Monday, June 29, 2015

Pay No Attention to the Terrorist Behind the Curtain

In case you missed it, there was a rather remarkable exchange today on CBS This Morning.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell was a guest; nothing really remarkable about that, since Mr. Morrell now works as a national security analyst for the network.  But his comments about a potential terrorist attack over the 4th of July weekend were enough to give anyone pause.

Mr. Morrell noted that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a bulletin warning of a possible strike, and that such advisories are provided on a regular basis.  Still, he said, "there's nothing routine about this particular one for me."

[Morrell] said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security's recent bulletin resonated with him for two reasons. One note for concern, he said, is the large number of people who align themselves with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"There's been about 50 people in the last 12 months who have been arrested in the United States for being radicalized by ISIS, wanting to go fight there or wanting to conduct an attack here," Morell said.

He's also worried about ISIS' "call to arms" for attacks against the terror group's enemies during Ramadan.

And the terror group's latest proclamation is not an idle threat; last week, operatives tied to the group conducted attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia and France, killing more than 60 people.  The strike in France was aimed at an American-owned company; the massacre on a Tunisian beach targeted western tourists.  Fifteen Britons were among the 38 who died. 

Morrell, like all career spooks, speaks in measured tones.  He is not prone to exaggeration, even in his new role as a network pundit.  And, as former senior CIA official, he has extensive ties in the intelligence community.  While it's doubtful that anyone called him and definitively predicted an attack  over the holiday weekend, Mr. Morrell has probably heard from former colleagues who are expressing serious concerns.   

None of this should come as any surprise.  ISIS-related activity in the United States has increased dramatically.  Along with the arrests cited by Michael Morrell, the FBI announced earlier this year that it is investigating ISIS suspects in "all 50 states."   

With that level of penetration and activity, it's easy to envision an attack during the holiday weekend, by a radicalized "lone wolf," or something more sophisticated.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is saying very little about a possible strike.  During today's press briefing, White House spokesman Josh Ernest said there is "no credible threat" to planned 4th of July celebrations.  

Of course, those events represent a tiny fraction of the daily activities across the nation.  So, you may be (relatively) safe at that picnic, concert or fireworks show, but you might get whacked by a sniper on the drive home, or a suicide bomber inside the big box retailer while shopping for your backyard barbeque.  By focusing on holiday events, Mr. Ernest gives himself (and his bosses) lots of wiggle room.

To be fair, the discussion of potential terrorist strikes places any administration in a difficult position.  Say too much and you tip your hand about intelligence sources/methods, or on-going counter-terrorism operations.  Or, you chase vacationers away from beaches, amusement parks and other tourist meccas on one of the busiest weekends of the year.  But if you say too little, thousands of ordinary may be exposed to unnecessary risks and some of them may die.  

Simply stated, the reassurances of Josh Ernest don't square with the concerns expressed by Michael Morrell.  The next week will determine who was closer to the truth.              




Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rapid Reaction?

In recent weeks, NATO has been trumpeting the creation of its new "Very High Readiness Joint Task Force," aimed (in part) at deterring future aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

At first glance, the task force appears to be well-conceived--at least on paper.  Here's a description of the unit (and its capabilities) from a NATO fact sheet:    

"As a part of restructuring the NRF, NATO is also establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which can deploy within days.  It will be comprised of a multinational brigade (approximately 5,000 troops), with up to five battalions, supported by air, maritime and special forces. Some elements will be ready to move within two to three days.  The force will be available to move at the first warnings and indicators of potential threats, before a crisis begins, to act as a potential deterrent to further escalation.  The rapid arrival of this small but capable military unit would send a very clear message to any potential aggressor: "any attempt to violate the sovereignty of one NATO nation will result in a decisive military engagement with all 28 allied nations”.  The VJTF’s rapid response times are what set it apart from other components of the NATO Response Force.

As Tom Rogan of National Review observes, the devil (once again) is in the military details.  By NATO's own admission, only portions of the VJTF will be able to move within two or three days; the rest will need more time to mobilize and deploy.  

And of course, their movement is contingent on several factors, including the availability of U.S. strategic airlift to move NATO troops to a regional hotspot; a "permissive" air environment that allows $200 million C-17 transports to land, off-load troops and equipment and depart with minimal risk; and the willingness of member nations to provide the funding, troops and training required by the VJTF.  

We'll begin with the airlift requirement.  NATO has long been dependent on the USAF (and its Air Mobility Command) to provide the bulk of the transports and crews needed to more personnel and supplies to the war zone.  That dependence has lessened a bit in recent years, with Great Britain and Canada purchasing four C-17s each, and NATO acquiring three more for its strategic airlift unit, based in Hungary.  However, that pales in comparison to the 222 Globemaster III's in the American inventory and it underscores NATO's continuing reliance on the U.S. to move most of the assets needed to respond to a regional contingency.  

But air planners won't send C-17s into an environment where they are easy pickings for enemy fighters, or face significant threats from ground-based air defense systems.  Protecting the air bridge into a region like the Baltics would require scores of fighter aircraft, with support from AWACS, RC-135s, air tankers, EF-18s and other platforms.  Did we mention that the number of fighter squadrons in the USAF have been reduced by two-thirds over the last 20 years?  Or that many of NATO's smaller members can provide only token support for that type of operation?  Suddenly, the job of getting VJTF personnel and supplies to the Baltics has grown infinitely more complex. 

Additionally, the alliance faces the added challenges of long logistics lines and the complete lack of defensive depth.  While NATO is making a great show of pre-positioning tanks, artillery and other "heavy" weaponry in the Baltic States and Poland, sustaining those weapons--and the troops that operate them--would post a significant supply challenge.  Put another way: the same challenges associated with getting the troops into the region would persist as NATO conducts operations and tries to keep them supplied.  

Meanwhile, the Russians don't have those problems. As Tom Rogan notes, NATO depots near the Estonian capital (Tallinn) are only 130 miles from Russia's western border--and Moscow already has significant military forces in the Kaliningrad exclave (between Lithuania and Poland) and its territory bordering the Baltic States.  That would allow Moscow to rapidly encircle the NATO force, before all elements of the VJTF arrive on the scene.

Some have likened the new task force (and its potential employment in the Baltics) as the latter-day equivalent of the "Fulda Gap" speed bump--forces designed to blunt a Warsaw Pact invasion through that corridor.  But such comparisons are faulty (and that's being charitable).  For starters, we had much more than pre-positioned equipment guarding the Gap, and those front-line units were backed by NATO reserves and vast airpower assets.  Additionally, there was enough strategic depth to ensure that supply lines between the CONUS and Europe would remain open.  And there was always the nuclear option to keep the Soviets at bay--and the willingness to use it.

More than 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the VJTF looks more like a Bridge Too Far, a token force that could be easily over-whelmed at the end of long logistics and communications lines in the Baltics.  Indeed, with Russia's new model for proxy wars on its borders, it's possible that Moscow could use fifth column "volunteers" among the local populace to engage local defense forces and seize NATO assets--before our troops arrive.

This is not to say that Russia is once again a military juggernaut.  Earlier this year, independent Russian analyst Pavel Felgegauer declared that Putin's armed is "unprepared for modern war" against large NATO formations.  But Russian capabilities are improving, and Moscow would enjoy key advantages in any conflict in the Baltics--advantages the VJTF cannot overcome.         


Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Remember the outrage that accompanied last year's scandal at the Veteran's Administration.  Everyone from President Obama was in high dungeon over revelations that dozens of vets died while waiting for appointments at VA medical centers around the country.  Meanwhile, scores of administrators were secretly cooking the books, creating phony lists to make it look like veterans were being seen in a timely manner, to protect their jobs and annual performance bonuses.

At the time, Mr. Obama said such conduct was intolerable:

"When I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct -- whether its allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times, or cooking the books - I will not stand for it. Not as commander in chief but also not as an American. None of us should. If these allegations prove to be true it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period."

Of course, it actually depends on your definition of tolerance.  His feckless VA Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, was left moldering in the post for almost two months, as details of the long (and deadly) wait times emerged.  Various media organizations--led by CNN--also discovered that the VA had known about such practices for years, but did nothing to stop them.  Administrators kept submitting phony documentation claiming that vets received health care within prescribed time lines--and kept collecting their bonuses.  Meanwhile, more than 40 veterans died awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital alone--a stunning revelation that proved to be the tip of the proverbial ice berg.  Corrupt practices in Arizona were duplicated at virtually every VA facility around the nation, with the same deadly results.

After Shinseki finally stepped down, President Obama turned to Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble.  Mr. McDonald was given a mandate to reform the VA and as Job #1, fix the appointment problem, once and for all.  McDonald, who knows a little about marketing from his days at P&G, said all the right things before Congress and the media, and headlined some carefully-staged events to convey an image of "change."

But, like so many things associated with the Obama Administration, reform at the VA has proven illusory.  As Mr. McDonald ends his first year on the job, the number of veterans awaiting care at the agency's clinics and hospitals has actually increased.  From the Washington Post

One year after an explosive Veterans Affairs scandal sparked national outrage, the number of veterans on wait lists to be treated for everything from Hepatitis C to post-traumatic stress is 50 percent higher than at the same time last year, according to VA data.

VA’s leadership attributed the growing wait times to soaring demand from veterans for medical services, brought on by the opening of new centers and a combination of aging Vietnam veterans seeking care, the return of younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and the exploding demand for new and costly treatments for Hepatitis C.

Ahead of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs budget hearing scheduled for Thursday, VA leaders also warned that they are facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. They said they may have to start a hiring freeze or furloughs unless funding is reallocated for the federal government’s second-largest department.

The VA says the continued backlog can be partly blamed on an increase in the number of veterans using the system.  So far this year, the agency has logged 2.7 million more appointments than in 2014, and has increased its capacity to handle an additional seven million patients a year.  Those increases are roughly double what the VA anticipated.  

To provide more care, the VA has also been on a hiring binge, adding thousands of new doctors, nurses and other staffers.  But the waiting lists continue to swell, despite the infusion of new personnel and $15 billion in additional funding the VA received last year.  

And yet, the agency recently notified Congress that it is now facing a $2.6 billion dollar shortfall, unless funds are re-allocated.  

One reason for the budget crunch (according to the agency) is the billions allocated for a new program that allows vets to receive care at private health care facilities if they're facing an extended wait time at the VA, or the agency doesn't provide the type of service they need.  But the "choice card" has proven less-popular than anticipated--in part because the VA has done little to promote it, and secondly, because the agency takes months to reimburse veterans for their out-of-pocket expenses under the program.  

None of this is surprising.  While there are thousands of physicians, nurses and other VA personnel who provide exceptional service to veterans, the agency's leadership culture is rotten to the core.  Facing genuine competition to their system, VA senior management (and their friends in Congress) made sure the choice cards would be a flop, keeping vets in the failing system.   And, if the VA can illustrate increased patient demand (and improvements in delivering service), they can extract more budget money from Congress, and keep the bonuses/other perks to which they've grown accustomed.

Earlier this year, Secretary McDonald went on a p.r. offensive, claiming his reform efforts were taking hold.  As proof, he reported that 900 VA employees had been fired, including 60 with direct ties to the appointment scandal.  But as the Washington Post discovered, McDonald's figures were greatly distorted, and presented completely out-of-context.  A VA spokesman later admitted
that the agency had only proposed disciplinary action against the 60 workers connected to the scandal.  Most of those employees are still on the job.  As for the 900 forced out at the agency, Polifact learned that more than half were probationary employees, who were terminated at the end of their first year on the job. 

In others words, the overwhelming majority of VA employees involved in the appointment scandal are still on the federal payroll, and most will remain there until they die, retire, or move on to something more lucrative.  And that "house-cleaning" cited by Mr. McDonald?  It involved less than one percent of the VA's 340,000 personnel.  

Just one more reason the agency will never change.  And our veterans will pay the price for its incompetence and bureaucratic lethargy. 




Thursday, June 18, 2015

Today's Reading Assignment

Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., at Breaking Defense, on a recent, impressive feat by the Navy's SM-6 missile.  In a test earlier this month at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the advanced surface-to-air missile knocked down a supersonic target that was launched beyond the range of its own sensors; the SM-6 had to rely on datafeeds from remote sensors that could track the target.

Burned Out

An article in The New York Times confirms what many in Air Force and military aviation circles have know for years: the relentless tempo of UAV operations around the world is forcing many pilots and sensor operators out of the service. 

In fact, manning problems have been come so severe the service has been forced to reduce the number of daily "orbits" from 65 to 60--despite increased demands for surveillance and targeting that have come with the rise of ISIS.

Air Force officials said that this year they would lose more drone pilots, who are worn down by the unique stresses of their work, than they can train.

“We’re at an inflection point right now,” said Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing, which runs the drone operations from this desert outpost about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The cut in flights is an abrupt shift for the Air Force. Drone missions increased tenfold in the last decade, relentlessly pushing the operators in an effort to meet the insatiable demand for streaming video of insurgent activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones, including Somalia, Libya and now Syria.

The reduction could also create problems for the C.I.A., which has used Air Force pilots to conduct drone missile attacks on terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, government officials said. And the slowdown comes just as military advances by the Islamic State have placed a new premium on aerial surveillance and counterattacks.

At one point, the service hoped to increase the number of orbits to 70, but Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently signed off on the decrease, realizing the system was "at the breaking point."  

Part of the problem is timing.  About 1,200 pilots assigned to the drone program are at the end of their service commitments, and most are planning to leave.  At the same time, the training pipeline for UAV pilots can only produce about half that number in a given year, and that program has been constrained, as instructors were pulled back to operational units, to support the growing number of daily orbits. 

The distinction is important; while the Times refers to each mission as a "flight," that terminology isn't quite correct.  The USAF prefers "orbit," which refers to UAV coverage over a designated area within a 24-hour period.  Depending on mission requirements and payload, a Predator or Reaper can remain on station for anywhere from 14-40 hours. 

Meanwhile, the two-person crew, operating the UAV remotely, can spend up to 12 hours on-duty--and that doesn't include the intelligence team located at one of Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) sites that support every drone mission.  Predator orbits require a minimum of seven intel specialists; missions with Reapers or MQ-4 Global Hawk require even more--up to 37 in the case of the latter system.  The intel crew typically covers a 12-hour shift as well, so a 24-hour Predator mission would require a minimum of two pilots, two sensor operators and at least 14 intel specialists.  A Global Hawk mission (often lasting 40 hours or longer), would require eight times as many support personnel.  Many of those crews have reached the breaking point as well.

Internal DoD and Air Force studies have found drone pilots and the intel personnel that support their mission are not immune to the stresses of combat, even if they are participating across vast distances by remote control.  One assessment found that UAV pilots experience PTSD at roughly the same rate as their colleagues who fly over the battlefield.  Fears of causing collateral damage raise stress levels even higher, and some drone crews (and support teams) find it difficult to "switch off" the job when they step away from their computer console. 

I was fortunate enough to gain a tour of a DCGS facility a few years ago, at the height of the surge in Iraq.  A senior NCO confided to me that he was concerned about some of the intel specialists who were on duty that afternoon.  Just a few days earlier, they had provided flight following for an Army convoy that was hit with an IED attack.  The NCO told me that the "Army unit took casualties," but wouldn't elaborate.  The look on the faces of his item team suggested they were still dealing with the stresses of that earlier mission.  Making matter more difficult, the intel specialists were typically in contact (by satellite radio) with the units they supported, and had to listen to the chaos that unfolded after the attack.

To help UAV operators and support personnel deal with such issues, the Air Force has organized mental health teams, consisting of chaplains and psychologists, who are available to meet with pilots, sensor operators and intel specialists "where they work," instead of waiting for them to show up at the base hospital's mental health clinic.  That's an appropriate (and valuable) step, but it doesn't address the underlying manning issues that are creating much of the stress and job dissatisfaction in the USAF's drone community.

And those problems won't be fixed by the current approach.  The training pipeline can produce so many pilots and sensor operators each year and with officers who fly UAVs leaving the service at three times the rate of other pilots, well you get the picture.  Reducing operations will also help a bit, but combatant commanders won't allow the number of orbits to dip much below the 60-a-day figure.  Conversely, with the ISIS threat growing, there will be renewed pressure to increase the number of missions and provide the surveillance commanders say they need.

The Air Force might be able to fix the manning issue by re-thinking its policies on who gets to fly its UAVs.  Currently, those operators are a combination of officers specifically trained to fly drones and pilots pulled from the cockpits of other aircraft.  The sensor operators (along with most members of the intel team) are enlisted personnel. 

So far, the service has resisted the idea of training non-commissioned officers to fly drones, but operational demands may force a review of that policy.  Given the limits of the current training pipeline, the USAF will never produce enough officer drone pilots to fill all available slots, meaning those who do qualify will be worked to the point of exhaustion and burn-out.  The cycle will repeat itself as groups of officers reach the end of the active duty service commitment and leave the service.  Many experts believe the problem will be exacerbated as more employment opportunities arise in the civilian UAV sector, which is experiencing tremendous growth.

If the Air Force is serious about solving manning problems within its drone community, they might follow the Army's lead and utilize NCOs as UAV pilots.  The Air Force had "flying sergeants" in its early days, but the last NCO pilot retired from active duty in 1958.  A few years later, the service also eliminated its warrant officer program, eliminating another source of potential pilots.

Meanwhile, the Army made warrants the backbone of its helicopter squadrons; most of the aviators flying Blackhawks, Apaches are warrant officers, who spend most of their career in the cockpit.  It's the type of arrangement that many Air Force pilots would prefer, since their Army warrant officer counterparts can focus on flying, and don't have to worry about becoming well-rounded and filling staff billets.

But the USAF believes that pilots should be officers who are college graduates, with a well-rounded background and the ability to (eventually) compete for command and senior officer assignments.  It's the mindset that's been around since the days of Hap Arnold, commander of the Air Air Forces in World War II, who tried to mandate that all pilots have a college degree.  He relented after learning that the U.S. didn't produce enough qualified college grads (in those days) to meet the AAF's requirements during a world war.   After the conflict ended, the independent USAF began implementing the education and commissioning requirements, which remain in effect until this day.

It's time for a paradigm shift.  The Air Force can keep fighting the current, losing manpower battle, or open up drone pilot positions to new talent pools.  Getting rid of Warrant Officers was one of the dumbest ideas in USAF history.  Maybe it's time for them to make a comeback, as the rank for NCOs who complete training as UAV pilots.  Model their careers on the path followed by Army warrants flying helicopters and the Air Force might be able to increase the number of daily orbits.

Reviving the warrant ranks would also prove beneficial for retention of intel specialists in the DCGS and other technically-oriented career fields.  Reward years of service (and professional expertise) by creating a cadre of warrants who can serve in billets that require that level of competence.  It's worked extremely well for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.  No reason the USAF shouldn't join its sister services in the 21st Century.                                     




Monday, June 08, 2015

At Least They Didn't Puke

The Navy's Blue Angels occasionally put a local reporter in the backseat of one of their F/A-18s and take them up for a spin.  They're called "media rides" and they usually generate very favorable coverage and publicity for the military.

Recently, the Navy flight demonstration team was in the Quad Cities area, and reporter Christie Nicks of WTVO/WQRF went along for the ride.  Apparently, she forgot that part of the pre-flight briefing about keeping your body against the seat/headrest, and doing a "strain" maneuver when G-forces start to increase.  The result?  One unconscious reporter in the back seat.

If it's any consolation to Ms. Nicks, she's not the only journalist to black out during a media ride.  Fox and Friends meteorologist Maria Molina passed out during her Blue Angels flight in March of 2014 and Steve Beatty of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution lost consciousness three times during a backseat ride with the Blues.

During my military career, I was lucky enough to get back-seat rides in both the F-15 and F-16; if you're not used to pulling Gs, lose situational awareness and forget about your strain maneuver, you will pass out, even with a minimal G-load.  I remember sitting in the rear seat of an F-15D, conducting BFM against AT-38s.  Sweating buckets and doing my best strain, I was doing my best to fight off a gray-out.  Meanwhile, the IP up front was leaning forward and looking around, no problem at all as he maintained visual on one of the AT-38s.  The G meter was somewhere between 5 and 6.  Experience, practice and conditioning make a big difference.   

In fairness, I was wearing a G-suit during my flights, which certainly helps you maintain consciousness. Navy and Marine Corps pilots who fly with the Blues do not wear a G-suit, and I'm not sure if their passengers wear one, either.  If you're a civilian and not used to the effects of gravitational forces, it would be very tough to climb into an F/A-18 and remain conscious if you're not wearing a G-suit.

At least they didn't puke--as far as I can tell.  Orientation flight etiquette says if you leave your lunch in the back seat, you've got to clean it up.  I somehow managed to avoid that embarrassment as well.             


The Mother Lode

Take a look at this: it's the Standard Form 86, also known as the Questionnaire for National Security Positions.  Anyone who has ever held a security clearance knows it well; it must be completed by anyone seeking a clearance, or updating one that is already active.

At 127 pages (including instructions), the SF 86 is voluminous, asking applicants to describe virtually all aspects of their lives: where they have lived; employment history, friends and associates, military service, schools attended, foreign travel, financial interests, foreign contacts and drug and alcohol abuse (to name a few).  All must be listed on the form, creating a road map for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Not only did the organization create the form, it is responsible for 95% of all federal background investigations, covering 100 different federal agencies.  When someone applying for a clearance completes the SF 86, a copy goes to their current or prospective employer, while another goes to OPM.

And that's why last week's data breach at the agency--reportedly conducted by Chinese hackers--represents such a grave threat to national security.  Never before has a U.S. adversary obtained so much information about so many people in positions with access to classified information.  It's Christmas morning for a spymaster; need to recruit American "insiders" who might be willing to pass on sensitive information?  Just convert the OPM security clearance files into a searchable database; in very short order Chinese intelligence will have the names, addresses and other contact information of potential turncoats who might be willing to betray their country for financial gain, ideology or other reasons.

Looking for someone with family ties to a foreign power, say the PRC?  It's on the SF 86.  Hoping to recruit someone with an existing clearance who is burdened by a mountain of debt?  You can glean that information from the OPM files as well.  Searching for a potential spy who is working on a specific program at a designated federal agency or defense contractor?  You can start identifying potential candidates by comparing their reported information to other data associated with the program.

And this should come as no surprise: the OPM breach was a disaster waiting to happen, according to a recent report in The New York Times:

The inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which keeps the records and security-clearance information for millions of current and retired federal employees, issued a report in November that essentially described the agency’s computer security system as a Chinese hacker’s dream.

By the time the report was published, Chinese hackers had already downloaded tens of thousands of files on sensitive security clearances and were preparing for a much broader attack that obtained detailed personal information on at least 4 million current and former government employees. The agency is still struggling to patch vulnerabilities.

A number of Obama administration officials painted a picture of a government office struggling to catch up, with the Chinese ahead at every step.

OPM did not possess an inventory of all the computer servers and devices with access to its networks. It did not require anyone accessing information from the outside to use the kind of basic authentication techniques that most Americans use for online banking. It did not regularly scan for vulnerabilities in the system and found that 11 of the 47 computer systems that were supposed to be certified as safe for use last year were not “operating with a valid authorization.”

The problems were so severe for two systems that hosted the databases used by the Federal Investigative Service — which does background investigations for officials and contractors who are issued security clearances — that the inspector general argued for temporarily shutting them down because the security flaws “could potentially have national security implications.”

Despite these alarm bells, the OPM soldiered on with its vulnerable systems, and the Chinese took full advantage.  The NYT reports that PRC-based hackers first targeted the security clearance information database last summer; when that effort proved successful, they mounted a second, much larger attack in December, but the scope of the penetration was not discovered until April.   

Now in damage control mode, the Office of Personnel Management is promising to implement a two-step encryption system and is offering free credit monitoring to current and former federal employees that may be affected by the breach.  Of course, that's tantamount to fixing the broken barn door after the horse is already gone.  While some of the personal information stolen in the attack will wind up with identity thieves (providing cover for the PRC government), most the the data will remain with China's intelligence services, for use in future recruitment operations.  

Ultimately, the number of spy cases rooted in the OPM breach will be relatively small--in comparison to the amount of information that was compromised.  Not that Beijing is really concerned; given the opportunity to case a wide net, they took it, realizing OPM's security failures were providing a broad view of who has access to the nation's secrets, and who among those individuals might become a potential asset.  

One more prediction: no one at OPM will lose their jobs over this debacle.  The director might be reassigned, but the rank-and-file bureaucrats will remain with the agency, sustaining the same level of unsatisfactory performance.  This follows the example of recent personnel actions at TSA, where the agency director was moved to another post after it was learned that security personnel missed 95% of all weapons and explosives being "smuggled" onto planes in training exercises.  

Until federal incompetents are fired--and stripped of pensions and other benefits--disasters like those at OPM and TSA will continue.  As we've noted before, there is virtually no accountability in the federal system.  Managers and executives engage in behavior that is negligent or criminal and most receive nothing more than early retirement and a fat government pension.  

More disturbingly, the Obama Administration has developed a neat trick to explain away virtually any bureaucratic snafu.  Whatever the problem, whether its an AMTRAK train that crashes at 106 mph (on a curve rated for 50), or a sensitive computer network with less security than, the problem isn't the engineer or the managers in charge; it's a lack of spending on infrastructure.  If we had only allocated more millions--or billions--the accident or security breach would have been prevented.

Rubbish.  At OPM, AMTRAK or any other federal agency, it's up to management to set priorities and fund them.  Apparently, the vulnerability of OPM's personnel databases was an open secret, yet no one was in a hurry to fix the problem.  The agency kept grinding along, and we'll assume that managers kept collecting the bonuses.  After all, it's the federal way.  And when China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) recruits a high-ranking American to give away our crown jewels, no one will bother to connect it to OPM, and the utter ineptitude that opened the door.                      


Friday, June 05, 2015

If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words...

..then the one below should remove any doubts about the gravity of the current situation in the Middle East, and the failure of U.S. leadership: 

The gentleman on the left is Dore Gold, the former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. who was recently named Director-General of his country's Foreign Ministry.  He is shaking hands with Anwar Majed Eshki, a retired Saudi general who served as a top adviser to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom's long-time ambassador to Washington.

Gold and Eshki spoke yesterday at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).  Their joint appearance confirmed rumors that have been circulating for months; alarmed at Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and dominate the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been meeting secretly to discuss various options for dealing with Tehran.

Details from Eli Lake of Bloomberg News:

Since the beginning of 2014, representatives from Israel and Saudi Arabia have had five secret meetings to discuss a common foe, Iran. On Thursday, the two countries came out of the closet by revealing this covert diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Among those who follow the Middle East closely, it's been an open secret that Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common interest in thwarting Iran. But until Thursday, actual diplomacy between the two was never officially acknowledged. Saudi Arabia still doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel has yet to accept a Saudi-initiated peace offer to create a Palestinian state.

It was not a typical Washington think-tank event. No questions were taken from the audience. After an introduction, there was a speech in Arabic from Anwar Majed Eshki, a retired Saudi general and ex-adviser to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Then Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who is slotted to be the next director general of Israel's foreign ministry, gave a speech in English.

Both were blunt in their assessments of the threat posed by Iran:

Eshki was particularly alarming. He laid out a brief history of Iran since the 1979 revolution, highlighting the regime's acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and aggression. He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Gold's speech was slightly less grandiose. He, too, warned of Iran's regional ambitions. But he didn't call for toppling the Tehran government. "Our standing today on this stage does not mean we have resolved all the differences that our countries have shared over the years," he said of his outreach to Saudi Arabia. "But our hope is we will be able to address them fully in the years ahead."

Pay little attention to the usual boilerplate about "long-standing differences" between Saudi Arabia and Israel, or the need for a Palestinian solution as a precursor to peace.  Fact is, the type of public event that occurred yesterday at the CFR would have been unthinkable a few years ago.  To be sure, there has long been a certain amount of back channel communication between Jerusalem and Riyadh, including the limited sharing of intelligence information.  But the notion of a senior Israeli diplomat sharing the stage with an influential member of the Saudi defense establishment--and the meeting generating virtually no criticism outside of Iran--that's a reflection of just how dire the current situation has become.

Not long ago, both Saudi Arabia and Israel would have looked to their closest ally--the United States--for leadership in dealing with the Iranian threat.  But with President Obama determined to reach a badly flawed nuclear agreement with Tehran, other nations in the region--those threatened by the mullahs geopolitical ambitions--are looking at new security alliances as a hedge against our inability and unwillingness to take on the Iranians.

And the discussions between the Saudis and Israelis go much deeper than the five meetings between Mr. Gold and General Eshki.  Earlier this year, there were credible reports on discussions of a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, with potential routing through Saudi air space.  Thursday's public event with the Saudi and Israeli officials was aimed at conveying a clear message: to preserve their own security, both Jerusalem and Riyadh are willing to form alliances of convenience with long-standing foes, now viewed as posing a far lesser threat than Iran.

It also seems likely that the talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia have the tacit approval of other nations in the Gulf Region.  They are just as worried about Iran as the Saudis, hence the near-total lack of criticism about the now-public talks.  Indeed, there is a very real possibility that other Gulf nations are pursuing their own, back-channel communications with the Israelis, unless the Saudis have been designated to speak for the entire GCC.

This doesn't mean the IAF would get basing rights at Dhahran or Kuwait City in preparation for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites.  But overflight rights are almost a certainty, and the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris and others might be willing to make other concessions, such as allowing Israeli attack subs to operate in their waters, putting them in position for cruise missile strikes against Iran--and search-and-rescue missions after the strike.  Riyadh might also extend financial aid to countries (such as Azerbaijan) who already have close ties with Israel, and may have offered basing rights to the IDF, which would allow Israel to mount larger, sustained attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities.  Jerusalem considers Baku its closest ally in the Muslim world and there's a certain irony in that, given that 85% of its population is Shia--the highest concentration of any country outside Iran.

Not only are these alliances a reflection of perceived American weakness, they could also trigger events over which Washington has no influence.  At some point, the Israelis will determine that Iran has reached the point of no return and launch military operations against Tehran, with the tacit or open support of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.  That will lead to a wider regional conflict that will be even more difficult to contain, le alone prevent.  And, there is the specter of Riyadh joining the nuclear club (with weapons supplied by Pakistan), once Iran's nuclear capability has been affirmed.

As President Obama is now discovering, there is a price to be paid when America fails to lead.  The Israelis and Saudis are examining options for dealing with Iran, based on the premise that Washington won't act, or engages in actions (i.e., the nuclear deal) that actually make matters worse.  At this point, the president seems completely disengaged on issues related to the Middle East--with the exception of his "legacy" talks with Tehran.  Amazingly, Mr. Obama doesn't seem to understand that his "initiative" will set the entire region on fire, and possibly lead to a nuclear conflict.  And if it does, he calculates, it will be something else for his successor to deal with.

Little wonder that Israel and Saudi Arabia have suddenly discovered they have so much in common.                         


Thursday, June 04, 2015

Body Count

While reports from the war zone run contrary to the spin in Washington, members of the Obama Administration are quite happy to tell you: we are winning the war against ISIS.  And they say it with a straight face.  

Well, perhaps "winning" is too strong a word, particularly in light of the terrorist army's recent capture of Ramidi and other key locations in Iraq and Syria.  Maybe the preferred term is "making progress," despite the fact that usually-friendly media outlets are even challenging that vague assertion.

Consider this story, which appeared today at NBC  And it raises a legitimate question: amid claims--from a senior U.S. official--that 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in Iraq and Syria, are those numbers believable? (More on that in a bit).

But first the back story; the official estimating the number of dead terrorists was Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who participated in a meeting of the anti-ISIS coalition in Paris.  Mr. Blinken was filling in for his boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, who is recovering from a broken leg, suffered in a bicycle crash over the weekend.  So, the "body count" can't be blamed on some low-level staffer at the NSC or the Pentagon.

And, Mr. Blinken simply didn't pull the number out of thin area.  His apparent source was a Pentagon analysis prepared last year.  But this is where the math gets a little fuzzy; military intelligence analysts arrived at the ISIS body count by calculating enemy deaths in Iraq and Syria, both in ground combat and from coalition air strikes.  Needless to say, the estimate is far from precise, since we don't have someone on the ground (in most locations) who can provide the exact number of ISIS fighters who have been killed in recent months.

The U.S. military did not plan to release its tally, knowing the number is suspect.  Additionally, Pentagon officials learned a long time ago that casualty counts are a poor tool for measuring progress in a conflict.  During the Vietnam War, public affairs officers provided weekly summaries of the number of enemy troops who died in battle, as a yardstick of progress.  Unfortunately, those body totals didn't always square with reality on the ground.  Our troops killed hundreds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops every week, but the enemy kept coming.  Casualties didn't matter to the enemy, who was willing to fight until the war was won.

Fifty years later, ISIS maintains a similar mindset and there is no shortage of volunteers willing to give their lives for the cause.  The CIA recently estimated that the terror group has been able to maintain a fighting force of 20-30,000 men through a very aggressive recruiting campaign that has brought more jihadis to the fight.  So, whatever their losses, ISIS is more than capable of replacing them.

Why use such a flawed metric to demonstrate "success" on the battlefield?  It would be easy to claim that Mr. Blinken simply made a mistake, but his claims appear to be part of a wider strategy by Team Obama.  Six months ago, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, told an Arab TV channel that 6,000 enemy fighters had been killed.  But then-Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby told reporters there was no official body count, and it would be "wrong" to claim there was such a tally.

Some of the experts questioned by NBC expressed serious doubts about the ISIS body count:

Laith Alkhouri, of security consulting firm and NBC News partner Flashpoint Intelligence, said he didn't believe Blinken's number. The U.S. government hasn't shared any underlying evidence, such as incremental reports of ISIS deaths, to back it up, he said. 

Flashpoint's own monitoring of jihadist reports doesn't reflect such a body count, Alkhouri said, also noting that the number doesn't reflect ISIS' recent string of military victories.

"The reality on the ground is that ISIS is capturing territory, not losing ground," he said. 

Why make such a dubious claim?  Mr. Obama and his advisers are anxious to show "progress" in the battle against ISIS, and it's hard to prove that case when the terrorists are on the march.  So, someone in the administration spin machine (who is clearly not a student of history) decided to fall back on the body count metric.  But that strategy is dubious, at best.

Decades ago, as public support for the Vietnam War began to fade, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite made a famous trip to the war zone.  His subsequent documentary reportedly convinced President Johnson that he had "lost middle America," and had no chance of winning the war--or re-election.  This time around, the narrative is different; the NBC report casts grave doubts on the administration's claims and it reflects the new reality of today's relationship between the media and political leaders. 

In 1968, the media was viewed as a conduit to the public; today, the press is an institution unto itself, still capable of exerting great influence on governmental decision-making.  This is particularly true in a White House that has relied on a sycophantic media as a pillar of its popular support.  Somewhere in the West Wing, they must be wondering if they've "lost" NBC News and what can be done to bring them back on the reservation.   Sadly, it won't take much (in terms of persuasion) to bring NBC back in line.      


Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Phony Commander

Fifty-eight years after its release, Bridge on the River Kwai remains one of the great war films of all time.  The late Roger Ebert placed it among his Great Movies, and rightfully so; it's David Lean at his best, with elements of sweep and spectacle that were evident in such later works as Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but with an eye for detail as well. 

Kwai is also noteworthy for superb acting performances, most notably by Alec Guinness as Lt Col Nicholson, commander of a battalion of British soldiers interned in a Japanese POW camp.  As Nicholson descends into madness, he is convinced the only way for his men to survive is to design and build a bridge for the enemy across the River Kwai, supporting their advance into Burma.  When asked if his actions might be construed as aiding the enemy, Nicholson dismisses the idea, claiming that war prisoners must work when ordered, and erecting the bridge will serve as a testament to British efficiency for generations to come.

The counterpoint to Nicholson's cooperation is provided by an American "officer," Commander Shears, played by William Holden.  Shears is a survivor of the USS Houston, and when an escape opportunity arises, he takes it.  Despite being wounded, he makes it to Ceylon, with the help of local villagers.  His plans for a long recuperation at a British military hospital are interrupted by a British commando officer (Jack Hawkins), who knows Shears is an ordinary sailor who "borrowed" the uniform of a dead officer, hoping for better treatment in captivity.  Shears is given a choice: return with a commando team to blow up the bridge, or rejoin the U.S. Navy and face a long stint in the brig for impersonating an officer.  Choosing the former, Shears eventually helps the commandos destroy the bridge, but is killed in the scene's climactic sequence.

Six decades later, another phony commander has been exposed, but this one isn't a character in a Hollywood classic.  He's just another sailor who decided his military resume needed a little enhancement, and became a minor celebrity through stolen valor.  Meet William Goehner, an 89-year-old World War II veteran, who (among other things) claimed to be a Navy frogman and the youngest lieutenant commander on active duty.  From KGO-TV in San Francisco:

For its "Living Ship Day", the USS Hornet Museum honored 89-year-old Morgan Hill resident William Goehner as a member of the Underwater Demolition Team, or UDT, in WWII. It's the unit that predated the Navy SEALs.

"My UDT team, we destroyed 80 percent of the German submarine fleet in the Baltic Sea, lost 19 out of 30 men," said Goehner. "I cried."

Goehner told the audience that his suicide missions earned him the Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, and four Purple Hearts.

"The worst one was in the North China Sea," he said. "Got stuck down below in the ship and it burned up and I woke up four hours later on a hospital ship."

He added that he was the youngest lieutenant commander ever to serve in the Navy, "I went through the Navy there and ended up to be a lieutenant commander at 19," he said. "Hollywood heard about it and made a movie about me, Richard Widmark played me."

Goehner claimed he was a consultant on the movie The Frogmen, and that he became so famous that even a renowned general sought him out.

"I met George Patton in Sicily," Goehner said. "He heard about me and wanted to meet me, so I actually talked to George Patton. He impressed the crowd so much, he signed autographs after."

"It's certainly an honor and a privilege to be in the presence of someone who had such a distinguished career," Navy veteran Glenn Powell said at the event. 

Of course, none of it was true.  Goehner served, but he was never a member of a UDT, never earned those decorations and (based on records obtained by the TV station), never advanced beyond Seaman Second Class.  Confronted with the truth, Mr. Goehner produced a certificate from the Library of Congress that supposedly authenticated his exploits--then admitted it had been fabricated by a friend.

Aside from a little public humiliation, Goehner won't be punished for his lies.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional, so Americans are free to create their own tall tales of military heroism, no matter how unlikely they might be.  Along with his whoppers about destroying most of the U-Boats in the Baltic Sea (and that meeting with Patton), Goehner passed himself off as the second-most-decorated military member in U.S. history.  

And, based on this exchange with KGO reporter Dan Noyes, Goehner plans to keep peddling his lies to anyone who will listen:

Noyes: "Are you still going to tell the story, sir?"
Goehner: "That's what I did, that's what's on here."
Noyes: "I appreciate your time. Good luck."

Some people have no sense of shame.  Or honor.  William Goehner is near the top of both lists.    




Monday, June 01, 2015

Most-Overlooked Quote from Last Week:

Meanwhile, the stock market's still over 18,000; there's that new Star Wars film in a few weeks, and Rand Paul has single-handedly stopped the bad ol' NSA from collecting your cell phone records.  Meanwhile, ISIS remains on the march; China has become increasingly aggressive in its posturing, and the GOFO's comments are almost certainly a reference to Mr. Putin and his ambitions.  But the masses can't be bothered, and their elected leaders don't want to admit how bad the situation really is.   

It was the same way in the summers of 1914 and 1939.  Unfortunately, we don't have a Churchill to sound the clarion call this time around and even if we did, he or she would be dismissed as a crank, bigot, homophobe or any other label required to shut them up.

Among the day's more important stories (as determined by our betters in the MSM): Kendall Jenner almost had a wardrobe malfunction!   

Sleep well, America.