Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Sea of Fire"

At some point in the upcoming presidential debates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will (again) square off on the issue of national security.  Recent polls indicate that security concerns--such as terrorism--rank low on the list of voter priorities, but that doesn't lessen their importance.

And you don't need to be a foreign policy wonk to understand why.  As he ambles toward the exit, Barack Obama is leaving a world in shambles.  His signature foreign policy achievement (the Iranian nuclear deal) has put the Islamic republic squarely on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, along with missiles capable of delivering those weapons to targets in Israel, Europe and eventually, the United States.

Elsewhere, Vladimir Putin is also on the march, considering more mischief in Ukraine, the Black Sea or the Baltics.  Beijing is openly challenging the U.S. in the South China Sea, expanding its network of man-man islands, many of which have been fortified.  Chinese leaders are even exploiting a personal rift between President Obama and his Filipino counterpart, cozying up to Manila which (until recently) was expressing grave concern about the PRC's expansionist policies.

And did we mention the war against ISIS is far from won? 

But in some respects, the most pressing security concerns can be found on the Korean peninsula.  Last week, Pyongyang conducted its fifth nuclear test and the most powerful since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.  Intelligence analysts put the blast in the 10 kiloton range, roughly twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. 

If that isn't troubling enough, the situation on the peninsula may get worse--possibly much worse.  According to the UK Sun, some experts believe the DPRK may have enough material for up to 20 nuclear weapons by the end of the year.  That would lend credence to Pyongyang's claims that it could conduct additional nuclear tests "at any time."

To be fair, such claims represent the upper range of North Korea's potential nuclear capabilities.  But it is clear that the Hermit Kingdom has made tremendous progress in its nuclear program; from the early tests that were only marginally successful almost a decade ago, Kim Jong-un's scientists and engineers have created a system that can produce multiple devices each year, demonstrating greater explosive power with each succeeding generation of weapons.  It is also likely that Pyongyang is making progress towards miniaturizing warheads, making it easier to fit them atop land and sea-based ballistic missiles, giving it more options for hitting targets in South Korea, Japan and beyond.

North Korea's heightened WMD activity has clearly caught the attention of its neighbors.  During a recent spate of DPRK missile tests, Japan threatened to shoot them down if they threatened its territory.  Tokyo has made such vows in the past, but as North Korea launches missiles into the Sea of Japan with greater frequency, those promises have taken on a new urgency.  The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has six destroyers equipped with the Aegis system and standard missiles designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.  Japan's Aegis destroyers have been regular participants in joint missile defense exercises with the U.S. Navy, and Tokyo plans to upgrade its Patriot land-based SAMs before 2020.  With over-lapping coverage, the Japanese are capable of engaging various types of North Korean missiles.  The question becomes: when does Tokyo finally determine the missile tests post a sufficient threat to pull the trigger?

The issue is even more critical for South Korea, which lies just across the 38th parallel from Kim Jong-un's growing nuclear and missile arsenals.  In the wake of last week's nuclear test, Seoul borrowed a page from the North Korean playbook and promised retaliatory strikes that would "erase" Pyongyang from the map, if the DPRK fired a nuclear missile at South Korea. 

Seoul also announced plans for "decapitation" strikes as a part of its response, aimed at eliminating Kim Jong-un and other senior North Korean officials.  While South Korea has a growing capability to conduct precision strikes, its ability to locate and eliminate North Korea's supreme leader is doubtful, at best.  Dictators have a knack for survival and resources that improve their odds of living to see another day.    

It's a lesson the U.S. learned during the first Gulf War, when we tried--and failed--to take out Saddam Hussein with a specially-planned decapitation mission.  An eight-inch artillery shell, modified to function as a laser-guided bomb, was flown non-stop from California to Saudi Arabia, where it was uploaded on an F-111 that would target a bunker where the Iraqi dictator was believed to be hiding.  Timing was so critical that the F-111 had already started its engines when the C-141 arrived with the weapon.  The pilot and WSO were literally briefed in the cockpit on employing the weapon, and they did their job--the artillery shell-turned-LGB burrowed deep into the ground worked as advertised, destroying the bunker. 

But there was only one problem.  Saddam had moved to another location before the strike occurred. With almost limitless intelligence and operational resources, the U.S. found it almost impossible to accurately pin-point the location of the most important target in Iraq.  South Korea would find it even more difficult to locate Kim Jong-un, who almost never announces his movements in advance, and has a vast network of underground facilities that offer protection from U.S. and ROK strikes.

Beyond plans to take out the North Korean dictator, it is very clear that Seoul is deeply concerned about its enemy's rapidly-expanding nuclear arsenal and is willing to consider "unusual" steps to counter the threat.  According to Ashai Shinbaum, the South Korean government approached the U.S. about "re-deploying" nuclear weapons to the peninsula, during bi-lateral talks conducted in May. A source familiar with the talks told the paper that ROK officials suggested an arrangement similar to those in western Europe, where NATO partners allow the U.S. to maintain nuclear weapons on their soil, at American-controlled installations.  The host nation helps provide security for the weapons and offers advice on potential employment, but the ultimate operational decision rests with the U.S.

It is difficult to underestimate the gravity of the South Korean offer.  The United States removed its nuclear weapons from the peninsula 25 years ago, and there was little consideration about a re-deployment--until the DPRK joined the nuclear club.  Officials familiar with the recent talks say the U.S. rejected Seoul's offer, fearing the reintroduction of nukes would further destabilize the region.

This may come as a surprise to members of the Obama national security team, but east Asia has devolved into a strategic mess during their watch.  North Korea's nuclear program has stoked new fears in South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan, raising whispers that some of those countries--perhaps all three--might develop their own nuclear weapons in response.  Further south, China's aggressive posturing in the South China Sea threatens trade routes used to carry trillions of dollars in raw materials and finished goods each year.  Outside of diplomatic rhetoric--and a slight increase in military patrols--there has been little response from Washington.

And that's a major reason regional tensions are boiling over from the Korean peninsula to the Malacca Strait.  With American leadership largely absent, hostile regime are aggressively pursuing their agendas.  Meanwhile, our allies feel betrayed and alone, forcing them to consider options that were unthinkable a few years ago.

That's why a debate moderator should ask Clinton and Trump if they would support a re-deployment of nuclear weapons to South Korea, along with our willingness to use WMD to protect our allies in the region.  It's a choice that will face the next president, perhaps very early in their administration. 

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Hillary's Unnoticed Revelation

Let's be charitable and say both presidential candidates were less-than-impressive during last night's Commander-in-Chief forum, which was broadcast by NBC and hosted by the Today's show's Matt Laurer.  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appeared separately, fielding questions about national security and foreign policy from Mr. Laurer and an audience comprised of military retirees and veterans.

There had to be moments when those in the audience--and at home--were asking themselves: is this the best we can do? (Or) is there another option?  Sadly, the answer to that one appears to be "no."  Anyone thinking of voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson might want to reconsider after his disastrous answer on the Syrian civil war during an interview on MSNBC this morning.  It will be Hillary versus Trump for the big prize in November; the Queen of Lies versus the King of Exaggeration.  Your choice between a candidate who promises more of the same, failed policies of the last eight years, or a national security novice who needs desperately to get up to speed on a host of critical issues.     

Mrs. Clinton appeared first on the forum and right out of the gate, Laurer began pressing her on the e-mail issue.  Her body language and tone suggested Clinton was angry at Mr. Laurer for mentioning the scandal.  But she tried to muddle through, repeating the tired excuse that none of the classified messages sent or received on her "home brew" server had security "headers" at the top of the page, or paragraph markings identifying the highest classification of material.

What a crock.  While some systems automatically generate a header and declassification instructions for e-mails or reports produced at the classified level, most of the markings are created by the originator.  It's their responsibility to determine the overall classification level of the document and its  various sections and mark it appropriately.  Additionally, U.S. government security regulations make it very clear: individuals with access to classified should recognize and protect that information--even in the absence of security markings--and immediately report any violations to the appropriate authorities. By that standard, Hillary and her staff failed miserably, and contrary to James Comey's "assessment," they clearly broke the law.

But there was also a new revelation from Mrs. Clinton last night.  In her response to a question from Jon Lester, a retired Naval Flight Officer, the former Secretary of State claimed that she also used secure systems to discuss classified material:

I communicated about classified material on a wholly separate system. I took it very seriously. When I traveled, I went into one of those little tents that I’m sure you’ve seen around the world because we didn’t want there to be any potential for someone to have embedded a camera to try to see whatever it is that I was seeing that was designated, marked, and headed as classified.     

Lieutenant Lester wasn't allowed a follow-up and Mr. Laurer didn't seem interested in pursuing the matter, but the answer was an eye-opener for anyone who's ever held a TS/SCI clearance.  Mrs. Clinton's referral to a "wholly separate system" was an apparent reference to the classified intranets used by DoD, the intelligence community and the State Department to share extremely sensitive material.  The systems have been renamed in recent years, but they are widely known by their original designations, SIPRNET, which handles information up to and including the SECRET level, and JWICS, for material up to and including TOP SECRET/SCI level.  

Clinton's answer suggests she was viewing material or one or both networks.  Her access to SIPRNET and JWICS also suggests she had accounts on both systems, which is standard practice for anyone with that level of clearance and the need-to-know.  And did we mention that access to those systems also comes with an e-mail account?   

Mrs. Clinton's admission invites an entirely new line of relevant questions which (to our knowledge) have not been discussed, either in Congressional testimony, or the FBI's "review" of her e-mail practices.  Here are just a few of the queries that demand immediate answers: 

(1) When she went into one of those "little tents" (apparent reference to a temporary Sensitive Compartmentalized Intelligence Facility, or SCIF), did the Secretary of State access SIPRNET, JWICS, or both?  

(2)  During those "communication" sessions, was she logged onto the network using her own account, or someone else's?  And if the account(s) belong to others, who were those individuals?  

(3)  Did Mrs. Clinton have her own SIPRNET and JWICS accounts, as anyone with her position should?  Did she have e-mail accounts on those networks?  

(4)  If she was accessing SIPRNET and JWICS for classified matters, why did she find it necessary to set up her own, unsecure network, and use that system to transmit extremely sensitive material, up to the TOP SECRET/SI-GAMMA level?  (The answer to that one is painfully clear)

(5)  Did any of Clinton's inner circle utilize SIPRNET, JWICS and e-mail accounts on those networks.  If so, what material did they review and how does that compare to what appeared on the unsecure system? (The classified material on the Clinton network was obviously lifted from SIPRNET and JWICS, but the question of how it migrated (file transfer, paraphrasing) has never been explained.  

(6)  How did Clinton factotum Sidney Blumenthal--out of government service for more than a decade--gain access to TS/SCI information, which he relayed to Mrs. Clinton in his intelligence "assessment" of the situation in Libya.  As John Schindler has noted in the New York Observer, Blumental's information is almost a verbatim copy of National Security Agency (NSA) assessment on the same matter.  Blumenthal's memo, sent to Clinton on her unsecure system, even duplicated the unique reporting format used by NSA.  As far as we know, Mr. Blumenthal is not under investigation for any security violations, and strangely enough, the FBI notes on the Clinton e-mail probe never mention the GAMMA material that found its way onto that infamous bathroom server.  Note: the official FBI probe found only one government e-mail account associated with Hillary Clinton, which was operated "on her behalf" and used to send routine, unclassified administrative messages to the State Department staff. 

While there's a steady drip of new information about e-mail gate almost every day, Mrs Clinton may not have to answer many questions about it.  Amazingly, the subject never came up during a hastily-scheduled presser this morning, just before Hillary flew to a campaign stop.  Congress is still looking at the matter, though it's doubtful anything will happen before the election, and FBI leadership considers the matter closed.  So, Clinton will try to keep avoiding the issue, right up until--and after--November 8th. 

As for Mr. Trump, last night was not his finest hour, underscoring the need for him to dig deeper (and solicit more advice) on issues relating to national security.  Defeating 16 opponents in the primary is quite a political feat, but it doesn't mean you're immediately qualified to be commander-in-chief.  We agree that judgment is an important quality for a a president, but without experience--or the willingness to surround yourself with advisers with the right expertise--presidents can make critical mistakes.  Mr. Trump also needs to re-think his mutual admiration society with Vladimir Putin; just hours before the forum, a Russian SU-27 fighter came dangerously close to a Navy P-8 patrol aircraft over the Black Sea.  Trading compliments will only encourage Russia's aggressive posturing against the west.  

Currently, Trump enjoys a solid lead among military personnel and veterans; most figure he can't be worse than the last eight years, while others reject Clinton for her criminal behavior.  As they contemplate a Flight 93 election, read this recent piece by someone who truly understands today's global environment and the hard choices that must be made by the next commander-in-chief.  Mattis 2016.  What might have been.       


Friday, August 26, 2016

What Might Have Been (Iran Edition)

For the second time in three days, there has been a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.  During today's incident, an American patrol craft fired three warning shots into the water after four Iranian boats harassed U.S. and Kuwaiti Navy vessels in the northern Persian Gulf. As CNN reports: 

"At one point, the Iranian boat came within 200 yards of one of the US Navy boats. When it failed to leave the area after the Navy had fired flares and had a radio conversation with the Iranian crew, the US officials said, tthree he USS Squall fired three warning shots. Following standard maritime procedures, the Navy fired the shots into the water to ensure the Iranians understood they needed to leave the immediate area."  

The episode came just two days after four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels staged a "high-speed intercept" of the guided missile destroyer USS Nitze in the Strait of Hormuz.  

American officials said two of the vessels slowed and turned away only after coming within 300 yards of the US guided-missile destroyer as it transited international waters near the Strait of Hormuz, and only after the destroyer had sent multiple visual and audio warnings.  In response, a senior IRGC naval officer said Iran will continue its close-quarters intercepts of American vessels, maneuvers deemed "unsafe" and "unprofessional" by the U.S. Navy.  

The most recent showdowns in the Gulf are merely the latest in a string of dangerous incidents involving Iranian military forces.  Last December, one of its vessels fired a rocket near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman; that was followed by the capture and brief detainment of 10 American sailors whose Riverine broke down during a transit from Kuwait to Bahrain and drifted into Iranian waters.  And just last month, one of Iran's naval craft sailed close to the USS New Orleans while the Commander of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, was on board.   
And, did we mention recent revelations that the Obama Administration paid a $400 million ransom to secure the release of four American hostages from Iran last year?  Or that more money is on the way, helping Tehran finance its own military modernization program, and fund terrorist proxies around the world. 

Then, there's the nuclear deal, which places Iran squarely on the path to developing those weapons.  Iran's partnership with North Korea will provide the expertise needed to extend the range of Tehran's ballistic missiles, so an Iranian ICBM--capable of a nuclear warhead to the CONUS--is a virtual certainty, and perhaps by the end of this decade.

Against that grim backdrop, it's a fair question to ask what might have been, particularly if the U.S. had pursued regime change as a priority in Iran.  And there were opportunities, most recently during the so-called "Green Revolution" in 2009.  After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his faction won the presidential election ("stole" is probably a better term), thousands of Iranians took to the streets, demanding change. 

The widespread unrest threatened to topple the Tehran regime, which responded brutally.  Between 800 and 3,000 protesters were killed in the street; hundreds more disappeared and were executed in Iranian prisons.  President Obama refused to lift a finger in support, claiming the demonstrators--which represented a broad cross-section of Iranian society--didn't represent "real change."  He never admitted publicly that the Iranian election was riddled with fraud, aimed at keeping Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in power.

Why was Obama so insistent on letting the Iranian revolution die on the vine?  We finally have some answers, thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon and his new book, The Iran Wars.  Eli Lake of Bloomberg devoted a recent column to Solomon's work and its revelations.  He affirms what many long suspected; Obama's obsession over reaching some sort of deal with Iran overruled any other considerations; he was quite willing to let the Green Revolution die on the vine, to preserve his then-secret overtures to Tehran.  As Mr. Lake writes:

It's worth contrasting Obama's response with how the U.S. has reacted to other democratic uprisings. The State Department, for example, ran a program in 2000 through the U.S. embassy in Hungary to train Serbian activists in nonviolent resistance against their dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic, too, accused his opposition of being pawns of the U.S. government. But in the end his people forced the dictator from power.

Similarly, when Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with popular protests in 2003 after rigged elections, George W. Bush dispatched James Baker to urge him to step down peacefully, which he did. Even the Obama administration provided diplomatic and moral support for popular uprisings in Egypt in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.

Iran though is a very different story. Obama from the beginning of his presidency tried to turn the country's ruling clerics from foes to friends. It was an obsession. And even though the president would impose severe sanctions on the country's economy at the end of his first term and beginning of his second, from the start of his presidency, Obama made it clear the U.S. did not seek regime change for Iran.  

And, as Mr. Solomon reveals, the president's over-arching desire to strike a deal with Iran influenced critical decisions in other areas.  It's the main reason he walked away from the infamous "red line" in Syria three years ago.  Iranian negotiators told their American counterparts the nuclear talks would end if the U.S. intervened against Syrian dictator--and Iran ally--Bashir Assad.  Obama blinked.  The President also took the unusual steps of ending U.S. programs that documented human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic and wrote letters to Iran's Supreme Leader, assuring him that the we had no plans to overthrow him.  

In the end, Obama got his badly-flawed nuclear deal--and a lot more.  Iran is more belligerent and aggressive than ever before, as evidenced by the recent naval encounters in the Gulf.  And the situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon.  Tehran got everything it wanted in the nuclear accord, and the return of long-frozen Iranian assets in the U.S. will provide a funding stream for new military hardware, the nuclear program and various terrorist allies.  

To be fair, there is no guarantee that American support would have guaranteed the success of the Green Revolution.  But as Mr. Lake writes, it was definitely worth a gamble.  Installing a new Iranian regime would have been a game-changer across the Middle East, likely resulting in a nuclear deal that effectively dismantled the Iranian program and eradicated the emerging threat.  The situation in places like Syria might have become more manageable and there's even the possibility that Tehran's support for groups like Hezbollah would fade.  Without that assistance, the group would become less of a threat to Israel and its stranglehold over Lebanon might decrease as well.  

Unfortunately, all of those scenarios are permanently banished to the realm of what "might have been," thanks to the obsessive and feckless behavior of Barack Obama.  Mr. Solomon's book is on our reading list, since he clearly breaks new ground in reporting one of the story's most important diplomatic stories.  One thing we're wondering about: what role did Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett play in all of this?  Ms. Jarrett, the president's closest confidante was born in Iran to American parents and, by some accounts, retains a certain affinity for the land where she grew up.  

Nothing wrong with that, but Jarrett seems to be an invisible hand in the diplomatic activity that pursued the nuclear deal to the exclusion of everything else.  One report indicates that Ms. Jarrett played an active role in secret talks with Iran before the public negotiations began.  Never mind that the presidential adviser has no real experience in diplomacy or national security matters.  But she does have Mr. Obama's ear, and some observers believe that Jarrett played a role in the departure of Ambassador Dennis Ross from the president's national security team early in his tenure.  Ross, a veteran Middle East hand, favored a much tougher approach in negotiations with Iran.  Needless to say, that didn't sit well with Mr. Obama or Ms. Jarrett. 

In the end, the president's singular focus on "winning over" Iran--encouraged by members of his inner circle--spelled doom for brave Iranians who rose up during the Green Revolution.  Some of them still languish in prison to this day.  Not surprisingly, the Obama administration isn't doing anything to help them, since we no longer track human rights abuses in Iran.                 



Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mr. Putin's New FOB

As we noted on Twitter (@natehale) earlier today, the difference between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama can be summed up rather succinctly.  Mr. Putin plays geo-political chess; President Obama is stuck on "Words With Friends."

Evidence of that analogy can be found in the Russian president's latest move, which took many observers by surprise.  In a matter of a few hours, Putin not only altered the balance of power in the Middle East, he also established a serious threat to one of our military trump cards--the ability of U.S. carrier battle groups to operate and project power in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Al-Masdar, the Israel-based Arabic news service, was among the first to report Mr. Putin's move: the deployment of TU-22M "Backfire" bombers to Hamadan Airbase in west-central Iran.  Photos published on Al-Masdar's website (and re-posted at revealed at least four Backfires at Hamadan, along with support aircraft.


Russian TU-22M "Backfire" bombers on the ramp at Hamadan Airbase, Iran, just hours before striking targets in Syria (Al-Masdar photos via  

And less than 24 hours after they arrived, the Russian bombers launched a highly-publicized strike against terrorist targets in Syria.  It marked the first time since the 1979 revolution that Iran has allowed a foreign power to conduct military operations from its territory.  From the U.K. Telegraph:

“Flying with full bomb loads from Iran’s Hamadan airbase, the aircraft carried out group attacks on Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra positions,” the ministry said. Jabhat al-Nusra is the former name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a powerful rebel jihadist group previously affiliated with al-Qaeda

Fighter escorts for the mission flew out of Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in western Syria. All aircraft returned to their respective bases after the mission, the ministry said.

Iranian officials confirmed that the country has offered Russia use of military infrastructure for its air campaign in Syria on Tuesday.


Tuesday’s mission is thought to be the first time Russian aircraft have flown missions from Iran since Moscow launched air strikes in Syria in September last year, and potentially marks a major expansion of Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, many media accounts focused on Hamadan's relative proximity to targets in Syria.  Operating from Iran, the TU-22Ms (and other Russian strike aircraft) can reach the battlefield sooner, carrying larger bomb loads and burning less fuel.  

But Mr. Putin has another reason for deploying bombers to a forward operating base in Iran--and it has nothing to do with Jabhat al-Nusra, or efforts to prop up Bashir Assad's regime.  Moscow's motive for sending the Backfires to Hamadan is also rooted in sending a message to the U.S., and specifically, our naval forces which patrol the Persian Gulf.  

For decades, our ability to project power in the region has been predicated (at least in part) on the Navy's ability to send carrier battle groups into the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.  The presence of a carrier helps ensure control of vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), used by supertankers carrying oil to markets in the Far East, Europe and even North America.  

The presence of TU-22Ms at Hamadan poses a new threat to those shipping lanes--and our ability to keep them open.  While the Backfire is an aging weapons system--it first entered operational service in the early 1970s--it remains a potent threat to naval vessels.  In fact, the Russians largely designed it as a "carrier killer," firing anti-ship missiles at long range.  The threat posed by the Backfire (and other Soviet-era bombers) was one of the key factors in development of the F-14 Tomcat and AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which were built to destroy enemy strike aircraft before they could launch against the carrier and its escorts.  

For a naval strike mission, the newest TU-22M (NATO reporting name Backfire C) carries up to nine missiles, three AS-4 "Kitchen," mounted internally or on wing pylons, or up to six AS-16 "Kickback," carried on a rotary launcher in the weapons bay.  The AS-4 first appeared in the early 1960s and remains in production today; newer variants have been updated with a datalink (to allow mid-course updates).  The Kitchen can carry either a nuclear or conventional warhead; it has a maximum range of 320 nautical miles.  

Like the AS-4, the Kickback was originally fitted with a nuclear warhead, and designed to blast through enemy defenses, allowing Russian bombers to reach their targets.  With a range of 160 NM, the Kickback was similar to the U.S. Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM), which was carried on our strategic bombers for decades.  The AS-16 follows a dive profile, climbing to 40,000 feet before plunging down on its target.  At least one variant of the missile is designed to target enemy ships, including aircraft carriers.  

Operating from Hamadan (or other bases in Iran), Russian TU-22s could target U.S. battle groups in the Persian Gulf while remaining over land, inside the coverage of S-300s and other advanced surface-to-air missile systems.  Moscow recently began delivering S-300 batteries to Iran and if they follow operational practices in Syria, the Russians could deploy their own SAMs near forward operating bases and integrate them with the host nation air defense network.  

To be fair, the U.S. Navy has a number of counter-measures to deal with Backfires and their missiles.  In addition to the F/A-18s on the carrier, there are interceptor missiles (SM-2/3) on Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers, along with short-range defensive systems (Sea Sparrow, CIWS) on virtually all vessels.  TU-22M deployments to Hamadan--or other Iranian bases--won't keep our carrier groups from sailing into the Persian Gulf, but it will be one more factor naval commanders must account for.  The same holds true for other American military assets in the region.  

Which brings us back to Mr. Putin, who understands a thing or two about geopolitics and power projection.  In the span of less than a year, he has established a military presence that threatens both the eastern Mediterranean (and the Suez Canal) along with the Persian Gulf.  Meanwhile, the reaction here at home has been troubling, to say the least.  President Obama and his minions keep telling us that Putin's strategy is doomed to fail--never mind the recent gains by Russian surrogates on the ground, and the return of Moscow's military presence in key regions.  There is no evidence Hillary Clinton would try a different approach in dealing with Putin.   

As for Donald Trump, he seems to favor giving Russia a free hand in the Middle East, as part of "better relations" with Moscow.  Such thinking is both naive and dangerous--no wonder Putin is on the march.  Leadership is on vacation in the U.S. and the former KGB Colonel is going keep rolling the dice; he has much to gain and virtually nothing to lose, both now and after election day.    


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cooking the Intel Books

You remember the refrain: "Bush lied, people died."  That phrase took on a life of its own following the invasion of Iraq; the "failure" to discover Saddam's alleged WMD arsenal, and allegations that intel assessments had been altered--if not actually fabricated--to support administration policies.

As a grand conspiracy, it had to be the greatest of all times.  Turns out that not only did U.S. intelligence believe that Saddam Hussein had resurrected his WMD program, so did the spooks in the UK, France, Germany, Russia and just about every other country with a credible intel service.  The problems, as later documented by independent review panels in the U.S. and Great Britain, was "group think" among intelligence experts who feared down-playing a potential threat in the post 9-11 world.  

It's a phenomenon I've experienced first-hand.  As a analyst, I know the perils of challenging the status quo or what the community refers to as the "consensus" about a particular situation  or threat.  Once the template is set, it takes very compelling evidence to change an assessment, particularly on something as important as an enemy's WMD capabilities and a potential decision to go to war.

Journalist Judith Miller, who would never be described as a member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," nicely summarized the issue--and its impact on policy decisions--in a piece written earlier this year:

"No, President Bush did not take America into a war because he was strong-armed by a neoconservative cabal. As President Bush himself famously asserted, he was the “decider.” And no, he didn’t go to war for oil. If we wanted Saddam’s oil, we could have bought it.

President’s Bush decision to go to war was based on the information that he and his team relied on -- information that was collected by the world’s top agents and analyzed by the world’s top analysts, including the intelligence agencies of France, Germany and Russia, countries whose leaders did not support going to war. But they all agreed on one thing -- Saddam had and was continuing to develop WMD.

Our intelligence professionals, and those of major European countries, overestimated Saddam’s capabilities. Mistakes like that filter through the system -- from the White House to Congress to journalists to the public. And those mistakes impact policy. But here’s the key thing to remember -- they were mistakes…not lies."

But what if intelligence estimates were "sexed-up" (borrowing the Brits' term) to support a favored narrative or policy option?  According to a House of Representatives Joint Task Force, that's exactly what happened at US Central Command (CENTCOM), after intel analysts filed a whistle-blower complaint, alleging that assessments were manipulated to "present an unduly positive outlook" on CENTCOM efforts to train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and combat ISIS.  

Appointed by the chairmen of three House committees (Armed Services, Intelligence and Oversight), the task force has released its interim conclusions on the matter.  And it's not a pretty picture; Congressional investigators found that changes in the command's intelligence directorate (J-2) "resulted in the production and dissemination of intelligence products that were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior, career analysts at CENTCOM."  

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  According to the report, the work environment in the J-2 began to deteriorate after the departure of CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and his senior intelligence leadership.  Mattis, a legend in the Marine Corps and one of the finest general officers of his generation, was forced out in Tampa in 2013, after running afoul of President Obama and his national security team.  

Mattis's replacement brought in a new J-2, Army Major General Steven Grove.  Under his leadership, the directorate established a new Analytic Review Team (ART) to improve the "quality and consistency" of products generated by analysts working in the command's Joint Intelligence Center (JIC).  According to investigators, the ART quickly grew from a single reviewer to a multi-member team, and resulted in slower production of intelligence assessments.  The analyst who filed the whistle-blower complaint alleged that the ART was used by senior intel leaders to exert more control over J-2 reporting and its contents.  Other analysts claimed the rationale for the ART was never fully explained and CENTCOM's previous, three-step review process provided a "more than adequate" quality control process.  

About the same time (summer of 2014), General Grove also created a "fusion center" within the J-2 to provide additional reporting that focused on ISIS and related issues.  Some analysts told investigators that it was "never clear" how JIC personnel would contribute to the new center; others claimed the fusion team actually became something of a dumping ground for intel specialists whose views disagreed with those of senior intelligence leaders.  

Analysts also stated that changes in the J-2s daily intel summary (or INTSUM) were also used by leadership to tighten control over assessments and their findings.  Additionally, the task force found that CENTCOM's intelligence directorate relied too heavily on operational reporting to "soften" their estimates, and (perhaps most damning), they discovered that the more "optimistic" assessments were not supported by estimates from other elements of the intel community. 

And, there was an unprecedented amount of "coordination" between the J-2 and officials at the top of the intel chain.  From the task force summary:

The CENTCOM Director of Intelligence or his deputy had, and continue to have, secure teleconferences with the Joint Staff Director of Intelligence and senior ODNI leaders—frequently including the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). These calls took place several times per week before daily intelligence briefings by the DNI to the President. Senior CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate leaders reported that neither the Director of the DIA nor other COCOM Directors of Intelligence have participated in these calls.

The frequency of these interactions could have provided CENTCOM leaders with outsized influence on the material presented to the President outside of formal coordination channels. These frequent interactions are at odds with the DNI James Clapper’s testimony to Congress that “intelligence assessments from CENTCOM…come to the national level only through the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In other words, Clapper was "consulting" with CENTCOM just before his daily brief to President Obama, but the information he received was never vetted against data from other agencies.  At best, that's sloppy, inexcusable tradecraft.  At worst, it's "cooked" intelligence, offering carefully-tailored analysis from a single source that fits a desired narrative.  Obviously, that the more "sunny" assessments from CENTCOM meshed nicely with administration claims of "progress" in the war against ISIS.  

This is intelligence malpractice of the first magnitude, and the analysts at Central Command were justified in filing a formal complaint.  Unfortunately, it looks like nothing will come of it, although the DoD Inspector General is continuing its own probe into the matter.  General Grove has moved on to a new assignment, and his civilian deputy (identified as a key participant in the analytic scheme) remains in place at CENTCOM.  And Jim Clapper is still gainfully employed as well.  

Many spooks, current and former, once had great respect for General Clapper, who enjoyed a brilliant career in the Air Force and later, won plaudits for his management of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) under President Bush.  But as DNI, he has been a tremendous disappointment.  He lied in testimony before Congress on NSA domestic collection efforts in 2013, and now, he's been caught in another fib about how military intelligence on ISIS reaches the highest levels of our government.  

But DNIs serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief and Clapper isn't going anywhere.  He has apparently mastered the fine art of telling his boss what he wants to hear, which speaks volumes about that "modified" analytic and production processes at CENTCOM, and the preferences of the man who is the ultimate consumer of that intelligence.                   

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Selective Outrage (Cyber Edition)

It's always fun to watch politicians and their flunkies try to spin a bad situation, and those tactics were clearly on display during Hillary Clinton's e-mail scandal.  Before receiving that "Stay Out of Jail" card from the FBI and Obama's Justice Department, Mrs. Clinton and her minions tried various arguments to excuse her illegal behavior, without too much success.  From the "grooveyard of forgotten favorites," as El Rushbo might say:

"Other secretaries of state did it (used private e-mail accounts for government business)."  There's a kernal of truth to that, with some important qualifiers: first, none ever utilized a private account on the industrial scale pioneered by Mrs. Clinton.  Additionally, her predecessors never sent the nation's most closely-guarded secrets on a personal system that lacked even basic security features, and none ever plotted to evade public disclosure and archiving laws by creating their own domain and server network.

"I never sent or received classified information."  This is another howler, since the defense is largely based on claims that information in the e-mails lacked classification markings.  Never mind that the lack of classification headers and paragraph markings is not an excuse for mishandling classified data or transmitting it improperly--or that Mrs. Clinton (in one message) directed aides to remove classification markings so sensitive material could be sent over an unclassified fax machine.  Hillary and her senior aides clearly chose to ignore (read: violate) security requirements, and the hits just keep on coming.  Friday, Vice News disclosed that Mrs. Clinton sent at least 22 Top Secret e-mails to senior aides in 2011 and 2012.  The messages are among those withheld from public release by the State Department, since they contain information that would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."

But not to worry, we were told.  There was no firm evidence that enemy hackers accessed her server system, and might have collected all the information stored there--including "missing" e-mails that were deleted by Clinton's aides and members of her legal team.  That claim has been refuted by a number of IT and counter-intelligence professionals, who note that foreign intel services are quite capable of accessing a system, collecting whatever they want and exiting--all without leaving a trace.

After down-playing the "foreign hacker" threat for months, the Democrats are now doing a 180, after Wikileaks began publishing thousands of e-mails pilfered from the DNC archives.  The first dump came on the eve of this week's Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and it revealed a number of interesting nuggets, including unassailable proof that party leaders worked actively to deny Bernie Sanders their presidential nomination.  That revelation forced party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to resign in disgrace, as e-mails detailed suggestions by Democrat officials to use anti-Semitic tactics against the Vermont Senator. 

There were also messages that revealed collusion between the DNC and the mainstream media.  One e-mail described a private meeting with a senior executive at NBC News and in another message, Ms. Wasserman Schultz told network anchor Chuck Todd that a critical line of coverage "had to stop."  Wikileaks also published an e-mail from a CNN producer who vowed to keep the focus on the Democrats and another from a Politico reporter, who sent his story to the DNC for review before submitting it to his editor.

To deflect attention away from the messages--and their damning content--the Democrats are playing the victim card (as only they can) and focusing on the hack.  Almost immediately, party officials blamed the Russians and there may be some evidence to support that accusation.  While Wikileaks denies any connection with Putin's intelligence services, many current and former western intel officials have long believed that the organization and its founder, Julian Assange, are little more than Russian cut-outs.  As John Schindler recently noted in the New York Observer, it's rather curious that Mr. Assange, currently holded up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London (to avoid rape charges in Sweden) has requested protection from the Russian FSB.   Assange also counseled American turncoat Edward Snowden to flee to Moscow after he released thousands of classified NSA documents.  Snowden remains in Russia to this day, with round-the-clock security from an FSB protective detail.

At this point, the Democrats' collective pucker factor must be at an all-time high.  If hackers tied to Russian intelligence made off with all of the DNC's secrets, it's a fair bet they have all of Hillary's e-mails as well.  Holding all the high cards, Mr. Putin has the luxury of choosing his options.  He can sanction the continued release of Democratic party e-mails and start adding missing messages from HRC's server as well, inflicting an ultimately fatal blow to her campaign.  Or, the Russian leader can offer to turn off the tap, in exchange for whatever he wants on the world stage.  Given Mrs. Clinton's past pliability in dealing with Moscow, it's easy to see her caving to any blackmail demands from the Kremlin.  Our allies in places like the Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere should be very, very nervous.

The notion of Mr. Putin using spycraft to influence our presidential election should be disquieting to all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation.  And, it's absolutely mind-boggling that GOP nominee Donald Trump is calling on the Russians to "locate" Hillary's missing e-mails and publish those as well.  While Mr. Trump has chummy relations with the Russian leader, he might also be concerned about what the GRU's 6th Directorate has retrieved from his computer networks.  Putin can easily use the same tactics against Trump, if the situation dictates.

It's also important to view the current hubbub through the lens of politics.  Fact is, the Democrats weren't overly concerned when Wikileaks was publishing secrets that made George W. Bush look bad, and they down-played serious security breaches at OMB (and other federal agencies) during Obama's time in office.  But now that their party--and presidential nominee--have been targeted, the Democrats are demanding an all-hands-on-deck effort to pinpoint the source of the hack and punish the offenders.  Good luck with that; the odds of us actually getting our hands on the hackers is pretty much non-existent. I'm sure Putin and his cronies are getting a good laugh out of spoiling Mrs. Clinton's coronation in Philadelphia, with the promise of more "fun" in the weeks ahead.

And one final thought, before giving too much sympathy to Hillary or the Democrats.  Lest we forget, the party's cyber woes began with HRC's attempts to circumvent the law (and potential scrutiny) with her infamous home-brew server network and e-mail domain.  It's quite possible the alleged Russian foray began penetration of her servers and led them on to the DNC.  Apparently, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz was presiding over a network that was only marginally more secure than Mrs. Clinton's.  Yet, she allowed staffers to conspire against Sanders in terms that are vile at best, racist at worst.  Of course, she never believed any of those e-mails would enter the public domain--just as Hillary thought she could get away with her on-line crimes.

Both were woefully mistaken.  And the worst is yet to come.                                

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ataturk's Last Stand (Today's Reading Assignment)

If you read just two articles this week, may we suggest this opinion piece from Fox News strategic analyst Ralph Peters, and the latest column from former NSA senior spook John Schindler?  Both offer important insight into the failed "coup" in Turkey, and what it means for Ankara and the West.

While we've had minor differences with Lt Col Peters in the past, his analysis of the abortive military revolt in Turkey is spot-on.  When the coup fizzled on the streets of Istanbul and other major Turkish cities, so did Ataturk's lasting vision of a modern, secular state firmly oriented towards Europe and western values.  As Peters writes: 

Friday night’s failed coup was Turkey’s last hope to stop the Islamization of its government and the degradation of its society.  Reflexively, Western leaders rushed to condemn a coup attempt they refused to understand. Their reward will be a toxic Islamist regime at the gates of Europe.
Our leaders no longer do their basic homework.The media relies on experts-by-Wikipedia. Except for PC platitudes, our schools ignore the world beyond our shores. Deluged with unreliable information, citizens succumb to the new superstitions of the digital age.

So a great country is destroyed by Islamist hardliners before our eyes—and our president praises its “democracy.”

That tragically failed coup was a forlorn hope, not an attempt to take over a country. Turkey is not a banana republic in which the military grasps the reins for its own profit.  For almost a century, the Turkish armed forces have been the guardians of the country’s secular constitution. Most recently, coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 (with “non-coup” pressure in 1997) saw the military intervene to prevent the country’s collapse.


So who is the man our own president rushed to support because he was “democratically elected?” Recep Tayyip Erdogan is openly Islamist and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which President Obama appears to believe represents the best hope for the Middle East. But the difference between ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one of purpose, but merely of manners:  Muslim Brothers wash the blood off their hands before they sit down to dinner with their dupes.

With barely a murmured “Tut-tut!” from Western leaders, Erdogan has dismantled Turkey’s secular constitution (which the military is duty-bound to protect).  His “democracy” resembles Putin’s, not ours.  Key opposition figures have been driven into exile or banned.  Opposition parties have been suppressed.  Recent elections have not been held so much as staged.  And Erdogan has torn the fresh scab from the Kurdish wound, fostering civil war in Turkey’s southeast for his own political advantage.

Erdogan has packed Turkey’s courts with Islamists.  He appointed pliant, pro-Islamist generals and admirals, while staging show trials of those of whom he wished to rid the country.  He has de facto, if not yet de jure, curtailed women’s freedoms.  He dissolved the wall between mosque and state (Friday night, he used mosques’ loudspeakers to call his supporters into the streets).  Not least, he had long allowed foreign fighters to transit Turkey to join ISIS and has aggressively backed other extremists whom he believed he could manage.

And if that weren't enough, there is ample evidence that Erdogan has allowed the purchase of ISIS oil by various Turkish middlemen, helping the terrorist army fund its operations.  At the same time, Turkey's leader tries to maintain his image as a loyal NATO ally, allowing U.S. aircraft to stage missions against ISIS targets from Incirlik Airbase.  It's a strategy roughly akin to that of Pakistan, which has played all sides of the war in Afghanistan, trying to advance its own agenda.  But Erdogan has played a much more active role than his counterparts in Islamabad, allowing foreign fighters, weapons and oil to flow across the border, clamping down only when it suits his interests, typically before a NATO summit, or when the Obama Administration offers a rare bit of criticism.  

Making matters worse, Erdogan has tacitly aided ISIS on the battlefield.  While Turkey is ostensibly committed to attacking the terrorists, much of Turkey's military activity in Syria has focused on targeted Kurdish militias who have been the most effective forces battling ISIS and the Assad regime.  But Erdogan fears a free Kurdish enclave in Syria more than the terrorists, so ISIS has received little attention from Turkish military forces. 

Which brings us back to Friday's "coup" and accelerated cleansing of Turkey's officer corps under Erdogan.  Since assuming power more than a decade ago, Mr. Erdogan has worked systematically to reduce the power of the Turkish General Staff, guarantors of a secular state for nearly a century.  The TGS leads the second-largest military in Europe, a force that has been extensively modernized over the last 25 years.  And, leaders of the armed have never been hesitant about seizing power to save Turkey from extremist elements; there have been three coups since 1970 and the military pressured the government into major changes in 1997.  As various analysts have noted, military coups have generally been a stabilizing influence for Turkey and that was the apparent motivation behind last week's revolt; the generals, admirals and lower-ranking officers who led the rebellion hoped to wrest control of the country from Erdogan and his Islamist factions.  

But it wasn't much of a coup.  As Dr. Schindler notes in the New York Observer, the plotters could only muster about a battalion worth of troops--not enough to take over a mid-sized village, let alone an entire country.  And the narrative grows even stranger as more details emerge; as Erdogan flew back to Ankara from vacation, F-16 pilots supporting the coup locked onto the Turkish president's jet multiple times, yet no one gave the order to open fire, reinforcing Rule #1 of a military takeover: you'd better be prepared to kill the king (or president) if you want to succeed.  Instead, Erdogan landed, and began suppressing the coup in earnest.  The last of the ringleaders wasn't arrested until Monday afternoon, but for all practical purposes, the revolt ended almost as soon as it began.  

The coup's stunning failure has prompted speculation that perhaps it was a false flag operation, staged by Erdogan and his supporters.  While there's no definitive proof to support that charge, it is very clear the Turkish president will make the most of this opportunity.  As of this writing, more than 25% of the nation's flag officers have been detained, along with more than 2,000 judges.  Even in a nation with a liberal view of interrogation techniques, you can't elicit that many confessions in less than 72 hours.  After the coup failed, Erdogan simply dusted off his enemies list and sent loyalist security forces to round them up.  Mr. Erdogan has already suggested that Turkey may restore the death penalty, so it's likely that many of the coup leaders will pay for their actions with their lives.   

Throughout the crisis, the Obama Administration has stood behind the Turkish president and his Islamist government.  To be fair, it is a difficult situation, with Ankara being a key NATO ally, sitting astride some of the world's most important real estate, and home to Incirlik Airbase, where USAF F-16s and A-10s fly daily missions against ISIS.  And did we mention that Incirlik is also home to an unspecified number of tactical nuclear weapons?  While some sources maintain the nukes were withdrawn years ago, the U.S. has spent millions to upgrade nuclear storage facilities at Incirlik in recent years, suggesting the weapons are still there, or may return in the near future.  A few hours after the coup, Erdogan ordered the cut-off of water and power to the base, to underscore his displeasure with Washington.  

Why is he mad at us?  A moderate imam named Fethullah G├╝len (who was once an Erdogan ally) fled the country during a previous purge and now lives in Pennsylvania.  Mr. Erdogan describes him as the "spiritual leader" of the rebellion and is demanding his extradition.  Not surprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. government is willing to listen to Ankara's demands.

What comes next?  Erdogan has promised a "thorough cleansing" of the "virus" infecting his country, meaning that the military, judiciary and other bastions of opposition will be completely purged.  The Turkish military will lose thousands of competent officers to prison, execution or exile, further weakening the one institution that kept Turkey stable and oriented to the west.  Their departure, along with other Kemalists will leave the "sick man of Europe" that much weaker and push it further into the Islamist orbit.  Dark days lie ahead for Turkey, but our leaders are too busy cheering on Erdogan to notice.  And we will pay for that folly.