Prisoner’s letters document tragedy and hope inside Guantánamo

The Intercept reports: On April 16, the Department of Defense issued a short press release announcing that Mohammed al-Hamiri, a Yemeni citizen held at Guantánamo Bay, had been transferred for release. Hamiri had been incarcerated at Guantánamo since 2002, when he was detained by American forces. First taken into custody at the age of 19, Hamiri spent more than a third of his life at the prison. During that time, he was never charged with any crime.

Writing was one of Hamiri’s greatest comforts during the 13 long years he spent at Guantánamo. Hamiri’s letters and other personal writings were cleared for release earlier this year through the work of lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The letters reflect an enduring sense of hope, love for family and friends, and a remarkably poetic imagination.

Hamiri’s release this week represents the start of a new chapter in his life, one he has spent years waiting for with both hope and trepidation. His writings from Guantánamo offer a glimpse into what the prospect of freedom meant to him during his long imprisonment. “I do not know why I am writing these words, and I do not know if my letters and my words are going to be read by eyes that know the meaning of justice,” he reflected recently, writing that prison had given him “no voice other than this pen with which to write a painful memory from the pages of my life.” [Continue reading…]

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Karen Greenberg: No justice at Gitmo

With only nine months to go, in the fashion of modern presidents, Barack Obama is already planning his post-presidential library, museum, and foundation complex.  Such institutions only seem to grow more opulent and imperial as the years and administrations pass.  Obama’s will reportedly leave the $300 million raised for George W. Bush’s version of the same in the dust.  The aim is to create at least an $800 million and possibly billion-dollar institution.  With his post-Oval Office future already in view and his presidency nearly history, his “legacy” has clearly been on his mind of late. And when it comes to foreign policy, he definitely has some accomplishments to brag about.  The two most obvious are the Iran nuclear deal and the opening to Cuba.  In their own ways, both could prove game changers, breaking with venomous relations that lasted, in the case of Iran, for more than three and a half decades, and in the case of Cuba, for more than half a century.

You can already imagine the exhibits celebrating them at the Barack Obama Presidential Center to be built on the south side of Chicago.  But it’s hard not to wonder how that institution will handle the three major foreign policy promises the new president made in the distant days of 2008-2009.  After all, he was, in part, swept into the presidency on a blunt promise to end George W. Bush’s catastrophic war in Iraq.  (“So when I am Commander-in-Chief, I will set a new goal on Day One: I will end this war.”)  Nine years later, he’s once again taken this country into the Big Muddy of an Iraq War, either the third or fourth of them in the last five presidencies (depending on whether you count the Reagan administration support for Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran in the 1980s).  At this moment, having just dispatched B-52s, the classic Vietnam-era carpet-bombing plane of choice (Ted Cruz must be thrilled!) to Qatar as part of that war effort, and being on a mission-creep path ever deeper into what can only be called the Iraq quagmire, we’re likely to be talking about a future museum exhibit from hell.

But it won’t begin to match the special exhibit that will someday undoubtedly explore the president’s heartfelt promise to work to severely curtail the American and global nuclear arsenals and put the planet on a path to — a word that had never previously hovered anywhere near the Oval Office — nuclear abolition.  The president’s disarmament ambitions were, in fact, significantly responsible for his 2009 Nobel Prize, an honor that almost uniquely preceded any accomplishments.  Now, the same man is presiding over a planned three-decade, trillion-dollar renovation and modernization of that same arsenal, including the development of an initial generation of “smart” nukes, potentially first-use weapons.  It’s certainly been a unique path for our first outright anti-nuclear president to take and deserves a special place of (dis)honor at the future Obama center.

Barring surprising developments in the coming months, however, no exhibit is likely to be more striking or convoluted than the one that will have to be dedicated to the “closing” of Guantánamo, the notorious offshore, Bush-era prison camp.  After all, as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, a striking soon-to-be-published anatomy of post-9/11 national security state mania, points out today, the closing of Guantánamo within a year represented one of the president’s first promises on entering the Oval Office.  Unless somehow he succeeds in shutting Gitmo down over fierce Republican congressional opposition in these final months, it could prove the pièce de résistance of his future museum. Tom Engelhardt

Still in the Bush embrace
What really stands in the way of closing Guantánamo
By Karen J. Greenberg

Can you believe it?  We’re in the last year of the presidency of the man who, on his first day in the Oval Office, swore that he would close Guantánamo, and yet it and everything it represents remains part of our all-American world. So many years later, you can still read news reports on the ongoing nightmares of that grim prison, ranging from detention without charge to hunger strikes and force feeding. Its name still echoes through the halls of Congress in bitter debate over what should or shouldn’t be done with it. It remains a global symbol of the worst America has to offer.

[Read more…]

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Everything we knew about this ISIS mastermind was wrong

Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan writes: The Pentagon calls him Haji Imam. His other nicknames include Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Alaa al-Afri, Hajji Iman, or simply the Hajji, the Arabic word for “pilgrim” but one that is colloquially used to refer to a revered person or gray eminence. Iraqi and American security officials were so confused by his multiple noms de guerre that they identified him as two distinct high-level leaders of the so-called Islamic State; Wikipedia even has two biographies, and two photographs for the one jihadist whose obscurity was in direct proportion to his significance. For Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Shakhilar al-Qaduli — that’s his legal name — is known as a man of many talents. He’d have to be to attain the rank of second-most powerful figure in ISIS, next to the caliph himself.

The U.S. military announced that al-Qaduli—who oversaw ISIS’s intelligence operations — was killed in an airstrike in Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, on March 25. Although his death was proclaimed at least four times before by the Iraqi government and twice by the U.S.-led coalition, this time it might be real. Several ISIS supporters eulogized him on social media, and new details about his curriculum vitae and all-important role within the organization have been disclosed, possibly because operational security is no longer a priority.

That the No. 2 man in the world’s most dangerous terror organization may be dead matters almost as much as we’ve only been able to learn about him in death. Al-Qaduli’s biography has been cloaked in rumor, myth, and misinformation — or disinformation, given that much of what had been produced on his history came from disgruntled al Qaeda sources looking to ruin his reputation following the bin Ladenist’s split from ISIS in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ratchets up cyber attacks on ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: President Obama confirmed for the first time last week that the U.S. is conducting “cyber operations” against ISIS, in order to disrupt the group’s “command-and-control and communications.”

But the American military’s campaign of cyber attacks against ISIS is far more serious than what the president laid out in his bland description. Three U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that those operations have moved beyond mere disruption and are entering a new, more aggressive phase that is targeted at individuals and is gleaning intelligence that could help capture and kill more ISIS fighters.

As the U.S. ratchets up its online offensive against the terror group, U.S. military hackers are now breaking into the computers of individual ISIS fighters. Once inside the machines, these hackers are implanting viruses and malicious software that allow them to mine their devices for intelligence, such as names of members and their contacts, as well as insights into the group’s plans, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive operations.

One U.S. official told The Daily Beast that intelligence gleaned from hacking ISIS members was an important source for identifying key figures in the organization. In remarks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia this week, Obama confirmed that cyber operations were underway and noted that recently the U.S. has either captured or killed several key ISIS figures, including Sulayman Dawud al-Bakkar, a leader of its chemical weapons program, and “Haji Iman,” the man purported to be ISIS’s second in command. [Continue reading…]

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Civilian casualties in Afghan war are unabated in 2016

The New York Times reports: With nearly 2,000 civilians killed or wounded and more than 80,000 people displaced this year already, the Afghan conflict continues to affect lives in record numbers, the United Nations said on Sunday.

The report came as fighting raged across several provinces. For a third day, government forces repelled Taliban attacks across several districts of Kunduz and were trying to prevent the insurgents from taking the provincial capital, as they did in the fall.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan documented 600 civilian deaths and 1,343 wounded in the first three months of 2016, which by most accounts is expected to be a bloody year as the Taliban rejected the latest efforts to bring them to peace talks. While the death toll fell 13 percent from the same period last year, the number of wounded increased 11 percent, the report said, with a high rise among children. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. Special Operations troops secretly help foreign forces target terrorists

The Washington Post reports: The armed men drove right into the nighttime ambush. The militants, led by a veteran jihadist blamed for a bloody attack on Westerners just 10 days earlier, were winding their way along a narrow desert road in central Tunisia.

When the elite Tunisian forces hidden in the surrounding hills opened fire, their tracers lit up the night sky, and some of the militants tried to flee. All nine suspects, including the senior militant, Khaled Chaib, were killed. An informant in the truck at the time of the ambush was wounded in the shoulder.

The March 2015 operation was a badly needed victory for Tunisia’s fragile democracy, whose leaders were struggling to deliver on the promise of the 2011 revolution. Prime Minister Habib Essid called the ambush by Tunisian National Guard forces the crowning success of a growing counterterrorism capability. One newspaper headline proclaimed: “The country has been saved from catastrophe.”

But what Tunisian leaders did not reveal was the pivotal role that U.S. Special Operations forces had taken in helping to design and stage the operation. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia threatens economic fallout if Congress passes 9/11 bill

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by the kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage, according to administration officials and congressional aides from both parties, and the Saudi threats have been the subject of intense discussions in recent weeks between lawmakers and officials from the State Department and the Pentagon. The officials have warned senators of diplomatic and economic fallout from the legislation.

Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts. [Continue reading…]

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Microsoft sues Justice Department to challenge electronic gag order statute

The New York Times reports: Big technology companies have usually played a defensive game with government prosecutors in their legal fight over customer information, fighting or bowing to requests for information one case at a time.

But now, in a move that could broaden the debate over the balance between customer privacy and law enforcement needs, Microsoft is going on the offense.

The software giant is suing the Justice Department, challenging its frequent use of secrecy orders that prevent Microsoft from telling people when the government obtains a warrant to read their emails.

In its suit, filed Thursday morning in Federal District Court in Seattle, Microsoft’s home turf, the company asserts that the gag order statute in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 — as employed today by federal prosecutors and the courts — is unconstitutional. [Continue reading…]

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Britain’s covert war in Yemen

Vice News reports: In a rural valley in southern Yemen lies Wadi Rafad, a collection of farms 50 miles from the provincial capital of Ataq. Amid an arid landscape dotted with lemon orchards and cornfields, villagers were used to the peace being disturbed by the buzzing of US drones flying overhead. But on the afternoon of May 6, 2012, something changed.

Around 4.30pm an aircraft came into view, its white fuselage clearly visible against the stark blue sky. Rather than overfly the valley, the CIA drone fired Hellfire missiles straight at Fahd al-Quso, who was working his land. He was killed instantly — but shrapnel from the blast also engulfed Nasser Salim Lakdim, a 19-year-old student who had just returned home to tend his family’s plantation. Nasser’s father came rushing back to the farm to find his son in pieces. “It was horrifying, I can barely describe it,” he told VICE News.

The strike was among the foremost successes of the US counterterrorism effort in Yemen. Al-Quso, its target, was a senior field commander in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He had participated in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and had threatened to attack American embassies.

It was also an example of successful cooperation between British and American intelligence agencies. The US had hunted al-Quso for half a decade, and the intelligence that led to this strike came from a British agent working for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) — commonly known as MI6 — who had infiltrated AQAP.

Far from being a one-off tip, a VICE News investigation can exclusively reveal that this was a high point in systemic collaboration between SIS and the CIA to degrade AQAP through a combination of special forces operations and drone strikes.

A former senior CIA official responsible for operations in Yemen told VICE News that “the most important contribution” to the intelligence for the strike came from “a very important British capability.” The UK agent provided the CIA with al-Quso’s position, allowing a drone to track his car. “That was quite unique,” the former official explained, “it was something we didn’t have.”

The use of drones in Yemen has long been characterized as a unilateral US policy. In response to a 2014 parliamentary question on Britain’s role in the US drone program, UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hugh Robertson said: “Drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments.”

However, following interviews with more than two dozen current and former British, American, and Yemeni officials, VICE News can reveal that the UK played a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program. The US-led covert war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, has killed up to 1,651 people, including up to 261 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. [Continue reading…]

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Cash, candy, and ‘collateral damage’: An anatomy of a CIA-MI6 drone assassination

Vice News reports: “I was on my way to play football with my friends when the airstrike hit,” Amin Ali al-Wisabi told VICE News, recounting the day when a CIA drone struck his hometown of Azzan in Yemen. “We had stopped to sit down and plan the match when all of a sudden an explosion hit a passing al-Qaeda car.”

Recovering from his shock, 13-year-old Amin realized he had been hit by shrapnel. “Blood was pouring from my leg.”

Next to Amin, his friend Hamza Khaled Baziyad lay unconscious. In total, five children aged between 10 and 14 were injured as they gathered close to the local mosque.

Though the number of people injured in covert US strikes is not officially recorded, they play a crucial role in the struggle for hearts and minds across Yemen’s southern hinterland. Bystanders and family rushed the children to a local clinic, where Hamza awoke while shrapnel was extracted from his chest. All of the children survived. [Continue reading…]

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Does it take 8 years to decide whether to declassify 28-pages of 9/11 report?

The Daily Beast reports: By the end of President Obama’s term in office, the administration hopes to decide whether to declassify a controversial portion of Congress’ investigation into the 9/11 attacks, the White House said Tuesday. The so-called “28 pages,” which have never been publicly released, are said to implicate Saudi government officials and civilians in the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

The administration had directed a “declassification review” of the material from the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the terrorist attacks in 2014. Former lawmakers who have read the classified pages say they describe a financial and logistical support network for the 19 hijackers, most of them Saudi citizens, while they were in the U.S. The report was released in December 2002.

“That review process remains underway, but every effort is being taken to complete it before the end of the Administration,” Ned Price, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, told The Daily Beast in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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FBI used hacking software decade before iPhone fight

The New York Times reports: In early 2003, F.B.I. agents hit a roadblock in a secret investigation, called Operation Trail Mix. For months, agents had been intercepting phone calls and emails belonging to members of an animal welfare group that was believed to be sabotaging operations of a company that was using animals to test drugs. But encryption software had made the emails unreadable.

So investigators tried something new. They persuaded a judge to let them remotely, and secretly, install software on the group’s computers to help get around the encryption.

That effort, revealed in newly declassified and released records, shows in new detail how F.B.I. hackers worked to defeat encryption more than a decade before the agency’s recent fight with Apple over access to a locked iPhone. The Trail Mix case was, in some ways, a precursor to the Apple dispute. In both cases, the agents could not decode the data themselves, but found a clever workaround.

The Trail Mix records also reveal what is believed to be the first example of the F.B.I. remotely installing surveillance software, known as spyware or malware, as part of a criminal wiretap.

“This was the first time that the Department of Justice had ever approved such an intercept of this type,” an F.B.I. agent wrote in a 2005 document summing up the case.

The next year, six activists were convicted of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act in the case. An appeals court upheld the convictions in 2009, and said that the use of encryption, among other things, was “circumstantial evidence of their agreement to participate in illegal activity.”

Ryan Shapiro, a national security researcher and animal welfare advocate, provided the documents in the case to The New York Times after obtaining them in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Several important details remain secret, including whether the tactic worked. The wiretap was disclosed at trial but the software hacking was not, said Lauren Gazzola, one of the defendants, who now works for the Center for Constitutional Rights. [Continue reading…]

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Apple iPhone unlocking manoeuvre likely to remain secret

Reuters reports: The company that helped the FBI unlock a San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone to get data has sole legal ownership of the method, making it highly unlikely the technique will be disclosed by the government to Apple or any other entity, Obama administration sources said this week.

The White House has a procedure for reviewing technology security flaws and deciding which ones should be made public. But it is not set up to handle or reveal flaws that are discovered and owned by private companies, the sources said, raising questions about the effectiveness of the so-called Vulnerabilities Equities Process.

The secretive process was created to let various government interests debate about what should be done with a given technology flaw, rather than leaving it to agencies like the National Security Agency, which generally prefers to keep vulnerabilities secret so they can use them. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. readies ‘Plan B’ to arm Syria rebels

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Central Intelligence Agency and its regional partners have drawn up plans to supply more-powerful weapons to moderate rebels in Syria fighting the Russia-backed regime in the event the country’s six-week-old truce collapses, according to U.S. and other officials.

The preparations for a so-called Plan B center on providing vetted rebel units with weapons systems that would help them in directing attacks against Syrian regime aircraft and artillery positions, the officials said.

The Wall Street Journal first reported in February that President Barack Obama’s top military and intelligence advisers were pressing the White House to come up with a Plan B to counter Russia in Syria. Since then, fresh details have emerged on the nature of the new weaponry that could be deployed under the covert program.

The preparations were discussed at a secret meeting of spy chiefs in the Middle East just before the cease-fire took effect on Feb. 27 and in follow-on exchanges between intelligence services.

In those meetings, officials briefed on the deliberations said, coalition members received provisional assurances from the CIA that they would be given approval to expand support to Syria’s moderate opposition. Coalition members have agreed on the outlines of Plan B, but the White House must still approve the list of specific Plan B weapons systems before they can be introduced to the battlefield. [Continue reading…]

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FBI paid professional hackers one-time fee to crack San Bernardino iPhone

The Washington Post reports: The FBI cracked a San Bernardino terrorist’s phone with the help of professional hackers who discovered and brought to the bureau at least one previously unknown software flaw, according to people familiar with the matter.

The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone’s four-digit personal identification number without triggering a security feature that would have erased all the data, the individuals said.

The researchers, who typically keep a low profile, specialize in hunting for vulnerabilities in software and then in some cases selling them to the U.S. government. They were paid a one-time flat fee for the solution. [Continue reading…]

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