Small Wars

This Week at War: Google Has More Guts Than the U.S. Government

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Google goes where the U.S. government has feared to tread

In a dramatic statement posted on the company's official blog this week, Google sparked a confrontation with the Chinese government that will likely end with the company exiting the Chinese market. Google's statement all but accuses the Chinese government of "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure." The Chinese government has long been suspected of directly performing, or facilitating proxies to perform, a wide range of cyberwarfare activities. Google's forceful response against the Chinese government has gone further than the U.S. government, a daily large-scale victim of cyberattacks, has ever gone. The Pentagon's forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review will likely feature discussions concerning "high-end asymmetric threats" such as cyberwarfare; but ironically it is a private company that is taking action against the Chinese government, a leading high- end asymmetric threat. Finally, Google's decision to likely abandon China could reveal a major crack in China's authoritarian model for economic growth and development.

Google stated that the attacks targeted at least 20 other large companies and the email accounts used by prominent Chinese human rights activists. The company did not directly accuse the Chinese government of these attacks, but its response indicates that it believes the Chinese government is responsible. If Google thought the culprits were lone-wolf Chinese computer hobbyists or cybercriminals, one would think that their response would have called on the Chinese government to police lawless behavior. In this case, it has obviously concluded that it is the government itself that is lawless.

Google has shown the courage to name the villain and accept the consequences for doing so. This is more than the U.S. government has ever done, in spite of many years of regular cyberattacks from China and Russia. Belatedly, and only after Google had acted, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a four-sentence statement calling on the Chinese government to explain its actions.

I agree with my FP colleague Blake Hounshell that this story will have long-lasting ramifications. Google's break with the Chinese government exposes a crack in the Chinese government's model for development. Western multinational corporations are the intermediaries through which China (like the other Asian successes) has obtained access to export markets.

Google had accepted the Chinese government's terms regarding censorship. But this week, it decided that it would not be a branch of the regime's internal security apparatus, a conduit for its global cyberwarfare operations, or a victim of its theft of intellectual property. Google's management has apparently decided that such complicity would be too damaging to its reputation elsewhere in the world and that its reputation was more valuable than future profits from the Chinese market.

Google is walking away from a Chinese government whose business practices it considers out of control. This will show the way for other Western multinationals to stand up against the Chinese government's social coercion, frequent non-protection of property rights, and outright theft of intellectual property. Following Google's action, those Western firms that do business with the Chinese government will have to respond to tougher questions from their shareholders.

China's future economic growth is dependent on the health of its relationships with Western firms, especially those with high intellectual property content. Google's decision may show that China's authoritarian growth model has reached a limit. And it may show the U.S. government how to get some courage of its own to fight the cyberwar, a war that is already underway.

Computers must take over counter-terrorism analysis

National Security Advisor James Jones predicted that the White House report on the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit would "shock" its readers. Jones was presumably referring to the report's conclusion that U.S. counterterrorism analysts had access to all of the information they needed to prevent the suspect, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, from boarding the flight, but failed to search enough of the databases to which they had access and link together the information that would have revealed the threat.

Maybe what was really shocking to Jones was his discovery that the U.S. intelligence community's computer software was not performing the "data mining" for terrorism threats that he assumed it was. The "Key Findings" from the White House report stated:

  • "Information sharing" does not appear to have contributed to this intelligence failure; relevant all-source analysts as well as watchlisting personnel who needed this information were not prevented from accessing it.
  • Information technology within the CT community did not sufficiently enable the correlation of data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information.
  • There was not a comprehensive or functioning process for tracking terrorist threat reporting and actions taken such that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all leads associated with high visibility and high priority plotting efforts undertaken by alQa'ida and its allies, in particular against the U.S. Homeland.

In a Jan. 7 interview on the PBS Newshour, former White House counterterrorism officials Richard Clarke and Juan Carlos Zarate confirmed that the U.S. intelligence community still does not have computer software that comprehensively searches and correlates data from all of the relevant U.S. government terrorism databases.

Given the flood of "dots" that arrive daily into the intelligence community's databases, computer automation is clearly the answer. The White House report recognized the hard work of the counterterrorism analysts who, the report says, have foiled many plots. But the Abdulmutallab incident shows what happens when a system relies on the endurance and judgment of an army of overworked human analysts -- the bomber eventually gets through.

A software program performing the same routine as the analysts will not be a panacea. Its parameters will require constant adjustment which will cause many to wonder whether data mining is useful. However, 9/11 and the Abdulmutallab incident show that large-scale and systematic data management is very likely the largest part of protecting the homeland from terrorism. It's been nearly nine years since the last catastrophic "connect the dots" failure. The fact that the intelligence community still is not fully cooperating on software solutions reveals an egregious management failure inside the government.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Yemen's al Qaeda Scam

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Yemen learns to profit from al Qaeda

The nearly successful Christmas Day downing of a Detroit-bound airliner has suddenly shifted the U.S. national security community's focus to Yemen. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Nigerian-born "knicker bomber," reportedly confessed to being trained in Yemen by an al Qaeda group.

Yemen and its problems are suddenly on everyone's agenda. On Jan. 1, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus announced a doubling in annual U.S. assistance to the country. On Jan. 28, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will host an international conference on Yemen, where he will no doubt call for increased international donations. It seems that whenever the international community discovers another al Qaeda franchise, a financial reward to the host seems to follow. Pakistan has perfected how to profit from this perverse incentive. Yemen is now showing itself to be an able student of the same technique.

Writing in Small Wars Journal, Lawrence Cline -- a career military intelligence officer, Middle East foreign area officer, and an instructor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School -- provides a comprehensive summary of Yemen's political and economic challenges. According to Cline, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his government do not view al Qaeda's presence in Yemen as their most important problem. To Saleh and his government, the Houthi rebellion in the Shiite northwest and the separatist unrest centered around the southern city of Aden (due to unresolved issues from the 1990 unification of Yemen) are far more urgent. Yemen's problems do not stop there. The country is running out of both oil and water, hosts over 150,000 Somali refugees, and its trade suffers from the Horn of Africa's ongoing piracy problem. Yemen is a obviously very troubled place and Saleh in understandably seeking out as much foreign assistance as he can.

In this context, Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Saleh government may have settled into a mutually beneficial relationship. According to Cline, Yemen's government is not the focus of al Qaeda's terror campaign. Instead, al Qaeda likely values the sanctuary it finds in Yemen's remote areas and the access it enjoys to elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. Threatening the Yemeni government would risk these advantages.

From Saleh's perspective, he has likely learned from Pakistan how rewarding al Qaeda's presence -- largely benign to him -- can be. The impending deluge of U.S. aid, with Brown's conference to add to the bounty, illustrates the perverse incentives offered to leaders like Saleh.

Does this mean that the United States should not assist Saleh and his government? At this point it has little choice; it can only access al Qaeda by partnering with Saleh, Yemen's ministries, and its security forces. A decade after the bombing of USS Cole in the Aden harbor, the al Qaeda problem in Yemen seems as bad as ever. Over the past 10 years, the United States has provided funding and training to Yemen's security forces, a program frustrated by corruption and perceived Yemeni indifference to al Qaeda. This matches the frustrations the U.S. suffers with its security assistance program in Pakistan. Neither should be a surprise given the current incentives.

The solution is for the U.S. government to develop alternate paths to al Qaeda that bypass those local institutions that lack an incentive to confront al Qaeda. It seems as if the CIA officers recently killed at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan were attempting to create such an alternate path. Although that operation suffered a disastrous setback, such efforts are one of the few ways the U.S. can keep its reluctant partners honest.

Maj. Gen. Flynn wants social scientists, not military intelligence officers

Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, has ordered a major overhaul of the intelligence analysis effort in that country. Flynn took the highly unorthodox step of publishing his reorganization order, embedded in a report, through the website of the Center for a New American Security.

Flynn has ordered the military intelligence structure in Afghanistan to redirect its focus away from enemy insurgent groups and instead focus on "fundamental questions about the envi­ronment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade." Flynn's justification for this overhaul in the analysis effort is the population-focused counterinsurgency mission now assigned to coalition forces. According to Flynn:

What we conclude is there must be a concurrent effort under the ISAF com­mander's strategy to acquire and provide knowledge about the population, the economy, the government, and other aspects of the dynamic environment we are trying to shape, secure, and successfully leave behind. Until now, intelligence efforts in this area have been token and ineffectual, particularly at the regional command level.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy has tasked Army and Marine Corps infantry battalions with being not only warfighters, but also civil administrators, municipal engineers, and local politicians. Given this mission, Flynn has concluded that such an expanded list of tasks needs an expanded array of intelligence products to match. Perhaps just as critical to Flynn (and also mentioned in his report) was the apparent embarrassment he and his staff suffered when they were unable to provide the White House staff with more than the most rudimentary information on key Afghan districts.

Flynn's analysts will now focus on local demography, economics, sociology, and politics instead of just the enemy's structure and battlefield positions, the traditional focus of tactical military intelligence. Flynn's analysts will do this by attempting to become multidisciplinary experts on a specific piece of territory.

Such an overhaul seems both an intellectual stretch and an organizational gamble. The general is asking his military intelligence personnel to perform the research normally done by graduate-level anthropologists, economists, and other professionals in the social sciences. Flynn's order for analysts to study all the disciplines within a geographic area rather than specialize on a particular function only magnifies this problem. To produce valid research, professional social scientists spend years learning the local culture and collecting and analyzing data. The work product of Flynn's redirected analysts is likely to vary widely in quality and usefulness.

Second, Flynn has called for military leaders in Afghanistan to select "the best, most extroverted and hungriest analysts" to serve in the new analysis positions he is creating. Combat commanders will still face a determined and clever enemy and are not likely to part with those intelligence officers who they believe can provide the battlefield intelligence that will keep their troops alive.

Flynn's overhaul is an understandable response to both the counterinsurgency mandate and to his command's admittedly poor support to the White House during the Afghan policy review. But it remains to be seen whether his new structure will produce useful intelligence for troops in the field or gain the cooperation of commanders.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images