U.S. intelligence agencies see isolationism, weakening Western order as threats

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats arrives on Capitol Hill for a classified briefing last year.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats arrives on Capitol Hill for a classified briefing last year.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

A national intelligence strategy released Tuesday warns that growing isolationism and efforts to weaken Western alliances pose long-term threats to U.S. security and are exacerbating challenges for American intelligence agencies.

The 36-page analysis marks the latest sign of discord between the nation’s spy services and President Trump. The intelligence community has repeatedly clashed with Trump in the past over the president’s pronouncements when they’ve conflicted with the agencies’ conclusions.

The National Intelligence Strategy, which is intended to guide officials for the next four years, does not name Trump or directly criticize his “America first” policies or priorities.


But it warns that U.S. adversaries are seeking to take advantage of “the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals, increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West, and shifts in the global economy.”

Trump isn’t solely responsible for those geopolitical and security shifts, but he has championed at least some of those disruptive trends.

He has clashed with traditional U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, showered praise on autocratic leaders in Russia and North Korea, downgraded human rights as a U.S. concern, and questioned the value of the NATO military alliance and other international institutions and accords.

The new strategy cautioned that Russia is one of several foreign powers poised to take advantage of the international instability.

“Russian efforts to increase its influence and authority are likely to continue and may conflict with U.S. goals and priorities in multiple regions,” the strategy said.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, in a speech to employees at a sprawling national security office complex in McLean, Va., said U.S. intelligence agencies must remain focused on “seeking the truth.”


“And then when we find that truth, speaking the truth,” he said.

Trump has publicly doubted or dismissed intelligence officials’ findings, most notably their conclusion that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign in an effort to boost his candidacy.

He has also persistently sought a closer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite warnings that many of Putin’s goals don’t align with U.S. interests.

Senior officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, emphasized that their agencies are tasked with collecting information, not setting policy.

One official said that isolationism and populism were not unique to the Trump administration. Similar movements have taken root in parts of Europe and Latin America in recent years.

“It’s just the operating environment,” the official said.

The officials said intelligence agencies would strive to be more transparent in coming years. They said pulling back the curtain — if only a little, since much of their work is classified — will increase the public’s faith in agencies that have been buffeted by controversy and political drama.

“It feels like we need to add our voice to a dialogue that’s going to happen anyway,” one of the officials said.


Some of the dialogue is led by the president and his allies, who have been sharply critical of the intelligence community.

Shortly before taking office, Trump compared U.S. intelligence officials to Nazis and blamed them for the public release of a still-unproven dossier of allegations involving his alleged ties to Russia. The file of raw intelligence was prepared by a former British intelligence officer working on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public.… Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Trump tweeted at the time.

The relationship did not improve when Trump visited CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration.

Standing in front of the agency’s memorial wall, where stars commemorate dozens of officers and operatives who died in the line of duty, Trump bragged about his appearances on the cover of Time magazine and insisted that the media had deliberately undercounted the crowd at his swearing-in.

Although Trump chose Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, as his director of national intelligence, the two have occasionally appeared out of step.


In July, Trump publicly sided with Putin at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, when he was asked about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Kremlin-backed operatives had stolen and leaked Democratic emails and spread disinformation during the 2016 campaign.

“He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

In an unusual pushback, Coats publicly disputed the president.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” he said at the time.

Days later, Coats was on stage at a national security gathering in Aspen, Colo., when he learned that the White House had invited Putin to Washington — a visit that still has not occurred.

“Say that again. Did I hear you?” he said, clearly caught by surprise. “OK. That’s going to be special.”

Doubts about Coats’ relationship with Trump reached the point at which he felt compelled to deny that he or his number two, Sue Gordon, wrote an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times in September that was harshly critical of Trump.


Coats called the speculation “patently false.” He added, “From the beginning of our tenure, we have insisted that the entire [intelligence community] remain focused on our mission to provide the president and policymakers with the best intelligence possible.”

Follow the latest news of the Trump administration on Essential Washington »