The Road to War is Littered with Miscalculations

Obama Administration nemesis Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter are in agreement that Russia, China, and Iran are all taking actions to assert their influence and demonstrate their ability to confront the United States.   At the Reagan Defense Forum on 7 November the Sec Def observed that “Some actors appear intent on eroding these principles and undercutting the international order that helps enforce them.”   Secretary Carter went on to warn that while the US does not seek confrontation it remains resolved to “…defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.” (http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/pentagon/2015/11/08/defense-secretary-ash-carter-says-russia-china-potentially-threaten-global-order/75412284/).  This current environment of confrontation creates a tinder box from Syria, to the South China Sea, to any venue for physical terror, to cyberspace where potential shows of strength by Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Damascus or Raqqa will increase the probabilities for a miscalculation that could lead to devastating unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Though not yet confirmed, “intelligence chatter” is indicating that ISIS is probably responsible for the 31 October bombing of Metrojet flight 9268 over the Sinai as it was returning 224 Russian vacationers to Saint Petersburg from the Egyptian sea-side resort of Sharm-el-Sheihk.  Apparently this “intel chatter” was not specific enough to be actionable.  The intelligence imperative here is the difficult task of penetrating ISIS with human sources who can provide more granular insights about potential actions both on the battlefield and those directed against the international community.  The quickest way to rectify this lack of HUMINT would be to gain access through Assad’ security forces to members of ISIS that Syria has captured, but that would mean a deal with the devil brokered by Vladimir Putin.

Last month when I was opining about how things could get worse in terms of Syria and ISIS, I didn’t contemplate an act of airline terrorism aimed at Russia when I obviously should have.   If ISIS is responsible for bringing down Metrojet Flight 9268 (as they claim they are) then there is good chance this could lead to Russia and the US tacitly joining together in an “ISIS First Campaign” enabling Bashar al-Assad’s regime to remain in control of Syria until the Islamic State (IS) is neutralized.  With or without US support it seems a reasonable conclusion based on current behavior that Putin will double down on military pressure against ISIS.  Of course, the demise of ISIS works to the benefit of Iran in creating a Shite satellite in southern Iraq that would be a menace to Saudi Arabia.  The alternative is Saudi Arabia funneling money to ISIS to buy them off from bringing their brand Islamic Revolution to the “Kingdom” while keeping Iran and its Shite proxies on the defensive.

Concurrently on the other side of the world USS Lassen conducted on 27 October a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOp) in the South China Sea sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s claimed and militarily fortified Subi Reef.  This was quickly followed on 05 November by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his Malaysian counter-part flying out to the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (aka “The Big Stick) as this carrier strike group transited the South China Sea enroute its new home port of San Diego after a deployment to the Persian Gulf where its air wing conducted strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. China’s reaction was public but muted with a stern warning given to the US Ambassador in Beijing’s by China’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for LASSEN’s violation of Chinese territorial waters.  The Chinese also deployed additional military aircraft and missiles to the Spratly Islands.  The US response was to announce its intentions to continue to conduct regular FONOps in the South China Sea and for Secretary Carter to visit the “TR.”  While there has been no overt Chinese military reaction to USS Theodore Roosevelt’s transit of the South China Sea, a Chinese Diesel Electric Submarine was reportedly tracking USS Ronald Reagan in late October as it conducted a naval exercise in the Sea of Japan with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. And in return to a common Cold War practice, two Russian TU-142 Bear aircraft conducted close in surveillance of Reagan under escort by the carrier’s F/A-18’s during this same period.

The daily cyber intrusions against the U.S. private sector by Chinese and Russian state sponsored organizations are well documented and now Check Point Software Technologies on 09 November published a 38-page report identifying specific details and broad analysis on cyber-espionage activity conducted by the group Rocket Kitten, with possible ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (http://blog.checkpoint.com/2015/11/09/rocket-kitten-a-campaign-with-9-lives/).  As result of these menacing cyber assaults, the American private sector is becoming increasingly frustrated with the government’s inability to protect US industries from state sponsored cyber intrusions.

This is generating debate between the private sector and NSA/CYBERCOM about whether and when those in the private sector can engage in “active cyber defense” against those doing harm to them.  Proponents of active cyber defense contend that cyber space is not exclusively a government domain and if the government can’t or won’t protect the private sector from cyber harm then U.S. private entities should not be denied the right of self-defense.  Those opposed to active cyber defense by the private sector contend that the Constitution reserves to the federal government the responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs.

In its wisdom, Article 1 Section 8 of The United States Constitution states that “The Congress shall have Power to … grant Letters of marque and reprisal.”  This power was used to some effect in the early days of our republic to allow for commercial shipping to make up for our lack of naval power.  At both SAP N2S Solution Summit and the Reagan Defense forum, NSA Director/CyberCom Commander Admiral Mike Rogers said he thought issuing letters of Marque and Reprisal is a reasonable means for the government to authorize selected private companies and individuals to take active cyber defensive measures against those perpetrating harmful cyber actions upon them.  Adm Rogers, however, went on to express his deep concern about the unintended and unforeseen results of private entities taking cyber self-defense/retribution action against foreign state sponsored cyber actions.

I am not sure what is the best way to deal with this cyber constitutional conundrum, but I am reasonably certain that if the US does not develop a coherent policy, organization, and rules of engagement for private sector cyber active defense (and a well-regulated  private sector cyber militia – – – with or without Letters of Marque and Reprisal — sounds like the right approach to me) then U.S. commerce will remain vulnerable to foreign cyber intrusions, while all the unintended/unforeseen events Admiral Rogers is rightly concerned about will be at greater likelihood of happening anyway.

No good options with regard to Syria and ISIS, a return to Cold War like military tensions with Russia and China, and the US private sector looking to take cyber defense into their own      hands create continuing opportunities for miscalculations. The only thing worse than miscalculation is a blunder!

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

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A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

President Obama announced today (July 14th) that the P5+1 Group (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany along with the European Union) concluded a long-term comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran that will “verifiably” prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be for peaceful uses for at least the next 10 years in exchange for economic sanctions relief. Given all the dueling rhetoric in the media from politicians, foreign leaders, and cable news pundits, I don’t know if this deal is a good one or not.   What I will say, though, is my calculus for judging the merits of this agreement is whether the sanctions relief are enough to cause Iran to stop spinning its centrifuges in order to suspend its development of nuclear weapons.  So, rather than dive into the political pool of polemics about whether or not this agreement puts U.S. national security at risk, what I would prefer to explore with you is the impact I see this agreement with Iran having on the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

Most obvious is the stress the agreement puts on the IC that it can detect (and if need be verify) with national technical means whether Iran is cheating.  Or stated differently, that the IC has the ability independent from international inspectors to warn policy makers authoritatively and in a timely manner of Iranian non-compliance.  The President and Secretary of State clearly have confidence that the IC can effectively monitor any steps Iran takes to covertly continue its nuclear weapons program.  Skeptics, though, will immediately point to the 2002 Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Iraq’s nuclear weapons capabilities as proof that such confidence in the IC is not deserved.  The strategic concern is that Iran will cheat and we won’t know it until it is too late.  The burden is clearly on the IC to at least neutralize, if not convince, naysayers that it has the technical capabilities and analytical skills to effectively monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.  In this regard the IC has its track record of verifying arms agreements with the Soviet Union/Russia to fall back on.

As the plot line is being written for the Congressional hearings on the nuclear accord with Iran, the IC in the person of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Jim Clapper will be cast in a no-win position by both supporters and opponents of this agreement.  The IC will certainly be expected by all sides in both open and closed hearings to document the Islamic Republic of Iran’s anti-American policies dating back to 1979, its number one ranking as the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, its current role in disrupting Iraq, its willingness to trade oil for arms with North Korea, its animosity towards Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as the covertness of its nuclear activities over the last decade.  The IC should also be expected to give an accounting of its capabilities to monitor Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement negotiated in Vienna.  Here opponents of the accord, which will include Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Chairman Richard Burr and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Chairman Devin Nunes, will be interested in having the DNI explain the inherent limitations of intelligence so as to cast doubts on the IC’s abilities to inform policy makers in a timely manner whether Iran is cheating or not.

If the DNI expresses “high confidence” that the IC will be able to discern Iranian compliance as well as non-compliance, he will be quickly reminded of  Director Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet’s [in]famous “slam dunk” assurance that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Alternatively, if the DNI attempts to manage expectations by saying he has “reasonable confidence” in the IC’s abilities to monitor Iran’s nuclear developments, he will be seen by many as confirming the limits of what the IC can do and will be characterized as “uncertain.”

Those who watch the IC closely will also be looking to see if DNI Clapper’s National Intelligence Mission Managers (NIMMs) construct for “integrating” intelligence from across the community is up to the task of detecting and warning if Iran does not meet its commitments under this agreement.  The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) ongoing reorganization into 10 integrated mission centers will also get an early test as it works to keep IC Customer #1 up to speed on Iranian compliance/non-compliance with this agreement as well as on Tehran’s future intentions regarding nuclear weapons.  Should Iran cheat and it not be detected in a timeframe that matters, this will be perceived as a strategic intelligence failure not unlike Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or the 2002 assessment that Iraq possessed WMDs – all of which lead to damning external reviews of the IC’s performance and then to major overhauls of the IC.

So while people are trying to figure out if this nuclear agreement with Iran is or is not in line with America’s national security interests, I have little doubt that this agreement just made the job being the DNI significantly more difficult – along with the NIMMs for Iran, Warning, and Science & Technology.  Success is expected; however, failure will not be tolerated!

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

A Holy War on the Arabian Peninsula?

When we last engaged I was opining that the Intelligence Community (IC) seems least prepared to warn effectively against what it perceives as the most immediate and likely threat to the homeland – – –  the self-radicalized Islamic Jihadi “lone wolf” already residing  in the United States.  Then in the midst of the sentencing phase of Boston Marathon Bomber Tamerian Tsarnaev trial and the 20th Anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an eccentric Tampa area mailman flew his homemade gyrocopter down the Mall to a landing on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.  This act witnessed by thousands and seen by millions on TV seems to have more than anything else galvanized national concern about the threats “lone wolves” (whether foreign or domestic) can pose to national security.  Perhaps Postman Pat (a.k.a Doug Hughes) literally flying his gyrocopter under the radar into the restricted airspace of Washington D.C. after posting his intentions to social media and informing the press will make it obvious that DHS’ Intelligence and Analysis Directorate (I&A) needs to be aggressively applying modern analytics to the big data sets of human terrain information it has access to for discerning potential “lone wolves” in order to nominate them for investigation.   And yes, those charged with stopping the “lone wolves” among us should expect a high false positive rate from these DHS profiles.  Such is the nature of this threat.

Turning to the Iranian “nuclear agreement.” you won’t find me taking any kind of public stance on whether I think the “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program” (a.k.a “The Framework Agreement”) is a good deal or a bad deal, as it is just too early, at least for me, to tell.  What is clear though is that Tehran is anxious to have the economic sanctions imposed against it for its pursuit of a nuclear weapon lifted as soon as possible.  When asked about whether Iran “can be trusted” to formally agree to the provisions of “The Framework Agreement” and then not cheat on its implementation in return for sanctions being lifted, the President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense all have stated for the record that “verification” not “trust” is what the US will depend on for assuring Iran’s compliance.

The Framework agreement certainly puts the IC in the political and policy cross hairs of national security. Despite an excellent track record of keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear development, and if the New York Times is to be believed for having even slowed it down with STUXNET malware, there will be many ready to assert that the Iranians can hide from IC sensors their continuing enrichment of fissile material to weapons grade levels.  Moreover, the IC will be put in the position of having to prove a negative where the absence of evidence that Iran is not enriching uranium doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Even with international inspectors in country, there is the reasonable potential that Iran could move its nuclear weapons enrichment capabilities to undetected locations inside of Iran or off shore to North Korea.  Given these circumstances, the stage is set so that if the Framework Agreement keeps Iran from going nuclear with the benefit of IC monitoring it will be a policy success, but if Iran can continue its nuclear enrichment program without detection it will be an intelligence failure.

Before wrapping up, I want to take note that war has broken out between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Houthi proxies in what is now the failed state of Yemen, where Aden also remains the home base of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  As in Iraq where Tehran is supporting Shite military action against Sunni ISIS, Iran is providing military equipment and “advisers” to its Shia Houthi allies in Yemen.  More ominously, the Iranian Navy has deployed the destroyer ALBORZ and the logistics support ship BUSHER to the Gulf of Aden “to protect the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interests on the high seas.”  Subsequent reporting indicates Iran is sending a convoy of merchant ships to Yemen, presumably bringing war supplies for the Houthis.

The presence of Iranian naval forces in the region leads to the open question of whether Saudi Arabia will challenge them, and if so will the US Fifth Fleet become directly involved?  Having spent some tension filled time in this region (Iranian Hostage rescue 1979; Tanker War/Ernest Will escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers 1987) the potential for the unexpected to happen at sea is considerable.  The standing USN order post STARK to “defend yourself” makes for a volatile situation that can turn strategic almost immediately because of tactical decisions made by ship captains operating under almost constant stress.  It is probably premature, but you don’t need to be Robert Kaplan to see that Iranian military success at rolling back ISIS in Iraq and establishing Houthi control over at least part of Yemen looks like a pincer that could envelope Mecca and Medina wresting them from Saudi Arabia’s Sunni control for the Shia Mullah’s in Qom.  Extrapolating from the current situation it is not farfetched to infer the likelihood for a bloody religious war been Sunnis and Shiites playing out on the Saudi Peninsula before the next US Presidential election.

Assuming no outside intervention, I would expect a “holy war” on the Arabian Peninsula to settle into a drawn out stalemate between the Sunni forces of Saudi Arabia and the Shia forces of Iran that will negatively impact the supply and price of oil.  The more discouraging option, of course, is Iran over time becoming the dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula and reestablishing the Persian Empire with control of all the significant energy resources from the Red Sea to Afghanistan.  Such a greater Persia, with or without nuclear weapons, would shift Iran from being a regional actor to a strategic competitor with global economic and religious clout.

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