The Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual worldwide threats hearing, featuring public testimony Tuesday from the heads of the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies, seemed at times to be taking place on a different planet than the one President Donald Trump inhabits.
Point by point, the country’s top intelligence leaders demolished some of the key national security claims Trump has made since he took office.
The president said ISIS has been defeated. The intelligence leaders said the terror group had thousands of fighters and was still plotting attacks.
The president said North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. The intelligence chiefs said North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons.
The president cast doubt on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The intelligence experts said the Russians had been so successful they were plotting even more sophisticated efforts in 2020.
Perhaps most strikingly, in hours of discussion of security threats, the intelligence chiefs did not once mention the need for a wall along the southern border, which Trump has portrayed as the single most pressing need facing the country. The written threats assessment made clear that most of the illicit drugs entering the U.S. from the south come through legal ports of entry.
The contrast between the president and his own intelligence agencies is “unprecedented in its scope,” John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director and NBC news contributor, said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
Perhaps the one major area of agreement between Trump and his spy chiefs is over China — both see China as a major threat. But whereas Trump concentrates on trade policies, the intel chiefs said they are concerned about China’s growing military prowess and its ongoing theft of Western trade secrets, an issue highlighted by the criminal charges announced Monday against one of China’s largest telecom companies.
China is also engaged in seeking to influence U.S. politics, the threats assessment said. Political interference, using social media and cyberattacks, was scarcely mentioned in threat assessments before last year, but was listed second behind cyberattacks in Tuesday’s array of the challenges facing U.S. national security policymakers.
“Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians,” the written threats assessment says. “Moscow may employ additional influence tool kits — such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data — in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions, and elections.”
The written assessment added that intelligence analysts expect American adversaries “to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections.”
“We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee at the threats hearing.
But Coats said there was no written whole-of-government strategy to combat foreign interference.
In a statement that alarmed some lawmakers, Coats said China and Russia are working together as never before in recent history.
“China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge, particularly regarding perceived U.S. unilateralism and interventionism and Western promotion of democratic values and human rights,” the assessment says.
Despite Trump’s summit talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, intelligence suggests North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, Coats said.
“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” Coats said. “Our assessment is bolstered by our observations of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization.”
In June, Trump tweeted that there was “no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea.
Coats also rebutted Trump’s statement — in a White House video as part of an announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria — that ISIS has been defeated.
He said the group was “nearing” military defeat in Iraq, but has returned to its “guerrilla warfare roots,” continues to plot attacks and “still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
And, despite Trump saying that Iran continues to work on building nuclear weapons, the intelligence chiefs said Iran was still in compliance with its agreement not to do so — an agreement from which Trump withdrew.
“At the moment, technically they’re in compliance, but we do see them debating amongst themselves as they fail to realize the economic benefits they hope for from the deal,” CIA Director Gina Haspel said.
Coats also was asked about an NBC News report that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had received a top-secret security clearance despite a ruling from two career specialists that he didn’t deserve one, based on FBI concerns about potential foreign influences on him.
Coats responded that all the intelligence agencies could do is provide information, and it was up to the White House to decide who gets access to the nation’s secrets.