Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Two and Only, Redux

Back from a winter break, there's no shortage of blog-worthy material, from North Korea's latest ICBM test...err, space launch, to Hillary's ever-escalating e-mail scandal and of course, the "official" start of the 2016 presidential campaign (at least the part where caucus and primary votes are actually cast). 

But that stuff can wait, at least for a moment.  There was a notable passing during our absence.  Bob Elliott, one-half of the legendary comedy duo of Bob & Ray, passed away at his home in Maine last week at the age of 92. 

Almost eight years ago, our colleague George Smiley wrote an appreciation of Elliot and his long-time partner Ray Goulding, who died in 1990.  Definitely worth another read, as we remember one of most original teams who ever worked behind a microphone...

ADDENDUM:  After migrating from WHDH in Boston to their first network gig at NBC, Bob & Ray almost immediately ran afoul of the federal government.  No, the angry bureaucrats weren't at the FCC or the IRS, but rather the Smithsonian Institute.  At the end of a skit, the duo casually informed listeners that anyone who wanted a home dismantling kit (like the "model" they touted on the air) could obtain one by writing to the Smithsonian.  Thousands did, and the feds weren't amused.  Undeterred, Bob & Ray closed another show by announcing that copies of their script were available from the Library of Congress, provoking another flood of letters.            

Sunday, January 24, 2016

You Read it Here First

It remains one of the unanswered questions of Hillary Clinton's e-mail scandal: how did classified information make its way onto messages stored and transmitted by her "home brew system.

Now, federal investigators are working to confirm a theory that we first identified months ago.  From today's edition of the New York Post:

The FBI is investigating whether members of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle “cut and pasted” material from the government’s classified network so that it could be sent to her private e-mail address, former State Department security officials say.

Clinton and her top aides had access to a Pentagon-run classified network that goes up to the Secret level, as well as a separate system used for Top Secret communications.

The two systems — the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) and Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) — are not connected to the unclassified system, known as the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNet). You cannot e-mail from one system to the other, though you can use NIPRNet to send ­e-mails outside the government.

Somehow, highly classified information from SIPRNet, as well as even the super-secure JWICS, jumped from those closed systems to the open system and turned up in at least 1,340 of Clinton’s home e-mails — including several the CIA earlier this month flagged as containing ultra-secret Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Programs, a subset of SCI.

[snip]

[Raymond Fournier, a former Diplomatic Security Service special agent told the Post] it’s clear from some of the classified e-mails made public that someone on Clinton’s staff essentially “cut and pasted” content from classified cables into the messages sent to her. The classified markings are gone, but the content is classified at the highest levels — and so sensitive in nature that “it would have been obvious to Clinton.” Most likely the information was, in turn, e-mailed to her via NIPRNet.

To work around the closed, classified systems, which are accessible only by secure desktop workstations whose hard drives must be removed and stored overnight in a safe, Clinton’s staff would have simply retyped classified information from the systems into the non-classified system or taken a screen shot of the classified document, Fournier said. “Either way, it’s totally illegal.”

We first advanced the same theory on 28 September of last year:

"...the FBI is reportedly focusing on how classified information wound up on Hillary's private e-mail network.  We're guessing the bureau already knows the answer to that one; files were either uploaded to the system, or various users of the system simply copied sensitive data from reports into their e-mails, minus the classification markings.  

We've long favored that latter scenario, for two reasons.  First, the classified data almost certainly originated on networks set up to handle that type of information, specifically SIPRNET (for secret-level information) and JWICS, for material at the TS/SCI level.  In the wake of the Manning and Snowden scandals, the government has made it extremely difficult to upload or download files from those systems.  In many cases, moving a document from SIPRNET to JWICS requires the assistance of a network administrator and must be approved in advance.  

On the other hand, it would be very easy for Mrs. Clinton (or a member of her cabal) to simply look at a classified report and then summarize the important findings in an e-mail, created and disseminated on the private, unsecure network.  Ask anyone who has held a clearance and worked with classified data and they will tell you: such practices are unpardonable sins, deserving of prosecution and punishment to the full letter of the law.  The fact that the former SecState (and her senior aides) held clearances for years--and deliberately chose to place classified information on an open network--gives you some idea of the contempt they hold for the nation's secrets and our laws.


Obviously, it wasn't very hard for the FBI to figure it out.  The Bureau utilizes the same systems outlined above and their IT specialists, security personnel and investigators are very familiar with how they work--and the difficulty in transferring files from SIPRNET or JWICS to a private, unsecure system.  

We've long believed that the bureau has been focusing on who originated the various classified e-mails, and comparing those messages to the original, classified traffic that appeared on the secure networks.  Determining the State Department staffer who created the message should be fairly easy; determining where the information came from probably takes a bit longer, since the classified sections of e-mails sent to Mrs. Clinton are likely paraphrased from the original source document.  

It is also likely that FBI Director James Comey has instructed his agents to build a detailed and compelling case, understanding the difficulties that may arise in persuading the Justice Department to actually indict HRC and her associates.  As Andrew McCarthy details at National Review, the bureau is facing a major obstacle in its probe of Mrs. Clinton and her e-mail system.  So far, the Justice Department has not appointed prosecutors to work with agents in building the case, and it has not impaneled a grand jury to hear evidence and hand down potential indictments.  Until the DOJ becomes fully engaged, the investigation really isn't an investigation.  

Mr. Comey, a veteran Washington hand with an impressive resume as a government lawyer, fully understands this.  And that may explain those recent, damaging revelations about the discovery of Special Access Program (SAP) information in Mrs. Clinton's e-mails.  SAP is a form of classification typically used to protect exceptionally sensitive intelligence sources and collection methods.  The number of individuals with access to such programs may be limited to just a handful, depending on what is being shielded.  In some cases, SAP may protect extremely well-placed human intelligence (HUMINT) sources.  Disclosure of such information often results in the death of foreign nationals working for our intelligence community.  

Look for more details about HRC's e-mails in the weeks ahead.  The FBI is reminding the Obama Administration of the seriousness of this scandal, and the role the DOJ must play in bringing offenders to justice.  Officials at the bureau are providing the outline of a bullet-proof case and putting the onus for action on Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  We will soon know if Ms. Lynch is prepared to engage the DOJ, and later this year, if she is willing to bring charges against Hillary Clinton and her associates.  If Lynch declines, we will see a series of resignations that will make the "Saturday Night Massacre" look like a church picnic.  There would likely be an attempt to impeach Ms. Lynch--all in the middle of a presidential campaign.  

Pundits are already describing the 2016 election cycle as "unusual," given the entry (and performance) of Donald Trump.  But Trump's ascendancy in the GOP race may take a backseat to the case against Hillary Clinton, and a potential constitutional crisis in the late summer or early fall.  

Buckle your seat belts.  It's going to be a bumpy ride. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hillary's Smoking Gun, Redux

...From the "groove yard of forgotten favorites," to borrow a phrase from El Rushbo: 

As Hillary Clinton's e-mail scandal unfolded last year, we reminded readers that the former Secretary of State (and senior aides) had access to the crown jewels of American intelligence, and some of that information might wind up on her "home brew" e-mail system.

"This much we know: Mrs. Clinton and most of her senior associates utilizing the e-mail system were cleared for the most sensitive information produced and retained by the U.S. government.  They had routine access to the full range of intelligence data, up to the TS-SCI level, and a number of SAR/SAP programs as well.  If you want to discuss that information--without the hassle of creating and utilizing e-mail accounts on SIPRNET or JWICS, just pull bits of material and put them into an unclassified e-mail and send them over an unsecure network.  It's a fair bet that most (if not all) of her e-mails are in the hands of virtually any country with a national signals intelligence (SIGINT) capability." 

All the more reason for the FBI to continue a criminal probe.  Mishandling classified information is a crime (just ask General David Petraeus).  But the Clinton e-mail system went far beyond sharing hard-copy files with a mistress/biographer, and storing them outside a secure facility.  By entering classified material into an unsecure e-mail system, the former Secretary of State and her associates likely exposed a wide range of classified material to intercept and collection by our enemies.  

Ignore the spin.  This is not a matter of ensuring that classified material was secure; it's a question of who deliberately placed sensitive data on a non-secure network and engaged in that practice on a recurring basis.  But determining guilt may be more difficult that you'd think.  Unless there was a system administrator moving classified documents from State Department systems to the Clinton server, investigators may be compelled to compare original intel documents with the e-mails, line-by-line and word-for-word. 


While Mrs. Clinton continues her quest for the presidency, inspectors general from the various intelligence agencies (along with a phalanx of FBI agents) have quietly expanded their investigation of her e-mail network.  And the latest finding is one of the most damning.  As Fox News reported earlier today:

Hillary Clinton's emails on her unsecured, homebrew server contained intelligence from the U.S. government's most secretive and highly classified programs, according to an unclassified letter from a top inspector general to senior lawmakers.

Fox News exclusively obtained the unclassified letter, sent Jan. 14 from Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III. It laid out the findings of a recent comprehensive review by intelligence agencies that identified "several dozen" additional classified emails -- including specific intelligence known as "special access programs" (SAP).  
That indicates a level of classification beyond even “top secret,” the label previously given to two emails found on her server, and brings even more scrutiny to the presidential candidate’s handling of the government’s closely held secrets.

According to Mr. McCullough, two sworn declarations from one intelligence community element "cover several dozen emails [from Clinton's server] containing classified information determined by the IC element to be at the confidential, secret, and top secret/sap levels."  McCullough offered that revelation in an unclassified letter to leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees and leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and State Department inspector general.

Spokesmen for the intelligence community declined comment on the Fox report.  

As their name implies, SAP programs are highly restricted.  Individuals must be "read into" the program when it is determined they have a valid "need-to-know."  Many relate to the most sensitive collection efforts in the intelligence community, based on extremely well-placed sources and/or intelligence methods that--if revealed--would cause exceptionally grave damage to our intel efforts. 

Like most who worked in the spook business, your humble correspondent was read into a few SAP programs in his day.  Because I'm still honoring my non-disclosure agreement (unlike a former cabinet member we know), I won't go into details about them.  But to give you some idea of the security involved, reviewing information gathered under one SAP effort meant going to a special vault, inside a Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility (SCIF), and logging onto computer terminals reserved for that particular program.  If you weren't cleared for the program, you didn't get in--even if you had a TS/SCI clearance.  

In some cases, only a handful of people may be approved for a special access program.  Some of those are restricted to the most senior members of the U.S. government--the type of collection efforts a Secretary of State would have knowledge of.  At this point, we don't know what type of SAP information was found on Mrs. Clinton's server, but obviously, it represents a security breach of the first magnitude--and it's a sure bet that hostile SIGINT services accessed that information.  

It's the type of material that gets people killed.  Literally.  It's one reason the Army is considering a demotion of retired General David Petraeus.  Turns out that he shared SAP information with his biographer and former mistress, Paula Broadwell.  Neither Petraeus nor Broadwell was ever accused of sharing that info over an unclassified e-mail system.  But Petraeus may lose a star and be forced to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement pay--the difference in the pension of check of a four-star, versus a Lieutenant General.  

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign keeps chugging on.  But the odds of her indictment just increased dramatically.                 

 

    



    

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Adrift

Tehran has released 10 American sailors who were detained yesterday, after one of their patrol boats became disabled in the Persian Gulf and drifted into Iranian waters near Farsi Island.

Secretary of State John Kerry praised the quick release, offering it as proof of the "new" relationship between Iran and the United States.  Mr. Kerry said our personnel were "Well treated by the Iranians, and provided food and blankets.  We can only imagine how a similar situation would have played out three or four years ago."  Predictably, the Secretary failed to mention that four Americans are still being held by Iran, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.  

Critics also noted that Washington is preparing to end sanctions against the Tehran regime and will soon release $150 billion in frozen Iranian assets.  Put another way, the mullahs had billions of reasons to release the U.S. sailors.

But not before engaging in a bit of predictable propaganda.  About the time the release was announced, Iranian news agencies produced photos of the American sailors, just before they were taken into custody:
















  Crew members of US Navy patrol boat in the Persian Gulf, as they were being arrested by Iran  on 12 January (Iranian press photo)

Never mind that publishing such photos is against the Geneva Convention.  Tehran will never pass on an opportunity to humiliate the United States and if our military members are involved, that's icing on the cake.  Incidentally, State Department spokesman John Kirby told Sean Hannity Wednesday night that the Iranian photos are not in violation of the convention, since the U.S. and Iran aren't officially at war. Given Tehran's actions towards America over the last 35 years--directly and through its proxies--one could make the case that Kirby is myopic at best, and delusional at worst.  

And if that wasn't enough, Iran also released video of one of the captured sailors "apologizing" for the incident.  More than likely, the service member in the video is a junior officer; watching his eyes and body language, he appears to be under duress.  We can only imagine what the IRGC threatened if he didn't provide the apology.  As someone observed on Twitter, this is what happens when BuPers (the Navy's personnel command) keeps cancelling your slot at Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school.  It's quite possible the petty officer in the video was untrained for this type of situation and tried to muddle through as best he could.

The patrol boat incident is merely the latest example of concerted Iranian efforts to embarrass United States and highlight the weakness of President Obama.  Last October, with the ink still drying on the nuclear deal, Tehran conducted a missile test that was in clear violation of existing protocols.  At last report, the White House was attempting to delay additional sanctions for that launch.

And on December 26th, as the USS Harry Truman and its escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz, Iran suddenly announced a live-fire exercise and launched rockets only 1,500 yards from the aircraft carrier.  U.S. officials did not announce the incident until several days later, after the Truman returned to the Arabian Sea.

Iran also had the carrier in its cross-hairs yesterday, as the patrol boat episode unfolded.  A senior Iranian naval officer said the Truman and other allied ships began "maneuvering" as the American sailors were detained.  The Iranian admiral also claimed that his country's anti-ship missiles were "locked on" to the Truman as the disabled U.S. patrol boats drifted towards his country's territorial waters.

As we've noted in previous posts, locking onto a target (typically) involves fire control radars, which are detected by ESM systems on U.S. ships and aircraft.  Being locked on by the military forces of a hostile power is considered an act of war, and allows the targeted platform to defend itself.  There is no word on how the Truman responded to that highly provocative act, though it's a fair bet that our response was benign.  Remember, this is the same commander-in-chief who sent a 45-minute warning to ISIS oil truck drivers before we started bombing their rigs.  Rest assured, Mr. Obama doesn't want some military commander in the Persian Gulf disrupting the new rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.          

So Iran scores another major propaganda victory while the U.S. again looks timid and weak.  It doesn't take a foreign policy guru to understand that Iran will only be emboldened by this latest episode and new provocations are just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, there are a few serious questions surrounding the incident that remain unanswered.  The two patrol boats (actually, Swedish-built CB-90s) were transiting from Kuwait to Bahrain when one (or both) of the vessels suffered a mechanical breakdown.  Eventually, the boats drifted into Iranian territorial waters near Farsi Island, where they were detained by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The most direct route from Kuwait to Bahrain is along the western side of the Persian Gulf; Farsi Island is more centrally located.  If the boats were following a direct route, they must have drifted for some time before reaching the Iranian-controlled island.  If only one vessel was affected by the engineering casualty, why didn't the second boat take it under tow?  Why weren't additional assets--including airpower--dispatched by 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain?  The presence of Navy helicopters and F/A-18s overhead might have caused the Iranians to think twice.

And what about distress calls from the CB-90s to Navy command elements?  Early reports suggested the Navy "lost track" of its assets.  Perhaps someone can explain why the vast surveillance assets of the United States Navy couldn't maintain radio and/or radar contact with a pair of patrol boats--or provide warning of Iranian activity.  Major surface combatants (along with airborne assets) give the Navy an impressive SIGINT capability on the high seas; assuming we were tracking Iranian activities, it would be nice to know what information commanders had as the episode unfolded and how it impacted their decision-making.

There are also issues involving the commander of the boat element, believed to be the junior officer who issued the on-camera apology.  Why did he offer no resistance when the Iranians began boarding his craft.  Article II of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct states "I will never surrender of my own free will.  If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they have the means to resist."  A CB-90 is heavily armed, with .50-caliber machine guns, GAU-19 mini guns and individual weapons for the crew.  Obviously, no officer wants to see his command slaughtered; on the other hand, would it have been possible for the crew to resist, particularly with air support?

It's also worth asking about the level of involvement by senior officials in Washington.  Press accounts suggest that Secretary of State John Kerry was involved in the earliest contacts with Iran and spoke with his counterpart in Tehran no long after the sailors were detained.  That quick response suggests the White House and State received early notification of the incident (reflecting the desired level of coordination).  But it also begs another essential question: were senior officials micro-managing the episode from Washington, and decided early on to avoid a confrontation with Tehran at all costs.

Obviously, this latest episode did nothing to inspire confidence among our long-time allies in the Persian Gulf.  Writing in the New York Observer, John Schindler notes that our latest Middle East debacle will provoke more saber rattling between Riyadh and Tehran.  The stage is already set for a major regional conflict between the traditional foes, and the specter of a nuclear war is very real.  At best, the recently-concluded agreement with Iran will only delay its nuclear ambitions.  If Tehran is running a parallel, covert development program, the timeline for an Iranian bomb may be much shorter. 

And, as Dr Schindler notes, the Iranians can also acquire a nuke via "express delivery" from North Korea.  He refers to the frequent flights by Iran and North Korean IL-76 transports between those two countries, a subject we've written about on multiple occasions.  An IL-76 is more than capable of carrying a finished nuke from Pyongyang to Iran, and given the effective deception measures employed by both countries, our intelligence community could easily miss the delivery.

Across the gulf, Riyadh has its own emergency nuke plan.  The kingdom was a key investor in Pakistan's nuclear program, in exchange for potential deliveries of weapons to Saudi Arabia if the need arises.  With Iran moving inexorably towards a nuclear capability (and America in full retreat across the region), the window for the Saudis acquiring their own nuclear arsenal is wide open.  As one DoD official told Schindler: "if Tehran announces on Monday they have a nuke, Riyadh will 'suddenly' have one by Wednesday.

As any mariner will tell you, the danger with drifting is that you wind up in places and situations you don't want to be.  Sadly, U.S. policy in the Middle East resembles those two disabled patrol boats: adrift and heading for dangerous, uncharted waters.  Meanwhile, the man on the bridge, "Captain" Obama is waiting for his change-of-command ceremony, more than willing to let his successor sort the mess out in 2017 and beyond.                              



        


Friday, January 08, 2016

Hillary's Smoking Gun?


Last summer, when some in the MSM were actually paying attention to Hillary's e-mail scandal, the former Secretary of State (and Democratic Presidential candidate) tried to assure supporters she had done nothing wrong:

"I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time it was sent and received," Mrs. Clinton stated.  Both she and her supporters have tried to paint the classification issue as a dispute between government agencies over the content of her e-mails.  Never mind that the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community has determined that hundreds of Clinton e-mails, sent through her private server, were "born classified," that is, the material they contained was already classified at the time the message was sent or received.

So, how will she explain this one, which surfaced in her batch of e-mails that was most recently released:

 
Take a look at the last e-mail in the chain, sent by the Secretary herself.  Apparently, Mrs. Clinton's aides had been having problems with their classified fax machine, preventing transmission of needed talking points.

Her response: "If they can't [send it via secure fax] turn into nonpaper w no identifying heading and send nonsecure."    

The e-mail, sent to senior aide Jake Sullivan appears to be a clear directive to transmit classified material over a nonsecure fax machine.  Stripping off the "identifying heading" would remove the classification stamp that appears at the top of classified documents.

So, in the course of 13 words, we have a cabinet official, the Secretary of State, directing a member of her staff to willfully violate a number of rules/regulations/laws governing the handling and transmission of classified information.

Of course, there are a number of problems with this technique.  First, if the talking points were properly formatted, there should be a classification marking for each section, depending on the sensitivity of the material.  There should also be declassification instructions at the bottom of the page. No word on whether those markings were deleted as well.

It goes without saying that sending classified data over a nonsecure fax machine is just as bad as transmitting it through a non-secure server.  Very easy for a hostile intelligence agency to intercept.  And, we have no way of knowing how many messages, memos and other classified documents may have been sent this way.  Mrs. Clinton's "matter-of-fact" tone suggests it was an approved practice among her staff; why make that long walk to the SCIF to send a TS/SCI document when you can just strip off the classification markings and send it over an unclassified fax?

For anyone who's ever held a security clearance and handled classified material, this is jaw-dropping; it's the kind of thing that can (and should) result in a rock-breaking tour at Leavenworth.  But if you're HRC or a member of her senior staff, classification rules only exist for the "little people."  If the classified fax machine isn't working properly, they can't be expected to use another one (and there are dozens at Foggy Bottom).  No, just use the unclassified machine and let someone else worry about the consequences.

Ed Morrissey at Hot Air was among the first to notice this bombshell, and he helpfully links to 18 USC 793, which prescribes punishment of up to 10 years in prison, a fine (or both) for anyone who "causes [it] to be communicated, delivered or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it on demand to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it;

(or)


(1) through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, or
(2) having knowledge that the same has been illegally removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of its trust, or lost, or stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, and fails to make prompt report of such loss, theft, abstraction, or destruction to his superior officer

Over at Townhall.com, Guy Benson offers another important reminder: Mrs. Clinton has claimed that she didn't realize information sent over her home brew e-mail server was classified because it lacked the proper security markings (emphasis ours).  Yet, we now have HRC on record, telling aides to strip classification markings so material could be sent over a nonsecure fax machine.

In response, a State Department spokesman says its unclear whether the referenced document was ever sent.  But that argument is specious, at best.  Clinton's reply suggests the document was very important and she expected it to be transmitted, even if it meant violating a host of security regulations.  And, given the exchange between Mrs. Clinton and Sullivan (who now works as a top foreign policy adviser for her campaign), there is no doubt the material was highly secret at that moment back in 2011.  "Born classified," as they say in the trade.

Just before this latest revelation, former Washington D.C. U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova predicted that Mrs. Clinton will be indicted.  As he told Laura Ingraham on her radio show:

"The [FBI] has so much information about criminal conduct by her and her staff that there is no way that they walk away from this,” diGenova said. “They are going to make a recommendation that people be charged and then Loretta Lynch is going to have the decision of a lifetime.

“I believe that the evidence that the FBI is compiling will be so compelling that, unless [Lynch] agrees to the charges, there will be a massive revolt inside the FBI, which she will not be able to survive as an attorney general. It will be like Watergate. It will be unbelievable.”

A Congressional aide involved in the Clinton investigation told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the "sheer volume" of classified e-mails is critical.  As someone who handled the nation's secrets for years, "at some point the law says you are responsible for recognizing classified material when you see it. That gets to the negligence issue,” the source said.

To be fair, an indictment of Mrs. Clinton is hardly assured.  But the scandal is far from over, and it will clearly haunt her on the campaign trail.
***
ADDENDUM:  For those keeping score at home, the number of classified Hillary e-mails now totals more than 1,000.  And if you're wondering about that term "non paper," it's a reference to "anything that is not attributable to the U.S. government, based on what appears on the page."  

But wait, there's more: writing in the New York Observer, Dr. John Schindler notes that another Hillary e-mail in the batch seems to contain highly classified information.  The material is found in a message from Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal.  As Schindler (a former NSA analyst) observes, the assessment follows the same format and caveats used in SIGINT reporting, raising serious questions as to how Mr. Blumenthal might have acquired such information, which was passed to HRC through her unclassified e-mail system.     
 

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Bigger Bang Theory

Almost 24 hours after North Korea's latest nuclear test, there is still squabbling and debate over exactly what transpired.  Pyongyang insists it detonated a hydrogen bomb in an underground cavern at the Punggye-ri Test Facility, in the northeastern corner of the DPRK, not far from the Sea of Japan.  But experts in the U.S. and other western countries expressed doubt, saying the explosion detected wasn't powerful enough to be an H-bomb.

Of course, the back-and-forth is (at this point) little more than a semantics-and-science debate.  Even if Kim Jong-un's regime didn't test a fusion weapon, they did manage to thumb their nose at the world community by conducting yet another nuclear test, with a weapon that is more advanced than previous models.

And there were clear indications that something was about to happen, at least from a rhetorical perspective.  Last month, Kim claimed that North Korea had become a "powerful nuclear weapons state," ready to detonate a "self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb."  That remark brought a few chuckles among arms experts; Pyongyang's three previous nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013, had been low-yield affairs, demonstrating only a fraction of the power of the U.S. bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945.  That particular weapon had a yield of 12-15 kilotons.  By comparison, the estimated yield of North Korea's first nuclear test was roughly .5 KT; their 2009 blast had a force of 6 KT, while the 2013 and 2015 weapons had a projected yield of 4 KT.

Had Pyongyang actually tested a true fission weapon, the blast would have been much larger.  For example, the warheads on a Minuteman III ICBM deliver a yield of at least 330 KT; the larger weapons on a Trident D-5 SLBM have an explosive force equivalent to one million tons of TNT (1 megaton).  But even that pales in comparison to one of the largest nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, the warhead mounted on the long-retired Titan II ICBM.  That particular weapon had a yield of 10 MT.  Russia, which had accuracy problems with its early delivery platforms, had fusion weapons that were even larger.

Some analysts believe yesterday's test in North Korea may have involved a "boosted" weapon--a design that utilizes a brief fusion reaction to increase the power of a fission-based weapon.  If that scenario is confirmed, it would indicate that Pyongyang has the ability to produce more sophisticated bombs, and is on the path to producing a true H-bomb, which would be far more powerful than anything currently in the DPRK arsenal.

But even a "boosted" device gives reason for pause.  In a commentary for CNN last month, Bruce Bennett of RAND noted that a boosted weapon with a 50KT yield could kill as many as 250,000 people, if detonated over a densely-populated urban area like Seoul.  That potential death toll is roughly equal to 2.5% of the city 's population, and Pyongyang would likely use "several" nuclear weapons against the South Korean capital.

As scientists try to discern the type of weapon detonated in the most recent DPRK test, there are whispers that our intelligence community was scrambling to collect against the event.  CBS's David Martin, reporting from the Pentagon, said defense officials believed a North Korean test would happen in the near future, but "had no clue" it would happen today. 

Sputnik News, citing Japanese press reports, claims a USAF RC-135V "Rivet Joint" reconnaissance aircraft launched from Kadena AB, Okinawa around 10:30 am this morning (local time), just minutes before North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test.But Rivet Joint is an odd choice to monitor a nuclear detonation.  If the US intelligence community believes such a test is imminent, the Air Force normally deploys a WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft, which has the ability to collect and analyze nuclear material that enters the atmosphere, even after an underground blast. 

For a Korea mission, Constant Phoenix also operates from Kadena.  So far, there has been no report of that aircraft staging from the base on Okinawa, or any other U.S. airbase in the Far East.The RC-135V, which routinely operates from Kadena, is a SIGINT platform and would be very helpful in collecting ELINT and communications data associated with the test.  However, it lacks the ability to collect nuclear signatures which would be essential in determining the type of weapon detonated and its yield. 

Additionally, if the Rivet Joint's mission was to monitor DPRK emitters and comms during the test window, it would have probably launched earlier, not 10 minutes before the blast.  The take-off time for the RC-135 was probably unrelated to the nuclear test, another indication we were surprised by the blast.

Thursday afternoon, a Pentagon official told NBC News that a "drone" was used to collect nuclear material over the Sea of Japan following the test.  That is likely a reference to a pair of USAF Global Hawk UAVs, which have been deployed to Misawa AB, Japan since May of 2014.  When the deployment was announced, American officials listed nuclear monitoring as one of their primary missions.  That detachment concluded its operations and redeployed to the U.S. in the fall of 2014.

According to an Air Force media release, the Global Hawks returned to Misawa in May of last year, starting a deployment that was supposed to last through December.  US officials have not said how long the high-altitude UAV was on station at the time of the test, although the RQ-4 can remain aloft for days at a time.

The run-up to the latest NK nuclear test was also interesting from another perspective.  In the past, intelligence sources have often leaked word of detected preparations, to let Pyongyang know that the U.S. is aware of its activities.  This time, there were no stories in The New York Times or Washington Post about a pending test, suggesting that American officials decided to remain quiet, or they weren't convinced that Kim Jong un would soon detonate another nuke.  If that latter scenario proves true, it might indicate that North Korea has developed improved denial and deception  (D&D) techniques that help mask test preparations.  The DPRK retains one of the most extensive--and sophisticated--deception programs in the world.

In response, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and China have all condemned the test.  But such protests carry little weight in North Korea.  Once again, Kim Jong un has succeeded in shifting the world's attention to the hermit kingdom, a sure indicator that he wants something--perhaps a better nuclear "deal" like the once recently concluded between Washington and Iran.

As with recent developments in the Persian Gulf, the latest provocation from Pyongyang raises the specter of another, regional nuclear arms race.  With U.S. power receding on the world stage, there is quiet talk in Seoul, Tokyo and even Taipei about acquiring an "independent" nuclear force to deter North Korea's small, but growing, arsenal.   Given the industrial, technological and financial resources possessed by those three nations, a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia could unfold extraordinarily fast, and with grave ramifications for all concerned.                           

     

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Gulf Boils Over

These are perilous times in the Persian Gulf.

The region has largely been in free-fall since U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011.  Without the stability--and influence--that result from an American military presence, long-simmering ethnic and sectarian issues have moved back to the forefront, leading to increased Iranian influence in Iraq; abandonment of the Shia-led government by Sunni tribes in western provinces, and more recently, the rise of ISIS.

And if that's not bad enough, there's the twin catastrophe of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal.  Not only did the Obama Administration put Tehran on the glide slope for the nuclear club, they also agreed to release an estimated $150 billion in Iranian assets, long-frozen for the mullah's support of terrorism and other misdeeds.  So, not only is Iran an inevitable nuclear power, they will soon be flush with cash to expand their ballistic missile program, support Hezbollah (and other terrorist groups), or fund covert nuclear efforts.

The Iranians are clearly feeling their oats, and not about to back down anytime soon.  Last October, Tehran test-fired a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 1929.  Not that Iran was particularly worried; in response the White House said it might "consider additional steps," which is diplo-speak for "don't worry, we won't do anything."  Earlier today--almost three months after the test--the Obama Administration refused to explain why it is delaying new sanctions over the violation

Tehran's latest act of military aggression came at year's end.   As the USS Harry Truman transited the Strait of Hormuz, Iran suddenly announced plans for a live-fire exercise, launching rockets that landed within 1,500 yards of the American carrier.  The Pentagon did not reveal the incident until 30 December, after the Truman had returned to the Arabia Sea.  U.S. officials described the episode as "highly provocative."  There was no threat of retaliatory action, despite the obvious threat to the carrier, other military vessels, and commercial ships in the area.

Fresh from that propaganda victory, Tehran set its sights on regional adversaries.  When Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, it touched off immediate protests in Iran. Demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital and set it afire.  Representatives of the United Arab Emirates negotiated for the evacuation of Saudi diplomats and support staff from Iran, possibly preventing them from being taken prisoner.

In response, Riyadh has cut diplomatic ties with Tehran and suspended commercial flights between the two countries.  Neighboring Bahrain announced similar moves and the UAE said it was "downgrading" relations with Tehran.  Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced that Saudi Arabia would face "repercussions" for the cleric's execution.

It's worth noting that al-Nimr was not a particularly prominent cleric; indeed, key leaders of Saudi Arabia's Shia minority took steps to distance themselves from the firebrand.  Al-Nimr advocated overthrow of the kingdom's royal family, and outside assistance for the Shia population in Saudi Arabia's eastern provinces, a call security officials equated with an invitation for an Iranian invasion.  But it gave Iran a new opportunity to put new pressure on its main regional rival.

If you're looking for a common thread in all of this, it can be neatly summarized in the lack of American strategy and resolve in the Middle East.  President Obama's desire to reach the nuclear accord with Iran has not only emboldened Khamenei and the rest of Iran's theocracy, it has also raised doubts about our ability to support and protect allies in the region.  The lack of leadership from Washington is one reason that Saudi Arabia took the lead in military intervention against an Iranian-backed insurgency in Yemen.  While Mr. Obama is taking up his gun control crusade (again), the Persian Gulf is boiling over, and we clearly don't have a clue, let alone a plan.

And the road ahead looks even more ominous.  Iran's inevitable acquisition of nuclear weapons has left its neighbors looking at their own options--particularly as American power recedes further in the region.  Iranian nukes will be matched by Saudi Arabia and unlike Tehran, the kingdom won't spend decades developing their own.  As we noted a few months back, Riyadh was a silent partner in Pakistan's nuclear program, providing key financing with a promise that Islamabad would provide weapons to Saudi Arabia, in the event they were ever needed.

If that moment hasn't arrived, it's very, very close.  The Saudis already have intermediate missiles that can be easily modified to carry a nuclear warhead, and even with the current oil glut, they have the financial resources to acquire that technology quickly.  And it's quite likely the UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf States will follow suit.

We're on the verge of a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf--with more weapons in the hands of unstable governments (and limited restrictions on their employment) in the very near future.  If 2016 is shaping up as a scary year in that volatile region, it's hard to fathom what 2020 or 2025 may look like.

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In the interim, Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states perceive a clear U.S. tilt towards Iran, as noted by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin of Bloomberg. That perception will only accelerate the "go it alone trend" among our long-time allies, and generate more support for the "nuclear" option.