Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What difference does it make, Indeed!

It was an interesting spectacle. Arguably the most senior and powerful Republicans in the land, with 5 months to prepare, arrayed against the Democratic Secretary of State over a diplomatic and intelligence disaster. She successfully dismissed them with a wave of the hand and a single question they could not answer: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

I have been thinking about that very question for several months now. This is not a problem that unfolded with an exchange of cables, over several days, a half a world away. The Department of State, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, the National Security Council – they all followed events in real time. They knew it was 9/11; they saw the riots elsewhere; they knew about the sensitive meetings at the consulate and operations taking place at “the annex;” they read the concerns about security; they heard the calls for help. It may have been the middle of the night in Benghazi, but it was evening in DC, when senior people were still awake and working and available. Whether they saw it live on “Predator TV” or not, senior leadership knew what was happening.

And they got together and crafted a cover (“it was just a protest that got out of hand”) that they aggressively peddled to the press, the American people, and the world – a cover they stuck to for weeks, after it was clear that the story was not true. The Secretary of State actually posed (and quickly dismissed) the key question of the whole event. Why go to the trouble of creating a cover story? Why take the heat for sticking to it? You create a cover story to cover something up. What truth were they hiding? “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

A lot of difference, I suspect. The truth could make a lot of difference.

A variety of reports suggest that up to 30 people were working at the classified annex. Those people, many apparently injured, were hustled out of Libya and are now hidden. As one senator previously said, “I was shown that building and told not to talk about it.” When asked about the annex in testimony, the Secretary said, “I don’t know – you will have to ask the agency that owns it.”

As a rule it is not wise to speculate about intelligence operations. Nobody knows for sure, so why take a chance on compromising the mission or the people? But in this case, the enemy already knows these answers. It is only the American people who are in the dark.

So– what was the annex doing? An early report said that one of the dead SEALS had told a friend he was looking for Surface-to-Air-Missiles (SAMs) from Gadhafi’s astonishing arsenal which is still flooding the Mideast with everything from rifle ammunition to sophisticated Western military technology. Suppose the SEAL and his coworkers found those weapons. (At least one Syrian aircraft was shot down on camera by a SAM.) Then what?

Well, let’s examine some pieces to the puzzle. To overthrow Gadhafi, the US partnered with some very sketchy characters – many radicals (some reports said members of Al Qaeda), and some members of the Egyptian Brotherhood who have opposed America for years. Libya is awash with weapons. The classified annex may very well have been tracking and acquiring them. The Ambassador’s last meeting was with the Turkish ambassador – not in the capital where the embassies were located, but out where the guns were being tracked. Several news stories suggest that Turkey is providing a safe haven for the arming and training of Syrian rebels. The common vulnerability among the rebels in the field and the training facilities in Turkey is to attack by aircraft or missiles. The US and NATO are worried enough about such an attack (especially with chemical weapons) to prompt deployment of a Patriot missile shield. The Syrian government is being backed by Iran, to the point of a declaration that any attack against Syria will be regarded as an attack against Iranian soil. The US desperately needs a counter to Iran – as do Iran’s Sunni enemies in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many other MidEastern countries. These enemies include radicals (and even terrorists) who have worked against the US in the past, but now have a common interest in containing Persian power. They might well consider helping the US counter the Iranian nuclear program (which some reports suggest suffered a massive blow from terrorist attack earlier this week).

Is your head spinning yet? Well back up and see how these pieces might fit together.

       It is quite possible that the Administration has a secret strategy in the Mideast to counter Iran. Under that strategy the US has “led from behind” by supporting the rebels in Libya (who sold us Gadhafi’s guns& ammo), the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (who overthrew Mubarak, have supported other US priorities in the region, and will now receive F-16s and M1 tanks as a reward), the rebels in Syria (who we are training and arming and assisting with air defense), and others.

        What others? Ah –there’s the rub. We have been tracking bad guys in this region for a long time. We have lots of names of individuals and organizations in our data bank. Many of them have been declared terrorists, and supporting them in any way – money, weapons, intelligence, etc. – is a violation of law.


        Can you say “Iran Contra?”

        In that 1985 adventure, members of the Reagan Administration sought a “strategic opening” against radical Iran, by selling weapons to “moderate elements” of a radical regime – in violation of Congressional direction. Fourteen Administration officials were indicted and eleven convicted

Today the same law that the Administration is using to sanction Iran and countries doing business with Iran, also sanctions many people and groups by name. (See the Treasury Department list at . Also scan this -- 7 years old but still captures the meat of the issue.)

Doing business with the people on this list - for profit or not - is against the law. Perhaps that is what the lies were (and are) covering. Perhaps the President and his team were not just caught with their security down resulting in some deaths. Perhaps they were caught violating US law on a massive scale.

Of course, the President may have issued a classified Executive Order or some other directive arguing an exception to the law. But politically, that would be almost as bad. Imagine the news story: "The President knew he was violating the law in secret and wrote himself a 'get out of jail free' card in case he was caught."

And in the unlikely event that this educated guess is correct, but he didn't take such measures -- if he just took it upon himself and his team to make this decision, betting he would not get caught -- then he broke the law, might be found guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors," and could be subject to . . . (drum roll please . . ..)

Now let me be perfectly clear (as a successful politician once said): I have no secret source of classified information. I’m not making any charges. I’m just trying to follow the logic. But there is a big hole in the information presented so far. That's why the cover story and the truth make a difference, Madam Secretary.

If the President and his team thought something important enough to create a cover story, and were worried enough that they kept it up in the face of contrary evidence during a Presidential campaign, it makes a difference. If the American people are being drawn into commitments in a volatile part of the world without their knowledge, it makes a difference. And if the President’s very aggressive second term agenda were side tracked by a special prosecutor, that would make a difference too.

        Too bad none of the questioners could take time from their prepared remarks to answer the Secretary’s question. What difference does it make, indeed!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Although it is difficult for me to say, and even more difficult for me to believe, I have spent more than 40 years in close contact with bureaucracies. That includes federal, state, and local bureaucracies, business organizations, and private groups. They range from the highest levels of the Department of Defense to the lowest level of neighborhood watch; from military planning organizations to university faculty committees; from national level think tanks to committees at a local church. I have discovered one absolute Iron Law of Bureaucracy: bureaucracies exist to serve themselves first.

Now that is not to say that all bureaucracies are bad, or that people in bureaucracies are not to be trusted. I've met many members of bureaucracies who spend most of their lives seeking to serve the law, the Constitution, their fellow citizens, and their fellow human beings. Mother Teresa worked in, and was supported by, a bureaucracy. 

But even members of a bureaucracy with the best of intentions operate within a fundamental logic which says: resources are finite; requirements are not; the more resources a bureaucracy has the more good it can do. As a result, bureaucratic leaders are in a constant hunt for money, people, office space and missions – always looking to justify retaining the resources they have, and expanding those resources when possible. In my 40 years of bureaucracy watching, I remember exactly one organization that reduced staff, reduced wages, cut expenses and returned unused money on its own. Its director was preparing to leave.  But for the most part, suicide is not in the bureaucratic DNA.

 In times of austerity, the hunt intensifies. For organizations whose contribution may not be evident on a day-to-day basis, retooling their arguments about mission and contribution can become a matter of organizational life and death. You can see it right now in the US Navy, which is pressing hard for a national strategic “Pivot to Asia,” which would justify keeping the resources they have, and even taking resources from the other services, to pacify that hotbed of instability, the Pacific Ocean. You can see it in the US Army, which is rushing to demonstrate its utility by aligning each of its major units with a continent, as though a brigade with a special understanding of Algeria would be able to transfer that understanding to Nigeria or South Africa.  And you can even see it with the current military crown jewels – our Special Operations Command – as they begin to form a unit for transferring the counterterrorism knowledge and procedures they developed in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Mexican military and police battling cartel violence south of our border.

According to reports from several usually reliable sources ( , and others), an informal program of counterterrorism exchanges between US Special Ops, and Mexican military/law enforcement personnel is being transformed into a formal program  of training and advice (if the Mexicans will take it.)

Now before we go further, as a veteran with 34 years in uniform, let me express my admiration of, and gratitude toward, the men and women of the US Special Operations Command. While lots of organizations deserve credit for their decade long contribution to keeping us safe here at home, SOCOM deserves special applause for their special contribution under especially trying circumstances.

But that said, our record of providing military training to agents of other countries in order to use them for our purposes has not been good in recent years. 

·         In Iraq, some of the people we trained are now using their skills to oppress ethnic and religious rivals.

·         In Afghanistan, our training programs have provided the vehicle to get our enemies close enough for “green-on-blue” (Afghan-on-US) killings. In fact, the police and military we trained are so thoroughly penetrated that we have begun new background checks on tens of thousands of people already in our pay. 

·         In Mali, troops and officers we trained didn’t just quit the battlefield – they staged a coup against the government we supported and took their US issued weapons with them when they changed sides. It appears that weapons and training we provided are coming back to bite us in the . . .  hip pocket.

·         Indeed, the most professional drug cartel in Mexico (the Zetas) was created by Mexican special ops solders we trained in the US and elsewhere, who then found they could make much more money free-lancing than working for the government.

            And by the way, according to one of the articles (and my own limited experience), the Mexican government, fully aware of how penetrated their institutions are at every level from their President’s office to the local police, is being cautious about embracing this Special Ops training program.

So why do it?

Well one answer is bureaucratic inertia. (And remember, “bureaucratic” is not always a bad word. Being “bureaucratic” is what we are paying our government employees to do.) In 2008 the Bush Administration signed the Merida Initiative, easing the flow of US military training and equipment to Mexican anti-drug efforts. This new effort could be seen as an expansion of a program that has so far provided less than both sides had hoped.

Another answer is bureaucratic frustration. To their credit, many in the military see the war on drugs as one that might be won – at least in the areas of production and distribution. They are frustrated by world-weary partners on both sides of the border who are satisfied with the status-quo. Our special ops in particular have honed an interagency process that has driven a skilled and determined enemy from pillar to post around the world. And they want to use it against a new enemy who has frustrated less sophisticated campaigns.

Finally there is the motive of bureaucratic expansion – which brings us back to the opening paragraphs of this essay, and the idea that what bureaucracies do best is find new needs for their services  . . .  and new reasons for additional resources. The Washington Post article sees this new initiative as another in a series of efforts to migrate special operators from their decade of service in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to new missions, even as the rest of the military fights post-war contraction and multi-billion-dollar budget cuts.”

And then the article adds: “The new headquarters will also coordinate special operations troops when needed for domestic roles like rescuing survivors after a natural disaster, or helping the U.S. Coast Guard strike ships carrying suspect cargo just outside U.S. territorial waters . . ..”

Special Operations teaching interagency targeting to Mexican law enforcement.  And “domestic roles” inside the US.  Oh. 
You know guys . . . as much as I admire you . . . and I really do . . . I’d just as soon not. We already have dozens of law enforcement agencies trying to sort out who we can trust without your creating a centralized targeting system where who knows who will have access.  And we already have hundreds of thousands of first responders at the federal, state, and local level, backed up by the entire conventional forces of the Department of Defense for response to disasters. I am not convinced that we need your specialized equipment diverted to domestic missions. Or your specialized skill set. There are lots of bad guys who need the full attention of our special operations forces overseas. Let’s keep the bureaucracy focused there, shall we?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Who’s in YOUR Wallet – Cyber attacks on banks

While we watch politicians stand in line to develop questionable solutions to the problem of violence in America, it is easy to forget that some very bad people are constantly trying to do us harm from overseas.  But they are.  And it is working.  Here is how we know.
According to a recent article by Ellen Nakashima (an excellent reporter of homeland security issues for the Washington Post – see  ), several large banks have  approached the National Security Agency and asked for help securing their systems from outside attack.
For years, businesses in general, and financial businesses in particular, have resisted calling law enforcement in the wake of cybercrimes. The reason is simple. If you call the police to investigate a break-in at your home, and they see something illegal during their visit (say, too many pet rabbits for a local city ordinance), they are obligated to investigate your “law breaking,” too. And their investigation goes to the prosecutor, whether they catch the burglars or not.  Now assume you are a bank with hundreds of employees, thousands of depositors, and millions of transactions. Would you be thrilled to have an FBI team taking an electronic stroll through your records? How do you think your depositors would feel? Think it might hurt business for people to know:
1)      The electronic defenses of your bank have been penetrated and accounts may have been accessed.
2)      So federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies are combing through bank systems and depositor records.
Anyone who says “You have nothing to worry about if you are not guilty,” doesn’t understand tax law.
      So what does it tell us when six major banks (Bank of America, PNC Bank, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, HSBC and SunTrust according to the Washington Post article) consider going to the feds?  It tells us that we as a nation have a problem. A big problem.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) considers 18 sectors of our national “enterprise” to be Critical Infrastructure (CI). ( CI is defined as: “the assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, public health or safety, or any combination thereof.”   The sectors include Food, Energy, Transportation, etc. . . . and Banking and Finance.
      Attacks on this sector have been common for years because, to quote bank robber Willie Sutton, “that’s where the money is.” But starting about a year ago – as sanctions really began to bite into the Iranian economy – a new type of coordinated attack emerged. Called a “Denial of Services” attack, these high tech efforts do not go after data or accounts, but seek to prevent the banks from doing business, by overwhelming their computers with what look like legitimate requests for attention.  It is as if a million people showed up to stand in line at the ticket windows of a football game, even though they had no intention of buying tickets. The windows would be shut down, legitimate customers frozen out, the attention of officials diverted, and over time, the team owners would suffer significant loss. Since last September, such attacks on the banking industry have accelerated. Some banks (most remain very leery of telling the stock markets who is having the worst problems) are so hard pressed that they have turned to the National Security Agency for help.
      To be clear, the NSA is an intelligence agency, not a law enforcement agency. It has long monitored the communications of opponents overseas and performed other services so secret that during the Cold War many claimed that NSA stood for “No Such Agency.” But since 9/11,  the NSA has stepped to the fore in seeking America’s dangerous enemies abroad and protecting federal electronic resources at home.  And in some cases they have extended that protection to resources that were not owned by the federal government but served a national purpose, like the computer systems of defense contractors.  While exactly what they do is not exactly clear (by design), it appears that for non-governmental partners, they do more consulting and recommending than actual protection. And while their interaction with defense and law enforcement agencies is a matter for classified Congressional oversight, it would certainly be reasonable to expect coordination with those who can investigate, prosecute, and perhaps even retaliate.
      So if we do not know exactly what federal agencies are involved with this new defense effort, or exactly what they are doing, why be concerned about this activity?  Because it tells us two things:
1)      Somebody is making a serious, large scale attempt to attack the economic sinews of the United States.
2)      It’s working well enough to get the full attention of the US government at the highest levels.
It is public knowledge, supported by statements from “unnamed sources,” that both China and Iran have mounted major efforts to penetrate our government computers, our key industries, our university research facilities, and a wide range of our critical infrastructure. Some claim that damage already achieved would be cause for war if it had been done by physical attack. And it is especially interesting that the current attacks as described in the Nakashima article were conducted on specific days in a coordinated manner. This may indicate a military operation, or an exercise for organized forces, or even (as we may have seen in the Russian attacks on Estonia and Georgia six years ago), the contracting out of services to some other agent. (A third party intelligence service? A transnational crime organization?)
            All we know for sure from the two points above is that some very bad people are trying to do some very bad things to the foundations of American power and society. We all ought to be paying attention.
Oh yes, there is a third point.  We might not win.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Looking Forward – Homeland Security in 2013 (3): QHSR

            Left to its own devices, every bureaucracy has its own set of priorities which it would like to pursue, if only the world would leave it alone. A famous saying among military professionals is “Soldiers hate war. It ruins the training schedules.”
            For the Department of Homeland Security, preferred priorities includes reviewing the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) and using that activity to set a new vision for the next four years.
            The origin of the QHSR is found in the history of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) at the Department of Defense.  The QDR itself was the product of concerns by a newly elected Republican Congress (in 1997) that the Democrat-led DOD was not focusing its resources on the proper strategic priorities. The QDR (now due each year after a presidential election) requires DOD to conduct an internal review and publicly explain how its resources are aligned with its concerns, priorities and programs.  (As an aside, the first QDR, released in 1997, added the terms “transformation” and “homeland defense” to our daily lexicon.) The requirement to conduct and release a QHSR was established by law in 2007.
            The QHSR of 2010 (it was released a bit late) identified five major mission areas and a variety of subordinate goals for DHS priority effort over the next four years:
Mission 1: Preventing Terrorism and Enhancing Security
Goal 1.1: Prevent Terrorist Attacks
Goal 1.2: Prevent the Unauthorized Acquisition or Use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Materials and Capabilities
Goal 1.3: Manage Risks to Critical Infrastructure, Key Leadership, and Events
Mission 2: Securing and Managing Our Borders
Goal 2.1: Effectively Control U.S. Air, Land, and Sea Borders
Goal 2.2: Safeguard Lawful Trade and Travel
Goal 2.3: Disrupt and Dismantle Transnational Criminal Organizations
Mission 3: Enforcing and Administering Our Immigration Laws
Goal 3.1: Strengthen and Effectively Administer the Immigration System
Goal 3.2: Prevent Unlawful Immigration
Mission 4: Safeguarding and Securing Cyberspace
Goal 4.1: Create a Safe, Secure, and Resilient Cyber Environment
Goal 4.2: Promote Cyber security Knowledge and Innovation
Mission 5: Ensuring Resilience to Disasters
Goal 5.1: Mitigate Hazards
Goal 5.2: Enhance Preparedness
Goal 5.3: Ensure Effective Emergency Response
Goal 5.4: Rapidly Recover
(This list is from the 2010 QHSR at )

            Until the DHS completes its own internal review of its success at implementing the 2010 QHSR, it is impossible to predict how these missions, goals and priorities will change in the 2013/14 report. The General Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a review of the 2010 effort in 2011, in which they identified two areas for improvement in the process of conducting the review itself. ( )  These were:
1.      Include more stakeholders in the conduct of the review.
2.      Better incorporate risk information into the review and subsequent evaluation of priorities.
DHS plans to address point 1 are unknown at this time. But given their emphasis on “Whole of Community” planning, preparedness and response, it would be characteristic of this Administration to mount an extensive effort to reach out to stakeholders for comment on the draft document.
The incorporation of risk information (point 2) is more problematic. The use of risk in the field of homeland security is a complex undertaking which may be doomed to bad publicity (if not outright failure) by its very nature. The issue deserves a longer explanation in a subsequent post. But here is the problem in short:
·         Because there is not enough money, time or resources to protect against every possible bad event, a system for categorizing risk and prioritizing efforts is essential for rational homeland security.
·         But by the very nature of risk management, some events which are “low risk” but INEVITABLE receive scant attention and support.
·         When these inevitable events do take place, no one will want to hear “But we prevented or prepared for an even worse event.” 
Instead, officials will seem dense and out of touch for their failure to prepare for and respond to a disastrous but unlikely event – like Hurricane Sandy. And politicians will race before cameras with promises to “cut the red tape” for which they themselves are responsible.  They will castigate the slow response and recovery plans which they themselves approved. This is exactly what happened after Sandy.
DHS has one major new tool available for the 2013 QHSR report – a National Strategic Risk Assessment (NSRA), released in late 2011. The idea is to establish an accepted rubric and formula to assess risk, and use it to formulate better priorities. DHS efforts in this area have been admirable. But the formula, process and outcome of risk calculation are classified, so those conducting the analysis will never be able to defend their choices by saying, “Yes but look at the worse situation which we prepared for or forestalled.”
A great example of this disconnect is playing out in public right now. The only unclassified chapter of the NSRA includes a score of identified high risk concerns and priorities. But the list does not include a story like Hurricane Sandy, even though the 15 National Threat Scenarios which the NSRA replaced identified and described an event that looked much like Sandy.
So where does this leave us in trying to anticipate major homeland security issues in 2013?
     It leaves us guessing about the future of homeland security this year, precisely because of the issue raised in the first sentence of this posting.  Ready or not, the world will intervene on DHS’ plans this year, especially in the form of political responses to unexpected events. 

Looking Forward – Homeland Security in 2013 (2): Budgets

The second area to watch for homeland security news in 2013 is in budgets. Many people assume that DHS and DOD budgets are about the same. In fact the DHS budget is roughly $59 billion, while the DOD budget is roughly $525 billion. Thus the US spends about $9 on DOD for each $1 spent on DHS. (At the height of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ratio was about 15:1.)  About $39 billion of the DHS money is available for “discretionary spending.” The rest is required for accounts like retirement .  The money goes to fund the following DHS agencies and programs:

  •  Customs and Border Protection (CBP); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the Transportation Security Administration (TSA);Coast Guard (USCG); Secret Service (USSS); the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), which includes Infrastructure Protection and Information Security (IPIS) and the Federal Protective Service (FPS); the Office of Health Affairs (OHA); the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS); the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC); the Science and Technology directorate (S&T); the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO); departmental management, Analysis and Operations (A&O), and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

            It also provides a variety of grants, and here is where we can expect one significant change in 2013.  When DHS was envisioned in 2002, President Bush said he foresaw homeland security spending of about $100 billion a year (in 2002 dollars). Expenditures would be about 1/3 by the federal government, 1/3 by state and local government, and 1/3 by private industry. If you draw a line between this original estimate and the 2013 budget, you will see that after adjusting for cost increases, the 2013 federal government expenditure is a bit high but not far off the mark set in 2002. State and local spending, however, do not come close to the 2002 estimate. Homeland security spending by private industry hardly registers at all. Much of the spending that does take place at the state and local level is funded by DHS through (federal) grants. And here’s the rub. A good share of state and local programs and equipment purchased with DHS grants requires later DHS grants to sustain operations. (This includes personnel positions in many areas.)

            This matters because DHS grants are in decline, and will no doubt be reduced again in response to further budget pressures in Washington, DC. For example, most DHS grant funding goes through the states, but the Urban Area Security Initiative passes funding directly to metropolitan areas, as does the Metropolitan Medical Response System. Both of these programs are under significant budget pressure, as is funding for the Citizens Corps. This umbrella for local programs (like Citizens Emergency Response Teams – or CERT) speeds immediate local response to emergencies.  As state and local governments and private industry are unlikely to make up this reduced funding – and in fact are likely to reduce the low level of funding they themselves already provide – homeland security capabilities outside of federal agencies are likely to decline in 2013. This is a shame, since many of these grant programs are both efficient and effective, especially at the local level.