Dramatics to Drama: From the Fiscal Cliff to “Zero Dark Thirty”

Unless we are existing in a weird parallel universe, the Mayans were clearly wrong about the world ending last month,  but the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” does warn the U.S. will likely lose its status as the planet’s only superpower by then.  And how about that fiscal cliff?!?  Lots of drama for New Year’s Day legislation that only raised taxes on those making $400k or more without any meaningful impact on reducing the deficit or dealing with sequestration.  More or less a two month “U” turn at the fiscal cliff or a demonstration of “Democracy Inaction!”

The White House and the Congress “agreeing” to defer dealing with either the debt ceiling or sequestration for two months only insures that budgetary uncertainty for almost all national security accounts will continue until “March Madness.”  Sequestration will then join raising the debt ceiling and extending the Continuing Resolution (CR) for the rest of FY 13 as requiring legislative action of some type in March.  While there could be some kind of grand bargain providing a comprehensive solution to all three of these separate but related tectonic fiscal issues, I remain unable to see what will change between now and March given the political posturing that has been going since 2010 without any significant increases in revenues or cuts in spending.  And as we heard the President and the Republican leaders of Congress publicly “trash talking” with each other on January 14, any discussion about raising the debt ceiling is an opportunity for political brinkmanship regarding shutting down the government.

Apparently sharing my pessimism, Under Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has directed DoD agencies to begin planning immediately for sequestration; something that was specifically enjoined in 2012 as the Administration tried to force the Congress to act by having no plan.  Secretary of the Air Force Donely subsequently told his service in mid-January that with the dual specter of operating under sequestration AND a CR for the rest of FY13 the Air Force needs to begin planning for furlough notification as soon as possible in order to preserve all of the government’s options, to commence curtailing all non-mission related activities, and to start reviewing all overseas contingency operations for potential deferment.

This sounds serious because it is! According to an hour long presentation prepared by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ (CSBA) Todd Harrison titled “What the Fiscal Cliff Deal Means for Defense”  (http://www.csbaonline.org/publications/2013/01/what-the-fiscal-cliff-deal-means-for-defense/)  the following points compel attention:

  • Both parties may end up looking at sequestration and say, ‘You know what, this is bad, this is not what we want, but it’s probably better than anything we could negotiate with the other side.”
  • Delaying sequestration until March saves DoD approximately $15 billion dollars in cuts but the remaining $45 billion in defense sequestration will have to be absorbed in seven vice nine month
  • If sequestration is not modified and the CR is extended to the end of FY 13 then civilian pay needs to be cut 15% for FY13, which will require furloughing every civilian in DoD for one month

Yeah, but things will get better in the out years – – -won’t they?  I don’t think so because to reduce the deficit any increase in national security spending will have to be offset with cuts elsewhere or funded by tax increases.

Shifting from dramatic to drama, I just saw the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”  Having no experience with enhanced interrogation techniques, unlike SSCI chair Senator Diane Feinstein, I am reluctant to judge if the opening scenes of this movie are accurate or an exaggerated expression of artistic license.  What the movie does convey, however, is that enhanced interrogation when done for a purpose and under control can be effective.  Whether it is morally defensible is left for the audience to decide.  Ironically John Brennan, the administration’s National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism was nominated by President Obama to be the next CIA Director the week before “Zero Dark Thirty’s” opening – the same position he asked not to be considered for in 2008 because of a brewing confirmation battle over what he did and did not know about the use of enhanced interrogation during the Bush 43 presidency.

Through the intelligence driven drone program against terrorist and the successful Bin Laden raid, John Brennan has earned the President’s trust and confidence to be his first choice to lead the CIA in the wake of General Petraeus’ unexpected resignation.  If acting CIA Director Mike Morrell or USD(I) Mike Vickers were being seriously considered for Director of CIA the air ran out of those balloons when both were named separately as potentially having provided the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” with background information that was classified.  Apparently all it took for John Brennan to be nominated as the next CIA Director is a lifelong career at CIA, four years of intense hard intelligence work at the White House, the reelection of Barack Obama to a second term, and an inadvertent lapse of judgment by the other potential candidates in talking tradecraft with movie producers/actors.

Even with its handling of enhanced interrogation as an issue for the audience to decide, I thought the movie portrayed a positive image of U.S. Intelligence in general and the CIA in particular.  More importantly though, “Zero Dark Thirty” shows with great fidelity how fragmented and ambiguous HUMINT is by its nature and how dangerous it can be to collect.  Intelligence professionals will appreciate the movie being three hours long as an artifact of the time it takes to collect and cross check HUMINT, but what is truly stunning is the way the screenplay depicts all-source analysis being used to close information gaps and resolve ambiguity.  Bottom Line:  “Zero Dark Thirty” is not as good a movie as “Lincoln” but it’s a must see for anyone interested intelligence.

Finally here’s my “bracket” based on few facts and my own hunches for “Federal Fiscal March Madness”

  • The debt ceiling is raised in exchange for extending  the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare
  • Sequestration cuts remain essentially unchanged, but department/agencies are granted more flexibility in how these cuts are allocated
  • The CR is continued for the rest of FY 13 as planning for FY 14 remains delayed

Notice there is no winner anywhere here!  That’s what I think; what do you think?