A sobering report and congressional testimony from senior intelligence leaders suggest a dangerous disconnect with President Donald Trump. The factual evidence those leaders provided on Iran, North Korea, ISIS, Russia and other issues tells a different story than the president’s often reckless rhetoric.
Iran, for instance, is in technical compliance with the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or Iran nuclear deal), although the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” report suggests the country may move toward proliferation if it “does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal.” Proliferation is just the sort of thing the multilateral pact was designed to avoid. The document does not downplay Iran’s malign activities but belies any thought that it is developing an arsenal.
Meanwhile, North Korea, while not conducting any nuclear-capable missile or nuclear-weapons tests in a year, is still “unlikely to give up all of its [weapons of mass destruction] stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities,” according to the report. This, despite Trump tweeting that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” after his summit with Kim Jong Un. (Trump announced a second meeting at the end of February during his State of the Union address.)
Justifying his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Trump tweeted that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” But the threat assessment states that “ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses.”
The president also previously rejected intelligence detailing Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. But the report suggests that Moscow might go further: “We expect that Russia’s intelligence services will target the United States, seeking to collect intelligence, erode U.S. democracy, undermine U.S. national policies and foreign relationships, and increase Moscow’s global position and influence.”
Even more worrisome for the world may be what the report led off with: an ever-closer cohesion between Beijing and Moscow to counter Washington and the West. “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,” according to the report.
Notably downplayed is the threat at America’s Southern border. The report does note that “high crime rates and weak job markets will spur additional U.S.-bound migrants from the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras,” and also mentions that Nicaragua’s political crackdown “dims that country’s already bleak economic outlook.” But the situation hardly rises to the national emergency Trump suggests it is.
Instead, cybersecurity, transnational crime and other issues should spur more alacrity from Trump, who denigrated his intelligence chiefs by childishly tweeting that they should “go back to school.”
While the intelligence community is “not sacrosanct,” the Worldwide Threat Assessment is “viewed as a pretty foundational document,” Todd Rosenblum, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, told an editorial writer. It is troubling, Rosenblum added, for the president to be “perpetually disparaging and dismissing” these officials.
It’s now up to Congress to ensure the integrity of U.S. intelligence in the face of attacks from an undisciplined, uninformed president who concocts his own conclusions to fit short-term political, not security, goals.