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'Cyber Attacks A Bigger Threat Than Al Qaeda'
Cyber attacks have been classified as the top threat to the US by the country's spy chief for the first time in his annual assessment.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has warned that cyber espionage threatened to undercut the American military's technological edge.
He also cautioned that even "unsophisticated" attacks could penetrate poorly protected computer networks for power grids and posed an "increasing risk to US critical infrastructure".
The intelligence director said that while al Qaeda was a fading danger, he was concerned about North Korea following recent threats of a nuclear attack on US soil from the leader Kim Jong-Un.
Presenting his report to the Senate Intelligence Committee he cited a mounting risk from digital assaults on power grids and other infrastructure
Unlike previous reports, the assessment ranked cyber attacks first on a list of transnational threats, devoting more words to digital hacking and cyber spying than to Islamist extremists in Afghanistan.
On the war in Afghanistan, after more than a decade of combat and more than 2,000 Americans dead, the report could only point to mixed results.
In contrast to upbeat assessments from top US officials and commanders, the report said the Taliban was "diminished" but resilient and battlefield gains remained "fragile."
But Mr Clapper also told senators he was dismayed by "very belligerent" statements coming from Kim Jong-Un's regime in North Korea.
Mr Clapper, who oversaw military intelligence in South Korea in the 1980s, said: "The rhetoric, while it is propaganda-laced, is also an indicator of their attitude and perhaps their intent.
"So for my part I am very concerned about what they might do."
North Korea would likely only use nuclear weapons if it perceived a threat to its survival, but the United States remains uncertain how Pyongyang would define such a threat, the report said.
"Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against US forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what would constitute, from the North's perspective, crossing that threshold," the assessment said.
In the latest in a week-long series of provocations in the wake of new UN sanctions over the North's weapon programmes, Mr Kim threatened to "wipe out" a South Korean island.
The report also addressed the state of Iran's nuclear program, saying Tehran could not produce enough highly-enriched uranium for an atomic bomb without this being detected.
While Iran has made strides in its nuclear program, "we assess Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU (weapons-grade uranium) before this activity is discovered", the report said.
Mr Clapper reiterated an analysis issued by intelligence agencies last year that Iran had not yet opted to build nuclear weapons and that the regime's policy was based on a "cost-benefit" approach.