Saturday, April 27, 2013

National Security Fraud?

Over at National Review online, Andrew McCarthy has an superb piece on a bit of fraud being perpetuated on the American people by the Obama Administration.  And no, he's not talking about the gun-control crusade or the green energy jobs scam.  Mr. McCarthy is referring to the administration's "investigation" of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  As he describes it, recent revelations about additional plots are little more than distractions, aimed at diverting public attention away from the government's handling of the case:

Unlike you, federal government officials are immune from charges of fraud. The executive branch, vested with all of the government’s prosecutorial authority and discretion, is not going to investigate its own operatives for carrying out its own mendacious policies.

That is the story of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing and the frantic efforts of the bombers, the brothers Tsarnaev, to evade capture, shoot it out with police (one of whom they killed, and another of whom they wounded), and — we’re now told — detonate more bombs in Times Square.

The Times Square non-attack is quite interesting. The specter of it, projected in the immediate wake of the Marathon murders and maimings, is horrific . . . so horrific that the government, in leaking this tidbit from its botched interrogation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, knew that news media were certain to lead their broadcasts with it. The press would never wonder why they, and thus we, were being told about it.    

Mind you, there is nothing inappropriate about government officials’ speaking about matters on thepublic record — such as the allegations lodged in criminal complaints. But the Times Square non-attack is not mentioned in the complaint filed against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In fact, the complaint includes no information from Tsarnaev’s interrogation.

Yet somehow the airwaves are now full of startling revelations from his Miranda-aborted 16-hour post-arrest interview, including not least his confession, and, of course, his assurance, as Allah is his witness, that no one other than he and his Svengali older brother — and certainly no foreign Islamic terrorist organization — had anything to do with their terror spree.

And the reason for these machinations?  According to Mr. McCarthy--a former federal prosecutor who won convictions against jihadists in the 1993 World Trade Center attack--the Obama Administration is desperate to convince the public (and its friends in the media) that Islamic terror threats can be handled through the criminal justice system.  No need to classify the younger Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant and use intelligence interrogation methods to extract information from him.  Just read him his Miranda rights and let him stop talking--on the advice of counsel, naturally.

In his piece, McCarthy thoroughly obliterates the various arguments accompanying Team Obama's handling of the case.  For starters, he notes that the "public safety exception" that allows a slight delay in Mirandizing a suspect does not grant 48 hours of free-wheeling interrogation.  In fact, the countdown to reading a defendant his rights begins as soon as he is rendered defenseless.  So, FBI agents and intelligence operatives had a very narrow window for interrogating Dzhokhar, and it began when he climbed out of that boat in suburban Boston.  

Secondly, Mr. McCarthy observes that it was President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder who triggered the rush to Mirandize the terror suspect.  Representatives from the U.S. Attorneys office in Boston rushed into federal court last Sunday night to file charges against Dzhokhar.  That begs a rather obvious question--why?--but it also mandated that Tsarnaev be informed of his rights.  When that federal magistrate arrived at Dzhokhar's hospital room, she was merely concluding a chain of events put into motion at the highest levels of American government.  

But the most telling bit of deception may be found in the third "rationale" offered by the Obama Administration, namely that we had gained all of the vital intelligence from Dzhokhar by the time that magistrate advised him of his constitutional rights.   

In fact, it seems rather obvious that the government is managing the entire affair to fit a certain template: the Tsarnaev brothers acted on their own; they became radicalized here in the United States, and there is no evidence of a wider conspiracy involving terrorist elements in their native Chechnya.  

So far, that effort has produced only mixed results.  While the fawning U.S. press corps is ready to report any disclosure from the administration--even those meant to mislead and distract--certain inconvenient facts keep popping up.  First of all, there are the warnings we received about Tamerlan Tsarnaev from Russian security services more than two years ago.  We have subsequently learned that the Russians notified their FBI and CIA counterparts about Tamerlan's radical activities on at least two different occasions.  FBI agents even interviewed the over Tsarnaev brother, at Moscow's request, but found nothing to suggest he had become radicalized or posed a security threat.  

Apparently, the feds never bothered to look at his social media postings, which included an assortment of jihadist videos and comments suggesting an affinity for Al Qaida.  There have also been reports that Russian security officers witnessed Tamerlan in contact with suspected terrorists on six different occasions during an extended visit to Dagestan last year.  It is unclear if that information was shared with American intelligence and the FBI and we've learned more recently that the Russians monitored phone conversations where Tamerlan vaguely discussed jihad with his mother.  They also recorded her conversations with another man in southern Russia, who is now under investigation by U.S. authorities.   Unfortunately, Moscow didn't pass along the results of its wiretaps until this week. 

That raises a very disturbing question that may explain some of the legal chicanery now on display.  Why didn't the U.S.'s vast signals intelligence (SIGINT) network detect these same calls?  The National Security Agency (NSA) doesn't rely on the Russians to monitor communications between Muslim terrorists operating in the Caucasus regions.  With its global resources, NSA and its partners are quite capable of handling the task, but there has been no confirmation that our communications intelligence (COMINT) detected these calls, let alone reported them.  

If that was the case, then the Tsarnaev case represents a major intelligence failure.  True, some calls are missed, and others are never isolated among the flood of communications intercepted by NSA each day.  But the western SIGINT community has been much more proficient at capturing, translating and analyzing terror-related communications in recent years; in fact, many of our counter-terrorism successes began with intercepted phone calls or e-mails that sent other intel operatives (and law enforcement) in the right direction.  

Based on the limited information that keeps trickling out, it seems increasingly likely that the Tsarnaev brothers were foot soldiers in a wider terrorist conspiracy, one that was probably rooted in Chechnya and Dagestan.  Putting the plan into motion required some sort of communication between Tamerlan and his handlers, but there is no record (so far) of phone calls, e-mails or other contacts that were intercepted by western intelligence.  That could indicate that the terrorists found some way to beat U.S. surveillance.  If that actually happened, the potential repercussions are positively frightening.  

On the other hand, there is the equally disturbing scenario that a probe of the Tsarnaev brothers was undone by bureaucratic bungling and political correctness.  Given Tamerlan's status as a permanent resident alien, any extended monitoring of his communications would have required a FISA warrant at some point.  Yet, there is no record the Obama Justice Department ever sought such approval, despite persistent warnings from the Russians.  Once again, the salient question is why? Did we ever pursue a FISA-approved wiretap against the Tsarnaevs and if we did, why did the bomb plot go undetected?  Or did someone at DOJ decide to give the matter a pass, fearing cries of profiling and discrimination if the surveillance effort was ever disclosed? 

If either of these explanations proves correct, then a lot of folks in the intel community and at DOJ need to be fired.  But then again, we've never been very good at holding individuals accountable, no how badly they screw up.  Not a single intel official was dismissed after 9-11, and high-level administration officials have been immune in such scandals as Fast and Furious.  

If the Boston bombings case follows a similar pattern, the future chain of events will go something                                                   
like this.  There will be a few more articles bemoaning the FBI's inability to complete its interrogation of Dzhokhar, followed by defense team leaks about prosecutors refusing to discuss a potential plea deal.  The case will eventually fade from public view until the day that Dzhokhar is scheduled to face trial.  Amid all the media speculation about defense strategies, government evidence and courthouse security, the actual trial will prove anti-climactic.  As the trial gets underway, the defendant will enter into a plea deal that spares his life--and prevents the feds from having to divulge the screw-ups that led to the terror attack--and the subsequent political maneuvering that denied the collection of needed intelligence.   

Dzhokhar will eventually emerge from federal prison in his early 50s, after completing a 30-year "life" sentence.  By that time, the masterminds of the legal fraud that Andy McCarthy describes will be dead, and their reputations firmly secured.   At that point, no one will really care about the claims of a former terrorist, convicted in a case that happened four decades earlier.  Call it the Benghazi template.  Seven months after terrorists murdered four Americans at our consulate in that Libyan city, that scandal has been apparently sealed off, behind a wall of official silence.  A similar veil is now descending on Boston, but no one seems to notice.  
ADDENDUM:  In the past 24 hours, two respected figures in the national security establishment, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and Representative Mike McCaul, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, have suggested that others were involved in the marathon bombings.      

Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Mr. McCaul  said he believes the Tsarnaev were "trained" to carry out the attack, and their mother played a key role in their radicalization.  McCaul said that assessment is based (in part) on the sophistication of their pressure cooker bombs.  In a separate interview with the network, Mr. Mukasey offered similar thoughts saying the belief the bombers followed instructions from the internet "doesn't do it" for him.  He also suggested that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could still be questioned for intelligence purposes and that information could be "kept separate" from criminal proceedings.  

Excellent idea, but the odds of that happening are approximately zero.  Just ask President Obama, or Eric Holder.        

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Chechen Connection

As law enforcement captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Friday night, some rather grim realities began to take hold.

First, for all those who cautioned against a "rush to judgment" (i.e., the terrorists might not be Muslim), here's the ugly truth.  The younger Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan--who died after a shootout with police early today--were apparently influenced by radical Islam.  Tamerlan made several on-line references to Feiz Mohammad, the Australian-born cleric who actively encouraged children to become "soldiers for Islam," and said "there is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a muhajid."

Additionally, the older Tsarnaev brother posted links to "The Black Flags of Khorasan" at his YouTube account.  While that doesn't make him an Al Qaida operative, it suggests he was sympathetic to its ideology--and mythology.  More from Thomas Joscelyn in The Weekly Standard, and Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal:

The Khorasan is a region that encompasses large areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. The Khorasan is considered by jihadis to be the place where they will inflict the first defeat against their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon. The final battle is to take place in the Levant - Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Mentions of the Khorasan have begun to increase in al Qaeda's propaganda. After al Qaeda's defeat in Iraq, the group began shifting its rhetoric from promoting Iraq as the central front in their jihad and have placed the focus on the Khorasan.

Secondly, there may well be an international component to the Boston attacks.  It was quickly revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers are natives of Chechnya, the breakaway former Russian republic that has become a key breeding ground for Islamic terrorists.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Chechen fighters have traveled to places like Iraq and Afghanistan where they have fought--and killed--U.S. troops.  Veterans of U.S. special forces and the CIA's covert and paramilitary branches will tell you the Chechens are among the most vicious (and dangerous) of all the jihadis.  

If you need more proof, look no further than their "signature" operations, the 2002 Moscow theater bombing, or the Beslan school massacre that followed two years later.  Western media coverage focused largely on the heavy-handed tactics of Russian security forces, while underplaying the savagery of Chechen terrorists.  During the siege at Beslan, the Chechens carefully selected dozens of Russian girls, who were gang-raped and sodomized in front of their parents and teachers.  But their cruelty didn't stop there:

Along with causing paralyzing fear, the terrorists had an ally in the weather. It was extremely hot outside, but the school had no working air conditioner. As the heat raged, the hostages begged for water, and at first, some was given. Time crept on, and the terrorists became increasingly cruel. They drank in front of the hostages and mocked the children who were crying out for water. Things got so bad that the victims were forced to drink their own urine. In some cases, the hostages poured urine over one another in a feeble attempt to keep cool. Seeing the suffering enhanced the joy of the perpetrators. In a twisted, ghoulish game, the terrorists put water in front of the children who were desperately thirsty and told them if they reached for the water, they would be killed.

It is this particularly sadistic and virulent strain of jihad that gave us the brothers Tsarnaev.  And while it is possible they became self-radicalized, there are hints that the Boston terrorists had outside help.  In the aftermath of last night's shootout, police found "military-grade" explosives along the route used by the Tsarnaevs as they attempted to flee.  Presumably, a Golden Gloves boxer and a pre-med student would have some difficulty acquiring those materials on their own.  On the other hand, Chechen terrorists have large stockpiles of explosives; it would simply be a matter of smuggling them to their operatives in Boston.  

Experts also note that a "new" terror operative would need some instruction and practice in building pressure cooker bombs, like the ones detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Tamerlan Tsarnaev might have acquired the necessary expertise during a six-month visit to Russia last year.  Tamerlan's itinerary during that extended trip has not been fully confirmed, but there might have been opportunities to visit one of the Chechen/Al Qaida training camps that still operate in Russia's Caucasus region.  

There are also disturbing hints that at least one of the Tsarnaev brothers was a concern for intelligence and security officials.  Earlier today, a Congressional source told FNC's Bret Baier that Tamerlan was "on the FBI's radar" before the Patriot Day attacks.  CBS's John Miller added more details on his network's evening newscast.  Law enforcement officials tell Miller that a foreign security service (read: Russia) had become concerned about Tamerlan Tsarnaev's possible radicalization.  The foreign agency asked the FBI to check into his activities.  

According to Mr. Miller, the feds ran Tamerlan against their existing databases and even interviewed him, but they developed no information that suggested he was a terror threat.  The information was summarized in a report provided to the foreign security service and (apparently) the matter was closed.  So far, there have been no reports of additional FBI surveillance of the Tsarnaevs since the report was delivered.  The FBI inquiry reportedly occurred in 2010, two years before his extended visit to Russia.  But there is no evidence (yet) that either Tsarnaev brother was even on a watch list before the Patriot Day bombing.

Finally, there is a growing concern among intelligence and security officials that Boston may represent "the new normal" in domestic terrorist threats.  Peter Brookes of The Heritage Foundation made that point in an interview on Fox News this afternoon, articulating what has worried many of us for a long, long time.  

Simply stated, the Boston attack incorporated tactics and techniques that are easy to use, and more difficult to defeat.  The Tsarnaevs had been in America for more than a decade, giving them plenty of time to integrate themselves into the fabric of society.  In fact, Dzhohkar became a U.S. citizen on September 11th of last year.  As ethnic Chechens, they blended more easily into American crowds and were less likely to attract suspicion as they went about their deadly business.   

As for the bombs, they are easy enough to assemble and employ, assuming that Tamerlan acquired the needed skill during his visit to Russia last year. That process could be facilitated by other operations or support cells that could be easily be present on American soil.  It's worth noting--again--that the marathon bombings were not suicide attacks.  The Tsarnaevs (and their handlers) clearly had other targets in mind, and there is the disturbing possibility that other cells may be waiting for orders to attack.

True, attacks like the one in Boston pale in comparison to events on 9-11, or the slaughter at Beslan.  But consider this: a single terrorist on the lam shut down a major metropolitan area for a day, at a cost of millions in lost wages and commerce.  Now, imagine the impact of a series of suicide bombings, occurring simultaneously in multiple American cities.  Such a scenario is quite plausible, and may represent the "new" terror threat we face in the United States.  While preparing for that challenge, we must also demand answers to other critical questions, namely, why do we still tolerate an immigration system that allows scores of dangerous individuals to enter and remain in this country, and why were obvious warning signs missed once again?                    




Monday, April 08, 2013

Closer to the Brink

Spent most of the past week traveling on business, but between planes, driving and appointments, I kept watching developments on the Korean Peninsula.  Simply stated, tensions in the region are at their highest since the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, or the shootdown of a U.S. Navy EC-121 "Warning Star" aircraft fifteen months later.  In both cases, the United States opted against an armed military response, although the Pueblo incident resulted in a large-scale reinforcement of our air assets in Korea, and declassified documents indicate that President Nixon briefly considered a nuclear strike retaliation for the downing of the Navy reconnaissance aircraft.

This time around, our response has been much more measured, for a variety of reasons.  First, Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal has to be factored into the equation, despite its small size and questionable reliability.  There's also the matter of the DPRK's new leader, Kim Jong-un.   No one knows how far Kim will go in pressing his luck, though recent actions affirm that he's quite willing to push the peninsula to the brink of conflict--and perhaps beyond.  

In recent days, Kim Jong-un has deployed a Musudan intermediate range missile to North Korea's east coast, in preparation for an upcoming test.  With a range of up to 4,000 km, the Musudan (or BM-25) is capable of hitting U.S. military bases as far away as Guam.  According to The New York Times, South Korean intelligence analysts believe the test could come as early as Wednesday.  In anticipation of an expected launch, the U.S. has beefed up ballistic missile defenses in the Sea of Japan and on Guam.

But there may be limits to any American response.  In the past few hours, the Pentagon has announced plans to postpone a long-scheduled ICBM test from Vandenburg AFB in California, apparently to avoid sending the wrong signal to Pyongyang.  Never mind that such tests have been conducted regularly for the past four decades and the target area (Kwajalein Atoll) is thousands of miles from the Korean peninsual.   The Obama Administration has also been trotting out various officials and spokesmen, who claim the current round of sabre-rattling is nothing new.  Appearing on ABC's "This Week," Presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer said current events are "a pattern of behavior we've seen from the North Koreans many times."

Still, it's hard to remember a recent crisis on the peninsula that has lasted this long, or escalated to such dangerous levels.  In the past, DPRK nuclear or missile tests were often followed by a cooling off period, as Pyongyang tried to gauge reactions from the region and the United States.  And after that, North Korea officials would offer vague hints about a "deal" (usually involving food aid or a decrease in sanctions) that could repeat similar standoffs in the future.

But Kim Jong-un seems to be operating from a slightly different playbook.  Following nuclear and missile tests late last year, the North Korean leader has steadily ratcheted up tensions with a series of calculated moves, ranging from the "cancellation" of the 1953 armistice that ended the first Korean War, to the public signing of an order authorizing missile units to strike the U.S., and most recently, a warning to embassies that the safety of their personnel could not be guaranteed past 10 April, a date that may coincide with the expected Musudan missile test.

While publicly down-playing the potential threat, the U.S. is making military preparations to deal with various Korean scenarios.  Three American destroyers outfitted for ballistic missile defense are now patrolling the Sea of Japan, along with Japanese ships that have identical capabilities.  The Pentagon also announced plans to send a THAAD battery to Guam in the coming weeks, adding another layer of protection for Andersen Air Force Base and other key facilities on the island.  THAAD's arrival on Guam will mark the system's first operational deployment.

Perhaps the week's most interesting move occurred in China, where thousands of troops were mobilized along the border with North Korea.  Sixty years ago, the People's Liberation Army surged across the Yalu River to save Kim Il-Sung from defeat.  Virtually no one expects a similar scenario this time around; Beijing is said to be extremely "displeased" with North Korea's actions, but has done nothing to push its erst-while ally.  The recently observed deployments are probably aimed at preventing thousands of DPRK residents from seeking refuge in China, should war break out on the peninsula.  There have been mobilizations of this type in the past, but the large numbers of troops involved in the PRC drills suggests that China is quite concerned and believes armed conflict is a very distinct possibility.

How could the current situation digress into a shooting war?  At Foreign Policy on-line, Patrick Cronin offers a highly plausible scenario.

Let's say that the North decides to fire its new mobile KN-08 intermediate-range ballistic missile, capable of reaching U.S. bases in Guam. An X-band radar based in Japan detects the launch, cueing missile defenses aboard Japanese and U.S. ships. The U.S.S. Stetham, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer equipped with Aegis phased-array radars, fires its SM-3 missiles, which hit and shatter the KN-08 warhead as it begins its final descent. The successful intercept is immediately touted internationally as a victory, but, now desperate for tactical advantage that will allow it to preserve its nuclear and missile programs, the North Korean leadership orders an assault on South Korean patrol vessels and military fortifications built after the 2010 shelling incident.
The regime feels safe in striking out along the maritime boundary because the two sides have repeatedly skirmished in the area in the past 15 years. But President Park, determined to show backbone, dispatches on-alert F-15K fighter aircraft armed with AGM-84E SLAM-Expanded Response air-to-ground missiles to destroy the North Korean installations responsible for the latest assault. For good measure, they also bomb a North Korean mini-submarine pier as belated payback for the sinking of Cheonan. North Korean soldiers and military officers are killed in the attack. Pyongyang vows a merciless response and launches a risky salvo of rockets into downtown Seoul, in hope of shocking the Blue House into seeking an immediate cessation of fighting. But far from ending the tit-for-tat attacks, North Korean actions have now triggered the Second Korean War.   

What happens after that?  A renewed Korean conflict would be both protracted and bloody.  The number killed on both sides would be measured in the tens of thousands--and that assumes we somehow avoid a nuclear exchange.  The early stages of the conflict would be particularly precarious; the planned defense of South Korea is built on blunting the north's invasion while ROK reserves mobilize and U.S. reinforcements--primarily airpower--rush to the region.  But the bulk of those forces won't be available until at least 10 days after the war begins.

And did we mention the wave of humanity that will be fleeing Seoul, as DPRK rockets, missiles and artillery rounds rain down on the city?  Many of the city's 12 million residents will attempt to head south as key ROK reserve try to move north and join the fight.  It's the kind of gridlock no modern Army has ever encountered.  To give you some idea of the potential congestion problem, a holiday drive from Seoul to Pusan can take up to 24 hours.  Now, picture yourself as a ROK battalion or brigade commander trying to head north against a mass exodus from Seoul.

After the first two weeks, the odds begin to shift against North Korea.  The NKAF won't be able to protect exposed ground units, and Kim Jong-un's Army lacks modern, mobile SAMs to hold off Allied airpower.  But that reality is tempered by geography; to "win" the war, Pyongyang only needs to capture Seoul, and inflict enough casualties to compel South Korea and the U.S. to negotiate a new cease-fire--on North Korea's terms.

Conventional wisdom holds that Kim Jong-un must be persuaded to "climb down" from the geopolitical limb where he is currently perched.  But that assumes that the young dictator is a rational actor (to some degree).  Unfortunately, the evidence to support that contention is inconclusive, at best.  Mr. Kim may genuinely believe that he has enough military power to intimidate the U.S. and its allies, or retake the peninsula by force.

Which brings us back to a component that has been largely missing in this crisis--American leadership. As we've noted previously, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry have issued a number of statements on North Korea, but our Commander-in-Chief has been largely silent.  There is a certain school of thought that American Presidents don't respond to rhetoric by North Korean dictators, since it tends to elevate their stature.  This is particularly true for Kim Jong-un, who (by some accounts) is still trying to consolidate his hold on power.              

But Mr. Obama's silence is not playing well in Northeast Asia.  Yesterday, the Japanese announced plans to shoot down any North Korean missile that poses a threat to their territory.  We can assume the statement was coordinated with the U.S., but there was clear frustration in Tokyo.  So far, Washington has made little more than the standard promises about defending its partners, raising new fears that the United States is an unreliable ally.

And that may be the most lasting consequence of the current crisis--assuming it doesn't boil over into armed conflict.  American reactions to threats from North Korea and China are being closely scrutinized in places like Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei.  There is a growing consensus that U.S. security guarantees only go so far, and democracies in the region may (at some point) have to "go it alone" when it comes to their defense.  Such thinking opens the very real possibility of a new arms race in Northeast Asia, with countries like Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan contemplating development of their own nuclear arsenals.

The cornerstone of President Obama's global security strategy was his much-heralded "pivot to Asia."  Now, with the specter of a new Korean War looming on the horizon, many of those affected by that decision are asking if the U.S. position represents a genuine strategy, or just another campaign speech.