National Intelligence Bulletin for 11 May 2018

The National Intelligence Bulletin is a weekly look at national security, domestic systems disruption, the risk of failing critical infrastructure, and threats to social, political, economic, and financial stability in the United States. This report is available each week for National Intelligence subscribers.


In this National Intelligence Bulletin… (3,445 words)

  • InFocus: The government’s expanding credibility gap
  • The U.S. really isn’t ready for a cyberattack
  • Drought in Southwest U.S. poses challenges to stability
  • Violent MS-13 gang now appealing to more girls 
  • Cyberattack knocks Tennessee county’s election website offline during voting 
  • The FBI may have placed an informant in the Trump campaign
  • DHS issues latest terrorist threat bulletin
  • Drug cartels using American gangs for distribution are becoming major national security issue 
  • U.S. emergency planners have nuke response ready to go
  • And more…

InFocus: One trend we saw during the last round of special elections is that the Democrats are running moderate candidates in red districts to compete with the more moderate voters there who chose Trump in 2016. They hope to peel away independents who might see the GOP’s America First and pro-Trump candidates as being too closely tied with Trump, who we often hear is incredibly unpopular.

There’s been a plethora of books recently published that lament the decline of democracy, or how to resist the Age of Trump and the rise of right wing populism. Trumpsim is dangerous, the argument goes, because of its tendency towards fascism. Keep in mind that the authors of one of the more popular books, How Democracies Die, don’t actually believe that Trump is a fascist or that America will become a fascist state under Trump. (Even unofficial Antifa spokesperson Mark Bray admits that Trump is not actually a fascist.) But in the book, we’re told, liberal democracy is in decline, which is really just a way of saying that Americans are rejecting overly liberal policies on taxes, government spending and regulation, immigration, and the Leftist indoctrination machine. Just this week, Hillary Clinton lamented that her chances of being president were hurt among the Democrat Party because she was a capitalist.

One of the more interesting trends I’m observing on the Left is the desire to abandon a competitive moderate strategy, and just go full-fledged socialist. That may actually be the future of the Democratic Party. And before I’m admonished for not admitting this is the current state of the Democratic Party, I should note that socialists in America — who call themselves socialists and not democrats — criticize even the Democrat politicians for favoring private solutions to public problems. And so when I say that socialism is the future of the Democratic Party, I mean that their candidates in the future are more likely to represent Bernie-esque, Leftist populist policies more so than the strictly capitalist but socially liberal candidates before Barack Obama.

One of the editors – Ian Millhiser – over at Think Progress, which is a far Left progressive media outlet, says that the decline of democracy is the result of a lack of alternatives. The reason why Democrats haven’t delivered ambitious policies is because democracy is too far in decline, and so it needs a democratic jolt, he says. His solution is to get ambitiously progressive.

I read an article this week that Millhiser mentioned with regard to him ambitious progressive agenda. The writer states [source: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/normcore-trump-resistance-books-crisis-of-democracy]:

“For one, we need substantial redistribution, starting with marginal tax rates at the 70 percent levels that lasted until the Reagan-era cuts of the 1980s. For another, we need entirely new institutions of planning and social provision, such as universal family leave and child care to help make the economy more humane, family life less exhausting, and get closer to gender equity. We might also have to do much more to strengthen labor unions, to the point of considering radical measures such as mandatory unionization, which is often the only way to break management’s hold on labor in large firms. It could also mean a new dispensation of basic legal rights, such as granting residents, rather than only citizens, the right to vote.”

That the Left has a very progressive faction is, of course, no secret. But the faction focused on moving the Democratic Party further Left as they attack capitalism, campaigning against “white supremacy”, working to expanded voting for residents “rather than only citizens”, promoting Universal Basic Income and universal healthcare into the political mainstream, and pushing for amnesty stands a good chance of success. I don’t know that the Democratic Party will moderate themselves back into office; but I do know that 2018 progressives didn’t think Obama was ambitious enough. And as much as these progressives accuse Republicans of re-writing established rules, we should expect that progressives will want to re-write some rules once they’re back in power, too.


Priority Intelligence Requirements

PIR1: What are the new indicators of systems disruption and threats to critical infrastructure?

PIR2: What are the new indicators of potentially disruptive social, cultural or political conditions or events?

PIR3: How are state and federal agencies preparing for domestic conflict, emergencies, or other instability?

PIR4: What are the new indicators of systems disruption and threats to the economic or financial industry?


PIR1: What are the new indicators of systems disruption and threats to critical infrastructure?

The U.S. really isn’t ready for a cyberattack

In recent years the U.S. and the West have responded to an uptick in cyber attacks with better defenses, but there is no ‘master plan’ and efforts are uncoordinated for the most part. That means there are still far too many cracks in the cyber wall, so to speak, of many critical systems that we rely on for our very existence these days. One analysis this week identified three basic principles that ought to be detailed in a National Cyber Response Framework. One: Government responsibility, as in, who answers to whom, what is the chain of cyber command, which agency should take the lead in responding to various attack scenarios, etc. Two: Private-sector responsibility, as in, tech companies and corporate America must be forced, if necessary, into helping protect the country that protects them. Three: Personal responsibility, as in, there must be more citizen input because we are all connected, via the Internet, social media, and various other technologies, and we would all suffer in an attack. Bottom line: Right now there is no blueprint, no single plan, from which to operate in a coordinated effort to defend the country. [source] Analyst comment: In March the Department of Homeland Security issued a rare public alert regarding a large-scale cyber campaign aimed at U.S. infrastructure. In the following month, it became increasingly clear that several sectors of critical infrastructure were facing severe threats and likely were not prepared. In May, yet another cybersecurity crack was discovered — in critical remote code execution software used by manufacturing, oil and gas, water, automation, and wind and solar sectors. If exploited, bad cyber actors could gain complete control of the underlying system, cybersecurity experts have said. So this threat is not only real, it is getting worse.  

 

Lake Mead, the country’s biggest water reservoir, is dangerously low

One in eight Americans, or about 40 million people, are sustained daily by water from the Colorado River, a vital tributary that supplies Lake Mead, the main water source for the American West. But for generations, as the population swelled in the West and Southwest, too much water has been taken from the river and from the lake. What’s more, snowpacks for the past several years have been lower than desired. Now, as supply dwindles, fights over water rights have begun among areas that utilize water from the Colorado River below Lake Mead, including the metropolises of Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. The reservoir is quite literally the lifeline for everyone living in and around these cities. Upper basin users include residents in the cities of Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, and others. They, too, are beginning to get nervous with the low snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. In recent weeks upper basin states sent a strongly-worded letter to one of the Colorado River’s biggest users, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which supplies water to Tucson and Phoenix, accusing the utility of manipulating the complex system that manages Lake Mead so it could extract more water. One upper-basin city, Pueblo, Colo., has pulled out of a regional conservation program altogether, and Denver is threatening to do the same. [source] Analyst comment: The Southwest is running out of water, period. Officials in Arizona, which is the last in line to receive water from the Colorado, are already preparing restrictions on water use that could be implemented in less than two years. As water supplies continue to recede, experts say there’s a 99-percent chance a generational drought is coming — there will be major demographic shifts within the country. A drought-stricken West and Southwest cannot support all of the people who live there, so they’ll have to relocate. That will have major political implications as well. 

SC: The latest California Drought Tracker shows that 65 percent of the state is under drought conditions, and 14 percent of the state already experiences severe, extreme, or exceptional drought as they enter into the state’s dry months. Most of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico received 25 percent or less of normal precipitation last month. Drought conditions in the Southwest also heighten the risk and likelihood of wildfires, and the National Interagency Fire Center is already warning of another rough season.


PIR2: What are the new indicators of potentially disruptive social, cultural or political conditions or events?

Violent MS-13 gang now appealing to more girls

Investigators in the U.S. are noticing a growing, disturbing trend: More young girls are becoming enmeshed in the violent criminal gang MS-13, though just a few years ago female killers were unheard of. As authorities witness a nationwide surge in MS-13 killings nationwide, they are seeing more of them committed by girls as the gang factions in the U.S. become more “Americanized.” MS-13 cliques in El Salvador still don’t allow female members in their ranks, but Michael Prado, the assistant special agent in charge of the Washington, D.C., office of Homeland Security Investigations — a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — said that American chapters are “somewhat progressive” in nature. “The [cliques] here are a little bit more, for lack of a better term, Americanized.” He added: “There are female MS-13 members engaged in some extremely heinous and violent activity. [source]

Cyberattack knocks Tennessee county’s election website offline during voting

In what is hopefully no prelude to the November elections, a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack knocked some servers offline this week in Knox County, Tenn., during a local election, sending officials scrambling. Currently, officials are working with an outside cybersecurity contractor to investigate the origins of the attack. The attack took the Knox County Election Commission website that was tallying the county mayoral primary offline, so officials resulted to distributing printed results. “Tonight, Our web servers suffered a successful denial of service attack,” Knox County wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night. “Election results were not affected, as our election machines are never connected to the Internet.” Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett reassured voters that the attack did not compromise the vote. “Although the crash did not affect the vote tallies or the integrity of the election, this is not something that should happen,” Burchett said in a statement. “I want to know what happened, and I think an independent review will help to determine that so we can move forward and work to prevent similar issues in the future.” Burchett reassured residents that the voting system itself is never connected to the Internet so actual balloting can’t be affected. [source] Analyst comment: We’ll take county officials at their word that no vote tallies were affected, but these are precisely the kinds of attacks that have U.S. officials on edge about the November elections. It seems likely that unfavorable results could be blamed on ‘electronic tampering,’ as has been alleged — without any proof — about the 2016 elections. In one very big respect, Russian attempts to disrupt our democracy have been very successful without Moscow ever having to change a vote; the propaganda and Beltway drama alone are making Americans doubt the integrity of their own systems, and the officials responsible for overseeing them. Not good.

The FBI may have placed an informant in the Trump campaign

We already knew that the Justice Department and FBI under President Obama launched a counterintelligence investigation into members of the 2016 Trump campaign which was, according to reports over the past year, premised on dubious information at best. As bad and unprecedented as it was to put a rival presidential campaign under surveillance, now comes new information suggesting that the FBI may have actually placed an informant inside the campaign as well. Reporting this week further suggests that members of Congress suspect that’s what happened and are now trying to get information that would help them identify that person. One of them is House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif. Another is the retiring chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. The Justice Department has been stonewalling Nunes’ requests for information, but by week’s end — perhaps on instruction from the president — both lawmakers met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to receive a private, classified briefing on the matter. The Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., was also invited. [source] Analyst comment: Anyway you look at this, and from either political perspective — Republican, Democrat, Independent — this is not good. The Wall Street Journal is reporting flat-out that there was a mole inside the Trump campaign, which is not simply unprecedented but extremely dangerous. That’s third-world stuff, and it’s not conducive to the maintenance of a civil society. One thing to remember is that none of this would have happened were it not for the approval of President Obama, who, by the way, runs the Executive Branch’s agencies including the Justice Department and who also received intelligence briefings each day about current and upcoming counterintelligence operations. That’s not partisan, that’s just true.

SC: One of my major takeaways from the book How Democracies Die is that established norms matter as a guardrail against abnormal behavior and activities. As much as the book attacked Trump over his lack of civility, it was noticeably light on how Obama violated established norms. With as much information being pried out by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the activities leading up to the election, perhaps the authors need to write a revised and expanded edition detailing the likely illegal activities targeting the Trump campaign. The FBI and, to a broader extent, the Department of Justice really have a decision to make about salvaging any semblance of impartiality. Back during the worst of the rogue years of the Central Intelligence Agency, efforts like the Church Committee identified abuses and reined in the Agency. Some members of the GOP have asked for a second special counsel to investigate the investigators because, regardless of the findings and prosecutions of the Mueller team, the highest levels of the FBI have an expanding credibility gap. According to an NPR/Marist poll last month, 32 percent of Americans view Mueller favorably and 30 percent unfavorably. [source] A CBS poll this week shows that 53 percent of Americans view the Mueller probe as politically-motivated, and more Americans see it as unjustified than justified. [source] Americans are conditioned to believe in government, to trust government, to trust civil servants, and to sit back and allow elected representatives to govern. After all, public cooperation is actually what makes government. One of our indicators of a society in decline and possible collapse is a loss of trust in public institutions, and that’s a battle being lost right now. The authors of How Democracies Die prescribed a solution for the Democratic Party once they get back into power: play by the rules, strengthen the rules, and return to established norms. That may even be a large part of their 2020 campaign platform, but there’s not a snowball’s chance of that actually happening. If or when the Democrats ever win back all three branches of government, we can expect amnesty, and then the Democrats can rewrite or erase whatever rules they please without fear of losing re-election.

Drug cartels using American gangs for distribution is a major national security issue

As the Mexican-based drug cartels increasingly compete for a larger share of the demand for their illicit products in the United States, the level of violence is increasing. But that violence is also beginning to spill over into the U.S. as gangs that serve as distribution hubs in American cities also vie for customers. According to the Justice Department, there are more than 1,000 Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) operating in American cities at present. Law enforcement — local and federal — note that these gangs are growing in size and influence. About one-third of all local law enforcement jurisdictions report an increase in violence against police by cartel-linked gangs. And more than 50 percent of jurisdictions report that gang membership and gang-related crime have both increased just since last year. [source] Analyst comment: The big problem, of course, is demand; as long as demand for these drugs remains constant (and high), the cartels and the gangs they align with will continue to grow. Drug poisoning has become the leading cause of injury death in the U.S., so that gives you an idea of just how massive the problem has become. Peter Zeihan, an expert in geopolitical risks, says this has become the single greatest geopolitical threat to our way of life — more than Iran, North Korea, China or Russia. No one is saying that demand can be completely eradicated; but if it is substantially reduced, then so, too, will be the presence and influence (and violent behavior) of the cartels and gangs. 


PIR3: How are state and federal agencies preparing for domestic conflict, emergencies, or other instability?

DHS issues latest terrorist threat bulletin

The Department of Homeland Security issued its latest National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin this week which states that the country continues to face threats from homegrown terrorists and violent foreign extremists — much like the November 2017 bulletin states. The current bulletin warns of terrorist groups recruiting individuals “to adopt easy-to-use tools to target public places and events” as well as foreign fighters fleeing from the battlefield to attack elsewhere. The ‘easy-to-use- tools’ in the U.S. include firearms, of course, but also involve the use of heavy vehicles in crowded spaces, much as we’ve seen abroad. The bulletin also noted that the more successful the U.S. military is overseas in destroying terrorist networks, the more likely it is that lone-wolf attacks will be launched domestically. “Continued US and partner successes in disrupting and defeating terrorists on the battlefield may encourage homegrown terrorists to carry out acts of violence in the homeland instead of attempting to travel overseas to fight or in retaliation for apparent losses,” the bulletin warned. DHS added in a statement accompanying the bulletin, “Terrorist groups continue to inspire, enable, and direct their followers to spread chaos using homemade weapons and by striking soft targets and crowded places.” [source]

U.S. emergency planners have nuke response ready to go

The U.S. government has a response plan in place should there be a nuclear detonation anywhere in the country, via terrorism or the launch of a nuclear missile from a rogue state. Planners have already identified Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles as the most likely targets, but the plan would unfold no matter where the attack occurred. The U.S. military would be deployed immediately to the city to conduct search-and-rescue operations but also, most likely, for security. At least 3,000 square miles would be quarantined and there would be mass evacuations. The government is also expecting a major economic recession both in the U.S. and globally. The plan — “National Response Scenario Number One” — is designed specifically to counter a nuclear attack of at least 10,000 tons of TNT. Planners envision the most likely scenario would be for a terrorist to drive a nuclear device to the center of a city and detonate it, though planners have also reportedly planned for a detonation at a port facility. A detonation in the center of any of the large cities mentioned would immediately kill tens of thousands, with that many or more dying later of intense radiation exposure. The explosion would also generate an electromagnetic pulse that would hamper electronics and communications for hundreds of miles. The cost of such an attack would be in the “billions of dollars,” the plan notes. [source] Analyst comment: It’s good that the government is making plans, but honestly, if this were to occur there would be pandemonium for at least the first several hours. Then again, it’s likely that planners are expecting that as well. 


PIR4: What are the new indicators of systems disruption and threats to the economic or financial industry?

U.S. borrows record amount in the first quarter on new fears of insolvency

Despite otherwise rosy economic news — unemployment rate has fallen to 3.9 percent, housing starts and values are both up, and there are record employment and job growth in key sectors — below the surface the U.S. economic position is tenuous. The U.S. government borrowed an astounding $488 billion in a single quarter — the first quarter — which was the most amount of money since the Great Recession. For context, the single-biggest quarterly amount of debt incurred by the government since the U.S. Treasury borrowed $569 billion in Q4 in 2008, a point when the financial system nearly collapsed. What’s different this time, however, is that the country is not in financial crisis; there is no recession. Indeed, GDP during the first quarter rose by 2.3 percent. At this rate, the Trump administration will have racked up some $1.2 trillion in debt this year alone. [source] Analyst comment: The real concern is that if Uncle Sam has to borrow this kind of money in good times, how high will it be when the economy slows again, as it inevitably does? 

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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