June 22, 2012

Turkey, the CIA and Syria - upping the ante

Syrian rebels with folding-stock AK-47 assault rifles

So, it's just not our government that is afflicted with intelligence leaks. The latest revelations not only are sourced to American officials but also to Arab intelligence sources. I suspect in this case, Arab refers to the Saudis, who have been out front in supporting the Syrian opposition with the three things you need for any successful insurgency: money, weapons and training.

According to the reports, a small group of CIA officers are operating "secretly" in southern Turkey. I added the quotes around secretly since that descriptor is now overcome by events. The officers are there to make sure the weapons being provided by countries that are providing lethal aid - not the United States - are not falling into the wrong hands inside the Syrian opposition. In other words, they are trying to make sure that weapons only go to certain Syrian groups.

While that sounds like a good idea, it's is unrealistic. Once we provide the weapons to the opposition and they are moved into Syria, there is no effective control over them, unless we are willing to send our officers into Syria with them. That does not appear to be the case, at least not yet. I would not be surprised that if we have not already inserted CIA or special operations troops into Syria, we will do so in the near future.

The misguided notion that we can control who gets the weapons perpetuates the fantasy that the United States is not providing "lethal" assistance to the Syrian opposition forces. We are directly providing medical supplies, communications gear, advice and of course, money. Money is a fungible commodity - it is moved easily and once dispersed is virtually impossible to track. So who knows what they are buying with the money?

Of course, the government claims that they have assurances the opposition is not buying weapons with our money. So, the opposition buys nonlethal things with our money and uses the Saudi money that they would have had to spend on those nonlethal things - freed up by our contribution - to buy weapons. It's a kabuki dance that we have done for years all over the world.

According to the Arab intelligence officer, "CIA officers are there, and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people." Yes - that's what intelligence services do; this is why we have intelligence agencies. This should come as no surprise to anyone - I would be shocked and disappointed if we were not doing these things.

And to make the situation in Syria even more tense....

Turkish air force RF-4ETM Simsek (Lightning) reconnaissance aircraft

Syrian air defense forces shot down a Turkish air force F-4 operating from Erhac air base in southern Turkey. Erhac is home to both F-4 fighter-bombers and the unarmed RF-4 reconnaissance version. I suspect this was a reconnaissance flight from the 173rd Squadron flying along the Syrian border collecting intelligence on the situation inside Syria. This intelligence collection may be in support of the potential future imposition of a no-fly zone of parts of northern Syria.

The Turkish RF-4 has excellent standoff sensors, so there would be no reason to violate Syrian airspace. The aircraft are equipped with the Israeli-made Elbit Condor-2 electro-optical and infrared long range oblique photography system and the Israeli-made Elta EL/M-2060P synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator systems. These state-of-the-art systems are exactly the types of sensors an intelligence collection manager would want to use to monitor events in Syria.

The aircraft was supposedly shot down near Ra's al-Basit, which is about five miles south of the Turkish border on the Mediterranean coast. The border in this area, although well-marked on the ground, is irregular and takes sharp twists and turns. The pilots may have inadvertently cut one of the corners too close for the Syrians. Since Syrian surface-to-air missile brigades do not fire without higher authorization, the Syrians knew what they were doing.

Even if the Turkish plane was over the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast, geopolitics come into play here. Although there is a border, the Syrians do not recognize it. The area, called the sanjak of Alexandretta, is claimed by both countries. After diplomatic squabbling between the French and Turks during the period of the League of Nations mandate in the region, the area became part of Turkey in 1939. I remember attache functions in Damascus in which the Turkish attaches would storm out of the gathering if the Syrians displayed a map with the sanjak as part of Syria (which they always did).

It gets better. While most countries, including Turkey, recognize territorial waters and airspace as limited to 12 nautical miles from shore, Syria claims it territorial waters and airspace extend to a distance of 35 nautical miles. The aircraft could have been in what Turkey (and the United States) recognizes as international airspace, while Syrian authorities believed they had entered Syrian airspace.*

If the Europeans and Americans are looking for an excuse to declare a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, or intervene in some other manner, today's shoot down of a Turkish air force aircraft constitutes an attack on a NATO nation. The other NATO nations are obligated by treaty to come to Turkey's defense.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians are going to be killed or wounded before the world acts to stop the Bashar al-Asad regime. Today's events only highlight the hair-trigger situation.

* From time to time, the United States Navy sails warships and flies combat aircraft along the Syrian coast (as we did off Libya for years) to demonstrate our right to be in these international waters. Thus far - and intelligently - the Syrians have not challenged these freedom-of-navigation operations.

June 20, 2012

Stagnation in Egypt - no real solution on the horizon

Presidential candidates Ahmad Shafiq and Muhammad Mursi

First, there was an election in Egypt, albeit somewhat contrived by the ruling military leadership. Only candidates that had been qualified by a commission appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were allowed on the ballot. Out of those, two emerged as too close to call and were forced into a runoff election, the results of which are supposed to be released on Thursday, June 21. So what you had was a contest between candidates approved by the military, a runoff supervised by the military, and now the results to be announced by the military.

In Egypt, as in many of the countries in the Middle East, the military is the ultimate arbiter of power. The SCAF stepped in to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of former President Husni Mubarak. They alone wield power in Egypt. If they are not happy with the results of the elections - and indications are that they are not - they will simply alter reality and remain in power. There is no coalition of political organizations or entities in the country capable of challenging the quite capable Egyptian armed forces. They are quite capable because we, the United States, trained and equipped them.

There was great dissatisfaction among the electorate in Egypt as the voters went to the polls. Most of the people believed that the SCAF had severely and arbitrarily limited their choices. With the runoff, their choices were limited even further - you could vote for a former general and Mubarak regime official (Ahmad Shafiq), or a representative of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (Muhammad Mursi). Many of the people that stood up to the Mubarak regime in Tahrir Square last February don't believe that either Shafiq or Mursi represent what they envision as the future of arguably the most important country in the Arab world.

The SCAF is aware of this - these generals are neither stupid nor tone deaf. However, despite a large Islamist presence in the armed forces, the Egyptian military is not likely to favor the imposition of an Islamic state in Egypt. There are practical reasons that parallel the social and religious reasons for which they do not favor such governance. Several Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood leaders have advocated the abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel.

This policy goal is fraught with danger. That peace treaty is the funding mechanism for about $1.3 billion of U.S. aid annually to the Egyptian armed forces. Without the treaty, there is no reason for the United States to continue to fund the Egyptian military. Also, without the treaty, Israel will have to reallocate its defense resources from countering threats from Iran and Syria, and add Egypt to the mix. As I said, Egypt has large and capable armed forces and pose a real threat to the Israelis. The Egyptians will not be able to defeat the Israel Defense Forces on the battlefield, but combat between the two will be expensive for both sides, expensive in both blood and treasure.

From the Egyptians with whom I correspond, it appears to me that most of the people that were in Tahrir Square are not going to be happy whatever the outcome. They do not want what they consider a "remnant" of the Mubarak regime, that being Ahmad Shafiq, nor do they want a radical Islamist in the person of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi. So what is the option? Do they favor the military stepping in and setting aside an election, basically squelching the voice of the people?

We have already seen hints that the SCAF is considering changes to the basic structure of the Egyptian government, reducing the power and authority of the president while retaining most of the real power for themselves. How will this play in Washington? The Obama Administration faces a dilemma - they did not support long-time American ally Husni Mubarak when the people rose up against the regime. Are they now going to side with the SCAF to prevent the installation of an Islamist government that threatens American interests in the region? Tough call.

My crystal ball is a bit cloudy. I don't know what will happen in Egypt. I do know that the people are not happy with the SCAF. They did not like the limitations on the number of candidates in the first election that has led to the runoff. They do not like the impression that if Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi emerges as the winner that the SCAF will move to limit his power. The people do not necessarily favor an Islamist government, but they do not like the fact that a group of generals are deciding the fate of their country in essence without the people's input.

My personal preference would be the installation of a moderate, secular government headed by Ahmad Shafiq, although he was not my first choice in the general elections - I favored Amru Musa. We do not need an Islamist-inspired or dominated government on the border of a key American ally - Israel - nor do we need the principal power in the Arab-speaking world to be an Islamic state.

At some point, we as a country have to decide - are our interests more important than a pure democracy in Egypt? Again, tough call. I'm going with American interests. Not a real solution, I know, but it's better than chaos.

June 3, 2012

Intelligence and the Obama Administration - Amateur Hour?

The recent spate of revelations of successes, failures and inner workings of the U.S. intelligence community highlights a trend of what I assess is a series of controlled leaks for political purposes. The release of such sensitive data may have some political expediency for an Administration desperate to win re-election, but the ramifications are greater than these political hacks realize.

Let me pick out some of the more egregious examples of "too much information."

We all remember the December 25, 2009 failed attack by "underwear bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab, a Nigerian trained by al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and inspired by radical American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi. Al-Mutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear while on board a Detroit-bound airliner. After immediately reading the terrorist and would-be mass murderer his rights, thus limiting our access to whatever intelligence information he possessed, the FBI revealed that the device malfunctioned because of a flaw in its detonator design and the fact that the PETN explosive charge got damp during the flight.

A professional intelligence agency would never have revealed that information, however, the FBI is not really an intelligence organization. Although it has an intelligence role, when all is said and done, the FBI is a law enforcement organization focused on collecting evidence and prosecuting cases. I fear that telling AQAP that their detonator design was faulty was a major factor in the 2012 case that I will address later. (More in my earlier article, Al-Qa'idah members - criminals or combatants?)

It seems the Obama Administration could not wait to tout its success in foiling a terrorist attack on the United States, when in reality, it was just blind luck. The fact that the perpetrator's own father had tipped an American embassy about his son's possible recruitment as an Islamist terrorist and nothing was done with that information points out a colossal intelligence failure, not a success.

One of the most shocking intelligence leaks - in my opinion, an authorized, calculated release of sensitive intelligence and operational security information - came just hours after the May 2, 2011 successful raid into Pakistan that resulted in the death of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin. The Administration could not wait to describe the raid in great detail, revealing heretofore unknown special operations capabilities, the type of intelligence materials gathered at the Abbottabad compound, and most shockingly, how the Central Intelligence Agency had mounted an impressive on-the-ground surveillance and agent operation in the Pakistani city unbeknownst to the Pakistanis.

It got worse. In January, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (he was the CIA director at the time of the raid) revealed on national television the identity and role of a recruited U.S. intelligence asset. It defies logic, and borders on the criminal. See my earlier article, Breaking faith: the CIA and the Pakistani doctor.

Now we hear that the Administration has granted unparalleled access to sensitive information for a movie production company to produce a feature film about the raid, highlighting again the successes of the Obama Administration possibly at the expense of operational security and protection of intelligence sources and methods. The movie was originally scheduled to be released just before the November elections. Is it any wonder that people are cynical of this Administration and its ability to safeguard America's secrets?

In the spring of 2012, it was revealed publicly that the CIA (with Saudi and British assistance) had penetrated an AQAP bombmaking cell, the same cell that was responsible for "underwear bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab. Excellent work, until it came to taking credit. Again, the Administration described the source in great detail to the point that there is no way AQAP has not figured out who the penetrant is. Rather than engineering an arrest or some other operational conclusion to the case, the Administration claimed victory and released too much operational information, compromising sources and methods in the process. We also may have unwittingly validated AQAP's success in perfecting their previously-faulty detonator design. See more inmy earlier article, CIA penetration of al-Qa'idah - how about "need to know?"

The latest "authorized leaks" concern a previously extremely close-hold American capability in the information operations arena, sometimes referred to as "cyber warfare." This involves the Flame and Stuxnet computer attack programs targeted against the Iranian nuclear program dating back to the previous administration. Why are we hearing about these sensitive capabilities in the New York Times? Why has the Obama Administration not directed the Justice Department to investigate the sources of the leaks, about whom the Times writes, "None would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day." Is there no concern for our ability to use these capabilities in the future?

This disregard for operational security is reminiscent of Congressional leaks that ended intercept of Usamah bin Ladin's satellite phones in 1998. At that time, I was in charge of a Defense Intelligence Agency counter-terrorism effort targeted against several organizations posing threats to U.S. forces overseas, including al-Qa'idah. The loss of the ability to collect and exploit bin Ladin's communications hurt our ability to track al-Qa'idah and determine its plans, indirectly leading to the failure to detect and prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001. These leaks are that damaging.

The leaks, in my opinion, must be the work of Administration political appointees managing public perception or those connected with the Obama re-election campaign. No professional intelligence officer would countenance these leaks - the consequences are too dire. Those of us who have done this for a living will not even hint at some of our sensitive intelligence operations even decades later. The loss of the information would be severe, and the threat to the sources is real. This is not an academic exercise - people die or spend their lives in prison. Look no further than Pakistan and Dr. Afridi.

I can only imagine that Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper is pulling out what remains of his hair. I worked for General Clapper several times over my career. He has spent almost his entire adult life in the intelligence community - he gets it. How he copes with what appears to many of us as "Amateur Hour at the White House" is beyond me.