A Worldwide Threat Assessment

As we noted in the Wednesday edition, the US intelligence community has released its latest Worldwide Threat Assessment. Much of the media focus this week has fallen on President Trump's criticism of the US intel chiefs, but let's begin with the report itself. Here are its key findings:


  • The Trump administration's trade policies have damaged US interests by pushing allies to build new relationships with other governments.
  • "At present, China and Russia pose the greatest espionage and cyber attack threats."
  • ISIS isn't finished. The group can still call on thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, as well as a dozen networks around the world.
  • "Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security."
  • North Korea "is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability." Following Kim Jong-un's meeting last year with President Trump in Singapore, North Korea has continued nuclear development in some areas and taken actions that are reversible in others. CIA Director Gina Haspel testified before Congress on Tuesday that North Korea "is committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States."
  • Iran continues to support terrorist groups in the Middle East and Europe, but it's still complying with the terms of the nuclear deal even after the US withdrew from the agreement and re-imposed sanctions. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress this week that "We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device."

And now to the controversy. President Trump, who has made statements in the past that contradict every one of these findings, was not pleased with the assessment, particularly on the subject of Iran. "The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong! When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond," he tweeted on Wednesday.

If you want to know how a particular government weighs threats to national security, don't look to politicians. They have their own motives for stressing this or that threat. Look to intelligence professionals who were there before a particular president or prime minister arrived and will be there after they're gone. US intelligence has been (sometimes dangerously) wrong over the years, but the experience of its people and their extraordinary access to information make it unwise to dismiss their judgment.

And it's alarming to see the president of the United States, whom the US Constitution designates as Commander in Chief of the military, publicly deriding the integrity of the nation's intelligence agencies. This week, your Friday author is in Japan, one of several US allies where officials are watching with serious concern. It's also noteworthy that a clear majority of Republican senators voted this week to support a measure declaring that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda remain serious threats in Syria and Afghanistan, a rare rebuke for the president by lawmakers from his own party.

Amid the current need to continually focus on the COVID-19 crisis, it is understandably hard to address other important issues. But, on March 31st, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed landmark facial recognition legislation that the state legislature passed on March 12, less than three weeks, but seemingly an era, ago. Nonetheless, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the importance of this step. This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology.

For more on Washington's privacy legislation, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Read our roundup of COVID-19 themes and stories from around the globe.

Europe skirts US sanctions to help Iran: While the US insists on tightening the sanctions noose around COVID-stricken Iran, European countries are now sending medical equipment. To do so, they are using for the first time a system called INSTEX, a back-channel financial mechanism created a year ago that allows Europe to maintain trade ties with Iran despite US sanctions. Recall that in 2018 the US pulled out of the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions – the Europeans stayed in the deal and have tried to salvage it. To date, Iran has suffered more than 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, one of the highest tolls in the world. Some say that Iran's failure to contain the contagion has been complicated further by US sanctions, which have thwarted the Islamic Republic's ability to fund medical imports. Tehran has urged the US to ease sanctions to no avail, but Ayatollah Khamenei has also, citing some wild conspiracy theories about the coronavirus' origin, refused medical aid from Washington.

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Laid-off hospitality workers tell their stories in their own words.

Ian Bremmer breaks down the massive economic toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on the hospitality and service industries in America and around the globe. In the U.S. alone, millions could face unemployment as businesses struggle to stay afloat.

Over the past decade or so, the European Union has weathered the global financial crisis, a migrant crisis, and the rise of populist nationalism. Sure, it's taken its fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but the idea of a largely borderless Europe united by common democratic values has survived more or less intact.

Then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic, in which Europe is now one of the two main epicentres, is a still-spiralling nightmare that could make those previous crises look benign by comparison. Here are a few different ways that COVID-19 is severely testing the 27-member bloc:

The economic crisis: Lockdowns intended to stop the virus' spread have brought economic activity to a screeching halt, and national governments are going to need to spend a lot of money to offset the impact. But some EU members can borrow those funds more easily than others. Huge debt loads and deficits in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the outbreak so far, make it costlier for them to borrow than more fiscally conservative Germany and other northern member states. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this imbalance nearly led the bloc's common currency, the Euro, to unravel.

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