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July 18, 2024

Relocations: Misunderstanding national security

In 2020, the U.S. experienced 27 weather disasters costing at least $1 billion. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration image
June 14, 2024

Congress would do better to entrust the EPA, not the intelligence community, with the annual assessment of threats to our security

By Herbert Rothschild

The Intelligence Authorization Act of fiscal year 2021 requires the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to publish an “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.” The reports are a collective effort of both foreign and domestic intelligence agencies.

Herb Rothschild Relocations
Herbert Rothschild

Having read the threat assessments published in 2023 and 2024, my conclusion is that our intelligence community conflates threats to U.S. national security with threats to U.S. global hegemony and consequently misallocates its concern. In turn, it encourages our national leaders to misallocate the resources available to protect our well-being. To put it more simply, the president and Congress continue to piss away our tax money on the military while our planet is on fire.

The 2023 report does better than its successor in acknowledging that military and non-military threats are on a par. Its foreword begins by stating, “During the coming year, the United States and its allies will confront a complex and pivotal international security environment dominated by two critical strategic challenges that intersect with each other and existing trends to intensify their national security implications.” First, the military threats: “(G)reat powers, rising regional powers, as well as an evolving array of non-state actors, will vie for dominance in the global order, as well as compete to set the emerging conditions and the rules that will shape that order for decades to come.” Second, the non-military threats: “(S)hared global challenges, including climate change, and human and health security, are converging as the planet emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and confronts economic issues spurred by both energy and food insecurity.”

The foreword to the 2024 report focuses its first four paragraphs on major power challenges and regional conflicts. In the fifth we get, “Economic strain is further stoking this instability. Around the world, multiple states are facing rising, and in some cases unsustainable, debt burdens, economic spillovers from the war in Ukraine, and increased cost and output losses from extreme weather events even as they continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Extreme weather events” is the sole mention of climate change.

And even though the 2023 report gives equal prominence to military and non-military threats in its foreword, in its body it doesn’t. It begins with more than five pages about China, followed by an equal number about Russia. Iran gets two and a fraction, as does North Korea. Then comes a section named “CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION,” which occupies 1⅓ pages. In the 2024 report, “Environmental Change and Extreme Weather” is a subsection of the catchall SHARED DOMAINs and has been reduced to less than a page.

Why does China hold preeminence in both the 2023 and 2024 threat assessments? In their extensive explanations, I find two threats to our nation’s security, one direct, the other indirect. The direct one is China’s cyber attacks. “China remains the most active and persistent cyber threat to U.S. Government, private-sector, and critical infrastructure networks. Beijing’s cyber espionage pursuits and its industry’s export of surveillance, information, and communications technologies increase the threats of aggressive cyber operations against the United States and the suppression of the free flow of information in cyberspace” (2024 report).

China’s indirect threat to our national security is its intention to annex Taiwan, by force if it can get away with it. I support U.S. defense of Taiwan’s autonomy, although I disagree that its loss would encourage China to invade other counties (from China’s point of view, Taiwan is no more a foreign country than Hong Kong and Tibet). I think we must live up to our commitment to a people whom we’ve encouraged to trust us with their freedom.

Beyond these considerations, what the reports cite as China’s threats are to our global economic, diplomatic and ideological dominance. This is a competition, not a war, and competition can be beneficial. Poorer nations are already benefiting from China’s effort to outdo the West in development aid. If we conduct the competition wisely, it need not jeopardize anyone’s national security. What would display a lack of wisdom is a determination to eliminate our rival by using military force.

Meanwhile, we are suffering from dire threats on which the reports spend little time, and our suffering will only increase. The cost of the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, California, was 85 lives and perhaps $400 billion. That fire, like the fires on Maui last year, was likely related to defects in our electrical power delivery systems, which are outdated and overloaded. A 2021 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that at least $1.5 trillion is needed through 2030 “to modernize the grid just to maintain reliability.” The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 allotted only a few billions to strengthen the power grid at the same time it promoted policies that will further tax its capacity.  

Like the costs of fire, the costs of flooding caused by rising seas and changing rainfall patterns are now sizable and will worsen significantly. A recent report by the Democrats on the Senate Joint Economic Committee estimated that floods last year cost between $180 billion and $496 billion. Numerous insurance companies in California and Florida have become insolvent or left. The same is true for Louisiana and South Carolina. In all, at least 20 states have been affected that way. In the future, if Americans are able to get any homeowner’s insurance, it will cost us dearly.

I could add self-generated threats to our security, like the “forever” chemicals in everyone’s system or the scourge of gun violence, but I’m going to assume that I’ve adduced enough evidence to validate my criticism of our official threat assessments.

They go wrong because the intelligence community takes as its mission to provide “the nuanced, independent, and unvarnished intelligence that policymakers, warfighters, and domestic law enforcement personnel need to protect American lives and America’s interests anywhere in the world.” Yoking American lives to America’s global interests dooms our understanding of national security to an exploitable vagueness, and yoking policymakers to warmaking and law enforcement dooms its protection to tunnel vision.

We would be better served were Congress to delegate responsibility for the annual threat assessment to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Herbert Rothschild’s columns appear on Friday in Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

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