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.