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?

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?