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Former CIA Director Warns of ‘Novel and Daunting’ National Security Threats

In the past, it might have made sense to think about national security threats as issues that affected one specific country.

But in an online forum hosted on Nov. 4 by Fordham’s Center on National Security (CNS), experts said that two of the biggest threats today—climate change and the rise of authoritarianism abetted by technology—pose enormous challenges for citizens of every country on the globe.

America’s Global Role: Today’s Reality, Tomorrow’s Challenges,” a virtual discussion moderated by center director Karen J. Greenberg, featured John Brennan, FCRH ’77, former CIA Director and CNS distinguished fellow for global security, and Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor of the United States and author of After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made (Penguin/Random House, 2021)

Brennan said that a four-decade career in national security had trained him to always be alert for new threats, but that this is genuinely a novel time in human history. For starters, the notion that different country’s fates are now intertwined in ways they didn’t use to be has been made evident by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Technology has changed our world fundamentally, and the accelerated pace of technological developments is certainly enhancing military capabilities and concerns about the digital domain,” he said.

“I think we need to make sure this administration and future administrations focus not just on the headlines du jour, but on those more enduring, strategic issues such as climate change.”

Rhodes agreed and said that climate change has the potential to exacerbate other problems, such as migration. He is especially concerned about the future of democracy, which he said is being attacked in two ways with the aid of technology: the capacity to spread misinformation, and the capacity for mass surveillance.

“Twenty years ago, the number of people in this country who could believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, or that the world is governed by a cabal of sex traffickers, was inherently limited. Now you can have circumstances where like 45% of the country believes something that is just not true because they’re living in a particular information ecosystem enabled by social media and technology,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s clampdown on the Uyghur population region in the Xinjiang province illustrates how governments can use big data to monitor everything their citizens are doing, and use that to exert control over them.

“That’s new. Even the police states of old did not have that capacity,” Rhodes said.

Pressed to pick one area of the world that concerns him most, Brennan said China is definitely at the top.

“China has a global vision, and it’s very strategic in how it implemented its polices and aims,” he said.

The wide-ranging, hour-long conversation touched on everything from Afghanistan, to the Middle East, to the threats the United States faces internally—particularly from authoritarianism.

To watch the entire conversation, click below:


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