The scariest part of Coats’s statement—other than the fact that he had to issue it in the first place because his boss is sympathizing with the enemy—is the word ongoing. The Russians have never left. We are at war. But only the enemy is fighting.
The number-one job of intelligence agencies is to prevent catastrophic strategic surprise. Warning before disaster strikes is difficult in the best of circumstances. Intelligence is never a crystal ball. The future is uncertain. Adversaries seek to deceive. Information is hidden, incomplete, and siloed in bureaucracies. Time almost always advantages the attacker, who can select when, where, and how to strike to maximize prospects for success. American intelligence agencies have had some tragic warning failures over the course of their history, including Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But the Helsinki summit has laid bare the limits of intelligence warning. Intelligence leaders can warn away, but for warning to succeed, policy makers must act.
The marriage of warning and action has been vital to securing the nation since before it was a nation. In 1775, Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn his compatriots what he had learned from rebel spy networks: British soldiers were coming to arrest the patriot leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock and seize rebel military stores hidden in the countryside. In truth, Revere was just one small part of an elaborate rebel espionage and warning system to preserve the leadership and arms of the Sons of Liberty. That system was put in place because the stakes were high: If the British troops succeeded, the cause could be lost. When Revere came knocking on Hancock’s door in the middle of the night, the warning he carried came in time for the rebels to take action. Hancock and Adams escaped, military supplies were dispersed, and local militias got ready. The battles of Lexington and Concord took place the same day, beginning the Revolutionary War.
Since the summer of 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies have been knocking in the night, warning Obama administration officials and now the Trump administration: The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. History will judge whether Obama officials did too little, too late to confront a threat nobody had ever seen before. But Trump officials don’t have that excuse. With each day, the magnitude and imminence of the Russian threat becomes more evident. And yet Trump has ordered no specific actions to defend this country against Russian information operations or election interference targeting the 2018 midterm elections. Instead, the president has sided with the enemy, in public, against the advice of his senior officials. On Tuesday, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle vowed to get serious. They’ve been meeting to secure bipartisan support for big, bold action—which consists of a sense of the Senate resolution reaffirming support for U.S. intelligence assessments about Russia. Because nothing says Cut it out, Putin, or you’ll be sorry like a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution.
American intelligence agencies have done their job. They don’t expect or need words of support. What they need is action by policy makers to keep America safe.