Greg Treverton: U.S. Intelligence Under Attack

Greg Treverton, Former Director of the National Intelligence Council (right)

President Trump may have got off on the wrong foot with the US intelligence community, but Greg Treverton, the outgoing chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), says the President will be forced by the demands of office to mend relations with the intelligence services. “He will have to find a way to climb out of this, and it will be noisy…. The simple power of events will compel him to take the intelligence community more seriously,” Treverton told a breakfast meeting of LAWAC on Feb 28th. “When he was being briefed on Iraq and Syria during the transition he himself remarked how very complex the situation was.” Treverton said there will be many other pressing international issues that will require detailed intelligence assessments before informed decisions can be taken.

Treverton, who reported directly to James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, also said that the biggest danger that kept him awake at night was the risk of a “Russian misadventure in the Baltics,” which could quickly lead to a much larger conflict between the US and Russia. He painted an interesting picture of Russian leader Vladimir Putin as an increasingly isolated man who doesn’t like Moscow and spends much of his time in a dacha in the countryside, exercising and reading in the morning and rarely seeing anyone before 1pm or 2 pm. “The circle of people around him are young and entirely dependent on him for their position, so unlikely to offer him a lot of contrarian advice.” Hence the fear of an impulsive decision to invade, say, one of the Baltic states. “He is a better tactician than a strategist,” said Treverton, and ultimately is leading Russia to its own collapse because of the lack of real economic development. “The question is how long is this interval where Russia continues to be a really powerful threat, before they bring about their own demise – my estimate is 5-10 years.”

The NIC puts out a non-classified report on “Global Trends” every four years which looks at potential international developments and threats over a 5 and a 20 year timescale, and the recent report – entitled “Paradox of Progress” found that overall, “the world is in pretty good shape”. One billion people have been raised out of poverty in the last 20 years, largely through technology and globalization – but paradoxically the same forces for good are creating a new set of challenges.

The report focused on two “uncertainties” and three “certainties” over the 5-year span. Treverton said that uncertainty shrouded both the futures of the US and China, with a sea change in US politics and with growing tension in China between the need for economic reform and the desire of the leadership to retain tight political control. “When the two biggest powers in the world both suffer from uncertainty, that brings in a lot of anxiety into the system,” said Treverton.

As far as certainties for the next 5 years, Treverton said it was “certain” there would be problems in Europe with the immigration debate, which runs counter to the original conception of the EU as an open-border system. He also said there will be growing issues with Russia, most worrisome in the Baltics, and that the Middle East would continue to be, “in a technical intelligence term, ‘a mess’.” He said that ISIS was in the process of falling apart, largely because it contained “within its construction the seeds of its own destruction”. The creation of the “caliphate” required them to hold on to territory, which they can no longer do, and the over-reliance on violence ultimately turned even many of their supporters against them. However, Treverton warned, “ISIS will morph into something else.”

For the longer term 20-year view, Treverton said the Global Trends report foresaw increasing empowerment of individuals – which has its bad side with the proliferation of terrorist groups, but also has a good side: “The Gates Foundation spends more on health care in Africa than the World Health Organization.” He said Artificial Intelligence would bring many improvements to the quality of life, but would also have an enormously disruptive effect on the labor market – one McKinsey study predicted AI could ultimately usurp half of all US jobs. Similarly the progress in bio-tech could have its own dark side with terror groups making “designer bio-weapons.” [“The intelligence community has a habit when it sees flowers of thinking of funerals,” Treverton said as an aside, drawing laughter from the audience.]

The NIC report saw a heightening of “value conflicts” – for example between the open liberal value system of the US and the tightly controlled group-harmony value system of the Chinese, or the divergence between the US which has traditionally seen prosperity as good and a group like ISIS “who don’t think prosperity is good at all.” Treverton also pointed to the changing nature of warfare, where the line between combatants and non-combatants has been erased and war is between societies, not between armies, and the distinction between the cyber world and reality is also increasingly blurred.

On the positive side Treverton said he foresaw an improvement in the situation of women around the world – “all good things happen when women are empowered”, and he also cited some polls from the Middle East suggesting that younger people are starting to believe that religion has become too involved in society there.

Asked about the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Treverton said “I didn’t think Flynn would make it to the inauguration – he made it 23 days longer than I bet he would.” He said Flynn, who had previously been fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by Clapper, was overly confrontational, “maximum turmoil for minimum effect.”

Treverton said that the 80,000 professionals in the US intelligence agencies “work for the nation, not the administration”, and will try to stay away from policy. He disputed reports that intelligence was being withheld from the President – “generally the president gets to know whatever he or she wants.” But he said intelligence agencies will always “tell it straight” to the President – and President Trump doesn’t like hearing things he disagrees with. “Politicians think everyone has an agenda, but mostly the intelligence community doesn’t, they just want to tell truth to power. I hope Trump can back off his high horse and use the community. I worry about it.”