Obama opens NSA’s vast trove of warrantless data to entire Intelligence Community, just in time for Trump

The Intercept reports: With only days until Donald Trump takes office, the Obama administration on Thursday announced new rules that will let the NSA share vast amounts of private data gathered without warrant, court orders or congressional authorization with 16 other agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The new rules allow employees doing intelligence work for those agencies to sift through raw data collected under a broad, Reagan-era executive order that gives the NSA virtually unlimited authority to intercept communications abroad. Previously, NSA analysts would filter out information they deemed irrelevant and mask the names of innocent Americans before passing it along.

The change was in the works long before there was any expectation that someone like Trump might become president. The last-minute adoption of the procedures is one of many examples of the Obama administration making new executive powers established by the Bush administration permanent, on the assumption that the executive branch could be trusted to police itself. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. intercepts capture senior Russian officials celebrating Trump win

The Washington Post reports: Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.

The ebullient reaction among high-ranking Russian officials — including some who U.S. officials believe had knowledge of the country’s cyber campaign to interfere in the U.S. election — contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win the White House.

Other key pieces of information gathered by U.S. spy agencies include the identification of “actors” involved in delivering stolen Democratic emails to the WikiLeaks website, and disparities in the levels of effort Russian intelligence entities devoted to penetrating and exploiting sensitive information stored on Democratic and Republican campaign networks.

Those and other data points are at the heart of an unprecedented intelligence report being circulated in Washington this week that details the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and catalogues other cyber operations by Moscow against U.S. election systems over the past nine years. [Continue reading…]

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Just one Trump transition aide dealing with CIA and 16 other agencies in the intelligence community

Reuters reports: Only one member of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is dealing with the CIA and the 16 other offices and agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, four U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Geoffrey Kahn, a former House intelligence committee staffer, is the only person named so far to Trump’s intelligence community “landing team,” they said. As a result, said one senior career intelligence officer, briefing books prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center, and 13 other agencies and organizations are “waiting for someone to read them.” “It seems like an odd time to put issues like cyber security and international terrorism on the back burner,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Previous administrations, the official said, were quicker to staff their intelligence teams, in part because they considered intelligence issues critical to setting foreign policy, defense and budget priorities.

The intelligence community has some 200,000 employees and contractors and an annual budget of more than $70 billion. It collects and analyzes information on a vast array of subjects, from national security threats such as terrorism and climate change to global conflicts and the foreign, defense and trade policies of foreign governments.

Kahn has been in periodic contact with the CIA, said two of the officials, adding that they did not know if he had been in touch with the other intelligence agencies. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon and intelligence community chiefs have urged Obama to remove the head of the NSA

The Washington Post reports: The heads of the Pentagon and the nation’s intelligence community have recommended to President Obama that the director of the National Security Agency, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, be removed.

The recommendation, delivered to the White House last month, was made by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., according to several U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Action has been delayed, some administration officials said, because relieving Rogers of his duties is tied to another controversial recommendation: to create separate chains of command at the NSA and the military’s cyberwarfare unit, a recommendation by Clapper and Carter that has been stalled because of other issues.

The news comes as Rogers is being considered by President-elect Donald Trump to be his nominee for director of national intelligence to replace Clapper as the official who oversees all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. In a move apparently unprecedented for a military officer, Rogers, without notifying superiors, traveled to New York to meet with Trump on Thursday at Trump Tower. That caused consternation at senior levels of the administration, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal personnel matters. [Continue reading…]

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German terrorism case highlights Europe’s security challenges

The New York Times reports: The warning came to the German security authorities in early September from “our best partners,” as they euphemistically refer to the American intelligence agencies: A terrorist assault might be in the works.

In the weeks that followed, the Germans identified a suspect, a refugee from Syria. They unearthed evidence that he had been casing a Berlin airport for an attack, and they recovered powerful explosives from his apartment, only to see him slip through their fingers. When they eventually captured him, the suspect promptly hanged himself in his jail cell.

The case was notable for its dramatic turns. But it also underscored two central challenges facing the Continent: getting a handle on the security risk related to the arrival of more than a million migrants last year, and addressing the continued reliance of European governments on intelligence from the United States to avert attacks.

Both issues have been plaguing Europe since the high-profile attacks in France and Belgium over the past two years. Governments have scrambled to counter the threat even as migrants, many with little or no documentation of their identity or country of origin, came over their borders in previously unheard-of numbers. The challenge has become more pressing in Germany in recent months after a spate of arrests and attacks, some linked to migrants.

“In a way, we have outsourced our counterterrorism to the United States,” said Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The Germans are not ready to build up their intelligence capabilities for political reasons, so this will continue.” [Continue reading…]

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How Russia pulled off the biggest election hack in U.S. history

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Thomas Rid writes: On an April afternoon earlier this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin headlined a gathering of some four hundred journalists, bloggers, and media executives in St. Petersburg. Dressed in a sleek navy suit, Putin looked relaxed, even comfortable, as he took questions. About an hour into the forum, a young blogger in a navy zip sweater took the microphone and asked Putin what he thought of the “so-called Panama Papers.”

The blogger was referring to a cache of more than eleven million computer files that had been stolen from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm. The leak was the largest in history, involving 2.6 terabytes of data, enough to fill more than five hundred DVDs. On April 3, four days before the St. Petersburg forum, a group of international news outlets published the first in a series of stories based on the leak, which had taken them more than a year to investigate. The series revealed corruption on a massive scale: Mossack Fonseca’s legal maneuverings had been used to hide billions of dollars. A central theme of the group’s reporting was the matryoshka doll of secret shell companies and proxies, worth a reported $2 billion, that belonged to Putin’s inner circle and were presumed to shelter some of the Russian president’s vast personal wealth.

When Putin heard the blogger’s question, his face lit up with a familiar smirk. He nodded slowly and confidently before reciting a litany of humiliations that the United States had inflicted on Russia. Putin reminded his audience about the sidelining of Russia during the 1998 war in Kosovo and what he saw as American meddling in Ukraine more recently. Returning to the Panama Papers, Putin cited WikiLeaks to insist that “officials and state agencies in the United States are behind all this.” The Americans’ aim, he said, was to weaken Russia from within: “to spread distrust for the ruling authorities and the bodies of power within society.”

Though a narrow interpretation of Putin’s accusation was defensible—as WikiLeaks had pointed out, one of the members of the Panama Papers consortium had received financial support from USAID, a federal agency—his swaggering assurance about America’s activities has a more plausible explanation: Putin’s own government had been preparing a vast, covert, and unprecedented campaign of political sabotage against the United States and its allies for more than a year.

The Russian campaign burst into public view only this past June, when The Washington Post reported that “Russian government hackers” had penetrated the servers of the Democratic National Committee. The hackers, hiding behind ominous aliases like Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks, claimed their first victim in July, in the person of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair, whose private emails were published by WikiLeaks in the days leading up to the Democratic convention. By August, the hackers had learned to use the language of Americans frustrated with Washington to create doubt about the integrity of the electoral system: “As you see the U. S. presidential elections are becoming a farce,” they wrote from Russia.

The attacks against political organizations and individuals absorbed much of the media’s attention this year. But in many ways, the DNC hack was merely a prelude to what many security researchers see as a still more audacious feat: the hacking of America’s most secretive intelligence agency, the NSA.

Russian spies did not, of course, wait until the summer of 2015 to start hacking the United States. This past fall, in fact, marked the twentieth anniversary of the world’s first major campaign of state-on-state digital espionage. In 1996, five years after the end of the USSR, the Pentagon began to detect high-volume network breaches from Russia. The campaign was an intelligence-gathering operation: Whenever the intruders from Moscow found their way into a U. S. government computer, they binged, stealing copies of every file they could.

By 1998, when the FBI code-named the hacking campaign Moonlight Maze, the Russians were commandeering foreign computers and using them as staging hubs. At a time when a 56 kbps dial-up connection was more than sufficient to get the best of Pets.com and AltaVista, Russian operators extracted several gigabytes of data from a U. S. Navy computer in a single session. With the unwitting help of proxy machines—including a Navy supercomputer in Virginia Beach, a server at a London nonprofit, and a computer lab at a public library in Colorado—that accomplishment was repeated hundreds of times over. Eventually, the Russians stole the equivalent, as an Air Intelligence Agency estimate later had it, of “a stack of printed copier paper three times the height of the Washington Monument.” [Continue reading…]

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Government alleges former NSA contractor stole ‘astonishing quantity’ of classified data over 20 years

The Washington Post reports: Federal prosecutors in Baltimore on Thursday said they will charge a former National Security Agency contractor with violating the Espionage Act, alleging that he made off with “an astonishing quantity” of classified digital and other data over 20 years in what is thought to be the largest theft of classified government material ever.

In a 12-page memo, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein and two other prosecutors laid out a much more far-reaching case against Harold T. Martin III than was previously outlined. They say he took at least 50 terabytes of data and “six full banker’s boxes worth of documents,” with many lying open in his home office or kept on his car’s back seat and in the trunk. Other material was stored in a shed on his property.

One terabyte is the equivalent of 500 hours’ worth of movies.

Martin, who will appear at a detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Friday, also took personal information about government employees as well as dozens of computers, thumb drives and other digital storage devices, the government memo said.

The government has not alleged that Martin passed any material to a foreign government, but contends that if he is released on bail he could do so. [Continue reading…]

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Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for U.S. intelligence

Reuters reports: Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The company complied with a classified U.S. government demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events.

Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to an intelligence agency’s request by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.

It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified.

Reuters was unable to determine what data Yahoo may have handed over, if any, and if intelligence officials had approached other email providers besides Yahoo with this kind of request.

According to two of the former employees, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to obey the directive roiled some senior executives and led to the June 2015 departure of Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, who now holds the top security job at Facebook Inc. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: Big technology companies, including Google, Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. denied scanning incoming user emails on behalf of the U.S. government, following a report that Yahoo Inc. had built such a system. [Continue reading…]

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Snowden as Superman: The man behind the myth

 

Ken Silverstein used to write for The Intercept and has had a long career as an investigative journalist — he’s not an apologist for the security state. He started CounterPunch, but like anyone with a sincere interest in what’s true, has no political loyalties. He writes: Let’s pretend for a moment that the official story as told by Snowden and his admirers — with Glenn Greenwald, who’s been chasing a movie deal of his own for ages that depends on Snowden being the perfect hero, being his No. 1 cheerleader — is 100 percent true. Snowden was a loyal, patriotic American when he worked for the CIA and the NSA through private contractors but was outraged by what he discovered and felt compelled to expose U.S. government abuses to the world.

OK, there are still a few questions:

First, a lot of what Snowden released was damaging to U.S. foreign policy and NATO — and that’s in principle fine by me — but why didn’t he steal and reveal anything embarrassing to Russia and China, for example? There’s no way he didn’t have access to damaging information about those countries — both who have plenty of dirty secrets as well — so why, if he was just out to save the world, didn’t he think to expose that as well?

It’s reminiscent of Julian Assange of Wikileaks, which gave Snowden huge support, and raises questions about him as well. Whatever his relationship to Russia, Putin must be thrilled with his recent activities. And Assange and Wikileaks get all sorts of leaked and hacked information, but they don’t seem especially eager to expose much damaging to Russia.

Second, Snowden has recently made a few comments critical of Russia, but I’m pretty sure he’s not going to make it a habit. Nor is he in any position to do so. Some believe Snowden was played by Russian intelligence — and that is certainly a plausible theory though one his fawning fans refuse to even entertain — but there is no question that at the moment he effectively answers to Vladimir Putin. “I don’t know if Snowden understood the rules when he got there, but I’m sure he understands them now,” one former CIA case officer told me. “It’s pretty simple. Whether he was told directly or not, Putin let him know the deal: ‘You can live here and help us out or we can send you home. Do you have any questions’.”

And for Russia, Snowden is the gift that just keeps on giving. As noted above, he’s a global celebrity and a regular of the digital speaking network. He’s beloved by the left and civil liberties advocates and every time he makes an appearance he scores points for Russia. He may not be a witting propaganda tool of the Kremlin but he may as well be. Putin clearly wants Snowden in Moscow, otherwise it would be a simple matter for him to put him on a private plane and send him off to Cuba or any other country that will take him. He’s keeping him there because it serves Putin’s interests, not because the former KGB officer is a champion of free speech and civil liberties.

By the way, Yahoo has reported that Snowden has made about $200,000 in speaking fees and apparently pocketed most of it, even though he has claimed he gives much of it to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, where he, Greenwald and Poitras are board members. [Continue reading…]

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As Russia reasserts itself, U.S. intelligence agencies focus anew on the Kremlin

The Washington Post reports: U.S. intelligence agencies are expanding spying operations against Russia on a greater scale than at any time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. officials said.

The mobilization involves clandestine CIA operatives, National Security Agency cyberespionage capabilities, satellite systems and other intelligence assets, officials said, describing a shift in resources across spy services that had previously diverted attention from Russia to focus on terrorist threats and U.S. war zones.

U.S. officials said the moves are part of an effort to rebuild U.S. intelligence capabilities that had continued to atrophy even as Russia sought to reassert itself as a global power. Over the past two years, officials said, the United States was caught flat-footed by Moscow’s aggression, including its annexation of Crimea, its intervention in the war in Syria and its suspected role in hacking operations against the United States and Europe.

U.S. spy agencies “are playing catch-up big time” with Russia, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. Terrorism remains the top concern for American intelligence services, the official said, but recent directives from the White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have moved Russia up the list of intelligence priorities for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse. [Continue reading…]

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It’s time to pardon Edward Snowden

Kenneth Roth and Salil Shetty write: Edward J. Snowden, the American who has probably left the biggest mark on public policy debates during the Obama years, is today an outlaw. Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed to journalists secret documents detailing the United States’ mass surveillance programs, faces potential espionage charges, even though the president has acknowledged the important public debate his revelations provoked.

Mr. Snowden’s whistle-blowing prompted reactions across the government. Courts found the government wrong to use Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify mass phone data collection. Congress replaced that law with the USA Freedom Act, improving transparency about government surveillance and limiting government power to collect certain records. The president appointed an independent review board, which produced important reform recommendations.

That’s just in the American government. Newspapers that published Mr. Snowden’s revelations won the Pulitzer Prize. The United Nations issued resolutions on protecting digital privacy and created a mandate to promote the right to privacy. Many technology companies, facing outrage at their apparent complicity in mass surveillance, began providing end-to-end encryption by default. Three years on, the news media still refer to Mr. Snowden and his revelations every day. His actions have brought about a dramatic increase in our awareness of the risks to our privacy in the digital age — and to the many rights that depend on privacy.

Yet President Obama and the candidates to succeed him have emphasized not Mr. Snowden’s public service but the importance of prosecuting him. Hillary Clinton has said Mr. Snowden shouldn’t be brought home “without facing the music.” Donald J. Trump has said, “I think he’s a total traitor and I would deal with him harshly.”

Eric H. Holder Jr. struck a more measured tone in May, upon leaving office as Mr. Obama’s attorney general. He recognized that while Mr. Snowden broke the law, “he actually performed a public service” by raising the national debate on surveillance practices. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections

The Washington Post reports: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said.

The aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates cyber-tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia’s ability to spread disinformation.

The effort to better understand Russia’s covert influence operations is being coordinated by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. “This is something of concern for the DNI,” said Charles Allen, a former longtime CIA officer who has been briefed on some of these issues. “It is being addressed.”

A Russian influence operation in the United States “is something we’re looking very closely at,” said one senior intelligence official who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Officials also are examining potential disruptions to the election process, and the FBI has alerted state and local officials to potential cyberthreats.

The official cautioned that the intelligence community is not saying it has “definitive proof” of such tampering, or any Russian plans to do so. “But even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern,” the official said. “It’s the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system.”

The Kremlin’s intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack U.S. democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union. [Continue reading…]

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