Mystery sonic device blamed for foreign diplomats’ hearing loss in Cuba

US embassy in CubaAuthorities in Cuba, the United States and Canada are investigating reports that several foreign diplomats stationed in Havana have been experiencing severe hearing loss in recent months. Some are blaming the deployment of a mystery “covert sonic device” for the diplomats’ symptoms. The allegations originate from diplomatic personnel stationed at the US embassy in Havana. The embassy reopened in 2015, 54 years after it was closed down following a series of diplomatic rifts between Cuba and the US during the height of the Cold War.

Last week, citing anonymous “officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case”, the Associated Press said that the first hearing loss symptoms were reported by personnel at the US embassy in Havana in the fall of 2016. Several of them —five, according to the Associated Press, though the Department of State will not give a precise number— reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. The news agency reported that, in a few cases, the symptoms were so serious that caused some American diplomats “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”. Following those bizarre incidents, authorities in Washington proceeded to conduct an investigation. They concluded that the American diplomats had suffered loss of hearing after being repeatedly “exposed to an advanced device that had been deployed either inside or outside their residences”.

In response to the outcome of the investigation, the White House secretly ordered on May 23 of this year the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats from the embassy of Cuba in DC. But the Cuban government denied that it had anything to do with the American diplomats’ symptoms, and some believe that the alleged “covert sonic device” may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of Cuban authorities. Meanwhile, the plot thickened on Friday of last week, after the Canadian government claimed that at least one of its diplomats stationed in Havana had also suffered from sudden loss of hearing. Canada has now joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Diplomatic Security Service in the US in investigating the incidents. The Cubans have also launched their own investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2017 | Permalink

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Cold War files show CIA support for guerrilla warfare inside USSR (Part II)

Latvia Forest BrothersThe role of the CIA in funding and helping to organize anti-Soviet groups inside the USSR has been known for decades. But, as intelNews explained in part I of this article, a batch of recently released documents, unearthed by Russian-language service of Latvian state television, sheds light into the CIA’s early understanding of the identity, strength and operations of these groups. They also contain new information about the background and structure of underground anti-Soviet groups like the Forest Brothers in Latvia.

Judging that Latvia’s anti-Soviet underground movement could be “of considerable operational value”, the CIA initiated project ZRLYNCH in the summer of 1950. Operated out of the CIA’s Munich station in Germany, ZRLYNCH was intended as a long-term project supervised by the Office of Policy Coordination, an early Cold War covert operations outfit that in 1952 was absorbed into the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. The Latvia operation was part of a wider effort by the CIA, which was aimed at subverting Soviet power in Eastern Europe.

For the first year of ZRLYNCH, the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination asked for —and received— a budget of $30,000. The top-secret document unearthed recently by Latvian state television states that the budget was to be used primarily for intelligence collection inside Soviet territory, as well as for covert operations by the Forest Brothers (for information about the group, see part I of this post). The latter were to conduct sabotage activities as part of organized guerrilla warfare. These activities are not specified in the CIA documents. By the end of the first year, it appears that the CIA had recruited three Latvian agents in Europe (one in Sweden and two in Germany), who were acting as mediators between the CIA and the Forest Brothers inside the USSR. Less than three years later, the ZRLYNCH budget had risen to $134,000, with $52,000 going toward covert —mostly psychological— operations and the rest being used to fund intelligence collection efforts. The CIA was also funding the travel expenses of leading Latvian émigré figures in the US, and was diverting tens of thousands of dollars toward Latvian émigré conferences in America, which aimed to unite the various political factions of the fragmented Latvian community in the States.

But the CIA officers behind ZRLYNCH were extremely concerned about operational security. They did not want the Kremlin finding out that the Agency was behind efforts to stir up armed resistance against Soviet power in the Baltic region. One CIA document states that there would be no tolerance for “any breaches of security” that compromised ZRLYNCH. Consequently, any action that uncovered the link between the US government and the Forest Bothers would lead “to an immediate cessation of financial support” for ZRLYNCH, states the memo.

Ultimately, ZRLYNCH failed to seriously challenge Soviet power in Latvia. Most of the members of the Forest Brothers were killed during Red Army counterinsurgency operations, and much of the organization’s structure was penetrated by agents of Soviet intelligence. Eventually, the Forest Brothers became extinct in 1957, when their last members emerged from the forest and surrendered to Latvian and Soviet authorities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 August 2017 | Permalink

US reportedly considering airstrikes against pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines

The United States is reportedly weighing plans to launch airstrikes in the Philippines, against militant groups that are affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. However, some American officials are skeptical about reports of possible airstrikes, while Philippine government officials claim no such action is necessary. For more than 40 years, the Philippine army has been fighting a counterinsurgency campaign against secessionist Moros in the country’s southwest. The region is home to most of the Philippines’ Muslim population, which constitutes around 6 percent of the country’s overall population. In recent years, some Muslim secessionist groups, including the most formidable, Abu Sayyaf, have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.

For about 15 years, a small contingent of US troops has assisted the Philippine military in its war against Muslim militants. Known as Joint Special Operations Task Force Trident, the small group of US soldiers performs a low-key advisory role in the Philippine military’s counterinsurgency campaign. The American military presence in the Philippines is not a ‘named operation’, which means that its funding from the Pentagon is relatively small and its range of activities remains limited. But this week’s visit to Manila by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prompted rumors that Washington may be considering naming the Task Force Trident operation, and possibly increasing the scope of its activities to include airstrikes against Abu Sayyaf. The American news network NBC said on Tuesday that the US is considering launching an offensive air campaign against ISIS, “as part of [a new] collective self-defense” treaty with Manila. Citing two unnamed US defense officials, NBC said that the air campaign could be officially announced as early as this week.

But the network also said that another US official cautioned that a new collective self-defense agreement between the US the Philippines would not necessarily have to include provisions for an offensive air campaign. Typically, self-defense agreements between Washington and allied countries that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are “more about intelligence sharing than offensive US strikes”, said the official. Meanwhile, Philippine government officials denied on Tuesday that Manila had requested air support from Washington in its war against Abu Sayyaf. The island country’s Secretary of Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, told reporters that “there was no need” for US airstrikes in the Philippines. The US Pentagon did not comment on the NBC report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 August 2017 | Permalink

CIA’s withdrawal from Syria could cause pro-US rebels to join Islamists, experts warn

Free Syrian ArmyThe decision by the White House to terminate American support for rebels in war-torn Syria could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations, according to experts. The United States’ support for the rebels began in secret in early 2013, after the then US President, Barack Obama, instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. The CIA then joined forces with spy agencies from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. At that time, Washington saw the Free Syrian Army and forces affiliated with it as ideologically moderate. It also agreed with the group’s main aim, which was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, the CIA program was designed to mirror a similar project run by the US military in support of local troops fighting the Islamic State. On the one hand, the White House wanted to use the CIA’s support for the FSA to weaken militarily the regime in Damascus. On the other hand, Washington hoped that the CIA’s involvement in the region would be able to control the influx of weapons, money and fighters that were streaming in from neighboring countries. Under TIMBER SYCAMORE, for over three years, CIA personnel trained Free Syrian Army fighters in irregular warfare, while also providing them with light weaponry including machine guns, sniper rifles and off-road vehicles.

But on July 19 of this year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”. Some observers argued that the termination of TIMBER SYCAMORE was an attempt by the Trump administration to come to an agreement with Russia on Syria. It is believed that America’s local allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are also terminating their clandestine support for the Free Syrian Army, not wishing to go against the White House. This development, therefore, may signal the effective termination of substantial foreign support for the most important anti-Assad rebel group in Syria.

What does that mean for the fate of the Free Syrian Army and its thousands of fighters? Some experts say that their fate is uncertain, and warn that some of them may turn against their former benefactors. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Taylor Luck, said earlier this week that the Free Syrian Army reported 50 defections of its fighters in July. Some of these fighters, says Luck, are joining the Pentagon’s program in support of forces fighting the Islamic State, and are currently heading to the eastern and northern battlefronts. But many others are being tempted to join al-Qaeda affiliated groups, who are still fighting President Assad’s forces. Many do so for financial reasons, after seeing their CIA income suddenly disappear. Others, says Luck, are feeling very emotional and bitter against what they see as a betrayal by Washington. “We lost our brothers, our sisters, our children”, says one of these fighters, before vowing to fight Assad until the end. According to Luck’s report, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to come up with ways to continue to pay the Free Syrian Army rebels, in an attempt to stop them from joining rival jihadist groups.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 August 2017 | Permalink

US Pentagon wasted $450 million in Afghan spy training program, says watchdog

Afghan National ArmyNearly half a billion of American taxpayers’ funds were wasted by contractors hired by the United States government to train Afghan intelligence personnel, according to a scathing report by a Congressional body. The funds were spent between 2010 and 2013 by the US Department of Defense, in order to train several thousand members and a few dozen aspiring trainees of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Two companies, Legacy Afghanistan R&D and Afghanistan Source Operations Management, oversaw the training program. It was primarily executed by a contractor, Imperatis Corporation, and a subcontractor, New Century Consulting, at a total cost of $457 million to the US taxpayer.

But according to a new report, the four-year program was a monumental, multimillion dollar waste. The report was written by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The body was established by the US Congress in 2008 to supervise the effectiveness of US government-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. Dated July 2017, the SIGAR report says it is “almost impossible” to evaluate the effectiveness of the ANDSF intelligence-training program, because none of the contractors and subcontractors involved in it kept adequate training records. Based on the available information, the SIGAR report concludes that there is virtually “no indication of improvement in intelligence operations” by ANDSF as a result of the four-year training program.

Part of the reason for the poor value of the program is that “a significant portion” of the intelligence trainees enrolled in it performed below the minimum standards required. Additionally, few trainees actually completed the courses that were required prior to graduation. Shockingly, the US Pentagon paid the contractors in full despite the fact that they had failed to keep adequate records of their performance, an omission which legally entitled the Pentagon to refuse to payment. Even more incredibly, the SIGAR report also found that Imperatis Corporation billed the US taxpayer nearly $4 million between March and December of 2011 for training courses that had been canceled and were not being offered.

The training program’s subcontractor, New Century Consulting (owned by retired US Special Forces Colonel Tim Collins), was criticized two years ago in another SIGAR report for spending $130 million of US taxpayers’ funds on “unsupported” and “questioned” purchases. The program’s main contractor, Imperatis Corporation, went out of business in May 2016.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 August 2017 | Permalink

Dozens of Western ‘freelance fighters’ embedded with anti-ISIS forces in Syria

Kurdish YPG SyriaDozens of Western European and American citizens are participating in the ongoing takeover of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria, despite being prohibited from doing so by their own governments, according to recent news reports. Much has been written about foreign fighters who enter Iraq and Syria in order to join the ranks of the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that previously went by the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But relatively little attention has been paid to the thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to the region to join the war against ISIS.

In late 2015, independent researcher Nathan Patin published “The Other Foreign Fighters”, a rare examination of Americans who had joined the various armed groups fighting ISIS in the region. Patin found that at least 200 Americans had attempted to travel to the region in order to join the fight against ISIS as ‘freelance fighters’. Roughly half of those had managed to embed themselves with armed —primarily Kurdish— groups, and saw action on the ground. In 2016, three British and Irish anti-ISIS volunteers were jailed by Iraqi authorities while attempting to return to Europe after having fought for the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The three were initially suspected of being foreign ISIS volunteers, but were released from prison in April of 2016, after the YPG verified their bona fides.

A recent report by The Los Angeles Times claims that there are still “several dozen” Western volunteers embedded with anti-ISIS militias in Syria. They are doing so in the face of warnings by European and American government agencies that freelance participation in the Syrian civil war is a potentially punishable offense. The Times cited “local estimates” and spoke to Daman Frat, a YPG commander stationed in the eastern outskirts of Raqqa, who said that “several foreign volunteers” were embedded in YPG units. Most, though certainly not all of them, said Frat, had prior military experience. According to the paper, at least three Western volunteers, one British and two American citizens, have died in recent days, as YPG forces are closing in on the de facto ISIS capital. The US Departments of State and Defense, which are tacitly in support of the YPG and other Kurdish groups operating in Syria, did not comment on The Los Angeles Times report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2017 | Permalink

US plans to beef up Cyber Command, separate cyberwar operations from NSA

PentagonThe White House will soon announce its decision to strengthen the United States Cyber Command and separate cyber war operations from intelligence functions, according to insider reports. For many decades, the National Security Agency has been in charge of protecting America’s cyber network and combating online threats. But in 2009, the Administration of US President Barack Obama established a brand new Cyber Command, proposing that the online environment represented a new theater of war. Since that time, the US Department of Defense has been campaigning in favor of strengthening the new Cyber Command and completely removing it from the patronage of the NSA –despite the fact that the latter is also a Pentagon agency.

According to media reports, US President Donald Trump has decided to follow the Pentagon’s suggestion. After several months of delay, his administration is now preparing to announce a major reinforcement of the US Cyber Command, and a formal separation between its functions and those of the NSA. According to the American news network PBS, which broke the news on Monday, the idea behind the move is to give the Cyber Command more operational autonomy and to allow it to establish its own mission statement, which will be distinct from that of the NSA. The latter is an intelligence organization, which means that it primarily seeks to exploit adversary networks for purposes of collecting information. Broadly speaking, therefore, the NSA finds operational adversary cyber networks far more useful than destroyed networks. That tends to clash with the goals of the US Cyber Command, whose tactical goals often center on launching destructive attacks on enemy networks. It is believed that the impending change will allow it to do so without the interference of the NSA.

According to PBS, which cited anonymous sources in its report, the details of the separation “are still being worked out”. Furthermore, some observers caution that the Cyber Command will continue to rely on NSA technology and expertise for years to come, until it is able to carry its own weight. There is even less discussion about the view of the NSA on the matter, which some claim is notably negative. However, the move appears to have been decided, and the Cyber Command’s budget will be increased by nearly 20% to $647 million in the coming year, reflecting its elevated role in US defense.

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