NSA: Goodbye to All That

November 30, 2015–So here we are, on the cusp of the demise of the National Security Agency’s blanket eavesdropping. At midnight tonight the most recent federal law takes effect. The phone companies, not the NSA, will now hold on to your telephony data, with the spooks only able to access it by warrant.

Of course, the changes are primarily cosmetic. The security services can still call up your data. The most significant changes are three: the phone companies will not preserve the data as long as the NSA was doing; the spooks are enjoined from going beyond two “jumps” in seeing who’s talking to whom; and, without direct possession of the database, the spooks will no longer be able to play different association games at a whim.

We’ll see how this plays out.

Already–as you’ll have read here–our top spies are exploiting the Paris attacks to assert, without furnishing any concrete evidence to that effect, that rules are tying their hands. In previous posts I’ve asked the question of whom they think they’re working for. Let me add here that our fearless (fearful?) leaders also seem to have forgotten that rulemaking is standard in a democracy, and following the rules must be the essence of the operation of a spy agency in a democratic nation. If we discover later on–most likely through a whistleblower–that our spooks have conspired to recreate their database by means of “strategic” subpoenas designed to get hands on slices of the database that can then be melded together, we will know a conspiracy took place to evade the new restrictions, paltry though they may be. Stay tuned.

Do They Work for Us? (2)

November 20, 2015–Just a short thing today. John Brennan of CIA is getting much too much mileage out of his tirades on alleged “limits” curbing intelligence effectiveness. The fact is that, if there is blame to be assessed for the Paris (and other) attacks, it is to the CIA, U.S. and Western intelligence at large for failing to appreciate ISIS. The fact is that the Pentagon inspector general right now is engaged in an investigation of the degree to which senior officers at Central Command suppressed the views of intelligence analysts who warned of the morphing ISIS challenge. The New York Times has already carried several lengthy exposes of U.S. intelligence failures over ISIS. Only the reality that Mr. Brennan no longer heads all U.S. intelligence (he commands only the CIA) prevents his being directly responsible. But guess who is? That would be Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Fearful Leader. No doubt his consiglieri Robert Litt is getting ready to tell us that General Clapper was thinking of something else at the time.

Meanwhile, also since the Paris attacks, FBI chief James Comey has come out of the woodwork yet again to blame it all on encryption of telephone devices. Today’s Washington Post contains the latest round of charges but ends quite usefully by quoting a senior Silicone Valley executive who says the cellphone encryption programs were in development well before Edward Snowden’s leaks and had no impact on their introduction. Considering the time it takes to design, operationalize, and perfect a product, I have no difficulty believing that. The Snowden affair literally had nothing to do with the predicament the intelligence agencies find themselves in today. That’s worth keeping in mind.

And one more thing– where is the evidence–not just jeremiads but evidence–that the Paris attacks were planned using high level encryption programs? The shootout in which the terrorist Abbaaoud perished shows every sign of an incident in which security services had complete knowledge of their target, not likely if police had been stumbling around blindly.

CIA: Do They Work for Us?

November 17, 2015–Readers here will have seen me from time to time lamenting the antics of people like Fearful Leader–Director of National Intelligence James Clapper–or agencies such as the CIA and NSA. It’s time to do it again today. It seems the security services have forgotten that they work for the American people, and not the other way around. Let’s be certain no mistake is made here.

Yesterday at a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CIA director John O. Brennan used the occasion of the Paris attacks to make strident demands for new powers of investigation, intrusive and insistent. It is stunning–and shabby– that the CIA director should use the tragedy of the Paris attacks to advance these demands. They involve a question already asked and answered. There was a presidential decision. It went against the CIA. Who does Brennan work for?

I let pass an opportunity to comment some weeks ago, when the current FBI director, James Comey, went around demanding that the NSA and FBI be given the power to dictate encryption standards for communication devices, or at a minimum that the security services have a “back door” built into encryption programs so they can surreptitiously read messages people think are secure. I thought the issues had been thoroughly aired in the debate after the Snowden affair. Congress has passed a law. In the last week the Courts have again ruled the NSA eavesdropping unconstitutional. And even President Obama, friend of the intelligence agencies, ruled against Comey’s demands.

Then come the Paris attacks. Yesterday I commented on Fearful Clapper latest mongering. Afraid even to reveal his name, Mr. Clapper set the stage for Brennan’s CSIS appearance, and his remarks spy chieftain Brennan presses for the same things Comey did. As if the decision had not already been made. As if CIA can force Obama to reopen the question. As if the security services can reargue any issue until it comes out the way they want. It’s the same arrogance CIA displays over declassifying its dirty laundry on torture.

At Reuters I posted a piece on manhunts in the wake of Paris. There is good reason to suppose the attacks will end up damaging the jihadi perpetrators far more than the French republic.  This is with only the presently-existing techniques. (And, indeed, I am not aware the security services, U.S. in particular, are short of any technology or authority they need to find the bad guys.) Do not listen to the fear mongers!

Syria–Fools Rush In

November 16, 2015–Lots of you-know-what is flying in the wake of the ISIS attack in Paris. Here in the United States we have pundits speculating that how to deal with ISIS has supplanted all other issues in the political campaign for the next president. Mitt Romney, a loser in the last presidential race, advocates for “whatever it takes” to beat the hell out of the shadowy adversary. And here is James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence, the Fearful Leader–who is now so afraid he’s willing to appear only as an anonymous source in the New York Times. The Paris attacks, Clapper says, are “a game changer.” He goes on, “We have to look hard at what happened in Paris, at the trajectory of the group and the potential threat it poses to the entire international community . . . . Paris shows that they can attack soft targets on any day, anywhere, including in any major American city.”

Clapper wants “a greater sense of urgency in how we go about trying to combat these kinds of attacks.” Great. The first thing we need is more forthrightness and much greater consistency. The intelligence official an anonymous source? As I’ve said before, Mr. Clapper is about scaring people. –And his “attack any day” comment does exactly that. But where is the consistency? The intelligence community said–and General Clapper has more recently denied–that CIA pulled people out of China after the Chinese hack of United States personnel records, which would have revealed the identities of CIA undercover agents who’d been issued security clearances. On ISIS more specifically, an investigation is currently underway into senior officers at Central Command suppressing intelligence of the surging radical group, substituting a complacent view instead.

As with the intelligence so with the policy. The United States was not going to intervene in Syria. Then it did. The U.S. was going to help Syrian defeat the Assad government. Then CIA and the Pentagon, each with their own programs, stopped short of providing effective aid out of fear of helping some other radical group. The U.S. professed itself to be against Assad but its strategy effectively helps him. President Obama denounces Assad’s chemical weapons and sets a red line where he’ll bomb if the Syrian government utilizes such munitions. Then Assad did that but Obama stayed his hand. Then, after not bombing, the U.S. begins to drop on Syria because of ISIS, not chemicals. More recently, with evidence ISIS has used chemicals, there has been no evident U.S. response. Washington declared it would send no troops to Syria. Another policy honored in the breach. And Obama pulled out of the Iraq war, so now he goes back in.

All this fighting has generated a massive wave of refugees, and at this writing it appears ISIS inserted some of its own militants into the flow. That’s a classic spook tactic which, if Fearful Leader did not expect it, then Clapper is even more of an idiot than I make him for. During the Cold War the Soviets and East Germans did that with the flow of displaced persons out of Eastern Europe and later East Germany. The Vietnamese inserted people in the refugee stream during the Southeast Asian troubles. The Soviets did that against the Afghan mujahedeen in the Afghan war of the 80s. Pakistanis have done it against the Indians and the Indians right back.

More useful is to unpack just what the potentialities are. The other day we asked if the various recent attacks were related–a multifront activity sort of like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. That seems to be true. Evidence being uncovered in Paris right now is confirming the ISIS link of some of the militant attackers. We’re at the point that the fair assumption is that infiltrators are past the checkpoints and able to move about to targets. The ISIS propagandists have done a good job of radicalizing citizens of other countries in place. This has been looked at as a recruitment mechanism for the war in Syria, but it’s better as a tool for mobilizing in-place helpers for militant fighters entering for the next link in this unrolling overseas offensive. To the degree that Fearful Clapper’s maunderings mean anything this is it.

But there are important distinctions between now and then. This is not Tet. ISIS militants do not possess global logistics, global financing, or an in-place network of cadres the way these things existed across South Vietnam during the war there. That adds up to something more like a special operation–like 9/11–a one shot deal. Unlike Vietnam, the adversary cannot strike at will and repeatedly. Capabilities may differ in certain specific locales, places like Beirut or Cairo, perhaps France or Britain with the culture wars in those lands in recent years. More likely the capability, once used, will be expended.

Also probable is the expiration of “sleeper cells.” That is, the massive security crackdown that has already begun, in search of information, will haul in so many fish that the resulting data will reveal such capabilities ISIS may have in the West that were not employed in the Paris attacks. Some sleeper cells may survive the security blanket but the much greater likelihood is that such networks as ISIS may possess will be significantly degraded.

Finally, look at the nature of the “target set”–unfortunately harsh language that represents the way military planners view reality. Bars and restaurants, a music concert venue, a sports stadium. The Estade de France, the highest profile target, also had some defenses,  and there the militants failed completely. Places they succeeded had no protection at all. ISIS congratulates itself that it struck dens of iniquity, but the truth is it made lemonade out of lemons.

This is not the “game changer” that Fearful Clapper wants us to believe in. We are seeing a wave of one-off incidents, separated in time and locale, against innocents who bore no ill will. The most likely change in the game will be to stimulate political movements likely to demand intervention in Syria, or conversely to heat up culture wars in the West. Perhaps that is the true aim here. If so it is still misdirected, for Muslims oppressed as a result of resentments triggered by ISIS are just as likely to blame the Syrian militants.

Meanwhile, France has already made a start with a new wave of bombing in Syria. The United States will be right behind. Even Israel is jumping on the bandwagon, using the opportunity to curry favor with European states that have been scandalized by its policies in the Occupied Territories. But as discussed here on other occasions, the United States in particular, and the West in general, lack a coherent strategy that leads to an attainable goal in Syria. It is foolish to rush in without considering that. The other day I wrote that here it feels like the moment in the Vietnam war just before the Tonkin Gulf Incident, a time the pressure for escalation is palpable but the successful way forward is not. I want to repeat that judgment here.


The Attacks– Are They Connected?

November 14, 2015–Just the other day I was wishing a French friend “Happy Armistice Day.” Now I have to say, “Aujourd’hui nous sommes tous parisiens!” The drumbeat of senseless attacks is distressing. Our hearts go out to all French people, including Muslims, all African varieties, and Caribbbean and Indian-Pacific ones as well.

But I just want to raise the connectivity issue. The targets of all the recent attacks share one characteristic–they have acted against ISIS/ISIL.

The Russian airliner belonged to a country which, while primarily attacking other Syrian rebels, is supporting the Assad government, and that also means opposing ISIS. Indeed, just to look even-handed the Russians have run some of their strikes against ISIS targets.

Hezbollah in Lebanon, of course, intervened in Syria in favor of Assad and that puts them on the outs with ISIL. The bombings in Beirut a few days ago were aimed at suburbs where Hezbollah are dominant.

France is only the latest. The French took their first military actions just very recently. Considering the scouting, planning, and preparatory work which had to have gone into a simultaneous attack on multiple targets in Paris, ISIS must have been expecting the French to adopt the course they have, and must have begun preparations before the French did much in Syria. To come full circle, ISIS has now guaranteed that whatever misgivings the Hollande government might previously have had against intervening in Syria, these will be stilled.

Readers of this space will know that in the wake of the bombings in Istanbul which preceded the recent Turkish elections, I speculated the deep state might be responsible. The Erdogan government blamed ISIS. I will say it is true the targets of that bombing, the Kurds, are indeed involved against the islamists in Syria and Iraq both. Though I’m not yet fully convinced, in the context of the latest bombings it seems more plausible the Istanbul parade strike might have been ISIS-related.

Watch out for near-term terrorist actions against the United Kingdom, which has joined the Syrian alliance as well; the United States; and Iran, which backs the Hezbollah group. If ISIS were plotting a strategy to strike at each of its enemies, those are the missing ones.


Eyeless in Syria

November 5, 2015–Walter Pincus is a senior reporter for the Washington Post. He focuses on defense and intelligence matters. I met him one time, when we both shared a podium at the International Spy Museum. In small talk Mr. Pincus marveled at the ability of authors to wait months and years for their works to arrive in print. Pincus averred that he feels bereft if the paper appears without something from him in it.

The other side of that coin, though, is that when you publish something every day you end up stretching the material, and your ideas, and at some point you go beyond the pale. In the Post on November 3 there is an example. Pincus has an article which earnestly assures the reader that President Obama does have a strategy in Syria, and that there has always been such a strategy. Since 2011, Pincus declares, the strategy has been to end the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and in 2012 Mr. Obama added the use of force to degrade and defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). The Pincus doth protest too much.

These pious words obscure the incoherence of United States strategy in Syria. In the first place Pincus confuses goals with strategy. Both things that he names are aims of policy. Strategy is a means to achieve those aims. Since learning a few days ago that the U.S. will send some Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Syria I’ve been meaning to write something on this, and the Pincus story offers a good opportunity.

Mr. Pincus quotes a statement released from talks last week in Vienna among the warring Syrian factions (minus ISIS) which declares that the Syrian people will decide the future of their country. That indeed has been Obama’s stance, and it stands unchanged since the time of the Arab Spring. The problem has been that the Syrians proved unable to settle their future, deadlocked for long enough that outside forces like ISIS could create a foothold and then move to control Syria themselves.

President Obama’s response at every stage of the Syrian developments has been to increase the U.S. profile in hopes of empowering favored Syrian factions. First the encouragement of local allies. Then a CIA covert operation, then a Pentagon one, then the return of U.S. troops to Iraq, after that U.S. bombing, then the creation of a coalition to widen the action envelope, now the introduction of SOF into the area.

This ceased being all-Syrian action a long time ago. And actually this moment–even its Special Forces component–has the feel of Vietnam just before the Gulf of Tonkin. Then, in 1963-1964, you had the same phenomenon of an intractable situation, with U.S. officials and military people arguing that the more the United States could control actions the nearer we would get to our goals. This unilateral action strategy led to the infamous OPLAN 34-A, specifically designed to use SOF to disrupt the North Vietnamese adversary.

The problem in Vietnam, just as in Syria today, is that there is no charted avenue for U.S. actions to lead to Washington’s goals–hence the incoherence of strategy. In both cases, Washington’s response has been to escalate in hopes of success at a higher level of violence. The Syria imbroglio has led to widespread destruction and a wave of refugees fleeing the country. Let us hope that that tragedy leads to some deeper thinking in Western capitals, because so far this incoherent strategy has only brought a mess.