How the U.S. Could be Vulnerable to an Iranian Attack

I used to think American military installations were among the safest environments on earth. I was wrong.

The pending confrontation between Iran and the United States seems to be on hold for now. That said, Iran is very good at playing the long game. Ayatollah Khamenei has decided that ramping up open hostilities with the U.S. is not in his best interest right now. He has too many internal issues to worry about without starting a shooting war with America.

Even so, Iran retained its pride by making an unprecedented rocket strike against an American-occupied military base in Iraq. Despite initial U.S. denials, 11 American service members were reportedly injured. For Iran, it was a proportionate response that put the U.S. on notice that Iran would not be cowed by America and had the ability to strike back.

I hope that this is all there is for now, that Tehran has satisfied its domestic political needs and we can all just move on. But hope never stopped a terrorist attack. Iran was never going to confront the United States on an open battlefield with massed conventional armies squaring off on some vast desert plain, as we saw in Operation Desert Storm. That is not how they do business.

No, Iran controls extensive, well-funded, and well-organized terrorist networks like Hamas and Hezbollah in the Levant, and various Shiite militias in Iraq. They are also known to have covert operatives in many foreign countries, including the United States. That is what keeps me up at night. Americans do not have a very long attention span, and that is particularly true in matters of history and war. We play the “short game.” It is easy for us to be lulled into a sense of complacency if no major incidents occur on our shores. Our sense of invulnerability kicks in pretty quickly.

I’m afraid the U.S. has now given Iran the green light to launch a full range of terrorist actions against “soft targets” within the United States (civilians), actions that would have previously been off-limits. But America crossed a red line for Iran in Baghdad with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.

The average American probably believes that military bases located inside the United States are among the safest environments on earth. For the most part, they would be right.  Military facilities in CONUS, or the continental United States, are among the most secure places in the country. These installations are usually surrounded by high fences and various security measures, including armed security officers at all main points of entry. Sometimes electronic sensors, video surveillance systems, and specially trained dogs are deployed at these access points to detect weapons, explosives, or drugs. A combination of uniformed military law enforcement and private security staff are used at base entry points. Some bases use only military security personnel while others use only private security, or a combination of both.

Why then, have military bases in the U.S. been the recent scenes of mass shootings in Florida, California, and Hawaii? If American military installations are so heavily secured, how can anyone smuggle weapons onto a base? If someone does succeed in bringing unauthorized weapons or explosives onto a military installation, why isn’t there a response system in place to quickly apprehend or stop the assailant? Surely, with so many armed military personnel around, it should be easy to neutralize armed suspects before they can cause serious injury to service members, their families, or civilian workers.

These are important questions that all concerned Americans should be asking their local and national elected officials. American military installations should be some of the safest locations on earth, not just in theory, but in reality. Sadly, that is not always the case. Even a cursory look at military base shootings over the past twenty-five years reveals that such a tragedy is not as rare an occurrence as one might believe. In just a little more than ten years (including two incidents in one week last month) there have been seventeen shootings on U.S. military facilities located in CONUS resulting in 50 fatalities and 63 wounded, with many of the victims being civilians.

I am a retired U.S. Army Counterintelligence (CI) Special Agent. A significant role played by Army CI is Force Protection. Army CI Force Protection planning is simply a review of existing physical security measures and procedures that are in place to protect U.S. Army personal and other assets. After conducting that review, the agents will make recommendations to improve that protection. That review might involve security protocols and procedures at fixed military installations. In at least 17 cases over the past 10 years, those protocols and procedures have failed.

It should be obvious to everyone, not just military security personnel, that the most important goal in protecting assets located on any military installation is keeping bad guys and lethal instruments that can destroy, injure, or kill those assets off the installation. That has always been my understanding of the role of CI Force Protection as well. I just assumed that all military base commanders and their security forces shared that same understanding.

I was wrong.

Starting in the spring of 2019, I made three visits to a military facility near where I live in the Tampa, Florida area, including the MacDill Air Force Base, home to the United States Central Command, also known as CENTCOM. MacDill is one of the most important American military installations in the world. The war on Islamic extremists and many covert special operations missions worldwide are run from MacDill. As such, one might suspect that the base was protected by the best security personnel, equipment, and procedures in the entire U.S. military inventory. I was also of that opinion.

Again, I was wrong.

On my third visit to MacDill, in October 2019, to renew my military ID, I was accompanied by my Russian wife and her 20-year-old son, recently arrived from Russia. At that point, my wife had only been in the U.S. for about ten months and spoke good, but heavily accented English. Let’s also just say that my wife is no old babushka. She appears as an attractive 30-something woman. Her son had arrived here the prior month, only about three weeks before our visit. He spoke almost no English and had only a Russian passport for an ID. To the average person, the two of them might have appeared to be work associates or even brother and sister.

The main gate security officer was a uniformed civilian, possibly an Air Force civilian law enforcement officer or even a contracted civilian security officer. He asked for my ID and I handed him my retired military ID card, which he scanned and handed back to me. The security officer did not look at my wife. He did not ask her for any ID or speak with her at all. He did not look into the rear seating area of my vehicle, he did not ask for my wife’s son’s ID or speak with him at all. The security officer also did not look into my vehicle through any of the windows to do even a cursory check for anything prohibited or suspicious. I did not observe any electronic detectors, sensors, or security dogs in the vicinity. After handing me back my ID, the security officer said “thank you” and waved me through. I then proceeded to drive onto the base while riding with two unidentified, unnoticed, young Russian national adults in an unsearched vehicle.

I was dumbfounded.

My wife’s son asked his mother in Russian, “Why didn’t they ask for my ID?” Of course, she had no answer for him because her next words were the same question to me. “David, why didn’t they ask for our ID?” I also had no answer for either of them. I actually felt embarrassed for our military and our country. Having visited Russia several times, I was well aware of the kind of intense security surrounding their military installations. What had just occurred at MacDill would be inconceivable in Russia.

For the next four to five hours, as we waited to be seen by the base ID card office, my two comrades and I walked around MacDill anywhere and everywhere we felt like walking. No one said anything to us. We started out walking around the dormitory building that housed the ID office; private quarters for Air Force service members are located in this building. This is a particularly vulnerable area for service members as they feel comfortable in their own quarters and they let their guard down.

Eventually, we all got bored walking around the dorm, so I took them near the flight line where my wife’s son asked if we could look inside one of the mammoth aircraft hangers. So, off we went. We spent 15-20 minutes roaming around one the immense hangars located along Hangar Loop Drive. No one said anything. Keep in mind: the two Russians were speaking in Russian and the young Spesnatz looking man was wearing a black backpack and looking around at everything.

Next, we toured a gym, bowling alley, movie theater, office building of some sort, looked into the local Air Force Office of Special Investigations office, and ate lunch in a café while surrounded by soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen from American and several foreign military forces. Finally, I decided to see if we could get up close to the CENTCOM building. Sure enough, all three of us walked around to the rear of the building and up to a door. Several signs were posted warning that this was a secure area, but no security was present, other than some cameras. Again, my Russian companions asked me why we were able to walk around the base unchallenged and even up to the walls of CENTCOM. Again, I had no answer.

My wife’s son stated the obvious—that he could have had many different kinds of weapons or explosives in his backpack that had he wanted to, he could have caused a lot of damage or even killed a lot of military personnel. He even mimed an explosion next to one the buildings. I could only reply, “I know, and I am embarrassed that you and your mother were allowed onto this base unchecked and allowed to wander around all afternoon unnoticed. I am sorry for myself as an American veteran. And I am sorry for America for allowing this to happen.”

Why were we allowed onto MacDill AFB with essentially no security checks? How could a military (or intelligence service) aged Russian man and woman be allowed to walk around this base unchallenged for several hours, speaking Russian, walking into restricted areas, while the Russian man wore a knapsack capable of holding weapons and explosives?

With all the recent shootings on American military facilities, our nation may have just exposed a major security liability to our adversaries, including Iran. My recent experience at MacDill is proof we still have not learned the lessons from those tragedies. Our servicemen and women deserve better. Much better.

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David DeBatto

David DeBatto is a retired U.S. Army Counterintelligence Special Agent.