THINGS CAN ALWAYS GET WORSE!

Earlier this month (Oct 2nd ) Mike Hayden observed that it is usually a losing bet for an intelligence officer to presume a situation “cannot get any worse” –  (https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/case-american-involvement).  The context for his remarks was current events in Syria and the fight against ISIS.  Since I last engaged with you, things have certainly gone from bad to worse in Syria and certainly not improved with regard to ISIS.

  • Russia has deployed military forces to Syria to support the Assad Regime and is attacking those fighting ISIS who are receiving US military assistance.
  • Iran has become more vocal and open in its support of Assad, not only challenging the U.S. but also Saudi Arabia.
  • The U.S. strategy to build a force of anti-ISIS fighters has been scrapped given that it has produced only five (5) viable fighters over the course of the past year.
  • The Syrian Civil war continues to produce a flow of refugees into central Europe that is straining the ability and tolerance of most countries to absorb and assimilate them. Unchecked, the stream of refugees from Syria will impact European politics and policies in unpredictable ways.
  • Political violence in Turkey is making it increasingly difficult for the President Erdogan to maintain order and govern, which increases the potential for the Turkish military to step in and suspend the constitution to prevent an “Islamic Spring”  if not a “Turkish Islamic Revolution.”Tu

As for how things could get worse from where they are today, two contingencies that I would have thought low probability a few months ago now seem clearly possible.  The first is Hezbollah commencing a campaign of terror against Israel in order to generate support in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for Assad as a “front line leader” for creating a Palestinian State.  The second is an unplanned or planned military confrontation between Russian and U.S. aircraft that results in an undeclared air war over Syria with untold potential for escalation.

Making all this worse is the lack of unity within the U.S. government with regard to national security issues. You know the particulars!

  • Benghazi remains more of a topic for domestic politics where adversaries can’t help but notice we would rather investigate than respond forcefully to the murder of a popular U.S. Ambassador.
  • The display of vitriol and mistrust by the Congressional Branch for the Iranian Nuclear Agreement negotiated by the Executive Branch has surely been felt in Tele Aviv and Tehran.
  • No agreement within the Congress or between the Congress and the White House on matters of national security policy and strategy or on budget priorities
  • The willingness of both political parties to shut down the U.S. government over seemingly trivial issues such as funding for Planned Parenthood or how much of the DoD budget should be allocated to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)
  • The inability of the majority party in the House of Representatives to agree on a Speaker of the House, making the idea of agreeing on coherent national security policies seem like a bridge too far.

We all understand that the U.S. government is operating right now because Speaker Boehner startled the House of Representatives with his resignation to enable a compromise on passing a last minute Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for 90 days.  Resigning on principle is obviously not a long term strategy for effective governance through legislation.

With regard to passing an FY 16 budget, I wouldn’t bet on it!  Before the current CR runs out on 11 December both the President, the House of Representatives, and the Senate will get an opportunity to put the “full faith and credit” of the United States at risk with what seems to be an annual debate about raising the debt ceiling.  Then when 11 December rolls around the President has already said he will veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) if it raises budget caps on defense but not domestic programs.  The likely outcome after both sides posture rigorously for their political bases — but can’t risk being blamed for a government shutdown going into an election year — will be a CR for the rest of FY16.  A yearlong CR for FY16 means a continuation of last year’s budget allocations that have funded us to the current state of affairs in the Middle East.

I am not sure how well the Intelligence Community (IC) is doing at providing relevant intelligence to inform strategy and policy development towards Syria and ISIS, but I am certain that the best intelligence possible cannot create strategic clarity and unity of purpose for the Congress or the President.

Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  Yogi Berra told us if you don’t know what you are trying to achieve any policy will get you there.  With regard to dealing with Syria and ISIS, the U.S. has a divided government, no political will, no effective strategy and is budgeting through the rear view mirror so things, of course, can get worse as Mike Hayden is warning. I am pretty sure they will get worse no matter how the IC performs

That’s what I think!   What do you think?

THE 800 POUND GORILLA IN THE IC’S LIVING ROOM

The struggle for me this month is deciding what Intelligence Community (IC) centric topic is worthy of your time.  I could regal you with what I heard from the IC leadership at the DoDIIS Worldwide Conference in San Antonio (24-26 August) and the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit in Washington D.C. (9-10 September).  Perhaps more compelling is the unfolding refugee/migrant crisis in central Europe and its impacts on national security and implications for the IC. Of course, the immediate budget uncertainties and potential government shutdown are never far from mind.  What is currently interesting me is how the past three years of declining Defense and IC budgets and projections of continuing cuts in the out years is impacting the federal Information Technology (IT) Services industry resulting in large corporations exiting the space and generating pressure for mergers and acquisitions that will change the way the IC acquires IT in the near future.

None of this matters though as an 800 pound gorilla has barged into the IC’s living room during the second week of September in the form of Inspector General (IG) complaints by two Central Command (CentCom) analysts that the command J2 (Army one star general officer) has been altering intelligence regarding ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria in order to support Obama Administration claims that these forces are being defeated on the battlefield.  Manipulating intelligence so it reflects either what seniors want to hear or supports a particular policy agenda is the most egregious breach of ethics that an intelligence professional can commit, so examining what is going on in Tampa and its broader implications for the IC is not anything I relish thinking about let alone discussing in a public forum.

To be clear, my knowledge about the events reported by Shane Harris is limited to what has been reported in the media and discussed publicly about them by IC Seniors at the AFCEA/INSA IC Summit.

According to Shane Harris’ reporting (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/09/exclusive-50-spies-say-isis-intelligence-was-cooked.html  ), two senior intelligence analysts at CENTCOM submitted a written complaint via formal channels to the Defense Department (DoD) Inspector General (IG) in July alleging that reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The two analysts contend these reports were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the Administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Fifty other CentCom intelligence analysts are reported to be supporting this formal complaint to the DoD IG and one person assigned to the CENTCOM J2 describes the command environment as “Stalinist.”

In related media reporting The Guardian’s U.S. correspondent Spencer Ackerman is implying that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper through regular secure video-teleconference calls with the CentCom J2 to better prepare himself for briefing the President may have inadvertently and subliminally caused the CentCom J2 to modify what his intelligence analysts were concluding from the information available to them. It is important to recognize that no one is making any claim let alone offering any evidence that the DNI was pressuring the CentCom J2 to modify his organization’s intelligence assessments.

The most important official response to these reports is from DIA Director Marine Corps LtGen Vince Stewart, USMC.  When asked about these allegations while on stage at the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit with the heads of the “Big 6” Intelligence Agencies on 10 September, the Director of DIA acknowledged that there is an ongoing investigation so he could not speak to specifics, but he continued that he did want to talk to the dynamics involved with collecting and sorting out what intelligence means.  LtGen Steward reminded the audience that

“we [intelligence professionals] pride ourselves on analytic rigor, in which we look at the vast amount of information to deliver an assessment. It is not plain. It is not science. It is as much experience and judgment as anything else. So when we go through the analytic process, it is a pretty rough-and-tumble debate.”  Because experts can and often do disagree about what information is relevant or what the information collected means “. . .at some point at the end of the day someone has to say, ‘This is the best judgment of what the data says’ and present that to our decision makers.” 

The DIA Director went on to say that those with concerns about the creditability of battlefield related intelligence should “be applauded” for bringing these concerns to the IG via proper channels

It is certainly difficult to disagree with anything LtGen Stewart said, and I commend him for providing important context for understanding this controversy.  I also agree that the DoD IG investigation will sort out what if any wrong doing occurred with regard CentCom J2’s intelligence reporting on ISIS, et al. Nonetheless, from what is already in the public domain I can foresee at least five implications for the IC emerging from this situation no matter what the IG determines.

  1. These allegations will embolden those who content that IC cannot be trusted to keep national security decision makers informed with accurate, objective, and balanced intelligence
  2. Intelligence analysis at CentCom will certainly be disrupted and this disruption will ripple to other intel shops looking at ISIS and Al Qaeda
  3. IC leadership attention will be diverted away from the overall threat matrix as well as from managing the community during the current period of budgetary uncertainty
  4. There will be Congressional oversight hearings regarding “command influence” by IC seniors and others in the government on the substance and tone intelligence analysis writ large
  5. Opponents of the Iran Nuclear Agreement will argue a lack of confidence in the IC to report Iranian cheating if it is detected

There is also the issue of how those at CentCom lodging complaints of intelligence manipulation with the IG will be treated.  If they are punished in some way or their allegations are not thoroughly investigated and the results broadly reported, there will be a chorus of “see Snowden was right!”

I learned over 40 years ago from Admiral Inman that in Washington “if you are explaining, you are losing” and it looks like at least the CentCom J2 and probably the DNI on behalf of the entire IC will be explaining why and how the intelligence analysis provided to decision makers from the front lines to the Oval Office is produced with professional rigor to be as accurate and objective as possible.

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?