A Vortex Caused by the Confluence of Terrorism, Domestic Violence, and International Volatility

For those who don’t remember it we seem to be living through a not so well produced reprisal of the long hot summer of 1968.  Back then we were four years into the Vietnam War which was going badly; the Soviet Union was ascertaining the Brezhnev Doctrine in Czechoslovakia; in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination the Black Panthers were calling for violence against whites; and protest demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention turned violent.  Fast forwarding to the present, Mark Twain appears to have been right:  history doesn’t repeat itself but it does seem to rhyme.

I am not sure if the period from 7 to 17 July 2016 is historic or just frightening, but the events of these 10 days have been traumatizing and confusing in a way I have not sensed in America since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  With the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge on 7 and 17 July, respectively and the horrific carnage in Nice on  July 14th caused by single terrorist driving a 21 ton commercial truck at high speed down a crowded promenade, the American people (still with San Bernardino, Orlando, Brussels, and Paris in their recent memory) don’t know if their safety is more threatened by ISIS terrorists, self-radicalized lone-wolf Islamists, Americans with a domestic agenda, or police officers with a hair trigger anxiety.  We are in a vortex caused by the confluence of terrorism, domestic violence, and international volatility.

This domestic unease is only made more acute by an international environment that that is growing increasingly unpredictable and worrisome.  In this same 7 to 17 July time frame China raised the potential for confrontation when it rejected a Hague 12 July ruling that its claims to maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea are without merit; the British referendum to leave the European Union (Britex) resulted on 13 July in the relatively unknown Theresa May replacing David Cameron as Prime Minister; and on 14/15 July a failed  coup in Turkey will allow ( at least in the short run) President Erdogan to make his regime both more autocratic and Islamist. Already China is warning that any effort to challenge its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea will be forcibly resisted. It remains to be seen what the impact of United Kingdom’s departure means but it doesn’t strengthen either the European Union or NATO as Russia begins again to assert itself in Europe.  Erdogan’s post-coup purges of secularists from the government and armed forces raises questions about how dependable Turkey will be going forward in the fight against ISIS and in managing the flow of refugees coming to Europe.  Regardless, I am relatively certain that the immediate ramping up of attacks on American citizens and the police officers protecting them while the national political conventions are going on will turn America’s attention inward.

In a sound bite, everyone who has not “checked out” for the summer senses imminent danger but doesn’t know where the threat is coming from or how the government can protect them, so nobody feels safe.  Some say this is just the new normal and we have to get use to any large gathering being a potential shooting gallery.  The alternative is to use massive data collection (OK, surveillance) available to us in combination with high performance computing and machine learning to deter, detect, and disrupt those planning mass murder to advance some cause.

Certainly the terrorist violence the world has experienced in 2016 coupled with the targeted shootings of American police officers this July has both the law enforcement and intelligence communities redoubling their efforts to protect the Republican and Democratic National Conventions from life threatening violence.  Nice reminds all those attending or responsible for the safety and security of the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia that individuals using fire arms and explosives is only one of many ways death, injury, or chaos can be visited on these high visibility events.  Anthrax, drones, and cyber come immediately to mind as low cost/high impact yet to be used ways of striking citizens or cops to cause fear and disruption if not death and destruction.

The rising level of ISIS related terrorist attacks, of course, is neither new nor surprising. Earlier this year, ISIS spokesperson Mohammad al-Adnani, said, “While, we’re being reduced on the physical battlefield, the caliphate is physically shrinking. So, you should take the battle. Don’t come to Iraq and Syria, take the battle to wherever you are and attack infidels wherever you are.” CIA Director John Brennan in his 16 June testimony to the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) warned:

The group’s [ISIS’] foreign branches and global networks can help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria. In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.

It mystified me that none of the senators nor any media pundits observed in the moment (or since) that if this is true (as events are proving it to be) then our strategy of fighting ISIS “over there” is actually making them more dangerous “back here!” Perversely, our ongoing military efforts to “degrade, disrupt, and defeat ISIS with military operations in Iraq and Syria are not achieving their strategic intent of reducing terrorism in CONUS to the nuisance level.

Adding to the danger of the ISIS terrorist threat is the lone wolf targeting of police officers as vigilante responses to black males being shot while being taken into police custody.  I am sure it has already occurred to ISIS and its sympathizers in the U.S., that if they too begin to take action against cops they could enflame violence between white and black radicals as we move towards our national elections in November.

The current comingling of domestic violence with ISIS inspired terrorism by US citizens (San Bernardino and Orlando) tells me that the systemic seam that exists between domestic and foreign intelligence in the US Intelligence Community (IC) makes it harder than it should be to thwart either terrorism or domestic violence.  This is because seams in national security are where bad things go to happen.

Finally, the question – or is it an opportunity? – raised by this current month of discontent is this: Are the American people willing to debate as part of the Presidential electoral process  the pros and cons of more government surveillance in exchange for increasing the chances that intelligence agencies and  law enforcement can afford them more protection and security?  Surely San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas, and Baton Rouge tell us it is irresponsible in terms of public safety to limit intelligence and law enforcement to surveillance of foreign nationals as it becomes seemingly impossible  to discern who is a domestic criminal from an ISIS terrorist.  Without doubt their motives are different, but criminals and terrorists (whether foreign or domestic) are using the same tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to threaten our national peace and tranquility in order to advance their causes.

However, if the bar for “probable cause” is to be lowered to enable more effective surveillance and investigation against those persons foreign or domestic who mean to do us arm, then the government standards for transparency also need to be raised accordingly.  This transparency must inform the American people who is subject to what forms of surveillance for what purposes and how personal information will be protected from inappropriate access.  To prevent abuse, oversight of any  broader surveillance powers granted to the Intelligence Community for homeland security will need to be rigorous, independent and subject to public review.

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

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ODNI at Ten, Reorgs, and Lone Wolves

February is the shortest month of the year, but this past one seemed interminable with snow storm after snow storm disrupting routines for me both at work and home.  So the missing February MAZZINT blog is a function of a weather induced funk on my part rather than any shortage of material to discuss with you.

In fitting fashion the last snow storm of season for Washington, D.C. on March 5th delayed Director John Brennan’s public announcement of his expected reorganization of CIA to Friday March 6th.  The unclassified specifics of the reorganization were widely reported in the press (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/03/06/us/politics/ap-us-cia-overhaul.html) so no need to rehash them here.  According to Director Brennan at least two of the outcomes he is expecting from this reorg is better intelligence mission outcomes resulting from putting analysis and collectors into “integrated” functional or geographic based centers.  Moreover, Director Brennan expects these ten CIA Centers to result in clear accountability for CIA intelligence successes and failures.

This is not a radical new age org structure and operating model; rather, the concept of directorates providing resources to multidiscipline teams is well proven in DoD (Military Services play the role of Directorates and the CoComs are the Centers) and in the private sector where IBM has been using this model for years.  Based on these other experiences there is no reason to expect this directorates/centers approach will not bring accountability and integration to the way the CIA operates. It remains to be seen, though, how manpower intensive this approach will be and how much friction it will be generate between CIA Directorates and the new CIA Centers.

Based on personal experience with reorgs to this model, I would caution CIA to expect two things:

  1. When this reorg is in place John Brennan will have 15 direct reports; organizational theory experts say five is the optimum number! Ergo 10 center directorates depending on five directorates and reporting directly to CIA’s director could actually end up diluting accountability.  For what it’s worth, I would be more optimistic about long range success of this reorg with less centers and/or all the center directors reporting to the DR via a DD for Mission Outcomes.
  1. The sustainability of this reorganization will be strained and tested severely when John Brennan leaves Langley. Those who perceive themselves as losing power, prestige, and promotability through this reorg will be actively looking to undermine it.  To continue into the future this new organization structure needs to be put in place quickly and naysayers banished to professional obscurity.

For those of you keeping score at home, CIA now joins DIA, and NGA in reorganizing itself within the last 18 months!

Having barely assimilated the news and implications of CIA’s reorganization announcement, I awoke on Sunday 07 March to Greg Miller’s story (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-campaign-against-terrorism-us-enters-period-of-pessimism-and-gloom/2015/03/07/ca980380-c1bc-11e4-ad5c-3b8ce89f1b89_story.html)  on the front page of the Washington Post with the headline “In campaign against terrorism, U.S. enters period of pessimism and gloom.”  My immediate reaction was neither strong agreement nor disagreement with what Miller was reporting, but sadness that after 14 years of war to degrade, disrupt, and defeat terrorism the results are so inclusive.

How we are doing with making America safe from terrorism truly depends on what you are asking about and to whom the question is being put.  Even more discouraging to me is that terrorism continues to dominate our country’s national security dialog while draining considerable resources in blood and treasure even though it presents no existential threat to the nation. Other threats are more immediate and have the potential to do grave harm to the security of the United States and/or impact our standard of living. I think DNI Clapper has it right when he places terrorism third on the threat list behind cyber and counterintelligence.

Reasonable people, however, can disagree with the DNI’s often stated observations that the IC is beset by more crises and threats than at any other time in his 50-year career.  When I joined Naval Intelligence 45 years ago the top three threats to US national security were:  Soviet Aggression in Western Europe, Assuring the Security of South Vietnam, and preventing a coordinated Arab States attack on Israel.  I am not sure today’s threats are any more daunting then the ones I remember from 1970 because each one of those could have brought the US into direct conflict with the Soviet Union  – – –  but who really cares?  Today’s threats from a rising Russia, to increasing tensions in the Far East, to a nuclear Iran, to ISIS, to the ability of non-state actors to do massive damage from a laptop are challenging enough in terms of their scope, diversity and ability to manifest themselves with little or no warning. As Admiral Nimitz’s N2 Eddie Layton was famous for saying “the biggest alligator is the one closest to you!”

Finally, I was at an INSA event on March 3rd where the agenda was reviewing/celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the DNI/ODNI and their impact on the IC.  Seems most of the speakers felt the DNI/ODNI deserved at least a grade of a “gentleman’s B” for keeping the US safe from another 9/11 like attack and for enabling the IC to be more effective than the sum of its parts (e.g. the take down of Osama bin Laden).  Domestic/Homeland Security Intelligence was the only area specifically mentioned where the DNI/ODNI has not achieved as much progress as the authors of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA/2004) probably expected.  This comment from a senior HPSCI Staffer sent my mind rushing to the DNI’s 2015 Global Threat Testimony (http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/2015%20WWTA%20As%20Delivered%20DNI%20Oral%20Statement.pdf ) delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 27 where the DNI said  “. . . homegrown violent extremist continue to pose the most immediate threat to the homeland.  Lone actors or insular groups who act autonomously will likely gravitate to simpler plots that don’t require advanced skills, outside training, or communications with other.”

Putting these two statements together brought me to the realization that IC today is least prepared to warn effectively against the most immediate threat to the homeland!  While “the lone wolves” are clearly far less capable than Islamic Jihadi terrorist organizations such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in Yemen, or Boko Haram in executing a mass casualty attack in the continental United States (CONUS), they do present a clear and present danger that could result in metropolitan “lockdowns” as occurred after the Boston Marathon Bombing.

One of the obvious DNI/ODNI successes in its ten year history is taking dangerous individual actors off overseas battlefields – – – – where the restrictions on intelligence collection are less stringent than here at home.  Certainly more can be done to bring the considerable resources of the FBI, DHS, and local law enforcement to bear so as to identify, disrupt and arrest home grown terrorists before they act.  However, if lone wolves are being radicalized, aided, or guided by foreign based terrorist organizations, then the IC should be more transparent with the American people about the threat to them posed by foreign terrorist groups interacting with home grown terrorist “wantabes.”  Perhaps now is the time for the Congress and the President to realize that foreign and domestic threats to the US homeland have been converging since the first World Trade Tower attack in 1991 and this reality requires that legal boundaries between domestic and foreign intelligence should be substantially adjusted if not eliminated through legislation for the sake of our homeland security.

That’s what I think!  What do you think?