Archive for the ‘Intelligence Operations Commentary’ Category

Analysis: The Current State of the China-Taiwan Spy War

March 2, 2013

China and Taiwan
Last week I spoke about the current state of the espionage war between China and Taiwan with Tim Daiss, a Southeast Asia-based American journalist who has been covering the Asia-Pacific region for over a decade. Our discussion formed the basis of a comprehensive piece on the subject, published in British newspaper The Independent, in two parts (part one and part two). It told Daiss that the Ministry of State Security —China’s primary national intelligence agency— is not known for its technological prowess. However, the sheer size of Beijing’s intelligence apparatus is proving a good match for the more advanced automated systems used by its less populous regional rivals, including Taiwan. When it comes to traditional human intelligence, the Chinese have been known to employ time-tested methods such as sexual entrapment or blackmail, as was confirmed most recently in the case of Taiwanese Major-General Lo Hsien-che. Lo, who headed the Taiwanese military’s Office of Communications and Information, was convicted of sharing classified top-secret information with a female Chinese operative in her early 30s, who held an Australian passport. During his trial, which marked the culmination of Taiwan’s biggest spy scandal in over half a century, Lo admitted that the Chinese female spy “cajoled him with sex and money”. In addition to honey-trap techniques, Chinese spies collect intelligence by way of bribery, as do many of their foreign colleagues. In the case of China, however, a notable change in recent years has been the accumulation of unprecedented amounts of foreign currency, which make it easier for Chinese intelligence operatives to entice foreign assets, such as disgruntled or near-bankrupt state employees, to sell classified data.

In the case of Taiwan, China’s primary intelligence targets are weapons systems, especially those originating in the United States. The island-nation possesses export-versions of some of America’s most advanced weaponry, and it is far easier for Beijing to access such weapons in Taiwan than on US soil. Taiwan is both geographically and culturally familiar to Chinese intelligence operatives, who do not have to try too hard to blend into Taiwanese society. I told The Independent that, based on publicly available information about recent espionage cases, it would be safe to assume that Chinese intelligence has gained access to substantial classified information on some of Taiwan’s most advanced US-made defense systems. These include the Lockheed Martin/Raytheon-built Patriot missile defense system deployed on the island, as well as the Po Shen command and control system, which is designed to facilitate critical battlefield communications between Taiwan’s navy, army and air force.

I argue in the interview with the London-based paper that China’s success in penetrating Taiwan’s defense systems is having a significant impact on bilateral relations between Washington and Taipei. On the one hand, the United States is committed on preserving its alliance with Taiwan, for both geostrategic and symbolic purposes. But, on the other hand, American defense planners are weary of the damage caused to US military strategy by the exposure of some of Washington’s most coveted weapons systems to Chinese intelligence by way of Taiwan. As I told Daiss, while nobody at the US Pentagon or State Department would admit it publicly, “many in Washington are increasingly hesitant to supply Taiwan with sensitive military technology because they fear penetration by the Chinese”.

At the end of the interview, I cautioned that it would be a mistake to view the United States and Taiwan as simply passive receptors of Chinese intelligence activities. The increasing ease of travel and communication between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland in recent years has allowed Taiwan’s military and civilian intelligence agencies to collect far more intelligence on China than ever before. Their activities range from cyberespionage and offensive counterintelligence to sexual entrapment (some intelNews readers may recall the 2006 case of Tong Daning, an economist in China’s Social Security Department, who was executed in 2006 for sharing classified Chinese economic data with his mistress; she later turned out to have been a spy for Taipei).

Ultimately, however, it is near impossible for Taiwan to match the size of China’s spy network, even with American assistance. As Daiss writes, “twenty-four million versus 1.3 billion just doesn’t seem like a fair fight”. And, he adds, “how all of this will unfold as China and Taiwan continue to forge relations in the near future is anybody’s guess”.

Are Somalia’s militant Islamist ‘defectors’ genuine?

February 10, 2013

Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia
During the past two years, the once powerful influence of Islamic militancy in Somalia appears to be steadily declining. Not long ago, much of the country was firmly controlled by al-Shabaab (The Party of Youth), formerly the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which ruled Somalia until 2006. The group, which is thought to have approximately 5,000 armed members at its disposal, emerged as a powerful force in Somalia in 2009. Three years later, in 2012, it formally announced its operational alignment with al-Qaeda. Its power began to wane, however, once the Western-backed Somali government decided to confront it militarily, with the support of the United States Central Intelligence Agency and several European-funded private security companies. A major indicator of this optimistic trend seems to center on the unprecedented numbers of al-Shabaab members who are defecting –apparently en masse– and joining the ranks of the Somali armed forces. Many of these defectors are trained by private security companies employed by the European Union before being sent to the front to fight against their former comrades.

But the optimism of Western and pro-government Somali observers was tempered last week by news that an al-Shabaab defector blew himself up in an attempt to kill the country’s Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid, and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Saaid and Mohamud survived the bombing, which shook the area around the presidential palace in Somali capital Mogadishu. The incident, however, prompted some commentators to wonder whether the ongoing wave of al-Shabaab defectors is genuine. Some reports from Somalia suggested that the suicide bomber, Ali Abdi Hared Malin, an al-Shabaab defector, was a member of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.

Could it be that the militant Islamist group is copying the tactic of the Afghan Taliban, whose clandestine members are systematically infiltrating the ranks for the Afghan military, police and security services, in an attempt to destabilize the Afghan government from within? A senior military consultant for the Somali National Army, Abdi Hassan, argues that some defectors have in fact proven useful in subverting al-Shabaab operations, but that “not all defectors are genuine and honest”.

Some commentators are critical of the Somali government’s ‘defector policy’, which, they say, is nothing more than a mass arrest campaign. Under this program,  al-Shabaab members are captured in the bush and placed in ‘reform camps’, where they undergo a ‘rehabilitation campaign’ of dubious reliability. Paul D. Williams an Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Security Policy Studies program at  George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, notes that much of this problem comes down to funding. The Somali government’s Western backers are eager to fund military operations, but little thought has been devoted to rehabilitation programs for former al-Shabaab members. He argues that “without the necessary financial support, efforts to transition former fighters into alternative livelihoods will fail, and ‘disengaging’ will prove only temporary as disgruntled individuals turn against the government or to banditry”. And he warns that, “given the significant military and political progress that has been made in Somalia over the last year, it would be a major blunder to skimp on this crucial part of the enterprise”.

Analysis: Will 2013 Be the Year of the Unmanned Drone?

January 7, 2013

Predator drone
As United States President Barack Obama prepares to enter his fifth year in office, one may be excused for thinking that his administration’s response to insurgency warfare essentially boils down to one thing: the joystick. This is the means by which Washington’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet is remotely guided, usually from the safety of ground control stations located thousands of miles away from selected targets. Even prior to last November’s Presidential election, Obama administration officials declared in every possible way that the drone campaign would remain a permanent feature of the White House’s counterinsurgency campaign. Not only that, but it seems increasingly apparent that when, on November 19, 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that America’s UAV fleet would expand, he meant it both in terms of raw numbers and geographical reach. Africa appears now to be high on the list of UAV targets. The US is currently busy establishing a large network of small air bases located in strategic locations throughout the continent, in what US observers have termed a “massive expansion” of US covert operations in Africa.

The Central Intelligence Agency, which has been steering the development of America’s UAV program almost since its inception, launched over 50 Predator drone strikes during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. But the use of CIA drones under Obama has surpassed all precedent: last month the CIA launched its 300th drone strike under the Democratic President. Unlike Bush, who refused to even acknowledge Washington’s part in the remotely controlled strikes, Obama has publicly defended them, rejecting accusations that drone strikes have caused large numbers of civilian casualties, and arguing instead that “for the most part they have been very precise […] strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates”.

In light of the US President’s strong support, it is interesting to note that 2012 was marked by a significant fall in the number of CIA drone strikes inside Pakistani territory, which has traditionally been the main target of UAV operations under Obama’s presidency. According to a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes in Pakistan have fallen to their lowest level in five years, probably due to the CIA’s effort to deflect strong public criticism in Pakistan of the allegedly high civilian toll of UAV bombings. The study added that, according to media reports from Pakistan, there was a six-fold drop in civilian casualties from drone strikes.

But this was not necessarily indicative of Washington’s broader geographical use of ‘joystick bombers’ in the previous year. Observers correctly note that, as the number of drone attacks dropped in Pakistan, it rose dramatically in Yemen, where a major —and mostly underreported— US military campaign has been taking place since last March. Media reports from that country suggest that nearly 200 people were killed in CIA drone strikes in 2012. During the past six months, far more UAV missiles have landed in Yemen than in Pakistan. Moreover, at least two US confirmed drone strikes took place in Somalia in 2012, the first-ever such attacks on the African continent. This author agrees with those who speculate that Washington may have employed Predator drones elsewhere in Africa, but that these incidents remain unreported.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the US electorate, which exercised significant pressure on the Bush administration over its use of torture against enemy detainees between 2001 and 2007, appears broadly unconcerned with the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists by the Obama administration. Congress seems equally disinterested in challenging the marked secrecy that has governed the Predator drone program since its inception. One is tempted to ponder whether the American public and its elected representatives are willing to tolerate the inconvenient discrepancies of the CIA drone program so long as it keeps US troops away from the physical dangers lurking in the front lines of Washington’s ‘global war on terrorism’.

In the current political climate in Washington, there is little indication that the Obama administration’s drone war will dissipate any time soon. On the contrary, the role of ‘joystick warriors’ can be expected to increase in America’s evolving counterinsurgency doctrine.

Ex-intelligence official: cyber espionage more dangerous than terrorism

November 27, 2012

Raymond Boisvert
A former senior member of Canada’s intelligence community has said that the threat of cyber espionage requires more resources that are currently being diverted to counterterrorism. Ray Boisvert, who retired last year from the post of Assistant Director of Intelligence for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said in an assertive speech last week that cyber espionage is “fundamentally undermining [Canada’s] future prosperity as a nation”. Speaking on Friday in Ottawa, Boisvert compared cyber espionage to the climate-change debate, which has been marked by a series of ignored warnings, due to “some willful blindness on behalf of individuals”. As a result, he said, the need to establish essential security measures to protect worldwide electronic infrastructure is being neglected, while desperately needed resources are being diverted to counterterrorism. He explained the lack of action on three levels: first, the resistance emanating from technologically challenged decision-makers in the government and private sector, who simply do not understand the technical complexities of digital telecommunications security. Second, it is rooted in the government’s reluctance to invest the funds required to shield the nation’s communications infrastructure from espionage attacks. Finally, he placed the blame on the fragmentation and shortsightedness of the private sector, which owns and operates nearly 90 percent of Canada’s critical communications infrastructure and yet is too consumed by competition to sit around the same table on matters of security. In giving examples of the seriousness of the threat of cyber espionage, Boisvert cited the attacks last year on the computer systems of Canada’s Treasury Board and Finance Department, which compromised trade secrets of several national industries. He also mentioned the attacks on Nortel Networks Inc., which he said lasted for over a decade and may have contributed to the company’s 2009 demise. Toward the end of his speech, Boisvert said it would be a mistake to point the finger solely at China for such attacks. Although Beijing is behind some global cyber espionage, the former intelligence official said that several other countries, “even good friends” of Canada, were engaged in spying on Canadian government agencies and private companies, searching for financial information, intellectual secrets, as well as defense and diplomatic data. Like its southern neighbor, the United States, Canada is currently engaged in a public discussion about which government agency or agencies should be working with the private sector to try to secure civilian telecommunications infrastructure.

Analysis: Should the CIA kill less and spy more?

November 17, 2012

CIA headquarters
The Central Intelligence Agency’s awkward silence about the recent resignation of its Director, General David Petraeus, is indicative of an organization that remains distinctly uncomfortable with publicity. The added layer of the sexual nature of Petraeus’ impropriety has increased exponentially the degree of unease at Langley. Yet sooner or later the news media will move on to something else and General Petraeus will fade into the distance. For seasoned intelligence observers, however, the question of the CIA’s future will remain firmly in the foreground. In an interview earlier this week with Wired magazine, former CIA Director General Michael Hayden (ret.) opined that Petraeus’ resignation presents the Agency with the opportunity to return to its operational roots. Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said that the Agency has been “laser-focused on terrorism” for many years. Consequently, much of its operational output “looks more like targeting than it does classical intelligence”, he said. His views were echoed by the CIA’s former Acting Director, John McLaughlin, who told Wired that the most significant challenge for the post-Petraeus CIA “may be the sheer volume of problems that require [good old-fashioned] intelligence input”. Yesterday, meanwhile, saw the publication of two opinion pieces by two of America’s most experienced intelligence watchers. In the first one, The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus urges United States President Barack Obama to pause and think about the role of America’s foremost external intelligence organization before appointing a successor to General Petraeus. For over a decade, argues Pincus, the CIA’s focus has been to fulfill covert-action tasks in the context of Washington’s so-called “war on terrorism”. But through this process, the Agency “has become too much of a paramilitary organization” and has neglected its primary institutional role, which is to be “the premier producer and analyst of intelligence for policymakers, using both open and clandestine sources”. The Post’s David Ignatius agrees with Pincus. In an article aired yesterday, he argues that the personal misjudgments of David Petraeus pale into insignificance before the core questions on “intelligence goals and missions” with which the CIA is currently faced. During the leadership of Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, says Ignatius, the Agency’s paramilitary functions “swallowed alive” its intelligence-gathering side. And it is now time for intelligence collection to be placed “back in the driver’s seat” at Langley. All three voices make a good point. And they are quite right to be calling on the White House to address this, since the CIA does not determine the overall direction or goals of its operations. Rather it complies —sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically— to the directives of the Commander-in-Chief. Considering, however, that the paramilitary-style CIA of today is largely the creation of Barack Obama and his top security advisers, it is difficult to see how or why the US President would choose to dismantle his very own design.

When Did Obama Know About CIA Director’s Affair?

November 13, 2012

David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell
The standard reaction to last week’s resignation of Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, following the revelation of his extramarital affair, has been stunned silence. Not so much because of the affair itself —what is one more affair in the slippery world of Washington politics?— but because it involved the eminent figure of Petraeus. Former aides to the retired General have been confiding to journalists that “never in a million years” would they have thought that the high-achieving CIA Director would have risked his career and reputation in such a reckless fashion. Many thought that the relationship between him and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, had grown suspiciously close in recent years; but Petraeus had a general way of seeming beyond reproach.

It is worth pointing out that much of this unfolding story is so far based on hearsay, as opposed to concrete, verifiable information. It is suggested that Petraeus’ extramarital tryst was accidentally discovered by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who were looking into a seemingly unrelated case. Some news outlets, mostly in the UK, suggest that a female employee of the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command contacted the FBI after receiving threatening messages from Broadwell, warning her to “stay away from [her] man” —allegedly Petraeus. While investigating the Gmail account from which the threatening messages were allegedly sent, the FBI allegedly discovered “thousands” of messages exchanged between the CIA Director and Broadwell, some of which were sexually explicit. The investigation was then broadened to include the possibility that Petraeus’ personal email account might have been compromised. Other reports claim that Broadwell terminated her relationship with Petraeus last year, and that it was she who contacted the FBI after the CIA Director “continued to pursue her with hundreds of emails”.

Those familiar with the history of the CIA will be hardly surprised by Petraeus’ womanizing antics. If anything, in recent years scandalous extramarital activity has been toned down at the CIA, an agency that has historically been viewed as a stronghold of out-of-control male chauvinism. One needs only to look back a few decades, when Allen Dulles, the CIA’s longest-serving director, had “at least a hundred” affairs with women during his tenure, according to his sister, Eleanor. This, however, is not to imply that those who are concerned about the institutional character and effectiveness of the Agency should adopt a dismissive attitude toward the revelations. It may indeed be the case that Petraeus committed no crime in the course of his extramarital affair and that American national security was never threatened by it. However, as any junior counterintelligence officer knows, extramarital affairs can —and often do— expose intelligence personnel to blackmail.

For this reason alone, Petraeus had little choice in offering his resignation, and US President Barack Obama had little choice in accepting it. The question, however, remains when exactly the President was informed of this potentially highly damaging situation. We are told that the FBI shared its sensitive findings with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on election night, November 6. The ODNI passed on the news to the President on November 7, and he was given Petraeus’ offer of resignation on November 8. But could it really be that President Obama was kept in the dark about Petraeus’ indiscretion until the day after the election was decided, and if so why? Or was he perhaps informed earlier, but chose to keep the scandal under wraps, in order to avoid potential complications in the outcome of the election? Ultimately, which is worse? A President kept in the dark about a potentially high-level penetration in the nation’s foremost covert-action agency, or the White House keeping this information secret for political reasons?

IntelNews hears that members of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are “upset” that the FBI did not give them a heads up of the probe into General Petraeus’ extramarital antics. If this is indeed true, the Committee now has a strong impetus to investigate the handling of this issue by the FBI, the White House, and the CIA itself. Security is not a partisan issue, and Congress is now presented with its first post-election opportunity to demonstrate this.

Analysis: Iranian-Israeli proxy war flares up in Sudan

November 2, 2012

Sudan and South Sudan
While much of the world focuses on the effects of hurricane Sandy in the eastern United States, the proxy war between Israel and Iran continues to flare up, this time in Africa. Last week, the government of Sudan accused Israeli of being behind a surprise bombing of a weapons factory in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. According to Sudan’s Minister of Information, Ahmed Belal Osman, four Israeli Air Force jets invaded Sudanese airspace and struck the Yarmouk military complex in Khartoum, inflicting heavy damages. There are unconfirmed claims that the factory was operated by the Iranian government and produced weapons that were smuggled through the Sinai Peninsula into the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Palestinian group Hamas. On Tuesday, almost exactly a week after the alleged Israeli bombing took place, two Iranian warships arrived in Port Sudan, the country’s most important harbor, located on the Red Sea. The arrival of the vessels was confirmed by Iranian news agency IRNA, which said a helicopter carrier and a destroyer had docked at Port Sudan. The news agency, which is owned by the Iranian government, said the arrival of the ships was meant to contribute to anti-piracy efforts in the Red Sea. But non-Iranian news media, including British newspaper The Independent, quote observers who view the ships’ arrival in Sudan as an Iranian “show of support” for the Sudanese government. According to this explanation, Tehran’s decision to send the ships to the East African country is part of an ongoing proxy war between Iran and Israel taking place throughout the region. Israel has consistently provided diplomatic and material support for South Sudan ever since last year, when the African country declared its independence from Sudan. In responding to Tel Aviv’s diplomatic maneuvers, Tehran has gone out of its way to significantly strengthen its diplomatic and military ties with Khartoum in the past several months, to the point that it is now seen as one of Sudan’s most trusted international allies, along with China. The London-based Independent quotes an unnamed Sudanese military official as dismissing the ‘proxy war’ theory, claiming instead that the Iranian naval presence in Port Sudan represents nothing more than “an exchange of amicable relations” between Khartoum and Tehran. Meanwhile, the Israeli government refuses to confirm or deny any role in last week’s bombing in Sudan.

Situation Report: Is DARPA’s Phoenix Program Intelligence-Related?

August 26, 2012

DARPA's Phoenix Program
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the out-there research arm of the United States Department of Defense, is well known for it’s futuristic and bleeding-edge technology research projects. Often times, the Agency’s highflying efforts seem to protrude a motto of “failure is an option”. In fact, a 2003 article in The Los Angeles Times states that DARPA’s failure rates are between 85 and 90 percent. But this has not prevented the Agency from trying out new things, which sometimes help shape the future. It’s predecessor, Advanced Research Projects Agency, renamed DARPA in 1972, helped create what is today the Internet. Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (aka UNIX), Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface (Siri, that female voice on your iPhone —yup, she’s a spinout from a DARPA Artificial Intelligence project called CALO), and Onion Routing (core technique for anonymous communications over computer networks, i.e. the base technology underlying Tor), were all funded, in part, by DARPA. Unsurprisingly, DARPA is at it again. The question remains, though, can the hype become a reality or will the new effort find a home in the vast majority of DARPAs forward-looking failed adventures?

On October 20, 2011, DARPA announced the Phoenix Program, explaining that it was seeking to repurpose components from communication satellites operating in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). As the Agency explains, “the Phoenix program envisions developing a new class of very small ‘satlets,’ similar to nano satellites, which could be sent to the GEO region […] attaching such satlets “to the antenna of a non-functional cooperating satellite robotically, essentially creating a new space system”.

Explaining further, DARPA states, “a payload orbital delivery system […] will also be designed to safely house the satlets for transport aboard a commercial satellite launch”. With an orbital tender or “satellite servicing” vehicle operating in GEO, “the PODS would then be released […] and link up with the tender to become part of the satellite servicing station’s ‘tool belt’”.

While that is plenty of technical data to digest, if you are space watcher, you know full well the amount of debris orbiting the Earth and the constant challenges it poses to manned and unmanned space flight. If not, please check out this NASA photograph, which visually represents the amount of debris and defunct satellites orbiting the Earth —it is worth a looksee just to see it visually.

Analyzing DARPA Aims and Apertures

IntelNews reached out to DARPA’s program manager for the Phoenix Program, Dave Barnhart, to request comment and clarification on the programs aims, objectives and goals. Barnhart, who joined DARPA in 2010, having previously served as the Director and Co-Founder of the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Southern California, explained in an email that the Phoenix program’s goal “is to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost”.

Continuing, Barnhart told intelNews: “Phoenix seeks to demonstrate around-the-clock, globally persistent communication capability for warfighters more economically, by robotically removing and re-using GEO-based space apertures and antennas from de-commissioned satellites in the graveyard or disposal orbit”.

Early Detection & Intelligence Platforms

If achievable, the economic and financial incentives of repurposing already “up-there” assets is clearly laudable. But the question of which type of satellites and in what orbit such a program could extend to is of particular interest, even if it is looking beyond the horizon of a successful Phoenix program. The reason for this is that, if DARPA’s efforts are successful, the significance and consequence of having space-based platforms that can fix, repair, and augment other satellites quickly and efficiently would be a dramatic and vitally important strategic advantage for US security and intelligence efforts.

The US Air Force’s Defense Support Program (DSP), which served as America’s early warning and detection system for ballistic and intercontinental missiles, space launches, and nuclear detonations, is being replaced by the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIR). This new advanced system is expected to integrate more effectively with future missile defense efforts. It currently maintains several satellites operating in what is known as a highly elliptical orbit (HEO). Given the benefits of satellites working in HEO —suitable for communications in the higher latitudes, slower moving, with a longer dwell time over a target area because satellites move more slowly when father away from the Earth, etc— understanding the target of the Phoenix program and its limitations is significant to the holistic frame of reference.

Our efforts to confirm that DARPA was particularly interested in proving that replacing such assets was possible through successes operating in GEO were largely deflected, but not entirely discarded. DARPA’s Barnhart explained to intelNews that the program wasn’t focused on all the possible orbits of satellites and that the program was really focused on GEO. The reasoning, Barnhart explained, was that “GEO is a unique environment that allows relatively low maneuvering fuel around it, versus the higher fuel required for what is considered highly elliptical orbits (HEO), medium earth orbits (MEO) or low earth orbit (LEO)”.

Phoenix’ Focus on GEO and Not DSP

A veteran of the business, who has spent more than 20 years as a space operations officer and signals intelligence analyst, and asked not to be named, told intelNews that the Phoenix program not focusing on DSP or SBIR systems made sense. “I don’t see them doing this kind of thing with a DSP satellite given that the typical causes of failure of these birds involves subsystems that are not small or modular”. Cautioning that he had no direct knowledge of this particular DARPA program, but leveraging his decades as an operational expert in the field, he observed: “Phoenix developers are hoping to ultimately put a variety of modular subsystems in the orbital ‘toolkit’ of satlets [or irreducibly minimum or barebones satellites]. Failed subsystems will probably not be easily accessible to a robotic device or easily spliced around”.

The Time Horizon: Operational Context

Since DARPA’s Phoenix program is focused exclusively on assets in GEO, at least for the time being, the question quickly becomes how soon will it be before there are ‘satlets’ —the mini satellites that can robotically remove and re-use components from what was once deemed orbital space junk into something that makes defunct satellites operational again?

Well…on July 26, several defense contractors announced that DARPA’s Tactical Technologies Office had started to awarded contracts to support Phoenix Technologies Program.

Getting to initial operational capability (IOC) is dependent upon the technical challenges the program faces, the investment required, and how much support it can secure from the US Congress (or how generous Congress will be with loosening its purse strings), and the support from other government elements who directly benefit from the program. According to sources, assuming things go according to plan and the stars are aligned properly, the IOC benchmark is likely achievable in 5 to 10 years, meaning it will not be operational or deployed, but it would certainly be leaps and bounds closer. It also means the project could become so bogged down it never actually sees the outer atmosphere.

‘Curiouser and curiouser’

So what are the Mad Hatters of DARPA really after as they leap headlong into the rabbit hole? US national security efforts, particularly with its space-based assets are always working to provide more robust and cost effective ways to replace capabilities that are lost in space overtime or malfunctioning. Launching a single pound into space can cost as much as $10,000, so it is no wonder that finding alternatives is desirable.

Aside from the cost there are also strategic military implications for DARPA’s Phoenix program, which makes sense, as DARPA’s self-described mission is to “maintain the technological superiority of the US military”. Should the program be successful, it would make it significantly more difficult for America’s adversaries to interdict and disrupt space-based communications assets working with terrestrial based warfighters. This is important because the US military continues to transform its warfighting capabilities and integrate them with net-centric warfare capabilities.

In turn, adversaries will have to take into consideration a space-based replacement advantage held by the US when evaluating the cost benefit of attacking space-based assets. This effectively creates a deterrence capacity, something which no country operating in space currently maintains to such a forward-looking extent. If the US can replace assets that were knocked out by an adversary quickly and at minimal cost, the upside benefit of going after such platforms becomes strategically depleted and potentially counter productive.

Of course, this is speculative, but shouldn’t be dismissed outright because DARPA’s on the case and it seems with contracts signed within the medium term possibility of reality. Even so, it is clearly dependent upon how effective and successful the Phoenix program will be, and at its core, how fast each lost or malfunctioning space-based asset can be replaced or corrected.

But loud elephants can talk silently, too, so one has to wonder if DSP and SBIR birds are waiting in the wings or at the very least being strongly considered for a future iteration of a Phoenix 2.0.

From idea, to concept, to proposal, to solicitation, to contract, and finally, to reality, DARPA continues to pursue groundbreaking innovation by challenging and rewriting the lines between brilliance and the cusps of fiction. The challenge and question remains, however, can the reality live up to the hype? Like all things DARPA, it will be interesting to watch and see the progression and development of this effort.

There Is No Such Thing as ‘Friendly Espionage’

August 13, 2012

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama
Last month we reported on a story published by The Associated Press, according to which the Near East Division of the United States Central Intelligence Agency views Israel as the most serious threat to its secrets. The report cited interviews with several current and former US intelligence officials, who said the CIA views the Israeli spy community as “a genuine counterintelligence threat” to American interests. But Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum and well-known American supporter of Israel, has authored a well-researched response to the Associated Press piece, in which he argues that reciprocal spying has been a decades-old element in Israeli-American relations. He recalls the case of Yosef Amit, a Major in Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, who in 1986 was arrested for spying on behalf of the CIA. Amit is believed to have been recruited by US intelligence in Bonn, West Germany; it is said that his handler was Tom Waltz, a Jewish CIA officer from the Agency’s station at the US embassy in Tel Aviv. Amit was convicted in 1987 and stayed in prison until 1993, when he was released after serving two-thirds of his sentence. Pipes also quotes Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington from 1993 until 1996, who has said that, during his tenure as Israel’s envoy in DC, it was common knowledge among embassy staff that “the Americans were […] tapping our phone lines”, including the embassy’s secure line. Consequently, claims Rabinovich, American intelligence potentially had access to “every juicy telegram” communicated to or from the embassy.

It goes without saying, says Pipes, that the US National Security Agency, America’s signals intelligence organization, which is responsible for intercepting and deciphering foreign diplomatic messages, employs a considerable number of Hebrew speakers whose job is to spy on Israeli government communications. The NSA also receives intelligence from US diplomats and military attachés in Tel Aviv, whose job duties include “eavesdropping on conversations between key staff in Israel and at foreign missions”, says Pipes. He also cites the 2008 book Masterpiece: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Israeli Intelligence, which was published in Israel as the definitive official history of Israeli spy services (intelNews reported on it at the time). In the book, former Shin Bet officer Barak Ben-Zur  acknowledges that Israel’s officially unconfirmed nuclear arsenal is a prime espionage target of US intelligence organizations, which “routinely sp[y] on Israel to try to gather information” about it.

Pipe’s conclusion is that “states spy, even on allies, and that is okay […]. The mutual spying has few larger consequences”. It is difficult for anyone familiar with intelligence work to disagree with the first part of Pipes’ conclusion. Allies do spy on each other, sometimes more aggressively than on adversary nations, since they do not face as much counterintelligence hazards in allied environments. But it is equally difficult to accept the second part of Pipes’ conclusion —that reciprocal allied spying has few larger consequences— as anything more than simplistic. Sometimes spying between allies does have large consequences. It could be argued that British intelligence activity in the United States during the opening stages of World War II, which was aimed at pushing America to enter the war, was instrumental in changing the course of the War and of history itself. The United States and the Soviet Union spied on each other in World War II, when they were allies, and nobody in their right mind would argue that the spying was inconsequential, particularly in light of the Cold War that followed. Perhaps more importantly, arguing that the intelligence antagonism between Israel and the United States “has few larger consequences” is hardly applicable to the attack on the USS Liberty, the NSA intelligence collection ship that was napalm-bombed by the Israeli Air Force in 1967. The unprovoked attack killed 34 and wounded 170 American sailors, and nearly triggered a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, as the White House believed for a while that the American vessel had come under attack by Soviet jets.

All that is to say that mutual spying between allies can indeed have “larger consequences”, whose precise historical significance is often revealed only with the passage of time. Pipes is essentially correct in stating that all allies spy on each other; but this is not to say that espionage conducted by an ally is necessarily less threatening to its target than that conducted by an adversary. A counterintelligence officer —in the United States, Israel, or elsewhere— who makes operational distinctions between ‘friendly’ and ‘adversary’ spies is a liability to her employer and a threat to her country.

Analysis: The Danger in Ignoring Non-Muslim Religious Terrorism

July 13, 2012

Hutaree militia members
Even though over a decade separates us from the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Americans continue to be heavily preoccupied with terrorism. But what is the face of terrorism in our time? Too often, the term ‘terrorist’ conjures up the stereotypical image of an Arabic-speaking Muslim male from the Middle East —viewed by many Westerners as an abstract geopolitical notion that erroneously includes Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Islamic-inspired terrorism is both very real and very dangerous. However, consciously or subconsciously associating terrorism solely with Islam is not only flawed, but also potentially dangerous for our collective security. In reality, all religious dogmas contain extremist elements. This includes religious doctrines that are widely considered peace-loving, such as Anabaptism, or even Buddhism. A case in point that is often overlooked by Westernern observers is Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese millenarianist cult inspired by Buddhist tenets. In 1995, Aum members used sarin gas in a large-scale terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 13 and injured close to a thousand commuters. In later years it was revealed that, prior to engaging in chemical terrorism, Aum had become history’s first known terrorist group to actively try to acquire nuclear material for tactical purposes. It was only after failing to obtain nuclear material that Aum’s leadership turned to sarin. This past Thursday, July 5, an interview of mine was aired on this very subject, namely the current state of homegrown, religiously-inspired terrorism in the United States. In the interview, conducted by the Reverend John Shuck, producer of Religion for Life, a weekly syndicated radio program broadcast on a number of National Public Radio member-stations, I argued that it is both unwise and unsafe for us to ignore the extremist potential of religious fanatics who are not Muslims. I spoke at length about the long history of Christian-inspired terrorism in the US, focusing on the Ku Klux Klan. I also explained the known connections between neo-Nazi doctrines and Timothy McVeigh, the notorious culprit of the 1995 Oklahoma Federal City bombing, in which 169 people perished, making it the worst terrorist atrocity on US soil prior to 9/11. I also discussed more recent examples of Christian-inspired extremism in the US, with particular reference to neo-confederate, racial supremacist, and militia groups. One of the more recent cases mentioned is that of the Michigan Hutaree, an armed group widely believed to be part of the Christian Patriot movement. The 25-minute interview can be accessed on YouTube, here.