A Vortex Caused by the Confluence of Terrorism, Domestic Violence, and International Volatility

For those who don’t remember it we seem to be living through a not so well produced reprisal of the long hot summer of 1968.  Back then we were four years into the Vietnam War which was going badly; the Soviet Union was ascertaining the Brezhnev Doctrine in Czechoslovakia; in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination the Black Panthers were calling for violence against whites; and protest demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention turned violent.  Fast forwarding to the present, Mark Twain appears to have been right:  history doesn’t repeat itself but it does seem to rhyme.

I am not sure if the period from 7 to 17 July 2016 is historic or just frightening, but the events of these 10 days have been traumatizing and confusing in a way I have not sensed in America since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  With the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge on 7 and 17 July, respectively and the horrific carnage in Nice on  July 14th caused by single terrorist driving a 21 ton commercial truck at high speed down a crowded promenade, the American people (still with San Bernardino, Orlando, Brussels, and Paris in their recent memory) don’t know if their safety is more threatened by ISIS terrorists, self-radicalized lone-wolf Islamists, Americans with a domestic agenda, or police officers with a hair trigger anxiety.  We are in a vortex caused by the confluence of terrorism, domestic violence, and international volatility.

This domestic unease is only made more acute by an international environment that that is growing increasingly unpredictable and worrisome.  In this same 7 to 17 July time frame China raised the potential for confrontation when it rejected a Hague 12 July ruling that its claims to maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea are without merit; the British referendum to leave the European Union (Britex) resulted on 13 July in the relatively unknown Theresa May replacing David Cameron as Prime Minister; and on 14/15 July a failed  coup in Turkey will allow ( at least in the short run) President Erdogan to make his regime both more autocratic and Islamist. Already China is warning that any effort to challenge its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea will be forcibly resisted. It remains to be seen what the impact of United Kingdom’s departure means but it doesn’t strengthen either the European Union or NATO as Russia begins again to assert itself in Europe.  Erdogan’s post-coup purges of secularists from the government and armed forces raises questions about how dependable Turkey will be going forward in the fight against ISIS and in managing the flow of refugees coming to Europe.  Regardless, I am relatively certain that the immediate ramping up of attacks on American citizens and the police officers protecting them while the national political conventions are going on will turn America’s attention inward.

In a sound bite, everyone who has not “checked out” for the summer senses imminent danger but doesn’t know where the threat is coming from or how the government can protect them, so nobody feels safe.  Some say this is just the new normal and we have to get use to any large gathering being a potential shooting gallery.  The alternative is to use massive data collection (OK, surveillance) available to us in combination with high performance computing and machine learning to deter, detect, and disrupt those planning mass murder to advance some cause.

Certainly the terrorist violence the world has experienced in 2016 coupled with the targeted shootings of American police officers this July has both the law enforcement and intelligence communities redoubling their efforts to protect the Republican and Democratic National Conventions from life threatening violence.  Nice reminds all those attending or responsible for the safety and security of the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia that individuals using fire arms and explosives is only one of many ways death, injury, or chaos can be visited on these high visibility events.  Anthrax, drones, and cyber come immediately to mind as low cost/high impact yet to be used ways of striking citizens or cops to cause fear and disruption if not death and destruction.

The rising level of ISIS related terrorist attacks, of course, is neither new nor surprising. Earlier this year, ISIS spokesperson Mohammad al-Adnani, said, “While, we’re being reduced on the physical battlefield, the caliphate is physically shrinking. So, you should take the battle. Don’t come to Iraq and Syria, take the battle to wherever you are and attack infidels wherever you are.” CIA Director John Brennan in his 16 June testimony to the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) warned:

The group’s [ISIS’] foreign branches and global networks can help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria. In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.

It mystified me that none of the senators nor any media pundits observed in the moment (or since) that if this is true (as events are proving it to be) then our strategy of fighting ISIS “over there” is actually making them more dangerous “back here!” Perversely, our ongoing military efforts to “degrade, disrupt, and defeat ISIS with military operations in Iraq and Syria are not achieving their strategic intent of reducing terrorism in CONUS to the nuisance level.

Adding to the danger of the ISIS terrorist threat is the lone wolf targeting of police officers as vigilante responses to black males being shot while being taken into police custody.  I am sure it has already occurred to ISIS and its sympathizers in the U.S., that if they too begin to take action against cops they could enflame violence between white and black radicals as we move towards our national elections in November.

The current comingling of domestic violence with ISIS inspired terrorism by US citizens (San Bernardino and Orlando) tells me that the systemic seam that exists between domestic and foreign intelligence in the US Intelligence Community (IC) makes it harder than it should be to thwart either terrorism or domestic violence.  This is because seams in national security are where bad things go to happen.

Finally, the question – or is it an opportunity? – raised by this current month of discontent is this: Are the American people willing to debate as part of the Presidential electoral process  the pros and cons of more government surveillance in exchange for increasing the chances that intelligence agencies and  law enforcement can afford them more protection and security?  Surely San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas, and Baton Rouge tell us it is irresponsible in terms of public safety to limit intelligence and law enforcement to surveillance of foreign nationals as it becomes seemingly impossible  to discern who is a domestic criminal from an ISIS terrorist.  Without doubt their motives are different, but criminals and terrorists (whether foreign or domestic) are using the same tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to threaten our national peace and tranquility in order to advance their causes.

However, if the bar for “probable cause” is to be lowered to enable more effective surveillance and investigation against those persons foreign or domestic who mean to do us arm, then the government standards for transparency also need to be raised accordingly.  This transparency must inform the American people who is subject to what forms of surveillance for what purposes and how personal information will be protected from inappropriate access.  To prevent abuse, oversight of any  broader surveillance powers granted to the Intelligence Community for homeland security will need to be rigorous, independent and subject to public review.

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

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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?

The Road to War is Littered with Miscalculations

Obama Administration nemesis Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter are in agreement that Russia, China, and Iran are all taking actions to assert their influence and demonstrate their ability to confront the United States.   At the Reagan Defense Forum on 7 November the Sec Def observed that “Some actors appear intent on eroding these principles and undercutting the international order that helps enforce them.”   Secretary Carter went on to warn that while the US does not seek confrontation it remains resolved to “…defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.” (http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/pentagon/2015/11/08/defense-secretary-ash-carter-says-russia-china-potentially-threaten-global-order/75412284/).  This current environment of confrontation creates a tinder box from Syria, to the South China Sea, to any venue for physical terror, to cyberspace where potential shows of strength by Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Damascus or Raqqa will increase the probabilities for a miscalculation that could lead to devastating unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Though not yet confirmed, “intelligence chatter” is indicating that ISIS is probably responsible for the 31 October bombing of Metrojet flight 9268 over the Sinai as it was returning 224 Russian vacationers to Saint Petersburg from the Egyptian sea-side resort of Sharm-el-Sheihk.  Apparently this “intel chatter” was not specific enough to be actionable.  The intelligence imperative here is the difficult task of penetrating ISIS with human sources who can provide more granular insights about potential actions both on the battlefield and those directed against the international community.  The quickest way to rectify this lack of HUMINT would be to gain access through Assad’ security forces to members of ISIS that Syria has captured, but that would mean a deal with the devil brokered by Vladimir Putin.

Last month when I was opining about how things could get worse in terms of Syria and ISIS, I didn’t contemplate an act of airline terrorism aimed at Russia when I obviously should have.   If ISIS is responsible for bringing down Metrojet Flight 9268 (as they claim they are) then there is good chance this could lead to Russia and the US tacitly joining together in an “ISIS First Campaign” enabling Bashar al-Assad’s regime to remain in control of Syria until the Islamic State (IS) is neutralized.  With or without US support it seems a reasonable conclusion based on current behavior that Putin will double down on military pressure against ISIS.  Of course, the demise of ISIS works to the benefit of Iran in creating a Shite satellite in southern Iraq that would be a menace to Saudi Arabia.  The alternative is Saudi Arabia funneling money to ISIS to buy them off from bringing their brand Islamic Revolution to the “Kingdom” while keeping Iran and its Shite proxies on the defensive.

Concurrently on the other side of the world USS Lassen conducted on 27 October a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOp) in the South China Sea sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s claimed and militarily fortified Subi Reef.  This was quickly followed on 05 November by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his Malaysian counter-part flying out to the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (aka “The Big Stick) as this carrier strike group transited the South China Sea enroute its new home port of San Diego after a deployment to the Persian Gulf where its air wing conducted strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. China’s reaction was public but muted with a stern warning given to the US Ambassador in Beijing’s by China’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for LASSEN’s violation of Chinese territorial waters.  The Chinese also deployed additional military aircraft and missiles to the Spratly Islands.  The US response was to announce its intentions to continue to conduct regular FONOps in the South China Sea and for Secretary Carter to visit the “TR.”  While there has been no overt Chinese military reaction to USS Theodore Roosevelt’s transit of the South China Sea, a Chinese Diesel Electric Submarine was reportedly tracking USS Ronald Reagan in late October as it conducted a naval exercise in the Sea of Japan with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. And in return to a common Cold War practice, two Russian TU-142 Bear aircraft conducted close in surveillance of Reagan under escort by the carrier’s F/A-18’s during this same period.

The daily cyber intrusions against the U.S. private sector by Chinese and Russian state sponsored organizations are well documented and now Check Point Software Technologies on 09 November published a 38-page report identifying specific details and broad analysis on cyber-espionage activity conducted by the group Rocket Kitten, with possible ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (http://blog.checkpoint.com/2015/11/09/rocket-kitten-a-campaign-with-9-lives/).  As result of these menacing cyber assaults, the American private sector is becoming increasingly frustrated with the government’s inability to protect US industries from state sponsored cyber intrusions.

This is generating debate between the private sector and NSA/CYBERCOM about whether and when those in the private sector can engage in “active cyber defense” against those doing harm to them.  Proponents of active cyber defense contend that cyber space is not exclusively a government domain and if the government can’t or won’t protect the private sector from cyber harm then U.S. private entities should not be denied the right of self-defense.  Those opposed to active cyber defense by the private sector contend that the Constitution reserves to the federal government the responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs.

In its wisdom, Article 1 Section 8 of The United States Constitution states that “The Congress shall have Power to … grant Letters of marque and reprisal.”  This power was used to some effect in the early days of our republic to allow for commercial shipping to make up for our lack of naval power.  At both SAP N2S Solution Summit and the Reagan Defense forum, NSA Director/CyberCom Commander Admiral Mike Rogers said he thought issuing letters of Marque and Reprisal is a reasonable means for the government to authorize selected private companies and individuals to take active cyber defensive measures against those perpetrating harmful cyber actions upon them.  Adm Rogers, however, went on to express his deep concern about the unintended and unforeseen results of private entities taking cyber self-defense/retribution action against foreign state sponsored cyber actions.

I am not sure what is the best way to deal with this cyber constitutional conundrum, but I am reasonably certain that if the US does not develop a coherent policy, organization, and rules of engagement for private sector cyber active defense (and a well-regulated  private sector cyber militia – – – with or without Letters of Marque and Reprisal — sounds like the right approach to me) then U.S. commerce will remain vulnerable to foreign cyber intrusions, while all the unintended/unforeseen events Admiral Rogers is rightly concerned about will be at greater likelihood of happening anyway.

No good options with regard to Syria and ISIS, a return to Cold War like military tensions with Russia and China, and the US private sector looking to take cyber defense into their own      hands create continuing opportunities for miscalculations. The only thing worse than miscalculation is a blunder!

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