US intelligence official says ISIS still below al-Qaeda’s strength

Matthew OlsenBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Despite the rapid rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, the strength of the young organization is still not comparable to that of al-Qaeda, which remains the world’s dominant Islamist group, according to the United States’ most senior counterterrorism official. This was the view expressed on Wednesday by Matthew Olsen, Director of the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), who is preparing to step down later this year. Based in McLean, Virginia, the NCTC is the part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that advises the US government about terrorism. Olsen said there is no doubt that the Islamic State —also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS— has made “dramatic territorial gains in Syria and Iraq” and is displaying unmatched abilities in utilizing online social networking platforms to spread propaganda. Additionally, an increasing number of Muslim extremists view the Islamic State as “the new leader in the global jihadist movement”, said Olsen. But he added that NCTC experts have come to the conclusion that the Islamic State does not currently pose a direct threat to America or Western Europe, and said that the risk of a “spectacular, al-Qaeda-style attack” on American or European targets is negligible. America’s senior terrorism advisor went on to claim that al-Qaeda remains a more serious adversary for American interests than the Islamic State, and that the new organization is “significantly more limited than al-Qaeda was in the run-up to 9/11”, at which time it maintained underground cells across Europe and the US. Olsen continued by saying that there was “simply no credible information” that the Islamic State was planning to attack US targets anywhere outside the immediate surroundings of its territorial stronghold in Iraq and Syria. Read more of this post

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News you may have missed #703: US edition

NSA headquartersBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►NSA pressed to reveal details on Google deal. The Electronic Privacy Information Center is locking horns with the National Security Agency over a secret deal the agency cut with Google following an attack on Gmail by Chinese hackers in 2010. The information center has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the NSA to obtain information about the deal. That request was rejected by a federal court and an appeal process continues.
►►US spy agencies can keep data on Americans longer. Until now, the US National Counterterrorism Center had to immediately destroy information about Americans that was already stored in other government databases when there were no clear ties to terrorism. But it will now be able to store information about Americans with no ties to terrorism for up to five years under new Obama administration guidelines. The new rules replace guidelines issued in 2008 and have privacy advocates concerned about the potential for data-mining information on innocent Americans.
►►Islam convert leads CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Roger, which is the first name of his cover identity, has been chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center for the past six years. Colleagues describe Roger as a collection of contradictions. A chain-smoker who spends countless hours on a treadmill. Notoriously surly yet able to win over enough support from subordinates and bosses to hold on to his job. He presides over a campaign that has killed thousands of Islamist militants and angered millions of Muslims, but he is himself a convert to Islam. His defenders don’t even try to make him sound likable. Instead, they emphasize his operational talents, encyclopedic understanding of the enemy and tireless work ethic.

Analysis: CIA retains special operations role in post-9/11 era

CIA HQ

CIA HQ

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Despite its ‘shoot ’em-up’ image in popular culture, the Central Intelligence Agency is predominantly responsible for collecting and analyzing intelligence for the benefit of US policymakers. The Agency’s paramilitary tasks —also known as ‘special operations’— form a somewhat smaller part of its overall mission. The CIA is America’s only government agency that can legally authorized by the President to perform special operations. The question is, should it? One of the 9/11 Commission Report’s chief recommendations was that the CIA should be stripped of its special operations function, and that the latter should be surrendered to the Department of Defense, in the form of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Clearly, JSOC has played an important role in post-9/11 counterterrorist operations. Yet it is equally clear that, not only has the CIA not been stripped of its paramilitary tasks, but the latter have actually been drastically augmented by the Obama administration —not least through the continuing unmanned drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A well-written analysis by Politico’s Josh Gerstein correctly notes that recommendations to eliminate the CIA’s paramilitary role and transfer it to the Pentagon “remain unpopular in the highest echelons”. The article quotes Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, who is one of the few intelligence planners that favor transferring special operations from the CIA to the Department of Defense. He says that military functions “ought to be performed by trained military organizations […]. Do you want the CIA operating a combatant command responsible for fighting our twilight wars, especially in a world when twilight wars are the wars we mainly fight?”. The argument seems to be that, as special operations become increasingly central in America’s ‘war on terrorism’, they should be commanded by a military, rather than a civilian, agency. An unnamed former CIA official puts forward the Agency’s view in the article: what do you do “if you have a [host] country that wants to deny a program”? In other words, how do you exercise plausible deniability through the Department of Defense? “[T]he CIA is going to [have to] move to the front of the queue”, he answers. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #552

Nikolai Kuznetsov

Nikolai Kuznetsov

►►This just in: South Korea arrests five for spying for North. South Korean prosecutors have arrested five people on charges of “setting up an underground communist group on the instructions of an espionage unit of North Korea’s ruling Workers Party”, a report from South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said on Friday. According to the report, South Korean authorities are “investigating about 20 other people including union activists and opposition party members”. We will publish more information as it comes in.
►►Some US intel analysts believe al-Qaeda near collapse. Citing classified intelligence reports and closed-door Capitol Hill briefings from the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies, some US officials are telling The Washington Post that bin Laden’s death has “pushed al-Qaida to the brink of collapse”. One official told the paper that al-Qaeda is now “largely incapable” of mass-casualty attacks against the United States. Could the ‘Leon Panetta Legacy Committee’ be the source of this report?
►►Russia and Ukraine commemorate legendary Soviet spy. Russia and Ukraine are celebrating 100 years from the birth of legendary Soviet spy Nikolai Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov, who operated in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, uncovered Read more of this post

Analysis: US spy turf-war flares up on Capitol Hill

Dennis Blair

Dennis Blair

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Wednesday’s testimony by US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, received plenty of media coverage. But few have examined the ongoing public hearings by three separate Senate committees on the Christmas Day bomb plot in light of the turf battles taking place between US intelligence agencies. An excellent article by Politico’s Kassie Hunt does just that, by pointing out that the hearing proceedings should be viewed in light of the “three-way turf war among Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter”. Capitol Hill lawmakers appear to be aware of this: Hunt’s article quotes Peter King, the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s senior Republican member, who warns that US intelligence agencies will use the public hearings to place blame about the Christmas Day bomber fiasco on each other. Read more of this post

Controversy over head of Obama’s terrorism watch-list review

John Brennan

John Brennan

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A veteran CIA official appointed to review the US government’s defective terrorism watch-list system, was actually involved in designing it, and later helped sustain it through a lucrative private-sector contract. John O. Brennan was appointed by President Barack Obama on Sunday to head a “comprehensive interagency review” of travel security measures, after it was revealed that the father of Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the Christmas Day airline bomb plot suspect, had notified the CIA about his son’s activities. It turns out, however, that not only was Brennan part of the US National Counterterrorism Center team that designed the terrorism watch-list system, but he also helped sustain it while heading the Analysis Corporation, a scandal-prone private contractor charged with overseeing the watch-list system. Politico’s Carol Lee and Laura Rozen are among the very few reporters who have connected the dots on Brennan. Read more of this post