All posts by Lino Miani

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

Left at the Altar: Hanoi Honeymoon

As Kim Jong Un began his first state visit to a country other than China yesterday, the collapse of the Hanoi Summit must have weighed heavily on his mind. Though neither side had taken any concrete steps toward the substantive issues of denuclearization, sanctions relief, or ending the Korean War, expectations for the second Trump-Kim summit were guardedly positive. Even if the bizarre Trump-Kim platitudes were just marketing noise as some feared, perhaps the two leaders could move the process forward enough to give working level staff what they needed to hammer out the details…or so the wishful thinking went. In international affairs however, a relationship without a solid preparatory foundation is a volatile one indeed. With lunch on the table and the international press standing by for a joint declaration, Kim Jong Un must have realized he had pushed his position just a bit too far.

Flattery Will Get You Somewhere

There is a perception in some capitals that the President of the United States is vulnerable to flattery. Though hard to imagine, there is some justification for the idea. World leaders that swallowed their pride and applied this tool found an accommodating ear in the White House. Shinzo Abe of Japan, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and indeed Kim Jong Un of North Korea were early adopters of this approach and benefitted tremendously from the results. More recently, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also went on a charm offensive. Recognizing the catastrophic consequences of being on the wrong side of Trump’s vanity and hoping to deflect his attacks on the Alliance, Mr. Stoltenberg gave President Trump credit for what was actually a long planned increase in national contributions to NATO common funding. By contrast, the leaders of America’s traditional allies in Europe, Australia, and Canada insisted on equality and found themselves on the receiving end of the President’s apathy and even insults. Flattery it seems, might just get you somewhere.

None of this is lost on the Chinese. Cynical in their outlook and culturally attuned to seek opportunity in every situation, China’s leaders surely arrived at this conclusion long before Mr. Stoltenberg and they would have advised Mr. Kim to push his advantage. Their active intelligence support to Kim Jong Un reflects the reality that a secure and economically viable North Korea is very much in Beijing’s interest. They are not alone. A stable North Korea contributes to the security of the entire region and Japan, Russia, and especially South Korea will also be interested in helping Kim Jong Un make good decisions vis-à-vis Mr. Trump. Unfortunately for peace on the Peninsula, Beijing and Pyongyang overestimated their ability to extract concessions from the United States in Hanoi.

Hanoi Honeymoon

The effects of Trump’s uncoordinated and impulsive decision making will have far reaching impacts. Determined to appear strong, it is unlikely Kim Jong Un will sheepishly accept Trump’s bombastic rejection. Armed with nuclear weapons, Kim has a real ability to threaten vital US interests in the region. Perhaps more importantly, by resuming missile and nuclear testing that Trump unwisely claimed credit for stopping, the North Korean leader also has the means to directly threaten the President’s credibility. South Korea’s President Moon Jae In, who brokered this process at the Pyeongchang Olympics a year ago, is also at risk. His party will suffer catastrophically in the polls if diplomacy falls apart now. In the event of renewed nuclear or missile testing, Moon is likely to be replaced by a leader that is neither interested in nor positioned to continue the peace process as it currently exists. Japan’s cautious steps toward talks with North Korea will cease entirely while China will gain influence over inter-Korean dialogue at the expense of the United States.

Moon Jae In receives an unwelcome task from Trump after the disaster in Hanoi
A Korean Problem: Trump’s call to Moon Jae In after walking out of the Hanoi Summit puts the pressure on Moon to salvage the process he started.
Image credit, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/us/politics/us-korea-trade-talks.html

Mr. Trump for his part seems not to understand there is great risk in trying to manage international relations like a business. Whereas one can walk away safely from a real estate deal, he cannot simply end our troubles with North Korea despite his belief he’s called Kim Jong Un’s bluff. Trump should have taken this lesson from his failure to reenter the Trans-Pacific Partnership after walking away from it in 2017. Then, like now, his refusal to find some middle ground or at a minimum, preserve the possibility of future progress, actually did nothing but cede power to the whims of others. In this case, Kim Jong Un’s wounded and possibly nuclear fueled response.

So as Chairman Kim spends the next day and a half honeymooning with the Vietnamese Communist Party, he must surely be pondering his next move. Let’s hope he exercises a bit of restraint after being left at the altar.


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

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 16.20.23
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?