How does the U.S. intelligence community view the state of the world?

This is not a question the public often gets answers to. Every four or five years, however, the intelligence community (IC) releases a National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) document, setting the agenda for the country’s 17 intelligence agencies and providing insight into how the IC views rival nations, political strife and technological developments at a high level.

The 2019 NIS released this week contains many of the same threat descriptions and areas for internal improvement listed in the last document, which was penned in 2014. The “usual suspects” include China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and violent extremist groups. The document also calls attention to expanding cyber threats, the vulnerability of U.S. assets in space and the wide-ranging potential of various emerging technologies.

In some ways, the 2019 NIS paints a darker picture of the strategic environment and the potential impacts of technology on society than the IC did five years ago.

(Photo by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence)

Here are a few of the key differences, both in substance and emphasis, between the 2019 NIS and the last version of the document:

Cooperation with rival powers: The 2014 NIS noted the possibility of cooperation with Russia; the 2019 NIS does not, but conversely mentions “opportunities exist to work with Beijing on issues of mutual concern, such as North Korean aggression and continued pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile technology.” That cooperation with China is mentioned as a possibility, rather than left unmentioned as a certainty, may reflect the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship.

Threats to the current global order: In 2014, the IC warned that “key nation states continue to pursue agendas that challenge U.S. interests,” discussing China’s opaque strategic interests and Russia’s reassertion of power and influence in ways that undermine U.S. interests.

The 2019 NIS is more specific, asserting that the post-World War II international order is weakening and Western democratic ideals are becoming less dominant and isolationist tendencies are increasing in the West. The IC warns traditional adversaries—mainly referring to Russia and China—will continue to take advantage of these changing conditions in the international environment.

Societal impact of emerging technologies: Five years ago, the IC viewed the rapid advancement of technology as “holding enormous potential for dramatic improvements” in individual health, employment and other areas, though it warned of their potential to increase systemic fragility.

The 2019 NIS also mentions the positive potential of emerging technologies, but points out that the spread of these technologies “remains uneven, increasing the potential to drastically widen the divide between so-called ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’”

Sifting through big data: The newly-released NIS calls attention to the abundance of available data as an opportunity and challenge, saying the IC’s “ability to collect, process, evaluate, and analyze such enormous amounts of data quickly” will determine how effectively it can provide insight to intelligence customers.

Democratization of space: In the 2019 NIS, the IC warns of greater threats to U.S. assets in space, which is “no longer a solely U.S. domain…Russia and China will continue to pursue a full range of anti-satellite weapons…Increasing commercialization of space now provides capabilities that were once limited to global powers to anyone that can afford to buy them.”

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will be holding an open hearing on Worldwide Threats on Tuesday, January 29, followed by a closed session. Witnesses will include Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, as well as the directors of CIA, NSA, DIA, FBI and NGA.