Michael Gould-Wartofsky: The new age of counterinsurgency policing

In the part of Baltimore hardest hit by the recent riots and arson, more than a third of families live in poverty, median income is $24,000, the unemployment rate is over 50%, some areas burnt out in the riots of 1968 have never been rebuilt, incarceration rates are sky high, 33% of the homes are vacant (thanks to an ongoing foreclosure crisis), and water service is being shut off for people who can’t afford to pay rising water rates.  Residents, mainly black, live in what is really an unofficially segregated, hollowed-out Rust Belt city that just happens to be located on the East Coast.

As Max Blumenthal pointed out when the city’s mayor started denouncing “outside agitators,” more than 70% of Baltimore’s police force lives beyond the city limits, at least 10% of them out-of-state.  The Baltimore PD is also notorious for its brutality, for the numbers of (black) residents it seems to gun down, and for its give-not-an-inch “broken windows” policing policies.  In a city that is 62% black and 28% white, police officers are still 46% white and 80% outsiders heading into neighborhoods that are almost totally black.  Unlike the residents of such neighborhoods, Baltimore’s police lack for little.  Thanks in part to Pentagon and other government programs, the force is armed to the teeth in the increasingly military fashion that has become the post-9/11 state of things (and that TomDispatch has been covering since 2004.)  It acts as if it were, that is, an occupying army, not a neighborhood protector.  In this sense, “community policing” is now a joke in the U.S.

When the CVS stores go up in flames and local stores are looted, politicians denounce what’s happened and demand an instant return to law and order, while calling on police departments to wear body cameras and rethink their attitudes.  But there’s another reality that has to be faced.  Give some credit to Hillary Clinton.  In her recent speech on the police killings of black men from Ferguson to Baltimore, she included this single on-the-mark sentence: “We can start [building on what works] by making sure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.”  Put another way, you can’t arm and militarize the police, as both the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing since 9/11, and send them into impoverished communities as if for war, sporting a mind-set from the global war on terror, without getting what you’ve functionally wished for.  In a sense, in the arms race that is America today, you might say that you are what you “carry.”

Among the illusions of our age, there’s this: the idea that the U.S. can fight wars in whatever fashion it pleases, year after year, in distant lands without changing our society as well.  In fact, those wars have been coming home for a long time in myriad ways, and never more obviously than with American police forces and their practices.  It’s not just that the police (and SWAT units) are now filled with vets from the war on terror, or that they are armed with weaponry directly off its battlefields, but that the mentality that has made those wars such disasters has come home with the troops and weaponry.

As Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of the new book The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, suggests, thoroughly militarized, surveillance-heavy forces are bringing counterinsurgency thinking from Iraq and Afghanistan back to this country.  The record of such thinking abroad brings to mind a question first raised by State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren about Washington’s new war in Iraq: What could possibly go wrong? Tom Engelhardt

The wars come home
A five-step guide to the police repression of protest from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond
By Michael Gould-Wartofsky

Last week, as Baltimore braced for renewed protests over the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) prepared for battle. With state-of-the-art surveillance of local teenagers’ Twitter feeds, law enforcement had learned that a group of high school students was planning to march on the Mondawmin Mall. In response, the BPD did what any self-respecting police department in post-9/11 America would do: it declared war on the protesters.

[Read more…]

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Mass incarceration: The silence of the judges

Jed S. Rakoff writes: For too long, too many judges have been too quiet about an evil of which we are a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today. It is time that more of us spoke out.

The basic facts are not in dispute. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in US jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past forty years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The per capita incarceration rate in the US is about one and a half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada. Another 4.75 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole.

Most of the increase in imprisonment has been for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. And even though crime rates in the United States have declined consistently for twenty-four years, the number of incarcerated persons has continued to rise over most of that period, both because more people are being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and because the sentences are longer. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has steadily decreased over the past two decades, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has steadily increased, so that one in nine persons in prison is now serving a life sentence.

And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color. Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are African-American males. Put another way, about one in nine African-American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is now in prison, and if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Approximately 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are Hispanic males. [Continue reading…]

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FBI plotted arrest of American Al Qaeda blogger, but dropped plan

McClatchy reports: A North Carolina blogger who became a major propagandist for al Qaida before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, was a subject of close FBI surveillance for years and a much bigger concern for U.S. authorities than previously known, according to records obtained by McClatchy.

Samir Khan, 25, was a big enough worry while he lived in Charlotte, N.C., that before he disappeared in 2009, federal agents asked the FBI’s special forces unit, Hostage Rescue Team, to help with a likely arrest, the files show. But no arrest was made, and Khan disappeared, reemerging months later in Yemen where he launched an English-language al Qaida magazine, Inspire, that has been influential in radicalizing and recruiting extremists worldwide. He was killed Sept. 30, 2011.

Khan’s case, along with those of the perpetrators of attacks that include the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, reflects a new reality for those seeking to thwart terrorism: Many of the lone wolf-style attacks authorities fear most are the work of people already known to U.S. and international intelligence agencies.

Experts say future terrorists are becoming radicalized under the very noses of intelligence officials, who struggle to balance civil liberties with stopping potentially dangerous individuals now being referred to as “known wolves.” [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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FBI opens inquiry into Chapel Hill shootings; Obama calls killings ‘brutal and outrageous’

In a conversation recorded by the storytelling project StoryCorps just last summer, Yusor Abu-Salha, a victim from the recent Chapel Hill shooting, described her experience of being an American.

The Washington Post reports: The FBI is opening an inquiry into the shootings of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., a move that followed multiple calls this week for authorities to investigate the violence as a hate crime.

On Friday, President Obama issued a statement on “the brutal and outrageous murders,” saying that the FBI would look to see if federal laws were broken during the shooting.

“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” Obama said.

Police are investigating the shootings of three people — newlyweds Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — on Tuesday afternoon at a housing complex near the University of North Carolina.

As the shooting has attracted global attention, Obama has been criticized for not speaking out about it sooner.

“If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to Mexico on Thursday, according to Reuters.

The Embassy of Jordan in Washington said Friday that Alia Bouran, the country’s ambassador to the United States, went to North Carolina on Friday. Jordan’s foreign ministry issued a statement a day earlier saying that the sisters killed in Chapel Hill also had Jordanian citizenship.

While in North Carolina, Bouran met with the families of the victims and expressed the sympathies of Jordanian King Abdullah II. The embassy said Friday that it was “closely following the ongoing investigation” in North Carolina.

The FBI probe announced on Thursday stops short of being a full investigation, as had been reported in multiple media outlets since the inquiry was announced. Rather, it is a review that could ultimately become an investigation down the line. It was opened by the FBI, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle district of North Carolina. [Continue reading…]

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Hearing for accused 9/11 plotters weighs alleged government meddling

Reuters: A U.S. military court on Wednesday tried to assess whether government agents interfered with the trial of five men charged with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by spying on defenses attorneys and their clients.

The judge halted the pre-trial hearing at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison on Monday after one of the defendants said his interpreter had worked at a secret CIA prison.

When the hearing resumed on Wednesday, defenses attorneys contended the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency had planted Arabic interpreters on the defenses team, bugged conversations between the attorneys and their clients and questioned their support staff.

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FBI monitored and critiqued African American writers for decades

Alison Flood writes: Newly declassified documents from the FBI reveal how the US federal agency under J Edgar Hoover monitored the activities of dozens of prominent African American writers for decades, devoting thousands of pages to detailing their activities and critiquing their work.

Academic William Maxwell first stumbled upon the extent of the surveillance when he submitted a freedom of information request for the FBI file of Claude McKay. The Jamaican-born writer was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, author of the sonnet If We Must Die, supposedly recited by Winston Churchill, and Maxwell was preparing an edition of his complete poems. When the file came through from the FBI, it stretched to 193 pages and, said Maxwell, revealed “that the bureau had closely read and aggressively chased McKay” – describing him as a “notorious negro revolutionary” – “all across the Atlantic world, and into Moscow”.

Maxwell, associate professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St Louis, decided to investigate further, knowing that other scholars had already found files on well-known black writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. He made 106 freedom of information requests about what he describes as “noteworthy Afro-modernists” to the FBI; 51 of those writers had files, ranging from three to 1,884 pages each. [Continue reading…]

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Too big to jail — when justice deferred is justice denied

Jed S. Rakoff writes: So-called “deferred prosecutions” were developed in the 1930s as a way of helping juvenile offenders. A juvenile who had been charged with a crime would agree with the prosecutor to have his prosecution deferred while he entered a program designed to rehabilitate such offenders. If he successfully completed the program and committed no other crime over the course of a year, the charge would then be dropped.


The analogy of a Fortune 500 company to a juvenile delinquent is, perhaps, less than obvious. Nonetheless, beginning in the early 1990s and with increasing frequency thereafter, federal prosecutors began entering into “deferred prosecution” agreements with major corporations and large financial institutions. In the typical arrangement, the government agreed to defer prosecuting the company for various federal felonies if the company, in addition to paying a financial penalty, agreed to introduce various “prophylactic” measures designed to prevent future such crimes and to “rehabilitate” the company’s “culture.” The crimes for which prosecution was thus deferred included felony violations of the securities laws, banking laws, antitrust laws, anti-money-laundering laws, food and drug laws, foreign corrupt practices laws, and numerous provisions of the general federal criminal code.

The intellectual origins of this approach to corporate crime can be traced back at least to the 1980s, when various academics suggested that the best way to deter “crime in the suites” was to foster a culture within companies of acting ethically and responsibly. In practice, this meant encouraging companies not only to provide in-house ethical training but also to enlarge their internal compliance programs, so that responsible behavior would be praised and misconduct policed. The approach found favor not just with some corporations (notably General Electric under the guidance of its then general counsel, Ben Heineman), but also with the US Sentencing Commission, which, in promulgating the Corporate Sentencing Guidelines in 1991, made the overall adequacy of a company’s prior internal compliance programs the most important factor in reducing (by as much as 60 percent) the size of the fine to be imposed on a company found guilty of a federal criminal violation. [Continue reading…]

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How the FBI trains terrorists

Lyric R Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe write: People think that catching terrorists is just a matter of finding them – but, just as often, terrorists are created by the people doing the chase.

While making our film (T)ERROR, which tracks a single counter-terrorism sting operation over seven months, we realized that most people have serious misconceptions about FBI counter-terrorism efforts. They assume that informants infiltrate terrorist networks and then provide the FBI with information about those networks in order to stop terrorist plots from being carried out. That’s not true in the vast majority of domestic terrorism cases.

Since 9/11, as Human Rights Watch and others have documented, the FBI has routinely used paid informants not to capture existing terrorists, but to cultivate them. Through elaborate sting operations, informants are directed to spend months – sometimes years – building relationships with targets, stoking their anger and offering ideas and incentives that encourage them to engage in terrorist activity. And the moment a target takes a decisive step forward, crossing the line from aspirational to operational, the FBI swoops in to arrest him. [Continue reading…]

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NSA on and off the trail of the Sony hackers

After cybersleuth Barack Obama saw the evidence pointing at North Korea’s responsibility for the cyberattacks against Sony, “he had no doubt,” the New York Times melodramatically reports.

He had no doubt about what? That his intelligence analysts knew what they were talking about? Or that he too when presented with the same evidence was forced to reach the same conclusion?

I have no doubt that had Obama been told by those same advisers that North Korea was not behind the attacks, he would have accepted that conclusion. In other words, on matters about which he lacks the expertise to reach any conclusion, he relies on the expertise of others.

A journalist who tells us about the president having “no doubt” in such as situation is merely dressing up his narrative with some Hollywood-style commander-in-chief gravitas.

When one of the reporters in this case, David Sanger, is someone whose cozy ties to government extend to being “an old friend of many, many years” of Ashton Carter, whose nomination as the next Secretary of Defense is almost certain to be approved, you have to wonder whose interests he really serves. Those of his readership or those of the government?

Since Obama and the FBI went out on a limb by asserting that they had no doubt about North Korea’s role in the attacks, they have been under considerable pressure to provide some compelling evidence to back up their claim.

That evidence now comes courtesy of anonymous officials briefing the New York Times and another document from the Snowden trove of NSA documents.

Maybe the evidence really is conclusive, but there are still important unanswered questions.

For instance, as Arik Hesseldahl asks:

why, if the NSA had so fully penetrated North Korea’s cyber operations, did it not warn Sony that an attack of this magnitude was underway, one that apparently began as early as September.

Officials with the NSA and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the report. A Sony spokeswoman had no comment.

On the one hand we’re being told that the U.S. knew exactly who was behind the Sony attacks because the hackers were under close surveillance by the NSA, and yet at the same time we’re being told that although the NSA was watching the hackers it didn’t figure out what they were doing.

If Hollywood everyone decides to create a satire out of this, they’ll need to come up with a modern-day reworking of the kind of scene that would come straight out of Get Smart — the kind where Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, would be eavesdropping on conversation between his North Korean counterparts, the only problem being, that he doesn’t understand Korean.

The Times report refers to the North Korean hackers using an “attack base” in Shenyang, in north east China. This has been widely reported with the somewhat less cyber-sexy name of the Chilbosan Hotel whose use for these purposes has been known since 2004.

If the attackers wanted to avoid detection, it’s hard to understand why they would have operated out of a location that had been known about for that long and that could so easily be linked to North Korea.

It’s also hard to fathom that having developed its cyberattack capabilities over such an extended period, North Korea would want to risk so much just to try and prevent the release of The Interview.

Michael Daly claims that the regime “recognizes that Hollywood and American popular culture in general constitute a dire threat” — a threat that has apparently penetrated the Hermit Kingdom in the “especially popular” form of Desperate Housewives.

Daly goes on to assert:

a glimpse of Wisteria Lane is enough to give lie to the regime’s propaganda that North Koreans live in a worker’s paradise while its enemies suffer in grinding poverty, driven by envy to plot against Dear Leader.

Of course, as every American who has watched the show knows, Wisteria Lane represents anytown America and the cast could blend in unnoticed at any Walmart or shopping mall.

OK. I won’t deny that American propaganda is much more sophisticated than North Korea’s, but when an American journalist implies that Desperate Housewives offers ordinary North Koreans a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans, you have to ask: which population has been more perfectly been brainwashed?

In reality, the dire threat to the North Korean regime in terms of social impact comes not from American popular culture but from much closer: South Korean soap operas.

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Role of FBI informant in eco-terrorism case probed after documents hint at entrapment

The Guardian reports: On the surface, she blended in very well. With a skull tattooed on her shoulder, a black-and-white keffiyeh around her neck, a shock of bright pink hair and her standard-issue dress of camouflage skirt and heavy boots, the energetic 17-year-old looked every bit the radical eco-activist she worked so hard to imitate.

But “Anna”, as she called herself, was no ordinary eco-protester. Really, she wasn’t one at all. She was an FBI informant under instructions to infiltrate fringe green groups and anti-capitalist networks and report back on their activities to the US government.

Now “Anna”, in her role at the center of a high-profile prosecution of alleged eco-terrorists in 2006-7, has been put under the spotlight following the embarrassing admission by the US Department of Justice that it failed to disclose crucial documents to defence attorneys at trial.

On Thursday, Eric McDavid, a radical green activist aged 37, was allowed to walk free after having served nine years of a 19-year federal prison sentence. Prosecutors had alleged that he was the ringleader in a small cell of eco-terrorists connected to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) conspiring to bomb the Nimbus Dam in California, cellphone towers, science labs and other targets.

Last week’s dramatic scenes in a courtroom in Sacramento, California, have focused attention on the FBI’s use of undercover informants and prompted claims that the agency lured unsuspecting activists into criminal activity through blatant entrapment. [Continue reading…]

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NYT reporter prevails in three-year fight over CIA leak

Bloomberg: New York Times reporter James Risen prevailed over the U.S. government in its three-year effort to force him to testify at trial about a confidential source as part of a CIA leak prosecution.

The request by prosecutors that Risen be dropped as a witness capped a longer battle to avoid revealing his sources. The fight reached the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing attention on the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of leaks. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reacted to the controversy by issuing guidelines last year restricting the use of subpoenas and search warrants for journalists.

Risen told a judge Jan. 5 he wouldn’t answer questions that could help identify the sources for his report on a bungled Central Intelligence Agency program to give Iran false nuclear weapon development data.

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Former CBS News reporter sues U.S. government over computer intrusions

The Washington Post reports: For months and months, former CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson played an agonizing game of brinkmanship regarding her privacy: She strongly suggested that the federal government was behind a series of intrusions into her personal and work computers, though she has consistently hedged her wording to allow some wiggle room. In May 2013, for example, she told a Philadelphia radio host that there could be “some relationship” between her technology intrusions and the government snooping on Fox News reporter James Rosen. And in her book “Stonewalled,” she cites a source as saying that the breaches originated from a “sophisticated entity that used commercial, nonattributable spyware that’s proprietary to a government agency: either the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the National Security Agency (NSA).”

No more wiggling around. Attkisson has filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court, alleging the U.S. government’s “unauthorized and illegal surveillance of the Plaintiff’s laptop computers and telephones from 2011-2013.” The suit lists as plaintiffs Attkisson, who resigned from CBS last year, her husband, James Attkisson, and daughter Sarah Judith Starr Attkisson. Defendants include Attorney General Eric Holder and Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe as well as “UNKNOWN NAMED AGENTS OF the UNITED STATES, in their individual capacities.” Those folks, the suit alleges, violated several constitutional rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The complaint lays out a narrative familiar to close readers of “Stonewalled.” It speaks of Attkisson’s work for CBS throughout 2011 in uncovering facts about the U.S. government’s “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation. Roundabout mid- to late-2011, notes the complaint, the Attkissons “began to notice anomalies” in how various electronic devices were operating in the household. “These anomalies included a work Toshiba laptop computer and a family Apple desktop computer turning on and off at night without input from anyone in the household, the house alarm chirping daily at difference times, often indicating ‘phone line trouble,’ and television problems, including interference,” notes the complaint. [Continue reading…]

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We still don’t know who hacked Sony

Bruce Schneier writes: If anything should disturb you about the Sony hacking incidents and subsequent denial-of-service attack against North Korea, it’s that we still don’t know who’s behind any of it. The FBI said in December that North Korea attacked Sony. I and others have serious doubts. There’s countervailing evidence to suggest that the culprit may have been a Sony insider or perhaps Russian nationals.

No one has admitted taking down North Korea’s Internet. It could have been an act of retaliation by the U.S. government, but it could just as well have been an ordinary DDoS attack. The follow-on attack against Sony PlayStation definitely seems to be the work of hackers unaffiliated with a government.

Not knowing who did what isn’t new. It’s called the “attribution problem,” and it plagues Internet security. But as governments increasingly get involved in cyberspace attacks, it has policy implications as well. [Continue reading…]

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Xenophobia inside the FBI

The New York Times reports: The F.B.I. is subjecting hundreds of its employees who were born overseas or have relatives or friends there to an aggressive internal surveillance program that started after Sept. 11, 2001, to prevent foreign spies from coercing newly hired linguists but that has been greatly expanded since then.

The program has drawn criticism from F.B.I. linguists, agents and other personnel with foreign language and cultural skills, and with ties abroad. They complain they are being discriminated against by a secretive “risk-management” plan that the agency uses to guard against espionage. This limits their assignments and stalls their careers, according to several employees and their lawyers.

Employees in the program — called the Post-Adjudication Risk Management plan, or PARM — face more frequent security interviews, polygraph tests, scrutiny of personal travel, and reviews of, in particular, electronic communications and files downloaded from databases.

Some of these employees, including Middle Eastern and Asian personnel who have been hired to fill crucial intelligence and counterterrorism needs, say they are being penalized for possessing the very skills and background that got them hired. They are notified about their inclusion in the program and the extra security requirements, but are not told precisely why they have been placed in it and apparently have no appeal or way out short of severing all ties with family and friends abroad. [Continue reading…]

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Sony insider — not North Korea — likely involved in hack, experts say

The Los Angeles Times reports: Federal authorities insist that the North Korean government is behind the cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Cybersecurity experts? Many are not convinced.

From the time the hack became public Nov. 24, many of these experts have voiced their suspicions that a disgruntled Sony Pictures insider was involved.

Respected voices in the online security and anti-hacking community say the evidence presented publicly by the FBI is not enough to draw firm conclusions.

They argue that the connections between the Sony hack and the North Korean government amount to circumstantial evidence. Further, they say the level of the breach indicates an intimate knowledge of Sony’s computer systems that could have come from someone on the inside.

This week, prominent San Mateo, Calif., cybersecurity firm Norse Corp. — whose clients include government agencies, financial institutions and technology companies — briefed law enforcement officials on evidence it collected that pointed toward an inside job.

“We can’t find any indication that North Korea either ordered, masterminded or funded this attack,” Kurt Stammberger, a senior vice president at Norse, said in an interview with The Times. Although conceding that his findings were not conclusive, Stammberger added: “Nobody has been able to find a credible connection to the North Korean government.”

Stammberger said a team of nine analysts dug through data including Norse’s worldwide network of millions of Web sensors, internal Sony documents and underground hacker chat rooms. Leads suggesting North Korea as the culprit turned out to be red herrings and dead ends, he said.

Instead, the data pointed to a former employee who may have collaborated with outside hackers. The employee, who left the studio in a May restructuring, had the qualifications and access necessary to carry out the crime, according to Stammberger.

Moreover, names of company servers and passwords were programmed into the malware that infiltrated the studio’s network, suggesting hackers had inside knowledge of the studio’s systems, Stammberger said. [Continue reading…]

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FBI’s weak case against North Korea on Sony hacking gets weaker

Reuters reports: U.S. investigators believe that North Korea likely hired hackers from outside the country to help with last month’s massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures, an official close to the investigation said on Monday.

As North Korea lacks the capability to conduct some elements of the sophisticated campaign by itself, the official said, U.S. investigators are looking at the possibility that Pyongyang “contracted out” some of the cyber work. The official was not authorized to speak on the record about the investigation. [Continue reading…]

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The Sony hack, fearless journalism and conflicts of interest

Given that The Intercept is a publication that trumpets its commitment to fearless journalism, you’d think they’d be all over the Sony hack story. National security threats, hacking, corporate power, cyberattacks — aren’t these more than enough ingredients for some hard-hitting investigative journalism?

Apparently not.

Instead we get Jana Winter (who before moving to The Intercept was a reporter at FoxNews.com for six years) recycling an old narrative about governmental negligence: “FBI warned Year Ago of impending Malware Attacks — But Didn’t Share Info with Sony.”

Nearly one year before Sony was hacked, the FBI warned that U.S. companies were facing potentially crippling data destruction malware attacks, and predicted that such a hack could cause irreparable harm to a firm’s reputation, or even spell the end of the company entirely. The FBI also detailed specific guidance for U.S. companies to follow to prepare and plan for such an attack.

But the FBI never sent Sony the report.

The Dec. 13, 2013 FBI Intelligence Assessment, “Potential Impacts of a Data-Destruction Malware Attack on a U.S. Critical Infrastructure Company’s Network,” warned that companies “must become prepared for the increasing possibility they could become victim to a data destruction cyber attack.”

How could Sony have been adequately prepared to meet this threat if the FBI had neglected to send them their report?!

Urrr… maybe Sony’s global chief information security officer Philip Reitinger knew something about the risks of a data destruction cyber attack. After all, directly before moving to Sony in 2011, Reitinger had been Deputy Under Secretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) and Director of the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) at the United States Department of Homeland Security. It seems likely that one way or another, Reitinger saw the FBI report.

Winter closes her “report” by quoting a source within the “information security industry” who said: “The question is, who dropped the ball?”

The Intercept in its headline and paragraph two doesn’t hesitate to answer that “question”: The FBI.

This is really a bizarrely irrelevant narrative to be spinning, given that there has already been so much reporting on Sony’s own negligence in handling cyber-security.

Winter makes the dubious assertion that in the eyes of the U.S. government, Sony is part of this nation’s “critical infrastructure” — the implication apparently being that the FBI is responsible for safeguarding the company’s cyber-security standards.

For The Intercept to want to portray the Sony story as a story about the failings of the U.S. government, is perhaps to be expected, given the ideological straightjacket inside which the publication remains trapped.

But maybe I’m just being cynical in thinking that there might be another explanation: that Glenn Greenwald hasn’t abandoned all hope Sony will produce his Snowden movie — even though a leaked November 14 email from Sony executive Doug Belgrad wrote that the Greenwald project “is unlikely to happen” — and so doesn’t want to embarrass his commercial partner.

Even if the Snowden movie has no bearing here, there is a deeper philosophical problem that the Sony hack story presents to The Intercept and everyone with a visceral fear of government.

American companies, fully aware of the government’s data collection capabilities want to see a more proactive partnership between the public and private sectors to improve information security and thwart cyberattacks. At the same time, libertarians and much of the public at large want to see these capabilities reined in, and businesses themselves don’t want to be burdened by overregulation.

Much as free-market economics promotes a myth of a self-balancing system that functions most efficiently by suffering the least governmental interference, the information economy sustains similar myths about its ability to self-organize.

But on the cyber frontier, threats from the likes of North Korea are probably smaller than those posed by agents whose identities remain forever concealed and whose motives may be as difficult to discern.

This year, hackers caused “massive damage” to a steel factory in Germany by gaining access to control systems that would have generally been expected to be physically separated from the internet, yet the emerging Internet of Things in which as many as 30 billion devices are expected to be connected by the end of the decade, suggests that physically destructive cyberattacks are destined to become much more commonplace.

The politics of information security right now favors an approach in which everyone is expected to maintain their own systems of fortification and yet the protection of collective interests may demand that we live in a world where there is much greater data transparency.

As things stand right now on the information highways, none of the vehicles are licensed, no one has insurance, most of the drivers are robots, and most of the robots are employed by crooks.

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