There was a Symposium in Austin during mid-October sponsored by University of Texas’ Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law as well as UT’s Clements Center for History, Strategy & Statecraft and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) that I thought I would be writing about. This two day event looked at the now 10 year history of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism, Prevention Act (IRTPA) and asked: as a nation “are we smarter or safer?”, but there are more pressing issues involving the Intelligence Community (IC) that I want to get to while they remain newsworthy.
The weekend after the Congressional mid-term elections, where exit polling showed the electorate sending an unmuffled message that they are out of patience with the Legislative and Executive Branches’ inability to compromise on political positions in order to govern, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper was dispatched by the President to Pyongyang to secure the release of two American citizens incarcerated by the North Koreans. According to news reports, James Clapper was purposely selected because of his familiarity with Korea as well as the fact that the DNI positon reports directly to the President but conveys no sense of a diplomatic opening to North Korea. DNI Clapper did, however, deliver a message from President Obama to Kim Jung Un through the North Korean General Officer serving as the emissary for the release of the two Americans.
Beyond the good news of there now being no Americans in North Korean prisons, this mission conveyed some needed positive press and prestige on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that I am happy to see. If nothing else it says to the Congress as well as the international community that DNI Clapper has the trust and confidence of the President. The more important strategic question raised by the release of these two Americans that the IC needs to answer is what is motivating North Korea to be so accommodating? According to DNI Clapper the North Koreans were expecting the US to reciprocate with some type of diplomatic exchange and/or accommodation.
Despite my lack of expertise on the People’s Democratic Republic Korea, I remain unconvinced that “Boy Leader” Kim Jung Un (KJU) is actually running the government. My evidence is tenuous but an undated photo of KJU touring a public housing project is not enough to convince me he remains in power after a falling from sight for six weeks that included missing a major communist party event. Diplomatic protocol is probably the answer for why there were no photo opportunities for KJU with the released Americans, but why miss the internal and external propaganda value of showing the beneficence of the regime’s dynastic leader? KJU not making any public appearance or statements while DNI Clapper was in country (or since he left) suggests to me that the “Boy Leader” has become a “Pyongyang spectator with gout!”
Meanwhile in Iraq during this same weekend, American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) found and fixed for strike aircraft an ISIS Leadership Convoy traveling in the Mosul area. The air strike heavily damaged the convoy and according to Iraqi media reporting ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed or injured during the attack. Curiously (at least to me) ISIS has not denied these reports and Baghdadi has not been seen since the air attack on this convoy. A Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman has confirmed that US forces were aware that this was an ISIS leadership convoy, but there was never any intelligence indicating Baghdadi was traveling with this group. On November 13 ISIS released a 16 minute voice recording presumably demonstrating that Baghdadi was alive and in charge. The tape has not yet been confirmed to be Baghdadi and begs the question with the Iraqi media reporting his demise why an audio instead of a video tape (is the ISIS leader injured?). Given that we have unconfirmed Iraqi news reports that Baghdadi is dead or injured and an as yet unconfirmed ISIS voice recording of Baghdadi imploring followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” the obvious intelligence issue at hand is learning what Baghdadi’s status is. As I am preparing to post this, ISIS has beheaded another American it says in part because of the US lead bombing campaign continuing.
As this ISIS leadership convoy was being bombed, the White House was announcing that President Obama is authorizing the deployment of 1,500 additional military advisers to Iraq to fortify the Iraqi Army’s effort to retake territory ISIS has seized since last spring. My immediate reaction was air strikes and advisors to support a non-inclusive Shia government and an Army that doesn’t want to fight sounds a lot like the way we started in Vietnam. If the US has national interests at stake that demand both a stable Iraq and defeated ISIS then send enough forces (100,000?) to accomplish these ends. Not seeing these national interests, my preference is to let the Iranians and the Kurds with US intelligence, arms, and air strikes “degrade and defeat” ISIS. As for Iraq, I have said previously in this venue that I don’t believe the US has enough military manpower or treasure to prevent Iraq from fractionating back to the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regions that existed in Mesopotamia before the British Mandate created the artificial state of Iraq in 1920. It is time for Washington to stop arguing about the justification for and execution of the latest Iraq War (2003 – 2011), as well debating whether the withdrawal of US forces in 2011 was premature and put the idea of a continued ground combat force there in the rear view mirror – before the American people send this message via the ballot box.
Over this same post mid-term election weekend, Navy Times reported that the Pacific Fleet’s outspoken Intelligence Officer was relieved for remarks that he made last February at WEST 2014 postulating that the Chinese Navy (PLAN) was preparing for a naval war with Japan. While this is neither an IC, Navy or National position, the Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris was aware in advance of what his intelligence officer was going to say and after the comments were made about the PLAN’s growing capabilities and China’s intentions, Admiral Harris did not “walk back” what was said nor attempt to put the remarks “into a broader context.” The “China Hawks” in the retired naval intelligence community immediately surmised that the PacFleet N2 was being sacked for speaking the “truth” about PLAN threat and intentions as a gesture of goodwill to his hosts before President Obama arrived in Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC). Besides having it on good authority that the Pacflt N2’s relief was related to internal staff issues and not his remarks about the PLAN at WEST 2014, I suspect the Chinese would have preferred to have learned quietly from President Obama while he was in China that this naval intelligence officer would be quietly retired vice being publicly removed and opening up a political controversy as to whether or not he was right about the PLAN seeking a naval war to establish its hegemony in the Easter Pacific.
Wrapping up, on November 3rd Robert Hannigan, the new director of GCHQ accused social networks and other online services of becoming “the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals.” Mr. Hannigan went on to say in this Financial Times OpEd that security services in the UK and the US cannot discover and disrupt terrorist threats without greater support from the private sector, “including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web.” As with the Clipper Chip controversy in the 1990s, Hannigan appears to be offering the tech giants in the US a Hobbesian choice between meeting government expectations about access to information for national security purposes and customer concerns about their information technology (IT) providers enabling government access to their personal information. While I agree with Mr. Hannigan that “the right to privacy is not absolute” and with Justice Jackson that the Constitution is not a suicide pack, I don’t recall either the Director of GCHQ or the Director of NSA calling on the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s to not encrypt so much information so the UK and US could tap into Soviet command control networks in order to protect liberal western democracies from the threat of nuclear attack.
That’s what I think; what do you think?