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Cyber a top national security threat to U.S.: Intelligence director

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(Reuters) — Disruptions in cyber space and attacks by "homegrown" terrorists are the most imminent security threats facing the United States in 2016, James Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official, told two Senate committees on Tuesday.

In his annual assessment of threats to the United States, Mr. Clapper warned that the proliferation of devices, many of which are designed and marketed with minimal security requirements and testing, and the "ever-increasing complexity" of data networks "could lead to widespread vulnerabilities in civilian infrastructures and U.S. government systems."

Mr. Clapper's warning was the latest signal that the White House intends to make cyber security a top priority in President Barack Obama's last year in office.

President Obama's budget proposal for the 2017 fiscal year seeks $19 billion for cyber security across the U.S. government, an increase of more than a third over this year, according to senior administration officials.

Mr. Clapper said that as more and more "smart" devices, ranging from household appliances to self-driving cars, are incorporated into the electric grid, the spread of such systems can "threaten data privacy, data integrity, or continuity of services."

Foreign spy agencies in the future also might be able to take advantage of the proliferation and tangle of devices to conduct surveillance, track locations, target informants for potential recruitment, or gain access to networks or user credentials.

The U.S. government and companies like Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and Target Corp. have been the victims of high-profile hacks that were largely met with legislative inaction and administrative uncertainty on how best to address evolving cyber threats.

Terrorism is the other most imminent threat facing the United States in the coming year, Mr. Clapper told the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees in prepared testimony.

Islamic State remains the "pre-eminent terrorist threat" in the world because of the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Clapper said.

Al-Qaida affiliates, most notably the one in Yemen known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, also have proven resilient and are "positioned to make gains in 2016" despite pressure from Western counterterrorism operations that have degraded the network's core operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Clapper said.

However, while the United States "will almost certainly remain at least a rhetorically important enemy" for many foreign militant groups, "homegrown violent extremists ... will probably continue to pose the most significant Sunni terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland in 2016," he said.

"The perceived success" of attacks by such extremists in Europe and San Bernardino, California, "might motivate others to replicate opportunistic attacks with little or no warning, diminishing our ability to detect terrorist operational planning and readiness," Mr. Clapper said.

A married couple inspired by Islamist militants shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December.