2016: A Year of Living Dangerously

Well, it only took China and Saudi Arabia 48 hours to remove the “happy” from new years for 2016!  As Saudi Arabia was executing 47 on January 2nd, the Chinese stock market was tanking sending financial shock waves into an already unsettled world.  Wanting to extend its “best wishes” for the new year, North Korea tested what it falsely claimed to be a hydrogen bomb, while China flew a military aircraft to Fiery Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as Iran released video footage of its second underground missile depot in seeming violation of its nuclear agreement with the United States.  These events in the first week of the New Year make predicting that 2016 will be dangerously tumultuous unnecessary.

Economic trouble in China will have the most immediate impact on the average American in terms of access to consumer goods and their IRAs’ bottom line with the Dow Jones average down over 900 points in the first week of trading.  The Chinese stock market sell off was precipitated by  the release of the Caixin/Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index which showed that China’s manufacturing sector contracting for the 10th-straight month in December. The continued weakness in this private survey, contrasted with robust official numbers for industrial output, indicates that the overall economy is expanding only in the low single digits. China’s economy is also struggling with demands for higher wages, accommodating an aging population, and shifting to a new growth model based on raising internal consumption of goods and services produced.  Equally as disturbing, imports (a good indication of both manufacturing and consumption trends) fell 8.7 percent in November in dollar terms, for a record 13 straight months of decline. Exports that month were off 6.8 percent, the fifth-straight month in negative territory. This litany of economic challenges means China is headed into a serious recession that will likely result in the Chinese people questioning whether the Chinese Communist Party is governing in their best interests.  Economic woes may well cause Xi Jinping and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to turn to a “wag the dog” strategy appealing to Chinese nationalism against “foreign devils” asserting sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas.  Such a nationalist approach and/or China being seen as the cause of weakness in the American economy, will only encourage those running for President to take a more confrontational stance towards China.

Not helping the Chinese stock market recover are increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  North Korea’s claims to have conducted on January 6th an underground detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which has not been confirmed and is viewed as unlikely, has increased the pressure on both China and the United States to restrain Kim Jong Un’s brinkmanship.  North Korea’s “boy leader” apparently sees the US’ inability to control the Hermit Kingdom’s behavior with sanctions and isolation as pushing China to insure the security of North Korea or risk South Korean and US forces conducting military operations/occupation nearer the Chinese frontier.  Besides a B-52 fly over, Washington and Seoul are already engaged in discussions about the US bringing more “strategic assets” to South Korea. This last atomic test has also brought Japan, South Korea, and the United States closer together diplomatically and militarily, causing China to feel more isolated if not threatened.  Beyond pushing China to be more protective of North Korea’s security, it probably wouldn’t surprise too many if Tehran was actually funding part of Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a hedge while Iran’s nuclear program is on hold to get economic sanctions lifted.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 shocked the American people with its ISIS-like brutality and infuriated Iran because among those executed was the well-known Shiite cleric Nemer al Nemer.  “It looks like an extremely irrational and ill-considered decision to do this,” said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in Britain. “In my view, it speaks more about the local dynamics in Saudi Arabia itself that are shifting steadily away from the ruling family’s control.”  The House of Saud, however, was motivated by at least three reasons for going forward with this controversial execution of a large number of internal dissidents.

  • Declining oil prices means that the Saudi government will need to cut back on subsidies for housing, education, medical care, jobs, and gasoline that ordinary Saudi citizens have come to expect. The mass execution of dissidents on January 2nd demonstrates the absolute power the royal family holds and will use against those who question it rule let alone oppose it.
  • These executions play to Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Sunnis, who support the monarchy as ISIS inspires young Saudis to see the royal family as not protecting fundamental Muslim beliefs. As confrontation with Iran becomes more manifest, conservative Saudis are also increasingly seeing the Kingdom’s 10% to 15% Shiite minority population as a “fifth column.”
  • The executions signal that Saudi Arabia’s tolerance for Tehran’s Shiite meddling in the Arab world has reached its limit. Resisting Iranian military involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen’s civil wars is costing Saudi Arabia billions of dollars and, as oil revenues decline, is forcing the royal family to spend sovereign wealth fund money. This will create dissention within the royal family and may eventually threaten the kingdom’s internal stability.  More ominously, the Saudi leadership feels abandoned as the US seeks an accommodation with Iran.

The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is now out in the open, exposing the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as proxy conflicts between the dominant Sunni and Shia theocracies for the soul of Islam.  As a secular nation, this is a holy war the US does not understand and would be ill advised to take sides in as this would preclude the next administration in Washington from serving as an honest broker to prevent a bloody regional war that could involve outside powers.

A deep economic recession in China, a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal, and an open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran are each disruptive in their own unique ways, but what they share in common is the potential to impact regional and global events in significantly and unpredictably.  Not yet a month into the new year, 2016 is showing that already this will be a year of “living dangerously” for the national security community.

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

How Would You Like Your Intel Prepared Sir?

The year 2015 has certainly been a stressful one for those involved with national security so I for one am happy to see it coming to close.  That’s the good news, but as we all understand there has been no resolution to Russian adventurism, Chinese expansionism, North Korean unpredictability, Iraqi politics, Afghani violence, Iranian mischief, the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State’s wonton cruelty, or Jihadi inspired terrorism so barring some unforeseen epiphany 2016 looks like another year where the threats we have been suffering through will grow more dire rather than abate.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this panoply of national security threats the American people seemed to be war weary and increasingly isolationist until the ISIS Paris and San Bernardino attacks in November and December, respectively.  Through Labor Day both the Democratic and Republican presidential primary debates were mostly “national security free zones” focusing on the economy, wealth inequality, policing, health care, and the domestic impacts of immigration.  In the debates since 13 November, the discussion has shifted markedly to how candidates for president will protect Americans from threats generated abroad.  Unfortunately, the discourse has lacked both specifics and substance as the candidates talk in soundbites about complex subjects such as responding to Russia and China’s use of military power, controlling the US border, bringing security to Afghanistan, achieving stability in Iraq, ending  the Syrian Civil War, and defeating ISIS.  From presidential candidates to pundits, though, there is rough general agreement that intelligence has never been more vital to insuring our national security.

This reality makes the gathering cloud of allegations that intelligence is being selectively tailored to meet different agendas in the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff even more disconcerting. Here’s what has been reported in the media so far:

  • Since August the DoD Inspector General (IG) has been investigating charges from CENTCOM intelligence analysts that the command J2 was altering their products so they would align with the President’s position that progress is being made against ISIS. Subsequently these allegations of misconduct have extended to a possible cover-up with some analysts accusing the senior intelligence officials at CENTCOM of deleting emails and files from computer systems before the IG could examine them.
  • On 13 November before the Paris Attacks President Obama with an ill-timed comment observed that “ISIS is contained.” Eight days later at press conference in Malaysia the President said he was expecting the DOD IG to provide him with a full and thorough investigation regarding the allegations about whether intelligence at CENTCOM was significantly altered as it moved up the chain of command. He went on to say that he has insisted since taking office that intelligence not be shaded by politics, adding “I have made it repeatedly clear to all my top national security advisers that I never want them to hold back, even if the intelligence, or their opinions about the intelligence, their analysis or interpretations of the data, contradict current policy.”
  • Contemporaneously with the President’s comments in Kuala Lumpur, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, and House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen announced on 20 November the formation of  a Joint Task Force “to investigate allegations that senior U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) officials manipulated intelligence products.  In addition to looking into the specific allegations, the Joint Task Force will examine whether these allegations reflect systemic problems across the intelligence enterprise in CENTCOM or any other pertinent intelligence organizations.”

What all this tells me is that the DoD IG investigation of the CENTCOM allegations is not a happy story and may be just the flashing beacon for more serious issues about intelligence being used inappropriately by a variety of actors.  Here is why I say this:

  • The President’s remarks at the end of his Asia trip appear to be designed to distance and insulate him from potentially embarrassing intelligence practices.
  • The House Joint Task Force indicates growing Congressional concerns about the creditability of intelligence being used to inform national policy and that the Congress is not willing to rely on the executive branch for information regarding IC performance.
  • If there is substance to what Hersh is reporting, then the allegations of the CENTCOM J2 manipulating intelligence so that it would align with the Obama Administration’s views of the situation in the Middle East becomes a subset of a large issue:
  • Is the IC responding to White House signals about the nature of the intelligence reporting the President would prefer to see and are CIA and JCS using intelligence to advance their own conflicting policy agendas with regard to Assad and ISIS?

Unless all this is quickly and plausibly debunked we are not far from the state of the IC becoming fodder for presidential and Congressional campaigns in 2016.  This means more soundbites about what’s wrong with Intelligence and less than well thought-out ideas on how the IC should be reformed.

That’s what I think; what do think?

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.” (http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/pentagon/2015/11/08/defense-secretary-ash-carter-says-russia-china-potentially-threaten-global-order/75412284/).  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 (http://blog.checkpoint.com/2015/11/09/rocket-kitten-a-campaign-with-9-lives/).  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?