Lessons from The Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment

Once a year, the intelligence community (IC) produces an unclassified survey of global threats. This exercise comprises two pieces: a written product called the Annual Threat Assessment (ATA) and testimony before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, called the Worldwide Threats Hearing (WWTH). This year, more than most, the written and verbal testimony diverged.

The written testimony was completed using information available as of January 21—more than a month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As a result, while the written testimony gives top billing to the comprehensive, society-wide threat from China, the verbal testimony before the intelligence committees was largely focused on the global implications of the war in Ukraine. However, that in no way suggests that the IC failed to predict a Russian invasion—quite the opposite. Members on both sides of the aisle praised the IC for its work anticipating Putin’s moves.

Other critical themes that emerged from the testimony and assessment were the importance of public-private partnerships in combating transnational threats and cybercrime and the comprehensive nature of the threat from China. During the hearing, members were keen to link China’s at least tacit approval to Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Q1: The IC has a “bottom line up front” in every assessment. What’s the bottom line from the 2022 ATA?

A1: The ATA is meant to be comprehensive, which sets up an incentive for at least a passing reference to a wide range of global challenges, lest the IC be accused of missing something. But for the second year in a row, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has pointed out that the intersection of threats is greater than the sum of their parts: “These challenges will intersect and interact in unpredictable ways, leading to mutually reinforcing effects that could challenge our ability to respond.”

This interacting-threats model is bearing out in the Ukraine conflict. While the suffering is most acute on the ground in Ukraine, sanctions and disruptions are likely to cause global shifts whose intersections are difficult to predict. Analysts like CSIS’s Caitlin Welsh are already predicting global rising food prices, and Matthew P. Goodman has discussed reverberating economic effects.

In part to address these intersecting threats and the turbocharging effect of rapid, uneven acceleration in technological advancement, CIA last fall created “T2MC”—the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, which will focus on foreign technological development and topics like climate change. CIA also launched a Technology Fellows program, which will bring experts to CIA for one to two years of service.

Q2: Given that the ATA includes old information, what does that tell us about what the IC knew and when about a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

A2: As of January 21, 2022, when the written ATA was last updated, the IC assessed the following:

Russia continues to prepare for a military attack against Ukraine, with well over 100,000 troops massed near the Ukraine border, including Russian military forces in Belarus, occupied-Crimea, and the separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. Moscow is sending more forces.

While this unclassified report did not assess when Russia might invade, several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee used their public hearing to thank the IC for their outstanding intelligence work. Chairman Mark Warner expressed his gratitude for both the accuracy of the IC’s predictions on an invasion of Ukraine and the forward-leaning effort to declassify intelligence about Putin’s false premises for invasion.

Q3. What did the IC leaders say during the hearing about the trajectory of the conflict in Ukraine?

A3: IC professionals are often accused of bringing gloom and doom into the room. The IC assessments about Russian tactics and the trajectory of the war were indeed largely dark, but with justification.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and her counterparts at CIA and DIA commented that Moscow is likely to loosen its rules of engagement in order to achieve its military objectives. This has proven true, as Russia has struck hospitals and civilian bomb shelters. They also assessed Putin is unlikely to be deterred by an unprecedentedly comprehensive sanctions regime, and that he will double down in his attempts to pull Ukraine away from Western influence.

To the extent that the spy chiefs brought good news, it was that Putin did not expect the woeful inadequacy of his attempts to insulate his economy from a crippling and widespread sanctions regime, nor did he expect how much the private sector would turn against him. They also indicated that any attempt by Moscow to install a pro-Russian puppet government in Ukraine would be futile, as the Ukrainian people have shown every sign they would engage in a “persistent and significant insurgency.”

Given those challenges, what Putin may be willing to accept as a victory could change over time, as the losses mount. One particular area to watch is Russian public support for the war; Burns said, “I don’t believe he’s going to be able to seal Russians off entirely from the truth . . . especially as realities begin to puncture that bubble.” Further, he said, “This is one information war that I think Putin is losing.”

Senator Angus King asked a question that has been hotly debated among those who follow the intersection of national security and cyberwarfare: Why did we not see more of a cyber conflict preceding the war, and what should we expect next? General Nakasone, the director of NSA, hinted that perhaps NSA and CYBERCOM deserve some credit, saying, “We worked very hard over the past several years since the shutdown of energy in 2015,” referring to the incident where Russian actors took down large parts of Ukraine’s power grid. Efforts at resilience over the last seven years have likely borne fruit in the last months.

The intelligence chiefs were at times clearly seeking to bat down bubbling controversy about what information the United States was sharing with Ukraine and when. In early March, both the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, and Senator Ben Sasse indicated that the United States was not providing real-time targeting information to the Ukrainian military, pointing fingers at both over-lawyered processes and fears that Moscow would interpret such aid as direct U.S. involvement in the war. General Nakasone took this assertion on directly, saying that the intelligence the United States is sharing with the Ukrainians is “accurate, relevant, and actionable.” So, who is right? Perhaps everyone. The process for reviewing classified material for distribution to allies can take time, as it moves through review by lawyers and stakeholders alike. When the need is great, that process can be sped up or circumvented entirely in order to get an ally actionable information. Most likely, bureaucracies were working through a standard process, with good intentions but not with the needed urgency. After public criticism, the IC likely found ways to either speed up that process or explain it better to members of Congress.

There was strident disagreement between some of the members and the intelligence chiefs on the concept of escalation. Senator Tom Cotton led an intensive round of questions about why the IC assessed that sending MiGs to Ukraine might be escalatory, asking why Putin "might be A-okay with us transferring missiles that turn their tanks into burning piles of rubbish or shoot their jets out of the sky, yet transferring tactical aircraft is considered unacceptable?” Director of DIA General Berrier responded that “I think when you look at anti-tank weapons and air defense, shoulder-fired kinds of weapons, there is a range of escalation. . . . In our view, that escalation ladder doesn’t get checked higher with those weapons versus something like combat aircraft.” Cotton’s response: “I don't think there's a lot of common sense between the distinction."

This is the kind of analytic judgement call that is difficult for the IC—or anyone—to make. Getting inside Putin’s head is impossible, and analysts will draw on their best knowledge of how the Russian security establishment thinks in order to make those kinds of assessments. It is critical, however, to embrace analytic humility and attach a clear confidence level to any assessment that is based more on the gathered expertise gained from watching the Russian system work for years, rather than on a robust set of collected, reliable intelligence.

Q4: Has the IC’s assessment of the threat posed by China changed since last year?

A4: If you compare the 2021 and 2022 ATA documents, you will note very few changes over the past year in the language describing the China threat. From a strategic perspective, this consistency is understandable. The ATA reflects the IC’s long-standing assessment that China presents a broad-spectrum threat, spanning the military, technology, cyber, space, and information domains. In the words of the past two ATAs, Beijing views its competition with the United States as part of an “epochal geopolitical shift.” Obviously, such shifts rarely occur overnight. They are prone to evolve incrementally over years, if not decades.

But even if the strategic China threat remains on a fixed trajectory, the 2022 ATA is scarce on new details about how China pursued its objectives over the past year. While the 2022 ATA deserves credit for noting several new developments in China’s weapons of mass destruction program that reinforce its existing judgments, there is little other detail on how China advanced other elements of its strategy over the past year.

For example, the 2022 ATA carries forward the 2021 ATA judgment that Beijing uses foreign investment and espionage as tools to advance its technology strategy. As reflected in FBI director Christopher Wray’s recent remarks about the economic threats posed by the Chinese government, such examples are not necessarily highly classified. Director Wray cited specific recent examples, such as the November 2021 conviction of a Chinese intelligence officer in the United States, to illuminate the current threat. When broader judgments are sustained year over year, the IC would be well advised to cite additional, unclassified examples that highlight why these judgments remain timely and accurate.

Q5: How might the Russian invasion of Ukraine change the assessment about China?

A5: “Unsettled” was the word that CIA director William Burns used to describe President Xi Jinping’s reaction to Russia’s invasion. Xi’s intelligence services reportedly failed to warn him of Russia’s imminent invasion, a potentially catastrophic blunder as the war started less than a month after Xi and Putin jointly declared their “no limits” partnership during a summit in Beijing.

Without question, the first three weeks of Russia’s disastrous military campaign have delivered a significant blow to China’s global agenda. China’s status as Moscow’s primary economic, diplomatic, and military lifeline is leaving Beijing increasingly isolated. As assessed in the past two ATAs, China’s global and regional agenda—including unification with Taiwan—depends on driving “wedges between Washington and its partners.” In less than a month, NATO, Europe, and the world’s democracies are as united as they have been at any point since the end of the Cold War. To China’s dismay, Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine may also serve as a clarion call for those looking east. Taiwan will undoubtedly derive its own lessons from the remarkable resistance of the Ukrainian military and its citizens. A stronger sense of urgency and purpose will be injected into Pacific alliances, including the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) and AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

China will also closely evaluate how Putin has lost the narrative battle in Ukraine. President Zelensky, the Ukrainian government, its citizens, and global activists are teaching a master class in modern information operations. They have been relentless in exposing Russian atrocities and keeping the global community engaged, unified, and motivated. This is no small feat in the current information age, and the People’s Liberation Army—with its emphasis on public opinion warfare and psychological warfare as two of the “Three Warfares”—will undoubtedly be studying ways to avoid Putin’s losses on the narrative battlefield.

Q6: While great power competition has taken center stage, what about other global conflicts and the continued potential for terrorism?

A6: As if the challenges presented by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, climate change, and expanding threat activity in the cyber domain did not convey a complex enough picture of the global security landscape, the final pages of the ATA cover a wide range of regional conflicts and areas of instability. This includes the Taliban’s continued reversal of decades of social change in Afghanistan and the increasing oppression of women, food insecurity, and submission to the Taliban’s return to power. India’s relations with Pakistan and China remain tense. The Ethiopian civil war, which has caused more than a half million deaths, barely receives a glancing mention. Add to this the persistent threat of terrorism, which is largely characterized as a global threat that is weakened but determined to target U.S. interests at home and abroad. It is a dismal outlook, and the challenges ahead are immense.

Q7: What were the senators attempting to convey in the hearing?

A7: Both Chairman Warner and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, in their opening statements, placed the Ukraine conflict in a broader context of democracy facing off against aggressive authoritarianism. Chairman Warner said, “The people of Ukraine are literally voting with their lives, embracing the values that we take for granted every day. . . . With all of our flaws, our system is still the best in the world.” He followed by tying together Russia’s and China’s leadership, saying, “A rising China and a ruthless Russia, both headed by authoritarian regimes seeking to undermine the cause of democratic governments worldwide, are a stark reminder that what we take for granted here in this country—freedom of the press, freedom to vote, and democracy, as messy as it is—that order is not guaranteed. It requires conviction, leadership, and sometimes sacrifice.”

Rubio drew a sweeping historical comparison, saying, “the last 30 years were but a brief respite from the rhythms of human history,” and “[Putin’s] barbarism is a shocking opening chapter in the return of history, and now we must prepare ourselves for this new era, where, frankly, greater dangers lie ahead.” Rubio pointed not only to Russia, but also to Iran and China. “We face no shortages of challenges here at home . . . but we cannot avoid the fork before us now. We will either awaken from complacency and build our national strength and confront this century’s version of authoritarianism, or it will one day come for us, and the world will enter a new dark age.”

A “new dark age,” an era of “epochal geopolitical shift,” a time of complexity and interdependent challenges: these are stark words even for a threat hearing. In order to tackle these challenges, the United States will need to muster allies abroad, partnerships at home, and a clear vision of the alternative to a future dominated by authoritarianism.

Emily Harding is deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jake Harrington is an intelligence fellow in the CSIS International Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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

Jake Harrington

Former Intelligence Fellow, International Security Program