The corporate media’s reporting on the testimonies of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the directors of CIA, NSA and FBI on their annual assessment of “worldwide threats” emphasized the fact that they contradicted President Donald Trump’s views on Iran, North Korea and Russia.
Trump foolishly criticized the intelligence chiefs as “naïve” for refusing to support his unfounded accusation that Iran is systematically cheating on the nuclear deal. His remarks buttressed the media narrative of a struggle between an objective intelligence apparatus and a patently dishonest president who may even have colluded with Russia.
But the media’s emphasis on this narrative has obscured a more important story: The intelligence chiefs used the annual presentation of their “global threat assessment” to protect key policies and programs that provide their massive organizations with enormous power and budgetary resources.
The corporate media never discuss the fact that these annual presentations, far from being politically neutral, are used to defend the interests of the intelligence agencies themselves and their main customers – the Pentagon and the military.
The history of major CIA intelligence estimates is proof. During the Vietnam War, the CIA succumbed to pressure from the military and lied about the size of the Vietnamese Communist forces in South Vietnam in order to preserve Gen. William Westmoreland’s claim that the US was “winning” that war. And in late 2010, the CIA again yielded to pressure from the field commander – this time Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan – and concluded, despite evidence to the contrary, that Taliban military strength had not increased during that year.
The New Main Worldwide Threat? Russia!
The 2019 “Worldwide Threats Assessment,” like its annual predecessors, approaches central policy issues in ways that protect the interests of the powerful institutions served by intelligence agencies. The result is that the line between intelligence assessment and propaganda is often impossible to discern.
That much is clear from the first paragraph of the introduction to the document:
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. This competition cuts across all domains, involves a race for technological and military superiority, and is increasingly about values.
The elevation of Russia and China to the leading position among global threats reflects the primordial interests of the Pentagon, which announced a major shift in January 2018 from fighting terrorism to competing with Russia and China as the primary basis for planning – and justifying more spending.
Before that announcement, the intelligence community and the FBI had created an unprecedented climate of fear concerning Russia’s supposed ability to shape the outcome of the 2016 election. So it is no surprise that the assessment includes an entire section on the threat it calls “online influence operation and election interference.” It leads with a remarkably specific speculation: “Our adversaries and strategic competitor,” – meaning Russia – “probably already are looking to the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests.”
This statement might have appeared more like an objective assessment and less like propaganda had Coats and the other intelligence chiefs not made an a similar – albeit more categorical – prediction in 2018 about alleged Russian intentions to interfere in the 2018 midterm. In the end, despite a statement on election day 2018 that Russia had carried out propaganda during the campaign, Coats and his colleagues never offered any evidence of real interference in that election.
Nevertheless the intelligence chiefs didn’t hesitate to stoke fears that Russia might attack the US electoral infrastructure in 2020. “Adversaries and strategic competitors,” they warn, “also may seek to use cyber means to directly manipulate or disrupt election systems – such as by tampering with voter registration or disrupting the vote tallying process – either to alter data or to call into question our voting process.”
The report repeats the claim that in 2016 Russia conducted cyber activity that targeted US election infrastructure. The Department of Homeland Security created a sensational story in September 2016 that Russian hackers tried to break into election-related sites in 21 states. But an in-depth investigation of that claim revealed that it was blatantly fraudulent, and that there was no evidence of any state-based effort to penetrate state electoral infrastructure – only the usual hacking attempts that occur on any state database in the country every day. The adoption of this line by the entire intelligence community marks its descent further into propaganda on the alleged threat of Russian interference in US politics and elections.
The intelligence report attributes vast powers of manipulation on US society and politics to the Russian state. It suggests the Russians “are now becoming more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave and decide.” This characterization of Russian social media efforts, taking advantage of media hype, represents extreme hyperbole when considered in light of the actual limitations of the Russian Internet Research Agency’s efforts.
From that stance, it is only a small step for the report to claim that, “US adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine US alliances and partnerships, and shape policy outcomes in the United States and elsewhere.”
The rhetoric about weakening democratic institutions is only a slight variation on a central theme of US and NATO propaganda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in July 2018 that he had “great confidence that the Russians will try and undermine western democracy in 2017, 2018, 2019 and for an awfully long time.”
The notion that Russia is scheming to weaken US democracy goes well beyond even normal propaganda in its extreme degree of hyperbole. It requires that one deny the obvious fact that the patterns of American political behavior observed in the 2016 election were the result of domestic sociopolitical developments, not manipulations of brilliant Russian strategists. But the fear that the CIA and FBI in particular have pushed very hard has eased the Pentagon’s task in seeking a big increase in spending in operations against Moscow.
Familiar Propaganda Themes on Iran
Although Iran has been demoted by the intelligence community as a threat in relation to Russia and China, it remains one of the four key adversaries, along with North Korea. The threat assessment restates some hoary themes in US propaganda on Iran over many years. It begins with the decades-long US accusation that the Iranian ballistic missile program “poses a threat to countries across the Middle East.”
This is one of most obvious examples of straightforward propaganda being presented as intelligence analysis in the entire litany of alleged threats. Even Israel’s top expert on the Iranian missile program, Uzi Rubin, who directed Israel’s missile defense program through the entire decade of the 1990s, long ago analyzed Iran’s ballistic missiles as its only deterrent force (since it had no air force), and noted that it was based on the premise that it would be armed with conventionally-armed missiles – not nuclear weapons.
The report goes on to suggest that Iran’s development of a missile, the Simorgh, to launch satellites, implies that it is working on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, because the two vehicles “use similar technologies.” But the leading American expert on Iranian missiles, Michael Elleman, has thoroughly debunked that claim, pointing out the technological experience acquired in developing the Simorgh has only “limited application” to a long-range missile.
A notable departure from past US propaganda formulations on Iran is the absence of the claim, included in the 2018 report, that Iran is the world’s “most prominent state sponsor of terrorism.”
The document nevertheless states that Iran “almost certainly will continue to develop and maintain terrorist capabilities as an option to deter or retaliate against its perceive adversaries.” And it refers to what it calls a “probable” Iranian Intelligence Ministry plot to set off an explosive device last summer at an “opposition group gathering in Paris” – a reference to a rally of the Mujahideen I-Khalq – the anti-regime cult-like Iranian exile organization organization used by both the United States and Israel for operations against Iran.
But the brief mention of the incident fails to mention that the alleged plot remains highly suspicious. Belgian police were led to the Iranian couple allegedly involved by Israel’s Mossad. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately exploited the discovery of the plot to demand that EU states call off a meeting with Iran to preserve the JCPOA that was planned for later in the week. And the evidence that there was such a plot consists of the presence of 500 grams of explosive and an initiation mechanism found in a small toiletry bag in the couple’s car.
The CIA’s sleuths might have offered a more objective analysis of that alleged plot, but despite support for the now endangered nuclear agreement, the larger official narrative on Iran remains focused on Iran as a threat to US allies and interests.
North Korea: Fending Off an Agreement With Kim
The document’s treatment of North Korea and the negotiations on denuclearization reflects another significant political intervention by intelligence community and their Pentagon allies in a highly sensitive presidential diplomatic effort. Trump began pursuing talks with North Korea last year on denuclearization, and it is no secret that senior intelligence officials have opposed that move. During 2008 the media frequently carried stories citing the CIA’s assessment that Kim Jong Un would never give up Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons – a finding that was often cited to suggest that Trump was being duped by Kim Jong UN The new annual threat report states openly for the first time that the intelligence community “continues to assess that [North Korea] is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.”
It asserts that North Korean leaders “view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival” and that “it has for years underscored its commitment to nuclear arms, including through an order in 2018 to mass-produce weapons and an earlier law – and constitutional change – affirming the country’s nuclear status.”
But as Joel S. Wit, who dealt with North Korean officials for years as the State Department’s manager of the 1994 US-North Korea “Framework Agreement,” has pointed out, the North Korean statements about nuclear weapons cited by the report don’t prove that Kim would never pursue denuclearization, because they came after Donald Trump’s 2017 threat of war. “What else would they say just coming off a “fire and fury” confrontation with the Trump administration?” Wit writes.
Wit was also involved in US-Soviet arms control negotiations, and recalls that during those negotiations both the United States and the Soviet Union continued to produced new weapons that were to be covered by the agreement. “We were hedging against failure and increasing our negotiating leverage,” Wit recalls, “just as the North Koreans are doing today.”
The constitutional provision pronouncing North Korea a nuclear state was promulgated in 2012 only a few months after Kim Jong UN took power. Wit observes that there is no reason why Kim could not simply change it when, and if, a final agreement is reached with the United States.
The global threats document obscures the fact that intelligence chiefs oppose negotiations for a denuclearization deal not because it isn’t feasible, but because, in order to achieve it, the United States would have to accept an end to the North-South conflict in Korea as well a major change in the role of the US military – if not the withdrawal of its troops – from the peninsula. As the New York Times reported last August, “For some American officials, the troop presence in South Korea is not just a deterrent toward North Korea. It also helps the United States maintain a military footprint in Asia and a grand strategy of American hegemony.”
The annual exercise in describing “worldwide threats” before Congress has long been presented solemnly as the Olympian assessments of the top intelligence professionals, as though the CIA and Director of National Intelligence were insulated from the self-interested inside politics of a war complex. But it is all part of the elaborate process of perpetuating dangerous falsehoods that support unnecessary military confrontations with the Pentagon’s chosen adversaries.
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book is Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from TruthOut with the author’s permission.