It would be easy to write about any one of four or five headline events that have occurred this past week. The “siege” of the US federal government came to an end by the weekend, when President Donald Trump wimped out in the face of a unified Democratic Party under Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that refused to authorise spending of nearly $6-billion for Trump’s border wall in the lower house (authorising zero) and the Republicans’ inability to support a vote for such spending in the Senate.
The end result, at least temporarily, is no wall, federal employees back to work and a working group of congressmen and women supposed to sort out how to proceed on border security enhancements, a way forward for the DACA dreamers (the young adults brought to the US without following the law and now caught in legal limbo), and all the rest of US immigration law by 15 February. Oh, and Nancy Pelosi on her own demonstrated she has more (please add whatever descriptive nouns and adjectives you prefer) than the whole Trump team put together.
There has also been the FBI’s just-before-dawn arrest of Trump agent provocateur and intermediary with Wikileaks, Roger Stone, and then there is the continuing disaster that is Venezuela and Donald Trump’s decision to back President Nicolas Maduro’s opponent, Juan Guaido, the speaker of the country’s national parliament, as the country’s president. Cynics have muttered that wimping out on the government shutdown (and letting employees get salaries and go back to work) and the sudden sabre-rattling over Venezuela had a little something to do with the growing embarrassment over at the White House about the shutdown and that little matter of Roger Stone.
Oh, never mind all that, today, we want to focus on actual long-term strategic issues, as opposed to shorter-term, marginal, political advantage-seeking on the part of the man-child wandering through the halls of the White House, lost and directionless. (It has become obvious that Ann Coulter is unhappy about her previous political champion’s apostasy of all those Fox News values and that must be troubling to Trump.)
Over the years, the American intelligence community has been tasked with many things. Some are classified, but we get hints about some of those from leaks to the media. Sometimes these things even get announced when they go “right” and lots of people want to claim credit. And then are those you only hear about years later, after contentious freedom of information requests wend their way through the courts.
But this same intelligence community — all 17 different agencies and offices scattered through the government, from the usual familiar names like the CIA, to more specialised bodies like the Energy Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office — has also been tasked with doing some long-range thinking of issues — well beyond the horizon — in contrast to the James Bond stuff, in the National Intelligence Strategy, the NIS.
For many years, in a four-year cycle, the intel community has prepared a classified study of the big issues. The task is to give the nation’s top leadership intriguing, frightening and challenging nighttime reading; the kind of reading that propels a president and other higher-ups to demand some deep and some potentially uncomfortable lateral thinking from the bureaucratic leviathan they are supposed to supervise.
The actual periodic studies have usually been close hold, classified documents, although there have been dutifully “sanitised”, unclassified versions available. Those have made interesting reading. Without the secret stuff, over the years, the unclassified versions have still had challenging points in them — including early reminders to the government, regardless of party, about such challenges as global warming/climate change, endemic epidemics, desertification, water security, and yet other non-traditional issues that have increasingly worked their way into policy debate — and sometimes even actual policies.
Anyway, the committee that drafted this NIS released its report this past week via Dan Coates, the overall director of national intelligence. The Washington Post reported on the Tuesday release, saying:
“The United States will be challenged in coming years 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’, according to a new intelligence document published Tuesday. The document, known as the National Intelligence Strategy, cited Russia as seeking to flex its geopolitical muscle in order to challenge the United States ‘in multiple regions’.
“Meant to set US spy agencies’ priorities for the next four years, the language echoed the intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion, released in 2017, that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election in order to ‘undermine the US-led liberal democratic order’.
“The warning of increased isolationism comes as decades-old alliances among Western nations are strained and waves of nationalism are upsetting long-held assumptions about the stability of democratic governments.
“President Trump, who campaigned on a promise to put ‘America first’, has questioned the value of mutual-defence treaties with US allies, chastised European nations for not spending enough on their militaries and spoken warmly of autocrats, in Russia and elsewhere.
“The intelligence strategy is not a direct rebuke of the president’s policies. But it is the latest expression of intelligence leaders’ intention to pivot away from a focus on combating terrorism, which has been their central concern since 2001, toward countries that threaten the United States on a geopolitical scale, chief among them Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.”
Still, from this vantage point, certainly, this new report seems a near-repudiation of a whole passel of Trumpian promise on everything from climate change to the kind of cyberhacking on a global level that traduces the American political system.
In particular, 10 key issues seem especially important. These are, according to the report:
1. “Traditional adversaries will continue attempts to gain and assert influence, taking advantage of changing conditions in the international environment — including the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals, increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West, and shifts in the global economy.” Hmmm. How does one spell all that in Cyrillic or Chinese characters?
2. “Russian efforts to increase its influence and authority are likely to continue and may conflict with US goals and priorities in multiple regions.” If in doubt, review #1.
3. “No longer a solely US domain, the democratisation of space poses significant challenges for the US. Adversaries are increasing their presence in this domain with plans to reach or exceed parity in some areas. For example, Russia and China will continue to pursue a full range of anti-satellite weapons as a means to reduce US military effectiveness and overall security. Increasing commercialisation of space now provides capabilities that were once limited to global powers to anyone that can afford to buy them. Many aspects of modern society — to include our ability to conduct military operations — rely on our access to and equipment in space.” Back to #1 and 2.
4. “The ability of individuals and groups to have a larger impact than ever before — politically, militarily, economically, and ideologically — is undermining traditional institutions. This empowerment of groups and individuals is increasing the influence of ethnic, religious, and other sources of identity, changing the nature of the conflict, and challenging the ability of traditional governments to satisfy the increasing demands of their populations, increasing the potential for greater instability. Some violent extremist groups will continue to take advantage of these sources and drivers of instability to hold territory, further insurgencies, plan external attacks, and inspire followers to launch attacks wherever they are around the world.”
5. “Increasing migration and urbanisation of populations are further straining the capacities of governments around the world and are likely to result in further fracturing of societies, potentially creating breeding grounds for radicalisation. Pressure points include growing influxes of migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons fleeing conflict zones; areas of intense economic or other resource scarcity; and areas threatened by climate changes, infectious disease outbreaks, or transnational criminal organisations. All of these issues will continue to drive global change on an unprecedented scale.” Donald Trump, even your own intelligence community says it’s not just all those bad hombres clambering over the border.
6. “Advances in nano- and biotechnologies have the potential to cure diseases and modify human performance, but without common ethical standards and shared interests to govern these developments, they have the potential to pose significant threats to US interests and security. In addition, the development and spread of such technologies remain uneven, increasing the potential to drastically widen the divide between so-called ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ ”
7. “Despite growing awareness of cyber threats and improving cyber defences, nearly all information, communication networks, and systems will be at risk for years to come. Our adversaries are becoming more adept at using cyberspace capabilities to threaten our interests and advance their own strategic and economic objectives. Cyber threats will pose an increasing risk to public health, safety, and prosperity as information technologies are integrated into critical infrastructure, vital national networks, and consumer devices.” In this world of cyber-competition, it’s not a physical wall that will help stop bad things.
8. “Many adversaries continue to pursue capabilities to inflict catastrophic damage to US interests through the acquisition and use of [weapons of mass destruction]. Their possession of these capabilities can have major impacts on US national security, overseas interests, allies, and the global order. The intelligence challenges to countering the proliferation of WMD and advanced conventional weapons are increasing as actors become more sophisticated, WMD-related information becomes broadly available, proliferation mechanisms increase and as political instability erodes the security of WMD stockpiles.” Ah, Donald, take care when you speak with your new best friend, Chairman Kim…
9. “Continued federal budget uncertainty strains the [intelligence community’s] ability to make deliberative and responsive resource decisions. The outcome may be overextended budgets or lack of cost-effective solutions to address intelligence issues. The [intelligence community] needs to develop methods to efficiently shift resources to mitigate programmatic (fiscal) risk and avoid loss of vital programmes, capabilities, and resource investments.” Donald, are you still there, reading this summary of the executive summary?
10. “There will likely be demand for greater intelligence support to domestic security, driven in part by concerns over the threat of terrorism, the threat posed by transnational illicit drug and human trafficking networks, and the threat to US critical infrastructure. Intelligence support to counter these threats must be conducted… with adequate protection for civil liberties and privacy.” Yes, even that last bit.
Readers who wish to devour the entire report should go here. DM
"There isn't a Monday that would not cede its place to Tuesday." ~ Anton Chekhov