Warnings about risks posed by encryption have been wildly overblown by intelligence agencies, says report

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The New York Times reports: For more than two years the F.B.I. and intelligence agencies have warned that encrypted communications are creating a “going dark” crisis that will keep them from tracking terrorists and kidnappers.

Now, a study in which current and former intelligence officials participated concludes that the warning is wildly overblown, and that a raft of new technologies — like television sets with microphones and web-connected cars — are creating ample opportunities for the government to track suspects, many of them worrying.

“ ‘Going dark’ does not aptly describe the long-term landscape for government surveillance,” concludes the study, to be published Monday by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

The study argues that the phrase ignores the flood of new technologies “being packed with sensors and wireless connectivity” that are expected to become the subject of court orders and subpoenas, and are already the target of the National Security Agency as it places “implants” into networks around the world to monitor communications abroad. [Continue reading…]

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How the FBI is pressuring Muslim immigrants to become informants

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BuzzFeed reports: When he got the last call to come meet with the FBI agents, A.M. allowed himself an uncharacteristic bit of optimism. An immigrant from Pakistan, he had spent the last seven years trying to get a green card, a process that had so far included a series of interviews, three encounters with the FBI, and unexplained bureaucratic delays. Maybe this meeting would bring some resolution?
But when the 37-year-old software programmer arrived at the Homeland Security offices in Dallas that day in August 2014, the conversation quickly swerved. One of the two agents placed a piece of paper on the table and told him to write down the names of all the people he knew who he thought were terrorists.

Bewildered, he said he didn’t know any terrorists. He said he didn’t know about any suspicious activity at all. “We think you do,” the agents replied.

A.M. was quickly becoming alarmed. (Like almost all other immigrants interviewed for this story, he said he did not feel safe allowing his name to be published. A.M. are his initials.) He was a family man, with a highly skilled 9-to-5 job. He had lived in America for nearly two decades. He went to college in America. Why would the FBI see him as a link to terrorism? And weren’t they supposed to be discussing his green card application?
As it turned out, that’s precisely what they were discussing. “We know about your immigration problems,” he recalls one of the agents telling him. “And we can help you with that.” If, they said, he agreed to start making secret reports on his community, his friends, even his family.

Pressuring people to become informants by dangling the promise of citizenship — or, if they do not comply, deportation — is expressly against the rules that govern FBI agents’ activities.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales forbade the practice nine years ago: “No promises or commitments can be made, except by the United States Department of Homeland Security, regarding the alien status of any person or the right of any person to enter or remain in the United States,” according to the Attorney General’s Guidelines Regarding the Use of FBI Confidential Human Sources.

In fact, Gonzales’s guidelines, which are still in force today, require agents to go further: They must explicitly warn potential informants that the FBI cannot help with their immigration status in any way.

But a BuzzFeed News investigation — based on government and court documents, official complaints, and interviews with immigrants, immigration and civil rights lawyers, and former special agents — shows that the FBI violates these rules. Mandated to enforce the law, the bureau has assumed a powerful but unacknowledged role in a very different realm: decisions about the legal status of immigrants — in particular, Muslim immigrants. First the immigration agency ties up their green card applications for years, even a decade, without explanation, then FBI agents approach the applicants with a loaded offer: Want to get your papers? Start reporting to us about people you know. [Continue reading…]

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Suspect in pro-ISIS plot called mentally ill ‘panhandler’ who was ‘manipulated’

The Associated Press reports: An ex-convict arrested in a plot to carry out a pro-Islamic State attack at a bar on New Year’s Eve is a panhandler who had been asked to leave in the past, the bar’s owner said. The man’s family said he had a long history of mental problems.

Federal authorities have said Emanuel Lutchman, 25, sought to prove he was worthy of joining Isis by leading an attack in Rochester with a machete and knives that were provided by an FBI informant.

After authorities announced his arrest on Thursday, Lutchman’s father and mother described a man who had had psychiatric troubles since childhood, had recently stabbed himself in a suicide attempt and, they said, would not have conducted the attack on his own.

“The boy is impressionable,” his father, Omar Lutchman, told NBC News. “First he was a Blood, then he was a Crip, then he became a Muslim. He’s easily manipulated.”

The father and the suspect’s grandmother, Beverley Carridice-Henry, told the network Lutchman is married and has a two-year-old son but had been having marital and money problems. He was frustrated over being unable to find work and care for his family, they said. [Continue reading…]

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FBI listed It’s a Wonderful Life as suspected Communist propaganda

Quartz reports: It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season in the United States, but it was once considered un-American by the government.

From the film’s release in 1946 until 1956, it was listed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as suspected Communist propaganda. Mr. Potter, the villainous banker who nearly drives George Bailey to financial ruin and suicide, “represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture,” according to an FBI report (pdf, pg. 14) in 1947.

The report called it “a common trick used by Communists.” [Continue reading…]

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Pete Seeger’s FBI file reveals how the folk legend first became a target of the feds

David Corn writes: From the 1940s through the early 1970s, the US government spied on singer-songwriter Pete Seeger because of his political views and associations. According to documents in Seeger’s extensive FBI file—which runs to nearly 1,800 pages (with 90 pages withheld) and was obtained by Mother Jones under the Freedom of Information Act—the bureau’s initial interest in Seeger was triggered in 1943 after Seeger, as an Army private, wrote a letter protesting a proposal to deport all Japanese American citizens and residents when World War II ended.

Seeger, a champion of folk music and progressive causes—and the writer, performer, or promoter of now-classic songs, including as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Goodnight, Irene,” and “This Land Is Your Land”—was a member of the Communist Party for several years in the 1940s, as he subsequently acknowledged. (He later said he should have left earlier.) His FBI file shows that Seeger, who died in early 2014, was for decades hounded by the FBI, which kept trying to tie him to the Communist Party, and the first investigation in the file illustrates the absurd excesses of the paranoid security establishment of that era. [Continue reading…]

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FBI to help Russia investigate plane crash in Egypt

The New York Times reports: The F.B.I. has agreed to help the Russian government with its investigation into the deadly crash of a Russian charter plane in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, senior American officials said on Saturday.

Some American officials said that the Russians want help doing a forensic analysis to determine what brought down the Airbus A321-200, while other officials said that the request from the Russians was more general. Although most of the debris is scattered over nearly eight square miles in the desert, some parts of the plane were taken to Russia for analysis.

It is rare for the Russians to make such a request, which was first reported on Friday by CBS News, and some American officials interpreted it as a sign of the challenges facing investigators. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Russian officials said Saturday that more than 70,000 of their citizens were in Egypt awaiting the arrival of jets being sent to carry them home. British officials said on Saturday that there were about 19,000 Britons at Sharm el Sheikh and that it would take 10 days to get them all home.

The exodus from Sharm el Sheikh has dealt a devastating blow to Egypt’s already sputtering tourism industry. The loss of foreign currency from tourists is likely to greatly increase downward pressure on the value of the Egyptian pound, compounding the damage to the broader economy.

Only a small number of Western European airlines operated direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh before the crash, flying from Britain, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Airlines from some countries, including France and the Netherlands, stopped offering direct service in recent years, in part out of security concerns, European officials said. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Six days after the crash of a Russian charter flight from the Egyptian resort area of Sharm el Sheikh, the government of Egypt is finding itself increasingly isolated in its resistance to the possibility that a terrorist’s bomb brought down the plane.

Britain has concluded the cause was most likely a bomb. President Obama has said pointedly that he takes the possibility “very seriously.” After standing arm in arm with Egypt for six days in discouraging any such discussion of terrorism, even President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday suspended Russia’s flights to Egypt for fear of another attack, stranding tens of thousands of tourists at the resort.

But the government of Egypt, critically dependent on the money tourists bring to Sharm el Sheikh’s resorts, has dismissed any suggestion that a bombing killed the 224 people aboard as “premature,” “surprising” and “unwarranted.”

The widening chasm between Egypt and the world, some say, recalls an earlier crash, in 1999, when EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the ocean off the coast of Nantucket Island. Although American investigators said flight records pointed to the decisions of an Egyptian pilot, the Egyptian government blamed a malfunction in the Boeing airplane, and 17 years later the Egyptian-American dispute over the cause is still unresolved.

In that case, the Egyptian investigation was cloaked in mystery and, critics say, politicized from that start.

“I don’t anticipate the Egyptian investigation here to be any more transparent than their work on EgyptAir 990,” James E. Hall, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board who oversaw that investigation, said in an interview. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. officials can kidnap and threaten American citizens without legal risk

Patrick G. Eddington writes: At exactly 5 p.m. on March 13, 2007, just as I was preparing to leave my cubicle in Washington for the day, I got a phone call from the journalist Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers. To this day, I remember his exact words.

“One of your congressman’s constituents is being held in an Ethiopian intelligence service prison, and I think your former employer is neck-deep in this.”

The congressman was Rush Holt, then a Democratic representative from New Jersey, for whom I worked for 10 years starting in 2004. The constituent was Amir Mohamed Meshal of Tinton Falls, N.J., who alleges that he was illegally taken to Ethiopia, where he was threatened with torture by American officials. My “former employer” was the Central Intelligence Agency, but it soon became apparent that the agency “neck-deep in this” was the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Eight years after Mr. Meshal’s rendition, his case ended up before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The questions hanging over the proceeding were: can the United States government allow, or even facilitate, the rendition of an American citizen to another country for interrogation? And can United States officials themselves conduct rendition and interrogations of American citizens, including threats of torture, on foreign soil?

According to a decision handed down last week, the answers appear to be yes. [Continue reading…]

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AP sues over access to FBI records involving fake news story

The Associated Press reports: The Associated Press sued the U.S. Department of Justice Thursday over the FBI’s failure to provide public records related to the creation of a fake news story used to plant surveillance software on a suspect’s computer.

AP joined with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

At issue is a 2014 Freedom of Information request seeking documents related to the FBI’s decision to send a web link to the fake article to a 15-year-old boy suspected of making bomb threats to a high school near Olympia, Washington. The link enabled the FBI to infect the suspect’s computer with software that revealed its location and Internet address.

AP strongly objected to the ruse, which was uncovered last year in documents obtained through a separate FOIA request made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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Lawsuit targets top Bush officials who led witch hunt against Muslims after 9/11

The Associated Press reports: It has been nearly 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, but a lawsuit on behalf of Muslims rounded up in the aftermath has barely moved forward as lawyers try to show how frightening it was for hundreds of men with no ties to terrorism to be treated like terrorists, locked up and abused for months at a time.

The lawsuit finally got a green light from a federal appeals court last week, with two judges willing to let the courts grapple with what happened in the days after the worst terrorist attack in American history, when the largest criminal probe in U.S. history tested the boundaries of civil liberties.

In a 2-1 ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit against three former top U.S. officials, including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Holding the defendants “in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with regular strip searches because their perceived faith or race placed them in the group targeted for recruitment by al-Qaida violated the detainees’ Constitutional rights,” the majority wrote. “The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy.” [Continue reading…]

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FBI agent: The CIA could have stopped 9/11

Jeff Stein reports: Mark Rossini, a former FBI special agent at the center of an enduring mystery related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says he is “appalled” by the newly declassified statements by former CIA Director George Tenet defending the spy agency’s efforts to detect and stop the plot.

Rossini, who was assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) at the time of the attacks, has long maintained that the U.S. government has covered up secret relations between the spy agency and Saudi individuals who may have abetted the plot. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a failed effort to crash into the U.S. Capitol, were Saudis.

A heavily redacted 2005 CIA inspector general’s report, parts of which had previously been released, was further declassified earlier this month. It found that agency investigators “encountered no evidence” that the government of Saudi Arabia “knowingly and willingly supported” Al-Qaeda terrorists. It added that some CIA officers had “speculated” that “dissident sympathizers within the government” may have supported Osama bin Laden but that “the reporting was too sparse to determine with any accuracy such support.” [Continue reading…]

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With ISIS using instant messaging apps, FBI seeks access to data

The Los Angeles Times reports: Islamic State militants and their followers have discovered an unnerving new communications and recruiting tool that has stymied U.S. counter-terrorism agencies: instant messaging apps on smartphones that encrypt the texts or destroy them almost immediately.

In many cases, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies can’t read the messages in real time, or even later with a court order, because the phone companies and the app developers say they can’t unlock the coded text and don’t retain a record of the exchanges.

“We’re past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael B. Steinbach, the FBI’s top counter-terrorism official. “We are dark.”

The hole in U.S. surveillance capabilities was not mentioned during the recent congressional battle over the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of U.S. landline and cellphone data. Lawmakers ultimately agreed to scale back that program because of concerns it violated Americans’ privacy.

FBI officials now want Congress to expand their authority to tap into messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Kik, as well as data-destroying apps such as Wickr and Surespot, that hundreds of millions of people — and apparently some militants — have embraced precisely because they guarantee security and anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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FBI behind mysterious surveillance aircraft over U.S. cities

The Associated Press reports: The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology — all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.

The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. The FBI said it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft. It also shields the identity of the aircraft so that suspects on the ground don’t know they’re being watched by the FBI.

In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found.

Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism or intelligence probes. But the program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying. [Continue reading…]

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NSA may need to begin winding down surveillance program this week

The Washington Post reports: A bitter ideological divide in Congress appeared destined Wednesday to at least temporarily end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records as government officials warned they would have to begin shuttering the program after Friday if lawmakers do not act.

In a memorandum, the Justice Department said the National Security Agency would need to act “to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection” or use of the data should the program not be extended before a June 1 deadline.

The memo, along with comments Wednesday by FBI Director James B. Comey, puts pressure on lawmakers to act at a time when congressional Republicans remain divided over the NSA’s controversial gathering of private telephone records for counterterrorism purposes. [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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