North Korea is “unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities,” the Islamic State “still commands thousands of fighters,” Iran is abiding so far by the 2015 nuclear deal, and Russia is bent on “dividing Western political and security institutions.”
Those were some of the assertions U.S. intelligence chiefs presented Tuesday to Congress in their annual “worldwide threat assessment,” assertions that at times clashed directly with statements by President Trump and could pose fresh headaches for the White House as it seeks to reorient foreign policy.
Mr. Trump is preparing a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria and is ramping up pressure on Tehran after pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear accord in 2017.
Although Mr. Trump has framed security gaps on America’s southern border as the greatest danger facing the nation, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray focused on a far wider range of global and geopolitical challenges in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Although their assessment asserted that high crime rates and weak job markets in Central America “will spur additional U.S.-bound migrants,” it spent no time on the crisis on the border with Mexico for which Mr. Trump has considered declaring a national emergency.
Instead, Mr. Coats and the other senior security advisers homed in on North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, global technological change and terrorism — often again clashing with the White House’s stated policy priorities.
North Korea doubts
Most prominently, the intelligence chiefs threw cold water on the president’s declaration after his June summit with North Korea’s Mr. Kim that Pyongyang no longer poses a nuclear threat, and they rejected the idea that Pyongyang would ever voluntarily surrender its nuclear arsenal.
To the contrary, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley told lawmakers, “The capabilities and threat that existed a year ago are still there.”
The assessment itself noted, as Mr. Trump has, that “Pyongyang has not conducted any nuclear-capable missile or nuclear tests in more than a year, has declared its support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and has reversibly dismantled portions of its [weapons of mass destruction] infrastructure.”
But, Mr. Coats added, the North “is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”
The intelligence chiefs also warned of an enduring Islamic State threat despite major U.S. battlefield gains that have left the terrorist group with a tiny sliver of territory in Syria. Mr. Trump said those gains justified his surprise order last month for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in the country.
“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 assessment warned, adding the group is poised to rebound if U.S. counterterrorism operations are reduced.
“The group will exploit any reduction in CT pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations,” the document said. “ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.”
On the Iran nuclear deal, the CIA’s Ms. Haspel said U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Tehran has to date not violated the letter of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated with the Obama administration and five other global powers, although the regime has made preliminary moves should the deal collapse.
The U.S. has reimposed heavy bilateral sanctions on Iran after Mr. Trump withdrew from the deal and is pressuring other countries to cut commercial and energy ties with Tehran. That could spark a backlash in Tehran, the assessment warned.
“Iranian officials have publicly threatened to … resume nuclear activities that the [nuclear accord] limits if Iran does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal,” according to the report.
Mr. Trump’s critics were quick to point up the divisions. The Democratic National Committee circulated a memo Tuesday evening noting multiple press accounts of how the intelligence chiefs “contradicted” the president.
But some analysts cautioned against politicizing a document meant to synthesize various agencies’ analyses of some of the most difficult problems facing the U.S.
“Of course the press is going to make a big deal about this,” David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in comments circulated online. “But this is an intelligence assessment. It is what the intelligence community is supposed to do, and it is providing its best collective judgment.”
The assessment separately predicted that the U.S. will face mounting security challenges driven by China and Russia, which intelligence analysts say are increasingly coordinating policy to contain the U.S.
The two powers “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,” the document said.
“Russia and China seek to shape the international system and regional security dynamics and exert influence over the politics and economies of states in all regions of the world and especially in their respective backyards,” it said. “They are eroding once well-established security norms and increasing the risk of regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and East Asia.”
Russia seeks to “capitalize on perceptions of U.S. retrenchment and power vacuums, which it views the United States is unwilling or unable to fill,” the document said. It’s a situation compounded by the reality that “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.”
The assessment broadly noted that “the post-World War II international system is coming under increasing strain.”
“Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians,” it said. “Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits — such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations or manipulating data — in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions and elections.”
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