Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Russia watch: Denial is Putin’s favorite word
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed the envelope on a lot of things since taking power almost 20 years ago, but he does follow some predictable patterns of behavior, and one of them is denying illegal activity, vehemently at times, in a feigned show of shock.
It’s a ruse, and no one should be fooled.
Election meddling: Putin has denied meddling in the US election, despite briefly acknowledging that private hackers in Russia could have been involved. As recently as his interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, he said he “couldn’t care less” if Russians meddled in the election and that any hackers do not represent the state.
Ground forces: The government denied the existence of Russian forces in Ukraine long after the Russian invasion of Crimea and strong evidence that Russian forces were, in fact, on the ground. Putin has pulled the same trick in Syria, where he says he doesn’t have Russian forces. The government continued these denials even after Russian nationals and Syrian regime forces came into deadly contact with US forces in Syria earlier this year.
Skripal attack: Despite UK authorities, supported by the United States, France and Germany, indicating that Russia was behind the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the UK earlier this month, Russia has denied, denied, denied any involvement and instead referenced “provocative actions of the British side and groundless accusations.” A Kremlin spokesman said, “Russia has nothing to do with the story.”
On Monday, the United States announced it was expelling 60 Russian diplomats in response to the chemical weapons attacks in the UK. European countries, Canada and Ukraine have taken similar actions. Though Putin might respond by kicking out US diplomats and possibly seizing US properties (like he did last summer in response to US sanctions), it’ll likely be for show.
Putin doesn’t care about Russian diplomats in the United States; he doesn’t need them in America to get information on us. He’s hacked into our infrastructure, has other agents throughout the country and is manipulating our information flow to influence the American people. Neither we, nor any of our allies who may take action together, should be fooled by his empty denials.
Personnel firing squad: Shots heard around the world
Changes in the US national security team and White House staff are not happening in a vacuum, and the world is reacting to a new secretary of state and CIA director (pending confirmation) and a new national security adviser. All three individuals have reputations — they’re not new kids on the block — and US counterparts are likely preparing for a series of anticipated policy changes.
Because of the public record of incoming national security adviser John Bolton, our allies and our enemies are expecting a heavier focus on military force, a decertification of the Iran deal, and less support for diplomacy or a desire to work with international institutions. The loud and hawkish views of Bolton, and his willingness to claim that intelligence is politicized, even before joining the administration, have led to some key international reactions:
Russia: Russia President Vladimir Putin and his team are likely trying to piece together whether Bolton will be hard line on Russia when he takes on his new role. He recently tweeted that the Russian “elections” were a chance for “Putin to practice election meddling so that he can do it better elsewhere,” adding that “We need a long term strategy to deal with countries like #Russia and #China with long standing rulers.”
Middle East: His appointment drew some accolades in Israel, where the education minister tweeted out his support. Our ally Saudi Arabia is likely pleased that Bolton has said we need to get out of the Iran deal and the regime in Iran. Unsurprisingly, the Iranians called him a “supporter of terrorists.”
Asia: Not a shocker, but the North Korean regime has called Bolton “human scum” and vowed not to deal with him, likely a result of his public views embracing military force and regime change in North Korea. Allies Japan and South Korea are likely also wondering whether Bolton will mean that the United States will revert back to all fire and fury in place of giving all options — including diplomacy — a real shot.
Europe: European partners who signed the Iran deal with the United States are probably worried that Bolton will advocate decertification based on his past statement criticizing the deal. Europeans remember Bolton from his tenure in the Bush administration and his ongoing support for the war in Iraq. This may lead them to question whether the administration is committed to its alliances, or choosing a go-it-alone strategy.
ISIS threat matrix: The internet remains a terror battleground
The ISIS supporter who carried out an attack in France on Friday underscores the ongoing threat that ISIS poses both to the homeland and around the world. From the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine to a truck attack in Nice, France has suffered a number of grievous Islamist-inspired attacks over the last few years, and the French are not alone in facing these attacks.
Despite being denied safe havens in Syria and Iraq, ISIS retains the ability to operate globally — particularly on the internet. Without having to physically reach, recruit or train sympathizers, ISIS’ propaganda machine can spread content across the web, and either directly order or inspire attacks.
And we can expect more to come. ISIS declared its caliphate in 2014 and estimates show that through mid-February 2018 it has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries other than Iraq and Syria (its two home bases where it has inflicted horrific damage).
Which is to say more outreach to the technology sector is critical. Intelligence and law enforcement officials will benefit from detecting online patterns of behavior that lead to radicalization. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, among others, have been vocal about the need to crack down on online radicalization, but the limitless boundaries of digital theater mean we need to move quickly to stem further violence.
Kim’s RSVP still pending: But the inter-Korean summit is happening
There has still been no public North Korean response to a US-North Korea head of state meeting. However, plans for the North Koreans and South Koreans to meet again, without the United States, are proceeding. Officials from both countries are going to meet this week on the North Korean side of the border to get ready for an inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April in South Korea.
The North Koreans may be waiting for a signal that the new national security adviser remains more open to diplomacy than he has in the past, or, they could be proceeding, bilaterally with the South Koreans to forge a closer inter-Korean bond. We know that Kim has previously focused on his desire to reunify the peninsula, heralding a desire to “write a new history” of national reunification.
Ongoing communications with the South Koreans during this process will be key to getting information on the North Koreans’ approach and ensuring the international community, led by the United States, remains united on the need for North Korean denuclearization.
It’s another non-election: Egyptians go to the polls
On the heels of Putin’s presidential victory, another in-name-only election will take place in what many hoped, post-Arab spring, would be a wellspring of democracy in the Middle East: Egypt. You don’t have to guess the outcome. Sitting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will win the election this week. That’s a sure bet.
It’s a disappointment for many — to put it mildly — after the 2011 Egyptian revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak and offered a flicker of a democratic opening, until the military seized power in 2013.
Polls open on Monday, but like in Russia, Sisi will “win” and stay in power as long as various forces in Egypt want him to. There are no serious contenders (opposition candidates claim intimidation and even arrest by the state). And Human Rights Watch said Egyptian authorities abused national emergency laws to dampen opposition and support Sisi.
So, Sisi is sticking around. His power derives not only from any real support he has in the country, but also from the military and security services who removed his predecessor. They’re his security blanket, and his new term will be rife with actual presidential needs like improving the economic and security situation in Egypt.
But he’ll have to do all that (no easy tasks) while keeping his patrons happy. As a product of the Egyptian military, Sisi knows how the organization works, but there are a lot of politics at play both before, during, and after this sham election.
And while we withheld foreign military financing and economic support to Egypt in August over human rights concerns and a law restricting NGO access, the National Security Council has to decide now whether to withhold further funding or make stronger statements rebuking the Sisi government.