News you may have missed #876 (analysis edition)

Russian troops in UkraineBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Why did Obama not bomb Syria? In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya. Last August, after the sarin attack in Syrian capital Damascus, he was ready to launch an allied air strike to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.​ But with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was later postponed. Why did Obama relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? Award-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh argues that the answer lies in “a clash between those in the Obama administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous”.
►►What is the role of the FSB in the Ukrainian crisis? On April 4, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry sent a note to Moscow demanding to know why FSB Colonel General Sergei Beseda visited Kiev in February. The very next day Russian news agency InterFax cited a source in Russian intelligence confirming that visit. Beseda heads the FSB Fifth Service’s Operational Information Department, which is responsible for conducting intelligence activities focusing on the former Soviet republics. Agentura.ru intelligence analyst Andrei Soldatov says that the answer as to why Beseda was in Kiev could be key to understanding the role of Russia’s intelligence agencies in the current crisis and to the Kremlin’s entire strategy in Ukraine.
►►What would a US-Russia war look like? The chances that the US and Russia will clash militarily over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine are very, very slim. But, says The Week’s Peter Weber, if we learned anything from World War I, it’s that huge, bloody conflicts can start with tiny skirmishes, especially in Eastern Europe. So what would a US-Russia war look like? The US is much wealthier than Russia and spends a lot more on its military. That doesn’t mean a war would be easy for the US to win, though, or even guarantee a victory. As Napoleon and Hitler learned the hard way, Russia will sacrifice a lot to win its wars, especially on its home turf.

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Analysis: Time for Western spy agencies to refocus on Russia?

Pro-Russian celebrations in CrimeaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
During the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies relied on legions of Soviet specialists to make sense of the Kremlin’s policy maneuvers. The American Intelligence Community in particular was almost exclusively engaged in collecting information on the USSR. To the extent that American intelligence collectors were active in countries other than the USSR, it was primarily in order to monitor Soviet activity. The implosion of the Soviet Union brought about a relaxation of Western intelligence collection efforts against Russian targets, a process that was further fueled by the 9/11 attacks. The latter turned the attention of Western intelligence collectors on Islamist-inspired militancy in the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim regions. The legions of Western Sovietologists and Russia specialists saw their careers stagnate, as counterterrorism became the predominant buzzword in intelligence circles. But the recent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia is prompting a reexamination of intelligence collection priorities among Western spy agencies. A recent analysis piece by the Reuters news agency suggests that some Western intelligence planners view the events in Crimea as “demonstrating a dramatic need for renewed focus” on Russia. There is concern among intelligence specialists, says Reuters, that no signals chatter was detected in Russia in the weeks prior to the invasion of Crimea to indicate an imminent Russian takeover of Ukrainian territory. This alleged weakness is coupled by concerns among some foreign-policy planners that the West is potentially entering “a new era of [...] confrontation with Moscow”, argues Reuters. If this is true, then Western intelligence agencies will need to replenish their level of expertise on Russia, which, according to some intelligence insiders, “has diminished drastically” in the last decade. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #874

Hamid AboutalebiBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Intel involvement in flight MH370 sparks terrorism speculation. Malaysian authorities have revealed secret services from the UK, the US and China have been involved in the investigations into the disappearance of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, adding to speculation that the plane’s disappearance could be down to terrorism.
►►Iran picks former US Embassy hostage-taker as UN envoy. The Iranian government has applied for a US visa for Hamid Aboutalebi, Iran’s former ambassador to Belgium and Italy. Aboutalebi was a member of a group calling itself “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line”, a group of radical students controlled by Ayatollah Khomeini, who seized the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. A controversy over Aboutalebi’s appointment could prompt the Obama administration to take the unusual step of denying a visa to an official posted to the UN.
►►Analysis: Ukrainian Navy devastated by Russian move into Crimea. Ukraine’s maritime forces have been dealt a heavy blow by the Russian intervention in Crimea with 12 of its 17 major warships, nearly 40 support vessels, and much of its naval aviation assets now falling under Moscow’s control. Almost every Ukrainian naval base and ship on the peninsula has been seized by Russian forces or local pro-Moscow self-defense units. Over the past three weeks, the majority of the Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea have defected to the Russian military or resigned from military service.

Obama comments on Senate-CIA dispute, fails to mention Feinstein

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Yesterday in a radio interview I opined that I would not be surprised if the White House stepped in to mediate the ongoing dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Today, President Barack Obama broke his silence “with respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA”, as he said. But he refused to take sides —or did he? On Wednesday afternoon, the President responded to a question on the matter by a White House pool correspondent. The question related to the increasingly heated public spat between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The latter is tasked, along with its sister body in the House of Representatives, with exercising legislative oversight of the Intelligence Community. Many members of the Committee, which is currently investigating the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation against terrorism detainees, believe that, not only was the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods illegal, but that it also failed to generate useful intelligence. The CIA, however, denies this, and has been quite possessive of documents relating to the issue, which the Committee believes has a right to access. The Agency has now asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to look into whether Congressional staffers illegally removed classified documents from the CIA’s archives that were beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation. The Committee has in turn asked the Bureau to investigate whether the CIA illegally searched the computers used by staffers to carry out their research into CIA files.

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Comment: The significance of the spat between Congress and the CIA

John Brennan and Dianne FeinsteinBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had gone out of her way in recent days to avoid commenting on the ongoing quarrel between her Committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That ended yesterday, when she gave a press conference accusing the CIA of illegally spying on her Committee’s Congressional staffers. Her stunning announcement came shortly after her tense meeting with the Director of the CIA, a bad-tempered John Brennan. She told the media that at the meeting she requested from Brennan an apology and acknowledgement that the alleged CIA spying was “inappropriate”. By her own account, she failed to get either, so she decided to go public. In an interview I gave yesterday to Michigan’s WILS 1230 AM’s Capital City Recap, I argued that the quarrel between the two government bodies is not in itself important. What is important, I told radio host Mike Cohen, is that the dispute has entered the public arena. A routine ‘push and shove’ mêlée has turned into an all-out fistfight in full view of the media. One Republican Senator, Lindsay Graham, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the time had come for “the legislative branch [to] declare war on the CIA”. In response to the Committee’s accusations, the CIA has apparently instructed the Department of Justice to investigate the alleged removal by Congressional staffers of classified documents that were “protected by executive privilege [and were] beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation”.

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Rift between US Congress and CIA biggest in 40 years, say observers

CIA headquartersBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
The system of checks and balances that defines the relationship between America’s legislative branch and the Intelligence Community has been strained more than any other time in nearly 40 years, according to insiders. The rift is especially wide between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the United States Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, which was formed in the mid-1970s after the Watergate scandal. Led by Senator Frank Church (D-Id) the congressional investigations into unlawful domestic intelligence activities by American spy agencies shaped the current oversight arrangements between the Senate and the CIA. But the two bodies are now engaged in what Foreign Policy magazine calls “a rare public feud” over the Committee’s ongoing investigation into the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques. Foreign Policy cites interviews with “ten current and former congressional staff member and US government officials”, all of whom painted a “grim picture” of Senate-CIA relations. The Foreign Policy article quotes former Justice Department lawyer Dan Metcalfe, who opines that the current imbroglio “might well be the most acrimonious public moment between the CIA and a Senate committee [in] nearly 40 years”. Both sides accuse each other of violating longstanding agreements during the investigation into CIA’s use of torture in interrogations of terrorism detainees. Committee members have been claiming that the Agency’s interrogation methods have failed to produce useful information in pursuit of America’s national security. The CIA, on the other hand, accuses Committee staffers of illegally removing documents from an Agency facility, which the Committee was not supposed to see because they fell outside the scope of its inquiry. But some Senators on the Committee claim that the CIA did not want to hand over the documents precisely because they prove that no useful intelligence was extracted under torture. They also claim that the CIA effectively spied on Committee staffers by searching through their activity on computers used to access classified information. Read more of this post

Analysis: The war between Israel and international arms smugglers

Sinai PeninsulaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
The interception earlier this week of a civilian cargo vessel in the southern Red Sea by Israeli commandos has brought to light the ongoing war between weapons smugglers and the Israeli state. The vessel, named Klos-C, was seized by Israeli forces in international waters, over 1,000 miles away from Israel’s coast. Few observers were surprised by the location of the seizure, which took place in the waters between Eritrea and Sudan. Israeli security planners consider the East African country as a major link in the complex smuggling network that supplies goods and weapons to the Gaza Strip. Tel Aviv has long asserted that the smuggled weapons, which usually originate from Iran or Syria, are secretly carried from Port Sudan into Egypt before eventually ending up across the border into the Palestinian enclave that is controlled by militant group Hamas.

Regular readers of this blog will remember the October 2012 Israeli air attack on the outskirts of Sudanese capital Khartoum, which destroyed an alleged illicit weapons warehouse. In May of 2012, a missile attack in Port Sudan, which was also linked to Israel, killed Nasser Awadallah Ahmed Said, an eminent member of the Red Sea’s Ababda Bedouin tribe, whose members have a long history of smuggling weapons and goods to and from Sudan.

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Comment: Is Ukraine’s Military Splitting in Two?

H First PostBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Much has been made about the presence of Russian troops —including what appear to be special forces units— in southern Ukraine. But peace and stability in the region are not threatened only by the actions of foreign troops; they are also threatened by the attitude of the armed forces of Ukraine, whose stance is likely to determine the outcome of the current crisis. The government of Ukraine has called all military reservists in the country to mobilize in order to “ensure the security and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. But what guarantee is there that the Ukrainian armed forces will remain united while the country is splitting in two —or three, counting the Tatars? At least 20 percent of Ukraine’s citizens consider themselves ethnically Russian, and there is little reason to believe that the ranks of the Ukrainian military, which reflect the ethnic makeup of the country’s divided population, will prove immune to rapidly intensifying sectarian tensions. Already Russian news outlets report that “the majority” of Ukrainian armed forces personnel stationed in Crimea have “switched to the side of local authorities” of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The secessionist government’s Deputy Prime Minister, Rustam Temirgaliev, said on Sunday that the Ukrainian armed forces in the breakaway region “have all but surrendered” and that many “are expected to take military oath soon”, declaring their allegiance to the Crimean Republic. Presumably these are ethnic Russians who are abandoning the Ukrainian military and joining that of the secessionist movement in Crimea out of nationalist allegiance.

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News you may have missed #869 (Ukraine edition)

H First PostBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►US and UK warn Russia not to deploy troops in Ukraine. US National security adviser Susan E. Rice said Sunday that Russian troop intervention in Ukraine would be a “grave mistake”, arguing that a return to a Cold War posture would not reflect modern realities. Earlier on the same day, British foreign secretary William Hague cautioned Moscow “not to intervene” in Ukraine. “If there is an economic package” from Russia, said Hague, “it will be important that Russia doesn’t do anything to undermine that economic package and is working in cooperation and support of it”.
►►Analysts touting Ukraine’s East-West division are just plain wrong. “The image of two competing blocs is just dead wrong. Ukraine’s diversity is pretty much on par with that found in just about any country of the world. The real divide in Ukraine is not between East and West, but between the democratic forces on the one hand and the Party of Regions on the other. The latter is strongest in the southeast, mostly because its cadres (who are mostly former communists) have controlled the region’s information networks and economic resources since Soviet times and continue to do so to this day”.
►►The global implications of the Ukraine conflict. Thus far, the Kremlin hasn’t sought to encourage separatist sentiment in eastern and southern Ukraine. And it doesn’t appear that Vladimir Putin and his system of power is interested in the prospect of a civil war in his backyard. But it still has the potential to break out even if Moscow doesn’t want it. Those familiar with Ukraine’s history know that the militant nationalists in the west of the country have gone time and time again into battles they can’t win. Whatever the case, romanticizing revolution can only end in a “big bang”, the fallout from which would extend far beyond Ukraine.

Comment: Nuland’s leaked phone call is ‘populist intelligence’

Victoria NulandBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
My phone started ringing off the hook on Thursday evening, when a video appeared on YouTube containing a frank conversation between Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt. Nuland, Assistant Secretary at the United States Department of State, and Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, were discussing US diplomatic moves on the political standoff in Ukraine. In the conversation, which was clearly meant to be private, Nuland expresses frustration with efforts by the European Union, which she deems weak and inadequate. In a shocking display of candor, Nuland tells Pyatt that the US should “help glue this thing and [...] have the UN help glue it and, you know, f**k the EU”.

On Thursday night I spoke at the main news program of BBC television, where I agreed with most observers —some of the US government officials— that Russia was the obvious culprit behind the leaked conversation. The geopolitical interests of Washington and Brussels coincide almost completely when it comes to Ukraine, as both wish to detach the former Soviet republic from the Russian sphere of influence. So driving a wedge between the two allied sides is clearly to the benefit of Moscow. I added that the two American officials should have known better than to speak so frankly on the phone, given the constant monitoring of diplomatic communications by both adversary and friendly intelligence services, which is common knowledge in diplomatic circles. Read more of this post

Analysis: How al-Qaeda changed the Syrian Civil War

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
Until relatively recently, few observers believed that the government of Bashar al-Assad had a future in war-torn Syria. But the situation in the world’s most active battle zone has changed drastically in recent months, and now many suggest that the Assad forces are dominating the conflict. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Sarah Birke, a Middle East correspondent for The Economist, argues that it was the presence of al-Qaeda that changed the balance of power between the warring sides. She points the finger at the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda-linked group that made its appearance in Syria in April of last year. Since that time, ISIS has turned into “one of the most powerful forces on the ground”, with 7,000 well-armed fighters, many of whom are battle-hardened foreign Islamists. The origins of ISIS are in Iraq, where it was founded in 2003 as a Sunni armed paramilitary force, in response to the invasion by the United States. In 2004, the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and changed its name to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The United States government has pledged $10 million in return for information leading to the capture of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but with no success so far. In the spring of 2003, the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi announced the merger of AQI with the Al-Nusra Front, AQI’s branch in Syria. Since that time, the two unified groups have been commonly referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham —al-Sham being a reference to ‘greater Syria’, known also as ‘the Levant’. Birke reports that ISIS now dominates Syria’s northwest, having established outposts in a series of “strategic towns” in the region, which are referred to by its leaders as “mini emirates”. Through these outposts, ISIS fighters are able to monitor border traffic between Syria and Turkey, and effectively control most border passages. This has crippled the Free Syrian Army, which used to dominate the Syrian opposition with the help of generous donations of money and war material coming in from Turkey. Read more of this post

Documents offer rare day-to-day insight into al-Qaeda’s finances

Al-Qaeda propaganda videoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A remarkable set of documents found in western Africa offers a fascinating insight into the day-to-day running of al-Qaeda. The papers, obtained by the Associated Press (AP) earlier this year, reveal a highly bureaucratic organization that meticulously documents even the minutest expenses incurred by its members. The documents were produced and left behind by fighters belonging to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) when they took over the city of Timbuktu, situated on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in the West African nation of Mali. The AP had the documents, which include over 100 receipts written in Arabic, authenticated by experts, before posting them online, here. Analysts who spoke to the news agency said the papers show that al-Qaeda is the furthest thing from “a fly-by-night, fragmented terror organization” that conducts its financial affairs “on the back of envelopes”. Rather, they reveal a group that operates “like a multinational corporation”, with a “rigid bureaucracy” consisting of chief executives, directors’ boards, as well as clearly demarcated departments that include human resources and public relations. According to the AP, the AQIM documents found in Timbuktu include “corporate workshop schedules, salary spreadsheets, philanthropy budgets, job applications, public relations advice and letters from the equivalent of a human resources division”. Perhaps most impressively, while occupying Timbuktu, the AQIM militants appear to have gone out of their way to purchase, rather than expropriate, goods from local shopkeepers and merchants. Additionally, they went to great pains to record their cash flow, meticulously noting down purchases as small as a light bulb, a cake, or a bar of soap. The AP analysis suggests that the documents found in Timbuktu confirm what counterterrorism researchers have found in al-Qaeda’s other operational domains, in places such as Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #861 (Syria edition)

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Report from Syrian city controlled by al-Qaeda. Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria with approximately one million inhabitants, is now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most powerful al-Qaeda affiliate currently operating in Syria. Since ISIS came to power in May, its abuse of Raqqa’s citizens has been well documented. On the surface, this violence appears to be indiscriminate and irrational. Yet, it is also organized and tactical.
►►US weighing closer ties with hardline Islamists in Syria. As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria’s civil war. On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group’s seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week.
►►Turkey shipped tons of arms to Syria rebels. Turkey has shipped 47 tons of weapons to Syrian rebels since June despite repeated government denials, a local newspaper reported on Monday. The Hurriyet Daily News, citing UN and Turkish Statistics Institute records, said 29 tons of military equipment were sent to opposition fighters in September alone. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a vociferous opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has openly supported the rebels but has always denied arming them.

New generation of FBI counterintelligence agents enters the field

FBIBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, America’s foremost counterintelligence agency, is preparing to field its first generation of operatives who acquired the bulk of their professional experiences after 9/11. In an enlightening analysis published in Newsweek, veteran intelligence corresponded Jeff Stein says the FBI’s is now being staffed by a new breed of field agents. This new cohort, which is gradually replacing the older generation of counterterrorism and counterintelligence agents, is far more skilled in the geopolitics of Islam, something that distinguishes them from their older colleagues. Tim Murphy, who recently retired as Deputy Director at the Bureau, told Stein that now “everyone in [FBI] counterterrorism knows the difference [between Sunnis and Shiites]”, which was not the case for many years after 9/11. The new FBI agents, said Murphy, also know “know the difference between factions in al Qaeda [and] the political and religious differences” that feed political Islam. The retired official added that over half of the agents on duty now at the FBI entered the Bureau after 9/11. Their interest in counterterrorism and counterintelligence has been furthered by the FBI’s decision to open up a host of new career branches for agents with specializations in intelligence. The latter have now started to enter the Bureau with degrees in international relations, intelligence studies, or computer science, whereas some years ago backgrounds in law and accounting topped the lists of new recruits. But new counterintelligence and counterterrorism agents are far more into “the world of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, Chinese hackers and Russian spies”, says Stein. Read more of this post

European, American, Russian fighters join both sides of Syrian war

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Nearly three years into the Syrian Civil War, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposition forces are far more fragmented than the government side. Many of the rebel factions are now largely concerned with fighting each other for control of territory and other key assets, including oil installations and cross-border trade routes. Amidst the chaos, thousands of foreign fighters are flooding into the country, motivated by ideology or money. It is estimated that between 6,000 and 11,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria since the war, causing United States intelligence officials to speak of “a growing presence of foreigners” in the ranks of armed factions. At least 300 British citizens are estimated to have traveled to Syria with the intent of joining the Civil War, according to The Times of London. Most of them are young Islamist radicals who are intent on helping topple the administration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to the paper. Another British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, reported recently that four British citizens —all London residents— died recently in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, while fighting alongside government troops in support of President Assad. They were fighting against the al-Nusra Front, an opposition group with strong links to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Wednesday that “dozens of Americans” have entered or tried to enter Syria to join various rebel factions in their fight against the government. The paper cited unnamed “American intelligence officials” in alleging that the Americans are a “small subset” of a larger group of “roughly 600” Western-born Islamists who have entered Syria from Western Europe, North America and Australia since 2011. The ongoing conflict has also attracted hundreds of Russian fighters, according to reports. Foreign Policy magazine notes the “rising flow” of radical Islamists from the Russian Federation to Syria in recent months. Read more of this post

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