US intelligence officials have ranked the specter of cyber-attacks as a major threat on par with concerns over terrorism and North Korea.
Indeed, James Clapper, the Obama administration’s national security director, said he hasn't seen as more diverse array of threats and challenges for US national security during his time in the defense and intelligence communities.
"I cannot overemphasize its significance. Increasingly, state and non-state actors are gaining and using cyber-expertise," Clapper said during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a statement transcribed by IDG.
"These capabilities put all sectors of our country at risk, from government and private networks to critical infrastructures... Intelligence agencies see interest from terrorist organizations in acquiring offensive cyber-capabilities, [while] cyber-criminals are using black markets to sell hacking tools to a number of organizations."
Robert Mueller, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), expressed similar sentiments, saying that cyber-attacks concerned him the most and noting that terrorist groups continue to use the Internet to recruit followers and communicate with each other.
But not all the focus was on foreign terrorism, with Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, questioning Clapper and Mueller about surveillance of citizens inside the United States.
Unsurprisingly, Clapper insisted that the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) do not "wittingly" conduct surveillance on US citizens inside the country.
Wyden also asked Mueller if the FBI required a court-ordered warrant demonstrating probable cause before it conducted surveillance on US residents. Mueller said it depended on the circumstances and noted that the FBI would wait and see what position the courts adopted.
"You have identified the exact reason why I am trying to get the answer," Wyden said. "There’s no doubt we are going to watch what the courts do in the days ahead. The question is, what would be the rights of Americans while that is still being fleshed out?"