The United States Intelligence Community presents an annual assessment of national security threats to Congress. President Trump and the US Intelligence agencies are at odds over the 2019 Report. Putting aside Trump’s simplistic and intuitive understanding and his disregard for any evidence that contradicts his preconceptions, the enthusiasm with which Trump’s antagonists have grasped the agencies’ judgements also raises an important question about the value and use of intelligence product.
Trump’s telling the US intelligence chiefs to ‘go back to school’ stirred a recollection from my brief time in the intelligence world. Fresh to government and the Defence Intelligence Organisation in 1986 I was tasked with covering Vietnam. At one Director’s briefing I reported cautiously on the prospects of some reforms coming out of 6th National Congress. Immediately following the briefing, I was hauled into the Military Deputy Director’s Office and informed that the Vietnamese ‘live in caves and eat rats’. I was instructed not to brief positively again on the Vietnamese Communists changing stripes.
The Deputy Director was intelligent and professional, well regarded as a leader, and highly decorated and respected for his service in the Vietnam War. He had known the Vietnamese as adversaries. I was new and still influenced by the left leaning academics with whom I studied Southeast Asian history and my 1960s anti-Vietnam War prejudices.
With this experience I began to understand something of great value to me when I became a consumer of intelligence product as a policy officer. Even when the facts-on-the-ground or the evidentiary basis is not in dispute, we each bring our own capabilities, experiences, and values to bear in assessing the intelligence. Uncritical reliance on intelligence assessments can be as dangerous as Trump’s contrarian rejection. Close reading of the 2019 Report to Congress reveals conflation of some issues and judgemental, subjective language.
The report identifies, ‘the threat posed by chemical warfare (CW) following the most significant and sustained use of chemical weapons in decades’. The agencies ‘assess that North Korea, Russia, Syria, and ISIS have used chemical weapons on the battlefield or in assassination operations during the past two years.’ The relative importance of the overall threat is surmised and a number of very different events and scales are confused.
North Korea and Russia carried out highly specific attacks on individuals deemed to be threats to their ruling elites. Whereas Assad’s forces in Syria employed sarin and chlorine in multiple indiscriminate tactical operations against civilians. Syria’s tactical reach is limited and its assets vulnerable. The chemical weapons capability of ISIS, always rudimentary, and now seriously degraded by the loss of territory and expertise, was limited to local operations.
Only Russia represents a substantial threat to US or allied forces in the field or to US citizens at home. This hasn’t changed. The US agencies may possess classified, covertly gained information on North Korea’s chemical weapons arsenal, yet there is little validated information in the public domain. Given the US’s lack of reluctance to catalogue Pyongyang’s nuclear assets, the lack of specifics on chemical weapons might indicate some gaps in the intelligence. However, it would be prudent to accept that North Korea possesses significant capability, particularly in case of conflict on the peninsula.
Categorising China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea as ‘adversaries’ prejudges all their activities—economic, political, and military—as threats. This leave little cognitive space in intelligence assessments for seeing acts as benign, merely self-interested, or as opportunities to pursue mutual benefit through cooperation. When these states seek to ‘advance their own national security interests’ it is seen as aggressive in a zero-sum calculus.
When China and Russia ‘view strong indigenous science and technology capabilities as key to their country’s sovereignty, economic outlook, and national power’ it is perceived as directed at the US. Whether its is space, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, or novel materials, advances by ‘adversaries’ in these areas are threats when, and because, they approach American success in these fields. For ‘adversaries’ to have what the Americans have is by definition a threat.
When neighbours China and Russia expand cooperation to shape the international order ‘to their benefit’, as the US did with deliberation following WW2, their intent must be to ‘present a counterweight to the United States and other Western countries’.
By becoming ‘the second-largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and the third—largest contributor to the UN regular budget’, China must be pursuing a subversive agenda in this narrative. Actions by adversaries are never reactive or defensive.
Ominously, the 2019 Report warns of the ‘The Coming Ideological Battle’ in which ‘China’s model of authoritarian capitalism’ will wrestle with ‘democracy, human rights, and the rule of law’. Ironically, this Administration’s foreign policy has abandoned support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, while there are no signs of China imposing its political-economic model on any other nation. This view seems to be a mental hangover from the Cold War in the US intelligence agencies.
Yes, the North Korean regime is pursuing policies that threaten peace and millions of lives. Yes, Russia has acted aggressively in pursuit of its strategic interests. And yes, China has emerged as a real competitor to the US in almost every field. These are genuine diplomatic and security challenges. The apocalyptic and existential lens applied, however, demands a cautious approach. They do not ‘live in caves and eat rats’.
These reports are of little strategic value to legislators, while policymakers, defence planners, and justice officials will have access to finer grain, targeted and executable intelligence. For citizens in a democracy they are positively dangerous.
They purport to be authoritative accounts of the real world by experts and specialists with access to secret and, to the average punter, arcane knowledge. Thus, potentially, they can influence public opinion on matters of peace and war. But they are socially constructed artefacts and although useful in partisan politics, they deserve to be critically analysed and tested by academics, commentators and journalists.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.