US intelligence chiefs: North Korea a bigger threat than Mexico border

Heads of intelligence agencies testified before Congress Tuesday that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and Russia is working closely with China to challenge US leadership, among other global security concerns. The US-Mexico border was not highlighted.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
FBI Director Christopher Wray (l.). CIA Director Gina Haspel (c.). and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats (r.) arrive to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.

Directly contradicting President Trump, United States intelligence agencies told Congress on Tuesday that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, that the Islamic State group remains a threat, and that the Iran nuclear deal is working. The chiefs made no mention of a crisis at the US-Mexican border for which Trump has considered declaring a national emergency.

Their analysis stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Trump's almost singular focus on security gaps at the border as the biggest threat facing the United States.

Top security officials including FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats presented an update to the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday on their annual assessment of global threats. They warned of an increasingly diverse range of security dangers around the globe, from North Korean nuclear weapons to Chinese cyberespionage to Russian campaigns to undermine Western democracies.

Mr. Coats said intelligence information does not support the idea that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will eliminate his nuclear weapons and the capacity for building more – a notion that is the basis of the US negotiating strategy.

"We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival," Coats told the committee.

Coats did note that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expressed support for ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and over the past year has not test-fired a nuclear-capable missile or conducted a nuclear test.

The "Worldwide Threat Assessment" report on which Coats based his testimony said US intelligence continues to "observe activity inconsistent with" full nuclear disarmament by the North. "In addition, North Korea 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," it said.

The report said Kim's support at his June 2018 Singapore summit with Trump for "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" is a formulation linked to an end to American military deployments and exercises involving nuclear weapons.

Trump asserted after the Singapore summit that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat. However, Coats and other intelligence officials made clear they see it differently.

"The capabilities and threat that existed a year ago are still there," said Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Plans for a follow-up Trump-Kim summit are in the works, but no agenda, venue or date has been announced.

More broadly, the intelligence report on which Coats and the heads of other intelligence agencies based their testimony predicted that security threats to the United States and its allies this year will expand and diversify, driven in part by China and Russia. It says Moscow and Beijing are more aligned than at any other point since the mid-1950s and their global influence is rising even as US relations with traditional allies are in flux.

"Some US allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perception of changing US policies on security and trade," the report said, without providing examples or further explanation.

The report also said the Islamic State group "remains a terrorist and insurgent threat" inside Iraq, where the government faces "an increasingly disenchanted public."

The intelligence assessment, which is provided annually to Congress, made no mention of a crisis at the US-Mexico border, which Trump has asserted as the basis for his demand that Congress finance a border wall. The report predicted additional US-bound migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with migrants preferring to travel in caravans in hopes of a safer journey.

In Syria, where Trump has ordered a full withdrawal of US troops, the government of Bashar Assad is likely to consolidate control, with Russia and Iran attempting to further entrench themselves in Syria, the report said. Asked for her assessment, Ms. Haspel said of the IS group: "They're still dangerous." She added that they still command "thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria."

The intelligence agencies said Iran continues to work with other parties to the nuclear deal it reached with the US and other Western nations. In doing so, they said, it has at least temporarily lessened the nuclear threat. In May 2018, Trump withdrew the US from that accord, which he called a terrible deal that would not stop Iran from going nuclear.

The intelligence assessment of Afghanistan, more than 17 years into a conflict that began after the 9/11 attacks on the US, projected a continued military stalemate. Without mentioning prospects for a peace deal, which appear to have improved only in recent days, the report said, "neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in the Afghan war in the coming year" if the US maintains its current levels of support. Trump has ordered a partial pullback of US forces this year, although no firm plan is in place.

Coats told the committee that Russia and perhaps other countries are likely to attempt to use social media and other means to influence the 2020 US presidential election.

"We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other's experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections," the intelligence report said.
The report specifically warned about Russia's cyberattack capabilities.

"Moscow is now staging cyberattack assets to allow it to disrupt or damage US civilian and military infrastructure during a crisis," it said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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