Three Things to Look For in the 2020 “Worldwide Threat Assessment” from the U.S. Intelligence Community

A year ago, very few Americans had ever heard of the U.S. intelligence community’s annual worldwide threats assessment and briefing to Congress. This year, the country should be paying close attention to them. We outline three areas of special interest and concern.

But first, some background.

Each year, generally in January or February, the intelligence community provides an overarching look at global threats to American interests, including in an unfamiliar manner for the intelligence community: in unclassified form. The leaders of the community, including the Director of National Intelligence and CIA Director, then brief Congress on that assessment—again, in an uncharacteristically unclassified and public setting. In 2019, this annual tradition received more attention than usual, as the intelligence community leaders provided candid assessments of Iran, North Korea, and ISIS that departed from the characterizations of those threats by the President to support his preferred policies. Trump dramatically summoned to the Oval Office his intel chiefs, snapped a photo with them for Twitter, and claimed that any apparent divergence was the result of media mischaracterizations, not actual disagreement.

That episode contributed to a concern that the two of us have discussed here at Just Security: that President Trump is denigrating his own intelligence community in ways that he may find of short-term benefit but that will cause long-term damage to our nation’s security. We explained that Trump has deliberately blinded the intelligence community from certain insights, such as into Trump’s own interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin; that Trump has doggedly sought to discredit the intelligence community, including after the 2019 worldwide threats briefing last year; and that Trump has recklessly overridden his intelligence professionals and their important protocols such as by apparently disclosing sensitive intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office and, later, on Twitter.

But the Qassem Soleimani saga of the past couple of weeks has introduced a new and dangerous dynamic between Trump and the intelligence community that we hadn’t predicted: in attempting to justify Soleimani’s killing, Trump and key advisers (including his Vice President, National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense) have publicly staked their (shifting) legal and policy defenses on the very intelligence whose custodians Trump has spent much of his pre-presidency and presidency relentlessly impugning.

That leaves the stakes very high indeed as this year’s worldwide threats report and briefing emerge. There are three aspects to watch for, in particular.

Threat Assessment of Iran

First, how will the intelligence community characterize the threat posed by Iran? The written report will surely discuss the present assessment of Iran as a national security threat, including the trajectory of its nuclear proliferation efforts as well as its support for Shiite militias in Iraq that directly threaten American lives there. Gauging that threat in the aftermath of the Soleimani killing will be important in itself. But it will be particularly interesting when, at the in-person hearing, the intelligence community heads are asked what threat Iran posed before Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani. Was there an “imminent” threat to Americans, as Trump and his advisers have sometimes claimed? Was the threat notably different from the longstanding threat posed by Soleimani’s brutality and violence? And what about the apparent attempted U.S. operation to kill another Iranian military commander, Abdul Reza Shahlai in Yemen, on the same day as Soleimani? What does, for example, the intelligence community assess to be the link between Iran and the Houthis, and between the Houthis’ activities and threats to Americans? More specifically, what risk did Shahlai, as something of an apparent liaison between Iran and the Houthis, pose to U.S. interests, and where? And what did the killing do to the threat—lower it or increase it? These will be critical questions as Americans and others continue to assess the legality and wisdom of eliminating Soleimani.

Public Misinformation on Iran

Second, what will the intelligence community leaders say about how the actual intelligence corresponds to how Trump and his advisers have characterized the intelligence that preceded the Soleimani strike? Media reports have suggested that some within the U.S. Government were shocked at Trump’s decision—and, further, that some within the government have been disturbed by the apparent mischaracterization of the intelligence by Trump and his advisers since. What’s more, many Members of Congress—including Republicans like Senator Mike Lee—have expressed serious concern, even indignation, after being briefed on the intelligence, at what they apparently viewed as a thinner basis for the Soleimani strike than the Trump team’s public characterizations indicated. So, apart from the first set of questions regarding the actual content of what the intelligence tells us, there’s another important set of questions to be asked at the worldwide threats hearing regarding what the Trump team said about the intelligence—and whether the intelligence community itself views those characterizations as justified. This may be a simple task for members of Congress who can simply read aloud quotations of public statements by senior administration officials and then ask the intelligence chiefs whether they agree with each statement.

National Security Decision-Making Processes

Third, what will the intelligence community leaders say about how the community is (or isn’t) fitting into Trump’s distinctive approach to national security decision-making. As one of us has written previously here on Just Security, that approach is, simply put, a haphazard mess—and by design. It privileges the instincts of Trump himself and the advisers who happen to have his ear at any given moment and downgrades intelligence, expertise, and the range of perspectives that the typical interagency process provides. So, how does the intelligence community function within a Trump-led national security organizational architecture? Is the community invited to interagency meetings on hugely consequential decisions like the Soleimani strike, invited to provide detailed written assessments to support those meetings, and given a chance to brief Trump and his top advisers at those meetings? The media reports suggest that CIA Director Gina Haspel played a role, at some point, in the decision-making preceding the Soleimani strike, but that alone hardly speaks to whether a comprehensive intelligence assessment is informing the creation of American national security policy.

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Let’s be clear: we’ve both worked in government on sensitive national security matters, and there’s much that can’t be said in public reports or hearings about them, because it’s classified or otherwise privileged. But there’s also much that can be said, especially when sources and methods aren’t at issue. The upcoming release of the public report and then testimony by American intelligence community leadership comes at a particularly crucial moment for the country and for these officials. This limited but important public-facing aspect of their jobs arrives with much of the American public skeptical that the President is really acting in the nation’s interests rather than his own. This won’t be the last time in 2020 we may need the intelligence community leadership to speak publicly: as one of us has noted, if Trump makes false claims of foreign election interference (as he did in 2018), it will be critical for the intelligence community to rebut those claims. So, it’s time for the worldwide threats reporting to get a lot of attention—and for some tough questions to get answered. 

About the Author(s)

Joshua Geltzer

Executive Editor. Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. Follow him on Twitter (@jgeltzer).

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).