Category Archives: Washington Sucks

From the Arkin Archives: Why You Can’t Keep Secrets

I found a speech I gave twenty years ago to military and industry officers and officials at the annual U.S. Air Force National Security Leadership Course, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, delivered on 14 August 1996

William M. Arkin

I started thinking about this talk by polling friends in Washington to see if there were any good new jokes about secrecy.  In other parts of the world, political jokes are often the purest expression of zeitgeist, so I thought a current favorite — you know, some knee slapper about the new Executive Order on classification, or one about the latest string of Bill Gertz’ leaks —  would provide astute insight.

No dice though; people inside the beltway have never been renown for their humor.

In May, however, I was in Beirut, and the number of jokes about the Syrians were impressive.

Here’s my favorite.

Hafez Assad is with Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac on the Mississippi River to negotiate Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.  Assad drops his watch into the river and when he bend over the deck railing to look for it, snapping alligators thrust up from the deep.  Clinton tells one of the Marine guards to retrieve President Assad’s watch.  The Marine goes to the edge, looks over at the alligators and says to the President  Mr. President, you know we live in the greatest country on earth, and therefore I can decline an unlawful order.  If I jump in to retrieve Mr. Assad’s watch I would die, and besides I have a family…

So Chirac, thinking he can tweak the American nose says to a French soldier, jump in the water and retrieve Assad’s watch.  The legionnaire snaps to attention and runs to dive in, but he then looks over and sees the snapping alligators, and turns to Chirac and says Monsieur President, you know our democracy is even older than America, and besides, I have a family…

So Assad whispers something in the ear of a Syrian soldier, who runs to the railing and without hesitation, jumps in the water, swims through the alligators, retrieves the watch, and returns safely to the boat.  The Marine and the Legionnaire, both amazed, crowd around the Syrian to ask what Assad said.

Well, the soldier explains, I too have a family…

**

So what does this have to do with secrecy?

To me, it is a real world reminder that to level any kind of indictment about the evils of U.S. government secrecy is to be trivial.  One only has to visit places like the Middle East to appreciate how free our system is.

What is more, the very reason I assume I was invited to address you this evening is that I’ve made a living by revealing government secrets.  Throughout that career, I’ve always felt shielded by my rights as a citizen, and always felt confident that if there was public benefit resulting from my revelations, even those in government would grudgingly concede and respect my rights.

I am often asked if there is some secret I wouldn’t reveal, and the answer, frankly, is yes.  In short, it is information that has no public policy relevance.  Now granted there is lots of room for debate here as to what that means, and some right wingers have tried in the past to tar me as “the Philip Agee of nuclear weapons.”

Yet I have faced on a day-to-day basis the challenge of defining what information can do damage to U.S. national security, and what information can not.  That is because secrets have a quality like trees, and if one falls in the public and nobody hears it, I would concede that the public benefit is dubious.

Yet the process of revealing a secret, however, also provides a check and balance if you will.  Since the news media is most often enlisted to circulate secrets, in doing so, reporters and editors and publishers have to themselves make decisions regarding government harm and public benefit.  The point I’m making is that those discussions do take place, and national security concerns are taken into consideration.

In 1996, however, classic government secrecy is hardly the civil liberties and first amendment conflict that it has been in the not too distant past.  Yet it does remain in the news.  Particularly recently with the explosion of the Internet, and the new mania about information security that has emerged, extending from the counter-communication and encryption debates to firewalls to information warfare.

I’m suspicious though, because again there are Cold Warlike warnings of the dire consequences of letting information circulate too freely.  And there has also been a reemergence of 1950’slike images of hidden enemies plotting to destroy our way of life.  To me, this is a significant over-exaggeration of both the threats and consequences.

The new technologies of information might indeed involve some truly revolutionary challenges in terms of the way huge amounts of data can be gathered and transmitted, and the threat mongers of computer security and information warfare have already put us on the slippery slope by attempting to control information or access to what are now worldwide networks.  To these government threat mongers, I say operations security and systems integrity and counterintelligence, all of the things the government has been doing for decades, and is supposed to be doing anyhow, regardless of the information medium.  Let’s not create new constraints, ones that mean a reduction in civil liberties in this country and a reduction of human rights in others.

I suspect that, either consciously or subconsciously, the focus on hackers and terrorists as the Clancyesque information enemy also has as much to do with separating the public from its tax dollars, and in framing an interesting defense problem for beltway bandits and think tanks to work on and make money from, as it has to do with true threats.  Particularly when more than ninety percent of computer intrusions and security problems as plain old fashioned insider criminal activity, stealing if you will with a high tech twist.

**

As William O. Douglas said in the Pentagon Papers case, if everything is secret, then nothing is secret.  Because of the end of the Cold War and the lack of any overarching grand strategy or national security organizing principle, we seem stuck for now in a world where near everything and anything can compete for the mantle of being “strategic.”  But if everything is strategic, then nothing is strategic.

In such a free-for-all world, the consequence is that what is really important  that is, what should be secret and protected  remains poorly defined, and thus vulnerable.

Thus perhaps one answer to the question why you can’t keep secrets is that you can’t even determine and articulate what is truly important.  The public is buffeted by endless enemies du jour, never able to give their true consent regarding what they believe should be U.S. national interests  implosion in Russia, Islam, proliferation, terrorism, warlords, ethnic hatred, population explosions, resource wars, Ebola viruses, drugs, international organized crime, Asian dynamism, the Internet, militias, Freemen, “instability.”  The menu is so full, how can one possibly determine what should be secret?

**

In the wake of the FBI files flap at the White House early this year, The New York Times reported that the federal government spent $5.6 billion in 1995 to keep secret documents secret.  Beltway habitues will point out that such numbers are apocryphal, but the public message is far more simple:

First, there is the common and probably majority view that there are still lots of legitimate secrets for the government to protect; and that there are, of course, loads of threats, old and new, that we need to protect ourselves and our secrets from.

But, there coexists another deeply ingrained belief that $5.6 billion is merely another example of the government wasting huge sums of money to administer its programs; that the secrets are really just bureaucracies covering up their law breaking, incompetence, sloth, or self-interests.

And then there is a third and simultaneous corollary of these two views.  And that is that all those secrets are really dastardly and incredibly complex and competent coverups of,

A.  the existence of UFOs and aliens,
B.  the CIA’s responsibility for the assassination of John F. Kennedy,
C.  the government’s surveillance and mind control program,
D.  POWs and MIAs still languishing in Southeast Asia, and/or
E.  the latest, the truth that Saddam used poison gas, which the government also is covering up.

One doesn’t have to scratch the surface of American society too deeply to find the UFO-POW/MIA-Gulf War Syndrome-militia constituency.  These are views that absolutely cross the political spectrum and more often than not break out into the mainstream (say when 20 percent of the population votes for Ross Perot, erstwhile surveillance subject himself).

But take for a moment Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK.”  After the movie came out, it ended up that some huge percent of the public believed that the CIA might have actually killed President Kennedy.  That in itself says a lot and should be disturbing to anyone working in the national security field.  But what I would like to point out is that the movie and the brouhaha was enough to move the Congress to undertake the most rigorous and extensive declassification effort ever.

Had the CIA released those records earlier, and had the government made some attempt to answer the conspiracy crowd in the preceding decades, then maybe, just maybe, some percent of the population would have been educated and convinced.  And maybe just in general the credibility of the government and the national security community would have improved, thus making it more implausible for other grand conspiracies to emerge.

I say maybe because I don’t want to be too naive.  There’s no getting away from one immutable fact about our society: That no matter what the government says, people will continue to believe what they believe.

This is seen most starkly this summer with “Independence Day” and UFOs on the covers of Time and Newsweek and the popularity of shows like “The X Files” and the irrepressible Roswell story.  The bottom line is that some significant percent of the population is just demented.

But as with Oliver Stone’s JFK, if you can confuse and manipulate enough people so that they think that a UFO really crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, you can actually move the government.  Like the CIA, the Air Force declassified all of its files on the subject of UFOs, and wrote a Manhattan-phone book-sized White Paper on the subject, item by item refuting every last scrap of coincidence and inconsistency in the 50 year record.

Yet all to no avail.

For when life on Mars is reported in the news media, as it was last week, the kooks seem as prominent as the astronomers in offering sound bites.  The fact is that subcultures continue to believe despite reports and White Papers and Congressional investigations and commissions and blue ribbon panels.  Somehow, I lay this public confusion about reality partly at the government’s doorstop.

**

Let me switch gears for a moment to say that I’m not so sure you can’t keep secrets  particularly when a revelation like Tacit Blue, the flying bathtub, is made.  Despite all the speculation from Area 51, despite the foolish with their binoculars and discussion groups and Web sites, despite lawsuits and even a mighty Sixty Minutes expose, despite all this attention no one outside of the government had any clear notion of what was, or is, going on at Groom Lake.

I won’t even get into the question as to whether the technologies involved in Tacit Blue were worthy of the fights and the lawsuits.  Nor whether such secrecy is needed.  My cynical mind tells me that bureaucratic interests were probably served in making the existence public.

Tacit Blue reminds me of the revelation of another “black” program  Senior Surprise, the conventional air-launched cruise missile used by the Air Force in the Gulf War.  The missile’s existence was unveiled with fanfare on the first anniversary of Desert Storm  I think it was around budget time, but I’m sure that was pure coincidence.  Anyway, the industry newsletter Navy News reported that the Air Force press release came only after Time magazine crowned the Navy’s Tomahawk “missile of the year.”

So, you can keep secrets, but at the same time, you may have so squandered your credibility by playing these sorts of games that cynicism is rampant and conspiracies flourish and pseudoscience coexists with real science.  But most important, with so many secrets in the stockpile, and with so little true ranking done as to what is or should be secret, real traitors and threats, insiders like the Walkers and Ames, can gain access so much more easily and do far more complex and inscrutable damage.

So many secrets.  A couple of years ago, the CIA announced they were going to release their files on operations in the 1950’s and 60’s.  But it warned that there were just seven employees to wade through a stack of secret files taller than  I’m not making this up  50 Washington monuments.  I calculate that as 7.13 Washington monuments worth of files per employee (the WM seems always to be the government’s preferred unit of measurement).

Anyone knows that in order to preserve real secrets, they need to be identified.  If the government practices indiscriminate secrecy on this scale, sweeping up with the real secrets those things that aren’t really secrets or don’t need to be, then the end result is neither protection nor respect.  Maybe the government is a lot smarter than I think it is, and by keeping silly things like the intelligence community budget secret they intentionally divert investigative attention from real secrets.  I doubt it.  But I would submit that making routine organizational and budget information, and the policy-making process, secret only breeds trivial leaks and public suspicion.

And most important, it just makes the American public stupid.  Government shows a contempt for the public and public opinion when it acts as if details about its activities aren’t needed for oversight and consent.  This I think is at the root of the decline in government credibility.

Take the Gulf War syndrome as an example.  After arrogantly maintaining that the complaining GI’s were either suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or were malingerers and extortionists, the Pentagon has admitted that some combination of toxic substances and administered vaccines might have worked together to create an auto-immunological reaction and thus a true medical affliction.  This raises some important new questions about the toxicity of the battlefield and of other potential dangers in industrial and occupational health.  But instead of conciliation, treatment and future prevention, the media focus has been on meaningless “revelations,” such as the most recent, that the Pentagon “really knew” of the existence of an Iraqi chemical weapons dump in the far northern corner of the Kuwaiti theater.

This is a fact that is unconnected to most of the veterans problems and to the syndrome itself.  But it suggests that the government is hiding more information.  The end result is a “hard copy” free-for-all where any claim, any news story, any conspiracy, begins to seem plausible.

**

Let me speak for a moment about the emergence of the Internet and the relationship with secrecy.  I note that there have already been some secrecy flaps.  When one of Scott O’Grady’s fellow officers wrote up his exploits on Email, the Defense Department put out a warning about the use of Email.  Last year, it turned out that an intelligence document placed online in the Gulf War declassification registry contained information about “sources and methods.”  The document said something to the effect that human agents reported X, an ordinary counterintelligence blunder.

Around mid-March of this year, a San Francisco reporter wrote a story that the Department of Energy was secretly preparing new nuclear warheads.  The headline says it all: “DOE designing new bombs, Web site shows.”  The Department explained that the document cited in the article was old.  But one of the things about the Internet is that often its impossible to tell the date of a document or its origin and status.

What happened in these two cases?  The GulfLINK site was sanitized so that the declassification effort became more perfunctory than historically valuable.  The DOE shut down its Defense Programs Web site completely for a few weeks and sanitized it as well.  Now there’s nothing worthwhile on it, not even documents that if you are in Washington, you can get as a matter of routine if you know who to ask.

People acting out of their best intentions were trying to make a ton of stuff available on the Internet, and there were teething problems.  But it was the novelty of the new medium that magnified the significance of any leak.  And no one actually claimed that damage was done to national security.

The lingering message is that the Internet is a threat.   Here Internet enthusiasts and government gumshoes form a devil’s alliance, which is always dangerous.  Internet boosters  you know, the type of people who like Wired magazine  claim with wide-eyed enthusiasm that the Internet is the biggest threat to traditional secrecy that could exist.  That it portends a re-conception of national security based not on secrecy but on transparency.  That there won’t be any more secrets.  That the potential, with the Internet and high resolution imagery, will be for everyone to know everything instantly.

The same cyber utopia seems to be the operating threat scenario for gumshoes and information warfare gurus.  This is what a breathless Navy special agent assigned to the computer security said recently: “Right now, it’s bigger than all of us put together.  It’s bigger than counterintelligence, it’s bigger than fraud, it’s bigger than criminal investigations.  If Federal Agencies don’t stick with this, it’s going to eat us up.”
Internet junkies assert that the technologies for openness are growing faster than the technologies for keeping secrets and that the power balance is shifting towards individuals.  Their Pentagon analogues  information warriors  struggle meanwhile to develop new weapons, to define the military dimensions, focusing on network and essential infrastructure protection and attack.

The pace with which a new information warfare bureaucracy has taken hold in the Pentagon is astounding.  Now everything that used to be labeled electronic combat or psychological operations poses with new terminology such as battlespace and information dominance.  And old nuclear warfare scenarios and models  like the Day After game you are playing here  are retread.

Secrecy has also proliferated.  I’m sorry, but I just see beyond the bureaucratic and institutional self-interest of another new rage within the national security community, one that might have noble purpose and important justification, but ultimately just serves to frighten and thus control the public.  Not being an enthusiast though, I also admit that perhaps I just don’t understand the cult.  And cult it is, for the believers have adopted the very definition of “cult status:” It’s so good, so smart, so hip that it’s over the head of the idiot masses.

Being one of those idiots, there’s nothing like a new national security fad  with beltway bandits and defense industry swarming around the government trough  to get my juices going to find out the truth and to challenge the bureaucracies’ misguided assumption that it is in charge.

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Who’s Minding DC?

In the Event of an Attack, Who’s Minding DC?

Washington’s security would be up to a patchwork of military commands and law-enforcement agencies.

Washingtonian Magazine, October 2013

If an unauthorized plane or a cruise missile sneaked into Washington airspace, the last line of defense would fall to soldiers under the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, headquartered at an armory at 3111 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The large windowless building has a sign that says AMERICA’S SHIELD, but there’s no perimeter fence and only waist-high Jersey barriers stand at three of its four entrances. The fourth is open to traffic, without even a gate arm to regulate entry.

The reason for the lax security may be that Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard isn’t in DC. It’s in Anderson, South Carolina.

Arrangements for Washington’s air defenses are classified, of course, but according to both published plans and documents I’ve obtained, our protection against rogue attacks has long depended on a shadow world of overlapping commands and jurisdictions that overlay the capital region and extend far beyond it. In the 12 years since American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, the top-level organization responsible for super-emergencies has become more complicated as our national-security apparatus has exploded in size. The Program, as this group is known (short for Program Coordination Division, its name before responsibility shifted from FEMA to the White House), is now a broad interagency network comprising military and civilian functions. One fact about the Program, however, has not changed: There’s no single person who understands it, no one really controls it, and no one is really in charge.

No territory has as many watchers as the area called the National Capital Region (NCR)—originally consisting of the District and the surrounding counties but repeatedly enlarged to cover sensitive sites as far away as Pennsylvania. Fighter jets, on alert 24-7, scramble on the orders of a command center at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, on the Potomac River opposite Reagan National Airport. Bolling reports to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which in turn answers to the main command in Colorado. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Park Police helicopters stand ready to intercept “low and slow” movers. Faster-moving threats are the concern of that armory in South Carolina, which oversees antimissile batteries around DC, manned by personnel from North Dakota, Ohio, Florida, and Mississippi who take rotating stints in the NCR.

These lines of command merge at the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region at Fort Mc-Nair, near the Jefferson Memorial, and ultimately report to the Secretary of Defense. On paper, it all seems perfectly prudent and redundant. In an actual attack, though, the various security forces would implement their contingency plans while officials in the Program’s org chart consulted code-red envelopes and attempted to assert control.

In the case of a terrorist act involving, say, weapons of mass destruction, the Program would go into action, directing the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Energy Department, and a host of others, even as the DC government executed its own “homeland security” plan involving hundreds of federal agencies and police departments.

The best analogy for the Program is Wall Street: a collection of institutions whose common interests supposedly allocate resources efficiently. Five years ago, we got to see how Wall Street handled a crisis. How did that work for you?

William Arkin is a national-security expert, a former Army intelligence officer, and the author of more than a dozen books, including his latest, American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Homeland Security Fear Factors

EmergencyPrep10thAnv_Infographic11.inddHere’s how I read this new poster from Ready.gov.  Fifty percent increase in disasters in the past 10 years?  Government incentives to have a disaster declared and more, in everyone’s interest.  But the number of people who actually participate in this idiotic and no doubt expensive government pep-rally is tiny.  The only real statistic here is the claim that more than half of Americans have prepared emergency kits.  I don’t know whether that’s true but it is an indicator of a lack of public confidence in government’s ability to deal with disaster.  So as a self-help program, I guess the government telling everyone that they are on their own is working.

Want to understand the manufacture of fear and obedience in America?  Read my new book, American Coup: How A Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution.

We are SAPs: forty companies currently working on “special access programs”

News of slowed declassification activity by the Obama administration – vigorously rejected by the National Archives – punctuates the fact that government secrecy, despite any statistical shenanigans and worship at the altar of transparency, continues to grow.

Perhaps no area of that growth is more alarming than in programs officially designated “special access programs” or SAPs, where additional security measures restrict the kind of routine knowledge that government officials, auditors, inside kibitzers, and even Congress needs for effective oversight.  What is more, SAPs are a license to lie.  If an official with knowledge of a SAP is asked about it by a member of the press or Congress, he or she can simply brush away the inquiry.  Oversight doesn’t have the right security clearance.

Over the years, various Defense Department, executive branch and Congressional efforts have attempted to review, regulate, reign in, and reform the SAP system, and certainly SAPs to the detriment of the war-fighter – that is, when a secret program exists that is not used to help the normal Joe on the battlefield – are an indefensible no-no.  But since 9/11, it appears that the way in which “access” to SAPs is governed in warfare is merely to increase the number of people with casual access to them, thus making them less SAP-py on the battlefield, though certainly still powerful at hiding in Washington.

Stealth technology, certainly one of the largest continuing programs covered under an official SAP, infect both the F-22 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programs and account for a significant number of the clearances.  (The SAP associated with the F-22 Raptor is called Senior Jersey Raptor (SJR).)   Other technology programs that includes important current SAPs include the Air Force’s new small MC-12W Liberty program, certain Predator and Reaper capabilities (and entire SAP drones), and the whole world of “special” special operations and submarine capabilities.

Virtually all counter-space programs – that is, those that involve the ability to shoot down or disable satellite capabilities – are also SAPs.  As are large swaths of computer network operations, “special technical operations,” and “national technical means,” all pieces of the space-digital-intelligence-cyber-mischief continuum.  Nuclear weapons programs, particularly those associated with nuclear weapons command and control, are mostly under restrictive SIOP-ESI clearances rather than SAPs, though there appear to be some SAPs dealing with the specifics of Presidential strike means and nuclear weapons security, including the NATO nuclear weapons infrastructure.  Directed energy weapons – particularly high-powered microwave and laser weapons of operational and strategic significance, also are covered by SAPs.  The counter-IED program has certainly acquires as many SAPs as it can get its robots on, building its own intelligence and special operations empire beyond any sensible reach.

The theory is that a SAP is denying knowledge of some capability is going to preserve it from the enemy.  If the enemy is Congress and the public debate, the “sensitive” parts of a program can be turned into SAPs.  That is absolutely prohibited by regulations, but the assignment of SAPs has become so promiscuous, it is the effective result.  Thus the proliferation of SAPs into the counter-intelligence and “CI/LE” world (counter-intelligence/law enforcement) world could be alarming, if we knew exactly what they were, and the current large scale North American Air Domain Awareness Surveillance (NAADAS) Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) – with its many SAPs – seems to be scared of its own shadow in terms of what needs to be done to secure America’s skies, that is, what will be done without public debate if possible.  Finally, NORTHCOM and its Army law enforcement component – Joint Task Force North in Texas – seems to be involved in a number of SAPs, all of which I’m sure are SAPs merely because their revelation would be politically controversial.

Right now – this week – almost 40 companies are advertising over 200 jobs requiring Top Secret clearances with ability to gain access to special access programs.   I made a list, of course of the companies and the locations of the work (some are contingent on award of contract):

  •  Apogee Solutions Inc.: Langley AFB, VA
  • Automation Technologies, Inc. (ATI): Augusta, GA; Columbia, MD
  • BAE Systems: Lexington, MA
  • Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.: Broomfield, CO
  • Boeing Global Services and Support: Oklahoma City, OK
  • Booz Allen Hamilton: Dayton, OH
  • BOSH Global Services: Ellsworth AFB, SD
  • CACI:  Arlington, VA: Springfield, VA
  • Chenega Corporation: Langley AFB, VA
  • CSC:  Huntsville, AL; Washington, DC (area); Nellis AFB, NV
  • Cubic Mission Support Services: Washington DC (area)
  • General Atomics: Poway, CA
  • General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems: Dayton, OH
  • Honeywell International: Clearwater, FL; Herndon, VA
  • Insignia Technology Services: Shaw AFB, SC
  • KEYW Corporation: Annapolis Junction, MD
  • L-3 Engility Corporation: Dayton, OH
  • L-3 Global Security & Engineering Solutions: Beale AFB, CA; Offutt AFB, NE; Arlington, VA
  • Leonie: Washington, DC (area)
  • LinQuest: Washington, DC (area)
  • Lockheed Martin: Yuma, AZ; Edwards AFB, CA; Palmdale, CA; Eglin AFB, FL; Fort Worth, TX
  • MacAulay-Brown, Inc.: Dayton, OH
  • ManTech International: Huntsville, AL; Los Angeles, CA (area); Hickam AFB, HI; Barksdale AFB, LA; Kirtland AFB, NM; Dayton, OH; Arlington, VA; Dahlgren, VA
  • MYMIC LLC:  Arlington, VA
  • Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems: Palmdale, CA
  • Northrop Grumman Information Systems: Beavercreek, OH; Arlington, VA; Chantilly, VA
  • Northrop Grumman Special Projects: San Diego, CA
  • Northrop Grumman Xetron: Cincinnati, OH
  • PL Consulting Inc.: Arlington, VA
  • Raytheon: Tucson, AZ
  • Raytheon Applied Signal Technology: Annapolis Junction, MD
  • Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems (IIS): Aurora, CO; Garland, TX
  • Raytheon SI Government Solutions: San Antonio, TX
  • Riverside Research: Dayton, OH
  • SAIC: Adelphi, MD; Columbia, MD; Springfield, VA
  • Scientific Research Corporation (SRC): Colorado Springs, CO; Tampa FL; Honolulu HI (area); Arlington, VA; Norfolk, VA (area)
  • SI Organization: Chantilly, VA
  • SOS International Ltd. (SOSi): Northern VA (CIA)
  • Summit Technical Solutions: Edwards AFB, MD
  • TASC: Vienna, VA
  • Textron AAI Corporation: Hunt Valley, MD
  • Trinity Technology Group, Tampa, FL; Fort Washington, MD
  • U.S. Falcon:  Beale AFB, CA; Ellsworth AFB, SD
  • WBB (Whitney, Bradley, & Brown, Inc.):  Hampton, VA
  • XL Associates: Langley AFB, VA

Government Conferences: The GSA Merely Got Caught in Las Vegas

No one in their right mind would want to stand up and defend the GSA’s $823,000 conference meeting in Las Vegas, which has become the latest paradigm of government waste.  Las Vegas in particular provokes images of ID card lanyards swinging around poles as the DC-revelers crowded the strip clubs on Industrial Road.

Now, as Fierce Government reports, the White House is imposing cut backs on conferences and travel expenses, directing agencies in a May 11 memo reduce expenses by at least 30 percent in fiscal 2013.  Deputy Secretaries will have to review any conference where the agency spending could exceed $100,000 and no agency can spend over $500,000 on a conference – well, that is, without a waiver.

I can’t imagine that anyone thinks this will change a thing, except make every Las Vegas planned event “sensitive.”  And of course it is just spitting in the wind when it comes to the industry and association sponsored conferences, the modern-day back rooms where deals are made and future careers for military officers are lined up.  These military – and increasingly homeland security – conferences are going on almost daily.

From the GovEvents website, I picked up 91 such events scheduled for the next six months.  At the bigger events, a dozen or more government and military officials can make presentations (at what cost to the taxpayer?) and loads of military personnel and government employees attend.  Looking at some of the more specialized IT symposiums, it can cost up to $500 each for each participant.  So if only 20 government participants attend these, not including travel and lost time, the cost is already $1 million. See how ridiculous efforts to save government – taxpayer — money are?

The Conferences and Expos:

Soft Power Becomes a Military-Dominated Counter-Everything…

Soft power, all the rage in the ivory tower, but ever so slowly being eclipsed in the Defense Department as mission excitement builds for China and that old foe Iran, is here to stay in that way that the Pentagon knows how to overdo everything: write the regulations and doctrine, open specialty institutions, build an internal constituency.  And of course, spend money, which in the military budget is a pittance but in comparison to other departments and agencies is a King’s ransom, which is why soft becomes hard, and everything that the U.S. government attempts to turn into non-military becomes military by default.

As Secretary Robert Gates nudged the rest of the government to do more so that the military didn’t have to do everything, and the commentators of everything-is-pathetic-except-for-the-military love to point out that the State Department can’t even find enough volunteers to man its hazardous posts in the perpetual warzone.  Come to think of it, I wonder if DOD could if their assignments were equally voluntary.

But I digress.  Institutionalized soft power a la Pentagon practice does take resources, and bodies, and pretty soon, hard power is compromised.  So there’s a double loss for America: Military priorities get distorted, and the distinction between what is military and what is civilian fades.

This week, European Command (EUCOM) announced the opening of a new Joint Interagency Counter Trafficking Center in Stuttgart, Germany; a kind of unremarkable and typical blah, blah, blah, even for the once important European Command constantly looking for mission and relevance.  The new center focuses on trafficking in drugs, weapons, humans and other illicit commodities.  Army Brig. Gen. Mark Scraba, the center’s director, told American Forces Press Service that criminal networks were increasingly able to operate across national borders and build alliances.  Among the greatest concerns, he said, is the convergence of drug and terror networks.  The fusion center, the director says, has fewer than 40 staff members, and includes representatives of the FBI, DIA and other U.S. government agencies.

Fewer than 40 staff members indeed, but you gotta ask: Why is this paid for out of the defense budget?  Why does the military have to take the lead for the interagency to work?  How many additional contractors and supporters are really expended?  How does this subtly impact and undermine core military missions?  How does it slowly turn the military into a global law enforcement entity?

When the U.S. government started trumpeting the term narco-terrorism after 9/11, I took it to be a cynical effort to rename the war on drugs and the activities of the left-out combatant commands like Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in the new mono-focus of terrorism.  The term in fact had been coined by President Fernando Belaúnde Terry of Peru in 1983, according to Wikipedia.  The adoption by DOD was in fact cynical, but soon enough they discovered that the most pressing narco problem was in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a mission that initially they relegated to the Brits and the NATO partners, but have been slowly taking over.  EUCOM’s center is really a product of endless fighting in Afghanistan.

EUCOM’s center joins the counter-narcotics and counter-narcoterrorism effort at Central Command (CENTCOM), which takes place in the Afghanistan and Pakistan Center (APC).   SOUTHCOM has their new Countering Transnational Organized Crime (CTOC) division.   Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has both a CTF [counter-threat finance] team and a TNT/CNT [transnational terrorism/counter narcoterrorism] division.  So does Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which has built up a whole group of Colorado Springs-based efforts fighting transnational criminal organizations (narcotics trafficking, human smuggling, weapons, money laundering/threat finance etc.), focused mostly on Mexico.

All of these field outposts feed into the counter-narcotics and counter trafficking intelligence efforts of the CIA – through its long-standing Crime and Narcotics Center — NSA, DIA, Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), etc.  Even the Navy’s Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center has a Transnational Threat Department (TNT).  This is not even to mention the two Joint Intelligence Agency Taskforces focused on the war on drugs: South (JIATF-S) in Key West and West (JIATF-W) at Camp Smith, Hawaii.  The Department of Homeland Security, of course, has gotten into the act, opening an ICE Bulk Cash Smuggling Center and other organizations.

None of this particularly surprises me, even when budgets are supposedly so strained.  But I can’t help continue to think that the entire effort is both cynical and ass-backwards.  If we want soft anything, we have to lead with non-military efforts.

The Obama administration, not surprisingly, has made it worse, contributing to the mission creep into organized crime and human trafficking, through its Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging Threats to National Security, released in July 2011.

That Strategy called for DOD to enhance its support to law enforcement with the creation of the  Narcotics and Transnational Crime Support Center.  James Miller, the new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy called the Center “a dedicated DoD-led center that integrates military, intelligence, and law enforcement analytic capabilities to go after key nodes in global criminal networks.”  It reflects, he says, “the added value that the Defense department brings to whole-of-government efforts against transnational organized crime.”

Kathleen Hicks, who replaces Miller as Principal Deputy, told Congress:  “DoD should also consider how it can play a role in breaking the links among criminal organizations, terrorists, and insurgencies.  As the President’s strategy states, “terrorists and insurgents are increasingly turning to TOC [transnational organized crime] to generate funding and acquiring logistical support to carry out their violent acts.” As the Department continues with its counterterrorism efforts around the world, it will be important to account for the links between criminal and terrorist entities.”

I’d never heard of this Center, and Internet research turns up very little.  What I’ve pieced together is that it is located in Crystal City, Virginia, and the director reports to the Deputy Assistant Security of Defense for Counter Narcotics and Global Threats.  Camber Corporation is providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) expertise to link the Center to NSA.  Semper Fi Solutions, Inc. is providing CENTCOM liaison officers in Tampa to the Crystal City based center, as well as corruption and “predatory” analysts.

Other contractors providing intelligence support to the trafficking empire include: BAE Systems, Celestar, Delex Systems, Duer Advanced Technology & Aerospace (DATA), FedSys, Inc., General Dynamics Information Technology, L-3 STRATIS, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Prosync Technology Group, and SAIC.  Parsons Corporation is working on the methamphetamine/precursor chemicals problem set for the DIA.

Finally, one has to ask, with all of the enhanced intelligence collection and sharing and border control that is part of the post 9/11 world, why is this problem getting worse?  How is that possible, that borders are more porous?  So much for the war against terrorism.  No wonder they call it the forever war.

In Defense of Defense of the F-22

Should we say Bravo! to the Air Force for doing its job, for doing what the military services are supposed to do, which is to train and equip, to advocate for their mission and specialty, and then to move out smartly when overruled by higher ups?  Or should we just shut down the junior service because it’s so pathetic?

The Air Force received the final, 187th F-22 Raptor jet last week in Georgia, destined to join the 3rd Wing’s 525th Fighter Squadron, stationed at the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.  Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was on hand to blather on about “America’s first 5th generation fighter aircraft,” thanking the line workers, and then heading back to his Pentagon credenza, where no doubt he was preparing to weather the onslaught.

First came ABC News, with Senator Take-No-Prisoners McCain repeating the old bombast that the F-22 is useless because it has never been used in combat.  In almost seven years not a single one of the jets, which cost an estimated $420 million-plus each, has ever been used, ABC said.

60 Minutes followed, sucking all of the oxygen out of any decent discourse, scoring the coup of having actual pilots “without permission … blow the whistle on a plane they love to fly.”

The GAO piled on.

Lockheed Martin tweeted and tweeted in response how fabulous the plane is, oblivious to what was going on all around.  The Air Force produced Gen. Mike Hostage – no kidding – to tell us that the F-22 was in fact being deployed and used all over.  This nation needs this airplane – and every one of them,” he said. “I wish I had ten times as many as I have.”  Really only the Air Force Association and the network of retired airpower advocates have joined the battle, attempting to answer the F-22 critics.

They are all missing the point.

There’s so much to be said about the news media and how opportunistic it is, stuck in a mode of having to make every story a bombshell.  There’s so much to be said about the Air Force, which just can’t get beyond its institutional inferiority complex and can’t see the big picture because it is constantly bunkered and under attack.  There’s so much to be said about the idiocy of the public defense debate stuck in some 1980’s mode of waste, fraud, and abuse, weapons-won’t-or-don’t-work.

But the real issue is that we have no defense policy, no national security strategy.  We’re fighting in Afghanistan and no one other than the government and military supports it or cares; we’ve declared terrorism an existential threat that isn’t one; we’re pivoting to Asia to unstick ourselves from the Middle East, making believe that there is some military solution in the future; we’re hanging on to and hostage to gajillions of dollars of nukes – “not used in combat” in 60 years, get it?; we’re watching new constituencies in favor of perpetual war emerge – homeland security, the intelligence community, special operations, the cyber warriors, the counter-IED kingdom, the counter-threat finance sleuths, the counter-narcoterrorism fighters – and seem oblivious to the age of special interests that takes advantage of the absence of a national security strategy.  No wonder every Congressman and woman just tries to get and save bases, contracts, and weapons in their districts and states: The Defense Department and the federal government has completely failed to articulate in any useful way why x is needed and y isn’t, so it all boils down to politics, what’s best for the district or State, and every special interest just establishes alliances to pursue what it can get.

The F-22 symbolizes all of this dysfunction, particularly that part about our debate stuck in some weird 1980’s time warp.   But what’s really happening is that the plane is just too good, too good for even the pilots, too powerful, too fast, too flexible, too magnificent.  And as such, it should be seen as part of a sea change, as a seam between an old era and a new, rather than some industrial object to be audited.

Like the 10 last-inch-seeking hyper-reliable MIRVs that we finally stuffed on top of the triple-somersaulting MX missile in the 1980’s (and then abandoned for being too much), the F-22 is too much for what is really needed for our national security, which is to say, that just because it’s the best doesn’t mean it’s buying us anything.

I’m an agnostic one way or another about the airplane, but do appreciate the details of its capabilities, including how fabulous it is as an intelligence platform, how it can dog fight and bomb at the same time…  The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether 187 of anything carrying two or twenty bombs, no matter how accurate, is going to defeat a China or Russia?  Of course it isn’t; it’s a “deterrent,” it’s a symbol; it’s a lab experiment.   It’s all sorts of things that might actually be good for America except that we can’t really determine whether that’s so unless we look at our national security in a lot broader way, shorn of love for boots on the ground and hate for the fly boys, shorn of pro-Europe and Pacific and anti-Middle East, shorn of COIN versus big war.

Is this my only choice: More killer drones?  More main battle tanks?  More opaque spending on intelligence and special operations?  More cyber this and that?  More PTSD?

In which case then, I’ll take the F-22s.   Everything that the drones and the tanks and the magnificent covert operators represent seem both more mischievous and dangerous for the future of America.