Pacific Council Newsroom Publishes Article on SPSN: Member Launches Project to Protect Conflict Zone Allies

Published on the Pacific Council’s Newsroom on July 16, 2018.

By: Sam Romano, Summer Researcher

The project to Strategically Protect Soft Networks (SPSN), in conjunction with the Pacific Council on International Policy, recently conducted a roundtable to facilitate discussion regarding the protection of the United States’ soft networks in conflict zones.

Soft networks refer to indigenous partners in diplomatic, military, intelligence, and law enforcement operations, and often include interpreters, local business contractors, politicians, teachers, intellectuals, religious leaders, interpreters, and others deemed vital to U.S. national interests, as well as their families. These local-national partners are integral to the United States’ counterterrorism and counterinsurgency mission, and provide invaluable support to American diplomatic and military efforts in conflict zones—often in spite of tremendous danger from adversaries of the United States.

Despite their contribution, the United States has critically undervalued the necessity of soft networks, as well as the security local-national partners sacrifice in order to support American missions. Since the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States has effectuated only one measure to protect these networks, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which allowed interpreters, a small subset of soft networks, who aided U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to immigrate to the United States.

Strategically Protect Soft Networks (SPSN) is an effort by Pacific Council member and retired U.S. Army Colonel Steve Miska to create a public-private enterprise that engages the U.S. policy development community and infuses creativity into the development of policy measures that will effectively protect soft networks.

While the SIV has allowed a tiny percentage of local-national allies to immigrate to the United States, it fails to address the broader strategic challenge of instilling resiliency in U.S. soft networks. In addition, many local-nationals consider the immigration process tedious, complicated, and lengthy, and face incredible danger throughout the process. The SIV does not effectively protect soft networks in conflict zones, as many local-nationals have serious consternation regarding such extreme relocation measures, and the SIV only applies to a particular subset of soft networks. Moreover, local-nationals who do receive the opportunity to immigrate to the United States face incredible assimilation challenges in the United States and other foreign countries, and are often subject to uncertain legal statuses and entitlements.

SPSN is an effort by Pacific Council member and retired U.S. Army Colonel Steve Miska to create a public-private enterprise that engages the U.S. policy development community and infuses creativity into the development of policy measures that will effectively protect soft networks. Miska served multiple combat tours in Iraq, and, after being exposed to the extreme sectarian violence that plagued those who aided U.S. forces, set out to aid the local-national partners in his brigade.

Under the SIV, Miska helped over three dozen interpreters relocate to the United States, some of whom eventually reenlisted in the U.S. military. Following the conclusion of his third combat tour, Miska returned to the United States, intent on developing policy measures that could protect local-national allies on a larger scale. SPSN was created with this goal in mind, and aims to expand the protection and insulation measures available to practitioners in current and future conflict zones. Solidifying U. S. commitment to protecting soft networks strengthens the United States’ ability to conduct successful national security operations abroad, and aligns policy with American values and the military ethos of leave no one behind.

SPSN has committed to convening roundtable discussions to illuminate these best practices and facilitate involvement by the entirety of the foreign policy establishment.

After relocating to California, Miska sought out avenues to continue SPSN’s involvement with the think-tank and academic communities, and turned to the Pacific Council. Part of the Pacific Council’s mission is to help members impact global affairs. As such, the two were well suited for partnership, and the Council has proven integral to SPSN’s initiatives and management.

Additionally, the Pacific Council is currently hosting a research intern (this author) who is examining practices used by non-traditional foreign policy sectors—such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), media organizations, and non-profit organizations—to protect soft networks. The research will be instrumental in reevaluating the methods the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of State, and the broader interagency can use to effectively protect local-national allies.

To this end, SPSN has committed to convening roundtable discussions to illuminate these best practices and facilitate involvement by the entirety of the foreign policy establishment. The Pacific Council recently hosted the SPSN’s first roundtable with representatives from the NGO community, the media, the LA District Attorney’s office, and the Secret Service. These varied perspectives informed SPSN’s research regarding protecting local assets in conflict zones and dangerous situations, and further informed SPSN’s awareness of NGOs’ and the media’s identity protection and relocation methods, as well as of law enforcement agencies’ protective measures that insulate confidential witnesses and informants.

SPSN will incorporate information gleaned from roundtables and interviews into its research this summer, ultimately hoping that the United States will increase awareness of the risks and contributions enabled by local-national cooperation.

Stemming from the roundtable, the SPSN team discovered two crucial research avenues to pursue:

  1. the necessity to protect local-national allies’ cybersecurity, particularly ensuring their social media presences are free of references to affiliation with western organizations, and
  2. the need to set proper expectations when developing relationships, in order to better educate local-national allies on the risks of being affiliated with U.S. military and diplomatic forces, as well as the limited scope of the United States’ protection abilities.

The ability to scale-up measures that are meant to protect confidential witnesses and intelligence agency assets continues to be a fundamental challenge in the SPSN’s research. However, under the overarching mission of the research, SPSN aims to select best practices from different sectors in multiple conditions and environments and develop a set of best practices that can be applied independently, depending on the situational necessity and the practitioner’s goals.

The project to Strategically Protect Soft Networks will incorporate information gleaned from roundtables and interviews into its research this summer, ultimately hoping that the United States will increase awareness of the risks and contributions enabled by local-national cooperation, as well as the national security imperative to protect its soft networks.

June 2018 Update

From an email sent out to supporters June 26, 2018:
I want to update you on the project to Strategically Protect Soft Networks (SPSN) supported by No One Left Behind and many other organizations. This month, we welcomed two new researchers to our team for the summer. Alek Ball is a University of San Diego Master’s student in Peace and Justice Studies, and will be housed at the College for International Security Affairs at National Defense University. Sam Romano just graduated U.C. Berkeley with a degree in political science and will be housed at the Pacific Council on International Policy (PCIP) in Los Angeles. Please join me in welcoming Alek and Sam and feel free to stop by and visit them this summer! We are grateful to the academic institutions that support our research, in addition to the gracious hosts at PCIP and CISA.

In late May, we hosted a roundtable at the Pacific Council. The roundtable included representatives from the NGO community, media, Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, the Secret Service, and others. The event aimed to inspire thoughts and ideas in the vein of our research — protecting our nations soft networks abroad. Participants provided a wealth of recommendations, such as assuring our networks of the risks and rewards of their service, protecting confidentiality and technological shortcomings, and interagency interoperability. Our team will incorporate these suggestions into research this summer and continue harvesting best practices from these institutions and others.

Finally, I’m very excited to announce the arrival of our project’s website! It is brand new and still in its nascent stages, but we envision using the website as a home base for our research and publications. You can visit the website at: www.protectingsoftnetworks.org

Thank you so much for your support. We look forward to sharing more updates with as the research progresses.