An Interview with Kevin Brothers, CDR, USN (Ret.)

John Wiseman: How would you define National Security and in what capacity have you been involved with United States National Security. How did you get involved? (Approximate dates and job titles if possible).

Kevin Brothers: When I first joined the military in 1984, the United States was deep into the Cold War. Back during the Reagan administration tensions with the Soviet Union were high. I was somewhat apprehensive about joining, but then I thought to myself, “if the balloon ever goes up, I want to be out there fighting and not staying at home letting someone else do it for me.” So after college I signed up with the Navy. I chose the Navy because it guaranteed me the career path of intelligence.

In those days, we weren’t too far past the Vietnam era of distrust of the military. There were no “Thank you for your service” greetings. It was a different time. About a week after I signed with Navy, I got a mysterious call from the CIA asking if I was interested. I told them it was too late. In the end, I think the Navy was a better option for me, so I’m glad the CIA didn’t call first.

After Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida, I was commissioned an Ensign, Special Duty, Aviation Intelligence. AOCS was not the easiest way to get a commission. The main purpose of the school was to produce naval aviators. The medical screening was legendary and many people failed out for that reason alone. Marine Corps Drill Instructors ran the school and they were demanding. I remember our Drill Instructor telling us, “My mission… is attrition.” I think something like 50% of the all candidates washed out before graduation, some for medical, some for academics, and some because the regimen was too tough.  The Drill Instructors taped off an alcove in the hallway of the barracks and every time a candidate “DORed” (Dropped on Request), they put that candidates’ “chrome dome” (aka shiny uniform helmet) in the “poopie graveyard” so we would all be reminded of those who dropped out. The DIs took glee every time they added a helmet to the “graveyard.” My class started with eight intelligence officer candidates in it, and I was the only one who made it through and graduated with my class on time. The school was made famous by the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman,” although the Navy refused to cooperate with the film, forcing the production company to actually shoot the picture in Washington State, not Florida.

In those days, most people had a pretty clear conception of what “national security” meant. It was to protect the United States from existential threats, primarily the Soviet Union. The Soviets used to operate submarines with nuclear warheads around the world, including in the Atlantic Ocean. The missiles on those subs had just a seven-minute flight time to Washington, DC. There was not a lot of room for error on our part. We had to keep track of them and it was serious business. The Soviets would also fly menacing bomber flights in the North Atlantic, along the east coast of the United States and all the way down to Cuba.  Everybody was a little on edge during such flights. We had to get it right to intercept them and escort them along their way.

After the Soviet empire collapsed in the 1990s and the threat from Russia decreased, many people started rethinking what “national security” meant. The term now can include everything from climate change to the financial sector to global health. I prefer to think of national security still in terms of the existential threat, even if it is not a use of military force. For example, to me, terrorism is not an existential threat to national security. Terrorists are not going to end the existence of the United States. Terrorists have to be dealt with, but in my opinion, the country spends too much time and treasure fighting a small, if politically potent threat.

In the middle of my military career, I took a break in service and went to law school. After law school I went back into the Navy Reserves. I actually had to go through the recruiting process again. I asked my recruiter if I should go into the Judge Advocate General Corps. He said, “Are you kidding, every lawyer I hear from wants to do intel” so I stayed intel.  I had some great assignments in the reserves both on active and reserve duty. I had assignments in the Pentagon, Germany, and Iceland and made it to the rank of Commander. In 2004, I was assigned to the faculty of what is now known as the National Intelligence University. It’s a unique school where all the faculty and students have to have high-level security clearances and have to come from government or the military. I got a master’s degree from the same school when I was on active duty. I taught graduate classes there in intelligence in the Reserve/Executive Management program on subjects ranging from intelligence law to international security. After retiring from the Navy, I have continued to teach graduate classes in intelligence in the private sector as a civilian adjunct. Right now I am teaching at the University of Maryland University College.

JW: What is one of the more memorable or impactful experiences during your National Security Career?

KB: After about a week of Operation Desert Storm, we realized we had a problem with Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA). This was a lost art, because nobody had been doing it since Vietnam and we had no idea how much damage our military campaign was having against the forces of Saddam Hussein. It became a political issue and the president wanted to be able to understand the effect of the entire war effort.  The Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, directed his Director of Intelligence to immediately put together a BDA team to produce bomb damage assessment reports as a top priority. I was assigned to this small team, not because I had any bomb damage assessment experience, hardly anybody did, but rather because I was a “Mac driver” as we were called in those days. Few people knew how to run Apple computers back then and only Apples had the screaming 8MB of RAM it took to make the necessary graphics. Hence I found myself on the team as the expert who could transform numbers into graphics, bar charts, and maps.

On our first morning, the director of the team asked me what kind of computer equipment I needed. I got a computer catalog and circled the items I needed. Now normally, the government procurement process was lengthy and cumbersome and takes months. This time, all the items I circled were in our spaces in the Pentagon by 1600 that same afternoon. I have no idea how they got there, I was so busy doing other things; they just magically appeared. It is amazing how fast things can get done when something is a presidential priority.

I set everything up and then went home because I was going to have to start reporting to work at 0100 every day, which is an odd time to be starting one’s work day, especially when quitting time was still around 1700 every day.  Every night/morning, I would go over the data, update charts, figure out the best kind of graphs and images to include to supplement the reports and print them out right there in the office. The pressure to get this right was intense. My boss or his boss would take the report every morning and use it to brief both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. The Chairman or Secretary would then take the report across the river and brief the president with it in person at the White House.

One day during the campaign, RADM Schaefer, who was the Deputy Director of DIA at the time, wanted a copy of the report because he had to brief all the living presidents at the time – Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.  Word came back to me from RADM Schaefer that Richard Nixon “loved the graphics.” Having your work presented to five different presidents in the same day is a pretty cool thing!

JW: Was there a particularly funny or comedic experience?

KB: One time we pulled into port in Palermo, Sicily. There was not a lot to do in Palermo, but there was some big news going on. The Soviets were sending their new Kilo class submarines out of area for the first time on its way to India. A Kilo was going to be in port the same time we were. The Italians were eager to avoid an incident and our captain told us to stay away from the Kilo, which was going to be in a different part of the port.

Now I was the intelligence officer in an aircraft squadron, so all the other officers in the squadron except one maintenance officer were pilots. I went out on liberty with two of our pilots, one of whom was a Canadian exchange pilot, who also had a van for some reason. The two pilots sat in front of the van while I was in the back.

Pilots are much more risk takers than intelligence officers. They decided it would be really cool to snap some pics of the Kilo. I explained to them that this was a bad idea.  Having an intelligence officer involved in spying on a Soviet submarine could cause a major diplomatic incident. They ignored me.

We drove to a remote part of the Italian naval base with a view of the Kilo. They got out and indiscreetly started taking a bunch of happy snaps. I didn’t. Then suddenly one of the Soviet sailors noticed them taking the pictures. Immediately we could see all the Soviet sailors start to scramble around and cover things up on the deck. We decided then it would be in our interest to leave.

Our Canadian driver put in an admirable effort to get out the gate before word could reach the Italian guards.  He drove as recklessly as any Neapolitan cab driver in a desperate attempt to get off the base.  We were just nearing the main gate when we saw a guard hang up a phone at the guard post and then order us to stop. So close.  The guards, made us all get out hand over our IDs and they started asking a bunch of questions. I never let on I was an intelligence officer and just stayed quiet and let the pilots do all the talking, fortunately the other pilot was Italian-American and that may have helped our situation. Inside, my heart was racing a mile a minute. I thought we might be detained and we would miss the ship’s movement, which is a big deal.  Or worse, the incident could end my career. The Italian guards made us hand over our cameras. They opened the cameras and exposed all our film and then they let us go, much to our great relief. Sometimes the Italian “shrug of the shoulders” attitude about things is a nuisance, but this time it paid off.

Another funny story involved an officer candidate at AOCS we all called “Bones” because he was so skinny. There was a tradition at the school that the candidate with the highest body fat percentage at the end of the program had to buy a round of beer for the rest of the class.  Because of the strange way that the Navy measured body fat percentage, which involved comparing neck measurements to waist measurements, Bones had the highest body fat percentage in the class because his neck was so thin. In the end, Bones had to buy us all a beer for being so “fat.”

JW: What is one of the most valuable lessons you learned from your NS time?

KB: I was the senior briefer for Carrier Airwing Six during the USS Vincennes shootdown of an Iranian airliner. Our team was in charge of briefing both air operations and the intelligence picture to all the embarked flight crews. That day, everyone was on edge because these little Iranian boats, Boghammers, were coming out and harassing the fleet. There were some exchanges of fire between our units and theirs.

Normally, the aircraft carrier should have had control of the airspace, but that day for some unknown reason we didn’t, which was unusual. The operational situation was confused. I was splitting my time between the carrier’s command center listening to everything unfold and the intel center where I had to relay the intelligence and air ops picture out to the aircrews in their ready rooms via closed circuit TV. We knew the Iranians still had some F-14s, which everybody was our big concern because it was a capable aircraft.

I was in the command center when I heard a radio call, “Splash one foxtrot one four,” coming from the Vincennes meaning the ship had just shot down an Iranian F-14. At this point, after the shootdown and all the little harassing incidents going on with the small boys (the smaller ships in a carrier battle group), it looked like things were really going to being spinning out of control fast. I remember during one of my briefs to the aircrews I was really talking fast and my boss told me to “slow down.”

It didn’t take long before we realized Vincennes had shot down a civilian airliner, not an F-14. We were all stunned. I remember distinctly the feeling of numbness that everyone had when we realized what had happened. The lesson there was that there really is a “fog of war.” Just because you think you understand an event does not mean you really do. Initial reports, even from direct participants, can be wrong. What we thought was a great military success was, ended up being a tragic accident where 290 civilians lost their lives. The more chaotic a situation, the more you have to stay calm and even-keeled in order to think clearly about all the possible scenarios and not jump to conclusions.

I saw this same kind of thing happen while working as an intelligence watchstander. Initial reports are often wrong and it takes time and additional sources to really put together a picture of any event.

JW: What was one of the most difficult experiences you faced during your NS time?

KB: Watchstanding ashore can really be a grind. At the National Military Joint Intelligence Center (NMJIC), the rotating watch schedule requires one week of daytime watchstanding (from 0600-1400), followed by one week of swing shifts (1400-2200), followed by one week of mids (2200—0600) that ends with two 12 hour weekend mids. Then you get five days off, do two 12-hour weekend day shifts, then a week off before starting the 0600 shift again. The work on the watch floor is really interesting requiring watchstanders to stay on top of current events in order to alert the military leadership to missile launches, troop movements, invasions, hostile aircraft flight patterns etc., but it’s physically demanding. Constantly switching from midnight shift back to morning shift does a number on your circadian rhythm.

JW: What advice would you give new personnel thinking about starting a career in National Security?

KB: Get to know the world. It really helps to know at least one foreign language well. While the national security community makes a big deal about certain “critical” languages, knowing any other language is big help. Today’s “critical” languages might be not worth much in five years, but language is always a window into how others think, view the United States, and might act. Foreign residence is also helpful. There is no better way to understand the United States and its interests than by seeing the country from the outside.

It’s also important to be able to think critically and write effectively. This matters in most areas of national security, but especially intelligence. No matter what area of national security one ends up in, there is almost always going to be a requirement to write reports and make recommendations. Good ones will get noticed. Those who are well prepared in this area have an edge.

 

Parker Interview – Part 1

2LT James E. Parker Jr. Aka “Mule” is interviewed by John Thomas Wiseman 


John Thomas Wiseman: How do you define National Security?

James E. Parker: Well certainly any dictionary will have an answer for that, but my definition would be something more personal…. it would be not only efforts to keep us safe, but situational awareness of the things out there in the world (and here at home) that might put our life style in some danger, and then doing something to take away that danger. And I’m speaking of US National Security ’cause I don’t know what they think about security in Brazil, or in Uganda. You know ol’ George, Senior used to talk about how our country is a thousand shards of light, and I’m thinking he meant our geography, our history, our public utilities, our sense of justice, UNC bar-b-q, Hollywood, the Super Bowl, the freedom to go anywhere or say anything, that your home is your castle, your weapons a symbol of your freedoms, the interstate highway system, the Mississippi, and the Rockies, good hospitals and a 4th of July hot dog. That’s America.

And those things ain’t free. You gotta protect them. ‘Cause if you’re born in Timbuktu to a family that ain’t never had anything, they might not understand how we take it all we got for granted. How being American is also about being a little cocky, that we got it good. We are lucky in that we got all that Pacific and Atlantic water out there protecting our flanks. And a northern neighbor that’s part and parcel of the American culture. That shares our interest in protecting what we got…

So there.

National Security starts with an understanding of what we mean by national – and to my way of thinking that’s Bush Sr.’s thousands and thousands rays of light.

And Security is the means we have to use to protect our nation from those who wish us harm.

JTW: Which organization did you enjoy the most in your career?

JEP: Probably that would be the current Mule enterprises. I am at my core a story- teller. All my travels and adventures and utterances and thoughts and actions seem on some level to be just fodder for stories. And that’s the level I’m at now. Looking back, remembering, and often comparing this time with that to see how my perspective has changed… and my vantage on… life its ownself. Like today at the movies, it’s all about animation of dragons and talking animals and the incredibly stories of daring do… bases of which are not taken from anything I’ve known.

And the ads on TV show people of all persuasions enjoying this and that, as long as they buy this or do that. Venal appeal… buy this and life as you know it will be better.  And the actors presenting this message are not like anyone I can identify with.

And the shows are just a waste of time. The news reports are so programmed and narrow in focus as to be nothing that seems relevant to my life. Headlines are always the presidential elections; as if that’s the most important “news” of the day… well I don’t think so. Not in the world I live in… not in what I know about life.

Values are transient, often created by same-age airheads, not learned or taught by adults who fought life’s wars. Celebrity trumps peace of mind. Money often man’s raison d’etre.  And so many people out there. On the roads, in Africa, at the grocery store. There is no solitude anywhere close… except here at my desk, alone with my thoughts.

Aw, and to think back in the way of a story teller… there was purpose, and some real danger, and exciting places to see and smell and touch before the Discovery Channel, with the testosterone surging through my body 24/7. Demanding this course of action or that.

I think this is the best time of my life. My best “organization.”

JTW: What was your favorite assignment in your long career?

JEP: Well let’s see here… favorite?

If you were to ask my wife what was her favorite assignment, I think she’d say, all of them. But hell, she’s easy to please. Look who she married. She wakes up in the morning with a good attitude. Positive. She sees that glass half full. There was a story I used to tell about us meeting this woman in a Wal-Mart years ago…. in the 90s when we were still living in NC. She was big, wore a Wal-Mart mu-mu dress, round flat face. I have honestly forgot what it was that caused our meeting… but as we were walking away and I was looking for the right words about this woman was really in her element, and Brenda said, “Didn’t she have a nice smile.”

Brenda had a stroke in 2010, paralyzed the left side of her body. She’s done remarkably well since. Gets around mostly with a cane, and although she hasn’t regained the movement of her left arm and hand, she types her email.

And she has never complained. Not once that I can remember.

Now I’m goin’ to answer your question, but let me finish this thought. We used to live in a big ol’ sprawling house here in the SW of Las Vegas, but after Brenda’s stroke it was just too much to keep up – plus we were under water what with the real estate crash here in Vegas town, so we moved to the condominium we live in now… and in making the move, Brenda almost helpless, this Mexican woman pitched upon our doorstep saying she heard we might need some help.

Best I can figure it was God who talked her… because she’s still with us, three years later. Illegal as all hell, ain’t got paper one, but she’s an angel and has given Brenda back her pre-stroke freedom. They go shopping together, just to go shopping. Go to the grocery store, cook meals. Alma is here a lot… and she always talking, always asking Brenda’s advice, and always laughing. I don’t mean to say everything’s perfect, but damn it’s nice.

So what was the question?

Favorite assignment.

Got another story that you may have read in my Rants and Yarns… about my great Aunt Wilma, taught in NC classrooms for more than 70 years. Let me say that again, she taught in schools for more than 70 years. In her 90s she was driving around picking up relatives of migrant workers in Johnston County, NC, taking them to the local CC, teaching them English as a second language and then taking them back to their homes. I remember speaking with her once and said something like, “Boy you been teaching forever. Bet you’ve had some pretty smart students, huh?” And she said she had, “And I’ll bet you’ve really had some idiots too, huh?” And she, “No, every single one of my students was special. Every single one was smart.”

So I reckon to be true to heritage and my wife, on the favorite assignment thing, I have to say I have not had a favorite assignment, I’ve liked them all.

Some stand out, or come first to my memory.  But favorites, nope. Here are some that I remember.

My number 1 assignment was growing up rowdy in the mid-south, with a father that let me roam, telling me to “go out there and make something of yourself.” I got a lot from my youth. The “getting” part was not always appreciated by fathers of some of the girls I dated. If we carried a laugh-meter like health nuts carry around a step-meter on their belt… I laughed more than most of my peers growing up, did more stuff and certainly said more, “Holy s**t, what am I goin’ to do now?”

But here again, there’s a side story… that sort of explains my DNA…. it’s one of my early Rants and Yarns titled something like Travelling man… an interview my cousin Alan did back a couple of years ago.

Number 2 as well remembered events go, would be my year spent as a platoon leader in Vietnam. I’ve been blessed in this life… and one of my earliest conspicuous blessings was Staff Sergeant Cecil Bratcher who was my 1st Squad leader… until I made him my platoon sergeant. And we developed a great division of labor in running the platoon… I was just out of OCS and without his knowing hand, Jesus, what would have happened? You know so often in Vietnam, a young 2nd LT, especially a replacement, was merely the platoon mascot. The network of sergeants – from platoon sergeant down to fire team leaders really ran the show. There was zero room for error for replacement Lts. They mess up once in the field, some men get hurt, and the sergeants would take over. Or the sergeants would take over from the start, telling the new looey to just keep the Captain informed of what was goin’ on…. and they’d do the war fighting.

But there was never the case with Bratcher. We did it together. And he even came to my defense – supported me – when I picked a jive talking black I think from Detroit – a guy named Spencer – to be my radio operators. This was in 1965. Remember, for many of the good ol’ white boys in my platoon, this was their first chance up close and personal with American Blacks. It was when they were called Negroes, which the white grunts in my platoon would just spit out, rather than articulate. But here’s the thing, the majority of my Sergeants were black. So there was tension there, not that it was disruptive, but it was there… plus there was the sense that the black sergeants in my platoon were disenfranchised. But when Spencer started carrying my radio, things changed. Most notably was that the black NCO felt more involved, because the job of the RTO in the field is that he speaks for the unit commander, or figures what the commander wants and passes that on to Company or Battalion who were always on the horn when the shit hit the fan. And in free time Spencer would hang out with black buddies, and we were friends, Spencer and I, and that word got passed around in the platoon, and we were a better fighting unit as a results.

Bratcher and Spencer made a difference. Plus despite the great emotional horror that goes with war fighting, I enjoyed combat. The risk taking, the camaraderie, the job leading men on a battlefield.

Number 3 would be my first CIA assignment, upcountry Laos. To work with Hmong hills tribesmen fighting invading North Vietnamese. Just great on several different levels. One was the opportunity to work with American Ravens and Air America pilots and the collection of case officers the CIA hired to do this job… one of the biggest jobs in the history of the CIA. Who staffed it was no small matter. Now some of the CIA people up country looked as rough as cobs, but god almighty they were good, with great depth of character. Check out Kayak and Hog and Shep. Dick Johnson. Moose. All mentioned in my Rants and Yarns.  Well for sure check out Shep and Hog.

And we won our fight. Beat the hell out of tens of thousands of attacking North Vietnamese… commanded by some of the NVA’s best field Generals.

And the wonderful balance between war fighting with these great men, and then coming down to Vientiane every two or three weeks to that warm family of Brenda and the kids. Goin’ from Here to Eternity to a chic flick.

And also, or maybe first, was my contact and day-to-day emergence into the Hmong culture. The Hmong warlord we worked with, Vang Pao’s, first CIA case officer was a guy named Vint Lawrence. He told me once that it took him a year living in Long Tieng, working every day with VP and the Hmong, for him to get to the point where he could ask a good question.

They were humans, for sure, but they had had no contact with the western culture, these Hmong we worked with, and just went about life differently. There is so much we assume when we meet new people, but when those people are unlike any people that have ever dealt with Westerners, you gotta expect some newness, you know what I mean? Newness that it would take a year to really understand, and really come to grips with.

My first Hmong unit was GM 22, at the time out camped near Ban Na, north of Long Tieng… completely surrounded by Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. And I would go out to their positions every day, by first convincing one of them mean sumbitch who flew Air America that it was safe, or safe enough, and then in arriving out with my people, having overflown enemy AA on the way, to do that terrible work most morning of sending wounded and dead collected from the night before, back to Long Tieng on the helicopter. Now here your mind’ll mess with you, ’cause it seemed this happened a lot, but probably not so much, it just seems that way because it was so poignant. Morning of just goin out to the position so uneventful.

The Hmong would, if you applied enough pressure, dig bunkers… though mostly they liked to hide behind rocks and scamper when the enemy came in force. But since we occupied this space out near Ban Na, they would send one of the littlest kid in their unit down the front side of the mountain where they were, send him down with a box full of grenades… and if the bad guys did come up to checky-check in the night this little guy’s job was to throw those grenades down the hill at the sounds he heard below and then beat feet back up to the top of the mountain.  Well often one of those grenades would have a short fuse and go off in the little guy’s hand or it would hit something and bounce back, or the bad guys would pick it up and throw it back at the little guy. Or the little guy would be shot trying to get back to the top of the hill.

What I remember so many mornings was these young, small and dirty soldiers laying there on blankets used as stretchers for the wounded or dead in the catastrophic way young men or killed or wounded by grenades. Loading them up on the helicopter and send them back to Long Tieng.

And then standing at the site watching that helicopter flying high over the enemy, and away from me. First losing the sound, and then watching it got as small as a dot in the early morning haze and then disappearing behind some distant mountain… and I would realize how quiet it was… and how particularly I was alone… except for these rock age Hmong.

And then over the course of months and months, coming to know them.

How innocent, how un-greedy, how smart, how interested they were in the US, like travel to the Moon for Christ sake, how they did math, what was important to them. And in all that, going about getting out there to find out where the bad guys were and killing them. And then later directing their attacks on North Vietnamese as they moved in force back the PDJ.

The enormous depth to that experience. How it made me understand how the life I knew from my mid-south upbringing was different, not better or worse than the experiences of these good men, just different. How I had no right to be critical – maybe judgmental of their lives, their hopes and dreams.

How their religion was so similar to mine in that it provided for a larger omnipotence, different in the detail but so absolutely the same human longing for understanding of this life we lived in…. No not absolutely the same…. they were more fatalistic… like no matter what you do, you still goin’ die.

And then later the evacuation from Vietnam… I mean there was a whole lot of interesting stuff goin’ on with that. No movie I have ever seen had as much drama as that evacuation… and I had a leading role.

And later that tour in Africa and my friendship with John Sherman. Here again you’ll have to read my Rants and Yarns on that guy – surely the most interesting man I ever knew.

I was a chief of station and had two posting that are still very classified… but they don’t compete with the others as memorable. Chief of Station was full of personnel problems. If not with my case officers, it was with night people that my case officers hung around with, rather than their wives, who complained to me that it was all my fault.

And then now, like I was saying above. I enjoy my life now. Every single day. I read three papers, but don’t watch the evening news. I read a book or two a week. Got a great man cave in which I write almost without distraction… like this email. Alma brought in my lunch of noodles around noon, but other than that, no pressure to go mow the lawn, or whatever it is that other 73-year-old men do with their mid-day Fridays. And I like to write. Like to tell the stories.

This has been fun… writing about not having just one favorite time.