How could crimes that don’t warrant a life sentence justify a death sentence?

Conor Friedersdorf writes: Some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government wanted to kill Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh. The military, the CIA, and an influential Republican member of Congress all argued that a drone should be sent to kill the American.

Now he is in custody.

And if convicted of all charges that he faces, he’ll get a maximum of 15 years in prison–the same sentence that a brother and sister in Missouri got for growing marijuana.

How can a person narrowly escape extrajudicial assassination, get extradited to the United States, appear inside our judicial system, and face just 15 years in prison? Powerful people were prepared to end his life, but the extent of what they’re willing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt wouldn’t even draw a life sentence. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan could end up charging CIA officials with murder over drone strikes

Time: A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

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CIA director attacks critics of Iran deal as ‘wholly disingenuous’

Politico reports: CIA Director John Brennan reportedly says the preliminary framework around the nuclear deal with Iran does what had once seemed impossible, calling some critics of the agreement “wholly disingenuous” and expressing surprise at the Iranians’ concessions.

“I must tell you the individuals who say this deal provides a pathway for Iran to a bomb are being wholly disingenuous, in my view, if they know the facts, understand what’s required for a program,” Brennan told an audience at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics on Tuesday night in his first comments since the outline was announced last week in Lausanne, Switzerland, according to Agence France-Presse.

Brennan said that while critics worry that lifting sanctions on Iran will “cause more trouble throughout the area,” the framework is “as solid as you can get” when it comes to blunting the Islamic Republic’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.

U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.

For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program continue in parallel with diplomacy

The New York Times reports: In late 2012, just as President Obama and his aides began secretly sketching out a diplomatic opening to Iran, American intelligence agencies were busy with a parallel initiative: The latest spy-vs.-spy move in the decade-long effort to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Investigators uncovered an Iranian businessman’s scheme to buy specialty aluminum tubing, a type the United States bans for export to Iran because it can be used in centrifuges that enrich uranium, the exact machines at the center of negotiations entering a crucial phase in Switzerland this week.

Rather than halt the shipment, court documents reveal, American agents switched the aluminum tubes for ones of an inferior grade. If installed in Iran’s giant underground production centers, they would have shredded apart, destroying the centrifuges as they revved up to supersonic speed.

But if negotiators succeed in reaching a deal with Iran, does the huge, covert sabotage effort by the United States, Israel and some European allies come to an end?

“Probably not,” said one senior official with knowledge of the program. In fact, a number of officials make the case that surveillance of Iran will intensify and covert action may become more important than ever to ensure that Iran does not import the critical materials that would enable it to accelerate the development of advanced centrifuges or pursue a covert path to a bomb. [Continue reading…]

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The CIA just declassified the document that supposedly justified the Iraq invasion

Jason Leopold reports: Thirteen years ago, the intelligence community concluded in a 93-page classified document used to justify the invasion of Iraq that it lacked “specific information” on “many key aspects” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

But that’s not what top Bush administration officials said during their campaign to sell the war to the American public. Those officials, citing the same classified document, asserted with no uncertainty that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons, concealing a vast chemical and biological weapons arsenal, and posing an immediate and grave threat to US national security.

Congress eventually concluded that the Bush administration had “overstated” its dire warnings about the Iraqi threat, and that the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD program were “not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” But that underlying intelligence reporting — contained in the so-called National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was used to justify the invasion — has remained shrouded in mystery until now. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. unclear on impact of bombing on al Qaida group in Syria

The Associated Press: The U.S. military has hit as many as 17 separate targets connected to a shadowy al-Qaida cell in Syria known as the Khorasan group, U.S. officials say, as part of a little-discussed air campaign aimed at disrupting the group’s capacity to plot attacks against Western aviation.

U.S. intelligence analysts disagree about whether the attacks have significantly diminished the group’s capabilities, according to the officials, showing how difficult it has been to develop a clear picture of what is happening on the ground in Syria.

American officials briefed on the matter agree that the air attacks have forced militants into hiding and made their use of cellphones, email or other modern communications extremely risky. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified assessments.

There is some disagreement about how much the airstrikes have undermined the group’s ability to pose an imminent threat, U.S. officials say. Some U.S. officials say the military believes the strikes have lowered the threat, while the CIA and other intelligence agencies emphasize that the group remains as capable as ever of attacking the West.

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CIA cash ended up in coffers of Al Qaeda

The New York Times reports: In the spring of 2010, Afghan officials struck a deal to free an Afghan diplomat held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the price was steep — $5 million — and senior security officials were scrambling to come up with the money.

They first turned to a secret fund that the Central Intelligence Agency bankrolled with monthly cash deliveries to the presidential palace in Kabul, according to several Afghan officials involved in the episode. The Afghan government, they said, had already squirreled away about $1 million from that fund.

Within weeks, that money and $4 million more provided from other countries was handed over to Al Qaeda, replenishing its coffers after a relentless C.I.A. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan had decimated the militant network’s upper ranks.

“God blessed us with a good amount of money this month,” Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the group’s general manager, wrote in a letter to Osama bin Laden in June 2010, noting that the cash would be used for weapons and other operational needs. [Continue reading…]

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CIA chief says social media ‘greatly amplifies’ terror threat

Reuters: Social media and other technology are making it increasingly difficult to combat militants who are using such modern resources to share information and conduct operations, the head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said on Friday.

CIA Director John Brennan, in a speech in New York, said such communications heighten the challenge of dealing with diffuse threats and attacks across the world from groups like Islamic State, known also as ISIL, and others.

“New technologies can help groups like ISIL coordinate operations, attract new recruits, disseminate propaganda, and inspire sympathizers across the globe to act in their name,” Brennan said, using an acronym for the militant group that has taken hold in Syria and Iraq.

“The overall threat of terrorism is greatly amplified by today’s interconnected world, where an incident in one corner of the globe can instantly spark a reaction thousands of miles away; and where a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home,” Brennan said.

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In campaign against terrorism, U.S. enters period of pessimism and gloom

The Washington Post reports: U.S. counterterrorism officials and experts, never known for their sunny dispositions, have entered a period of particular gloom.

In congressional testimony recently, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. went beyond the usual litany of threats to say that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.”

Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, told participants on a counter­terrorism strategy call that he regarded the Islamic State as a greater menace than al-Qaeda ever was.

Speaking at a New York police terrorism conference, Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, said he had come to doubt that he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda and its spawn. “This is long term,” he said. “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”

The assessments reflect a pessimism that has descended on the U.S. counterterrorism community over the past year amid a series of discouraging developments. Among them are the growth of the Islamic State, the ongoing influx of foreign fighters into Syria, the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Yemen and the downward spiral of Libya’s security situation. The latest complication came Saturday, when the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria carried out a series of suicide bombings and reportedly declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. wants to hack your phone because it doesn’t have real spies it needs

Patrick G. Eggerton writes: Last fall, when Apple and Google announced they were cleaning up their operating systems to ensure that their users’ information was encrypted to prevent hacking and potential data loss, FBI Director James Comey attacked both companies. He claimed the encryption would cause the users to “place themselves above the law.”

The tech community fired back. “The only actions that have undermined the rule of law,” Ken Gude wrote in Wired, “are the government’s deceptive and secret mass-surveillance programs.”

The battle resumed in February 2015. Michael Steinbach, FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, said it is “irresponsible” for companies like Google and Apple to use software that denies the FBI lawful means to intercept data.

Yet the FBI does have a lawful means to intercept it: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Its scope was vastly expanded by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

It’s worth noting that the FBI never asked Congress to force tech companies to build “back doors” into their products immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Only after Google and Apple took steps to patch existing security vulnerabilities did the bureau suddenly express concern that terrorists might be exploiting this encryption.

In fact, the bureau has a host of legal authorities and technological capabilities at its disposal to intercept and read communications, or even to penetrate facilities or homes to implant audio and video recording devices. The larger problem confronting the FBI and the entire U.S. intelligence community is their over-reliance on electronic technical collection against terrorist targets. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli sources dispute claims of CIA’s lead role in Mughniyeh assassination

Dan Raviv writes: In true-life espionage stories that inadvertently go public, there are often three stages: the initial revelation, the corrective second version from other sources, and – decades later – what really happened.

Newsweek and The Washington Post scored scoops last month, revealing that the CIA worked jointly with Israel’s Mossad to assassinate a Lebanese terrorist in February 2008 in Damascus: the military chief of the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah movement, Imad Mughniyeh.

The bomb explosion that killed Mughniyeh – who was held responsible for killing hundreds of Americans, notably in Beirut explosions that toppled the U.S. Embassy and a Marines barracks – was triggered from 135 miles away when a button was pushed in Mossad headquarters. A CIA man was inside the HQ near Tel Aviv.

This was a unique arrangement in which CIA and Mossad officers coordinated their undercover efforts in Syria’s capital, located the target, identified his habits, and parked a vehicle containing a bomb just outside an apartment he used.

According to the published accounts, the bomb had been designed, shaped, and repeatedly tested at an American base to be sure that only Mughniyeh and no other people would be killed.

Because of the revelation that the CIA was part of the mission, as well as details of how it was accomplished, Israelis close to their country’s security services wondered why American sources chose to leak so much about it.

One result was that some of those Israelis – apparently miffed that the Americans were taking too much credit – went to the trouble of speaking with Western officials and diplomats to offer corrections.

Basically, using a phrase inspired by the blue-and-white flag of Israel, they suggested that the assassination of Mughniyeh was “almost all blue-and-white, and just a little bit red-white-and-blue.”

Based on what they told their Western contacts this month, the Israelis claim that their Mossad and Aman (military intelligence) agencies managed to pick up the trail of the elusive terrorist – despite plastic surgery that changed his appearance. His biggest mistake was moving around Damascus without bodyguards, and specifically an unguarded area in front of his apartment building in the Syrian capital.

Contrary to the recent reports, the Israelis claim to have designed and tested the bomb, while respecting the CIA’s insistence that it not be too large so as not to kill any innocents. [Continue reading…]

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The CIA asked me about controlling the climate — this is why we should worry

Alan Robock writes: On January 19, 2011, I got a phone call from two men who told me they were consultants for the CIA. Roger Lueken and Michael Canes, analysts for the Logistics Management Institute, asked, among other things, “If another country were trying to control our climate, would we be able to detect it?”

I told them that I thought we could, because if a cloud in the stratosphere were created (the most commonly proposed method of control) that was thick enough, large enough, and long-lasting enough to change the amount of energy reaching Earth, we could certainly see it with the same ground-based and satellite instruments we use to measure stratospheric clouds from volcanic eruptions. If, on the other hand, low clouds were being brightened over the ocean (another suggested means of cooling the climate), we could see telltale patterns in the tops of the clouds with satellite photos. And it would also be easy to observe aeroplanes or ships injecting gases or particles into the atmosphere.

At the same time, I wondered whether they also wanted to know if others would know about it, if the CIA was controlling the world’s climate. Given that the CIA is a major sponsor of the recently released US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reports on geoengineering (which they have renamed “climate intervention”), the question arises as to the possible interest of the CIA in global climate control.

Let me be clear. I completely agree with all the NAS findings. Global warming is real and is being caused by humans, mainly by burning coal, oil, petrol and natural gas, which puts carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. Global warming will result in major harm to humanity if left unchecked. The solution is to stop using fossil fuels for our energy supply and switch to solar and wind power, and to adapt to some of the coming climate change.

Geoengineering by blocking sunlight should not be implemented now, as its risks and benefits are too uncertain, but we need more research on the various proposed scenarios. Taking carbon dioxide out of the air is a good thing, but currently extremely expensive, and we need research on that, too. [Continue reading…]

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We dream about drones, said 13-year-old Yemeni before his death in a CIA strike

The Guardian reports: A 13-year-old boy killed in Yemen last month by a CIA drone strike had told the Guardian just months earlier that he lived in constant fear of the “death machines” in the sky that had already killed his father and brother.

“I see them every day and we are scared of them,” said Mohammed Tuaiman, speaking from al-Zur village in Marib province, where he died two weeks ago.

“A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from them and some now have mental problems. They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep.”

Much of Mohammed’s life was spent living in fear of drone strikes. In 2011 an unmanned combat drone killed his father and teenage brother as they were out herding the family’s camels. [Continue reading…]

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Rebecca Gordon: Six Americans who prove Bush and Cheney didn’t have to do it

The post-9/11 moment offered them their main chance to transform their dreams into reality and they seized it by the throat. They wanted to “take the gloves off.” They were convinced that the presidency had been shackled by Congress in the Watergate era and that it was their destiny to remove the chains. They believed in a “unitary” presidency: an unchained executive with unfettered power to do whatever he wanted, preemptively and in any fashion he cared to. And in their own fashion, they were visionaries in their urge to establish a Pax Americana first in the Greater Middle East and then planet-wide.

Anything, they thought, was possible, given a nation shocked and terrified by the apocalyptic vision of those towers coming down, even if the damage had been done by just 19 hijackers armed with box cutters who belonged to a terror organization capable, at best, of mounting major operations every year or two. “[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon… [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq,” CBS News reported, even though he was already certain that al-Qaeda had launched the attack, not Saddam Hussein. (“‘Go massive,’ the notes quote him as saying. ‘Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'”)

And, of course, from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond, they did “sweep it all up.” As a group, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and many other top figures in the administration were in love with the U.S. military. They were convinced that a force with no peer on the planet could bring various “rogue powers” instantly to heel and leave the U.S. dominant in a way that no power in all of history had ever been. Throw in control over the flow of oil on a global scale and their dreams couldn’t have been more expansive. But when you write the history of this particular disaster, don’t forget the fear, either.

As was said over and over again at that moment, 9/11 “changed everything.” That meant they felt themselves freed to do all the mad things we now know they did, from preemptive wars and occupations to massive programs of torture and kidnapping, as well as the setting up of a global penal system that was to be beyond the reach of any law or the oversight of anyone but those under their command. They green-lighted it all, but don’t for a second think that they weren’t afraid themselves. To touch that fear (bordering on paranoia), you only have to read Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side where she describes Vice President Dick Cheney in that post-9/11 period being “chauffeured in an armored motorcade that varied its route to foil possible attackers.” In the backseat of his car (just in case), she added, “rested a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit.” And lest danger rear its head, “rarely did he travel without a medical doctor in tow.”

Yes, they were on top of the world and undoubtedly chilled to the bone with fear as well. And fear and impunity turned out to be an ugly combination indeed. Both the fear and the sense of license, of the freedom to act as they wished, drove them fiercely. Take Michael Hayden, then head of the NSA, later of the CIA. Of that moment, he recently said, “I actually started to do different things. And I didn’t need to ask ‘mother, may I’ from the Congress or the president or anyone else. It was within my charter, but in terms of the mature judgment about what’s reasonable and what’s not reasonable, the death of 3,000 countrymen kind of took me in a direction over here, perfectly within my authority, but a different place than the one in which I was located before the attacks took place.” In other words, on September 10, 2011, he was simply the director of the NSA. On September 11th, without ever leaving the NSA, he was the president, Congress, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court all rolled into one.

Given what, as Hayden (and others) suggest, they couldn’t help but do, it’s good to know that there were some people who could. It’s a point that TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States, makes in a particularly moving way today. Tom Engelhardt

Saying no to torture
A gallery of American heroes
By Rebecca Gordon

Why was it again that, as President Obama said, “we tortured some folks” after the 9/11 attacks? Oh, right, because we were terrified. Because everyone knows that being afraid gives you moral license to do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe. That’s why we don’t shame or punish those who were too scared to imagine doing anything else. We honor and revere them.

[Read more…]

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Interview with freed CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou

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What the CIA didn’t want Americans to know

Politico reports: For a year, Newsweek held a story on the assassination of top Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh at the CIA’s request, the magazine confirmed Friday — only to be scooped by The Washington Post last week.

The CIA made a forceful case for holding the story in conversations and a meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., and Newsweek honored that request, according to Editor-in-Chief Jim Impoco.

“In the geopolitical context at that moment, the CIA made a very persuasive case,” Impoco said in an interview – but declined to say what arguments the CIA made at the time. The CIA also declined to comment. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. resumes drone strikes in Yemen as Houthis tighten control

The Los Angeles Times reports: Amid deepening political turmoil here, the United States has resumed drone strikes against Al Qaeda’s most feared franchise without seeking approval from the Shiite Muslim rebels who have tightened their control of a government once considered a close American ally.

The insurgents, known as Houthis, dissolved Yemen’s parliament Friday and announced plans to set up interim bodies to run the government, a move that opponents said amounted to a coup. The capital was calm but tense as armed men loyal to the movement quickly filled the streets.

Yemen has been roiled by uncertainty since the Houthis seized the presidential palace and put U.S.-backed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi under house arrest on Jan. 22, leading him and his Cabinet to tender their resignations. [Continue reading…]

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