Monday, August 24, 2015

Hotwash (Korea Edition)

The latest crisis on the Korean peninsula appears headed for resolution.  A spokesman for the South Korean government says details of a settlement will be released at 2 am (local time), after more than two days of marathon talks with the DPRK.

According to the semi-official Yonhap News Agency, the Seoul government has agreed to halt recently-resumed propaganda broadcasts along the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas.  In return, Pyongyang expressed regret for "recent provocations," and promises there won't be any more "abnormal situations" in the future.

With that outline, it's time for a quick "hotwash."  For those who never served in the military, the term refers to an immediate, after-action discussion of an organization's performance during a recently-concluded exercise, training session or real-world event.  Nation-states can also be evaluated through the hotwash process and after a weekend of brinkmanship and escalating tensions, a review how the crisis unfolded--and how it was managed--is clearly in order.  From our vantage point, here are the major takeaways from the latest standoff between North and South Korea:

1.  Kim Jong un Played a Relatively Weak Hand--and Won a Propaganda Victory.  The North Korean dictator set events in motion by targeting a ROK patrol in the DMZ with landmines, maiming two South Korean soldiers.  In response, the ROK government re-opened an old phase in the always-important propaganda war, resuming high-volume broadcasts over speakers aimed across the DMZ.  The ROK loudspeakers had been silent for more than a decade, and Kim Jong un wasn't about to lose face--and potential defections--by letting them resume.

So, he resorted to the DPRK's favored tactic, rattling the sabre and hinting of renewed conflict with South Korea and its allies--a conflagration that could kill thousands of soldiers and civilians.  Then, he ratcheted up tensions by firing a single artillery shell into ROK territory.  South Korea units responded with a barrage of 36 shells, which prompted counter-moves by Pyongyang.  Most of their submarine fleet went to sea, and their were limited deployments of large hovercraft at points along the Yellow Sea coast.  That raised fears that North Korea might be planning large-scale attacks by special forces in ROK territory.  About that same time, officials from both countries began meeting at Panmunjom, launching the marathon talks that produced today's agreement.

Kim Jong un's hand was "weak" in the sense that his military options were limited.  At this time of year, most North Korean military personnel are engaged in the fields raising food, to fend off starvation in the winter.  Consequently, DPRK readiness levels are typically at their lowest in the late summer, particularly among ground and air units.  The threat of an all-out invasion (or even a major incursion across the DMZ) was very, very low.

So, Pyongyang used its Navy--the branch that maintains higher readiness levels in the spring and summer--to reinforce the bluster.  Never mind that the subs are old and noisy, or that the hovercraft can be easily targeted by air or with anti-ship missiles.  The hint of a large-scale, seaborne SOF attack was (apparently) enough to get Seoul to turn off the loudspeakers, in exchange for vague North Korean promises that will never be kept.

2.  South Korea is Responding More Forcefully to NK Provocations (at Least Initially).  After North Korea sank a ROK Navy corvette in 2010--and shelled a South Korean-controlled island a few months later, the Seoul government vowed to "get tough" over future provocations.  And sure enough, when that North Korean artillery round whistled south last week, ROK commanders responded much more aggressively than in the past.  One report indicated that South Korean artillery batterys "walked" their barrage to within a few yards of a DPRK command post, delivering a clear message about where the next rounds would land.  The ROK Army also moved Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) units to their initial firing positions along the DMZ and the ROKAF recalled six F-16s from drills in Alaska.

U.S. forces, part of the Korea-based 2nd Infantry Division, were also on the move, with MLRS batterys observed out of garrison, along with other assets.  Military sources also indicated that our fighter wings at Osan AB and Kunsan AB were placed on heightened alert, in preparation for the next deployment or attack by DPRK forces.

As to what our move might have been, no one is saying--at least yet.  True, there are volumes of plans covering contingencies on Korean peninsula, but there are literally scores of options for any situation.  Additionally, it is worth remembering that the four-star Army general who leads U.S. forces in Korea is also responsible for the overall defense of the peninsula, giving us tremendous leverage in determining the military course of action.  The existing command relationship remains a sore point in relations with the ROK; at one point, Seoul hoped to assume command of all defensive forces this year, but that plan was postponed in 2014 by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his ROK counterpart.

On a related note, it will be interesting to watch the narrative that emerges in the weeks ahead, and learn how much pressure the Obama Administration applied on the government of President Park Geun-hye to tone down the rhetoric and reach a diplomatic solution.  Mr. Obama seems to go out of his way to avoid antagonizing our enemies, while leaning on our friends.  Following that model, it would be very characteristic of the White House to push President Park to the bargaining table.

It is also very telling that the U.S. did not announce plans for any military deployments to the region, in support of South Korea and Japan.  To be fair, the situation unfolded and ended very quickly, but historically, any threat to the peninsula has been accompanied by American military deployments, or at least the promise of reinforcements.  Obviously, South Korea's modern armed forces are less dependent on U.S. back-up than they once were, but don't think the "lack of military support" hasn't gone unnoticed in Seoul and Tokyo.       

Likewise, it is equally unclear what role (if any) China played in persuading Pyongyang to reach a settlement.  However, Beijing has been consistently unhelpful in the past, and with Chinese leaders preoccupied with the on-going economic crisis, their ability to help with the Korean standoff may have been limited.

3.  Timing, Assets and Leadership are Everything.  It's no accident that Pyongyang picked late summer for its latest provocation.  Late last year, the U.S. announced plans to station the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan, replacing the USS George Washington as our only forward-deployed aircraft carrier.  With the Navy already stretched thin by budget cuts and on-going combat operations in the Middle East, the swap-out became a complex operation, with a portion of the Washington's crew transferring to the Reagan during a stopover in San Diego.  The Pentagon admitted that the transfer would leave the U.S. without a carrier in the Western Pacific for at least four months, beginning in the late spring/early summer.  And sure enough, North Korea carefully orchestrated its latest "move" during the carrier gap, when the Reagan, the Washington, and most of their escorts are in California.

The Japanese expressed strong reservations about the transfer plan, predicting that China or North Korea would take advantage of the opportunity to launch some sort of military adventure.  And sure enough, the folks at the MOD in Tokyo were proven correct, although it didn't take much analytical to make such a prediction.  Our adversaries abroad have long since taken measure of the Obama Administration, and they are more than willing to exploit any perceived weakness or opening.

Meanwhile, our allies will take a hard look at increasing their own military power.  Over the past year, there has been serious discussion in Japan about building new aircraft carriers, or converting amphibious ships to accommodate F-35 attack aircraft.  Umm...did someone say new arms race in northeast Asia?  China has already converted a former Soviet carrier into a training vessel (Liaoning) that will allow sailors and aircrews to practice carrier operations.  Beijing could have at least three fleet carriers operational before 2030, and neither Japan or South Korea will allow their rival to have such a military advantage.

And, if U.S. leadership in the region continues to ebb, China, Japan and South Korea may explore an even wider range of military hardware, including the possibility of Seoul and Tokyo joining the nuclear club.  To be fair, recent defense cuts and the current ops temp gave the U.S. few good options in swapping out the Reagan for the Washington.  But the "carrier gap" was hardly a shining moment for the U.S., diplomatically or militarily; the consequences of that decision will reverberate for years to come. 

4.  Bottom Line:  Avoiding war on the Korean peninsula is a diplomatic achievement, and worthy of commendation.  But it's also worth remembering that the latest crises was rooted (in part) in our own policies and military choices.  Moving forward from this latest stand-off, it's a sure bet that South Korea will push even harder for full control of their defenses--can you blame them?--and business will be very good for defense contractors in the region for many years to come.

One more thing: the handling of this latest standoff did nothing to deter the aims and ambitions of Kim Jong un.  In his mind, North Korea won an important victory, forcing South Korea to suspend propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ, while giving up almost nothing in return.  He also gained a better understanding of the current relationship between the U.S., South Korea and Japan, and (most likely) saw opportunities to create more mischief and further strain the alliance.

Next time, he will be playing for much higher stakes.                           


Friday, August 21, 2015

What Comes Next in Korea?

 Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have ratcheted up dramatically over the past 24 hours, following an artillery duel across the DMZ.  The exchange began when North Korea fired a single shell into ROK territory, apparently to underscore its displeasure over the resumption of loud speaker propaganda broadcasts by the Seoul government.  South Korean forces responded with a sustained barrage of 36 rounds, fired by 155 mm artillery units.

In the hours that followed, the war of words has only intensified; earlier today, Pyongyang announced that South Korea has until 5 pm Saturday (Korea time) to cease the broadcasts, which recently resumed after a decade-long pause.  The ultimatum came after North Korean dictator Kim Jong un placed his military on "war-time footing" and told them to be prepared to launch "surprise" operations.

So far, South Korea isn't backing down, either.  ROK Defense Minister Han Minkoo warned earlier today that Pyongyang faces "searing consequences" if it launches fresh provocations.  According to the Associated Press, Mr. Han told reporters that Seoul will "cut off a vicious circle of North Korean provocation.

Along with the verbal sparring, there have been military moves on both sides.  Sources within the South Korean intelligence apparatus claim the DPRK has identified at least "11 sites" to be destroyed by SCUD missiles, if the current situation escalates.  Other officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, report that North Korea has been practicing the roll-out of long-range guns along the DMZ. Those weapons, normally stored in hardened bunkers, have the ability to strike targets across Seoul, a megalopolis of more than 12 million people.

Below the DMZ, elements of the ROK Army and Air Force are on heightened alert, and prepared to respond to new challenges from the North.       

Meanwhile, a DPRK sympathizer in Japan has (predictably) raised the specter of a possible nuclear conflict.  Kim Myong-chol, Director of the Centre for North Korea-US Peace, told the UK Telegraph that if the propaganda loudspeakers remain in place after the deadline, North Korea will attack, "with artillery, from the air and with land forces."  And, in his role as a mouthpiece for the Pyongyang regime, Kim suggested the conflict could escalate past the conventional level:

"What happens after that depends on the reaction of South Korea and the US", he said. "The North does not want a war, but South Korea and the US want war. So we will destroy their forces in an instant."

Asked how the destruction of all the South Korean and US forces stationed south of the Demilitarised Zone might be achieved, Mr Kim said the North is ready to use its nuclear weapons. 
"It depends on the situation and the reactions of South Korea and the US, but it could be a nuclear war", he said. "The choice is up to the Americans". 

Yet, despite the latest round of sabre-rattling, the prospects for all-out war in Korea remain low, for a fundamental reason: food.  If an Army travels on its stomach (and it does), the North Korea military remains hard-pressed to feed its personnel, despite the high priority it receives for scarce resources.

Indeed, military readiness in the DPRK drops to its lowest point in the mid-to-late summer, when most members of the armed forces are in the fields, engaged in "agricultural activities" (as the Korean Central News Agency likes to phrase it).  Without these yearly excursions to the fields, many troops would not have sufficient rations to carry them through the harsh North Korean winter, when Kim Jong un's military conducts most of its training.  

As the world contemplates a potential conflict on the Korean peninsula, it would be helpful if so-called "defense reporters" did a little digging, and tried to develop a better picture of DPRK military activities.  Obviously, if most of the North Korean military is currently cultivating crops, its ability to strike the south will be limited.  For once, it would be nice to see someone in the Pentagon press room ask about current training and deployment activities near the DMZ, and how those compare to previous years.  If those activities are at (or near) the usual summer lows, the potential for all-out war is rather low.  On the other hand, if training is abnormally high, particularly among missile, artillery and special forces units, there is cause for concern.  North Korea clearly has the ability to launch artillery barrages, missile strikes, SOF raids and other attacks that would not require the mobilization or preparation of large numbers of troops. 

And of course, there are the perpetual "wild cards" that complicate any sort of assessment on the situation in Korea.  At the top of that list is Kim Jong un, the DPRK's young, undisciplined leader.  Having successfully purged members of the old guard from the ruling elite, Mr. Kim may be itching for a showdown with South Korea, believing his forces can replicate the events of 2010, when North Korean artillery units shelled a ROK-controlled island in the Yellow Sea, causing more embarassment for the Seoul government.  The barrage came just months after a DPRK sub torpedoed a South Korean frigate, resulting in the deaths of 46 ROK sailors.  In both cases, Pyongyang scored propaganda and military points, without losing any of its own personnel or equipment.  

This time around, the North is facing a more conservative (and some would say, determined) South Korean government, led by Park Geun-hye, the nation's first female president.  Ms. Park, who took office in 2012, has supported relaxation of military rules of engagement, giving ROK forces more latitude in reacting to North Korean provocations.  

So, it's no accident that yesterday's artillery round from the North received more than 36 in response from ROK artillery units.  The days when South Korean units reacted cautiously to localized incidents--and only after extensive consultations with the Ministry of Defense--are clearly over.  Regional commanders have the right to defend their territory, their troops and local civilian populations, so almost any type of DPRK provocation will receive some sort of armed response.  Of course, this policy does increase the potential for escalation, but there are many officials, at the MOD and in the Blue House, who are determined to avoid humiliations like those endured five years ago.  

The other factors that enter into this equation are the influence of Beijing and Washington.  China remains the biggest patron of Kim's regime, but the Beijing has done little to reign in the DPRK.  This time around, Chinese officials have expressed their usual "concerns," the there is no indication that Beijing is prepared to take more forceful action that would force North Korea to back down.  

Here at home, the Obama Administration has been equally quiet on the situation.  So far, there have been no reports of phone calls between Mr. Obama and President Park, and there are apparently no plans to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry (or other senior officials) to Northeast Asia for talks.  It is worth noting the U.S. and Seoul postponed plans to put American forces on the peninsula under the command of a South Korean general, a move that was supposed to occur in 2015.  The fact that an American general is in charge of ROK defenses has long rankled many in the South Korean political and military establishment.  When the postponement was announced last fall, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the command transfer would eventually occur, after ensuring ROK forces have the resources necessary to address an intensifying threat from the DPRK.   

Having a U.S. general still in charge of the combined defense structure gives Washington a bit of leverage in the situation, but no enough to prevent South Korean forces from responding to a new provocation from the North.  In fact, this latest stand-off may turn out to be a new challenge for the Obama-Clinton-Kerry School of Diplomacy, which is tough on U.S. allies and pathetically weak on enemies and rogue states.  Suggestions that Seoul back down could receive a rather impolite response.                        


Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Window Narrows

Sometime next week, an Iranian delegation will arrive in Moscow and sign a contract to purchase the S-300, one of the world's most advanced air defense systems.  Tehran has long sought the S-300, and came close to acquiring it in 2010, cancelling the deal at the last moment due to American pressure.

Flash forward five years.  With the recently-concluded nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran (and the end of economic sanctions), Moscow and its friends in Tehran are ready to do business.  And with upwards of $150 billion flowing to the mullahs, Iran will have ample funds for a variety of political and military projects.  More ballistic missiles with better accuracy?  Check.  Squadrons of new aircraft for the IRGC Air Force?  Ditto.  More assistance for Hizballah.  You bet.  And a state-of-the-art defense system to protect Iran's nuclear site?  The timing of Tehran's announcement is a reflection of the priority assigned to the S-300.

Details from Reuters:

"The text of the contract is ready and our friends will go to Russia next week to sign the contract," Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.


Dehghan said Iran had initially planned to acquire three "battalions" of S-300 launchers, but had since increased its order to four.

He did not specify how many missile launchers would be in each battalion, a standard military grouping whose size can vary depending on nationality, equipment and role.

No timetable for delivery of the S-300 has been announced.  Traditionally, Russia has delivered the surface-to-air missile system to its customers by ship, usually through ports in the Black Sea region.  But S-300 components are air transportable (and with Iran in an obvious hurry to acquire the system), it would not be surprising to see Russian transports flying radars, launchers and support equipment to locations in Iran.  And, with support by contractors from Russia, the Iranians could achieve an initial operating capability in a matter of days.  

While acquisition of the S-300 was delayed for years, Iran has never stopped preparing for arrival of the system.  Approximately three years ago, the Times of Israel reported that Tehran was building a massive air defense training and support facility in southern Iran.  

The new base, located near the city of Abadeh, in southern Iran, will cost $300 million, be home to 6,000 personnel, and host seven battalions, Iran’s Fars news agency reported Tuesday.

The Deputy Commander of the Khatam ol-Anbia Air Defense Base, Mohammad Hosseini, said the base, the largest of its kind in Iran, will also include one of the most important military training centers in the country.

Last month, a senior Iranian air defense commander asserted that all Iranian air defense units and systems are fully prepared to repel possible enemy air raids.

As we noted at the time, Iran already had a fully-developed infrastructure for its aging, American-built I-HAWK SAM system, acquired in the 1970s.  With the I-HAWK at the end of its operational life, it made no sense to invest so heavily in a new base for that system.  On the other hand, delivery of the S-300 would require construction of a new training and maintenance complex.  Presumably, the Abadeh complex is now finished (or nearing completion) and would be available to support the S-300.  

Obviously, news of the S-300 deal has ominous implications for Israel.  Deployment of a modern, mobile SAM system would greatly complicate any IAF strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.  As we've noted in the past, any long-distance Israeli raid would be asset limit, simply because the IAF has only a handful on aerial tankers to support the mission:  

"..With only seven KC-707s in the Israeli inventory (and no more than 4-5 dedicated to the Iran mission), the size of the strike package is limited by the number of fighter aircraft that could be supported by the tankers.  Various estimates put the number of F-15s and F-16s at somewhere between 24 and 42.  However, not all of those aircraft will be putting bombs on target; at least some of the Eagles will be assigned to offensive counter-air missions, performing fighter sweeps ahead of the strikers, to ensure that hostile fighters do not interfere with strike aircraft.  

But Israel may have other options that would preclude a round-robin, non-stop bombing mission.  Some sources suggest that Saudi Arabia might be willing to let the IAF utilize some of its installations as a post-strike refueling stop.  That would reduce tanker support requirements and allow the Israelis to dispatch more attack aircraft, but there are no assurances such a deal has been reached, and cooperation with Jerusalem would come at a high cost for the Saudi government.  Still, given the alternative (a nuclear-armed Iran), Riyadh may decide the risk is worth taking.

Another--and more likely--forward basing option is located north of Iran, in Azerbaijan.  Relations between Jerusalem and Baku have grown close in recent years; Israel is a key customer for Azeri oil exports and the IDF has helped Azerbaijan upgrade its military forces and provides critical intelligence information on Iran.  The Baku government has long been suspicious of Tehran, accusing the Iranians of trying to inflame Azerbaijan's Shia majority, who live under one of the few remaining secular governments in the Islamic world.  Almost three years ago, we noted the growing relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, and most experts agreed that Baku would have no problem with Israel using its bases to support a strike against Iran, provided the IAF presence was limited and not widely publicized."

How does the S-300 change that equation?  For starters, the IAF would have to dedicate more airframes to the SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) role.  Hanging more anti-radiation missiles on the jets would mean fewer bombs on target, even if some of the aircraft are preforming multiple roles.  You don't need to be a weapons school grad to understand that the probabilities of damaging or destroying an underground facility are decreased as the bomb count declines. Meanwhile, the odds of losing aircraft and crews increase significantly once the S-300 becomes operational.  

But that does not mean the new SAM system would completely deter an Israeli attack.  The IAF is very familiar with the S-300.  Along with detailed technical knowledge of the air defense system, Israeli pilots have actually flown against operational versions of the S-300, most prominently during a joint 2013 exercise with the Hellenic Air Force.  The same drill also provided opportunities for IAF crews to practice the long-range navigation and in-flight refueling skills required for a raid against Iran.  

Clearly, the Israelis would prefer to strike Iranian nuclear facilities before the S-300 arrives in-country.  But the window for such an attack is closing, and closing rapidly.  Even an advanced military like the IDF would need a few weeks to prepare and possibly pre-deploy forces to locations like Azeribaijan or the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.  Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down to the arrival of that first IL-76 or AN-124 and delivery of the first launchers, command vehicles and radars.  

The next couple of months should be very interesting in the Persian Gulf.  

Under terms of the catastrophic U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, we are "obligated" to help protect Tehran's nuclear facilities from sabatoge.  But officially, that guarantee does not extend to defending the nuclear sites from air attack.  Earlier this year, President Obama threatened to shoot down Israeli warplanes transiting through Iraqi airspace to attack Iran.  Those promises brought a collective yawn from Israel's military and political leadership; as they have demonstrated on numerous occasions, the Israelis are masters of tactical deception, and quite capable of getting a strike package into Iran without our knowledge.  Of course, the same tactics could--and would--be used against the Iranian air defense network.  That underscores the fact that a raid against targets defended by the S-300 wouldn't be mission impossible--just a mission that would be much more complex, and carry greater risks.            



Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Scandal Grows

***UPDATE//12 August***

According to the Daily Beast, the information in Hillary's e-mails should have been classified TS//SI//TK//NOFORN; or if you prefer, Top Secret//Special Intelligence/Talent Keyhold//Noforn.  In other words, extremely sensitive intelligence, combining imagery and SIGINT, not releasable to foreign nationals.

I'm sure the spooks in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere got a good laugh from that one.


It's no secret that Hillary Clinton believes that rules and regulations apply to "regular folks" and not someone of her exalted status.  The latest example of her imperial ego is on display in the festering e-mail scandal, which (from her perspective) took a turn for the worse yesterday.

McClatchy was among the first to report that two e-mails from Mrs. Clinton's private server should have been classified as "Top Secret" at the time of their transmission.  You may recall the former Secretary of State assured supporters back in March that she "never" sent or received classified material from her personal system, which was completely unsecure.  More recently, the Democrat presidential candidate has parsed that statement, saying she never "knowingly" transmitted classified information over her system.

Unfortunately for her political aspirations, the Inspectors General of the intelligence community and the State Department disagreed, discovering four classified e-mails in the initial sample of 40 they analyzed.  That finding prompted the officials to ask the FBI to look into the matter, prompting an extended debate over whether the investigation was a criminal probe.  Initially, Mrs. Clinton claimed it wasn't, generating enough pressure to force The New York Times to walk back that claim.  But a few days later, another federal source told the New York Post the probe was, in fact, a criminal investigation.

That was followed by Tuesday's revelation that two of the e-mails contained information classified at the Top Secret level.  Predictably, the feds won't go into specific details about the type of data that was discovered, but multiple reports said the messages had references to "satellite imagery" and "operational intelligence."

At this point, a small clarification is in order.  There are actually different categories of information classified at the "Top Secret" level.  "Straight" Top Secret (which does not contain compartmented intelligence data) is often found in operations plans and similar documents.  Intel information classified at the highest level is normally labeled TS/SCI, the acronym for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information--a reference to the intelligence sources and methods used in gathering the information.   The inadvertent disclosure of TS/SCI information could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security, as described in the executive order covering the nation's information security system.  The most recent version was signed by President Obama in 2009.

But exactly what was in those e-mails that warranted the Top Secret classification (or more correctly, TS/SCI)?  The possibilities will raise a few more eyebrows, for various reasons.  Consider that reference to satellite imagery.  Many Americans who've never held a security clearance or worked with intelligence data assume that images from our "eyes in the sky" represent the crown jewels of our intel community, allowing us to read a license plate or identify a particular terrorist from low earth orbit.

Truth is, the quality--and classification--of imagery intel (or IMINT) depends on a variety of factors, including the sensor type, image resolution and whether the report is "fused" with other types of intel data.   Other elements may affect classification as well; if the data was gathered through a particularly sensitive collection effort, it may fall under a Special Access Program (SAP), which further restricts its release.  During my spook days, I remember one imagery program that required those "read in" to access the information in a special vault, inside a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF).

So far, there is no firm evidence to indicate Mrs. Clinton's Top Secret e-mails contained data from a SAP program.  But it is also worth noting that much of our imagery "haul" is classified at the collateral level (Secret) and readily shared with our "Five Eyes" partners.  Apparently, the IMINT information found in those e-mails was not a routine summary based on electro-optical intelligence.

Likewise, there is a certain amount of intrigue regarding the "operational intelligence" cited by the inspectors general.  Operational intelligence is traditionally defined as the information needed to plan and execute military campaigns.  That raises the obvious question of which campaign was being discussed in the e-mail(s); at a minimum, our adversaries likely gained new insights into our military planning and preparation, allowing them to adjust their own strategies.  And once again, the information was extremely sensitive, as indicated by the TS/SCI classification.

In response, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Clinton urged supporters to remain calm.  "There's a lot of misinformation so bear with us," wrote Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri in an e-mail. "There's a lot of misinformation, so bear with us.  The truth matters on this."

Indeed it does, and based on the evidence at hand, most of the "misinformation" (so far) has come from the Clinton camp.  It's quite a journey from assuring the public that no classified information was sent on her private e-mail system, to suggesting it was not done "knowingly," and--barely a week after that statement--agreeing to turn her server over to the FBI.

The Clintons have made a career by wiggling out of various scandals, but it's hard to see how Hillary escapes this one.  Suggestions that the real issue is proper classification markings have been met with howls of laughter by anyone remotely familiar with the handling of sensitive material.  If the e-mails weren't properly marked, it's because the classification was deliberately left off, so classified data could be sent over Mrs. Clinton's unclassified system.

It is a crime to deliberately place classified information on a network that is not cleared for that level of security.  That appears to be exactly what happened as information was exchanged on her network.  As we suggested previously, it is more likely that data from classified reports was paraphrased and re-written in the referenced e-mails.  That's one reason it took the inspectors general several weeks to determine the messages were classified at the time or origin; they had to compare the e-mails with intel reports on similar topics at the time and literally compare them word-for-word.

That process is certainly continuing and it is likely to bring more revelations of classified information on the server--messages that were almost certainly intercepted and read by various foreign intelligence  services.

Just a few weeks ago, former CIA Director David Petraeus stood before a federal judge in Charlotte and was sentenced for mishandling classified information.  As the FBI discovered, the retired Army general shared classified materials with Paula Broadwell, his girlfriend/biographer.  For his crimes, Petraeus was given probation and a $100,000 fine.  Lower-ranking officials have often received prison time for divulging classified information to unauthorized individuals.

As the scandal grows, it is easy to see many of Mrs. Clinton's aides facing a similar fate.  The former Secretary of State will never see the inside of a prison cell, but those classified e-mails will be more than enough to end her presidential bid.


The Petraeus case has one interesting connection to Hillary Clinton's troubles.  The Democratic presidential candidate is being represented by her long-time counsel, David Kendall, the same Washington super lawyer who defended her husband during his the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  He was also General Petraeus's attorney during his recent legal woes.

As Mrs. Clinton began to adjust her e-mail narrative, Kendall told authorities he had possession of a thumb drive containing copies of her e-mails.  Now, with the recent admission that some of those messages contained TS/SCI-level information, could Mr. Kendall be facing legal problems?  Unless his law office is located in a SCIF, the thumb drive entrusted to him was improperly stored.   For that reason alone, he was probably glad to surrender the drive to the FBI.                 

Friday, August 07, 2015

The Meaning of "Marked"

This has not been a good stretch for Hillary Clinton.

While she remains the Democratic front-runner for president, there are continuing signs that some voters are kicking the tires on other candidates.  First came word that Senator Bernie Sanders is now within six points of Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire, a margin fractionally outside the poll's margin of error.  The same survey, commissioned by WMUR-TV, showed Clinton with a double-digit lead over Sanders in the late spring.

And if that's not enough, other Democrats are urging Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to enter the race.  At this point, there is no indication Mr. Schultz is prepared join the fray, but he has been critical of the "lack of leadership" from government and politicians in recent years, and like Donald Trump, he could personally finance a sustained campaign--if he decides to jump in.

Of course, Mrs. Clinton's biggest problem is the on-going e-mail scandal, which shows no signs of going away.  Earlier this week, we learned the FBI is looking into the security of her private e-mail server, which she used as a substitute for government-run networks.  According to the Washington Post, the bureau has contacted the Denver-based IT firm which managed Clinton's server about the security of the system.  Similar queries were posed to her Washington-based lawyer, David Kendall, about a thumb drive in his possession that contains a number of Clinton e-mails.

Sources contacted by the Post were quick to point out that Mrs. Clinton was not a target of the FBI probe.  But another, unnamed federal official, contacted by the New York Post, said the bureau is, in fact, conducting a criminal investigation.  A former DOJ staffer who was willing to speak on the record noted that the FBI is organized to ferret out wrong-doing, not work as a security consultant:

“My guess is they’re looking to see if there’s been either any breach of that data that’s gone into the wrong hands [in Clinton’s case], through their counter-intelligence group, or they are looking to see if a crime has been committed,” said Makin Delrahim, former chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, who served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Bush DOJ.

“They’re not in the business of providing advisory security services,” Delrahim said of the FBI. “This is real.”

With these latest revelations, there was also a slight change in parsing by the former secretary of state. When the scandal first broke, Clinton said she was "confident" she never transmitted or received classified information over her system, which was based on a server at her home at Chappaqua, New York.  But on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton said she never "knowingly" sent or received classified data through her e-mail network.  

And this is where it gets a little fuzzy--by design.  At this point, the fall-back position for Team Clinton seems to rest with the security markings of material that was stored on her server and on that thumb drive in Mr. Kendall's office.  As anyone who has ever handled classified information will tell you, the highest classification level is clearly marked at the top and bottom of each page, and each paragraph is marked as well.  The covers of hard-copy documents reflect their overall classification, and instructions for declassifying are provided as well.  Similar markings are found on electronic versions of classified reports and components of the IT system are clearly labeled to reflect the highest level of material found on the network.  

But let's suppose someone is viewing a classified cable or summary, either in hard-copy form (or electronically), then summarizes the material in a new document or e-mail on an unclassified network.  Do the classification rules still apply?  Of course they do, and more importantly, the individual who placed Secret, Top Secret, or Top Secret/SCI information on the non-secure system has committed a crime.  

However, it is unlikely investigators will find complete, classified documents in the e-mails of Hillary Clinton or others who utilized her network.  For starters, most government computers handling classified information--including those at the State Department--do not allow the uploading or downloading of documents through flash drives or similar devices.  There are obvious exceptions; transgender traitor Bradley Manning copied thousands of documents onto CD-RW media and memory cards for a digital camera, then passed them on to Wikileaks.  

Another recent turncoat, Edward Snowden, also exploited weaknesses in the system to get the information he was looking for.  Working for a defense contractor at NSA, convinced a colleague to let him borrow his log-in credentials.  That gave Snowden access to NSANet, and some of the crown jewels of American intelligence.  His position as a network administrator also allowed him to utilize thumb drives to "move" documents from one system to another. In a matter of weeks, he accumulated literally thousands of intel documents.    

For Hillary and her associates, the process was more convoluted.  The FBI inquiry was requested by the Inspector General of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), after his staff found classified information on four e-mails provided by Mrs. Clinton (out of a sample batch of 40).  Based on the IG's cryptic description, it appears that information found in those e-mails was similar to that contained in classified intel documents.  That seems to suggest the person(s) who placed classified material on the network simply summarized or paraphrased material they viewed in hard copy, or on systems like SIPRNET (which handles Secret-level material), or JWICS, which is cleared for TS-SCI.  Quite naturally, there were no page or paragraph markings--why call attention to an illegal act?

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

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

Ignore the spin.  This is not a matter of ensuring that classified material was secure; it's a question of who deliberately placed sensitive data on a non-secure network and engaged in that practice on a recurring basis.  But determining guilt may be more difficult that you'd think.  Unless there was a system administrator moving classified documents from State Department systems to the Clinton server, investigators may be compelled to compare original intel documents with the e-mails, line-by-line and word-for-word.  In response, Mrs. Clinton and her cronies may claim they thought the information was unclassified (nod, nod, wink, wink), and literally dare DOJ to press charges.  

And there's the rub.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch may decide to take a pass on filing charges, or drag out the investigation over many months, announcing a decision after November, 2016.  That is not to say that Hillary Clinton is off the hook, but given DOJ's recent record in prosecuting any number of Democratic scandals, any day of reckoning is far down the road--if it ever comes.

But Ms. Lynch can't do anything about the damage the e-mail issue is inflicting on Hillary's campaign.  Her opponents smell blood in the water, and more revelations may destroy her latest White House bid, regardless of what happens with the FBI probe.                 



Wednesday, August 05, 2015


What a surprise.

What a shock. 

Or, as the stenographers in the mainstream media might say, this is certainly an unexpected development, like any increase in the unemployment numbers.

But in reality, the latest news out of Tehran won't surprise anyone, with the possible exception of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who keep insisting the nuclear deal with Iran is a good thing.

In fact, the President was on the hustings again this morning, delivering an hour-long speech that was nothing more than a feckless sales pitch for the nuclear accord.  At times, his reasoning was almost incoherent, claiming the nuclear deal "builds on the diplomacy that won the cold war"  Huh?  We won the Cold War largely because Ronald Reagan refused to accept the reasoning of the striped-pants set, who claimed the Soviet Union was here to stay, and we had not choice but to make nice with Moscow.  Reagan sensed the failed Soviet system was at a tipping point, and engaged in moves that infuriated Kremlin leaders and pushed their regime beyond the point of collapse.

But we digress.  Failing to pass the Iranian deal, Mr. Obama asserted, would "pave the way" for the mullahs to get a nuclear bomb.  There was a certain, bitter irony in that choice of words, since the agreement backed by the President and his secretary of state puts Iran on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power for the next 10 years.  After that, Tehran can blithely stroll into the nuclear club--if they don't do it in the near term, by running a parallel, covert development program (as many believe they are), or simply renouncing the deal as a political expediency, then launching a breakout capability that would deliver a nuke in a matter of months.  

Not to worry, Mr. Obama would argue.  We have the means to ensure Iranian compliance (never mind the provision for 24 days notice ahead of inspections.  Or the fact that some facilities may be off limits.  Or that Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have reached sidebar agreements--never approved by the U.S.--that may hinder our ability to monitor Tehran's development efforts.

Or that Iran will simply obfuscate and cheat, as it always does.  Indeed, President Obama's teleprompter was still cooling off when Eli Lake and Josh Rogin penned a column for Bloomberg, warning that Iran was already sanitizing portions of a key nuclear site:

"The U.S. intelligence community has informed Congress of evidence that Iran was sanitizing its suspected nuclear military site at Parchin, in broad daylight, days after agreeing to a nuclear deal with world powers."


Intelligence officials and lawmakers who have seen the new evidence, which is still classified, told us that satellite imagery picked up by U.S. government assets in mid- and late July showed that Iran had moved bulldozers and other heavy machinery to the Parchin site and that the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Iranian government was working to clean up the site ahead of planned inspections by the IAEA.

A senior intelligence official, when asked about the satellite imagery, told us the IAEA was also familiar with what he called "sanitization efforts" since the deal was reached in Vienna, but that the U.S. government and its allies had confidence that the IAEA had the technical means to detect past nuclear work anyway.

Another administration official explained that this was in part because any trace amounts of enriched uranium could not be fully removed between now and Oct. 15, the deadline for Iran to grant access and answer remaining questions from the IAEA about Parchin.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told us Tuesday that while Iran’s activity at Parchin last month isn’t technically a violation of the agreement it signed with the U.S. and other powers, it does call into question Iran’s intention to be forthright about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

It wouldn't be the first time Iran has engaged in this type of subterfuge.  More than a decade ago, government officials suddenly bulldozed a suspect facility at a university in Tehran, after opposition groups said it was being used for nuclear weapons research. 

Mr. Obama claims the agreement is built on verification, but it's difficult to confirm what Iran is up to when inspectors have to give Tehran more than three weeks' notice of pending inspections--and the regime is already hard at work sanitizing sites inspectors may be allowed to visit.  Additionally, it would be very helpful to know what is in those "secret" agreements between Iran and the IAEA.  For all we know, the international atomic watchdog agency may have granted "friendly" terms to Tehran, further limiting the scope of inspections, further limiting our ability to ensure Iranian compliance.

But don't worry about such trivial details, Mr. Obama might say.  If the Senate doesn't approve the accord, he claims, the only other options is war.  So, we need to keep the mullahs happy and sign on to a badly flawed agreement and worry about the consequences later.  In the interim, there's a presidential legacy to burnish, and Mr. Kerry is waiting for a phone call from the Nobel committee. 

As Charles Krauthammer observed a few weeks ago, President Obama wants another achievement for his administration; Secretary Kerry wants a Nobel Peace Prize (as a possible springboard into the 2016 presidential race) and Iran wants a nuclear bomb.  Sadly, it looks like everyone will get what they want.  And millions of Americans, Israelis and Gulf State Arabs will have to live--and die--by that calculus.            




Sunday, August 02, 2015

Scapegoating 101

It may not be Rule #1 at the highest levels of federal government, but it's certainly in the Top 10, and it goes something like this: if a recent event or scandal promises to unveil something that may be particularly embarrassing, change the narrative.

We saw that a couple of days ago, when Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign decided that the waning days of July would be a great time to release some recent income tax returns and a note from her doctor, assuring everyone that Mrs. Clinton is physically ready for the rigors of the presidency.  Why the sudden document drop?  It was a desperate move to change the meme.  With the e-mail scandal heating up again--amid disclosures that a number of e-mails sent over her private server contains classified information--Team Clinton was looking for something that would push the e-mail controversy to the back burner.

So far, that strategy hasn't worked, but it doesn't mean the former Secretary of State and her handlers won't stop trying.  And other bureaucrats will give it a shot as well.  If you need proof, look no further than the on-going investigation into the recent shootings at a military recruiting office and naval reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee which killed four Marines and one sailor.

Barely two weeks after the rampage, many are wondering why the FBI (and other participating agencies) won't acknowledge the obvious--namely, that gunman Mohammed Abdulazeez was a lone-wolf terrorist, radicalized by the rants of former Al Qaida cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, whose sermons he downloaded and listened to in the months leading up to the Chattanooga attack.  The Obama Administration's reluctance to label it as terror was hardly surprising; after all, this is the same group that described the 2009 Fort Hood massacre as "workplace violence."

But in the last 24 hours or so, the Chattanooga investigation has taken a sudden and rather bizarre turn.  While federal agents are still investigating Abdulazeez and his motives, there is a new element in the case which has left many observes stunned and furious.

This latest twist has nothing to do with the shooter, his religion and what led him to open fire on the recruiting office complex and naval reserve center.  In fact, the latest element focuses on an individual who should be hailed as a hero--a man whose actions may have saved countless lives in the terrible moments when Abdulazeez crashed his rental car through a gate at the reserve base and began opening fire.

We refer to Navy Lieutenant Commander Randy White, identified as the commander of the reserve center.  According to press accounts, Commander White and a Marine tried to defend the complex, returning fire with their personal weapons.  For their actions, they deserve the Navy-Marine Corps Medal (at a minimum), but instead, White may be facing disciplinary action for discharging a weapon on federal property.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel (and former Congressman) Allen West was the first to break the news, based on information from sources within DoD.  Since the base is technically a "gun free zone" (except for security forces and others authorized to bear arms), Commander White was violating federal laws when he tried to defend his command.  The Marine who returned fire was (reportedly) one of those killed and so far, the Pentagon has been careful not to smear the reputation of a fallen hero.

But the real question is why?   To be fair, any investigation of this type must take a look at how base personnel responded to the attack, and determine its impact on how events unfolded.  But hints that Lieutenant Commander White is facing possible charges are not only premature, they suggest another motive may also be a work.

Predictably, social media erupted when news of White's legal troubles surfaced, and it's a fair bet that conservative print and broadcast outlets won't be far behind.  But why pick a fight with pro-military and veterans' groups that are already leaping to the commander's defense?  It's a confrontation that DoD (and their bosses in the White House) are bound to lose, but they seem determined to play that card, no matter what the cost.

And that brings us back to changing the narrative.  By suggesting that Lieutenant Commander White may be facing charges, senior government officials have successfully changed the focus of the Chattanooga investigation, at least temporarily.  That should make everyone wonder what new revelations are about to drop, in terms of the shooter's travels and affiliations, and security measures in place at the reserve center at the time of the attack.

As we learned in the days followed the shooting, the reserve base was a largely undefended target, putting sailors and Marines at risk.  Abdulazeez was able to crash through an unmanned gate at the facility and open fire.   To date, DoD has said nothing about why the gate was secured with nothing more than a chain and a padlock, and the tepid response of base security personnel.  It was Lieutenant Commander White and that unidentified Marine returned who fire from inside the perimeter and it was the Chattanooga Police Department--in pursuit of the suspect--who finally cornered Abdulazeez and shot him dead.  Base security--based on what we have learned so far--was AWOL. 

Keep an eye on the Navy's "prosecution" of Randy White in the weeks ahead.  It will provide a convenient distraction while far more serious revelations about the attack dribble out.  Sad to say, but it won't be the first time the feds have sought a scapegoat in a terrorist strike against the U.S. military. In the aftermath of the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, much of the attention focused on Air Force Brigadier General Terry Schwailer, the on-scene commander at the time of the attack.

General Schwailer was preparing to relinquish command to his successor when the massive truck bomb went off outside a dormitory housing USAF personnel, killing 19 airmen and wounding dozens more.  The official U.S. inquiry, led by retired Army General Wayne Downing, claimed that Schwailer should have done more to prepare for a possible attack.  At the time, many observers (including your humble correspondent) felt that General Downing delivered a fair assessment.  But over time, it became clear that the Downing investigation was influenced by political pressure from Washington, and the final report was clearly a rush to judgment.

As the designated scapegoat for Khobar, Schwailer paid a steep price: his name was removed from the promotion list for major general and he retired as a one-star.  Over the past 20 years, he has waged a protracted, expensive and (to date) futile effort to clear his name.  The victims and their families were also denied justice; for years the Clinton Administration ignored evidence of direct Iranian involvement.  It wasn't until 2006--a decade after the attack--that a federal judge ruled that Iranian officials were behind the plot, and allowed the victims and their families to seek damages from the Tehran government.   

Why was Bill Clinton so reluctant to put the blame where in belonged?  Because that would mean keeping a promise to launch military action against those responsible.  Clearly, Mr. Clinton wasn't prepared to attack Iran, so evidence of Tehran's culpability was suppressed for years.  In the interim, the military's focus on the actions of General Schwailer provided a convenient distraction.

Twenty years later, the same scenario may be playing out again.  The government clearly knows more about the Chattanooga attack than it has shared with the public and some of those details may be damning.  So, it's time to go after a military guy and change the narrative again.

More on the vindication of General Schwailer from 2008.  While a military corrections board ruled he was treated unfairly and should have received his second star, the government challenged that ruling and so far, the courts have sided with the feds.