Investigations in Tumultuous Times

Apologies for the hiatus, but I have been diverted by the arrival of our first grandchild Michael, who seems to be able to hold my attention like nothing I have experienced before.

I am not sure how historic the month of May 2017 will turn out to be, but it certainly was tumultuous as seemingly significant events kept playing out. North Korea arrogantly continued to develop nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile means to deliver them, while the president of South Korea was removed from office for corruption and replaced by someone more open to conciliation with Kim Jung Un. China’s Xi Jinping orchestrated and hosted the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Summit in Beijing attended by 28 world leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, where China showed its intentions to develop a new global economic order under its leadership.  The “WannaCry” ransomware caused a massive cyber disruption that demonstrated how fragile the global cyber infrastructure remains.  Meanwhile, President Trump’s Executive Order on Cybersecurity continued the trend of problem description in lieu of actionable prescriptions.  As the fight against ISIS in the Middle East shifted from a strategy of attrition to one of annihilation, an ISIS suicide bomber with apparent help from an embedded terrorist cell killed 22 at a Manchester England rock concerted attended by mostly young teenagers.  President Trump made his first trip abroad where he addressed an Arab Summit in Riyadh saying he was not there to lecture them, but did lecture Western European leaders in Brussels on falling short at meeting their financial commitments to NATO while being ambiguous about US support for Article V of the NATO Charter regarding mutual self-defense.  Rounding out this rather fitful May, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for his handling of the investigation into Russia’s election interference activities.  This action precipitated the prompt appointment of Comey’s predecessor Robert Mueller as the Justice Department’s Special Counsel for the Russian Election Interference Investigation.

And as they used to say in top 40 AM radio, the hits kept coming in June! Two bombings in Kabul with significant deaths, the London Bridge Attack, the first ISIS attack in Iran, Saudi Arabia along with four other Arab countries accusing Qatar, of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Intercept publishing a leaked classified report showing NSA collected intelligence regarding Russian attempts (apparently unsuccessful) to tamper with voter registrations and voting machines.  Probably sensing the need for some wiggle room, Vladimir Putin assured the world that Russia has not and would not sanction interference with other nations’ elections, but he could not control individual Russian “patriotic hackers” (“Green Men of the Internet?) from responding to those who are being unfriendly towards Russia. Hillary Clinton expressed a different view, saying that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon orchestrated feeding political information to the Russians that they were then able to “weaponize” in ways which effected voter outlooks that contributed to her defeat.  Then there are the leaked reports that President Trump asked DNI Dan Coats and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers to intervene with then FBI Director Comey to “let go of the Michael Flynn investigation.”

Reviewing the past six weeks, it is easy to see why Vladimir Putin would observe in his over hyped June 4th interview with Megan Kelly that the American Congress and media, if not the American people, have “gone crazy” over presumed Russian interference with the 2016 election. Of course, the far better story here is that the US was well aware of Russia’s effort to interfere with our 2016 election and that it had no material effect, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of political points or media ratings for that line of reasoning.  If there was collusion with the Russians to influence the election those individuals should be shamed or prosecuted (where laws were broken), but in the meantime the Russians are confirming what I believe many US citizens already sense: that our current domestic political and media obsession with Russian election interference is making Putin’s Russia look more powerful than it really is.  As Andrei Kolesnikov, an independent analyst who is a senior associate with the Carnegie Moscow Center observed to David Ignatius, this is a win-win situation for Putin:  “If we did meddle in your elections, we show our might. If we didn’t, we’re pure.”

As Washington braces for testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) by DNI Dan Coats on June 7th and former FBI Director Comey on June 8th President Trump announced that he plans to nominate Christopher Wray to replace Comey – – –  probably timed to divert at least some media attention away from these SSCI hearings.  Adding more grist to the SSCI hearings on 7/8 June is former DNI James Clapper saying in prepared remarks to Australia’s National Press Club in Canberra that President, Donald Trump’s decision to cultivate Russia and share intelligence with the Putin regime is “very problematic”. He described Comey’s firing as “egregious and inexcusable”. In response to a question the former DNI opined, “I think [when] you compare the two, that Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we’re confronting now.”  Is the former DNI warning that we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis?

For my part, I agree with those who are saying comparisons with Watergate at this point are imperfect and premature, but given all the plausible (though unconfirmed accusations on the table) it is hard to not see a “crisis of government” diverting attention away from a national security environment fomenting with uncertainty and danger for the United States.  While I don’t welcome the upcoming SSCI hearings I see them as essential to publicly getting answers to key questions so we as citizens can make our own judgments:

  • What does IC know about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election; when did the IC know what; and whom did the IC inform when?
  • Do the Trump campaign contacts with Russians close to Putin rise to the level of criminal collusion?
  • Is President Trump a subject or person of interest in the Mueller/FBI investigation?
  • Did President Trump (or anyone on his behalf) attempt to influence FBI Director Comey on how to conduct the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 US elections
  • Did the Intelligence Community use “incidental collection” associated with its 702 authorities, wittingly or unwittingly, to conduct “backdoor” surveillance on US citizens that was subsequently used for political purposes?

I certainly can’t offer any creditable predictions on where the Mueller/FBI, or HPSCI, or SSCI investigations will lead, but I am sure they will make C-SPAN “must watch” TV through the summer!  What seems to be a given though is that no matter what avenues any of these investigations take, there is considerable risk that the IC will be involved somehow in an unflattering way.  The lurking disaster for the IC that I fear the most is a finding by any of these investigations that the IC engaged in back door surveillance of US persons for political purposes.  In the short term that will strangle 702 collection and longer term it will lead to a wire brushing of the IC down to bare metal.

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

How the IC will be Shaped (Changed?) by the Trump Administration

With all the news during the first week of March about Trump Administration contacts with Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak and what the Intelligence Community did or did not know, it is easy to understand why the confirmation hearing for former Senator Dan Coats to be Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on February 28 drew such little notice.  Given President Trump’s Tweeter claims on March 4th that the Obama Administrations tapped his communications during the campaign and FBI Director Jim Comey along with former DNI Jim Clapper’s denials on 5 March that the Trump campaign was not targeted for surveillance, I think the immediate question is “why would Dan Coats still want to be DNI?”

If you watched or read the transcript of Dan Coats’ SSCI Confirmation Hearing it is hard to see it as anything but a friendly, non-controversial “home coming.”  For the most part the Senators thanked their former colleague for being willing to serve as DNI while lobbing softball questions with little push back or follow up to his talking point responses.  Two things former Senator Coats kept coming back to in responses to various questions was his commitment to follow the law in all situations and to be as transparent as possible.   https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/hearings/open-hearing-nomination-daniel-coats-be-director-national-intelligence

Nonetheless a few things stood out to me about this confirmation hearing:

  1. Coats’ flawed description of the DNI as an NFL Coach working with his coordinators and assistant coaches (IC agency heads) to produce a winning result.  Senator Coats did not mention that unlike an NFL Coach the DNI does not have hire/fire authority over his “coordinators” and “assistant coaches”  At least Senator Manchin made a polite and passing reference to this critical difference in authorities between the DNI and every NFL Coach.
  2. Coats defended the size of the ODNI noting it has less staff then there are musicians in DoD to do its important work of overseeing the intelligence community.  Former Senator Coats did agree that after 12 years a review of IRTPA is probably something worth considering and said he would start with the Robb-Silverman Commission Recommendations for where the law might be improved
  3. Coats did not share the concerns of several senators that the National Security Council Executive Order has not been modified to clarify that the DNI is a member of the Principals Committee.  He said the White House has assured him he will be invited to all Principal Committee meetings and he takes them at their word.
  4. Coats said nothing about the line reporting relationship between the DNI and the Director of CIA and all of the SSCI members were polite enough not to ask about it.
  5. Coats did not say nor was he asked about his position on government backdoor encryption access.
  6. Based on Coats’ opening statement and the Q&A, the open animosity between President Elect Trump and the Intel Community of just a month ago must have been “fake news” as it did not come up.
  7. In response to questions, Coats assured the SSCI he would support investigations into Russian involvement in trying to influence our past election as well as personal links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.  He also pledged to investigate/support other appropriate investigations into leaks associated with Russia.  He assured the committee he would insure the Congress is kept fully informed regarding these investigations.

 

Despite all the concerns in the media about whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians for political advantage or whether the Obama Administration used Intelligence Community (IC) resources to monitor the Trump campaign for political advantage, the Coats hearing got me thinking about how the IC will be shaped (changed?) by the Trump Administration.  Looking back at both recent history and what was said about the IC institutionally during the campaign I can foresee impacts for the IC across the following three broad areas:

Contracting and the Business Environment

Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) that have been occurring in the IC’s industrial base since 2015 will continue during the Trump administration, but at a slower rate.  This slowdown in M&A activity will be the result of three forces: (1) the diminished number of attractive companies left that are available for M&A consideration; (2) the debt loading taken on by companies that have merged or acquired other companies; and (3) lack of clarity about what changes to expect in the corporate tax code.

Because the Trump administration is populated with business people who are concerned about business metrics, (e.g., how the money is spent, with an emphasis on cost, performance and schedule), any IC programs that are behind schedule and underperforming will be in jeopardy. With an emphasis on performance, schedule and cost metrics, the IC will be looking for solutions vice full time equivalents (FTE, aka people) and using more automation to reduce cost. This is already manifesting itself with a hiring freeze and will impact what the distribution should be between blue and green badgers in the IC. Budgetary pressures will also cause the IC to look hard at what should be in-sourced or out-sourced, with an eye towards more “XXX as a service” procurements. FY 17 is expected to be flat, but industry is looking forward to business growth with anticipated FY18 national security plus ups.  Acquisition Reform seems unlikely, but “Other than Traditional Authorities (OTAs)” will be used more extensively to streamline and accelerate the acquisition process.

Organizational Change to the IC

Real change to the organization and processes of the IC requires Congressional legislation, which seems remote given the political capital this would take as well as the competition for scarce Congressional calendar days.  Immigration, healthcare, and tax reform will not leave much energy or time for IC structural reform over the term of the 115th Congress.  Because the Trump Transition team saw the ODNI staff providing an extra layer of bureaucratic management with little added value, this is an area I see the Trump Administration downsizing despite Dan Coats’ defense of the size of the ODNI staff in his opening statement at his confirmation hearing. An open question is which National Intelligence Centers does the Trump National Security Team see as worth preserving because of their independent ability as ODNI entities to integrate intelligence? Should they remain under the DNI?  While I am sure Senator Coats’ trust is well placed, the reality is that the White House’s lack of interest in modifying the NSC EO to include the DNI as a member of the Principals Committee suggests to me that the authorities of the DNI are not all that important to this administration.

Restoring Trust and Confidence in the IC

Perhaps through no fault of its own the IC has been caught up in a highly charged partisan debate between President Trump himself and whether the IC is being used to undermine his creditability as Commander in Chief.  Depending who you are listening to, allegations that the IC is withholding sensitive intelligence from the President, left a transparent trail of intelligence reports suggesting the Trump Campaign had ties to Russia, and  tapped the phones in Trump Tower, these claims are either baseless or disturbing.  I know I don’t know who or what to believe at this point.  The question now is not if an investigation of these allegations will be conducted, but who will conduct the investigation(s) and with what authorities?  What seems to be inevitable about any impending investigation is that the IC will looked at critically and depending on what is found (or not found) the IC could find itself on the threshold change as resulted from the Church Committee, the 9-11 Commission, and the Iraq WMD Commission.

There are too many known unkowns at least for me to even speculate what such an investigation will find, but my beltway common sense sensor tells me the IC has been too close to the partisan tumult for too long not to come out of this unbruised in some way.  Until whatever investigation(s) are completed the best things the IC can to do bolster its confidence and trust with the President, the Congress, and the American people is adhere to the tried and true advice of many others, which is: stay off the front page, focus on competence, and eschew involvement with policy decisions.  It is probably also worth remembering that a public battle with the President of the United States is more than likely a losing strategy for the IC because he is the only nationally elected figure in the government – – – – and he needs to be Customer # 1.

 

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

PUTIN’S TWOFER

Election Day this past November 8th delivered at least two surprises so far.  First there was Donald Trump capturing enough electoral votes to win the Presidency over Hillary Clinton, when polling showed she was going to prevail.  Then in the weeks following the election we have all learned through leaks to the Washington Post, New York Times and NBC News that the CIA “assesses with high confidence” that Russia, with the direct involvement of President Vladimir Putin, was cyber hacking with the purpose of defeating Hillary Clinton.   And I thought we dodged a cyber bullet on Election Day because there was no massive infra-structure attack aimed at either making it difficult for people to get to the polls or to cause the wall to wall news coverage to question whether or not votes were being accurately recorded.

In retrospect Russia’s hacking and apparent intentions should not have been a surprise since the FBI warned the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in September 2015 that it was being hacked.  Then a month before Election Day on October 7th DHS and ODNI issued the following joint statement about Russian interference with our elections.

The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.

Clearly the Intelligence Community both detected and warned in sufficient time that Russia was using cyber techniques to interfere with our Presidential Election.  However, other than President Obama privately telling President Putin at a G-20 Conference in September 2016 to “cut it out” we have learned at a Presidential Press Conference on 15 December no actions were taken to either stop the Russian hacking or to better  inform the US electorate what was known about the purpose of the hacking.  Given the amount of information leaked to the  media post-election about the purpose, intensity, and Russian leadership involvement it seems fair to ask why was not more done before votes were cast to at least “name and shame” Russia for its interference with our Presidential election? Two juxtaposed answers come immediately to mind:  the intelligence was more circumstantial than direct or the intelligence was so solid there were concerns about compromising useful sources and methods.

For reasons opaque to me someone at the CIA has decided now that the votes have been counted and certified that they should unofficially and anonymously share with the American people that there is direct intelligence confirming Russia’s hacking of the DNC with Putin’s knowledge to undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.  Russia has responded that without proof these accusations are “unseemly” while Donald Trump has tweeted he does not believe what the CIA is providing informally to friendly journalists.  Many are characterizing this as the President Elect throwing the IC under the bus to protect Putin.

I am not sure which infuriates me more:  Vladimir Putin trying to affect the outcome of our Presidential election or learning about it from leaks to the media by the CIA.  I understand Putin’s motives in terms of pursuing Russian national interests, but what are the CIA’s motivations?  Perhaps concerns that it not be seen as at fault for the failure of policy makers to respond earlier to Russia’s election hacking?  Or could it be the IC wanting to distance itself from Secretary Clinton’s failure to achieve the Presidency?  What about frustration with the reality that former DIA Director LTG Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor will be filtering intelligence and blocking IC leadership’s daily access to the President?

No matter what the reasons are, the results of these CIA press leaks about Russian election hacking are proving to be toxic for the IC, if not the nation at large, for the following reasons:

  • The IC actions look partisan and to Trump voters as trying to delegitimize their candidate’s election
  • There is an inference without evidence that the Russian hacking materially contributed to Hillary Clinton losing the election, i.e. the hacking worked
  • Not wanting to brief the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate or the Electoral College on the specifics of the Russian hacking raises doubts about how definitive the intelligence is regarding Putin’s involvement and intentions to defeat Hillary Clinton
  • Because of the leaking of intelligence strongly indicating Russian interference with the 2016 election, there will be both Executive Branch and Congressional investigations into the validity of the intelligence developed as well as investigations into who was responsible for leaking this information and for what reasons
  • Using the media so it can control the narrative on Russian election hacking deepens and steepens Donald Trump’s already well developed distrust of the IC

With President Obama looking ineffective, President Elect Trump being openly contemptuous of intelligence, and the IC appearing to be deviously partisan, Vladimir Putin comes out of all this with a “twofer.” Besides achieving his strategic aim of undermining confidence that votes cast for President reflected the will of the American people, the subsequent fallout from the political debate about Russia’s election hacking has widened the trust divide between Donald Trump and the IC.

Of course the bigger story here is the continuing systemic cyber vulnerabilities of the United States, which is amplified by the lack of both a coherent strategy and effective capabilities to protect our government institutions, our national security, our financial stability, and our sensitive personal information.

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