell the American public how much scarier the world is this year.

This year, Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee that "[u]npredictable instability has become the new normal." And, he said, across his decades of service, the U.S. has never seen as complex of a threat an environment as it faces in 2016.

That, as it turns out, is pretty much the theme of every worldwide threat hearing since they started two decades ago. The world just keeps getting worse, the way the spies tell it -- it's complicated and complex and the "internet of things" is going to get really scary and also we're going to have wars in space. So here, the uncontrollable spiral of global destruction, chronicled over the last two decades of Worldwide Threat Assessment Hearings.



CIA Director James Woolsey tempers his cautious optimism with understanding that the world is going off the rails.

“The lesson that I draw from my first year as director of Central Intelligence is that hope coexists with uncertainty, promise with danger.”




Acting CIA Director George Tenet — who will go on to become CIA Director — says once again, things are complicated, and underscores Woolsey’s prior assessment that the world is going to hell.

“Mr. Chairman, as we survey today's world, core threats which dominated our national security for fifty years have ended or receded. In their place, however, is a far more complex situation ...We are convinced in looking ahead that there will be no relief from the sort of crises that appear suddenly and do not fit the traditional mold.”


Charles Dharapak / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tenet appears once again, months before the 9/11 terror attacks, and coins the “never before” qualifier that has become central to the annual Threat hearings.

“As I reflect this year, Mr. Chairman, on the threats to American security, what strikes me most forcefully is the accelerating pace of change in so many areas that affect our nation’s interest...never in my experience, Mr. Chairman, has American intelligence had to deal with such a dynamic set of concerns affecting such a broad range of U.S. interests.”


Charles Dharapak / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tenet, just over a month before the beginning of the Iraq War, again says it just keeps getting more complicated.

"The national security environment that exists today is significantly more complex than a year ago."


Susan Walsh / AP

John Negroponte, the country's first Director of National Intelligence, offers a touch of optimism.

"The 21st century is less dangerous than the 20th century in certain respects, but more dangerous in others."


Susan Walsh / AP

Threats continue complicating, says Negroponte a year later.

"The nation requires more from our intelligence community than ever before because America confronts a greater diversity of threats and challenges than ever before.”


Susan Walsh / AP

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair says certain elements of the outlook have improved, but not to get too excited.

“The strategic landscape has changed considerably for US interests over the past year. We see some improvements, but also several entrenched problems and slow progress in some areas for the foreseeable future. Several large-scale threats to fundamental US interests will require increased attention, and it is on one of these threats that I will focus our initial discussion.”


Manuel Balce Ceneta / ASSOCIATED PRESS

James Clapper, in his second appearance as Director of National Intelligence, says it’s all but hopeless.

“Never has there been, in my almost 49-year career in intelligence, a more complex and interdependent array of challenges than that we face today.”



Our intelligence complications have peaked.

“This environment is demanding reevaluations of the way we do business, expanding our analytic envelope, and altering the vocabulary of intelligence,” says Clapper. “Threats are more diverse, interconnected, and viral than at any time in history.”


J. Scott Applewhite / AP

...and will continue peaking, Clapper says.

“Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence I have not experienced a time when we've been beset by more crises and threats around the globe. My list is long.“ (It was very long. We read it.)

Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Ali Watkins at

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