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?

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Can We Figure Out How to Value the IC’s Worth?

I really was looking forward to a Snowden-free discussion this month but then the Washington Post on the last Wednesday in August published its “Black Intelligence Budget” story so we are going to divert there briefly before turning to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in rebel held regions of Syria.

I suspect to its great disappointment the Washington Post story outlining with interactive web-technology the budgets of each major national intelligence agency based on information provided from a top secret codeword document Snowden accessed and downloaded failed to create much of a buzz amongst the beltway chattering class.  The reasons for this collective yawn seem attributable to Syria sucking most of the air out of Washington; Congress being in recess; the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have Dream” speech activities; and the jaded sense that $70 billion spread over numerous agencies sounds like chump change in a federal budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion.

The chattering and the damage though is coming – – – –  when the budget debates begin again this fall as those seeking more money for social welfare programs as well as those looking for dollars for DoD will both say “can’t we take it from the NIP or MIP ?”   Zachery Keck has already advised readers of “The Diplomat” that based on the Post’s reporting the US IC’s budget is larger than the defense budgets of all but three nation states, while in a September 1st  OpEd IC-friendly David Ignatius commented that “the United States has been spending an awful lot for intelligence, especially at the CIA, without getting enough in return.”

It will be interesting to see if anybody believing they now know what the IC spends by INT/Agency knocks the wheels off of the IC wagon, but I expect democracy and the IC will continue as we know it, though with a muted but intense argument amongst civil libertarians and protectors of national security about whether we are safer or not because this information has been revealed.  As for me I am not sure.  Since I don’t know (nor do I know anybody who claims to know) what a pound of IC capability is worth, I never have been able to establish even a crude objective criterion for determining how much the US should spend annually for intelligence.

As for getting value from its investment in intelligence, President Obama is relying on the IC to make the case to the world at large, the US Congress, and the American people that Syrian President Assad wittingly used chemical weapons against rebel held areas on 21 August killing over 1,400 civilian non-combatants.  As with Iraq in 2003, apparently the decision again to use military force will be dependent on the IC showing beyond a reasonable doubt that a secular autocrat of an Arab state with interests opposed  to the United States’ is a dangerous possessor of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).  While that is a meaningful function for the IC to perform, Assad has been killing Syrians for years now and if that is dangerously destabilizing to a region that matters to US security, then an armed response should be justified on that basis, and not on whether we have intelligence to prove he gassed women and children.

There are other important intelligence questions though that go beyond determining if Assad used chemical weapons, such as indications and warning (I&W) and motivation associated with this attack.

Based on the way the Obama Administration has shifted its policy decisions regarding the chemical weapons attack that Secretary of State Kerry says the IC has confirmed, I am surmising there was no “actionable” I&W indicating that Syrian military forces were preparing to launch chemical weapons.  Given the President’s red line warning, I at least would like to believe that with sufficient I&W he would have had capabilities ready to pre-empt or at least interrupt such an attack if calling these preparations out to the world did not deter it.  To Ignatius’ point about not getting what we should from the IC in terms of money spent, operational I&W is an intelligence shortfall that can be traced back to the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing in 1983 and runs through Kohbar Towers, the East Africa Embassy Bombings, USS Cole, and 9/11.

OK, I&W is hard and everybody is trying to improve it.  However, now that Assad has used chemical weapons in a way that is not plausibly deniable even by diplomatic standards, I believe a more important question for the IC is not whether Assad used chemical weapons, but why used them with the world watching and with an explicit warning on the table from the US president?  The simplest and therefore must plausible reason is Assad and his “Alawite Posse” in Damascus – not wanting to end up like Mubarak (or Morsi) in Egypt and Kaddafi in Libya – decided in frustration and anger that it was time to dramatically force an end to the rebellion against their rule.  But I can’t discount that the decision to employ chemical weapons was more calculated with patrons in Iran providing to Assad most of the numbers.  Use chemical weapons and if the US doesn’t act it loses creditability in the ME.  If the US does act then there is the likelihood of it being sucked into another expensive protracted conflict that saps power and diverts attention from Iran and its ambitions. A military response also adds to the drum beat in the Muslim World that US is always ready to act against countries with Muslim populations. Weathering the attack will show the ineffectiveness of US military force and the staying power of the Assad regime. The potential for a divide between the legislative and the executive branch over the use of military force is a benefit nobody in the autocratic ME seriously considered!   If this calculating scenario is what is happening, then the smartest politicians in this story are not in Washington or Damascus but in Tehran.

With regard to the question of whether the US is getting its money’s worth from the $70 billion dollars or so it spends on intelligence each year, the value proposition for American national security is the degree to which its IC can both warn and accurately inform decision makers beyond “what” is happening to “why” events are unfolding the way they are.

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

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?