The Road to War is Littered with Miscalculations

Obama Administration nemesis Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter are in agreement that Russia, China, and Iran are all taking actions to assert their influence and demonstrate their ability to confront the United States.   At the Reagan Defense Forum on 7 November the Sec Def observed that “Some actors appear intent on eroding these principles and undercutting the international order that helps enforce them.”   Secretary Carter went on to warn that while the US does not seek confrontation it remains resolved to “…defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.” (  This current environment of confrontation creates a tinder box from Syria, to the South China Sea, to any venue for physical terror, to cyberspace where potential shows of strength by Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Damascus or Raqqa will increase the probabilities for a miscalculation that could lead to devastating unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Though not yet confirmed, “intelligence chatter” is indicating that ISIS is probably responsible for the 31 October bombing of Metrojet flight 9268 over the Sinai as it was returning 224 Russian vacationers to Saint Petersburg from the Egyptian sea-side resort of Sharm-el-Sheihk.  Apparently this “intel chatter” was not specific enough to be actionable.  The intelligence imperative here is the difficult task of penetrating ISIS with human sources who can provide more granular insights about potential actions both on the battlefield and those directed against the international community.  The quickest way to rectify this lack of HUMINT would be to gain access through Assad’ security forces to members of ISIS that Syria has captured, but that would mean a deal with the devil brokered by Vladimir Putin.

Last month when I was opining about how things could get worse in terms of Syria and ISIS, I didn’t contemplate an act of airline terrorism aimed at Russia when I obviously should have.   If ISIS is responsible for bringing down Metrojet Flight 9268 (as they claim they are) then there is good chance this could lead to Russia and the US tacitly joining together in an “ISIS First Campaign” enabling Bashar al-Assad’s regime to remain in control of Syria until the Islamic State (IS) is neutralized.  With or without US support it seems a reasonable conclusion based on current behavior that Putin will double down on military pressure against ISIS.  Of course, the demise of ISIS works to the benefit of Iran in creating a Shite satellite in southern Iraq that would be a menace to Saudi Arabia.  The alternative is Saudi Arabia funneling money to ISIS to buy them off from bringing their brand Islamic Revolution to the “Kingdom” while keeping Iran and its Shite proxies on the defensive.

Concurrently on the other side of the world USS Lassen conducted on 27 October a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOp) in the South China Sea sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s claimed and militarily fortified Subi Reef.  This was quickly followed on 05 November by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his Malaysian counter-part flying out to the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (aka “The Big Stick) as this carrier strike group transited the South China Sea enroute its new home port of San Diego after a deployment to the Persian Gulf where its air wing conducted strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. China’s reaction was public but muted with a stern warning given to the US Ambassador in Beijing’s by China’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for LASSEN’s violation of Chinese territorial waters.  The Chinese also deployed additional military aircraft and missiles to the Spratly Islands.  The US response was to announce its intentions to continue to conduct regular FONOps in the South China Sea and for Secretary Carter to visit the “TR.”  While there has been no overt Chinese military reaction to USS Theodore Roosevelt’s transit of the South China Sea, a Chinese Diesel Electric Submarine was reportedly tracking USS Ronald Reagan in late October as it conducted a naval exercise in the Sea of Japan with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. And in return to a common Cold War practice, two Russian TU-142 Bear aircraft conducted close in surveillance of Reagan under escort by the carrier’s F/A-18’s during this same period.

The daily cyber intrusions against the U.S. private sector by Chinese and Russian state sponsored organizations are well documented and now Check Point Software Technologies on 09 November published a 38-page report identifying specific details and broad analysis on cyber-espionage activity conducted by the group Rocket Kitten, with possible ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (  As result of these menacing cyber assaults, the American private sector is becoming increasingly frustrated with the government’s inability to protect US industries from state sponsored cyber intrusions.

This is generating debate between the private sector and NSA/CYBERCOM about whether and when those in the private sector can engage in “active cyber defense” against those doing harm to them.  Proponents of active cyber defense contend that cyber space is not exclusively a government domain and if the government can’t or won’t protect the private sector from cyber harm then U.S. private entities should not be denied the right of self-defense.  Those opposed to active cyber defense by the private sector contend that the Constitution reserves to the federal government the responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs.

In its wisdom, Article 1 Section 8 of The United States Constitution states that “The Congress shall have Power to … grant Letters of marque and reprisal.”  This power was used to some effect in the early days of our republic to allow for commercial shipping to make up for our lack of naval power.  At both SAP N2S Solution Summit and the Reagan Defense forum, NSA Director/CyberCom Commander Admiral Mike Rogers said he thought issuing letters of Marque and Reprisal is a reasonable means for the government to authorize selected private companies and individuals to take active cyber defensive measures against those perpetrating harmful cyber actions upon them.  Adm Rogers, however, went on to express his deep concern about the unintended and unforeseen results of private entities taking cyber self-defense/retribution action against foreign state sponsored cyber actions.

I am not sure what is the best way to deal with this cyber constitutional conundrum, but I am reasonably certain that if the US does not develop a coherent policy, organization, and rules of engagement for private sector cyber active defense (and a well-regulated  private sector cyber militia – – – with or without Letters of Marque and Reprisal — sounds like the right approach to me) then U.S. commerce will remain vulnerable to foreign cyber intrusions, while all the unintended/unforeseen events Admiral Rogers is rightly concerned about will be at greater likelihood of happening anyway.

No good options with regard to Syria and ISIS, a return to Cold War like military tensions with Russia and China, and the US private sector looking to take cyber defense into their own      hands create continuing opportunities for miscalculations. The only thing worse than miscalculation is a blunder!

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


Earlier this month (Oct 2nd ) Mike Hayden observed that it is usually a losing bet for an intelligence officer to presume a situation “cannot get any worse” –  (  The context for his remarks was current events in Syria and the fight against ISIS.  Since I last engaged with you, things have certainly gone from bad to worse in Syria and certainly not improved with regard to ISIS.

  • Russia has deployed military forces to Syria to support the Assad Regime and is attacking those fighting ISIS who are receiving US military assistance.
  • Iran has become more vocal and open in its support of Assad, not only challenging the U.S. but also Saudi Arabia.
  • The U.S. strategy to build a force of anti-ISIS fighters has been scrapped given that it has produced only five (5) viable fighters over the course of the past year.
  • The Syrian Civil war continues to produce a flow of refugees into central Europe that is straining the ability and tolerance of most countries to absorb and assimilate them. Unchecked, the stream of refugees from Syria will impact European politics and policies in unpredictable ways.
  • Political violence in Turkey is making it increasingly difficult for the President Erdogan to maintain order and govern, which increases the potential for the Turkish military to step in and suspend the constitution to prevent an “Islamic Spring”  if not a “Turkish Islamic Revolution.”Tu

As for how things could get worse from where they are today, two contingencies that I would have thought low probability a few months ago now seem clearly possible.  The first is Hezbollah commencing a campaign of terror against Israel in order to generate support in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for Assad as a “front line leader” for creating a Palestinian State.  The second is an unplanned or planned military confrontation between Russian and U.S. aircraft that results in an undeclared air war over Syria with untold potential for escalation.

Making all this worse is the lack of unity within the U.S. government with regard to national security issues. You know the particulars!

  • Benghazi remains more of a topic for domestic politics where adversaries can’t help but notice we would rather investigate than respond forcefully to the murder of a popular U.S. Ambassador.
  • The display of vitriol and mistrust by the Congressional Branch for the Iranian Nuclear Agreement negotiated by the Executive Branch has surely been felt in Tele Aviv and Tehran.
  • No agreement within the Congress or between the Congress and the White House on matters of national security policy and strategy or on budget priorities
  • The willingness of both political parties to shut down the U.S. government over seemingly trivial issues such as funding for Planned Parenthood or how much of the DoD budget should be allocated to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)
  • The inability of the majority party in the House of Representatives to agree on a Speaker of the House, making the idea of agreeing on coherent national security policies seem like a bridge too far.

We all understand that the U.S. government is operating right now because Speaker Boehner startled the House of Representatives with his resignation to enable a compromise on passing a last minute Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for 90 days.  Resigning on principle is obviously not a long term strategy for effective governance through legislation.

With regard to passing an FY 16 budget, I wouldn’t bet on it!  Before the current CR runs out on 11 December both the President, the House of Representatives, and the Senate will get an opportunity to put the “full faith and credit” of the United States at risk with what seems to be an annual debate about raising the debt ceiling.  Then when 11 December rolls around the President has already said he will veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) if it raises budget caps on defense but not domestic programs.  The likely outcome after both sides posture rigorously for their political bases — but can’t risk being blamed for a government shutdown going into an election year — will be a CR for the rest of FY16.  A yearlong CR for FY16 means a continuation of last year’s budget allocations that have funded us to the current state of affairs in the Middle East.

I am not sure how well the Intelligence Community (IC) is doing at providing relevant intelligence to inform strategy and policy development towards Syria and ISIS, but I am certain that the best intelligence possible cannot create strategic clarity and unity of purpose for the Congress or the President.

Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  Yogi Berra told us if you don’t know what you are trying to achieve any policy will get you there.  With regard to dealing with Syria and ISIS, the U.S. has a divided government, no political will, no effective strategy and is budgeting through the rear view mirror so things, of course, can get worse as Mike Hayden is warning. I am pretty sure they will get worse no matter how the IC performs

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


The struggle for me this month is deciding what Intelligence Community (IC) centric topic is worthy of your time.  I could regal you with what I heard from the IC leadership at the DoDIIS Worldwide Conference in San Antonio (24-26 August) and the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit in Washington D.C. (9-10 September).  Perhaps more compelling is the unfolding refugee/migrant crisis in central Europe and its impacts on national security and implications for the IC. Of course, the immediate budget uncertainties and potential government shutdown are never far from mind.  What is currently interesting me is how the past three years of declining Defense and IC budgets and projections of continuing cuts in the out years is impacting the federal Information Technology (IT) Services industry resulting in large corporations exiting the space and generating pressure for mergers and acquisitions that will change the way the IC acquires IT in the near future.

None of this matters though as an 800 pound gorilla has barged into the IC’s living room during the second week of September in the form of Inspector General (IG) complaints by two Central Command (CentCom) analysts that the command J2 (Army one star general officer) has been altering intelligence regarding ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria in order to support Obama Administration claims that these forces are being defeated on the battlefield.  Manipulating intelligence so it reflects either what seniors want to hear or supports a particular policy agenda is the most egregious breach of ethics that an intelligence professional can commit, so examining what is going on in Tampa and its broader implications for the IC is not anything I relish thinking about let alone discussing in a public forum.

To be clear, my knowledge about the events reported by Shane Harris is limited to what has been reported in the media and discussed publicly about them by IC Seniors at the AFCEA/INSA IC Summit.

According to Shane Harris’ reporting (  ), two senior intelligence analysts at CENTCOM submitted a written complaint via formal channels to the Defense Department (DoD) Inspector General (IG) in July alleging that reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The two analysts contend these reports were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the Administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Fifty other CentCom intelligence analysts are reported to be supporting this formal complaint to the DoD IG and one person assigned to the CENTCOM J2 describes the command environment as “Stalinist.”

In related media reporting The Guardian’s U.S. correspondent Spencer Ackerman is implying that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper through regular secure video-teleconference calls with the CentCom J2 to better prepare himself for briefing the President may have inadvertently and subliminally caused the CentCom J2 to modify what his intelligence analysts were concluding from the information available to them. It is important to recognize that no one is making any claim let alone offering any evidence that the DNI was pressuring the CentCom J2 to modify his organization’s intelligence assessments.

The most important official response to these reports is from DIA Director Marine Corps LtGen Vince Stewart, USMC.  When asked about these allegations while on stage at the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit with the heads of the “Big 6” Intelligence Agencies on 10 September, the Director of DIA acknowledged that there is an ongoing investigation so he could not speak to specifics, but he continued that he did want to talk to the dynamics involved with collecting and sorting out what intelligence means.  LtGen Steward reminded the audience that

“we [intelligence professionals] pride ourselves on analytic rigor, in which we look at the vast amount of information to deliver an assessment. It is not plain. It is not science. It is as much experience and judgment as anything else. So when we go through the analytic process, it is a pretty rough-and-tumble debate.”  Because experts can and often do disagree about what information is relevant or what the information collected means “. . .at some point at the end of the day someone has to say, ‘This is the best judgment of what the data says’ and present that to our decision makers.” 

The DIA Director went on to say that those with concerns about the creditability of battlefield related intelligence should “be applauded” for bringing these concerns to the IG via proper channels

It is certainly difficult to disagree with anything LtGen Stewart said, and I commend him for providing important context for understanding this controversy.  I also agree that the DoD IG investigation will sort out what if any wrong doing occurred with regard CentCom J2’s intelligence reporting on ISIS, et al. Nonetheless, from what is already in the public domain I can foresee at least five implications for the IC emerging from this situation no matter what the IG determines.

  1. These allegations will embolden those who content that IC cannot be trusted to keep national security decision makers informed with accurate, objective, and balanced intelligence
  2. Intelligence analysis at CentCom will certainly be disrupted and this disruption will ripple to other intel shops looking at ISIS and Al Qaeda
  3. IC leadership attention will be diverted away from the overall threat matrix as well as from managing the community during the current period of budgetary uncertainty
  4. There will be Congressional oversight hearings regarding “command influence” by IC seniors and others in the government on the substance and tone intelligence analysis writ large
  5. Opponents of the Iran Nuclear Agreement will argue a lack of confidence in the IC to report Iranian cheating if it is detected

There is also the issue of how those at CentCom lodging complaints of intelligence manipulation with the IG will be treated.  If they are punished in some way or their allegations are not thoroughly investigated and the results broadly reported, there will be a chorus of “see Snowden was right!”

I learned over 40 years ago from Admiral Inman that in Washington “if you are explaining, you are losing” and it looks like at least the CentCom J2 and probably the DNI on behalf of the entire IC will be explaining why and how the intelligence analysis provided to decision makers from the front lines to the Oval Office is produced with professional rigor to be as accurate and objective as possible.

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