At its annual worldwide threat assessment hearing on Tuesday, top national security officials gave the Senate Intelligence Committee a rundown from top intelligence officials of the dangers the United States will face in 2019 and beyond. The adversaries were familiar, with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran mentioned alongside evolving situations like Brexit and the power struggle in Venezuela. But if any common theme emerged, it’s the number of assessments the officials shared that seem to directly contradict positions touted by the Trump administration.
That tension hinted at another threat, one that didn’t come up directly in Tuesday’s hearing but appeared prominently in a report last week from director of national intelligence Dan Coats: That various recent actions by the United States may be undermining its own security.
That report, the “National Intelligence Strategy,” usually has both a public and classified version. But this year, ODNI elected to create only one public document in an effort, Coats said in remarks announcing the report, to promote transparency about intelligence community activities and goals. While similar in many ways to the Worldwide Threat Assessment ODNI released alongside Tuesday’s Senate hearing, last week’s NIS took more direct aim at the abstract, yet fundamental threat of a shifting geopolitical order.
“Traditional adversaries will continue attempts to gain and assert influence, taking advantage of changing conditions in the international environment—including the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals, increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West, and shifts in the global economy,” last week’s report said.
This simple statement can also be read as a bombshell, articulating a trend that most politicians would be wary of admitting publicly. That isolationism stems in large part from Trump; his trade war with China has caused ripples in the global economy. But in Tuesday’s Senate testimony, intelligence officials including Coats, NSA director Paul Nakasone, CIA director Gina Haspel, and FBI director Christopher Wray brought none of that up directly.
The hearing instead focused on questions from senators about anti-terrorism efforts, nuclear proliferation, infrastructure hacking, and foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence-gathering. The discussion also touched on questions about defending big data and information-gathering risks from digital manipulations like “deepfakes,” compelling videos created by machine-learning programs that seem to depict something that didn’t actually happen.
Trump, meanwhile, has regularly called into question the findings of US intelligence agencies. These differences of opinion were on full display on Tuesday. Officials warned the Senate committee, for example, that election interference from Russia or other adversaries poses a real danger to the 2020 US elections, a threat Trump has frequently downplayed since he took office.
“We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests,” Coats said. “We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences and efforts in previous elections.”
Officials also concluded that North Korea is “unlikely” to scale down or eliminate its nuclear capabilities, despite Trump’s insistence that he is making progress on a disarmament agreement. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met last summer, and the president tweeted at the time that, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” The administration has organized another summit between the two leaders next month.
On the subject of the Iranian nuclear threat, intelligence officials said Tuesday that the country seems to be holding off on weapons development for now, but the officials warned that Iran has made credible threats about abandoning its commitments from the 2015 nuclear deal if it doesn’t see the economic benefits promised under the agreement. Trump withdrew the US from the accord last year, and reimposed sanctions on the country.
Meanwhile, in contrast to president Trump’s December proclamation that, “We have won against ISIS,” intelligence officials testified on Tuesday that the group is still active and threatening. “ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States,” Coats said in his prepared remarks.
Both recent intelligence community threat and strategy reports also mention climate change as a looming security factor on the international stage. President Trump disputes the existence of climate change and the extent of its impact. As recently as Monday, he implied that winter weather, specifically a cold snap in the Midwest, casts doubt on the existence of global warming. This is incorrect.
The US faces a diverse and very real array of external threats, but intelligence community statements and conclusions over the past week hint that the Trump administration has exacerbated many of them itself, through policies and public statements.
For Senate Intelligence Committee members there was plenty to latch onto in Tuesday’s hearing. But perhaps the most dangerous threat that emerged from the meeting was subtly in plain sight and on display on Tuesday: An administration in denial about the real threats to the US, and deeply divided with the intelligence community about how best to avoid disaster.