In one breath, President Donald Trump’s new director of national intelligence told lawmakers that threats to the United States are growing in size and complexity — and in the next, that he is looking for cuts across the entire U.S. intelligence community.
Director Dan Coats told a Senate panel Thursday that he is looking to “streamline” the 17 federal agencies that comprise the IC.
“As part of the administration’s goal of an effective and efficient government, we have already begun a review of the entire intelligence community, to include the office of the DNI,” Coats testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In any other year, declaring one’s intention to hunt for taxpayer savings would be a stock statement by an agency head telling Congress what members always like to hear. But Coats spoke two days after Trump fired James Comey over what many senators believe was the FBI director’s investigation of potential links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. It also comes after months of disparagement by candidate and now President Trump of the U.S. intelligence community’s work on everything from the ISIS War to Russian influence, including frequent allegations that they were working against him and his White House bid. So Coats’ revelation quickly drew a flurry of online reactions from Trump critics.
Yet in fact, the search for cuts was ordered by Congress earlier this month via the 2017 omnibus spending bill.
Trump aides, and a lot of good reporting, long have pointed to a coming review of the entire U.S. intelligence community, but particularly of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. For one, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was a Trump confidante and first national security advisor, had advocated a major re-design of intelligence processes as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. His ideas were rejected and, famously, for many reasons he was not promoted into the loftiest ranks of U.S. military officers. (In recent months, many intelligence leaders have praised the Obama administration’s recent reorganizations, which aimed to modernize the CIA by adding a digital directorate and to help America’s spy agencies diversify their workforce.)
The tsuris was compounded by Trump’s other slights to the intelligence community, including his disastrously received visit to CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration, where he was accused by critics — including by former deputy director Michael Morrell — of sounding more like a partisan politician on the campaign trail than a commander-in-chief taking the expected caution to avoid politicizing U.S. intelligence agencies.
When Trump fired former Comey on Tuesday, it renewed concerns that he was politicizing what is considered to be an apolitical national security post. Coats, in his Thursday testimony, avoided the subject, and focused on threats to the United States.
“The complexity of the threat environment is ever-expanding and has challenged the IC to stay ahead of the adversary, and it has not been an easy task,” Coats told the senators.
The top concern in this year’s assessment, as in previous years: Cyber. The top paragraph: Russia.
“Russia is a full-scope cyber actor that will remain a major threat to US Government, military, diplomatic, commercial, and critical infrastructure,” the assessment reads. “Moscow has a highly advanced offensive cyber program, and in recent years, the Kremlin has assumed a more aggressive cyber posture. This aggressiveness was evident in Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and we assess that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized the 2016 U.S. election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets.”
The very existence of the ODNI has remained a lingering annoyance to some conservatives who claimed the office was an unnecessary, powerless, and mostly symbolic creation in the wake of 9/11. Former CIA Director Robert Gates famously rejected the job when offered it by President George W. Bush. He later accepted the post of defense secretary.
But it has become a central organizing and coordinating body for the other 16 agencies. The DNI has become a lead spokesman for U.S. intelligence leadership, especially under the tenure of James Clapper.
George Little, a former CIA officer and agency spokesman and later Pentagon press secretary under Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said cuts for efficiencies are fine, as long as there’s a reason and strategy behind them.
“Directors of agencies should always be looking for ways to manage resources effectively, and many past intelligence leaders have done so,” Little said, in an email to Defense One. “I would strongly advise against across-the-board cuts that aren’t tied to strategy, especially when the range and complexity of national security threats to the United States are rapidly ballooning. A penny saved on an intelligence program now could mean that we end up spending a dollar down the road because it wasn’t prioritized properly in the first place.”