Category Archives: Intelligence

Legal files vanishing, more delayed justice in Guantanamo

A soldier in a guard tower at Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

A soldier in a guard tower at Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

Guantanamo has been struck by another controversy this week after files belonging to defense attorneys for two high-profile terror suspects began to disappear from their computers.

Last month, it came out that smoke detectors installed in some of the rooms where suspects met with their attorneys were detecting more than smoke. Now, according to a Reuters report, it seems someone has been snooping around the defense’s computers.

Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, who represents 9/11 defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, said “three to four weeks’ worth of work is gone, vanished.”

But some new files of suspicious origin also mysteriously appeared.

He said what appeared to be a computer folder of prosecution files had turned up on the defense lawyers’ system, though none of them had opened the files.

The odd computer behavior led a judge to push week-long terror hearings scheduled this month back into June. The judge also ordered attorneys on both sides to stop using their government-issued computers.

It wasn’t clear based on the Reuters report if there is an investigation into the matter. The string of suspicious-at-best developments in Guantanamo trials is unsettling, to say the least. It seems odd that someone – presumably within the U.S. government and with access to the facilities – would be jeopardizing the integrity of such a vital trial.

If the defendants are in fact guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, those meddling with the process in their cases are only serving to damage the integrity of any outcome. If anything, all of the controversies around the case are only increasing the chances a guilty man walks free, not to mention turning public opinion against the trials.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Loss of drone program a momentum shift for the CIA

The Daily Beast reports that the CIA’s drone operations are being shifted to military control. That doesn’t so much mean the CIA is losing the ability to launch strikes with the remotely piloted aircraft, but that they will have to liase with the Pentagon to do so.

The move is reportedly part of a larger shift in the administration to reign in and centralize the nation’s ability to launch targeted strikes across the globe.

The policy shift is part of a larger White House initiative known internally as “institutionalization,” an effort to set clear standards and procedures for lethal operations. More than a year in the works, the interagency process has been driven and led by John Brennan, who until he became CIA director earlier this month was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. Brennan, who has presided over the administration’s drone program from almost day one of Obama’s presidency, has grown uncomfortable with the ad hoc and sometimes shifting rules that have governed it.

 Cutting back on the CIA’s lethal operations is a shift in an agency culture that has, in the years since 9/11, seemed to be increasingly paramilitary in nature. Ironically, the newly-appointed director of the CIA, John Brennan, was historically the mastermind of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy – a policy that relied heavily on drones.

After the approval process for Brennan’s job as CIA director was rife with Congressional complaints about the lacking transparency of the administration’s use of drones, the executive branch seems to have received the message. With all American drone use coming out of the Pentagon, which falls under military and international law, the process for each strike will be uniform, if not more transparent.

The CIA, for its part, seems to be headed back into the shadows, serving as more of an ear and less of a fist for the American national security apparatus.

Moreover, Brennan has publicly stated that he would like to see the CIA move away from the kinds of paramilitary operations it began after the September 11 attacks, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

Tagged , , , , , ,

U.S. Army researching hacker drones

The U.S. Army is soliciting input from the private sector for a new class of attack drone – one that does its damage with an antennae instead of Hellfire missiles.

The Army’s Request for Information, posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, says they’re hoping to learn “what systems, capabilities and techniques currently exist, or could be modified, to provide UAS-based EW capabilities to include potential surgical/targeted EW techniques (with emphasis on successful completion of an Airborne Electronic Attack mission).”

It’s unclear from the RFI what types of targets such an aircraft would be used against, but here are two likely guesses.

First, as Iran rolls out its own, domestically-operated version of the internet, outsiders will likely find it more and more difficult to penetrate that country’s networks. After Stuxnet made Iran aware of their vulnerability to more standard forms of electronic attack (i.e. USB thumb drives), the U.S. may be working on a more creative method of hacking their networks. Such an attack would, no doubt, be chock-full of irony, as Iran has previously claimed they were able to bring down an American Sentinel drone by taking over its controls.

The more recent headlines about electronic warfare have had nothing to do with Iran, though. After the New York Times exposed a widespread hacking campaign based in China which included major network infiltrations within both American media and infrastructure-related companies, the U.S. might be beefing up its electronic warfare suite for a showdown with the Chinese.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Less cloak, more dagger for the CIA

The seal on the floor of CIA headquarters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The seal on the floor of CIA headquarters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The average CIA case officer at the height of the Cold War traveled alone, opting for inconspicuous movement around their area of operations over the ability to engage in combat. But now, as many CIA operations take place in combat zones – or at least areas where it isn’t a red flag to see a man with an assault rifle on a street corner – case officers are constantly surrounded by an “envelope” of security, provided by a small community of former U.S. Special Operations personell, according to a story in The Washington Post.

The CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS), the force officially charged with CIA security around the globe, is made up of 250 or more former U.S. Navy SEALs, Delta operators and even former SWAT team members from U.S. police departments. It’s made up of a mix of contractors and CIA staff.

At least half are contractors, who often earn $140,000 or more a year and typically serve 90- or 120-day assignments abroad. Full-time GRS staff officers — those who are permanent CIA employees — earn slightly less but collect benefits and are typically put in supervisory roles.

The high pay of a contractor is countered by the minimal benefits. One GRS contractor, Glen Doherty, was killed in the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks and received no benefits because he hadn’t set up a life insurance policy and didn’t have CIA benefits.

When Doherty died, he left debts that included loans on two houses in California, [his sister Kathleen] Quigley said. He had no life insurance. CIA officials told Doherty’s family that they had recommended companies willing to underwrite such policies, but that agency coverage was not available for contractors.

Quigley did not criticize the agency, but added: “It’s so sad for a guy like that to go out and have nothing to show for it, except, frankly, a lot of debt.”

The Post report comes amid growing concerns about the CIA’s drone program and the intelligence agency’s increasing role as a paramilitary force. The drone program, made up of between 30 and 35 armed drones, may expand by as many as 10 drones if the Obama administration approves an October request by then-CIA Director David Petraeus.

The cost of devoting increasing amounts of the CIA’s finite resources to lethality – a GRS contractor might make about $140,000 a year, which puts the total cost of the force into the tens of millions, and the drone program likely costs much more – is that those funds cannot be used for the CIA’s stated purpose: intelligence gathering.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Air Force has an intelligence problem: Too much of it

As the canopy of unmanned drones over the Middle East and elsewhere grows larger and more complex, the military faces an interesting problem. Before, if they sent a plane over enemy airspace to take pictures, there was a pilot in it. He was connected to that data, and knew what he saw. But when we’ve got hundreds of cameras in the sky without a corresponding human, we run into the problem. We have the data, but we can’t process it fast enough. Check this out, from The Economist:

During 2009, American drone aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan sent back around 24 years’ worth of video footage. New models being deployed this year will produce ten times as many data streams as their predecessors, and those in 2011 will produce 30 times as many.

The military can’t keep up, so they’re looking elsewhere for solutions. Their most recent stop: NASCAR. That’s right, AOL Defense says the guys who record thousands of people in multiple countries with flying unmanned vehicles are asking the guys who record people driving in circles for help.

Sports television has pioneered many of the techniques for marking and finding data in a video. For each NASCAR race they deploy a team of six or more data taggers, whose job is to watch the event and –with the help of directors — spot what’s interesting and immediately assign it a data tag. That lets directors quickly search through the video, pull the exciting crash, for example, pull it and do an instant replay or build a highlights video.

Real-time data tagging is a key way to get it done, but the Air Force doesn’t have six people for every one drone in the sky, and that’s what it would take. The technique could be integrated with others to provide a solution to getting through all this data. Other tips might come from Gordon Bell, the Microsoft researcher who is conducting an experiment on himself. Using the best technology available, Bell is recording every aspect of his life in real time.

Think about every moment of your day. Every text message, every tweet, email, phone conversation, real conversation, meeting, credit card transaction, everything. All of those are tangible data points that make up your life, and Bell is collecting his. Wired did a short profile on the project in 2009.

This trove includes Web sites he’s visited (221,173), photos taken (56,282), emails sent and received (156,041), docs written and read (18,883), phone conversations had (2,000), photos snapped by the SenseCam hanging around his neck (66,000), songs listened to (7,139), and videos taken by him (2,164). To collect all this information, he uses a staggering assortment of hardware: desktop scanner, digicam, heart rate monitor, voice recorder, GPS logger, pedometer, smartphone, e-reader.

Well according to The Guardian, Bell has the same data problem the Air Force does.

Dr Bell has now stored so much of his life on computer that he is in danger of forgetting how to remember. “I look at it as a surrogate memory,” he says. If he wants to recall something, he switches on and picks his way through days and months of information until he finds what he is after. It was all dreamt up at Microsoft’s Bay Area Research Centre in San Francisco, where Dr Bell works.

With video data, which isn’t easily searchable and is time-consuming to manually review, the problem is even worse.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Iran building its own, isolated Internet

Iran is in the process of creating its own version of the Internet, the latest in a string of moves that have rubbed the leaders of the free world the wrong way.

The state-sponsored intranet already has multiple government and academic-based websites as well as email service, The Washington Post reports.

The nation of 74.8 million made a big splash online in the summer of 2009 when outraged citizens took to twitter to organize protests against what was widely thought to be a rigged election. The movement was something of a prelude to the Arab Spring in 2011, when protestors across the Middle East used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Skype and other social media to organize.

The message was clear: The internet is bad for oppressive regimes. Iran’s measures up to now – blocking select sites that might give citizens revolutionary ideas and throttling the net to the point where much of the modern web is useless – became useless in 2009 when Iranians nearly toppled the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 140 characters at a time.

Instead of trying to keep tabs on and properly control the real internet, Iran seems to have decided to build their own. They control it, and no pesky free-speech organizations will be invited. Naturally, the Obama administration is up in arms about the country’s new project (but hey – at least it’s not nuclear powered).

“We have concerns from not only a human rights perspective, but about the integrity of the Internet,” David Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said in an interview. “When countries section off parts of the Web, not only do their citizens suffer, everyone does.”

The other problem is that Iranians will no longer be noobs. As they develop and implement an entire net – presumably home to millions of devices – they’ll gain vital knowledge of how networks work, which they can later weaponize.

By “laying down the fiber” and connecting thousands of servers inside Iran, the government would “build on their knowledge of networks and how they operate,” [former NSA Deputy Director Cedric Leighton] said, increasing their capabilities to both launch and repel cyberattacks.

“But no matter what you do, there will always be vulnerabilities in a network,” Leighton said.

The network, as of now, only has about 10,000 devices online according to the Washington Post. Will it be less secure than existing networks, making it a goldmine for the folks at the NSA? Will it work? Time will tell – Iranian officials say some key governmental and military functions will be shifted to the network by the end of the month.

Tagged , , , , , ,

NY Times: Kim Jong-Il’s death shows intelligence failure

Western intelligence agencies have failed to secure any consistent flow of information from North Korea, the New York Times said today. It took 48 hours for outside nations to get word of Kim Jong-Il’s death. Their source? North Korean state media.

For South Korean and American intelligence services to have failed to pick up any clues to this momentous development — panicked phone calls between government officials, say, or soldiers massing around Mr. Kim’s train — attests to the secretive nature of North Korea, a country not only at odds with most of the world but also sealed off from it in a way that defies spies or satellites.

North Korea, arguably the greatest threat to national security in Asia, is an enigma to even the highest levels of U.S. intelligence. Sattelite imagery is easy to beat: put up a roof. Without assets inside the county and inside the highest levels of government, there can be no advanced knowledge of anything unfolding in North Korea, where a new leader is still largely unknown to outside nations.

“We have clear plans about what to do if North Korea attacks, but not if the North Korean regime unravels,” said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser in the Bush administration. “Every time you do these scenarios, one of the first objectives is trying to find out what’s going on inside North Korea.”

In many countries, that would involve intercepting phone calls between government officials or peering down from spy satellites. And indeed, American spy planes and satellites scan the country. Highly sensitive antennas along the border between South and North Korea pick up electronic signals. South Korean intelligence officials interview thousands of North Koreans who defect to the South each year.

And yet remarkably little is known about the inner workings of the North Korean government. Pyongyang, officials said, keeps sensitive information limited to a small circle of officials, who do not talk.

AP: A secret CIA prison in Romania, hidden in plain sight

One of the CIA’s most important secrets in the war on terrorism was hiding in plain sight, on a leafy residential street along a busy set of train tracks in Romania‘s capital. There, tucked in the basement of a government building, the CIA ran a clandestine prison, former U.S. intelligence officials said.

For years, the building — codenamed Bright Light — housed some of the CIA’s most important terror suspects, including Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the mastermind of the Sept. 11,2001 attacks against the U.S. Even after the detainees were shipped off to Guantanamo Bay in 2006 and reports about the prison began to surface, the Romanian government repeatedly denied any knowledge of its existence.

A joint investigation by The Associated Press and German public television, ARD Panorama, however, located the former prison and unearthed details of the facility where harsh interrogation tactics were carried out.

The Romanian prison was part of a network of so-called black sites that the CIA operated and controlled overseas in Thailand, Lithuania and Poland. All the prisons were closed by May 2006, and the CIA’s detention and interrogation program ended in 2009.

Bombshell AP investigation.

Tagged

Critics say U.S. spy tech aids oppressive regimes abroad

Keyboard

The multi-billion dollar electronic surveillance industry, which has grown roots in California and around the U.S., has certainly aided the war on terror, but is it aiding oppressive regimes such as the Chinese and Syrian governments? The Washington Post says signs point to yes. And government regulations aren’t keeping up.

After receiving from WikiLeaks sales brochures from companies that create both hardware and software to aid digital surveillance, the Post looked into the issue. The tools can scan network traffic via WiFi, cpy on users’ computers after being installed as a fradulent iTunes update, and more. 

Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur Jerry Lucas hosted his first trade show for makers of surveillance gear at the McLean Hilton in May 2002. Thirty-five people attended.

Nine years later, Lucas holds five events annually around the world, drawing hundreds of vendors and thousands of potential buyers for an industry that he estimates sells $5 billion of the latest tracking, monitoring and eavesdropping technology each year. Along the way, these events have earned an evocative nickname: the Wiretappers’ Ball.

These events, held in multiple countries all over the world (the U.S. included) are invite-only and provide an opportunity for governments, local law enforcement agencies, and intelligence agencies to meet with vendors.

Lucas says the technology does a great deal of good

This technology is absolutely vital for civilization,” said Lucas, president of TeleStrategies, which hosts the events, officially called Intelligent Support Systems World Conferences. “You can’t have a situation where bad guys can communicate and you bar interception.

Critics say the technology does a great deal of harm as well, allowing governments to abuse the technology’s far-reaching powers to meet goals of opressing free speech, censoring the internet, and crushing rebellion.

The WikiLeaks documents, which the group also provided to several European news organizations and one in India, do not reveal the names of buyers. But when Arab Spring revolutionaries took control of state security agencies in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, they found that Western surveillance technology had been used to monitor political activists.

There are official sanctions against oppressive countries which prevent trading of arms and other tools of oppression, but this fast-growing industry has not been closely tracked by lawmakers, allowing it to outgrow these regulations. Some legislaters are bringing this issue to attention, but it has largely failed to gain traction.

As a nation that publicly supports peaceful uprisings in the Middle East and decries China’s oppression of its people, the U.S. is in no position to be the origin of these regime’s tools.

Photo/Creative Commons/ Flickr user wickedboy_007

 

Tagged , , ,

Steve Coll on Afghanistan: ‘Let us hear from the spies’

Obama_petraeus

Steve Coll at the New Yorker wants America to dive into the nitty gritty in 2012. As the war in Afghanistan enters its second decade and Barack Obama’s spot in the White House is contested, Coll is asking for the facts.

The facts, in this case, come in the form of a National Intelligence Estimate on the war in Afghanistan that should be published soon, according to Coll. The Estimate, compiled by analysts in all 16 American intelligence agencies, is — to use a military term — a ‘no-bullshit assessment’ of the current situation in Afghanistan.

Typically, Coll says, these estimates are classified Secret or Top Secret, as they are compiled using a range of data, some of which is presumably classified. These Estimates, however, are compiled with a distinct lack of something else: political influence. Coll explains:

After the debacle of misreported intelligence during the infamous 2002 N.I.E. on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community made changes to try to ensure a drafting process of high integrity. Thomas Fingar, who oversaw some of the reforms, described the process in a 2008 speech. The protection of dissent was certainly one of the goals of the post-Iraq reforms. But they were not intended to create yet more ways for four-star generals to be weigh in on finished intelligence. The idea was to protect civil servants from a politicized process—to defend the proverbial analyst-dweeb (i.e., Chloe O’Brian on “24”) who might be poorly socialized but who happened to see what her slick bosses had overlooked.

In today’s Washington, ‘no-bullshit’ is a phrase than can often only be used literally. With partisan mud-slinging from both sides of the aisle and gridlock on some very basic issues, a government assessment free of partisan influence is probably about as common in Washington as an actual pile of bull feces, so the upcoming N.I.E. is a golden opportunity.

Not only does this Estimate give us the first comprehensive view of a war fought with the increased troop presence provided by Obama starting in 2009, but it will answer better than anything else the question: What has Barack Obama’s administration done in Afghanistan?

After the 2009 troop surge became one of the first major issues to divide the democratic government during the Obama administration, the importance of that question cannot be understated.

But the answer provided by the upcoming N.I.E. is one the public may not see. Since the Estimates seem to be classified by default, someone in Obama’s government would have to opt to go public with the information, either by way of WikiLeaks or the like, or officially, as Coll suggests:

Let us have the facts, as the intelligence community describes them. Obama should publish unclassified versions of the key judgments in the latest N.I.E. once it is complete. The Bush Administration did this twice at the height of public controversy over the Iraq war.

Based on the hints Coll was able to get about the latest Estimate, they don’t pain a pretty picture.

These days, an Estimate usually contains “Key Judgments” backed by analysis near the front of the document. There are six such judgments in the Afghanistan draft, I was told. I wasn’t able to learn what all of them were; according to the accounts I heard, however, the draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

A grim official analysis of his efforts in Afghanistan could seriously hurt president Obama’s reelection campaign, and that is motivation enough for his administration to keep it under raps. If they truly have America’s best interests in mind, and truly believe they’re doing the best that could be done for the country, then let’s hope an official (and not-too-severely-redacted) version of the assessment is released to the public before Americans head to the polls next year.

Photo: Then-Senator Barack Obama with then-General David Patreus in July 2008. The pair have climbed the ranks in Washington: Petraeus is now head of the CIA and Obama was elected President in 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell.

Tagged , ,