Directly contradicting President Donald Trump, U.S. intelligence agencies told Congress on Tuesday that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, that the Islamic State group remains a threat and that the Iran nuclear deal is working. The chiefs made no mention of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border for which Trump has considered declaring a national emergency.
Their analysis stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s almost singular focus on security gaps at the border as the biggest threat facing the United States.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats presented an update to the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday on their annual assessment of global threats. They warned of an increasingly diverse range of security dangers around the globe, from North Korean nuclear weapons to Chinese cyberespionage and Russian campaigns to undermine Western democracies.
Coats did note that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expressed support for ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and over the past year has not test-fired a nuclear-capable missile or conducted a nuclear test.
“Having said that, we currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” Coats told the committee.
The spy agencies’ skepticism about North Korea is consistent with the intelligence agencies’ views over many years and runs counter to Trump’s assertion after his June 2018 Singapore summit with Kim that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat.
During a question-and-answer session with senators, Coats and other intelligence officials made clear their consensus view that North Korea is not yet moving toward disarmament and in some respects may be backtracking.
“The capabilities and threat that existed a year ago are still there,” said the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley.
Plans for a follow-up summit are in the works but no agenda, venue or date has been announced. In the meantime, U.S. intelligence agencies are observing “activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization,” Coats said, without offering details.
More broadly, the intelligence report on which Coats and the heads of other intelligence agencies based their testimony predicted that security threats to the United States and its allies this year will expand and diversify, driven in part by China and Russia. It says Moscow and Beijing are more aligned than at any other point since the mid-1950s and their global influence is rising.
The report also said the Islamic State group “remains a terrorist and insurgent threat” inside Iraq, where the government faces “an increasingly disenchanted public.”
The intelligence assessment, which is provided annually to Congress, made no mention of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump has asserted as the basis for his demand that Congress finance a border wall. The report predicted additional U.S.-bound migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, with migrants preferring to travel in caravans in hopes of a safer journey.
In Syria, where Trump has ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. troops, the government of Bashar Assad is likely to consolidate control, with Russia and Iran attempting to further entrench themselves in Syria, the report said. Asked for her assessment, Haspel said of the IS group: “They’re still dangerous.” She added that they still command “thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
The intelligence agencies said Iran continues to work with other parties to the nuclear deal it reached with the U.S. and other Western nations. In doing so, they said, it has at least temporarily lessened the nuclear threat. In May 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from that accord, which he called a terrible deal that would not stop Iran from going nuclear.
The intelligence assessment of Afghanistan, more than 17 years into a conflict that began after the 9-11 attacks on the U.S., projected a continued military stalemate. Without mentioning prospects for a peace deal, which appear to have improved only in recent days, the report said, “neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in the Afghan war in the coming year” if the U.S. maintains its current levels of support. Trump has ordered a partial pullback of U.S. forces this year, although no firm plan is in place.
Coats told the committee that Russia and perhaps other countries are likely to attempt to use social media and other means to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
“We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,” the intelligence report said.
The report specifically warned about Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies determined had interfered in the 2016 election to sway voters toward Trump.
“Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians,” it said. “Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits – such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data – in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions, and elections.”
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