US intelligence agencies say North Korea is top threat, no mention of Mexico border

Threats range from nuclear weapons to Chinese cyberespionage to Russian campaigns to undermine democracies

Robert Ashley, director of the National Security Agency (NSA), front center, testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear capabilities, the top U.S. intelligence official said, even as President Donald Trump expresses confidence he can persuade Kim Jong Un to disarm. Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg

Directly contradicting President Donald Trump, US intelligence agencies told Congress on Tuesday that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, that ISIS 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 Mr Trump has considered declaring a national emergency.

Their analysis stands in sharp contrast to President 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," Mr Coats told the committee.

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

Mr Trump asserted after the Singapore summit that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat. However, Mr 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 Mr 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.

ISIS are still dangerous.

The report also said ISIS "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 Mr 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 President Trump has ordered a full withdrawal of US troops, the government of President Bashar Al 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 ISIS: "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, Mr 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. Mr Trump has ordered a partial pullback of US forces this year, although no firm plan is in place.

Mr 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.