Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues President Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
North Korea: Love hurts
Your recent description of your love of Kim Jong Un, based on your letter-writing exchange, will likely hurt prospects for making a successful deal with North Korea. Kim probably thinks you are less likely to take a hard line against his failure to take any actual steps toward denuclearization because you don’t want to admit that your love affair is rife with problems.
Leaving denuclearization aside, according to the United Nations, Kim continues to starve his own people and stockpile illegal chemical and biological weapons, and you’ve not taken Kim to task for either abuse recently.
And because North Korea is also still attacking us directly in cyberspace and trying to interfere in our elections, it also looks like you’re willingly part of an abusive relationship.
Your loving language will empower Kim and other “bad dudes” to think they can act maliciously, so long as they remember to write you a sycophantic letter while they do.
US elections: Securely insecure
With just over a month before midterms, our elections remain insecure. There are a series of threats to our physical voting infrastructure – largely unchanged from 2016 – which means there are significant opportunities for election interference. State spending on election security upgrades will take place over five years, so improvements to cybersecurity and infrastructure upgrades won’t be complete by the midterms.
Even if attempts to interfere in our elections aren’t at the level seen in 2016, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a public statement, saying the warning lights on attempts to interfere in our election are “blinking red.”
You and other members of your team have cited several countries’ activities as concerning, including Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. While they may be supporting different candidates and objectives, all these countries have advanced cybercapabilities.
We know that Russia tried to interfere in the voting systems of 21 states during the 2016 election. We should assume the Russians (and other state actors) may try to exploit voting systems again moving forward, especially as it is public knowledge that they remain insecure.
While disclosures about Russian hacking attempts – against targets such as Congress, think tanks and potentially even congressional campaigns – abound, information warfare is also a popular domain. You accused China of meddling in our elections. Because you have not publicly disclosed evidence supporting that statement – other than Chinese propaganda in American media, which is not a new practice for the Chinese – analysts around the world may think you put overt Chinese propaganda in local newspapers on the same level as covert Russian cyberattacks and information warfare.
Meanwhile, physical voting systems in more than half of US states contain exploitable vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to compromise voting machines. These voting machines don’t contain enhanced security features of newer models.
This will make audits of voting machines post-election important given the high risk of tampering. And, because our defenses aren’t up to speed, clearly articulating the costs of interference so you deter enemies from election meddling may resonate with them more strongly than any reference to our defensive posture.
NATO: Say my name
We assess that Russia is likely behind efforts to try to derail Macedonia’s path to becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Macedonia tried to clear one of the hurdles in this process with a referendum on Sunday in support of officially changing its name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia. The name change is part of an agreement with Greece, which had previously barred Macedonia from joining the alliance – stipulating that with an official name change the objection would be dropped. In order for the vote to be valid, 50% of eligible voters had to participate. So, opponents of the name change and opponents of expanding the NATO alliance were motivated to suppress voter turnout.
In the run-up to the referendum, information warfare attacks picked up. One report found that the number of bots focused on spreading content supporting efforts to boycott Macedonia’s referendum and against politicians or officials who backed it was higher than the number of bots discussing elections in Mexico or Italy.
Russia has not taken responsibility for these information warfare attacks, and it will deny involvement. While Vladimir Putin is not the only person against the referendum – Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov is also against the name change – Putin has the motivation to launch this attack. He is opposed to anything that makes NATO bigger, stronger or more stable. He also has the skills and resources; we have previously assessed that Putin directed attacks on our 2016 elections, including by using social media, and countries like Spain have accused Russia of interfering in other referendums, like one on Catalonia’s independence.
Russia will up its game as Macedonia’s NATO membership proceeds. If the reality of a new NATO member grows, Putin may apply more direct resources to stop the process. There are allegations that Putin, for example, was behind the coup plot and assassination attempt against Montenegro’s Prime Minister while Montenegro was in the process of becoming a NATO member. Putin denies these allegations, but denial is one of his favorite words.
Iraq threat assessment
We are providing you with an updated threat assessment after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to order US diplomatic personnel to depart the US Consulate in Basra, Iraq. We assess the threat to US personnel in Iraq will increase in the weeks ahead. As Pompeo noted in his statement, threats are emanating from the “government of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, and from militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.”
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Despite statements by your team that you are after a change in regime behavior, your remarks at the United Nations last week and the newly released State Department report on the “outlaw regime” in Iran look like a campaign for regime change.
So, in addition to feeling violated because you withdrew from the Iran deal, the regime also feels under attack. Iran will probably continue to attack where it has an edge – and that’s against our people in the region.