Last week, the U.S. intelligence community officially gave Congress and the American public the stiff-arm. Its leaders indicated that they would refuse to appear in a public session in front of the House Intelligence Committee to discuss the threats facing the nation, as they have done annually. The intelligence chiefs reportedly were concerned that President Donald Trump would lash out — as he has before — if the public-facing Worldwide Threat Assessment’s conclusions differed from what he says or thinks. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the committee chairman, had invited them to testify this week, but now even a closed-door hearing remains unscheduled.
Please. The intelligence community must continue to uphold one of its core values: to “speak truth to power.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence explicitly notes this on its “Mission, Vision & Values” page. (It’s under the section titled “Courage.”) The public needs to hear intelligence experts’ unvarnished assessment about the world around us, because an educated citizenry is an empowered one, and those leaders are ultimately our employees. Congress must insist the heads of the agencies and departments give public testimony, no matter how they think Trump might react.
These individuals aren’t cable news pundits, partisan flaks spinning for political advantage or even policymakers promoting politically driven falsehoods. These are, for the most part, longtime security officials who have dedicated their professional lives to defending this country.
The threat assessment can serve as a tonic to the miasma of nonsense on topics large and small. And we might find that threats are less, or more, than they seem. For example, despite the president’s insistence of a special relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the public is likely to find the intelligence community’s assessment to be more in line with what the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said — that Pyongyang is “building new missiles, new capabilities, new weapons as fast as anybody on the planet.”
Or on the challenge from near-peer nations like Russia and China, as the assessment from last year noted: “Threats to US national security will expand and diversify in the coming year, driven in part by China and Russia as they respectively compete more intensely with the United States and its traditional allies and partners.”
Or on Iran’s still-shuttered nuclear weapons program. In 2019, the intelligence community flatly asserted, “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.” Given the recent targeted killing of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani by U.S. forces, the public should know if this remains true today.
Or on the threat to this year’s elections and related online influence operations, which remains a major challenge to the United States. Russia and China dominated the 2019 assessment’s section on this topic, but, oddly, Trump’s favorite bugaboo nation — Ukraine — didn’t.
Despite the president’s insistence that the Islamic State is 100% destroyed, the intelligence community dispassionately noted last year, “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.” This seems important for the public to determine if things have changed since then, especially with some 5,000-plus troops in Iraq.
And on and on.
Sure, this sort of testimony takes place in front of members of Congress, and that brings along with it the usual speechifying and grandstanding for television. Certain policymakers certainly value public preening over truth-finding. It must be personally grating on these national security professionals to be subject to partisan antics — but that’s the nature of our political system right now. On the other hand, there are also deadly serious questions, and there certainly are some congressional questioners who want to get to the bottom of an issue, in public — and not just for the cameras. The intelligence community should let them conduct public oversight.
Americans can learn a lot from this briefing, if we’re willing to pay attention. The Threat Assessment may be what former director of national intelligence James Clapper termed “the wave tops” of what the intelligence community has to offer, but it’s better than being left in the dark completely.
To close this annual review to public scrutiny would needlessly cave to the possibility of presidential displeasure. Living in fear of Trump’s wrath is not a reasonable rationale to cancel an annual effort to bring truth to the American people.
And what is the intelligence community afraid of: an angry tweet, quickly forgotten in our media-saturated age? Dismissal from a position of high power? Such is the peril of speaking the truth in difficult times. But no one will be shuffled off to a gulag or hauled to a soccer stadium for a shoddy show trial and an executioner’s bullet. The community’s leadership must embrace this risk as part of the job in the Trump era. If the truth is that the intelligence community’s overall assessment truly diverges from what the president or others say, it will eventually find its way out. It almost always does.
In 1967, CIA Director Richard Helms wrote in his journal that the agency is “a legitimate object of public concern … . I find it painful, however, when public debate lessens our usefulness to the nation by casting doubt on our integrity and objectivity. If we are not believed, we have no purpose.”
He was onto a truth about his opaque world. Despite its secrecy, the intelligence community cannot properly function without the fundamental trust of the American people. The Worldwide Threat Assessment is a venue to annually renew that trust, as our elected representatives query the women and men who keep us safe.
The intelligence community should reconsider its stance and provide the assessment to the public. Its leaders must continue to speak the truth to power. Otherwise, it ultimately serves no purpose.
Aki Peritz is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and co-author of “Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaida.” The opinions he expresses here are his own, not those of his employer.