Telling truth to nonsense
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When the director of national intelligence, Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTrump has named more ex-lobbyists to Cabinet in 3 years than Obama, Bush did in full terms: report Hillicon Valley: FCC approves Nexstar-Tribune merger | Top Democrat seeks answers on security of biometric data | 2020 Democrats take on Chinese IP theft | How Google, Facebook probes are testing century-old antitrust laws Congress should defy Dan Coats' last request on phone surveillance MORE, and his colleagues testified this week in open session before Congress, the TV sound bites concentrated on what they didn’t say:  they deferred the leading, political questions to the afternoon classified session.  Yet what they did say was much important.  I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to oversee the preparation of several Worldwide Threat Assessments as chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), and I am proud of my successors for standing their ground. It was an all-too-rare moment of institutional integrity in these perilous times for American democracy.

It is tempting, especially for long-time intelligence professionals, to view the annual threat testimony as a chore, just an opportunity for limiting the damage.  My boss, DNI James ClapperJames Robert ClapperTrump lashes out at former intel officials for criticism of Iran tweet Trump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Conservatives lash out at CNN for hiring Andrew McCabe MORE, regarded testifying in open session before Congress as right up there with root canals and folding fitted sheets, as he used to say. Our successors, though, took it as an opportunity to educate the public – and perhaps especially one determinedly slow-learning president.


On issue after issue, the written document, attractively presented with vivid graphics, tells it straight.  No, the nuclear danger from North Korea is not over, rather the country “is unlikely to give up all of its [nuclear] stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities. North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival.”  No, Iran has not burst out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) even after Trump scuttled it and re-imposed sanctions.  Rather, “it is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

No, the Islamic State terrorist group is not entirely defeated, as Trump proclaimed.  Rather, “despite significant leadership and territorial losses… it still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world.”

Trump has pooh-poohed Russia’s intervention in the 2016 elections, but it continues to employ “cyber espionage, attack, and influence operations to achieve its political and military objectives.” It is “looking to the 2020 US elections as an opportunityand “will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians.”

Coats and his colleagues do intelligence, they don’t make policy. But they didn’t shy from spelling out the effects of recent U.S. actions: “As China and Russia seek to expand their global influence… some US allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing US policies on security and trade and are becoming more open to new bilateral and multilateral partnerships.”

Nor does the assessment shy from identifying climate change as a key driver of global danger: “Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.”

I have always found the lines from John 8:32 that are etched in the CIA’s marble entry – ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free – slightly strange in that place. While divine truth may be absolute, intelligence truth is not; it is only as close as fallible humans can get. And intelligence truth is more likely to constrain policy than to set it free. On that last score, Coats and his colleagues did indeed tell truth to power by sorting out fact from fantasy. 

Gregory F. Treverton stepped down as chair of America’s National Intelligence Council in January 2017.  He is now a professor at the University of Southern California and a member of the International Advisory Council of APCO Worldwide.