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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIA report says Saudi crown prince sent text messages to Khashoggi killer

Saud al-QahtaniSaudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent at least eleven text messages to the man in charge of the 15-member hit team that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month, according to a classified report produced by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA report was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, which said in a leading article on Saturday that the Saudi royal had sent the messages in the hours before and after Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi government adviser who moved to the US and became a vocal critic of the kingdom’s style of governance. He was killed and later dismembered by a hit team inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone for a scheduled visit in order to be issued written proof of his divorce from his former wife in Saudi Arabia.

Late last month, the CIA and its British equivalent, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), were reported to have concluded that Khashoggi’s murder was directly ordered by Prince Salman. But US President Donald Trump and leading members of his cabinet, including Secretaries of State Mike Pompeo and Defense James Mattis, have disputed these claims, saying there is “no smoking gun” that proves Prince Salman’s involvement. The US president said that Saudi Arabia was “a great ally” of Washington and that Prince Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder was unclear. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t”, he told reporters in Washington on November 20, referring to the prince, whom he considers a personal friend. Instead, the White House has placed blame for the journalist’s murder on Saud al-Qahtani (pictured), a former advisor to Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah, who is believed to have coordinated Khashoggi’s killing.

But new a new CIA assessment of Khashoggi’s murder that was leaked to The Wall Street Journal claims that the US spy agency has concluded with “medium-to-high” confidence that Prince Salman “personally targeted” the journalist and “probably ordered his death”. The leaked report, said The Journal, rests on several findings, including the fact that the prince sent at least 11 messages to al-Qahtani in the hours right before and right after the latter’s hit-team killed Khashoggi in Istanbul. The CIA report states that the Agency does not have access to the contents of the texts. But it states that this pattern of communication, along with other pieces of evidence “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi”.

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

Trump’s use of unsecured iPhone worries White House officials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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