The Future is Now?

There is no doubt that the situation in the Ukraine where Russian political and economic interests are pitted against those of Western Europe, and by extension to the U.S., is the most serious confrontation with Russia since the war in Kosovo.

I am amused, however, by the dust-up during the first week in March about whether the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) provided adequate and timely warning that Putin would insert military force into the Crimea.  A vague sense of history coupled with “breaking news stories” should have told anyone even casually following events in Kiev that once Putin’s cohort President Viktor Yanukovych  was pushed from power there was a strong likelihood that Russia would use military force to “stabilize” the situation in what it believes is its sphere of influence.  Russia’s modern history of military intervention in its near abroad, whether under the Brezhnev Doctrine or otherwise, is long and undistinguished:  Hungry (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1980) Afghanistan (1979), Chechnya (1994 & 2000), and Georgia (2008).

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that the IC didn’t warn; to the contrary, I agree completely with DNI Clapper’s observation that we have all seen real intelligence failures and the IC’s coverage and warnings regarding developments in the Ukraine were timely and appropriate (http://www.wtop.com/215/3577171/Clapper-Ukraine-intelligence-not-a-failure).  Moreover, policy makers and military commanders did not have to rely on intelligence reports only as there were also plenty of warnings about Russia moving against Crimea in the media.  How many of you without access to classified intelligence reporting were surprised by Russian forces showing into Crimea without resistance?

Given the “common wisdom” of both the intelligence and open source reporting about the Ukraine and the Crimea, if I were the J2 at EUCOM I hope that I would have detailed an analyst or two to ferret out the indicators that the Russians would not move militarily into the Ukraine to make sure that the CoCom’s intel team could provide the staff with a balanced view of events and options based on intelligence empiricals.  If any intelligence service was surprised, though, it appears to be Putin’s who failed to see the strategic direction that political events in the Ukraine were taking.

Nonetheless, any controversy about U.S. IC warning performance post-Yanukovych’s departure just diverts attention from the hard problems facing the IC on the Ukraine.  There are at least two parallel but related issues I believe policy makers need immediate accurate intelligence on.  The first is who are the likely new political leaders in Kiev and are they capable of governing?  There is also the question of what form any “opposition” will take in the new Ukrainian government.  The second is what is Putin likely to do next?  Is the annexation of Crimea by Russia now inevitable?  If it is, what does that mean for the region?  If it is not what can be done to prevent the Crimea from becoming Russian territory again? Following close behind the importance of political developments in Kiev and the Crimea will be salient intelligence regarding the views of allies, neutrals, and adversaries in the region.  What policy makers won’t need is IC inputs on Putin’s potential course of actions, but rather insights from unique intelligence sources (i.e. real secrets) regarding what actions he is likely to take and the reactions they will cause in Kiev, Moscow, Brussels, Berlin, Ankara, Tehran,  Beijing, and whatever cave Ayman al-Zawahiri is operating from.

As the IC rallies to provide predictive intelligence on the Ukrainian situation it should be able to slew remote technical collection to the region, but the IC will find its tactical focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 means it won’t have collectors or analysts as familiar with their targets as they would like or need to be.  The IC will need to accept the reality that there is no “fast forward” button for experience.  Certainly we won’t have the HUMINT capability in place to provide its unique perspective on unfolding events – – – particularly who’s in and who’s out in Ukrainian domestic politics. Additionally the “rebalance to the Pacific” of US national security policy is at least a short term casualty as Defense, State, and the IC focus on the Ukraine while we continue working the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

Ironically, Russia introducing forces into the Crimea 72 hours before the release of the President’s Defense Budget for FY 2015 served to make the budget look as if it is detached from reality and un-executable.  Secretary of Defense Hagel’s position is that the budget assumes prudent risks now (i.e. cuts in force strength) so that the U.S. military can be a more balanced, capable, and ready in the future.  Current events in Crimea, along with China’s maritime aggressiveness in the South and East China Seas, North Korea’s continuing threat to stability in East Asia, Al Qaeda’s resurgence, and Iran’s unclear nuclear ambitions, however, are all shouting “the future is now.”

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

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2014 is Shaping Up as Year To Remember for the Intelligence Community

Happy New Year!  In the aftermath of Sequestration, Snowden, Benghazi, and the Government Shutdown, 2013 is a year that I suspect the Intelligence Community (IC) is collectively happy to have in the rear view mirror.  2014 will surely be better – – – won’t it?   I would like to think so, but given that events of 2013 have not yet fully played out I anticipate the IC will have another tumultuous time in 2014.

  • First it is a mid-term election year with control of the U.S. Senate in play which will present all kinds of political theater associated with IC issues and performance
  • The stability and predictability of the budget deal was paid for with an agreement to cut approximately $4 billion from the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and $1 billion from the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) in FY 14 with continued pain in FY 15. Should interest rates rise as expected there will be unplanned cuts coming to service the national debt which is not reduced by this deal.
  • Besides Syria, volatile civil violence has broken out in Iraq, Egypt, and the Ukraine, while Gaza and Lebanon continue to simmer.  Any of these conflicts could easily widen to regional conflicts with global impacts
  • The Sochi Winter Olympics is a venue for political statements through terrorist violence with Putin’s Russia likely to respond forcefully and indiscriminately
  • Iran’s agreement to curtail its nuclear weapons enrichment activities in return for relief from economic sanctions terminates in March,  unless there is mutual agreement to extend the deal
  • China and Japan continue to jockey with naval forces over conflicting claims to the barren rocks of Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea with the US 7th Fleet as the likely referee
  • North Korea remains as dangerous and as baffling as ever.  It is to early to tell if Kim Jung Un is his own man, or the puppet of Stalinist hardliners who see confrontation as the Hermit Kingdom’s best national security play
  • The withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan will create opportunity for the return of both “warlord rule,” Taliban provided safe havens for Al Qaeda, and increased opium cultivation
  • Whether there will be more Snowden revelations about NSA sources and methods remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that what has already been compromised is changing how NSA is viewed and will lead to a continuing Congressional debate about the balance between secrecy, security, and civil liberties that will feed into the fall mid-term elections.

So it looks like another year of growing demand for timely insightful intelligence with diminishing resources in an environment where 50 percent of the IC workforce is experiencing its first budget drawdown in an increasingly politicized environment.  Even without the NSA issues, 2014 appears poised to challenge the limits of the IC’s capacity, capabilities, and flexibility to discern and articulate the most serious threats to US national security.

Turning to NSA collection practices, the arc of the debate about the need for NSA to secretly collect the bulk metadata of all US persons phone calls to protect the nation from terrorist attacks has already begun to be scribed by conflicting federal district court decisions, the President’s Review Group’s (PRG) forty six recommendations, Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 28, and the 2014 State of the Union Address.

  • In Klayman v Obama Judge Leon found NSA’s bulk collection of US Persons’ metadata an affront to James Madison that must end.  Conversely Judge Pauley in ACLU v Clapper views NSA’s bulk collection of US Persons’ metadata as constitutional and necessary to protect American citizens from terrorist harm.  It would seem that both those supporting the NSA’s current collection practices and those who want them reined in will petition the US Supreme Court for a resolution if the US Government does not.
  • The PRG finds that NSA’s collection practices against US Persons are legal, well functioning and necessary to protect the US from terrorist attack but then confusingly presents 46 recommendations for making program more transparent and effective
  • In President Obama’s January 17th announcement of PPD-28 he ignored most of the PRG’s 46 recommendations but did say that that NSA’s collection of US Persons’ metadata will continue because it is legal and essential to national security.  The President then pivoted to the concerns of small government and privacy advocates, recognizing that NSA’s bulk metadata collection was open to abuses so it needed to be more transparent and rigorously controlled.  Reviewing the President’s remarks and the text of PPD 28 I find myself agreeing with Potomac Institute’s Mike Swetnam that the President may be setting the context for change, but in fact is changing very little (http://www.potomacinstitute.org/homepage/news-releases/2613-presidential-directive-misses-real-threat-to-publics-privacy-says-institute-ceo).  In a sound bite PPD 28 directs that a privacy advocate be part of the FISA process, that access to and use of US Persons’ metadata be more closely monitored and everything else needs to be studied
  • In his State of the Union Address on 28 January, the President spoke obliquely about security and surveillance in only two separate sentences:
    • I will reform our surveillance programs, because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.
    • So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks — through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners — America must move off a permanent war-footing.

While many have heartfelt opinions about the direction NSA collection should take, I believe it is fair to say given the outcome of a yet to be scheduled Supreme Court Case, unfinished executive branch studies, legislation still in formation, and an incomplete public debate that nobody can reasonably foresee what the state of NSA’s collection authorities will be this time next year.   A reasonable question that is sure to emerge though in 2014 is:  If America is shifting to a peacetime outlook why should the Patriot Act and its Section 215 authority that is the legal basis for NSA’s warrantless bulk collection of US Person metadata be renewed?

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

From the “Guns of August” to the “Serenity of September?”

Wow!  What an amazing 30 days going from the “Guns of August” to the “Serenity of September!”  Instead of discussing whether U.S. cruise missile attacks as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons against rebels on 21 August would deter their future use or lead to a wider regional conflict, I am wondering why Assad chose to give up his chemical weapons in response to a Russian/US brokered United Nations Resolution.   Even more startling was Iran’s new President Russan Rouhani launching a “charm offensive” in the midst of Iran’s ally Syria bending to international pressure to give up its chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  In interviews with several western journalists, Rouhani said Iran was enriching Uranium for legitimate energy purposes and not for weaponization.  Relative to his predecessor, President Rouhani’s speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly was moderate and again eschewed the pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Within a day of this speech, Secretary of State Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart to discuss lifting sanctions against Iran in return for verification that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program.  Then prior to departing New York for Tehran, President Rouhani’s agreed to a 15 minute telephone conversation with President Obama – the first time the leaders of both countries have spoken since the Carter Administration in 1979 when the Shah was in power!

Hallelujah!  Noble Peace Prizes for all our “friends” (i.e. Putin, Assad, and Rouhani).

So how did we get from the U.S. being backed into a trap between two bad choices of either not responding to Syria killing over 1,400 people with chemical weapons or launching an ineffective military response that the President said he would take only with the concurrence of the Congress?  My guess is that Vladimir made Bashar an offer that he along with his Iranian and Hezbollah cronies couldn’t refuse.  Since there is no way you can ever use chemical weapons again without the international community coming after you and your Alwite regime, why not give them up?  Russia will broker the a deal with the UN that will keep the U.S. and Israel out of Syria’s internal affairs regarding the turn over the weapons. Russia will also stand firm against any international action to take down the Assad government.   Rouhani and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah will endorse the deal and assure Assad they will help him win the civil war with the rebels so the “Assad Dynasty” can continue.  Everybody wins:  the U.S. gets Syria to give up its chemical weapons in response to a UN resolution without resorting to force; NATO doesn’t have to be concerned about supporting U.S. military action against Syria; Russia shows the world that it still matters while holding the line on the international community bringing about regime change;  Iran keeps one of its few allies; Hezbollah retains its Syrian sanctuary;  and Assad gets to stay in power – all because Syria agreed to turnover chemical weapons that it could never use again anyway!

OK, I suppose this could explain what is going on with Putin and Assad, but why is Iran overtly signaling at the same time its interest in discussing with the U.S. whether or not it will pursue nuclear weapons as Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons?  Rather than events in Syria driving what Iran is doing they are just serving to have a megaphone effect on what Iran is trying to achieve.  I see Rouhani’s actions being part of an independent Iranian strategy to take advantage of the world stage provided by the annual opening of the UN General Assembly to change Iran’s standing in the world while protecting its nuclear weapons options.   First there are the economic sanctions Rouhani needs to get relief from before they create an “Arab Spring effect” in Persian Iran.  This means showing the world that he really does represent the moderate Iranians who legitimately elected him.  Next there is the important message that unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Rouhani Administration wants Iran accepted as a rational player by the international community.   Then there is the potential that Iran is not as close to having a deliverable nuclear weapon as U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe them to be.  Finally, the Iranian religious leadership may also be recalculating the value of having nuclear weapons (where could they be used, to what effect;  would Iran’s Islamic Revolution survive the overwhelming retaliation in kind from their use; would U.S. containment of a nuclear Iran cripple Iran’s economy and regional influence?).  No matter; what Rouhani did achieve at the UN is to buy Iran time to keep the U.S. and Israel from acting against its nuclear program while talking about talks.  If sanctions are relaxed in order to reward Iran for being more moderate in tone without agreeing in a verifiable way to cease pursuing nuclear weapons then Rouhani will have accomplished a strategic success for the cost of being no more than polite and well behaved!

Of course, the serenity of September was violently pierced by a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16th that resulted in 13 dead and raised considerable concern about the “insider threat.”  Then there was the Nairobi Westgate Mall seizure/hostage situation between 21 and 24 September that saw 68 killed by al Shabab terrorists bringing to life again the fears about how committed radical jihadists can wreck havoc in urban areas with nothing more than automatic rifles.

While Aaron Alexis had no terrorist connections, al Qaeda will recognize, that as with Major Hassan at Fort Hood, insiders can access secure military bases with weapons and “punish” those they see as responsible for killing their jihadist warriors.  Even more chilling, the Nairobi Mall attack shows how local terrorists can make what is common place fearful to the point of negatively impacting quality of life and economic activity.

Perhaps law enforcement and intelligence assessments are correct that al Qaeda and its franchises like al Shabab or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are not capable of executing a Nairobi mall attack inside the U.S., but media headlines about the Washington Navy Yard shootings at least make me think otherwise.

That’s what I think; what do think?