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?

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2015 Will Be Like 2014 — Just Different

The holidays this year were unusually kind to the Mazzafro family, and I hope the same is true for you and all who matter to you.

No holiday though for world events that affect and effect our national security and personal safety.  While there have fortunately been no ISIS beheadings since our last virtual encounter, the last two weeks of December ushered out 2014 with several events that will surely impact the national security scene in 2015.  As the price of oil continued to drop driving the Russian economy into chaos, President Obama diplomatically recognized Cuba to mixed reviews in both countries.  There was a lone wolf terrorist hostage situation in Sydney Australia that resulted in two dead, while the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar for Pakistani military children killing 141 (132 children).  All of this was unfolding as North Korea concocted a high visibility cyber hack against Sony Picture Entertainment (SPE; previously Columbia Pictures) to prevent the release of the feature film “The Interview,” which is a comedy satire imagining that two reporters acting on behalf of the CIA assassinate North Korea’s “Boy Leader” Kim Jung Un.  The cyber hack against SPE’s intellectual property, business records, and emails was followed by threats of physical violence against theaters screening “The Interview” on Christmas Day.  The US-led NATO combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended but with 11,000 troops remaining, while the general leading the fight against ISIS said things are going well, but that it will be at least three years before we can stand-down.  Not surprisingly the polemics about the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) majority report on the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques dissipated with the adjournment of the 113th Congress.

So given all this, here is a potpourri of what I think we can expect to see in 2015:

  1. The Sony Hack is likely to be the seminal cyber event that causes both the US government and the private sector to get serious enough about cyber security to encourage the Congress to pass bi-partisan legislation that will require the sharing of threat information between corporations and government agencies with cyber security responsibilities.  Moreover, there will likely be a robust debate about what constitutes “cyber vandalism” as opposed to “cyber terrorism” and when a “cyber-attack” is an act of war?  Presumably, this debate will educate the American people regarding when and how they can expect their government to protect them in cyber space.  I also believe that the Sony hack and privacy concerns raised by the Snowden revelations will cause a rapid adoption of data encryption by virtually all Fortune 500 companies around the world and a significant number of individuals as well. As for North Korea, I would not be surprised to see a more open struggle emerge between hardliners and Chinese-encouraged moderates regarding pragmatic accommodations with South Korea and the US.
  2. The 46% drop in oil prices during 2014 has certainly ratcheted up the effects of economic sanctions on Iran and Russia while stimulating economic activity in China, Japan, and the US – – so what’s not to like about this situation? Nothing, if it causes Tehran to agree to curtail its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable way and results in Moscow rethinking its expansionist foreign policy in former states of the defunct Soviet Union.  The alternative, however, is an “us against the world” outlook that actually causes Putin and Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei to see no option but to keep pursuing aggressive nationalistic based policies that will continue to challenge a “lame duck” Obama administration facing an adversarial Congress.
  3. With China’s economic growth rate slowing to between 6% and 7% as the population ages, the Xi Jinping regime will become increasingly concerned with domestic issues. Of particular importance to Xi and the Chinese Politburo will be insuring that the democracy movement/demonstrations in Hong Kong do not spread to China’s mainland coastal cities. Meanwhile, the declining price of oil should have a calming effect on China and other nations seeking to establish territorial claims in the South and East China Sea in order to preserve energy exploration rights.
  4. By this time next year the US lead effort to degrade, disrupt and defeat ISIS with airpower will likely have devolved into a stalemate despite the US committing another 7,000 combat “advisers” (for a total of 10,000 boots on the ground) to steady and encourage the Iraqi Army. The irony here is that US ground forces will likely be acting in concert with the Iranian military to keep at least a Shia Iraq in existence.  Unless Syrian Dictator Bashar al Assad is taken out politically, or by other means, there seems little chance of the Syrian civil war ending in 2015.
  5. With 11,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan as combat advisors, the end of America’s combat mission in this foreboding landlocked country is more political rhetoric than reality. The presence of US troops and the Pakistani military’s unwillingness to now concede safe haven to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Peshawar military school slaughter should keep the central government in Kabul viable, but for the long term prognosis see Iraq after the US departure in 2011 and Afghanistan post the Russian departure in 1989.  Already Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is saying the United States might want to “re-examine” the timetable for removing the remaining U.S.-led coalition troops in the country by the end of 2016.
  6. And now for the “lightening round”
    • “Lone Wolf” attacks, both physical and cyber, will increase in 2015 as result of self-radicalization, aggrieved individuals, or some just seeking their “15 minutes of fame.”
    • NSA’s bulk collection authorities will likely be renewed, but with considerable deference to privacy concerns and transparency. I also expect to see privacy advocates arguing before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)
    • The Intelligence Community’s (IC) deteriorating relationship with Congress should begin to heal, but it will be incumbent on the IC to rebuild the trust and confidence of the Congress (and by extension the American people) in the community. Both the IC and its Congressional oversight committees should begin a dialogue regarding how to revamp oversight so it can be more effective both in terms of IC mission needs and growing privacy concerns associate with the Information Age.
    • Budget caps will not be lifted by the 114th Congress, leaving Overseas Contingency Operating (OCO) funds as the only source of relief for unmet defense and intelligence funding needs. Military Service Intelligence agencies will be particularly squeezed
    • Despite the interest of incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in acquisition reform, which is shared with Senator McCain (incoming Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Representative Thornberry (next Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee), there will be no meaningful reforms enacted in 2015.
    • As defense and intelligence contract award opportunities diminish because of budget realities, there will be an increase in merger and acquisition activity within the DoD and IC’s industrial base.
    • Expectations that private sector Research & Development (R&D) will be sufficient to meet Defense and IC needs are misplaced as contractors shift funding from R&D to protect shareholder equity and/or improve their balance sheets for potential acquirers.
    • 2015 is the “make or break” year for ICITE to begin to deliver mission capabilities to the IC if IOC, as laid out in 2012, is going to be achieved by 2017. Agencies opting out of the Desk Top Environment (DTE), the slow development of governance models, and challenges with integration do not make me optimistic

 

 

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

Live from GEOINT in Tampa

I am writing this edition of the Mazz-INT blog in Tampa Florida where I am excited to be for the delayed version of GEOINT 13.  As with past GEOINT’s I am looking forward to hearing from the leadership of the Intelligence Community (IC) regarding both the current state of the community and where it is going in the future as needs increase and resources diminish.  I expect the CentCom and SoCom Commanders to expound as demanding users on what they need from the IC.  I am also anxious to see in the GEOINT exhibition hall what new technologies the IC’s industrial base will have on display that can improve intelligence performance while reducing costs.  Then there will be the free flow of networking between members of government and industry that is essential to building trust so that the IC can procure from the private sector efficiently and with confidence.  This is something that often doesn’t happen in the national capital region because of the grind of daily schedules and the tyranny of traffic.  Since the budgetary demise of DoDIIS and numerous other regional and agency specific “trade shows,” GEOINT takes on added importance of “keeping the lights on” as an open forum for the IC to communicate with and learn from all in industry who believe they have something of value to offer the IC for the defense of our nation.  The Intelligence and National Security Summit coming up on 18-19 Sept and co-sponsored by AFCEA and INSA, is another event in this category.

Turning to some of those issues the IC is dealing with today in real time, I don’t believe any of us are surprised that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a fait acompli and the open question now is whether the eastern Ukraine will become federalized or fully incorporated by Moscow.  Media reporting in April augmented by U.S. State Department and NATO warnings of “serious consequences” indicate those pro-Russians Ukrainian militias are storming government offices in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv.  What is clear from events in March and so far in April is that neither the United States nor the major powers in the European Union have in combination sufficient power or the will to dissuade Vladimir Putin from acting on what he sees as Russian national interests in the Ukraine.  Over time, of course, Russia’s actions to reattach the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine by force will lead to Putin being “shunned” by the international community while on the economic front most will seek alternatives to doing business with or in Russia.  Sounds like Russia before Peter the Great, but with ICBMS!

I also notice that to get the suspended Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track the idea of exchanging convicted Israeli spy Jay Pollard was floated to encourage the Netanyahu Government to make a meaningful concession to the Palestinians.  I am not conversant enough with the positions of either Israel or Palestine to know what a meaningful comprise capable of advancing the moribund peace process would be, but I do know that I am tired of Pollard’s seemingly annual “15 minutes of fame” about why he should be released because he has served sufficient time for his crimes.  NO HE HASN’T!  But unlike most of my peers in Naval Intelligence I view Pollard as a diminishing asset who should be traded for concessions important to the United States (e.g. stop building settlements) while he still has trading value. Though I delight in the thought of Jay Pollard wasting away in quasi-solitary confinement in a North Carolina federal prison, I am at loss to see how this is advancing larger U.S. national security interests, which at least for me include holding Israel accountable for sponsoring his espionage.  What actually concerns me the most, however, is the martyrdom of Pollard and the potential that he could be paroled on the basis of time served under current federal prison guidelines.

Speaking of Israel, did you see where former Air Force A2 Dave Deptula suggested transferring a few B-52G’s from the U.S.’s retired inventory to the Israeli Air Force as way of getting Iran’s attention to be serious in its negotiations about not pursuing nuclear weapons.  I am sure many would see providing Israel this kind of strategic offensive reach as bordering on brinkmanship, but I know I like the way Dave is thinking.  Of course, just reminding the Mullah’s in Tehran that this option exists should by itself refocus them on the value of negotiations and how a nuclear Iran changes the strategic calculation in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Come to think of it it’s probably time to remind Vladimir Putin as well as our NATO allies of the strategic reach of the United States as a Russian SU-24 fighter bomber buzzed the USS Daniel Cook while steaming on a freedom of navigation mission in the Black Sea.  To complement ratcheting up economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea the U.S. Navy should be noticeably directed as result of the Daniel Cook incident on 14 April to deploy three medium to small amphibious ships protected by two Aegis equipped destroyers to the Black Sea for “familiarization ops” that would include a port call in Constanta, Romania. Then the AF could covertly circumnavigate the Black Sea with a B-2 Spirit and if Russian Air Defense did not detect the flight the White House could release undisputable evidence of this mission to embarrass President Putin’s ability to protect Russia from U.S. strategic forces.

Finally, I want to touch on the Heartbleed issue which raises the difficult question about the whether the IC should be warning U.S. entities (corporations and individuals) outside of government to threats that endanger their security and wellbeing.  Some will recall that post 9/11 the question was raised but not answered because it was moot as to whether or not the IC should risk sensitive sources and methods to protect the American flying public with warnings of creditable threats to hijack commercial airliners.  Here the question is about whether NSA and/or DHS should be more interested in exploiting cyber vulnerabilities like Heartbleed or more concerned about protecting  American citizens from economic if not physical harm from dangerous malware.  In today’s current environment of the public’s diminished confidence and trust in the IC the answer seems to be a “no brainer” for me at least.  The IC needs to be actively seeking opportunities where it can demonstrate not what it is doing “to” the American people (i.e. collecting of their telephone metadata without a warrant) but what intelligence can do “for” all Americans to insure that they have the opportunity to enjoy “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness!”

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