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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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.


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…]


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…]


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.


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]