Trump administration instructs CIA to halt support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyThe White House has instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some believe that the move indicates a change in American policy under United States President Donald Trump. But Syrian rebel commanders say they believe the move is temporary, and that military aid will be restored. For several years, the CIA has provided training and other forms of assistance to rebel groups in Syria, such as the New Syrian Force, which operate under the umbrella of the FSA. Aside from training, the assistance has included light and heavy ammunition, including antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

However, it appears that the CIA was instructed nearly a month ago by the White House to freeze all assistance to these rebel groups. Correspondents from the Reuters news agency said they confirmed the change in policy by speaking to senior rebel commanders from five armed groups operating under the FSA. These commanders told Reuters that they had not been given any official reason for the sudden termination of all CIA assistance. The change coincided with the change of guard at the White House, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Some in Washington, as well as some members of rebel factions in Syria, are concerned that the change in the CIA’s stance might denote a broader policy shift in the White House. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said repeatedly that he would end America’s overt and covert support for the FSA and would focus instead on defeating the Islamic State.

But the rebel commanders themselves told Reuters that the freeze in CIA support was due to a wave of renewed attacks against them by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a Sunni militant group that was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels said that the CIA was concerned that weaponry provided to the FSA would end up in the hands of jihadist militants, so it temporarily halted its support until Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could be pushed back by FSA forces. Reuters published comments by two anonymous officials who were familiar with the CIA’s operations in Syria. They told the newspaper that the freeze of the CIA’s program had “nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January”. Additionally, said Reuters, Mr. Trump’s policy in Syria remains unknown. Several newspapers and news agencies contacted the CIA asking for comments, but the agency declined all requests on Wednesday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 February 2017 | Permalink

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Wall Street Journal alleges US spies hide sensitive intelligence from Trump

Donald Trump CIAIn a leading article published on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal alleged that American intelligence officials are choosing to withhold sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump, fearing that it might be compromised. The WSJ, America’s leading newspaper by circulation, which is highly influential in conservative circles, cited “current and former officials familiar with the matter”. The paper said it was unclear how much information had been withheld from President Trump. It added that at no point did intelligence officials keep the president in the dark about critical security threats by foreign states or potential terrorist attacks by non-state groups. However, intelligence officials are consciously and systematically withholding information from the White House that concerns “sources and methods”, said the article. The term refers to the precise methods used by the United States Intelligence Community to collect information, as well as the identification of sources —human or otherwise— of the information.

In recent weeks, several media outlets have alleged that American intelligence officials are skeptical about providing the White House with sensitive information. Late last month, Steve Hall, a former member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Senior Intelligence Service, told National Public Radio that the matter of President Trump’s trustworthiness was “a live question” at the CIA. But this week’s article in The WSJ marks the first time that a conservative media outlet alleges that senior American intelligence officials mistrust the president. According to the New York-based newspaper, the Intelligence Community is uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s “repeated expressions of admiration” for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Many intelligence officials are also disturbed by the US president’s public support for the alleged hacking of Democratic Party computer servers by the Kremlin.

Relations between the White House and the Intelligence Community are said to be extremely tense at the moment. On Wednesday, President Trump repeated his previously stated allegation that the US Intelligence Community is systematically leaking information to the media in order to subvert his administration’s work. The WSJ said it spoke to a representative from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which heads and oversees the US Intelligence Community. The representative questioned the accuracy of the newspaper’s allegations, saying that “any suggestion that the US intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true”. The report was also denied by an official at the White House, who said that Mr. Trump and his aides had no evidence “that leads us to believe that [The WSJ article] is an accurate account of what is actually happening”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 February 2017 | Permalink

Top aide to Trump’s security adviser denied security clearance by CIA

Michael FlynnA senior aide to Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser to United States President Donald Trump, will have to step down from his post because his application for a security clearance was rejected, say sources. Flynn had chosen Robin Townley, a former intelligence officer in the US Marine Corps, to serve as Senior Director for Africa on the National Security Council, a forum chaired by the president, which makes key decisions on domestic and foreign issues. Townley, who is described as “one of Flynn’s closest deputies”, held a top-secret security clearance for many years during his government career. But joining the National Security Council requires a so-called “sensitive compartmented information” clearance. This elite-status clearance allows designated individuals to access government programs and operations that are deemed highly sensitive.

According to Politico, Townley’s application for a sensitive compartmented information clearance was rejected last week. The news website cited two anonymous sources “with direct knowledge of the situation”, who said that Townley was informed on Friday that his application had been rejected. The rejection came from the Central Intelligence Agency, said Politico. One source told the website that the rejection had been met with agreement by Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s appointee to head the CIA. Townley cannot reapply for clearance, which means that he will have to give up his National Security Council post. Flynn will have to replace him.

The Politico report claims that Flynn and his team were “infuriated” by the CIA’s decision, which is expected to further-escalate tensions between the retired lieutenant-general and the Intelligence Community. Flynn has been criticized for his allegedly close connections to the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, he delivered a speech in Moscow in return for a fee, and dined with Putin. Earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated a telephone conversation between Flynn and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US, as part of a counterintelligence probe. Last week, The Washington Post alleged that Flynn and Kislyak discussed the topic of American economic sanctions on Russia, and that Flynn told the Russian diplomat that they would be lifted by the Trump administration.

The Politico report said that Flynn’s team views the rejection of Townley’s security clearance application as “a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him”. It also said that Flynn’s team believe that the Intelligence Community feels “threatened by Flynn and his allies”. The website contacted the National Security Council and the CIA but received no responses.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 February 2017 | Permalink

Trump removes DNI, reinstates CIA on the National Security Council

Trump CIAThe White House announced on Monday a revised policy that reinstates the Central Intelligence Agency on the National Security Council. Chaired by the president, the NSC was established 70 years ago as a forum to provide the commander-in-chief with advice from senior civilian and military officials before making key decisions on domestic and foreign affairs. Principal attendees of the NSC include the US vice president, the secretaries of state, defense, and energy, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the director of national intelligence. Last week, the White House removed the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence from the Principals Committee —the core participants— of the NSC. A statement from the White House said that they would be invited to join the Principals Committee only when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed”.

On Monday, a new statement by the White House revised last week’s memorandum, by listing the director of the CIA as a “regular attendee” in NSC meetings. When asked by journalists about the change, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained that “[t]he president has such respect for [CIA] Director [Mike] Pompeo and the men and women of the CIA, that today the president is announcing that he will amend the memo to add the CIA back into the NSC”.

Throughout the Cold War, the CIA was viewed as the most powerful and influential agency in the US Intelligence Community. It answered directly to the president and its director mediated between the White House and all of the nation’s intelligence agencies. That changed in 2005, when the administration of George W. Bush established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as the central coordinating body of the US Intelligence Community. In the same year, the Bush administration replaced the CIA director’s place in the NSC with the DNI. Since that time, the DNI has acted as the de facto intelligence representative on the NSC. But Monday’s memorandum changes that, by essentially removing the DNI from the NSC and replacing him with the director of the CIA. Some believe that the change is bound to create tension between the DNI and the CIA, two agencies that have had a stormy relationship in the past decade. The CIA and the ODNI have not yet commented on the amended memorandum issued by the White House.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 January 2017 | Permalink

US spies fear Trump travel ban will hurt recruitment of Muslim assets

US Customs and Border Protection officers at JFK International AirportIntelligence veterans have raised concerns that the temporary ban on immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations, which has been imposed by the White House, will significantly hinder American efforts to recruit intelligence assets and sources in Muslim countries. United States President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday, banning entry into the United States of citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya. According to the White House, the goal of the temporary ban is to help increase domestic security in the US. But according to Jeff Stein, a former intelligence officer and veteran intelligence correspondent, many in the US Intelligence Community view the travel ban as counterproductive and potentially fatal for their ability to operate.

In an article for Newsweek, Stein explains that, ever since the Cold War, American intelligence agencies have guaranteed to their assets —foreigners who agree to spy for the US— that they and their families will be exfiltrated to America if their lives are in danger. In other cases, assets or their family members are given costly medical treatment or educational opportunities in the US. The promise of eventual resettlement in America is a core recruiting tool used by case officers working in agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency or the Defense Intelligence Agency. It is especially valuable in Muslim countries, where American spy agencies have traditionally found it difficult to operate, and where asset recruitment is arduous and dangerous. If current and potential assets are in any way concerned that they may not be able to enter the US, or not respected once they enter, their willingness to cooperate with their American spy handlers can quickly evaporate. Stein quotes Cindy Storer, who served 20 years as an analyst in the CIA, mostly on counterterrorism, and was in the agency team that led the successful hunt for al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Storer exclaimed that the travel ban “hurts, capital H-U-R-T-S” the CIA’s ability to collect intelligence. Another CIA veteran, Phillip Lohaus, who also served in the US Special Operations Command, lamented the “reduced likelihood that those in countries targeted by the ban will work with us in the future”.

Henry Miller-Jones, who worked for many years as a CIA operations officer in the Middle East, warned that the travel ban was likely to damage the flow of useful intelligence collected by US agencies from “students, professors, visiting businessmen and others” from Muslim countries. The latter are often recruited by US intelligence agencies when visiting America. Additionally, said Miller-Jones, Americans who travel or live in the Muslim world would now “get the cold shoulder” from potentially valuable contacts in those regions. He told Stein that CIA case officers often struggle to convince potential assets that America respects their religion and culture. The travel ban, no matter how geographically limited or temporary, will make it even more difficult to convince these potential assets to work for US intelligence now, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 January 2017 | Permalink

Some at CIA wonder whether to share sources and methods with Trump

Donald Trump CIAOfficials at the United States Central Intelligence Agency have questioned whether it is safe for them to reveal the sources of their information about Russia to America’s new President, Donald Trump, according to a report. The implication is that some at the CIA are concerned that Trump’s allegedly close ties with Russian officials may put CIA operations officers in danger. The information was shared on Monday by Mary Louise Kelly, national security correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). She told the Washington-based station that relations between the CIA and the new American president remain cool, despite the apparent rapprochement between the two sides last Saturday, when Trump gave a speech at the CIA headquarters.

Kelly cited Steve Hall, a former CIA operations officer who retired from the agency in 2015 after three decades in the National Clandestine Service, which is runs intelligence operations around the world. Hall spent time in Europe, Latin America and Central Eurasia, and some believe he was CIA station chief (America’s senior intelligence representative) in Moscow for a number of years. Hall retired as a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, which consists of the most senior members of the National Clandestine Service. In her report, Kelly identified Hall as the CIA’s former “chief of Russia operations”. She told NPR that Kelly had responded with skepticism to President Trump’s speech at the CIA headquarters last weekend. He wondered, she said, what would happen if the CIA collected “a stellar piece of intelligence that […] puts [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in a bad light?”. Presumably the Agency would have to brief the US leader about the finding. But what if the president inquired about the source? The CIA would have to reveal its methods and sources, because that information cannot be kept from the president. According to Kelly, Hall asked: “How can you say no, we don’t trust you with the sourcing of that information?”. And continued: “[t]hat is a live question today at Langley”, referring to the location of the CIA headquarters in the US state of Virginia.

Last month, Hall wrote a guest column in The Washington Post in which he touched on the importance of sources and methods for the CIA. He wrote that the agency’s collection capabilities “could be rendered useless in one news cycle if disclosure is not handled correctly. [And] if it were human sources that provided the information, they could lose their lives”. Hall went on to argue that, if the CIA revealed its information about Russia’s alleged attempts to influence last November’s US presidential election, additional information would be demanded of it. “Questions like, ‘How exactly did you get that information?’ or ‘Where did that come from?’ and ‘When precisely did you know that?’ will inevitably be asked —and the protection of sources and methods will begin to erode”, wrote the retired CIA operations officer.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 January 2017 | Permalink

Pakistani doctor who helped CIA find bin Laden will stay in jail, says Islamabad

Dr Shakil Afridi

A Pakistani doctor who helped the United States find al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 will remain in prison, despite calls by Washington to have him released, according to a government official in Islamabad. Dr Shakil Afridi was arrested in 2011, soon after bin Laden was killed during a Central Intelligence Agency operation in a residential compound in the city of Abbottabad, located 70 miles north of the Pakistani capital. In the weeks following the CIA raid, it emerged that a team of local doctors and nurses had helped the American agency in its efforts to confirm bin Laden’s presence in the compound. The team of nearly 20 healthcare workers participated in a fake vaccination scheme carried out in Abbottabad, whose true purpose was to collect DNA samples from residents of the compound where the CIA believed bin Laden was hiding.

In February 2012, the then CIA Director, Leon Panetta, publicly admitted that the vaccination scheme had been funded by the CIA. By that time, Pakistani authorities had fired 17 healthcare workers who had participated in the CIA scheme and arrested its head, Dr. Afridi. Prior to his arrest, Dr. Afridi was employed as a surgeon by the government of the Khyber Agency, a Federally Administrated Tribal Area along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Bizarrely, Dr. Afridi was arrested for having alleged links with an Islamist group that operates in the region, known as Lashkar-e-Islam. In 2012, he was given a 33-year sentence for having links with terrorist groups. When his conviction was quashed in 2013, the doctor was ordered to remain in prison, and faced new charges, this time for alleged medical malpractice, which, according to the prosecution, resulted in the death of one of his patients.

Many American officials believe that the real reason for Dr. Afridi’s arrest is his collaboration with the CIA. In May of last year, Donald Trump said that, if elected US president, he would make Pakistan free Dr. Afridi, saying characteristically that he could achieve that “within two minutes”. But his comments prompted a strong response from Islamabad. On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Minister for Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, reiterated that Dr. Afridi would not be freed just because Washington wishes it. Speaking in response to a question from a member of the Pakistani Parliament’s upper house, Hamid said that Dr. Afridi “worked against [Pakistani] law and our national interest” and would face a trial, as planned, despite Trump’s pre-election pledge. There was no comment yesterday from the US president-elect’s team.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 January 2017 | Permalink