All posts by Lino Miani

Green Beret, Author, Entrepreneur...Worldwide. CEO, Navisio Global

Shutdown Security: Grinding the Axe

As the US Government shutdown enters its fifth week, federal employees and the businesses that support them are feeling the pinch. While it is somewhat easy for the average American to see the effects of the impasse on the Transportation Security Administration or the US Coast Guard, there is an entire range of services from food safety inspection to scientific research that are just as important but less obvious. The same is true of security and counterintelligence programs that play a critical, yet largely unseen role in keeping America great.

US security and counterintelligence programs are designed with the principal aim of maintaining American advantage — and therefore our power — against foreign adversaries. These programs, and the legions of professionals that implement them, protect our sensitive sources and methods for gathering intelligence, our plans for responding to contingencies, and our valuable people and resources overseas. We simply cannot allow these things to be neutralized, countered, or lost; a job that is made increasingly difficult by the ongoing government shutdown. As one colleague, a former CIA case officer suggests, the intensifying financial hardships of US government workers present a growing opportunity for criminal organizations and foreign intelligence services. If you have an axe to grind, they will be happy to help.

Patrick Skinner @SkinnerPM
Patrick Skinner is a well-known former CIA officer.

Security & Counterintelligence

Though security and counterintelligence are related, they are not the same. Security refers to efforts to protect information, people, and resources from loss or exploitation. Security covers a broad spectrum of activities ranging from establishing standards for computer passwords to running armed convoys in high threat areas. Security of personnel at diplomatic and military facilities overseas is almost always a cooperative effort with the host nation government and, by extension, the community at large. With contracts frozen and a large percentage of US Embassy staff working without pay, it is only a matter of time before the Embassy relationship with partner governments and their citizens begins to sour as we fail to pay our bills. There will be incidents that result in security problems for our people as the shutdown drags on and there is no government budget that will cover expenses for individual staff members.

Inside Man Sulu Arms Market
As I wrote in my 2011 book, The Sulu Arms Market, an “inside man” embedded in the right place is extremely valuable for criminal and intelligence organizations. Both exploit the same vulnerabilities in their targets.

The much larger and more damaging fallout from the ongoing shutdown comes from intelligence threats. Unlike security, which attempts to prevent loss from within, counterintelligence programs prevent threat actors from coming in and taking what they want. Criminal organizations and hostile intelligence services both seek sensitive information from inside the US government and if possible, agents they can count on to reliably provide information and access when required. Not surprisingly, they both depend on the same human factors that assist in targeting and recruiting Americans to work for them. Among the most common of those factors are financial vulnerabilities: debt and greed. Where the shutdown makes our counterintelligence efforts more difficult is that it is rapidly and massively increasing the number of US government workers that are in financial trouble and frustrated with the Washington power play that caused it.

The Operations Cycle

Intelligence services and criminal organizations are continuously spotting and assessing those they believe have access and placement to the things they want as well as a vulnerability they can exploit. Traditionally American officials are particularly challenging to recruit because they are vetted for a whole range of vulnerabilities through the security clearance process. Though this falls into the realm of security, it is basically an assessment of one’s susceptibility to recruitment. The relatively good pay and benefits afforded to US government employees protected us by ensuring their needs were met and that few would be willing to take the risks inherent with spying against their country. In other words, decent government salaries are a security measure. Needless to say, spotting and assessing vulnerable recruitment targets is becoming a whole lot easier for our adversaries. Since financial difficulties are one of the easiest things for an intelligence service to manipulate, recruiting those targets is also becoming easier.

Cyber Awareness
Though they poke fun at the adolescent presentation, virtually every US government employee is educated in basic counterintelligence via the Cyber Security Awareness Challenge course required for access to government computers.

The recruitment phase usually begins with something mundane that escalates as the subject becomes entangled, knowingly or otherwise, with the adversary. Imagine being a furloughed foreign service officer struggling to pay your bills. You’re having coffee with a local colleague and sharing your distress with the situation. He tells you he has a friend that works at a well-known think tank that would pay $300 — an intentionally small sum — for an article written by a native English speaker with some professional credibility. It could help pay the bills, does not have to be about anything you work on for the Embassy, and does not even have to be attributed to you. You decline the offer initially but the think tank checks out, is not associated with a government, and produces good quality work. You wouldn’t say anything controversial, certainly not about something important to the United States, and no one will know you wrote the piece anyway. You accept, and though everything goes well, you have unknowingly stepped onto a very slippery slope.

A few days later your friend congratulates you on the popularity of the piece. He tells you his colleague would like to thank you in person. You feel honored and write another piece or two in the meantime. When you finally meet your benefactor he tells you he would like to contact the Embassy’s Consular section to vouch for an employee seeking a US Visa. He doesn’t know who exactly to talk to, so he asks for a phone list. Without thinking too much about such a benign request you provide the list. Besides, you want to keep this gentleman happy since he’s paying your bills…

Grinding the Shutdown Axe

One can see where the rest of this tale leads. The subject in the story took money from what may have been a foreign intelligence officer; provided official, though unclassified government documents; and attempted to conceal all of the above. He or she is now ripe for exploitation. Though blackmail and coercion are the least effective methods of recruiting a source, the disillusionment that may come from being left without a paycheck can be a more reliable and productive basis for recruitment. There is nothing better than an agent with a grievance against his own government.

Financial vulnerabilities among staff are a significant counterintelligence and security problem and they are exploding under the shutdown. Some 800,000 federal employees in nine cabinet agencies are furloughed or operating in “exempted” status, meaning they are working without pay. The number of federal contractors affected — some of whom serve in critical national security positions — is estimated to be 1.2 million, most of whom do not expect to receive back pay. Some of those working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, are aware of the irony of being furloughed due to a power struggle that started over immigration.

The same is true of the Federal Bureau of Investigation which has the unenviable responsibility of protecting the country from intelligence threats under these circumstances. One thing is certain, the longer this shutdown continues, intelligence and security breaches will become more common and will take longer to discover and neutralize. As federal employees burn through their savings, more and more will decide their axes require grinding. How many ultimately make that choice is something we may never know.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016 and occasionally writes about intelligence operations like the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.

The Hudaydah Trap

For the last 14 years, the war in Yemen has taken a brutal toll on the innocent population of one of the world’s poorest countries. Though an extension of long simmering tribal conflicts, the war is in some ways a proxy battle between the Iranian-sponsored Houthis and the Saudi-led Coalition of Sunni Arab states. Backed by American weaponry, intelligence, logistics, and political top cover, the Coalition has almost managed to completely surround the last Houthi stronghold in Sanaa, Yemen’s traditional capital. In what amounts to an operational siege of a fortified enclave, the port of Hudaydah is both the key to victory and the final lifeline for millions of Yemenis caught in the middle and slowly starving to death. Despite the emergence of dramatic images of malnourished children in the final stages of starvation, Yemen has raised very little public attention from the Pentagon…until last week.

Yemen Conflict
The Saudi-led Coalition has the Houthis surrounded. The fall of Hudaydah will complete the double envelopment and may end the war.

In a stunning reversal, the Secretaries of Defense and State announced that the United States would demand a ceasefire in Yemen. Communicated simultaneously, the demand came with an aggressive 30-day timeline. With Coalition forces massing for a final assault on Hudaydah, the timing of the announcement comes on the eve of what looks to be an irrevocable turning point in Washington’s favor. Some believe the curious timing makes sense given the dire humanitarian situation, but others point out that none of the warring factions are anywhere close to a negotiable position. A peace process, they suggest, is not only doomed at this point, but will likely prolong, and possibly magnify, the escalating humanitarian catastrophe. The opposing positions illustrate the intensity of the ethical dilemma Yemen presents to the world; is it better to stop the fighting or just get it over with?

Tragic Yemen

Experts among the humanitarian community say famine is a uniquely avoidable disaster but, once triggered, it cannot be easily reversed. Suffering from years of privation, currency collapse, and the world’s worst Cholera epidemic, Yemen rides the famine tripwire in every measurable way. Jeremy Konyndyk, recent Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, believes an assault on Hudaydah will plunge the fragile region into the abyss, if it’s not already there. With some justification, he thinks this realization may be the basis for Washington’s policy shift in favor of ceasefire.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 15.59.18
Jeremy Konyndyk, once Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, believes an assault on Hudaydah will trigger a famine in Yemen. His opinion on this matter is authoritative.

It is very easy to see the moral value of stopping the fighting to save the starving children of Yemen. However, the effectiveness of that course is as ambiguous as the political and military vagaries of the war in Yemen itself. Dave Harden, a respected diplomat that recently led US efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen (and briefly Konyndyk’s boss) takes a dim view of the prospects for peace.

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Dave Harden believes the combatants are not ready for peace.

If Mr. Harden is correct, which seems likely, it is doubtful a ceasefire will last very long or have a measurable positive impact on the conditions that lead to famine. Worse, a respite could breathe new life into a failing Houthi defense and crystallize the war into years of intractable stalemate. The resultant mortality of this outcome will eclipse anything Yemen is likely to suffer if Houthi resistance collapses quickly.

Both Sides

Hudaydah and the spiraling famine in North Yemen present a dilemma in the truest sense. Though it is impossible to calculate just how much good can come from a ceasefire, it is also impossible to know how quickly and effectively the fall of Hudaydah will put an end to the war. The answer will be lost in complex analysis of relative combat power, skill of the commanders, tactical geography, and the unknowable will to win inherent in the opposing forces. There is simply no way to determine which is the ethically superior option from the purely utilitarian standpoint of: what is the most good for the most people?

Rather than making an ethical choice, the United States is shrewdly playing both sides. Calling for a ceasefire widely expected to fail makes it easier to blame one’s opponent for the disappointing result. Though this sounds intensely cynical, it can have the practical outcome of weakening Houthi/Iranian resolve, eroding international support, and may increase their need to make concessions. Giving the Coalition thirty days to implement it, however, encourages an attempt to settle the matter. Though calling for a ceasefire is probably the only politically acceptable option in this gamble, with Coalition troops already advancing into the outskirts of the city, the Hudaydah trap has been sprung, and there is no going back. History will balance the intensity of resultant suffering against the durability and justice — if any — of the political outcome.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

 

 

 

 

 

For additional information concerning the war in Yemen please reference the following articles:

“A hint of hope for a ceasefire in Yemen.”

“Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death will shake up the war in Yemen?

 

Maduro Drones On

Wearing full regalia to mark the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard on August 4th, President Nicolas Maduro became the world’s most prominent target of a drone strike. The scene was typical of the farcical government theater Venezuelans have grown accustomed to over the last 19 years since Maduro’s charismatic mentor, Hugo Chavez was elected President. The small explosion occurred while Maduro was addressing a massive assembly of soldiers, firefighters, and police; seven of whom were wounded when two drones approached and dropped their ordnance near the procession.

In a speech the following day, Maduro blamed the attack on the former President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a claim Santos bluntly repudiated. Though Maduro is accustomed to droning on against foreign interference, those claiming credit for the attack, a previously unknown group called “Soldiers of Flannel”, identify themselves as patriotic Venezuelans. They blame Maduro’s incompetence for the exploding economic crisis that is pushing millions of Venezuelans into desperation. Though some would like to write off the incident as a parochial Latin American squabble, the drone-delivery of explosives is a growing global security threat that simply cannot be ignored.

The "Soldiers of Flannel" claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.
The “Soldiers of Flannel” claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.

Bolivarian Devolution

Though Saturday’s drama may seem remote to those outside Latin America, Venezuela is in the midst of an exploding humanitarian disaster. This is not hyperbole. Some 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the hyperinflation and scarcity that has plagued their economy since 2014. Conditions are at the point that international humanitarian actors supporting affected Venezuelans in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere claim newborns in Syria have lower mortality rates than those in Venezuela. Once the richest nationality in Latin America, Venezuelans both at home and abroad suffer from malnutrition, crime, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking as the crisis — and their desperation — intensifies. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime increasingly relies on repression and violence to maintain control. A patronage system guarantees military and police loyalty but is coming under escalating stress from an inflation rate that may exceed 1 million percent by the end of the year.

At these rates, it is difficult to imagine Maduro will be able to sustain this system, particularly in the face of the rapid collapse of oil exports. For years, the state oil company, PDVSA, funded the socialist economy set up by Hugo Chavez; but as PDVSA demands for control of production grew to pay the rising costs of Chavismo, international oil companies began to cut their losses. Beginning with the American firms, the oil majors shut down their Venezuelan operations, taking their expertise and equipment with them and leaving a lasting impact on the economy, currency, and security of the country. Something will have to give in order for conditions to improve and Saturday’s drone strike suggests the security situation will further deteriorate long before the economy stabilizes.

Drones On Target

Saturday’s attack on Maduro, though of little significance in real terms, marks the first notable proliferation of non-state, drone-delivered explosives outside the Middle East. Though the attacked wounded seven members of the Bolivarian National Guard, Maduro was unhurt and he and the generals surrounding him responded stoically enough to preserve their machismo. What alarms security officials around the world about the incident however, is there is no real way to defend against this rapidly proliferating technology.

Drone technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Improvements in battery capability enabled this leap, driving down costs and giving smaller drones more range and power. Though state militaries were the early drivers of drone technology, they focused their research and development efforts on larger platforms that somewhat replicated capabilities of manned aircraft. Private hobbyists and commercial interests such as Amazon pushed demand for smaller devices and drove innovation faster than militaries were capable of doing. Not surprisingly, the commercial utility of drones as a delivery device has military implications as Mr. Maduro discovered on Saturday.

Maduro's security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.
Maduro’s security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.

Keeping up with technological advancement is not the only policy challenge drones represent. In most parts of the world, airspace is only regulated above 3000 feet above ground level (AGL). Below that level, there are very few regulations and almost no laws governing air traffic. Even in those instances where governments made steps to address this gap, enforcement remains an administrative and technical headache. There are very few requirements for registration or licensing, and that’s just the start. On the extreme end of the spectrum, traditional defenses against air attack, specifically fighter aircraft and surface to air missiles, are almost completely ineffective below 3000 feet AGL. This is especially true in urban environments. Though one of the drones that attacked Maduro was reportedly shot down by an alert sniper, it crashed with its deadly payload into a nearby apartment building, setting fire to the structure and forcing an evacuation. The incident highlights that even effective defenses may cause unintended harm.

Technological solutions are no more promising. Countermeasures range from systems that jam guidance inputs, to others that launch netting to capture drones, to trained birds of prey. Clearly the defense sector is struggling to establish a workable industry standard. Detection is a different problem that has more obvious solutions but integrating them with countermeasures and backing that up with effective legislation and enforcement is the biggest challenge of all. If there is a silver lining associated with the dramatic attack on Nicolas Maduro, it is that his misfortune may actually raise enough alarm at a high enough level to make a difference. When it comes to drone defense, the Soldiers of Flannel said it best: “…it’s only a question of time.”


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Thanks to Kirby Sanford for consulting on flight rules and airspace control measures. Kirby is the author of Bolivarian Devolution and Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom on The Affiliate Network.