Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2016 | Permalink

US files espionage charges against military contractors with Turkish ties

PentagonIn a development that is expected to contribute to the downward spiral in Turkish-American relations, the United States government has reportedly filed espionage charges against three Department of Defense contractors with Turkish background. The three are believed to have been charged with transferring US military secrets abroad and are currently in prison.

A statement published by the US Pentagon said that the group consists of two men and a woman, all of whom are of Turkish background. Two of them are naturalized American citizens. They are listed as owners of a company that conducts research in military technology and has contracted for many years with the US Pentagon. All contracts were allegedly won following competitive bids and can only be awarded to bidders who are in possession of US citizenship and top security clearances. According to Turkey’s pro-government English-language newspaper, Daily Sabah, the three contractors have helped develop and manufacture parts for missile-launching systems used on American warplanes. They have also worked on several generations of grenade launchers used by the US military.

But on Sunday, the three contractors were arrested in simultaneous raids and charged with “funneling military secrets out of the country”, according to Sabah. The paper said the US government decided to arrest the three once it became known that some hardware parts related to the Pentagon bids handled by their company were being illegally manufactured in Turkey. There is no information in the Pentagon’s press release on whether the top-secret military components were also shared with the Turkish government. Relations between Washington and Ankara, two North Atlantic Treaty Organization member-states, have suffered since the failed July 15 military coup in Turkey. Many in the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blame Washington for the coup and for allegedly shielding the man behind it, the Islamic cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US state of Pennsylvania.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 October 2016 | Permalink

US Pentagon hires private intelligence contractor for Syria operations

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has released details of an agreement with a private intelligence contractor, which experts believe involves the provision of services to American Special Forces working clandestinely inside Syria. The announcement, made on the Pentagon’s website, is believed to be the first public admission of the use of a private intelligence contractor by the US government in Syria. In the brief press release, the DoD identifies the contractor as Six3 Intelligence Solutions, a McLean, Virginia-headquartered company that specializes in intelligence, biometrics and security.

Six3 Intelligence Solutions is a subsidiary of CACI International Inc., one of the largest defense, security and intelligence contractors in the US. According to The Daily Beast, CACI purchased Six3 Intelligence Solutions in 2013 for $820 million, in what a CACI media statement said was “the biggest deal” in the company’s 50-year history. Public records indicate that Six3 Intelligence Solutions is already fulfilling a $30 million contract with the Pentagon, involving the provision of nondescript “intelligence services” to American troops stationed in Afghanistan. The latest contract, worth $9.5 million, was announced on July 27. It is a no-bid contract, otherwise known as a ‘sole source contract’, which means that the government believes that only one company can provide the services required. Thus, the process by which a no-bid contract is awarded is non-competitive.

The Pentagon’s July 27 announcement states that, under the contract, work by Six3 Intelligence Solutions personnel “will be performed in Germany, Italy, and Syria”. There is no mention of the precise nature of the work, though it is generally assumed that it will support the operations of US Special Forces troops that are currently stationed in Syria. American troops have been active in Syria for at least a year. Nearly 300 US Special Forces members are believed to be presently operational in the war-torn country, working with officers of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Daily Beast said it contacted CACI and the DoD about the recently announced contract, but received no responses.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2016 | Permalink

US Pentagon is secretly giving intelligence to Syria, claims journalist

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has been secretly sharing intelligence with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad without authorization by the White House, according to an American journalist. Officially, the US government is opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus and has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family leaves power. But in a report published yesterday in The London Review of Books, the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that America’s military leadership has been secretly aiding the Assad family’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria.

Citing “a former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs” of Staff (JCS), which comprises of the senior leadership of the Pentagon, Hersh says that the Pentagon is sharing intelligence with Damascus through “third nations”. These include Israel, Germany and even Russia, claims Hersh. The secret agreement is allegedly aimed at defeating the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria. It is important to note that Hersh claims that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, has not authorized the intelligence sharing and is not aware of the secret arrangement. However, the former JSC senior adviser said that was not surprising and that the Executive did not have to authorize every tactical decision made by the leadership of the Pentagon.

However, Hersh points out that if President Obama is indeed being kept in the dark about the Pentagon’s intelligence relationship with Damascus, the secret arrangement would amount to deliberate undermining of the Executive by the US military’s policies. It would also indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon in regards to America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War. Neither the Pentagon nor the White House responded to media inquiries about Hersh’s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 December 2015 | Permalink

US considers launching all-out cyber war against Islamic State

US Cyber CommandFollowing a request from the White House, the United States Department of Defense is putting together options to launch offensive cyber operations of an unprecedented scale against the Islamic State. The White House reportedly issued the request soon after the December 2 shooting in San Bernardino, California, in response to reports that the two shooters were radicalized through exposure to online propaganda by the Islamic State. According to American government officials, US President Barack Obama directed the Pentagon to put together a report outlining options for “a stepped up cyber offensive” against online activities by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The report is allegedly being prepared by the US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), the Pentagon office responsible for conducting what the US military calls “full spectrum military cyberspace operations”. Offensive cyber security planners at USCYBERCOM, which is located at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, are said to have prepared plans that include proposals to launch numerous computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks and other cyber weapons against computers, internet servers and cell phone networks belonging to the Islamic State. The idea behind the plan is that an all-out online war against the Sunni militant group would hurt its image and prevent it from launching armed attacks against civilian targets abroad.

However, Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star reports that a number of other US agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have voiced objections to the USCYBERCOM plan, arguing that an all-out cyber war against the Islamic State could backfire. Specifically, some US intelligence officials argue that sabotaging online communications nodes, as well as cell phone networks, would make it harder to spy on the Islamic State. Additionally, such a move would hinder the work of aid groups, opposition forces, and even Western-backed rebel forces in the Levant, who rely on the same Internet and cellular networks to communicate with each other. These officials argue instead that the US should opt for surgical attacks on specific computers or cell phones used by senior Islamic State planners.

According to media reports, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is scheduled to meet with USCYBERCOM commanders this week in order to evaluate the possibilities for offensive cyber attacks against the Islamic State. He will then brief President Barack Obama on the available options.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 December 2015 | Permalink

US defense contractors allegedly hired Russian computer programmers

PentagonTwo American firms contracted by the Department of Defense have settled a lawsuit accusing them of having hired Russian programmers based in Moscow to write computer code for classified systems. The hires allegedly occurred as part of a $613 million contract, which was awarded by the US Pentagon to Massachusetts-based Netcracker Technology Corporation and Virginia-based Computer Systems Corporation (CSC). The two companies were hired to write software for the US Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), a Pentagon outfit that provides the US armed forces with secure real-time combat communications. But in 2011, contractor John C. Kingsley, who had a supervisory role in the project, notified the US government that the two companies had farmed out part of the contract’s coding duties to programmers in Moscow and other Russian cities.

If true, Kingsley’s allegations would mean that Netcracker and CSC were in violation of federal regulations, which specify that only American citizens with the appropriate security clearances should be employed to work on classified communications systems. A subsequent government investigation, which lasted four years, gave rise to a lawsuit against the two companies. The court was told that the code written by the Russian programmers had allowed the installation of “numerous viruses” on the communications systems of the Pentagon “on at least one occasion”. Witnesses also accused Netcracker and CSC of being guided mainly by greed, since it was able to save over 60% of wage costs by employing the Russian programmers.

Last week, the two companies chose to settle the case, by paying the government a combined fee of nearly $13 million in civil penalties. It is important to note, however, that they both deny the government’s accusations that they violated the terms of their federal contract. In statement issued last week, the companies stated that their decision reflected their belief that it was “in the best interest of all stakeholders to settle the matter”. A spokeswoman for the DISA told The Daily Beast that she could not comment on the case, because doing so would “compromise the Agency’s national security posture”. According to The Daily Beast, last week’s settlement does not prevent the Department of Justice from filing criminal charges against Netcracker and CSC.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 November 2015 | Permalink | News tip: C.H.

Third person charged in probe into alleged US Pentagon ‘rogue operation’

PentagonA third person has been charged in a complex criminal investigation into the procurement of weapon silencers by the United States Department of Defense, which one American newspaper has described as a possible “rogue operation”. The case concerns the Directorate for Plans, Policy, Oversight and Integration, an obscure civilian-led Pentagon office, whose stated mission is to provide logistical support and procurement for intelligence operations conducted by the US Navy and Marine Corps.

According to media reports, more than three years ago the Directorate ordered 349 weapon suppressors, known commonly as silencers. By general admission, silencers are not the type of military hardware used in conventional combat. More importantly, the procurement cost of the silencers should have been no more than around $10,000. However, purchase records show that the Directorate paid the supplier of the silencers over $1.6 million. The supplier then turned out to be the brother of the Directorate’s officer in charge of intelligence, David W. Landersman. Last week it was revealed that Landersman became the third person to face charges of theft and conspiracy as part of the investigation.

Initially, Pentagon officials suggested that the silencers had been purchased for a top-secret operation codenamed UPSTAIRS. The operation was allegedly a “special-access program” aimed at arming foreign paramilitary forces while avoiding the risk of the weapons being traced back to the US. Though limited details were provided, one government witness told the court that military hardware acquired through UPSTAIRS was intended for the US Navy’s Sea, Air, Land Team 6, commonly known as US Navy SEAL Team 6. The special-forces team became famous in 2010, when it carried out the Central Intelligence Agency’s operation NEPTUNE SPEAR, which killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Later during the course of the investigation, however, SEAL Team 6 representatives told court officials that their unit “had not ordered the silencers” and knew nothing about them. Following that development, government prosecutors objected to further discussion of the case in open court due to the alleged “sensitive nature” of the case. Since then, much of the court documentation on the case has been filed under seal on grounds of national security.

But the discrepancies in the case led The Washington Post to speculate last year that the procurement of the weapons silencers may have been part of a “rogue operation”, that is, a military activity not authorized by the Pentagon leadership. The Post spoke to an unnamed “former senior Navy official familiar with the investigation”, who said the Pentagon’s Directorate for Plans, Policy, Oversight and Integration was “building its own mini law enforcement and intelligence agency” without oversight from higher-ups. Another unnamed source, a former Pentagon official familiar with the Directorate, told the paper that “deeper issues might be in play” in the case.

Last week, a Pentagon spokesman said Landersman was “no longer performing duties in any way associated with intelligence” for the US government, though he appeared to still be employed by the US Navy in a clerical capacity, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 October 2015 | Permalink