Crisis as Opportunity for the IC

The summer of crisis is showing no signs of abatement with the approach of the fall equinox. Yes, I am mindful that Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease fire on August 26th, but I don’t see it addressing any of the underlying causes feeding the violence on both sides with regard to Gaza. There is still no assignment of responsibility for the shoot down of Malaysian Air Flight 17 over the eastern Ukraine but now there are photographs of Russian troops and armored vehicles securing the road that connects Rostov in southern Russia with Sevastopol in the recently annexed Crimea. Then there are the horrific executions by beheading of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff apparently meant to warn the West that it should be mindful that the Islamic State (IS) is a sovereign nation that is not to be interfered with. In the background the Ebola epidemic continues in West Africa along with Boko Haram, Libya is being run by militias, the Horn of Africa remains ungovernable and there are almost daily news reports of serious cyber hacks reminding me that there are dangerous chemical, biological, and cyber threats from a variety of vectors that accidently or purposely could ruin our day in the Continental United States (CONUS).

As bad as all this is, the current cauldron of crises should be an opportunity for the Intelligence Community (IC), the Department of State (DoS), Department of Homeland Security (DoHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) to individually and collectively show the American people that they are ready to defend them and that the investments made in these departments over the past 12 years has been money well spent on their behalf. Whether it’s because of (or lack of) policy decisions, capability gaps, organizational structure, or leadership I have the sense that the American people not only don’t have trust and confidence in our government’s ability to protect them, but they are beginning to see the government as contributing to if not causing the threats to our national security. Moreover, the impending release of the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI’s) release of its lengthy report on rendition and enhanced interrogation will likely only add to the misgivings the electorate has about the IC post Snowden.

Without getting into the politics of who’s at fault, it is a matter of record that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not turned out the way Washington said they would. Neither has been short; both have delivered more casualties than expected; each has seen several shifts in strategy; both have been crushingly expensive; neither resulted in stable sovereign national governments, but most important of all the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not ridded the world of violent Sunni Moslem Jihadist looking to wreak death and destruction on the United States. Instead, America is confronted with a well-organized, well financed, heavily armed, highly radical Islamic Sharia State the size of Belgium in what used to be northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq that unchecked will threaten at least Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia – – – – which offers IS strongman Baghdadi both more oil riches as well as control of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina to expand the appeal of the IS “caliphate.”

As with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Abdu Bakr al Baghdadi are also threatening the United States with jihadi violence because of American opposition to the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate under Sharia Law. While it was not certainly planned this way, the current threat presented by the IS provides the Intelligence Community (IC) with the opportunity to regain the trust and confidence of the American people by demonstrating what it can do for them as opposed to what Greenwalt, Bamfort and others have been saying the IC has been doing to them.

The first thing the IC can and should do is identify and broadly publicize as many names as possible of American’s fighting for the IS. It is one thing for these individuals to be watch listed but another for the American people to be engaged in protecting themselves by knowing who they are. Another is for the IC to share with the American people the intelligence it is providing to the Kurds and Turks to enable military action against IS fighters so they can understand what the IS is doing. Spare me the concern about compromising sources and methods if we are willing to provide actionable intelligence to uncleared foreign fighters. If the IC wants trust and confidence then it needs to let those paying the bills see some of their IC tax dollars at work! Without being specific, the IC should also be talking openly about how it is using big data and analytics to understand how the Islamic State is organized, operates, who its leaders are, and how it targets.

It wouldn’t hurt either if the American people saw the IC actively contributing a comprehensive strategy to deal with the threat the IS presents as well as responding Putin’s aggression in the eastern Ukraine. Some of that strategy should involve active (and visible) intelligence collection, analysis and sharing. If I got the chance to offer strategy advice to policy makers I would suggest at least the following:

For the Islamic State:

  • Stop trying to save Iraq as a nation state and allow it to fractionate into its natural Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish constituencies.
  • Use American ISR and military power to help the Turks, Kurds, Saudis, and Iran backed Iraqi Shias to contain, weaken, and defeat the military capabilities of the Islamic State
  • Destroying the Islamic State is more important than whether Assad continues to rule what is left of Syria; with political, economic, and military pressure his regime will last only a matter of years

For Russia and the Ukraine:

  • Continue to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically while calling out Putin with the release of selected intelligence
  • Provide the Ukrainian Government in Kiev with strategic and tactical intelligence regarding Russian actions in the eastern Ukraine
  • Insure military arms and ammunition quickly reach the Ukraine Government
  • Expedite the completion of land based missile defense capabilities in Poland
  • Ramp up visible peripheral reconnaissance along the northern shore of the Black Sea
  • Deploy a U.S. Navy Surface Combatant Strike Group (AEGIS cruisers and destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles
  • Suggest to NATO that the Montreux Convention be examined to allow for aircraft carrier transits of the Turkish Straits

While national strategic options for both the IS and the Ukraine are being formulated and debated I do believe it would be prudent to move a USN Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean to show both interest and intent in each of these areas of concern.

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

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?