Thursday, April 06, 2017

Is the SIG still alive?

I have decided to interrupt the "Daily Donald" series of posts to cover a topic that has me worried.

Yesterday Steve Bannon was removed from the NSC and his access to the Situation Room was cut off (or so the Trump Admin tells us). There is an elaborate story being put out via Politico and the NYT about how Bannon resisted the change and that Gen. McMaster aggressively pushed to return control of the NSC to the professionals.  One hopes that this all true, but if it's not - then I fear we have a serious problem.

As I read the news about this event, I became concerned about reporters being told that Bannon was put into the Rice era NSC to "de-operationalize it". And that now that his mission was complete, he was leaving. The word "de-operationalize" is a weird term used by US-Nat Sec mandarins. It means - to remove operational capacity thru bureaucratic and legal interference. This term is not a positive connotation.

When we take this term in conjunction with three other facts

1) That Bannon sought to set up a Strategic Interests Group (a "shadow NSC") with the likes of Sebastian Gorka and Ezra Cohen-Watnik,

2) A group of Trump Admin officials wanted access to raw data from various intel feeds instead of bowdlerized analyst reports, and

3) Bannon's security clearance was not actually cancelled and there are reports of him attending an NSC meeting after the news of his removal.

the use of the "de-operationalize" term becomes quite ominous. And here is why I think this way.

The NSC is the main coordination body for all conflict resolution activities of our government. At any given time there are a hundred or so issues on the "board". The NSC has to coordinate the allocation of resources to resolve these issues. In order to do its job, it needs a very solid stream of high quality compartmented information.

In any "normal" Presidency - raw data would be collected and collated by the intelligence agencies and routed through a set of classification and compartmentation filters. This data would make its way to analysis centers where it could be curated by area experts into various assessments with different compartmentation levels. The entire process would contribute to the total information awareness of the NSC. Based on these reports the NSC would reallocate resources between issues and make sure that every issue stays below its critical level for as long as the resources required to close it out are unavailable. Obviously if the resources are available then the issue will get closed out unless there is some wider strategic reason not to close it out.

But this is NOT a "normal" Presidency. As seen multiple times before, Trump has a National Security Adviser and  Presidential Daily (Intelligence) Briefing - but he doesn't pay much attention to either of them. Trump relies on Breitbart News, Alex Jones of Infowars, & Fox News to act as his eyes and ears and Bannon's SIG plays some kind of as yet undeclared strategic policy role. It appears that the NSC (and it's vast ranks of unfilled staff positions) is largely a rubber stamp. Without the careful resource reallocation by professionals - the Trump Admin will find itself facing a multitude of issues and several of them will cross critical levels with no clarity on resource availability. This is a recipe for complete disaster.

This state of affairs has troubled most of us who watch these issues on a daily basis. If you are not a hostile provocation, this should bother you too. The last thing any sensible patriotic American should want is that our nation be in a position where it lacks strength to respond on a critical national security issue. It is one thing to say "strategically" I don't want to get in the middle of that issue, but it is completely another to say "I don't have the resources to do this".

I have not seen any information to see that Bannon's access to information has truly been cut off. I have heard stories that Erza Cohen-Watnik is having his role reviewed. But then I have also heard that his wife works/ed for firm that was supposed to make "Russia look better" in the US media - a position that leaves the entire SIG/EEOB/WH staff vulnerable to "shaping" operations.

My gut instinct tells me that whatever happened yesterday is not what it seems. I feel Bannon is very much still active and this SIG operation he was running has simply gone underground. This is extremely worrying and underground operation is much harder to track. This lack of tracking is a big deal as there is only a limited number of ways in which the entire Nat Sec mechanism can have accountability. Without accountability - the entire democratic process falls apart.

Even if the Bannon situation has resolved as the media indicates, the underlying  malaise remains. For the record I want to put the "underlying malaise" out there.

During the War on Terror days, a *private* military complex became economically viable. People like Erik Prince and Alex Karp are leading figures of this community. Whenever I hear Trump mouthing off things ('immigration','bombing the shit out them' etc...), I feel like he is speaking to the core interests of this complex. A section of this entity performed the amazing task of building various parts of the digital surveillance system that forms the core of our national security mechanism. After the crash of 2008 and during the Great Recession, employment in this sector became less than lucrative and my guess is that this sector was heavily infiltrated by foreign interest groups (see what happened with Fat Leonard for reference). Since these people already control a vast amount of the information flow in our present day national security mechanism, I feel sub-groups within this community are vying for control over the higher level functioning. Bannon is one facet of this. There are others we may as yet be unaware of.

I don't see elements of the nat sec community jockeying for control as a bad thing. It is a natural process that happens all the time in every countries, but in our case I feel some of them are at risk of shaping and subversion. If nothing else is achieved from the Trump-Russia saga - I hope it inoculates the wider national security community to the threat of subversion. I feel like we have forgotten what that threat is like.

All that said - I am pretty sure we have not seen the end of this. There is more to come.

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