The National Intelligence Bulletin is a weekly look at national security, domestic systems disruption, and threats to social, political, economic, and financial stability in the United States. This report is available each week for Intelligence subscribers.
In this National Intelligence Bulletin…
- InFocus: Logical conclusions drawn from current trends
- Sen. Lee warns of “federalism or violence” (P1, C3)
- Culture war is being waged by social media officials (C3, M1)
- Census battle rages on (C3)
- Trump threatens to release classified information on Democrats (P1)
- White House to hold roundtable with tech executives (P2, I1)
- Hackers continue to probe U.S. power grid (I1)
- White House launches cyber “reskilling” program
- Financial elites warn of future unrest (E2, E4, E5)
- Economic/Financial Watch commentary
- And more…
InFocus: This week, the National Intelligence Bulletin launches the beta version of our Early Warning system (above) for social, political, and economic/financial instability.
The index score, which is based on accumulated weighted indicators, is shown for each of the 16 sectors under the appropriate column: No/Negligible Threat, Emerging Threat, Persistent Threat, or Severe Threat. (Expect indicators and levels to change slightly over the rest of this year as we fine tune the system. Understand that these indicators are not cumulative from previous months or weeks. Once we build up a reporting history for each of these 16 sectors, these threat levels will become more cumulative and accurate.)
My goal is to use these indicators to identify trends and other insights into (1) structural fault lines, (2) accelerators, and (3) triggers of instability and violence in our country.
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My goal is to use these indicators to identify trends and other insights into (1) structural fault lines, (2) accelerators, and (3) triggers of instability and violence in our country.
Since early 2016, I’ve been following the trends of what I believe is an actual conflict in development. We can’t exactly call it a cold war because it does feature routine but low-level violence. It’s really a civil conflict. But this isn’t the first time elements of American society have engaged in a civil conflict. The mid-1960s and early 1970s had similar types of political violence and civil unrest. The structural fault lines of this period were racial and economic. The accelerators centered around competing movements fighting over institutional discrimination and segregation. The most prominent trigger occurred in 1968, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which spurred weeks of race riots across the country. The end result: 43 Americans were killed; 3,500 were injured; and 27,000 were arrested. Damage caused by fires and riots was estimated to have been in the millions of dollars (in those days’ costs). That wasn’t the end of social turmoil or conflict, but I use this as an example of what could happen again.
Today’s structural fault lines continue to be primarily racial and economic, stoked by accelerators that include undeniable media propaganda, a toxic political climate that clearly defines belligerents, and what’s probably going to be deteriorating economic conditions. A trigger could be a high profile case of violence, such as a murder, assassination, or some other heinous crime; a political event that threatens some aspect of state legitimacy (i.e., impeachment); or a disruption of critical infrastructure that tips otherwise civil society into turmoil. All these are distinct possibilities, but this isn’t to say that we’ll experience one trigger like April 1968. And triggers can be impossible to predict with any certainty. One month prior to the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi — the man who literally sparked the Arab Spring — there was another case of self-immolation in Tunisia that didn’t trigger the Arab Spring. It’s widely recognized that the Central Intelligence Agency failed to warn of imminent unrest after both of those potential triggers. Regardless of when or if our trigger event will come, I continue to believe that we’re in what’s called “low intensity conflict”.
A “low intensity conflict” is a war in the gray area, below the threshold of conventional war but above routine, peaceful competition. The political warfare that’s plagued the country since its founding is routine, peaceful competition. But starting somewhere around the late Clinton or early Bush administration, we started accelerating another culture war due to the accomplishments of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and the rise of radical leftist movements. Those radical Leftist movements preceded right wing organizing during the Obama administration, with the creation of groups like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and the rebirth of the militia movement. In the past three years, however, we’ve seen a surge in extremist groups on both the Left and the Right, especially involving identity movements. And this isn’t Southern Poverty Law Center pablum. These groups are small, fringe, but dangerous.
Today, we see national socialist organizations like what’s left of the Traditionalist Workers Party and the Atomwaffen Division (legitimately neo-Nazi); literal fascist groups like Vanguard America and Patriot Front (white identitarian/authoritarian); revolutionary communist groups like Red Guards; and radical anarchist groups like the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and antifascist chapters; all of which are organizing in low level, yet often violent, opposition to their ideological enemies. Each of these groups has members who have shown a willingness to commit violence in the name of their ideology. Many of these groups openly espouse violence as a part of their platform.
When we talk about a civil war or a domestic conflict in America, what we’re really discussing is a very small fraction of society. We can look at small wars and insurgencies throughout history — especially sectarian and ethnic conflicts that don’t involve conventional forces — and see that anywhere from one to five percent of the population at war is the norm. Beyond that, there’s 10-25 percent who favor either one side or the other, and the majority of people really are just trying to live their lives and ensure good futures for their children.
I’ve long written that we’re in a high grade culture war, but outside of political and cultural warfare, we’re definitely seeing the development of economic warfare. This is economic dislocation, especially by the Left, through online publishing of personal information (“doxxing”), coordinated campaigns to have members of extremist groups fired from their jobs, and campaigns to have individuals and organizations de-platformed from social media and other online services (like PayPal, Patreon, and crowdfunding websites).
That will continue to be the case, however, now that economists and financial analysts are starting to talk about a recession, we should seriously consider how these groups will respond to worsening economic conditions in the next few years. High youth unemployment is a universal early warning indicator of social unrest; it’s what accelerated the Arab Spring. The youth (generally referring to ages 15-30) also happen to be the most susceptible to Far Right or Far Left ideologies. Any society with high numbers of unemployed youths who feel economic and financial despair, and who can rationalize an enemy responsible for their lack of success, runs the risk of internal conflict.
Look at most of the extremist groups today and you’ll find that they’re predominantly white and predominately below 40 on both sides, although they have older ideological forebears. (There are Black and Hispanic extremist groups, too, although they don’t have quite the national distribution that other groups have. We won’t be excluding them from our work, but they tend to be more geographically disparate.) Through Alt-Observer, we’re going to start looking at these groups more closely and completing deep dive products in an effort to better understand how they might react. Along with Monday’s Alt-Observer Weekly, we should have our first product on Kansas City Red Guards, a vanguard revolutionary communist group. Each week, we’ll be profiling a new alternative-political group that has been engaged in or espouses violence, in addition to reorganizing our reporting by state and region, so subscribers can better find and understand groups more local to them.
I’m still compiling my thoughts on how the next couple years could pan out, but most recently I’ve been thinking about the effects of a “lost decade” scenario marked by high unemployment, high inflation, and stagnant economic growth that leaves many young people with few economic options. With a lack of economic opportunity, both right wing and left wing extremism could become more appealing, as has been experienced with Islamic extremism in the Middle East. The growth of these movements could lead to greater organization, capabilities, and activities. With larger and more active groups, we would run the risk of reactionary behavior which could lead to routine violence.
This is one of several potential scenarios, but it appears that our conflict is likely to be accelerated by what happens during the next financial crisis and recession. We might have one to three years before that happens, according to several financial elites. I’ll have more information on that in PIR3. – S.C.
Priority Intelligence Requirements
PIR1: What are the new significant indicators of potentially disruptive social, cultural or political conditions or events?
PIR2: How are state and federal agencies preparing for domestic conflict, emergencies, or other instability?
PIR3: What are the new significant indicators of systems disruption and threats to the economic or financial industry?
PIR1: What are the new indicators of potentially disruptive social, cultural or political conditions or events?
- Ongoing political instability due to the Russia collusion investigation
- Simmering social grievances based on race, class, and political ideology
- Sporadic political violence
- Ongoing culture war featuring information operations has expanded into economic warfare
Sen. Lee warns of “federalism or violence” (P1, C3)
In a speech at the Federalist Society earlier this month, Constitutionalist Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) warned about an impending choice for Americans that spells the difference between functional government and domestic conflict. “You get the idea: according to any reasonable measuring stick, the dysfunctional status quo is unsustainable. It is driving our government toward insolvency and our politics toward violence. Realistically, Americans have two options… Ultimately, this will come down to a binary choice: Federalism, or violence.” [source] (Analyst Comment: Sen. Lee echoes what political commentators and other politicians have also warned. To be honest, whenever I see a group of people saying the same thing, I first consider the possibility of ‘group think’ and confirmation bias. People of a similar background and ideology who believe the same thing could have an incorrect belief reinforced by what they believe to be correct. But when both sides of the political aisle are arriving at the same conclusion, and we have historical examples showing that a combination of social, political, and economic effects currently driving instability often results in domestic conflict, we should seriously consider that the country may be headed towards a period of violence.)
Culture war is being waged by social media officials (C3, M1)
Hacker security guru who goes by the sobriquet “The Grugq” has what will become an infamous quote: “The Internet is like the Wild West. We thought we were the cowboys, but it turns out we’re the Indians.” That’s the realization of many conservatives after another round of bans on Twitter. Last week, investigative journalist Laura Loomer was permanently banned for criticizing Ilhan Omar, a Muslim woman recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Loomer recently chained herself to the door of Twitter headquarters and displayed a sign that compared the tweet that got her banned with a clearly anti-Semitic tweet from Louis Farrakhan, who still has an account. Shortly after, Loomer became the top trending topic on the platform from which she’d been banned. Meanwhile last weekend, the account of conservative radio talk show host and Marine veteran Jesse Kelly was permanently banned by Twitter (although Twitter later rescinded the ban). Kelly was given no reason for the ban, which was itself a violation of Twitter’s terms of service. Loomer, Kelly, and C.J. Pearson, an outspoken black conservative who’s account was also temporary and erroneously suspended this week, joined a long list of right wing influencers banned by Twitter.
Outside of a few antifascist accounts, I can’t recall a single left wing political commentator who’s been removed from any social media platform. Over the summer, actor Peter Fonda took to Twitter and suggested that President Trump’s 11 year old son be ‘ripped from his mother’s arms’ and put into a cage with pedophiles. He still has an account. (Analyst Comment: There’s speculation that Kelly was the target of a coordinated effort to amass a high volume of reports for ‘abusive behavior,’ which might have been seen as reason enough for the since-rescinded ban. That’s a plausible explanation, but it certainly seems that Twitter support didn’t follow their own terms while deciding on the ban. But there’s a lot more to this trend than just a handful of deleted accounts. Twitter has become a major platform for public discourse. Business executives, multinational brands, world leaders, politicians, reporters, journalists, and people from all walks of life are attracted to the platform because of the instant access to lots of curated information. By banning conservative voices, even just shadow banning those voices by reducing their reach, Twitter is actually putting their foot on the scale of political speech. Meanwhile, Loomer is doing her best to run the story up to the President, who’s already hinted at his desire to regulate social media and tech giants.)
Census battle rages on (C3)
Along with the judiciary, one of President Trump’s long-lasting achievements will be the effects of the 2020 Census, many Republicans hope. This Spring, the Commerce Department confirmed that it would be including a citizenship question to the census form, in order to accurately gauge how many non-citizens reside in the United States. Critics say that the question will discourage the form’s completion, which will have a major impact on federal funding for states, their House seats, and state electoral college votes — all of which are apportioned by population. A steep decline in census returns could mean that a state like California, which high numbers of illegal immigrants, might actually lose a representative and an electoral vote. If implemented according to the administration’s intent, the Commerce Department might affect the balance of power in the House. The citizenship question is tied up in six state lawsuits right now.
Trump threatens to release classified information on Democrats (P1)
This week, President Trump warned that he might be forced to release “devastating” information on Democrats if they “want to play tough”. In an interview with the New York Post, President Trump said, “I’m a counter-puncher and I will hit them so hard they’d never been hit like that… I think that [releasing information on Democrats] would help my campaign. If they want to play tough, I will do it. They will see how devastating those pages are.” [source] [Analyst Comment: Assuming this is true, a move to declassify documents would have several implications. First, intelligence is often classified due solely to sources and methods. Especially in cases of human intelligence reporting, declassifying and releasing intelligence reports could indicate the source, even if the context itself wouldn’t be classified. Second, as has been covered in previous months, it appears that American allies have taken part in the Trump-Russia counterintelligence investigation; namely Australia and the United Kingdom, whose intelligence services allegedly provided information that proved pivotal to opening the investigation. Breaking the trust of allies for political gain would be a major break of protocol, but so would be engaging in the politicization of intelligence to prevent an opposition presidential candidate from being elected. President Trump may consider a moot point the need to protect allies who were actively working against him, and release those reports, anyway. As he’s demonstrated, the President is willing to crack a few proverbial eggs so he can eat breakfast. And third, the move could introduce a new level of political instability; even threaten State Legitimacy (P1). I don’t mean that enforcing the law against prominent elected politicians would threaten state legitimacy, but that, if recent history is any indication, the American People can’t count on justice being served to the ruling class. As was on display again this week, there’s a record of former Director of National Security James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, former FBI Director James Comey, and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lying to Congress during public hearings. To date, none have been so much as investigated (beyond an inspector general’s report) for crimes for which Trump associates are now receiving federal sentences. (And I won’t even get into the failure to pursue Hillary Clinton’s alleged crimes.) Were President Trump to release those documents next year or in 2020, and violations of the law went unpunished or under punished, then we could see a further deterioration of the rule of law and state legitimacy, which could increase the risk of civil unrest or politically-related violence.]
PIR2: How are state and federal agencies preparing for domestic conflict, emergencies, or other instability?
- Large scale efforts to increase national cyber security
- Use of military to guard southern border
White House to hold roundtable with tech executives (P2, I1)
Executives from Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Qualcomm, and other tech companies are scheduled to participate in a roundtable at the White House next week. Topics will include technologies affecting national security, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and the 5G wireless communication network. President Trump is also expected to bring up political bias and censorship in U.S. tech firms.
Russian hackers continue to probe U.S. power grid (I1)
Cybersecurity firm FireEye reported at this week’s Cyberwar Conference that Russian actors continue to target U.S. critical infrastructure. “There’s still a concentrated Russian cyber espionage campaign targeting the bulk of the US electrical grid. The grid is still getting hit,” said one cyber analyst. At a Black Hat presentation I attended a couple years ago, one cybersecurity researcher concluded that the worst type of cyber attack would involve physical access to controls, in addition to cyber exploitation. [source] (Analyst Comment: For years, Forward Observer and other outlets have warned about Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean intrusions into U.S. corporations and critical infrastructure. Most of the intrusions are for the purposes of intelligence gathering, but that intelligence gathering could be used for offensive purposes. Continued intelligence gathering, probing for vulnerabilities, and attempts to gain access to industrial control systems are good indicators that Russia and other potential adversaries are considering strikes against U.S. critical infrastructure in a military conflict. National intelligence and security agencies are acutely aware of the risks and threats posed to our critical infrastructure on a daily basis. While the Trump administration has attempted to shore up and improve national cybersecurity policy, it should be noted that U.S. officials still warn of known and unknown vulnerabilities.)
White House launches cyber “reskilling” program
The White House announced a new program called the “Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy,” that will retrain current federal employees for new cybersecurity careers. Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent stated during a press call that the new program will “provide feds with non-technical backgrounds the hands-on training needed to qualify as cyber defense analysts,” and is intended to address the “critical shortage” of talent in cybersecurity. A senior administration official also stated that federal employees who complete the training will then be able to take new positions in the government, however, the new positions may not be within the same agency. The new program is reportedly the first government program that is specifically designed to retrain current federal employees for new careers in cybersecurity. [source] (Analyst Comment: Government officials have for years warned of the effects of a cybersecurity workforce shortage, especially at DHS. Due to a small pool of applicants, lower pay than in the private sector, poor career advancement, and reportedly poor morale, federal agencies have been slow to make progress on a fully-staffed workforce.)
PIR3: What are the new indicators of systems disruption and threats to the economic or financial industry?
- Trade war with China poses risk to U.S. farmers and manufacturers, emerging markets
- Unsustainable national debt to increase due to trillion dollar budget deficits in 2019+
- High potential for an economic recession around 2019-2020 that causes significant financial disruption
- Rising interest rates are moderating economic growth
Financial elites warn of future unrest (E2, E4, E5)
I wrote the following brief in an Early Warning report this week, but what reminded me of warnings from numerous financial elites was an article I read entitled, “Populism Comes to Wall Street”. The founder of financial technology startup YieldStreet warned about the long-term implications of high finance’s exclusion of average citizens from wealth building vehicles. He told Bloomberg: “If we don’t change fundamentally how we save, invest, and actually make money as a society, there will be anarchy in 20 or 30 years.” My first thought was that maybe he didn’t mean literal anarchy; maybe it was just a part of his corporate branding to create a sense of urgency for the clearly ‘social good’ aspect of his company. But I was also reminded of numerous other warnings just like that one.
A couple weeks ago, former White House strategist Steve Bannon gave a speech at the Oxford Union, in which he continued to outline the rationale for America’s right wing populist movement. Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker and self-described national populist, hammered the financial elite responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and pointed out that none of them had been indicted or punished for their involvement in the crash of the financial system. Speaking about the past decade of central bank policy of low interest rates and cheap loans, Bannon says of younger generations:
“You don’t own anything and you’re not going to own anything. Why do you think it’s so expensive [to live in large cities]? That is the flooding of the zone with liquidity. That’s what’s going to make your generation impoverished. Right now the statistics are brutal. You are twenty percent behind — people in their mid-twenties, late twenties — twenty percent behind their parents’ generation of where they are, and the gap’s only going to increase as far as wages go. And you don’t own any assets, you’re not going to own any assets — only what’s passed down, nothing that you earn yourself. You can’t save because [interest rates] are zero, you can’t own any assets, you can’t buy a house [because it’s so expensive]. Every study shows the number one problem with family formation in the United States and the West, in twenties and thirties, is economic anxiety… They’re two paychecks away from oblivion.” [source]
Fundamentally, Bannon is speaking about wealth inequality. It’s a loaded term, but it’s real and it’s driving — and will continue to drive — social instability the United States. The protests and movements for minimum wage hikes, universal healthcare, universal basic income, and other left wing economic issues are a symptom of growing inequality. And as conditions worsen, we should expect those movements to grow.
In 2014, billionaire investor Nick Hanauer gave a Ted Talk entitled, “Beware Fellow Plutocrats: The Pitchforks are Coming”, in which he warned that wealth inequality will drive social unrest.
“So what do I see in our future today?” Hanauer asks. “I see pitchforks. As in, angry mobs with pitchforks… The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today, and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist, rentier society like 18th century France. That was, you know, France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks… You show me a highly unequal society and I will show you a police state or an uprising. The pitchforks will come for us if we do not address this. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.” [source]
In January 2018, Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s most successful hedge fund, spoke to CNBC from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he warned:
“[W]hat I’m concerned about is what would the next downturn be like? I’m not worried about an immediate downturn. But I would say if we were to look two years forward, okay, probably right before the next presidential election, there is a good chance that you will have a downturn and if you have a downturn for that segment, I’m worried about how we will be with each other in that element of cohesiveness. I mean, basically the formula for having problems, social with political problems, is have a difference between, a lot of difference between rich and poor people…”
And there have been numerous articles written about billionaires in New York and California purchasing “bug out” properties and preparing for what they see as a high risk of social instability. All this is not to say that there’s an imminent threat, but there is absolutely a trend among at least some American financial elites who are clearly concerned about the future of the country. That’s worth noting.
One last addendum… Going back to that Bloomberg article about YieldStreet, one critic of ‘democratizing investments’ says of financial technology startups: “All of these [new companies and websites] have proliferated since the crisis [of 2008]—none of these have been tested through a full cycle.” [source] That implies the risk of wide-ranging failure for financial technology startups during the next financial crisis and recession.
Today is Cyber Monday and economists are hoping for a big day of spending to follow Black Friday’s success. According to Adobe Systems, Black Friday sales (including in-store and online) surged 26.4 percent from last year. Earlier this fall, analysts reported that the U.S. economy had the best quarter for retail sales in eight years. If overall holiday sales numbers under perform, however, then we should be looking for more ‘blood in the water’ type of talk on the U.S. economy. [26 Nov]
With House caucus leadership elections coming up on Wednesday and a “budget” deadline on 08 December, this is an important week not only politically but also fiscally. President Trump wants border wall funding tied to a spending bill, which will fund the government for another year but is far from a budget. Unless spending bills are passed, we’re looking at another partial government shutdown. In January of this year, President Trump threatened a shutdown unless Congress included border wall funding in the next spending bill. Neither happened. [26 Nov]
While most were interested this week’s announcement from General Motors for political reasons (more Trump drama), there’s a far greater underlying concern. GM announced they’d be closing down several factories in the United States due to lagging sales of specific vehicles manufactured in those plants. Some financial websites have pointed to this development as ‘cracks in the economy,’ but what’s most important hasn’t made the news. Since 2010, automobile loan debt has increased by 64 percent due primarily to low interest rates (and the Obama-era Cash for Clunkers program, which encouraged consumers to take on more debt through the purchase of new vehicles). Total outstanding auto debt is now over a trillion dollars, which has fueled the post-recession auto boom and possibly created another bubble in the U.S. economy. It may well be that General Motors isn’t just shuttering a few plants due to low sales, but preparing for a larger downturn in the auto industry. Even if the auto loan bubble doesn’t pop, higher interest rates will likely lead to lower sales. And that means that similar announcements from other auto manufacturers may follow. [28 Nov]
Jobless claims under performed expectations in new data this morning which shows a seasonally-adjusted 234,000 jobless claims versus an expected 220,000. Weekly jobless claims recorded a six-month high, and raise concerns about a slowing job market. The 3.7 percent unemployment rate (going by how the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the rate) is near a 49-year low. It reminds me, however, of one statistic that shows an average of four months exist between the bottom of the unemployment rate and the beginning of a recession. The last time I wrote about this statistic was in August 2018, when we had an unemployment rate of 3.9. If the unemployment rate begins to tick back up and the trend holds, then historically (since 1948) we have an average of four months before the next recession begins. That’s one indicator, which I can’t stress enough, and it’s also an average. But taken together with other data, I have doubts about the naysayers who say that a recession is unlikely in the next couple years. A recession in the next two years is clearly not only possible, but likely. [29 Nov]
Despite sounding doubtful that he’d reach a deal, President Trump is scheduled to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping over the weekend at the G20 summit. A solution to the trade impasse doesn’t sound likely, and there are growing calls for “disengagement” from China. The more President Xi drags his feet, the worse his economy gets — but also the longer he’s able to run his domestic economy policy, which benefits from bleeding the United States of its intellectual property. I’ve often used the numbers of $200-300 billion per year, but new estimates say the Chinese may actually be stealing up to $600 billion per year in U.S. intellectual property. Meanwhile, in a recent statement made before heading to the G20 summit, President Trump sounded like he wanted to keep up tariffs against China. (The current 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods are scheduled to be raised to 25 percent on 01 January 2019.) President Trump’s words sounded like a man who knew he was winning — maybe even like a man who wanted to punish China — and we are definitely seeing China paying a steep price, even if there are some negative side effects for American businesses and workers. The Chinese Shanghai Composite Index is down 21 percent for the year, recent data shows a widening gap between manufacturing output (stable) and sales (dropping), manufacturers are shedding jobs, and Chinese monetary policy is being loosened as a result. (That, by the way, is China’s response to just about every economic malady.) I don’t expect any major concessions or agreements to come from this weekend’s meetings, but minor agreements could be reached. To reiterate: China’s economic system is partially based on exploiting the United States (especially industrial espionage and forced technology transfers). That’s not something Xi wants to walk away from, and Xi may be playing a waiting game for the Mueller report (i.e., for the next president) before introducing major policy changes. Bottom line: we may get closer to January before Xi thinks about making significant concessions. [30 Nov]
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