US offensive cyber campaign disabled Iran’s strike capabilities, say sources

IRGC IranThe Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is still recovering from the damage it suffered by an offensive American cyber campaign against it that took place in June, according to sources. The attack allegedly degraded the IRGC’s ability to strike at oil tankers and other ships in the Persian Gulf. The New York Times said on Thursday that the cyber attack took place on June 20, hours after United States President Donald Trump called off airstrikes on Iran. The White House had considered launching the airstrikes in retaliation against the downing of an American surveillance drone by Iranian forces and their alleged use of limpet mines against commercial oil tankers by the IRGC the previous month.

The paper did not reveal details of the cyber campaign, but said it did not target any part of Iran’s missile or other defense programs. Its mission was to degrade the covert strike capabilities of the IRGC, which operates in a paramilitary capacity and is not supervised by the military. Washington blamed the IRGC for the limpet mine attacks against oil tankers, and expressed concerns that they would continue. The cyber attack corrupted the computer databases and communications networks that the IRGC uses to co-ordinate covert operations at sea, and resulted in the temporary cessation of IRGC attacks on oil tankers, said The Times.

The June 20 cyber attacks were not meant to be permanent but their effects have endured much longer than was expected, according to the paper. It cited claims by anonymous senior American officials that the IRGC is “still trying to repair critical communications systems and has not recovered the data lost in the attack”. It is also worth noting that, according to US sources, Iran did not escalate its own cyber attacks against Western targets in retaliation to the American cyber campaign against the IRGC.

However, according to The Times, some American officials have expressed doubts about the wisdom and long-term impact of the cyber operation. They claim that the cyber attack gave the Iranians the opportunity to collect valuable information about US cyber capabilities. It also allowed them to detect and fix their vulnerabilities so that they are now better able to defend against future cyber attacks. Lastly, the attacks neutralized IRGC communications networks, which the US had penetrated and was collecting vital intelligence from, they argue.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2019 | Permalink

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In unprecedented move, US plans to block undersea cable linking US with China

undersea telecommunications cableIn a move observers describe as unprecedented, a United States government regulator is preparing to recommend blocking the construction of an 8,000-mile long undersea cable linking America with China, allegedly due to national security concerns. Washington has never before halted the construction of undersea cables, which form the global backbone of the Internet by facilitating nearly 100% of Internet traffic. Much of the undersea cable network is in the process of being replaced by modern optical cables that can facilitate faster Internet-based communications than ever before.

One such scheme is the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), an 8,000-mile undersea cable construction project funded by Google, Facebook and Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group Co., one of China’s largest telecommunications-hardware manufacturers. The PLCN’s completion will produce the first-ever direct Internet link between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and is expected to increase Internet speeds in both China and the United States. Most of the PLCN has been laid and its completion is projected for this year.

But now an American regulatory panel plans to recommend blocking the PLCN’s final construction phase. According to The Wall Street Journal, the panel fears that the $300 million undersea cable project may facilitate Chinese espionage. The Justice Department-led panel is known as Team Telecom and consists of officials from several American government agencies, said the paper, citing “individuals involved in the discussion” about PLCN.

Never before has the US blocked the construction of an undersea cable, reported The Journal. National security concerns have been raised with reference to past undersea cable projects, some of whom were partially funded by Chinese-owned companies. But the projects eventually went ahead after the manufacturers were able to demonstrate that the design of the undersea cables forbade the installation of wiretaps. If the PLCN project is blocked, therefore, it will be the first such case in the history of the Internet in America.

The paper said that supporters of the PLCN argue that it would give American government regulators more control over the security of Internet traffic before it even reaches US territory. Additionally, PLCN investors claim that the completion of the project will provide American companies with broader access to consumers in Asia. Google, Facebook, Dr. Peng Telecom and the US government declined to comment on the news report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2019 | Permalink

The CIA will not spy on UAE despite its actions against US interests, say sources

US embassy EmiratesThe United States Central Intelligence Agency will not collect human intelligence on the United Arab Emirates, even though the oil kingdom’s actions often run directly counter to American interests, according to sources. The CIA’s policy, which some sources described as “highly unusual”, fails to recognize the growing distance between American interests and the UAE’s foreign policies, according to Reuters. The news agency cited “three former CIA officials familiar with the matter” who claimed that the CIA’s policy is out of touch and may be endangering US national security.

The CIA collects human intelligence on every nation whose actions or decision affect American interests. Such nations include close American allies like Israel, Germany and Saudi Arabia. The nations that are excluded from the CIA’s target list is very short, and includes its so-called “Five Eyes” partners, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Bizarrely, however, this exclusive list includes the UAE, according to an allegation made by Reuters on Monday. The CIA is believed to have “a liaison relationship” with the UAE’s Intelligence Community when it comes to collecting intelligence on common adversaries, such as Iran, or non-state threats like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. But it does not collect intelligence on the UAE, despite the fact that the tiny but powerful oil kingdom “operates as a rogue state” in the Middle East and beyond, according to some former CIA officials. The UAE leadership was instrumental in propping up, and eventually abandoning, Sudan’s autocratic leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The small oil kingdom is now heavily involved in the political strife in Sudan, while also funding militias in Yemen, Libya and Somalia, said Reuters. It now has military bases in several parts of Africa, such as Eritrea and Somaliland, and its leaders are forging increasingly close links with China and Russia.

One anonymous CIA official told Reuters that the CIA’s failure to adapt its intelligence-collection policy to the UAE’s growing military and political power is nothing short of “a dereliction of duty”. The news agency said it contacted the CIA, the National Security Agency and the White House with questions about American intelligence activities in the UAE, but received no response. The government of the UAE and the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to requests for comments.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 August 2019 | Permalink

Shia militia blames US and Israel for mystery explosions throughout Iraq

Popular Mobilization ForcesIraq’s largest Shia militia, which controls parts of Iraq’s territory that were aptured from the Islamic State, has accused the United States and Israel for a series of mystery explosions at its arms depots around the country. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 Shia militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces because they view them as American-supported.

In the past month, however, there have been at least three mystery explosions at arms depots controlled by the PMF throughout Iraq. On July 19, Arab media reported that a blast killed two Iranian military engineers at a PMF facility. Then on August 12 a massive explosion destroyed part of the al-Saqr military base in Baghdad, killing at least one person and injuring 30. The base reportedly housed an arms depot that was shared by the Shia-dominated Iraqi federal police and the PMF (the two are often indistinguishable in post-ISIS Iraq). On August 20 two more explosions were reported at a PMF arms depot located about 55 miles north of Baghdad. It is not known if anyone was killed or injured in the latest attack. Prior to the August 20 explosions, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had banned all unauthorized flights over Iraq in an attempt to prevent further attacks on arms depots. But the move did not prevent yet another mystery attack.

In recent days, Iraq has been rife with rumors and conspiracy theories about who could be behind the attacks. Many are accusing the United States and Israel, while some are blaming ISIS or Iraqi militias who are competing against the PMF for control. A leaked Iraqi government report into the incidents claimed that they were caused by drone strikes. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the PMF said that the attacks had been carried out by Israeli drones with American intelligence support in order to weaken Shia influence in Iraq. When asked about the mystery explosions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran has no immunity anywhere […]. We will act and are currently acting against Iran wherever necessary”. Meanwhile, the PMF pledged to use “all means at its disposal to deter and prevent [future] attacks” on its facilities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Iran’s energy sector is now a high-stakes espionage target

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryThe state-owned energy sector of Iran, one of the world’s most lucrative, has become a major target of international espionage since the imposition of new sanctions by the United States this year. The purpose of Washington’s sanctions is to limit the Islamic Republic’s ability to export energy, and by doing so end the country’s reliance on its primary source of income. It is estimated that Tehran’s energy exports have fallen by about 80 percent during the past year, and may continue to fall if the US has its way. This means that American and Iranian intelligence agencies are currently engaged in an intense war of espionage that concentrates on what remains of Iran’s oil exports. Iran continues to entice international buyers by selling energy at below-market prices, while sales are facilitated through the use of throwaway bank accounts that are difficult to trace. Exports are then carefully smuggled into overseas destinations through a variety of means.

In an article published last week, The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi explains that every snippet of information about Iran’s oil industry has now become “a prized geopolitical weapon” in a “a high-stakes global game of espionage and counterespionage”. Fassihi quotes a recent statement by Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh that “information about Iran’s oil exports is war information”. That includes information on how Iran manages to deliver its exports abroad and how it gets paid for doing so. Once the US tightened its sanctions on Tehran, Iranian energy officials began to suspect that most inquiries to purchase oil were from foreign spies in search of information on the methods of transaction, writes Fassihi. So the Ministry of Petroleum stopped allowing thousands of freelance energy brokers to mediate between it and buyers. It proceeded to concentrate all transactions into the hands of fewer than five vetted individuals with prior tenure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other vetted government agencies. It also began to train Ministry officials on security and counterespionage protocols.

When the Iranians made it difficult to access information through the Ministry of Petroleum, foreign spy agencies changed their tactics, writes Fassihi. They used foreign academic researchers, including PhD students, who offered payments in hard cash for information on Iranian oil export methods that would help them in their research. Others descended on Tehran offering visas to the US, alcohol, prostitutes, and cash payments ranging from $100,000 to over $1 million in exchange for intelligence on the Iranian energy export sector. There is an atmosphere of paranoia in the Iranian capital, writes Fassihi, and the process of purchasing oil from Iran resembles a Hollywood spy thriller. Representatives of foreign buyers are asked to come to Tehran in person and are regularly required to switch hotels in the middle of the night. Additionally, once a transaction is agreed upon, the buyer’s representative is required to stay at a Petroleum Ministry safe house until the funds are transferred into Iranian government coffers. After that, the representative is allowed to leave, writes Fassihi.

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

Despite imminent US-Taliban deal, CIA plans to keep proxy units in Afghanistan

Armed guerillas Khost AfghanistanThe United States Central Intelligence Agency plans to retain a strong presence on the ground in Afghanistan, despite reports that American troops may soon be leaving the country following a deal with the Taliban. Several news outlets reported this week that Washington has resolved its differences with the Taliban about withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, after receiving assurances by the Taliban that they will not cooperate with other militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. An announcement of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban may thus be imminent. But in an article for Foreign Policy, Stefanie Glinski points out that the CIA is not planning to leave the Central Asian country any time soon.

The American intelligence agency is known to support, arm and train several proxy forces throughout Afghanistan. Langley plans to keep those proxy forces operating in the country for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether US troops pull out, says Glinski. She gives the example of the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a 6,500-strong unit of Afghan soldiers who are “trained, equipped and funded by the CIA”. The KPF is the most active and visible of an extensive network of CIA-sponsored paramilitary groups in Afghanistan. It operates almost exclusively along the Afghan-Pakistani border and has a strong presence in Taliban strongholds like Ghazni, Paktia and Khost. The roots of the KPF go back to the days immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which prompted the US military invasion of Afghanistan. It therefore precedes the Afghan National Army, Afghanistan’s state-run military apparatus, and does not operate under its command. Instead, it is solely directed by the CIA, which uses it to secure the Afghan-Pakistani border and disrupt the activities of Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters in the Afghan borderlands.

Members of the KPF claim that they are “better trained than the Afghan National Army”. They are also paid much better, over $1000.00 per month, which is an enormous sum for Afghanistan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Glinski reports that most KPF fighters joined the group for the money and the ability to eventually seek permanent resettlement in the United States. But alongside the group’s elite image, KPF members have acquired notoriety and are often seen as trigger-happy and unaccountable. Several reports in Western media have said that the KPF’s tactical accomplishments have come at a high price, with countless reports of civilian deaths and, some claim, even war crimes. These risk “alienating the Afghan population”, said a New York Times report last year. Glinski says it is possible the KPF’s aggressive tactics may be “radicalizing portions of the very population it intends to pacify or frighten into submission”. In April of this year, a United Nations report alleged that more Afghan civilians died as a result of attacks by Afghan government and American military attacks than at the hands of the Taliban and other guerilla groups. The CIA did not respond to several requests for comment from Foreign Policy, says Glinski.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 August 2019 | Permalink

Many countries, not just Russia, are trying to influence US elections, experts warn

TwitterSeveral countries are behind organized efforts to influence electoral politics in the United States, with Russia being one among a growing list of culprits, according to experts. Speaking to The Washington Post last week, cybersecurity experts issued what they described as “a wake-up call” to voters and warned that America’s information space is becoming “a free-for-all for foreign intelligence”. Foreign spy services that are utilizing information operations in order to influence US elections reportedly include —aside from Russia— Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and China.

The majority of foreign information operations take place on social-media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But there are also campaigns to influence more traditional American media, for instance by tricking newspapers into publishing letters to the editor that are in fact authored by foreign intelligence operatives. Analysts from FireEye, Graphika and other cybersecurity and network-analysis firms told The Post that some information operations are difficult to detect, because the presence of a state security service is not always apparent. However, the messages that are communicated in tweets, Facebook postings, online videos, etc., tend to echo —often word for word— the rhetoric of foreign governments, and promote their geopolitical objectives. As can be expected, these objectives vary. Thus, Russian, Israeli and Saudi information operations tend to express strong political support for US President Donald Trump, arguably because these governments see his potential re-election as a development that would further their national interest. In contrast, Iranian information operations tend to lambast Trump for his negative stance on the Iranian nuclear deal and for his support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War.

The Washington Post article notes that all major social-media companies employ teams of screeners whose mission is to detect and eliminate disinformation campaigns by both state and non-state actors. However, experts remain skeptical about their ability to combat the phenomenon, given that the quantity and sophistication of disinformation campaigns is constantly increasing. Many countries —including Israel and the United States— now maintain advanced information operations targeting national elections on several continents. There are also many governments —such as Qatar, the Philippines and Turkey— that use these techniques on their own voters and could potentially use them in the near future to target foreign populations, including Americans. The 2020 presidential election in the US is expected to be the most hotly contested in many decades, so it is certain that numerous foreign spy agencies will try to influence it in numerous ways, says The Post.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 July 2019 | Permalink