Book Ends

I have been on an extended hiatus not because there has been a paucity of topics to talk with you about, but mostly because I did not feel that I had anything to say that was worth of your attention.

Recently though I  finished reading Mike Hayden’s book “THE ASSAULT ON INTELLIGENCE: American National Security in the Age of Lies”  ( and Jim Clapper’s “FACTS and FEARS:  Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence (  Both are well written and informative for the general reader; but neither book makes any “new”  news with the content of each being familiar to all those conversant with current events, especially with regards to the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and the various investigations into Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential elections.

Hayden’s book is a polemic while Clapper’s is an extended memoir, but they share at least four things in common:

  1. Each is a book length editorial where the authors draw conclusions about the Trump campaign and presidency from the facts as they see them


  1. Both express a similar sense of dismay and alarm regarding President Trump’s disregard for documented facts and the negative effect this has on the IC and FBI


  1. They each infer that the IC and the FBI are entitled to the benefit of the doubt because they are fact based and apolitical.


  1. Hayden and Clapper both believe they have a responsibility to warn the American people that their IC and FBI are being misused and abused

While both Hayden and Clapper admit that their “fingerprints” are on the Special National Security Estimate that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), neither explains why President Trump (or the American people) should not be cautious when the IC claims it is speaking truth to power on the basis of intelligence determined facts. Regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election Hayden and Clapper both take President Trump to task (rightly so in my view) for not accepting the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA), which the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has now found creditable, that Russia’s interference was real and was meant to harm Hillary Clinton.  What they don’t do, however, is critically assess how well the IC performed in detecting this Russian interference, assessing its impact, or effectively warning the candidates, those responsible for insuring election reliability, or the American the people about what Russia was doing.  I know I would have appreciated their views on what effect an earlier U.S. response to Putin’s directed effort “to sow confusion and disorder” amongst American voters could have produced.

I thought both books were miss-titled.

A more descriptive title for Mike Hayden’s book would be “Donald Trump’s Assault on the Intelligence Community” because he focuses on the President’s behavior in the current environment of post factual American Populism. Hayden sees Trump as modeling bad behavior when it comes to putting beliefs before facts rather than seeing Donald Trump as representative of an electorate who want their beliefs acknowledged and acted on.  Jim Clapper’s memoir could easily be titled “Speaking Truth to Power” given how many times he uses this phrase to express what he sees as the core strength of the IC.  What the former DNI doesn’t say much about is the ambiguous and incomplete nature inherent in intelligence assessments and estimates.  Reading “Assault on Intelligence” and “Facts and Fears” I had to remind myself that competing agendas and careerism that can distort intelligence products are not unknown to the IC.

While defending the IC, neither book spends as much time as I would have liked addressing the competition the IC is currently facing as it is rapidly becoming one of many sources used by its consumer base.  There is virtually no discussion in either book on how the IC is disadvantaged by its dated information technology (IT) capabilities and practices, government bureaucracy and classification relative to private sector think tanks, online media, large corporations, and data brokers – – – all of whom can generate and deliver at least multi-sourced creditable reports in a timeframe relevant to consumers at lower costs than the IC.

What I also would like to have heard Mike Hayden and Jim Clapper say more about is how the IC could/should up its game with big data, high performance computing, analytics, and artificial intelligence so that it can be head of other “truth providers” in offering unique value added information that would compel decision and policy makers to seriously consider what the IC is providing.

In their defense of the IC, which I respect and applaud, it should not be forgotten that IC needs to recognize that it is now in a seriously competitive environment where its views of facts and truth are no longer given the credence they once were because they come from the IC.

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

Apple vs the FBI: Security vs Security

I thought the national threat assessments presented by DNI Clapper and DIA Director LtGen Stewart along with the release of the FY17 defense budget would offer plenty to engage you with in February, but the more I examined them the less interesting I found them to be.  The biggest news in the Obama Administration’s last defense budget is that it remains essentially flat while laying down markers for transitioning to the as yet to be defined “Third Offset” which will increase military power through the smart use of technology to enhance human capabilities in the battle space.  The intelligence threat assessments presented to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were, to be kind, a laundry list of twenty plus threats that seemed more aimed at justifying why the defense and intel budgets for FY 17 should not be cut than providing the national leadership with informed insights about the most dangerous threats confronting our country.  It seems the media and the presidential campaigns reacted the same way I did given the amount of attention they have shown these threat assessments and what would be the next President’s inherited defense budget.

Far more interesting to me in February were the three national security stories that continue to be slowed rolled.  During LtGen Stewart’s threat assessment testimony, HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes expressed his growing impatience with the slow pace of the DoD IG’s investigation into the now six month old charges that CENTCOM intelligence assessments were being altered by seniors in the chain of command so the White House could claim progress against ISIS.  Similarly the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Senator McCain expressed public anger with the Navy and DoD for not providing his committee with more details regarding the capture and release of two USN riverine patrol boats off of Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces.  Unless DoD and/or the Navy becomes more responsive, Senator McCain says he is ready to subpoena the eleven USN sailors involved in this bizarre capture and release incident.  Then there is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email saga, which the Justice Department keeps signaling that it does not intend to deal with until after the election in November.

Certainly the most controversial national security topic of 2016 so far is the debate about whether Apple can refuse to comply with the FBI’s warrant that the company provide a decryption code for unlocking the iPhone of San Bernardino Terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook.   The FBI says it needs Apple’s assistance to unlock Farook’s phone so it can determine who else might have been involved in the December 2nd shooting that left 14 dead and 22 seriously injured.  Apple is refusing on the basis that by assisting the FBI it will make its customers’ data less secure to both domestic and foreign intrusions in the future.  There is also the interesting legal wrinkle that the FBI is not asking Apple for an existing decrypt code but that the company develop one for unlocking Farook’s iPhone.  The larger issue at play here, of course, is the commercial IT industry’s ability to make available in the market place end-to-end encryption that could put information beyond the reach of the government even with a warrant for legitimate criminal and national security investigations and would effectively create “evidence free zones” for those meaning to do harm to American citizens and interests.

As would be expected, the law enforcement and intelligence community support the FBI’s position as essential to protecting Americans from both terrorists and criminal enterprises that could be domestic or foreign in origin.  Conversely, civil libertarians and the tech Industry side with Apple in terms of protecting American citizens from the U.S. Government, foreign governments, terrorists, criminals, and corporations from accessing private information for their own purposes.

Two developments have surprised me though as this fascinating and important legal debate has unfolded.

The first is Secretary of Defense Ash Carter telling the RSA Conference in San Francisco during the first week of March that he favors strong encryption without backdoors.   “Data security — including encryption — is absolutely essential for us,” he said. “None of our stuff works unless it’s connected … So we’re four-square behind strong data security and strong encryption.”  NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers in his remarks earlier in the week at this same RSA Conference avoided directed comment on the FBI/Apple debate but said in concluding his presentation that one of the things that gives him the greatest concern is cyber operatives expanding from denial of service and theft of information to the manipulation of data such that we lose confidence in the data the digital enterprise is delivering to us.  While comments he has made in different venues suggest Admiral Rogers sees a strong need for government access to commercial encryption for national security reasons, his concerns about data manipulation also indicate he understands the importance of data protection for these same national security concerns.

The second surprise is the Chertoff Group White Paper “The Ground Truth about Encryption and the Consequences of Extraordinary Access” ( The conclusion this paper comes to is that “an extraordinary access requirement is likely to have a negative impact on technological development, the United States’ international standing, and the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and will have adverse long-term effects on the security, privacy, and civil liberties of citizens.”  The surprise is not in the arguments this paper makes for unbreakable commercial encryption, but that it is coming from a group founded and lead by Michael Chertoff who served as President George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary from 2005 to 2009.

This clash of competing rights between the government’s legitimate needs to have access to information essential for ensuring the security/safety of Americans and the needs of American’s to protect access to their information from intrusion and misuse when the federal government can’t or won’t is the grist for a landmark Supreme Court decision.  I am not smart enough to know whether we are safer with the government being able to obtain citizens’ digital information with a warrant or if we are more secure if encrypted data is protected from all seeking access to it.  What I am confident about is that our judicial and legislative processes will arrive at a conclusion for this access to encrypted data conundrum (perhaps with assists from the tech and policy communities) that will be widely accepted because we will all understand how and why it was arrived at thanks to our Constitution.

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?