If you want an idea of what "cyber warfare" means to the US Navy, check out this short video about the Tenth Fleet, home to the Navy's cyber warriors.
It's a bit melodramatic--though not so bad on production values. But it tells you how the Navy sees its role in the "fifth domain" of combat; protecting networks, stopping attacks, and, when necessary, pairing cyber offense with "kinetic" military force.
"Cyberspace is where the battles of the future will be won or lost," says the film's narrator. It's a hotly debated point, of course. But if you want a window into why the Navy--or at least the Tenth Fleet--believes this is true, have a look.
The United Kingdom is embarking on a national program to train the next generation of cyber warriors to protect the country's infrastructure.
From the Guardian:
"The UK is now so short of experts in cybersecurity, they could soon command footballers' salaries... Ministers support plans for a national competition for schools in the hope of encouraging teenagers, especially girls, to become so-called "cyber Jedi"--defending firms, banks and government departments from an ever increasing number of online attacks."
Two thousand schools will participate in a pilot project beginning in September, as part of Cyber Security Challenge UK, the Guardian reports. Then, the program would roll out across England and Wales.
Stephanie Daman, the group's director, tells the newspaper, "Kids need to know there is a real career in this, because they have no concept at the moment. And we need to spark their interest. It's a profession like law or accountancy, with well-paid salaries.
"A lot of companies are desperate to hire people for the roles in cybersecurity, but they have not been able to find the number of qualified recruits. There is a huge gap in terms of the number of properly qualified people in this area, and we need to tap into talent we know is out there."
In a sign of how seriously the government takes that shortfall, Michael Gove, the UK education secretary, recently "ripped up" school IT curriculum "in part because it does not have a cybersecurity element," according to the Guardian.
There's a similar and growing effort on this side of the pond to train the next generation of "cyber ninjas," as some involved in the effort like to call them. High schools have teamed up with technology advocacy groups to recruit more young students into college computer science programs, with an eye towards working in the cyber security industry. Rhode Island congressman Jim Langevin, for instance, has organized high-school hacker competitions in his state.
In December, the SANS Institute, which trains military and intelligence personnel in the cyber arts, sponsored an international cyber competition at the Washington Hilton. A group of high schoolers were selected to compete against the world's best hackers in the early rounds.
The National Security Agency also sponsors a nation-wide contest in which teams from the military service academies face off against some of the NSA's best cyber warriors. Cadets at the Air Force Academy, which now has a separate educational track for cyber warfare, recently took first place.
As in the UK, there aren't enough people in the workforce right now with the high-level of skill that the US government demands, hence many of these efforts to go down to the roots of the education system. But you're going to see this demand coming more from the private sector, as financial services companies, utilities, media organizations and others increasingly find themselves the targets of malicious hackers and are virtually powerless to do anything about it. They're not going to wait around for the government to protect them. They'll hire their own cyber armies to do that job.
In 2002, members of the Pentagon's Criminal Investigation Task Force sent reports about the interrogations of prisoners Guantanamo Bay back to Washington. There, a small group of researchers in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency applied cutting-edge data mining tools to the reports in order to find connections between the detainees and terrorists. But instead of finding links to al Qaeda or militants, the analysts discovered that some of the detainees were innocent and had been captured in Afghanistan without cause or evidence.
Far from speeding up the release of the detainees, this information was used as a kind of baseline for what a "non-terrorist" looked like. The data tools then were re-calibrated to disregard certain attributes in the interrogation reports and to search for others that were deemed germane to the interrogators' work. The innocent prisoners--termed "dirt farmers" in military parlance--remained at Guantanamo for the time being.
I reported this information in my book, The Watchers, which came out in 2010. I mention it again today in light of a post by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, which points back to an earlier article by Jason Leopold about an important chapter in the Guantanamo saga that you may have forgotten, or overlooked at the time.
Top Bush administration officials were aware, as early as August 2002, that the "vast majority" of the initial group of 742 detainees at Guantanamo were innocent of any connection to terrorism. That was the sworn statement of Lawrence Wilkerson, formerly the right-hand-man to Colin Powell at the State Department, in a 2010 lawsuit by a former Guantanamo detainee. The innocent men at Guantanamo, Wilkerson said, were swept up in a harried and "incompetent" process that produced no evidence for the basis of their detention.
This made news at the time. And though it wasn't exactly a revelation that there were innocent people in Guantanamo, Wilkerson advanced the story by swearing that senior officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were aware of the problem and did nothing about it. Their view, according to Wilkerson, was that "innocent people languishing in Guantánamo for years was justified by the broader war on terror and the capture of the small number of terrorists who were responsible for the September 11 attacks, or other acts terrorism."
Friedersdorf asks why this story hasn't gotten more traction, and says the next time Powell appears in public, journalists should ask him to respond to what Wilkerson said. (He was asked at the time but said he hadn't read the full statement.) I'd be more interested in what Cheney and Rumsfeld have to say.
I don't have a great answer for why this story hasn't been repeated more often. But I think it's important to note that Wilkerson and other senior Bush administration officials were not the only ones who knew about the innocent detainees at Guantanamo. This extended down to the level of the interrogators themselves and to counterterrorism analysts. This was hardly a secret held at the highest reaches of power. It was a widely known fact, and at the time, little was done to address it.
(Also worth noting, a similar statement from Wilkerson, made in 2012, was attached to this declaration by an attorney for prisoners in Afghanistan.)
The protagonist of Alex Gibney's new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is ostensibly the Australian hacker Julian Assange, who founded the anti-secrecy organization and published the biggest trove of leaked classified documents in US history. He's not exactly a sympathetic character in Gibney's eyes. Assange's story comes across as a cautionary tale about narcissism, and the filmmaker ultimately concludes that WikiLeaks/Assange (they are one in the same) has become the very embodiment of the thing it set out to destroy: An autocratic regime that survives by cult of personality and, irony of all ironies, secrecy.
Gibney would have made a good film had he only offered that persuasive argument--which Assange's supporters will doubtless see as an unfair hack job by a documentarian who never even interviewed his subject. (More on why not here.) But Gibney went further than I'd expected by deeply and, at times, touchingly exploring the secondary character in this global power-drama, who turns out to be the real star of the show: Army Private Bradley Manning, the young man accused of providing WikiLeaks with thousands of classified military reports and diplomatic cables.
The film is hugely sympathetic to Manning, who, since the movie was finished, has pled guilty to misusing classified material. Gibney argues that even if Manning committed a crime, the fact that some of the government's own assessments have found no great national security harm came of the disclosure should mitigate Manning's punishment. Manning's detractors will doubtless see that as as the conclusion of a biased filmmaker, who set out to turn a criminal into a martyr for public transparency and accountability.
The funny thing is, that's the character I thought Assange would turn out to be in this movie. Instead, it's Manning whose struggle to expose secrets seems most genuine and complex, and most significant for national security policy. After all, Assange was the recipient of the secrets. Manning is the one who let them loose, and exposed unacceptable weaknesses is the military's own security regime in the process.
Gibney makes extensive use of instant messages that Manning exchanged about his disclosures with the hacker Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the authorities and, in the film's final moments, regrets having done so. Manning tries to explain why he would risk violating national security and his own freedom to tell the world about what he believes are grave injustices carried out by the US government.
"i...care?" Manning writes.
Gibney flashes this portion of the text on screen at various points, and he makes a motif of Manning's other personal struggles, including with his gender identity and his inability to fit in with his peers and his fellow soldiers. Manning says he is extremely isolated. Feels entirely alone. The release of the documents is a way to change the world for the better and to imprint himself on it--to matter.
Manning seems like an accidental radical. A smart computer geek who never quite fit in with his peers--too weak, too effeminate, maybe just too smart--but who finds himself in a position to bring important matters to light. Assange, however, seems to be in the game to fuel his own ego. He craves credit, even adulation, for bringing the mighty security state to his knees, but he pays no mind to the consequences. He tells us that he would even release information about how to make a deadly weapon that could kill innocent people.
The title of Gibney's film comes from one of his interview subjects, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, who describes the business model of the US intelligence community as, "We steal secrets." It's hard to escape the conclusion that Gibney sees Assange as a kind of thief. Or at the very least, a resident of the moral gray zone that's also inhabited by the CIA. Hayden essentially argues, We steal because it keeps people safe. Assange could amend that for WikiLeaks: We steal because it keeps people honest. Gibney doesn't conclude whether either end is justified by the means. But that central tension holds the film together, and it brings you right back to Manning and his decision.
Some viewers will bristle at the suggestion that WikiLeaks' global campaign of radical transparency is, at base, simple theft. Is what Assange does, receiving secret information and publishing it, fundamentally so different than what journalists do? As a journalist, I wished Gibney had made more of an effort to address that quandary. But that could take another film.
I think it's enough that We Steal Secrets asks us to consider all these questions through the story of one deeply troubled and conflicted young man, who may spend the next several years of his life in prison. Gibney doesn't excuse what Manning did. But he tries to understand why he did it, in a far more human way than others who have tackled this story.
In 2006, as the war in Iraq was reaching a fever pitch, a Pentagon employee working on special operations teamed up with a Czech technology entrepreneur who had dabbled in the porn business and devised what they considered an ingenious plan. Knowing that video games played on mobile phones were popular throughout the Middle East, the team wanted to build games that contained positive messages about the United States. But the games weren't just about propaganda. Every download would give the United States a window into the digital comings and goings of whomever was playing it it, a cyber foothold that could allow American spies to potentially track and collect information on thousands of people.
The propaganda/spy campaign was dubbed Native Echo, and it was conceived by Michael Furlong, a colorful civilian employee working for US Special Operations Command, and a company called U-Turn, which was headquartered in Prague and founded by a pro-American Czech national named Jan Obrman, whose parents had fled the Soviets in the 1960s. The idea was to target Middle Eastern teenagers in "high risk/unfriendly areas," and over time to integrate the US messages "into the lifestyle of the targets," ideally to make them more amenable to US armed forces, and to counter the rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists.
The full account of this previously unreported intelligence operation is found in the new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. The book explores the ways in which the CIA--which before 9/11 had long been out of the business of killing people--and the US military--which had not been the domain of spies--have often changed roles over the past decade. It is filled with characters, like Furlong, who move between the membranes of these two worlds, and find themselves at home in either one.
Mazzetti writes that the first mobile game developed for Native Echo was modeled on the popular Call of Duty series. This new "shooter" game, Iraqi Hero, "took the player on an odyssey through the streets of Baghdad, shooting up insurgents trying to kill civilians in a wave of terrorist attacks," Mazzetti writes. "The goal was to reach an Iraqi police station and deliver the secret plans for an upcoming insurgent attack, plans that had been stolen from a militia group's headquarters."
Native Echo was timed to coincide with the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Its "main focus was on combatting the flood of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and parts of North Africa," Mazzetti writes.
As an intelligence collection program, Native Echo was both broad and audacious:
"Thousands of people would be sending their mobile-phone numbers and other identifying information to U-Turn, and that information could be stored in military databases and used for complex data-mining operations carried out by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. The spies wouldn't have to go hunting for information; it would come to them."
In order to hide the US role in the scheme, "Furlong convinced [U-Turn's] executives to create an offshore company that could receive Pentagon contracts but not be tied directly to the United States," Mazzetti writes. Obrman set up JD Media Transmission Systems, LLC, incorporated in the Seychelles Islands, in order to receive money transfers from the US through a foreign bank account.
Furlong was a master at working the byzantine procurement bureaucracy to further his covert plans. "Taking advantage of a law that allows firms owned by Native Americas to get a leg up when bidding on government contracts, Furlong arranged for U-Turn to partner with Wyandotte Net Tel, a firm located on a tiny speck of tribal lands in eastern Oklahoma," Mazzetti writes.
U-Turn developed two more games for Native Echo--Oil Tycoon, which challenged players to protect vital pipelines and infrastructure, and City Mayor, in which players became urban planners and rebuilt a fictional city destroyed by terrorists. The team came up with various ways to distribute the games, including by hand via memory cards, which could be sold or given away in markets and bazaars, Mazzetti reports. "The way to get far wider distribution, however, was to post the games on Web sites and blogs frequented by gamers in the Middle East. This allowed [Special Operations Command] to monitor how many people were downloading the games and, more important, who was doing it."
Mazzetti concludes that it's hard to know how far Native Echo went, and even how many companies like U-Turn were hired to create propaganda for the military. Furlong came up with other wild ideas, some of which were never approved. But the relationship between the military and U-Turn blossomed, and it offers a concrete illustration of how the armed forces evolved into a network of spies.
The Way of the Knife is full of stories like this, of people living on the edge between two worlds, frequently not sure how to operate on turf that had long been forbidden. The book is a culmination of Mazzetti's years of reporting on the intersections of the military and the CIA, and it is a forceful, compelling articulation of a new way of war. Mazzetti's reporting has been among some of the most important, in that it has shed light on usually hidden practices, particularly the use of brutal interrogations on terrorist detainees. As the book unfolds, we see how the 9/11 attacks shake the CIA out of their Cold War culture of espionage, and turn the agency into a highly-efficient global killing force.
I spoke with Mazzetti yesterday as he was heading off to New York to begin a book tour. He said that he began working after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that the first few months of writing were filled with some anxiety, since his journalism beat was now the hottest around. Lots of his competitors were writing books and long magazine articles about the raid. But Mazzetti said that he wanted to write something broader, to show how the long arc of the war on terror has fundamentally changed how the US fights.
"I covered the Pentagon for five years, and then I have been covering the intelligence world since 2006," Mazzetti said. "And really, I realized that I was kind of covering the same beat. The lines that existed before 9/11, where the military did this and the spies did that, really have blurred."
Mazzetti said he's glad to be back at the Times after a 15-month book leave. He had missed the collegiality of an office. Writing a book is solitary business. But in the midst of the project, Mazzetti and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed Max, their first child.
"I can't wait until he is old enough to read this book," Mazzetti writes in his acknowledgments. "I cherish the memories of the mornings we spent together during the first few months, and of the smiles he delivered when I came home at the end of particularly frustrating days of book writing. They put things in perspective."
“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition.” --Monty Python
When the ships were sunk and the dead counted, this much was clear: The most expensive war game in history had not gone according to plan.
In July 2002, the U.S. armed forces staged a quarter-billion-dollar simulation of a war with a rogue Middle Eastern country in the Persian Gulf. Coming so close to a real war with Iraq, military planners hoped the exercise would be especially instructive. The game was played using some real people and equipment, but it was made more convincing through the application of Hollywood-style computer animation. Commanders watched on screens as huge numbers of troops prepared for battle, and as aircraft and ships deployed in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. side, or Blue Team, had spent months studying their adversary, the Red Team, They knew the size of Red’s land, sea, and air forces. Where all its command and control systems were located. They knew all the weak spots in its national infrastructure--the power grid, national communications systems. And because the Blue leaders believed they’d accounted for Red’s every possible move on the battlefield, they expected to defeat the enemy in short order.
But on the first day of the game, Red failed to respond to Blue’s demand for immediate and unconditional surrender. Unbeknownst to Blue, the Red commander had sent attack orders to his forces through unusual means, including motorcycle couriers, calls shouted from minarets, and World War II-era light signals. They were all modes of communication that Blue had never accounted for. Why would Red use them when he had satellites and telephones?
Expecting a quick end to the battle, the Blue fleet instead found itself surrounded by a swarm of small, seemingly innocuous Red boats. Without warning, the small boats let loose a devastating volley of cruise missiles at the Blue fleet, which, never having anticipated such an aggressive move, was helpless to respond. Some of the boats were loaded with explosives and rammed into their gargantuan adversaries. By the end of the attack, several Blue vessels sat at the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Had this been a real expertise, it’s estimated that 20,000 U.S. forces would be dead.
The story of Millennium Challenge is one of the most frequently cited modern examples of an ancient maxim of warfare: Know your enemy. Blue’s commanders failed in large part because they evinced a profound lack of empathy. They had never anticipated that Red would act so different than them. They had not put themselves in the minds of a devious and desperate dictator who, knowing he was outmatched in a head-to-head fight, would resort to asymmetric tactics--and some centuries old ones, at that. Millennium Challenge became an object lesson in the dangers of not thinking like your enemy, and of the potential gains of doing so.
The lessons of that war game seem especially poignant now, as tensions mount with North Korea and the United States attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We are reminded that U.S. intelligence about its adversaries is limited, and often not very good. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that “after a high-visibility display of military power aimed at deterring North Korean provocations, the White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis.” A previously devised “playbook” of escalating displays of force was apparently based on a set of assumptions about North Korea’s behavior that might not be panning out.
"The concern was that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations," a senior administration official told the newspaper.
“Officials said the U.S. didn't believe North Korea had any imminent plans to take military action in response to the exercises,” the Journal reported. “Rather, the shift reflects concerns within the administration that the North, caught off guard, could do something rash, contrary to intelligence assessments showing that it is unlikely to respond militarily to the U.S. show of force.” [Emphasis mine.]
Military planners don’t like to be caught by surprise. As it happened, the ones who planned Millennium Challenge were so chagrined by Red’s audacious and hugely successful attack that they reset the game. The Blue ships were magically floated back to the surface. The dead were brought back to life. And as the game played on for another two weeks, the Red Team was barred from engaging in any more unexpected tactics. The Red commander quit the game in protest. The Blue Team, playing with the rules in its favor, won round two in a rout.
The military is fond of its war games, and for good reason. Even when the outcome is unpredictable--or in the case of Millennium Challenge, undesirable--the play itself is instructive. When properly constructed, war games convince players that the stakes are real. Even when played sitting around a table using rudimentary set pieces--pieces of paper, toy planes and ships--players somehow see past the artifice and behave as if the scenario were real.
“Gaming’s transformative power grows out of its particular connections to storytelling,” write Peter Perla and ED McGrady, two game designers, in a paper published by the Naval War College. A good game creates the kind of willing suspension of disbelief you experience when you watch an engrossing movie or read a page-turning book. But since play is not a passive experience, gaming heightens that sense of belief. “Gaming, as a story-living experience, engages the human brain, and hence the human being participating in a game, in ways more akin to real-life experience than to reading a novel or watching a video," Perla and McGrady write.
The effects of games linger after the play has finished. The authors recall a bioterrorism war game run by the White House in 1998 that so impressed President Clinton he asked Congress to increase the counterterrorism budget by $294 million to defend the nation from weaponized pathogens. The President had been primed for the plausibility of a bio-attack by a fictional account he’d been reading in Richard Preston’s novel The Cobra Event. (Preston is also the author of a non-fiction book on disease outbreaks, Hotzone, that is all the more terrifying because it’s true.)
The key to a successful game is that it not only seem real, but that it present the players with an adversary that they would probably never imagine, an event that is “at odds with how you see the world,” write Perla and McGrady. The crazed scientist who builds a deadly virus. The rogue commander who uses suicidal tactics. Absent this surprise, “it is unlikely that any game architecture could present an effective, realistic scenario...”
Of course, in Millennium Challenge, the Blue Team faced just such an enemy. Did they learn from that experience? A year later, U.S. forces easily defeated the military of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But then, for the next eight years, they found themselves locked in an asymmetric war with insurgents, for which no one had planned. Blue did not think like Red.
There will be an historic burial at Arlington National Cemetery tomorrow. The first Swiss man will be laid to rest in ground normally reserved for American military veterans.
René Joyeuse, who was born in Zurich in 1920, helped gather intelligence for Allied Forces during World War II. Joyeuse reportedly escaped to the U.S. as war broke out in Europe, but he returned and joined the French Resistance. The OSS, the precursor to the CIA, recruited him as an agent. He eventually moved back to the U.S. and with his wife raised two sons.
Caitlin Gibson wrote a really nice feature about Arlington Cemetery for us a few years ago. As she noted, most of the recent burials have been reserved for veterans of World War II and their spouses. Active-duty casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accounted for only a handful of burials each month. More than 330,000 Americans have been laid to rest at the cemetery, which covers 624 acres.
The folks at the OSS Society alerted us to Joyeuse's story. Incidentally they throw a hell of a party every year to celebrate the history of the nation's first human intelligence service. I went to the last one, where one of several gin martini toasts was offered to the French Reisstance. Another fun fact: Also in attendance that night...David Petraeus and a then lesser-known biographer named Paula Broadwell.
In a decade of war, the United States deployed more than 2.4 million military service members. In Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 63,000 of them suffered injuries severe enough that they had to be medically evacuated. And 720,000 may have experienced a traumatic brain injury or met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
We know a lot about the wounded. We know much less about the people who care for them.
She--the primary caregiver for a combat veteran is almost always a woman, often a spouse--is younger than those caring for veterans of older wars. She still has dependent-age children. The wounded veteran in her care is likely to have multiple injuries, requiring the attention of different medical specialists, sometimes as many as a dozen. She is often the keeper of doctor visit schedules, as well as the person processing insurance claims; through the Defense Department, the Veterans Affairs Department, or private health insurance, and sometimes all three. How many of these caregivers there are experts can't say. There are only crude estimates, ranging from about 275,000 to as many as 1.1 million.
These are the sobering findings of a new study on so-called "military caregivers," which was released yesterday by the Rand Corporation. The study finds that the burden placed on spouses and family members caring for wounded veterans is likely to have ripple effects. In general, caregivers get sicker faster than the general population, and often faster than the people they're caring for.
And yet the size of the caregiver population cannot be easily estimated or well understood because so few studies have been made. What the researchers have discovered comes from those, but also from interviews with caregivers themselves.
They are "an overlooked and under-appreciated" group, said Adm. James Winnefeld, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a luncheon yesterday at the Army and Navy Club, where the report was unveiled. Rand researchers said they plan new studies to better understand how many caregivers there are and what additional support they might require. The study was commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which also awarded three grants to non-profit organizations that focus on caregivers and their families.
The foundation has also selected a class of fellows, which includes military spouses who now find themselves juggling their loved ones' physical therapy and counseling sessions with their kids' soccer games. They were among those who gave personal stories to the Rand researchers.
I spoke with the wife of one Army veteran, Betty Easley, whose husband Greg was injured in an IED explosion in Iraq in 2003. Betty said she keeps a master calendar for all his doctor appointments, as well as the school and extracurricular activities for their six kids. The big book travels with her wherever they go, she said. Greg ping pongs back and forth between different government health care programs depending on which specialist he's seeing.
Logistics are only part of the work. Betty said she has had to learn what will set her husband off--crowds and loud noises are the usual triggers. She knows now, sometimes with just a look, when it's time to leave the store or the shopping mall, get him back to the car, and to go home. She said Greg is in counseling for PTSD and enjoys it. But she's also beginning to see the signs of emotional strain on their kids.
Talking to Betty, I was struck by the similar stories I've heard from people caring for an elderly parent or spouse. Last year, I wrote a story about a Washington couple, George and Trish Vradenburg, who are trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. They told me about a common saying among caregivers: "Look at the person pushing the wheelchair. That’s who dies first."
The initial Rand report jibes with many of the stories I heard reporting on Alzheimer's patients and their families. This is the first phase in what the researchers said will be a more concerted and focused effort to better understand how many caregivers there are, the range of their problems, and whether the existing health care system can support them better. It's being led by one of the researches who worked on an influential study about PTSD. Several people at the luncheon were hopeful that the new study would shed light on the caregivers' dilemma the way the earlier one did on vets suffering emotional trauma.
It's rare to find a military brat who spent his childhood years living in one place. It's rarer still that the place is Washington, DC.
Gen. Larry Spencer, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was born at Walter Reed Hospital, in 1954. His father, Alfonzo, served in the Army and fought in the Korean War, and if not for a horrific accident, the Spencers might have lived the itinerant life of a typical military family.
Alfonzo was a heavy equipment operator, and while transporting a bulldozer from one town to another, he fell off the top and caught his left hand in the tracks. His mauled limb became infected with gangrene and the hand was amputated.
He came home and went for treatment in the hospital where his son was born. Doctors fashioned an innovative prosthetic device to give Alfonzo some dexterity. By today's standards, it was a primitive and grisly contraption.
"They cut a hole through his bicep," Spencer says. "As a kid, I could stick my finger right though it. They put a plastic sleeve on, and they had a metal hook on the end. Wires came up both sides of that sleeve. And there was a thing shaped like a hot dog that fit into the bicep. He would flex his muscle to move the hook."
Spencer says his dad was an expert marksman, and even with the new hand, he still was.
For Alfonzo, personal injury marked the beginning of a new career. He was assigned to the Forest Glenn Annex, nearby Walter Reed, where the Army was experimenting with new prosthetic technologies. "He was on the ground floor of that," Spencer says. Today, Walter Reed is still the site of the military's most advanced prosthetics research, and the technology has come a long way since the hole in Alfonozo's arm.
The Spencers lived in a quiet neighborhood in Southeast Washington. The city was different then, he says. "I never thought twice about going anywhere in DC. It wasn't considered dangerous."
Spencer joined the Boy Scouts. Before meetings, Alfonzo would inspect his son's uniform--shirt tucked, cap on straight, shoes shined. "It was not cool in Southeast to walk down the street in a uniform," Spencer says. Once he got far enough from the house, Spencer would remove his Boy Scout dress, change into street clothes, and stuff the uniform in his bag.
Spencer didn't seem destined for a military career. In high school, the family moved to Seat Pleasant, Maryland, in Prince George's County. Spencer was a standout football player at Central High School, and the team captain. "I played offense, defense, kickoff team, return team, punt team. We never came off the field. I loved football."
After graduation, Spencer played briefly in a semi-pro league in the area. "But I recognized at some point there wasn't a lot of future in it," he says. There was also no money it; the league's players were unpaid.
One day in 1971, with Vietnam War protests in high-gear across Washington, Spencer was walking through a shopping mall in Suitland, Maryland, off Branch Ave. "I don't know why," he says, "but I sort of of stumbled into the Air Force recruiter's office. And when I stumbled out of there, I was in the Air Force."
He didn't have a single semester hour of college credit. He went home to tell his parents that he'd joined up. "They couldn't believe it," he says. Spencer asked his dad to drop him off at the bus station early the next morning. Later, he took his first plane ride, down to Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, to begin basic training.
Spencer says he took to the regimented life immediately. Up early. Exercising all day. "It was like being at football practice." He worked his way through college at nights and eventually went to Officer Training School and was commissioned in 1980.
Unlike his father, Spencer did move around throughout his career, to various assignments in the US. But his roots stayed in Washington. His mother, Selma, lives 20 minutes from his office in the Pentagon. Spencer is a die-hard Redskins fan, and says one of the highlights of the past year was attending a game and meeting Robert Griffin III.
Spencer has been back at the Pentagon since 2006, working frequently on budget and personnel issues as the military braces for cuts and tries to reintegrate thousands of combat veterans into life stateside. It wasn't until recently that Spencer got the chance to talk with his father about his own experience in war.
Like a lot of veterans of his generation, Alfonzo never spoke about his service, his son says. "But we noticed little things. On the Fourth of July, the fireworks going off would bother him. But we didn't think much about it."
It was only eight years ago that Spencer found out what had happened to his father in Korea, including the details of his injury. Finally sharing his story, Alfonzo realized that he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty years after he'd gone to war, Alfonzo joined a group counseling program for veterans that met in Baltimore.
"I tell people now coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, my father waited until he was 80 years old to go in for PTSD [treatment]," Spencer says. The message is clear: Don't wait. Times have changed. Alfonzo died in 2009.
Spencer's parents probably wouldn't have guessed he'd one day become the highest-ranking African American in the Air Force. But he comes from a family of path breakers. In 1951, Spencer's mother, along with 450 of her classmates, walked out the doors of the all-black R. R. Moton High School, in Farmville, Va., to demand better conditions at their tiny school, which was built to handle only 150 students. The one story-building had eight classrooms, no gym, and no cafeteria. Moton's teachers earned less than their white counterparts at other county schools.
The student protest led to a lawsuit, which was later joined with Brown V. Board of Education and heard before the Supreme Court. In 1954, the justices ruled unanimously that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
In January, during celebrations honoring Martin Luther King, Spencer spoke at his mom's old high school, which is now a museum. "I am reminded of Dr. King's words," he said. "'Courage is an inner resolution to go forth despite obstacles. Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.'"
"My mother, her classmates and countless others during the civil rights movement are a key reason why I wear this Air Force uniform today. Many people sacrificed a lot back then to change a country that now allows me and others to graciously and happily sacrifice for it."