CIA lost four paramilitary officers in daring South China Sea operation, say sources

Luzon Island PhilippinesFour highly trained paramilitary officers of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) died during a secret maritime operation off the coast of the Philippines in 2008, according to a new report. Yahoo News, which revealed the alleged incident last week, cited anonymous former intelligence officers in its reporting.

The four men were allegedly paramilitary operations officers (PMOOs) working for the CIA’s Maritime Branch, one of the three branches of the Agency’s Special Operations Group (SOG). The SOG operates under the CIA’s Special Activities Center (formerly Special Activities Division), which plans and supervises paramilitary and psychological operations around the world.

According to Yahoo News, the ill-fated operation took place in the South China Sea, a contested region that forms the epicenter of an ongoing rivalry between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, among other countries. The four PMOOs had been tasked with planting a sophisticated tracking device, disguised as a rock, which was designed to intercept signals produced by Chinese vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.

The operation involved the use of a 40-foot vessel belonging to the CIA and registered to a front company in the Philippines. Onboard the ship were four PMOOs, according to Yahoo News: Stephen Stanek, Michael Perich, Jamie McCormick and Daniel Meeks. Stanek, the group leader, had served as an ordnance disposal diver in the US Navy before he was hired by the CIA. His co-diver, Perich, had joined the CIA after having recently graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy. McCormick and Meeks had orders to stay onboard the vessel as supporting personnel.

Yahoo News claims the four men departed from Malaysia; they were carrying fake papers stating they had been hired by a Japanese company to transport the 40-foot ship to Japan. As they approached Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island, they decided to proceed with the mission, despite Tropical Storm Higos, which was dangerously approaching their location. The operation’s planners believed the storm would change course and would not affect the Luzon region. They were wrong, however, and the four men were lost at sea. Their bodies have never been found, according to Yahoo News.

Several months after the fatal incident, the CIA approached the families of the four late officers and invited them to Langley for a private ceremony, which was attended by the CIA’s leadership. That was the first time those family members were told that their loved ones had worked for the CIA. Yahoo News said it reached out to the family members, but they did not wish to comment on the story. The CIA also refused commenting on the report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2020 | Permalink

New law to give Australian intelligence officers more rights to use firearms

Australian Secret Intelligence ServiceThe Australian government has proposed a new law that would give intelligence officers broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. If it is approved by parliament, the new law would apply to the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), a civilian intelligence agency that carries out covert and clandestine operations abroad. Modeled after Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), ASIS was established in 1952, but its existence was not officially acknowledged by the Australian government until 25 years later, in 1977.

In 2004, ASIS was given legal permission for the first time to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. However, under current Australian law, this is allowed only as a last resort. ASIS personnel engaged in overseas operations are allowed to employ firearms in self-defense or to protect their agents —foreigners that have been recruited by ASIS to spy for Australia. However, the current government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison argues that ASIS personnel must be given broader powers to exercise “reasonable force” via the use of firearms during overseas operations. In a speech on Wednesday, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said that the overseas environment in which ASIS operates today is more complex than that of 2004, when the current laws of engagement were enacted. She added that nowadays ASIS personnel work in more hazardous locations, including warzones, and carry out “more dangerous missions in new places and circumstances”.

The government argues that the proposed changes will allow ASIS personnel to “protect a broader range of people and use reasonable force if someone poses a risk to an operation”. The new law will give ASIS officers permission to open fire against adversaries in order to protect parties other than themselves —such as hostages— or to avoid getting captured. This, says the government, will allow them to efficiently “protect Australia and its interests”. The last time that the Australian government flirted with the idea of giving ASIS broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations was in 2010. That year, the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commissioned a multimillion dollar independent review of the Australian intelligence community’s mission and operations. The review proposed that ASIS personnel be allowed more powers to carry and handle weapons while engaging in “paramilitary activities” outside Australia. But the proposal was never enacted into law.

The latest proposal by the Morrison administration is scheduled to be discussed in the Australian Parliament today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Russia did meddle in US election, but its goal was not to elect Trump

Trump 2016No person familiar with the theory and practice of intelligence will be shocked by allegations that Russia interfered in the recent American presidential election. On the contrary, the claim will strike experienced observers as a textbook case of covert operation —an intelligence activity designed to influence foreign political, military or economic developments. Far from being physically violent, most covert operations involve actions like secretly funding political parties, planting misinformation or propaganda in foreign media outlets and —in more extreme cases— bribing or extorting key political actors. During the Cold War, hardly a national election took place without attracting the covert attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its Soviet equivalent, the KGB. This practice continues today, as nearly every intelligence agency engages in covert operations of some form or other.

It would thus be extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election. To not have done so would mean that the Russian intelligence apparatus failed to abide by its mission statement. Such an eventuality would be unthinkable, especially given the size and importance of the target. It should therefore be presumed that Russian spy agencies, in particular the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, engaged in systematic efforts to meddleq-quote in last month’s US election. Indeed, the opposite would be strange.

The view that Russian spy agencies interfered in the US presidential election does not, for the moment, rely on publicly available evidence. The latter remains absent, though it is worth noting that, according to The Washington Post, US intelligence agencies concluded “with high confidence” that Russia meddled in the campaign over many months. It is always wise to treat claims in the media by unnamed “US officials” with some skepticism. But if The Post’s allegation is factual, then the words “with high confidence” are significant. The business of intelligence analysis is one of accuracy and precision. The term “high confidence” is rarely employed, and when it is, it typically denotes an almost indisputable degree of confidence in an analytical conclusion.

That the president-elect chose to automatically dismiss The Post’s allegations by describing them as “ridiculous” and denouncing the CIA in its entirety as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” is worrying. It indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the intelligence profession and its role in executive decision-making. Ideally, the president-elect should have remained silent until he had an opportunity to confer with the CIA and examine the evidence behind the report. Instead, during a Sunday morning interview on Fox News, Trump said simply: “I don’t believe it”. But this has nothing to do with belief. It has to do with facts and data, which he ought to examine before summarily dismissing an entire agency.

What is more, the evidence behind these allegations must be presented to the American people, who were the ultimate targets of the alleged operation. This was not about the two presidential q-quotecandidates. This was about the reputation of the American electoral process. In fact, the primary goal of Russia’s involvement in the US election —which, again, must be presumed— was not to empower a particular candidate, but to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole. Those who claim that the Kremlin tried to promote Trump because the Republican candidate appears to be more favorably disposed toward Russia are wrong. They misunderstand the complex nature of Russian-American relations and underestimate Russian strategy. Moscow understands that its bilateral relationship with Washington rests on a set of longstanding geopolitical variables and does not depend on ephemeral personal relations between individual leaders. Furthermore, the Kremlin views Trump as an inherently unpredictable actor that is not to be trusted. The Russian plan, therefore, was not to help elect Trump. Rather, it was to sow mistrust between American –and by extension Western– civil society and its political institutions. Given the challenges currently being faced by European and American democracy, that is not a far-fetched goal.

The current state of American politics, which is characterized by ugly sectarianism the likes of which have not been witnessed since the Vietnam War, favors Russia’s strategic goals. Many Americans are currently convinced that the president-elect and some of his most senior aides are influenced by Moscow. Instead of actively trying to alleviate these concerns, Trump has now gone on an all-out offensive against the US Intelligence Community while essentially defending Russia. Americans who care about the current state and future of the Republic must be seriously concerned with this picture, regardless of their political affiliation. It may be that the history textbooks of the future will record the Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election as one of the most successful covert operations of modern times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 December 2016 | Permalink

Senior US intelligence official tells Congress not to ‘micromanage’ spy efforts

James ClapperThe United States’ senior intelligence officer has told Congress that new legislation requiring spy agencies to act against alleged Russian covert operations constitutes “micromanagement” of the American Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Authorization bill, which includes a number of intelligence-related requirements and provisions, is debated and enacted each year by Congress. This year’s legislation has already been approved by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. Last week it was enacted by the House, while the Senate is preparing to debate it this week.

The legislation currently under debate includes instructions to the US Intelligence Community to set up an interagency committee to formulate responses to perceived Russian covert operations around the world. The term ‘covert operations’ refers to actions by intelligence agencies designed to influence foreign political, military or economic affairs or events. The topic received media attention during the 2016 US presidential election, when Washington repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to shape its outcome. This year’s Intelligence Authorization bill requires every US intelligence agency to appoint a representative to serve on a joint panel that will address alleged Russian covert operations in the US, Europe and elsewhere in the world.

But in September of this year, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, America’s most senior intelligence official, authored a letter to Congress arguing that the requirement for an interagency panel to look into Russian covert operations should be scrapped. According to the Reuters news agency, which said last week that it saw a copy of the letter, Clapper argues that his letter echoes the unanimous view of the US Intelligence Community. He goes on to claim that the requirement to set up a special committee with an operational focus exceeds Congress’ role of overseer of the Intelligence Community and enters the realm of prescribing intelligence tasks. That, says Clapper in his letter, amounts to “micromanagement” of the Intelligence Community by Congress. Furthermore, he argues, the Intelligence Community has already taken steps to address Russian covert operations, thus the suggested panel would “duplicate current work” on the issue. Finally, Clapper’s letter suggests that the required panel would “hinder cooperation” with some of America’s overseas allies, though the Reuters report did not explain the precise justification for that claim.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 December 2016 | Permalink

Ex-CIA officer seeks Italian pardon for role in abduction operation

Giorgio Napolitano By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who has been convicted in absentia in Italy for his role in an abduction operation, has contacted the Italian president seeking a formal pardon. Robert Seldon Lady was the CIA station chief in Milan in February 2003, when a team of 23 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, abducted Mustafa Osama Nasr. The CIA suspected the Egyptian-born Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, of working as a recruiter for a host of radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. In 2005, Italian authorities, which had not authorized Nasr’s kidnapping, convicted Lady, along with 22 other Americans, of abduction. The convictions were delivered in absentia, as the Americans had earlier left the country. Washington has refused to extradite them to Rome. Earlier this week, Lady wrote a letter to the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, saying he had never intended to “disrespect Italy’s sovereignty” and asking for the President’s “personal forgiveness and pardon”. In his letter, Lady argues that he operated “under orders from senior American officials” with the aim of protecting lives, adding that US intelligence activities had been able to “stop numerous plans and targets of terrorists operating in Milan and elsewhere in Italy”. The former CIA officer also claims that the 2003 kidnapping of Nasr had taken place “in liaison with senior members of the Italian government”. He concludes by expressing his “regret” for his “participation in any activities which could be viewed as contrary to the laws of Italy”. Read more of this post

Former CIA station chief arrested in Panama ‘has been released’

Panama-Costa Rica borderBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A former station chief for the Central Intelligence Agency, who was detained in Panama last week for his alleged role in the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in Italy, returned to the United States on Friday. The US Department of State said Robert Seldon Lady had been released by Panamanian authorities 24 hours after he was detained near Panama’s border with Costa Rica. Lady was the CIA’s station chief in Milan in February 2003, when a team of 23 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, abducted Mustafa Osama Nasr. The CIA suspected the Egyptian-born Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, of working as a recruiter for a host of radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. In 2005, Italian authorities, which had not authorized Nasr’s kidnapping, convicted Lady, along with 22 other Americans, of abduction. The convictions were delivered in absentia, as the Americans had earlier left the country. Washington has refused to extradite them to Rome. Lady was crossing from Panama into Costa Rica at a remote jungle border crossing early on Thursday, when, according to Costa Rican authorities, “a check on his passport triggered an INTERPOL alert”. Following negotiations between Costa Rican and Panamanian authorities, Lady was detained by Panamanian border guards, who alerted INTERPOL and Italy. Late on Friday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to offer details on the case, but confirmed that Lady was “either en route or back in the United States”. A Panamanian foreign ministry source told Reuters that Lady was released because “Panama does not have an extradition treaty with Italy and because documentation sent by Italian officials was insufficient”. Read more of this post

Panama arrests ex-CIA chief of station wanted by INTERPOL

Panama-Costa Rica borderBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A retired 21-year veteran of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who is wanted by INTERPOL for participating in the abduction of a Muslim cleric in Italy, has been detained by police in Panama. Robert Seldon Lady was the CIA’s station chief in Milan in 2003, when a team of 23 Americans, most of them CIA officers, abducted Mustafa Osama Nasr. The CIA suspected the Egyptian-born Nasr, known also as Abu Omar, of working as a recruiter for a host of radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. On February 17, 2003, Nasr was seized in dramatic fashion by a group of CIA operatives in broad daylight in Milan. He was stuffed into an unmarked white van and eventually ended up in Egypt, where he was tortured before being released. Nasr’s case helped raise awareness of the US government’s extraordinary rendition program. Under the controversial program, suspected terrorist operatives were secretly taken to third-party countries where they were subjected to aggressive interrogation techniques. Italian authorities were irritated by Nasr’s kidnapping, which they claimed took place without the consent of the Italian government. There are also reports that the Italian intelligence services were monitoring Nasr at the time and were trying to recruit him as a source, which might explain why they were incensed when the Egyptian was snatched by the CIA without their authorization. Read more of this post

‘Massive expansion’ in US covert operations in Africa

US military base in DjiboutiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The United States administration of President Barack Obama is implementing a near-unprecedented expansion of covert operations by American military forces throughout Africa, aimed at a host of armed groups deemed extremist by Washington. A lead article published yesterday in The Washington Post quotes over a dozen unnamed American and African officials, as well as military contractors, who refer to the US military-led effort as Project CREEKSAND. It allegedly involves secret operations in several African countries, conducted out of a large network of small air bases located in strategic locations around the continent. According to The Post, most of the airplanes used in Project CREEKSAND are small, unarmed, disguised to look like private aircraft, and bear no military markings or government insignia. In reality, however, they carry sophisticated electronic equipment designed to collect signals intelligence, while some are used to transport US Special Forces troops during capture or kill missions. The paper quotes an unnamed “former senior US commander […] involved in setting up the [air bases] network”, who alleges that the US government has built about a dozen such bases throughout Africa since 2007. These secret air bases are located in countries such as Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, and Seychelles. Most of the US personnel involved in Project CREEKSAND consists of Special Operations forces tasked with “training foreign security forces [and] performing aid missions”. However, The Post alleges that there are also small teams of US operatives who are “dedicated to tracking and killing suspected terrorists”. Read more of this post

US considered covert mission to recover drone captured by Iran

Iran

Iran

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
What a difference two days can make! On Monday we speculated that Iran may have captured intact a United States Air Force RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone. At that time, most American officials questioned or flatly denied Iran’s capture claims. It now appears almost certain that Iran is indeed in possession of the aircraft; what is more, it seems increasingly likely that the captured drone was conducting a Central Intelligence Agency reconnaissance mission when it crashed in the desert along the country’s 1,000 km-long border with Afghanistan. The significance of the drone’s capture by Iranian authorities can be discerned from the fact that US officials are said to have considered last weekend several options for retrieving it from Iranian territory. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the US Department of Defense, in association with the CIA, discussed at least three separate plans for recovering or destroying the aircraft wreckage. One of the options discussed involved sending an airborne team of US covert operatives into northeast Iran to locate the crashed drone, disassemble it, and carry its top-secret mechanical and electronic components back to a US base in Afghanistan. The US also considered deploying Special Forces stationed in Afghanistan, or tasking US intelligence assets inside Iran, with locating and blowing up the crashed drone. A third option involved destroying the downed aircraft with a remote airstrike from Afghanistan. Read more of this post

Analysis: CIA retains special operations role in post-9/11 era

CIA HQ

CIA HQ

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Despite its ‘shoot ’em-up’ image in popular culture, the Central Intelligence Agency is predominantly responsible for collecting and analyzing intelligence for the benefit of US policymakers. The Agency’s paramilitary tasks —also known as ‘special operations’— form a somewhat smaller part of its overall mission. The CIA is America’s only government agency that can legally authorized by the President to perform special operations. The question is, should it? One of the 9/11 Commission Report’s chief recommendations was that the CIA should be stripped of its special operations function, and that the latter should be surrendered to the Department of Defense, in the form of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Clearly, JSOC has played an important role in post-9/11 counterterrorist operations. Yet it is equally clear that, not only has the CIA not been stripped of its paramilitary tasks, but the latter have actually been drastically augmented by the Obama administration —not least through the continuing unmanned drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A well-written analysis by Politico’s Josh Gerstein correctly notes that recommendations to eliminate the CIA’s paramilitary role and transfer it to the Pentagon “remain unpopular in the highest echelons”. The article quotes Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, who is one of the few intelligence planners that favor transferring special operations from the CIA to the Department of Defense. He says that military functions “ought to be performed by trained military organizations […]. Do you want the CIA operating a combatant command responsible for fighting our twilight wars, especially in a world when twilight wars are the wars we mainly fight?”. The argument seems to be that, as special operations become increasingly central in America’s ‘war on terrorism’, they should be commanded by a military, rather than a civilian, agency. An unnamed former CIA official puts forward the Agency’s view in the article: what do you do “if you have a [host] country that wants to deny a program”? In other words, how do you exercise plausible deniability through the Department of Defense? “[T]he CIA is going to [have to] move to the front of the queue”, he answers. Read more of this post

White House considering covert operations against Iran

Iran

Iran

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
One of the major strategic objections to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the near-certain prospect that removing the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party from power would increase Iranian-Shiite influence in the country. As the US military exit strategy gradually unfolds in Iraq, the administration of US President Barack Obama is faced with precisely this prospect. While US troops are leaving Iraq, Iran is doing what any logical regional power would do: namely strengthening its clandestine footprint inside Iraq and preparing Tehran-allied Iraqi groups for the impending showdown with Sunni power centers. An article that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal notes that “growing concern [about regional] influence from Iran” has prompted the Obama administration to explore covert ways of countering it. According to the article, US intelligence agencies have detected “increased arms smuggling [by Iran] to its allies” in Iraq, Bahrain and Syria (and, one would suppose, Lebanon, though this is not mentioned in the piece). The administration has therefore “pushed the military and intelligence communities to develop proposals to counter Tehran”, says the Journal. The push has prompted American intelligence and military planners to request “greater authority to conduct covert operations to thwart Iranian influence in neighboring Iraq”. This essentially implies an appeal for a Presidential “finding”, a secret executive authorization that —under the National Security Act— would provide the required legal basis for covert operations conducted abroad. Read more of this post

Western spies, security contractors, won Libyan war for rebels

Libya

Libya

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
As I write these lines, celebratory gunfire is being heard all across Tripoli and the rebel National Transitional Council is appointing civilians to replace the crumbling administration of longtime Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. But a handful of news outlets discreetly remind us that the rebels’ claim to victory rests on vital covert assistance provided by several Western intelligence services. British daily The Independent notes that the victorious rebels were assisted on all levels by “an army of [British] diplomats, spooks, military advisers and former members of the special forces”, all of whom allowed “London to influence events in Libya beyond the activities of warplanes and naval vessels”. Early indications of Britain’s substantial covert involvement in the Libyan civil war emerged in March, when a secret operation involving a team of 20 Special Air Service (SAS) personnel was disrupted by a group of Libyan rebels, who thought the foreigners were employed by the Libyan government. Eight captured SAS members were soon released by the red-faced rebels, but not before the botched operation had made headlines all over the world. That experience prompted British intelligence planners to rethink their methodology. Eventually, notes The Independent, the British government decided to prompt the rebel National Transitional Council to use British funds to hire teams of former special forces operatives working for private security firms. This, according to the paper, accounts for the “small groups of […] Caucasian males, many with British accents [and] equipped with sunglasses, 4×4 vehicles and locally acquired weaponry, who [were] seen regularly by reporters in the vanguard of the rebels’ haphazard journey […] towards Tripoli”. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #510 (bin Laden edition)

  • Europe says US slow in sharing bin Laden intel. European security officials have lots of questions about the intelligence being analyzed from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, but so far they have seen very little of it, they say.
  • Did Pakistani official lead US to bin Laden? There are rumors in Pakistan that the CIA was tipped off about the location of bin Laden’s hideout from a walk-in informant at the US Embassy in Islamabad.
  • CIA interrogates bin Laden’s wives. US intelligence officials have interrogated the three wives of Osama Bin Laden who were left behind in his compound after Navy Seals shot dead the al-Qaeda leader. The women, Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, of Yemen, and Khairiah Sabar and Siham Sabar, both of Saudi Arabia, were apparently “hostile” and uncooperative during the interrogations

News you may have missed #508

  • US not to withdraw Pakistan CIA chief. The US has said it will not withdraw the CIA station chief in Pakistan, despite his name being leaked to local media last week. But officials quoted by US media said the name published in Pakistani news outlets was spelled incorrectly.
  • CIA, not Pentagon, ran bin Laden operation. Has anyone noticed that CIA Director Leon Panetta has said a lot more about the Navy commandos’ killing of Osama bin Laden than has the Pentagon chief? The reason Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said exactly nothing about the raid is that the CIA, not the Pentagon, ran the operation.
  • Spy vs. spy in China. Interesting summary of the case of Glenn Shriver, an American who was arrested last year for accepting $70,000 from Chinese spies as he attempted to secure jobs with the CIA and US Foreign Service that would have allowed him to expose US government secrets.

News you may have missed #503

  • Dutch forces’ covert operations in Africa revealed. Dutch forces have for several years been training government soldiers in Mali, Senegal and Chad, without the Dutch parliament being informed, according to Dutch newspaper AD, which cites documents from the US Congress and the Pentagon.
  • Israel destroys spying devices found in Gaza. Hamas sources have told Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram that they discovered several “audio-visual spying devices” in the sand hills south of Gaza City. But, as soon as they started removing the devices, they “received a phone call from Israeli intelligence elements” telling them that the site would be bombed “within three minutes” —which is precisely what happened, according to al-Ahram. Regular readers of this blog will know this incident was not a first.
  • Leaked documents reveal Guantanamo secrets. A batch of leaked US government intelligence documents, not meant to surface for 20 years, shows that intelligence collection at Guantánamo often was much less effective than the George Bush administration has acknowledged. According to the documents, the US military used interrogation and detention practices that they largely made up as they went along.