The world has arguably become a more dangerous place for America over the course of these last three years, and looking no further than our own streets reflects a need to reassess how we view national security. Scenes from Washington, D.C. last week, where unidentified, armed federal troops lined public spaces, were more reminiscent of the autocratic countries in which I long operated as a CIA case officer than of the United States.
At the same time, our rivals and adversaries are seizing the space created by our retreat from global leadership and exploring offensive counterintelligence opportunities in a climate seemingly ripe for manipulation. Autocratic regimes can also highlight America’s internal divisions, civil strife, and social injustice in messaging to their own citizens who are looking to the U.S. for hope and tangible support to advance democracy, human rights, and press freedom.
At home, President Donald Trump is short on substance and clearly overwhelmed by the complexities and demands of governing. Trump’s failings are particularly evident in his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. To distract and limit the exposure of his administration’s failings, the White House has had to perform acrobatics in deflecting accountability by alternatively blaming President Barack Obama, the Chinese government, and any other embraceable conspiracy theory.
With the pandemic and the economic devastation that resulted from its response far from resolved, Trump already faces another crisis as the country reckons with its history of abominable civil rights abuses and the killing of unarmed Black Americans by police officers. Rather than seize the opportunity to facilitate accountability and reform in support of national healing that might transcend demographics and political constituencies, the president has tried to change the narrative to one he believes resonates with his base by redirecting the conversation to how law and order is being undermined by nefarious forces — be they looters or leftist radicals. As the past few weeks have unfolded, I’ve watched the White House propagate yet another denial and deception campaign like those I’ve seen directed abroad by autocratic rulers clinging to power in decaying nations. Like his purge of the government’s inspector generals, these actions are part of a strategic political campaign, in which Trump can blur the lines between truth and fiction.
As we take stock after more than three years of the Trump administration, it’s important to remember that the threats we face, and the vulnerability we bear, are to no small degree products of our own making. Defending ourselves from foreign threats starts with looking inward at who we are, standing together against that which divides us, and honestly assessing from where the most urgent dangers come. Americans understandably lack confidence that these questions are being appropriately addressed by our current leaders.
Just last month, newly minted Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe provided a glimpse into President Donald Trump’s security priorities during his confirmation hearing, when he proclaimed the country’s number one threat stems from China. His comments have been echoed by other Trump officials, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
While the threat from China should not be minimized, and better preparedness to meet the challenge is long overdue, it requires solutions aligned with 2020 and beyond, and not the past. The Trump administration’s recent obsession with China, as well as its preoccupation with Iran, have more to do with the president’s political interests than our nation’s security priorities. The threat environment is not black white, nor single threaded, but rather a complex mosaic requiring holistic and synergistic approaches that efficiently align resources and energy to priorities and, most importantly, do no harm. More, importantly, can the public have confidence that Ratcliffe and the White House are focused on the most important issues being raised by the Intelligence Community and our military commanders? Or are the threats being played up in public those which best support the president’s political narrative and work to distract from other threats for which our resources and priorities should better be aligned.
More Transparency Needed
The troubling reality is there is a lack of public insight into the issues that post-9/11 reforms were meant to address. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 was meant to protect the U.S. ability to identify and evaluate threats from the dangers of external denial and deception campaigns, poor Intelligence Community collaboration, and lack of transparency that contributed to the 9/11 intelligence failure. But the law’s drafters did not anticipate having to protect us from our own leaders. Among the reform’s deliverables was the guarantee of public insight into the Intelligence Community’s process and priorities through the work of a qualified and politically neutral intelligence expert serving as DNI.
Community products such as the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment were meant to provide the public an unclassified document coordinated among all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies outlining, assessing, and ranking the nation’s greatest projected threats. Public and classified congressional briefings were set forth to enable a means beyond traditional oversight for the public to have confidence in the Intelligence Community’s work, and a structure through which to hold it accountable. And the DNI’s job was to protect the integrity of the Intelligence Community’s product by protecting it from political influence and facilitating coordination, consensus, and inclusiveness.
The 2020 Worldwide Threat Assessment has yet to be released and Ratcliffe is the least qualified DNI ever confirmed. One wonders what the original report said about the threat of worldwide pandemics, climate change, and the rise of white supremacist and ultra nationalist groups. Would it have again emphasized Russian interference in U.S. elections and Moscow’s military adventurism abroad? Would the 2020 report have clinically outlined how threats from China, Iran, and North Korea all increased at an accelerated pace despite the president’s policies of unilateralism, confrontation, and, in North Korea’s case, appeasement? And how might the foreign terrorist threat be judged in the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from Syria, Afghanistan, and the abandonment of our allies?
Clearly, whatever that document contained was judged as too provocative — meaning it told a story that runs counter to Trump’s narrative, and therefore, too dangerous for intelligence leaders to publicly present to Congress. If a 2020 report is ever released, I, for one, hope to see what was initially prepared for January 2020, not a document that has been reconfigured to suit the president.
Look closer and one sees that last year’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment was not the only clarion call concerning pandemics, climate change, domestic terrorism, and Russia. The Republican-controlled Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently validated the Intelligence Community’s conclusions concerning Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments continue to quietly add indictments and sanctions against the likes of Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose internet trolls plagued the U.S. and whose mercenaries continue to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.
At the risk of provoking the White House, both the 2020-2022 National Counterintelligence Strategy and the September 2019 Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence sounded alarms over frightening trends this White House seeks to minimize. Both documents acknowledged an increasingly complicated and diverse threat landscape shaped by a broad and hybrid array of State and non-State actors, many exploiting circumstances stemming from the toxic political atmosphere created by Trump’s disinformation and rhetoric. The ODNI’s CI paper cautiously and obliquely referred to Russian activity that would grow absent a firm and holistic U.S. response. And the DHS strategy performed verbal gymnastics not to provoke the president, careful to substitute “targeted violence” for “domestic terrorism,” “white supremacism” and ultranationalism.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, participated in a June 9 discussion with the Middle East Institute during which he offered observations which likewise invited questions regarding the White House’s national security assumptions and direction in the region he oversees. Concerning Afghanistan, McKenzie said conditions for withdrawal by May 2021 required that homeland attacks won’t be generated from there, conditions that “have not been fully met.” And though suffering the consequences of a botched response to COVID and the administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran might be struggling, but had maintained core military capabilities leaving him “not certain it makes them less dangerous.” As to the Islamic State, he said, none of the things that brought ISIS to life have been fixed and without a long term solution to de-radicalization, the next generation of terrorists is being built.
What’s happening here in the United States, plus comments like these from one of the military’s top commanders, lend little confidence in believing that Trump, Pompeo, and Ratcliffe can be relied upon to have the right take on that which should concern us most.
Image: Nominee John Ratcliffe testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office building on Capitol Hill on Capitol Hill on May 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Gabriella Demczuk -Pool/Getty Images