The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC)’s annual threat assessment is one of the rare moments that the American public – and the rest of the world – gets to hear what the nation’s intelligence services view as the major threats to U.S. national security. This year’s version was released on March 11, with open and closed-door congressional testimony from the leaders of the key U.S. intelligence agencies.

The “ATA” as it is known colloquially within the IC is a weighty undertaking. Scores upon scores of analysts across the eighteen branches of the intelligence community work slavishly for months, arguing over what to include, how much space each threat should get, fighting bitterly over the phrasing of their key judgments, and scrubbing the whole thing carefully for public release.

This year’s public version of the ATA includes some interesting nuggets for U.S. policy toward China, Russia, and Iran—and a clear warning about the risk of foreign interference in America’s 2024 elections.

It’s no surprise that the IC put China front and center. It’s clear from the assessment that China can hold America and its allies at risk in a number of domains, bolstered by its advanced technology, cyber capabilities, and conventional and nuclear weapons.

But it’s equally interesting that the IC doesn’t assess that China is eager for a fight. Instead, it writes, “China’s leaders will seek opportunities to reduce tension with Washington when they believe it benefits Beijing and protects core interests.” The report also emphasizes that China’s President Xi Jinping will be hampered by problems of his own making, thus constraining his ability to make trouble for the United States.

The ATA further points out that China’s recent aggressiveness is to some degree rooted in its own insecurity in the face of American power: “Beijing worries that bilateral tension, U.S. nuclear modernization, and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) advancing conventional capabilities have increased the likelihood of a U.S. first strike.”

A number of U.S. officials recently have expressed concern about the threat from cooperation between China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. In his opening remarks at the ATA hearing, for example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he was concerned that authoritarian states were “increasingly partnering with one another” against the United States. But how much credence does the ATA lend to these concerns?

The ATA confirms that Russia is seeking assistance from China, Iran, and North Korea, but it also emphasizes that it’s important not to overstate these autocratic bonds. For example, it points out that for “at least a decade, Beijing and Moscow have used high-profile, combined military activities to signal the strength of the China–Russia defense relationship but have made only minor enhancements to interoperability in successive exercises.” This is no NATO, as Rubio rightly acknowledged.

One of the more important warnings in this year’s ATA is the threat to U.S. elections in this crucial election year. Not only from Russia, which the IC has long singled out for its efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, but also China and potentially Iran, may seek to influence the election and sow division in the United States.

Senior intelligence officials try to walk a fine line between warning about the threat of election interference without undermining U.S. citizens’ faith in their democratic system. This makes the fact that they highlighted the threat so clearly all the more important.

One of the analytic points in the Russia section of the ATA should offer some reassurance, another cause for concern–and caution.

On the reassuring side, some European leaders recently have claimed that Russia could attack NATO in the next few years, but this doesn’t seem to be a major concern for the U.S. IC. It assesses that “Russia almost certainly does not want a direct military conflict with U.S. and NATO forces. The term “almost certainly” indicates the highest possible level of confidence in a U.S. intelligence assessment.

But the ATA also contains a warning for anyone who would dismiss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine: “Russia’s inability to achieve quick and decisive battlefield wins, coupled with Ukrainian strikes within Russia, continues to drive concerns that Putin might use nuclear weapons.”

Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling may be self-serving, but Russia’s nuclear weapons are more than just an inconvenience when it comes to the war in Ukraine. The possibility that Moscow could use a nuclear weapon needs to factor into NATO’s thinking about escalation risks it faces in this war.

The most important statement about Iran is that “Iranian leaders did not orchestrate nor had foreknowledge of the HAMAS attack against Israel.” This is notable given the widespread connection that has been made in public between Iran and Hamas’s horrific October 7 attack on Israel. The IC is clearly not saying that Tehran has no connection with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, or its proxy groups in Iraq and Syria, but it sounds as though evidence that Iran was behind October 7 is lacking.

The introduction to the ATA reminds the reader how often “U.S. actions intended to deter foreign aggression or escalation are interpreted by adversaries as reinforcing their own perceptions that the United States is intending to contain or weaken them.” The wording is convoluted, but the point the analysts are making is clear: when America shores up its defenses, it can look very menacing to U.S. adversaries, many of whom are already inclined to believe the U.S. wants to defeat them or overthrow their regimes. They act accordingly, with escalation of their own.

This clearly doesn’t mean that the United States shouldn’t shore up its defenses against the many threats this year’s ATA identifies, but it is a reminder that the United States, by virtue of its global power and reach, has both a strategic interest and moral responsibility to act with restraint and caution around the world.

IMAGE: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies at a hearing with the House Select Intelligence Committee in the Cannon Office Building on March 12, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)