FBI documents detail how the Russians try to recruit spies

CNN reports: It is a scene ripped from Hollywood spy thrillers: Russian agents living and working among everyday, American citizens as cover for their true mission of stealing state secrets.

In the real world, it is highly unlikely that your neighbor, coworker or mailman is actually a clandestine Russian operative working under a false identity. But that certainly does not mean the art of espionage has gone out of style in the world of international intelligence gathering, particularly between the United States and its former Cold War foe.

Amid all of the accusations and speculation pouring out of the investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election, the notion that foreign spies are using old-school tactics and personally recruiting agents to divulge sensitive information is actually widely accepted among intelligence officials.

There is no doubt that the rise of information warfare and cyberespionage has changed the spy game in the years since the Cold War. But the playbook on how to target, recruit and manipulate sources has generally stayed the same. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea displays apparently new missiles as U.S. carrier group approaches

Reuters reports: North Korea displayed what appeared to be new long-range and submarine-based missiles on the 105th birth anniversary of its founding father, Kim Il Sung, on Saturday, as a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier group steamed towards the region.

Missiles appeared to be the main theme of a giant military parade, with Kim’s grandson, leader Kim Jong Un, taking time to greet the commander of the Strategic Forces, the branch that oversees the missile arsenal.

A U.S. Navy attack on a Syrian airfield this month with Tomahawk missiles raised questions about U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans for reclusive North Korea, which has conducted several missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions, regularly threatening to destroy the United States. [Continue reading…]

Politico reports: President Donald Trump would be best served to simply ignore the provocations of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a former acting director of the CIA said Friday, and is “making it worse” by replying with a show of force.

Kim has moved his repressive, communist state to the top of the president’s international priority list in recent weeks, first with a missile test and now with preparations consistent with the test of a nuclear weapon. North Korea was a main point of discussion during the president’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, and last weekend Trump ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its accompanying battle group into the waters off the Korean peninsula.

“We have a new president and Kim Jong Un is trying to challenge him, is trying to get him back to the negotiating table,” former CIA acting Director Mike Morell said Friday on “CBS This Morning,” praising former President Barack Obama for largely ignoring the North Korean regime’s efforts at saber rattling. “Kim Jong Un wants to get back to a situation where we give them gifts when they do something bad. And then we are also making it worse, right? With our bluster and by sending aircraft carriers in there, we’re raising the crisis.” [Continue reading…]

Josh Rogin writes: Despite heated rhetoric about potential military conflict, the Trump administration’s official policy on North Korea is not aimed at regime change, but rather seeks to impose “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang in the hopes of returning to negotiations to get rid of its growing nuclear arsenal. That’s the result of a comprehensive policy review the Trump White House completed this month.

Tensions couldn’t be higher as the regime of Kim Jong Un signals that it may soon detonate its sixth nuclear bomb and North Korean officials say they are ready to “go to war” if provoked by the United States. The United States has moved significant military assets into the region, and officials are even signaling that the United States is capable of launching a preemptive strike.

But behind the scenes, the Trump administration has completed a two-month comprehensive review of the North Korea policy that was approved by all of the top National Security Council officials this month, a senior White House official who has read the policy confirmed to me. [Continue reading…]

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Jeff Sessions, unleashed at the border

A New York Times editorial says: Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to the border in Arizona on Tuesday and declared it a hellscape, a “ground zero” of death and violence where Americans must “take our stand” against a tide of evil flooding up from Mexico.

It was familiar Sessions-speak, about drug cartels and “transnational gangs” poisoning and raping and chopping off heads, things he said for years on the Senate floor as the gentleman from Alabama. But with a big difference: Now he controls the machinery of federal law enforcement, and his gonzo-apocalypto vision of immigration suddenly has force and weight behind it, from the officers and prosecutors and judges who answer to him.

When Mr. Sessions got to the part about the “criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document forgers” overthrowing our immigration system, the American flag behind him had clearly heard enough — it leaned back and fell over as if in a stupor. An agent rushed to rescue it, and stood there for the rest of the speech: a human flag stand and metaphor. A guy with a uniform and gun, wrapped in Old Glory, helping to give the Trump administration’s nativist policies a patriotic sheen.

It was in the details of Mr. Sessions’s oratory that his game was exposed. He talked of cities and suburbs as immigrant-afflicted “war zones,” but the crackdown he seeks focuses overwhelmingly on nonviolent offenses, the document fraud and unauthorized entry and other misdeeds that implicate many people who fit no sane definition of brutal criminal or threat to the homeland.

The problem with Mr. Sessions’s turbocharging of the Justice Department’s efforts against what he paints as machete-wielding “depravity” is how grossly it distorts the bigger picture. It reflects his long fixation — shared by his boss, President Trump — on immigration not as an often unruly, essentially salutary force in American history, but as a dire threat. It denies the existence of millions of people who are a force for good, economic mainstays and community assets, less prone to crime than the native-born — workers, parents, children, neighbors and, above all, human beings deserving of dignity and fair treatment under the law. [Continue reading…]

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CIA chief Pompeo: Wikileaks ‘hostile intelligence service’

BBC News reports: The head of the CIA Mike Pompeo has described anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” that is often abetted by states such as Russia.

Russian military intelligence used Wikileaks to distribute hacked material during the US election, he added.

Earlier this month Wikileaks published details of what it said were CIA hacking tools.

The FBI and CIA have launched a criminal investigation into the leak.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” Mr Pompeo said, speaking at a Washington think tank.

“It overwhelmingly focuses on the US, while seeking support from anti-democratic countries and organisations,” he added. [Continue reading…]

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Lawmakers demand review of Saudi bombings before massive arms sale

BuzzFeed reports: A bipartisan group of lawmakers is demanding that the Trump administration provide a detailed account of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, including instances of potential war crimes, before approving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of precision-guided bombs, BuzzFeed News has learned.

The request, detailed in a letter signed by 31 members of the House of Representatives, could push the United States to disclose sensitive details about when and where the Saudi military ignored Washington’s instructions to avoid targets that resulted in civilian casualties.

Congress must “ensure that the [Royal Saudi Air Force] has the ability to avoid civilian casualties before the U.S. sells them any additional air-to-ground munitions,” said a draft of the letter addressed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

The demand follows a decision by the State Department to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia as the Trump administration beefs up support for the Arab monarchy’s military campaign in Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. may launch strike if North Korea reaches for nuclear trigger

NBC News reports: The U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test, multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.

North Korea has warned that a “big event” is near, and U.S. officials say signs point to a nuclear test that could come as early as this weekend.

The intelligence officials told NBC News that the U.S. has positioned two destroyers capable of shooting Tomahawk cruise missiles in the region, one just 300 miles from the North Korean nuclear test site.

American heavy bombers are also positioned in Guam to attack North Korea should it be necessary, and earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group was being diverted to the area.

The U.S. strike could include missiles and bombs, cyber and special operations on the ground.

The danger of such an attack by the U.S. is that it could provoke the volatile and unpredictable North Korean regime to launch its own blistering attack on its southern neighbor.

“The leadership in North Korea has shown absolutely no sign or interest in diplomacy or dialogue with any of the countries involved in this issue,” Victor Cha, the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told NBC News Thursday.

On Wednesday, North Korea said it would “hit the U.S. first” with a nuclear weapon should there be any signs of U.S. strikes.

On Thursday, North Korea warned of a “merciless retaliatory strike” should the U.S. take any action. [Continue reading…]

John Pomfret writes: For the first time, the Chinese government appears to have laid down a bottom-line with North Korea and is threatening Pyongyang with a response of “unprecedented ferocity” if the government of Kim Jong Un goes ahead with a test of either an intercontinental ballistic missile or a nuclear device. North Korea will celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung, on Saturday, and some type of military show of force is expected.

In an editorial in the semi-official Global Times on Wednesday, Pyongyang was put on notice that it must rein in its nuclear ambitions, or else China’s oil shipments to North Korea could be “severely limited.” It is extraordinary for China to make this kind of threat. For more than a decade, as part of its strategy to prop up one of its only allies, China refused to allow the U.N. Security Council to even consider cutting oil shipments to North Korea. Beijing’s calculus was that the maintenance of the North Korean regime took precedence over everything. Now Beijing seems to be reconsidering its position. [Continue reading…]

Politico reports: President Donald Trump said Thursday that he does not know whether the U.S. military’s use of the so-called “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan will send a message to North Korea, but he said “the problem” with that country “will be taken care of,” regardless.

“I don’t know if this sends a message,” Trump told reporters in the White House. “It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.”

He added: “I will say, I think China has really been working very hard. I have really gotten to like and respect, as you know, President Xi. He’s a terrific person. We spent a lot of time together in Florida. And he’s a very special man. So we’ll see how it goes. I think he’s going to try very hard.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. unleashes ‘Mother of All Bombs’ — and a press release

The Daily Beast reports: U.S. Special Operations Forces dropped one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan on April 13, defense officials told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

The bombing could mark a shocking escalation of America’s war in Afghanistan—one that places more civilians in greater danger than ever before, though military officials insist they wouldn’t have acted if they had spotted civilians nearby.

American forces were trying to root out deeply entrenched ISIS fighters when a U.S. Air Force MC-130 commando transport dropped the Massive Ordinance Air Blast munition in Achin district in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan at 7:32 in the evening, local time.

ISIS has an estimated 600 to 800 fighters in Afghanistan, many of them in Achin, according to Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump. One U.S. commando died in a firefight in the district just a few days ago, on April 8.

But this was no act of retribution, the Pentagon insisted. “This operation was planned prior to the loss of a 7th Group Green Beret last week,” U.S. military spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Salvin explained from Kabul.

Stump said the massive bombing could hinder ISIS in Afghanistan. “It really restricts their freedom of movement.”

Pentagon officials say the generals have had the authority to whatever ordnance they had in theatre against ISIS since January last year, but President Donald Trump’s comfort level with delegating new decision-making on counterterrorism strikes surely played into their thinking. The general “ordered” the weapon for use in during the Obama Administration, according to Slavin, who said it was only delivered in January this year.

“Appropriate notifications were made. This is not a new authority. This does not reflect a new policy or authority,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas emailed The Daily Beast. [Continue reading…]

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Undocumented in Trump’s America

 

 

 

 

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U.S. intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts

CNN reports: The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin attack in Idlib last week, a senior US official tells CNN.

The intercepts were part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. US officials have said that there is “no doubt” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the attack.

The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.

So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. The official said the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson meets with Putin amid deepening tensions over U.S. missile strikes in Syria

The Washington Post reports: The rift between the United States and Russia was laid bare Wednesday when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held his first direct talks with Russia’s president. Their discussions failed to ease deepening tensions over Syria and Washington’s demands that Moscow abandon its main Middle East ally.

“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Tillerson said in a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “The world’s two primary nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

Wednesday’s meeting brought no indication that the relationship would improve any time soon.

After Tillerson spent three hours talking with Lavrov and almost two hours at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov, sitting three feet from Tillerson, aired a long list of grievances with the United States, some dating back many years.

“Unfortunately, we’ve got some differences with regards to a majority of those issues,” Lavrov lamented.

The only concession that Tillerson appeared to have extracted from the Russians was that Putin offered to restore a hotline aimed at avoiding accidents in the air over Syria. Russia had suspended that effort after U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base following an April 4 chemical weapons attack on a village in rebel territory. Even this tiny success was conditional; Lavrov said the deal would apply only if the United States and its allies targeted terrorists — not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ­forces.

Hopes may never have been high, especially after Russia sounded a defiant note before Tillerson arrived in Moscow. But if this was the chance to find common ground before the Trump administration attempts any new action on Syria, it has ended in failure.

The Russians used Tillerson’s visit as a chance to reassert Moscow’s firm stance on Syria: that it will not abide by any effort to remove Assad from power. [Continue reading…]

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Court approved wiretap on Trump campaign aide, Carter Page, seen as Russian agent

The New York Times reports: The Justice Department obtained a secret court-approved wiretap last summer on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, based on evidence that he was operating as a Russian agent, a government official said Wednesday.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued the warrant, the official said, after investigators determined that Mr. Page was no longer part of the Trump campaign, which began distancing itself from him in early August. Mr. Page is one of several Trump associates under scrutiny in a federal investigation.

The Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign as a line it did not want to cross, the official added. But its decision to seek a wiretap once it was clear that Mr. Page had left the campaign was the latest indication that, as Mr. Trump built his insurgent run for the White House, the F.B.I. was deeply concerned about whether any of his associates were colluding with Russia.

To obtain the warrant, the government needed to show probable cause that Mr. Page was acting as an agent of Russia. Investigators must first get approval from one of three senior officials at the Justice Department. Then, prosecutors take it to a surveillance court judge.

And though the Trump administration has said Mr. Page was a bit player who had no access to the candidate, the wiretap shows the F.B.I. had strong evidence that a campaign adviser was operating on behalf of Moscow. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson on the future of the Assad regime

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KremlinGate and the limits of classified evidence

John R. Schindler writes: President Trump’s Russia problem is off the front pages for the first time in months. In retaliation for the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons against civilians, Trump attacked a Syrian airbase using 59 cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy ships.

To the great distress of many of the president’s most ardent fans, the Trump White House has honored Obama’s Syrian “red line,” which his predecessor so embarrassingly walked away from almost four years ago, thereby handing the Syrian problem—and much of the Middle East—over to Vladimir Putin. It’s no wonder that the Kremlin is suddenly critical of the new administration, using strong words to express its displeasure with Trump’s muscular act against the Assad regime, which is Moscow’s loyal client.

But none of this means the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of KremlinGate is going away. In fact, we now know that it’s been underway for almost a year. According to a new report in The New York Times, John Brennan, the CIA director during President Obama’s second term, knew last summer that Kremlin interference in our election was a serious and fast-growing problem. He was so worried that, in late August, Brennan personally briefed eight senior members of Congress on new evidence of Russia’s meddling—in some cases, the CIA director interrupted their summer vacations to share the bad news.

The Times doesn’t indicate what that urgent new intelligence was, but members of the Intelligence Community with access to that evidence have told me there are several top-secret reports—mainly, but not exclusively, signals intelligence from NSA—demonstrating links between Team Trump and top Kremlin officials, hinting at collusion with Moscow during last year’s election. Although none of these reports individually is conclusive—there is no “smoking gun” as Beltway wonks like to say—taken together they lead to the disturbing finding that Trump’s campaign was in cahoots with Moscow to hurt Hillary Clinton. That the IC knew much of this last summer invites disturbing questions about the Obama administration’s puzzling inaction last fall, in the weeks leading to the election.

FBI director James Comey has tamped down expectations of any quick resolution of his Bureau’s investigation of KremlinGate. He is surely correct that this weighty matter is best addressed thoroughly and judiciously, not rashly. We need the facts—not assertions or unprovable claims from dodgy dossiers. The existence of top-secret evidence pointing to collusion between Team Trump and Team Putin means that investigators and prosecutors have red meat to work with, but that does not necessarily mean that indictments are coming soon.

Comey faces a particular problem, little understood by the public or even by most journalists covering KremlinGate. That’s the fact that classified evidence is inadmissible in court, and top-secret information will never be shown to a jury. FBI agents therefore face the uncomfortable difficulty of knowing (from highly classified reports) what was going on—and finding unclassified corroboration if they want to prosecute anybody.

Hence the pressing need to get co-conspirators to “flip” on each other and, even better, coercing confessions from those facing possible prison time. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey confirms sarin was used in Syrian chemical attack

The Guardian reports: Traces of sarin gas have been detected in blood and urine samples from victims wounded in the town of Khan Sheikhun in Syria, giving “concrete evidence” of its use in the attack, Turkey’s health minister has said.

Doctors and aid workers who had examined the wounded of last week’s massacre, which provoked the first US military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, said they exhibited symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent similar to sarin, as well as a second chemical that may have been chlorine.

But the tests in Turkey, where many of the victims were taken for treatment due to the lack of medical facilities inside Syria, offer the first insight into the actual toxins used in the attack that killed over 80 people and drew worldwide condemnation and a renewed focus on the brutal conduct of the war.

The Turkish health minister Recep Akdağ said isopropyl methylphosphonic acid, a chemical that sarin degrades into, was found in the blood and urine samples taken from the patients who arrived in Turkey. Some 30 victims were brought across the border following the attack last Tuesday, and a number of them have died.

Autopsies on victims in Turkey shortly after the attack, monitored by the World Health Organization, had concluded there was evidence of sarin exposure. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Vladimir Putin has deepened his support of the Syrian regime, claiming its opponents planned false-flag chemical weapon attacks to justify further US missile strikes.

The Russian president’s predictions on Tuesday of an escalation in the Syrian war involving more use of chemical weapons came as US officials provided further details of what they insist was a sarin attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces against civilians on 4 April, and accused Moscow of a cover-up and possible complicity.

The hardening of the Kremlin’s position, and its denial of Assad’s responsibility, accelerated a tailspin in US-Russian relations, just as the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, arrived in Moscow for direct talks.

Tillerson had hoped to underscore the US position with a unified message from the G7, which condemned the chemical attack at a summit in Italy on Tuesday. However, G7 foreign ministers were divided over possible next steps and refused to back a British call for fresh sanctions. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s first news conference since taking over the Defense Department: A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to describe sensitive information, said that chlorine has a different status than sarin under international law, but Mattis does not want to say what will happen if Assad continues to use it. The idea, the official said, is to give the regime pause before using any kind of chemical weapon.

During the news conference, Mattis said the United States will need to decide as a matter of policy how it will respond in the future to the use of any kind of chemical weapon, including chlorine, in Syria.

“There is a limit, I think, to what we can do,” Mattis said. “And when you look at what happened with this chemical attack, we knew that we could not stand passive on this.” [Continue reading…]

In a statement on Monday, Mattis claimed the U.S. missile strike resulted in the damage or destruction of “20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft.”

No doubt Putin’s claims about false flag operations will gain easy traction in the Russia-friendly marginal media, but it’s worth remembering that sarin can’t be made in a kitchen sink (nor can it be easily dispersed on a battlefield), and the Assad regime possessed its chemical weapons production facilities through support from the Soviet Union.

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Classified docs contradict Nunes surveillance claims, GOP and Dem sources say

CNN reports: After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.

Their private assessment contradicts President Donald Trump’s allegations that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking” of US individuals’ identities. Trump had claimed the matter was a “massive story.”

However, over the last week, several members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees have reviewed intelligence reports related to those requests at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.

And another source said there’s “absolutely” no smoking gun in the reports, urging the White House to declassify them to make clear there was nothing alarming in the documents. [Continue reading…]

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FBI obtained FISA warrant to monitor former Trump adviser Carter Page

The Washington Post reports: The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.

The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.

This is the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents. Such contacts are now at the center of an investigation into whether the campaign coordinated with the Russian government to swing the election in Trump’s favor.

Page has not been accused of any crimes, and it is unclear whether the Justice Department might later seek charges against him or others in connection with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The counterintelligence investigation into Russian efforts to influence U.S. elections began in July, officials have said. Most such investigations don’t result in criminal charges. [Continue reading…]

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