Mystery compound in Nicaragua shows Russia’s resurgence in Americas, say experts

GLONASS ManaguaA Russian facility built on a hillside facing the United States embassy in the Nicaraguan capital Managua is seen by some experts as symptomatic of Russia’s renewed presence in the Americas. The official Russian explanation for the heavily protected facility, which is surrounded by high walls, is that it is meant to operate as a tracking station for GLONASS, Russia’s version of the global positioning system (GPS). The Russians do not use GPS, because it is owned by the US government and operated by the US Air Force. But some believe that only part of the compound is dedicated to GLONASS activities, and that a major portion is a Russian listening base that sweeps US communications from throughout the region.

Nicaragua has a long Cold War legacy that culminated in the 1980s. In 1979, a leftist insurgency toppled the country’s longtime dictator, Anastazio Somoza. The rebels, who called themselves the Sandinista National Liberation Front (known widely as the Sandinistas), alarmed the government of US President Ronald Reagan. Consequently, the White House authorized a series of covert operations against Nicaragua’s leftist government. They centered on the Contras, an anti-communist counter-insurgency that was largely funded by Washington throughout the so-called Contra war that dominated the country’s politics in the 1980s. But the war also affected politics in the US, and almost toppled the Reagan administration when the Iran-Contra affair (illegal arms sales to Iran by the US government, which then used the proceeds to secretly fund the Contras) was revealed in the media.

In an article published last week, The Washington Post reported that, under the Presidency of Vladimir Putin, Russia has reemerged as a force in Latin American politics. Moscow now regularly supplies weapons to several countries in the hemisphere, including Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Venezuela. It has also expanded its influence through the banking sector and via government loans in countries such as Brazil and Mexico. But Nicaragua, says The Post, has emerged as Russia’s closest ally in the region. For over a decade, the country’s political landscape has been dominated by the Sandinistas, who returned to power in 2006 and continue to govern the country today. The party was supported by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and thus retains strong historical links with Moscow. The Post reports that, according to some analysts, Russia seeks to cement its presence in America’s traditional backyard as a form of response to the eastward expansion of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 April 2017 | Permalink

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Analysis: US launches strikes against Syrian regime in major policy shift

Shayrat SyriaThe nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles that the United States fired at Syria in the early hours of Friday local time were not the first. Nor were they the first that struck a Syrian government installation. In September of 2016, for example, a United States airstrike hit a military base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, killing 62 and wounding over 100 government soldiers. However, the Pentagon claimed that the strike was in error and had been intended to hit Islamic State militants. In fact, the entirety of America’s previous military strikes on Syrian soil has been aimed at the Islamic State. The missiles that last night on the Syrian military airbase of Shayrat marked Washington’s first intentional attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Consequently, the US is now an official belligerent in one of our time’s most complex and intractable armed conflicts.

Since the missile attacks were confirmed, all eyes have concentrated on Russia, President Al-Assad’s primary supporter, without whom Damascus would now probably be run by a consortium of Sunni militias. There is no question that Shayrat hosts a significant contingent of Russian military personnel and large quantities of Russian-supplied military equipment, ranging from airplanes to radar facilities. Moscow’s response to the American attack will largely depend on whether any of its personnel are among the casualties in Shayrat. There is also concern about China’s response, given that Washington’s attack took place during the official visit to the United States by Xi Jinping, premier of China, another strong Syrian ally. Finally, it is worth considering possible Iranian responses to the US attack, especially if Iranian citizens end up on the casualty list.

The attention paid by observers to Russia, China and Iran is understandable given the clout of these countries on the world stage. But the most important response may come from Syria itself. According to the US Pentagon, the strike on the Shayrat airbase was intended “to deter the [Syrian] regime from using chemical weapons again”. But what if it does not? Last time Washington responded to rumors of a chemical attack in Syria, President Obama warned his counterpart in Damascus not to cross the red line of chemical warfare. Which, of course, was precisely what Mr. Assad did, successfully calling Washington’s bluff. He may do so again. Last night’s American attack may therefore result in an intensification of chemical warfare by the Syrian regime. At that point, US President Donald Trump will have no choice but to deepen America’s involvement in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable war, where he will find Russia on the opposite side.

Few supporters of President Trump, who campaigned promising to disengage America from foreign wars and focus on domestic concerns, could would have imagined even a month ago that the White House would be entering the Syrian Civil War. And yet this is precisely what is happening. The US now has over 500 troops stationed on Syrian soil, and has just attacked the country’s government with dozens of missiles. The reaction to that attack by the government in Damascus may draw Washington even deeper into the Syrian war. Many observers in America have suggested that the only way to truly evaluate the Trump administration will be by observing its performance during a major international crisis. It appears that they may soon get their wish.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 March 2017 | Permalink

Trump trying to assert control over intelligence agencies, say sources

Dan CoatsRelentless bureaucratic skirmishes between the White House and the United States Intelligence Community are occurring daily, with administration officials attempting to “seize the reins” of agencies, according to sources. The Associated Press reports that senior officials around US President Donald Trump continue to “deep[ly] distrust” the Intelligence Community”. This tendency is reportedly more prevalent among those of Mr. Trump’s senior political advisers who are “government newcomers” and have never before been privy to classified information or intelligence programs.

According to the Associated Press, the US president has been trying various ways to “seize the reins” of the Intelligence Community. The news agency cites unnamed “US officials” who claim that Mr. Trump and his senior advisers have requested that they be given access to raw intelligence. At the same time, they have expressed little interest in being exposed to the analysis of raw intelligence produced by intelligence professionals. Typically, White House officials will rely primarily on the expert opinions of intelligence analysts and will not seek to access the raw data that these opinions rest on. But it appears that Mr. Trump and his team of advisers do not think highly of the analytical assessments of the Intelligence Community, preferring instead to make up their own mind based on their own reading of raw intelligence reports. According to the Associated Press report, that appears to be one of the ways in which the White House has been trying to assert its power over the Intelligence Community.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s advisers are pressing on with a comprehensive review of the structure and operations of the Intelligence Community. The review is now being led by Dan Coats, a Congressman from Indiana and former US Ambassador to Germany, who last month was confirmed to serve as the Director of National Intelligence. According to sources, Coats resisted initial plans by the White House to abolish the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was set up after the 9/11 attacks to coordinate the work of the Intelligence Community. The Trump team still plans to “trim and optimize” the Intelligence Community, but probably will not outright dismantle agencies like the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, according to the Associated Press.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 April 2017 | Permalink | Research credit: SF

FBI accuses US State Department official of contacts with Chinese spies

US Department of StateAn employee of the United States Department of State has been charged with lying to authorities about her contacts with Chinese intelligence operatives, who gave her money and gifts in return for information. Candace Claiborne, 60, joined the Department of State in 1999 as an office management specialist. She lives in Washington, DC, but has served overseas in American diplomatic facilities in Baghdad, Iraq, Khartoum, Sudan, and China, where she was stationed in Beijing and Shanghai. According to information provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Claiborne had a top security clearance, which required her to report contacts with foreign nationals.

However, federal prosecutors said earlier this week that Claiborne interacted on a regular basis with Chinese intelligence personnel without informing her employer. According to court documents, her contacts with the Chinese were extensive and occurred from 2011 until earlier this year. The Chinese gave Claiborne gifts, including computers and smartphones, tuition-free studies in a Chinese technical school, and an all-expenses-paid holiday to Thailand. They also gave her a regular stipend and provided her with a furnished apartment abroad, according to prosecutors. In return, Claiborne allegedly gave the Chinese information relating to American economic policy on China, among other topics.

It appears that the FBI monitored the State Department employee for a while, after securing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrant. When it confronted Claiborne, she apparently denied the accusations and lied to FBI agents. She is now charged with obstruction of justice and providing false statements to the FBI. Claiborne is currently under house arrest and will remain there until April 18, when she will appear at a preliminary hearing in Washington. She is reportedly facing a maximum of 25 years in prison.

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

US politics in uncharted waters as FBI announces probe into Russian activities

James ComeyMonday’s official announcement that an investigation is underway into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election was an important moment in American political history. It exposed the chaotic state of American politics and added yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come. This is regardless of the outcome of the investigation, which is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even if it fails to produce a ‘smoking gun’, the very fact that the country’s chief counterintelligence agency is examining the possibility that a US president was elected with help from Russia, is an astonishing development without parallel in modern American history.

It is important to recognize that the FBI would never have initiated such a controversial and politically charged investigation without having concrete proof of Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election. No agency of the US federal government would choose to dedicate enormous resources and personnel, and risk the political fallout that such a probe inevitably entails, without first having amassed indisputable evidence that necessitates it. Moreover, the FBI is not acting alone; its investigation almost certainly encompasses and incorporates similar probes carried out by other American security agencies, and possibly by agencies in allied countries, including the United Kingdom. It follows that the FBI investigation will undoubtedly confirm the existence of a systematic Russian intelligence operation that was aimed at influencing the outcome of last year’s American election.

As the present author has previously stated, it would 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 […]. Indeed, the opposite would have been strange”. The central question, of course, is: what types of activities were part of the Kremlin’s covert campaign? Did it mostly involve the methodical production and dissemination of so-called ‘fake news’? Did it involve substantial funding of individual candidates or political parties? Or were there perhaps instances of extortion and blackmail of targeted individuals? These questions must be answered in full, and their inherent complexity explains fully why the FBI Director James Comey would not discuss details of the investigation on Monday.

Crucially, the FBI probe will have to answer conclusively the question of whether members of the administration of US President Donald Trump, or indeed the president himself, were implicated in the Kremlin’s actions. Did the president and his senior campaign team know that the Kremlin was —allegedly—assisting their efforts? If so, how did they know? And if not, did they deliberately ignore concrete warnings pointing to the contrary?

Every American, regardless of political persuasion, who genuinely cares about his or her nation’s political stability, hopes that the FBI probe finds no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. However, there is an important sense in which, no matter the outcome of the investigation, serious damage has already been done. The reputation of American political institutions as a whole has been severely shaken, and mistrust between American civil society and its political institutions continues to rise exponentially. Meanwhile, it is safe to say that it will take months for the FBI’s probe to conclude. By then, the current chaotic state of American politics could be the a new permanently reality in Washington, a city that has witnessed much tumult in its history, though perhaps never as perplexing as the current crisis.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 March 2017 | Permalink

Trump authorizes CIA to bring back regular use of drone strikes

DroneUnited States President Donald Trump has reportedly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to bring back the routine use of lethal airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which his predecessor, Barack Obama, curtailed in 2013. Washington began employing limited strikes by UAVs, otherwise known as drones, in the early 1990s, during the administration of President Bill Clinton. But it was under the Obama administration that the use of drone strikes reached an all-time high, with hundreds of such attacks documented after 2008. It is believed that Obama used this remote attack method to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while at the same time keeping his promise of bringing back American troops from the Middle East and Central Asia. However, in 2013 the US president severely curtailed the controversial program, which some say damaged America’s image by inflicting civilian casualties.

But on Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump had resuscitated the drone program and authorized the CIA to begin using Predator drones on a regular basis against identified targets in the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the newspaper, the president gave senior CIA project mangers the right to authorize drone strikes. Under the Obama administration, the president himself, or especially designated National Security Council officials, had to give the go-ahead before the CIA could carry out drone strikes around the world.

The Wall Street Journal said that President Trump made the decision on January 21, just hours after taking office, following a secret meeting with senior officials from the CIA. According to the report, the CIA requested some time to rebuild the program. But the agency has allegedly conducted at least one drone strike, which targeted Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a known al-Qaeda senior commander in Syria, who was reputed to be a son-in-law of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 March 2017 | Permalink

FBI launches criminal investigation into WikiLeaks’ CIA disclosures

WikiLeaksThe United States federal government has launched a criminal investigation into the public disclosure of thousands of documents that purportedly belong to the Central Intelligence Agency. The documents were released on Tuesday by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. They reveal what appear to be technical collection methods used by the CIA to extract information from digital applications and electronic devices, ranging from flash drives to smart screen televisions. WikiLeaks named the collection “Vault 7”, and said that it consists of nearly 8,000 web pages and 1,000 attachments. It also said that its editors redacted hundreds of pages of computer code, in order to prevent the public release of advanced cyberweapons allegedly used by the CIA to sabotage electronic devices and systems.

On Wednesday, former director of the CIA Michael Hayden told the BBC that the disclosure appeared “incredibly damaging”, because it revealed some of the methods that the CIA uses to acquire information. But some cybersecurity experts said that the techniques contained in the leaked documents did not appear to be uniquely advanced, and most focused on exploiting technical vulnerabilities that were generally known. Still, The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the CIA had begun to assess the damage caused by the release. The agency was also trying to contain the extent of the damage, and had even “halt[ed] work on some projects”, said The Times. Officials from the CIA are reportedly in communication with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which on Wednesday launched a criminal investigation into the “Vault 7” release.

The main purpose of the FBI investigation is to find out how WikiLeaks acquired the files. The website said that the documents were leaked by a CIA contractor, which would imply that they were accessed from a server outside the CIA’s computer network. However, federal investigators are not excluding the possibility that the leaker of the information may be a full-time CIA employee. Reports suggest that the FBI is preparing to conduct hundreds, and possibly thousands, of interviews with individuals who are believed to have had access to the documents that were released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, neither the FBI nor the CIA have commented on the authenticity of the information contained in “Vault 7”. WikiLeaks said that Tuesday’s release, which it codenamed “Year Zero”, was the first part of several installments of documents that will be released under its Vault 7 program.

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