Shane Harris writes: The private email address for Hillary Clinton, which became the talk of Washington this week and created her first major speed bump on her road to the White House, has actually been freely available on the Internet for a year, thanks to a colorful Romanian hacker known as Guccifer.
On March 14, 2013, Guccifer — his real name is Marcel-Lehel Lazar — broke into the AOL account of Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist, former White House aide to Bill Clinton, and personal confidante of Hillary Clinton. Lazar crowed about his exploits to journalists, disclosing a set of memos Blumenthal had written to Clinton in 2012, as well as the personal email address and domain she’s now known to have used exclusively for her personal and official correspondence.
Few journalists noticed that at the time, and it caused no ruckus in Washington. But the fact that Clinton’s private email was now public means she was not just putting her own information at risk, but potentially those in the circle of people who knew her private address.
Her email account was the ultimate hacker’s lure. It’s a common technique to impersonate a trusted source via email, in order to persuade a recipient to download spyware hidden inside seemingly innocuous attachments. Indeed, Clinton’s own staff had been targeted with such highly targeted “spear phishing” emails as early as 2009, the year she took office. And according to U.S. authorities, Lazar, who’s now serving a seven-year prison sentence in Romania and is accused of hacking the accounts of other Washington notables like Colin Powell, did commandeer other people’s email accounts. Then he used them to send messages exposing the private correspondence of his other victims.
When her address was exposed, Clinton was running her private email account on equipment in her home in New York, which security experts say is an inherently weak setup that made her more vulnerable to hacking. [Continue reading…]
Foreign Policy reports: In a grim assessment of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday that the country’s armed opposition will not be able to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now or in the foreseeable future, despite the existence of a Pentagon program to train and equip 5,000 rebels per year.
“We do not see a situation in which the rebels are able to remove him from power,” Brett McGurk, one of the State Department’s point men in managing the ad hoc international coalition battling the Islamic State, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It will have to be a diplomatic process.”
In recent weeks, the situation for Syria’s beleaguered moderate opposition has gone from bad to worse, as they continue to lose ground in the crucial northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. The near-extinction of many moderate rebel groups has coincided with increasing gains by Salafist groups tied to al Qaeda or the Islamic State. For the remaining “moderates,” aligning with Washington poses a deadly risk, as U.S. airstrikes against al Qaeda-aligned militant groups in Syria fuel conspiracies that Washington tacitly supports Assad.
That’s a problem for the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which relies in part on recruiting and training moderate rebels to combat Islamic State militants before taking the fight to the Syrian government. [Continue reading…]
James Ross writes: So the CIA doesn’t consider “waterboarding” — mock execution by near drowning — to be torture, but the U.S. State Department does.
State Department reports from 2003 to 2007 concluded that Sri Lanka’s use of “near-drowning” of detainees was among “methods of torture.” Its reports on Tunisia from 1996 to 2004 classified “submersion of the head in water” as “torture.” In fact, the U.S. military has prosecuted variants of waterboarding for more than 100 years — going back to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the early 1900s.
If you want to know whether the U.S. government considers the “enhanced interrogation techniques” described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report summary on the CIA’s interrogation program to be torture, you could read President Barack Obama’s 2009 statement rejecting the use of waterboarding — or you could click on the State Department’s annual Country Reports on human rights conditions. It turns out that all those methods carried out by the CIA would be torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment if committed by other governments.
The grotesque and previously unreported “anal feeding” and “anal rehydration” discussed in the Senate report may not have been used elsewhere, but the State Department has reported on analogous sexual assault of prisoners as a form of torture. Its 2012 report on Syria described as custodial torture the “forcing of objects into the rectum.”
Stress positions and forced standing also can amount to torture. The State Department’s 2006 report on Jordan said that subjecting detainees to “forced standing in painful positions for prolonged periods” was torture. It also described as torture the Iranian practice of “suspension for long periods in contorted positions.”
The same holds true for sleep deprivation and blaring music. In State Department reports on Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, sleep deprivation was classified as torture. The 2002 report on Turkey lists “loud music” as a torture method. [Continue reading…]
Foreign Policy reports: The U.S. State Department plans to cut its entire $500,000 in annual funding next year to an organization dedicated to sneaking into abandoned Syrian military bases, prisons, and government facilities to collect documents and other evidence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its proxies to war crimes and other mass atrocities during the country’s brutal civil war, according to the recipient of the assistance and a senior U.S. official.
The move, which has not previously been reported, comes as the Obama administration is stepping up funding to collect evidence of war crimes in Iraq by the Islamic State, an extremist Islamist organization that has horrified the world with its mass killings, enslavement of women, and beheadings of ethnic minorities, foreign aid workers, and journalists, including two American reporters who were executed in recent months. The funding shift has raised concern among human rights advocates that the United States and its allies are reducing their commitment to holding the Syrian leader accountable for the majority of Syria’s atrocities because the interests of Washington and Damascus are converging over the fight against the Islamic State.
For the past two years, the U.S. State Department has channeled a total of $1 million in funds to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a group of international war crimes prosecutors that sends local researchers, lawyers, and law students into Syrian battle zones to collect and extract files and other evidence that can help map the Syrian command structure and identify the military orders authorizing illegal activities, including barrel bomb campaigns, the starvation of besieged towns, and a spate of mass murders that have pushed the conflict’s death toll past 190,000 since March 2011.
The materials are part of a growing storehouse of evidence being collected inside Syria and then transported outside the country for safekeeping in the event that a court is set up at some time in the future for war crimes trials for senior regime officials. The commission has served as a critical plank of an American strategy aimed at assembling enough evidence to hold some of Syria’s worst violators of human rights accountable for their crimes at some point in the future.
But in an abrupt reversal, Obama administration officials recently notified the commission that the State Department would be eliminating its $500,000-a-year contribution, according to the group. [Continue reading…]
Rudaw reports: US officials have been holding direct talks with leaders of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) about arming its fighters in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).
PYD spokesman Nawaf Xelil told the Arabic Asharq Al-Awsat daily that arms supplies for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the group’s military wing, were discussed at a meeting in Paris a week ago. He said that talks between the two sides continued in Duhok on Thursday.
“The subject of arming Syrian Kurds was discussed” the newspaper quoted Xelil as saying.
He added that at the Duhok meeting, a US delegation and PYD leaders had discussed Western and Arab support for the YPG.
“They spoke about sending military support to the Kurds in Kobane,” Xelil told Asharq Al-Awsat. He said the PYD and the US had started their talks two years ago but that Washington had kept the issue under the radar “in order not to upset Turkey.”
US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed Thursday that US officials had met with the PYD, but did not say where or what was discussed. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his country would not agree to any U.S. arms transfers to Kurdish fighters battling Islamic militants in Syria.
Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as an extension of the PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group.
The state-run Anadolu news agency on Sunday quoted Erdogan as saying the fighters are “equal to the PKK” and that Turkey “would not say ‘yes’ to such a thing.”
Asharq Al-Awsat reports: Representatives from the main Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been in contact with US officials “for more than two years,” an official spokesperson told Asharq Al-Awsat, adding that the talks had been kept secret by Washington to “avoid angering Turkey,” where the PKK is currently banned.
Despite the fact the PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the US and EU, Nawaf Khalil, the spokesperson for the PKK affiliate, the Kurdish–Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), said this coordination had also included face-to-face meetings, some of which had involved former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford.
The most recent of such meetings, he said, took place on October 12 in Paris between PYD leader Salih Muslim Muhammad and US State Department Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein to “discuss implementing military coordination between the People’s Protection Units [YPG, the armed wing of the PYD] and the joint Arab–international coalition against terrorism,” as well as supplying Kurdish fighters engaged in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Syrian border town of Kobani with weapons.
McClatchy reports: The Obama administration acknowledged Thursday that a U.S. official for the first time met with a representative of a Syrian Kurdish political party that’s closely linked to a group on the U.S. terrorist list.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said a U.S. diplomat met with a counterpart from the main Kurdish political party in Syria – the Democratic Union Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym as the PYD – to discuss the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State. The PYD’s militia is engaged in fierce battles with the Islamist extremists, especially near the town of Kobani along the border with Turkey.
The direct talks are a sign of the shifting alliances created by the rise of the Islamic State. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. is providing air cover for Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias that once targeted American forces. And now in Syria, it appears the United States is willing to work with a group that’s tied to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a guerrilla war for Kurdish rights in Turkey for 30 years and which has been on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations for nearly two decades. Turkey and the European Union also have blacklisted the PKK.
Psaki provided no details of the meeting beyond saying that it took place over the past weekend and outside of the Middle East. Kurdish and other media reports say Charles Rivkin, the undersecretary of state for economic affairs, and PYD leader Salih Muslim met in Paris.
The new face-to-face U.S. channel to the PYD is likely to rankle Turkey, which on Monday bombed PKK locations in Turkey and has battled Kurdish civilians near Kobani protesting the international response to the Islamic State assault on the town. [Continue reading…]
Yahoo News reports: The State Department has obtained 27,000 photographs showing the emaciated, bruised and burned bodies of Syrian torture victims — gruesome images that a top official told Yahoo News constitute “smoking gun” evidence that can be used to bring war-crimes charges against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The photos are “horrific — some of them put you in visceral pain,” said Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, in an interview. “This is some of the strongest evidence we’ve seen in the area of proof of the commission of mass atrocities.”
The photos — a small number of which will be put on public display for the first time on Wednesday at the U.S. Holocaust Museum — were smuggled out of Syria by an official regime photographer who has since defected and is known only by his code name, Caesar.
They were shown at a closed-door session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July where Caesar, wearing a hood, testified. They are now being analyzed at Rapp’s request by the FBI in part as an effort to determine whether any U.S. citizens may have been among the victims — a finding that could be the basis to bring criminal charges in the U.S. against officials of the Assad regime. [Continue reading…]
First the U.S. does almost nothing to impede the ISIS advance on Kobane. Countless opportunities to strike militants while they are exposed in open territory are passed up for no obvious reason.
Then, as soon as ISIS enters the city, the U.S. ramps up airstrikes, slowing ISIS while damaging the city’s infrastructure.
Then officials from the Pentagon and the State Department fan out across the media suggesting it doesn’t really matter that much whether ISIS takes control of the Kurdish city.
CNN: The key Syrian border city of Kobani will soon fall to ISIS, but that’s not a major U.S. concern, several senior U.S. administration officials said.
If Kobani falls, ISIS would control a complete swath of land between its self-declared capital of Raqqa, Syria, and Turkey — a stretch of more than 100 kilometers (62 miles).
The U.S. officials said the primary goals are not to save Syrian cities and towns, but to go after ISIS’ senior leadership, oil refineries and other infrastructure that would curb the terror group’s ability to operate — particularly in Iraq.
Reuters: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested on Wednesday that preventing the fall of the Syrian town of Kobani to Islamic State fighters was not a strategic U.S. objective and said the idea of a buffer zone should be thoroughly studied.
“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani … you have to step back and understand the strategic objective,” Kerry told reporters at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
“Notwithstanding the crisis in Kobani, the original targets of our efforts have been the command and control centers, the infrastructure,” he said. “We are trying to deprive the (Islamic State) of the overall ability to wage this, not just in Kobani but throughout Syria and into Iraq.”
Foreign Policy reports: Every day, the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) advance closer to Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border. As the Islamic State rains down mortars on the town, the vastly outgunned People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia, are attempting to resist the weeks-long assault. While Turkish troops watch from across the border and the U.S.-led air campaign continues, none of the powerful forces in the region have intervened decisively — leaving the YPG to face the jihadist advance on its own.
The United States has rejected formal relations with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the party that is essentially the political wing of the YPG. The PYD, which has ruled Kobani and other Kurdish enclaves inside Syria since President Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew in July 2012, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that has fought Turkey since 1984 — and has consequently been listed as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. But interviews with American and Kurdish diplomats show that Washington opened indirect talks with the PYD years ago, even as it tried to empower the group’s Kurdish rivals and reconcile them with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Though Washington has declined PYD requests for formal talks, the United States opened indirect talks with the group in 2012, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told Foreign Policy. “We did meet someone who was an intermediary between the U.S. and the PYD. We met him on several occasions: myself once, and other diplomats on other occasions,” Ford said. The talks happened “maybe once every six months” and were mediated by a “Syrian citizen in Europe,” according to Ford.
The talks have continued since Ford’s departure and are conducted through the U.S. Embassy in Paris, two Kurdish sources familiar with the meetings told Foreign Policy. “They’re just briefing each other [on developments in Syria]. We’re not sure if the contact is going further, to the top of the administration in the U.S.,” one of the Kurdish sources said. Both Ford and the Kurds declined to identify the intermediary.
Concerns about a possible backlash from Ankara shaped Washington’s approach to the talks. [Continue reading…]
The Hill reports: The Obama administration informed Syria’s government it intended to hit Islamic State in Iraq and Syria positions before launching airstrikes on Monday, but did not provide advance warning on a military level, a State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday.
State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the adminsitration also warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft and that the U.S. did not request Syria’s permission for the strike.
Syria’s government was informed that the U.S. strikes were coming by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who spoke to Syria’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
Psaki said the U.S. did not “coordinate our actions with the Syrian government” and Secretary of State John Kerry “did not send a letter to the Syrian regime.”
Earlier this month, Kerry raised eyebrows when, in an interview with CBS News, he equivocated when asked if the U.S. would coordinate the airstrikes with Assad.
“No, we’re not going to coordinate with Syria,” Kerry said. “We will certainly want to deconflict to make certain that they’re not about to do something that they might regret even more seriously. But we’re not going to coordinate.”
Foreign Policy: Two airstrikes in the past week on Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli, Libya, are raising questions about who was behind the attacks and whether the United States knew about or condoned them. On Saturday, Aug. 23, Agence France-Presse reported that Islamist militants in Libya pointed the finger at Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Egyptian military quickly denied any involvement. On Monday, the New York Times reported that American officials confirmed that the Egyptians and Emiratis had launched the strikes, but said they’d caught the United States by surprise.
That claim seemed incredible, though, in light of the presence in the region of the U.S. military, which would have certainly detected a series of airstrikes. “With as many Aegis-class ships as the U.S. Navy has in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, there is no possible way the UAE could pull this off without the U.S. knowing it,” said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. Harmer said that he had no information about U.S. involvement, “but the U.S. government knows who bombed what,” he said.
Egypt and the UAE are highly motivated to strike out at Islamist fighters, whose gains in Libya are only the latest reminder that a new wave of religiously aligned political groups and militias threaten secular regimes and monarchies across the region.
“Libya is a serious situation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar told Foreign Policy earlier this month. Morocco has organized a political dialogue among various factions in Libya in an effort to bring the country together. Mezouar has also worked closely with Egypt on the issue, specifically discussing concerns about terrorism in his July visit to Cairo.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki provided no additional information on the strikes during a press briefing on Monday. She reiterated the Obama administration’s policy that “Libya’s challenges are political, and violence will not resolve them.” She added: “Our focus is on the political process there. We believe outside interference exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.”
When asked whether Washington would be “disappointed” if Egypt and the UAE had conducted the airstrikes, Psaki replied, “I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole.” [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press today reports: Egypt and the United Arab Emirates secretly carried out airstrikes against Islamist militias inside Libya, U.S. officials said Tuesday, decrying the intervention as an escalation of the North African country’s already debilitating turmoil. They said the United States had no prior notification of the attacks.
One official said the two countries and Saudi Arabia have been supporting for months a renegade general’s campaign against Libyan militant groups, but that the Saudis don’t appear to have played a role in recent strikes. Another official said Washington knew about Egyptian and U.A.E. plans for a possible operation and warned them against going through with the effort.
The Wall Street Journal reports: White House and State Department officials who were leading U.S. efforts to rein in Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip were caught off guard last month when they learned that the Israeli military had been quietly securing supplies of ammunition from the Pentagon without their approval.
Since then the Obama administration has tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel. But Israeli and U.S. officials say that the adroit bureaucratic maneuvering made it plain how little influence the White House and State Department have with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —and that both sides know it.
The munitions surprise and previously unreported U.S. response added to a string of slights and arguments that have bubbled behind the scenes during the Gaza conflict, according to events related by senior American, Palestinian and Israeli officials involved.
In addition, current and former American officials say, U.S.-Israel ties have been hurt by leaks that they believe were meant to undercut the administration’s standing by mischaracterizing its position and delay a cease-fire. The battles have driven U.S.-Israeli relations to the lowest point since President Barack Obama took office.
Now, as Egyptian officials shuttle between representatives of Israel and Hamas seeking a long-term deal to end the fighting, U.S. officials are bystanders instead of in their historic role as mediators. The White House finds itself largely on the outside looking in.
U.S. officials said Mr. Obama had a particularly combative phone call on Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu, who they say has pushed the administration aside but wants it to provide Israel with security assurances in exchange for signing onto a long-term deal.
As a 72-hour pause in the fighting expired at midnight Wednesday, a senior Hamas official said negotiators agreed to another cease-fire, this one of five days. The cease-fire was holding on Thursday.
The frayed relations raise questions about whether Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu can effectively work together. Relations between them have long been strained over other issues, including Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran and U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians.
Today, many administration officials say the Gaza conflict—the third between Israel and Hamas in under six years—has persuaded them that Mr. Netanyahu and his national security team are both reckless and untrustworthy.
The watershed moment came in the early morning in Gaza July 30. An Israeli shell struck a United Nations school in Jabaliya that sheltered about 3,000 people. Later that day, it was reported in the U.S. that the 120-mm and 40-mm rounds had been released to the Israeli military.
“We were blindsided,” one U.S. diplomat said.
White House and State Department officials had already become increasingly disturbed by what they saw as heavy-handed battlefield tactics that they believed risked a humanitarian catastrophe capable of harming regional stability and Israel’s interests.
They were especially concerned that Israel was using artillery, instead of more precision-guided munitions, in densely populated areas. The realization that munitions transfers had been made without their knowledge came as a shock.
“There was no intent to blindside anyone. The process for this transfer was followed precisely along the lines that it should have,” another U.S. defense official said.
Then the officials learned that, in addition to asking for tank shells and other munitions, Israel had submitted a request through military-to-military channels for a large number of Hellfire missiles, according to Israeli and American officials.
The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, or DSCA, was about to release an initial batch of the Hellfires, according to Israeli and congressional officials. It was immediately put on hold by the Pentagon, and top officials at the White House instructed the DSCA, the U.S. military’s European Command and other agencies to consult with policy makers at the White House and the State Department before approving any additional requests.
A senior Obama administration official said the weapons transfers shouldn’t have been a routine “check-the-box approval” process, given the context. The official said the decision to scrutinize future transfers at the highest levels amounted to “the United States saying ‘The buck stops here. Wait a second…It’s not OK anymore.’ “
The Daily Beast reports: The regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is holding 150,000 civilians in custody, all of whom are at risk of being tortured or killed by the state, the Syrian defector known as “Caesar” told Congress on Thursday.
According to a senior State Department official, his department initially asked to keep this hearing—in which Caesar displayed new photos from his trove of 55,000 images showing the torture, starvation, and death of over 11,000 civilians—closed to the public, out of concerns for the safety of the defector and his family. Caesar smuggled the pictures out of Syria when he fled last year in fear for his life. Caesar’s trip had been in the works for months.
There was no audio or video recording allowed at the hearing; the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that decision was made in consideration of Caesar’s safety. He sat at the witness table disguised in a baseball cap and sunglasses, with a blue hoodie over his head. “We recommended to Congress a format for today’s briefing that would have allowed press access while addressing any security concerns,” said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman. A committee staffer alleged State had tried to prevent the hearing from happening at all.
The packed committee room sat in silent horror as new examples of Assad’s atrocities were splashed on the large television screens on the wall and displayed on large posterboards littered throughout the hearing room. Caesar spoke softly to his translator, Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian American Task Force, a Washington-based organization that works with both the Syrian opposition and the U.S. State Department.
“I am not a politician and I don’t like politics,” Caesar said through his translator. “I have come to you honorable Congress to give you a message from the people of Syria… What is going on in Syria is a genocidal massacre that is being led by the worst of all the terrorists, Bashar al Assad.” [Continue reading…]
SPIEGEL has learned from reliable sources that Israeli intelligence eavesdropped on US Secretary of State John Kerry during Middle East peace negotiations. In addition to the Israelis, at least one other intelligence service also listened in as Kerry mediated last year between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states, several intelligence service sources told SPIEGEL. Revelations of the eavesdropping could further damage already tense relations between the US government and Israel.
During the peak stage of peace talks last year, Kerry spoke regularly with high-ranking negotiating partners in the Middle East. At the time, some of these calls were not made on encrypted equipment, but instead on normal telephones, with the conversations transmitted by satellite. Intelligence agencies intercepted some of those calls. The government in Jerusalem then used the information obtained in international negotiations aiming to reach a diplomatic solution in the Middle East.
Big “no” from State Dept on lifting the FAA ban against flights in/out of Tel Aviv pic.twitter.com/VPhHvfHkPn
— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) July 22, 2014
The Washington Post reports: The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday afternoon ordered U.S. carriers to stop flying to or from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, prohibiting them from traveling through Israel’s largest airport after a rocket landed nearby.
Airlines were banned from flying to Tel Aviv for a 24-hour period beginning on Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. The FAA said it will issue additional guidance by the end of that period.
This prohibition came after a rocket landed about a mile away from the airport, the FAA said.
“The FAA immediately notified U.S. carriers when the agency learned of the rocket strike and informed them that the agency was finalizing [the notice],” the agency said in a statement. “The FAA will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation.” [Continue reading…]
— Mark Berman (@themarkberman) July 22, 2014