31st December 2012: The Insurgents

Fred Kaplan‘s journalism on nuclear strategy and geopolitics is a personal influence. I’m looking forward to Kaplan’s new book The Insurgents (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013) on how David Petraeus, John Nagl, and others changed United States military doctrines on counterinsurgency. Janet Maslin observes in her New York Times review:


Some of Mr. Kaplan’s book is about significant events, like the handling of Mosul. But most of it concentrates on the theoretical arguments behind even the most minute-sounding differences in military dictums. Even after counterinsurgency began to be codified and taught, it was a source of confusion for junior officers unfamiliar with its ways of utilizing Iraqis and later Afghans, not fighting them at every turn. “I get what we’re supposed to achieve,” one said succinctly, “but what are we supposed to do?”

Even as the counterinsurgency thinkers fine-tuned their phrases — “clear and hold” evolved into “clear, hold and build,” and later into “shape/clear/hold/build,” each with a slightly but significantly different meaning — their approach was viewed by some as a provocation. The book describes how blasts from The New York Post led to the insertion of words like “sometimes,” “some” and “most” into Mr. Petraeus’s field manual, “FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency,” and how the manual’s way of answering old questions only prompted new ones.

The Insurgents will also interest change management, leadership, organisational dynamics, and disruptive innovation practitioners.

12th June 2012: CyberWar Doctrines

Confront & Conceal


David Sanger’s new book Confront & Conceal reveals that the United States has developed an offensive cyberwarfare capability – code-named Olympic Games – for deterrence and denial of Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. The reaction to Sanger’s book has renewed debate about cyberwar doctrines and the internet’s safety. Slate‘s Fred Kaplan suggests that policymakers who formulate new cyberwar doctrines can learn from the 1950s and 1960s body of theory-building in nuclear strategy. Meanwhile, Atlantic Monthly‘s Patrick Lin, Fritz Allhoff and Neil Rowe wonder if cyberwar can be waged in a ‘just war’ framework. I suggested in 2010 that for Australia, an offensive cyberwarfare capability may lead to counterforce targeting by more equipped nation-states.

Panetta’s CIA Director Nomination

The debate about the Obama administration’s nomination of Leon Panetta as the Central Intelligence Agency‘s next director highlights the greater visibility of the United States intelligence community.

Media pundits diverge in their opinions about Panetta’s suitability for the role.  In doing so, they reveal how each makes assumptions about the CIA’s institutional function, the CIA’s relationship to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the budget process, and the experience of political outsiders in assessing the quality of analytical product.

In the sample I looked at The Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss reflects the consensus view that Panetta is a “doomed” appointee as a political outsider.  Dreyfuss makes four key arguments:

(1) Dreyfuss is a political appointee to a non-political organisation.

(2) As a “consumer of intelligence” Panetta is passive and unable to spearhead the operational transformation that the CIA needs.

(3) Panetta opposed the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques yet a CIA insider would have been a better choice.

(4) As “a relentless centrist and a conciliator” Panetta will be outwitted by the Pentagon, the DNI and private military contractors, even though Dreyfuss opines, “the very office of the DNI is a useless post, and the entire office ought to be abolished by Obama on day one. Who needs it?”

Dreyfuss writes great, sarcastic op-ed commentary but the limitations of his arguments becomes clear when you compare his analysis with two columnists who actually know about the intelligence bureaucracy and its function: Slate‘s Fred Kaplan and The New Yorker‘s Steve Coll.  Each show for different reasons why Dreyfuss’s arguments are interwoven.

Political appointees to the CIA have a poor track record, Kaplan and Coll agree.  Coll finds Panetta’s nomination “unconvincing”.  Kaplan suggests that Obama’s priority was to distance his incoming administration from Bush’s perceived politicisation, and in the absence of other candidates, Panetta was the best choice.

This priority also discounts Dreyfuss’s third argument on why a CIA insider would be inappropriate.  “He seems to have been selected as a kind of political auditor and consensus builder,” Coll suggests, in agreement with one premise of Dreyfuss’s fourth argument.  Coll however does not write-off DNI and suggests Panetta’s limitations: his lack of foreign policy experience, and his lack of direct experience in managing the CIA’s operations and relationships “with other spy chiefs, friendly and unfriendly.”

Dreyfuss believes that Panetta would therefore be under the control of Admiral Dennis Blair, who is Obama’s DNI appointee, and thus undermine the CIA’s civilian status.  Kaplan has a more nuanced view of the DNI-CIA relationship and Panetta’s leadership style.  He suggests Panetta could retain the CIA’s deputy director Steven Kappes, a move that would please insiders and consolidate his position.

Kaplan also reveals that Panchetta knew more about the CIA’s intelligence programs than Dreyfuss’s write-off suggests.  As the Clinton administration’s Office of Budget and Management “director and White House chief of staff, he was not just passively exposed to intelligence issue,” Kaplan counters.  He then quotes an email from former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke which reveals that Panchetta “knew about all of the covert and special-access programs.”  This experience gives Panchetta the budget skills, special knowledge, and high-level overview of CIA activities that few insiders would have, and that is a close fit with operational transformation methodologies.

If Panchetta’s nomination doesn’t work out I have a Team B that could probably do the job of cleaning up the CIA’s black budget programs, or at least make an Open Source Intelligence attempt.  It would include award-winning journalist James Bamford whose book The Puzzle Palace (1982) features revelations about the National Security Agency; anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom whose book Shadows of War (2005) revealed the new contours of global conflicts; and Economic Gangsters (2008) authors Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, who use publicly available information such as diplomats’ parking tickets to uncover potential corruption.  Add Kaplan, Coll and their New Yorker colleague Lawrence Wright, and that’s a pretty substantial investigative team with foreign policy and intelligence community experience.