The Snowden Storm Persists As The SCMR Offers Capacity or Capability?

Sorry this is late, but I have been on vacation and I am a semi-retired Navy pensioner who is becoming increasingly slack as I age gracelessly.

Anyway, since we last joined up at the “Browser Bar” Bradley Manning has been convicted by a military judge of double digit counts of mishandling classified material while Edward Snowden has been granted refugee status by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Despite my comments in this venue last month, nobody in officialdom seems exercised that the IC has been had by two insiders with clearances.  Isn’t that alone enough to ask if the time consuming/expensive personal clearance vetting process being used should be changed?  Oh that’s right; we already know we need to do that!  At least The Atlantic magazine has mused about why NSA did not have a contingency for dealing with the impact of a leak revealing it was collecting metadata on all phone calls in the US.  More pedestrianly, the guys I drink with want to know when somebody further up the chain of command is going to be held accountable for these security breaches happening on their watch.

More importantly though, Snowden’s revelations about NSA bulk collection of US persons telephone metadata has sparked the deferred debate about what the balance between security and civil liberties should be in a post 9/11 America.  This debate seems to be ordained to last until the Congressional mid-term elections in 2014 with less than meritorious affects for the IC such as:

  • The IC leadership will be doing more explaining than proposing to Congress over the next two years as to why the Congress should believe that the IC is being full and open with the Legislative Branch – – – even in closed sessions
  • The narrow defeat of the Amash Amendment shows that Congress will be bi-partisanly interested for different reasons in knowing about how much funding is focused on collection that involves US person information
  • The Amash Amendment, which the congressional leadership of both parties opposed, also points to members of the House and Senate being less willing to accept the advice of the HPSCI and SSCI that intelligence programs are necessary, cost effective, and constitutional
  • The FISA Court being hypersensitive to charges of being a “rubber stamp” secret venue where only the government’s case for surveillance is heard, will raise the standards required to authorize intrusive collection involving US persons

Then there is the assessment that Putin granting Snowden refugee status is the proximate cause for President Obama cancelling a Post G-20 August summit meeting with the Russian leader.  While this is probably true, I would like to believe the real reason for the cancellation is Putin’s continuing support for Syria’s Basher al Assad as that civil war continues and Egypt remains in political turmoil.

Ironically in the midst of all this the US closed over 20 embassies in the Muslim world during the weekend of 3/4 August as Ramadan was ending and issued a month long travel alert to American citizens based on NSA intercepts of an Al Qaeda conference call green lighting a major attack against US interests (most likely a truck bomb aimed at the US Embassy in Aden) proposed by Yemen based “general manager” of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Nassir al Wahyushi.  Obviously this attack did not occur (though others did, killing scores aimed at government security forces in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) raising the question of whether the alert was more about using non-specific intelligence to demonstrate the importance of NSA collection to national security or whether the alert was based on creditable intelligence and actually thwarted the attack.  Here is where the IC is between a rock and a hard place:  if its warning disrupts the attack and nothing happens then the IC is “wrong”; but if it fails to warn effectively and an attack occurs then the IC is incompetent.  Reminds me of the birthday my mom gave me two expensive neckties; when I immediately put one on to show my appreciation she crestfallenly asked “so you don’t like the other tie?”  As an intelligence officer who has had to make some warning calls alone in the middle of the night while actively in the game, log me as accepting that the warning stopped a dangerous attack that was well planned but dependent on surprise.

As the Congress recessed for August and the President headed for a family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard there was consensus across the elected members of the government that FY 14 will begin under a Continuing Resolution (CR) and with Sequestration in effect.  In round numbers that means DoD absorbing another $50 billion in cuts while the National Intelligence Program (NIP) gets a $5 billion haircut. With his announcement on 31 July of the DoD Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) Secretary Hagel laid out the stark choice the country is facing in terms of investing in maintaining military capacity (i.e. numbers) or investing in enhanced capabilities operated by a smaller force.  This zero sum reality is a direct result of the nation’s need to reduce its national debt as a matter of national security if not a threat to our standard of living.

It’s unclear to me how the SCMR will impact the eight DoD agencies that are also in the IC, but if military size is cut it’s hard to foresee how service intelligence along with NSA, NGA, NRO, and DIA would not also be cut in size and budget proportionately with the rest of the force.  Reports are surfacing that DoD is already considering the elimination of SouthCom and AfriCom by consolidating them with NorthCom and EuCom respectively.  I believe this is the tip of the iceberg with consolidation/elimination also in the offing for major defense agencies (DLA, DISA, DIA, etc?) and related functional commands/organizations within the military services.  If service size and billet funding are key issues (Duh!) then there is a case for centralizing functional capabilities such as logistics, comms, training, medicine, personnel/pay, intelligence, etc  at the DoD level to save money by reducing redundant infrastructure.  Some will recall Admiral Bill Owens advocated strongly for this as VCJS in the mid 90s as the way to absorb the “Peace Dividend” with minimal impact on operational military capabilities.  Specifically with regard to military intelligence as money gets even scarcer in FY 14 with no relief in sight it is not a leap to envision:

  • Significant cuts to ONI, NASIC, NGIC, and MCIA with missions like support to acquisition, collection management, HUMINT, etc. being consolidated and assumed by DIA with little additional plus up in its budget or personnel end strength.  An alternative is reducing DIA to a policy and oversight agency and devolving missions to the services to provide directly to the CoComs
  • Consolidation of service unique DCGS programs into a single Defense Intelligence Information Enterprise (DI2E) Program
  • All military intel related IT controlled and managed by NSA, DIA, or DISA

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

The Fiscal Cliff Is Here Again Along With Cyber Insecurity

Greetings Fiscal Cliff Dwellers!  By the time you read this there will be less than two weeks before automatic sequestration cuts take effect – – – a week of which the Congress will be in recess!  What was meant to be a “poison pill” to force the legislative and executive branches to compromise on rational budgets so the government could reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years now appears inevitable.  Since January we have been fed a steady stream of increasingly dire consequences from Navy aircraft carriers not deploying, to Army readiness declining, to Air Force airplanes not being maintained, to civilian workers being furloughed, and to contracts being canceled unless there is some relief from the automatic 9.4% sequestration of funds scheduled for March 1st.   Yet none of this doom and gloom was in evidence as late as Thanksgiving of 2012 when the reflexive answer from DoD consistently was “the Congress won’t allow sequestration to happen!”

Of course throughout 2012 DoD was planning on rolling a “7” to get Congress to lift sequestration by overtly not planning for it; instead “snake eyes” came up when on New Year’s Day the Congress and the President deferred sequestration until 01 March in order to get a deal for a tax increase and raising the debt ceiling short term.  I don’t know about the rest of the country, but here in Washington sequestration fatigue has set in after a year of meaningless political posturing resulting in a now conflicted sense of resignation that sequestration is unavoidable because “the other side won’t be reasonable.”  Moving on to “what’s next” Beltway wisdom is projecting that the pain of sequestration will bring both sides in Congress to their senses almost immediately, which will result in the Continuing Resolution that needs to be enacted by 27 March to avoid a government shutdown having language that will at least allow departments to allocate the sequestration cuts as they think best vice in their current across the board nature.  Poke me in April to let me know how this going!

Were you as amused as I was about the constitutional law debate associated with the “discovery” the day before John Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing to be CIA Director that the executive branch has detailed legal guidance regarding when American citizens engaged with terrorists abroad can be purposely targeted for elimination?  The use of lethal force is never a trifling matter and an American citizen’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is inviolateable, but as Justice Robert Jackson observed in his 1949 dissenting opinion on Terminiello verses Chicago “the constitution is not a suicide pact.”  While legal purists will disagree, I am of the view that when an American knowingly acts in concert with a foreign adversary against the national security interests of the United States his/her claim to the protections associated with U.S. citizenship are abrogated.  Then there is the criteria of “imminent danger” that is tantamount to “self defense” which should obviate the need for offering Miranda Rights.  I certainly want the U.S. government acting preemptively overseas to take out any immediate threat from those who have said they are motivated to destroy the United States.

That said I am not so certain that the authority to execute preemptive drone strikes against terrorists, American citizens or otherwise, manifesting imminent danger to U.S. national security is well placed with the Intelligence Community (IC), except for instances where deniability is essential.  There is a “Star Chamber” quality to the IC being responsible for identifying terrorist threats, targeting their location and then flying the missions to destroy them that overtime could be corrupting while engendering mistrust that would harm the overall effectiveness of the community.  During the Cold War when the danger of a nuclear ICBM attack was immense and imminent we depended on the IC “warning,” the President “deciding,” and the military “responding” – a model of specific executive power with Congressional oversight.

The recent Mandiant report that China is “eating our cyber lunch” to the point of threatening our national infrastructure, gaining economic advantage against our leading companies, and stealing our most sensitive intellectual property seems to have finally shaken our country into acceptance that we are collectively and individually at considerable “cyber risk.”   This is not news to the cyber digitari or anyone who has read anything by Richard Clarke, but it surfaces an important policy question directly related to the IC running the nation’s counterterrorist drone program: how and where do we want to defend our “cyber sovereignty” understanding that the National Security Agency (NSA) currently possesses our most effective capabilities in this domain?

If it makes sense for CIA to identify and take out dangerous terrorists with remote drone attacks then shouldn’t NSA be launching bots against cyber foreign threats it detects?  I don’t know what the right answer to this question is, but I am not comfortable extending by fiat an analog of our drone approach to counterterrorism to cyber security.  I am, however, confident that I could support any cyber security response policy that has been subjected to national debate so we know the options and risks, involves checks and balances between departments if not branches of the government, and can be easily adjusted or rescinded.  Finally like most Vietnam era intel officers, I have no confidence in “body count” metrics, so neither the number of terrorists killed by drones nor cyber threats thwarted by good guy malware are by themselves going to convince me that we are safer.

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

Dramatics to Drama: From the Fiscal Cliff to “Zero Dark Thirty”

Unless we are existing in a weird parallel universe, the Mayans were clearly wrong about the world ending last month,  but the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” does warn the U.S. will likely lose its status as the planet’s only superpower by then.  And how about that fiscal cliff?!?  Lots of drama for New Year’s Day legislation that only raised taxes on those making $400k or more without any meaningful impact on reducing the deficit or dealing with sequestration.  More or less a two month “U” turn at the fiscal cliff or a demonstration of “Democracy Inaction!”

The White House and the Congress “agreeing” to defer dealing with either the debt ceiling or sequestration for two months only insures that budgetary uncertainty for almost all national security accounts will continue until “March Madness.”  Sequestration will then join raising the debt ceiling and extending the Continuing Resolution (CR) for the rest of FY 13 as requiring legislative action of some type in March.  While there could be some kind of grand bargain providing a comprehensive solution to all three of these separate but related tectonic fiscal issues, I remain unable to see what will change between now and March given the political posturing that has been going since 2010 without any significant increases in revenues or cuts in spending.  And as we heard the President and the Republican leaders of Congress publicly “trash talking” with each other on January 14, any discussion about raising the debt ceiling is an opportunity for political brinkmanship regarding shutting down the government.

Apparently sharing my pessimism, Under Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has directed DoD agencies to begin planning immediately for sequestration; something that was specifically enjoined in 2012 as the Administration tried to force the Congress to act by having no plan.  Secretary of the Air Force Donely subsequently told his service in mid-January that with the dual specter of operating under sequestration AND a CR for the rest of FY13 the Air Force needs to begin planning for furlough notification as soon as possible in order to preserve all of the government’s options, to commence curtailing all non-mission related activities, and to start reviewing all overseas contingency operations for potential deferment.

This sounds serious because it is! According to an hour long presentation prepared by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ (CSBA) Todd Harrison titled “What the Fiscal Cliff Deal Means for Defense”  (  the following points compel attention:

  • Both parties may end up looking at sequestration and say, ‘You know what, this is bad, this is not what we want, but it’s probably better than anything we could negotiate with the other side.”
  • Delaying sequestration until March saves DoD approximately $15 billion dollars in cuts but the remaining $45 billion in defense sequestration will have to be absorbed in seven vice nine month
  • If sequestration is not modified and the CR is extended to the end of FY 13 then civilian pay needs to be cut 15% for FY13, which will require furloughing every civilian in DoD for one month

Yeah, but things will get better in the out years – – -won’t they?  I don’t think so because to reduce the deficit any increase in national security spending will have to be offset with cuts elsewhere or funded by tax increases.

Shifting from dramatic to drama, I just saw the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”  Having no experience with enhanced interrogation techniques, unlike SSCI chair Senator Diane Feinstein, I am reluctant to judge if the opening scenes of this movie are accurate or an exaggerated expression of artistic license.  What the movie does convey, however, is that enhanced interrogation when done for a purpose and under control can be effective.  Whether it is morally defensible is left for the audience to decide.  Ironically John Brennan, the administration’s National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism was nominated by President Obama to be the next CIA Director the week before “Zero Dark Thirty’s” opening – the same position he asked not to be considered for in 2008 because of a brewing confirmation battle over what he did and did not know about the use of enhanced interrogation during the Bush 43 presidency.

Through the intelligence driven drone program against terrorist and the successful Bin Laden raid, John Brennan has earned the President’s trust and confidence to be his first choice to lead the CIA in the wake of General Petraeus’ unexpected resignation.  If acting CIA Director Mike Morrell or USD(I) Mike Vickers were being seriously considered for Director of CIA the air ran out of those balloons when both were named separately as potentially having provided the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” with background information that was classified.  Apparently all it took for John Brennan to be nominated as the next CIA Director is a lifelong career at CIA, four years of intense hard intelligence work at the White House, the reelection of Barack Obama to a second term, and an inadvertent lapse of judgment by the other potential candidates in talking tradecraft with movie producers/actors.

Even with its handling of enhanced interrogation as an issue for the audience to decide, I thought the movie portrayed a positive image of U.S. Intelligence in general and the CIA in particular.  More importantly though, “Zero Dark Thirty” shows with great fidelity how fragmented and ambiguous HUMINT is by its nature and how dangerous it can be to collect.  Intelligence professionals will appreciate the movie being three hours long as an artifact of the time it takes to collect and cross check HUMINT, but what is truly stunning is the way the screenplay depicts all-source analysis being used to close information gaps and resolve ambiguity.  Bottom Line:  “Zero Dark Thirty” is not as good a movie as “Lincoln” but it’s a must see for anyone interested intelligence.

Finally here’s my “bracket” based on few facts and my own hunches for “Federal Fiscal March Madness”

  • The debt ceiling is raised in exchange for extending  the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare
  • Sequestration cuts remain essentially unchanged, but department/agencies are granted more flexibility in how these cuts are allocated
  • The CR is continued for the rest of FY 13 as planning for FY 14 remains delayed

Notice there is no winner anywhere here!  That’s what I think; what do you think?