Make no mistake: much policy indecency is permitted and enabled by vacuously vague bureaucratic reports peddling in platitudes. For further evidence bolstering this increasingly open-and-shut case, see Exhibit number 3,472, or so: last week’s release of the Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community – the latest contribution from that politest of polite militarists, President Biden’s Director of National Intelligence (DNI), The Honorable Avril Haines.
At root, the 2021 "annual report of worldwide threats to the national security of the US" warns of a frightfully “diverse array” of undead – and ever useful for war industry profits – global threats. And the intelligence community (sort of a peculiar phraseology for a gang implicated in torture, kidnapping, and coup-catalyzing for decades, no?) sure opened their assessment with some rather big, over-the-top promises. The real doozies come in sentence two, in fact. These spook-kooks had the gall to trumpet the report’s reflection of their "collective insights" and daily commitment "to providing the nuanced, independent, and unvarnished intelligence" that "policymakers" and "warfighters" need to protect the populace.
Independence? Nuance? Maybe they’re talking about a different "intelligence community." Seriously, though, that’s a decidedly bold – and suspiciously loud and early – assertion coming from the people who brought you such scandalous fumbles, failures, and/or fabrications as: the 9/11 attacks; Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; "extraordinary rendition” (overseas kidnapping) to "black sites" for a potential splash of freedom-baptismal water-boarding; America’s in-house (or, rather, outsourced) Guantanamo purgatory; Libyan regime change and resultant regional blowback; support for Syria’s "moderate rebel" Islamist-extremists; Afghan "bounty-gate" (and for that matter, much of Russiagate writ-large); and a mass illegal domestic data collection and surveillance program. And that’s just a post-2001 highlight reel!
Ignoring all that inconvenient egregiousness, DNI Haines led off her opening statement to Congress on April 14th with some standard conceptual ground rules:
Our goal today is to convey to you and the public we serve and protect, the threat environment as we perceive it and to do our best to answer questions about the challenges we face. I will only highlight a few points and provide some context in my opening statement…
Well, in line with Ms. Haines’s congressional testimonial-pitch, here are only a few highlights on the opaque and misleading mess – as I "perceive it" – of debunk-able assumptions and evasions spread across all 27 pages of this annual exercise in ritualistic fear-mongering subterfuge; plus some passing speculations on what this report is really all about:
Everyone, at least all the usual suspects – besides the US and its melange of allies and partners – has "malign" intentions driving their "provocative" actions.
It’s pretty straightforward stuff inside the intel-echo chamber of predictive assessment. For example, apparently "Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities." Now, to many Middle Easterners, that may have an "I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I" read, since the US essentially shattered the region with it’s ill-advised, illegal, and immoral Iraq invasion and that fiasco’s resultant refugee, radicalization, and civil war catalyzation. Also, nowhere in the document do the theocratic war criminals – say the Saudis and Emiratis – who’ve been terror bombing and starving Yemeni civilians for some time now merit even a mention, let alone the label malign-menacer. As for the other bit, Iran, Russia, and North Korea each rate a full section labeled [Insert ostensible adversary here]’s "Provocative Actions" – mainly for engaging in activities that Washington, its treaty allies, and favorite partnered proxies perform as a matter of course.
China is the top dog threat, and pushing "for global power" that’s assumedly an inherent challenge to our values and "our" norms (which the report politely rebrand as "international").
Most of its exaggerated by the way – there’s no specificity in, or comparison of, things like military, nuclear, and overseas bases spending and strategy. Furthermore, there’s a dangerous conflation of economic and military-imperial ambitions running through the entire analysis. Nor is there any semblance of interest in causation. For example, the report decries "China’s increasing cooperation with Russia on areas of complementary interest includes defense and economic cooperation." Yet it offers no mention of the way reflexively adversarial US rhetoric and policies, drives these two natural enemies turned peculiar-bedfellows together.
Furthermore, for an assessment that the intel community self-styles as "independent" and "nuanced," there’s near zero sense of scale in discussions of Beijing’s basing posture. There’s talk of China’s desired expansion of its "military presence" abroad, but no detail or comparison-capable statistics on just how much overseas presence they have. Well, that wouldn’t have great optics now, would it? After all, China only established its first official overseas military base (in Africa’s Djibouti) in 2017, and so far their total count remains a big fat uno (despite reported plans for some more). By way of inconvenient contrast, the US has at least 29 official bases in Africa alone, and some 800 in 80 countries worldwide.
No matter, Uncle Sam is just as alarmed by – and unwilling to countenance – Beijing’s primacy in waters touching, and named after, China itself. You know, that supposed existentially vital to US security Caribbean-equivalent South China Sea The Sino-sins, according to the report, revolve around how "Across East Asia and the western Pacific, which Beijing views as its natural sphere of influence," – imagine that?!? – "China is attempting to exploit doubts about the US commitment to the region." Let’s be real for a moment: what the assessment’s authors really mean is "hegemonic desire to dominate," not "commitment to," the Western Pacific. Besides, anyone else ever wonder why there’s scant questioning of why, or whether, the US should be military committed to the region at anywhere near the current scale – on the basis of both strategic soundness and what-in-holy-hell-entitles-us merits?
Moscow may no longer be the strongest, but it’s certainly still the favorite – and most malign and provocative – enemy of all.
Per usual, the Intel community’s antagonistic Russian blind spot manifests in a stunningly, and embarrassingly, section of self-awareness-anemic hypocritical accusations.
Russian officials have long believed that the United States is conducting its own "influence campaigns" to undermine Russia, weaken President Vladimir Putin, and install Western-friendly regimes in the states of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Well, aren’t we? – Ukraine, Georgia, NATO expansion right into the Baltic States, etc. – Well actually, aren’t you specifically, dear authors?
Worse still is the list of predicted "tools" the report’s authors "assess" Moscow will employ "to advance its agenda and undermine the United States:"
…especially influence campaigns, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation, military aid and combined exercises, mercenary operations, assassinations, and arms sales…
Seriously, has Washington’s repeatedly demonstrated unwillingness or inability to [accurately] see its own reflection in the mirror – thereby outing itself as a member of the declining hegemonic undead – even been more obvious than in this list of predicted nasty acts planned by America’s favored naughtiest nemesis? Tell me: which of these enumerated nefarious tactics is the USnot also doing, and usually doing more of?
Influence campaigns? For starters, Ukraine and Georgian meddling spring to mind.
Military aid and combined exercises? We do this with and for scores of countries – plenty of which are led by equally brutal authoritarian regimes that Washington thereby enables.
Mercenary operations? Come on, Putin may have ties to the Russian Wagner Group private military outfit, but American mercenaries attempted an overt – if incompetently farcical – coup in Venezuela, and President Trump even took a serious briefing on privatizing the entire Afghan war via hired guns from none other than the brother (Erik Prince) of the administration’s Secretary of Education (Betsy Devos).
Arms sales? Give me a break – gun-running is one of the last great American industries. The US literally leads the world in arms-dealing, accounting for more than one-third of the global total – and almost twice the Russian portion of sales – from 2016-20.
We’re number one! We’re number one!
Avril and all 17 of her subordinate Intel-agency knights of the table want more money!
Well, that’s pretty standard bureaucratic budget-jockeying stuff. After all, even today’s unprecedented north of $1 trillion in total annual cash-for-national-[in]security resources apparently count as scarce and competition-worthy in Washington. (Recall that it was nearly 50 years ago that Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, interrupted a junior briefing officer who had repeatedly referred to the Soviet Union as "the enemy." LeMay supposedly corrected him thus: "Young man, the Soviet Union is our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy.") Yet, Ms. Haines’s solicitation-spiel was delivered rather shamelessly, and soon.
Of course, dialing for dollars requires first dialing up the dread. So, before even digging into the meat of her report, Haines came in hot:
I will summarize our views on [traditional threats] but first I want to take note of the shifting landscape we see today and its implications for our work. The trends underlying and intersecting these issues are increasing the pace, complexity, and impact of these threats in ways that require us to evolve…we assess that the world will face more intense and cascading global challenges ranging from disease to climate change, to disruptions from new technologies and financial crises.
In other words, it’s a jungle out there fair congress-members – scarier than you even know! Having said that, well, umm…as it turns out, you’re just the sort of purse-possessing folks who can do something about that:
In short, at no point has it been more important to invest in our norms and institutions, our workforce, and the integration of our work. Doing so, provides us with the opportunity to meet the challenges we face, to pull together as a society, and to promote resilience and innovation.
To translate into the vernacular from the esoteric establishmentarian Latin: Haines had the almost impressive gall to imply that there’s never been more need for ample, and presumably increased, funding for the various agencies in her Intel community cornucopia. Such largesse, should her congressional audience accept its indispensability, provides her spook squads at least "the opportunity" to meet these scarier than ever before challenges. The inverse, of course, is more than implied: deny us the annual – clearly not performance-based – raise, and well, we can’t promise your beloved children will make it safely to school in the morning. Seriously, the well-mannered, well-dressed, and ever-articulate Avril delivers a lesson in Extortion 101 with the demeanor of a Dapper Don: "Nice national security, youse got there – be a shame if something should happen to it!"
And look, that’s just the initial highlights – stay tuned and I might just expand to the "global terrorism," "cyber," "foreign and illicit drugs," and ongoing "conflicts and instability" sections with equally skeptical aplomb very soon. Most of it is equally insincere and often just as absurd.
The problem with such reports actually transcend the individual omissions, obfuscations, and outright fabrications polluting the pages. In other words, the trouble is bigger than the sum of its assessment-parts. By peddling in various trickery targeted at the media and broader public – the true tradecraft of the clandestine services at this point – all absent context, contrast, and any real sense of self-awareness or proportionality, the intelligence community’s witchdoctors mostly diagnose the wrong threat-and-challenge diseases.
So another year passes, another polite report passes Congress’s uncritical muster, and the American spying and military machine sets off on another season of Quixotic crusading to solve the wrong unsolvable problems. All the while, America’s collective Cubs-fan citizenry cheers on, and holds out hope, for that perennial hometown underdog – sensible strategy.
But hey: "We’ll get ‘em next year!"
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen