Top aide to Trump’s security adviser denied security clearance by CIA

Michael FlynnA senior aide to Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser to United States President Donald Trump, will have to step down from his post because his application for a security clearance was rejected, say sources. Flynn had chosen Robin Townley, a former intelligence officer in the US Marine Corps, to serve as Senior Director for Africa on the National Security Council, a forum chaired by the president, which makes key decisions on domestic and foreign issues. Townley, who is described as “one of Flynn’s closest deputies”, held a top-secret security clearance for many years during his government career. But joining the National Security Council requires a so-called “sensitive compartmented information” clearance. This elite-status clearance allows designated individuals to access government programs and operations that are deemed highly sensitive.

According to Politico, Townley’s application for a sensitive compartmented information clearance was rejected last week. The news website cited two anonymous sources “with direct knowledge of the situation”, who said that Townley was informed on Friday that his application had been rejected. The rejection came from the Central Intelligence Agency, said Politico. One source told the website that the rejection had been met with agreement by Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s appointee to head the CIA. Townley cannot reapply for clearance, which means that he will have to give up his National Security Council post. Flynn will have to replace him.

The Politico report claims that Flynn and his team were “infuriated” by the CIA’s decision, which is expected to further-escalate tensions between the retired lieutenant-general and the Intelligence Community. Flynn has been criticized for his allegedly close connections to the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, he delivered a speech in Moscow in return for a fee, and dined with Putin. Earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated a telephone conversation between Flynn and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US, as part of a counterintelligence probe. Last week, The Washington Post alleged that Flynn and Kislyak discussed the topic of American economic sanctions on Russia, and that Flynn told the Russian diplomat that they would be lifted by the Trump administration.

The Politico report said that Flynn’s team views the rejection of Townley’s security clearance application as “a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him”. It also said that Flynn’s team believe that the Intelligence Community feels “threatened by Flynn and his allies”. The website contacted the National Security Council and the CIA but received no responses.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 February 2017 | Permalink

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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

Mismanagement plagues US online program against ISIS, say sources

CENTCOM military computersWhistleblowers say mismanagement, amateurism and cronyism are plaguing a multimillion-dollar American psychological operation aimed at countering online propaganda by the Islamic State. The program, known as WebOps, was established by the United States Department of Defense during the administration of US President Barack Obama. Its stated goal is to counter efforts by the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS) to spread propaganda and recruit followers using online social media. Since its creation, it has been administered by the US Central Command’s Information Operations Division. But its implementation has been contracted to Colsa Corporation, a private company based in the US state of Alabama. The company specializes in providing services for US government agencies, some of which include the use of specialized software that utilizes information found on social media.

According to the Associated Press news agency, WebOps staff consists of civilian analysts who speak Arabic. Every day, using fabricated online profiles, they browse social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter looking for pro-ISIS activity to counter. But the news agency said on Tuesday that it spoke to several people with knowledge of the program, who claim that it is plagued by incompetence, mismanagement and cronyism. They allege that analysts involved in WebOps have limited experience in counter-propaganda, incomplete understanding of Islam, and little more than a basic command of Arabic. Consequently, they have been known to make crucial errors when posting messages online. The latter end up amusing their readers instead of countering ISIS propaganda. In one case, a WebOps analyst confused the Arabic word for “authority” (as in Palestinian Authority) with the similarly sounding word “salad”, thus ending up with “Palestinian salad” instead of “Palestinian Authority”. Rather than managing to counter ISIS propaganda, the message was ridiculed on social media.

The report also cited “four current or former workers” who claimed that they personally witnessed “data being manipulated” to make the WebOps program seem more successful than it has been. They also claim that the program’s administrators have purposely resisted efforts by the Department of Defense to exercise independent oversight of the program’s performance. The Associated Press said it contacted US Central Command, the Pentagon outfit that is responsible for WebOps, on January 10. But it said that no response has been received from anyone there.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2017 | Permalink

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

Some at CIA wonder whether to share sources and methods with Trump

Donald Trump CIAOfficials at the United States Central Intelligence Agency have questioned whether it is safe for them to reveal the sources of their information about Russia to America’s new President, Donald Trump, according to a report. The implication is that some at the CIA are concerned that Trump’s allegedly close ties with Russian officials may put CIA operations officers in danger. The information was shared on Monday by Mary Louise Kelly, national security correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). She told the Washington-based station that relations between the CIA and the new American president remain cool, despite the apparent rapprochement between the two sides last Saturday, when Trump gave a speech at the CIA headquarters.

Kelly cited Steve Hall, a former CIA operations officer who retired from the agency in 2015 after three decades in the National Clandestine Service, which is runs intelligence operations around the world. Hall spent time in Europe, Latin America and Central Eurasia, and some believe he was CIA station chief (America’s senior intelligence representative) in Moscow for a number of years. Hall retired as a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, which consists of the most senior members of the National Clandestine Service. In her report, Kelly identified Hall as the CIA’s former “chief of Russia operations”. She told NPR that Kelly had responded with skepticism to President Trump’s speech at the CIA headquarters last weekend. He wondered, she said, what would happen if the CIA collected “a stellar piece of intelligence that […] puts [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in a bad light?”. Presumably the Agency would have to brief the US leader about the finding. But what if the president inquired about the source? The CIA would have to reveal its methods and sources, because that information cannot be kept from the president. According to Kelly, Hall asked: “How can you say no, we don’t trust you with the sourcing of that information?”. And continued: “[t]hat is a live question today at Langley”, referring to the location of the CIA headquarters in the US state of Virginia.

Last month, Hall wrote a guest column in The Washington Post in which he touched on the importance of sources and methods for the CIA. He wrote that the agency’s collection capabilities “could be rendered useless in one news cycle if disclosure is not handled correctly. [And] if it were human sources that provided the information, they could lose their lives”. Hall went on to argue that, if the CIA revealed its information about Russia’s alleged attempts to influence last November’s US presidential election, additional information would be demanded of it. “Questions like, ‘How exactly did you get that information?’ or ‘Where did that come from?’ and ‘When precisely did you know that?’ will inevitably be asked —and the protection of sources and methods will begin to erode”, wrote the retired CIA operations officer.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 January 2017 | Permalink