The Corner

National Security & Defense

It’s Time to End Unclassified Threat Briefings

CIA Director Gina Haspel (left) and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, January 29, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Headlines are in the news today stating that top U.S. intelligence officials “contradicted” President Trump at yesterday’s briefing of the intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat report to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The intelligence chiefs differed with President Trump and his senior officials in finding that North Korea does not plan to give up its nuclear weapons, that Iran is technically in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, and that ISIS has not been defeated. The intelligence chiefs offered other assessments that matched Trump administration policies such as stating that Russia, Iran and China plan to meddle in the 2020 elections and a strong warning that China is growing as a cyber and intelligence threat.

Since Congress is an independent branch of government and is responsible for oversight of the executive, it is entirely appropriate for our intelligence agencies to provide Congress with annual worldwide threat briefings. The problem is, when these briefings are unclassified and public, they tend to interfere with presidential foreign-policy decision-making and provide valuable information to America’s adversaries on U.S. intelligence assessments.

When the unclassified worldwide threat report said that North Korea is “unlikely to give up” its nuclear weapons, the intelligence community was not just repeating the view of the foreign-policy establishment it was telling the world that it believes the president’s North Korea policy will likely fail. This violates the U.S. intelligence community’s mandate to inform but not prescribe presidential policy. Moreover, such a public assessment is inappropriate while U.S. diplomats are engaged in negotiations with North Korea and in the run-up to a second Trump-Kim summit.

The worldwide threat briefing’s findings on Iran’s nuclear program, meanwhile, were blatantly political and misleading. For example, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates said: “We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.” CIA Director Gina Haspel claimed concerning the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran: “At the moment technically they [Iran] are in compliance.”

These findings reflect the Intelligence Community’s record of bias in its assessments of rogue-state WMD programs after the Iraq War and a refusal to objectively assess Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. To reach these findings, the intelligence community had to pretend that Iran’s ongoing uranium enrichment and its efforts to develop advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges have nothing to do with nuclear-weapons development. Iran also clearly is not in compliance with the nuclear deal since it refuses to allow the IAEA to inspect military bases where it likely is engaged in nuclear-weapons work.

Haspel and Coates (and the threat report) also failed to mention that Israel found a warehouse of nuclear equipment and radioactive materials in Tehran earlier this year — that the IAEA refused to inspect so it would not have to find Iran in noncompliance with the nuclear deal.

In fact, classified and unclassified evidence that Iran has not given up its nuclear weapons program and is violating the nuclear deal is very strong. As national-security adviser John Bolton told Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month: “Despite getting out of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the sanctions, we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons.”

America’s intelligence agencies were not created to publicly criticize or offer rebuttals to the president’s foreign-policy initiatives. They are not supposed to be a “check” on presidential decision-making — that is Congress’s role. For the U.S. intelligence community to effectively perform its role informing presidential national-security decision-making, it has to be credible and trustworthy. Public spectacles like yesterday’s worldwide threat briefing make America less safe: They undermine the president’s trust in his intelligence agencies and make him less willing to listen to or consult with intelligence officials.

Public, unclassified worldwide threat briefings by U.S. intelligence officials to Congress therefore must end. Congress could still perform its responsibility overseeing U.S. intelligence agencies by holding classified worldwide threat hearings, provided that members of Congress do not leak information from these briefings to the press.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff.

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