The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) celebrated its 10th anniversary in April, and its leadership recently passed its ninth annual trial by public fire — namely, providing Congress the unclassified Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
This document is a snapshot of the collective view of the intelligence community about the greatest challenges to the nation’s security, as well as an analysis of crises worldwide.
But there seems to be less interest than ever on the Hill in what the intelligence community has to say about worldwide threats to the United States. This year, Director James Clapper was asked to provide the briefing only to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Neither the House nor the Senate intelligence committees requested a threat briefing, unlike last year or the year before. This is a pity, as the intelligence community and the Hill aren’t seeing eye to eye on what each entity considers important — an issue that needs to be resolved.
What does the intelligence community actually think threatens the United States the most? Although Clapper takes pains to note that the threat brief is not a hierarchical list, any creature of bureaucracy strives, to use a shopworn phrase, to put the “bottom line up front.” Thus, the DNI frontloads the most important parts at the beginning of its assessment.
Over the past few years, the threat emanates from one word: cyber. However defined, cyber has emerged as the No. 1 threat that U.S. security services think the United States should be concerned with, and should have been concerned with, for some time.
The other issue that has risen definitively has been the counterintelligence challenge, primarily from Russia and China. Traditional spying on the United States seems so Cold War and passé in this post-9/11 world, but intelligence agencies think it’s the second biggest challenge to the country, and has been so for years — even before Edward Snowden became a household name. Of course, American intelligence professionals are loath to discuss foreign activities in public, yet this is an issue that members of Congress either overlook or ignore, at least publicly.
Clapper didn’t specifically address counterintelligence in his opening remarks to the Armed Services Committee. None of the senators on the panel mentioned this threat in the United States. (granted, it’s not really their jurisdiction.) Based on the past few assessments, the counterintelligence threat trumps the one from terrorism, yet only a few paragraphs are devoted to this challenge in the unclassified versions. It would have been helpful for the DNI to more fully describe this issue publicly — without giving away sources and methods, of course.
Despite the United States’ continuing interest in terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the importance of these issues has fluctuated over the past decade. Sometimes WMDs are one of the top two threats to the country, and sometimes, as in the case of 2009’s assessment, they aren’t even in the top four. Besides, when they can use the topic to talk about Iran, few members of Congress seem terribly interested in discussing WMD proliferation.
It’s also interesting to see how the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the places where the nation is on track to have spent $4 trillion — have vanished over time from positions of importance in the assessments. It’s as though after 2008, when former DNI Michael McConnell discussed “the significant gains in Iraqi security,” the country’s security establishment moved on, even though thousands of U.S. troops were still fighting and dying in both countries for years afterward.
Economic issues receive notice only during a crisis. The 2009 and 2010 assessments frontloaded the ongoing global financial meltdown by using frightening subheads such as “The Far-Reaching Impact of Global Economic Crisis” and “The Changing Threat to Global Economy,” respectively. But by 2011, pesky economic issues were again regulated to the back pages, showing up on page 28 — below what’s going on in Haiti.
Officials from the national security bureaucracy regularly brief members of Congress and their staffs in both classified and unclassified settings. But when the assessment is published, it gives lawmakers a public space to expand on topics of interest. Some use the opportunity to preen and grandstand, but assuming most members actually do care about the threats facing this nation, the questions they ask might actually be on their minds as the most important intelligence challenges facing the country.
In that vein, lawmakers publicly care more about their particular interests, regardless of what the intelligence community says are the “threats.” For example, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last year spent most of the threat brief publicly questioning how the intelligence community collects metadata. Former senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) pounded on the CIA’s interrogation and renditions efforts over the past decade, a run-up to Senate Democrats’ subsequent report on the topic. On the House side, questions were all over the map — Afghanistan; Benghazi, Libya; Snowden; and the workings of the HealthCare.gov Web site (yes, really.) This year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) focused most of his questions on the war in Ukraine, even though that particular conflict only showed up on page 17 of the assessment.
On the flip side, intelligence officials do use the briefing to try to make their feelings known about pending legislation, which is often the closest intelligence officers come to asking for a policy change. Crossing the policy-intelligence divide is usually a big no-no for the folks in the intelligence community, but it does seem to happen in this context nonetheless. In 2013, Clapper pleaded with Congress not to pass the budgetary sequester, saying it “jeopardizes our nation’s safety and security and this jeopardy will increase over time.” (It became law anyway.) In 2008, McConnell asked Congress to renew the Protect America Act, as it was to expire shortly.
But even if Congress seems a bit disinterested in the analysis offered in the Worldwide Threat Assessment, it does serve one critical constituency’s appetite for information: the public.
All in all, the assessment is a good place for regular taxpayers to peek into the “wave tops” as Clapper calls them, of what their intelligence authorities perceive as threats to national security. The classified version of this brief often delves into more detail about what is in the unclassified version, but the analytical assessments are the same.
As the intelligence community in the 21st century continues to reveal more behind its secret curtain, the assessment is a good resource to see how its beliefs have evolved. It’s not a perfect document, and it’s unclear how many lawmakers actually read it, but it’s a good starting off point to see how U.S. intelligence services view the world — and to a lesser extent, ourselves.