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Richer and Becker on Domestic Terrorism, Cyber, China, Iran, Russia, and Decision-Making

In February of this year, Matt Devost spoke to Rob Richer, a highly regarded advisor to international executives and global government leaders including several heads of state. Rob has a well-informed perspective on international risks and opportunities and an ability to analyze and distill observations in a way that is meaningful for your decision-making process. Rob Richer retired in November 2005 from the Central Intelligence Agency as the Associate Deputy Director for Operations (ADDO). Prior to his assignment as the ADDO in 2004, Richer was the Chief of the Near East and South Asia Division, responsible for Clandestine Service Operations throughout the Middle East and South Asia.

Mr. Richer has been awarded numerous awards and commendations from several foreign governments. Additionally, during his Agency career, he has received commendations and awards to include the Intelligence Commendation Medal in both 1993 and 1996; the Director’s Award in 2004.  In March 2006, Mr. Richer was awarded the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal.

In October of 2020, Bob Gourley had a conversation with Rear Admiral Paul Becker, USN (Retired). In January of 2021, Admiral Beck also took part in an OODA Network Interview with OODA Expert Network Member Chris Ward. Admiral Becker is an author, speaker, and board member with extensive experience in intelligence operations. During his 30-year career as a naval intelligence officer, he led major operational intelligence efforts, rising to the position of Director of Intelligence (J2) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Upon retirement from the Navy, he formed a consultancy delivering solutions and lessons learned around intelligence to corporate America. He is also a professor, teaching at the US Naval Academy and the University of Virginia. Paul is renowned for his ability to translate military leadership principles into corporate pillars of performance, productivity, and profit.

We continue our effort to underscore certain patterns and themes found throughout the OODAcast library of over 80 conversations with leaders and decision-makers, on topics such as leadership, empowering a team, finding the right people, clear decision-making while operating in a low information environment, situational awareness, the qualities and best practices of a true leader, the nature and history of intelligence, the importance of Joint Ops/Intel operations, the future of intelligence, the future of cyber threats and cyber espionage, disinformation, cognitive bias, cognitive traps, biased decision-making, strategic action and the paradox of warning.

These conversations with Becker and Richer cover topics such as domestic terrorism, cyberthreats, China, Russia, and decision-making.

“…the U.S. will not be the game-changer anymore…”

Devost: Given your past involvement and your current involvement in tracking what is happening in the Middle East, how do you see things developing in that region over the next five years?

Richer: Well, look, I think the Middle East has learned anything over the last four years is that they must go at it more alone or they must develop new relationships because we walked away from a lot of relationships over the last four years [during the Trump Administration]. That is not a political statement. It is just what happened. You know, we saw Russia expand its presence in Syria, but also its ties to Turkey. We saw Iran get in financially and economically deeper ties with Turkey and, and more in-depth in Syria. We have seen Islamic action groups, the Muslim Brotherhood get, re-engaged get really strong again in certain of these countries. So, I think one of the things we can look forward to is that the U.S. will not be the game-changer anymore.

We will not be the voice that pushes people to certain areas. There was, there has been progress made on the peace process, which is always a key issue for any American administration. That is moving along in the last administration, they pushed that and did a good job with that. If Saudi joins in that will be the last big issue to fix in terms of relationships with Israel. And then of course addressing the Palestinian issue: their future, where do they go, nationhood, the two-state solution, whatever that entails. But look, I think the critical thing in the Middle East is there is no longer one superpower that has influence. There is one superpower, but we no longer have that influence.

But, I think domestic is going to be our focus for the first year of this [Biden] administration. I think it is going to be the focus for us for the next two years. COVID is not going to go away anytime soon. We are going to have that through the Fall of next year at a minimum from what I understand. We have the economic ramifications of what has happened from the pandemic and how it was handled. And, of course, we have had ramifications of an ultra-right nationalist movement in the States.

“…tens of millions of people believe they have been disenfranchised and that has been fueled by leaders and that is a problem…that impression and the conspiracy-minded circulation of those words is going to continue…”

Devost: What would you highlight as our top national security threats that we face over the next few years?

Richer: The number one national security threat I believe right now is domestic terrorism. Right-Wing nationalists, white supremacists, and the fact that those are going to be our priority concerns for the next year. There is a belief with tens of millions of people in the United States that there is a deep state, that there is a conspiracy to defraud and to steal this election. It was not stolen  – based on all the court cases and everything I read. However, it does not matter what I think. It is that these tens of millions of people believe they have been disenfranchised and that has been fueled by leaders and that is a problem. Those leaders will go away when the [Trump] administration goes away, but that impression and the conspiracy-minded circulation of those words is going to continue Matt.

In social media, it is just going to be fueled and fueled. People are at home [during the height of the pandemic in early 2021]. Most people, many people are working from home. Many people live on their phone or on their laptop or on their computer because they are not going out. They are not socializing; they are not interacting with a lot of people. And it is so easy when you live in that inclusive and exclusive world to give fuel. I mean, my gosh, whether it is the left or the right, you become marginalized, and then you can become polarized from the other side. So, I think domestic terrorism.

Number two: I am worried about cyber-attacks. Deeply worried. Look: they can seize control of our infrastructure. They have shown it. Thank goodness They have not yet tried to disrupt or take down things like our power grid, but you and I have talked about that, you know better than I: they can do it.

The number three threat, in terms of international:  I do not see Russia as a military enemy. I do not see China as an alter enemy. I do not see the future of war with them. What I do see is an economic and political war developing in two different ways. With Russia, it is influence.  They are accelerating their influence in parts of Europe, in the -stans, and of course in the Middle East and Putin is where he needs to be on that. And he is pretty comfortable. It’s going to be hard for us to wrestle that. Where there is a void, it takes a long time to refill that void or push the void back. The Chinese over the last two years have just been building alliances with Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, all throughout South Asia.  This new economic and commercial association was developed and just signed last fall.

We did not want to be part of it. China is going to eat our economic health and they own a lot of our debt. We can shut off some of their resources, but China has established itself as a player in that part of the world because we pulled away from it. And again, we cannot push that back easily. So that is more my world: cyber, economic, commercial.

Devost: I will just note, this was recorded on January 14th [2021] So when Rob’s talking about the next six days, he is talking about the lead-up to President Biden taking over on January 20th. So just want to qualify that.

Richer: Yes. I’ve not mentioned Iran. I think there is a potential for a confrontation with Iran with a new administration. If you were to ask me how I saw it for the next six days, I’m concerned about that. We saw it with the attacks: Israel was given the green light with American intelligence to attack Syrian targets a couple of days ago. Those were pretty comprehensive attacks.

The Israeli government in the form of Netanyahu. This is their last chance to do a strong damaging blow against her. And the only person that could agree to that and could support is the current [Trump] administration just because of their rhetoric and how they see Iran. That would be catastrophic, I think, in terms of a number of reasons, stability issues and for the U.S. Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard have infrastructure throughout the United States and abroad. They are really good at having deep cover assets and people who will help them.

We cannot take out their nuclear facilities, every assessment I have seen, and I was current up until a couple of years ago, says that we might get 50%, 60%, but then what we leave 50%, 60% and they will never ever work with us again. And we will fuel terrorism around the world. And to be honest with you, we do not need a Shia-Sunni war, which would be part of it. So, my hope is that we get through the next six days with Iran and then we figure out how to address Iran’s nuclear capability and probably getting to talk to them at the table. Because if they are not at the table, how do you work with them? And unfortunately, the last year we have actually closed more doors than opened them.

“From a Chinese perspective, they are in an information war with the United States right now. Their authoritative writings and speeches declare it to be so…”

Gourley:  What is the threat from China?

Becker:  [The Chinese] through their sheer numbers and technological advances across all elements of comprehensive national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic), have the capacity to change the way the average American life looks.

It is an existential threat, Bob. China poses a threat to the existence of the way Americans live their lives today. I am not talking about old-fashioned Soviet nuclear throw weight that they could eliminate, you know, what portion of the country with high blast weapons. Not that type of existential threat. But diplomatically, informationally, militarily, economically. If China brings its full force to bear, it could impact daily American lives. From a Chinese perspective, they are in an information war with the United States right now. Their authoritative writings and speeches declare it to be so, and this is all part of their Chinese grand strategy for rejuvenation – their word, not mine – by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese communist party, they will return to a position of preeminence in Asia. This is according to their plan. They have interim objectives along the way. Information warfare, cyber warfare, media warfare, intimidation, psychological warfare.  The US has always been dominant [in undersea warfare].  Now the Chinese are looking at technologies to close the gap – from the seabed to space-based sensors. Any kind of warfare when it comes down to it.  It is just trying to bend an adversary to your will.

And that is what they are trying to do. And something I know is a strong suit for OODA is an emphasis on cyber. And it is important to recognize our adversary China’s perspective on cyber. Whereas the U.S. has viewed cyber as a seamless landscape of global networks that are open interoperable, secure, reliable, based on norms of behavior, respect for property value, multiple stakeholder governance, right? This is the internet, the World Wide Web, as we know it. China has a very different perspective. They view cyber as a sovereignty issue, right? That is why they have a Great Cyber Wall. It is a state-controlled authority, with the United Nations, where one nation would get one vote.

“…good intelligence is good storytelling, and it must be truthful storytelling.  It needs to be compelling…”

This ensures stability for the Chinese Communist Party, which allows them internal stability with a lot of people and economic growth. They also use cyber, as they call it, as an “Assassin’s Mace” – an under-armed protagonist’s weapon against a larger hegemonic foe.  Which is how they see us. To steal our intellectual property.  Estimates are between $250- $600 billion per year in intellectual property theft from the United States, according to the FBI. And China has an incredible “social welfare database.” That is what they call it. I have seen a lot of Australian investigative reporting on this. They call it their overseas key information database: 2.4 million names of global influencers and the Chinese keep files on those on those names – no doubt names that were taken in part from the OPM data breach of some years ago here in the United States, but via social media and other sources as well.  They are building up their databases for whatever they think is necessary. And this leads to the discussion of intelligence, right? I have long said:  good intelligence is good storytelling, and it must be truthful storytelling.  It needs to be compelling.

And this is a story that needs to be made more aware to the American public. And it is why I have always gravitated towards operational intelligence or actionable intelligence. It would be the corporate equivalent of me always working with a chief operating officer. I liked the action. I like the give and take. I liked the multiple sources of input. I love the variable outcomes that come with it and good intelligence – good operational intelligence  – needs to be timely. It needs to be relevant, and it needs to be actionable, right? Otherwise, it is just data and information, where one admires a situation knowing it is not actionable.

“I had some great people work with me…people who said: ‘Look, you have potential Rob. You are doing well. You have good intuition. Take time. Pause. Think.'”

Devost: We call this the OODAcast, based on John Boyd’s OODA loop, which I know you are familiar with. I know that Marines tend to have an affinity, despite the fact that he was an Air Force Colonel, for decision-making. And I know from experience that you have a very acute ability to make good decisions and provide good advice. So, I would love to get your perspective: over the course of your career, what were some lessons learned along the way that contributed to the way that you make decisions or the perspective that you bring to the decision-making process?

Richer: Well, I think that the greatest experience and lessons I had in terms of decision-making, good or bad, was being wrong and that wrong had direct ramifications or that wrong caused a loss of life or a loss of a job. So, making mistakes in many ways has been the best educator I had in terms of good decision-making. And what I learned in many cases because I had the tendency to leap to a decision and to want to move aggressively and not tolerate long discourse – I had some great people work with me on that – whether it was as a Captain in the Marine Corps, a more senior rank, whether it was a mid-career officer in the CIA – people who said: “Look, you have potential Rob. You are doing well. You have good intuition. Take time. Pause. Think.”

So, one: I like to reflect on what you are going to say and what you are going to do. Two: do not believe you have all the answers. Three: listen to other people. I have become a firm believer of what General Mattis talked about – being a servant leader. And he is talked about that since I knew him, gosh, 25, 30 years ago – which was that a servant leader serves the people he works with. Ultimately, he is responsible for the decision. But if he is going to make a decision that is going to put people’s lives, livelihoods, families at risk, you listen to them. So, after I got through the period where I thought I was the smartest and best-looking case officer and spy ever, I got to the point where I understood that you know what: I am much better when I talk to other people.

“…the goal of intelligence…is not to sit back, collect and admire information and data. But it is to act on it.”

Gourley: In my time in Naval intelligence, I had heroes and people I looked up to – the great masters of operational intelligence – but, you know, throughout my career, I had never heard of this guy, Colonel John Boyd, until I went to school with the Marines at the Marine Corps Command and Staff in 1996. Those guys were all over John Boyd. And once I learned about his process for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, I recognized it as the kind of stuff we were doing in Naval intelligence. We just did not have that model on it. And you told me earlier you saw his plaque at the Naval academy – and that just really gave me hope that his impact is enduring in the military.

Becker: Yeah. I’m glad the midshipmen know who he is and why it is important to follow the tenets of OODA. But to even shorten that acronym a bit. Rather than four words, two that come to mind are Decision Advantage.  Which is the goal of intelligence, right? It is not to sit back, collect and admire information and data. But it is to act on it. And that is Decision Advantage. And that is what Colonel Boyd was all about.

I loved as an Intel officer to sit down with a decision-maker and say, here are the facts. Here is what I think, separate. here is what I do not know. Right? So there is some risk management involved and here is what I recommend. And to be part of that decision cycle in uniform, whether it was the profession of arms and the execution of U.S. national security strategy or in a C-suite, right, as we are going to embark upon a new adventure, with some significant resource outlays perhaps, but understanding the risk, understanding the reward and the desired outcome.  And then when you put the plan in place, that is when you apply the teamwork tone, tenacity – T3 – to tie it all up.

“…tenacity is much more than just endurance, right? It is perseverance with purpose. It is grit. It is resolve…”

Gourley: So now we have talked a bit about operational intelligence and decision advantage. And one of the things you have done to help explain leadership to people like me and everybody else is you talk about this concept of T3. and you do it consistently. You talk about teamwork, tone, tenacity, and you hit this lesson repeatedly, and it is starting to sink in with me. It is really having an effect and I am starting to get it, but I want to ask in your words, what do you mean by T3? What is it?

Becker: T3 – teamwork, tone, and tenacity. It is my credo. It is my Maxim. These were the characteristics of the greatest leaders and the highest performing teams that I ever saw in peace crisis and combat over 30 years in uniform. They are mutually reinforcing. It is a short, actionable, memorable, as we called it in uniform, commander’s intent. I had the opportunity to share it with the units that I was associated with. It is a triangle. It is not always an equal lateral triangle. Sometimes there is a need to put more emphasis on one of those three T’s compared to the others. But now that I’m in the private sector, I see that all three translate to the corporate pillars of performance, productivity, and profit as well.

So T3 is the name of my consultancy. It is a platform for my speaking, whether it is organizational development, individual coaching, motivational, or inspirational speaking, or national security or cybersecurity consult. That is how we will work on things.  The why and the what we fill in along the way. It has also served as a framework for me when I was undergoing a stage four bone marrow cancer treatment all through 2015. I was enduring extreme adversity – on the ropes a couple of times. This gave me something to fall back on. Something I knew professionally, but I could apply it to my personal circumstances as well.

Bob, I needed to create a new team with medical professionals to understand what was happening. I needed to generate my own morale because my wife and I were up against the wall and the outcomes were uncertain and we needed to fight like we had not fought before. So, tenacity is much more than just endurance, right? It is perseverance with purpose. It is grit. It is resolve. It is putting it all together to achieve the desired outcome and realizing that you may have to go over, or around, underneath, or through an obstacle on the way. So it is a framework for life in addition to a framework for business.

Watch or Listen to the Full Interviews:

OODA Loop – Former CIA Officer Rob Richer on the Geopolitical Landscape, Leadership Lessons Learned, and Supporting Decision-makers

OODAcast: Rear Admiral Paul Becker, USN (ret) on leadership in the modern age

OODA Network Interview: Paul Becker

Related Resources:

Mitch Rapp Series

A State of Mind: Faith and the CIA

A Quiet Cadence: A Novel

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future

Word of Honor Paul Becker’s consultancy

The Intelligent Enterprise Series: Special reports from OODA focused on corporate intelligence

Useful Standards For Corporate Intelligence: Based on lessons learned from the US intelligence community and corporate America

Optimizing Corporate Intelligence: Tips and best practices and actionable recommendations to make intelligence programs better.

A Practitioner’s View of Corporate Intelligence: insights aimed at corporate strategists seeking competitive advantage through better and more accurate decision-making.

An Executive’s Guide To Cognitive Bias in Decision Making: Cognitive Bias and the errors in judgement they produce are seen in every aspect of human decision-making, including in the business world. Companies that have a better understanding of these cognitive biases can optimize decision making at all levels of the organization, leading to better performance in the market.

Other recent OODAcast thematic posts 

OODA Loop – Omand and Medina on Disinformation, Cognitive Bias, Cognitive Traps and Decision-making

Clapper and Ashley on Joint Ops/Intel Operations, Decision-making, the History and Future of Intelligence and Cyber Threats

OODAcast 9/11 Perspectives 

Decision-Making Inside the CIA Counterterrorism Center Before, During, and After 9/11

A CIA Officer and Delta Force Operator Share Perspectives on 9/11

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.