In a way, it’s good that it has taken extra time to complete this article. Little has changed since Wednesday (6 January), when the group of rioters entered the U.S. Capitol and committed vandalism, lectern-stealing, and selfie-taking. (It is especially horrifying that the limited and largely ridiculous nature of what the Capitol-breachers did resulted in the deaths of Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt and Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. There are very serious questions that remain unanswered about the event, the first one being who had the motive to do it.)
But the perspective of three days has helped clarify one point in the analysis of the key supporting effort we’ve been tracking: i.e., the potential use of national intelligence means to track what Trump’s opponents in the permanent bureaucracy of politics are doing.
If I had stated the point in question on Thursday it would have taken longer and been less direct and useful. Now it’s clearer.
It’s this: the National Intelligence Community Assessment (NICA) on foreign interference in the 2020 election isn’t a significant informational document, and at this point isn’t intended to be one.
This is the intelligence community (IC) report mandated by E.O. 13848 of September 2018, which was due on 18 December. It was delayed for nearly three weeks and finally released to Congress on Thursday 7 January.
It sounds from a description at the Washington Examiner as if it’s underwhelming. And it’s being heralded with the news that DNI John Ratcliffe and the IC China analysts squabbled over it. The community ombudsman stepped in to referee, and nobody’s really happy with the result.
Basically, it’s kind of a dud, and its impact is being blunted by the DNI to land with a thud. The problem, in short, is that Ratcliffe says the China analysts refused to recognize the interference China was engaging in, and characterized it instead, more softly, as “influence.”
These brief details contain significant information, however. The very extensive release about the internal community squabble spikes some guns – but not the Trump administration’s.
It spikes the IC’s hostile-leaks howitzer. Trump has done this several times now. The intel community girds itself to put out a narrative that undermines the president’s policy, so Trump just lays everything out there for the world to see.
The Washington Examiner article conveys it very clearly, if (in my estimation) unintentionally. “Hey,” Trump is saying. “These guys disagree with me. I’m letting them have their say, but you the public are going to know that they disagree with me, and you’re going to know what I’m saying instead, as the nation’s chief consumer and arbiter of intelligence.”
Adam Schiff can’t use that to spring surprises on Trump. Trump can’t “use” it either – but neither can the IC.
And that last is the main result. Chuck Schumer’s “six ways from Sunday” intel community is sidelined.
It matters, of course, that the substance of the squabble is about China and how much election interference Beijing has engaged in. By presenting the ombudsman’s report and the DNI’s comments up-front, Congress and the public are being informed about the IC wanting to soft-pedal Chinese activities.
Not a single soul, I imagine, will be surprised to learn that the IC wants to do that. The general public that analyzes mainly from drive-by impressions through the mainstream media understands intuitively that it’s probably the case anyway. There has been a lot of prior information about China being unnecessarily embedded in, and finding ready access to, the halls of government in the United States, as well as the halls of media and commercial power.
Those who study the matter more closely are well aware of China’s pervasive influence, and unsurprised to see it reflected in IC analyses. It’s a common pattern in many corners of intelligence.
But the mere fact that the NICA on the 2020 election has been issued in this manner constitutes a fighting move. It tells us the NICA isn’t Trump’s big volley about the election, or about anything else. It takes a weapon out of the intel community’s hands — and that’s something you do for a reason. It’s a sign that Trump hasn’t rolled over quite yet.
Here I want to put up a reminder that Trump has the same options he has always had, as the chief executive. I know many people are focused on reports of things coming out of Italy, and the possibilities of the famous codeword tools referenced by Sidney Powell and others, but it’s important to clarify that those are not what I refer to as Trump’s options.
His options are, very prosaically, the national intelligence and cyber ops means he invoked with E.O. 13848. If the codeword tools are real, there’s no need for the sitting U.S. administration to use them, or to reveal information that has been processed or stored using them. The information can all be obtained through the front door. If the codeword tools turn out to be anything, they’ll be one form of evidence among others against John Brennan. (Sorry to be coy about the names; using them can get you banned on social media, and there’s no point is writing this if no one’s going to see it.)
I don’t have a comment to offer on the information from Italy. I’ve seen that General Flynn forwarded a piece of it, and I would never suggest he’s a dupe. If the Italian-sourced sub-drama is necessary, I think we’ll see that.
I’m not convinced it is. In any case, there is reporting that Trump knows it’s there, which means it’s his choice how much to invest, or what means to use, in obtaining it.
Of greatest importance, in my view, is the set of personnel changes at the Pentagon in November and early December. The changes affected two disciplines in particular: intelligence and special operations. I won’t even speculate on the purpose of affecting the special ops management. But affecting the intelligence pipeline, at the time the administration made the move and for the short duration the personnel changes would apply to (through Inauguration Day), was probably, as it relates to this problem, about ensuring access to intelligence.
The Department of Defense has privileged access to most of the same things the CIA has. NSA is a DOD entity, as are some other agencies (e.g., the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, NGA), although they serve the entire U.S. government within their disciplines. If the Trump administration expected to be able to access intelligence unfiltered, the single most important place to ensure personnel were entirely trustworthy was the Pentagon.
It was evident, when Trump moved Chris Miller, Kash Patel, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick into their current positions, that that’s what he was doing. I recognized it at the time as a probable sign that at least some of the individuals previously in place were not deemed trustworthy; i.e., in the most basic terms of processing intelligence straightforwardly and not trying to obfuscate it or drag their heels on forwarding it. (“Intelligence” may have included other information about U.S. military operations, for that matter.)
That didn’t surprise me. Complaints about politicized withholding of intelligence, at various levels of government, go back decades. They’re hardly a new phenomenon.
Playing hardball to break the intel loose, and to keep games of “I’ve got a secret” from sabotaging administration policy, are rarer. George W. Bush never could crack the code on that.
That’s why the little weak-toot trumpet fanfare for the NICA on the 2020 election is such an indicator. It’s the companion half to the personnel effort that keeps the intel flowing: the half where the IC doesn’t get to keep a secret (i.e., a difference in intelligence views) to sabotage the administration with.
The sum total of these data points suggests to me that Trump isn’t done yet.
A lively dead cat
We’ll see. It certainly goes against the emotional grain to imagine that there are any meaningful options at this point. I don’t offer certainty of any kind; I’m outlining what’s still there. Nothing about the intelligence Trump could have, collected under the authority of E.O. 13848, has changed. If it was collected, we haven’t seen a speck of it yet. (There’s a possibility that collecting it wasn’t for our consumption anyway, at least not primarily.)
I do think the scope of the operation is bigger than the election itself. Curiously punctuated developments – things with exclamation marks – keep coming up, and they have the Trump administration’s fingerprints all over them.
A sample of just three: on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he was lifting all the “self-imposed restrictions” of U.S. government agencies, starting with the State Department, in their dealings with Taiwan. Reuters referred to this, with heroic understatement, as “a move likely to anger China and increase tensions between Beijing and Washington.”
Yes. It will assuredly do that. Another development, discussed elsewhere, is the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar after their four-year standoff. The question for me is not so much why this is happening as how Team Trump got the Saudis to do it now, with a new administration coming in that will offer them no assurances or rewards for the move. A Biden administration would be markedly less friendly to Riyadh, and has already committed to do the biggest thing the Saudis don’t want: reimplement the Obama policy on the JCPOA with Iran. Seemingly, the Saudis don’t get much if anything out of this. (That’s certainly the theme in Qatari media; i.e., Al Jazeera.)
I’m appending a map below that is as rough-and-ready as it gets, as intel presentations go, but I think should be understandable.
This is a strategic-scope move to block China and Russia in West Africa, one that the Trump administration has interwoven with the Arab-Israeli outreach, which has now extended to Morocco. To put it in the vernacular, it’s, like, a really big move for the final weeks of a presidential administration. (At the bottom of the text you’ll find a selection of readings if you want to pursue the issue further and understand the background. In their different ways, Russia and China have been maneuvering to get a foothold in Morocco and Western Sahara, largely because, as you will notice, the real estate has huge implications for U.S. security, situated at the Strait of Gibraltar, or STROG, on the other side of our Atlantic Ocean bastion.)
The point of burdening you with all this is to lay out the sheer breadth of what the Trump administration is pursuing as a priority, at the same time it’s supposedly melting down and losing all its marbles, credibility, and coherence inside the U.S.
The two pictures are hard to reconcile. It makes no sense for Trump to be acting on a list of frivolous, disembodied foreign policy priorities. It also makes little sense for him to keep getting cooperation overseas, if he’s so lame as a dying POTUS ember.
It makes more sense, however, if it’s all part of the same operational plan. In that regard, it’s worth quoting something a reader at LU (our correspondent “D4x”) tipped me to on Saturday. It’s a brief quote from a long 2019 text thread, available here, that puts nicely a thought that has been forming in my own brain for several years now. It’s one of those synoptic statements you read, and think, “Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say.”
It’s not even something I would take as a premise I agree with (I don’t know that I do), so much as a necessary marker for analytical thought. As a thinking aid, it has to be in the mix.
Here it is, from a programmer who comes from a unique view of U.S. cyber operations (your choice how much to take on board; he backs assertions up with accessible, mainstream-web references) – but whose point is about geopolitics in this case: “The real power brokers in American politics are all foreign and have been for quite some time. Can’t run a world power without taking insight and recommendations from, you know, the world. To me, geopolitics is American politics.”
He adds, “The 2020 election is all about the CIA preserving itself when the financial ties of the American body it[‘]s parasiting off start to decay.”
Substitute “Deep State” for CIA, and that theory offers a useful perspective on how fighting for the domestic future of the United States can indeed take you through foreign capitals and involve what we think of as “foreign policy.”
“The world” – or its self-appointed representatives – certainly believes that you can’t run a world power without taking insight and recommendations from the world.
But for Trump, it’s not about finding ways to commit America to serving other nations’ or transnational bodies’ priorities. It’s about pursuing American priorities, including our domestic welfare, through foreign policy.
Thwarting China in places you and I aren’t necessarily looking at is one of those policy vectors.
That leads, if by a circuitous route, to something I’ve been trying to find the time to write about since the Hunter Biden laptop burst upon us in all its glory. This won’t be the treatment the topic deserves, but it’s a marker that helps convey the gravity of what this “Deep State” wrangling is about.
Some readers are familiar with the “Uranium Jerky” series I posted in the fall of 2020. It centered on the fateful year 2009, and was mostly about Goldman Sachs, Iran, Russia, and U.S. and other Western actors who came and went in the drama. Links to each part of the six-part series are down at the bottom.
A major segment of the work on the “Uranium” series remains to be done, and that’s tying the action in the years 2008 to 2010 to other threads before and since. One of the things we’ve looked at before is how the threads of Russiagate and Spygate intertwine with the specialized drama of the uranium and nuclear-materials trade (and how the Clintons and their political associates keep cropping up in proximity to it).
So it was very interesting to recognize, when the Hunter Biden laptop put the matter under a spotlight, that one of the signature investments of Hunter Biden’s Chinese investment venture, Bohai Harvest RST (BHR), was in the nuclear power subsidiary of the CEFC China Energy Company (CEFC). The subsidiary is China General Nuclear Power Company (usually abbreviated CGN). CEFC became a Clinton Global Initiative donor in 2015, the year after BHR started the joint venture. Yee-ha.
After Hunter formed BHR in 2013, the company invested in several ventures with CEFC. The others were in much bigger dollar amounts, but the investment in CGN – a move that actually made BHR an “anchor investor” in CGN’s IPO – was brought in for the low, low price of a mere $10 million.
That sounds on the face of it like the CGN investment was the least important for BHR. But in the context, it’s the one that stands out. Clearly, $10 million was a token investment, made for a reason other than BHR being important to CGN’s financial future, per se.
This investment came to fruition in 2014, and CGN’s noteworthy – media-touted – activities accelerated in 2015. As Peter Schweizer has exhaustively laid out, an American businessman connected with CGN was indicted for unlawful nuclear-related production activities in 2016 (and convicted in 2017). That obviously raised questions on Capitol Hill about what Hunter Biden was doing investing in CGN.
But the questions should have been there from the start, given the token size of the CGN investment. Somebody, it appears, was buying access to something (or perhaps entangling someone in something).
The far more that needs to be said about this and other matters nuclear and uranium-jerkish will have to wait. But an interesting tidbit can be advanced now, one that demonstrates the multitude of threads and influences that come together under this and related headings. Bill Gates has had an interest for at least a decade in nuclear power and nuclear reactors, and has been working for some years to agree on a joint venture with the Chinese nuclear company China National Nuclear Corporation in new-generation reactor development.
Gates’s venture relied on a favorable regulatory reading of export policy to China by the U.S. Department of Energy, obtained from the Obama administration. The Trump administration in 2019 tightened that policy up significantly with Rick Perry at DOE’s helm, a move that has put a spoke in the wheel of Gates’s China venture. Gates is not amused.
The Uranium Jerky series started peeling back the onion to reveal that acceptance of the uranium trade, nuclear power, and even potentially nuclear weapons as appurtenances of national sovereignty is not now the static “given” we have taken it to be for the last 70 years. There are people and organizations that evidently have other ideas.
In this, as in so many things, Trump has rubbed the transnationalist infrastructure of global business and Deep State crossways.
Russian interest 2016 and after (Note: During the Cold War, Russia supported the Polisario insurgency in Western Sahara. After warming relations with Rabat in the last 30 years, partly due to the investment of Russian oligarchs in Morocco, Russia began cultivating the Polisario faction in Western Sahara again.)
China last few years (China’s outreach has been to the monarchy in Morocco)
Note changes in Western Sahara situation (and thus China’s/Russia’s options for making a move) just weeks before Israel-Morocco accord and US recognition
Of collateral interest: China and Greenland (another Rim of the Atlantic vector). Last article is tongue in cheek as to its “modest proposal”
Uranium Jerky series