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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High-level US-Russia meeting to go ahead despite Snowden row

Edward SnowdenBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Senior United States officials will hold high-level talks with their Russian counterparts later this week, despite Moscow’s decision to grant asylum to an American intelligence defector. For many weeks, Washington pressured the Russian government to extradite Edward Snowden, a former computer expert for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). But Snowden, who had sought refuge at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, was granted temporary asylum by Russian authorities last week, prompting angry responses from the American side. According to reports, US President Barack Obama has been considering whether to cancel his attendance of a prearranged summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in September [20:00 GMT update: meeting has been cancelled] . But on Tuesday, the US Department of State confirmed an earlier report by news agency Reuters, which claimed that a series of meetings between American and Russian officials would still take place this week, despite the Snowden imbroglio. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told journalists that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry would meet, as planned, with their Russian counterparts, in Washington on Friday. The Russian delegation will be visiting the US capital to discuss “pressing bilateral and global issues”, including Iran and Syria, Psaki said. In response to a question by reporters, the State Department spokeswoman said that the two sides would discuss the Snowden case. Read more of this post

Israel to push U.S. for Pollard’s release as Obama visit nears

Jonathan PollardBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
As United States President Barack Obama is preparing to visit Israel this week, several public figures are joining the Israeli government in lobbying for the release of a convicted spy, who betrayed American secrets to Israel in the 1980s. The pressure campaign reportedly includes a symbolic hunger strike and a public petition in favor of clemency, which contains nearly 200,000 signatures. Jonathan Jay Pollard was a US Navy intelligence analyst who spied for Israel in exchange for money from 1984 until his arrest in 1986. Many in US counterintelligence consider him one of the most damaging double spies in American history. But he is widely viewed as a hero in Israel, where many conservative Israelis, as well as pro-Israel Americans, are actively pressuring the US administration of President Barack Obama to release him. In 1998, after many years of official denials, Israel publicly admitted that Pollard had operated as an Israeli agent in the United States. Pollard, who acquired Israeli citizenship in 1995, has so far served 28 years of a life sentence in a US prison. The New York Times reports that many Israelis see Obama’s visit to Israel on Wednesday —the first in his presidency— as “the perfect opportunity” to pressure the US President for clemency for Pollard. In addition to a high-profile hunger strike in Tel Aviv, several notable Israeli citizens have signed an extended petition urging Pollard’s release. They include Israeli President Shimon Peres, as well as several retired generals and Nobel Prize-winning academics. Notable American signatories include former Assistant Secretary for Defense Lawrence Korb, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency James Woolsey, as well as former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Read more of this post

Obama’s National Security Nominations: Nothing to See Here

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy I. ALLEN and J. FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The deluge of reports that are flooding the news media about the national security nominations of United States President Barack Obama is both natural and understandable. The Departments of State and Defense, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, are among the critical components of the American government, especially in matters of foreign policy. Yet much of the commentary on the nominations of John Kerry for State, Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon, and John Brennan for the CIA, is unduly over-dramatizing what is essentially a routine story. To begin with, it is clear that, in selecting Kerry, Hagel and Brennan for the nominations, the President’s priority was to surround himself with people he knows and trusts. Knowledgeable observers point out that all three nominees come from Obama’s most trusted circle of friends and —if appointed— will allow the President to stay well “within his comfort zone” as he begins his second term in office. In this sense, Obama selected the three candidates, not with some major policy shift in mind, but in order to ensure continuity and permanence in his foreign policy.

Take John Brennan, for instance: an Arabic-speaking career officer in the CIA, who has served the Agency in various positions for over 25 years. It is undeniable that, since 2008, Brennan has been instrumental in shaping the thinking behind the Obama administration’s targeted killings program using unmanned drones. According to some analysts, he has been the White House’s “most important adviser for shaping the campaign of drone strikes”. As intelNews explained recently, Washington’s unmanned drone program will continue and most likely expand, but this has little to do with Brennan. As an excellent analysis of Brennan’s nomination (by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko) points out, the CIA’s targeted killing program “has become institutionalized” with a momentum of its own, which ensures its sustainability, “making it far bigger than any one person —even John Brennan”.

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News you may have missed #809 (Obama-Iran edition)

Iran and its regionBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Will re-elected Obama take a new line on Iran? Barack Obama returns to office after an election campaign in which Iran’s nuclear program often dominated foreign-policy debates. Mitt Romney frequently accused him of taking too soft a line toward Tehran. Now, as Obama begins a second term, the question is how much he has been stung by such criticism. Will Obama retain confidence in his dual strategy of squeezing Iran with economic sanctions while also extending offers of rapprochement? Or will the fact that Iran keeps building centrifuges and enriching uranium despite Obama’s efforts persuade the White House it needs to try something new?
►►Obama’s victory vindicates his Iran policy. President Barack Obama’s re-election victory represents an important vindication of his approach to Iran and its potential nuclear ambitions —and, for the world, a new face of American policy in the Middle East that will relegate the aggressive policies of George W. Bush into the distant past. The election confirmed what polls have clearly shown, that while Americans are deeply concerned about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon, they also view addressing the problem through vigorous diplomatic engagement and sanctions as the most appropriate exercise of American power and leadership.
►►Iranians see reduced risk of war in Obama’s reelection. In Iran, there is a sense of relief these days, as concerns of a military attack by US and Israeli forces over Iran’s nuclear energy program if Mitt Romney were elected, had become widespread. While there continues to be no official response from Iran’s leadership about US election results, Iranian media is still heavily focused on covering American polls. Commenting on one of Iran’s most popular political Web sites, Asriran, one reader wrote, “At least we know we won’t be going to war during the next four years”. And Iran’s state-run English language television channel, Press TV, carried a live and uninterrupted broadcast of President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech.

News you may have missed #808 (Obama-Netanyahu edition)

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack ObamaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►The other concession speech: Netanyahu congratulates Obama. At least there was no pretending. In the language of diplomacy, the greeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended to Barack Obama on the occasion of his re-election was “correct” and nothing more. “Prime Minister Netanyahu congratulates US President Barack Obama on his election victory,” read the public statement issued early Wednesday in Jerusalem. The next word out of Balfour Street, where Netanyahu mulled the returns, was a warning to members of his Likud party to shut up about how they figure the premier might really feel. By then, the deputy speaker of the Knesset had already called Obama “naïve” and vowed Israel would not “surrender” to him.
►►Netanyahu rushes to repair damage with US President. Over the past several years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has on several occasions confronted or even undercut US President Barack Obama, taking his message directly to the Israel-friendly United States Congress, challenging Mr. Obama’s appeal to the Arab world, and seeming this fall to support his opponent, Mitt Romney. Mr. Netanyahu woke up Wednesday to find not only that his Republican friend had lost, but also that many Israelis were questioning whether he had risked their collective relationship with Washington.
►►Barack Obama victory spells trouble for Israel’s Netanyahu. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces an even more awkward time with Washington and re-energized critics at home who accused him on Wednesday of backing the loser in the US presidential election. With Iran topping his conservative agenda, Netanyahu will have to contend with a strengthened second-term Democratic president after four years of frosty dealings with Barack Obama and a rift over how to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

News you may have missed #748 (US edition)

Michael HaydenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►US lawmakers probe China companies over spy concerns. In letters sent last week to Chinese communications hardware firms Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation, a group of senior members of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee have outlined concerns about the companies’ ties with the Chinese government, including the role of a “party committee” at Huawei. The lawmakers have also asked about Huawei’s relationships with five US consulting firms and requested an expansive collection of documents, including the contracts between the firms and Huawei.
►►Lone Senator resists Bush/Obama NSA wiretapping plan. The Obama administration wanted a quick, no-questions-asked-or-answered renewal of broad electronic eavesdropping powers that largely legalized the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program. That’s despite President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to revisit and revise the rules to protect Americans’ rights. Everything seemed to be going to plan after a Senate committee approved the re-authorization in secret last month. But Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has stepped in to stop the bill because the government refuses to say how often the spy powers are being used.
►►What did Hayden tell Obama in January 2009? In December of 2008, a meeting took place between the incoming US Presiden Barack Obama and the departing CIA Director Michael Hayden. Several days later, on January 15, Hayden told journalists that Obama had privately assured him that “no plans to launch a legal inquiry” into the CIA’s use of controversial interrogation methods during the Bush administration. Now, several years later, Salon has published an insider’s account of what was said in that meeting between Obama and Hayden, as well as during the days that followed.

US rejects calls to free Navy analyst who spied for Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack ObamaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The White House has rejected persistent calls by Israeli politicians and lobbyists to free a United States Navy intelligence analyst serving a life sentence for giving classified US government documents to Israel. Jonathan Jay Pollard was convicted in 1987 for selling classified information to the Israeli government. Ronald Olive, a former counterintelligence officer for the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who led the US Navy’s prosecution of Jonathan Pollard, has described Pollard’s spying activity as “one of the most devastating cases of espionage in US history”, involving the theft of over “one million classified documents”. Recently it emerged that, before spying for Israel, Pollard had attempted to spy on the US for the government of Australia. However, in Israel, Pollard, who is now an Israeli subject after renouncing his American citizenship, is widely considered a national hero. Last week, senior Israeli political figures renewed persistent calls to the administration of US President Barack Obama to free Pollard. According to the Israelis’ reasoning, the life sentence imposed on Pollard is too harsh considering that he spied for a US ally. Last week’s calls were led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged the White House to free the convicted spy “in the spirit of the Jewish Passover. Netanyahu said that “the Festival of Freedom of all the Jews should be turned into Pollard’s private one”. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plea was echoed in a personal letter addressed to President Obama by Israeli President Shimon Peres, along with a petition signed by over 80 members of the Israeli Knesset. Read more of this post

Israel ‘has decided to attack Iran’, claims US intelligence source

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack ObamaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS| intelNews.org |
The consensus in the US intelligence community is that Israel has decided “on principle” to launch a military strike on Iran in order to halt its nuclear program, according to an American intelligence insider. The American source was quoted on Israel’s Channel 2 (Arutz 2) television on Monday as saying that most US intelligence analysts believe “the attack will go ahead”. The source also argued that the Israeli public remains unaware of the “catastrophic consequences” of such an attack, which, according to US intelligence analysts, will be met with thousands of missiles launched against Israel by Iran and several Arab states. The confrontation will most likely trigger a regional war and “possibly even World War III”, said the source, citing US intelligence reports on the subject. He also warned Israel that the decision to attack Iran would be “tantamount to suicide”. The Channel 2 report claimed that the American and Israeli governments are “deeply at odds” over the potential consequences of a military attack on Iran, but that Tel Aviv has already decided to authorize strikes. The latter will allegedly take place before summer, unless there is “a significant change in the Iranian nuclear program in the next few weeks”, said the report. However, sources close to the Office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the Channel 2 report as part of “scare tactics” employed by Washington. The sources dismissed the so-called “nightmare scenario” as a method employed by members in the administration of President Barack Obama, who “want to constrain Israel from contemplating an attack on Iran”. Meanwhile, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph effectively corroborates the Channel 2report, and adds that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu issued the US President with “an ultimatum” during their closed-door meeting in Washington on Monday. Read more of this post

Bush “did nothing” about Mossad using US passports to recruit terrorists

Jundallah ForcesBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Current and former American intelligence officials have accused Israeli spy operatives of posing as US citizens to recruit members of a Pakistani terrorist group in a covert war against Iran. In an explosive exposé, the respectable US-based journal Foreign Policy has revealed that officers of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency used forged US passports to pose as American personnel of the Central Intelligence Agency. They used their fake American identities to contact members of Pakistan-based terrorist group Jundallah, which is responsible for numerous brutal strikes against civilian targets in Iran. Jundallah (soldiers of God) is an extremist militant organization that claims to be fighting for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. Most of its members belong to the Baluch ethnic group, which is concentrated along the Iranian-Pakistani border. The Foreign Policy article cites interviews conducted over the past 18 months with six anonymous US government officials, including two serving intelligence officers and at least two others who “have monitored Israeli intelligence operations from senior positions inside the US government”. They told the journal that, in 2007, during the concluding years of the administration of President George W. Bush, the CIA discovered that the Mossad was using forged US passports and US currency to court and fund Jundallah operatives, in a series of secret meetings in London, England. One US government source told Foreign Policy that American officials “were stunned by the brazenness” of the Mossad, saying: “it’s amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with [...]. They apparently didn’t give a damn what we thought”. A retired CIA officer told the journal that Agency analysts drafted official memoranda that made their way “up the US intelligence chain of command”, eventually reaching the White House. The CIA officer added that President Bush “went absolutely ballistic” when briefed on the Mossad operation. Read more of this post

Biden stopped Obama from granting clemency to Israel spy

Joe Biden

Joe Biden

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The President of the United States considered clemency for an American Navy analyst who spied on the US for Israel, but was stopped by his Vice President, Joe Biden, according to a report in The New York Times. The report claims that Barack Obama gave in to concerted pressure from the Israeli government and members of the pro-Israel lobby in the US, and proposed that Jonathan Pollard, who was jailed for life in 1986 for handing over classified US government documents to Israeli spies, be released. But Joe Biden rejected Obama’s proposal, reportedly telling the President that “over my dead body are we going to let [Pollard] out before his time”. The information appears to have come from Joe Biden himself, who revealed it during a recent meeting with rabbis in Boca Raton, Florida. The Times reports that, “according to several people at the meeting”, Biden was asked by one of the rabbis why it was that Pollard remained in prison, despite a lengthy campaign in Israel to have him released, or transferred to an Israeli jail. Biden responded that Obama had proposed releasing Pollard, but his suggestion never reached the heads of America’s intelligence community, because it was blocked by Biden himself. The Vice President said he told Obama that, if it were up to him, Pollard “would stay in jail for life”. The Times article does not relay the reaction to Biden’s forceful answer at the meeting; but the paper states that Biden appears to be on a mission to improve Obama’s image with Jewish voters in the United States. Although Jewish Americans traditionally tend to vote for the Democratic Party, they are currently being aggressively courted by the Republicans, worrying some Democratic electoral strategists. By answering the way he did in response to the question about Pollard, Biden “took a punch meant for his boss”, argues the paper. Read more of this post

Analysis: Myths and Questions on bin Laden’s Assassination

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

By J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org |
The assassination of al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, has helped dispel several myths about him and the organization he founded in 1988 in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Among them is the idea that the Saudi-born militant was leading a primitive existence in some remote hillside in Waziristan, sheltered by mountainous tribes that were supposedly loyal to him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite his reputation as a hardened mujahedeen, bin Laden had chosen to spend his days in the unmatched comfort of a sprawling luxury compound located only an hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The compound is located in a relatively wealthy suburb of the city of Abbottabad, which is also home to the Kakul Military Academy, Pakistan’s elite army training school. More importantly, the descriptions of bin Laden’s luxurious hideout fly in the face of the predominant view of al-Qaeda as an organization that knows how to blend in with its surroundings. Not only did the compound stand out, but, according to one American official, it was “eight times larger than the other homes in the town”. It featured 3,000 feet of living space, to house bin Laden, his four wives, and several advisors and guards. It appears to have been custom-built to bin Laden’s specifications in 2005, which would explain the existence of numerous built-in security features, including at least two heavily fortified security gates, seven-foot-high perimeter walls, and even solid blast-proof enclosures on all balconies. Continue reading →

News you may have missed #504

  • Israel spy pleads to Obama for release. United States Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying for Israel, has pleaded for his release in a personal letter to President Barack Obama. The letter was apparently handed to Obama by Israeli President Shimon Peres when he visited the White House on April 5.
  • US-Pakistan spy feud boils over CIA drone strikes. The Pakistani government has voiced strong criticism of a fresh CIA drone attack, which has killed 26 people. But an anonymous US counterterrorism official, who spoke to the McClatchy news agency, said that “the Pakistanis should spend less time complaining to the press [about the drone strikes] and more time trying to root out terrorists within their country”.
  • Colombia to issue international warrant for ex-spy chief. Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office will issue an international arrest warrant for Maria Pilar Hurtado, former director of the country’s disgraced DAS intelligence agency, who was granted political asylum in Panama.

CIA active on the ground in Libya ‘for several weeks’

Libyan rebels

Libyan rebels

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Few intelligence observers have been surprised by revelations in The New York Times that several cells of Central Intelligence Agency officers have been active on the ground in Libya for the best part of March. The US newspaper published the disclosure after the Reuters news agency first broke the story early on Wednesday. According to Reuters, US President Barack Obama authorized a secret Presidential finding three weeks ago, in which he instructed the CIA to deploy teams of operatives in the North African country. In reality, as Reuters commented later on, US intelligence officers were active on the ground in Libya before President Obama’s authorization for covert action. But his authorization gave the green light for the intensification of CIA activities throughout Libya’s northern regions. The CIA operatives are not working alone; they are part of what The Times called “a shadow force of Westerners”, which include “dozens of British special forces” and officers of the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6 —the UK’s foremost external intelligence agency. Citing “American officials”, The Times speculates that Western intelligence agents are actively collecting tactical intelligence on the Libyan armed forces, thus helping guide aerial strikes by NATO jets. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #475 (Arab revolution edition)

  • Obama ‘disappointed’ with US intelligence on Tunisia. US President Barack Obama sent word to National Intelligence Director James Clapper that he was “disappointed with the intelligence community” over its failure to predict that the outbreak of demonstrations would lead to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis.
  • An Intelligence Failure in Egypt? The US intelligence community is like the offensive line of the government. They protect the quarterback all day long, and no one notices until they give up a sack. Which raises the question: was US President Barack Obama blindsided by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt?
  • Did US intelligence fail in North Africa? “One former official said US president Barack Obama recently urged the CIA to put as much effort into analysis of the situation in North Africa as into covert operations, including those targeting al-Qaida”.
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