U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections

The Washington Post reports: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said.

The aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates cyber-tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia’s ability to spread disinformation.

The effort to better understand Russia’s covert influence operations is being coordinated by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. “This is something of concern for the DNI,” said Charles Allen, a former longtime CIA officer who has been briefed on some of these issues. “It is being addressed.”

A Russian influence operation in the United States “is something we’re looking very closely at,” said one senior intelligence official who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Officials also are examining potential disruptions to the election process, and the FBI has alerted state and local officials to potential cyberthreats.

The official cautioned that the intelligence community is not saying it has “definitive proof” of such tampering, or any Russian plans to do so. “But even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern,” the official said. “It’s the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system.”

The Kremlin’s intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack U.S. democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union. [Continue reading…]

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A stark reminder of Guantánamo’s sins

In an editorial, the New York Times says: It is haunting, maddening even, to revisit the facts of Abu Zubaydah’s time in American custody more than 14 years after he was detained in Pakistan in the frenzied period following the Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner known to have been waterboarded by the Central Intelligence Agency, loomed large in America’s imagination for years as the personification of evil.

On Tuesday, a small group of human rights advocates and journalists got a fleeting glimpse of Abu Zubaydah — the first since his detention — when he appeared before a panel of government officials to argue that he would not be a threat to the United States if he were released from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. The hearing, which civilians were allowed to watch part of from a live video feed, is an opportunity to reflect on the shameful tactics employed during years of national panic about terrorism and to reinvigorate efforts to close the prison.

George W. Bush’s administration believed that Abu Zubaydah, a bearded Saudi who wears a patch on his left eye, was the operations head of Al Qaeda. Mr. Bush singled him out in a 2006 speech, calling him a “senior terrorist leader,” and claiming that “the security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.” Abu Zubaydah and men like him, government officials argued, fully justified the facility at Guantánamo as well as a secret web of prisons run by the C.I.A. They also justified the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture, then eagerly embraced by some American intelligence officials.

Years later, it became clear that Abu Zubaydah wasn’t a top figure in Al Qaeda after all. It also became clear that he had willingly provided insights into terrorist groups when he was interrogated by F.B.I. agents, who treated him cordially. By the time he was turned over to the C.I.A., his knowledge about threats to the United States appears to have been largely exhausted. Yet agency personnel insisted on the need for torture, waterboarding him at least 83 times and subjecting him to other cruelty.

Never charged and never tried, Abu Zubaydah has also never been allowed to speak publicly about his ordeal. His American abusers have never been held to account. [Continue reading…]

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A former CIA asset has become a U.S. headache in Libya

The Washington Post reports: He’s a grandfather and longtime Washington suburbanite who now commands a powerful fighting force in northern Africa. He’s also a former CIA asset and anti-Islamist warrior who stands in the way of peace in Libya.

The United States and its allies can’t figure out what to do about Khalifa Hifter, the Libyan general whose refusal to support a fragile unity government has jeopardized hopes for stability in a country plagued by conflict.

Since he emerged as an important post-revolution figure in 2014, Western governments have struggled to define an effective policy to deal with Hifter, who has styled himself as an antidote to extremists while building his own power base and shunning the political process brokered by the United Nations.

“Hifter is threatening many of the Western-backed initiatives in Libya and the establishment of a recognized political power,” said Barak Barfi, a scholar at New America, a Washington think tank. “Hifter doesn’t have the strength on the battlefield to deliver on his promises to defeat Islamists, but he can act as a spoiler.”

Even as militia forces, backed by U.S. air power, make progress against the Islamic State in central Libya, Hifter looms as a primary impediment to White House hopes for restoring the democratic promise of the 2011 revolution that ended dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s long rule.

Hifter’s role in a much earlier, CIA-backed attempt to overthrow Gaddafi injects another element of complexity into American efforts to end Libya’s long crisis. [Continue reading…]

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I ran the CIA. Now I’m endorsing Hillary Clinton

Michael Morell writes: During a 33-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, I served presidents of both parties — three Republicans and three Democrats. I was at President George W. Bush’s side when we were attacked on Sept. 11; as deputy director of the agency, I was with President Obama when we killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

I am neither a registered Democrat nor a registered Republican. In my 40 years of voting, I have pulled the lever for candidates of both parties. As a government official, I have always been silent about my preference for president.

No longer. On Nov. 8, I will vote for Hillary Clinton. Between now and then, I will do everything I can to ensure that she is elected as our 45th president.

Two strongly held beliefs have brought me to this decision. First, Mrs. Clinton is highly qualified to be commander in chief. I trust she will deliver on the most important duty of a president — keeping our nation safe. Second, Donald J. Trump is not only unqualified for the job, but he may well pose a threat to our national security.

I spent four years working with Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary of state, most often in the White House Situation Room. In these critically important meetings, I found her to be prepared, detail-oriented, thoughtful, inquisitive and willing to change her mind if presented with a compelling argument. [Continue reading…]

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How a modest contract for ‘applied research’ morphed into the CIA’s brutal interrogation program

The Washington Post reports: The architect of the CIA’s brutal interrogation program was hired for the job through a secret contract in late 2001 that outlined the assignment with Orwellian euphemism.

The agency “has the need for someone familiar with conducting applied research in high-risk operational settings,” the document said. The consultant would be in a unique position to “help guide and shape the future” of a vaguely described research project “in the area of counter-terrorism and special operations.”

In fact, the CIA already had a specific consultant in mind, and the agreement to pay $1,000 a day to psychologist James E. Mitchell subsequently expanded into an $81 million arrangement to oversee the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other harrowing techniques against al-Qaeda suspects in secret agency prisons overseas.

The abuses of that program have been documented extensively over the past decade, but the initial contracts between the CIA and the psychologists it hired to design the torturous interrogation regimen were surrendered by the agency for the first time earlier this month as part of an ACLU lawsuit. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. could have destroyed Iran’s entire infrastructure without dropping a single bomb

Tech Insider reports: The United States had a top-secret operation that gave it the ability to shut down much of Iran’s infrastructure ahead of a full-scale war, without a single bomb being dropped.

The incredible insight into a highly-classified cyber operation called Nitro Zeus was first exposed in the film “Zero Days” and later corroborated by The New York Times, which interviewed intelligence and military officials who were involved.

The film, directed by Alex Gibney, premieres on Friday.

“We spent hundreds of millions, maybe billions on it,” an anonymous National Security Agency source says in the film. “We were inside, waiting, watching. Ready to disrupt, degrade, and destroy those systems with cyber attacks. In comparison, Stuxnet was a back alley operation. [Nitro Zeus] was the plan for a full scale cyber war with no attribution.”

The source, whose face and voice are concealed throughout the film, is later revealed to be an actor reciting lines from testimony offered to Director Alex Gibney by CIA and NSA employees.

The focus of the “Zero Days” film is on Stuxnet — the world’s first cyber weapon — that was used against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But in researching for the film, Gibney found that malicious software was just one small piece of a much larger puzzle. [Continue reading…]

 

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White House opts for distraction of holiday weekend when disclosing dubious count on civilian death toll from drone strikes

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports: The US government today claimed it has killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.

This is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualty range recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, court papers and the result of field investigations.

While the number of civilian casualties recorded by the Bureau is six times higher than the US Government’s figure, the assessments of the minimum total number of people killed were strikingly similar. The White House put this figure at 2,436, whilst the Bureau has recorded 2,753.

Since becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama has significantly extended the use of drones in the War on Terror. Operating outside declared battlefields, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, this air war has been largely fought in Pakistan and Yemen.

The White House’s announcement today is long-awaited. It comes three years after the White House first said it planned to publish casualty figures, and four months after President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the data would be released.

The figures released do not include civilians killed in drones strikes that happened under George W Bush, who instigated the use of counter-terrorism strikes outside declared war zones and in 58 strikes killed 174 reported civilians. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: In a seeming acknowledgment that the long-anticipated disclosure would be greeted with skepticism by critics of the drone program, the administration issued the numbers on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. The use of a range of estimated civilian deaths underscored the fact that the government often does not know for sure the affiliations of those killed.

“They’re guessing, too,” said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has tracked civilian deaths for more than a decade. “Theirs may be a little more educated than my guesses. But they cannot be completely accurate.”

The disclosure about civilian deaths and the executive order, the subject of months of bureaucratic deliberations, carried broader significance. Issued about seven months before Mr. Obama leaves office, the order further institutionalized and normalized airstrikes outside conventional war zones as a routine part of 21st-century national security policy. [Continue reading…]

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Brexit crisis contributing to ‘daunting’ U.S. security challenges, CIA director says

The Guardian reports: The US is facing its most daunting national security challenge in a generation after the European Union was plunged into “crisis” by Britain’s vote to leave, the head of the CIA warned on Wednesday.

John Brennan insisted that Brexit would not undermine cooperation with MI6 in the fight against terrorism, but suggested that the EU, a bulwark of peace and stability since the fall of the Berlin wall, would now be preoccupied with the UK’s departure.

“In the 36 years since I first entered government, I have never been witnessing a time with such a daunting array of challenges to our nation’s security,” Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Notable among those challenges is that some of the institutions and relationships that have been pillars of the post-cold war international system are under serious stress.

“Of all the crises the EU has faced in recent years, the UK vote to leave the EU may well be its greatest challenge. Brexit is pushing the EU into a period of introspection that will pervade virtually everything the EU does in the coming weeks, months and even years ahead,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Uncovered: Dark new CIA torture claims

The Daily Beast reports: The CIA said it would only torture detainees to psychologically break them, according to a previously-unreported passage from a 2007 Justice Department memo. It’s a claim that’s at odds with how congressional investigators say the agency really handled captives in the early days of the war on terror.

And it’s not the only eye-opening assertion found in newly declassified portions of Bush-era documents on the CIA’s use of torture. A second document says that the CIA believed itself to be legally barred from torturing others countries’ detainees — but not from using so-called enhanced interrogations on its own captives.

In a passage from a 2007 memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the CIA said it would only subject detainees to harsh techniques, such as waterboarding, in order to break a detainee down to the point where he would no longer withhold information. The interrogations weren’t designed to get answers to specific questions; in fact, the agency interrogator “generally does not ask questions… to which the CIA does not already know the answers,” the memo states.

But that claim is contradicted by the agency’s actual record, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government to disclose the portions of the document. [Continue reading…]

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Washington’s war on ISIS is only making it stronger

Hassan Hassan writes: For the first time since U.S.-led coalition operations began two years ago, almost all of the group’s vital strongholds in Syria, Iraq, and Libya have come under serious pressure. In a recent statement, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, even alluded to the fact that followers should be prepared for losses, from Sirte to Mosul.

But while the group’s performance has hit an all-time low, its appeal does not seem to have diminished. CIA Director John Brennan recognizes this fact: “Despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 16, using another term for the Islamic State. “[A]s the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”

Brennan also confirmed that the CIA had found no “direct link” between Omar Mateen, the gunman in Orlando, and the Islamic State. This is no surprise, as Mateen does not seem to fit familiar patterns of dogmatic support for the group. In the space of three years, he had supported Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. His profile suggests that he belongs in the category of sympathizers who are only superficially influenced by the organization’s ideology, but who nonetheless can be inspired to carry out attacks in its name.

Such sympathizers are not driven by the Islamic State’s military successes, such as the takeover of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The group built its narrative around Sunni victimization, an idea that both predates its establishment of a caliphate and continues to exert a strong pull on many in the Middle East. The Islamic State has also tapped into the rampant political stagnation and popular grievances to gain popular support beyond the number of people who actually joined its ranks.

Consider, for example, the ongoing offensives against the Islamic State in Fallujah, Raqqa, and Manbij. While Washington insists the onslaughts include forces that represent the Sunni Arab communities that dominate the three cities, the prominence of Iranian-backed sectarian militias and Kurdish groups has triggered outrage in groups that are otherwise hostile to the Islamic State.

Two examples stand out. As the People’s Protection Units advanced on Raqqa, the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently warned that civilians in the city were drifting toward the Islamic State due to their hatred for the Kurdish group. Meanwhile, Arabic media like al-Arabiya and al-Hayat — which last year described the offensive on the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit as a “liberation” — called the war on Fallujah a sectarian conflict, led by Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani.

Many observers throughout the region see Washington turning its back on Sunni civilians in order to cozy up to Tehran and Moscow. Reports in Arabic media have accused the United States of deliberately backing a sectarian war against Sunnis. This narrative invokes old patterns that could again help the Islamic State convert territorial losses into legitimacy among certain segments of the Sunni world. [Continue reading…]

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Former undercover CIA officer talks war and peace

 

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Russia is recruiting the U.S.’s rebel allies in Syria

Mike Giglio reports: The rebel commander was nervous. He had changed phone numbers and been difficult to reach before finally agreeing to meet in Antakya, a city near the border with war-torn Syria that has long swarmed with rebels, refugees, and spies. On the road to an out-of-the-way hotel, he told the driver to avoid the main route through town. “It’s better not to drive among all the people,” he said.

It was an open secret that the commander had once received cash and weapons from the CIA, part of a covert U.S. program that backs rebel groups against both ISIS and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

When his battalion was eventually driven from Syria by its jihadi rivals, like a number of U.S.-backed groups, he pleaded with his U.S. handlers for better support, but it wasn’t enough. So he was, he said, “out of the game.”

Now, he said, sitting at a quiet table at the hotel, he had received an offer that could bring him back in — and potentially make him even stronger than before.

He was being recruited, he said, to work for the U.S.’s rival in Syria: Russia.

“They told me, ‘We will support you forever. We won’t leave you on your own like your old friends did,’” he said. “Honestly, I’m still thinking about it.”

The commander said that five years into a war that has killed some 400,000 people and created nearly 5 million refugees, Russia is recruiting current and former U.S. allies to its side. His revelation was confirmed by four people who said they, too, had been approached with offers from Russia and by two Syrian middlemen who said they delivered them.

The moves come as Russia ratchets up its involvement in Syria with troops and airstrikes. Russia says its military campaign is designed to target ISIS — in reality it has targeted all rebels, including some who are still backed by the U.S., while also wreaking havoc on civilians.

The secret outreach shows that as it works to muscle the U.S. out of Syria, Russia isn’t just bombing the U.S.’s current and former rebel allies — it’s also working to co-opt them, launching a shadowy campaign that seeks to highlight U.S. weakness in Syria. Ultimately, Russia could be hoping to help Assad win the war by dividing the opposition, driving a wedge between rebel groups and their traditional backers, and getting them to turn their guns on his enemies. [Continue reading…]

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