TBR Neews November 25, 2014

Nov 25 2014

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C., November 26, 2014: “ One of the most persistent rumors floating around the Beltway and in the upper levels of the intelligence communities, is that Obama sacked Hagel because Obama has been advocating some kind of American military action against Putin’s Russia and Hegel was horrified and most uncooperative. Obama has the private reputation of being vindictive and vicious towards anyone who dares to block him, criticize him or, worse, make him look foolish and Putin has done all three things. He took over the oil-rich Crimea with its important naval base that the US Navy hoped to get; he refused to give Edward Snowden to Obama’s police and has been making threats about replacing the American dollar as the international currency. Obama views the Arctic as his make-or-break goal of total American control, both over the huge untapped oil fields and the lucrative shipping routes. That much of this prize lies inside Russian territory means nothing to the disbarred former Illinois lawyer and though Putin has made it very plain that he is not about to surrender Russian control, Obama is equally determined to either topple Putin via CIA plottings or simply occupy the Arctic by military force. The American Navy is larger than the Russian but her ships are old and in need of replacement and the current Russian army is far larger, better trained and equipped than the worn-out American. In his anger and determination, Obama is not interested in facts but Hagel, a combat veteran from Vietnam, certainly is. Watch him being replaced by a spineless toady, eager to do his master’s lethal bidding.”



Death by platitude: Chuck Hagel’s exit hints at Obama’s widening military ambitions

Rumours abound that Hagel was forced out because his job of winding down US military engagement was rapidly becoming one of winding it back up again

November 24, 2014

by Dan Roberts in Washington and Spencer Ackerman in New York

The Guardian


When his criticism of US strategy in Syria leaked last month, the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, said it was important he remained “honest and direct” in his advice to the National Security Council. The long-winded but brutal response he received from the White House on Monday seems to have been anything but that.

It was clear, at least, that Hagel was being sacked, but it was death by platitude: a showering of public praise designed to make it as hard as possible for outsiders to discern precisely what he had done wrong.

“Chuck has been an exemplary defense secretary,” said Obama in an awkward White House departure ceremony. “He is somebody who has served ably and he is somebody in whom the president has the highest respect,” added the press secretary, Josh Earnest, in a public briefing for reporters.

But behind the scenes, senior administration officials did nothing to counter rumours of a more troubling explanation. Hagel was forced out because his job of winding down US military engagement in the Middle East was rapidly becoming one of winding it back up again.

“The priorities of the department, or at least of the new secretary, have changed given changes in the international community,” said Earnest in one of his more candid explanations. “It doesn’t mean that Secretary Hagel hasn’t done an excellent job of managing these crises as they have cropped up but it does mean that as we consider the remaining two years of the president’s time in office that another secretary might be better suited to meet those challenges.”

Privately, one official confirmed that Hagel’s departure was all “about the politics” of national security during the final phase of the Obama presidency. Susan Rice, the national security adviser, was the recipient of Hagel’s memo criticising the Syria strategy last month and appears to have been behind the ousting.

“It’s about the kind of NSC team they’re looking to build under Susan Rice during the final two years,” said the official.

Rice and other advisers on the NSC see themselves increasingly out of step with Hagel on a host of issues, from Syria and troop readiness to the size of the defense budget during a war against Islamic State militants that all sides now see as lasting for years.

What their alternative strategy might look like is rather less clear, however.

Hagel’s memo had criticised the failure to challenge Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which he warned was encouraging moderate US allies in the country to side with Isis forces instead.

Yet Rice has long been thought reluctant to be dragged further into the Syrian war by opening a second front with Assad. During the dawn of his tenure at the Pentagon, so was Hagel.

Pentagon leaders have also repeatedly warned that a successful fight against Isis in both Iraq and Syria may ultimately require US combat troops, something Obama has steadfastly opposed. Hagel and the joint chiefs chairman, General Martin Dempsey, during several rounds of congressional testimony, have portrayed that opposition as less than airtight.

Dempsey, in hailing Hagel’s departure, said that the outgoing defense chief’s “insight into the nature of military service was both rare and welcome”.

Republicans on Capitol Hill were quick to brand Rice and the White House as the culprits in Hagel’s downfall.

John McCain, the incoming Senate armed services committee leader, praised his estranged friend and blasted “excessive micro-management” from the White House hobbling Hagel and his predecessors Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.

The House armed services committee chair, Buck McKeon, a California Republican who is retiring, said the “excellent” Hagel had the “cards stacked against him” as Pentagon leader, thanks to an “underfunded Defense Department, growing threats and intrusive White House micromanagement”.

McKeon’s replacement, the Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, said the next defense secretary needed to be someone “strong enough to stand up against” the White House.

Whoever does take the job faces a tricky path between a confrontational Senate confirmation hearing process and a White House seemingly not entirely clear what it wants.

“[Obama and Hagel] arrived together at the determination that new leadership should take over at the Pentagon,” insisted its spokesman on Monday. Whether Obama’s fourth defense secretary can find his or her own consensus with the president remains to be seen.


The problem(s) with Israel

November 20, 2014

by John Lloyd 


Israel had grown accustomed to an absence of terrorist attacks in its cities: so the bloody murder of four worshippers and wounding of eight more at a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday was a shock. It illuminates the fragile, fractious state of the country, including the fact that the cabinet is riven, and may collapse soon.

Though the situation for Israel may not, in the longer term, be so bad, it’s bad now. The relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas is terrible. The two are currently at loggerheads over Palestinian claims that Israel is encroaching on the al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: Netanyahu denies any such intent, and slammed Abbas for inciting more violent demonstrations, implying Tuesday’s murders owed something to the Palestine leader’s call for protests. No progress is possible on an agreement between the two leaders. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that “the time was not right” for further negotiations – though added that “both sides need to see that things are changing.”

Current strife is not bringing out unanimity in Israel’s government. Netanyahu alerted senior members of his Likud Party to the possibility of early elections on Monday. The governing coalition is riven with so many divisions, both of principle and of personality, that it’s hard to see how they can work together going forward.

Haaretz, the liberal daily, wrote this week that though political divisions were deep, none of the leaders of the parties in the coalition actually wanted elections – but were “galloping” towards them because of “deep suspicions, lack of faith and mutual loathing.”

The next government is unlikely to be any more solid. And the instability is exacerbated by no longer having “an American uncle” – as the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, said at an Oxford conference over the weekend. Relations between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu are cool at best: the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic last week that Obama is furious at the continuing building of settlements on Palestinian land, while Netanyahu thinks Obama doesn’t understand Middle East politics. This isn’t a schism: the United States and Israel remain allies. But there’s no proactive help.

One of the bones of contention between the two men is Iran’s nuclear capacity. Netanyahu wants complete and verified dismantlement of what he calls the “military nuclear program.” Obama, and European leaders, are willing to give concessions in exchange for commitments not to develop a weapon. If Netanyahu is right, and Iran does weaponize its nuclear program, the likelihood is that other Middle Eastern countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and the wealthy Gulf states – will follow suit.

And while Israel’s disagreements with the United States are serious, it also finds itself increasingly at odds with the world over its treatment of Palestinians living both within and outside of country’s borders (however they are defined).

Israel’s image suffered badly in the summer offensive – Operation Protective Edge — it mounted on Gaza over the summer, in which over 2,000 Gazans were killed, while 68 Israeli soldiers and five civilians died. The coverage, especially on foreign television channels, concentrated on the Palestinian losses and suffering, reportedly stoking an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, especially in France.

The moral balance is still being debated hotly. Hugo Slim, a research fellow at Oxford’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, told the Oxford conference that both Israelis and Palestinians were fighting an “existential” conflict. Israel’s attack on the Hamas–dominated territory was in response to thousands of rockets designed to kill civilians, while Hamas used civilians under their control to  shield their rocket launchers and to “deliberately lure fire on them” because, being militarily much weaker, “they need to have impact, so require spectacle to gain global sympathy.” The Israel onslaught, however, did raise an ethical problem, said Slim: “we intuitively feel they were killing too many civilians,”  and there “were better ways” to counter the Hamas threat.

For sure, Hamas is an unyielding foe. According to the Israeli scholar at Tel Aviv University Meir Litvak, Hamas sees Israel and the Jews as eternal enemies, and the current confrontation as the continuation of a civilizational conflict going back to the inception of Islam and the Crusades. It demands the dismantling of Israel and the acceptance by Israeli Jews of Arab rule: since that is refused, violent jihad is the only option. Hamas can be defeated over and over by superior force: it can never surrender.

But John Kerry is right: things are changing, and could change further. Egypt has a terrorist problem presently much larger and more active than Israel: Hamas-affiliated groups are launching attacks in Sinai and in the western desert area, killing dozens of Egyptian police and soldiers. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, backed by Saudi Arabia, is targeting these groups, and aggressively blocking and dismantling the tunnels Hamas and other Jihadist groups in Gaza have constructed into Egypt’s Sinai region, under the short border between Gaza and Egypt.

Egypt and Saudi have common enemies with Israel: that does not make them friends, but stops them being active enemies. Neither Iraq nor Syria, old and fierce enemies of Israel, is in any position to launch attacks. Israel has many threats in the future: a breathing space in the present.

Two things it might do in that space that could lead Israel toward a better future.

First, the Jewish state must offer truly equal rights for all citizens, which includes some 1.7 million Arabs in a total population of 8.2 million. More and more, the Arab Israelis’ most active figures turn towards radicalism, yet the majority still wish to become full Israeli citizens. Inclusion is the sensible option: hard, with deep mutual suspicion to be overcome – but it would be a real breakthrough for the state.

And then there’s the Arab Peace Plan, put up by the Saudis 12 years ago. It would trade a comprehensive peace deal with all Arab states in return for Israel’s withdrawal to the country’s 1967 borders, the acceptance of a Palestinian state and a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem. The problem is likely to be defining a “just solution.” If it means the right of all Palestinians to return to the lands their families once held, Israel can’t accept that: and Israel won’t dismantle all settlements and return to 1967 borders.

But according to former Ambassador Rabinovich, the plan could and should be the basis of talks: “Israel should use it as a starting point.” In this time of turmoil, as the Arab Spring comes to a bloody end, it’s a prize which might be snatched from the flames.


‘Regin’ malware comes from western intelligence agency, say experts

‘Usual suspects’ Russia and China thought to be in the clear as attention focuses on US, UK and Israeli agencies

November 24, 2014

byTom Fox-Brewster

The Guardian


Regin is the latest malicious software to be uncovered by security researchers, though its purpose is unknown, as are its operators. But experts have told the Guardian it was likely spawned in the labs of a western intelligence agency.

None of the targets of the Regin hackers reside on British soil, nor do any live in the US. Most victims are based in Russia and Saudi Arabia – 28% and 24% respectively.

Ireland had the third highest number of targets – 9% of overall detected infections. The infections lists doesn’t include any “five eyes” countries – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

             “We believe Regin is not coming from the usual suspects. We don’t think Regin was made by Russia or China,” Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, told the Guardian. His company first spied Regin hiding on a Windows server inside a customer’s IT infrastructure in Northern Europe.

Only a handful of countries are thought capable of creating something as complex as Regin. If China and Russia are ruled out, that would leave the US, UK or Israel as the most likely candidates.

“There are no other countries I can think of,” said F-Secure researcher Sean Sullivan, when the Guardian put this suggestion to him.

Candid Wueest, threat researcher at Symantec, which published a report on Regin over the weekend, said that the suggestion that a western state was behind the attacks was “probable”, adding “your assumptions are plausible”.

However, the inclusion of some English language in the Regin malware’s command and control communications, including repeated use of the word “shit” in data validation commands, was not a “smoking gun” pointing to an English-speaking country, according to Wueest.

Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab has named one victim of the malware: Belgian cryptographer Jean Jacques Quisquater. This year, he discovered he’d been hit by malware during an investigation into an alleged GCHQ attack on Belgium ISP Belgacom, a source told Belgian paper De Standaard.

The security firm also discovered a “mind-blowing” attack on an unnamed country in the Middle East. “In this specific country, all the victims we identified communicate with each other, forming a peer-to-peer network. The P2P network includes the president’s office, a research center, educational institution network and a bank,” claimed a blog post from Kaspersky Lab.

Regin isn’t after intellectual property, nor is it designed to cause destruction like the infamous Stuxnet worm. It is solely designed to watch over just a handful of targets, with only around 100 infections uncovered globally since it emerged in 2008, according to Wueest.

The target list not only includes government bodies, but small businesses, academics and individuals. The malware’s creators are particularly interested in the telecoms industry too: no surprise given that’s where everyone’s traffic passes through.

It appears the attackers are using typical techniques that users should be aware of. Targets may be tricked into visiting spoofed versions of well known websites and the threat may be installed through a web browser or by exploiting an application, according to Symantec’s white paper on Regin.

“On one computer, log files show that Regin originated from Yahoo! Instant Messenger through an unconfirmed exploit. On one computer, log files show that Regin originated from Yahoo! Instant Messenger through an unconfirmed exploit.”

Whoever is behind the malware has access to considerable coding and cryptographic talent. Regin is being compared to Stuxnet – which was believed to be the work of the US and Israel after it hit Iran – and Flame, another highly sophisticated cyber espionage campaign thought to have been crafted in the US.

“As we’ve been following and analyzing Regin, the complexity and the level of sophistication in the attacks has become very evident. We would place Regin in the category of highly sophisticated governmental espionage campaigns,” said Hypponen.

The malware should have been difficult to detect over the years, though Microsoft picked up on it in 2011. That’s because its only visible component is a driver – the code that provides a software interface to hardware. All its other pieces are encrypted and hidden away in different segments of a computer’s file system.

After it has completed its multi-phase attack, Regin starts its surreptitious work, capturing screenshots, taking control of the mouse’s point-and-click functions, stealing passwords, monitoring the victim’s web activity and retrieving deleted files.

It’s a highly customisable piece of work too: one Regin sample was designed to collect administration traffic for mobile base stations, while another was created for grabbing email from Exchange databases.

Experts told the Guardian that most users shouldn’t have to worry about Regin, as it appears to be part of a targeted operation, not blanket surveillance. However, most security firms will now be adding Regin to their list of detected malware in an effort to block it.


Regin: The super-spyware the security industry has been silent about: NSA fingered as likely source of complex malware family

November 24, 2014

by Iain Thomson

The Register UK


A public autopsy of sophisticated intelligence-gathering spyware Regin is causing waves today in the computer security world.

But here’s a question no one’s answering: given this super-malware first popped up in 2008, why has everyone in the antivirus industry kept quiet about it until now? Has it really taken them years to reverse engineer it?

On Sunday, Symantec published a detailed dissection of the Regin malware, and it looks to be one of the most advanced pieces of spyware code yet found.

The software targets Windows PCs, and a zero-day vulnerability said to be in Yahoo! Messenger, before burrowing into the kernel layer. It hides itself in own private area on hard disks, has its own virtual filesystem, and encrypts and morphs itself multiple times to evade detection. It uses a toolkit of payloads to eavesdrop on the administration of mobile phone masts, intercept network traffic, pore over emails, and so on.

It appears to target people working in telecommunications, including internet backbone providers and cellular networks, plus the energy sector – where Yahoo! Messenger is apparently popular. All in all, it seems to be the handiwork of an intelligence agency rather than a run-of-the-mill malware writer, infosec bods have concluded.

For one thing, it doesn’t operate like conventional spyware: Regin doesn’t form a remotely controlled botnet – suggesting its masters really didn’t want it to be found – nor does it harvest personal financial information.

Instead it collects intelligence useful to state spies. Coupled with the fact that virtually no infections have been reported in the US, UK or other Five Eyes nations, some to suspect it’s the work of the NSA, GCHQ or their contractors.

Kaspersky’s report on Regin today shows it has the ability to infiltrate GSM phone networks. The malware can receive commands over a cell network, which is unusual.

The Regin malware popped up on antivirus radars years ago. Symantec says it has been investigating Regin for over a year, although reckons earlier builds have been circulating since 2008. Microsoft first reported it back in 2011, and Kaspersky Lab thinks that it could have been around for as long as ten years.

So why the silence? Security software vendors usually love deluging the press with reports of malware, so you’d think that when Regin was first caught and analyzed, people would have made a song and dance about it.

F-Secure, one of the leading outfits investigating government malware, spotted Regin on a customer’s computer two years ago. Chief research officer Mikko Hypponen said on Monday his company had kept silent on the malware because its client had asked it to, although he said F-Secure had added detection for the spyware to its antivirus software. Hypponen is sure Regin is state-sponsored malware.

Only a few hundred infections have been linked to Regin, but the choice of targets is striking. The malware apparently infiltrated the computers of noted Belgian cryptographer Professor Jean-Jacques Quisquater and Belgian telco Belgacom – a network compromise blamed on the NSA and GCHQ by Edward Snowden.

This low infection count could have been what has allowed Regin to fly under the radar for quite so long. With hundreds of thousands of malware samples found every year, a small outbreak doesn’t get much attention, which is just what a state-sponsored attacker would be looking for.

Much more attention is now being focused on Regin in the coming days. While it’s impossible to say where exactly the malware came from, it looks likely that your tax dollars or pounds could be at work.


Europe Veering From US Abyss Over Russia?

November 23, 2014

by  Finian Cunningham

It’s long overdue but better late than never that Europe might just be back-pedalling on America’s aggressive agenda towards Russia. The business-like visit to Moscow this week by Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggests that Europe can come to its senses to seek a diplomatic resolution of the escalating tensions over the Ukraine crisis – tensions that could spark a wider continental war, or worse.

Steinmeier met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in which the pair stressed the need to find a political end to the violence in Ukraine. The German diplomat – the first high-level European envoy to Moscow in several months – also talked about normalising relations between his country and Russia and of finding a way to rescind the economic sanctions that Brussels has imposed on Moscow over recent months.

EU ministers in Brussels balked at imposing a fourth round of sanctions earlier this week, showing a growing division over the policy among European governments.

Interestingly, Steinmeier said his visit to the Russian capital was following up on positive discussions held last weekend with President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Australia. The German foreign minister said the task now was to prevent a new spiral of violence in Ukraine.

Given that Germany is the European Union’s largest economy, we can fairly say that Berlin’s political attitude is going to hold sway for the rest of the bloc.

Meanwhile, the contrast with the European attitude, as seen this week through Steinmeier, could not be sharper in Washington.

This week, the Republican-controlled Congress was pushing through a bill that will significantly increase military support to the Kiev regime. The ultra rightwing cabal, despite a fig leaf of elections last month, has clearly shown no interest in implementing the ceasefire brokered on September 5 in the Belarus capital, Minsk. Civilian casualties are mounting among the ethnic Russian population in Donetsk and Luhansk as the Kiev’s military forces continue their practice of indiscriminate shelling of cities and villages with the use of banned weapons, including cluster bombs and unguided ballistic missiles.

Never mind violations of the Minsk Protocol, the murderous offensive by Kiev consists of multiple war crimes.

Nonetheless, the US Congress is unabashed and is in fact preparing to legalise massive overt military aid to this regime whose leaders, including its nominal President Petro Poroshenko, are becoming more and more unhinged, warning earlier this week of “not being afraid of total war with Russia”.

Republican Congressman Michael Burgess, the author of the provocatively named Ukraine Freedom Act Support, said this week: “Ukraine sic needs weapons, ammunition, body armour and communication means. Of course, financial support is important but not as much as weapons and ammunition to fight off the Russian troops who invaded a sovereign country.”

Note the assertion of Russian invasion by the Congressman without the slightest obligation to substantiate his claim. He probably heard it on Fox News or CNN and feels free to regurgitate it as incontrovertible fact.

The Kiev regime’s reckless militarism over the past seven months has brought Ukraine’s economy to its knees, with its currency crashing and soaring international debts unpaid – chief among the creditors being Russia. Yet Washington sees the priority as not financial assistance but rather more militarism to provoke more aggression towards Russia.

After the Republican mid-election victory earlier this month, Congress is likely to pass the above bill. Henceforth, the US government will be enabled to openly supply lethal materiel, including anti-tank and air defence systems, grenade launchers, machine-guns and sniper rifles. This marks a baleful escalation of Washington’s military intervention in Ukraine, which up to now has feigned its support for the Kiev regime as “non-lethal aid”.

This is just what the US Republicans have been clamouring for. Last week, swivelled-eyed Senator John McCain said: “We want to give the Ukrainians sic weapons to defend themselves as the Russians are dismembering their country.” McCain, another Fox-News-regurgitating politician, was one of the main international sponsors of the neo-Nazi shock troops who seized power in Kiev earlier this year and who now openly vilify fellow Ukrainians in the eastern regions as “sub-human Moskals”.

Up till lately, Washington and Brussels have been singing off the same propaganda hymn sheet as the Kiev regime that they both railroaded into power last February in an illegal coup against the elected Ukrainian government. In an astounding inversion of reality, the US-EU axis accuses Russia of invading and subverting Ukraine. No proof is proffered and the words of the criminal, openly hostile and Russian-hating Kiev regime are promulgated as gospel truth.

Brussels has so far toed the Washington line of imposing sanctions on Russia for allegedly violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The fact that the people of Crimea voted freely and overwhelmingly to secede from the Western-installed Kiev regime in March and to join the Russian federation, followed by similar referenda for breakaway autonomy in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, is attributed, through a feat of double-think, to Moscow’s meddling.

However, with the Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions taking the heaviest toll on an already recession-stricken Europe, the anti-Moscow nostrums are bound to be viewed with increasing leeriness. Tough talk may be cheap, even rewarding, for Washington, but not for the Europeans.

‘German exports to Russia tumble’ reported the Financial Times at the end of last month, as a result of the standoff with Moscow – the worst rupture in relations since the formal end of the Cold War more than two decades ago. Elsewhere it is reported that German industry and businesses are feverishly lobbying Berlin to revise the sanctions policy, which is threatening thousands of German jobs and the biggest bilateral trade between Europe and Russia.

As the EU’s economic powerhouse, what is bad for Germany is automatically bad for the rest of Europe.

The new EU foreign policy chief Frederica Morgherini, formerly the Italian minister, has recently expressed misgivings about the effectiveness of sanctions. Morgherini took over from Britain’s Catherine Ashton who was instrumental in the Western regime-change operation in Kiev and who had displayed a pathetic servility to Washington.

Other European states are also increasingly finding a more critical voice towards what they see as senseless and self-defeating hostility against Russia.

‘Hungary questions EU sanctions on Russia’ reported the Financial Times on October 16. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and Austria have added their voices to question the official Washington-Brussels stance of trying to isolate Russia.

Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has defiantly said that his country will not follow Brussels’ sanctions on Russia, citing long-lasting historical and cultural ties with Moscow, even though Belgrade currently has EU accession status. Added to that are strong economic and investment ties between Russia and Serbia.

All these dissenting countries have a vested interest in developing the giant South Stream gas supply project from Russia, as well as from just maintaining decorous neighbourly relations. For them, the sanctions on Russia are tantamount to cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Perhaps the words of Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders are finally beginning to win through reason and empirical evidence, or lack of it. Speaking at the Valdai Club in Sochi at the end of October, one of Putin’s main points was that US geopolitical policy is aimed at driving a wedge between Europe and Russia out of selfish American interests. Competition for Europe’s vast energy market is an obvious objective for the US, as well as the subordination of European economic policy to Wall Street and the US Federal Reserve. In short, the subordination of Europe to American capitalist hegemony.

Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov recently said that what is primarily motivating American hostility towards Moscow is that “Russia dares to have an opinion” on the future direction of global developments. This independence is seen for example in Russia’s promotion of alternative international banking to the Washington-dominated IMF, or the use of bilateral currencies for seminal Eurasian energy trade instead of dependence on the US dollar.

Any sane person can see that Russia’s policies are entirely legitimate and even desirable for a more balanced global economy and polity. It is ludicrous for the arrogant, self-declared exceptional American nation to criminalise Russia on this basis, and that is why Washington has used the Ukraine crisis as a cover for its unacceptable imperialist agenda.

European governments would do well to contemplate the self-indicting words of US Vice President Joe Biden. Biden told a meeting at Harvard University last month that European states were initially reluctant to adopt American sanctions toward Russia.

“President Obama had to embarrass European leaders into it,” said Biden with more than a hint of glee at Washington’s power at bullying Europe. How’s that for an atrocious admission?

Washington has everything to gain from plunging its so-called European allies into a new Cold War with Russia. And Europe has everything to lose.

But it seems now that a significant European constituency is at last waking up to the folly that has been foisted on its 500 million citizens by the likes of pro-American puppets Hermann Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso, David Cameron and Catherine Ashton. Will German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Francois Hollande grasp the courage to follow the diplomatic path being advocated by several courageous dissenting EU members?

One hopes that Europe is beginning to part ways with the US direction on Russia – a direction that is leading to an abyss.

American politics is arguably the most corporate-controlled, brainwashed, intellectually devoid and dangerous institution that the world has ever known. The buying of the latest Congressional elections with $4 billion in corporate campaign funds (that is, bribes) is proof that the US is not a democracy – it is a plutocracy. If Europeans have any residual democratic independence and enlightened reason, then they must find it and assert it urgently. Europe and Russia are far more natural allies than the warmongering American rulers could ever be.



Countrywide: Subprime Kings and Mortgage Swindlers

Many factors combined to create the current housing crisis in the United States.

Low interest rates after the 2001 stock market crash spurred the housing boom. Housing prices skyrocketed above historic trendlines. People were duped into thinking prices would rise forever, but it was inevitable that the housing bubble would burst, and houses would suddenly be worth a lot less. With house prices falling, lots of people are now finding they owe more than their house is worth. This problem is exacerbated by predatory loan arrangements that have left millions facing suddenly rising mortgage payments.

A lot of people and corporations deserve blame for this state of affairs.

Instead of warning consumers about the housing bubble – which would have gone a long way to counter the excessive price run-ups – then-Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan denied a bubble was occurring.

Wall Street firms created exotic investment instruments that made possible the purchase and trading of large numbers of mortgages. This created conditions so that banks and initial lenders took less care in issuing mortgages – since they wouldn’t be responsible for mortgages gone bad. The Wall Street firms not only sold these instruments to duped investors, they took on major liabilities on their own – even though it was obvious the housing bubble would have to burst.

Rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, which evaluated the riskiness of these new mortgage investment instruments, failed utterly. The housing bubble meant mortgage investments were sure to lose money, but the ratings agencies gave them top ratings anyway. Along with the “innovation” of the Wall Street firms, the ratings agencies helped maintain a market that dramatically exacerbated, and to a considerable degree may have created, the housing bubble.

Financial bubbles create an incentive for criminal and shady activity. Just like the stock bubble of the late 1990s created the climate for Enron and dozens of other companies to cook their books, the housing bubble created incentives for predatory lenders to exploit consumers.

The predatory lenders offered low rates, at least at first. Rates would rise later, but the lenders said that – because home prices were rising so fast and would continue to do so – borrowers could always refinance with a new loan.

 The biggest of the predatory lenders was Countrywide, a mortgage lender acquired by Bank of America in January 2008. The company and its CEO, Angelo Mozilo, made a bundle, while setting up thousands and thousands of families for financial ruin.

“Over the past few years,” says Martin Eakes of the Center for Responsible Lending, “by steering millions of people into bad loans, Countrywide has been the largest rogue mortgage lender in the country. According to Countrywide’s own data, more than 80 percent of its exotic adjustable-rate loans were made to borrowers that do not meet current banking standards. Countrywide knew that these homeowners would not be able to make their monthly loan payments after dramatic payment increases became effective.”

The Center for Responsible Lending has compiled a dossier on Countrywide’s irresponsible practices, presented in a report, “Unfair and Unsafe.” Its devastating report, based on customer complaints, lawsuits, regulatory actions, news accounts, government reports and company documents, shows how Countrywide engaged in rampant wrongdoing:

Predatory lending.

“Lawsuits filed around the country have accused Countrywide of preying on borrowers through a variety of unfair and fraudulent tactics that have siphoned equity out of their homes and pushed many into foreclosure,” notes “Unfair and Unsafe.” “Borrowers and regulators have accused the company of: steering borrowers with good credit into higher-cost ‘subprime’ loans; gouging minority borrowers with discriminatory rates and fees; working in cahoots with mortgage brokers who use bait-and-switch tactics to land borrowers into loans they can’t afford; targeting elderly and non-English-speaking borrowers for abusive loans; and packing loans with inflated and unauthorized fees.”   

In one lawsuit, Albert Zacholl, a 74-year-old man living in Southern California, alleges that Countrywide and a pair of mortgage brokers “cold-called and aggressively baited” him. They promised him $30,000 cash, a mortgage that would replace his previous mortgage (which was leaving him owing more each month) and a monthly payment that would not exceed $1,700. Zacholl told the brokers that his income consisted of a pension of $350 a month and Social Security payments of $958, and that with help from his son, he could afford a mortgage up to $1,700. According to the lawsuit, the broker falsified his loan application by putting down an income of $7,000 a month, and then arranged for a high-interest mortgage that required him to pay more than $3,000 a month (and failed to deliver the $30,000 cash payment). The motivation for the scam, according to the lawsuit, was to collect $13,000 in fees.                         

In court papers, the Center for Responsible Lending reports, Countrywide responded that Zacholl “consented to the terms of the transaction” and that any problems were the result of his own “negligence and carelessness.”

Dangerous products.

Countrywide has been a leader in pushing unsound mortgage terms. These include “exploding” subprime adjustable rate mortgages – with reasonable interest rates in the first year that jump in subsequent years, often by as much as 30 percent to 50 percent.

Conflicts of interest.

“Countrywide has created a corporate structure designed to allow its subsidiaries to work hand-in-hand in squeezing borrowers with excessive fees and penalties,” according to “Unfair and Unsafe.” Countrywide affiliates handle appraisals, credit reports, flood certifications and other documentation for new loans; provide “force-placing” insurance for borrowers whose homeowners insurance has lapsed; and serve as a foreclosure trustee. The interconnections enable Countrywide to charge high fees, and deny borrowers the benefit of third parties’ independent judgment and independent interests.

Broken promises on loan modifications.

The company has a history of failing to fully live up to its promises to help borrowers keep their homes by modifying onerous loans, according to “Unfair and Unsafe.” The report cites a Fall 2007 Credit Suisse review that ranked Countrywide as one of the mortgage lenders least willing to adjust loan terms.

Countrywide says it is committed to working out fair arrangements to keep homeowners in their houses. In December, it entered into an arrangement with the community group ACORN designed to help subprime borrowers.

“During the first 11 months of 2007, Countrywide helped more than 69,000 customers retain their homes through solutions such as loan modifications, long-term repayment plans, special forbearance and other options,” says Steve Bailey, a Countrywide senior managing director of loan administration. “Regardless of the reason for the payment difficulties, Countrywide wants to try to find reasonable solutions for our borrowers.”

Abusive loan servicing.

Borrowers claim that Countrywide has engaged in sloppy and  fraudulent loan servicing that has produced unwarranted fees and foreclosures.

With the collapse of the housing market in 2007, Countrywide’s fortunes turned, its mortgage-backed securities plummeted in value, and the company seemed on the edge of bankruptcy. In January 2008, Bank of America agreed to buy the company.

Do not weep for company co-founder and long-time CEO Angelo Mozilo, however. Mozilo grabbed compensation worth $185 million from 2002-2006, according to an analysis by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Between November 2006 and December 2007, Mozilo sold $150 million in stock – effectively jumping from a sinking corporate ship for which he was supposedly at the helm, or at least on the captain’s deck.

“Particularly, the discrepancy between Mr. Mozilo’s compensation and Countrywide’s performance is striking,” concludes the Oversight Committee analysis. “In 2007, Countrywide announced a $1.2 billion loss in the third quarter and an additional loss of $422 million in the fourth quarter.” By the end of the year, the company’s stock fell 80 percent from its February peak. “During the same period, Mr. Mozilo was paid $1.9 million in salary, received $20 million in stock awards contingent upon performance, and sold $121 million in stock.”

Mozilo retired as CEO in 2006, remaining as company chair and an employee. The House Oversight Committee analysis shows that his compensation contract, taking effect in 2007, was outrageous, and based in part on recommendations from a compensation consultant loyal to Mozilo rather than Countrywide.   

 Even so, Mozilo was bitter that the company did not give him everything he wanted. In an e-mail message turned up by the Oversight Committee, Mozilo wrote to the compensation consultant:

“I appreciate your input but at this stage in my life at Countrywide this process is no longer about money but more about respect and acknowledgement of my accomplishments. … Boards have been placed under enormous pressure by the left wing anti business press and the envious leaders of unions and other so called ‘CEO Comp Watchers’ and therefore Boards are being forced to protect themselves irrespective of the potential negative long term impact on public companies. I strongly believe that a decade from now there will be a recognition that entrepreneurship has been driven out of the public sector resulting in underperforming companies and a willingness on the part of Boards to pay for performance.”

With attention focused on the discrepancy between Mozilo’s compensation package and Countrywide’s well-being, he waived various payments – totaling $37.5 million – he could have received once Bank of America finalizes its takeover.

In March 2008, Mozilo appeared before the House Oversight Committee to explain his compensation.

 “Countrywide’s board,” he testified, “has aligned the interests of our top executives, including me, with shareholders by making our compensation primarily performance-based – namely, tied to earnings per share and share price appreciation. Since 1982 through early 2007, Countrywide’s stock appreciated over 23,000 percent, reaching a peak market value of over $25 billion from a starting value of zero. As a result, over recent years, I have received substantial income from bonuses under a formula that was approved by our shareholders on at least two occasions.”

He also received substantial stock options, explaining, these were “options that required the price of the stock to rise above the option price before any income could be realized, thereby aligning me squarely with our shareholders.” In anticipation of his retirement, he testified, he put in place a plan to cash in some stock options earned in earlier years. His sales were thus planned in advance of Countrywide’s downturn. But he continues to hold substantial shares in Countrywide – shares worth much less than before the company’s stock collapsed.

Mozilo testified that he is “very proud of the home ownership opportunities that Countrywide has provided for over 20 million families,” while acknowledging the hardship faced by homeowners and Countrywide employees and shareholders.

“In my 55 years in the industry,” he said, “this by far is the worst housing crisis I have ever seen, combined with an unprecedented collapse of the credit and liquidity markets.”

“The problem we face,” he said, “is the deterioration of the value of homes. As values were going up, we had no problem. We had no delinquencies and no foreclosures, because people had options, because people run into three things in their lives generally – loss of job, loss of marriage, loss of health. When that happens and they own a home, and it impacts their income, they generally have a way out – sell the house, refinance, do something.

“That equity that they have in their homes has been virtually wiped out. And that’s what’s exacerbating this whole foreclosure problem.”

Wasn’t that problem entirely foreseeable? Didn’t Countrywide’s lending policies – which generously might be called aggressive – depend on constantly rising housing values in what was obviously a bubble market?


Justice Department Is Weighing Civil Suit Against Angelo Mozilo

November 17, 2014

by Matthew Goldstein

New York Times

Federal prosecutors are wrestling with whether to file a civil fraud lawsuit against Angelo R. Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide Financial, which was at the center of the subprime mortgage boom and bust, people briefed on the matter say.

This summer, the United States attorney’s office in Los Angeles was said to be close to filing a lawsuit against Mr. Mozilo over his role in Countrywide’s sale of millions of mortgages to home buyers with questionable credit histories. Prosecutors there were planning to move forward with a civil fraud lawsuit nearly three years after it had abandoned a criminal investigation of Countrywide and Mr. Mozilo, the firm’s co-founder.

But Stephanie Yonekura, the acting United States attorney for the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles, has had lingering questions about the litigation because of arguments raised by lawyers for Mr. Mozilo and other potential defendants, said the people briefed on the matter, who were not authorized to speak publicly about a current investigation.

One argument raised by lawyers for Mr. Mozilo and some of the other defendants is that a civil fraud lawsuit would duplicate the efforts of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which sued Mr. Mozilo and two other former Countrywide executives in 2009. On the eve of the trial in 2010, Mr. Mozilo and the other defendants reached a settlement with the agency that required the mortgage financier to pay $67.5 million in fines and restitution. In settling that securities fraud and insider trading case, Mr. Mozilo and the two other former Countrywide officials, David Sambol and Eric Sieracki, neither admitted nor denied liability.

In criminal law, a person generally cannot be charged with the same crime twice. There is nothing comparable in civil law, but the people briefed on the matter said lawyers for the defendants had claimed it would be unjust for two government agencies to bring two similar civil enforcement actions so many years apart.

David Siegel, Mr. Mozilo’s lawyer, said he would not comment on the investigations, “but we do hope that they will consider all of the circumstances.”

Mr. Mozilo did not return telephone calls to his home in California. But in an interview with Bloomberg News in September, he said he did not understand why the federal government was still pursuing him. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

Leon W. Weidman, the federal prosecutor who heads the civil division for the United States attorney’s office in Los Angeles and is overseeing the investigation of Mr. Mozilo, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Over the last several months, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have met several times with lawyers for Mr. Mozilo and more than half a dozen other potential defendants from Countrywide to discuss the lawsuit, said the people briefed on the matter. The identities of the other defendants could not be determined.

Still, some defense lawyers left those meetings expecting a lawsuit to have been filed by now, the people briefed on the matter said.

Lawyers for the former Countrywide officials under scrutiny have told prosecutors that their clients have no intention of settling with the government, and a lawsuit is likely to drag on for years, these people said.

And Mr. Mozilo, who will turn 76 in December, has said he has health issues, although that is not believed to be a major consideration for prosecutors.

Now it appears that a decision about suing the onetime mortgage titan will not be made until early next year. A decision to file a lawsuit would ultimately require the approval of the Justice Department in Washington. It could become one of the first orders of business for Loretta E. Lynch, the United States attorney for Brooklyn, if she is confirmed by the Senate as the next United States attorney general.

Daniel C. Richman, a professor of criminal law at Columbia University, said that Mr. Mozilo’s settlement with the S.E.C. should not deter federal prosecutors from pursuing their own civil case if the facts warrant it.

“Settling with the S.E.C. in and of itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee peace from the government at large,” Mr. Richman said. “If Mr. Mozilo had wanted to have other government agencies brought into a global settlement at that time, I think they would have agreed.”

The decision by prosecutors in Los Angeles to close their criminal investigation of Mr. Mozilo — who for many became the public face of Wall Street’s excesses in the mortgage market — helped fuel some of the populist anger over the absence of criminal prosecutions of bankers related to the financial crisis.

But prosecutors in Los Angeles took a fresh look at Mr. Mozilo, weighing whether to use a 25-year-old federal statute, the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, or Firrea, which permits authorities to file civil actions against individuals for criminal violations.

In a 2010 essay discussing Firrea, Mr. Weidman urged his colleagues to use the civil statute and its lower burden of proof for “cases that have been declined by your criminal division because of insufficient evidence to prove a violation beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Since then, federal prosecutors in Washington and across the country have used the law to extract more than $36 billion in settlement dollars from Wall Street banks that played a part in selling faulty mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the financial crisis.

Mr. Weidman and his fellow prosecutors in the Los Angeles office had a hand in helping negotiate the Justice Department’s $16.65 billion settlement of a Firrea case against Bank of America, which acquired Countrywide in 2008 and assumed its liabilities.

The news of the possible Firrea lawsuit against Mr. Mozilo was first reported by Bloomberg on the eve of the government’s settlement with Bank of America, which was announced by the Justice Department on Aug. 21.

Until now, the Justice Department has used the potential of filing a lawsuit against Mr. Mozilo as the basis for denying Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information about the decision by Los Angeles prosecutors to drop their criminal investigation into Countrywide and Mr. Mozilo.

In September, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a public interest organization, voluntarily dismissed a lawsuit it had filed seeking to compel the Justice Department to comply with its FOIA request for all records related to the decision not to file criminal charges. The group dismissed the suit after it received a letter from Mr. Weidman that stated the records sought were of “critical importance” to an “ongoing law enforcement investigation.”

            The Justice Department offered a similar rationale on Oct. 2 for denying a FOIA request submitted by The New York Times.


Banking culture breeds dishonesty, scientific study finds

November 21, 2014

by Kate Kelland



LONDON – – A banking culture that implicitly puts financial gain above all else fuels greed and dishonesty and makes bankers more likely to cheat, according to the findings of a scientific study.

Researchers in Switzerland studied bank workers and other professionals in experiments in which they won more money if they cheated, and found that bankers were more dishonest when they were made particularly aware of their professional role.

When bank employees were primed to think less about their profession and more about normal life, however, they were less inclined to dishonesty.

“Many scandals… have plagued the financial industry in the last decade,” Ernst Fehr, a researcher at the University of Zurich who co-led the study, told reporters in a telephone briefing. “These scandals raise the question whether the business culture in the banking industry is favoring, or at least tolerating, fraudulent or unethical behaviors.”

Fehr’s team conducted a laboratory game with bankers, then repeated it with other types of workers as comparisons.

The first study involved 128 employees all levels of a large international bank – the researchers were sworn to secrecy about which one – and 80 staff from a range of other banks.

Participants were divided into a treatment group that answered questions about their profession, such as “what is your function at this bank;” or a control group that answered questions unrelated to work, such as “how many hours of TV do you watch each week?”

They were then asked to toss a coin 10 times, unobserved, and report the results. For each toss they knew whether heads or tails would yield a $20 reward. They were told they could keep their winnings if they were more than or equal to those of a randomly selected subject from a pilot study.

Given maximum winnings of $200, there was “a considerable incentive to cheat,” Fehr’s team wrote in the journal Nature, online November 19.

The results showed the control group reported 51.6% winning tosses and the treatment group – whose banking identity had been emphasized to them – reported 58.2% as wins, giving a misrepresentation rate of 16%. The proportion of subjects cheating was 26%.

The same experiments with employees in other sectors – including manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals – showed they don’t become more dishonest when their professional identity or banking-related information is emphasized.


How the Pentagon’s Skynet Would Automate War

November 24, 2014

by Nafeez Ahmed


Pentagon officials are worried that the US military is losing its edge compared to competitors like China, and are willing to explore almost anything to stay on top—including creating watered-down versions of the Terminator.

Due to technological revolutions outside its control, the Department of Defense (DoD) anticipates the dawn of a bold new era of automated war within just 15 years. By then, they believe, wars could be fought entirely using intelligent robotic systems armed with advanced weapons.

Last week, US defense secretary Chuck Hagel ann​ounced the ‘Defense Innovation Initiative’—a sweeping plan to identify and develop cutting edge technology breakthroughs “over the next three to five years and beyond” to maintain global US “mili​tary-technological superiority.” Areas to be covered by the DoD programme include robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, Big Data and advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing.

But just how far down the rabbit hole Hagel’s initiative could go—whether driven by desperation, fantasy or hubris—is revealed by an overlooked Pentagon-funded study, published quietly in mid-September by the DoD National Defense University’s (NDU) Center for Technology and National Security Policy in Washington DC.

The Pentagon plans to monopolize imminent “transformational advances” in nanotechnology, robotics, and energyThe 72-page d​ocument throws detailed light on the far-reaching implications of the Pentagon’s plan to monopolize imminent “transformational advances” in biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence, information technology, nanotechnology, and energy.

Hagel’s initiative is being overseen by deputy defense secretary Robert O. Work, lead author of a r​eport released last January by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), “20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age.”

Work’s report is also cited heavily in the new study published by the NDU, a Pentagon-funded higher education institution that trains US military officials and develops government national security strategy and defense policies.

The NDU study warns that while accelerating technological change will “flatten the world economically, socially, politically, and militarily, it could also increase wealth inequality and social stress,” and argues that the Pentagon must take drastic action to avoid the potential decline of US military power: “For DoD to remain the world’s preeminent military force, it must redefine its culture and organizational processes to become more networked, nimble, and knowledge-based.”

The authors of the NDU paper, Dr James Kadtke and Dr Linton Wells, are seasoned long-term Pentagon advisers, both affiliated with the NDU’s technology center which produces research “supporting the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Services, and Congress.”

Kadtke was previously a senior official at the White House’s National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office, while Wells—who served under Paul Wolfowitz as DoD chief information officer and deputy assistant defense secretary—was until this June NDU’s Force Transformation Chair.

Wells also chairs a little-known group known as the ‘Highlands Forum,’ which is run by former Pentagon staffer Richard O’Neill on behalf of the DoD. The Fo​rum brings together military and information technology experts to explore the defense policy issues arising from the impact of the internet and globalization.

Explaining the Highlands Forum process in 2006 to Gover​nment Executive magazine, Wells described the Forum as a DoD-sponsored “idea engine” that “generates ideas in the minds of government people who have the ability to act through other processes… What happens out of Highlands is you get people who come back with an idea and say, ‘Now how can I cause this to happen?’”


Big Data’s Big Brother

A key area emphasized by the Wells and Kadtke study is improving the US intelligence community’s ability to automatically analyze vast data sets without the need for human involvement.

Pointing out that “sensitive personal information” can now be easily mined from online sources and social media, they call for policies on “Personally Identifiable Information (PII) to determine the Department’s ability to make use of information from social media in domestic contingencies”—in other words, to determine under what conditions the Pentagon can use private information on American citizens obtained via data-mining of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr and so on.

Their study argues that DoD can leverage “large-scale data collection” for medicine and society, through “monitoring of individuals and populations using sensors, wearable devices, and IoT [the ‘Internet of Things’]” which together “will provide detection and predictive analytics.” The Pentagon can build capacity for this “in partnership with large private sector providers, where the most innovative solutions are currently developing.”

In particular, the Pentagon must improve its capacity to analyze data sets quickly, by investing in “automated analysis techniques, text analytics, and user interface techniques to reduce the cycle time and manpower requirements required for analysis of large data sets.”

Kadtke and Wells want the US military to take advantage of the increasing interconnection of people and devices via the new ‘Internet of Things’ through the use of “embedded systems” in “automobiles, factories, infrastructure, appliances and homes, pets, and potentially, inside human beings.” Due to the advent of “cloud robotics… the line between conventional robotics and intelligent everyday devices will become increasingly blurred.”

Cloud robotics, a term coined by Google’s new robotics chief, James Kuffner, allows individual robots to augment their capabilities by connecting through the internet to share online resources and collaborate with other machines. By 2030, nearly every aspect of global society could become, in their words, “instrumented, networked, and potentially available for control via the Internet, in a hierarchy of cyber-physical systems.”

Yet the most direct military application of such technologies, the Pentagon study concludes, will be in “Command-Control-Communications, Computers and Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (C4ISR)”—a field led by “world-class organizations such as the National Security Agency (NSA).”


Clever Kill Bots in the Cloud

Within this context of Big Data and cloud robotics, Kadtke and Wells enthuse that as unmanned robotic systems become more intelligent, the cheap manufacture of “armies of Kill Bots that can autonomously wage war” will soon be a reality. Robots could also become embedded in civilian life to perform “surveillance, infrastructure monitoring, police telepresence, and homeland security applications.”

The main challenge to such robot institutionalization will come from a “political backlash” to robots being able to determine by themselves when to kill.

To counter public objections, they advocate that the Pentagon should be “highly proactive” in ensuring “it is not perceived as creating weapons systems without a ‘human in the loop.’ It may be that DoD should publicly self-limit its operational doctrine on the use of such systems to head off public or international backlash to its development of autonomous systems.”

Despite this PR move, they recommend that DoD should still “remain ahead of the curve” by developing “operational doctrine for forces made up significantly or even entirely of unmanned or autonomous elements.” [emphasis added]

The rationale is to “augment or substitute for human operators” as much as possible, especially for missions that are “hazardous,” “impractical,” or “impossible” for humans (like, perhaps, all wars?). In just five years, the study reports, Pentagon research to improve robot intelligence will bear “significant advances.”


Skynet by 2020s?

Perhaps the most disturbing dimension among the NDU study’s insights is the prospect that within the next decade, artificial intelligence (AI) research could spawn “strong AI”—or at least a form of “weak AI” that approximates some features of the former.

Strong AI should be able to simulate a wide range of human cognition, and include traits like consciousness, sentience, sapience, or self-awareness. Many now believe, Kadtke and Wells, observe, that “strong AI may be achieved sometime in the 2020s.”

They report that a range of technological advances support “this optimism,” especially that “computer processors will likely reach the computational power of the human brain sometime in the 2020s”—Intel aims to reach this milestone by 201​8. Other relevant advances in development include “full brain simulations, neuro-synaptic computers, and general knowledge representation systems such as IBM Watson.”

As the costs of robotics manufacturing and cloud computing plummet, the NDU paper says, AI advances could even allow for automation of high-level military functions like “problem solving,” “strategy development” or “operational planning.”

“In the longer term, fully robotic soldiers may be developed and deployed, particularly by wealthier countries.”“In the longer term, fully robotic soldiers may be developed and deployed, particularly by wealthier countries,” the paper says (thankfully, no plans to add ‘living tissue’ on the outside are mentioned).

The study thus foresees the Pentagon playing a largely supervisory role over autonomous machines as increasingly central to all dimensions of warfare—from operational planning to identifying threats via surveillance and social media data-mining; from determining enemy targets to actually pursuing and executing them.

There is no soul-searching, though, about the obvious risks of using AI to automate such core elements of military planning and operations, beyond the following oblique sentence: “One negative aspect of these trends, however, lies in the risks that are possible due to unforeseen vulnerabilities that may arise from the large scale deployment of smart automated systems, for which there is little practical experience.”

But if the reservations of billionaire tech entrepreneur Ellon Musk are anything to go by, the Pentagon’s hubris is deeply amiss. Musk, an early investor in the AI company DeepMind now owned by Google, has warned of “something dangerous” happening in five years due to “close to exponential” growth of AI at the firm—and some AI experts agr​ee.


Synthetic Genetically Enhanced Laser-Armed Prosthetic People

As if this wasn’t disturbing enough, Kadtke and Wells go on to chart significant developments across a wide range of other significant technologies. They point to the development of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) that project electromagnetic radiation as laser light, and which are already being deployed in test form.

This August, USS Ponce deployed with an operational laser—a matter that was only rep​orted in the last few days. DEWs, the NDU authors predict, “will be a very disruptive military technology” due to “unique characteristics, such as near-zero flight time, high accuracy, and an effectively infinite magazine.” The Pentagon plans to widely deploy DEWs aboard ships in a few years.

The Pentagon also wants to harvest technologies that could ‘upgrade’ human physical, psychological, and cognitive makeup. The NDU paper catalogues a range of relevant fields, including “personalized (genetic) medicine, tissue and organ regeneration via stem cells, implants such as computer chips and communication devices, robotic prosthetics, direct brain-machine interfaces, and potentially direct brain-brain communications.”

Another area experiencing breakthrough develop​ments is synthetic biology (SynBio). Scientists have recently created cells with DNA composed of non-natural amino acids, opening the door to create entirely new “designer life forms,” the Pentagon report enthuses, and to engineer them with “specialized and exotic properties.”

Kadtke and Wells flag up a recent Pentagon assessment of current SynBio research suggesting “great promise for the engineering of synthetic organisms” useful for a range of “defense relevant applications.”

It is already possible to replace organs with artificial electro-mechanical devices for a wide range of body parts. Citing ongoing US Army research on “cognition and neuro-ergonomics,” Kadtke and Wells forecast that: “Reliable artificial lungs, ear and eye implants, and muscles will all likely be commercially available within 5 to 10 years.” Even more radically, they note the emerging possibility of using stem cells to regenerate every human body part.

Meshing such developments with robotics has further radical implications. The authors highlight successful demonstrations of implantation of silicon memory and processors into the brain, as well as “purely thought controlled devices.” In the long-term, these breakthroughts could make ‘wearable devices’ like Google Glass look like ancient fossils, superceded by “distributed human-machine systems employing brain-machine interfaces and analog physiomimetic processors, as well as hybrid cybernetic systems, which could provide seamless and artificially enhanced human data exploration and analysis.”


We’re all terror suspects

Taken together, the “scientific revolutions” catalogued by the NDU report—if militarized—would grant the Department of Defense (DoD) “disruptive new capabilities” of a virtually totalitarian quality.

As I was told by former NSA senior executive Thomas D​rake, the whistleblower who inspired Edward Snowden, ongoing Pentagon-funded research on data-mining feeds directly into fine-tuning the algorithms used by the US intelligence community to identify not just ‘terror suspects’, but also targets for the CIA’s drone-strike kill lists.

Nearly​ half the people on the US government’s terrorism watch list of “known or suspected terrorists” have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation,” and more th​an half the victims of CIA drone-strikes over a single year were “assessed” as “Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists”—among others who were merely “suspected, associated with, or who probably” belonged to unidentified militant groups. Multiple stu​dies show that a substantive number of drone strike victims are civilians—and a secret Obama administration me​mo released this summer under Freedom of Information reveals that the drone programme authorizes the killing of civilians as inevitable collateral damage.

Indeed, flawed assumptions in the Pentagon’s classification systems for threat assessment mean that even “nonviolent political activists” might be conflated with pote​ntial ‘extremists’, who “support political violence” and thus pose a threat to US interests.

It is far from clear that the Pentagon’s Skynet-esque vision of future warfare will actually reach fruition. That the aspiration is being pursued so fervently in the name of ‘national security,’ in the age of austerity no less, certainly raises questions about whether the most powerful military in the world is not so much losing its edge, as it is losing the plot

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