U.S. intelligence agencies trying to plot their course for the next four years are facing an ever more chaotic world, complicated by a weakening of the Western-led international order, rapidly changing technology, and persistent worries over uncertain funding.
The plan, outlined Tuesday in the new National Intelligence Strategy, offers what top intelligence officials describe as both “monumental” and “fundamental” improvements over the previous strategy, and is designed to reassure Americans in uncertain times.
“We face significant challenges in the domestic and global environment,” the strategy cautions. “To navigate today’s turbulent and complex strategic environment, we must do things differently.”
Transparency, ‘speaking truth’
Part of that difference will be a renewed emphasis on transparency and “speaking truth,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told members of the intelligence community while unveiling the strategy.
“We need to reassure the policymakers and the American people that we can be trusted,” Coats said, “despite the stresses that are persistent in the current environment.”
The new strategy identifies two of those stresses as “the weakening of the post-WWII [World War Two] international order,” and what it calls “increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West.”
Former intelligence officials have been quick to blame U.S. President Donald Trump for both, citing his apparent willingness to cozy up to adversaries like Russian President Vladimir Putin while at the same time criticizing allies on the world stage.
When asked Tuesday whether the report, and calls for speaking truth, were meant as a rebuke for the president, top intelligence officials said only that the trends had been gaining momentum for some time.
“We were looking at a number of these factors,” a senior intelligence official said, pointing to the increase in isolationism along with rapidly changing alliances.
“There were things you could see coming,” the official added.
U.S. intelligence officials also warned concerns about the collapse of the post-World War Two order is just part of a growing turbulence that includes a proliferation of advanced technology that has enabled adversaries, big and small, to close the gap on Washington.
“We see Russia pursuing, with a vim and vigor that I haven’t seen since the ’80s, capabilities to reach us,” a second senior intelligence official warned.
China also is catching up, both with investments in technology and with its concerted campaign to steal industrial secrets and appropriate them for military use.
“They’ve just compressed the timeframe in which new systems can be introduced,” the official said.
Cyberspace, outer space
And while much of the competition with Russia and China has played out in cyberspace, the new intelligence strategy warns the competition over outer space, once dominated by the U.S., is gaining momentum.
Russia and China are pursuing “a full range of anti-satellite weapons, which could degrade U.S. intelligence gathering abilities,” it said.
U.S. officials are additionally concerned about the impact of biotechnology and nanotechnology, which are becoming more readily available and which will also likely be weaponized – and not just by adversaries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.