The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Testimony by intelligence chiefs on global threats highlights differences with president

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats spoke about the espionage and cyber threats from Russia and China during congressional testimony on Jan. 29. (Video: Reuters)

China and Russia are working together to challenge U.S. leadership in the world, undermine democratic governments and gain military and technological superiority over the United States, the nation’s top intelligence official told a Senate panel Tuesday during a hearing that also underscored the distance between the U.S. intelligence community and President Trump on several critical fronts.

The two U.S. adversaries “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s,” Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said in his prepared remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee, seemingly invoking the Cold War of the 20th century to warn lawmakers about the strategic risk posed by China and Russia.

The countries have expanded cooperation in the energy sector over the past half decade; influenced international bodies that set rules and standards, particularly around communications technology; and will collaborate on the shared goal of “taking advantage of rising doubts in some places about the liberal democratic model,” Coats warned.

CIA Director Gina Haspel, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and other top officials joined Coats in a discussion that covered a wide array of national security challenges, including cyber attacks that will aim to disrupt the 2020 presidential election and the continued threat posed by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

Coats, speaking on behalf of the assembled officials, gave a global tour of national security challenges, focused mainly on Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

He said that North Korea was “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities,” which the country’s leaders consider “critical to the regime’s survival.”

That assessment threw cold water on the White House’s more optimistic view that the United States and North Korea will achieve a lasting peace and that the regime will ultimately give up its nuclear weapons.

It was not the first time that U.S. intelligence has determined North Korea is not on the path to surrendering its weapons. And throughout the hearing, officials found themselves repeating earlier assessments on subjects that also were at odds with the president’s public statements.

The statement on North Korea drew extra attention coming ahead of a planned summit meeting next month between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Their first summit last year ended with a vague agreement that contained few concrete goals and deadlines.

The distance between the intelligence community and the White House extended to areas that have ignited fierce political debates in Washington.

None of the officials said there is a security crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where Trump has considered declaring a national emergency so that he can build a wall.

Coats noted that high crime rates and a weak job market are likely to spur migrants from Central America to cross into the United States. But he also sounded optimistic that Mexico will cooperate with the Trump administration to address violence and the flow of illegal drugs, problems that Trump has said Mexico isn’t addressing sufficiently.

Officials also warned that the Islamic State was capable of attacking the United States and painted a picture of a still-formidable organization. Trump has declared the group defeated and has said he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as a result.

Coats noted that the terrorist group has suffered “significant leadership and territorial losses.” But it still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, he said, and maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks and attracts thousands of supporters around the world.

The officials assessed that the government of Iran was not trying to build a nuclear weapon, despite the Trump administration’s persistent claims that the country has been violating the terms of an international agreement forged during the Obama administration.

Officials told lawmakers that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as some officials had previously said privately. But Iranian leaders are discussing reneging on the deal if they fail to reap the economic benefits it was supposed to bring after international sanctions were lifted, Haspel said. The Trump administration has reimposed U.S. sanctions.

Intelligence officials largely sidestepped lawmakers’ questions about why certain White House staffers were given security clearances after problems were discovered in their background checks that might ordinarily keep personnel from obtaining access to classified information.

Officials also warned, as they did last year, about Russia’s intention to interfere with the U.S. political system via “information warfare” waged largely on social media, which stokes social and political tensions to divide Americans. Other countries are likely to employ those tactics, as well, Coats said.

“We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,” the intelligence director said in his written statement.

Trump continues to equivocate on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf, contradicting the unanimous assessment of all the top intelligence officials currently serving.

At last year’s threats hearing, leaders focused much of their remarks on Russia, unanimously concluding that the country was trying to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections by sowing discord and confusion via social media, as it had two years earlier in the U.S. presidential race.

Last week, Coats emphasized in a national intelligence strategy document that U.S. spy agencies were turning their main focus away from fighting global terrorist networks toward countering Russia and other state adversaries seen as geopolitical threats to the United States.

The United States will be challenged in coming years, the strategy concluded, by nations that exploit “the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals” and “increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West.”

In remarks last September, Haspel said the CIA would spy more aggressively on hostile governments.

The CIA’s spies and analysts will “invest more heavily in collection against the hardest issues,” Haspel said. She didn’t name specific countries, but the agency has set up new centers to collect intelligence on Iran and North Korea and has been focusing its assets on major powers, including Russia and China, according to intelligence officials.