by Major John T. Chenery

Although we have faced transna- tional and asymmetric threats since the birth of our nation, many intelligence professionals and operators still do not understand the terms and concepts involved. This article will explain these threats, why we care, what we (collectively) are doing about them, and what you can and should be doing as an intelligence professional. These threats are not new, what is new is our recent focus on them as priorities. I will also show that we have an adequate structure in place to address these threats, but should be doing more to educate our- selves, our soldiers, and our supported commanders. This education must include mechanisms for better information sharing as well as adjustments to our doctrine and the way we present this doctrine relative to the asymmetrical battlefield and transnational threats.

What Are They?

As you can see on the map at the centerfold of this issue of the Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, the world is a dangerous place engaged in continuous warfare and plagued by transnational threats and dangers. What does that mean? First, we must clarify the terms involved, as this gives us a common frame of reference when analyzing a mission or concept. One of our challenges is that although we in the national security structure all have a common purpose—to ensure our nation’s se- curity—we do not speak the same language or use the same terminology. DIA defines “transnational threats” as any transnational (across international borders) activity that threatens the national security (see Figure 1 for specifics).1

The National Security Strategy includes in its definition of transnational threats the illicit trafficking of arms, international organized crime, uncontrolled refugee migra- tion, and environmental damage. It identifies the areas of special concern as terrorist use of WMD and threats  to  the  national  informa- tion systems and other critical infrastructure as dangerous new threats. 2

Before we discuss the specifics, consider some appropriate definitions from a U.S. Government- issue dictionary. “Transnational does not appear; however, “trans” (across, beyond, etc.) matched with “national” (pertaining to or belonging to a nation) generally gives us a working definition as “something that is beyond what pertains to one nation.” Just as ambiguous and open to interpretation are the definitions of a “Threat” (danger, menace, expression of intent to harm, etc.) and a “Danger” (exposure to vulnerability to harm or risk, etc.).3 Transnational threats therefore can translate to any issue or challenge deemed a threat by our national command authority (NCA). Unfortunately, this does not narrow the focus for intelligence operators attempting to protect the force and mitigate threats to our forces in the field and our national security. Transnational threats previously involved the Communist espionage threat or conventional military attack. Today we operate under the perception that since the collapse of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), no other nation can or will pose a conventional threat to our homeland, so we can turn to the more likely asymmetric threat scenarios posed by our adversaries and competitors. Today’s threats are also different in that they are much more challenging to detect, deter, and control.

  Proliferation of WMD. The proliferation issue is the most critical transnational threat we face, as the potential ramifications are the most severe. Specifically, it encompasses the spread of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons and the missiles used to deliver them. “Nonproliferation (NP) is using the full range of political, economic, and military tools to prevent or reverse the trend and to protect our- selves. “Counterproliferation (CP) is our full range of passive and active measures to address this threat. This threat is also one of the newest due to the fall of the FSU as there has been both evidence and allegation of unsecured fissile materials and of the smuggling of these materials. The smuggling issue is particularly threatening considering that the rogue states and terrorist organizations (both foreign and domestic) may be interested in and capable of providing vast sums of money for WMD. There are reports of tons of weapons-grade fissionable material and thousands of warheads in Russian facilities less secure than many U.S. homes.4 In 1993 Russian counterintelligence (CI) reported 900 thefts from military and nuclear camps and 700 of related technology.5 To date none of the reported cases or seizures have threatened U.S. soil, but the danger of even a single diversion of this equipment is self-evident. As Dr. William Perry, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, said, “I know of no problem with which [the DOD] will be confronted more important than the problem of the proliferation of WMD.”

International Organized Crime. IOC is another transnational threat rising in the level of concern at the NCA level because some IOC elements have attained such status that they now are able to influence the actions of nation-states. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines “organized crime” as a continuing criminal conspiracy having a firm organizational structure, a conspiracy fed by fear and corruption.6 The IOC threat is an example of a threat not traditionally in our lane, but one which quickly rises to importance when confronted with the possibility of IOC involvement in weapons (particularly WMD) and drug trafficking. The intelligence operators must remember that the provisions of the Posse Comitatus Act limiting the use of the Army to enforce civil laws and the laws regulating our support to civilian law enforcement agencies are still very much in effect.7 Participation in the IOC Task Forces is the primary means by which the Department of Defense (DOD) assists other agencies in the fight against IOC.

Drug Trafficking. The DOD has had extensive experience since 1989 in the counterdrug (CD) arena with our JTF-6, Joint Interagency Task Force–East (Key West, Forida), and Joint Interagency Task Force–West (Alameda, California),8 as well as numerous multilateral and bilateral arrangements with other nations, particularly in the Americas. “Counterdrug opera- tions address the full range of passive and active measures to fight the “drug war.” As with the other threat areas, you should remember that your operations must always be in compliance with the U.S. Army Intelligence Activities regulation, 381-10.9 If you have questions seek guidance from the Staff Judge Advocate (SJA).

International Terrorism. U.S. law defines “terrorism as the “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”10International” simply means that the act involves the citizens or territory of more than one nation. Terrorism counteraction has two basic components, “anti- terrorism (AT) (defensive and force protection measures to reduce vulnerability) and “counter- terrorism” (CT) (includes offensive measures). Within the DOD, these threats primarily fall under the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low- Intensity Conflict (ASD/SOLIC).

Information Warfare (IW). “Information  warfare”  consists  of information operations (IO) conducted during times of crisis or conflict to achieve or promote specific objectives over a specified adversary to affect his information infrastructure while protecting one’s own. There are many different and varied aspects of IO and IW, which incorporate everything from psychological operations (PSYOPS) and electronic attack (EA) to system penetrations. With the explosion of IO and related technologies, we have created interdependencies   in  our   critical   National Information Infrastructures (NII) that present challenges for protection measures. In the context of a transnational threat or danger, we speak primarily of an adversary’s capability to physically destroy or penetrate and manipulate our crucial assets, databases, and infrastructures.11 Obviously IO permeates everything we do in today’s information age. Although the definitions vary, the concept remains essentially consistent—the use of technology and information-based systems as weapons of warfare.  

The Year 2000 (Y2K) (“K” stands for a thousand) issue is another phenomenon you must understand as it is critical to the NII protection piece.  Computer codes up until recently were written with the two- digit year code based on the 20th century. The “non-compliant” (not re-coded) computer would interpret the entry “00” for next year’s 2000 as 1900. Obviously, this would create computer chaos, so the huge effort underway recently has been to rectify this issue.  Secretary of Defense William Cohen briefed on 22 July 1999 that all of the DOD’s computers would be ready (or Y2K “compliant”) by 31 January 2000. 12

Transnational dangers” is another concept we will encounter; they usually include any other challenges that could cross our borders or threaten our interests. These include—

Mercenary activities are also included in the other area often referred to as “transnational issues,” especially when they threaten to shift the balance of power in a region. These organizations (private military companies) have increased considerably in recent years and their loyalties and intentions are often extremely suspect. Remember as you analyze a situation that one man’s mercenary is another man’s contractor. Other examples of these issues include the competition for natural resources (particularly water, oil, minerals, and fishing territories), migration, hate groups, and manmade environmental threats. Certainly these “issues and dangers” can be considered very serious and could develop into or contribute to transnational threats; however, they are beyond the scope of this article.

You will see that many sources consider these threats and dangers “Asymmetric Challenges.” That is, any unconventional or inexpensive method or means used to avoid our strengths, and exploit our vulnerabilities. Such activities could include threats to our critical information systems or other infrastructures, using commercial or foreign space-based assets, or denying our access to our strategic resources and assets. These activities will usually occur in such a manner that they leave us unable to respond in kind.

Asymmetric warfare,” therefore, would be an attack by an opponent (asymmetric enemy) using these means or other methods (transnational threats, dangers, issues, and challenges) against our weaknesses. The asymmetric enemy has several advantages, particularly if we are not dealing with a nation-state. Our opponents may not accept the restrictions of traditional rules of engagement, they do not have to coordinate their efforts with other agencies, and are not subject to the internal constraints of a huge bureaucracy. In many situations they have no actual homeland and may not choose to respect any type of boundary (political, legal, moral, or organizational). Furthermore, they have their own agendas and do not adhere to international conventions or norms of  behavior. This brings us to the concept of “Asynchronous Warfare” (not occurring at the same time, rate, period) which involves an enemy delaying or timing an attack to best exploit a vulnerability.

Why Do We Care?

The “so-what” test for our involvement in transnational threats is clear and easy, particularly when analyzing the proliferation danger. Consider the President’s declaration that—

The proliferation of [WMD]… constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States, and [I] hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.13

As an intelligence soldier that message is crystal-clear to me.

Furthermore, our national security strategy identifies our nation’s goal to use whatever tools it can to—

Our nation has a big toolbox with many tool sets and the Army is only one of the sets available to work the issues and challenges of transnational threats. On the intelligence side, we must get out front, while staying in our lane, to protect our forces from these transnational actors and the threat they represent on the asymmetric battlefield [which, by the way, you are in right now].

What Are We Doing about It?

Do not think that we are not doing anything about these dangers; quite the contrary, any time so many smart people are looking at issues, especially ones so critical, things are going to get done. The challenges we do face, however, are that we are a part of a huge organization, which traditionally resists change (the nature of a bureaucracy). Change is especially difficult for us in this arena because we are talking about fundamental revisions in the way we view and address threats and potential battlefield environments. However, do not think that this author advocates sitting by and assuming someone is out there addressing your issue—find out! Get on the INTELINK (Intelligence Link), call the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) (see Figure 2) or the senior intelligence officer of your organization—get involved and start a dialog. We have to be more open and scholarly in our discussions about the threats we face and those we see in our future.

Within the DOD, the response to transnational threats is part of what we refer to as our “core business.” Not only are threats to our national security from outside hostile elements inherent in our basic mission, but these actors can seriously impact on our ability to perform our traditional role of fighting and winning our nation’s wars.15 The Defense Science Board reported on the DOD response to transnational threats and identified six primary elements of a response strategy to strengthen our capabilities:

In order to accomplish all of this, our response requires a great deal of interaction between our numerous governmental agencies (national and local) and our external allies. Actually, the DOD is the one agency or entity in the U.S. Government with the capability, resources, and expertise to counter many of these threats. The most notable assets DOD has to offer in the fight against transnational threats are our intelligence resources and solders. These make us a significant tool set in the overall equation but we are not alone.

As we look at these “new” and “emerging” threats, we see that there is nothing really new about them. Criminals, tyrants, warlords, and warmongers have always searched for new and ingenious ways and means to seize power and money. These emerging threats are nothing more than a continued evolution of threats keeping pace (and unfortunately at times setting the pace) with new technologies. What is new with many of these threat areas is the arrival of the DOD on the scene, or our focus on these issues based on their new status as threats to national security. In our quest for data on transnational threats, we must be sensitive to the fact that often other Federal agencies perceive us as the “big green bull in a china shop” on a quest for another enemy. We must also be careful working these issues, as it is easy to cross jurisdictional (and legal) boundaries resulting in damaged relations and potential legal issues for those involved.

For our DOD law enforcement entities (Criminal Investigation Division, Provost Marshal, and CI Agents), the transnational threat scenarios are familiar, as are the working relationships with the numerous other Federal agencies. In Army CI, our agents have the specific responsibility of executing the CI mission in concert and coordination with other members of the foreign CI community to oppose foreign intelligence services (FISs). During peacetime and conflict, CI aggressively detects, identifies, and assesses, then counters, neutralizes, or exploits the FIS collection efforts, sabotage, subversion, sedition, terrorist activities, and assassination efforts of foreign powers, organizations, or persons directed against the DOD.16

Since we are essential team players within the national structure to combat these threats (as part of an interagency, joint, or combined task force (TF)), it is important for us to become familiar with the structure involved. Numerous U.S. joint or interagency bodies formed nationally and regionally to address these issues. They include the Non-Proliferation Center (NPC) under the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), the counternarcotics centers, organized crime and terrorism TFs, and the Y2K TF, to only name a very few. There are also numerous multilateral conventions, which establish international protocols, and bilateral extradition treaties particularly related to international terrorism. With most of these threats, DOD is not in the lead, but a supporting arm of another Federal agency. This is theconcept of the “lead Federal agency” (LFA). For example, in the war on drugs and international crime, the Justice Department has the lead, with the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as the lead agencies. With international terrorism, it is the U.S. Department of State (DOS) overseas and the FBI domestically.


The intent in forming the various TFs is to break down the traditional interagency and departmental barriers and attempt to match the threats’ flexibility. Our huge bureaucracies do not respond to anything quickly or very efficiently, so the DOD and other Federal agencies created TFs charged with the mission to go after their respective threats aggressively and directly.

Within the DOD, the appropriate Joint Staff-level area assumes responsibility regarding these threats; for example, the section responsible for combating terrorism is the J-34 under the J3 (Operations). Regionally, each commander in chief (CINC) has the primary responsibility, working with the appropriate U.S. and host nation agencies, country teams, and ambassadors. For intelligence at the Joint level, the J2 and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) are our focal points.

Our response also includes what we are doing to train our intelligence force and equip them with the adequate data to address these issues. As Major General John D. Thomas, Jr., pointed out in his “Vantage Point” column in this magazine, our overall training and doctrine base have not kept up with our forces in the field. I contend that even the intelligence elements that are directly involved in working transnational threats can do better at capturing and sharing lessons learned between themselves and with the rest of the intelligence community.

It is apparent that with our current structure, intelligence doctrine cannot keep pace with the changes we are encountering, and we probably should not expect it to right now. However, we must re-look the way we present our doctrine and share our tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) and lessons learned either through print or electronic media. We should look to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) for a model program transforming doctrine into a more interactive medium. Their system employs a tiered approach using compact disc technology that gives training centers the capability to update master online references and field units the capability to update their TTP. Their system of feedback loops resulted in accelerated learning and improved management while standardizing methodologies across the USCG.17

I encourage those involved in or with exposure to these TFs and centers to share your experience with our doctrine writers at the schoolhouse and with those of us in the field. We must fully exploit the available communication means and use them as positive educational tools. We also have outstanding educational opportunities through our programs at the Joint Military Intelligence College (JMIC) in the DIA. The JMIC provides the DOD and other Federal agencies with trained “strategic thinkers” conditioned to “think outside the box” through the Post- or Under-Graduate Intelligence Programs (PGIP/UGIP).

What Can and Should You Do?

If you want to fight “druggies,” join the DEA. If you want to catch criminals, join the FBI. If you want to be a humanitarian, join the Red Cross. However, if you want to be a military intelligence professional, then continue to seek knowledge, study, share experience and knowledge, and above all be proactive and aggressive! Remember, you are supposed to be a warfighter (not a crime-fighter or Velcro™-wearing superhero—just be a good MI soldier). Keep abreast of the latest technological developments and the current transnational threat situations, but also remain focused on your supported commander and your mission at hand. If you are a leader, then adapt yourself, educate your soldiers, and engage in the dialog. Most of us are not great or deep thinkers or proficient articulators, but we can make small contributions to the collective effort. If you have information to share for the benefit of the intelligence community, either use the MIPB with your own articles or send your comments in a letter to the editor to clarify a specific issue. For those of you with insight you are unable to share via open sources, consider adding to the wealth of knowledge available on the INTELINK.


This article only scratches the surface of the transnational threat issues. There are literally hundreds of references and numerous agencies and sub-offices involved within the DOD and the rest of the national structure. Our recent guidance on the evolving threat environments and the nature of the future threat advises us to become comfortable with the ambiguity and adapt to change. So, do take the time to educate yourself on the issues and adapt to changes, but as an intelligence professional you cannot ever afford to be comfortable with ambiguity.

Transnational threats are controllable and the battles are winnable. We are the most powerful and competent military force and political entity in the world. We have proven that no threat force can compete with us on the modern conventional battlefield when we take the gloves off, and we have forced our competitors to either seek legal means to compete or to resort to asymmetric measures. With the proper motivation and engagement of our collective intelligence capabilities, we can win these asymmetric fights—every time! Y


1. Per conversation with Major Janice Mondale at the DIA Transnational Warfare Group.

2. National Security Strategy (The White House, October 1998).

3. American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982).

4. Seldon, John, “Conference Findings on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program: Donor and Recipient Country Perspectives,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1995, page 66.

5. Cameron, Gavin, “Nuclear Terrorism: A Real Threat?”, Janes Intelligence Review, 1 September 1996, page 443.

6. “Hearing on Russian Organized Crime,” statement by Louis J. Freeh, Director, FBI, before the House Committee on International Relations, Hearing on Russian Organized Crime, 30 April 1996.

7. Posse Comitatus Act, Number 18, U.S. Code Section 1385, and the Military Support to Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies, Chapter 18, Title 10, U.S. Code Sections 371-380 and 124.

8.The Joint Interagency Task Force–East (Key West, Florida) and JITF-West (Alameda, California) formerly comprised Joint Task Force-Bravo.

9. Army Regulation 381-10, U.S. Army Intelligence Activities, Headquarters, Department of the Army (DA), 1 July 1984.

10. International Terrorism, Title 22 U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d).

11. DOD Directive S-3600.1, Information Operations, undated copy.

12. Washington, Associated Press, Cohen: “Pentagon on Track for Y2K Compliance,” The Leaf Chronicle, 23 July 1999.

13. Clinton, William, Executive Order 12938, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, 14 November 1994.

14. National Security Strategy.

15. DOD Responses to Transnational Threats, Defense Science Board, October 1997.

16. Army Regulation 381-20, The Army Counterintelligence Program, Headquarters, DA, 15 November 1993 Paragraph 1-5a, and 1-5b.

17. Clay, John, “The Fifth Service Looks at Doctrine,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Number 19 (reprint from winter 96-97), Summer 1998, pages 63-67.