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US intel chiefs contradict Trump on North Korea, ISIS, Iran

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats (center) testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats (center) testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — A new American intelligence assessment of global threats has concluded that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear stockpiles and that Iran is not, for now, taking steps necessary to make a bomb, directly contradicting the rationale of two of President Trump’s major foreign policy initiatives.

Those conclusions are part of an annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” released Tuesday that also stressed the growing cyberthreat from Russia and China, which it said were now “more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.”

The 42-page threat report found that US trade policies and “unilateralism” — central themes of Trump’s “America First” approach — have strained traditional alliances and prompted foreign partners to seek new relationships.

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In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee linked to the release of the report, the nation’s intelligence chiefs tried to avoid directly questioning administration policies. Yet they detailed a different ranking of the threats facing the United States, starting with cyberattacks and moving on to the endurance of the Islamic State and the capabilities of both North Korea and Iran.

Dan Coats, the national intelligence director, told lawmakers that the Islamic State would continue “to stoke violence” in Syria. He was backed up by the written review, which said there were thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria and more than a dozen Islamic State networks around the world. Last month, Trump said that “we have won against ISIS; we’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly” in announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

The starkest contradiction drawn by the intelligence chiefs was their assessment of North Korea. Trump is expected to meet next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a second round of direct negotiations aimed at ridding the North of its nuclear weapons. After his last meeting, in Singapore, Trump tweeted that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

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Coats described his concerns in opposite terms.

He cited “some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization,” adding that most of what North Korea has dismantled is reversible. He said the North’s “leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”

Similarly, the threat review declared that “we currently assess North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capability and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.”

Trump has often noted, accurately, that North Korea has suspended missile tests; its last major test was 14 months ago. But on Tuesday, Gina Haspel, the CIA director, said the government in Pyongyang “is committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States.”

Haspel said it was encouraging that North Korea was communicating with the United States. But under questioning by Senator Kamala Harris, the California Democrat who this month announced her candidacy for president, Haspel said the diplomatic objective was still to insist that North Korea fully disclose and dismantle its nuclear program.

On Iran, Coats cited Tehran’s continued support of terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, including sponsoring Houthis in Yemen and Shi’ite militants in Iraq. He also said that he believed that Iranian hard-liners would continue to challenge centrist rivals.

But on one of Trump’s key assertions — that Iran had cheated on the spirit of the 2015 nuclear agreement even if it was temporarily following its terms — Coats said Tehran continued to comply with the deal even after the president announced in May that the United States would withdraw from it.

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“We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Coats said.

He added, however, that Iranian officials have “publicly threatened to push the boundaries” of the nuclear agreement if it did not see benefits that were promised, including a resumption of oil sales and an end to American sanctions against its financial transactions around the world.

Trump has called the nuclear agreement “defective at its core” and warned that Iran would “be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons” if it remained in place. The agreement still stands, largely with support from European capitals.

Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, asked Haspel point-blank if Iran remained in compliance with the deal. She said it was but added, “They are making some preparations that would increase their ability to take a step back if they make that decision,” Haspel said.

Intelligence officials have long taken stronger positions than Trump on North Korea’s continuing nuclear activity, the strength of the Islamic State, and Russia’s attempts to influence elections. Trump has often chafed at assessments he finds at variance with his worldview.

April F. Doss, a former associate general counsel at the National Security Agency, said it is not surprising for the intelligence community to stake out facts at odds with the administration view, given that the most recent National Intelligence Strategy noted the spy agencies’ responsibility to “speak truth to power.”

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The intelligence chiefs emphasized “the commitment to analyzing intelligence in a manner tied to objective facts, not domestic partisan agendas,” said Doss, a partner at the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.

Trump clashed with the spy agencies over their conclusions that Russia was behind the hacking and influence operations that marred the 2016 presidential election. On Tuesday, the new director of the Cyber Command, General Paul Nakasone, told the Senate committee that the US efforts to blunt Russian interference in the midterm elections had been successful, though he gave no details.

Much of the hearing focused on cyberthreats from Russia and particularly from China, which the written report said is now positioned to conduct effective cyberattacks against American infrastructure. It specifically cited Beijing’s ability to cut off natural gas pipelines.

Lawmakers discussed the challenges that new technologies being developed by China, Russia, and others were posing.

“We’re now living in yet another new age, a time characterized by hybrid warfare, weaponized disinformation, all occurring within the context of a world producing more data than mankind has ever seen,” said Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the committee’s chairman.

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, joined King to highlight dangers posed by Huawei, the Chinese firm that was named in Justice Department indictments.

King said the company needed to choose between being “a worldwide telecommunications company or an agent of the Chinese government.”

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Responding, Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley Jr., the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said no Chinese company could truly choose whether to cooperate or hand over data. “It is really authoritarian capitalism in the way the government provides oversight and puts very strict rules in place,” Ashley said. “It is very problematic.”