There they were, the deepest representatives of the deep state, the director of National Intelligence (DNI) along with the heads of other three-letter agencies like CIA, NSA and the FBI. Except that they didn’t act or sound like lurking threats to democracy, as some of today’s political discourse might have us believe. They were more like a group of avuncular academics bringing you the results of their annual research.
The occasion was the worldwide threat briefing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, an annual event designed to give both the Senate and the public an appreciation of global circumstances, but an event that has just as often been diverted by the news or crisis of the day.
This week’s was no exception. First, the global situation, which DNI Dan Coats laid out in his opening remarks, keeping the emphasis on cyber dangers, which has marked such testimony for several years now. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction followed, with terrorism third on the DNI’s list. Coats added a new entry — emerging threats in space — and concluded with transnational crime.
The DNI then walked through global hot spots — Korea, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East — and closed by apologizing that he didn’t have time to talk about Africa or Latin America. I feel his pain. I didn’t get to those regions in terms of interest or travel until too late in my time as CIA director.
This was all solid if pretty much standard fare, but it’s important to note that — notwithstanding sometimes apocalyptic campaign rhetoric to the contrary — terrorism no longer enjoys its once dominant focus. Coat’s taxonomy was the intelligence backdrop to the recent National Defense Strategy announcement that “great-power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
I must admit some surprise at Director Coats’s candor when he publicly described the movement of Europe’s geopolitical center of gravity toward France. Commentary on friends is always a bit sensitive and one wonders if the director allowed himself to say this only because of the nature of the relationships President Trump has with French President Emmanuel Macron (good) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not so much). Less surprising were his comments on the drift toward autocracy and away from the rule of law in parts of the continent.
In the fine print of the DNI’s testimony and his statement for the record were sharp observations that one hopes will influence American policy. His comment that North Korea sees nuclear weapons as essential to regime survival, for example, should help form the expectations of any American negotiating position. So too with the observation that the Iranian nuclear deal puts Tehran farther away from a weapon than it would otherwise be and contributes to our visibility into that program.
One didn’t need to read the fine print to once again see the intelligence community consensus that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election, and plan to do the same in 2018. Equally striking was the commentary from the witness table that the president has not pressed the community to focus on it or do much about it. I have never seen as wide a gap between the urgency of an intelligence assessment and the chief executive’s response to it.
There was more political drama in the hearing itself. FBI Director Christopher Wray had to sidestep an attempt by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to get him to confirm that the “Steele dossier” was still judged to be “salacious and unverified.” Wray did, however, explode the White House timeline on the background investigation for Rob Porter, the now-resigned White House staff secretary, and effectively placed responsibility for his continuing to work with an interim clearance back where it belongs — in the White House.
All of the witnesses at the hearing said that they had not been consulted with regard to any classification concerns with the so-called Nunes memo, making the administration claim that the White House review process had included input from the DNI appear more than a bit shaky. The directors of NSA and the FBI also publicly restated their opposition to the release of the memo.
All in all, it seemed like a good day for folks who simply wanted to tell the truth as they believed it to be. It was actually somewhat refreshing in a town where many parties can’t seem to even get their stories straight, let alone make sure they are fact-based.
I should also add that the session was in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, where its Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) work hard to maintain comity and objectivity. If precedent holds, the intelligence chiefs will get to reprise in front of the House Intelligence Committee, too.
Now that could be quite a show, since some folks there seem to believe that these officers really are representatives of the “Deep State.”
Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His forthcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies,” is due out later this year.