Fire and Fury like the World has Never Seen

North Korea has accused the United States of “trying to drive the situation of the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war” after the UN Security Council unanimously adopted new sanctions on August 5th  in response to Pyongyang’s long-range ballistic missile tests in July. Speaking at the ASEAN Regional Forum, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Pyongyang would “teach the US a severe lesson” if it used military force against North Korea.  As I am writing on 8 August President Trump forcefully announced “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen… he has been very threatening beyond a normal statement. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”  In apparent response to this Presidential ultimatum, a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army issued a statement carried by the regime’s state-run KCNA news agency warning that North Korea is “seriously reviewing” a plan to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with missiles.  Meanwhile there are leaked intelligence reports that North Korea is loading anti-ship missiles aboard its coastal defense patrol boats and that it has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead capable of being mated with its ballistic missiles.  While these dueling threats of open warfare unless the other side backs down are meant to be red lines, they could have the positive effect of energizing China to effectively pressure North Korea’s “Boy Leader” Kim Jong Un to at least suspend nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing before rhetoric devolves into large scale open conflict.

Nobody is asking me but before unleashing “fire and fury” on North Korea I would deploy a Yokosuka-based Aegis SM3 armed ship along with a JMSDF Aegis cruiser to the sea of Japan, protected by ROK destroyers and Tac Air backed with CAP from Kadena or a CVN,  to shoot down any ballistic missiles launched from North Korea. After these forces are on station the US, Japan, ROK should explain in a joint statement that this is necessary because we cannot know whether a North Korea ballistic missile launch is a test or is nuclear armed and headed to any of these three countries.  If Russia or China feel compelled to demarche this action we should tell them to lean on their little fat friend in Pyongyang and we will stand down.  Since North Korea is adamant about not negotiating away its missiles or nuclear weapons, the US and its allies should move immediately to neutralize Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction with our operational missile defense capabilities.  The point here is to be completely defensive, but responsive to the threat being presented.  If this needs to be gisted into a tweet I would suggest, “If NK wants to test its missiles we will ensure their failure!”

On the subject of leaks, Attorney General (AG) Sessions and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Coats announced on August 3rd  that considerable resources are being allocated to investigating leaks of classified material, identifying the leakers, and pursuing prosecution where warranted.  While most Americans don’t seem to care, stopping leaks related to national security has become job one for the Justice Department assisted by the Office of the DNI (ODNI). There is, however, considerable partisan fueled debate about whether the spike in leaks since the November elections are motivated by those unhappy with the results of the 2016 presidential election or are not leaks at all but rather legitimate “whistleblowing” about wrongdoing or First Amendment protected criticisms of presidential policies and actions.

As I listened to the AG and DNI warn leakers in stern words such as “don’t do it” and “we will catch you” I was wondering why they thought they could be any more successful than previous administrations at stemming leaks.  I particularly had in mind Nixon’s “Plumber’s Squad”, which was not constrained by the law or the Constitution and their inability to identify “Deep Throat” whose leaks would lead to the impeachment of the President.  I am all for prosecuting leakers, but that’s at the back end of the process after sensitive government information has already been made public. Besides deterrence through more investigative resources and rigorous prosecution, I hope the AG and DNI are also considering using technology more effectively to prevent classified information from being leaked.  Data tagging, managing access privileges, policy enforcement software, and automated information monitoring and auditing can all be used on the front end by government agencies with information to protect to thwart leaking before it happens.

In my experience today’s leaks are no more pervasive, widespread, or persistent then they have been over the course of my Washington experience dating back to the Watergate Days of 1972.  What is different and pernicious now is that many of the leaks during the Trump Administration seem aimed at deligimatizing the 2016 elections because self-appointed guardians of US national security believe they have the right to publicly question electoral judgment of the American people. Defending the constitution, or just being a good citizen, means accepting the results of elections.

The current crisis with North Korea certainly inflames the dangers resulting from the unauthorized disclosures of national security information to the degree that they divide the American body politic, compromise our allies, and confuse our adversaries.

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

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2016: A Year of Living Dangerously

Well, it only took China and Saudi Arabia 48 hours to remove the “happy” from new years for 2016!  As Saudi Arabia was executing 47 on January 2nd, the Chinese stock market was tanking sending financial shock waves into an already unsettled world.  Wanting to extend its “best wishes” for the new year, North Korea tested what it falsely claimed to be a hydrogen bomb, while China flew a military aircraft to Fiery Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as Iran released video footage of its second underground missile depot in seeming violation of its nuclear agreement with the United States.  These events in the first week of the New Year make predicting that 2016 will be dangerously tumultuous unnecessary.

Economic trouble in China will have the most immediate impact on the average American in terms of access to consumer goods and their IRAs’ bottom line with the Dow Jones average down over 900 points in the first week of trading.  The Chinese stock market sell off was precipitated by  the release of the Caixin/Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index which showed that China’s manufacturing sector contracting for the 10th-straight month in December. The continued weakness in this private survey, contrasted with robust official numbers for industrial output, indicates that the overall economy is expanding only in the low single digits. China’s economy is also struggling with demands for higher wages, accommodating an aging population, and shifting to a new growth model based on raising internal consumption of goods and services produced.  Equally as disturbing, imports (a good indication of both manufacturing and consumption trends) fell 8.7 percent in November in dollar terms, for a record 13 straight months of decline. Exports that month were off 6.8 percent, the fifth-straight month in negative territory. This litany of economic challenges means China is headed into a serious recession that will likely result in the Chinese people questioning whether the Chinese Communist Party is governing in their best interests.  Economic woes may well cause Xi Jinping and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to turn to a “wag the dog” strategy appealing to Chinese nationalism against “foreign devils” asserting sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas.  Such a nationalist approach and/or China being seen as the cause of weakness in the American economy, will only encourage those running for President to take a more confrontational stance towards China.

Not helping the Chinese stock market recover are increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  North Korea’s claims to have conducted on January 6th an underground detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which has not been confirmed and is viewed as unlikely, has increased the pressure on both China and the United States to restrain Kim Jong Un’s brinkmanship.  North Korea’s “boy leader” apparently sees the US’ inability to control the Hermit Kingdom’s behavior with sanctions and isolation as pushing China to insure the security of North Korea or risk South Korean and US forces conducting military operations/occupation nearer the Chinese frontier.  Besides a B-52 fly over, Washington and Seoul are already engaged in discussions about the US bringing more “strategic assets” to South Korea. This last atomic test has also brought Japan, South Korea, and the United States closer together diplomatically and militarily, causing China to feel more isolated if not threatened.  Beyond pushing China to be more protective of North Korea’s security, it probably wouldn’t surprise too many if Tehran was actually funding part of Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a hedge while Iran’s nuclear program is on hold to get economic sanctions lifted.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 shocked the American people with its ISIS-like brutality and infuriated Iran because among those executed was the well-known Shiite cleric Nemer al Nemer.  “It looks like an extremely irrational and ill-considered decision to do this,” said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in Britain. “In my view, it speaks more about the local dynamics in Saudi Arabia itself that are shifting steadily away from the ruling family’s control.”  The House of Saud, however, was motivated by at least three reasons for going forward with this controversial execution of a large number of internal dissidents.

  • Declining oil prices means that the Saudi government will need to cut back on subsidies for housing, education, medical care, jobs, and gasoline that ordinary Saudi citizens have come to expect. The mass execution of dissidents on January 2nd demonstrates the absolute power the royal family holds and will use against those who question it rule let alone oppose it.
  • These executions play to Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Sunnis, who support the monarchy as ISIS inspires young Saudis to see the royal family as not protecting fundamental Muslim beliefs. As confrontation with Iran becomes more manifest, conservative Saudis are also increasingly seeing the Kingdom’s 10% to 15% Shiite minority population as a “fifth column.”
  • The executions signal that Saudi Arabia’s tolerance for Tehran’s Shiite meddling in the Arab world has reached its limit. Resisting Iranian military involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen’s civil wars is costing Saudi Arabia billions of dollars and, as oil revenues decline, is forcing the royal family to spend sovereign wealth fund money. This will create dissention within the royal family and may eventually threaten the kingdom’s internal stability.  More ominously, the Saudi leadership feels abandoned as the US seeks an accommodation with Iran.

The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is now out in the open, exposing the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as proxy conflicts between the dominant Sunni and Shia theocracies for the soul of Islam.  As a secular nation, this is a holy war the US does not understand and would be ill advised to take sides in as this would preclude the next administration in Washington from serving as an honest broker to prevent a bloody regional war that could involve outside powers.

A deep economic recession in China, a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal, and an open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran are each disruptive in their own unique ways, but what they share in common is the potential to impact regional and global events in significantly and unpredictably.  Not yet a month into the new year, 2016 is showing that already this will be a year of “living dangerously” for the national security community.

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?