Crisis as Opportunity for the IC

The summer of crisis is showing no signs of abatement with the approach of the fall equinox. Yes, I am mindful that Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease fire on August 26th, but I don’t see it addressing any of the underlying causes feeding the violence on both sides with regard to Gaza. There is still no assignment of responsibility for the shoot down of Malaysian Air Flight 17 over the eastern Ukraine but now there are photographs of Russian troops and armored vehicles securing the road that connects Rostov in southern Russia with Sevastopol in the recently annexed Crimea. Then there are the horrific executions by beheading of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff apparently meant to warn the West that it should be mindful that the Islamic State (IS) is a sovereign nation that is not to be interfered with. In the background the Ebola epidemic continues in West Africa along with Boko Haram, Libya is being run by militias, the Horn of Africa remains ungovernable and there are almost daily news reports of serious cyber hacks reminding me that there are dangerous chemical, biological, and cyber threats from a variety of vectors that accidently or purposely could ruin our day in the Continental United States (CONUS).

As bad as all this is, the current cauldron of crises should be an opportunity for the Intelligence Community (IC), the Department of State (DoS), Department of Homeland Security (DoHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) to individually and collectively show the American people that they are ready to defend them and that the investments made in these departments over the past 12 years has been money well spent on their behalf. Whether it’s because of (or lack of) policy decisions, capability gaps, organizational structure, or leadership I have the sense that the American people not only don’t have trust and confidence in our government’s ability to protect them, but they are beginning to see the government as contributing to if not causing the threats to our national security. Moreover, the impending release of the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI’s) release of its lengthy report on rendition and enhanced interrogation will likely only add to the misgivings the electorate has about the IC post Snowden.

Without getting into the politics of who’s at fault, it is a matter of record that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not turned out the way Washington said they would. Neither has been short; both have delivered more casualties than expected; each has seen several shifts in strategy; both have been crushingly expensive; neither resulted in stable sovereign national governments, but most important of all the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not ridded the world of violent Sunni Moslem Jihadist looking to wreak death and destruction on the United States. Instead, America is confronted with a well-organized, well financed, heavily armed, highly radical Islamic Sharia State the size of Belgium in what used to be northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq that unchecked will threaten at least Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia – – – – which offers IS strongman Baghdadi both more oil riches as well as control of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina to expand the appeal of the IS “caliphate.”

As with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Abdu Bakr al Baghdadi are also threatening the United States with jihadi violence because of American opposition to the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate under Sharia Law. While it was not certainly planned this way, the current threat presented by the IS provides the Intelligence Community (IC) with the opportunity to regain the trust and confidence of the American people by demonstrating what it can do for them as opposed to what Greenwalt, Bamfort and others have been saying the IC has been doing to them.

The first thing the IC can and should do is identify and broadly publicize as many names as possible of American’s fighting for the IS. It is one thing for these individuals to be watch listed but another for the American people to be engaged in protecting themselves by knowing who they are. Another is for the IC to share with the American people the intelligence it is providing to the Kurds and Turks to enable military action against IS fighters so they can understand what the IS is doing. Spare me the concern about compromising sources and methods if we are willing to provide actionable intelligence to uncleared foreign fighters. If the IC wants trust and confidence then it needs to let those paying the bills see some of their IC tax dollars at work! Without being specific, the IC should also be talking openly about how it is using big data and analytics to understand how the Islamic State is organized, operates, who its leaders are, and how it targets.

It wouldn’t hurt either if the American people saw the IC actively contributing a comprehensive strategy to deal with the threat the IS presents as well as responding Putin’s aggression in the eastern Ukraine. Some of that strategy should involve active (and visible) intelligence collection, analysis and sharing. If I got the chance to offer strategy advice to policy makers I would suggest at least the following:

For the Islamic State:

  • Stop trying to save Iraq as a nation state and allow it to fractionate into its natural Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish constituencies.
  • Use American ISR and military power to help the Turks, Kurds, Saudis, and Iran backed Iraqi Shias to contain, weaken, and defeat the military capabilities of the Islamic State
  • Destroying the Islamic State is more important than whether Assad continues to rule what is left of Syria; with political, economic, and military pressure his regime will last only a matter of years

For Russia and the Ukraine:

  • Continue to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically while calling out Putin with the release of selected intelligence
  • Provide the Ukrainian Government in Kiev with strategic and tactical intelligence regarding Russian actions in the eastern Ukraine
  • Insure military arms and ammunition quickly reach the Ukraine Government
  • Expedite the completion of land based missile defense capabilities in Poland
  • Ramp up visible peripheral reconnaissance along the northern shore of the Black Sea
  • Deploy a U.S. Navy Surface Combatant Strike Group (AEGIS cruisers and destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles
  • Suggest to NATO that the Montreux Convention be examined to allow for aircraft carrier transits of the Turkish Straits

While national strategic options for both the IS and the Ukraine are being formulated and debated I do believe it would be prudent to move a USN Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean to show both interest and intent in each of these areas of concern.

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

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?

BOSTON: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

In the past month much as transpired from the release of the FY 14 budget, to Secretary of Defense Hagel’s first policy speech (with no mention of ISR!), and a rhetorical but nuclear confrontation with North Korea,  all while destabilizing civil strife continues in Syria, Iran remains bent on having nuclear weapons, and terrorist bombings continues in Afghanistan and Iraq. Any one of these topics by themselves could easily take up the 1,000 words or so this forum affords me, but I am going to skip past them all to the events of the week of April 14th which saw the “pressure cooker” bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line, ricin-laced letters addressed to the President and Senator Wicker, a horrific fertilizer plant explosion near El Paso Texas, and a successful massive manhunt for the Boston Marathon Bombers guided by ISR.

Between April 15th and 19th we saw domestically what appears to be lone wolf terrorism aimed at an iconic event, a deranged person threatening national leadership, the killing effects of a disastrous industrial accident, the Intelligence Community’s (IC) ability to quickly provide actionable intelligence from a myriad of uncoordinated data streams, and the law enforcement lockdown of a metropolitan area to facilitate the capture of the “Marathon Bombers.”  As uplifting as the outcome in Boston was with the quick identification and death/capture of the Tsarnaev brothers, it does strike me as asymmetric that the ricin letters did not shut down the mail system or that the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion did not cause similar facilities to be closed or protected until the cause was known.  Presumably all could have been harbingers of greater danger if not actually connected, but fortunately they were not.

Reviewing the Boston Marathon Bombing my initial thoughts bin themselves into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

THE GOOD

  • Law enforcement and Intelligence at the Federal, State and Local levels quickly meshed to produce and act on intelligence to end the threat.
  • Our adversaries around the global saw the powerful capabilities of America’s IC to both immediately decipher massive amounts of unconnected information into actionable intelligence and confidently attribute responsibility for actions taken against US security.
  • When threatened, the American people will bond together for their common good and will be relentless in tracking down those who would actively threaten our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

THE BAD

  • The reality that four people died and over 150 are seriously injured from an attack that is hard to prevent given soft nature of the target and the low profile of the brothers Tsarnaev.
  • The inevitability that other iconic events (Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, etc.) will be targets for similar attacks.
  • The perpetrators were in essence “homegrown” and showed others from the politically motivated, to the criminally craven, to the mentally insecure how to achieve way more than “15 minutes of fame” for their cause and/or themselves.

THE UGLY

  • The potential backlash from the American people to the massive amount of surveillance they now know they are subjected to without their knowledge or consent.
  • The likely expectation of the American people for government,  given the resources involved,  to be more effective in protecting them.
  •  That two people with relatively unsophisticated and inexpensive weapons can tie up an area the size of Boston for almost five days.

In a broader context while events were playing out in Boston between 15 and 19 April the Senate was defeating extended background checks for gun control and introducing a plan for immigration reform.  The Bothers Tsarnaev as immigrants with lots of weapons will undoubtedly effect the legislative vector of these Obama Administration Second Term signature issues in ways that are hard at least for me to predict.  Regarding the IC (specifically, FBI, DHS, and NGA), the almost near real-time identification and take down of the Brothers Tsarnaev should result increase awareness of and investment in Affects Based Intelligence (ABI), video analytics, link analysis skills and tools, all source analysis, and Law Enforcement Fusion Centers.

Finally, and I hope most significantly, the Boston Marathon bombing will cause the American people to realize that this type of kinetic threat is now constantly with us in our homeland at industrial plants, shopping centers, post offices, schools, rail stations, movie theaters, sports events, etc.  To deal with this “new normal” the American people and their representatives are going to need to have an open debate (delayed since 9/11) regarding  what the balance should be between the government protecting their civil liberties and protecting their security.  The mantra that we are Americans and can have both in equal measures is empty bumper sticker bravado to me meant to deflect tough policy choices.

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