Monday, September 28, 2015

How and Why

You can count Hillary Clinton among the politicians who are glad that Pope Francis is visiting the U.S. this week.  And we're guessing that her "joy" has little to do with the Pontiff's presence on American soil, or his stated support for such liberal causes as immigration reform and climate change.

No, we're guessing that Hillary's happiness is rooted in the saturation, non-stop coverage of the papal visit.  With the news media--and public--so focused on the Pope, relatively little attention has been paid to the latest bombshell in the Clinton e-mail scandal.

Turns out that efforts to "wipe" her private server (you mean with a cloth?) may have been in vain.  According to Bloomberg, The New York Times and Fox News, FBI experts have been able to recover both personal and business-related e-mails from Hillary's homebrew server, messages that supposedly deleted, according to the former Secretary of State and her advisers.  As FNC reported:

"It was not immediately clear whether all 30,000 messages Clinton said she had deleted from the server had been recovered, but one official told the Times that it had not been difficult to recover the emails that had been found so far.

The FBI is investigating whether classified information that passed through Clinton's so-called "homebrew" server during her time as secretary of state was mishandled. Clinton turned over approximately 30,000 copies of messages she deemed work-related to the State Department this past December. Clinton said earlier this year that the emails she deleted from the private server she kept at her Chappaqua, N.Y., home mostly pertained to personal matters such as her daughter Chelsea’s wedding and the secretary’s yoga routines.

An intelligence source told Fox News earlier this month that investigators were "confident" they could recover the deleted records. The source said that whoever had been deputized to scrub the server must "not be a very good IT guy.  There are different standards to scrub when you do it for government versus commercial."

In many respects, this latest revelation represents a nightmare scenario for Mrs. Clinton.  While she claims all of the deleted e-mails were personal in nature, the latest leak from inside the FBI has demolished that flimsy excuse.  And given the bureau's superb capabilities in computer forensics, there's a good chance that most--if not all--of the "missing" e-mails may be recovered.  That means the files that Mrs. Clinton tried so hard to protect (and eliminate) may soon be a part of the public record.

From Josh Gerstein and Rachel Bade at Politico:

"..Hillary Clinton's decision to have a tech firm she hired turn the server over to the FBI last month at its request greatly raises the potential that messages she has claimed to be private will eventually make it into the public domain, lawyers tracking the case said. Clinton has said that she had tens of thousands of emails deleted after determining that they contained personal information, but now the FBI appears to have at least some of those in its possession. 

“This is enormously significant,” said Dan Metcalfe, a former top Justice Department official handling disclosure issues. “It’s one thing for the bureau to have taken control of the server itself, and when you add to that their technical capabilities to glean information from it, if there is information there that transcends what [Clinton] furnished to State, I think the odds are exceedingly high that that at least some if not all of that information will ultimately enter the public domain.”

Of course, we officially don't know what manner of correspondence may eventually see the light of day, but you don't need to be an FBI agent to follow the money trail.  As in Bill collecting big bucks for speeches around the globe (and offering favors), which Hillary delivered as Secretary of State, or would deliver as a future president.  Any documentation of that type of arrangement would spell doom for her political prospects and place her in even greater legal jeopardy. 

However, the Clintons won't go down without a fight.  During a Sunday morning interview, Hillary claimed she has been as "transparent as possible" about her e-mails, a claim that is not only demonstrably false, but downright laughable.  Meanwhile, Bill is trotting out the vast, right-wing conspiracy" card, blaming Republicans for extending the crisis.  Borrowing a phrase from Bob Kerry, not only are the Clintons exceptionally skilled liars, they are equally predictable in their deception.  Faced with scandal yet again, they simply revert back to the Lewinsky playbook, and utter the same, focus-group tested lines, reinforced by the usual crew of toadies and sycophants. 

Meanwhile, the FBI is reportedly focusing on how classified information wound up on Hillary's private e-mail network.  We're guessing the bureau already knows the answer to that one; files were either uploaded to the system, or various users of the system simply copied sensitive data from reports into their e-mails, minus the classification markings.  

We've long favored that latter scenario, for two reasons.  First, the classified data almost certainly originated on networks set up to handle that type of information, specifically SIPRNET (for secret-level information) and JWICS, for material at the TS/SCI level.  In the wake of the Manning and Snowden scandals, the government has made it extremely difficult to upload or download files from those systems.  In many cases, moving a document from SIPRNET to JWICS requires the assistance of a network administrator and must be approved in advance.  

On the other hand, it would be very easy for Mrs. Clinton (or a member of her cabal) to simply look at a classified report and then summarize the important findings in an e-mail, created and disseminated on the private, unsecure network.  Ask anyone who has held a clearance and worked with classified data and they will tell you: such practices are unpardonable sins, deserving of prosecution and punishment to the full letter of the law.  The fact that the former SecState (and her senior aides) held clearances for years--and deliberately chose to place classified information on an open network--gives you some idea of the contempt they hold for the nation's secrets and our laws.  

And why not?  The final decision on a potential prosecution of Hillary Clinton and her aides rests with political appointees at the Obama Justice Department.        

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Send in the Marines

A computer-generated image of the HMS Queen Elizabeth leaving Portsmouth harbor.  The Royal Navy has announced that USMC F-35s will be the first attack jets to operate from the new carrier, while British squadrons attain initial operational capability (IOC) with the aircraft (BAE Systems image via UK Telegraph) 

Suppose you have a brand-new aircraft carrier, but the jets that will operate from that ship won't be available in sufficient quantities for another five years.  How do you utilize that platform to its full capabilities in the interim, without its primary strike asset?

For Britain's Royal Navy, that is the near-term challenge: their new fleet carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is in the final stages of construction and will begin sea trials next summer, with initial flight training in 2017-2018.  But with the RN's first F-35 squadrons not scheduled to achieve their initial operating capability until 2020 (at the earliest), the Brits are looking for aircraft that can embark earlier and provide a combat punch before their own Lightning IIs are ready for action.

The solution is a lesson in creativity and coalition warfare.  According to the U.S. Naval Institute, the RN has reached agreement with the U.S. Marine Corps to deploy F-35 squadrons on the Queen Elizabeth until British units achieve their IOC in the jet:

The U.S. Marine Corps will deploy its Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II strike fighters on combat sorties from Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, a senior U.K. Royal Navy officer has confirmed.

Rear Adm. Keith Blount, who is responsible for delivering the two 65,000 ton ships, said that using Marine aircraft and pilots to bolster the U.K.’s nascent carrier strike capability would be a natural extension of coalition doctrine.

“We are forever operating with allies and within coalitions. It’s the way wars are fought”, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carriers) and Rear Adm. Fleet Air Arm told an audience at the DSEI defence exhibition in London on Wednesday.

“In order to get the best out of [the U.K. carrier program] we have to be able to situate it in a coalition context. That could mean that we operate with an American ship as one of the protecting escorts”, Blount said.

“But … given the fact that the U.S. Marine Corps are buying and will operate the same type of aircraft as we are buying and operating, it would make no sense whatsoever if we were to close down the opportunity and potential of the U.S. Marine Corps working from this flight deck.
“So yes, I expect the U.S. Marine Corps to operate and work from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier. We are going to get the most bang for the buck we can for the U.K. taxpayer, and that’s one of the ways in which we’ll achieve it.”

A Marine Corps fighter attack squadron (VMFA-121) became the first unit to achieve an initial operating capability with the F-35B in late July; the squadron--based at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, currently has 10 Lightning IIs available for worldwide deployment, and might be an early candidate for for a visit to the RN's new carrier.  Two other Yuma-based squadrons are scheduled to convert to the F-35 by 2018.  

While British pilots and ground crews are currently training on the Lightning II in the U.S., the first UK-based squadrons won't begin forming until 2018.  Without the Marine presence, the Queen Elizabeth would be little more than an over-sized helicopter carrier for a couple of years, until the RN's first F-35 squadrons become fully operational.  

The interim combination could also provide a little more punch in places like the Persian Gulf and the Baltics, where the down-sized U.S. Navy is already stretched thin.  As we've noted previously, the American fleet suffered a "carrier gap" in the western Pacific this summer, and for the first time in recent memory, there will not be a U.S. carrier operating this fall in the Persian Gulf.  While the Queen Elizabeth is about two-thirds the size of a Nimitz-class carrier (and can embark no more than three dozen F-35s), it could be a useful gap-filler, or extend the coalition presence into areas where U.S. carrier groups aren't patrolling.  

At one point, the British government contemplated scrapping the ski ramp/VSTOL aircraft combination for the Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship, the Prince of Wales (still under construction).  Switching to a catapult/arresting gear system for launch and recovery would have allowed the UK to buy a more capable version of the F-35.  But adding the catapults, arresting gear and related hardware would have stretched construction times and increased costs.  With the Marine Corps already at IOC with the F-35B--and capable of operating from a ski-ramp carrier--the notion of embarking USMC squadrons on the Queen Elizabeth makes a great deal of sense.           



Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Securing the Flank

Fresh from his Lord Halifax moment with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry wants to talk with Russia about its military build-up in Syria.

Seems that Mr. Kerry, along with the rest of Team Obama, is perplexed over Moscow's deployment of more troops and military hardware to bolster the faltering regime of Syrian Dictator Bashir Al-Asad.  In recent weeks, the Russians have dispatched hundreds of troops, along with tanks, support equipment, portable shelters and other items to Syria.

While there have been some reports of Russian advisers fighting alongside Assad's troops, much of Putin's efforts have been focused on bolstering (and protecting) the naval base at Lattakia, a long-time Russian hub on the Mediterranean.  Intelligence and press accounts suggest the installation is getting a major upgrade; Russian military engineers are currently building an airfield at Lattakia, allowing Moscow to establish an even greater presence in the region.

As Lee Smith writes at The Weekly Standard, this latest push by Mr. Putin is hardly surprising--given his astute take on Obama's disastrous foreign policy:

"Putin is making his move in Syria now, says Tony Badran, research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “because he understands not only that Obama would never intervene militarily in Syria, but also because the [deal with Iran] means that the White House wouldn’t challenge Iranian, and by extension Russian, holdings in the region. Moreover, Putin saw that Obama continued to disregard the concerns of his traditional allies, both on the Iranian nuclear program and Syria, when they sought a more active policy to bring down Assad.    

Putin read the tea leaves and apparently concluded that no matter how much he and Obama disliked each other, they were in agreement on one big thing: The Middle East’s traditional security architecture is a problem. Putin doesn’t like it because it’s the legacy of an order in the region upheld by America. Obama sees it similarly—it costs the United States too much, and we need to minimize the American footprint in the region. As the White House has said, other stakeholders need to pitch in and do their share. So Moscow is stepping up. Pity all those poor Russian mothers whose boys are going to be going home in body bags, but if Putin wants the job of Syria foreman, Obama all but offered him the post. The way the White House sees it, Putin is now doing the heavy lifting in the “new geopolitical equilibrium.”

From the perspective of the Russian president, his combat losses won't be in vain.  He is re-establishing Moscow's presence in the eastern Mediterranean, giving him a perfect pressure point to exert more influence in western Europe.  If the French and Germans want more natural gas from Russia--and fewer "refugees" from war-torn Syria and points beyond--they will have to play ball with Mr. Putin.  

Mr. Smith argues that Russia's latest adventure in Syria is actually a dress rehearsal for the biggest regional prize of all: the Persian Gulf.  Iran, of course, is already aligned with Moscow and Putin may offer his military hardware (and protection) to countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have long been allied with the United States.  With Washington retreating from the region, those nations may decide to throw in with Putin, who is presenting Russia as a much more reliable ally.  

That's why we shouldn't expect too much from Mr. Kerry's talks with his Russian counterpart--if they actually occur.  Determined to protect the Iranian nuclear deal at all costs, President Obama seems quite content with the changing order in the Middle East.  Secretary Kerry may bluster a bit for public consumption--or send a sharply worded diplomatic note--but Moscow won't pay any price for its latest gambit.  Meanwhile, Russian troops and military equipment will keep pouring into Syria, ensuring that Lattakia remains secure and helping Assad maintain a corridor from Damascus to the Mediterranean.  

Mr. Putin has one more reason for strengthening his position in Syria, and it will play out quietly over the weeks ahead.  Analysts are already watching for signs of an S-300 deployment to Lattakia, or other hubs supporting the Russian deployment.  

Why would Moscow need an advanced air defense system, since ISIS doesn't have an Air Force?  The answer lies not in Damascus, but to the east.  By positioning S-300 batteries at permissive locations across Syria, Putin will greatly complicate Israeli planning for a potential strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.  

Many military observers have long speculated the IAF would send strike packages across Syria and southern Turkey to reach Iran, following air corridors normally used by commercial aircraft. With the S-300 (and more Russian intel assets) in Syria, the Syria/Turkey route just became much more problematic.  And with the system's extended range, a route across Jordan and Iraq would also prove more difficult.  With limited air refueling assets (the IAF has only seven KC-707 tankers), any increase in flight time/distance to avoid potential threats means a smaller strike package and fewer bombs on target.  

Securing the northern flight corridors to Iran was not a primary consideration when Putin executed his latest military move.  But with American leadership all-but-gone in the region, he will maximize his opportunities--and his leverage in Tehran will only grow.                           

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Moscow Moves In

Between wind-surfing sessions and waiting for his Nobel Peace Prize, Secretary of State John Kerry took time over the weekend to chat with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergy Lavrov.   The topic of conversation was Moscow's heightened military presence in Syria.

Like the proverbial blind hog that stumbles across an acorn, Mr. Kerry (along with the rest of the Obama foreign policy team) have suddenly realized that Vladimir Putin is significantly increasing military support for the government of Bashir Assad.  While Moscow has been training and providing logistical assistance for Assad's army for many years, Putin's support appears to be entering a new phase, with recent reports of Russian troops fighting alongside Syrian forces; the delivery of additional equipment and supplies, and claims that Moscow is preparing an airfield to serve as an operations hub in Syria.

From the U.K. Telegraph:

Russian troops are fighting alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria, state television in Damascus and several reports have claimed. 

The video footage claimed to show troops and a Russian armoured vehicle fighting Syrian rebels alongside President Bashar al-Assad's troops in Latakia. 

It is reportedly possible to hear Russian being spoken by the troops in the footage. 

In further indications of Russian "mission creep" in Syria, a Twitter account linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, published images of what appeared to be Russian planes and drones flying over Idlib. 


Russian drones over Syria last week (photo posted at Twitter account linked to Syria Al Qaida affiliate and published by U.K. Telegraph)

Why the sudden escalation by Putin?  There are several factors at work.  First, the war continues to go badly for Bashar al-Assad; as ISIS steadily gains ground, Mr. Putin and his military advisers may have decided they had no choice but direct intervention, otherwise, the Syrian regime would face near-term collapse, giving terrorists full control of the country and its military resources.

Moscow may also be concerned about Assad's weakened grip on weapons of mass destruction within his arsenal, specifically, chemical and biological rounds.  There have been several chemical attacks by ISIS forces in recent weeks; on-line postings from various terror groups suggest the weapons came from Syria's military stockpile.  The introduction of Russian troops could improve security of Assad's remaining assets.   

But Moscow may have another strategy in mind, with regard to Syrian WMD.  Russia currently holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council and it has delayed efforts to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria.  Putin's decision to stonewall the inquiry may reflect efforts to hide the responsibility for recent attacks, particularly if Russian advisers and combat forces played any role in carrying out those strikes.

Another possibility?  Assad is planning a heightened chemical warfare campaign against insurgents, and will utilize Moscow's technical expertise to carry it out.  If more chemical attacks are in the offing, Putin certainly doesn't want UN inspectors nosing around the countryside, or debating responsibility at hearings in New York or Geneva.  However, the timeline for that sort of strategy is very limited, since Russia will hold the Security Council presidency for only one month, before handing it off to Spain in October.

Russia will also gain brownie points among allies (and potential allies) in the region by stepping up to defend a client state.  While the U.S. makes--and breaks--promises, Vladimir Putin looks like a man of his word, something that isn't lost on other countries looking for support against ISIS.  So far, he hasn't committed enough forces to make a difference militarily, but the Russian leader understands the power of symbolism and its importance in the Middle East.  Against the backdrop of a U.S. retreat in the region, even a token deployment by Moscow projects an image of power and strength.

The Syria expedition can also serve other purposes.  As Moscow's military presence grows, it would not be surprising to see a deployment of the S-300 air defense system, ostensibly to protect Russian forces from ISIS drone strikes, or attacks by captured Syrian military aircraft.  Never mind the terror group's capabilities in these areas are virtually non-existent; the manufactured "threat" will allow Moscow to extend protection for Iran's nuclear facilities to the edge of Israeli airspace, greatly complicating any potential strike by the IAF.  It has long been postulated that Israeli fighters would cross Lebanon and southern Turkey to reach Iran; the presence of S-300 batteries in northern Syria might force the Israelis to abandon that route, forcing them to fly across Jordan and Saudi Arabia, or take a long, over-water route across the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf.

In any event, Putin has once again out-maneuvered the U.S., at minimum cost.  He has accurately assessed the weakness and fecklessness of the current administration and is prepared to maximize his opportunities over the last 500 days of Obama's Presidency.  It would be nice to say our Commander-in-Chief has some sort of counter-strategy, but he doesn't.  Barack Obama helped make a hash of Syria and now he simply doesn't care.  There's a library to build and more rounds of golf, far more pleasant tasks for his last 16 months in the Oval Office.                           

Friday, September 04, 2015

Today's Reading Assignment

From migrant crisis to war, and in two years or less.  Today's reading assignment from FleetStreetFox of the U.K. Mirror:

It would be very nice if the world worked the way it ought to.

It doesn't.

The world works the way it always has - vicious and thoughtless, with occasional patches of decency.

That's why when children drown in their thousands in the Mediterranean we don't notice until one washes up under our noses, with a name and a parent.

And because we were surprised, we panicked. We put up fences, conflated refugees with migrants, threatened to deport them, declared we were full then with one dead toddler said: "Oh s***."

Had we thought quicker, and harder, we'd have set up migrant and refugee reception centres at the crossing points. We'd have given those in need a place to wash, visa forms and an option other than relying on the mafia.


While you and your politicians are having a moral panic, there's something else you haven't spotted.

War is coming.

And it's not the sort where the most exciting it will get is some video game footage on the evening news.

War, in all its horror. War that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a war of superpowers, of modern technology and medieval cruelty.

The ISIS myth requires a crusade; they actively seek apocalypse, whereafter they expect their desserts in heaven. They will push us until our armies mobilise and give them what they want.

It might be a year or two, it might even be five, but there will come a point where war is our only remaining option. And the only fighting which will work is hand-to-hand, street-by-street, cleaning out the mess we created and allowed to fester for so long.

There are two problems with this. First, our army is one tenth the size of that obliterated at Dunkirk. We have not one operational aircraft carrier. Our air force is relying on decades-old planes and our troops include more officers than there units to command.

Sadly, the view isn't much different on this side of the pond.  "Festering" has been our strategy since at least 2011, when President Obama completed our withdrawal from Iraq, with little consideration for what might occur without a residual military U.S. presence.  

Indeed, we have subsequently learned that the Commander-in-Chief and his aides sought to downplay the menace posed by Al Qaida in a draft National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) three years ago.  The administration claimed (at the time) that the terrorist group no longer posed a direct threat to the United States. Only a strong push-back from Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency--and others--prevented the NIE from being published in its original form. 

As for ISIS, everyone recalls Mr. Obama's famous assessment about the burgeoning threat being little more than a "jayvee" team.  Three years later, the terror group is on its way to forming a true caliphate, with U.S.-led airstrikes having only a marginal effect on the group's expansion efforts.

And, if you believe President Obama is prepared to expand the war, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.  He's quite content to remain on the present course, sustaining just enough military activity to keep marginal pressure on ISIS and refute charges he isn't "doing anything," without antagonizing the anti-war base of the Democratic Party.  Meanwhile, there's a library to build in Chicago and more rounds of golf.  

Even if he were interested in really going after ISIS, Mr. Obama would find his military options limited.  The number of Air Force fighter squadrons (and aircraft) have declined by more than 50% over the past 25 years, and the F-15s, F-16s and A-10s that remain are getting long in the tooth, and more difficult to maintain.  We have the smallest Army since before Pearl Harbor; claims of a Navy "expansion" under Obama are nothing more than an accounting trick, and we are now experiencing carrier gaps in places like the Persian Gulf and the western Pacific that demand a continuous American naval presence.  

What about the Europeans?  FleetStreetFox's comments on the U.K. military are slightly misleading, since the Brits are far more capable that most of our NATO allies.  Unfortunately, decades of cuts have made the British military a shadow of its former self, and many of our European allies have never funded their armed forces at appropriate levels.  

The old adage that NATO will fight "to the last American" has never been more true.  Unfortunately, U.S. leadership on the world stage is either non-existent, or directed towards "solutions" (such as the Iran nuclear deal) that actually create more danger.  

In 1683, European Armies under John III Sobieski of Poland turned back the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna, stemming the Muslim tide in Europe.  As the next invasion unfolds, slithering amid a sea of illegal immigrants and refugees, it will be virtually impossible to find a European leader willing to stand against the tide--and find the forces to defeat it.  



Thursday, September 03, 2015

Back to the Future (AGI Edition)

Russian spy ship Yantar, in port earlier this year.  The vessel was sighted off the Canadian coast last month and is believed headed for the waters off Kings Bay, Georgia, home to the ballistic missile subs of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet (Washington Free Beacon photo)    

Almost 30 years ago, your humble correspondent was a military intelligence officer at a base in the southeastern United States.  My unit's aircraft and crews frequently trained in military operations areas (MOAs) and special use airspace off the coast of Georgia and Florida.  Other missions took them along low-level travel routes (LLTRs), including VR 1040, which roughly parallels the shoreline from St. Simons Island to St Augustine.

Occasionally, my pre-mission briefs would include a warning about a Soviet intelligence trawler (AGI) lurking off the coast.  In those days, the collection vessels were frequent visitors to the waters off our southeast coast, shuttling back and forth between King's Bay, Georgia (home to the ballistic missile submarines of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet) and Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville.  While the Russians referred to them as "fishing trawlers," their intended "catch" was military communications related to ship and sub movements, along with other intelligence data.

We also knew the Russians kept tabs on tactical flight activity in the MOAs and along the LLTRs, so we reminded crews to practice good communications security.  We also told them to avoid "buzzing" the Soviet vessels, which often loitered along the edge of international waters.  Moscow's intel trawlers and "research ships" (which was often a cover for larger collection platforms) were known to aim a laser at low-flying aircraft from time-to-time, potentially causing damage to anyone looking towards the vessel without protective goggles.  As I recall, our pilots and crews never had a problem with the spy ships, but prior to the collapse of the USSR, it was almost guaranteed that a collection vessel would deploy to the King's Bay/Mayport area at least three or four times a year, for extended periods each time.

Now, as Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon has learned, the Russians are back, and with a more advanced collection platform:

U.S. intelligence ships, aircraft, and satellites are closely watching a Russian military vessel in the Atlantic that has been sailing near a U.S. nuclear missile submarine base and underwater transit routes, according to Pentagon officials.

The Russian research ship Yantar has been tracked from the northern Atlantic near Canada since late August as it makes its way south toward Cuba.

Defense officials familiar with reports on the Russian ship say the Yantar is believed to be gathering intelligence on underwater sensors and other equipment used by U.S. nuclear submarines based at Kings Bay, Georgia. The submarines, their transit lanes, and training areas stretch from the coastal base through the Atlantic to Europe.

Intelligence analysts believe the ship, one of Russia’s newest military research vessels commissioned earlier this year, is part of a larger strategic intelligence-gathering operation against U.S. nuclear missile submarines and other targets.

In response, the Pentagon says it respects the "freedom of all nations to operate military vessels in international waters in accordance with international law.” 

Unlike the earlier AGIs (which were primarily SIGINT platforms), the new-generation Russian spy ships have an array of sensors and systems for gathering information, including a deep sea submersible. Recent media accounts suggest that Moscow is very interested in mapping the locations of undersea communications cables and other sensors.  Vessels like the Yantar may also have the ability to tap into those cables, by placing collection pods that can collect and store information before being retrieved by submarine or a remotely-piloted submersible.  

Vessels like the Yantar also have the ability to disrupt undersea communications.  Such attacks mesh well with the so-called "hybrid warfare" techniques utilized by Russia in recent conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine.  Hybrid warfare combines traditional military capabilities with information warfare tactics, including cyber attacks.  Cutting undersea cables--or mapping them for future targeting--could be an important part of an overall hybrid campaign.

While the Yantar only recently joined the Russia fleet, other spy ships have operated near the U.S. coast in recent years.  In 2014, the Viktor Leonov was sighted off King's Bay for an extended period, before docking in Havana, Cuba for a port visit.  A sister ship, the Nikolay Chiker, also operated near King's Bay last year.  With the addition of the Yantar, Moscow could establish a near-continuous presence along the east coast.  At last report, the newest Russian spy ship was near the Turks and Caicos Islands, about 760 miles from King's Bay.     

Of course, the U.S. has long mounted similar efforts against the Russians; perhaps the best-known program was an effort by NSA, the U.S. Navy and Bell Labs to install nuclear-powered collection pods on Soviet undersea cables in the 1970s.  Nicknamed "Ivy Bells," the effort was highly successful until it was exposed by NSA turncoat Ronald Pelton in 1980. 

Pelton sold out his country--and the program--for $35,000.  He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in federal prison.  Pelton is scheduled for release in two months.  
ADDENDUM:  Throughout the Cold War, Soviet AGIs routinely shadowed U.S. carrier battle groups, sometimes deliberately steaming in front of a flattop, attempting to disrupt flight operations.  But on one day in 1967, in the Gulf of Tonkin, a U.S. Navy pilot from the carrier Bonhomme Richard exacted a measure of revenge.  From the annals of VFP 62:

The pilots of the air wing were strictly forbidden to take any action against he Russian ship, but one day CDR John Wunche, the commanding officer of theheavy tanker KA-3B detachment, had finally had enough of the Russians' antics. 
John Wunche was a big man with bright red hair and a flaming red handlebar mustache. He was a frustrated fighter pilot whom fate and the Bureau of Naval Personnel had put into the cockpit of a former heavy bomber now employed as a carrier-based tanker.
The "Bonnie Dick" had nearly completed a recovery.The Russian trawler had been steaming at full speed to try to cut across our bow, and the bridge watch had been keeping a wary eye on the intruder. For a while it looked as if the Russian would be too late and we would finish the recovery before having to give way to the trawler.But a couple of untimely bolters extended the recovery and theBon Homme Richard had to back down and change course to comply with the rules.
The LSO hit the wave-off lights when the "Whale" was just a few yards from the ramp. John crammed on full power and sucked up the speed brakes for the go-around. The "Bonnie Dick" began a sharp right turn to pass behind the Russian, causing the ship to list steeply, and there, dead ahead of John, was the Russian.  
He couldn't resist. He leveled the "Whale" about a hundred feet off the water and roared across the mast of the Trawler with all fuel dumps open like a crop duster spraying a field of boll weevils. The Russian disappeared in a heavy white cloud of jet fuel spray, then reemerged with JP-4 jet fuel glistening from her superstructure and running lip-full in the scuppers.
The Russian trawler immediately lost power as the ship's crew frantically tried to shut down anything that might generate a spark and ignite the fuel. She was rolling dead in the water in the Bon Homme Richard's wake-- her crew breaking out fire hoses to wash down the fuel--as the Bon Homme Richard steamed out of sight completing the recovery of the Whale.

The Red Baron was an instant hero to the entire ship's company. 



Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Noose Tightens (Slightly)

Hillary Clinton's e-mail problems just keep getting worse...

The latest dump of roughly 7,000 messages was timed for 9 pm on a Friday evening--never a good sign, since weekend releases are usually associated with an effort to minimize bad news.

And from the perspective of Team Clinton, there is no good news in the latest revelations.

First, at least 165 e-mails in the current batch contained classified information.  Supporters of Mrs. Clinton claim the messages were classified "retroactively," which ignores a rather inconvenient fact: classification stamps were applied upon review because the former Secretary of State (and senior aides) willfully refused to mark them properly when they were composed, so they could be disseminated on Hillary's unsecure, "home brew" e-mail system.

More from the Washington Post:

"While she was secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote and sent at least six e-mails using her private server that contained what government officials now say is classified information, according to thousands of e-mails released by the State Department."

Although government officials deemed the e-mails classified after Clinton left office, they could complicate her efforts to move beyond the political fallout from the controversy. They suggest that her role in distributing sensitive material via her private e-mail system went beyond receiving notes written by others, and appears to contradict earlier public statements in which she denied sending or receiving e-mails containing classified information.

The classified e-mails, contained in thousands of pages of electronic correspondence that the State Department has released, stood out because of the heavy markings blocking out sentences and, in some cases, entire messages."

Of course, the Post's account misses a few finer points of this on-going scandal.  First, the messages were deemed classified after Mrs. Clinton left office because security experts at the State Department and the Intelligence community never had access while she was presiding over Foggy Bottom.  In fact, the department's IT division has admitted it was never aware of Clinton's private e-mail system during her years in office.  

At first blush, that claim strains credulity; staffers throughout the bureaucracy were receiving messages for years from accounts, rather than the domain used by department personnel.  And not a single IT administrator found anything unusual about that--or the fact         
some senior Clinton staffers (and the secretary herself) were using non-government issue computers and electronic devices to perform official work.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign continues to insist that the classification controversy stems--at least in part--from disagreements over the sensitivity of the material found in the e-mails.  This represents another red herring; as the Washington Times reported yesterday, the current batch of Clinton e-mails contain data on North Korean nuclear movements--information derived from our most capable spy satellites and normally classified at the Top Secret/Talent Keyhole level. 

That reporting (available to anyone with the proper clearance, a valid need-to-know and access to secure JWICS terminals where it is normally stored), is produced and classified by organizations other than the State Department, most likely the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA).  A report of that type--like the one referenced in Hillary's e-mails--would be classified at the time of creation by NGA.  State doesn't get a vote on whether the material is classified--the do not have classification authority over reports, assessments and other summaries generated by other organizations.

Sources within the intelligence community tell the Times that revelations from the latest e-mails present a potentially grave threat to national security.  For starters, it is widely believed that foreign intelligence services may have penetrated Mrs. Clinton's unsecure network, and probably downloaded all e-mails on the server--before it was wiped clean.  North Korea has developed robust cyber capabilities in recent years and would be more than capable of entering Hillary's home brew system and copying everything on the system, without being detected.  So, with a few keystrokes, Kim Jong un may have valuable gained insights into how we monitor his most sensitive programs.

Meanwhile, efforts to protect Mrs. Clinton and her aides are continuing apace.  Catherine Herridge of Fox News learned that markings on hundreds of Clinton system e-mails were changed to B5, bureaucratic shorthand for deliberative process, which refers to internal discussions within the executive branch.  Message with that marking are exempt from public release.  A Congressional source told Fox the move essentially drops the content of those e-mails down a "deep black hole."  And , it turns out that an attorney involved in the release of the Benghazi e-mails used to work at the IRS during the Lois Lerner scandal, and she was formerly employed at the firm headed by David Kendall, Mrs. Clinton's lawyer.  How convenient.

But legal maneuvering isn't the only strategy.  Supporters of Hillary are circulating a number of explanations for her behavior, which might be summarized in the following talking points, which were outlined in an unintentionally hilarious column from David Ignatius of the Post.  After interviewing several attorneys who represent clients accused of mishandling classified information, Mr. Ignatius suggested that (a) everyone does it, and (b) the system used to access and send sensitive information is just too cumbersome to use.       

Rubbish.  I worked for a number of senior officers and officials over the course of my career, and I can't recall one that asked me to send classified material over a non-secure system.  All were keenly aware of the security risks and the risks to their own careers.  The notion that everyone does it simply doesn't pass the Aggie test.  Put another way: what would the Democrats have done if a member of the Bush Administration was discovered sending classified information over NIPRNET

Additionally, the notion that SIPRNET (the system for Secret-level information) and JWICS (which handles TS-SCI data) are "cumbersome" and "difficult to use" is equally ridiculous.  Both are intranets, and they operate in a manner very similar to the internet.  Users have a browser to surf through sites and material, and you can communicate through discussion boards, chat rooms and dedicated e-mail accounts.  That's right..everyone who is granted access to these classified system is normally given  SIPRNET and JWICS e-mail accounts.  And there's nothing really different about composing, sending or receiving e-mail on one of these systems--except that users are expected to properly mark the classification of their messages.

What if you need a quick answer?  Thanks the the marvels of (relatively) modern technology, key personnel at the State Department--and elsewhere in the federal government--have access to secure phones.  With the push of a button, your call is encrypted.  There was absolutely nothing to prevent anyone who required a prompt response from using their STU-III to call Mrs. Clinton's office and she had the same capability sitting one her desk.

Of course, the problem was that Hillary Clinton didn't want to be burdened by secure systems, classification markings and requirements to properly archive her official correspondence.  And contrary to her original claims, the rationale for a home-brew, off-the-books e-mail system had nothing to do with convenience.

Ultimately, the lawyers may be right, and Mrs. Clinton won't be wearing an orange jumpsuit.  But the steady drip of new revelations about her contempt for the law and national security will be enough to wreck her presidential campaign--if it hasn't already.