The U.S.'s top spies issue a challenge to Trump's agenda

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On Tuesday, the top intelligence officials in the United States briefed senators on their annual assessments of the threats facing the country in the year ahead. Although most of these principals were Trump appointees, their testimony reflected the consensus of what some Trump supporters would probably tar as the “deep state,” the shadowy world of Washington bureaucrats and spooks operating at a remove from the public.

The headline concern of their report was something that exasperates the president: the role of Russian meddling in U.S. politics, whether in the form of direct attempts to interfere with the electoral system or the proliferation of Kremlin-sponsored social media bots and “news” websites.

“Russian hackers are already scanning American electoral systems, intelligence officials have said, and using bot armies to promote partisan causes on social media,” wrote Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times. “Russia also appears eager to spread information — real and fake — that deepens political divisions, including purported evidence that ties Mr. Trump to Russia, and its efforts to influence the 2016 election.”

Trump, as my colleagues reported in incredible detail last year, sees the furor over Russian interference as part of a grand “hoax” aimed at delegitimizing his election. “That view of the events of 2016 has had a direct consequence,” noted my colleague Philip Bump. “Trump has shown no interest in investigating what actually happened two years ago and bolstering America’s defenses against it happening again.”


Daniel Coats, center, testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington on Feb. 13. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg News)

But for his top spies, it’s deadly serious.

“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” said Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the United States.” He added that “there should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”

That verdict, my colleagues noted, “was echoed by all five other intelligence agency heads present at the hearing, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who two weeks ago stated publicly he had ‘every expectation’ that Russia will try to influence the coming elections.”

In a report released in conjunction with the hearing, Coats cast Russia as a leading destabilizing actor in the West. “Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-US political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions,” the report read.

The Worldwide Threat Assessment report also saw no signs that Moscow will slow its efforts: “Russia is likely to sustain or increase its propaganda campaigns. Russia is likely to continue to financially and politically support populist and extremist parties to sow discord within European states and reduce popular support for the European Union.”

Trump’s opponents in the Senate took the opportunity to pounce. “Make no mistake: This threat did not begin in 2016, and it certainly didn’t end with the election,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “What we are seeing is a continuous assault by Russia to target and undermine our democratic institutions, and they are going to keep coming at us.”

“Despite all of this, the president inconceivably continues to deny the threat posed by Russia,” he continued. “He didn’t increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so. He hasn’t even tweeted a single concern. This threat demands a whole-of-government response, and that needs to start with leadership at the top.”

There has always been some dissonance between Trump’s rhetoric and the more sober statements of senior intelligence and defense officials working for him. For instance, when Trump delivered a major foreign policy address in December, he was silent on Russia. At the same time, the administration’s newly released National Security Strategy targeted Beijing and Moscow as clear geopolitical threats.

Likewise, the intelligence community’s threat assessment suggests sharp divergences from Trump’s agenda. For one, it concluded that the nuclear deal signed with Tehran is largely working. “Iran’s implementation of the [nuclear deal] has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year, provided Iran continues to adhere to the deal’s major provisions,” the report noted. It added that the agreement has “also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities.”

Then there’s the question of climate change. Much as the Pentagon has in recent years, the threat assessment warned that rising global temperatures are “likely to fuel economic and social discontent — and possibly upheaval.” Rising seas, scarcer resources and collapsing ecosystems, it said, will “raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages.”

Trump, of course, is the world’s leading climate skeptic, having initiated the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accords and espoused domestic policies that seek to reverse environmental protections put in place by his predecessors. But his program has had other national security implications, as well. Coats pointed to the challenge stoked in part by the Trump administration’s “America First” agenda.

“China and Russia will seek spheres of influence and to check U.S. appeal and influence in their regions,” the report read. “Meanwhile, US allies’ and partners’ uncertainty about the willingness and capability of the United States to maintain its international commitments may drive them to consider reorienting their policies, particularly regarding trade, away from Washington.”

The warnings are ones that Trump, who is seemingly fixated on restoring American primacy in the world, theoretically ought to heed. But if we have learned anything over the past year, it’s how unlikely he is to listen.

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