Opinion: America in deep and profound security crisis as Michael Flynn resigns

Michael Flynn and Donald TrumpThe ongoing security crisis in the United States reached new heights last night as Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, resigned. In his letter announcing his decision, the former general admitted that he “inadvertently” gave members of the Trump administration “incomplete information” about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US in December of last year. This development is only the latest in a series of unprecedented incidents in Washington. The city, and by extension the country, are now in a deep and profound security crisis with unpredictable consequences for the US and its allies.

The sense of normality in America’s capital, the seat of government of the world’s most powerful nation, is becoming increasingly scarce, as the country faces one astonishing situation after another. Today, three weeks after Donald Trump assumed the reins of power in DC, the relationship between the Executive and the Intelligence Community is almost nonexistent. A growing q-quotenumber of former insiders warn that senior intelligence officials are —in the words of former National Security Agency officer John Schindler— “beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust”. Last month, Steve Hall, a former senior member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service, cautioned that officers at Langley are suspicious of the White House’s links with Russia. Currently, Michael Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the man chosen by the president to serve as his national security advisor, is being investigated as part of a counterintelligence probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is facing a separate set of questions from the military. On Tuesday, Senior Republican lawmakers called for a Congressional investigation into Moscow’s alleged proximity with the Trump White House.

Meanwhile, the (now former) acting attorney general and several judges have sought to stop the president from violating Constitutional norms with the imposition of an ill-fated travel ban. In response, q-quoteMr. Trump summarily fired the head of the Department of Justice and openly challenged the legitimacy of a judge who ruled against his executive order. The president did not even address the concerns of the Intelligence Community, which largely views the travel ban as nonsensical, unworkable and counterproductive. Mr. Trump also dismissed the significance of a “Dissent Channel” memorandum, signed by over 1,000 State Department employees —an unprecedented number with no parallel in American diplomatic history— who openly objected to the violation of “core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold”.

Discord and disharmony are not novel concepts in American political life. But the current situation is anything but conventional. It is not normal for the president to summarily fire the chief legal counsel to the US government —acting or not. Nor is it normal for his national security advisor, a man who is privy to the most sensitive secrets of the US government, to be the subject of a counterintelligence investigation, and for one of his senior aides to be denied a security clearance by the CIA. It is unprecedented for a US president to question the usefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization while seemingly consenting to Russia’s annexation of an important American ally —namely Ukraine. It is equally remarkable to watch conservative governments in Western Europe warn against US policies and even refuse to have Mr. Trump address their parliaments. We are witnessing unparalleled developments ofq-quote inconceivable magnitude, with implications that may well shape the future of America and its place in the world.

These are not partisan considerations, which this website shies away from as a matter of policy. Rather, they are political observations that go to the very heart of America’s ability to govern itself, provide security to its citizens and lead the Western world in our century. Anyone who rejects the notion that the US is currently at the onset of one of the most serious crises in its modern political history is simply disconnected from empirical reality. Anyone —Republican or Democrat— who tries to exploit the current crisis for narrow political gain is not simply foolish, but dangerous to the wellbeing of this country. Mr. Trump’s many friends and adversaries within and without his political party must reach out to him and attempt to mend the damage he has inflicted on America’s government, while preventing further injury to the machinery of national administration. It is every sane person’s hope that the president will take heed at this crucial time, and introduce the much-needed qualities of caution and prudence to his inexperienced administration. History will be particularly unkind to him and his colleagues if they fail to act responsibly. The world is watching.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2017 | Permalink

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Opinion: Deforming the US National Security Council

Steve BannonThere has been much consternation and confusion over the maneuverings engineered by United States President Donald Trump with the National Security Council (NSC). By now everyone knows the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have been essentially demoted down to Principals Committee meetings, with the no-doubt unsatisfying caveat that “when their specific expertise” is needed they will be asked to attend the main Principals meeting with the President. The irony, of course, is that both of these offices have always been oversight and unifying leadership positions: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs oversees and coordinates discussion and debate between the heads of all the military branches while the ODNI was basically created to go do the thing the Department of Homelandq-quote Security was initially meant to do after 9/11 —coordinate and improve communication and cooperative transparency across the entire US Intelligence Community. It is therefore somewhat mystifying as to why two deeply experienced actors with comprehensive knowledge of military and intelligence affairs writ large would be inexplicably categorized as ‘knowledge specialists’, not required for the big general meeting. It is not like the ODNI came into the NSC meetings pre-Trump as the ‘Basque subject matter expert’ alone, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs laid claim to being the world’s only ‘Gulf of Aden’ maritime security specialist. While it is still too early to know, it seems a logical bet that there is some personality conflict or discomfort between these two men and the incoming member(s) that Trump has designated. Safe money is on General Michael Flynn. But since that right now will remain unsubstantiated rumor and gossip, we are left with nothing but conjecture.

Which leads us appropriately into the appointment of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as a permanent sitting member of the National Security Council. Read more of this post

Opinion: Why the ‘Trump Dossier’ is no victory for Putin

Putin TrumpThere is no doubt whatsoever that Russia has compiled ‘information’ on United States President Donald Trump. Russian intelligence considers it a rightful duty to compile information on persons of relevance, especially when they are conducting significant business or maintain political relations with Russia. Trump qualified under that definition long before he even thought about running for president. Even I have been followed, during my numerous times in Russia, both openly and tacitly. I have had my computer hacked and hotel phone bugged. And my affairs in Russia have come nowhere near to the financial or political relevance of Donald Trump.

However, there has been a breakdown in America when it comes to understanding how Russia would use such information if it indeed had a dossier of this type. Americans may love exposing things through the media with a voyeuristic passion, bringing the high down low. That’s just the nature of the beast today in America’s Kardashian culture. But this dossier of alleged Russianq-quote intelligence on Trump has nothing to do with American celebrity culture. If it truly exists, this would have been done under the edict of ‘national security’ for Russian geopolitical interests. As such, the proper Russian intelligence behavior would be to deny its existence and hold on to anything it has until a time deemed strategically best. The least efficient usage of that compromising material would be to just embarrass him publicly before he is inaugurated, TMZ ‘gotcha’ style. Russians simply don’t work that way. Rather, keeping it secret and using it in a non-public but strategically effective manner for their national interests is the Russian way.

For example, the even more infamous Wikileaks affair against Clinton was an example of Russians trying to smudge the character and momentum of Hillary, assuming she was indeed going to win the election. Clinton’s positions have been decidedly anti-Russian (to the Russians at least) over the past half dozen years, vociferously and publicly. The email leaks were a rather limp attempt to just slow that political train down before it took office, to make her pause and understand that she should treat Russia with a bit less shrill judgment. Read more of this post

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part one here.

5. Turkey’s intelligence agency wins the 2016 ‘clueless’ award. It seems everyone predicted the July 15 coup in Turkey, except its spy agency. Unlike countless political analysts in Turkey and abroad, who have been warning about a possible coup as early as October 2015, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was caught in the dark. So unprepared was the agency, that it was unable to defend its headquarters in Ankara from an attack on the morning of July 16 by military helicopters. Meanwhile, dozens of Turkish nationals with diplomatic passports have been applying for political asylum in Germany and elsewhere since the coup. How many of those are MİT personnel, one wonders?

4. Panama papers leak shows immense extent of global financial crime. This year saw the unauthorized release of the Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked documents that represent history’s largest leak. The documents were leaked form the vaults of the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, and reveal secret information relating to over 200,000 offshore entities. This website opined at the time that the Panama Papers reveal the enormous extent of tax evasion and money laundering on a worldwide scale, which now directly threatens the very survival of the postwar welfare state. National intelligence agencies must begin to view offshore tax evasion as an existential threat to the security of organized government and need to augment their economic role as part of their overall mission to protect and secure law-abiding citizens.

3. Nuclear power plant computers found to be infected with viruses. In April, the computers of Gundremmingen, a nuclear power plant in southern Germany, were found to be infected with computer viruses that are designed to steal files and provide attackers with remote control of the system. The power plant is located in Germany’s southern district of Günzburg, about 75 miles northwest of the city of Munich. It is owned and operated by RWE AG, Germany’s second-largest electricity producer. RWE AG insisted that the malware did not pose a threat to the nuclear power plant’s computer systems, because the facility is not connected to the Internet. But there was no explanation of how the viruses found their way into the nuclear power plant’s systems in the first place.

2. German intelligence accuses Russia of pretending to be ISIS online. In June, a German intelligence report alleged that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is in fact a Russian front, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. The Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of ISIS. Now, however, a German intelligence report claims that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact a project of APT28 (also known as ‘Pawn Storm’), a notorious Russian hacking collective with close ties to Russian intelligence. The findings of the German intelligence report echo previous assessments by French and American authorities.

1. Intelligence features heavily in domestic US politics. Many, including this website, saw last week’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by US President Barack Obama as a move directed “more towoard domestic American politics than foreign policy”. The expulsion aimed to expose Moscow’s alleged campaign of interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. But another of its goals was to force president-elect Donald Trump, seen widely as a Russo-file, to take sides. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying Moscow “reserves the right” to retaliate, but would not do so at this point. The Russian response was unexpected and highly uncharacteristic, an important reminder of the uncharted waters that US politics –and US-Russian relations– have entered in 2016. Still, it is remarkable to see the president-elect of the US effectively side with the Kremlin and not with his own country’s Intelligence Community. If nothing more, 2017 promises to be exceedingly interesting from an intelligence point of view.

This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part I here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: US expulsion of Russian spies is mostly symbolic, aimed domestically

Russian embassy in WashingtonThere had been rumors for some time about a possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. The White House confirmed the rumors on Thursday morning, by announcing the expulsion of 35 accredited Russian diplomats from the US, and the reclamation of two “recreational facilities” used by Russian diplomats in New York and Maryland. Washington said the Russian diplomats are spies operating under diplomatic cover and that the recreational facilities were being “used for Russian intelligence activities”. Although the sanctions may seem significant at first, they are mostly symbolic, and their impact will be temporary and limited. They may even end up hurting the United States more than Russia.

As I told Newsweek‘s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein earlier today, the current size of Russia’s human-intelligence presence in the United States is estimated at more than 100 officers. Therefore, the expulsion of a third of those operatives will set back Russian human-intelligence activities on US soil —but only temporarily, since most of the expelled officers will be replaced in time. Moreover, Moscow will probably respond in kind, so Washington is likely to suffer a proportional reduction of its human-intelligence presence in Russia. That could hurt the US more than Russia, because the American human-intelligence presence in Russia is smaller and more needed in a relatively closed society as Russia’s. Thus, a proportional expulsion of Russian and American spies from each other’s territory may actually harm Washington more than Moscow.

In reality, the expulsions and sanctions pertain more to domestic American politics than foreign policy. They are designed to place the incoming president, Donald Trump, who is seen as a friend of Russia, in a difficult position, by further-complicating Russian-American relations in the last weeks of President Barack Obama’s Administration. These measures should arguably have been implemented much earlier this year, and certainly before November 8, when they may have had some impact. At this late stage, they can hardly be taken seriously, given the inconsistency in US national policy toward Russia, as shown in the differing viewpoints of the Obama and Trump teams.

Assuming that Russia was indeed behind a systematic effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election, it has already achieved one of its main goals. It was to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole and to divide America by intensifying the already growing mistrust between American —and by extension Western— civil society and its political institutions. Moscow will see the US response, such as it is, as a price worth paying, given the broader accomplishments of its covert operation against US democracy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

10. Kim Philby videotaped lecture surfaces in Germany. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB from the early 1930s until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Lebanon. Philby’s defection shocked Western intelligence and is seen as one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War. In April of this year, the BBC found a videotaped lecture by Philby in the archives of the BStU, the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records in Germany. During the one-hour lecture, filmed in 1981, Philby addresses a select audience of operations officers from the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security of the former East Germany. Excerpts were aired publicly for the first time.

9. Britain’s MI6 to increase in size by 40% by 2020. It was revealed in July that, according to satellite images, the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, has doubled, and possibly tripled, in size in the past nine years. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British government plans to implement a 40 percent increase in personnel numbers for MI6 over the next four years. The agency, which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, currently employs about 2,500 people. But that number will rise to approximately 3,500 by 2020. Experts agree that we are witnessing the most significant growth in the size of state intelligence agencies since the end of the Cold War.

8. Israel’s Mossad has a successful year, allegedly. It has been quite a year for Israel’s primary external intelligence agency, the Mossad. In 2015, the secretive organization got a new director, Yossi Cohen. Since that time, it has emerged that Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, a senior member of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, has defected to Israel. Mossad is also believed to be behind the killing of Mohamed Zaouari, a senior aviation engineer who headed Hamas’ unmanned aerial vehicle program. Zaouari was shot dead outside his home in Tunisia earlier this month, by a group of assailants using gun silencers.

7. Information points to previously unknown ISIS spy agency. According to The New York Times, the Islamic State has set up a secretive intelligence agency whose task is to set up sleeper cells abroad and has already sent “hundreds of operatives” to Europe and Asia. The ISIS intelligence agency goes by the name Emni and appears to be a multilevel organization that includes domestic and external operational components. Emni’s external unit is tasked with conducting terrorist operations abroad. These are the responsibility of several lieutenants, who are permitted to recruit the most capable members of ISIS from around the world.

6. South Korea announces most high-profile defection from North since Korean War. An announcement issued by the South Korean government in April said it had given political asylum to a colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who worked for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division. The unnamed man is the most high profile defector to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to authorities in Seoul. Meanwhile, Thae Yong-Ho, the second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, also defected with his wife and children in August, and was given political asylum in South Korea.

This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Boko Haram insurgency far from over, despite Nigerian claims

NigeriaOn Saturday, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made a statement announcing that the country’s military had delivered a “final crushing” on Boko Haram’s “last enclave” deep in the Sambisa Forest. He then congratulated the Nigerian troops for “finally entering [the forest] and crushing the remnants of the Boko Haram insurgents”. This is not the first time that a Nigerian head of state announces the “final crushing” of the Boko Haram insurgency. Even though Boko Haram has suffered significant territorial losses since 2014, the armed conflict that has destabilized the entire Lake Chad region for nearly a decade is far from over, and Boko Haram may even bounce back, just as it has done in the past.

Boko Haram emerged as a public-pressure group in predominantly Muslim northeastern Nigeria in 2003, stating multiple grievances against the corruption and nepotism of Nigeria’s ruling elite. In 2009, the group launched an armed insurgency against the government, with the stated aim of establishing an Islamic state ruled by sharia (Quranic law) in Nigeria’s northeast. In 2015, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, pledged the group’s allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and announced the establishment of “Islamic State West Africa Province”. Since then, the group has continued to fight the Nigerian military in a seven-year war that has killed more than 15,000 people and displaced two million more. The United Nations estimates that at least 14 million people in the Lake Chad region have been affected by the war and in immediate need of significant humanitarian assistance.

By early 2014, Boko Haram had managed to drive out all Nigerian government presence from the country’s northeastern Borno state and control an area of approximately 12,000 sq. mi. At that time, however, the Nigerian military, in association with Chadian and Nigerien forces, launched Operation LAFIYA DOLE, with the aim of recapturing Boko Haram’s territory. The operation involves thousands of Nigerian, Chadian and Nigerien ground forces, as well as airplanes and even construction crews, who built dirt roads leading deep into the Sambisa Forest in search of Boko Haram’s camps. As government forces have been advancing on all sides, Boko Haram fighters have retreated deeper into the 500-sq. mi. forest. On Saturday, the Nigerian president announced that government troops sacked Boko Haram’s “Camp Zero” and that the insurgents were desperately fleeing into the surrounding areas. There was no word about the fate of Shekau, the group’s leader. Read more of this post