Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Aspen Security Forum Part I


However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results. –Winston Churchill

One of the highlights of my summer is the opportunity to attend the Aspen Security Forum an event that brings in senior government, military, academic, industry, and media members to discuss key security issues.

This year’s event did not disappoint and featured speakers included the heads of Homeland Security, CIA, the Director of National Intelligence, President Obama’s senior advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism as well as the military commanders of U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command. The event gives me the opportunity to hear directly from the people developing and executing our security strategy how well it is doing.

What makes this event different from many conferences is that most speakers attend the whole three and half day event and interact with attendees providing ample opportunity to have further in depth side bar discussions of issues. The event covered a wide range of topics to include cyber, terrorism, geopolitics, and intelligence. Well known media members moderated the sessions and as expected the DNC hack was the hottest topic.

The approach I’ve chosen to take is to write a series of blogs. This first article will provide an in depth look at some of the presentations that most jumped out at me.

I’ll start with a discussion by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence (DNI). He spoke on July 28th in a session moderated by Jim Sciutto of CNN. The DNI’s remarks covered three main areas: the DNC hack, Russia, and terrorism.

Looking first at the hacker incident, all of the senior government speakers were asked about it and all responded that they could not discuss it in any detail because of ongoing investigations. When Sciutto asked Clapper about it, he did indicate he could not talk about it in any detail and stated he wasn’t ready to make a public call on attribution.

Sciutto kept digging and asked: “And is that because you haven’t made a decision to publicly name and shame or because there’s still some uncertainty?” Clapper replied it was a little of both. The DNI went on to say he was “taken aback” by the amount of attention this was receiving.

“I think we are going to be in a state of suppression of extremism and whatever manifestation, whatever form it takes, whether it’s al-Qaeda or ISIS or some other group that’s spawned. This is going to be a long-haul proposition and I think the same is true in the whole realm of cyber security. We are, have been in I think some what a reactionary mode here and I think there is obviously, because of all these developments, a growing awareness, I think both on a personal level and on institutional level that this is a profound challenge for the country and I think we just need to accept that and not be quite so excitable when you have yet another instance of it.”

Speaking not about the DNC hack but about the generic situation, Clapper stated it was the motivation behind this type of incident that was the key. “Was this just to stir up trouble or was this ultimately to try to influence an election and of course that’s a serious proposition.”

Continuing on about the DNC hack, Clapper said we still did not know enough to determine motivation. Scuitto asked the DNI if he thought the Russians had the intention of if not influencing the election “but of undermining confidence in the U.S. political process?” Clapper says looking at the situation from the Russian point of view he believes they see a U.S. conspiracy behind every bush.

“…I think that their approach is they believe that we are trying to influence political developments in Russia, we are trying to effect change and so their natural response is to retaliate and do onto us as they think we’ve done onto them and so I think that’s again not surprising that they would behave that way.”

He went on to say that the cyber “realm opened up a whole new range of possibilities for them”. Clapper also said this was not “philosophically different” from what went on at the height of the Cold War. From my perspective as a former intelligence officer I’m reminded of how good the former Soviet Union was at maskirovka or military deception. They were so good at hiding their intentions you had to keep in mind if they allowed us to see a developing situation you had to keep in the back of your mind the question of “why? And what was really going on?”

For example, the Soviets knew we made a mighty effort to keep track of the various numbers of aircraft, ships, submarines and other military equipment in their inventory. There were many incidents of them placing dummy versions of platforms at various military installations. My favorite was an incident involving a picture of a Soviet submarine one of the analysts working for me showed me one day. The bow of the sub was tilted sharply to the right. Someone in the Soviet military was not doing a particularly good job that day. I was not a particularly good photo analyst but even I knew there was something wrong with that picture. Turns out it wasn’t a real submarine but a big balloon that was obviously losing air. I should also point out that deception and influence operations are something many governments; including the U.S. have a history of conducting.

Cyber is a new tool in the Russian maskirovka tool box, but what should be most remembered is that cyber tools give them the capability to manipulate data. From the military perspective, you never want to get into a situation where you cannot trust the information being provided to you over your networks whether its logistics, maintenance, intelligence information, or emails back home to family members. Reputable nongovernment cyber experts have looked at the DNC hack and concluded the Russians were behind it. Therefore, I would suggest looking at future releases of email from the DNC hack with a jaundiced eye. There is no way of knowing for sure if someone has or has not manipulated the information in those emails. Scary proposition.

Concerning Russia Mr. Sciutto asked: “Do you think from Putin’s perspective, he is fighting a low level undeclared asymmetric war with the U.S.?” The DNI said that was a fair description and that “the Russians have, are now and will continue to employ methods and approaches and techniques below direct military confrontation to fulfill that vision of being a great power on a co-equal basis with us.”

Concerning terrorism, here are some of the key comments Clapper made in response to Sciutto’s question, “ should all of us be bracing ourselves for a new wave of terror in the West particularly as ISIS has squeezed on the battlefield?”

“Well, I would not be quite so dramatic about it. I think that the phenomenon we’ve seen will continue. Certainly ISIL (also referred to as ISIS) aspires to stirring, inciting people on so-called “lone wolf” basis to do what they can with the resources they have available, whether it’s, you know, getting a truck and move down a bunch of people, get a weapon or get a rifle and shoot people.”

“…the notion that they would orchestrate an attack of the magnitude of 9/11, I don’t think that’s in the cards. Too many signatures that would give it away, but these smaller attacks which have way more psychological impact, disproportionate psychological impact…they do have a contagious effect, that helps incite others to do the same thing.”

“So, the problem that poses for us in intelligence since we have to draw the bouts between doing what we can to keep the nation safe and secure on one hand and protection of privacy and civil liberties on the other and typically when something happens, we are critique because we weren’t invasive enough and on other occasions we are
accused of being too invasive. And so that is the challenge for the intelligence apparatus is under our laws bringing to bear the maximum that we can for those signatures, those behaviors that are detectable by the tools that we been given by the people of this country through the Congress and exercise those to the maximum extent possible. But
that doesn’t mean that we are going to be perfect every time and I think that’s a new normal, it’s a fact that it is just very difficult unless we want to impose a lot more draconian measures to prevent every one of these.”

I’ll conclude with a question I asked. I wanted to know if he had made progress, particularly for the military side of the intelligence community, in allowing professionals to take time off to pursue advanced degrees so they could obtain areas of specialties. I reminded him that one of the major criticisms of military intelligence officers was a lack of proficiency in the social, economic, and political issues in various geographic regions.

Clapper replied that they have and cited the Foreign Area Officer program “that allows officers to continue their advanced education, spend a year in the country or area of their intended expertise and then have an assignment pattern that capitalizes on that investment.” He stated they have provided a greater emphasis on education throughout the intelligence community. “Within the intelligence community, we have what’s called the National Intelligence University which is as a degree granting institution in which our IC employees, both military and civilian, can obtain an advanced degree and do their studies in a classified environment”.

As always my views are my own. Next up, what the head of the Department of Homeland Security had to say.



Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on