Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Tony Shaffer Talks Leaks, COIN, and Modern War

The DIA operative the Pentagon tried to silence speaks out on cyberwar, counterinsurgency, and a defense audit
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Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a former officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, helped create Task Force Stratus Ivy, an inter-agency initiative that included support for the controversial counterterrorism project known as Able Danger—a pre-9/11 operation designed to detect and counter al-Qaeda. He is best known for the Department of Defense censoring his book Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan and the Path to Victory.

TAC: Can you draw a fine line for us between leaks and whistleblowing?

TS: A simple term draws the line between leaking and whistleblowing, and that word is “intent.”

Leaks from the White House regarding the identity of SEAL Team Six as the unit that conducted the [bin Laden] raid; the leaked info on Pakistani, Doctor Afridi, who helped us confirm the location of Bin Laden; the leak of information on the British spy net in Yemen that detected and prevented another round of underwear bombings; and the leak to the New York Times of critical information regarding the drone program and the Stuxnet virus were all for political purposes—done to help establish the perception that this White House is strong on national security. These leaks are illegal.

Specific details—down to the floor plan of the bin Laden house—were leaked [to the producers of “Zero Dark Thirty”] for political purposes. The intent here was to achieve political gain, not protect the American people.

People like Thomas Drake are whistleblowers. There was clear intent on his part to draw attention to huge government waste and fraud by the National Security Agency and its leadership, to purchase new and unneeded technology that was redundant and far more expensive that the technology and techniques that already existed within the agency. The intent here was to do public good—to identify and stop illegal and wasteful activity.

The grand irony is that, of course, Mr. Drake was fired from NSA for his intent to do good. Those who did the big leaks—who, I am told, are members of the current White House National Security Counsel—continue to serve and leak information to the media with impunity.

TACYou’ve been a strong critic of the counterinsurgency doctrine employed in Afghanistan. How do you recommend the administration deal with designated terrorist groups in general and in Afghanistan/Pakistan in particular?

TS: Operation Dark Heart, my book about Afghanistan in 2003-2004 covers the tipping point when we left our successful anti-terrorism strategy and adopted the current, failing, counterinsurgency [COIN] strategy. COIN is a relic of the British Empire designed to maintain colonial control over a foreign land and people. It did not work for the British here in the U.S., and it has not worked anywhere else for any amount of time.

President Obama sowed the seeds of failure in his COIN policy for Afghanistan when he announced the “surge” in 2009. His fatal mistake was to tell the Taliban that there was a limit to our commitment—the surge would only last for so long, and we’d be leaving in 2014. This was insane. It told the Taliban all you had to do is wait us out, and frightened our friends as it once more indicated to them that our commitment was not durable.

The president, through his direct imprint on the Afghan policy and his becoming the “assassin in chief”—where he makes life-and-death calls personally from the White House regarding drone targets—has taken the Lyndon Baines Johnson micromanagement of war from the White House to a new level.

The president [should] do two things. First, listen to regional and military experts and internalize the root issues at the heart of the conflict. The Afghan people are not ungoverned—they are self-governed with no strong tradition of a central democracy. This is a tribal region, and you are not going to change the momentum of 2,000 years of culture with ten years of COIN.

Second, work more closely with our allies in the region. We won the Afghan conflict in 42 days in 2001-2002. How? Using Afghan militia forces—the tribes and warlords—and working with the Pakistanis and other allies in a cohesive way. There have been problems with the Pakistanis over the past ten years because we have asked them to do things that they feel are against their own self-interest. This has to stop—all countries will act in their own self-interest, and we’ve had a stream of leaders in DoD, CIA, and the White House who are naive to this fact. Part of the problem is that both sides have lied to the other thinking the other would not notice. The Pakistanis have sacrificed greatly in this war, and they remain the key to the region and can and should play a huge role in helping bring stability.

TAC: You’re a proponent of a strong national defense and as part of that, you are quite critical of how money is spent or misspent.  What are your thoughts on a Pentagon audit?

TS: National defense does not have to be expensive to be effective.

We have the most layered, inefficient, ineffective bureaucracies money can buy in DoD and the intel community. We could cut intelligence personnel by half and make it twice as effective. The same with DoD—we now have more general officers on active duty today than we did during World War II. The concept that if we spend more, we will be safer is not only wrong, it is making us less safe as we are less agile and able to identify and adjust to threats as they present themselves.

Audit the Pentagon? Absolutely—a no brainer. Just do it. There are three areas we need to address.

First, cyber. Our adversaries have gone into cyberspace and developed capabilities we still do not fully understand or can defend against. General Keith Alexander was and is the wrong man for the job—Cyber Command should be led by a visionary like Curtis LeMay not a functionary like Alexander.

Second, energy and mineral use. The next Cold War is coming, and it will be on energy and resources. This will come to a head within our lifetime and will pit a number of large nations against each other for resources. Traditional ties will be strained and possibly even destroyed as the geopolitical competition for limited resources becomes the focus.

Third, nuclear weapons. We need to upgrade our current aging deterrents capability. Deterrents are only effective if they are credible. We now use technology that was developed at the same time we were building 1979 Ford Pintos. This type of technology that now sits in our silos, bombers, and nuclear submarines. I am not saying we have to expand our arsenal of nuclear weapons—what I am saying is that what we have must be reliable and modern.

Michael D. Ostrolenk is a consultant who provides strategic and integrated analysis on issues related to national security, privacy and health.



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