Thursday, September 5, 2013

Thinking Again about Cyber War

Several recent media articles suggest that any physical attack on Syria would be preceded by cyber attacks. That is, the initiation of a kinetic war would begin with acts of cyber war. 
I first began thinking about, and engaging experts on, cyber war issues in the mid-1990s, when the National Defense University created a small school to serve as a sort of "Cyber War College."  Main stream faculty (I don't mean that in a bad way -- the people best respected as voices of accepted strategic thought) rejected the approach out of hand.  They just did not see cyber as a big issue in current or future military operations.  Remember -- this is the period where we were having a bitter debate about replacing the 35mm projectors in every classroom with computers and PowerPoint slides. 
            I took a different approach.  I supported the guys running the cyber learning experiment and learned as much about it as I could . . . but was very skeptical of what I saw developing, for three reasons.  
            First, I sensed a traditional American belief that we were going to create and control this technology and dominate everybody else.   That's not the way defense technology has worked in the past.  Ask J. Robert Oppenheimer, “The Father of the Atomic Bomb,” and he will tell you that, “if you build it, they will build it too”.  In fact, while our Department of Defense has been developing world-class cyber capabilities for the military, our cyber defenses of industry, finance and critical infrastructure have been losing ground.  Any cyber counter-strike will come against the American economy, and impact the American people more than the American government. The result is not likely to be pretty on our end.
            Second, the concepts I saw emerging were primarily operational with very little strategic thought.  No one seemed to be asking “once we develop and use cyber weapons, what happens next?” What would be the consequences, and the unintended consequences?  General Eisenhower initially thought of nuclear weapons as just bigger bombs.  But  President Eisenhower, quickly realized that the use of a nuclear weapon requires thinking about much more than the size of the explosion. He had to think of the Soviet response . . . what would happen next?  Nations have spent centuries developing schools of strategy for the use of conventional weapons. Modern politicians, strategists, and citizens have spent six decades developing and publicly debating strategies for using (and deterring the use of) nuclear weapons.  But all discussion of using cyber weapons has been classified and confined to the relatively few operators involved. Almost none of our citizens, traditional defense experts (think tanks, academic researchers, congressional and military staffs, etc.) OR THE MEDIA have been involved in thinking about how to use these weapons, and what will happen next. This means that what happens after we use our cyber capabilities will come as a surprise to everyone . . . including us.
Third, what disturbs me most about this new approach to warfare is that we can never know ground truth about what weapons exist and what weapons are used. If you think sorting out who used chemicals in Syria is hard, try determining:
-- Who turned off the electricity to a hospital and killed patients?
-- Who open the gates of a hydroelectric dam and flooded villages downstream?
-- Who seized control of a nuclear reactor and caused the core to melt and explode?
Last spring an American general claimed that the US could enter an enemy command and control network and prevent the launch of a missile with a nuclear warhead. A rational listener might wonder if we could just as easily enter the system and launch that missile on our own. If Iran ever launches a nuclear weapon against Israel, I expect them to go to the UN immediately and claim that US cyber experts actually did the dirty deed.  Who do you think the world would believe? How would we prove our innocence?

I am not against developing or using cyber capabilities. Defensive cyber capabilities, in particular, are absolutely essential in today's world. And I am not against operational secrecy.  There is no need to telegraph our punch when we are preparing for war.
But an unpredictable, invisible, untraceable, and poorly understood weapon is a dangerous weapon. Before we turn enthusiastic operators loose to experiment with acts of war in the volatile Mid East, I would like to see a bit more discussion of the capabilities, rules and constraints of cyber war with the people who will ultimately pay the price for either the success or failure of this venture.
That would be the citizens of the United States.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rip van Winkle and a War of Choice

ThinkingEnemy is back. Unexpected personal and academic responsibilities interrupted my production of this blog for 90 days. Thanks to those who contacted me to say they missed it.

            I feel like I have awakened to find myself in a future that looks like some weird version of a bad dream from the past. The Secretary of State is standing before the world proclaiming he has no doubt that a foreign leader has chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction and is willing to use them – actually has used them on his people. And we MUST act against this moral outrage. 
            Except the foreign nation did not use WMD against us, and has not threatened to do so. And no independent source has confirmed the incident or who did it.
But the Sec State has the “slam dunk” intelligence – really – if we will just trust him. Surely no pressure on the Intel community to “cook” any answers, right?
            And the Secretary of Defense is saying that the military is ready to go – except it is not clear what the military would do. “Punish” a dictator fighting for his life and that of his minority tribe and allies? Which, in this case, includes indigenous Christians, and the Russians, and the Chinese.  Who would ever think we could get those three groups to cooperate . . . against us?  Quite an achievement.
Is the intent of our action to shift the balance of power in the war?   In favor of which side? The collection of lunatics and thugs who oppose the dictator?   This is not about supporting brave French Resistance fighters trying to oust  their enemy and ours, the Nazis. Or even helping Afghans of questionable pedigree against our Cold War enemy, the Russians.  This is more like the Bloods and Crips, skinheads and Black Panthers, white supremacists, anarchists, drug cartels, and Al Qaeda all dividing into two sides to fight each other, and asking us to support one of those sides. What good thing could possibly happen next?
Of course, there are some differences between the last bad dream and this one. For example, when the US attacked Saddam, we had a fully prepared, fully equipped, and fully funded force. The mightiest military in the world hit Saddam with the strongest blow it had, short of nuclear weapons.  That effort ultimately failed because America did not understand the mess we would inherit if our plan succeeded. This time, however, we are bearding the lion and his allies in his den with a much depleted force. Two-thirds of our flying squadrons were grounded last summer.  Most of our Army has been told to plan for a permanent reduction in readiness.  And the Navy has no carrier to commit to this fight today because it had no money to send a battle group to sea three months ago. So the message we seem to be sending Assad is:  “You better fight this war and lose under our rules, or else . . . well, just don’t you make me say what else!”
Another difference between this “war of choice” and the last is that in 2003 our UN ambassador was ready to explain to the world how the dictator we opposed threatened us and the world order. This time our UN rep has said . . . well, she hasn’t said anything.  In fact, where is our UN representative? Do you really believe the lame story that she is touring Ireland with family? And the world press is unable to find her – and doesn’t want to because she deserves her privacy? Where are the paparazzi when we need them?
Whether you agree with her or not, you must admit that Representative Samatha Power’s entire life has been devoted to establishing and maintaining international norms to prevent atrocities against civilians. So in the crowning moment of her life – with the US about to use its military to enforce international norms she has championed -- she is on vacation?   I don’t think so. I suspect that our UN rep is somewhere negotiating something with someone in secret. Why doesn’t that make me feel better? 
Maybe in the best possible case, UN Rep Power will step forward from behind the curtain (from where we are leading), and announce Assad’s peaceful departure. Surely the rebels would not commit any “moral obscenities” that require our severe frowning as they take control of the country. Surely they would not make Syria a base to project the hate they have spewed toward the US and Israel in the past.
A final weird thought floating though this waking-dream is that maybe Congress might have a role in the decision to launch a military attack against a foreign regime that has not attacked us. I’m not going to trot out the old “War Powers” argument, which the different political parties invoke when it suites their political ends, and ignore when it does not. Actually, I suspect that many in Congress are happy not to have their fingerprints on this one. If it works, great – they called for it.  If it doesn’t – tisk, tisk, they didn’t vote for it. Congressional involvement would delay any action until Congress opens after Labor Day, or require Congress to convene early for this specific issue.  But I am not proposing any specific Congressional response, I am just asking, for the good of the country, should the President really go out on a limb like this without the support of the nation’s elected officials? In what sort of a dream world is that a good idea?
Now here is the last bizarre twist in this bizarre dream, where we threaten an act of war against a country that has not threatened us, and that fact is secondary news behind the shaking of Hanna Montana’s furry underwear. Russia and China must be scratching their heads over our behavior. We do nothing in response to a million deaths by machete in Rwanda, and take no action when our Ambassador is murdered in Benghazi, but commit an act of war in response to an unproven use of chemicals by somebody in an incident that touches no American life. I understand that there is an academic logic in calling for collective action in support of international norms. But there is a long stretch between that theory and the reality of sending troops and killing people on the other side when no direct national interests are involved. If I were Putin, I would be looking at the US the way the US looks at North Korea.  What will the Rogue State do next?
(The logical response for the Russians, by the way, is to build more military force, draw brighter “Red Lines,” and fire the occasional warning shot. I suspect the era of “resetting” relations with Russia is over.)
I guess I am fully awake now. And that means I have to deal with one more reality of this situation – Assad’s response. Every action against an opponent generates a response – sometimes a preemptive response. The best case, or course, is that Assad resigns and departs. He would have to leave behind his fortune and his people to the tender mercies of the worst of the rebel opposition. (Remember the rebel who killed and ate a Syrian soldier on YouTube?) And he would have to trust someone’s guarantee that he will not end up in the dock facing war crimes prosecution in The Hague. I guess it could happen.
More likely, I suspect, would be a decision to double down his bet, maybe even using whatever chemical weapons he has on hand before he loses them. He is winning now. He knows that the cost to America of a serious, long-term intervention is high. And there are plenty of players on his team who might even strike back at us and our global interests directly. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has suggested, there will be unanticipated consequences to any American action.
So . . . here we are. Our own dreamers with theories about collective action and policies that create international norms have backed us into a corner where we must put up or shut up. It is a life or death moment for our decades of talk about chemical weapons treaties and humanitarian behavior in war. And that makes it a life or death moment for Assad and his regime and his friends.
           There is no “win-win” solution to this mess. This is not a strategic dream.  It is a nightmare.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Government Abuse of Power: Surprise!! (or maybe not)

            How is the Federal Government abusing its power?  Let me count the ways.

·  The IRS selected hundreds of citizens for special harassment and intimidation based on their personal beliefs, then called the abuse “poor customer service.”

·  The FBI analyzed the phone records of perhaps hundreds of journalists, and the Department of Justice intimidated reporters and their families from a specific news network, in order to identify sources of “leaks,” while senior Congressional and Administration officials routinely leaked information helpful to their political positions without interference.

·  After years of saying they are focused on arresting and deporting the most dangerous of illegal aliens, officials from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement directed the release of hundreds of those people from custody, to include some felons, in order “to save money.”

·  The FAA used the same excuse to ensure sequester cuts strike the American people in a painful way, in order to discourage further budget measures.

·   Some military contractors supporting our troops on the ground in Afghanistan have been told to work only 40 hours per week – DOD is only paying for the war from 8-5 each day.

·  The head of Customs and Border Protection repeated the Secretary of Homeland Security’s claim that the border is the safest it has ever been, while media reports that members of Mexican drug cartels are settling in on US soil to create and control drug distribution networks in the American heartland.

·  ATF(E) agents leaned on reluctant gun shops to cooperate in a scheme to sell weapons illegally, follow the purchasers, and prove American complicity in Mexican drug violence – a scheme that led to the death of an American law enforcement officer, the loss of hundreds of weapons, and no evidence of large scale illegality on the American side of the border.

·  Members of the Department of Defense (and of Congress) used essential budget legislation to by-pass centuries-old prohibitions against the use of the US military for  law enforcement on US soil, while cooperating in a push for greater use of drones and special operations troops domestically.

·  The Departments of Education and Justice pressed for the adoption of “speech codes” on American campuses that would stifle political opposition to Administration positions on social issues.

·  The General Services Administration expended more than $800,000 on a lavish conference in Las Vegas. (Apparently, this was only one of several such events.)

·  The President’s Secret Service detail partied with Colombian prostitutes after an official state visit, in an event that has all the hall marks of being not a one time “mistake,” but a standard practice accepted by the agency culture.

The list of government abuse and over reach goes on and on. Everybody surprised by this turn of events raise your hand.  Well, some hands are up and some are not.  Why?

Because to build a working system of government, you must begin with a vision for how the world works, and why the men and women in the world behave the way they do. Over the last several centuries, Western political philosophers have identified four basic ways to think about interactions between citizens and government. One of those visions – and only one -- predicts what we are seeing today: that without extraordinary efforts and extraordinary leadership, concentrations of government power will always result in extraordinary abuse. That vision alone explains why our government appears to be spinning out of control. Let’s see what the various visions say, and why only one is not surprised by current events.

     1) Aristocrats (and that includes elites created by money and politics as well as those created by birth) hold that the “little people” of society are incapable of ruling themselves or making political decisions. Elites must rule thorough force, laws, and regulations, else average citizens will crash the complex machinery of government and international affairs – machinery only they can run and which rewards them handsomely for their efforts. Elites love BIG GOVERNMENT because it is the means they use to exercise power. They focus on how to grow it, not on how to control it. And they never consider that their self-serving guidance might be wrong.

     2) Liberals hold that society can only function fairly when everyone has an equal say in decisions and an equal claim on resources. That can only happen when all existing property rights and existing notions of morality are destroyed, and all voices representing the existing order are silenced.  This view-point was born as a reaction against the horrible abuses of power by European aristocrats that generated the French Revolution.  Like the French Revolutionaries, modern Liberals seek to destroy the old order so that a new, more benign order can emerge. And emerge it will (Liberals believe), because Mankind is basically good, and when stripped of the evil influences of the Old Order,  peace and fairness will just naturally emerge.  Of course, smashing the old order is no small task. It requires BIG GOVERNMENT, directed by a Liberal elite. If that sounds dangerous, don’t worry – Liberal beliefs and doctrine (their theology holds) will prevent the new elite from abusing power like the old.      
     (By the way, “Progressive” is just the new branding for “Liberal”, after that original brand was tarnished when China and the Soviet Union took their philosophies to a logical conclusion – and failed.) Liberals and Progressives love BIG GOVERNMENT because it makes BIG CHANGES easy. They don’t worry much about big abuses.

     3) A third view of how the world works might be called “Constructivist.” It argues that Mankind is a blank slate, and people can be “constructed” into a more peaceful and perfect model if all aspects of society, from families to education to private industry, are shaped   according to new controls over social interaction. There are many different visions for reconstructing Mankind. Differences between male and female, one vision holds, might be eliminated if gender neutral policies were made and enforced in every aspect of life. A different vision suggests that society might be improved by substituting female characteristics for male dominance in the ordering of things.  Or society might be “constructed” differently by enforcing a new environmental consciousness on social activity. What these differing visions share is a conviction that people have no fixed nature. So completely reconstructing all social interaction will completely change human behavior. Of course, this big task requires BIG GOVERNMENT to enforce the many essential changes that pesky people refuse to make on their own. (As when men refuse to surrender their manhood, competition refuses to surrender to collectivism, and workers insist on ownership of what they have created and built.)

            For those trying to reconstruct human nature, disruption and interference with the lives of ordinary citizens is not considered a danger. It is, in fact, the whole point of government.

            And by the way, many big businesses assumed to be conservative in nature are actually constructivist in behavior. They want BIG GOVERNMENT support and protection in artificially inflating markets, while supposedly benefiting the world from their own growth and profits.

4)     The fourth world view generated by modern Western thinking arose in America from a unique combination of location, timing and events that allowed the fusing of three important developments:

·         The Renaissance, which brought the benefits of science, engineering and learning into everyday life.

·         The Reformation, which taught that because Jesus died for each person individually, each person has individual worth.

·         The Great Awakening, which established broadly the idea that every person has the free will to do either good or evil, and the responsibility to choose between them.

This vision might be called Traditional American Conservatism.  It holds that citizens can use government to protect and even advance societal interests, but must be on guard lest the collection of BIG GOVERNMENT POWER and Man’s natural inclination to abuse that power, turn the master of the government into the slave of the bureaucracy.

            Now here is why this matters to you today.  Three of the four visions for government design and activity created over the last 300 years of Western history, call for the establishment of BIG GOVERNMENT to accomplish their purpose -- all without any thought for how to control the BIG BUREAUCRACY which is sure to follow.  Conservatism alone sees the need to create checks and balances, and responsible leadership to take control over and responsibility for the steadily growing power of the government bureaucracy.

            Unfortunately, much of the discussion about federal government arrogance, over reach and abuse making the rounds today is really a thinly disguised way to punish or protect the current occupant of the White House. 

A better starting point for discussion would be “Does the nature of men and women make any large collection of power suspect – thus requiring responsible leadership inside the organization, and aggressive oversight from outside?”

In other words, do traditional Conservatives have a better vision of how government should be organized and constrained than do those focused on building BIG GOVERNMENT without a thought of controlling it?

            One of the best soldiers I know said of the abuse at the Abu Grab prison in Baghdad, “This did not happen because President Bush and his generals conspired to create a scandal.  It happened because low level soldiers in a big organization knew nobody would be checking on their behavior at 2 o’clock in the morning.” What does this tell us? That the checks, balances and leadership were not adequate to the task.

            Ultimately, we may discover that President Obama and his closest advisers bear personal responsibility for ordering or covering up an abuse of trust granted them by the American people. Or we may not.

            But what seems imminently clear is that regardless of who is in charge, big collections of government power require strong oversight and leaders we can hold accountable. Perhaps we should even avoid creating massive collections of power out of concern for the massive abuses of that power which will inevitably take place.

            That’s a good lesson to remember as we consider the massive concentration of power being planned at DHS for domestic security, and at HHS for the implementation of Obama Care.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An Interview on Radicals & IEDs - Part I

On 30 April 2013 I appeared on Channel NewsAsia, a regional Television news network based in Singapore. In preparation for the show I was asked to prepare answers for several potential questions. Those questions and answers appear below.

Concerning Radicalization:

1. Has the presence of an increasing number of closed circuit TV cameras and security officers lured us into a false of security?
     Just as increased security at banks and shops can discourage criminals and reduce the incidence of crime, increased security against terrorist activities can reduce the chances of successful terrorist attack. But we cannot eliminate all crime, and we cannot eliminate all terrorism. If we think that more security can ever mean perfect safety, then we are fooling ourselves.

2. Can we ever keep up with the terrorists?
     As police officers know, criminals are very innovative. Keeping up with them is hard. Staying ahead of them is harder still.
     But the fact that we have had so few incidents around the world in the last decade shows that a lot of counterterrorist efforts are working. That includes not just local efforts in individual countries, but cooperation in tracking support for international terrorists, the movement of money, the movement of people for training, and so on.
     People often say, “Law Enforcement has to be successful every time; terrorists only have to be lucky once.” But it is also true that every element of a terrorist plan has to work for an attack to be successful. I think the community of responsible nations has done a pretty good job of interrupting terrorist success.

3. What are the dangers of improvised explosive devices, the ease of access to these dangerous devices and the kind of technology that terrorist are using increasingly?
     Military Grade or commercially produced explosive devices are very lethal because of their power and design. They are also very stable – they require a special initiator and do not go off until the user is ready. They are traceable – many contain chemical signatures that can tell experts where the explosives were produced or when. And frequently they are tightly controlled. This makes getting and using high grade explosives problematical.
     Improvised Explosive Devices are sometimes less powerful gram for gram than commercial or military explosives (like TNT) because they are made with materials readily available in stores and markets. But if used in the right place (as in a crowd) they can be very lethal. Also, IEDs might be used in great quantities. It might be very hard to get a truck full of commercial explosives, but relatively easy to mix a truck full of improvised explosives. And users – especially suicide bombers – might not worry much about stability once they are in a crowd.
     Taken together this means that IEDs are very useful in civilian settings – even if less reliable in traditional criminal or military settings.

4. What can we do to curb the growth of self- radicalized individuals? How do we spot one?
     That is a hard question, but the New York City Police Department has published an excellent study that traces the steps of radicalization.
     One of the most important steps is the presence of a key person or organization acting as a catalyst or radicalizer. No one sits alone in a room and becomes a radical. They must be recruited and energized as radicals. And this must be done in public, at least initially, to attract more recruits. The internet is a great resource for radicalizers. That means law enforcement and average citizens can see such attempts and report them or take action.
     The next step for people being radicalized is to seek out people with similar views. It is not profiling for law enforcement to watch known radical groups with known radical views as they attempt to attract and radicalize others.
     Another important step is that people becoming radicalized cut themselves off from friends and family, and frequently talk in increasingly radical terms. Friends and family members always notice this change – and can intervene by themselves or with authorities.
     Radicals frequently need additional training, which may require overseas travel. By itself, overseas travel means nothing. Together with other indicators, such travel to questionable destinations should be a red flag of warning.
     Lastly, radicals working to conduct a terrorist attack must collect the proper materials and train. This is another opportunity to see something wrong and say something.
     So there are lots of ways that we can see that something is wrong and ask good questions before a potential terrorist if fully radicalized.

5. There are signs that the American public now view increased domestic intelligence gathering efforts with deep suspicion because they fear the authorities will target certain individuals or groups. In Singapore, we have a multi- racial society, how can we strike a balance between security and sensitivity?
     American government and society is built on the concept that no one person or organization should have too much power because that power might be abused. So every government organization works within a system of checks and balances. One organization might enforce the law, but another agency provides funding for their activities, and a different agency provides guidance and oversight. This is why American domestic affairs frequently seem conflicted and contentious – the whole domestic system was designed as an “invitation to struggle” for public support. Domestic intelligence collection and action runs at cross purposes with that deep tradition against the consolidation of power.
     Balance may be achieved by robust oversight. Allow the Administrative branch authority to create intelligence assets, but watch them closely from the Legislative brance, and control their growth, funding and other resources to make sure they have only enough power to accomplish their mission. And that oversight must be as public and transparent as possible.
     I am in no position to tell Singaporeans how to run their government and society. They seem to be doing a very good job at this without outside help. But my one recommendation for Singaporean consideration would be to consider maximum transparency and openness in security procedures – consistent with the security mission, of course.

6. Are surveillance and intelligence gathering still effective in spotting early signs (in the case of 26- year- old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he was alleged to be under the watch of the FBI)?
     It is much too early to know what exactly happened in this particular case.
      But as a general statement, I suspect that law enforcement was too intrusive with preventative investigations for the first few years after 9/11; and too sensitive to the complaints of some ethnic groups in the last few years.
     Striking the right balance is hard. I think US law enforcement is still working on finding and maintaining that balance.

7. What role can society then play?
     Citizens recognize normal behavior – and abnormal behavior. They should not be afraid to ask friends and family about strange behavior, or report unusual behavior to authorities.
     An attack in the US was once thwarted because the owner of an apartment – an American Muslim – said, “I am renting to some young men who keep carrying heavy, full suitcases upstairs to their room, and light empty suitcases down stairs This is very strange behavior.” The police discovered explosives and chemicals used to make Improvised Explosive Devices.
     So be involved in the lives of your friends, family and fellow citizens. When behavior seems to have changed dramatically and become potential dangerous, say something. You might save the person being radicalized as well as others who might later become victims.