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

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

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

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

UK may stop intelligence sharing with the US if Trump brings back torture

Theresa May Donald TrumpThe British government may limit or end intelligence cooperation with the United States, if Washington revives its post-9/11 torture program, according to reports. On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump said he had asked “people at the highest level of intelligence […], does torture work?” and had received the answer “yes, absolutely”. He added that he was considering reviving some of the torture techniques that were used in the “war on terrorism”, including waterboarding and, in his words, “a hell of a lot worse”.

But on Thursday, the British Prime Minister Theresa May warned that her government might be forced to reexamine its intelligence-sharing relationship with Washington, if the US reinstituted torture as a method of interrogation. Speaking to journalists during a flight to the US to meet President Trump, the British prime minister stressed that the United Kingdom “absolutely condemn[ed] the use of torture” and that she would deliver that message to her American counterpart. According to British law, government officials and intelligence personnel are forbidden from sharing intelligence with countries that are known to employ torture against detainees. They are also not allowed to use intelligence gathered by other countries through the use of torture.

Thursday’s comments by Theresa May point to a potentially serious rift between American and British, as well as European intelligence agencies, whose attitudes toward so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ differ widely from those of President Trump. British newspaper The Daily Mail quoted Matt Tait, a former information security specialist for Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s signals intelligence agency, who warned of a potential split between British and American spy agencies. If Trump reinstituted torture as a form of interrogation, it would mean that the United States Intelligence Community would “intentionally engage in war crimes”, said Tait. That would “make it impossible” for the UK to cooperate with the US “across a range of intelligence programs”, he added.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 January 2017 | Permalink