The DNI at 10: Are We Safer or Just Lucky?

It will be a few days before you see this, but I am writing on December 7th, which has special meaning for me because of my career as a Naval Intelligence Officer. The failure to warn, despite a variety of indicators that became clear after this Day of Infamy in 1941, resulted in the formation of the modern Intelligence Community with the National Security Act of 1947.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created, well, to centralize intelligence so it would not be fragmented across the Army, Navy, State Department, FBI, War Department, and the Pacific Fleet as it was in the weeks leading up to the Japanese air assault on Pearl Harbor.

In advance of similar findings by the 9-11 Commission, the Pearl Harbor Commission (aka the Roberts Commission) as well as numerous books (my favorites are Gordon Prange’s “At Dawn We Slept and Eddie Layton’s “And I Was There”) based on archival material found that for a variety of security and bureaucratic reasons critical pieces of intelligence were not put into a mosaic.  Such a mosaic, though incomplete, would have provided President Roosevelt, General Short, and Admiral Kimmel sufficient grounds to launch the fleet if for no other reason than to make sure that Japan’s six unlocated aircraft carriers were not approaching the Hawaiian Islands.

In similar fashion, the 9-11 Commission also found that the Intelligence Community (IC), which had grown from five to 15 members since 1947, possessed a myriad of intelligence leads that if viewed as a composite probably would have given the federal government the warning needed to disrupt the fatal attacks on New York and Washington.  Following the pattern of 1947, the Congress (though this time with the ambivalence of the Executive Branch) decided that the IC needed stronger central leadership to insure that all the information the IC had on threats to national security would be shared across the IC and analyzed holistically.  Consequently, the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was created in December 2004 with the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) joining the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was established in November 2002.  The Congress’ intention for both of these new organizations was to make America safer through centralized management and decentralized execution of intelligence and homeland security functions.

Channeling Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan let me ask you,  “so in all the confusion from the 9-11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the change of administrations, the Arab Spring, civil war in Syria, ISIS beheadings, and terrorist attacks abroad in the 10 years since the DNI was established:  do you feel safer punk or just lucky?”  This past October a University of Texas conference in Austin titled “Intelligence Reform and Counterterrorism after a Decade: Are We Smarter and Safer?” took an organized, dispassionate look at the effect of the DNI on national security and I think reasonably concluded that yes we are smarter about the threats that confront us, and yes we are safer; but we are not smart enough nor are we safe enough.

The disruption of several plots preventing other high casualty attacks in the Continental United States (CONUS) is at least circumstantial evidence that the investment in the DNI as a government entity is worthwhile because it has kept us safe.  But this begs the obvious question of whether it is the existence of the DNI or the doubling of both the size and budget of the IC since 9-11 that has resulted in no successful attacks on the homeland.  Of course, what neither the bureaucratic reality of the DNI nor the quantitative plus up of the IC’s budget has stemmed is the multitude of threats facing the United States from ISIS, the rise of Russia, the assertiveness of China, Iran’s nuclear intentions, the unpredictability of North Korea, disease and failed states in Africa, the potential of a radicalized Pakistan, a migration/immigration crisis on our southern border, the increasing lethal potential of “lone wolf” attacks, insider threat potential, and cyber vulnerabilities everywhere.  DNI Jim Clapper refers to this reality when he says in all of his public appearances that the current threat environment “is the worse he has seen during his 53 years in the IC.”  In a sound bite “the world is even more dangerous today than it was in 2001.”

For me this is reminiscent of the first 10 years of the CIA, when the Soviet Union changed from a country ravaged by World War II to a nuclear superpower presenting an existential threat to the United States.  Certainly the existence of the CIA didn’t make Soviet Russia into a super power but it did provide the organizational means for centralizing resources for collecting and analyzing intelligence about the capabilities and intentions of the USSR that enabled America’s dual strategies of containment and mutual assured destruction (MAD).  The world today is not bi-polar anymore so the important role of the DNI is not so much the centralization of IC resources against a monolithic threat, but rather allocating IC resources for dealing with an expanding threat environment resulting from a multi-polar globalized world that is increasingly empowered by (and dependent upon) information technology (IT) that is becoming less expensive and more capable every 18 months.

So this punk’s answer to Inspector Callahan’s question is not one he would accept as “I am not sure if the US is safer today or has just been lucky.”  We have enjoyed the benefits of both a stronger IC along with some good luck.  I am, however, reasonably certain that the DNI position will endure and therefore remain in position to shape the IC for how it prepares and organizes itself for the threats the IC projects to US security.  Yes, to be more effective I would like to see the ODNI staff shrunk dramatically to only numbers needed to support DNI decisions regarding how resources should be apportioned to threats and lead responsibilities assigned to deal with them.  Moreover, I believe a DNI as CEO for the IC conglomerate would increase accountability and reduce our dependence on luck for keeping our nation safe from attack.

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

Just Another Weekend in November — Hardly!

There was a Symposium in Austin during mid-October sponsored by University of Texas’ Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law as well as UT’s Clements Center for History, Strategy & Statecraft  and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) that I thought I would be writing about.   This two day event looked at the now 10 year history of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism, Prevention Act (IRTPA) and asked: as a nation “are we smarter or safer?”, but there are more pressing issues involving the Intelligence Community (IC) that I want to get to while they remain newsworthy.

The weekend after the Congressional mid-term elections, where exit polling showed the electorate sending an unmuffled message that they are out of patience with the Legislative and Executive Branches’ inability to compromise on political positions in order to govern, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper was dispatched by the President to Pyongyang to secure the release of two American citizens incarcerated by the North Koreans.  According to news reports, James Clapper was purposely selected because of his familiarity with Korea as well as the fact that the DNI positon reports directly to the President but conveys no sense of a diplomatic opening to North Korea.  DNI Clapper did, however, deliver a message from President Obama to Kim Jung Un through the North Korean General Officer serving as the emissary for the release of the two Americans.

Beyond the good news of there now being no Americans in North Korean prisons, this mission conveyed some needed positive press and prestige on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that I am happy to see.  If nothing else it says to the Congress as well as the international community that DNI Clapper has the trust and confidence of the President.  The more important strategic question raised by the release of these two Americans that the IC needs to answer is what is motivating North Korea to be so accommodating?  According to DNI Clapper the North Koreans were expecting the US to reciprocate with some type of diplomatic exchange and/or accommodation.

Despite my lack of expertise on the People’s Democratic Republic Korea, I remain unconvinced that “Boy Leader” Kim Jung Un (KJU) is actually running the government.  My evidence is tenuous but an undated photo of KJU touring a public housing project is not enough to convince me he remains in power after a falling from sight for six weeks that included missing a major communist party event.  Diplomatic protocol is probably the answer for why there were no photo opportunities for KJU with the released Americans, but why miss the internal and external propaganda value of showing the beneficence of the regime’s dynastic leader?  KJU not making any public appearance or statements while DNI Clapper was in country (or since he left) suggests to me that the “Boy Leader” has become a “Pyongyang spectator with gout!”

Meanwhile in Iraq during this same weekend, American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) found and fixed for strike aircraft an ISIS Leadership Convoy traveling in the Mosul area.  The air strike heavily damaged the convoy and according to Iraqi media reporting ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed or injured during the attack.  Curiously (at least to me) ISIS has not denied these reports and Baghdadi has not been seen since the air attack on this convoy.  A Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman has confirmed that US forces were aware that this was an ISIS leadership convoy, but there was never any intelligence indicating Baghdadi was traveling with this group.  On November 13 ISIS released a 16 minute voice recording presumably demonstrating that Baghdadi was alive and in charge.  The tape has not yet been confirmed to be Baghdadi and begs the question with the Iraqi media reporting his demise why an audio instead of a video tape (is the ISIS leader injured?).  Given that we have unconfirmed Iraqi news reports that Baghdadi is dead or injured and an as yet unconfirmed ISIS voice recording of Baghdadi imploring followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” the obvious intelligence issue at hand is learning what Baghdadi’s status is. As I am preparing to post this, ISIS has beheaded another American it says in part because of the US lead bombing campaign continuing.

As this ISIS leadership convoy was being bombed, the White House was announcing that President Obama is authorizing the deployment of 1,500 additional military advisers to Iraq to fortify the Iraqi Army’s effort to retake territory ISIS has seized since last spring.  My immediate reaction was air strikes and advisors to support a non-inclusive Shia government and an Army that doesn’t want to fight sounds a lot like the way we started in Vietnam. If the US has national interests at stake that demand both a stable Iraq and defeated ISIS then send enough forces (100,000?) to accomplish these ends.  Not seeing these national interests, my preference is to let the Iranians and the Kurds with US intelligence, arms, and air strikes “degrade and defeat” ISIS.  As for Iraq, I have said previously in this venue that I don’t believe the US has enough military manpower or treasure to prevent Iraq from fractionating back to the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regions that existed in Mesopotamia before the British Mandate created the artificial state of Iraq in 1920.  It is time for Washington to stop arguing about the justification for and execution of the latest Iraq War (2003 – 2011), as well debating whether the withdrawal of US forces in 2011 was premature and put the idea of a continued ground combat force there in the rear view mirror – before the American people send this message via the ballot box.

Over this same post mid-term election weekend,  Navy Times reported that the Pacific Fleet’s outspoken Intelligence Officer was relieved for remarks that he made last February at WEST 2014 postulating that the Chinese Navy (PLAN) was preparing for a naval war with Japan.  While this is neither an IC, Navy or National position, the Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris was aware in advance of what his intelligence officer was going to say and after the comments were made about the PLAN’s growing capabilities and China’s intentions, Admiral Harris did not “walk back” what was said nor attempt to put the remarks “into a broader context.”  The “China Hawks” in the retired naval intelligence community immediately surmised that the PacFleet N2 was being sacked for speaking the “truth” about PLAN threat and intentions as a gesture of goodwill to his hosts before President Obama arrived in Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC).  Besides having it on good authority that the Pacflt N2’s relief was related to internal staff issues and not his remarks about the PLAN at WEST 2014, I suspect the Chinese would have preferred to have learned quietly from President Obama while he was in China that this naval intelligence officer would be quietly retired vice being publicly removed and opening up a political controversy as to whether or not he was right about the PLAN seeking a naval war to establish its hegemony in the Easter Pacific.

Wrapping up, on November 3rd Robert Hannigan, the new director of GCHQ accused social networks and other online services of becoming “the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals.”  Mr. Hannigan went on to say in this Financial Times OpEd that security services in the UK and the US cannot discover and disrupt terrorist threats without greater support from the private sector, “including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web.”  As with the Clipper Chip controversy in the 1990s, Hannigan appears to be offering the tech giants in the US a Hobbesian choice between meeting government expectations about access to information for national security purposes and customer concerns about their information technology (IT) providers enabling government access to their personal information.  While I agree with Mr. Hannigan that “the right to privacy is not absolute” and with Justice Jackson that the Constitution is not a suicide pack, I don’t recall either the Director of GCHQ or the Director of NSA calling on the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s to not encrypt so much information so the UK and US could tap into Soviet command control networks in order to protect liberal western democracies from the threat of nuclear attack.

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

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?