IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
Image: A man crosses the Central Intelligence A
A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Why the new US global threat assessment matters

The fact that the U.S. intelligence community can release a threat assessment, without fearing a presidential tantrum, is a step in the right direction.


The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is responsible for producing an annual report on global security threats, which as regular readers know, is soon followed by congressional hearings in which top security officials brief lawmakers on the report's findings.

For the U.S. intelligence community, this is the week in which its threat assessment reaches the public and Capitol Hill.

China is working to challenge the U.S. by doubling its nuclear capacity, besting American capabilities in space and expanding its influence abroad, according to a threat assessment by the U.S. intelligence community published Tuesday that highlights the dangers posed by rogue countries ahead of the non-state terrorism threat that once dominated national security thinking.

The full "Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community" is online here (pdf). As government reports go, it's actually quite readable, and at 27 pages, it's hardly overwhelming.

Part of what makes the document interesting, of course, is the threats the ODNI points to as worthy of policymakers' attention. From the report:

Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic. China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas -- especially economically, militarily, and technologically -- and is pushing to change global norms. Russia is pushing back against Washington where it can globally, employing techniques up to and including the use of force. Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities, and North Korea will be a disruptive player on the regional and world stages. Major adversaries and competitors are enhancing and exercising their military, cyber, and other capabilities, raising the risks to US and allied forces, weakening our conventional deterrence, and worsening the longstanding threat from weapons of mass destruction.

Also of interest is what isn't in the document. In Republican circles, for example, the U.S./Mexico border represents one of the most serious threats Americans face. But according to the U.S. intelligence community's threat assessment, the nation's southern border is hardly referenced at all.

The same report emphasizes the importance of global climate threats, which Republican officials probably won't like, either, since they tend to believe the climate crisis does not exist.

But to appreciate the larger context, let's also not forget that at this time last year, there was no meaningful discussion -- on Capitol Hill or elsewhere -- about the ODNI's annual threat assessment, and it's worth remembering why.

In 2019, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats joined then-CIA Director Gina Haspel for a Senate hearing in which they discussed in detail the intelligence community's report on global security threats, which completely contradicted Donald Trump's position on a wide range of key issues, suggesting then-president and his national security team had very little in common when it came to addressing a variety of global threats. Annoyed and embarrassed, Trump lashed out at his own team for having told lawmakers the truth.

A year later, in 2020, intelligence officials quietly delayed the threat assessment because they were afraid that Trump would throw another tantrum if he didn't like their honest security evaluations.

In 2021, those fears no longer exist. The U.S. intelligence community can now speak candidly about the nation's security threats without worrying about a presidential backlash.

As elections-have-consequences moments go, this is a welcome one.