Rachel Kleinfeld, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is president of the Truman National Security Project and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

While the talking heads chatter about the daily news, America national security system is fracturing — and no one is talking about the causes. What are the top three issues we need to address that aren’t making the headlines?

Intelligence Recruitment And Clearances

The real story behind Edward Snowden is not one man’s antics – but the skyrocketing number of clearances the U.S. has issued since 9/11 – and the obvious failure of the clearance process.

More than 4.2 million Americans – one in every 53 adults – hold a clearance. With numbers that high, there will be bad apples. By classifying too much, we actually open ourselves to security breaches like Snowden.

Meanwhile, the clearance process fails to provide the intelligence services we need. We over-admit squeaky clean youngsters who have little chance of infiltrating our enemies because they have never been abroad, or recoil at the site of a hookah. We reject far too many people who have family members in the Middle East and South Asia – places we desperately need human intelligence and they might actually offer valuable connections and insights. And we farm out clearances to contractors who are taught to check boxes, not to search for real problems.

How silly can it all get? For my latest clearance, I got hassled over having had a bank account in England while a student there; but no one asked me questions about a trip I took to Afghanistan as a tourist in the midst of the war — which even I thought might be a little fishy.

Because we have such problems with our human intelligence, we are overly reliant on our signals intelligence (SIGINT) – the kind of NSA snooping that is crucial, but also yields real civil liberties challenges. Meanwhile, we still need cleared analysts to read and analyze SIGINT materials – bringing us back to the original problem.

Training foreign militaries and foreign police

In an age of budget austerity and military downsizing, the Obama Administration was smart to put money and time into training foreign militaries. We want allies who can handle some problems with their own troops and minimize U.S. life on the line. Police training – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries has grown as a means to stop organized crime, catch drug kingpins, and end insurgencies before they hit our shores.

But policy requires implementation, and our implementation is abysmal.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, our programs remained true to Winston Churchill’s quip: “You can always count on America to do the right thing – after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” In Egypt, years of U.S. training and billions in military aid has failed to build an Egyptian army capable of stopping terrorists in the Sinai now threatening Israel – and clearly didn’t prevent a military coup that appears intent on breeding a new Islamist insurgency. Mali’s recent coup was led by a U.S-trained officer, and the Malian troops we’d been training in counterterrorism fell apart when confronted with an actual enemy. Meanwhile, where our military training is problematic, our police training is a disaster.

The military training problems are manifold. They start with former AFRICOM commander General Ham’s analysis: U.S. trainings focus on tactics and technical skills – not on leadership, strategy, and ethos. Add to that ill-considered laws that force many American military and police trainings to be short, cookie-cutter programs on U.S. soil, rather than in-depth thoughtful engagements on the ground. Atop that, we bundle this work out to contractors who are rewarded for bulk numbers trained rather than quality. And Congress saddles programs with procurement requirements that practically force the purchase of ill-considered equipment that won’t work in the local context. This is no recipe for success.

Finally: the Asia rebalance

Remember that? It was a really good idea. The U.S. was going to shift our focus so that we had a few less boots on the ground in mostly peaceful Europe. We were going to spend a little less diplomatic and military time on the Middle East – home to fewer than 450 million people – and instead put a bit more effort into the Asian region – home to more than three billion people, or more than half the world’s population and two of the world’s three largest economies.

True, we’ve seen some preparation for AirSea battle plans, but too little analysis of whether that sort of military spending is likely to serve as a deterrent or ignite an arms race with China.

Meanwhile – I hear a lot of crickets. The White House is working on a hugely valuable Trans-Pacific trade partnership (TPP), but without selling it to Americans and Capitol Hill, it is not likely to pass. We have good people working on tough issues from Burma to India – but little high-level focus to get these programs moving.

Sometimes, it’s useful when issues avoid the chattering class – without the klieg lights, people can often roll up their sleeves and get good work done. But in this case, obscurity is breeding broken pipes and cobwebs. It’s time for some leadership.

Rachel Kleinfeld, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is president of the Truman National Security Project and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.



  • Don Bacon

    The “Asia rebalance” with a little less in Europe and the Middle East “and instead put a bit more effort into the Asian region in Asia” was actually to be more than that.

    Here’s Obama and Clinton in 2011:
    –Obama: “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.”
    –Clinton: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”

    SecState Clinton in particular made it clear, in 2012, that the pivot was meant to offer a clear alternative to the China model, one emphasizing democracy and human rights: “Economic success without meaningful political openness was an unsustainable equation that would ultimately lead to instability.” And Obama in 2011: “As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.”

    And the capper was Clinton’s article in Foreign Policy magazine in 2011:
    America’s Pacific Century

    But what did we get instead?

    A new, generally non-performing, “combat ship” in Singapore, a company of
    Marines part-time in Australia and (at the “really good idea” link) the SecDef trying to make nice with China (it didn’t work — Hagel and Chang look they want to bite each other).

    And we also got, it looks like, a brand-new upcoming international war in the not-to-be-forgotten Middle East. Ten dollar gasoline, anybody?

    So much for the “rebalance.” Rep. Randy Forbes summed it up: “As far as meeting with ambassadors and other military leaders in that area, they like the concept, [but] they don’t understand the concept because we didn’t do very good messaging,”

    • Curtis Conway

      It comforts the heart to hear a liberal democrat talk about principles.

  • Maggie Glover

    Obama, Who

  • Al Sharpton

    He is our beloved leader. The dulcimer of the nation. Your superior. Should be the king.

  • Al Sharpton

    Red tide. Bacon. Just red tide

  • SkyFell

    Our biggest security crack BY FAR is the jughead-jackass sitting in the Oval Office on those few times he is not on the golf course or vacationing. The second biggest crack is the collection of chuckleheads he has brought into the White House, Departments, and agencies since getting into office. The third security crack is the 50.3 percent of voters (legal and illegal, alive and dead) who voted for this mongrel.

  • M&S

    We can’t keep our most sensitive national security and proprietary commercial data out of Chinese hands.
    Chinese whom we have outright -given- so much technology that they now have the excess computer power to literally redirect the flow of the Internet for hours at a time.
    China, where every big-name company, including those we just saved bailed out as ‘too big to fail’ have all rushed in their eagerness to leave ‘free’ America.
    The Chinese who don’t have some 8-10 million non-workers. Who only have 2/3rds our incarcerant population with nearly 3 times our total population (1.6 vs. 2.3 million, @ 40,000 dollars per inmate year that’s 92 billion a year), the Chinese who don’t have any less of a right to an Asian hegemony than Americans with their Monroe/Roosevelt doctrines and correlates.
    Parts of the planet are total holes and always will be, simply because the people in them have degraded with the lack of resources to match their environment.
    We tried to make Iraq into a 21st century state and the local yokels shot up ambulances and multi million dollar oil shunt valves in equal measure to prove who owned the worthless dirt.
    We are still trying to do the same with AfG which has all of one useful economic product, opium, and years as billions later with all the _Islamic States_ watching with giggles from the peanut gallery, they are also _still_ pretty much useless tools.
    Meanwhile, all our profligate spending to make little Americas has rendered us deeply in debt because we wouldn’t go into THE ONE BACK OF BEYOND that most needed cleansing to flush UBL and bag his sorry behind so we could end the farce of GWOT.
    Such moral supremacy. Such bravery. Such brilliant triumps of Democracy as Enslavement to Distributionist Capitalism.
    I bet if you asked the Asians whom they wanted as ‘friends’, China or the U.S., 99.9999% of them would look at you and laugh at the very notion that America was ‘friendly’.
    With anyone.
    Americans don’t want to invest in the useless holes of this planet, just to make them competitive so that more jobs can be outsourced and more rich people get even filthier.
    Americans should hire a president who looks to home, first. We’re in more than enough of a mess for 10 administrations to fix, let alone two.
    The Globalist morons are ruining what is good to empower what never will be.

  • Au Contraire

    “While the talking heads chatter…”?

    WTF do you think *you* are? A shrunken head? A spinning head?