Archives for December 2013

Syria — a land now defined by loss

Lina Sergie Attar writes: “Where am I going to die?” That was the first question my grandmother asked me last August in New York City after fleeing her home in Aleppo. I didn’t know how to respond. Over the last 16 months, this uncertain question burdened her as she crossed from state to state, from one of her four children’s homes to another.

My grandmother, Maliha Zuhdi Serjieh, was born in Istanbul in 1923, raised in Beirut, married in Aleppo, and died last week in Michigan. Almost all of her 90 years were spent across a once-porous Levant, but her last year and a half was spent in exile just like thousands of fellow Syrians now scattered across the globe.

In Syria, the political is always personal. For the past two weeks, regime planes have launched hundreds of barrel bombs over Aleppo, destroying buildings and taking hundreds of innocent lives. In Syria, collective pain often intersects with personal loss — like when you mourn a city and a grandmother at the same time.

My grandmother died on Tuesday, Dec. 17, thousands of miles away from her home. Our ultimate dreams of return to Syria were slashed with her death. There will forever be an absence in the apartment in the Sabil neighborhood where my father was born and an absence in the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. There will forever be an inconsolable loss in our family that marks us as Syrians. For there is no family without loss in this terrible war.

The last time I saw my grandmother, only two weeks before she died, she asked me, “Is it true there is a revolution in Syria?” Family members had been trying to shield her from the bloody reality for many months but I just responded calmly, “Yes, Nana.” Then she asked, “So people are killing each other?” Again, I answered, “Yes, Nana.” She stared at me with her pale blue eyes for a few long moments and said, “History is all the same. And the people are always the ones who suffer.” [Continue reading…]


Why Sarin isn’t the biggest concern for Syrian children

Dr. Zaher Sahloul writes: Though Syrian children are being killed by snipers and shells and increasingly succumb to malnutrition, polio, waterborne diseases and bitter cold, our policymakers are acting as if chemical weapons were the main cause of mayhem and death to Syrian children.

It may come as a surprise to those of us following the Syrian crisis that a recent report by Oxford Research Group, entitled “Stolen Futures: The Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria,” documented the killing of 11,420 Syrian children from the start of the conflict until August 2013, not by chemical agents, but by old-style and new conventional weapons. The report’s findings include:

• 71 percent of children were killed by explosive weapons.

• 26.5 percent of children died from bullets.

• 764 children as young as one year old were summarily executed.

• 389 were killed by sniper fire.

According to the U.S. estimates, 426 children were gassed to death by Sarin on Aug. 21 in the Ghouta chemical attack, which means that only 3.5 percent of Syrian children were killed by chemical weapons, while the vast majority (96.5 percent) were killed by conventional methods. [Continue reading…]


The danger of new Iran sanctions

Colin H. Kahl writes: The Geneva “interim” agreement reached in November between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) freezes Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief, with the goal of enabling further talks to comprehensively resolve one of the world’s thorniest challenges. Yet despite the landmark accord, more than two dozen Senators introduced legislation on December 19 to impose new oil and financial sanctions on Iran. The Senate could vote on the measure soon after it returns from recess in January. Powerful lobby organizations are mobilized in support of the bill, and it could certainly pass.

The legislation defies a request by the Obama administration and ten Senate committee chairs to stand down on sanctions while negotiations continue. It also flies in the face of an unclassified intelligence assessment that new sanctions “would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.” Proponents of the bill note that the proposed sanctions would only come into force if Iran violates the Geneva agreement or fails to move toward a final deal, and would not kick in for months. But the White House warns that enshrining new economic threats in law now runs counter to the spirit of the Geneva pledge of no new sanctions during negotiations, and risks empowering Iranian forces hoping to scuttle nuclear talks. The legislation also defines congressionally acceptable parameters for a final deal that Iran experts almost universally believe are unachievable, namely the requirement that Iran completely dismantle its uranium enrichment program. For these reasons, the administration believes the bill represents a poison pill that could kill diplomacy, making a nuclear-armed Iran or war more likely.

Sanctions hawks disagree, arguing that the legislation will enable, not thwart, diplomatic progress. “Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table,” Senator Robert Menendez, the bill’s leading champion, contends, “and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table.”

But this logic badly misreads the historical effect of sanctions on Iranian behavior and under-appreciates the role played by Iran’s fractious domestic politics. A careful look at Iranian actions over the past decade suggests that economic pressure has sometimes been effective, but only when it aligns with particular Iranian political dynamics and policy preferences. And once domestic Iranian politics are factored in, the lesson for today’s sanctions debate is clear: the threat of additional sanctions, at this critical juncture, could derail negotiations toward a peaceful solution. [Continue reading…]


Out of this world: Titan, Dione, Pandora, and Pan

The only thing the New Year marks for sure is our place in the Solar System as we circle the Sun.

Here’s a reminder of how unfamiliar and other worldly this place in space, our home in the galaxy, our corner of the universe, really is: a view of four of Saturn’s moons in descending order of size — Titan in the background behind Dione, with Pandora over to the right, and Pan nothing more than a speck on the left nestled in the Encke Gap of the A ring.


(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Although frigidly cold, Titan has some Earth-like features — a climate with wind and rain, and surface features such as dunes, rivers, lakes and seas. For scale, this is how Titan would look if placed alongside the Moon and the Earth:



Would NSA surveillance have stopped 9/11 plot?

Peter Bergen writes: The Obama administration has framed its defense of the controversial bulk collection of all American phone records as necessary to prevent a future 9/11.

During a House Intelligence Committee hearing on June 18, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander said, “Let me start by saying that I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.”

This closely mirrors talking points by the National Security Agency about how to defend the program.

In the talking points, NSA officials are encouraged to use “sound bites that resonate,” specifically, “I much prefer to be here today explain these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.”

On Friday in New York, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that NSA’s bulk collection of American telephone records is lawful. He cited Alexander’s testimony and quoted him saying, “We couldn’t connect the dots because we didn’t have the dots.”

But is it really the case that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t have the dots in the lead up to 9/11? Hardly.

In fact, the intelligence community provided repeated strategic warning in the summer of 9/11 that al Qaeda was planning a large-scale attacks on American interests.

Here is a representative sampling of the CIA threat reporting that was distributed to Bush administration officials during the spring and summer of 2001:

— CIA, “Bin Ladin Planning Multiple Operations,” April 20
— CIA, “Bin Ladin Attacks May Be Imminent,” June 23
— CIA, “Planning for Bin Ladin Attacks Continues, Despite Delays,” July 2
— CIA, “Threat of Impending al Qaeda Attack to Continue Indefinitely,” August 3

The failure to respond adequately to these warnings was a policy failure by the Bush administration, not an intelligence failure by the U.S. intelligence community. [Continue reading…]


Inside the NSA’s catalog of surveillance magic

Sean Gallagher writes: The National Security Agency’s sophisticated hacking operations go way beyond using software vulnerabilities to gain access to targeted systems. The agency has a catalog of tools available that would make James Bond’s Q jealous, providing NSA analysts access to just about every potential source of data about a target.

In some cases, the NSA has modified the firmware of computers and network hardware—including systems shipped by Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei, and Juniper Networks—to give its operators both eyes and ears inside the offices the agency has targeted. In others, the NSA has crafted custom BIOS exploits that can survive even the reinstallation of operating systems. And in still others, the NSA has built and deployed its own USB cables at target locations—complete with spy hardware and radio transceiver packed inside.

Documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to Der Spiegel reveal a fantastical collection of surveillance tools dating back to 2007 and 2008 that gave the NSA the power to collect all sorts of data over long periods of time without detection. The tools, ranging from back doors installed in computer network firmware and software to passively powered bugs installed within equipment, give the NSA a persistent ability to monitor some targets with little risk of detection. While the systems targeted by some of the “products” listed in the documents are over five years old and are likely to have been replaced in some cases, the methods and technologies used by all the exploit products could easily still be in use in some form in ongoing NSA surveillance operations. [Continue reading…]

Jacob Applebaum, co-author of the Der Spiegel report, spoke yesterday at the 30th annual Chaos Communication Congress where he presented new details including the NSA’s ability to hack a Wi-Fi network from up to eight miles away.


ACLU sues administration over overseas U.S. surveillance

UPI reports: A rights group sued to make five U.S. agencies prove Americans whose overseas communications are picked up by surveillance are fully protected under the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the CIA, National Security Agency, Justice Department, Defense Department and State Department have all but ignored a Freedom of Information Act request the non-partisan, non-profit group made in May and followed up on over successive months.

The FBI, Defense Department’s Defense Intelligence Agency, the Justice Department’s National Security Division and the State Department “have acknowledged receipt of the FOIA request and indicated its placement in their FOIA processing queues, but have provided no substantive response to date,” the lawsuit states.

The NSA provided four documents that were already publicly available and didn’t directly address the FOIA request, and the CIA said it wouldn’t comply with the request, citing an “unreasonably burdensome search,” says the lawsuit, which the ACLU filed with Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic.

The FOIA request and lawsuit seek to know what constitutional protections Americans’ international communications have under a several-times-modified December 1981 executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan that is frequently used by the Obama administration to justify NSA actions. [Continue reading…]


It won’t be long before the victims of climate change make the West pay

Chris Huhne writes: Would you enjoy the cosiness and warmth of Christmas with your children or grandchildren just that little bit less if you knew that other people’s children were dying because of it? More than four million children under five years old are now at risk of acute malnutrition in the Sahel, an area of the world that is one of the clearest victims of the rich world’s addiction to fossil fuels.

About 18 million people in the Sahel – the vulnerable pan-African strip of land that runs from Senegal to Sudan along the southern edge of the Sahara – faced famine last year. Life has never been easy there. Its land is poor. Its people are often semi-nomadic, moving their animals between the grasslands. But science is increasingly pointing a hard finger at those to blame for the persistence of Sahelian drought – and it is us.

This is an ineluctable consequence of improving the computer models of climate change. Of course, there are still large uncertainties. But what has long persuaded me of the strength of the scientific case for human-induced climate change is that climate-sceptic scientists have not managed to build a model that explains global warming without human-induced effects. The human hand is indispensable in understanding what has happened.

There are legitimate doubts about the scale of the impact, and about other offsetting factors that may reduce human-induced global warming. But what should be a wake-up call is science’s growing ability to highlight the blame for particular extreme events, and not just in the Sahel. [Continue reading…]


Music: Zawinul Syndicate — ‘Three Postcards’


Less than one third of Americans believe in evolution

(Note: Because of the misleading way in which Pew presents its own findings, multiple reports run with a headline similar to this one in USA Today: “One-third of Americans reject human evolution.” That would appear to imply that two-thirds of Americans accept the theory of evolution that provides the foundation for evolutionary biology. However, the rejectionists that the survey identifies are those who believe in the literal truth of Genesis, Adam and Eve etc.. Those who subscribe to Intelligent Design or other non-scientific Creationist evolutionary narratives are viewed by Pew as believing in human evolution.)

I am not a militant atheist. I have little patience for the anti-religion campaigning engaged in by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and their ilk. The idea of trying to rid the world of religion makes no more sense than trying to abolish sport.

Human beings are not governed by reason and people who become enslaved by rationality, inevitably become emotionally malformed. The human capacity to express and experience love is a capacity without which we would cease to be human. As Pascal said: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

We live in a world constructed by thought and shared ideas and our ability to make sense of life springs in large part from the fact that we continuously filter our experience through stories — stories through which we tell ourselves who we are, where we live, and why we live.

Because of this, I don’t think that science should or can be thrust down anyone’s throat…

And yet to learn that less than a third of Americans believe in evolution is deeply depressing — even if not surprising.

Those who want to put a strong political spin on the results of a new Pew Research Center poll on views about evolution are emphasizing the fact that the greatest concentration of skepticism on evolution is among Republicans while pointing to the figure of 67% of Democrats believing in evolution.

The pollsters, however, fudged the basic question by implying that it’s possible to believe in evolution without accepting its scientific basis.

Pew’s primary interest was in differentiating between those Americans who take Genesis literally and those who don’t. Those Americans who believe “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today” are counted as believing in evolution, even though they don’t believe in natural selection.

The fact that Pew chose to slice the question in this way is itself illustrative of the weak influence science has in American culture. “Evolution” is being treated as an object of belief coming in many varieties, rather than as hard, incontrovertibly proven scientific fact.

No one would conduct a poll asking Americans whether they believe the Earth revolves around the Sun and yet when it comes to the subject of evolution, the deference to religious belief is so engrained that evolution is treated as a completely subjective term — evolution, whatever that means to you.

Why does this matter?

The world cannot tackle climate change if America turns its back on science. And yet as a culture, America currently stands somewhere between the sixteenth and the twentieth century. Copernicus was successful but the jury’s still out on Darwin.

If two-thirds of the population is skeptical about evolution, what chance is there of persuading them that climate change is caused by human activity?

It hardly seems coincidental that almost exactly the same number of Americans who believe in human-caused climate change also believe in evolution through natural selection. (I would hazard a guess that it’s not just the same number, but also the same Americans.)


Iran, Turkey’s new ally?

Vali R. Nasr writes: In sharp contrast to Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies, which have been alarmed by the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey sees benefit in serving as a bridge between Iran and the West and in providing the gateway to the world that Tehran needs as it emerges from isolation.

The Iranian turn has come at an opportune time for Turkish foreign policy in other ways, too. Iran has influence with Iraq’s Shiite-led government and Syria’s Alawite elite. In Iraq, where a crucial oil deal hangs in the balance, Turkey needs Iranian cooperation. It also needs Iran’s help on Syria.

Turkey initially tied its policy to America’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad quit. It was disappointed when the Obama administration signed on to a Russian-brokered deal with Mr. Assad on chemical weapons. With violence menacing across the border, Turkey wants to see an end to Syria’s civil war. The new moderate government in Tehran is Turkey’s best hope for leveraging a settlement.

Economic ties between Turkey and Iran have been strengthening, with trade now estimated to be worth $20 billion. The real number may be still higher, since the recent corruption charges allege that Turkish officials and the state-owned Halkbank have been helping Iranian businesses dodge international sanctions. In any case, Iranian exports still reach Turkey, and the proceeds fund the purchase of gold and silver that flow back to Iran. In turn, Turkey’s economy depends on Iran’s oil and gas, its investments dollars and large export market.

If Iran does conclude a long-term nuclear deal with the West, it still cannot expect a warm welcome from the Sunni Arab world. With the region divided by a widening sectarian rift, the Persian Gulf monarchies will become only more fretful about Iran’s regional ambitions. That makes Turkey potentially a key strategic partner for Iran, especially if its economy starts to grow as sanctions are relaxed. [Continue reading…]


Saudis pledge $3 billion to support Lebanon’s army

The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion to bolster Lebanon’s armed forces, in a challenge to the Iranian-allied Hezbollah militia’s decadeslong status as Lebanon’s main power broker and security force.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman revealed the Saudi gift on Lebanese national television Sunday, calling it the largest aid package ever to the country’s defense bodies. The Saudi pledge compares with Lebanon’s 2012 defense budget, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put at $1.7 billion.

Lebanon would use the Saudi grant to buy “newer and more modern weapons,” from France, said Mr. Sleiman, an independent who has become increasingly critical of Hezbollah. It followed what he called “decades of unsuccessful efforts” to build a credible Lebanese national defense force.

As a direct challenge to Hezbollah, the Saudi gift—and the Lebanese president’s acceptance—has potential to change the balance of power in Lebanon and the region. It also threatens to raise sectarian and political tensions further in a region already made volatile by the three-year, heavily sectarian civil war next door in Syria.

The Saudi move was announced hours after thousands of Lebanese turned out for the funerals of former cabinet minister Mohamad Chatah and some of the other victims killed Friday in a bombing in downtown Beirut. The bomb was believed to have targeted Mr. Chatah, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanese affairs and security. No group has claimed responsibility. [Continue reading…]


Music: Zawinul Syndicate — ‘Tower of Silence’

This live performance comes from “Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait” a one-hour documentary about the legendary keyboardist, his life and contribution to jazz.


The ghosts of Benghazi

David Kirkpatrick reports: Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there [on September 11, 2012] and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria’s civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests.

In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A. station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.

Mr. Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi.

To this day, some militia leaders offer alibis for Mr. Abu Khattala. All resist quiet American pressure to turn him over to face prosecution. Last spring, one of Libya’s most influential militia leaders sought to make him a kind of local judge.

Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.

One has it that the video [Innocence of Muslims], which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.

The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs. [Continue reading…]

Irrespective of whatever actually happened in Benghazi, the ability of most Americans of all political stripes to view such an event without a distorted perspective is severely constrained by the degree to which terrorism has become a pillar of the American worldview.

The neoconservatives were resoundingly successful in promoting the idea of a global terrorist network — not one which has a formal, verifiable structure; but one that exists more like a mycelium of evil.

Its tentacles are subterranean, vast, and yet ethereal. It is everywhere and nowhere, elusive and yet all-powerful; at some moments about to expire and yet paradoxically always an inextinguishable force.

We are meant to fear it just as resolutely as we cling to any object of faith. Indeed, to fail to view terrorism with sufficient gravity is to fail to uphold ones responsibilities as a patriotic American.

Even though it’s more than a decade since 9/11, terrorism remains America’s cultural straightjacket — that’s why even now in popular culture we have yet to see the war on terrorism being satirized.

At the height of the Cold War, when thousands of young Americans were getting killed in Vietnam in the name of standing up against Communism, it was somehow possible for Mel Brooks to create Get Smart and poke fun at spies and the paranoiac neuroses of the era.

The world has since pulled back from the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction and yet by some spectacular defiance of logic or any sense of proportion, terrorism has been conjured as an even greater threat.

At this time, 83% of Americans believe that protecting this nation from terrorist attacks should be the U.S. government’s top foreign policy priority whereas only 37% would prioritize dealing with global climate change.

That, to my mind, is a definition of collective insanity.


Don’t let Israel declare war for America

Sheldon Richman writes: The American people should know that pending right now in Congress is a bipartisan bill that would virtually commit the United States to go to war against Iran if Israel attacks the Islamic Republic. “The bill outsources any decision about resort to military action to the government of Israel,” Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick wrote to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in protest, one of the bill’s principal sponsors.

The mind boggles at the thought that Congress would let a foreign government decide when America goes to war, so here is the language (PDF):

If the government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people and existence.

This section is legally nonbinding, but given the clout of the bill’s chief supporter outside of Congress — the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC [PDF]), leader of the pro-Israel lobby — that is a mere formality. [Continue reading…]


I worked on the U.S. drone program. The public should know what really goes on

Heather Linebaugh writes: Whenever I read comments by politicians defending the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Predator and Reaper program – aka drones – I wish I could ask them some questions. I’d start with: “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?” And: “How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” Or even more pointedly: “How many soldiers have you seen die on the side of a road in Afghanistan because our ever-so-accurate UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicle] were unable to detect an IED [improvised explosive device] that awaited their convoy?”

Few of these politicians who so brazenly proclaim the benefits of drones have a real clue of what actually goes on. I, on the other hand, have seen these awful sights first hand.

I knew the names of some of the young soldiers I saw bleed to death on the side of a road. I watched dozens of military-aged males die in Afghanistan, in empty fields, along riversides, and some right outside the compound where their family was waiting for them to return home from mosque.

The US and British militaries insist that this is such an expert program, but it’s curious that they feel the need to deliver faulty information, few or no statistics about civilian deaths and twisted technology reports on the capabilities of our UAVs. These specific incidents are not isolated, and the civilian casualty rate has not changed, despite what our defense representatives might like to tell us.

What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is a far cry from clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited clouds and perfect light. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure. One example comes to mind: “The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?” I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle. [Continue reading…]


The NSA’s hackers

Der Spiegel reports: When it comes to modern firewalls for corporate computer networks, the world’s second largest network equipment manufacturer doesn’t skimp on praising its own work. According to Juniper Networks’ online PR copy, the company’s products are “ideal” for protecting large companies and computing centers from unwanted access from outside. They claim the performance of the company’s special computers is “unmatched” and their firewalls are the “best-in-class.” Despite these assurances, though, there is one attacker none of these products can fend off — the United States’ National Security Agency.

Specialists at the intelligence organization succeeded years ago in penetrating the company’s digital firewalls. A document viewed by SPIEGEL resembling a product catalog reveals that an NSA division called ANT has burrowed its way into nearly all the security architecture made by the major players in the industry — including American global market leader Cisco and its Chinese competitor Huawei, but also producers of mass-market goods, such as US computer-maker Dell.

These NSA agents, who specialize in secret back doors, are able to keep an eye on all levels of our digital lives — from computing centers to individual computers, from laptops to mobile phones. For nearly every lock, ANT seems to have a key in its toolbox. And no matter what walls companies erect, the NSA’s specialists seem already to have gotten past them.

This, at least, is the impression gained from flipping through the 50-page document. The list reads like a mail-order catalog, one from which other NSA employees can order technologies from the ANT division for tapping their targets’ data. The catalog even lists the prices for these electronic break-in tools, with costs ranging from free to $250,000.

In the case of Juniper, the name of this particular digital lock pick is “FEEDTROUGH.” This malware burrows into Juniper firewalls and makes it possible to smuggle other NSA programs into mainframe computers. Thanks to FEEDTROUGH, these implants can, by design, even survive “across reboots and software upgrades.” In this way, US government spies can secure themselves a permanent presence in computer networks. The catalog states that FEEDTROUGH “has been deployed on many target platforms.”

The specialists at ANT, which presumably stands for Advanced or Access Network Technology, could be described as master carpenters for the NSA’s department for Tailored Access Operations (TAO). [Continue reading…]

In another report, describing TAO, Der Spiegel says: This is the NSA’s top operative unit — something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked.

According to internal NSA documents viewed by SPIEGEL, these on-call digital plumbers are involved in many sensitive operations conducted by American intelligence agencies. TAO’s area of operations ranges from counterterrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage. The documents reveal just how diversified the tools at TAO’s disposal have become — and also how it exploits the technical weaknesses of the IT industry, from Microsoft to Cisco and Huawei, to carry out its discreet and efficient attacks.

The unit is “akin to the wunderkind of the US intelligence community,” says Matthew Aid, a historian who specializes in the history of the NSA. “Getting the ungettable” is the NSA’s own description of its duties. “It is not about the quantity produced but the quality of intelligence that is important,” one former TAO chief wrote, describing her work in a document. The paper seen by SPIEGEL quotes the former unit head stating that TAO has contributed “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen.” The unit, it goes on, has “access to our very hardest targets.”

Defining the future of her unit at the time, she wrote that TAO “needs to continue to grow and must lay the foundation for integrated Computer Network Operations,” and that it must “support Computer Network Attacks as an integrated part of military operations.” To succeed in this, she wrote, TAO would have to acquire “pervasive, persistent access on the global network.” An internal description of TAO’s responsibilities makes clear that aggressive attacks are an explicit part of the unit’s tasks. In other words, the NSA’s hackers have been given a government mandate for their work. During the middle part of the last decade, the special unit succeeded in gaining access to 258 targets in 89 countries — nearly everywhere in the world. In 2010, it conducted 279 operations worldwide.

Indeed, TAO specialists have directly accessed the protected networks of democratically elected leaders of countries. They infiltrated networks of European telecommunications companies and gained access to and read mails sent over Blackberry’s BES email servers, which until then were believed to be securely encrypted. Achieving this last goal required a “sustained TAO operation,” one document states.

This TAO unit is born of the Internet — created in 1997, a time when not even 2 percent of the world’s population had Internet access and no one had yet thought of Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. From the time the first TAO employees moved into offices at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the unit was housed in a separate wing, set apart from the rest of the agency. Their task was clear from the beginning — to work around the clock to find ways to hack into global communications traffic. [Continue reading…]


How data thieves have captured our lives on the internet

John Naughton writes: [T]he biggest misjudgment of all – the one that legitimised most of the excesses that Snowden has unveiled – was … a political one. It was the decision of the George W Bush administration to declare a “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – and the eager adoption by the UK and other allies of the same stance.

As Professor Eben Moglen of Columbia University puts it, the intelligence agencies “presented with a mission by an extraordinarily imprudent national government in the United States, which having failed to prevent a very serious attack on American civilians at home, largely by ignoring warnings, decreed that they were never again to be put in a position where they should have known. This resulted in a military response, which is to get as close to everything as possible. Because if you don’t get as close to everything as possible, how can you say that you knew everything that you should have known?” In a real war, one in which the very survival of a state is threatened by a foreign adversary, almost anything is permissible, including the suspension of civil liberties, the right to privacy and all the other things we liberals hold dear. Between 1939 and 1945, Britain was governed by what was effectively a dictatorship wielding unimaginable powers, including comprehensive censorship, the power to requisition private property on demand, and so on. Citizens might not have liked this regime, but they consented to because they understood the need for it.

The “war” on terror is not a war in this sense. It is a rhetorical device aimed at engineering consent for a particular political strategy. But it was enough to provide legislative cover for the acquisition by the US intelligence-gathering agencies of warlike powers, which included the means of surveilling every citizen on earth who had an internet connection, and every owner of a mobile phone in most countries of the world. The war on terror may have succeeded in turbocharging the surveillance capabilities of the US and its allies, but it has also inflicted significant collateral damage on the foreign policy of the US, threatened its dominance of cloud computing and other markets, undermined its major technology companies, infuriated some of its most important allies and superimposed a huge question-mark on the future of the internet as a global system. The war on terror may have made tactical sense in the traumatic months post-9/11. But as a political decision it has had a catastrophic long-term impact. [Continue reading…]