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?

 

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October Surprises?

Since my last interaction with you just before the 4th of July quite a bit as transpired – – – – most of it troubling to me – – – –  but the Olympics, the preseason début  of the Redskin’s RG III, and the Nationals pennant run, all seem to be acceptable diversions in the swelter of the dog days of July and August in DC. 

The most visceral and immediately painful events, of course, are the mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin perpetrated by troubled lone gunmen.  Both tragedies should be stark reminders to those involved with homeland security of the threat posed by “lone wolf” radicals looking to make some political point.  Of greater concern to me is a transnational terrorist group encouraging either would-be martyrs or disaffected individuals to conduct some type of “lone wolf terror campaign” geared at either interrupting our political processes or slowing our economic recovery.  Surely, there is more intelligence can do to identify potential “lone wolfs” to law enforcement before they strike – such as investigating when 6,000 rounds of ammunition are delivered to a one bedroom apartment.  That doesn’t mean I am in favor of the government interfering with my Second Amendment Rights to bear arms; I just want the government doing all it can to protect me from others building an arsenal in their homes… is that so too hard or to much to expect?!  Again the conflicting issues of security and civil liberties.

The Federal Reserve dutifully confirmed the obvious in July that the US economy is barely growing.  There are lots of causes for this, but the still expanding national debt continues to impact all aspects of the economy.  In the long run our nearly $16 trillion deficit is both the largest and surest threat to the United States’ national security and our standard of living; however, in the short run it is also impacting what spending for national security will be in FY 13.  The Congress adjourned the first week in August telling us the check was in the mail for passage of a Continuing Resolution (CR) in September to avoid a government shutdown on 1 October.  That leaves only the lame duck session of Congress after the election to find and allocate $50 billion in defense cuts for FY 13 that both sides can agree to or sequestration will spread that $50 billion in cuts across all national security accounts on a pro rata basis – something the Congress, the Secretary of Defense, and the defense industry all agree will wreak havoc on the national security landscape.   

The violence in Syria is continuing and escalating but stalemated, where both the government and rebel forces are killing each other with considerable collateral damage in the absence of either side being able to defeat the other.  The United States for its part is war weary and broke (see above), and while it wants Basher Assad out it is also rightly concerned about supporting rebel forces it knows very little about.  Ironically as the Congress and the security apparatus of the IC work to limit contact with the press it seems from nightly news that reporters like Richard Engle have unique access to at least certain factions battling Assad.  In neo-Cold War fashion both Russia and China have vetoed UN sanctioned international action to remove Assad because they want to avoid (for obvious reasons) the precedent of external intervention to remove authoritarian governments.  Continuing the Cold War metaphor (and hopefully not the “Guns of August”) the situation in Syria is creating a volatile de facto alignment between Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Damascus with Pyongyang as a junior partner. 

Speaking of reporters with access and insight, David Ignatius warned in a 6 August OpEd  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/david-ignatius-is-saudi-arabia-on-the-edge/2012/08/05/6758c1e0-dd91-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_story.html that “by appointing Prince Bandar bin Sultan as its new intelligence chief, Saudi Arabia has installed what looks like a war cabinet at a time of rising tensions with Iran and growing internal dissent from its Shiite minority.”  He goes on to say the Saudi military is also quietly canceling leave in order to increase military readiness.  Ignatius speculates that all this is in reaction to increasing concerns by both King Abdullah and the new Crown Prince Salman that Iran does not just want to keep Assad in power but also wants to weaken the monarchy’s ability to rule Saudi Arabia.  Knowing nothing beyond what I read in newspaper (yeah I still read them) and lacking access to even David Ignatius, I would also think that Riyadh has legitimate concerns that  the Shia Ayatollahs would retaliate against the Saudi Sunni Monarchy if there is an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Amazingly (at least to me) none of these macro issues impacting the well being if not the security of the United States has yet to become a matter for debate in what has so far been an issue-free Presidential campaign by both sides.  Based on Presidential campaign tomes such as Game Change and Primary Colors, I am confident both campaigns have subject matter experts writing policy papers on the lone wolf threat, the impact of the deficit on national security, courses of action for Syria, and threats to Saudi Arabia, but neither campaign obviously sees any electoral value in raising these subjects while the voters are not listening in the pre-convention August heat.   Each of these circumstances though, has the potential to deliver an “October Surprise” that neither the Presidential campaigns, our security agencies nor the nation at large are considering seriously enough.

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