US threat assessment challenges Trump's worldview, endangers DCI Coats' career

US threat assessment challenges Trump's worldview, endangers DCI Coats' career
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Shortly after the 2000 presidential election, then-Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsEx-Trump official says intel community's testimony interfered in US-North Korea talks Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? Intel agencies' threat assessment matters more than tiff with Trump MORE (R-Ind.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was considered the leading candidate for secretary of Defense in the new George W. Bush administration. After he met with the president-elect, however, it was clear that, for whatever reason, Bush decided to look elsewhere to fill the position. Upon the advice of Vice President Dick Cheney, the president instead chose Don Rumsfeld.

Coats subsequently was named ambassador to Germany, where he was unpopular with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose antipathy toward the United States showed itself most clearly in the run-up to, and during, the first stages of the Iraq War. After returning to the Senate in 2011, Coats retired from lawmaking six years later when President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE appointed him as director of National Intelligence. And it is in that capacity that Coats probably has eliminated himself from having a second shot at becoming Defense secretary.

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The Washington rumor mill for several weeks has opined that Coats, who has met with Trump on numerous occasions, not only once again is a candidate for leadership of the Department of Defense (DOD), but actually had something that might pass for a job interview with the president, whose method of hiring top officials is, at best, highly idiosyncratic. But Coats spoiled his copybook by releasing the intelligence community’s latest edition of its “Worldwide Threat Assessment.”  

The Threat Assessment, a consensus product of the 16 agencies and an administrative office that comprise the intelligence community, hardly breaks new ground. Indeed, it reiterates some of Coats’ own prior statements, particularly regarding the North Korean threat. Nevertheless, its stark, unequivocal language shatters some of Trump’s most precious illusions. Ever since his unprecedented summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in June 2018, Trump argued that he had initiated the process of achieving a denuclearized North Korea.

Coats flatly contradicted the president on the state of North Korea’s nuclear program, however. His report to the Senate Intelligence Committee, emphasized — in boldface — that “we continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key U.S. and international concessions.” In an additional slap at Trump’s diplomatic efforts, the report noted that “North Korea will continue its efforts to mitigate the effects of the U.S.-led pressure campaign, most notably through diplomatic engagement, counter-pressure against the sanctions regime, and direct sanctions evasion.”

Similarly, whereas Trump pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and since has continued to argue that Iran was proceeding with its nuclear weapons program, the report contradicted him, again in boldface print. It reported that “[w]e continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

Finally, while Trump justified pulling American forces out of Syria because ISIS had been defeated, the report bluntly stated, once more in boldface, that “ISIS 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, despite significant leadership and territorial losses.” It added that “[t]he group will exploit any reduction in CT [counter-terrorism] pressure,” and, for good measure, postulated that “ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.”

None of the foregoing sits well with the president, who very much in character responded with an insulting tweetstorm, calling his intelligence community, and presumably the director he appointed to lead that community, “extremely passive and naive when it comes to Iran” and musing that “perhaps intelligence should go back to school!” Trump also tweeted that, thanks to his efforts, there was “a whole different relationship with North Korea … progress being made-big difference (sic).” Finally, he asserted that “tremendous progress” had been achieved “especially over the last 5 weeks” and promised that “the Caliphate will soon be destroyed.”

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In fairness, Trump may have a point when it comes to Iran. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are prohibited from entering Iranian military bases, where all efforts to circumvent the JCPOA’s restrictions on nuclear-weapons development likely are taking place. Iran has been caught cheating on its prior commitments to curtail its weapons program; there is no evidence that it would not be attempting to do so again. Certainly, recurring statements on the part of Iranian leaders that they could destroy Israel could only be credible if Tehran were capable of firing nuclear-tipped missiles at the Jewish state.

On the other hand, those pronouncements could be nothing more than empty threats, while Iran, which seeks to maintain economic relations with Europe, recognizes that it can only do so if it were to adhere to the terms of the JCPOA. On the other hand, Trump’s assessments regarding North Korea and ISIS are as illusory as his tweets are incoherent. Ongoing North Korean missile testing and continuing reports of secret North Korean nuclear sites belie Trump’s optimism about his diplomatic prospects. And reports from the field in Syria and Iraq flatly contradict his sunny assessment of the current state of ISIS.

It should be recalled that early in his administration, Trump demonstrated as much hostility toward the intelligence community as he did toward the media and the FBI. He toned down his rhetoric when Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHeather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents MORE took over the CIA. He even did not overreact when Coats contradicted him on North Korea a year ago, arguing after the summit that North Korea was unlikely to denuclearize within a year.

Nevertheless, perhaps because he sees himself beleaguered on many fronts, the president clearly has returned to his original instincts about the intelligence professionals, as well as his own appointees who defend and represent them. Dan Coats may well remain on his job for a while longer, but after the brouhaha that his report has stirred up, he should have no reason to expect that the president will name him to any other position in his chaotic administration.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.