Did you know that “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” as part of a broader effort “to influence US policy, actions, and elections”?
Or that North Korea “is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities,” because “North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival”?
Or that Iran is abiding by its nuclear deal, even though the United States pulled out, and that it “is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities”?
Or that the Islamic State “still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria” and around the world, and that it “will exploit any reduction in CT [counterterrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities”?
Or that global warming is contributing to intensifying “climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans”?
If you are a regular reader of The Post — or, dare I say it, the New York Times — none of this will come as a surprise to you. If this is all news to you, congratulations. You’re the president of the United States.
For a diligent news consumer, there is little new or interesting in the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” released on Tuesday by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. Because the report is unclassified, its information does not differ much from what you can read in “open source” reporting such as this newspaper. Because it is a collective product — representing whatever 17 intelligence agencies can agree to — its judgments are, by definition, conventional wisdom.
The assessment is full of analytical mush such as: “The development and application of new technologies will introduce both risks and opportunities, and the US economy will be challenged by slower global economic growth and growing threats to US economic competitiveness.” No kidding. Or: “We assess that Russia poses a cyber espionage, influence, and attack threat to the United States and our allies.” Who knew? No one except every literate American.
It is tempting to conclude that producing this annual report — a massive, costly undertaking — is a waste of time and money. The U.S. intelligence community produces plenty of information that cannot be matched by news reporters (unless they get leaks from the spooks) — e.g., providing GPS coordinates for high-value terrorist leaders obtained from multibillion-dollar satellites, or obtaining transcripts of foreign leaders’ private conversations from highly classified communications intercepts. Why not focus on those products?
There is, of course, value in trying to distinguish the important from the ephemeral and looking at the bigger picture of threats and opportunities that confront the United States. But there is little evidence that the intelligence community has a better track record of seeing the big picture than do think tanks or universities. So why produce this report at all?
I was wondering that as I read this anodyne “threat assessment,” and then I remembered who occupies the Oval Office. President Trump is not a normal news consumer. He is an indefatigable promulgator of conspiracy theories and misinformation that he picks up largely from Fox News and its far-right ilk. As The Post’s Fact Checker documents, Trump can’t even keep straight the bogus statistics he sees on right-wing TV or websites. He further mangles already misleading statistics on the cost of immigration, for example, by conflating legal and illegal immigration.
Trump lives in an alternative reality where a day of cold weather disproves years of climate science. Where a 400-pound coach potato, rather than Russian intelligence, could have been responsible for hacking Democratic Party emails. Where “caravans” of refugees are always on the verge of pillaging America. Where the Islamic State has already been defeated, and North Korea has already disarmed, but Iran is still working to develop nuclear weapons.
Trump has dragged many of his followers down the rabbit hole with him. They are all convinced that any information to the contrary is the product of the “fake news media.” His assaults on the press as the “enemy of the people” play into the long-standing skepticism on both left and right of the “corporate” or “mainstream” news media. It is, therefore, important to have his own intelligence community — led by a former Republican senator — on record as certifying the validity of the facts that normal people already know.
This does not, of course, prevent Trump from dismissing what the intelligence agencies are saying. He regularly takes the word of tyrants such as Russian President Vladimir Putin over the intelligence community, which he maligns as part of a “deep state” supposedly plotting against him. But for voters who haven’t fully joined the cult, the judgments of Trump’s own intelligence community will be harder to dismiss than what the “Amazon Washington Post” or the “failing New York Times” are saying. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not advance cutting-edge thinking on the world with its report, but it did strike a blow for the truth. In the Age of Trump, that’s more than enough.