ISIS spreading in Europe, U.S. intelligence chief warns

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State is operating clandestine terrorist cells in Britain, Germany and Italy, similar to the groups that carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels, the top-ranking American intelligence official said on Monday.

When asked if the Islamic State was engaging in secret activities in those nations, the official, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said: “Yes, they do. That is a concern, obviously, of ours and our European allies.” He then added, “We continue to see evidence of plotting on the part of ISIL in the countries you named.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.

Mr. Clapper, speaking to reporters at a breakfast meeting organized by The Christian Science Monitor, became one of the most senior Western officials to publicly acknowledge the Islamic State’s extensive reach into Europe, which has set off growing fears among American and European spy services and policy makers. The Islamic State has vowed to conduct attacks in those three European countries. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigating Moscow’s divide and rule strategy in Europe

The Telegraph reports: American intelligence agencies are to conduct a major investigation into how the Kremlin is infiltrating political parties in Europe, it can be revealed.

James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, has been instructed by the US Congress to conduct a major review into Russian clandestine funding of European parties over the last decade.

The review reflects mounting concerns in Washington over Moscow’s determination to exploit European disunity in order to undermine Nato, block US missile defence programmes and revoke the punitive economic sanctions regime imposed after the annexation of Crimea.

The US move came as senior British government officials told The Telegraph of growing fears that “a new cold war” was now unfolding in Europe, with Russian meddling taking on a breadth, range and depth far greater than previously thought.

“It really is a new Cold War out there,” the source said, “Right across the EU we are seeing alarming evidence of Russian efforts to unpick the fabric of European unity on a whole range of vital strategic issues.”

A dossier of “Russian influence activity” seen by The Sunday Telegraph identified Russian influence operations running in France, the Netherlands, Hungary as well as Austria and the Czech Republic, which has been identified by Russian agents as an entry-point into the Schengen free movement zone.

The US intelligence review will examine whether Russian security services are funding parties and charities with the intent of “undermining political cohesion”, fostering agitation against the Nato missile defence programme and undermining attempts to find alternatives to Russian energy.

Officials declined to say which parties could come into the probe but it is thought likely to include far-right groups including Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Northern League in Italy and France’s Front National which received a 9m euro (£6.9m) loan from a Russian bank in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Obama refers to Khorasan threat for the first time

ABC News reports: Today is the first time President Obama has uttered the word “Khorasan” in public.

Indeed, we can find no example of any White House official ever mentioning this al Qaeda cell by name in public. The group has never even been mentioned in any of the White House background briefings on the terrorist threat emanating from Syria (and there have been several such briefings).

It’s quite extraordinary to see military action against a group the White House has never talked about.

There is one official outside the White House who did talk about Khorasan, briefly, last week. James Clapper had this to say Thursday at an intelligence conference in Washington: “In terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”

Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, may have revealed more than the administration wanted to reveal. The White House was trying to keep this quiet to avoid tipping the group off that it might be targeted.

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Visiting the ODNI: A day of speaking truth to power

Quinn Norton: “It’s called ‘the crackpot realism of the present’” someone said to me, and handed me a note. I folded up the note, and stuffed it in my purse. This was a phrase used to explain, much more clearly than I was doing at the time, the bias of thinking that now is right, forgetting that the future will look back on our ideas with the same curious and horrified amusement we watch the human past with. It’s believing, without any good reason, that right now makes sense.

The present I was in right then didn’t make a lot of sense.

I was sitting in a cleared facility near Tyson’s Corner in Virginia, the beating heart of the industrial-military-intelligence-policing complex, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. I was there to help the government. Of the places I did not expect to ever go, at least not of my free will, the ODNI would be up there.

A few weeks ago, a friend from the Institute for the Future [IFTF] asked me if I would fly to DC for a one day workshop on the future of identity with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “What?” I sputtered, “Did they google me?” and then, mentally: Duh. The ODNI can do a lot more than google me.

I knew IFTF had intel clients, with whom I have occasionally chatted at events in the past. My policy when confronted with spooks asking questions about how the world works is to give them as much information as I can — one of my biggest problems with how security services work is their lack of wisdom. If I can reach people in positions of power and persuade them to critically examine that power, I consider that a win. I also consider it a long shot.

An invite from the ODNI is a strange thing. I’ve been publicly critical of them, sometimes viciously so. A few days earlier I tweeted that their director should be publicly tried for lying to Congress. I’ve written about the toxicity of the NSA spying (under ODNI direction), the corrupt fictions of Anonymous staged by the FBI (FBI/NSB is within ODNI’s area) and spoken out countless times in the last eight years against warrantless spying. I have even less love for the FBI and DOJ.

I turned the offer over in my head. I was influenced by a few things –yes it was paid, but not well paid. It was what I normally get from IFTF for a day of my time, and given the travel commitment, a bit low. I weighed the official imprimatur of involvement, and that was a factor. I am afraid of being pursued and harassed by my government. This has never happened to me in relation to my work, though I have been turned down for housing by people who feared I might bring police attention. It has to my friends, sources and associates. I know what it feels like, what they do when you’re a target, because I have been subject to terrorizing tactics and harassment because of whom I chose to love. I have publicly acknowledged that I self-censor because of this fear. I have a child to raise, and you can’t do that while you fight for your life and freedom in court. Raising my profile with the government as an expert probably makes me harder to harass.

I told my IFTF contact I don’t sign NDAs (which he already knew) and that I’d have to be public about my attendance and write about it. He told me they were publicly publishing their work for the ODNI too. “Huh,” I said to my screen. The organizers were on board with all of it. They wanted me in particular.

Finally, I thought about the hell I would get from the internet — like government harassment, internet harassment is part of the difficult and hated process of self-censorship for me.

In the end, I said yes, because you only get so far talking to your friends. [Continue reading…]

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National security journalists say it’s only getting harder to report on intelligence agencies

Cora Currier writes: This spring, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued new policies requiring that all public writings and remarks — even by former employees — be checked beforehand for sensitive information, and circumscribing how employees can talk about classified material that’s already out in the public sphere.

Long-time intelligence reporters say it’s too soon to say whether the directives — in effect since April, and first reported earlier this month — are specifically causing sources to clam up. But the policies contribute to a climate where government sources are increasingly twitchy about talking with reporters, even on unclassified matters. In March, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) expressly forbid unauthorized contact with the media for all current employees of the 17 government spy agencies it oversees.

“Clearly this is part of the post-Snowden scramble to try to control the message and control information,” said Mark Mazzetti, a New York Times national security reporter and author of a recent book on the CIA. It’s been almost a year since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden began leaking documents on government surveillance, Mazzetti said, “and they’re still wrestling with this.”

Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog, argues that the ODNI’s new policies are a step up in government control, in that they extend beyond only regulating classified information to include “sensitive” matters. The ODNI says that the new directives just reflect a consolidation of existing practices, and they’re not as inflexible as they may seem on paper. “It is understood that there are times that former employees may receive calls for comment from the media, and there simply is not time to follow the pre-publication review process,” the ODNI wrote in a statement after the policies came to light.

“You rely on people who get out of government to give a more candid assessment of what’s going on inside it,” said Mazzetti. “We’ll have to see how it’s enforced and whether people listen to it. There will be people who will bristle at this attempt to control what they can say.”

At least so far, Jeff Stein, who covers intelligence matters for Newsweek, said that “during meetings with intelligence sources last week the order was having no apparent effect whatsoever.”

But Mazzetti noted that already, “leak investigations and revelations about surveillance capabilities are making people think twice about having any type of communication with reporters. These directives can’t help.” [Continue reading…]

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The slippery slope of secrecy

A New York Times editorial says: “If you want to keep a secret,” George Orwell advised in “1984,” “you must also hide it from yourself.” So the latest stricture seems to demand from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the federal uber-agency of all things secret. The office, which oversees 16 government intelligence agencies, issued a new policy in April that will seriously constrain the existing practice by which officials comment informally to the press and public when obvious issues are stirred by leaked information and unauthorized disclosures.

We consider this process an unavoidable but decidedly healthy way of life in Washington. But the updated policy sternly requires that an informed official who’s been regulating his own give-and-take in this important area now submit for advance approval an outline of the topics expected to arise in “unstructured or free-form discussions.” Otherwise, the policy memo states with a certain alarm, an official’s utterances could be construed as a validation of leaked information and “cause further harm to national security.”

The new prepublication review policy provides that the office’s current and former employees and contractors may not cite news reports based on leaks in their speeches, opinion articles, books, term papers or other unofficial writing, according to a report by Charlie Savage of The Times. Semaphore seems to have been overlooked as a medium, but we get the point.

The reassuring fact is that all manner of officials, from the president on down, occasionally speak authoritatively about an issue that might be informed by some bit of leaked information. It’s the mother’s milk of capital conversation. But don’t tell that to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., whose passion for keeping secrets at any cost — even his own reputation for honesty — has become legendary. It was Mr. Clapper who was asked at a Senate hearing last year whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”

“No, sir,” responded Mr. Clapper, adding, “Not wittingly.” Soon came the disclosures — leaks by the torrent — about the N.S.A.’s vast data-mining program.

The new crackdown policy caused enough confusion and derision that the national security office subsequently denied there was anything new about it; just a reminder of past policy. But anyone could see this wasn’t so — once the new policy memo was leaked, of course.

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The U.S. Intelligence Community doesn’t understand the world in which we live

Josh Kerbel writes: In 2012, the once-mighty Eastman-Kodak company declared bankruptcy. It was an event that should have reverberated strongly with the United States Intelligence Community (IC) — and not just due to the obvious connection between imaging and spying. Rather, it should have resonated because in Kodak the IC could have glimpsed a reflection of itself: an organization so captivated by its past that it was too slow in changing along with its environment.

To understand the IC’s similar captivation and lethargy — to remain focused on classified collection in an era of increasingly ubiquitous, useful and unclassified data — one must first understand the type of problem around which the modern IC business model remains designed: the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was fundamentally a collection problem. That is to say, it was a closed system (i.e., a discrete entity) with clear edges and a hierarchical governance structure. Given that nature, knowing what was happening in the Soviet Union required the use of classified means of collection — most of which the IC alone possessed.

Today, however, the IC no longer has the luxury of watching a single discrete entity that demands classified collection in order to obtain relevant data. There is a much more expansive range of interconnected and complex challenges. These challenges — economic contagion, viral political and social instability, resource competition, migration, climate change, transnational organized crime, pandemics, proliferation, cyber security, terrorism, etc. — are interdependent phenomena, not discrete ”things.” As such, they are less collection issues than cognitive ones. To put it differently: relevant data about all these issues is widely available—the real challenge is to make sense of it.

This, of course, is a very different world for the IC, one in which it has little experience. Consequently, the IC — unfortunately, but not surprisingly — does what it knows; it grafts its own legacy experience and expertise — classified collection — onto the new challenges that loom. Accordingly, terrorism (a broad phenomenon that needs to be thought about contextually) becomes — mistakenly — about terrorists (distinct things that need to be targeted for collection). Indeed, the whole slew of complex issues mentioned above get artificially and erroneously reduced to discrete chunks. Not only is this dangerously simplistic, it effectively puts the IC on a divergent path from the increasingly complex world it is tasked to understand. [Continue reading…]

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ODNI issues misleading statement on policy changes

Steve Aftergood writes: “Recent media reports have misconstrued ODNI’s policy for pre-publication of information to be publicly released,” according to a May 9 statement that was issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The ODNI policy had been described in articles published in Secrecy News (ODNI Requires Pre-Publication Review of All Public Information, May 8) and in the New York Times (Intelligence Policy Bans Citation of Leaked Material by Charlie Savage, May 8).

ODNI said that the new pre-publication review policy was basically a consolidation of two previous policies (ODNI Instruction 80.14/2007-6, July 25, 2007, and ODNI Instruction 80.04, August 5, 2009) and that it represented nothing very new.

“The revised policy is not significantly different from the two previous policies,” the new ODNI statement asserted.

But that assertion is hard to understand, since the text of the revised policy appears significantly different from its predecessors in several respects.

First and foremost, the previous policies focused on protection of classified information, while the revised policy casts a much broader net. [Continue reading…]

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The increasing isolation of the American national security state

Jack Shafer writes: The nation’s top spy has prohibited all of his spies from talking with reporters about “intelligence-related information” unless officially authorized to speak. Intelligence Community Directive 119, signed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last month and made public Monday in a report by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, threatens to reduce the flow of information from the national security establishment to the press — and hence the public.

As Aftergood notes, Directive 119 does not merely bar intelligence community employees from sharing classified intelligence information with reporters. It also bars the discussion with the media of unclassified intelligence information “related” to intelligence. Under Directive 119, any and all conversations between spooks and reporters not explicitly authorized by top officials will be criminalized at the worst or potentially put intelligence employees out of a job at the least. The same discussion of unclassified matters between an intelligence community employee and a non-reporter would be allowed, Aftergood further notes.

Directive 119 increases the insularity of the national security state, making the public less safe, not more. Until this directive was issued, intelligence community employees could provide subtext and context for the stories produced by the national security press without breaking the law. Starting now, every news story about the national security establishment that rates disfavor with the national security establishment — no matter how innocuous — will rate a full-bore investigation of sources by authorities. [Continue reading…]

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James Clapper: Director of National Fear

o13-iconMichael Cohen writes: James Clapper is very worried. It’s not the first time.

Last week the man who serves as America’s Director of National Intelligence trudged up to Capitol Hill to tell the assembled members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (pdf) that the annual worldwide threat assessment, put together by the intelligence community, has filled him with dread. He told the room:

Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence, I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.

That is some scary stuff.

However, if you think you’ve heard this before from Clapper … well you have.

Last year he appeared before Congress for a similar purpose and, lo and behold, he was very, very concerned then too (pdf):

I will say that my almost 50 years in intelligence, I do not recall a period in which we confront a more diverse array of threats, crises and challenges around the world. This year’s threat assessment illustrates how dramatically the world and our threat environment are changing.

And here he was in 2012 testifying (pdf) on that year’s threat assessment report, “Never has there been, in my almost 49-year career in intelligence, a more complex and interdependent array of challenges than that we face today.”

Of course, one must consider the possibility that over the past five decades the world has never been as dangerous, complex and challenging as it’s been over the past three years (putting aside for a moment that whole “threat of nuclear holocaust” that defined much of the 60s, 70s and 80s.) If, however, you’re skeptical about this, well you have good reason because Clapper’s alarmist tone is hardly matched by the threats he cites. [Continue reading…]

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NSA scrambles to defend itself

Having intelligence community leaders like Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as front-line defenders for the NSA turned out to be an ineffective strategy when both were exposed as liars. So, the NSA must now communicate indirectly, relying on journalists who are willing to function as mouthpieces for the agency.

Following the latest revelations about eavesdropping on the private communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders, the Associated Press’s intelligence writer, Kimberly Dozier, offers explanations on how and why the NSA spies on U.S. allies. It’s unlikely that the answers she offers are a summation of her own deep knowledge of the way the NSA works. Much more likely, this is simply the summation of an NSA background briefing. Read this as a paraphrase of the NSA speaking for itself.

First off comes this claim: that “intercepting foreign diplomats’ or leaders’ communications, like the alleged eavesdropping on Merkel, as well as on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and former Mexican President Felipe Calderon” is spying that the NSA “is authorized to do”. The intended takeaway from that statement is: we didn’t break U.S. law. The question which this statement fudges, however, is whether the NSA was directed to carry out such surveillance.

Then we come to the basic question:

Q: Why bug the phone of an ally?

A: Even a close ally like Merkel doesn’t share everything with the Americans, but decisions she makes can have a major impact on U.S. foreign, defense and economic policy overseas. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic party just won an election, and she is in the process of wooing other German political parties to form a coalition government. The party she chooses could pull her political policies in a different direction, in terms of counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., for instance, or perhaps the new coalition might chill Merkel’s support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Say what?! The NSA needs to bug Merkel’s phone so that the U.S. can receive advance notice of the political makeup of the coalition she is forming? It can’t simply rely on conventional diplomatic and political channels of communication? That’s ridiculous — unless it’s meant to imply that the U.S. wants to covertly exercise some influence on the outcome of that political process.

I don’t actually believe that’s the implication because I don’t think anyone in Washington or at the NSA is crazy enough to imagine that the U.S. could successfully interfere in the domestic politics of its allies in this way.

There is a much simpler answer to this question and it’s offered by a career American official with long experience in Europe who spoke to the New York Times. Why bug the phone of an ally? Because you can.

The report notes: “Administration officials say the National Security Agency, in its push to build a global data-gathering network that can reach into any country, has rarely weighed the long-term political costs of some of its operations.”

By all appearances, the NSA is now in cry-baby mode and instead of acknowledging that it is suffering the effects of self-inflicted wounds, it wants to cast itself as victim. The Washington Post provides emotional support:

U.S. officials are alerting some foreign intelligence services that documents detailing their secret cooperation with the United States have been obtained by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, according to government officials.

Snowden, U.S. officials said, took tens of thousands of documents, some of which contain sensitive material about collection programs against adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China. Some refer to operations that in some cases involve countries not publicly allied with the United States.

The process of informing officials in capital after capital about the risk of disclosure is delicate. In some cases, one part of the cooperating government may know about the collaboration while others — such as the foreign ministry — may not, the officials said. The documents, if disclosed, could compromise operations, officials said.

The notifications come as the Obama administration is scrambling to placate allies after allegations that the NSA has spied on foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The reports have forced the administration to downplay operations targeting friends while also attempting to preserve other programs that depend on provisional partners. In either case, trust in the United States may be compromised.

“It is certainly a concern, just as much as the U.S. collection [against European allies] being put in the news, if not more, because not only does it mean we have the potential of losing collection, but also of harming relationships,” a congressional aide said.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is handling the job of informing the other intelligence services, the officials said. ODNI declined to comment.

In one case, for instance, the files contain information about a program run from a NATO country against Russia that provides valuable intelligence for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation. Snowden faces theft and espionage charges.

The narrative thrust here is that while the NSA is dealing with damage control, the cause of the damage was not the agency’s operations; it was Snowden’s revelations.

Instead of facing reality, the intelligence community would apparently now rather engage in a farcical exercise: present itself as victim of what it regards as the mischievous actions as a single man. The problem with this narrative (apart from the fact that it clearly misrepresents Edward Snowden’s actions) is that it actually underlines the inherent weakness of the bloated post 9/11 intelligence edifice: that is, that its weakness derives in large part from its sheer size.

As much as the actions of the NSA should be viewed in geopolitical terms, they should also be seen as the result of the beguiling power of technology. That is to say, when something is presented as being technically feasible — such as recording all the metadata associated with global communications — then that possibility becomes so alluring, that more fundamental questions get shunted to one side.

An obsession with accumulating more and more information turns into a maniacal desire. The expansion of the intelligence gathering process becomes a self-justifying, blindly funded enterprise which loses sight of basic questions about the value of the data, the means through which it can be productively analyzed, and the social and political implications of sanctioning perpetually expanding mass surveillance along with highly ill-advised targeted surveillance.

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The Post covers spy town

At the Atlantic, the independent investigative reporter, Tim Shorrock, slams the Washington Post‘s Top Secret America series:

Priest and Arkin offer an incredibly simplistic explanation for how the contracting bandwagon took off under President Bush, who they say manipulated “the federal budget process” to make it easier for agencies to hire contractors. Is that why Blackwater suddenly appeared on the scene in Afghanistan days after 9/11, signed up by counterterrorism official named Cofer Black who later joined the company? Is that how CACI International, a favorite of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, got the interrogation work at Abu Ghraib prison through an “IT” contract outsourced to the Interior Department? The Post also completely ignored the huge growth of contracting during the Clinton administration, which “reinvented” government by downsizing and outsourcing the federal workforce — including spies and surveillance teams in places like Bosnia. Many of the companies that are big wheels today got some of their first contracts during the late 1990s.

Worse, there is virtually nothing in the series about the deeper political questions raised by privatization, including the obvious issue of the revolving door. Unbelievably, Priest and Arkin don’t even mention that President Bush’s DNI, Mike McConnell, and President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, were both prominent contractors before taking their jobs. Why is that relevant? Well, McConnell came directly from Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the IC’s top contractors and an adviser to the NSA (and he’s back at Booz now). Brennan was an executive at The Analysis Corporation, which built a key terrorist database for the National Counterterrorism Center (which Brennan used to run).

There was not even a hint that Lt. Gen. James Clapper (ret.), who appeared before the Senate for his DNI confirmation hearing on the second day of the series, once had close ties to major contractors. Clapper once directed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which has extensive contracts with a satellite firm contracted by the government. Nor was there mention of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the largest association for NSA and CIA contractors, for which McConnell, Brennan, and Clapper have all served as chairman. That’s not part of the story? Could Clapper’s experience have influenced his strong defense of contractors during his testimony? Or would mentioning such ties hurt the Post’s access to the ODNI and the White House?

Despite Arkin’s much-vaunted reputation in collecting data, not even the charts are very good. The Post’s enormous database of contractors will be a useful tool for researchers and journalists, and certainly reveals the incredible scope of the industry (nothing new there though). But it does little to inform the public about what private corporations such as Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and Northrop Grumman actually do for the CIA and the dozens of intelligence units within the Pentagon. That’s partly because — as the authors admit in a note to readers — they removed certain “data points” at the suggestion of intelligence officials.

Therefore, you can look up a company like Booz Allen and see which agencies it holds contracts with and what kind of counter-terrorism, intelligence, or homeland security work it does; but you can’t learn what special tasks it carries out for specific agencies. Now some may applaud the Post for the omission, but I just see a failure to disclose.

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