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Fran Townsend on intelligence, cyber threats, and transparency

Octavian Report: What are the main strategic threats facing the U.S. at the moment?

Fran Townsend: The most obvious one, I think, is North Korea. We ought to be honest: three prior administrations have failed in working against this problem. Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama. This is the fourth administration to confront the problem, each time it’s got increasingly more threatening. If you listen to Ambassador Nikki Haley, the Chinese are doing more than they’ve ever done, they’re doing now what the administration is asking of them. There is no way for us to know publicly if that’s exactly right, but applying additional pressure and sanctions to the North Koreans is extremely important because they’re at a very dangerous point.

We’re seeing increasing activity by the Taliban and terrorists in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq — hotspots around the world. I think much of this instability in the Arab Gulf and the Middle East in particular stems from Iran. Certainly the Iranian threat has seized the attention of the White House and national security policymakers, whether it’s their undermining of the elected government in Lebanon, their support of the Houthi tribes in Yemen, their support of the Assad regime in Syria, undermining the government in Bahrain — the list goes on.

The regional aggression of the Iranians undergirds a lot of the instability in the region, and I think that the President has made clear that not only will he not tolerate it, but that he’s going to support our Sunni Arab allies.

Every President is going to have to have terrorism at the top of their list as a national security concern. It has morphed over time in terms of the way that threat manifests itself, but this administration, like the previous ones (including the one I served in), worries every day about the terrorist threat to the homeland — as we saw last Halloween in New York — as well as to American interests around the world.

OR: Do you see an upswing in “lone wolf” or “known wolf” attacks as ISIS faces increasing pressure on its Middle Eastern operations?

Townsend: We’ve always worried about this, whether it’s ISIS, or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, or al-Qaeda in Iraq. As you are successful in a conflict zone, a hot zone, there will be bleedouts and foreign fighters. I think we’ve seen the first manifestations of that, unfortunately, in our Western European allies. You’ve seen attacks in Brussels, and France, and Germany. I think we would have been remiss if we didn’t expect we ourselves would see some of that. I think as they lose battlespace and ground, we ought to expect they’re going to look for other ways to prove that that doesn’t mean they’ve lost all power.

I hate the term “lone wolf,” because in some ways, it’s never quite black-and-white like that. Whether he’s been listening to tapes of a radical preacher like Anwar al-Awlaki or — in the case of the guy in lower Manhattan on Halloween — he’s been in chat rooms on platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp used by ISIS. He may be acting on his own here, but with some inspiration or some connection back to the ideology, and we shouldn’t underestimate the power of that. That highlights, if you will, the importance of the social media companies taking some responsibility for the platforms they provide, and not allowing these bad guys to take advantage of those platforms.

I’m also the president of the Counter-Extremism Project, which I founded with Ambassador Mark Wallace and Senator Joe Lieberman several years ago. We’ve been very successful in pushing these companies to do more, and they are doing more, but it’s not enough. We’ve got to continue to push to make sure that they invest the resources to take speech that incites violence down off their platform. I think that this will be a threat that we’ll be wrestling with for some time.

OR: What do you make of the state of cyber as a domain seen through the lens of U.S. national security interests? Do you think that there is a likelihood of cyber conflict spilling over into attacks on the electrical grid here?

Townsend: Here’s the good news on the cyber front. I put the first presidential decision directive on cyber on President George W. Bush’s desk, and that was then handed off to the Obama administration that used that work plan and built on it. Cyber has been an area where — blessedly! — it has been less partisan, where people worked diligently across multiple administrations and different parties. Having said that, I think the U.S. government, writ large, has been slow to recognize it as a domain. I think initially we regarded it as a capability. It was a good capability for us and it was an enabler for terrorists, which meant it was also a capability that the U.S. intelligence and national security community could potentially exploit. We looked at it as a means, as an enabler, as opposed to a domain.

I think the U.S. national security community has matured. We see cyber now as a domain, just as we do land, sea, and air, and we have to have a strategy for that domain. Within the Trump administration, Tom Bossert is working on the president’s cyber strategy. What is most worrying is an attack that crosses multiple domains. Imagine an attack on the electrical grid coupled with a kinetic attack. I think we’ve got to be prepared for that. I think being prepared for that means co-ordinating with the private sector, understanding what our resilience is, because in the kind of attack you suggest against the electrical grid, redundancy and resilience will be key to minimizing the impact. I think it’s really a matter of understanding our vulnerabilities, trying to mitigate those vulnerabilities, and then planning for resilience and redundancy.

OR: You were tasked with implementing the Iraq Intelligence Commission’s recommendations. How do you regard that implementation as having gone, and do the problems that produced some of those intelligence issues still plague the U.S. intelligence community?

Townsend: I’ll give you an example. When we were doing our evaluation, we found that the analytic community didn’t have a common syntax for evaluating and writing about the credibility of sourcing. There was not a common system by which analysts were evaluated and promoted. Nothing for their professional development. We didn’t have a system where we encouraged people to be detailed outside of their home agency and serve in another component of the intelligence community to better understand how that worked. A lot of that isn’t fixed.

What had fundamentally been the responsibility of the community management staff under the CIA director became what was the DNI. The DNI was meant to be, for the intelligence community, the enterprise manager, the person taking a comprehensive look across all our intelligence agencies for budget capability and planning. I think that has gone a long way to fixing the problems that the WMD Commission identified. I think, to be fair, there are issues about the DNI, about its structure, some of which the Trump administration has tried to address. There were concerns in the intelligence community that the tasking they would get from the DNI was repetitive, in addition to policymaker staffing. I think some of that has been addressed.

They’ve reduced the size of the DNI staff. It is a more streamlined system to ensure that it is not an unnecessary added burden on the individual components of the intelligence community. I do worry about the budgeting authority of the DNI. The legislation that was originally proposed gave the DNI greater muscle, if you will, in terms of budget and personnel authority. That’s not the legislation that got passed. The DNI has had to work by power of personality. I think it worked fine for Jim Clapper and it’s working fine for Dan Coates. It didn’t work so well for Denny Blair. I do worry about that, over the long term. This should be an institution that stands on its own strengths and merits, as opposed to the power of the individual.

OR: Are there areas where you see the U.S. intelligence community, which has come in for a lot of criticism over the past 15 years, really getting it right?

Townsend: I think by and large the intelligence related to the North Korea threat has been pretty dead on. This is not an easy target to collect against. I do think North Korea is a place where we can feel pretty good about them getting it right in not only the analysis but the collection on a very difficult target. In a post-9/11 world, the policymakers focused the intelligence community exclusively against terrorism to understand how al-Qaeda and its successors worked, how they operated, how they communicated, and we turned hard against that.

When you do that in the intelligence community — because it takes time to build a collection capability, particularly in human intelligence — that meant we were doing other things less. What do I mean by that? Traditional intelligence collection: understanding leadership intent and leadership command-and-control, whether it’s military, or political, against adversaries. Think Russia, China, Iran. That sort of traditional intelligence collection, which was the bread-and-butter of the intelligence community prior to 9/11, we were doing less of. I think you’re finding now, so many years post 9/11, a desire to rebalance. We need to be able to do both. We need to understand the terrorism threat against us.

There are other threats. We have to also understand terror finance, counterproliferation, bio and WMD. We’ve got to understand political and military capability and leadership. We need intelligence on our adversaries’ and our allies’ command-and-control capabilities, and what their intentions are. Those are very different, and all very hard things to do, but with finite resources, you have to rebalance to make sure you can do that. I think that’s a challenge for the intelligence community. I think it will continue to be. We’re always going to be in an environment of limited resources.

OR: Gen. Michael Hayden suggested in these pages that government is going to have to be more transparent while shaving, as he put it, a few points off of its operational efficiency. What is your take on the transparency/security conflict?

Townsend: I’m a lifelong New Yorker, and so I think back to Senator Moynihan. He was of my state, not of my party, but I can remember having a conversation with him when I was working during the Clinton administration at the Justice Department. It struck me that he was right about one thing — and I think it came home to us in the wake of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. We overclassify. If you overclassify, the more you have to protect. The more you have to protect, the more difficult it is, the less likely you are going to be able to protect everything. The bigger the area that you’re trying to protect, the more likely you’re going to fail. I think we have to make up our minds. What are the critical secrets that must be classified? We have determine how hard we’re willing to fight to protect those secrets. I don’t think, as a government, we do that very well.

I think we suffer from that. Because I think it lends itself more to things like leaks, and capabilities we have invested billions of dollars in being blown by a single individual who decides to make them public. I think we’ve got to wrestle that problem to the ground. Having said that, I think we also have to make up our mind. I don’t disagree with General Hayden. Sometimes when policymakers are going to make fundamental decisions on these sorts of balances, we’ve got to be willing to have a conversation with the American people.

The American people, if they don’t like the way policymakers make those calls, can go to the ballot box and vote them out of office. To the extent we’re able to have a more public conversation, I think we should. The example that I’d give you of a place where I think we can and we should are things like social media companies. Do we want Facebook, and Google, and Twitter to be making judgments about what can ride on their platforms and what can’t? Do we want to know how they’re making those judgments?

Maybe we disagree with them. Maybe they should be making different calls. What are the tools and the rules they are using to make those judgments? What role does the government play — should the government play — in making those decisions? We have a Constitution that protects freedom of speech, and because of that, we ought to be reasonably transparent about the relationship between government and the private sector and the rules of the road that each are operating by. I think that’s an example of where we could be more transparent.