April 7, 2024 | The Sunday Guardian

‘U.S. threat assessment report has several blind spots’

The challenge is that the report needs more strategic and integrated intelligence to appropriately describe today’s threats to the United States and its partners and allies, says Jack Gaines.
April 7, 2024 | The Sunday Guardian

‘U.S. threat assessment report has several blind spots’

The challenge is that the report needs more strategic and integrated intelligence to appropriately describe today’s threats to the United States and its partners and allies, says Jack Gaines.

Every year, the United States’ Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) releases a public “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community”, known as the ATA. It is supposed to provide an unclassified summary of the intelligence community’s evaluation of current threats to U.S. national security. To understand more about what was included in—and missing from—this year’s assessment, in this edition of Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines we spoke with Jack Gaines, a foreign policy consultant out of Washington D.C.

Q: You just finished reviewing the U.S. Office of National Intelligence Threat Assessment?
A: Yes, and I am more concerned about the report than the threats.

Q: Please elaborate.
A: Sure. The Director of National Intelligence oversees all U.S. Intelligence Communities’ reporting. Still, the report seemed to focus heavily on military assessments with either minor or no input from the rest of the community. As a result, it has unnecessary blind spots.

Q: The sort of intelligence blind spots that the 9/11 Commission report discussed?
A: Yes and no. Before 9/11 the Cold War era intelligence construct missed the terrorism indicators, which resulted in a devastating attack on U.S. soil. The current ODNI Threat Assessment shows that the intelligence community is more apt to spot that sort of threat now. For example, the community warned about the upcoming attack in Moscow and the invasion of Ukraine. This is great for spotting and preventing violent attacks.

The challenge is that the report needs more strategic and integrated intelligence to appropriately describe today’s threats to the United States and its partners and allies.
For example, most of the adversaries mentioned in the report use criminal networks and political, economic, and military coercion to achieve foreign policy goals. Reporters like Sam Cooper of The Bureau and yourself write on how these tools are used to coerce a nation to shift its policies. It’s straight out of the Russian and PRC playbook for competition, which is a recipe for autocracies to build revenue and influence within target nations. The playbook is publicly known, however, these aspects weren’t in the ODNI Assessment, with the result that it misrepresents the threats and how they operate.

A more integrated assessment would include those threats and other publicly known levers of competition to help leaders in the 3-Ds (Diplomacy, Development, Defense) and policymakers understand current events and build better responses.
For example, the 2023 Niger military coup is a military victory in competition. Initially, the Agadez base was used by the French and U.S. to fight Boko Haram, ISIS, and other terror groups in the region. Russia orchestrated the coup through Wagner to overthrow the government, which in turn evicted the French and Americans and opened the door for the Russians and Chinese. The eviction is a massive foreign policy loss to the French and the U.S., but the ODNI Threat Assessment glazed over the risk.

The adversaries listed in the assessment use a combination of criminality and proxies to raise money and use it to gain political and economic influence in a nation to achieve their foreign policy goals. That’s how they win in the competition, but if we do not show their playbook, the U.S. cannot appropriately respond.
This playbook, or as I call it, the “order of competition,” is known to the U.S. agencies, so why does the ODNI not include it in its threat assessment? The intelligence community members, FBI, Treasury, State, and Trade, followed these actions, but none was included in the report.

Without those indicators, the U.S. will continue to see worldwide criminality, instability, and autocratic leaders propped up to support the Russian or Chinese political orbit. More nations will shift preference to the PRC and Russians and block access to the U.S. and allies. Winning in competition allows our adversaries to degrade U.S. economics, trade, and defense without directly firing a shot.

Q: Please explain a little more about the implications.
A: Sure, as we lose bases, like in Niger, we also lose economic access to those regions. They begin to shift their economies to support their new partners. Lose enough countries in a region, and your competitor creates an economic hegemony that shuts out all U.S. trade and traffic.

Restricting trade route access, blocking ports, and preventing overflight increases the cost of trade and people’s everyday products. Additionally, the PRC works to shift economics away from the global dollar. For example, in his book “China-Specific Unlawful Activities: CCP Inc. Transnational Crime and Money Laundering”, John Cassara estimates that the PRC gains over two trillion dollars in illicit revenue. Still, the U.S. does not account for the criminal revenue as part of the PRC GDP because it is not within our norms of western economics. About 15% of the Federal budget is tax revenue from banks managing global dollar transactions. As the PRC chips away at the dollar, it drains the U.S. economy. Reduce trade and replace the dollar and the U.S. economic empire is over.

Q: You mentioned both integrated intelligence and strategic intelligence. Can you define or describe them?
A: Integrated intelligence brings in multiple sources to help describe a threat and their actions. For the ODNI Threat Assessment, multiple U.S. intelligence agencies should have helped define a threat and their actions. For integrated intelligence, I often describe it as a recipe, playbook, roadmap.

Strategic intelligence describes the rules and norms for how people live, work and perceive their lives. For the ODNI Threat Assessment, this aspect would define a threat’s intent and the effects those changes have on the world around them. I often describe it by how people’s lives or a nation’s behavior has changed.

For example, integrated intelligence describes how Iran supports Hezbollah and how they run operatives and narcotics networks out of South America through Africa and Turkey into Europe and the Middle East. Money is then laundered through criminals and operatives working with European, U.S. and Canadian banks. Describing that pattern of behavior requires multiple reporting agencies working together to achieve integrated intelligence. Strategic Intelligence would then describe Iran’s intent and how the Iranian proxy network helps achieve that intent and their impacts on the affected nations and international relationships.

I have been following this issue since 2012, when then-Admiral James Stavridis discussed the convergence of criminality and adversary foreign policy. Since then, that marriage has solidified. Others, like David Luna’s International Coalition Against Illicit Economies and Ian Bremmer’s reports on current events, include the intermix of criminality and coercion as illicit foreign policy tools.

These issues are documented in whitepapers, in the news, and are known by leaders in the international community, so they are not new or classified, but I believe that ODNI needs to include better integrated intelligence and strategic insight within the threat assessment to both help policymakers and the public to better understand global issues, but also so ODNI better represents the whole of the U.S. intelligence community’s opinion on those risks.

Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and columnist with The Sunday Guardian.


Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy