The Threat That Mustn’t Be Named

On Tuesday, America’s national security leaders took part in a rite of congressional oversight — the annual Worldwide Threats hearing. This session — featuring the Director of National Intelligence, accompanied by the Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — has taken on a different character during the Trump administration, however.

In previous years, lawmakers tended to hew to the title of the hearing, formulating questions around threats to America’s security and prosperity, including terrorism, cyber attacks, weapons of mass destruction, and foreign espionage. Tuesday’s hearing broached all of them, but the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Democratic members — as they have for the past two years — leveraged the session to spotlight daylight between the intelligence community and President Donald Trump. And the daylight poured in; intelligence officials implicitly contradicted Trump on issues ranging from ISIS (not defeated), North Korea (not denuclearizing), Iran (still denuclearized), among others.

At the same time, the hearing seemed to pose a dilemma for the administration witnesses. As they recounted the litany of threats America faces, they seemed to dance around a threat whose name they dared not speak: that of Trump and his “America First” foreign policy. A careful parsing of their statements and prepared remarks, however, paints this as an unmistakable concern on the part of those charged with upholding our security.

In order to understand their message, it’s necessary to understand how our national security professionals must communicate. America’s intelligence community, adhering to statute and policy, trains its resources—both operational and analytic—on the world beyond America’s shores, scrupulously avoiding weighing in on the wisdom of U.S. policy or actions. All the while, our intelligence professionals recognize that America’s approach to the world around us will hold implications—good or bad—for the challenges and opportunities we face.

Take, for example, the Trump administration’s recent decision to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. We can be confident that America’s intelligence analysts have analyzed the implications of that policy shift—including on Venezuela’s opposition movement, President Nicolas Maduro’s hold on power, and on global oil markets—while being careful to avoid opining on the soundness of that policy itself. Indeed, America’s intelligence analysts will confine themselves to dissecting the potential implications of American foreign policy, while doing their best to leave un-analyzed the underlying decisions.

How, then, might it look if our intelligence community assessed that Trump’s broad approach to foreign policy posed novel and potentially profound dangers to America’s security and prosperity? We need not look very far.

Take, for instance, the National Intelligence Strategy, which the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released last week and referenced in his remarks on Tuesday. Among the first conclusions put forward in the strategy reads:

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. These adversaries pose challenges within traditional, non-traditional, hybrid, and asymmetric military, economic, and political spheres.

In short, the intelligence community assessed that, going forward, our adversaries could find themselves better positioned because of “changing conditions,” many of which are attributable to — or, at the very least, exacerbated by — Trump’s approach to the world. Weakening of the post-WWII international order and democratic ideals? Look no farther than Trump’s disdain for and efforts to undermine NATO, just as he has all but abandoned America’s championing of human rights and democracy in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines.

Increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West? This is even more on the nose for the Trump administration, a veiled reference to Trump’s jettisoning of international agreements and treaties, eschewing of multilateral fora, and overriding belief that the United States need not be encumbered by pesky partnerships or alliances. While remaining agnostic on the approach, the intelligence community could hardly be clearer that Trump’s policies have provided opportunities for our adversaries. It goes without saying, especially if you’re an American intelligence professional, that an opportunity for an adversary is a threat to America.

We saw much the same ahead of Tuesday’s Senate hearing. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats included a fairly jolting assessment in his written statement for the record, writing:

At the same time, some U.S. allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing U.S. policies on security and trade and are becoming more open to new bilateral and multilateral partnerships.

Here again, the intelligence community is careful to maintain foreign actors — “U.S. allies and partners” in this case — as the subject of the assessment, while pointing to the implications of the administration’s approach. The assessment is carefully worded, but the core point is unmistakable: our allies are distancing themselves from the United States in response to what they are seeing of us on the world stage.

The hearing featured other instances of what we could reasonably interpret to reflect the national security establishment’s profound unease with Trump. In one such case, Director Coats declined to speak in open session to his concerns over the one-on-one meeting in Helsinki between Trump and Putin. “Senator, clearly, this is a sensitive issue and it’s an issue that we ought to talk about this afternoon,” the DNI responded, referring to the afternoon’s classified session. What, precisely, is “sensitive” about the issue? The world, of course, knows about the fact of the meeting; it was the implications of the extraordinary one-on-one that Coats was so wary of discussing publicly.

America’s intelligence analysts are apolitical in their approach and sober in their work. At the same time, they come from a culture that prizes objectivity and the need to express hard truths, even to difficult audiences. When our professionals tell us — even if subtly — that the administration’s foreign policy is leaving us less safe, all Americans should listen.

Image: FBI Director Christopher Wray; CIA Director Gina Haspel; Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats; Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency; and Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency await to testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “Worldwide Threats” January 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images).

 

About the Author(s)

Ned Price

Ned Price served as a Special Assistant to President Barack Obama on the National Security Council staff, where he also was the Spokesperson and Senior Director for Strategic Communications. Prior to serving at the White House, Ned was at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he was a senior analyst and Spokesperson. He currently directs Policy and Communications at National Security Action. You can follow him on Twitter (@nedprice).