THINGS CAN ALWAYS GET WORSE!

Earlier this month (Oct 2nd ) Mike Hayden observed that it is usually a losing bet for an intelligence officer to presume a situation “cannot get any worse” –  (https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/case-american-involvement).  The context for his remarks was current events in Syria and the fight against ISIS.  Since I last engaged with you, things have certainly gone from bad to worse in Syria and certainly not improved with regard to ISIS.

  • Russia has deployed military forces to Syria to support the Assad Regime and is attacking those fighting ISIS who are receiving US military assistance.
  • Iran has become more vocal and open in its support of Assad, not only challenging the U.S. but also Saudi Arabia.
  • The U.S. strategy to build a force of anti-ISIS fighters has been scrapped given that it has produced only five (5) viable fighters over the course of the past year.
  • The Syrian Civil war continues to produce a flow of refugees into central Europe that is straining the ability and tolerance of most countries to absorb and assimilate them. Unchecked, the stream of refugees from Syria will impact European politics and policies in unpredictable ways.
  • Political violence in Turkey is making it increasingly difficult for the President Erdogan to maintain order and govern, which increases the potential for the Turkish military to step in and suspend the constitution to prevent an “Islamic Spring”  if not a “Turkish Islamic Revolution.”Tu

As for how things could get worse from where they are today, two contingencies that I would have thought low probability a few months ago now seem clearly possible.  The first is Hezbollah commencing a campaign of terror against Israel in order to generate support in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for Assad as a “front line leader” for creating a Palestinian State.  The second is an unplanned or planned military confrontation between Russian and U.S. aircraft that results in an undeclared air war over Syria with untold potential for escalation.

Making all this worse is the lack of unity within the U.S. government with regard to national security issues. You know the particulars!

  • Benghazi remains more of a topic for domestic politics where adversaries can’t help but notice we would rather investigate than respond forcefully to the murder of a popular U.S. Ambassador.
  • The display of vitriol and mistrust by the Congressional Branch for the Iranian Nuclear Agreement negotiated by the Executive Branch has surely been felt in Tele Aviv and Tehran.
  • No agreement within the Congress or between the Congress and the White House on matters of national security policy and strategy or on budget priorities
  • The willingness of both political parties to shut down the U.S. government over seemingly trivial issues such as funding for Planned Parenthood or how much of the DoD budget should be allocated to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)
  • The inability of the majority party in the House of Representatives to agree on a Speaker of the House, making the idea of agreeing on coherent national security policies seem like a bridge too far.

We all understand that the U.S. government is operating right now because Speaker Boehner startled the House of Representatives with his resignation to enable a compromise on passing a last minute Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for 90 days.  Resigning on principle is obviously not a long term strategy for effective governance through legislation.

With regard to passing an FY 16 budget, I wouldn’t bet on it!  Before the current CR runs out on 11 December both the President, the House of Representatives, and the Senate will get an opportunity to put the “full faith and credit” of the United States at risk with what seems to be an annual debate about raising the debt ceiling.  Then when 11 December rolls around the President has already said he will veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) if it raises budget caps on defense but not domestic programs.  The likely outcome after both sides posture rigorously for their political bases — but can’t risk being blamed for a government shutdown going into an election year — will be a CR for the rest of FY16.  A yearlong CR for FY16 means a continuation of last year’s budget allocations that have funded us to the current state of affairs in the Middle East.

I am not sure how well the Intelligence Community (IC) is doing at providing relevant intelligence to inform strategy and policy development towards Syria and ISIS, but I am certain that the best intelligence possible cannot create strategic clarity and unity of purpose for the Congress or the President.

Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  Yogi Berra told us if you don’t know what you are trying to achieve any policy will get you there.  With regard to dealing with Syria and ISIS, the U.S. has a divided government, no political will, no effective strategy and is budgeting through the rear view mirror so things, of course, can get worse as Mike Hayden is warning. I am pretty sure they will get worse no matter how the IC performs

That’s what I think!   What do you think?

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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?

Live from GEOINT in Tampa

I am writing this edition of the Mazz-INT blog in Tampa Florida where I am excited to be for the delayed version of GEOINT 13.  As with past GEOINT’s I am looking forward to hearing from the leadership of the Intelligence Community (IC) regarding both the current state of the community and where it is going in the future as needs increase and resources diminish.  I expect the CentCom and SoCom Commanders to expound as demanding users on what they need from the IC.  I am also anxious to see in the GEOINT exhibition hall what new technologies the IC’s industrial base will have on display that can improve intelligence performance while reducing costs.  Then there will be the free flow of networking between members of government and industry that is essential to building trust so that the IC can procure from the private sector efficiently and with confidence.  This is something that often doesn’t happen in the national capital region because of the grind of daily schedules and the tyranny of traffic.  Since the budgetary demise of DoDIIS and numerous other regional and agency specific “trade shows,” GEOINT takes on added importance of “keeping the lights on” as an open forum for the IC to communicate with and learn from all in industry who believe they have something of value to offer the IC for the defense of our nation.  The Intelligence and National Security Summit coming up on 18-19 Sept and co-sponsored by AFCEA and INSA, is another event in this category.

Turning to some of those issues the IC is dealing with today in real time, I don’t believe any of us are surprised that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a fait acompli and the open question now is whether the eastern Ukraine will become federalized or fully incorporated by Moscow.  Media reporting in April augmented by U.S. State Department and NATO warnings of “serious consequences” indicate those pro-Russians Ukrainian militias are storming government offices in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv.  What is clear from events in March and so far in April is that neither the United States nor the major powers in the European Union have in combination sufficient power or the will to dissuade Vladimir Putin from acting on what he sees as Russian national interests in the Ukraine.  Over time, of course, Russia’s actions to reattach the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine by force will lead to Putin being “shunned” by the international community while on the economic front most will seek alternatives to doing business with or in Russia.  Sounds like Russia before Peter the Great, but with ICBMS!

I also notice that to get the suspended Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track the idea of exchanging convicted Israeli spy Jay Pollard was floated to encourage the Netanyahu Government to make a meaningful concession to the Palestinians.  I am not conversant enough with the positions of either Israel or Palestine to know what a meaningful comprise capable of advancing the moribund peace process would be, but I do know that I am tired of Pollard’s seemingly annual “15 minutes of fame” about why he should be released because he has served sufficient time for his crimes.  NO HE HASN’T!  But unlike most of my peers in Naval Intelligence I view Pollard as a diminishing asset who should be traded for concessions important to the United States (e.g. stop building settlements) while he still has trading value. Though I delight in the thought of Jay Pollard wasting away in quasi-solitary confinement in a North Carolina federal prison, I am at loss to see how this is advancing larger U.S. national security interests, which at least for me include holding Israel accountable for sponsoring his espionage.  What actually concerns me the most, however, is the martyrdom of Pollard and the potential that he could be paroled on the basis of time served under current federal prison guidelines.

Speaking of Israel, did you see where former Air Force A2 Dave Deptula suggested transferring a few B-52G’s from the U.S.’s retired inventory to the Israeli Air Force as way of getting Iran’s attention to be serious in its negotiations about not pursuing nuclear weapons.  I am sure many would see providing Israel this kind of strategic offensive reach as bordering on brinkmanship, but I know I like the way Dave is thinking.  Of course, just reminding the Mullah’s in Tehran that this option exists should by itself refocus them on the value of negotiations and how a nuclear Iran changes the strategic calculation in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Come to think of it it’s probably time to remind Vladimir Putin as well as our NATO allies of the strategic reach of the United States as a Russian SU-24 fighter bomber buzzed the USS Daniel Cook while steaming on a freedom of navigation mission in the Black Sea.  To complement ratcheting up economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea the U.S. Navy should be noticeably directed as result of the Daniel Cook incident on 14 April to deploy three medium to small amphibious ships protected by two Aegis equipped destroyers to the Black Sea for “familiarization ops” that would include a port call in Constanta, Romania. Then the AF could covertly circumnavigate the Black Sea with a B-2 Spirit and if Russian Air Defense did not detect the flight the White House could release undisputable evidence of this mission to embarrass President Putin’s ability to protect Russia from U.S. strategic forces.

Finally, I want to touch on the Heartbleed issue which raises the difficult question about the whether the IC should be warning U.S. entities (corporations and individuals) outside of government to threats that endanger their security and wellbeing.  Some will recall that post 9/11 the question was raised but not answered because it was moot as to whether or not the IC should risk sensitive sources and methods to protect the American flying public with warnings of creditable threats to hijack commercial airliners.  Here the question is about whether NSA and/or DHS should be more interested in exploiting cyber vulnerabilities like Heartbleed or more concerned about protecting  American citizens from economic if not physical harm from dangerous malware.  In today’s current environment of the public’s diminished confidence and trust in the IC the answer seems to be a “no brainer” for me at least.  The IC needs to be actively seeking opportunities where it can demonstrate not what it is doing “to” the American people (i.e. collecting of their telephone metadata without a warrant) but what intelligence can do “for” all Americans to insure that they have the opportunity to enjoy “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness!”

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