The Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment

The intelligence community (IC) last week made a rare foray into public view to explain the top threats facing the United States. In a paper and in testimony before the Senate and House intelligence committees, agency heads described a complex and “cascading” set of national security challenges, with China securing a prominent position among them. A clear subtext to the report and testimony is that the IC’s priorities are shifting—perhaps too slowly—from a focus on counterterrorism to addressing near-peer competitors. Those competitors have robust intelligence efforts and no compunction about operating aggressively in the gray zone, for example, influencing elections and spreading misinformation. The report and testimony also featured discussions of the pandemic and climate change, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines specifically referred to “broadening our definition of national security,” likely to incorporate issues like these that have normally been a factor, though not a focus, of IC work.

These hearings by tradition are held every year, but this year, for the first time, both the hearings and report were legally mandated, thanks to a provision in the 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act. That provision was in large part a reaction to the Trump administration’s no-show in 2020, and the legislative intent was to ensure the U.S. public receives at least an annual glimpse into the big-picture work of the IC. This glimpse is important because, just as in every other aspect of government, the public has a taxpayer’s right to know their public servants are working to advance the nation’s interests. As Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in his opening statement, if intel is working well, problems are averted, rather than allowed to bloom into public crises, and the public remains mostly unaware anything was ever wrong.

Both the report—the Annual Threat Assessment (ATA)—and the associated congressional testimony are meant to provide top-line analysis. However, the data points that underpin that analysis remain classified in order to protect the sources and technical data that provide that information. In other words, in public testimony, the IC provides its assessment, but it will never “show its work.”

Q1: What is the major takeaway from the testimony?

A1: The intelligence game has shifted, and the United States now finds itself playing defense. While the last 20 years were defined by identifying, collecting on, and rolling back terrorist groups, the United States now finds itself pivoting to multidomain competition with “near-peers” who seek to weaken U.S. influence. Counterintelligence is the new counterterrorism.

The United States is transitioning from mostly low-tech, low-resourced adversaries (e.g., the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their subsidiaries) to a focus on great power competition, in particular with China and Russia, both of whom have invested in sophisticated technical tools and are armed with robust conventional and nuclear forces. This shift requires a massive reorientation of IC resources, time, and effort. Bureaucracies do not shift quickly—employees need to be retrained, programs shuttered, new materials purchased—but this one was late in coming and has so far been sluggish.

Q2: What is missing?

A2: Aside from a lot of classified information, mostly in the form of human and signals intelligence data points that underpin the unclassified assessments, a few key topics are missing from the written testimony. Those exclusions are largely due to the high time cost associated with writing the ATA. I have been an author, reviewer, and recipient of this testimony, and I know firsthand that the 25-or-so pages take months to put together, including weeks to run the review gauntlet. Assessments have to be reviewed by 18 intelligence agencies, verified as unclassified, and edited and re-edited for clarity.

As a result, recent events are not reflected. The power outage at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant, for example, and Iran’s follow-on announcement that it will begin enrichment up to 60 percent are not included. Instead, the ATA, on page 14, speculates about the event that became real on Wednesday: “If Tehran does not receive sanctions relief, Iranian officials probably will consider options ranging from further enriching uranium up to 60 percent to designing and building a new 40 Megawatt Heavy Water reactor.” Indeed, Tehran did just that.

More notable, however, is the non-mention of an Afghanistan troop withdrawal. That implies two things: First, the final decision to pull out by September 11 was made relatively recently. If it had been decided when analysts were writing, the text would have included more on the wide-ranging implications of the withdrawal—for Afghanistan, the region, and the world’s perceptions of U.S. power. Second, the IC is demonstrating analytical independence. Even if the decision had not yet been finalized as of the writing of the report, policy conversations about a potential withdrawal likely have been ongoing since the beginning of the Biden administration, and analysts would have known where those conversations were heading. Still, they pointed out the risk in the testimony, saying: “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” That “if” is now a “when.”

Q3: What is the top threat?

A3: China, China, China. China comes first in the ATA for a reason—it presents the greatest challenge to the United States and to Western-based international norms in large part because it does so on many fronts. In addition, both Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) and Vice Chairman Rubio spent time in their openers on the many ways China seeks to undermine U.S. economic and political security. Director Haines called China an “unparalleled competitor,” signifying the range of ways in which China is spreading influence and undermining Western-based norms. The good news is that doing something about China seems to be one area of actual consensus in Washington.

Q4: If China is such a threat, why is the language on Chinese election influence weaker than that on Russia?

A4: Whereas the ATA paper says, “Russia presents one of the most serious intelligence threats to the United States, using its intelligence services to . . . [sow] discord inside the United States and influenc[e] US voters and decisionmaking,” it uses much gentler language regarding China. It says, “China will continue expanding its global intelligence footprint . . . Beijing has been intensifying efforts to shape the political environment in the United States to promote its policy preferences, mold public discourse, pressure political figures whom Beijing believes oppose its interests, and muffle criticism of China.”

The slight differences in language are significant. In other words, the IC is stating that while Russia is actively seeking to undermine democracy and sway voters, China is seeking to “shape” perceptions to advance its policy preferences. One could be seen as only having a destructive end; the other is oriented at shaping opinion to influence policy decisions. But despite the nuance, both are deeply worrying, especially considering that China likely learned from Russia’s efforts in 2016 and 2018 and could be far more aggressive. It is worth keeping a keen eye on these parallel lines of analysis, in particular to gauge China’s trend line, but also to ensure that these two adversaries are being weighed with the same analytical scales.

Q5: What about Russia?

A5: Clearly, Moscow is still a large problem. Russia seeks to weaken the United States, Western alliances, and international norms—anything that might threaten President Vladimir Putin’s rule or his aspirations to renew Russia’s great power status. The ATA says Russia seeks “mutual noninterference in both countries’ domestic affairs,” a standard that is sadly impossible to meet, given Moscow’s tendency to see Washington’s hand behind every perceived threat. The ATA and hearings highlighted in particular the Kremlin’s propensity to use tools tangential to the state to advance its foreign policy goals; for example, the ATA devotes a bullet to Russian private military and security companies, which allow Moscow to “disavow its involvement” but still exert influence around the world.

Q6: What was Senator King (I-ME) talking about with the intelligence gap between foreign and domestic collection, especially as it relates to the SolarWinds cyberattack?

A6: Senator King said there is a “gap in intelligence coverage between our foreign-facing agencies and domestic agencies. I think [FBI] director Wray referred to it as a blind spot.” He then went on to discuss the recent SolarWinds hack, and how the Russians used servers in the United States to conduct this sophisticated supply chain attack: “They went through this blind spot.” (See 1 hour 30 minutes into the Senate hearing.) He then asked General Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency (NSA), whether he can tip the FBI on activity his agency notices overseas. Nakasone said yes, and then went on to explain that a partnership between the FBI and private industry is the only way to close this gap.

This “gap” is a product of the emphasis U.S. laws place on privacy and personal freedoms and the corresponding restrictions on intelligence authorities. In general terms, U.S. intelligence agencies have the authority to collect information on foreign adversaries acting outside U.S. borders, but that collection must stop when activity crosses into the United States. The FBI should step in domestically and pursue either potential counterintelligence concerns or criminal activity, but the FBI’s intelligence collection capabilities are, to put it bluntly, weak. The United States decided a long time ago it did not want a British MI-5-style domestic intelligence agency; as such, the Bureau is set up largely as a law enforcement entity.

Smart adversaries, then, take advantage of this gap, in particular for gray zone activity and cyberattacks like SolarWinds. Rented network infrastructure is cheap and easy to come by, and anyone can snag some domestic servers for a short contract. Adversaries “hop” from abroad to a domestic, rented server, leaving the IC largely blind to their activity. This gap in coverage is what led to recent discussions in Washington about enhancing the NSA’s power to operate domestically, or somehow merging NSA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) authorities for a better net. 

Q7: Senator Henrich (D-NM) and Director Wray had a conversation about domestic violent extremism (DVE). What is the IC’s role?

A7: Referring to DVE, Senator Heinrich said, “the public deserves to know how the government assesses the threat to our country from those who would act violently on [extremist] beliefs.” (See the 1:21 mark.) Because of the issue of domestic surveillance, discussed above, tackling domestic violent extremism is a particular challenge for the IC. Domestic groups who seek to conduct terror attacks or stage an insurrection have generally fallen under the purview of FBI, with a limited role for the National Counterterrorism Center and DHS. Director Wray, in fact, responded to Senator Heinrich that “we focus on the violence and the federal criminal activity.” In other words, for the FBI, it is less an intelligence-gathering focus and more an after-the-event law enforcement role. Following the January 6 attack on the Capitol and damage to other federal buildings in the last year, some lawmakers have started calling for a more robust IC role against violent domestic actors.

Unless and until IC authorities expand on this front, foreign-facing IC elements (i.e., not the FBI) use a foreign nexus test to gauge their appropriate role. For example, is a group funded, sponsored, or supported by a foreign actor? If so, how can IC resources be used to understand that actor’s role? The section of the ATA on DVEs (page 24) illustrates the IC’s efforts to grapple with the foreign-ness problem. The section talks about a “diverse set of extremists” and an “increasingly complex threat landscape, and then says, “Of these, violent extremists who espouse an often overlapping mix of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs have the most persistent transnational connections via often loose online communities to like-minded individuals and groups in the West.” In other words, the foreign test is met, albeit in a limited way.

Q8: What did Director Haines mean when she said the United States should “broaden our definition of national security?”

A8: The ATA and the hearings devoted time to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. While the IC has long had in-house experts exploring the national security implications of health issues and environmental pressures, both are generally considered as irritants giving rise to core national security considerations like political instability or resource-based conflict rather than national security issues in and of themselves. Director Haines seems to be advocating for a more central role for issues like these in the IC’s work.

And this is the rub: the world is big and complex, there is more data to read than any human can read, and many of the issues are intertwined. This is what the IC means by “cascading” challenges—a global pandemic is not merely a public health issue—it also causes economic disruption that can lead to migration and political destabilization, and the indicators providing warning of these threats are not stealable secrets. Sorting the signal from the noise in a world with a lot of noise is the central challenge for the IC, and it will need transformative reform, including massive computing resources and artificial intelligence and machine learning assistance, to make sense of it.

Emily Harding is deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Emily Harding
Director, Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program and Deputy Director, International Security Program