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Op-ed: Navy needs new intel bosses now

September 19, 2015 (Photo Credit: U.S. Naval Institute)

The U.S. Navy has some 235 line admirals on active duty. These range from one-star rear admirals to the four-star vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chief of naval operations. All must hold a top secret clearance and most have SCI clearances — sensitive compartmented information — that gives them access to specific, highly classified programs. 

Well, almost all.

Vice Admiral Ted Branch, the director of naval intelligence, and Rear Admiral Bruce Loveless, the corporate director of Information Dominance, have had their security clearances suspended for nearly two years. It is illogical that the officers in these key intelligence positions can’t access secret information.

Their clearances were suspended in 2013 because of investigations by the Navy and the Department of Justice into the scandal involving several senior naval officers accepting gifts, cash, and “favors” from “Fat” Leonard Francis, a Malaysian contractor. He allegedly paid off naval officers for information and for helping with contracts related to Navy ship visits to Far Eastern ports where the Francis firm — Glenn Defense Marine Asia — provided services and supplies.

According to The New York Times, Admirals Branch and Loveless have been under investigation for allegedly accepting gifts or services from Mr. Francis, the nature of which could have exposed them to blackmail. To date, officials have not presented any evidence that these officers provided information or favors back to Francis, which could lead to bribery charges. Other officers have admitted to accepting cash, lavish trips and prostitutes from Francis, during the course of the two-year-long investigation. Meanwhile, Branch and Loveless remain in a limbo since the allegations were made against them two years ago.  

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus decided to retain Admirals Branch and Loveless in their key intelligence positions — but without access to any classified information — while the Navy and Justice Department continue their investigations into the Francis case. They lost their clearances in November 2013, almost two years ago.

Without security clearances, Admiral Branch — the Navy’s top intelligence officer — has been unable to discuss intelligence issues with his subordinates, cannot enter certain spaces of his domain, and cannot work on sensitive issues with officers from other U.S. services or foreign officers. Several naval officers say intelligence management is being hampered at a moment of great turmoil when intel collection and analysis are needed to confront crises like Russian aggression toward Ukraine and the threats to the Baltic States; confrontations with China in the South China Sea; North Korea’s bellicose posture; the raging Syrian civil war; the rise of the Islamic State militancy; and more.

Navy personnel involved in or planning for these crises and conflicts must have up-to-date, accurate and comprehensive intelligence. Most — some would say, all — of that intelligence is classified.

Second, Admiral Branch is head of the newly established Information Dominance Corps, which combines information professionals (communications), information warfare (cryptologic), intelligence, and meteorology/oceanography communities. The merger of these disparate groups, in the opinion of many members, has caused some problems and many aspects of these organizations are highly classified.

Many inside the intelligence community say that without security clearances Admiral Branch cannot effectively perform the duties as head of naval intelligence. Questions being asked within the Navy, Marine Corps and on Capitol Hill: Can they assign the right people to classified projects to which they have no access? Can they write or review fitness reports for subordinates who are working on classified projects? Can they develop or monitor budget data for classified projects? And, how could they do this considering almost all naval intelligence activities are classified?

His peers and subordinates consider Branch an outstanding officer and a strong leader. A former F/A-18 Hornet pilot, Branch led the carrier Nimitz and later commanded Naval Air Force Atlantic. Loveless, a career intel officer, served as 7th Fleet’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence before his selection for a senior intelligence position.  

In the opinion of many intelligence officers and civilians, Secretary Mabus long ago should have assigned Admirals Branch and Loveless to less sensitive positions where their lack of clearances would not be critical. The U.S. Navy requires an intelligence structure that is professional, has excellent morale, is well organized, and is led by senior officers who have command of all aspects of their organizations. Senior intelligence officers without security clearances cannot effectively oversee their subordinates, coordinate with other U.S. services and allies, or explain situations to their superiors in the Department of Defense, White House, and Congress. 

They cannot — indeed, must not — be in charge of U.S. naval intelligence.

Norman Polmar, a noted author of books such as "Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet," has served as a consultant and adviser to three secretaries of the Navy and two chiefs of naval operations.

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