NBC News reports: The U.S. government believes hackers from Russia or elsewhere may try to undermine next week’s presidential election and is mounting an unprecedented effort to counter their cyber meddling, American officials told NBC News.
The effort is being coordinated by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, but reaches across the government to include the CIA, the National Security Agency and other elements of the Defense Department, current and former officials say.
Russia has been warned that any effort to manipulate the actual voting or vote counting would be viewed as a serious breach, intelligence officials say.
“The Russians are in an offensive mode and [the U.S. is] working on strategies to respond to that, and at the highest levels,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
Officials are alert for any attempts to create Election Day chaos, and say steps are being taken to prepare for worst-case scenarios, including a cyber-attack that shuts down part of the power grid or the internet.
But what is more likely, multiple U.S. officials say, is a lower-level effort by hackers from Russia or elsewhere to peddle misinformation by manipulating Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.
For example, officials fear an 11th hour release of fake documents implicating one of the candidates in an explosive scandal without time for the news media to fact check it. So far, document dumps attributed to the Russians have damaged Democrats and favored Trump. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration on Friday officially accused Russia of attempting to interfere in the 2016 elections, including by hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations.
The denunciation, made by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security, came as pressure was growing from within the administration and some lawmakers to publicly name Moscow and hold it accountable for actions apparently aimed at sowing discord around the election.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” said a joint statement from the two agencies. “. . . These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
The public finger-pointing was welcomed by senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who also said they now expect the administration to move to punish the Kremlin as part of an effort to deter further acts by its hackers. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The leader of a Western-backed rescue organization that searches for survivors of bombings in Syria was denied entry into the United States this week, where he was to receive an award recognizing his contributions to humanitarian relief.
Raed Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense, was to accept the award from InterAction, an alliance of aid agencies, at its gala dinner Tuesday night in Washington. The dinner’s keynote speaker was Gayle Smith, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.
But when Mr. Saleh, who works in Syria and Turkey, arrived Monday at Washington’s Dulles International Airport on a flight from Istanbul, the authorities said he could not enter the United States. He was told his visa had been canceled.
It was unclear whether Mr. Saleh’s name might have shown up on a database, fed by a variety of intelligence and security agencies and intended to guard against the prospect of terrorism suspects slipping into the country.
The State Department declined to give specifics, but a spokesman, John Kirby, said that “the U.S. government’s system of continual vetting means that traveler records are screened against available information in real time.”
“While we can’t confirm any possible specific actions in this case, we do have the ability to immediately coordinate with our interagency partners when new information becomes available,” he added.
Mr. Saleh was put on the next flight back to Istanbul. In a telephone interview from Istanbul on Wednesday, Mr. Saleh sought to turn the focus to the experience of millions of Syrians who find the world’s borders closed to them.
“In any airport, the treatment we get as Syrians is different,” he said. “The way they look at us, we are suspected.” In his case, he pointed out, he had no intention of staying longer than 16 hours.
His group is widely known as the White Helmets for the headgear its members wear as they rush to bomb sites to rescue survivors and dig out the dead from the rubble. Government supporters have criticized the group for working in some areas held by the Nusra Front, a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda. But like many internal aid groups, it says it is neutral and seeks to help civilians no matter whose territory they live in.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, called the denial of entry “a scandal.”
“The White Helmets are one of the few organizations in Syria that have been above reproach,” he said. “They have tried to observe strict neutrality in order to facilitate their humanitarian work and save lives. To do this they have worked along side all sorts of militias in order to get to victims of the fighting.”
At the dinner on Tuesday night, InterAction staff members wore white helmets in solidarity — and posted a photo on Twitter.
“I really was moved by this moment,” Mr. Saleh said. “It was a stance of the unity of humanity — and I don’t mean the international community, I mean humanity.” [Continue reading…]
In February, Saleh spoke at the Conference Supporting Syria and the Region, co-hosted in London by the UN and the Governments of the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany and Norway.
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…]
In an article titled, “One Nation Under Fear,” Mark Edmundson writes:
How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow.
In the latest wave of mass hysteria, the barriers of entry to the United States imposed on people with darker skins will once again be raised higher.
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 does not make any mention of skin color, yet the officials who are responsible for enforcing this law will inevitably notice skin color when determining if it needs to be applied. Since the law will apply, for instance, to British citizens who are also Iranian nationals simply by virtue of having an Iranian father — such an individual might have been born in the UK, have never visited Iran and not possess an Iranian passport — the way in which they will get flagged for questioning will most likely be because they are Middle Eastern in appearance.
Ostensibly, the law was designed to block U.S. entry to Europeans who have joined ISIS.
Let’s imagine how that would work: A British citizen who fought with ISIS in Syria has now returned home and then decides to fly to New York. He shows up at the airline check-in desk, presents his passport and the clerk, seeing the stamp entered when he visited Syria, says: “Sorry mate, no trip to America for you!” The thwarted traveler responds: “Damn that Terrorist Travel Prevention Act!” … except, of course, such an individual would in reality neither declare nor present any evidence that they had been in Syria or belonged to ISIS. The terrorist would — surprise, surprise — break the rules.
In truth, this isn’t a serious piece of legislation. Those who drafted and passed this law were engaged in a piece of political theater. Indeed, anyone who can coin a phrase like “terrorist travel prevention” would be better employed at The Onion than in the U.S. Congress.
The only people who will be reliably prevented from travel are those innocently trying to do what most travelers do — visit relatives and friends; engage in tourism or business.
The terrorists are not so dumb that they would run afoul of such restrictions — just as no terrorist would subvert his own objectives by tangling himself in the vetting process imposed on asylum seekers. [Read more…]
Think Progress reports: A growing number of Muslims, Sikhs, and people of Middle Eastern descent are reporting incidents of racial and religious profiling while trying to board planes, sparking concerns that rising anti-Islam sentiment is sparking a new wave of discrimination at airports.
American Muslims have long encountered difficulties at airports, where security officials have been accused of unfairly profiling, questioning, searching, and detaining passengers simply for “looking” Muslim — including people who are not devotees of Islam, such as Sikhs and Arab Christians. Policies that support such profiling — many enacted in the years immediately following the September 11 attacks (although most have proven largely ineffective at catching terrorists) — remain in place today and have been defended by White House officials, even though Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents have voiced misgivings about programs that single out people based on race or religion.
But as the United States endures an unprecedented wave of anti-Islam hatred following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino late last year, Muslim Americans and others affected by Islamophobia are reporting a rash of new airport profiling cases — this time not just at the hands of the TSA, but also airline companies and fellow passengers. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The Obama administration on Friday announced an overhaul of its efforts to respond to online propaganda from the Islamic State after months of acknowledgments that it had largely failed in its attempts to counter extremist recruitment and exhortations to violence on social media.
The administration has emphasized that it needs the assistance of some of the nation’s biggest technology companies, and a group of top White House and national security officials flew to California on Friday to plead their case with executives.
“Given the way the technology works these days, there surely are ways that we can disrupt paths to radicalization, to identify recruitment patterns and to provide metrics that allow us to measure the success of our counter-radicalization efforts,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said before the meeting began in California.
A task force will be created in the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to coordinate the government’s new effort. The State Department announced the creation of a center to respond to disinformation from extremist groups by highlighting their misdeeds and creating positive images of the West. [Continue reading…]
If one was to picture America as a complex filtration system with Washington DC at its core, the way this operates guarantees that by the time someone passes through the system’s many layers and reaches a position as an influential decision-maker, their psyche has been stripped of every last trace of imagination.
Picture the many meetings that must have taken place over recent months in which policymakers repeatedly said: in order to stop ISIS we need to improve the image of the West.
This proposition should have been met with howls of scorn and yet instead, multiple teams of straight-faced bureaucrats from multiple agencies nodded their heads in agreement.
At the same time, I greatly doubt anyone believes this kind of PR exercise will have any value whatsoever and yet the consensus of support derives from one fact: no one has come up with a better idea.
Better to do something worthless than to do nothing at all — so the thinking goes.
The term radicalization has been pathologized, thereby divorcing it from its psychological meaning. It’s viewed as a disease, with the implication that if the right steps are taken, the contagion can be controlled.
But to be radicalized is to rebel and anyone who has taken up such a position of defiance has, in the case of ISIS, already reached a conclusion about the West. Indeed, they have most likely reflected more deeply on the West than the majority of their generational counterparts who, being less likely to engage in cultural critiques of any kind, don’t have a particularly coherent view of the West — good or bad.
The problem here is not one if inadequate availability of positive images of the West.
Although it’s often said that this is an ideological struggle, ideology is I suspect of less significance than a core value: the willingness to die in the name of ones cause.
This isn’t a value that governments anywhere want to challenge because every state wants to be able to recruit citizens who are willing to die in defense of their country.
Most states don’t overtly recruit would-be martyrs and yet all states promote the idea that anyone who dies for their country has died in the name of a noble cause.
At the same time, this has become an increasingly ambiguous value as professionalized military forces promote their ability to minimize their own loses. They want their soldiers to remain willing to die and yet decreasingly fearful that they might face such a risk.
The religious zealot who is willing to die for what he believes in, will inevitably have a sense of superiority over the non-religious soldier who has submitted to the commands of the state rather than the command of God.
If Washington thinks it can steer ISIS recruits in a different direction, it’s because it sees this as a contest between the might of the United States and the wrong-headed ambitions of a cadre of hapless youth. But the contest inside the minds of these young people is between divine authority and human design. They inevitably side with God.
Jeffrey Kahn writes: The No Fly List is not a government program easily challenged. Indeed, it operates in secrecy, from an undisclosed location, administered by an office – the Terrorist Screening Center – that doesn’t accept public inquiries. When challenged in court, the watchlisters routinely declare their methods safe but secret and fight the disclosure of their standards and criteria for inclusion.
The British Muslim family recently denied travel to Disneyland might soon discover this, despite the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron has been called upon to examine the case.
The Guardian reported that, despite prior US approvals, the entire family was turned away from Gatwick’s departure lounge. Without warning or a hearing, their freedom to travel was stripped away at great expense and deep humiliation. Instantly, they were reduced to the status of suspected terrorists by anonymous US officials working without any judicial oversight.
Imagine your family in their shoes. If you can’t, then you don’t understand the power of the US No Fly List. [Continue reading…]
Molly O’Toole reports: The United States, which accepts more refugees per year than any other country, has all but closed its door to the millions of Syrians who are part of the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. A recent decision to admit more Syrian refugees this year opened that door a crack, but the Obama administration insists that national security concerns constrain it from going further. Yet officials at more than a dozen agencies could not point to any specific or credible case, data, or intelligence assessment indicating that Syrian refugees pose a threat.
The officials generally funnelled questions to the Department of Homeland Security.
“Certain groups have openly stated they will attempt to exploit the current situation with respect to large numbers of migrants seeking asylum in Europe and refugee resettlement,” said a DHS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because department leaders would not authorize anyone to speak on the record about the threat assessment of Syrian refugees. “We must balance a very real threat with the potential propaganda value here.” [Continue reading…]
Olivia Goldhill writes: [O]nce the US agrees, in theory, to resettle a refugee, authorities then begin a laborious vetting process that can take up to two years, a State Department spokesman told Voice of America.
The refugees, who have already been vetted by the UN, must then be screened by US authorities — involving the National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense, the FBI, and Homeland Security officers, former State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in February.
Syrians who have been approved for resettlement are often survivors of torture, female-led families without protection, and unaccompanied minors. They can be in danger throughout the vetting process, and delays are common, Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East and North Africa at Refugees International, tells Quartz.
“Once the person is cleared medically, that medical clearance may even expire while the security check is happening,” she says from Washington. “There’s a whole cycle that makes the process quite slow.”
Syrian refugees face particularly long delays because of anxieties about terrorism in the Middle East. But excessive fears can make the resettlement process redundant. The US does not accept refugees who have given “material support” to armed groups, but this has previously been used to block people for the slightest excuse — a Burundi refugee was detained for 20 months because armed rebels robbed him of $4 and his lunch. The immigration judge decided this counted as “material support.” [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: Muslim groups and civil rights activists across the nation Thursday called for greater transparency in a program by President Barack Obama’s administration that’s aimed at countering homegrown terrorism.
Organizers, including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke out at coordinated events in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis — the three cities where the Countering Violent Extremism program is being piloted.
Among their concerns is that organizers still refuse to share basic information about what the localized efforts will actually look like. They also object to federal authorities conducting invitation-only discussions about the program, referred to as CVE, to the exclusion of dissenting groups.
Last week, more than 200 academics, terrorism experts and government officials gathered for a conference in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. It was titled “Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Lessons Learned from Canada, the UK and the US.”
Among the attendees and panelists were leaders of the CVE efforts in the pilot cities, according to a copy of the program provided to The Associated Press.
“This isn’t a community-based process,” Nadeem Mazen, a city councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and board member of the local CAIR chapter, said during a small gathering in front of Boston City Hall. “This is a whole different level of federally coordinated assault on our civil liberties.” [Continue reading…]