JULY 17th

17 July is the kind of day when events come together in ways that cause international order (what’s left of it) to spiral out of control.

Around 1:00 PM Eastern Time a relatively quiet news day was shattered by reports that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) had apparently been brought down (later confirmed by Vice President Biden) by a missile while transporting 295 souls across the Ukraine enroute to Kula Lumpur from Amsterdam. My mind immediately ratcheted back to 1 September 1983 when I was the Pacific Fleet’s Indications and Warning Watch Officer and all the confusion and conflicting reporting associated with what turned out to be the Soviet fighter aircraft shoot down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 (KAL 007) flying from New York to Seoul.  Four hours after MH-17 was shot down, Israeli tanks rolled in to Gaza to wipe out the tunnels and nests being used by Palestinian Hamas to fire rockets into Israel.  When a Palestinian Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, said “we warn Netanyahu of the dreadful consequences of such a foolish act” I found myself hoping that Hamas or ISIS is not thinking of shooting down an airliner.

Unless some type of safe passage can be arranged for international aviation accident inspectors to get to the crash site of MH-17 located in eastern Ukraine, where initial reports are that Russian backed separatist are preventing Ukrainian law enforcement and rescue personnel from entering the area, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is likely to have the  best information and insights about how this airliner was brought down and by whom – – – – with “why” being considerably more difficult to ascertain.  Presumably this IC-generated knowledge can be used productively by the United States to get the Ukrainians, the separatists, and the Russians to do the right thing so that remains can be returned to families, and the cause and motive determined as well as reparations offered.  In the meantime all the parties involved can be expected to continue to trade accusations that could lead to more armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.  The IC’s ability to “fact check” these accusations is an opportunity for the community to begin regaining the trust and confidence of the American people by being seen as force for good by preventing further armed violence and keeping the US out of conflict it does not want to be sucked into.

In Gaza there is not much any nation’s intelligence service can do to broker some kind of meaningful ceasefire that will allow Israel and the Palestinians to come to some type of sustainable accommodation.  What the US IC can do, however, is use its powers of surveillance to warn US leaders, and by extension others with regional influence, when either Israeli military actions are doing more harm than good in terms of reaction in the “Arab Street” that will put moderate Middle Eastern governments at risk or when outsiders such as Iran or ISIS are preparing to deliver “sympathetic terrorism” on behalf of their besieged Muslim Brothers in Gaza.  I would argue now is the time for the US to quietly but publicly flex its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) muscles to impress our friends and intimidate our adversaries, even at the expense of some sources and methods in order to contain if not restrain the violence in Gaza.

As optimistic as I am about the power of the IC to help the US control the events of July 17th, I also have enough experience to understand that the real power of intelligence is in “observation” not with taking “action.”  How events unfold going forward from July 17 can be informed and even shaped by the power of the IC, but in the end what will determine whether history from the summer of 1914 repeats itself in some new fashion peculiar to 2014 will be determined by how well diplomats, generals, and statesmen use the observations the IC makes available to them in concert with their own experience, judgment, and capabilities.  No matter how events play out in the Ukraine and Gaza going forward from July 17th, it clear this day will be viewed at least in immediate terms as an inflection point which changes how the parties involved view these conflicts and what the international community is willing to do about them.

Days like July 17, 2014 test and strain the US IC, but they also demonstrate its unique power to inform and guide the actions of the United States.

That’s what I think!  What do you think?

 

 

Remember the Rocky Horror Picture Show from 1975? Then Let’s do the “Time Warp” Together!

My intention was to write about how the Intelligence Community (IC) might go about restoring its confidence and creditability with the American people, but that seemed tone deaf given the events of early June:

  • Boko Haram kidnapping 200 Nigerian school girls
  • A friendly fire incident in Afghanistan that killed five US Army soldiers with a B1 Lancer doing “close” air support from 30,000 feet
  • 10,000 children from Central America overwhelming DHS Immigration and Border Patrol resources in the Southwest
  • The myriad of issues associated with the exchange of five high ranking Al Qaeda detainees (aka the Al Qaeda War Cabinet) for Sargent Berghadl

As I was trying to determine what might connect these events and put them into a broader context, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Jihadists exploded across the Syrian border into Iraq threatening the continued existence of Iraq as a sovereign state.  So if I don’t start talking about events in Iraq I am not sure why I would expect any of you to keep reading.

The rapid advance of the ISIS Militia towards Baghdad seemed like a time warp bringing me back to 1975 (  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sg-vgGuTD8A )  where the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) predictably came across the border in strength three years after the departure of US combat forces to topple the corrupt Theiu Government in Saigon.  In the background to the fall of Saigon,  Brezhnev ‘s Soviet Union was deploying a new generation of highly accurate ICBMS while OKEAN 75 was showing the world the firepower and global reach of the Soviet Navy.  At home Gerald Ford was viewed as an “accidental President” who could not get the country’s economy going, while in the Senate the Church Committee was investigating IC abuses which included warrantless surveillance on American citizens.  Based on this I was bracing for a pell-mell evacuation of the 5,000 residents of the $750 million dollar US embassy in Baghdad complete with an iconic photo a Marine helicopter taking people off the roof.  I snapped back to the present though when I realized unlike Vietnam, Iraq is an artificial country, Russia is at best a regional power today, and Baghdad was not likely to fall to ISIS since Iraq’s Shia Mullahs called the faithful to arms and Iran forcefully inserted itself in defense of the al ’Malaki government. Moreover, ISIS seems only capable of capturing and controlling the Sunni region of Iraq.

There has naturally been some rumblings that IC was not aware of ISIS and the threat it presented, but I knew this wasn’t true.  The first time I had heard of ISIS was last February when DIA Director Mike Flynn in his global threat assessment for Congress described ISIS, what its strategic aims are, and why they were a concern to the IC.  More recently journalists David Ignatius and Siobhan Gorman have reported on IC efforts to work with intelligence services in the region to learn more about ISIS in advance of their breakout from Syria.  The criticism that has stuck is that nobody expected the Iraqi Army to cut and run in the face of the ISIS Militia.  Really?!?!  They must have seen a different Iraqi Army than the one on the battlefield during Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom!

Since the fall of Mosul (circa 8 June) there has been a daily onslaught of punditry about whether it was a strategic mistake for the US to militarily involve itself in Iraq or whether our 2011 pull out of military forces was a strategic mistake.  It seems “mistake” is a description running through American involvement in Iraq since the end of Desert Storm combat operations in February 1991.

  • A battle field armistice  that allowed Saddam’s Sunni regime to crush Shia militants in southern Iraq with helicopter gunships
  • The inability to weaken the Saddam’s grip on Iraq through sanctions and “no fly zones” enforcement
  • A flawed intelligence assessment that Saddam had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify Iraqi Freedom to take out Saddam and his regime
  • A presidential “mission accomplished” assertion for Iraqi Freedom from the flight deck of USS Abraham Lincoln
  • No phase IV plan for reconstructing Iraq post Iraqi Freedom coupled with the disastrous “de Bathification” policy that opened the door for Al Qaeda In Iraq (AQI) which has morphed into ISIS
  • Dithering over whether stabilization, counter terrorism, or counterinsurgency operations (COIN) was the best strategy for Iraq
  • Not being able to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Maliki government for keeping a residual US military force in Iraq
  • Never understanding that Iraq is not a political entity but a geographic enclave of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions that is an artifact of Sykes-Picot and has existed as a nation state only since 1920 until now because of the British Mandate followed by oppressive strongmen regimes in Baghdad

Beyond this record of mistakes there is also a strong case that the window for American direct involvement with Iraq’s future has closed.  The expansion of ISIS into Iraq has laid bare the realities of sectarian hostilities that dominate modern day Mesopotamia that outsiders cannot really impact. If there is to be stability in the region known today as Iraq it would seem that Sunni Saudi Arabia (by the way who is funding ISIS?) and Shite Iran would be its broker.   If events today are a harbinger of a larger more intense holy war between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam it will not be lost on the Shite Mullahs in Tehran that Pakistan brings nuclear weapons to the Sunni’s side.

Certainly I am concerned by an ISIS inspired Sunni “caliphate” stretching from northern Syria through what is currently northwestern Iraq to Kurdistan that would be the failed state haven Afghanistan was for Al Qaeda’s training and planning of terrorist acts of mass effects.  More pragmatically, however, I see the Sunni and Shia Jihadists spending more effort killing each other in the name of Mohammad than visiting terrorism on the West.

. . . . and if there is an irrepressible urge to deploy US military forces, I would urge the White House to consider sending activated Army National Guard units to the Mexican border to halt the flow of children, as well as others, who are walking into the United States by the thousands!

That’s what I think; what do you think?

The “New Normal” and DIA

It is Memorial Day and I am surprised by how inured I am to our military being at war for 13 years now.  I am careful to say the military rather than the nation being at war, because since 9/11 two very different two-term Presidents have as a matter of policy made the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan the sole purview of the armed forces vice the nation they are protecting.  It seems to me that in different ways both the Bush and Obama Administrations reached the same political calculation: if the American people have to sacrifice in terms of higher taxes, reduced entitlements or less consumer goods they will quickly use their voting power to end these conflicts. Now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have come to an end out of wearing frustration and crushing expense with results that don’t seem to have made the United States any safer.  This is especially true when we consider what a small group of passionately anti-American terrorists operating from a failed state can do with kinetic, chemical/biological, or cyber weapons of mass destruction.  We have, however, demonstrated what terrorists can expect should they bring harm to the homeland of the United States.

It is in this context I am viewing the news of the world in a state of constant crisis as being the “new normal,” from the coup in Thailand, Boko Haram taking 200 school girls hostage, continuing armed conflict in Syria, escalating violence in Iraq, political upheaval in Egypt, instability in Pakistan, events in the Ukraine, or the confrontation in the South China Sea.  In all of his public appearances for the past year or so Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director LTG Mike Flynn has been warning that crisis is the “new normal” and implying that solid intelligence is the capability most in need by policy makers and military operators for sorting out which world events present serious security threats to the interests of the United States and how to effectively deal with them.  In other words, putting this daily menu of crises into context so that national energy and resources can be effectively engaged against those that matter the most. And when force is employed by providing military commanders with decision advantage.

Given his Special Operations Forces (SOF) background and his description and prescription for what is wrong with military intelligence in his seminal 2010 paper “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan”,  I was not surprised by Mike Flynn’s aggressive efforts through personnel and organizational change to make DIA more relevant to decision makers and military officers dealing with constant crisis.  I was surprised, however, that for reasons not clear to me he was not continued for a normal third year of his tour as DIA Director because according to press reports he was disruptive!  Really?  So what was the DoD and IC leadership who selected him to lead DIA expecting from a person this transparent?

DIA was established in 1961 to provide the Secretary of Defense and the wider defense enterprise with timely, relevant, and actionable intelligence to support policy, acquisition, and operations. DIA was also seen as adding to the competitive analysis of intelligence offered by the military services State Department and the CIA.  Nonetheless, DIA has struggled throughout its history to establish itself on an equal professional footing with the CIA and the other four national intelligence agencies (NSA, NRO, NGA, and FBI).  Since the mid-1990’s I have observed Flynn’s seven  predecessors become DIA Director with a mandate and/or agenda to revive DIA and make it a more meaningful player for DoD’s needs and by extension give it influence within the larger Intelligence Community (IC) commensurate with its mission and size.  In their own ways each of these well thought of three star officers achieved incremental success in modernizing and equipping DIA for the post-Cold War Intelligence challenges DoD, the IC and the nation faced.  In aggregate, though, none of these seven directors significantly changed how DIA was perceived externally by its consumers or IC peers; nor did they impact how DIA is internally viewed by its own workforce.

When Mike Flynn became Director DIA in July 2012 it seemed to me his approach for changing DIA was employing a quick hitting “SOF raid” where he and a cadre of trusted subordinates in short order shifted over 100 SES’s to new positions (detaching most from their bureaucratic power bases) while also reorganizing DIA out of its hierarchical structure to a flatter more fluid “centers” based approached driven by consumer needs.  In retrospect what LTG Flynn misgauged was that as a bureaucratically hardened target with practiced survival skills DIA was not a good SOF target.  In the end it seems DIA’s entrenched ways attrited Flynn’s more agile but smaller force before he could change DIA’s organizational outlook.  DIA’s change-resistant culture also got some serious top cover from the military service intelligence organizations that see gains for DIA as working against their prestige and budgets.  Similarly, CIA has no interest in DIA becoming a meaningful counterweight on the military side to its role as the IC’s leading all source intelligence producer.

I suspect Mike Flynn understood that there were long odds against dramatically changing DIA on his watch, but doing a risk verses benefit calculation I can see where he saw virtually only personal danger to himself and unlimited upside if the effort to make DIA more relevant to the “new normal” environment of continuing crisis succeeded. Presumably, whoever the next DirDIA is they will be informed by LTG Flynn’s experience of attempting to rapidly alter DIA and return to a path of incremental change for the agency.

Here are some recommendations I hope the next DIA Director will consider as this officer assesses the direction they want DIA to move in:

  • No reorganizations; play the cards you are dealt so the DIA workforce will stop being concerned about organization charts and be more focused producing intelligence.  Moreover, continuing the DIA “Centers” will allow the agency to avoid the disruptive ad hoc task force response to crises that it has traditionally used.
  • The quickest path to relevance is through tailored embedded (virtual where this makes sense) intelligence support teams for military operating forces going in harm’s way.  DIA “go teams” that train up with SOF, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units they are supporting will provide these units with better intelligence while infusing DIA at the working level with what military forces need and how they want it.
  • Avoid becoming “cyber warriors” but develop a deeper understanding of collection, analysis, signatures, and order of battle associate with the cyber domain.  What should the Modernized Intelligence Data Base (MIDB) look like for cyber targets?
  • Intelligence support to DoD acquisition is under served and is in the sweet spot of DIA’s capabilities and strengths.  Begin to view intelligence for acquisition as supporting the next generation of warfighters.
  • Information Technology (IT) is an “enabler” but not a core mission for DIA so stop spending so much time and money on it!  Shift to an outsourced managed services model similar to Ground Breaker to both save money and improve IT infrastructure performance.  Turn DIA to being an IT consumer/follower vice developer/innovator.  Leverage IT capabilities offered by ICITE, DI2E, and DISA

In the final analysis it doesn’t matter if DIA becomes a more relevant IC player through revolutionary or evolutionary change.  The radical organizational change and sense of urgency LTG Flynn has introduced into DIA, I believe will provide the next DirDIA a platform to help DIA through an incremental approach to achieving its true potential

That’s what I think; what do you think?