2015 Will Be Like 2014 — Just Different

The holidays this year were unusually kind to the Mazzafro family, and I hope the same is true for you and all who matter to you.

No holiday though for world events that affect and effect our national security and personal safety.  While there have fortunately been no ISIS beheadings since our last virtual encounter, the last two weeks of December ushered out 2014 with several events that will surely impact the national security scene in 2015.  As the price of oil continued to drop driving the Russian economy into chaos, President Obama diplomatically recognized Cuba to mixed reviews in both countries.  There was a lone wolf terrorist hostage situation in Sydney Australia that resulted in two dead, while the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar for Pakistani military children killing 141 (132 children).  All of this was unfolding as North Korea concocted a high visibility cyber hack against Sony Picture Entertainment (SPE; previously Columbia Pictures) to prevent the release of the feature film “The Interview,” which is a comedy satire imagining that two reporters acting on behalf of the CIA assassinate North Korea’s “Boy Leader” Kim Jung Un.  The cyber hack against SPE’s intellectual property, business records, and emails was followed by threats of physical violence against theaters screening “The Interview” on Christmas Day.  The US-led NATO combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended but with 11,000 troops remaining, while the general leading the fight against ISIS said things are going well, but that it will be at least three years before we can stand-down.  Not surprisingly the polemics about the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) majority report on the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques dissipated with the adjournment of the 113th Congress.

So given all this, here is a potpourri of what I think we can expect to see in 2015:

  1. The Sony Hack is likely to be the seminal cyber event that causes both the US government and the private sector to get serious enough about cyber security to encourage the Congress to pass bi-partisan legislation that will require the sharing of threat information between corporations and government agencies with cyber security responsibilities.  Moreover, there will likely be a robust debate about what constitutes “cyber vandalism” as opposed to “cyber terrorism” and when a “cyber-attack” is an act of war?  Presumably, this debate will educate the American people regarding when and how they can expect their government to protect them in cyber space.  I also believe that the Sony hack and privacy concerns raised by the Snowden revelations will cause a rapid adoption of data encryption by virtually all Fortune 500 companies around the world and a significant number of individuals as well. As for North Korea, I would not be surprised to see a more open struggle emerge between hardliners and Chinese-encouraged moderates regarding pragmatic accommodations with South Korea and the US.
  2. The 46% drop in oil prices during 2014 has certainly ratcheted up the effects of economic sanctions on Iran and Russia while stimulating economic activity in China, Japan, and the US – – so what’s not to like about this situation? Nothing, if it causes Tehran to agree to curtail its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable way and results in Moscow rethinking its expansionist foreign policy in former states of the defunct Soviet Union.  The alternative, however, is an “us against the world” outlook that actually causes Putin and Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei to see no option but to keep pursuing aggressive nationalistic based policies that will continue to challenge a “lame duck” Obama administration facing an adversarial Congress.
  3. With China’s economic growth rate slowing to between 6% and 7% as the population ages, the Xi Jinping regime will become increasingly concerned with domestic issues. Of particular importance to Xi and the Chinese Politburo will be insuring that the democracy movement/demonstrations in Hong Kong do not spread to China’s mainland coastal cities. Meanwhile, the declining price of oil should have a calming effect on China and other nations seeking to establish territorial claims in the South and East China Sea in order to preserve energy exploration rights.
  4. By this time next year the US lead effort to degrade, disrupt and defeat ISIS with airpower will likely have devolved into a stalemate despite the US committing another 7,000 combat “advisers” (for a total of 10,000 boots on the ground) to steady and encourage the Iraqi Army. The irony here is that US ground forces will likely be acting in concert with the Iranian military to keep at least a Shia Iraq in existence.  Unless Syrian Dictator Bashar al Assad is taken out politically, or by other means, there seems little chance of the Syrian civil war ending in 2015.
  5. With 11,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan as combat advisors, the end of America’s combat mission in this foreboding landlocked country is more political rhetoric than reality. The presence of US troops and the Pakistani military’s unwillingness to now concede safe haven to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Peshawar military school slaughter should keep the central government in Kabul viable, but for the long term prognosis see Iraq after the US departure in 2011 and Afghanistan post the Russian departure in 1989.  Already Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is saying the United States might want to “re-examine” the timetable for removing the remaining U.S.-led coalition troops in the country by the end of 2016.
  6. And now for the “lightening round”
    • “Lone Wolf” attacks, both physical and cyber, will increase in 2015 as result of self-radicalization, aggrieved individuals, or some just seeking their “15 minutes of fame.”
    • NSA’s bulk collection authorities will likely be renewed, but with considerable deference to privacy concerns and transparency. I also expect to see privacy advocates arguing before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)
    • The Intelligence Community’s (IC) deteriorating relationship with Congress should begin to heal, but it will be incumbent on the IC to rebuild the trust and confidence of the Congress (and by extension the American people) in the community. Both the IC and its Congressional oversight committees should begin a dialogue regarding how to revamp oversight so it can be more effective both in terms of IC mission needs and growing privacy concerns associate with the Information Age.
    • Budget caps will not be lifted by the 114th Congress, leaving Overseas Contingency Operating (OCO) funds as the only source of relief for unmet defense and intelligence funding needs. Military Service Intelligence agencies will be particularly squeezed
    • Despite the interest of incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in acquisition reform, which is shared with Senator McCain (incoming Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Representative Thornberry (next Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee), there will be no meaningful reforms enacted in 2015.
    • As defense and intelligence contract award opportunities diminish because of budget realities, there will be an increase in merger and acquisition activity within the DoD and IC’s industrial base.
    • Expectations that private sector Research & Development (R&D) will be sufficient to meet Defense and IC needs are misplaced as contractors shift funding from R&D to protect shareholder equity and/or improve their balance sheets for potential acquirers.
    • 2015 is the “make or break” year for ICITE to begin to deliver mission capabilities to the IC if IOC, as laid out in 2012, is going to be achieved by 2017. Agencies opting out of the Desk Top Environment (DTE), the slow development of governance models, and challenges with integration do not make me optimistic

 

 

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?

2014 is Shaping Up as Year To Remember for the Intelligence Community

Happy New Year!  In the aftermath of Sequestration, Snowden, Benghazi, and the Government Shutdown, 2013 is a year that I suspect the Intelligence Community (IC) is collectively happy to have in the rear view mirror.  2014 will surely be better – – – won’t it?   I would like to think so, but given that events of 2013 have not yet fully played out I anticipate the IC will have another tumultuous time in 2014.

  • First it is a mid-term election year with control of the U.S. Senate in play which will present all kinds of political theater associated with IC issues and performance
  • The stability and predictability of the budget deal was paid for with an agreement to cut approximately $4 billion from the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and $1 billion from the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) in FY 14 with continued pain in FY 15. Should interest rates rise as expected there will be unplanned cuts coming to service the national debt which is not reduced by this deal.
  • Besides Syria, volatile civil violence has broken out in Iraq, Egypt, and the Ukraine, while Gaza and Lebanon continue to simmer.  Any of these conflicts could easily widen to regional conflicts with global impacts
  • The Sochi Winter Olympics is a venue for political statements through terrorist violence with Putin’s Russia likely to respond forcefully and indiscriminately
  • Iran’s agreement to curtail its nuclear weapons enrichment activities in return for relief from economic sanctions terminates in March,  unless there is mutual agreement to extend the deal
  • China and Japan continue to jockey with naval forces over conflicting claims to the barren rocks of Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea with the US 7th Fleet as the likely referee
  • North Korea remains as dangerous and as baffling as ever.  It is to early to tell if Kim Jung Un is his own man, or the puppet of Stalinist hardliners who see confrontation as the Hermit Kingdom’s best national security play
  • The withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan will create opportunity for the return of both “warlord rule,” Taliban provided safe havens for Al Qaeda, and increased opium cultivation
  • Whether there will be more Snowden revelations about NSA sources and methods remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that what has already been compromised is changing how NSA is viewed and will lead to a continuing Congressional debate about the balance between secrecy, security, and civil liberties that will feed into the fall mid-term elections.

So it looks like another year of growing demand for timely insightful intelligence with diminishing resources in an environment where 50 percent of the IC workforce is experiencing its first budget drawdown in an increasingly politicized environment.  Even without the NSA issues, 2014 appears poised to challenge the limits of the IC’s capacity, capabilities, and flexibility to discern and articulate the most serious threats to US national security.

Turning to NSA collection practices, the arc of the debate about the need for NSA to secretly collect the bulk metadata of all US persons phone calls to protect the nation from terrorist attacks has already begun to be scribed by conflicting federal district court decisions, the President’s Review Group’s (PRG) forty six recommendations, Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 28, and the 2014 State of the Union Address.

  • In Klayman v Obama Judge Leon found NSA’s bulk collection of US Persons’ metadata an affront to James Madison that must end.  Conversely Judge Pauley in ACLU v Clapper views NSA’s bulk collection of US Persons’ metadata as constitutional and necessary to protect American citizens from terrorist harm.  It would seem that both those supporting the NSA’s current collection practices and those who want them reined in will petition the US Supreme Court for a resolution if the US Government does not.
  • The PRG finds that NSA’s collection practices against US Persons are legal, well functioning and necessary to protect the US from terrorist attack but then confusingly presents 46 recommendations for making program more transparent and effective
  • In President Obama’s January 17th announcement of PPD-28 he ignored most of the PRG’s 46 recommendations but did say that that NSA’s collection of US Persons’ metadata will continue because it is legal and essential to national security.  The President then pivoted to the concerns of small government and privacy advocates, recognizing that NSA’s bulk metadata collection was open to abuses so it needed to be more transparent and rigorously controlled.  Reviewing the President’s remarks and the text of PPD 28 I find myself agreeing with Potomac Institute’s Mike Swetnam that the President may be setting the context for change, but in fact is changing very little (http://www.potomacinstitute.org/homepage/news-releases/2613-presidential-directive-misses-real-threat-to-publics-privacy-says-institute-ceo).  In a sound bite PPD 28 directs that a privacy advocate be part of the FISA process, that access to and use of US Persons’ metadata be more closely monitored and everything else needs to be studied
  • In his State of the Union Address on 28 January, the President spoke obliquely about security and surveillance in only two separate sentences:
    • I will reform our surveillance programs, because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.
    • So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks — through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners — America must move off a permanent war-footing.

While many have heartfelt opinions about the direction NSA collection should take, I believe it is fair to say given the outcome of a yet to be scheduled Supreme Court Case, unfinished executive branch studies, legislation still in formation, and an incomplete public debate that nobody can reasonably foresee what the state of NSA’s collection authorities will be this time next year.   A reasonable question that is sure to emerge though in 2014 is:  If America is shifting to a peacetime outlook why should the Patriot Act and its Section 215 authority that is the legal basis for NSA’s warrantless bulk collection of US Person metadata be renewed?

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