Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq | Page 2

Understanding the Dataverse: Beirut Explosion and the future of Intelligence Collection/Analysis

As a thought experiment to see what’s coming in intelligence collection and analytics, consider the forensics associated with the recent Beirut disaster.

The event itself was obviously detected instantly by witnesses all over the city.  And instantly, decision makers needed to know:  What was it?  Who caused it?  Terrorists?  State actors?  Will there be follow-on threats?  Are there pending risks to US citizens/interests? 

With emerging capabilities for continuous global surveillance in various spectra, we are approaching a world where, for any given geo-spatial spot, data stores can be intensively analyzed forensically. Moreover with artificial intelligence methods, such troves of data can be searched to find meaning that will answer the immediate questions—such as accountability.  In essence, machines can answer the natural human questions, “Tell be everything relevant about this point and event regarding what, who and why?”  Evolving artificial intelligence searching all the databases on the planet will derive answers regarding correlations that humans could not.  In fact, such analytics will surface relevant questions that were left unasked.  And the answers will be out there in the expanding “Dataverse“. 

Current and historical data on everything is accumulating in the planet’s data farms.  Space-based sensors, both commercial and government are proliferating for imagery as well as infrared and other spectra—and the capacity to store and access such data is proliferating.  Ship

Imagery and audio from the millions of cellphones around the planet offer another surveillance tool.  The proliferation of public and private surveillance cameras has created another obvious data trove.

The location of cellphones all over the planet can theoretically be collected and stored.  When an event of interest occurs how are individual ISP’s (people with cellphones) moving about?  Were there anomalous movements beforehand or afterward?

As more automobiles become directly linked to the Internet of things, movement of all autos can be analyzed with an eye toward forensic analysis.

Imagine all the sources of data that are being collected and stored in the data farms scattered over the planet and then imagine being able to, in essence, run the tape backwards to see how the people and things got to the geo-spatial point where something happened. 

In the Beirut harbor case, how did the material accumulate at the point of explosion?  Incrementally over years?   Who were the people associated with the deliveries?  Shipping data and ship patterns now routinely collected and stored can be searched. (Even for the mildly curious.  I noticed David Geffen was anchored off Islesboro, Maine for the past couple nights.  His 139-meter “Rising Sun” yacht squawking identifiable ship identification (AIS) data.)   

And, of course masses of financial records are searchable.  Imagine if you knew where every dollar in the world was and could monitor them?  It’s not such a huge leap.

Consider Beirut again, were there any uncorrelated financial transactions whereby someone with advance knowledge might seek to profit (as was the case before the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea)?

Plume and chemical analysis of the explosion can be matched against collections of such data for explosions all over the planet.  Widespread spectroscopic data will grow. Staring sensors for agriculture purposes will find other uses.

The data are out there.  The analytic tools that can sort and look for meaning in the data are evolving rapidly.  Critical to dominating the coming Dataverse are two things. One is access to the data.  In the first generation of the Internet, the US had access (we built the original systems) and could see email traffic…a big leap forward.  Google did the same commercial for commercial purposes.

In the coming generation, access to the Dataverse will be controlled by those who create the channels into and through it.  This is why the issues of Chinese infrastructure plans for 5G and their extraordinary investment in AI are critical.

The second necessity is massive computing power. Quantum computing is vital. Our future depends upon it for both security and economic reasons. 

China may have been able to answer the questions about Beirut before anyone else.  And, as things evolve, they may be able to anticipate more…. not just do forensic analysis.  These are long-term existential drivers that US leadership needs to consider and take concrete actions.   We are not ahead of the curve.

Posted in China, Cyber Threat, Financial Wars, Industrial Policy, Intelligence, NSA, Space, Ukraine | Leave a comment

9/11 is Over

For almost two decades policymakers, intelligence analysts, defense planners and warfighters have focused on strategies and priorities birthed on September 11, 2001.  “Today is September 12, 2001” was a sign posted in many offices and field operations.  It’s not September 12 anymore.

There has been a generational shift in America.  National security professionals whose mindset was radically recalibrated with the 9-11 attacks have moved on or evolved.  The country has moved on.  The national attitude post 9-11 is gone.  The popular focus is not on external threats but on internal divisions.  The Congress that created the Department of Homeland Security is long gone.  The Congress that approved the transfer of military equipment to local and state police to prepare for terrorist threats inside the United States is long gone. 

The current narrative is that the United States needs to attend to internal problems.  Some believe security and police forces are no longer essential to protecting America but are threatening America.  Of course, we’ve been here before–as any aging hippie will recall from the 60’s and 70’s.  Likewise those dubbed the “Silent Majority” by Richard Nixon have an opposing view.  (Coincidentally, at the time, I stumbled upon the use by Homer of  “silent majority” in the Odyssey but he was referring to the dead in contrast to the living.  Somehow that stuck with me.)

American internal unrest may be seen as a vulnerability to be exploited and fanned by our enemies (do not doubt that we still have such).   International security dynamics have clearly changed.  The threat of terrorism and the American Global War on Terror no longer the dominant defense planning.

There are, or course, plenty of security risks.  Curiously, many also echo of the 60’s and 70’s.  Russia is back as a real threat and even more so is “Red China” (or the “Chinese Communists”).  Fortunately, nuclear war has not re-emerged as the risk it once was.  Screwing up international security management during the cold war could have incinerated the planet (and in some cases nearly did).  And Greta Thunberg would have had no issue—nor have been afforded the opportunity to chastise all who preceded her by shrieking, “How dare you?”   Yes, Greta, it could have been worse.

Today we find ourselves with risks that derive from nation states as well as global risks that can only be addressed by nation states.  China spent the decade of the 2000’s expanding its GDP at 10% a year.  America spent trillions (when a trillion was a lot) of dollars on economically wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, the happy face painted on globalization was found to mask some major downsides.

So the mass of enthusiasm to respond to 9-11 is over.  There will be divisive domestic infighting with the upcoming elections and serious doubts will be fanned concerning the legitimacy of the American system.  The patchwork of groups and “communities” who all have leaders demanding to get what they deserve from the great American pie.  Sacrificing for the country is less fashionable now.  Congress, reacting to the pandemic financial crisis and eyeing the coming elections will spend like there is no tomorrow (giving Greta & Company another reason to say “How dare you?”).  These are times when Washington discounts the future pretty heavily—but not permanently.  Lurking beyond our shores, are growing external threats that can diminish the pie for everyone.  They will not go unnoticed.

 It may be appear that Americans are consumed with demanding what their country can do for them and not what they can do for their country.  However, strategic planners in Beijing and Moscow should be careful in assessing American weakness.  The unifying principles of America are not gone.  China and Russia will find that the United States will coalesce around policies and strategies that serve the critical interests and principles America and its allies share.

Posted in Allies, China, Corvid-19, pandemic, Russia, Terrorism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Corvid-19 and Industrial Policy Reconsideration

The weak national response to Corvid-19 in the US will produce a re-awakening of debate on national industrial policy.  Are there national interests that cannot be left simply to the free market and shareholders seeking to maximize profit?  Yes, of course some, certainly including defense industry.  But where are the limits and who decides?  Time to rethink these issues.  Global supply chains have suddenly been revealed to have surprising dependencies that were not considered from a national security/health perspective.

This is not new.  I was recently reading a classic book in its field, “Chemical Warfare” by Curt Wachtel written in 1941.  Wachtel had been a key scientist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute before and during World War 1.  He subsequently became a US citizen and worked on American defense programs.  Anticipating potential chemical weapons that the US might confront in entering World War 2, his work highlighted the linkages that were overlooked by many countries regarding chemical weapons offensive and defensive requirements.

Wachtel noted that when Germany in 1916 decided to use mustard agent as a defensive weapon it would have to deal with eye injuries to soldiers and civilians.  This required vaseline.  The only source was from the US and the British blockade cut that off.  They immediately searched German and Austrian inventories and found only a few hundred pounds and immediately confiscated it.

Wachtel goes on to make the broader point governments need to identify and control critical items.  “There must be a bureau, or expert, or committee for chemical and industrial planning, not only for providing government agencies as well as private institutions and business.”  Wachtel also notes that a balance must be achieved because, “interference of a bureaucracy may mean disaster.”[i] 

Such planning comes naturally to China.  It’s in the DNA of the Communist Party of China.  Making no secret of its goals, China, under Premier Li Keqiang issued a blueprint in 2015 for its industrial policies.  The goal was to move their industrial capacity and expertise further up the supply chain in production and to leading edge in key technologies.   Their plan, called “Made in China 2025”, identified ten focal areas including biotechnology and medicines.  Midterm grades on their progress by various outside industry observers rate their progress highly (

Analysts note that China’s emphasis in medicine is consistent with other nations with an aging population (Premier Li is said to be in charge of the Corvid-19 response).  However, China has always had a strong national security, economic and prestige component in its decisions.  Industrial policy comes naturally to the leaders of the Communist Party.  President Xie’s trademark Belt and Road initiative combines many of these goals in way that only a government with heavy central direction over the economy can achieve.  It must be a high priority for Beijing to achieve a vaccine first.

For the US, one fallout may be a broader view of federal roles in issues that can determine real risks to US security more broadly defined that just military or intelligence.  These issues come up regularly but there is not a sustained consideration of them in government.  Unlike many countries, we do not have the equivalent of a US 2025 program.  Politics and elections make sustained attention and sustained consensus on goals difficult if not impossible today.  Industrial policies in response to pandemics are one thing.  In rebuilding the economy with massive government infusions of resources we can expect strong advocates in the upcoming electoral season for such actions to address climate change.

The usual debates over industrial policy will re-ignite.

[i] Wachtel, Curt, “Chemical Warfare”, Chemical Publishing Co., Inc. Brooklyn New York 1941 pp. 84-85.

Posted in Chemical Weapons, China, Corvid-19, Industrial Policy | Tagged , | Leave a comment

CORVID-19 is WMD–US Government Must Reconfigure Institutions to Sustain Resources for Bio-Preparedness


Among the many lessons we are re-learning as we experience the current pandemic is the enormous effect it has on military operations and national security generally. 

The aircraft carrier whose captain was recently fired for expressing his concern about the spread of corona virus among his crew reminds us of the consequences of infectious diseases on the military.  In fact, prior to the past century, disease was a dominant factor in hobbling military operations.  George Washington had to take into account small pox.  Historically, casualties from disease are larger than casualties from enemy action.  In the Journal Military Medicine, Volume 180, June 2005, the authors state that, “prior to World War I, the ratio of deaths due to disease versus battle injury was approximately 10:1.”  Coincident with the advances in medicine in the 20th century (and the ability to kill larger numbers of people with munitions), the rates dropped, being 1:1 in World War I (think Spanish Flu) and only 0.01:1 in the Gulf War.

During last few decades we have lived without the immediate threat of epidemics. The threat lost its immediacy.  And there was a deadly bureaucratic consequence—protecting the country was seen in military terms.  Resources and institutions have assured military forces (and intelligence collection) that dwarf defense against biological threats.  President George W. Bush attempted to re-balance this with a detailed initiative in 2006 (forgotten in the dominant narrative regarding Iraq).  The program his team put together then looks astonishingly prescient today.

Coming out of this COVID-19 experience, whether under this president or another, we must re-structure the bureaucracy so there is a sustained institutional body in the bureaucracy with corresponding interests and oversight in Congress that will have resources commensurate with the (now) obvious risk.  The so-called military industrial complex assures military capability—we need a corresponding bio-preparedness infrastructure. We have worried about WMD threats–now we are experiencing one.

Our failure to guard against and respond to this threat has done more damage to the country than any recent military conflict.  Some entity, perhaps a blue ribbon panel, must be convened now to consider how to reconfigure the current system so this doesn’t happen again. 

A simple point of departure is the strategy laid out under George W. Bush in the May 2006 ( ) and subsequent iterations that can be seen at CDC (

Bush had announced his intent the previous November in a speech that sounds particularly potent today.  The initiative did not take full root in the bureaucracy. We don’t want to make this mistake again…we can’t afford it.  Some group, with all key stakeholders needs to lay down a non-political roadmap so this failure by government to defend against something entirely predictable doesn’t happen again.  The world has changed and now it’s blindingly obvious to everyone.

Posted in Bio-preparedness, Corvid-19, Intelligence, pandemic | Tagged | Leave a comment

Corvid-19 and Y2K

Books will be written detailing the series of decisions made that preceded the current Covid-19 crisis. Lessons will be learned. And our government being what it is where leaders regularly turnover–they will be forgotten as well. But a key question will be, “Why was everyone so surprised?” Why is it that we can prepare extensively for war and even for the potential threat of computer and telecommunications disasters predicted to result when the calendar clicked over from 1999 to 2000–dubbed Year 2000 or Y2K. There was extensive White House directed preparation and then nothing happened.

Why is our response to Covid-19 so haphazard?

Given all the exercises and contingency planning that has been done with respect to pandemics in the last two decades, it is astonishing why key steps were not taken in preparation. One reason is the bureaucracy is not structured for this type of threat.

For nuclear and conventional war, the Department of Defense spends billions in acquisition and training. Defense contractors and congress have an interest in this process. Every congressional district gets money from the defense department and jobs are created building weapons systems. Not so for pandemics.

Still, the equivalent of war games are done for pandemics and contingency operations plans are developed and on the shelf, but the identified capability shortages are not addressed. I had a minor role in an early one called Dark Winter in 2001 (a smallpox outbreak was modeled). As recently as this past fall a government exercise called Crimson Contagion (a flu-like scenario) reminded again that a lack of personal protection equipment would be a key problem among other things. The George Mason University’s esteemed Bio-defense Program created a synopsis copied below. Things could definitely have been done better. Political science and physical science intersect in government crisis management–as does psychology both individual and mass It’s not pretty but many issues are predictable.

There will be many reasons advanced for why the US response was not better. But one key factor is simply experience in running a crisis by the White House. Simple decision criteria like recognizing that acting early and big given the potential consequences is better than not. If you waste time and resources preventing something with potential horrible consequences that doesn’t happen (as in Y2K) so what? Better that than having to play catch up as thousands die and the economy tanks for an in-determinant period. All administrations come down a learning curve. The early Obama administration learned a lot from the oil well blowout in the gulf (BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform) that poured seemingly endless torrents of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Better to learn on that than a crisis where learning may cost hundreds of thousands of American (and worldwide) lives.

French General Ferdinand Foch, if I remember correctly said something like, “It takes 1500 casualties to make a general”.

From George Mason Pandora Report Blog of 6 December 2019 put out by GMU Biodefense program weekly)

“Synopsis of the Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise After-Action Review
This week, the National Biodefense Science Board convened a meeting focusing on the after-action review of the Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise, a national level exercise series conducted to detect gaps in mechanisms, capabilities, plans, policies, and procedures in the event of a pandemic influenza. Current strategies include the Biological Incident Annex to the Response and Recovery Federal Interagency Operational Plans (2018), Pandemic Influenza Plan (2017 Update), Pandemic Crisis Action Plan Version 2.0, and CDC’s Pandemic Influenza Appendix to the Biological Incident Annex of the CDC All-Hazard Plan (December 2017). These plans, updated over the last few years, were tested by the functional exercise with emphasis on the examination of strategic priorities set by the NSC. Specifically, examined priorities include operational coordination and communications, stabilization and restoration of critical lifelines, national security emergencies, public health emergencies, and continuity. The Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise included participation of almost 300 entities – 19 federal departments and agencies, 12 states, 15 tribal nations and pueblos, 74 local health departments and coalition regions, 87 hospitals, 40 private sector organizations, and 35 active operations centers. The scenario was a large-scale outbreak of H7N9 avian influenza, originating in China but swiftly spreading to the contiguous US with the first case detected in Chicago, Illinois. Continuous human-to-human transmission of the H7N9 virus encourages its spread across the country and, unfortunately, the stockpiles of H7N9 vaccines are not a match for the outbreak’s strain; however, those vaccines are serviceable as a priming dose. Also, the strain of virus is susceptible to Relenza and Tamiflu antiviral medications. The exercise was intended to deal with a virus outbreak that starts overseas and migrates to the US with scant allocated resources for outbreak response and management, thereby forcing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to include other agencies in the response. To do so, the exercise began 47 days after the identification of the first US case of H7N9 in Chicago, otherwise known as STARTEX conditions. Then, the HHS declared the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency (PHE), the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, and the President of the United States declared a National Emergency under the National Emergencies Act. As was the case in the 1918 Great Influenza, transmissibility is high and cases are severe. At STARTEX, there are 2.1 million illnesses and 100 million forecasted illnesses as well as over half a million forecasted deaths. As the pandemic progresses along the epidemiological curve, the overarching foci of the federal-level response adjusts across four phases:

Operational coordination with public messaging and risk communication
Situational awareness, information sharing, and reporting
Continuity of operations

The outcome of the Crimson Contagion is that vaccine development is the silver bullet to such an outbreak, but there are complications beyond its formulation. Namely, the minimization of outbreak impact prior to vaccine development and dispersal, strategy for efficient dissemination of the vaccine across the country, allocation of personal protective equipment (PPE), and high expense of vaccine development and PPE acquisitions. The exercise concluded that HHS requires about $10 billion in additional funding immediately following the identification of a novel strain of pandemic influenza. The low inventory levels of PPE and other countermeasures are a result of insufficient domestic manufacturing in the US and a lack of raw materials maintained within US borders. Additionally, the exercise revealed six key findings:

Existing statutory authorities, policies, and funding of HHS are insufficient for a federal response to an influenza pandemic
Current planning fails to outline the organizational structure of the federal government response when HHS is the designated lead agency; planning also varies across local, state, territorial, tribal, and federal entities
There is a lack of clarity in operational coordination regarding the roles and responsibility of agencies as well as in the coordination of information, guidance, and actions of federal agencies, state agencies, and the health sector
Situation assessment is inefficient and incomplete due to the lack of clear guidance on the information required and confusion in the distribution of recommended protocols and products
The medical countermeasures supply chain and production capacity are currently insufficient to meet the needs of the country in the event of pandemic influenza
There is clear dissemination of public health and responder information from the CDC, but confusion about school closures remains

A final report with greater detail of the after-action review of the Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise is forthcoming. Stay tuned.”

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Impeachment and Foreign Policy Redux

In February 1998, I was in Baghdad discussing the ongoing disputes between Iraq and the UN weapons inspectors with Saddam’s key deputy Tariq Aziz. (I was the deputy chairman of the UN WMD inspection group called UNSCOM.)  It was late night and Aziz had his usual Cohiba cigar filling the room with bluish smoke. The intended topic, appropriately, was chemical weapons. 

Aziz cleared his throat and said, yes we’ll get to chemical weapons, but would I indulge him in a different question, drawing on our long mutual dialogue over the years.  I nodded and he proceeded to ask me, “Mr. Duelfer, what is an intern?”  

The Lewinsky affair had recently broken in Washington.  It was huge news.  Throughout 1998 the two dominant issues consuming Washington were the Lewinsky affair and the contentious disputes over access of WMD inspectors to sites in Iraq.

The Iraqis did not understand the Lewinsky business.  How could the last superpower be disabled by an affair with some 20-something in the White House?  This was beyond Saddam’s comprehension. 

However, in subsequent questioning after the 2003 war, when I was head of the Iraq Survey Group we explored extensively their thinking and policy making with Saddam and his top lieutenants.  It became clear that while Saddam did not understand why an inconsequential intern could hobble the president of the United States, he did understand the White House was distracted and weakened—especially as scandal turned to impeachment.  Baghdad took key decisions throughout the summer and fall of 1998 that ultimately led to the end of UNSCOM’s inspections in Iraq and four days of bombing beginning on December 16 by the US (with support from the UK, but with no consensus in the UN Security Council).  It turned out to be a good move by Iraq.  Inspectors were gone, and sanctions, while not formally lifted, were definitely crumbling. 

In the midst of the bombing, President Clinton was impeached by the House in a vote on December 19.  However, President Clinton was not removed from office as the senate did not even come close to the 2/3 number voting to convict.

Twenty-one years later, another president is subject to impeachment proceedings.  The outcome and debates are much the same when you go back and read the press coverage.

What is not covered in the press are the calculations of foreign powers calculating whether the Washington is weakened or distracted.   Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and virtually every nation on the planet are evaluating what the effect is on President Trump and US foreign policy.  Is it a time to take advantage, to press ahead?  Does it mean they should hold still until an outcome is clear? 

Will the White House be more or less inclined to act militarily since that has typically be a good diversion.  Cynics (and who isn’t in Washington) must ascribe some element of that to the decision to execute a drone strike on Qasem Soleimani.  The same was said of the Clinton White House and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright firmly stated that the decisions of foreign policy were made independent of the turmoil in te White House. 

It’s safe to say that our opponents around the world will see this as weakness on the part of the United States, not just one political party over another.

On a light-hearted note, if you’re sick of the blather about impeachment, watch the dark comedy movie, “War the Dog.” Robert DeNiro plays a spin-doctor brought in by the White House whose occupant was caught in a scandal with an underage girl in the Oval office.  The spin-doctor concludes that the best way to distract attention from the scandal is to create a war.  Dustin Hoffman plays a Hollywood producer who cooks up script and scenes for a war in Albany.  The media is taken in and there are twists and turns but the most amazing thing is that the movie came out in 1997—before the Lewinsky events.  Life imitates art.

Posted in Iran, Iraq, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Qasem Soleimani – Some Aspects

The United States (over two Administrations) and the international community expended much effort rolling back ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This included attempts to kill the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi–ultimately successful just last October. ISIS killed a few Americans. Qasem Soleimani and his al-Quds force (part of the Iranian Revolutionry Guard Corps, IRGC) killed hundreds of Americans over the years in Iraq. Why did the US only act now on Soeleimani? What’s the difference?

There are a few key reasons. First, al-Baghdadi was not part of a recognized state. Soleimani ran a key part of the Iranian government. Only recently (April) did the US designate the IRGC to be a foreign terrorist organization. Only then was Soleimani in a legal position akin to al-Baghdadi.

During the Obami Administration, the focus of US Iran policy was the nuclear deal. Everything else was secondary. They did not like Soleimani, but did not want to risk the nuclear deal no matter how odious the his work in Iraq and elsewhere.

During the Bush Administration, there were a tangle of Iraq and Iran issues and Soleimani’s primacy as cause of the problems was not yet so clear. In retrospect, it would have been less problematic if they had dealt with him one way or another.

Other aspects:

Iraqi miscalculation? Soleimani was killed after arriving at Baghdad airport (personal note: very close to where I lived through 2004 whilst running the Iraq Survey Group–and saw the effects of Soleimani’s efforts against US forces–including at Baghdad airport). Why did he not think he was at risk?

Clearly Iran knows a lot about US drones–they have shot them down on multiple occasions. They must have some knowledge of drone activity over Iraq and they must have some knowledge about US tracking activities. They missed something very important. Either they assumed the US did not have the will to attack him–they misinterpreted how far they could go. Or, they underestimated US ability to track him. They will have a lot of internal questioning about that.

Retaliation by Iran has been clearly stated and is expected. There are a range of options. Killing Soleimani was personal. The US killed one of there top people. Iran will likely focus on US-specific interests, not broad strokes like attacking the Saudi Oil infrastructure as they did last September. There are many exposures the US has around the world. It is also worth noting the asymmetrical vulnerability the US has to cyber-attacks. Iran can attack any US commercial entity, like banks, and create more domestic disputes within the US.

Iran will be attuned to President Trump’s political circumstances. He is being impeached. Ironically, there are similarities with President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. At that time the US and Iraq (under Saddam) were at loggerheads over weapons inspections. Both the impeachment and inspection problems came to a head in December and Clinton ordered a 4-day bombing exercise when inspectors left Iraq. Iraq acted throughout the period calculating the weakness of the Clinton administration during the domestic impeachment proceedings. (They described this to me and others after the last war.) Iran will certainly be taking stock of the domestic debates in Washington and seek any advantage they can exploit.

There is some potential bright side to this. President Trump said Iran has never won a war nor lost a negotiation. He clearly does not want another war, but does not want to be pushed around. The willingness to negotiate may (or may not) affect the extent and persistence of Iranian response. Potentially back-channel or track II discussions could be valuable.

Completely complicating this is Iraq. What happens there is now subject to US-Iran dynamics. Likewise the potential progress in Yemen and other flashpoints in the region.

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Donations from Convicted Sex Offender Offend MIT–What about China?

The New Yorker posted a story on 6 September 2019 that described financial links (donations) to MIT’s highly regarded Media Lab from the now infamous sex offender Jeffery Epstein. The next day the President of MIT, L. Rafael Reif wrote a letter to the MIT community that included the following: “…the acceptance of the Epstein gifts involved a mistake of judgment. We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future. Our internal review process continues, and what we learn from it will inform the path ahead.” MIT went on to hire a law firm to do a thorough examination of the facts. The director of the Media Lab, Joi Ito, resigned on September 7.

On 9 September 2019, President Reif wrote again about the review saying
“Once we have the results, and once our separate internal review of our current processes on gift acceptance is complete, we will be able to understand what happened and what needs to change.”

MIT is trying to apply moral standards to their income (donations) in the case of a sex offender. This is a relatively simple problem. MIT likes to think it solves tough problems. If MIT is going to determine their hierarchy of values relative to a convicted sex offender, then what of MIT’s relationship with China?

President Reif wrote in his usual “Note from the President” in the MIT News alumni journal that the competition with China cannot be won by blocking China’s access but by making sure that we sufficiently fund our own research (presumably at MIT).

This is an old argument and there is no categorical answer. Yet it is clear to the intelligence community among others, that China has progressed through government directed efforts to steal intellectual property, suck up as much advanced knowledge as possible through open sources (student and faculty deployed overseas), etc. American schools and universities welcome Chinese students and fellows because they pay full fare–and a lot of it.

I think it would be interesting for MIT to develop a policy on acceptance of resources from China–a country that is decidedly not just a competing country in the global market place. Yes, it is good to re-consider receiving funds from a sex offender. But why not consider the issues associated with MIT’s relationship with a country that has a large number of its citizens in re-education or detention camps? The NY Times of 19 November 2019 describes internal China documents addressing the plight of millions of Uighurs. Hong Kong is another story. The growing number of bases in the South China sea is another. The continuing cyber theft and intrusions in this country is another. Competing arguments to President Reif’s position should be considered. Are MIT’s policies aiding and abetting a substantial threat to the United States? Certainly looks that way.  The implicit argument that MIT should receive more funding from the US government has a wiff of the self-serving.  It would be a valuable exercise to just determine how much aid MIT gets from China and how much China gets from MIT.

Funding sources, their morality, and the outrage from the self-identifying intellectuals of Cambridge are not new. There have always been outraged members of the MIT community who shun the receipt of funds based on their source. In the 60’s and 70’s there was great debate and protests about defense contracts and even the CIA. Are there no Uighers advocates in Cambridge? Are all the Chinese students there too concerned about the source of their tuition to say anything?

Tough problem. MIT should not ignore it.

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Quandaries: Deep Fakes and Cyber Conflict

The Council on Intelligence Issues* held a seminar on “Intelligence Operations in a Digital Age” this week. The discussion covered many current issues, but lingered on couple of looming problems with no satisfactory answers aired among a broad group of senior former intelligence officials,

Peacetime Offensive Cyber Operations. The first had to do with offensive cyber operations. There is an ongoing debate about whether such operations should be conducted under defense department authorities (Title 10) or intelligence authorities (Title 50). This has implications for who has oversight in Congress (Armed Services or Intelligence committees) and what authority process and chain of command is required within the administration. That’s complicated but manageable (the debate of drone strikes aired this in the Obama administration).

But what struck me, as a real problem, is that while cyber operations against countries like Iran, North Korea and even Russia and China may be preferable to kinetic operations, the US has a marked asymmetrical weakness.   If we hit them, they can respond by hitting US commercial systems. Iran has demonstrated this ability by hitting US banks some time ago. As a policy matter, will the USG conduct a cyber operation against an adversary (e.g. as a response to attacks on allies shipping in the Gulf) when the response may cause the private sector hundreds of millions and undermine confidence in US systems (esp. banking)?

Moreover, when the favorite US policy “stick” of choice—sanctions—is applied, those on the receiving end could logically respond with their own cyber operations against US private industry. This can be a powerful deterrent. Iran seems to be thinking along these lines. Others, like Russia may do the same—especially if such cyber responses can be cloaked with reasonable deniability.

Defining and determining what’s real. More troubling was consideration of the problem highlighted during the last US presidential election, i.e. foreign efforts to shape voter actions in the US elections. This is a logical extension of the long history of covert actions by various countries to shape outcomes, but combined with the ubiquity of Internet communications today, is a huge problem. With technology offering the opportunity to create false stories and images that are very difficult for average people to distinguish from reality, shaping decision-makers (voters) can be accomplished with remarkable success. Classically, the chief problem in covert action operations is measuring whether the action does in fact have the desired affect. Today, if a country can systematically target stories to select types of voters and gain access to daily tracking polls (or even design their own surrogate) they can have as much if not more affect in shaping election outcomes as the major political parties.

To save the United States from this paralyzing phenomenon, shouldn’t someone be able to, in near real time sort fake from real? There are two very difficult problems: One, technically it takes time and an offensive operation could flood the US with a large number of targeted stories (think of the algorithms that target you with customized ads to your email account).   The second problem is who would do (police) this and why would we trust their judgment?

At the seminar amongst intelligence alumni, the thought was whether the intelligence community (IC) could do this. In principle, it seemed possible given the time and resources. But who would, trust the IC? In my own experience, the IC lost enormous credibility when it got the Iraq WMD estimates badly wrong. In producing the so-called Duelfer report afterwards, I took several steps to try to overcome this, including making the entire report unclassified, including all the background data, and not writing an executive summary. The idea was that an independent reader could consider the data and come to their own conclusion. This was successful, but it was a static case.

A rolling set of stories and data coming in all over the country to various subsets of American voters can not be evaluated and judged in realtime—especially as election day approaches.

Is there another part of the government that could perform this function? I doubt it. Could the companies that current owe their vast wealth and market dominance to their ability to shape messages to consumers provide this service (Google, Facebook, etc)? Possibly they could have the expertise, but the task is labor-intensive and who would trust them? Could journalists do this? They don’t have the resources other that in select cases, and which journalists would you trust—the range of quality and objectivity of individuals who identify themselves as journalist varies wildly.

These are two major problems for our country—especially the second. And the government is not designed to address them. In fact, the fractious political environment seems to make this a major problem no one will wish to raise. It calls into question the outcome of any election—no matter who the winner is.

*The Council on Intelligence Issues provides a critical and unique function for former intelligence (largely CIA) officers—providing post government legal assistance. Unlike virtually any other government employees, former CIA officers can be subject to post-government legal actions that stem from their performance of their jobs. This is one of the reasons for officers to retain their cover even after leaving the service. They can be sued, warrants issued for their arrest, and otherwise attacked—even by their own countrymen. Government legal assistance to former officers may or may not be available, and even if it is, the government’s interests and the individual’s interests may not be aligned.  Incoming officers rarely hear about this type of risk to them and their families the vagaries of political correctness in the world evolve.  Current actions can be judged by some future set of standards that are unforeseeable now.


Beyond a “thank you for your service” you can be left on your own.

Posted in Allies, Cyber Threat, Intelligence, Iran, journalism coverage, NSA | Leave a comment

Mueller Report – Duelfer Report

A few commentators have made some comparisons between the Mueller Report and report on Iraq WMD in 2004 which was dubbed the Duelfer Report.  There are a few similarities and many key differences.

Both were produced in a highly charged political environment.  The Mueller report affects the prospects for the Trump presidency (and some would suggest its legitimacy).  The Iraq WMD report came out in October 2004 just before the heated election contest between John Kerry and President George Bush–and in the midst of a war that was starting to look really ugly.   Both were subject to major political examination in Congress.  Both were issued in an environment where there was going to be enormous skepticism among the audience.  Both involved intelligence matters, and both were complicated,

But there were key differences.  The Duelfer Report did not assess the actions of US actors (intelligence community, political leaders, etc.).  It addressed the Saddam Hussein regime and its relation to WMD.  Others would investigate such questions as malfeasance on the part of the intelligence community or whether political leaders inappropriately pressured the Intelligence community.  (This task was ably done by the commission chaired by Senator Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman.)

The Iraq WMD investigation did not have the obligation to make legal judgments…it “only” had to establish facts.  The collection of data was in some ways similar to Mueller’s efforts, though gathering data largely from non-US citizens was categorically different.  Of course the environment was physically dangerous.  Four lives were lost and several were badly wounded.  We operated in a devastated country in midst of an insurgency.

I made some decisions concerning our work and the report of our work that contributed to the enduring credibility of the report and long term utility.  They may be useful in other circumstances.

First, it was clear to me that we had a unique opportunity to record for history the details of how the Saddam regime worked and why.  This was an opportunity that went beyond the relatively simple question asked by some, “Did Saddam have WMD or didn’t he?”   I defined the task more broadly, to record the relationship between the Saddam regime with WMD over time.  He had, and used, WMD at certain points, and at other points he did not.  Moreover, where was he going in the future.

To this end, we collected and reported a lot of data about the workings of the regime and its interactions domestically and internationally.  Moreover, we included as much raw data as possible.  This was going to be a document studied not just by current politicians in Washington, but by historians, and, Iraqis themselves who were intimately involved in the events.  I wanted to be sure they would not find factual problems.

Very early in the process, I determined that the report would be unclassified and all the included material would have to be declassified.  This was difficult but essential.  The US intelligence community had suffered a major blow to its credibility about Iraq WMD and if there was anything we held back, it would shake the confidence in our report.  And gathering the data had been expensive in lives and treasure.  I did not want the validity of the effort to be challenged.  (Note:  We did not have the serious constraint faced by Mueller concerning releasing grand jury data affecting American citizens.)

Another decision I made was to not have an executive summary.  In response to critical questions on this (especially from some Senators), I stated that it was a complicated picture and I believed that the truth would not fit in the equivalent of a bumper sticker.  I should also point out that no one else wrote a summary of the report as happened with the Mueller report with political consequences.

As it turned out the absence of an executive summary made testifying before Congress somewhat easier since members and staff who sought to bolster one of their own views or another would have to pluck their own segments out to support their own biases, but they could not attribute such conclusions to me.  And, while it remains to be seen it Mueller will testify before congress, this was never question for me.  It was inevitable.

I also decided that the report should be completed and released before the election.  This was important since if it were released afterwards, then all would assume that was for a political reason and that would taint the credibility of the overall report.  I did not want to do anything that would damage the credibility of the work produced by so many and at such a cost.

Finally I would emphasize that President Bush and his White House team supported all these decisions without complaint or criticism.



Posted in Intelligence, Iraq, Uncategorized, WMD | Leave a comment