FBI and NSA grilling proves there is no ‘Deep State’

Michael Weiss writes: Not four months into 2017, and the director of America’s domestic intelligence agency let it be known that he is overseeing an investigation into whether the sitting U.S. president or his surrogates may have “coordinated” with the Russian government for the purpose of swaying an American election.

“As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” James Comey said, revealing that he is taking seriously the possibility that Donald Trump, his political advisers, or both have aided and abetted a hostile foreign power.

This doesn’t mean a brief encounter or 12 with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It doesn’t mean a trip to Moscow to slam U.S. foreign policy and anti-Russia sanctions. And it doesn’t even mean working on behalf of pro-Putin political leaders in Europe. It means knowingly colluding with agents of the Russian government in order to spy on their behalf, to help them steal the correspondence of other Americans, or to feed them classified U.S. secrets. Former MI6 operative Christopher Steele suggested that all of the above were distinct possibilities in his dossier, which Comey believed was worth including in classified briefings of President Obama and then-President-elect Donald Trump.

We also learned that Comey began taking these allegations seriously in late July 2016. That was around the time WikiLeaks started publishing Democratic National Committee emails hacked by Russian cyberoperatives and Trump formally became the nominee of a Republican Party, which purposefully watered down its security commitments to Ukraine, almost certainly on orders from then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

I’m old enough to remember when the GOP thought putting any faith in Vladimir Putin was the height of geopolitical naivete. Now the GOP seems to have decided to represent Putin pro bono, while expressing more frustration with The New York Times’ sourcing than with the single most successful Russian infiltration of the U.S. political system since before, during, or after the Cold War. [Continue reading…]

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Intelligence chairman: Justice report shows no evidence for Trump’s claims of wiretapping during campaign

The Washington Post reports: The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Sunday that new documents provided to Congress by the Justice Department provided no proof to support President Trump’s claim that his predecessor had ordered wiretaps of Trump Tower.

“Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No, but there never was, and the information we got on Friday continues to lead us in that direction,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

He added, “There was no FISA warrant that I’m aware of to tap Trump Tower” — a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a federal law that governs the issuance of search warrants in U.S. intelligence gathering. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Allegations from the United States that British spy agency GCHQ snooped on Donald Trump during his election campaign are “arrant nonsense”, the deputy head of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) said in an interview on Saturday.

President Trump has stood by unproven claims that the Obama administration tapped his phones during the 2016 White House race. On Thursday his spokesman cited a media report that Britain’s GCHQ was behind the surveillance.

Richard Ledgett, deputy director of the NSA, told BBC News the idea that Britain had a hand in spying on Trump was “just crazy”. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s source: A greedy former judge citing an intel conspiracy theorist

The New York Times reports: Andrew Napolitano was a Superior Court judge in New Jersey until, frustrated by the constraints of his salary, he left the bench for more lucrative pastures: talk radio, a syndicated small-claims court TV series (“Power of Attorney”) and, eventually, Fox News, where he rose to become the network’s senior legal analyst.

It was in that basic-cable capacity this week that Mr. Napolitano managed to set off a cascading scandal, which by Friday had sparked a trans-Atlantic tiff between Britain and the United States while plunging President Trump’s close relationship with Fox News into new, murkier territory.

It was new ground for Mr. Napolitano, 66, who prefers being addressed as “The Judge” and once insisted that Fox News install bookshelves and wood-paneling in his newsroom office, the better to resemble a judge’s chambers.

But Mr. Napolitano’s unlikely leap into global politics can be explained by his friendship with Mr. Trump, whom he met with this year to discuss potential Supreme Court nominees. Mr. Napolitano also has a taste for conspiracy theories, which led him to Larry C. Johnson, a former intelligence officer best known for spreading a hoax about Michelle Obama. [Continue reading…]

Today, Johnson writes:

I spoke three months ago with a source that, if the source’s name was revealed, would be known and recognized as a reliable source of information. Based on that contact I reached out to friends in the intel community and asked them about the possibility that a back channel was used to get the Brits to collect on Trump associates. My sources said, “absolutely.”

There’s a mighty chasm between saying something’s possible and asserting that it happened. The very same source, if asked whether he had any evidence that such a back channel had indeed reached out to GCHQ, would have most likely followed his “absolutely,” with, “none whatsoever.”

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Among British intelligence officials, growing concern about security threat posed by Trump

Financial Times reports: Shaken by the leaks of Edward Snowden, beset with strategic threats from Islamist militants and Russian aggression, the US-UK intelligence alliance is now facing a more unexpected although no less serious challenge — from the most powerful man within it.

Serving and former British intelligence officials worry that the US president has the power — if not necessarily the inclination — to weaken intelligence ties. After all, the White House has in the past tried to choke off sharing information with the UK and political disagreements have also sometimes led to selective disclosures on both sides.

They also fret that Mr Trump’s fast-and-loose style could lead to the disclosure of highly sensitive information provided by Britain. Most sensitive of all, some British intelligence officials wonder how carefully Mr Trump might treat their “product” — particularly over Russia — if it was deemed damaging to his own political interests. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s foolish effort to blame GCHQ and Fox News for a diplomatic mess of his own making

Former NSA analyst and counterintelligence officer, John Schindler, writes: Napolitano has zero background in intelligence and has no idea what he’s talking about. His accusation against Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, London’s NSA equivalent, was patently absurd, as well as malicious, demonstrating that neither Napolitano nor Fox News have the slightest notion how intelligence works in the real world.

Yet here the White House was publicly endorsing this crackpot theory—and blaming perhaps our closest ally for breaking American laws at the behest of Barack Obama. Our domestic crisis thereby became an international one, for no reason other than the administration has gone global in its efforts to deflect blame from its own stupidity and dishonesty.

This is no small matter. NSA and GCHQ enjoy the most special of special relationships, serving since the Second World War as the cornerstone of the Anglosphere Five Eyes signals intelligence alliance (the others are Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) which defeated Hitler and won the Cold War. This constitutes the most successful espionage alliance in history, and just how close NSA and GCHQ are would be difficult to overstate.

Affectionately calling each other “the cousins,” they interchange personnel and, in the event of disaster—for instance a crippling terrorist attack on agency headquarters—NSA would hand most of its functions over to GCHQ, so that Five Eyes would keep running. It’s long been a source of consternation at Langley that NSA appears to get along better with GCHQ than with CIA. I once witnessed this issue come up in a top-secret meeting with senior officials, in which a CIA boss took an NSA counterpart to task when it became apparent that a piece of highly sensitive intelligence had been shared with “the cousins” before Langley was informed. The NSA senior official’s terse reply silenced the room: “That’s because we trust them.”

Publicly attacking the NSA-GCHQ relationship was therefore a consummately bad idea, particularly by a White House that has already gone so far out of its way to anger and alienate our own spies, and the British reply was one for the record books. Late yesterday, GCHQ issued a remarkable statement:

Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.

American spy services are famously tight-lipped in their public utterances, falling back on “we can neither confirm nor deny” with a regularity that frustrates journalists. And our spooks are positively loquacious compared to British partners, who seldom say anything on the record to the media. Calling out Fox News and the White House in this manner has no precedent, and indicates just how angry British officials are with the Trump administration. For Prime Minister Teresa May, whose efforts to build bridges with the new president have been deeply unpopular at home, this had to be galling. [Continue reading…]

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House Intelligence panel does not reveal whether documents substantiate Trump’s wiretap claim

The Washington Post reports: The House Intelligence Committee did not reveal on Friday night the answer to the question of whether Justice Department documents substantiate President Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration.

The committee had asked for copies of any warrants, applications or court orders relating to a wiretap of Trump or his surrogates and affiliates in advance of a Monday hearing at which the directors of the FBI and the National Security Agency are expected to testify about alleged connections between the Trump team and Russian authorities.

Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) avoided the big question by releasing a statement late Friday that said his panel is “satisfied” that Justice “has fully complied” with its request related to “possible surveillance” of Trump and his associates.

Nunes said the CIA and FBI had not yet provided information that was requested “that is necessary to determine whether information collected on U.S. persons was mishandled and leaked.”

He added that the NSA had “partially met our request” and pledged to fully meet it by the end of next week. [Continue reading…]

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GCHQ dismisses ‘utterly ridiculous’ claim it helped wiretap Trump

The Guardian reports: British intelligence officials have denied an allegation that the UK helped former president Barack Obama “wiretap” Donald Trump during the 2016 election.

The claim was repeated by the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, on Thursday and dismissed as “utterly ridiculous” by a GCHQ spokesperson.

The spokesperson added in a statement: “Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

This week, Napolitano, Fox News judicial analyst, claimed during an interview on the network that three intelligence sources confirmed to him that the Obama administration used GCHQ to spy on Trump so that there would be “no American fingerprints on this”.

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, quoted Napolitano’s allegation in an effort to validate Trump’s unfounded claim that Obama tapped his phones last year. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate intelligence committee have rubbished Donald Trump’s incendiary claim that Barack Obama placed Trump Tower under surveillance.

“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after election day 2016,” the Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and the Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia said in a joint statement on Thursday.

Burr and Warner helm one of the congressional committees investigating ties to Russia by Trump’s associates. Those unfolding inquiries have expanded their focus to include Trump’s evidence-free accusation, made on Twitter on 4 March, that Obama ordered surveillance of his eventual successor.

Their counterparts on the House intelligence committee, the Republican Devin Nunes and the Democrat Adam Schiff, both of California, announced the same conclusion on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

CNN reports: The White House has apologized to the British government after alleging that a UK intelligence agency spied on President Donald Trump at the behest of former President Barack Obama.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster spoke with his British counterpart on Thursday about press secretary Sean Spicer’s comment from the White House podium about a Fox News report that said British intelligence helped wiretap Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, a White House official said Friday.

The official described the conversation as “cordial” where McMaster described Spicer’s comment as “unintentional.”

McMaster also told his counterpart that “their concerns were understood and heard and it would be relayed to the White House.”

The official said there were “at least two calls” from British officials on Thursday and that the British ambassador to the United States called Spicer to discuss the comment.

“Sean was pointing to the breadth of reporting, not endorsing any specific story,” the official said.

A senior administration official told CNN that Spicer and McMaster offered what amounted to an apology to the British government.

Earlier Friday, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said senior UK officials had protested to the Trump administration after the claims were repeated by Spicer. [Continue reading…]

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Russia considers returning Snowden to U.S. to ‘curry favor’ with Trump

NBC News reports: U.S. intelligence has collected information that Russia is considering turning over Edward Snowden as a “gift” to President Donald Trump — who has called the NSA leaker a “spy” and a “traitor” who deserves to be executed.

That’s according to a senior U.S. official who has analyzed a series of highly sensitive intelligence reports detailing Russian deliberations and who says a Snowden handover is one of various ploys to “curry favor” with Trump. A second source in the intelligence community confirms the intelligence about the Russian conversations and notes it has been gathered since the inauguration.

Snowden’s ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner, told NBC News they are unaware of any plans that would send him back to the United States. [Continue reading…]

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How Donald Trump became a national security threat

John Schindler writes: For the first time, an American president is causing our allies and partners to wonder if Washington can still be trusted.

As I’ve explained, Trump’s aggressive comments about American spies — mocking them and comparing them to Nazis on Twitter, for example — have generated unprecedented enmity in our Intelligence Community. Going to war with the IC is a bad idea for any new administration, particularly given the new commander-in-chief’s rumored links to Vladimir Putin, which are keeping American spies up at night.

It’s not just Washington that’s worried. Throughout the Western spy alliance, intelligence agencies are pondering the previously unthinkable: Is the American president compromised? On several occasions over the decades, the IC had to reduce spy-links, usually only temporarily, to various partners when a new government contained too many cabinet ministers with Moscow linkages. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it’s the American government that seems to have a Kremlin problem.

Just how alarming things are was revealed by a recent report in The Times of London that British intelligence has asked the IC for reassurances that the new administration — which has several officials with Kremlin ties that aren’t exactly hidden — won’t compromise British spies operating clandestinely inside Russia. When America’s oldest and most intimate intelligence partner is worried that the White House can’t be trusted with secrets, we’re in uncharted and dangerous waters.

The cost of breakdowns in the Western spy alliance won’t be theoretical. If intelligence sharing wanes, the world gets more dangerous and jihadist attacks will increase, perhaps quite quickly. When spy-partners aren’t confident their shared secrets can be protected, they will become reticent to talk to us. As Mike Hayden, the former director of both NSA and CIA explained, “How many foreign intelligence agencies might say, ‘I’m not sure giving this information to the Americans will do any good anyway. So why should we share it in the first place?’ If they come to the conclusion that the decision-makers don’t pay attention to the intelligence and the Intelligence Community is not respected, then why take the risk?” [Continue reading…]

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Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia under investigation

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. counterintelligence agents have investigated communications that President Donald Trump’s national security adviser had with Russian officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

Michael Flynn is the first person inside the White House under Mr. Trump whose communications are known to have faced scrutiny as part of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Treasury Department to determine the extent of Russian government contacts with people close to Mr. Trump.

It isn’t clear when the counterintelligence inquiry began, whether it produced any incriminating evidence or if it is continuing. Mr. Flynn, a retired general who became national security adviser with Mr. Trump’s inauguration, plays a key role in setting U.S. policy toward Russia.

The counterintelligence inquiry aimed to determine the nature of Mr. Flynn’s contact with Russian officials and whether such contacts may have violated laws, people familiar with the matter said.

A key issue in the investigation is a series of telephone calls Mr. Flynn made to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., on Dec. 29. That day, the Obama administration announced sanctions and other measures against Russia in retaliation for its alleged use of cyberattacks to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election. U.S. intelligence officials have said Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the hacks on Democratic Party officials to try to harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Officials also have examined earlier conversations between Mr. Flynn and Russian figures, the people familiar with the matter said. Russia has previously denied involvement in election-related hacking.

In a statement Sunday night, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: “We have absolutely no knowledge of any investigation or even a basis for such an investigation.” [Continue reading…]

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Intercepted Russian communications part of inquiry into Trump associates

The New York Times reports: American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said.

The continuing counterintelligence investigation means that Mr. Trump will take the oath of office on Friday with his associates under investigation and after the intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had worked to help elect him. As president, Mr. Trump will oversee those agencies and have the authority to redirect or stop at least some of these efforts.

It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself. It is also unclear whether the inquiry has anything to do with an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and other attempts to disrupt the elections in November. The American government has concluded that the Russian government was responsible for a broad computer hacking campaign, including the operation against the D.N.C.

The counterintelligence investigation centers at least in part on the business dealings that some of the president-elect’s past and present advisers have had with Russia. Mr. Manafort has done business in Ukraine and Russia. Some of his contacts there were under surveillance by the National Security Agency for suspected links to Russia’s Federal Security Service, one of the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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FBI, CIA, NSA, Justice, and Treasury departments probe possible covert Kremlin aid to Trump

McClatchy reports: The FBI and five other law enforcement and intelligence agencies have collaborated for months in an investigation into Russian attempts to influence the November election, including whether money from the Kremlin covertly aided President-elect Donald Trump, two people familiar with the matter said.

The agencies involved in the inquiry are the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and representatives of the director of national intelligence, the sources said.

Investigators are examining how money may have moved from the Kremlin to covertly help Trump win, the two sources said. One of the allegations involves whether a system for routinely paying thousands of Russian-American pensioners may have been used to pay some email hackers in the United States or to supply money to intermediaries who would then pay the hackers, the two sources said.

The informal, inter-agency working group began to explore possible Russian interference last spring, long before the FBI received information from a former British spy hired to develop politically damaging and unverified research about Trump, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the inquiry. [Continue reading…]

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Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia extended opening option of citizenship

The New York Times reports: A day after President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Russian government clarified on Wednesday the fate of Edward J. Snowden, the other main source of secrets about United States surveillance in recent years.

Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who was granted asylum in Russia in 2013, will be allowed to remain in the country for “a couple more years,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said on Facebook.

He and his supporters have been campaigning for a pardon from Mr. Obama, but the chances of clemency appear to be vanishingly small given that his name did not appear on a list of pardons on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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Obama opens NSA’s vast trove of warrantless data to entire Intelligence Community, just in time for Trump

The Intercept reports: With only days until Donald Trump takes office, the Obama administration on Thursday announced new rules that will let the NSA share vast amounts of private data gathered without warrant, court orders or congressional authorization with 16 other agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The new rules allow employees doing intelligence work for those agencies to sift through raw data collected under a broad, Reagan-era executive order that gives the NSA virtually unlimited authority to intercept communications abroad. Previously, NSA analysts would filter out information they deemed irrelevant and mask the names of innocent Americans before passing it along.

The change was in the works long before there was any expectation that someone like Trump might become president. The last-minute adoption of the procedures is one of many examples of the Obama administration making new executive powers established by the Bush administration permanent, on the assumption that the executive branch could be trusted to police itself. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. intercepts capture senior Russian officials celebrating Trump win

The Washington Post reports: Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.

The ebullient reaction among high-ranking Russian officials — including some who U.S. officials believe had knowledge of the country’s cyber campaign to interfere in the U.S. election — contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win the White House.

Other key pieces of information gathered by U.S. spy agencies include the identification of “actors” involved in delivering stolen Democratic emails to the WikiLeaks website, and disparities in the levels of effort Russian intelligence entities devoted to penetrating and exploiting sensitive information stored on Democratic and Republican campaign networks.

Those and other data points are at the heart of an unprecedented intelligence report being circulated in Washington this week that details the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and catalogues other cyber operations by Moscow against U.S. election systems over the past nine years. [Continue reading…]

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Just one Trump transition aide dealing with CIA and 16 other agencies in the intelligence community

Reuters reports: Only one member of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is dealing with the CIA and the 16 other offices and agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, four U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Geoffrey Kahn, a former House intelligence committee staffer, is the only person named so far to Trump’s intelligence community “landing team,” they said. As a result, said one senior career intelligence officer, briefing books prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center, and 13 other agencies and organizations are “waiting for someone to read them.” “It seems like an odd time to put issues like cyber security and international terrorism on the back burner,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Previous administrations, the official said, were quicker to staff their intelligence teams, in part because they considered intelligence issues critical to setting foreign policy, defense and budget priorities.

The intelligence community has some 200,000 employees and contractors and an annual budget of more than $70 billion. It collects and analyzes information on a vast array of subjects, from national security threats such as terrorism and climate change to global conflicts and the foreign, defense and trade policies of foreign governments.

Kahn has been in periodic contact with the CIA, said two of the officials, adding that they did not know if he had been in touch with the other intelligence agencies. [Continue reading…]

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