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North Korea, ISIS, Iran and election interference top U.S. intelligence community concerns

Top U.S. intelligence officials presented their annual threat assessment to Congress Tuesday. The discussion covered the likelihood of North Korean denuclearization, the terror threat posed by ISIS despite its territorial losses, Iran's compliance with a nuclear deal and U.S. election security. Nick Schifrin talks to Judy Woodruff about how the analysis diverged from administration rhetoric.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community testified to Congress for what's called an annual threat assessment, and painted major dangers posed by North Korea, ISIS, and to U.S. election security.

    Some of their testimony highlighted the differences between President Trump's policies and the intelligence community's assessments.

    Here to help navigate the contradictions, our foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin.

    Nick, hello.

    So let's start with North Korea. We know the president has emphasized dialogue with the North. What is the intelligence community saying?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The intelligence community has long been skeptical of North Korea and long been skeptical that North Korea would ever be willing to give up its nuclear weapons, because the intelligence community assesses that North Korea believes those nuclear weapons are an essential deterrent.

    And that's exactly what we heard today. So let's listen to the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.

  • Dan Coats:

    Kim Jong-un continues to demonstrate openness to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Having said that, we currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So that skepticism is obviously in contrast to President Trump's optimism.

    And President Trump has said that Kim Jong-un was serious about denuclearization.

    But let's talk a little bit of history here. The last four presidents have gotten the same exact intelligence assessment that we heard today. President Clinton got the same assessment, and yet decided eventually to talk with the North Koreans. President Bush got the same assessment and decided eventually to talk with the North Koreans.

    President Obama got it and really resisted that talk. So, President Trump and his allies say is, look, maybe they won't denuclearize, but we really need to give it a try. And, of course, that's their policy decision.

    As for Kim Jong-un, he says: We will consider denuclearization if the U.S. improves diplomatic relations, reduce the sanctions and reduces U.S. military presence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, ISIS.

    We know the president has declared victory over ISIS, particularly in Syria. What are we hearing from the intelligence officials?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the president declared victory and declared we won in Syria. Vice President Pence has said, the caliphate has crumbled.

    What the intelligence community did today was distinguish between the threat that ISIS poses to capture more territory and the threat that ISIS poses as an insurgent group or as a terrorist group.

    So here's the director of CIA, Gina Haspel, answering a question from Senator Susan Collins.

  • Gina Haspel:

    It is of course accurate that ISIS has suffered significant leadership losses and near total loss of territorial control.

    But, of course, they're still dangerous, which is your point, and they're the largest Sunni terrorist group, and they still command thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And what President Trump is looking at is a military defeat. And that is what U.S. troops are in Syria to do, to fight ISIS. And that's what he promised, of course, during the campaign.

    What the intelligence community is saying is that this ongoing terrorist threat, insurgent thread is much more difficult to tackle them just with the military. And they're admitting that terrorist and insurgent threat will continue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As well as the ideological threat posed — that they pose.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Iran. The president has ended U.S. role in the Iran nuclear agreement. What is the intelligence community saying about Iran's nuclear capacity?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Trump administration has long said that Iran didn't heed that 2014 nuclear deal and always wanted a nuclear weapon.

    But Gina Haspel today, the CIA director, was much more nuanced. She said that Iran was complying with the deal, but that it might start enrichment in the future. So here is her talking with Senator Angus King, who's an independent, but caucuses with Democrats.

  • Sen. Angus King, I-Maine:

    Since our departure from the deal, they have abided by the terms? You're saying they're considering, but at the current moment they're in compliance?

  • Gina Haspel:

    Yes. They're making some preparations that would increase their ability to take a step back if they make that decision. So, at the moment, technically, they're in compliance, but we do see them debating amongst themselves, as they fail to realize the economic benefits they hoped for from the deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And what Europe is trying to do is give Iran some of those economic benefits to try and keep Iran inside the deal.

    And the bottom line is, we just heard from the CIA director Iran abiding by that deal still.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, what about U.S. elections, the threat posed to those?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This has been a consistent warning, red light from the intelligence community. They have been very worried about the election security, both in 2018 and in 2020.

    And that was actually the first topic that the director of national intelligence raised today.

  • Dan Coats:

    We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests. We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other's experiences and efforts in previous elections.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, President Trump has not personally focused or talked about election security a lot. But the government, as well as private companies, like Twitter especially, have rallied in 2018 in ways that they didn't in 2016.

    But, still, as we heard from today, the intelligence community very worried, especially that China, Russia and Iran will continue cyber-attacks, and there's simply not much they can do to prevent those from happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one thing the president has talked about, of course, is the southern border. He has called it a national security threat. But that didn't come up today?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It barely came up.

    I mean, the intelligence community spent a lot of time talking about Russia and China, the threats that they pose. They said that they're working together more than in the last 70 years or so. They talked about North Korea, as we talked about, Iran and election security, but the word border didn't come up at all in the opening statement by the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.

    And nobody repeated the president's language that the border poses a major threat to the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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