Hackers warned about internet vulnerabilities but were ignored

The Washington Post reports: The seven young men sitting before some of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lawmakers weren’t graduate students or junior analysts from some think tank. No, Space Rogue, Kingpin, Mudge and the others were hackers who had come from the mysterious environs of cyberspace to deliver a terrifying warning to the world.

Your computers, they told the panel of senators in May 1998, are not safe — not the software, not the hardware, not the networks that link them together. The companies that build these things don’t care, the hackers continued, and they have no reason to care because failure costs them nothing. And the federal government has neither the skill nor the will to do anything about it.

“If you’re looking for computer security, then the Internet is not the place to be,” said Mudge, then 27 and looking like a biblical prophet with long brown hair flowing past his shoulders. The Internet itself, he added, could be taken down “by any of the seven individuals seated before you” with 30 minutes of well-choreographed keystrokes.

The senators — a bipartisan group including John Glenn, Joseph I. Lieberman and Fred D. Thompson — nodded gravely, making clear that they understood the gravity of the situation. “We’re going to have to do something about it,” Thompson said.

What happened instead was a tragedy of missed opportunity, and 17 years later the world is still paying the price in rampant insecurity. [Continue reading…]

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Senate passes torture ban despite Republican opposition

The Guardian reports: More than 20 Republican senators rejected a ban on the use of cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners on Tuesday, voting against an ultimately successful measure to permanently prevent a repeat of the CIA’s once secret and now widely-discredited torture program.

The bipartisan amendment reaffirms President Barack Obama’s prohibition of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, which were developed by the CIA under the administration of his predecessor, George W Bush.

The measure passed in the Senate, 78-21.

However Republican hawks, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, opposed the amendment, despite an impassioned plea from their colleague, John McCain, who called on them to avoid the “dark path of sacrificing our values for our short-term security needs”. [Continue reading…]

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Did Saudi Arabia play a role in September 11?

Max Fisher writes: Late on Friday, the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General finally released the findings of its internal investigation, concluded in 2005, into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The few sections left un-redacted in the 500-page report do not appear to offer any major revelations.

But the very final section of the report, titled “Issues related to Saudi Arabia,” touches on a question that has swirled around US inquiries into 9/11 since the first weeks after the attacks: Was there any involvement by the government of Saudi Arabia?

This section of the report is entirely redacted save for three brief paragraphs, which say the investigation was inconclusive but found “no evidence that the Saudi government knowingly and willingly supported the al-Qaeda terrorists.” However, it adds, some members of the CIA’s Near East and Counterterrorism divisions speculated that rogue Saudi officials may have aided al-Qaeda’s actions.

The findings, though frustratingly inconclusive, are in line with what many analysts and journalists have long suspected: that, while the Saudi government was probably not involved, rogue Saudi officials sympathetic to al-Qaeda may have been. Like so many investigations into Saudi links to 9/11, this report adds credence to the “rogue officials” theory, but it ultimately settles nothing. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. government starts to unmuzzle the CIA’s torture victims

Huffington Post reports: For years, Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ memories of their time in CIA custody have been considered classified state secrets. Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers can’t talk publicly about how he lost his left eye. Lawyers for Mustafa al Hawsawi, who can now only sit on a pillow, can’t tell the press or the public about anal feedings that left him with a rectal prolapse. And until recently, Majid Khan’s lawyers couldn’t bring up the time he was hung from a pole for two days, naked and hooded, while interrogators threw ice water on him.

The government argued that by talking about what had happened to them, the CIA’s former prisoners, who are now detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, would risk revealing classified information about the agency’s torture program.

But as James Connell, a lawyer who represents detainee Ammar al Baluchi, wrote more than three years ago in a motion to declassify the prisoners’ accounts, “A person’s own experiences — whether the smell of a rose or the click of a gun near one’s head — are what make them a person, and the government can never own or control them.”

The notion that a torture survivor’s memories can be classified, Connell wrote, “contravenes the most basic principles of human rights.” He added that detainees “were exposed to classified interrogation techniques only in the sense that Hiroshima was exposed to the classified Manhattan Project.”

Now, the government is starting to change course. A Senate Intelligence Committee report, which began to pull back the curtain on the CIA’s use of torture in secret prisons known as “black sites,” compelled the government to change its rules about keeping former CIA prisoners’ memories secret. Khan became the first to successfully test the new rules by going public with his account of his imprisonment, which included details not previously disclosed in the Senate report. Citing the success of Khan’s team, defense attorneys for other Guantanamo detainees are now cautiously optimistic that they can bring their clients’ memories of their time in CIA black sites to light. [Continue reading…]

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Republicans’ leading climate denier tells the pope to butt out of climate debate

The Guardian reports: Washington’s notorious snowball-thrower was at it again – even on a June day with forecast highs of 92 degrees – as the Senate’s most powerful environmental leader delivered a pep talk to activists who deny the science behind climate change.

Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who now chairs the Senate environment and public works committee despite famously calling global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, took a star turn on Thursday at the Heartland Institute, whose conferences function as a hub for climate deniers.

His message – that “God is still up there” and that Pope Francis should mind his own business – sent a clear signal to his fellow conservatives: climate sceptics have a loyal – and newly powerful – friend in Congress. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration criticizes Egypt in report to Congress

The New York Times: Egypt is moving away from democracy, stifling freedom of expression, arresting thousands for political dissent and failing to hold the security forces accountable for “arbitrary or unlawful killings,” the Obama administration has determined in a formal report to Congress.

The administration concludes in the same report that Egypt is nevertheless too important to national security to end the roughly $1.5 billion a year it receives in American aid, most of it military. But after making that conclusion, the report proceeds to recite a discordant litany of the Egyptian government’s abuses and failings, apparently seeking to stop just short of the kind of embrace Washington once gave the strongman Hosni Mubarak.

Quietly submitted to Congress on May 12 without public announcement, the report captures the awkwardness of Washington’s rapidly shifting views of Egypt: first backing President Mubarak, then the 2011 revolt that ousted him, and now rebuilding ties with a new strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

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U.S. Supreme Court strikes down ‘born in Israel’ passport law

The Washington Post: The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the president alone has the power to recognize foreign nations, and it struck down as unconstitutional a congressional attempt to allow Americans born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their birthplace on passports.

President Obama and President George W. Bush had said the 2002 passport law embraces the interpretation that Jerusalem belongs to Israel, something the executive branch has long held should be settled by the parties in the Mideast. They refused to let the State Department honor such requests.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said Congress has a role in managing the nation’s foreign affairs but not in recognizing foreign nations and governments.

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NSA bill barely touches the agency’s vast powers

The Associated Press reports: The surveillance law enacted this week stands as the most significant curb on the government’s investigative authorities since the 1970s. But it’s practically inconsequential in the universe of the National Security Agency’s vast digital spying operations, a technical overhaul of a marginal counterterrorism program that some NSA officials wanted to jettison anyway.

After a six-month transition, the new law will end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, moving instead to a system of case-by-case searches of records held by phone companies.

The existence of the program, in place since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was perhaps the most startling secret revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, because it so directly affected the privacy of Americans. It was the first Snowden disclosure published by the journalists with whom he shared documents, and it landed with a thunderclap.

But in the two years since Snowden took up exile in Russia to avoid prosecution in the U.S., his documents have fueled dozens of revelations of NSA surveillance operations, disclosing how the agency seeks to exploit Internet communications. None of those programs are affected by the law President Barack Obama signed Tuesday night. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. phone companies escape new data storage mandate in surveillance bill

Reuters: The U.S. government will rely on phone companies to keep data on customers once the USA Freedom Act is signed into law, but the bill avoids companies’ main concern: it does not force them to change how they collect and store data.

The bill, passed by the Senate late on Tuesday and expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama, stops the government’s practice of routinely scooping up telephone metadata — dialed numbers and call lengths but not the content — from companies in bulk.

Instead, the National Security Agency and others in the U.S. intelligence community would have to request more targeted data from companies with a court order.

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Detainee alleges CIA sexual abuse, torture beyond Senate findings

Reuters reports: The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency used a wider array of sexual abuse and other forms of torture than was disclosed in a Senate report last year, according to a Guantanamo Bay detainee turned government cooperating witness.

Majid Khan said interrogators poured ice water on his genitals, twice videotaped him naked and repeatedly touched his “private parts” – none of which was described in the Senate report. Interrogators, some of whom smelled of alcohol, also threatened to beat him with a hammer, baseball bats, sticks and leather belts, Khan said.

Khan’s is the first publicly released account from a high-value al Qaeda detainee who experienced the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of President George W. Bush’s administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

Khan’s account is contained in 27 pages of interview notes his lawyers compiled over the past seven years. The U.S. government cleared the notes for release last month through a formal review process. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The former deputy CIA director made a series of factual misstatements while defending the agency’s harsh treatment of detainees in his recent book, Senate intelligence committee staffers assert in a 54-page document filed with citations from CIA records.

The detailed critique of the memoir by Michael Morell shows the extent to which critics and backers continue to try to shape public perceptions of the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program, even months after the release of a Senate report that sought to render a final judgment on it.

How the public interprets the CIA’s use of torture is not merely a matter of history: At least one Republican presidential candidate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, recently promised to bring back harsh interrogation techniques if elected. [Continue reading…]

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Washington insists Syrian rebels receiving U.S. support must not use weapons against Assad regime

Michael Weiss reports: A centerpiece of the U.S. war plan against ISIS is in danger of collapsing. A key rebel commander and his men are ready to ready to pull out in frustration of the U.S. program to train a rebel army to beat back the terror group in Syria, The Daily Beast has learned.

The news comes as ISIS is marching on the suburbs of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city. Rebels currently fighting the jihadists there told The Daily Beast that the U.S.-led coalition isn’t even bothering to respond to their calls for airstrikes to stop the jihadist army.

Mustapha Sejari, one of the rebels already approved for the U.S. training program, told The Daily Beast that he and his 1,000 men are on the verge of withdrawing from the program. The issue: the American government’s demand that the rebels can’t use any of their newfound battlefield prowess or U.S.-provided weaponry against the army of Bashar al-Assad or any of its manifold proxies and allies, which include Iranian-built militias such as Lebanese Hezbollah. They must only fight ISIS, Washington insists.

“We submitted the names of 1,000 fighters for the program, but then we got this request to promise not to use any of our training against Assad,” Sejari, a founding member of the Revolutionary Command Council, said. “It was a Department of Defense liaison officer who relayed this condition to us orally, saying we’d have to sign a form. He told us, ‘We got this money from Congress for a program to fight ISIS only.’ This reason was not convincing for me. So we said no.” [Continue reading…]

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New dawn of freedom in America

The day millions of Americans have been eagerly awaiting — they can once again enjoy their lost freedoms:

The New York Times reports: For the first time since the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans will again be free to place phone calls — to friends, lovers, business associates, political groups, doctors and pizza restaurants — without having logs of those contacts vacuumed up in bulk by the National Security Agency.

And for the first time in nearly 14 years, if government agents identify new phone numbers that they suspect are linked to terrorism, they will have to subpoena phone companies for associated calling records and wait for the response to see if anyone in the United States has been in contact with that number. The N.S.A. can no longer simply query its database for the information.

This unusual situation may last only a few days, until Congress can reach an accommodation over three counterterrorism laws that expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Nonetheless, the fact that Congress allowed the laws to lapse — the most important of them is the purported legal basis for the bulk records collection program — is an extraordinary moment in the story of the tensions between post-9/11 policies and privacy rights. It has led to heated warnings in the political realm about exposing the country to heightened risk of attack.

A few hours before the Senate convened on Sunday, John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, warned on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that if lawmakers let those laws lapse, the F.B.I. would “not have the ability then to track these various elements that we are looking at who are trying to carry out attacks here in the homeland.”

But interviews with law enforcement and intelligence officials about what they will do in the interim suggest there are multiple workarounds to the gap.

One of the expired laws permitted wiretap orders of “lone wolf” terrorism suspects who are not part of a foreign group, a provision that has apparently never been used. A second permitted “roving” wiretap orders that follow suspects who change phones, a provision that apparently has been used only rarely.

The third permitted court orders requiring businesses to turn over records that are relevant to a national security investigation, the provision known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act. In addition to the bulk phone records program, the F.B.I. used Section 215 about 160 times last year to obtain particular business records, like suspects’ Internet activity logs.

All three of the expired laws contained a so-called grandfather clause that permits their authority to continue indefinitely for any investigation that had begun before June 1.

Law enforcement officials have made it clear that the F.B.I. has long-running, open-ended “enterprise” investigations into groups that pose a threat to public safety, like Al Qaeda. A senior intelligence official recently told The New York Times that the administration was open to invoking the grandfather clause to get the records if a need arose during any lapse. [Continue reading…]

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Rand Paul vows to force expiration of Patriot Act

The Washington Post reports: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) vowed that he would force the Patriot Act to expire Sunday when the Senate reconvenes after not taking action last week to extend or replace a controversial surveillance program.

“Tomorrow, I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program,” the Republican presidential candidate said in a statement, which was first reported by Politico.

The Senate will convene a rare Sunday session after it rejected a compromise bill on bulk surveillance by the National Security Agency last week. The bill would prohibit the government from engaging in the mass collection of phone records, but would leave those records in the hands of private telephone companies, which would keep them for 18 months. The Sunday session will take place hours before the Patriot Act expires.

Paul said Saturday that he would disrupt efforts to extend the Patriot Act or green light the compromise bill, known as the USA Freedom Act.

“I am ready and willing to start the debate on how we fight terrorism without giving up our liberty,” Paul said in the statement. “Sometimes when the problem is big enough, you just have to start over.”

Paul plans to prevent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) from expediting debate on the USA Freedom Act. Even if a vast majority of senators agree to extend some version of the Patriot Act, Senate rules would allow Paul to force about five days of debate over the issue, which would lead to a temporary halt to some techniques used by the nation’s spy agencies. [Continue reading…]

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Spot the difference: Being or not being subject to mass surveillance

On Sunday night, at the stroke of midnight, will a shroud of fear be lifted from freedom-loving Americans?

Let’s assume that a last minute deal isn’t reached in Congress and the surveillance powers of the Patriot Act are indeed allowed to expire.

This might not amount to the kind of statutory protection of privacy that critics of the NSA have hoped for, and yet physically pulling the plug on the actual mechanisms of mass surveillance will highlight the difference between living in a world where all our information gets sucked into data warehouses and a world in which it remains a tad more secure under a blanket in the Cloud — or wherever else we’ve chosen to keep it hidden.

Of course, a lot of people won’t believe the plug got pulled — certainly not at a moment when they believe the Federal government is about to impose martial law in Texas — and so the reported suspension of surveillance will more likely reinforce their paranoia.

But for those who believe that a measure of freedom lost has been reclaimed — at least for now — how will that freedom be enjoyed?

That’s where I draw a blank.

I’ve seen the polls in which some people say that NSA surveillance has changed how they use email and made them inclined to censor themselves and yet I’ve always been baffled by these reactions.

Most NSA critics who have studied the issue are acutely aware that mass surveillance is virtually useless for gathering information about terrorism, so how exactly might it accumulate useful information about you or me?

From Sunday to Monday, we will cross over from a world in which we are watched but unseen, into a world in which we will remain unseen. If that seems like a profound transition, I’d say your fixation on personal freedom has become a distraction from much more serious issues that truly shape our world.

There are plenty of good reasons to be opposed to mass surveillance — including the principle that no democratic government should claim the right to spy on its own citizens. But we have less reason to be concerned about intrusions on our privacy than that over-funded intelligence agencies have exploited public fear and manipulated Congress in order to create programs of negligible value.

If mass surveillance is about to quietly die, maybe the lesson that can be drawn is that the threat it supposedly posed and the need it supposedly met, were both wildly overstated.

The NSA’s appetite to gather information has always exceeded its capacity to use it, but the same cannot be said for Google or Facebook. The NSA never was and never could become more than a flea on the back of a digital infrastructure that primarily serves Silicon Valley.

Most of the information that is being gathered about each and every one of us is not being swept up in secret but dished out freely down what we have come to regard as lifelines connecting us to the world.

Rather than being subject to unwanted surveillance, we are far more subject to networks of dependence which affect what we want, what we expect, and how we live.

Big Brother is less inclined to breath down our neck than hold our hand. And if the grip feels too tight it’s because we’re afraid of letting go.

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Reality checks in debate over surveillance laws

Charlie Savage reports: As the Senate moves closer to a Sunday night showdown over whether it will let Patriot Act surveillance powers expire on Monday, supporters and critics of how the government has used those authorities have been using increasingly alarming language.

But there is little evidence in the history of the expiring laws — including the one that the government uses to justify the once-secret National Security Agency program that vacuums up Americans’ phone records in bulk — to support the arguments that either side is making.

Republican senators who want to keep the program are warning that any lapse in “this critical tool would lead to attacks on the United States,” as Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, recently put it. Yet throughout the program’s existence, it has never thwarted a terrorist attack, studies and testimony show.

At the same time, proponents of ending the program say it poses risks to Americans’ private lives, by permitting the government to know who has been calling psychiatrists or political groups, for example. But despite the discovery of technical violations of the rules several years ago, no evidence has emerged that the program has been misused for political or personal gain. As a result, the privacy-minded critics have had to couch their warnings in hypothetical terms. [Continue reading…]

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Why Obama changed course on the ‘red line’ in Syria

Frontline: In August of 2013, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus was attacked with sarin gas — a nerve agent that causes lung muscle paralysis and results in death from suffocation.

The attack killed 1,400 men, women and children, and at the White House, officials asserted “with high confidence” that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible.

One year earlier, President Barack Obama had described Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” and “change my calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.

When Assad appeared to cross that line, Obama ordered the Pentagon to prepare to attack.

“Our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in Tuesday’s new documentary, Obama at War. “We had everything in place and we were just waiting for instructions to proceed.”

But as FRONTLINE details in the below excerpt from Obama at War, the president had second thoughts. [Continue reading…]

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Shakedown: Israel seeks funding surge in U.S. security support

DefenseNews reports: Israel is seeking a hefty surge in annual security assistance from Washington and has begun preliminary talks with the US administration on a long-term package that would provide up to $45 billion in grant aid through 2028.

In recent months, working-level bilateral groups have begun to assess Israel’s projected security needs in the context of a new 10-year foreign military financing (FMF) deal that will kick in once the current agreement expires in 2017.

Under the existing, $30 billion agreement signed in 2007, annual FMF grant aid to Israel grew from $2.4 billion to $3.1 billion minus, in recent years, rescissions of some $155 million due to a government mandated sequester.

Under the follow-on package, endorsed in principle by US President Barack Obama during a March 2013 visit to Tel Aviv, Israel wants “$4.2 billion to $4.5 billion” in annual FMF aid, a security source here said. [Continue reading…]

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Senate to try again after bill on NSA collection of phone records is blocked

The New York Times reports: After vigorous debate and intense last-minute pressure by Republican leaders, the Senate on Saturday rejected legislation that would curb the federal government’s bulk collection of phone records.

With the death of that measure — passed overwhelmingly in the House this month — senators scrambled but failed to pass a short-term measure to keep the program from going dark when it expires June 1. The disarray in Congress appeared to significantly increase the chances that the government will lose systematic access to newly created calling records by Americans, at least temporarily, after June 1.

“This is a high-threat period,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who was stymied in his efforts to extend the program even for a few days by the junior senator for his state, Rand Paul.

A senior administration official said Saturday that the “wind-down process has begun” on the surveillance program, and that the administration did not file an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Friday to continue collecting the data. The White House has long said that the administration would not seek to continue the program if the legal authorities expired. Aspects of the program could be reactivated as allowed under new legislation if Congress acts before the deadline. [Continue reading…]

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