A Worldwide Threats Hearing Guide from the Bleachers

Cipher Brief Expert View

As US Worldwide Threats hearings get underway in Washington after a two-year hiatus, experts will be watching to see how the Biden Administration’s new senior intelligence officials are ranking and prioritizing threats to US national security. 

The hearings have for years, been seen as the most prestigious showing of senior IC officials, communicating months of work in preparing the annual report.

As a former Defense Intelligence Agency Director, Lieutenant General Bob Ashley (Ret.) has insider experience with the work that goes into producing the report.  The Cipher Brief caught up with him for an inside look at how it all comes together and what he expects to see now, since he’s retired.

LTG Ashley is a career Army intelligence officer having served over thirty-six years on active duty, retiring from the Army in November 2020.  He final assignment was as the 21st Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from October 2017 to October 2020 where we reported directly to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security and the Secretary of Defense.

The Cipher Brief:  What is the preparation process for the Worldwide Threats hearing like?  

LTG Ashley:  As the DIA Director, I had a global responsibility.  When someone asks me about preparation for the Annual Worldwide Threats Testimony, I tell them…imagine you’re getting ready to have your oral finals for your degree and the topic is…the world.

The process starts around 6-8 weeks out.  The various analytic shops start thinking their way through all the hot topics and formulating questions we think will be asked.  We’re careful to ensure we steer clear of policy and work to provide as much context as possible in the answer.

Once the analysts have the base line of topics, we hold a series of analytic round tables.  Each round table is about two hours.  We go through each of the geographic regions with our Integrated Intelligence Centers.  That accounts for about four separate sessions.  We then dive into functional areas like weapons development, disruptive technology, nuclear developments, CT, and various science and technology issues.  Some will be deep dives within specific counties such as the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs or the Russian Big Six weapons systems that Putin unveiled in 2018, or Chinese actions in the South China Sea and military development in doctrine and force disposition.

During each session, I would ask several questions to refine my understanding given that I spent two hours each morning reading intelligence traffic, so I was very current on most all the topics.  I just wanted to make sure my foundational understanding was correct and ensure that we had not missed anything.  The analysts were always amazing and it’s nothing but fun to have those dialogues with them.  Our talent is amazing.  We would then take all my questions from the round table and research answers and go another round with the analyst to discuss the new research and refine our assessments.

Once that is done, we do a couple of murder boards…usually a geographic murder board followed by a technical murder board.  Each are about two hours.   The final session is a mock hearing where the subject matter experts will ask you questions across all the topics for about two hours and they grade you and then you work out the rough spots.

Throughout the process you’ll have an unclassified and classified study book…each about 200 pages of notes, published finished intelligence and other material to study.  So, between sessions you’re digging into the books.

Meanwhile you also have your day job between prep-sessions.

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The Cipher Brief:  What were the major differences between the open and closed sessions?

LTG Ashley:  During the prep we are very deliberate to formulate both unclassified and classified responses.  The goal is not to have to say “I can discuss that in closed session.”  The intent is to provide some response even though the more robust feedback will happen in closed session.  We take seriously our responsibility to educate the American public on our understanding of the threat as we assess it.

I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say that as you sit there, you know your family is watching…so no one wants to look uninformed on national television. As you watch, you’ll notice some members are looking to make a statement for the record and get your confirmation of the threat and reinforce their own assessments.

What I can say, is that during my multiple times testifying in 2018 and 2019 I never felt any pressure not to unpack the threat as DIA assessed it.  Never.

Closed sessions are a little more fluid with more free flow discussion and you don’t have to think “is this classified” as you formulate your response.  It’s a more collegial session…and more in-depth.

The Cipher Brief:  How do senior leaders use the information provided in the report once the hearing is over?

LTG Ashley:  Since we produce a statement for the record, it provides senior leaders information that they can use with their constituents and in various other public forums to education as well as drive policy.  It also helps to set a common understanding of the threat.

The Cipher Brief:  What should the average American be taking away from these hearings (one before the Senate and one before the House intelligence committees?

LTG Ashley:  There are a multitude of threats, not just adversaries in the traditional sense of nation-states.  Disruptive technologies, the democratization of space without sufficient global policy/regulation in place, the diffusion of advanced weapons, exacerbation of issues associated with climate change.   Challenges to the current world order.  Having done this for over 36 years, the speed of change, complexity of the issues, risk of making bad decisions regarding policy and investment has never been more consequential.  As the historian Sir Michael Howard warned us… ‘No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict. The key is to not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust once that character is revealed’. 

The Cipher Brief:  What will US adversaries likely be looking for from these hearings?  

LTG Ashley:  In the open session, they are not going to hear anything that they don’t already know.  In some cases, it may confirm some specifics they assume we know.  Once they hear and see the official DNI statement released then they can refine their counter narratives.

The Cipher Brief: Now that you’re retired, what will you be watching for?

LTG Ashley:  Questions from the committee that demonstrate an understanding of the threat and help to education the public on the most pressing issues facing the nation by truly leveraging the experts that will be sitting at the table representing the IC.

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