What CNN got wrong about the DNI Threat Assessment

April 15, 2021

By John Ransom

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued its annual unclassified summary Threat Assessment earlier this week. And not surprisingly, CNN got a lot of the summary wrong in an attempt to help Joe Biden and the Democrats while hurting the GOP.  

The 27-page report summary is an annual requirement from the DNI that goes to Congress and “focuses on the most direct, serious threats to the United States during the next year.”  

It includes short descriptions of threats but doesn’t assess the magnitude of the threat overall or anything that the intelligence community might do to mitigate those threats.

CNN hyped up three aspects of the report to try to discredit the GOP. 

CNN got the stories wrong or at least slanted. 

The three areas CNN covered are Russia, COVID and domestic terror and each was covered in relation to Trump, conservatives or the GOP, none of which appeared in the DNI report. 

China made a cameo appearance in CNN’s coverage but was downplayed. 

CNN on Russia: 

The report also issues an unequivocal warning on Russian activity, saying that Moscow “presents one of the most serious intelligence threats to the United States.” It confirmes [sic] influence operations targeting the 2020 election, noting that Moscow “almost certainly views US elections as an opportunity to try to undermine US global standing, sow discord inside the United States, influence US decision-making, and sway US voters.”

What CNN missed in the DNI report

We expect Moscow to seek opportunities for pragmatic cooperation with Washington on its own terms, and we assess that Russia does not want a direct conflict with US forces.

Russian officials have long believed that the United States is conducting its own “influence campaigns” to undermine Russia, weaken President Vladimir Putin, and install Western-friendly regimes in the states of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Russia seeks an accommodation with the United States on mutual noninterference in both countries’ domestic affairs and US recognition of Russia’s claimed sphere of influence over much of the former Soviet Union.

While Russia remains a threat, to some extent, it’s because the U.S. has interfered in elections that directly threaten Moscow. Moscow has offered to stop interference if the U.S. does the same. 


The picture is not pretty. Officials warn that in addition to the obvious humanitarian concerns associated with the pandemic — like food shortages and uneven access to therapeutics — the virus is also reshaping the security calculus of nations like Russia and China, who are jockeying to exploit the crisis to increase their geopolitical influence. Both seek to gain an advantage through vaccine diplomacy. Beijing is also using its global health assistance efforts to export its surveillance tools and technologies, the report says. 

What CNN missed in the DNI report

The economic fallout from the pandemic is likely to create or worsen instability in at least a few—and perhaps many—countries, as people grow more desperate in the face of interlocking pressures that include sustained economic downturns, job losses, and disrupted supply chains. Some hard-hit developing countries are experiencing financial and humanitarian crises, increasing the risk of surges in migration, collapsed governments, or internal conflict.

In short, the economic fallout caused by lockdowns is much more serious than the health consequences of keeping the economies open.  

CNN on Domestic Terror:

White supremacists have been responsible “for at least 26 lethal attacks that killed more than 141 people and for dozens of disrupted plots in the West since 2015,” the report says.

“While these extremists often see themselves as part of a broader global movement, most attacks have been carried out by individuals or small, independent cells,” it adds. “Australia, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom consider white racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, including Neo-Nazi groups, to be the fastest-growing terrorist threat they face.”

What CNN missed in the DNI report:

We assess that ISIS and al-Qa‘ida remain the greatest Sunni terrorist threats to US interests overseas; they also seek to conduct attacks inside the United States, although sustained US and allied CT pressure has broadly degraded their capability to do so. US-based lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate domestic threat. We see this lone-actor threat manifested both within homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), who are inspired by al-Qa‘ida and ISIS, and within domestic violent extremists (DVEs), who commit terrorist acts for ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias and antigovernment sentiment

Domestic terror groups include those Islamic-inspired groups we are used to and white supremacist groups like those that have struck in “Australia, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom.”   

CNN on China: 

China, intelligence leaders warn, also “presents a growing influence threat” in the United States — an assertion that may give some political cover to former Trump administration appointees who sought to portray China as the bigger counterintelligence threat during the 2020 election. Declassified documents later showed that China “considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election.” [Note comments in bold italics did not appear in the 2021 DNI report, but were added by CNN in quotes from earlier reporting]

What CNN missed in the DNI report:

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system.

Even as CNN wrote its summary of the DNI Threat Assessment, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines was testifying in Congress about China as an “unparalleled priority” for the IC of the US and other countries, “while FBI Director Christopher Wray told senators that his agency has more than 2,000 open investigations that ‘tie back to the Chinese government,’ with new probes being opened every 10 hours,” said Politico



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