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…]
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…]
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…]
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.
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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.
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…]
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…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: The Obama administration requested $53.9 billion for its spy agencies in the year beginning Oct. 1, up sharply from its request of $45.6 billion last year.
The money would be used to fund operations spread across six federal departments, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
While the budget proposal is sharply higher than the request last year, it would reflect a more measured increase over actual spending on these programs. That is because Congress recently has appropriated more money for spy agencies than the White House has requested.
Spending levels for the current fiscal year haven’t been disclosed.
The spy agency budgets are approved in secret during congressional deliberations, and the White House and congressional leaders often have different views about necessary budget levels for different programs. Congress and the White House are locked in a fight now about the scope of surveillance programs, with some warning that intelligence agencies need more funding to combat terrorist threats and others warning that certain data collection practices have grown too large and lack scrutiny.
The White House provided scant additional information about the budget request and didn’t give a detailed descriptions about how the money will be spent. [Continue reading…]
McClatchy reports: When word recently leaked that the CIA inspector general was preparing to step down, agency Director John Brennan issued a glowing statement about his watchdog’s work.
Left unsaid was the role CIA Inspector General David Buckley had in refereeing one of the most acrimonious disputes between a spy director and his congressional overseers in decades.
Only months before, Buckley’s office had found that CIA employees had improperly monitored Senate Intelligence Committee staffers’ work on their torture inquiry – contradicting Brennan’s previous denial.
On Friday, Buckley maintained to McClatchy that he hadn’t experienced any backlash from agency leadership.
“It’s not always pleasant, but they don’t shoot the messenger,” he said in a 20-minute interview at CIA headquarters as he headed to an undisclosed job in the private sector. “Doing this job is tough. But there has been no undue pressure or interference here.”
Multiple people who were familiar with his work offered a more complicated portrayal of his tenure, asserting he leaves behind an office roiling with dissent over how to watchdog the nation’s most powerful intelligence agency. Buckley’s own staff had filed formal complaints about his management, according to the people who spoke to McClatchy. [Continue reading…]
There’s no better way of making a story compelling than to fill it with granular detail. The more detail there is, the more convincing the account becomes. Details have the aura of hard facts, suggesting the sources must be very well informed.
If the story appears in publications which attach a lot of value to being perceived as authoritative — as do Washington Post and Newsweek — then most readers will take the information at face value.
Thus we come to two reports, both claiming to recount the same events, both detailed and credited to multiple intelligence sources, and yet the details conflict.
In two accounts of the same bombing in Damascus we hear that the bomb was a) “triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad,” or b) that under the plan “the CIA man would press the remote control.”
One report may be more accurate than the other, or perhaps both are inaccurate.
According to the Washington Post, the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008 was carried out by Mossad with the CIA’s support and with the U.S. retaining power to cancel the operation.
As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly.
The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.
According to Newsweek, the CIA claimed the operation as their own and a former official who participated in the project is quoted, saying: “The Israelis told us where he was and gave us logistical help. But we designed the bomb that killed him and supervised the operation.”
Said another source, a former senior CIA operative with deep Middle East experience: “It was an Israeli-American operation. Everybody knows CIA did it — everybody in the Middle East anyway.” The CIA’s authorship of Mugniyah’s bloody death, the operative said, should have been told long ago. “It sends the message that we will track you down, no matter how much time it takes,” he said. “The other side needs to know this.”
A former senior CIA operative with deep Middle East experience — Robert Baer perhaps — says everyone in the Middle East (wouldn’t that include Hezbollah?) knows that the CIA killed Mughniyah, but the story that should have been told long ago, needs to be told now … because Hezbollah doesn’t know what everyone else knows?
If that doesn’t make much sense, it’s because it doesn’t make much sense.
The same report also says: “The CIA was pleased with Mugniyah’s murder, but not so pleased as to take credit for it. Agency officials always feared Hezbollah would feel a need to retaliate.”
The Washington Post also notes:
In a new book, The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, former CIA officer Robert B. Baer writes how he had considered assassinating Mughniyah but apparently never got the opportunity. He notes, however, that CIA “censors” — the agency’s Publications Review Board — screened his book and “I’ve unfortunately been unable to write about the true set-piece plot against” Mughniyah.
But that didn’t stop him telling his story to the Post, perhaps.
And while Baer characterizes the killing of Mughniyeh as a case of settling scores, a former official speaking to the Post insisted that this was about the future not the past: “What we had to show was he was a continuing threat to Americans.”
The Israel security and intelligence writer, Yossi Melman, offers a political interpretation of the reporting:
It is hard to believe that the timing was coincidental.
Whoever leaked the details of the 2008 joint Mossad-CIA assassination of Hezbollah operational chief Imad Mughniyeh to two US newspapers, and certainly to a paper like The Washington Post, (the second one was Newsweek), did not do so capriciously. Most likely someone wanted to send the following message to the people of Israel and also to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: You need us. Look at the extent of the cooperation between our intelligence communities, which risks being damaged due to the discordant policies of your prime minister. This was the nature of the hidden message behind the leaked assassination operation.
The leak is surprising because the US usually only confirms its clandestine operations if it takes responsibility for them. In the case of Mughniyeh, neither the US nor Israel claimed responsibility. And there remains room for denial because the source of the leak was an anonymous US official and not an official government statement. The actual details of the leak are less important, and we shall see that some of them are lacking in accuracy.
The impression given from the leaked details is that someone wanted the US to take the lion’s share of the credit for the Mughniyeh assassination. According to the media reports, in the joint operation that killed Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” the Mossad played second fiddle to the CIA who was the senior more central partner. It’s possible that this is a great exaggeration, the truth was entirely different and in fact the Mossad was the dominant player in the operation.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that specific details have been reported on the manner of Mughniyeh’s death.
The Sunday Times reported on February 17, 2008, that the Hezbollah commander was not returning from a nearby restaurant, as the Post now claims, but had left a party at the Iranian cultural center.
According to Israeli intelligence sources, the bomb was not hidden in a spare tire but instead had been placed in the driver’s headrest.
The details being fed to the press at that time were very specific yet apparently not at all accurate.
The details now are no less specific, but likewise, perhaps, no more accurate.
One thing that should be clear is that information provided by intelligence sources, be they current or former, should always be treated with caution.
Those whose careers revolve around secrecy and deception can’t be expected to easily shake off the habits of a lifetime.
At the same time, what we see here is the shadow of journalism.
On the one hand it seeks to bring information to light, and at the same time the process by which that information is gathered, questioned, and analyzed, remains opaque.
We get told the story, but rarely hear the story behind the story.