Monday, December 28, 2009

Intelligence Failure?

Accusations of yet another intelligence failure will undoubtedly be raised as we digest the near-miss of another airborne terrorism act just last week. Experts and amateurs will delve into the many aspects of this latest security breakdown: why did 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalib hold a multiple-entry U.S. visa, how could he be listed on a watch list yet not raise enough concern to merit a second look by airline or airport security, did the British fail to share their visa denial to him with U.S. security officials or was this ignored, why did the fact that he paid cash for expensive air fare not raise any extra scrutiny, and lastly, why was he not subject to additional scrutiny after his own father reported his serious concerns to Nigerian and U.S. officials? Any one of these "red flags" should have raised security concerns and caused additional scrutiny before being allowed to board a U.S. carrier. I am also troubled with the hasty assertions by various officials that this individual acted alone, long before the investigation is completed, similar to hasty early claims that U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan's act at Fort Hood was not terrorism.

These and many more issues will continue to be debated as the investigation progresses. So I will raise only one aspect of this incident (similar concerns apply to Major Hasan's act): eight years after the terrorism attacks of 9/11 we still don't seem to connect the dots. Are we faced with a systemic failure of the very system designed to protect our citizens from terrorism? Is Congress's 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, already obsolete or merely ignored? Has it not eliminated those crucial barriers between the intelligence and the law enforcement community? I have raised the question about acceptance of the provisions of this Act in previous blogs and can't help but raise this concern again.

Relevant congressional oversight committees must review the effects, accomplishments, and gaps in the 2004 Act now. How are intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security organizations coordinating their activities and sharing relevant actionable information? Is the Director of National Intelligence functioning as provided for in the Act? What are the systemic and political barriers to effective homeland security and prevention of terrorism? Is politicization impacting negatively on effective intelligence sharing?

Monday, December 14, 2009

CIA director balances spy agency, Washington politics

An AP article last week about CIA Director Leon Panetta's continuing efforts on behalf of his agency and appeasing Congress merely reinforces my previously offered opinion that he is miscast in the role of CIA director. Clearly his professional qualifications, the expectations the president has of him, and his efforts to date make it quite clear that he should be the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who is the President's intelligence advisor and is charged with oversight of all US intelligence agencies and liaison to Congress.

Mark Lowenthal's comment that "One of the things that's unique about CIA is that this is the president's agency. They don't work for anybody else. If they are not effective, the person who gets hurt here is the big guy." is disappointing from an intelligence professional of his stature. He seems to ignore that the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act removed the director of CIA as the principal US intelligence commubity leader in his comments. It also points to the fact that the IC, and perhaps the administration, has not fully grasped or accepted the DNI concept instituted by Congress in 2004 (see my previous comment on this topic).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Chris Matthews and "The Enemy Camp"

by Rick Francona

After President Obama's address to the nation last night explaining his strategy for the war in Afghanistan, MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews surprised viewers with his characterization of the United States Military Academy, more commonly known as West Point, as "the enemy camp." He further described it as the venue used by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to "rabble rouse the 'we're gonna democratize the world' campaign."

Interesting choice of words to describe the alma mater of some of America's greatest leaders. The audience last night included serving officers and non-commissioned officers, plus the entire 4000-strong Corps of Cadets. These people are not the enemy, Chris, these are the men and women who have led and will lead the troops that fight America's wars.

President Obama is the commander in chief. If the military academy that trains his officers is "the enemy camp," he has a serious problem. Actually, if that is the case, we all have a serious problem. I do believe that Mr. Obama faces a variety of problems, many of his own making. For example, read my comments on his ill-advised Afghanistan policy, Taliban analysis of the Obama speech.

Chris Matthews is an Obama fan - he makes no attempt to disguise that fact. He is known for his "thrill up his leg" comment during the 2008 campaign. His exact words: "I have to tell you, you know, it's part of reporting this case, this election, the feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama's speech. My, I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don't have that too often." He also has cried on the air during an Obama speech, and has compared the President to Jesus Christ.

During my five year stint with NBC News (NBC, CNBC and MSNBC), I appeared periodically on Hardball with Chris. I have joked that I liked being on his show because he asked the questions, then he answered the questions - easy money! I did appreciate his coverage of the Abu Ghurayb issue, as he allowed me to provide what I thought was in-depth analysis of the underlying causes for the breakdown in the chain of command that led to prisoner abuse.

That said, I think Chris's recent comments are out of line. The United States Military Academy Corps of Cadets is made up of some of the finest young people this country has to offer. They have chosen to serve as officers in the armed forces of their nation during a time of war - most of them will soon find themselves in harm's way, at our behest. They are our sons and daughters - they are not the enemy.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Perfect Timing for Republicans

With the addition of Al Franken to the US Senate, Democrats have technically achieved a filibuster-proof majority. With little wiggle room left for legislative maneuvering by minority Republicans, now is the perfect time to reflect on basic responsibilities to voters and refocus on core conservative values:

- limited government
- balanced budget
- strong national security

Given the lack of trust many of our Congressional representatives have rightfully earned in recent years, I call upon those genuinely willing to serve their voters, not their own interests, to lobby for self-imposed term limits. If our presidents can be held to two terms, why should our legislature not be held to the same standards?

Agreeing to limited terms would go a long way to help restore voters' trust and respect for elected officials. It is time to return to the original concept of running for public office after gaining real-life experience in a profession or in business, but then also returning to real life after a couple of terms of public service. I am convinced that a major part of our current distrust of elected officials is because many have become professional politicians, further and further removed from real life and the everyday people they are supposed to serve.

Another major trust issue is what has become a common practice among legislators: voting on legislative bills that they have not even read, let alone studied carefully. How can anyone claim to do the people's business by voting on any proposed legislation without having reviewed it thoroughly?

I was encouraged by the appointment of Michael Steele as the new RNC chair and receive his weekly "Trunk." This is my message to Chairman Steele: please stop asking me for financial contributions to various RNC efforts. When our elected Republican senators and representatives commit to the conditions above I will gladly throw as much support as I can possibly muster behind their legislative efforts.

I call on all Republican legislators to start leading by example NOW:

- self-limit your terms in office
- stop voting on legislation you have not read
- avoid all earmarks
- resist government expansion
- refuse to vote for anything but a balanced budget.

Now convince us you are serious about meaningful change!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Memorial Day - 2009

by Rick Francona

I was going to write an article for Memorial Day, then decided that what I said two years still holds true today.

From May 29, 2007:

This article appeared on

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Comment - Ed Soriano and I served together in Desert Storm - this must be his hardest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the “summer driving season.” The constant news coverage of record high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It’s not about driving or shopping – it’s about remembering the men and women who died while in military service. It is important that we not forget the reason for this holiday – we are at war and lose some our finest young men and women every day.

Yes, we are at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Less than one-half of one percent of our people will serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – all volunteers – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, “In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil.” A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, “You are welcome in France.”

Over the years, over a million Americans have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral. Military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families. Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the flag on the coffin, the honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of the rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation “on behalf of a grateful nation.”

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Does the State Department have any competent Russian linguists?

By Rick Francona
Does the State Department have any competent Russian linguists?
Evidently not. Last week's debacle in Geneva was proof of that. If you have not seen any of the late night talk shows or haven't seen the news for a few days, here is what happened. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who speaks no foreign languages herself, met with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who is fluent in English, French, and Sinhala (Sri Lankan) as well as his native Russian.
Clinton: "I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: 'We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together.' We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?" Lavrov: "You got it wrong."
The word over the button is peregruzka - Russian for "overcharge. The word they wanted is perezagruzka. It gets even better. The Russian word on the button is written in the Roman alphabet. Russian is written with the Cyrillic alphabet - it should read have read перегрузка for "overcharge" or перезагрузка for "reset."
Okay, it was a small gaffe. Mr. Lavrov laughed it off and did not embarrass Mrs. Clinton further. Mrs. Clinton should take this as a symptom of the incompetence that is rampant at State Department. These are the same people that I pilloried a few years ago when they complained that they might be sent to Iraq. See my article, What is the favorite wine over at State Department? Mrs. Clinton needs to clean house over at State. The State Department is located in the area of Washington called Foggy Bottom - aptly named, sitting around on their butts in a fog. First up would be the chief of the interpreters. How can the world's only superpower be taken seriously if it cannot translate a few Russian words? This is not simultaneous translation, which - trust me - is intense. This is merely using a dictionary. Language training needs to be a bit higher on the priority list over there at State.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Leon Panetta - Nominee for CIA Director

by Emily Francona

The local Monterey Peninsula community is all atwitter with the news of President-Elect Obama's nomination of local favorite Leon Panetta for the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. Local personalities and various self-appointed spokespersons, qualified or not, have already made statements for the record about the nomination. While most are justifiably proud of having a "local boy" potentially ascend to this highly responsible national position, it also reveals a lamentable lack of understanding of our intelligence community by these very same fans.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-458) established the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) as the head of the U.S.intelligence community and as the principal advisor to the President. The Act directs that a nominee to this position "shall have extensive national security expertise" and prohibits the director of CIA from being dual-hatted as the Director of Central Intelligence, as was the case before this new law.

Let's review Panetta's qualifications: a legal background with extensive government experience, both in the legislative and executive branch, however little directly related to national security. While some of his experiences may well have brought him into passing contact with intelligence information and national security issues, such as when he was chief of staff for President Clinton, it is far short of the serious professional credentials needed to guide and direct the CIA, or any intelligence agency for that matter. While his public policy credentials are impressive, the CIA supports national security policy - these are two entirely different arenas.

Given the complexity of intelligence issues and the many real or perceived intelligence failures in the history of that agency, a thorough professional understanding of the intelligence profession is indispensable for effective leadership of the CIA. It is precisely because this agency needs reforms to produce more timely and actionable intelligence for U.S. national security decision-making, that its director must understand the capabilities and limitations of the intelligence business, and not be fooled by insiders’ ability to “wait out one more director.”

Some of the very qualifications touted by Panetta's fans are not desired or needed by a director: he does not need “the ear of the president” since that is the function of the DNI. Nor does this position require political savvy, since that is not a function of any intelligence agency director. In fact, it would be downright counterproductive, given repeated criticism of the “politicization of intelligence” in recent years. Similarly, the legal framework for the conduct of intelligence activities is provided by appropriate legislation, overseen by the DNI and checked by the legislative oversight committees.

It is surprising that President-Elect Obama apparently did not consult in advance with the leadership of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the very body who will grant or not grant Panetta’s confirmation. If anything, the very advantages Panetta supporters recite are more suited for the office of DNI: this position does require considerable political savvy and direct access to the presidential, but also a thorough understanding of national security issues. It remains to be seen if Admiral Blair is that person, if confirmed.

Mr. Panetta: with all due respect to your fine public policy credentials, decline this appointment for the good of the intelligence community and the decision makers it serves. You would make an effective governor of California!