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?

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” (http://chertoffgroup.com/cms-assets/documents/237983-373343.the-chertoff-groupthe-ground-truth-abo). 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?