Trump thought Erdoğan was “bluffing” about invading Syria, sources claim

Turkey SyriaSenior White House officials close to United States President Donald Trump believed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was bluffing when he threatened to invade northern Syria, according to sources. For over two years, most of northern Syria has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism as a bigger threat than the Islamic State.

Since 2016, Ankara repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist. It had refrained from doing so due to the presence of American troops in the area. However, according to news website Axios, key officials in the Trump White House were convinced that Turkish President Erdoğan would not have his troops invade northern Syria even if the American forces pulled out. In making this claim, the website cites six unnamed sources “with direct knowledge of the situation”, some of whom were allegedly “in the room with the two leaders and had access to their phone calls going back several years.

In one of these phone calls, which took place in 2017, President Erdoğan allegedly informed the US leader of his government’s intention to “move in to take care of the Kurdish threat” in northern Syria. But President Trump cautioned him about making such a daring move. He reminded the Turkish leader that, by invading northern Syria, Turkey would become responsible for the tens of thousands of Islamic State supporters and their families who are kept in detention camps. Ankara would also face mass international condemnation and possible sanctions from the United States and Europe. Moreover, the US-trained and -supplied Kurdish forces would arguably create a military quagmire for Turkish troops in the region. At that point Turkey “would own” the problem and would not be able to “come to [the US] for help”, according to Trump.

The Axios report claims that, until last week, the White House thought that “Erdoğan would never actually go through with his long-threatened Syria invasion”, because doing so would be detrimental to Turkish interests in the region. Based on that conviction, President Trump finally decided to call Erdoğan’s bluff by pulling American Special Forces troops out of northern Syria, in the belief that Tukey’s response would amount to nothing further than a few airstrikes and small-scale cross-border incursions. That belief was behind the White House’s surprise decision to suddenly pull its troops from northern Syria, according to Axios’ sources.

The report did not mention whether the US Intelligence Community’s reports to the White House concurred with the US President’s conviction that Turkey would not invade northern Syria even in the absence of US troops. The question is, in other words, did Trump made up his mind about Erdoğan’s intentions to invade northern Syria because, or despite the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community?

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2019 | Permalink

Israel planted surveillance devices targeting Trump, claims report

White HouseThe intelligence services of Israel planted surveillance devices around the White House in an attempt to spy on United States President Donald Trump and his senior advisors, according to a report published on Thursday. The report, authored by Politico’s Daniel Lippman, cited three former US officials with knowledge on the matter, “several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts”, it said.

According to Politico, the Israelis planted International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers —known in technical-surveillance lingo as “StingRays” after a leading hardware brand. StingRay devices are designed to simulate the activity of legitimate cell towers in order to trick cell phones into communicating with them. That allows StingRay users to monitor the physical whereabouts of targeted cell phones. Some of the more expensive Stingray models can intercept the actual content of telephone conversations and can even plant Trojans on the compromised phones of unsuspecting users.

Politico said that the StingRays found around the White House were of the highest technical sophistication, and were “likely intended” to spy on President Trump, his senior advisers and other close associates. Politico said it had no information on whether the attempt was successful. The spy devices were detected by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2017 and acknowledged by US government officials in 2018. Senior American intelligence officials allegedly told Politico that an exhaustive two-year investigation into the matter showed “with confidence [that] the Israelis were responsible” for the StingRays.

The investigation was led by the counterintelligence division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the help of the DHS and the Secret Service. The National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency are also known to assist such counterintelligence investigations. The devices were disassembled and their technical specifications were carefully inspected to assess their history and origins. Investigators reportedly concluded that very few countries have the technical and financial capabilities to build and plant such devices in the US, and that Israel was the most likely culprit.

Politico also said that some intelligence officials are unhappy about the Trump administration’s lack of response to the alleged spying by Israel. According to the officials, the White House did not file a protest —either publicly or privately— with the Israeli government, and “there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior”.  On Thursday afternoon, the US president voiced skepticism when asked by reporters about the Politico report: “I really would find that hard to believe”, said Trump, adding that his “relationship with Israel has been great”. Meanwhile the office of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the Politico report as “a blatant lie” and noted that Israel’s spy services had “a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the US”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2019 | Permalink

CIA denies Trump’s mishandling led to alleged exfiltration of senior Russian asset

Trump CIA - JFThe United States Central Intelligence Agency has questioned the accuracy of a media report, which claimed that “repeated mishandling” of intelligence by President Donald Trump resulted in the exfiltration of a high-level source from Russia. According to the American news network CNN, the CIA carried out the exfiltration operation in 2017. Despite the success of the operation, the removal of the asset has left the US without this high-level source at a time when it is most needed, said CNN. The network cited “a person directly involved in the discussions” to exfiltrate the asset, but said it was withholding key details about the case in order to “reduce the risk of the person’s identification”.

According to CNN, the CIA asset was so highly placed inside the Kremlin that the US had “no equal alternative” inside the Russian government. The asset was in a position to provide “both insight and information” on Russia’s secretive President, Vladimir Putin. But by 2016, the sheer length of the asset’s cooperation with the CIA had caused some intelligence officials at Langley to consider exfiltrating him from Russia. Typically agents-in-place have short careers; they are either captured by their adversaries or are exfiltrated once their handlers start to believe that they are burned out or that their life may be in danger. But exfiltration operations in so-called “denied areas” —regions or countries with formidable counterintelligence resources that make it difficult for the CIA to operate there— are rare.

The CNN report claims that the decision to exfiltrate the high-level source was taken after a May 2017 meeting between Trump and Putin, with the participation of senior American and Russian officials. The latter included Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak. Citing an American “former senior intelligence official”, CNN alleges that Trump “repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence” at that meeting, which could have led to the exposure of the CIA’s asset. At that time, the CIA decided that it was time to exfiltrate the asset and proceeded to do so successfully.

But the CIA disputed the accuracy of CNN’s story. The agency’s Director of Public Affairs, Brittany Bramell, dismissed what she called “CNN’s narrative” as “inaccurate”. She added that the agency’s judgements about exfiltrations of agents are “life-or-death decisions” that are based solely on “objective analysis and sound collection”, not on “misguided speculation that the President [mishandled] our nation’s most sensitive intelligence —which he has access to each and every day”. CNN said on Monday that Trump and “a small number of senior officials” were told about the exfiltration in advance. The news network also said that it was not privy to details about the extraction operation or about the current whereabouts of the exfiltrated asset.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 September 2019 | Permalink

Trump’s photo tweet gave away US secrets, say experts

Satellite reconnaissanceA tweet by United States President Donald Trump may have compromised secrets about America’s reconnaissance satellite capabilities, according to experts who analyzed it over the weekend. The American president posted a message about Iran’s space program on his personal Twitter account on Saturday, August 30. The message read: “The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One”.

Trump was referring to an apparent rocket launch failure that happened on Friday, August 29, at the Semnan Space Center in northern Iran. The suspected rocket failure caused significant damage to Semnan’s Site One launching pad, some of which appears to have burned down. It is thought to be the second such incident in Iran and it must be a source of frustration for Tehran, which has been trying to place a new satellite in orbit for almost a year now. Washington and other countries have criticized Tehran’s space program, saying it is a disguised missile program that could potentially be used to launch a nuclear bomb.

Along with his written message, the US president tweeted an aerial photograph showing the damage at the Semnan Space Center. Some have since claimed that the photograph, which Trump appears to have taken from a printed document given to him by a US spy agency, offers “an unprecedented example of US spy satellites at work” and inadvertently reveals some of America’s most closely guarded satellite capabilities. Experts say they have been able to determine that the photograph was taken by a satellite, rather than a surveillance aircraft or unmanned drone. Some say they have even been able to pinpoint the exact satellite that was used to generate the image, by analyzing the angle of the photograph. It is believed that it was taken by USA 224, which is one of America’s top-secret optical reconnaissance satellites.

More importantly, the US president’s tweet may have provided Washington’s adversaries with an example of the precise power of America’s reconnaissance satellites. Their exact surveillance capabilities are a closely held secret that is known by specialists at the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, two of America’s most obscure intelligence agencies. It has long been speculated that the images captured by American spy satellites far surpass the 25 centimeter resolution that is available to commercial satellite services. A number of experts have suggested that the photograph tweeted by Trump displays a resolution that “is amazingly high” and must be “at least 10 centimeters, if not better”. One specialist juxtaposed the image tweeted by the US president next to an image of the same launch site taken with a commercial satellite. The difference is indeed remarkable. One expert told the NBC news network that Trump’s “utterly careless” tweet would “have global repercussions”.

Last year Nada Bakos, who spent 20 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote an editorial in The Washington Post in which she warned that foreign intelligence agencies were paying close attention to the US president’s tweets. Bakos argued that President Trump’s “Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency”. She added that, throughout her CIA career, she and her team “never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now”, because of Trump’s social media presence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 September 2019 | Permalink

Trump says US will not use spies on North Korea, then appears to retract statement

Trump CIA - JFUnited States President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he would not allow American intelligence agencies to use spies against North Korea, raising eyebrows in Washington, before appearing to backtrack a day later. The American president was speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, when he was asked about a report that appeared in The Wall Street Journal that day. According to the report, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, held regular meetings with officers of the US Central Intelligence Agency before he was assassinated with VX nerve gas at a busy airport terminal in Malaysia in February 2017. The Wall Street Journal’s claim was echoed by a book written by Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield, which also came out on Tuesday. In the book, entitled The Great Successor, Fifield claims that Kim had traveled to Malaysia to meet his CIA handler when he was killed.

On Tuesday, President Trump said he had seen “the information about the CIA, with respect to [North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s] half-brother. And I would tell [Kim] that would not happen under my auspices, that’s for sure”, said the US president, before repeating, “I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices”. Reporters interpreted Trump’s comments to mean that he would not use human assets or any other kinds of informants to collect intelligence on the regime of the North Korean leader. As can be expected, the US president’s remarks raised eyebrows among lawmakers and national security experts in Washington. It was suggested that Trump appeared to voluntarily eliminate a potentially invaluable tool of intelligence collection from America’s arsenal. The president’s comments were even more peculiar given the hermetically sealed nature of the North Korean regime, which Western spy agencies would argue necessitates the use of human assets for intelligence collection. Moreover, President Trump’s comments appeared to once again place him at odds with his own Intelligence Community, as previously in the cases of Iran’s nuclear program, the current status of the Islamic State, or Russia’s meddling in American political life.

On Wednesday, however, the US president appeared to backtrack on his comments. When asked at a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda about his earlier remarks, Trump denied that he had implied the US would not use spies to collect information on North Korea. “No, it’s not what I meant”, the president responded to the reporter who asked him the question. “It’s what I said and I think it’s different, maybe, than your interpretation”, said President Trump, but refused to elaborate on what he actually meant with his statement on Tuesday. The Reuters news agency contacted the CIA seeking an official statement on the US president’s remarks, but the agency said it had no immediate comment on the issue.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 June 2019 | Permalink

British spy agency calls Trump’s espionage claim ‘utterly ridiculous’

GCHQThe Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s primary signals-intelligence agency, has called claims by United States President Donald Trump that it spied on his election campaign “utterly ridiculous”. President Trump’s allegations are not new. They apparently rest on claims made in March 2017 by a Fox News commentator, that the GCHQ spied on Trump on orders of then-US President Barack Obama. The claim was repeated on March 17 at the White House by Sean Spicer, Trump’s then-press secretary, who said that Obama had used the GCHQ to spy on Trump so as to evade American privacy laws. At the time, Spicer’s claim prompted an angry response from the British government in London and from the British spy agency itself. In a rare public comment, GCHQ called the allegations “utterly ridiculous”.

This past Wednesday, the US president appeared to repeat his claim that GCHQ had spied on his election campaign, via a post on the popular social networking platform Twitter. Responding to a reiteration of the claim on the conservative cable television channel One America News Network, Trump tweeted “WOW! It is now just a question of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it will be a beauty!”. The president’s tweet appeared just hours after the British government confirmed that Trump had been invited for a four-day state visit to the United Kingdom in June. The visit is believed to include a meeting with British Prime Minster Theresa May and dinner with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

Following Trump’s tweet, the US newsmagazine Newsweek contacted GCHQ with a request for a response to the US president’s allegation. A GCHQ spokesperson referred the newsmagazine to the agency’s 2017 statement, and repeated: “The allegations that GCHQ was asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored”. It is extremely rare for GCHQ —one of Britain’s most secretive and publicity-shy agencies— to respond publicly to stories in the media. Late on Wednesday, British Foreign Affairs Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the invitation to President Trump to visit London would not be rescinded, and insisted that Britain’s “special relationship” with the US remained “intact”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 April 2019 | Permalink

US Secret Service arrests Chinese woman for entering Trump’s vacation property

Donald TrumpA Chinese woman who entered President Donald Tump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, was found to be in possession of two passports, four mobile phones and a flash drive containing “malicious software”, according to the United States Secret Service. Secret Service agents told a US District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Monday that the woman, identified as Yujing Zhang, entered the private club –which serves as President Trump’s vacation home– on Saturday afternoon. She allegedly approached Secret Service personnel and sought entrance to the property. When asked to identify herself, she reportedly took out of her bag two Chinese passports and said she intended to use the Mar-a-Lago swimming pool.

When Mar-a-Lago personnel could not find her name on the list of the private club’s members, Zhang told them that she was related to a man with the same last name, who appeared on the membership list. She was allowed onto the property on the assumption that the club member was her father, in what security personnel later described as an error caused by “a language barrier issue”. Once inside Mar-a-Lago, Zhang then reportedly told a receptionist that she was there to attend a meeting of the United Nations Chinese American Association. Some of the club personnel, who knew that no such event had been scheduled to take place at Mar-a-Lago, contacted the Secret Service. Zhang told Secret Service agents that she had been told by “a friend” called “Charles” to travel from Shanghai to Florida in order to attend the United Nations Chinese American Association meeting. But she said she was unable to provide further details.

After detaining her, Secret Service agents found that she was carrying –aside from the two Chinese passports– four cellphones, a laptop computer with an external hard drive attached to it, and a thumb drive. Secret Service agents said that, upon further examination, the thumb drive was found to contain “malware”. Zhang was then arrested for entering a restricted property and making false statements to Secret Service officials. On Tuesday, Zhang’s lawyer said she was “invoking her right to remain silent”. The US Department of Justice said it would not comment on the case. If found guilty, Zhang could spend up to five years behind bars.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 April 2019 | Permalink

Jailed Russian who spied for CIA writes letter to Trump, asking to be freed

Russian Ministry of Internal AffairsA Russian former police officer, who is serving a prison sentence in Russia for having spied for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, has written an open letter to President Donald Trump, asking to be freed. Yevgeny A. Chistov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2014 on charges of spying for Washington. During his trial, he admitted having been recruited by the CIA when he worked as an officer in the police, Russia’s federal law-enforcement agency, which operates under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Russian state prosecutors accused him of having established contact with the CIA in 2011. In 2015, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, which he is currently serving at a labor camp in the Nizhny Novgorod town of Bor, located in central European Russia.

On Saturday, British newspaper The Guardian published a letter that was allegedly written by Chistov. In the letter, the jailed spy admits that he passed Russian state secrets to the CIA for three years, after deciding “to help the US as a friend”. He claims that he did it out of love for his country, and in order to help “overthrow […] the regime” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chistov goes on to accuse “Putin and his cronies” of having plundered Russia and of oppressing its people through “corruption and extortion”. He blames the Kremlin for Russia’s current economic state: “we have a resource-rich country yet our people are poor”, he says. The jailed spy adds that he told the CIA about the “secret plans” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, that he provided “names of some people from the FSB”, and that he “revealed some objectives of Russia’s Ministry of Defense”. He does not provide details. He then claims that, even though he was paid by the CIA for his services, he did not act out of self-interest.

Chistov says that the conditions of his imprisonment are inhumane and that he and his family “are in great danger in Russia”. He also claims that his wife visited the US embassy in Ukraine in an attempt to secure a travel visa, but that her application was rejected and she was forced to return to Russia. The jailed spy adds that he “wrote two letters to the CIA asking them to help and received no response”. He then pleads with President Trump to help him, in two ways. First, by granting asylum in the US to his wife and mother. Second, by swapping him with someone “who worked for Russia” and is serving time in a US prison. “I want to appeal to the president to conduct the exchange”, he concludes.

The United States has participated in very few spy swaps in the post-Cold War era. In 2010, Washington and Moscow conducted one of history’s largest spy exchanges, as ten deep-cover Russian agents captured in the US earlier that year were swapped for four Russian citizens imprisoned by Moscow for spying for the US and Britain. Four years later, a Cuban intelligence officer who spied for the CIA was released as part of a wider exchange between Washington and Havana of persons held in each other’s prisons on espionage charges. The White House has not commented on Chistov’s letter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2018 | Permalink

Trump’s use of unsecured iPhone worries White House officials

Donald TrumpOfficials in the White House are concerned about President Donald Trump’s insistence on using an unsecured iPhone to communicate with friends and associates, despite warnings that foreign spies may be listening in. Prior to being elected president, Trump used an Android phone, made by Google, which the NSA advised him to abandon due to security concerns. That is when he switched to using iPhones. Since his election to the presidency, Trump has routinely used three iPhone cell phones. He uses one of them to access a limited list of authorized applications, including Twitter. He uses the second iPhone for phone calls, but cannot use it to send texts, take pictures, or download and install applications. Both of these iPhones have been vetted and secured by the National Security Agency (NSA).

But The New York Times said on Wednesday that, despite the advice of the NSA, the US president continues to use a third iPhone, which is his personal device. The newspaper cited “current and former American officials” who said that the president’s third iPhone has not been secured by the NSA, and is thus “no different from hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world”. Trump uses that third iPhone to call many of his old friends and associates. The president has been repeatedly warned, sources said, to abandon the use of his unsecured third iPhone. Moreover, US intelligence agencies have confirmed that Chinese, Russian, and possibly other spy agencies have been “routinely eavesdropping” on the US president’s calls made on his personal iPhone.

To some extent, Trump has heeded the advice of his intelligence agencies in recent months and has begun to rely on his secure White House landline to make important calls, thus avoiding cell phones altogether. But he refuses to give up use of his iPhones, despite repeated warnings by the NSA, sources told The Times. They added that “they can only hope [Trump] refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them”. The president’s use of unsecured phone devices adds to what sources described as “frustration” with his “casual approach” to communications security. In July of this year, Nada Bakos, a 20-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in an editorial that President Trump’s “Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency”. The CIA veteran described Trump’s use of social media is too impulsive and potentially dangerous from a national-security perspective.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 October 2018 | Permalink

Trump officials ‘discussed secret coup plans’ with Venezuelan army officers

Nicolas MaduroUnited States President Donald Trump authorized American officials to attend secret meetings held by Venezuelan military officers who conspired to launch a military coup against President Nicolás Maduro. The claim was made on Saturday by The New York Times, which cited “interviews with 11 current and former American officials” and information from an unnamed Venezuelan former military commander. The former commander claims to have attended the secret talks, which allegedly were held over several meetings during the past year.

According to The Times, the meetings were sparked by a comment made by President Trump in August of 2017, that he did not rule out a “military option” to “restore calm” in Venezuela. That comment reportedly prompted at least three groups of Venezuelan military officers opposed to the rule of President Maduro to reach out to the White House. One of these groups, said The Times, had one of its representatives contact American diplomats in an unnamed European country. That outreach led to “a series of covert meetings abroad”, according to The Times, the first of which took place in the fall of 2017. The meetings continued until recently, and were held with a number of Venezuelan military officers who claimed to represent the views of several hundred members of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces. The rebellious officers allegedly told the US government’s representative that they planned to launch a military coup aimed at deposing President Maduro and installing a transitional government that would guarantee peaceful elections. They reportedly asked the White House representative to supply them with secure communications equipment, which they could use to coordinate their operations.

However, the White House eventually decided that backing a military coup in Venezuela would be too risky due to the potential for spiraling bloodshed. It thus distanced itself from the plan. Additionally, some US government officials were alarmed by the composition of the rebel officers: at least one of them was a serious violator of human rights who had previously been accused by the US of involvement of participating in drugs smuggling and having close links with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which is on Washington’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Eventually the plotters canceled their plans for a coup, having assessed it would be met by fierce resistance by pro-Maduro forces.

The Times reached out to the White House, which rejected the paper’s report, saying it was important to “dialogue with all Venezuelans who demonstrate a desire for democracy”. But it refused to respond to specific questions about the allegations of a possible coup in Venezueal with Washington’s backing. President Maduro has already blamed the US for two attempts to assassinate him in the past 18 months, with the most recent one involving the use of an exploding drone. In 2002, Maduro’s predecessor, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was briefly deposed by a military putsch. Chávez was able to beat back the rebels with the help of his civilian and military supporters, and then accused Washington of having had direct involvement with the attempt to remove him from power. The US has strongly denied Chávez’s charges.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 September 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence officials called to resign despite Trump’s Russia retraction

Putin and TrumpSeveral American former intelligence officials have called on their active colleagues to resign despite President Donald Trump’s retraction of his remarks about Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. On Tuesday, the US president issued an unusual retraction and correction of his public statement on Monday in Helsinki, Finland, in which he appeared to side with the Kremlin over his own Intelligence Community’s views. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which is the coordinating body of the US Intelligence Community, has said that Russia tried to systematically interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections. According to the ODNI, the Kremlin’s goal was to augment the already heightened discord in American political life and deepen the mistrust between the electorate and state institutions, including Congress and the White House.

But President Trump dismissed those conclusions on Monday, while speaking alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin following the US-Russia summit in the Finish capital. During the joint press conference of the two leaders, the US president was asked to publicly adopt the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. But instead of doing so, Trump said his Russian counterpart had strongly denied the American accusations. “My people came to me”, said Trump, referring by name to his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats, and “said they think it’s Russia”. However, Trump continued, “President Putin […] just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be”. Following strong criticism of that comment, much of it from his own supporters, the US president retracted it on Tuesday in Washington, saying he misspoke in Helsinki. According to Trump, he said “would” when he meant to say “wouldn’t”.

The US president’s odd retraction came just hours after DNI Coats –a Trump appointee– issued a rare public statement rejecting Trump’s comments in Helsinki. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy”, said Coats, adding that his office’s conclusion had been based on “unvarnished and objective intelligence”. Coats’ predecessor, former ODNI James Clapper, said during an interview with CNN on Tuesday that, if he still led the ODNI and had been “publicly thrown under the bus” by the president in that manner, he “would have stepped down in a heartbeat”. Read more of this post

Judge rules that Trump’s tweet did not disclose top-secret CIA operation in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyA United States federal judge ruled on Monday that a tweet by President Donald Trump did not inadvertently disclose a top-secret program by the Central Intelligence Agency to aid rebel groups in Syria. The lawsuit, brought by The New York Times, centered on news reports published in 2017 by Reuters, The Washington Post, and others, claiming that the US president had terminated an extensive CIA program that provided assistance to rebel forces engaged in the Syrian Civil War. The program was reportedly initiated by US President Barack Obama, who in 2015 instructed the CIA to assist armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Aside from training, the CIA assistance reportedly included the provision of light and heavy ammunition, such as antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

But President Trump allegedly terminated $1 billion program soon after he took office. Last July, the president openly disputed an account by The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous, which claimed that Trump had ended the program as a concession to Russia. In a tweet, Trump said: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad”. Shortly afterwards, another newspaper, The New York Times, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, arguing that the president’s tweet had effectively disclosed the existence of the covert CIA program and seeking full details from the government. But the CIA rejected the The New York Times’ rationale, at which point the paper took the case to court.

But on Monday, US District Court Judge Andrew Carter Jr. dismissed the paper’s argument. In a 20-page decision, posted online by the US-based news website Politico, Judge Carter said that President Trump’s tweet had been too vague and ambiguous to be considered as effectively declassifying the secret CIA program. At no point did the US president “make an unequivocal statement, or any statement for that matter, indicating that he was declassifying information”, said the judge. Additionally, Trump’s tweet and other public statements on the matter did not undermine the legal authority of the US government to continue to keep details about the CIA program under wraps. According to Politico, which reported on Judge Carter’s decision, this development will make it difficult for other FOIA filers to use Trump’s tweets as justification for seeking information about secret government programs. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Monday that it would seek to appeal Judge Carter’s decision.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 July 2018 | Permalink

Trump’s Twitter feed is ‘gold mine’ for foreign spies, says ex-CIA analyst

Trump 2016With nearly 53 million Twitter followers, United States President Donald Trump could easily be described as the most social-media-friendly American leader in our century. It is clear that Trump uses Twitter to communicate directly with his followers while circumventing mainstream media, which he views as adversarial to his policies. However, according to former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Nada Bakos, foreign intelligence agencies are among those paying close attention to the president’s tweets. Bakos spent 20 years in the CIA, notably as the Chief Targeter of the unit that tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In a June 23 editorial in The Washington Post, Bakos argues that President Trump’s “Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency”.

All intelligence agencies, explains Bakos, build psychological profiles of foreign leaders. These profiles typically rely on information collected through intelligence operations that are “methodical, painstaking and often covert”. The final product can be crucial in enabling countries to devise strategies that counter their adversaries, says Bakos. But with Trump, covert intelligence-collection operations are not needed in order to see what is on his mind, since “the president’s unfiltered thoughts are available night and day”, she claims. The former CIA analyst points out that President Trump’s tweets are posted “without much obvious mediation” by his aides and advisors, something that can be seen by the frequency with which he deletes and reposts tweets due to spelling and grammatical errors. These unfiltered thoughts on Twitter offer a “real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind”, says Bakos.

Undoubtedly, she argues, foreign intelligence agencies are utilizing President Trump’s tweets in numerous ways while building his personality profile. The most obvious ways are by performing content analysis of his tweets, which could then be matched against information collected from other sources about major US policy decisions. Additionally, foreign intelligence agencies could identify media sources that the US president seems to prefer, and then try to feed information to these sources that might sway his views. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia may have done so already, claims Bakos. The US president’s views, as expressed through Twitter, could also be compared and contrasted with the expressed views of his aides or senior cabinet officials, in order to discern who he agrees with the least. It is equally useful to analyze the issues or events that the US president does not tweet about, or tweets about with considerable delay. One could even derive useful information about Trump’s sleeping patterns based on his tweets, says the former CIA analyst.

Bakos does not go as far as to suggest that the US president should abstain from social media. But she clearly thinks that the US leader’s use of social media is too impulsive and potentially dangerous from a national-security perspective. She also laments that, throughout her career in the CIA, she and her team “never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now”, thanks to Trump’s incessant social media presence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 July 2018 | Permalink

Singapore officials reject rumors of spy devices used at Trump-Kim summit

USB fan espionageSingaporean officials have dismissed reports that a promotional item given away for free during the June 12 summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea contained an espionage device. Over 2500 reporters from nearly every country covered the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Upon arriving in Singapore’s Sentosa Island, where the summit took place, journalists were given a free promotional packet that included novelty items such as pens, notepads, a water bottle, and a USB fan. The USB fan consisted of blades connected to a miniature electric motor, which was in turn connected to a USB cable. The cable allowed the device to be powered by a computer or other electronic device with a built-in USB port.

But rumors soon emerged in the media that the free USB fans, which were made in China, contained malware. As soon as the fans were plugged into an electronic device, the malware penetrated its operating system, allowing hackers to access its contents remotely, said the reports. The allegations were first aired on Radio France Internationale, the French government’s international broadcaster. They were then picked up by the BBC, which said that many reporters covering the historic summit had been warned “not to plug [the USB fans] in to their laptops”. According to the reports, the malware installed on the USB fans was able to steal computer files and turn a laptop’s built-in camera and microphone into remotely-controlled eavesdropping devices.

But the government of Singapore has strongly rejected these reports. In a statement issued in English, Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information said that the USB fans had been a gift of the Sentosa Development Corporation, a Singapore government body tasked with promoting tourism in Sentosa Island, where the Trump-Kim summit took place. The ministry added that the USB fans had been produced long before Trump and Kim decided to meet in Singapore and that they had been originally manufactured as gifts for tourists visiting the island. The statement issued by the ministry also said that reporters appreciated the fans, given the tropical climate on Sentosa Island, where the temperature reached 33C (91F) on the day of the summit.

Author: Ian Allen | Date:  25 June 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Trump has made record use of US Special Forces since becoming president

special forcesWith reports about the activities of the United States Special Forces continuously surfacing in the media lately, it is important to remember that the White House has drastically increased Special Forces deployments since Donald Trump assumed the presidency. In December last year, it was reported that President Trump had ordered the deployment of Special Forces troops more often than any other president in American history. At that time, US Special Forces troops were deployed in 150 nations, a number that represented 75 percent of all nations on the planet, according to government data. The figures were published by TomDispatch, which said it received them directly from the US Special Operations Command. The website said that American Special Forces troops were participating in wars, counter-insurgency operations and covert-action activities across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and saw action every day.

According to the statistics provided by the US Special Operations Command, it appears more than 10 percent (8,000 troops) of the US Special Operations Command’s 70,000 troops are deployed each day. These deployments take place daily in more than 80 countries. This rate of deployment represents a significant increase from the eight years of the administration of US President Barack Obama, which ended in 2016. That year, US Special Forces troops were deployed in 138 countries, according to media reports. The Trump administration’s use of Special Forces troops also represents a jump of approximately 150 percent from the last Republican administration, that of George W. Bush, which ended in early 2008.

Africa represents an area of consistent rise in the rates of deployment of US Special Forces. Currently, US Special Forces troops are active in no fewer than 33 countries across Africa. Most of these countries are witnessing activity by Islamist groups that are described as terrorist by the region’s governments. But the US Special Operations Command has also deployed contingents in Europe, said TomDispatch. Currently, the US maintains Special Forces troops at every country bordering Russia’s western region, with the exception of Belarus.

These numbers echo the record growth of the US Special Forces community since September 11, 2001, when Washington declared its global war on terrorism. Observers estimate the post-9/11 numerical growth of US Special Forces at 75 percent. However, little is known about the nature of campaigns in which US Special Forces are deployed, and whether they are effective in establishing security, or whether they inflame tensions across different battlefronts. There is also limited information about the resulting casualties. The US government has admitted that US Special Forces troops died in 2017 in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Niger, Mali and Somalia.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 March 2018 | Permalink