Who poses the biggest threat to America? For the last few weeks, the nation’s top security chiefs were pressed to answer that existential security question.

And as luck would have it, the experts don’t seem to fully agree on the identity of America’s No. 1 enemy.

[Sign up for The Daily 202, The Washington Post’s new political tipsheet]

But they’ve laid out some interesting options:


Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russia:

For a while, it seemed, Russia was the front-runner. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, made a splash at his confirmation hearing last month by saying: “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.” Why? Because it’s a nuclear power. As such it “could pose an existential threat to the United States.” And Russia’s behavior in recent years is “nothing short of alarming,” in Dunford’s estimation.

Dunford’s comments briefly sparked a trend among the military brass who succeeded him at their confirmation hearings.

“I would put the threats to this nation in the following order: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea,” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, nominated to be Dunford’s vice chairman, told the Senate Armed Services Committee a few days later.

And a week after that, the Army’s prospective head, Gen. Mark Milley, echoed the same warning about the Kremlin.

“I would put Russia, right now, from a military perspective, as the number-one threat,” Milley said.

[Want more of our stories in your email inbox? Follow us]

But then two days later, another official opened the matter to some discussion.

“If you are asking me about a country,” Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, nominee to be Marine commandant said at his confirmation hearing, “I would agree with General Dunford that Russia has the most increasing capable force, and their actions and the fact that they have strategic forces make them the greatest potential threat.”

“Although I don’t think they want to fight us. Right now, I don’t think they want to kill Americans,” Neller continued. “I think violent extremists want to kill us. And their capacity is not that great but their intent is high…they concern me equally.”

So, the terror groups moved up the list.


A site of an IED planted by ISIS near Ramadi city east of Anbar province on May 28, 2015 in Anbar, Iraq (Photo by Ahmad Mousa/The Washington Post)

The Islamic State:

In fact, Neller was not the first prominent national security figure to shift focus away from acknowledged nation-states and towards the rising dangers posed by terrorist organizations claiming ownership or sovereignty over large swaths of particularly unstable parts of the globe.

Out in Colorado, Federal Bureau of Investigations Director James Comey said that the Islamic State, by recruiting Americans at home via social media, had in fact become a greater threat to the United States than al-Qaeda, and was — in the eyes of the homeland security-focused agency — the No. 1 threat of our time.

“ISIL is not your parents’ al-Qaeda – it’s a very different model,” Comey told the audience at the Aspen Security Forum. “By virtue of that model it’s currently the threat that we’re worrying about in the homeland most of all.”

To be sure, Comey wasn’t asked to directly compare Russia with al-Qaeda, or with the Islamic State. Russia isn’t wooing misanthropic Americans online to engage in acts of violent extremism on American soil  (Russia’s online campaign against the United States is of an entirely different character). So it’s a fair assumption to take Comey at his word that he believes the Islamic State, the new formidable terrorist kid on the Middle Eastern block, is the most fearsome threat of all.

If it’s terror we’re worried about, does that mean U.S. security chiefs can at least agree that the Islamic State poses the biggest threat?

Not exactly.


Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (Associated Press)

Iran:

A week after Comey’s comments, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was up on Capitol Hill, facing a grilling before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the Iran deal. That’s when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tossed him this question: “Do you believe that Iran represents the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism?”

Carter hemmed and hawed a little.

“Let’s see. State sponsor, probably so. I — there are — unfortunately, it’s such a kaleidoscope these days, there are lots of courses of terror,” Carter said, “but I think for state sponsorship, that’s probably accurate.”

Eagle-eyed readers will note that Carter didn’t refute Comey’s position that the Islamic State was the worst threat, since no countries actually recognize the Islamic State as, well, a state. The Islamic State and Iran really don’t like each other, incidentally. Islamic State fighters consider Shia Muslims — and the vast majority of Iranians are Shia — an enemy, and have attacked Shia mosques with as much deadly abandon as they have Arab Christians and other religious groups they oppose. Meanwhile, Iran is funding some of the most powerful militias fighting the Islamic State on the ground (though in Syria, Iran also backs President Bashar al-Assad).

Carter’s answer at least puts Iran in the mix as a possible No. 1 threat, which could move it closer to the top spot on Washington’s unofficial list as lawmakers dive deeper into the Iran deal over the next several weeks.


In this Nov. 7, 2012 photo, U.S. and Chinese national flags are hung outside a hotel during the U.S. Presidential election event, organized by the U.S. embassy in Beijing.  (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

China:

No one has straight-up named China as the No. 1 threat, either. But like Iran, the Asian economic and naval giant has been getting special attention lately from the security brass, particularly at a recent hearing to consider the nomination of Adm. John Richardson as chief of naval operations.

“Is China an adversary?” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Richardson, point-blank.

“Many of the things that they do sort of have an adversarial nature to them,” Richardson offered, not really taking the bait. “They’ve got a vastly growing nation, their activity in the South China Sea and land reclamation certainly has potential to destabilize that region.”

Nobody asked him which country, or unaligned actor, was the No. 1 threat.


FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on ‘Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and the Challenges of Going Dark’, on Capitol Hill. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Verdict?

With the field somewhat divided, we turn to the American people to weigh in — in the form of a Pew poll from last month.

To be certain, the country’s security brass doesn’t usually consult the public when compiling their threat assessments. But since there seems to be some discord between the military and the homeland security chiefs as to whether our old Cold War enemy or the latest generation of terrorists poses a greater threat to American security, it’s worth noting that Americans seem to be siding with…the FBI director.

The Islamic State scares Americans most of all global threats, according to the poll. Then Iran. Then cyber attacks. Then global economic instability. Then — in fifth place — Russia.