TBR News December 9, 2013

Dec 09 2013


December 25,  272 CE

First official public celebration of Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, (‘birthday of the invincible sun’) a pagan Roman holiday that was later co-opted by Christians to celebrate the purported birth of their favorite Essene. Turning the holiday into “Christmas” (in 336 AD) was part of a pattern of the early church stealing various pagan festivals and feast days for its own profitable use. No one knows for a certainty where, or when, Jesus was born although Alexandria, Egypt is now believed to be his birthplace and 35 CE the date.


The Voice of the White House


            Washington, D.C. December 9, 2013: “An extremely classified memo, now making the rounds inside the Beltway, concerns the full, and often eager, cooperation of various American tech companies with massive governmental spying. And included are names, copies of memos from various company executives promising “full cooperation” with the NSA spying ventures. These very important persons fall all over themselves to lick the raddled bottoms of third rate bureaucrats and the lengthy memo also includes the cooperation of the personal sites where foolish American put up their personal data. Now that the Blessed Snowden, whom the Administration would like to kill as soon as possible, has started his program of exposures, the tech people are seeing huge numbers of the profitable public deserting them so they now pretend that the snooping is shocking and, naturally, they had nothing to do with it whatsoever and that this should be controlled. Mark you, the President has absolutely no intention of stopping the programs of constant and through snooping into the private lives of any and all Americans he and his crime partners desire. And as an added advantage to the project to put dog collars on all of us, why various Government-friendly businesses can get information on their rivals, Israel can find out about those who do not like them and, of course, politicians can dig up dirt on all their potential rivals. Don’t believe it when you read about the shock and horror expressed by the trade leaders. If push comes to shove, the aforementioned memo could readily be posted on a dozen sites to enrage many and entertain the rest of us.”

U.S. tech companies call for more controls on surveillance

December 9, 2013


            Eight major U.S. web companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook, made a joint call on Monday for tighter controls on how governments collect personal data, intensifying the furor over online surveillance.


In an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress, the companies said recent revelations showed the balance had tipped too far in favor of the state in many countries and away from the individual.


In June, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden exposed top secret government surveillance programs that tap into communications on cables linking technology companies’ various data centers overseas.


After Snowden’s disclosure, many of the big Internet companies warned that American businesses may lose revenue abroad as distrustful customers switched to local alternatives.


“We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens,” said the letter from the eight firms which also included Microsoft Corp, Twitter, LinkedIn Corp, Yahoo Inc and AOL Inc.


“But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.


“The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.”


Several of the eight companies, which have a combined market capitalization of nearly $1.4 trillion, have responded by publicizing their decision to boost encryption and security on their sites.




The companies have detailed their ‘Reform Government Surveillance’ campaign on a website, calling on the U.S. government to take the lead by limiting how much user information a government can collect.


“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said on the website. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”


The campaign also calls on governments to limit surveillance to specific, known users and not to collect data in bulk, and asks that companies have the right to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information.


“The security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information,” Google Chief Executive Larry Page said on the website.


“This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It’s time for reform and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way.”


Obama last week said he intended to propose NSA reforms to reassure Americans that their privacy was not being violated by the agency.


British-based campaign group Big Brother Watch welcomed the move by the Internet groups and said surveillance laws in Britain, the U.S. and many other countries were no longer fit for the Internet age.


“This statement of principles, by some of the world’s biggest companies, is a watershed moment and one that cannot go ignored in any country that regards itself as a democracy,” it said.


(Writing by Kate Holton in London; additional reporting by Chris Peters and Rohit T.K. in Bangalore.; Editing by Louise Ireland)


Obama: My Overseas Spying Not Constrained by the Law I Passed as Senator


December 6, 2013



In a democracy in which separation of powers still functioned as intended, this would be a deliberate provocation (my transcription):


The Snowden disclosures have identified areas of legitimate concern. Some of it has also been highly sensationalized and has been painted in a way that’s not accurate. I’ve said before and I will say again: the NSA actually does a very good job about not engaging in domestic surveillance. Not reading people’s emails, not listening to the content of their phone calls. Outside of our borders, the NSA is more aggressive. It’s not constrained by laws. And part of what we’re trying to do over the next month or so is having done an independent review — brought a bunch of folks, civil libertarians, lawyers, and others, to examine what’s being done — I’ll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA and to initiate some reforms that can give people some more confidence.


Where to start?


First, it is false to say NSA does a very good job of not engaging in domestic surveillance. They’ve been caught doing so, on a programmatic scale, under Obama’s Administration, twice. At least one of those programs simply moved overseas after being caught. The President basically said that being caught twice illegally wiretapping thousands (under the upstream collection) and millions (under the Internet dragnet) of Americans domestically is a good job!


Add in the fact that NSA can read the content of collected US person communications with no Reasonable Articulable Suspicion, with no reporting requirements. That certainly amounts to the authority to conduct fairly unlimited amounts of domestic surveillance via the back door loophole.


And to suggest NSA is “not constrained by laws” overseas is equally false.


First, there’s the Constitution. Under that, even EO 12333 activity should come at the direction of the President. In this passage, the President says Snowden’s disclosures have raised legitimate concerns. I know ODNI and NSA will point to the National Intelligence Priorities Framework as their authorization on these activities the President now finds problematic. But if they’re doing things overseas that raise concerns, then it is an admission from the White House it has inadequate control of the NSA.


More importantly, it is false to say even that NSA is not constrained by mere laws overseas. Section 703 of the FISA Amendments Act — a law which Obama played a crucially important role in passing as a Senator — says NSA can’t wiretap Americans overseas without specific authority from FISC. Section 704 limits physical searches, which NSA uses to authorize collection from servers. As far as I know, no one has considered whether the deliberate collection of US person content overseas — albeit in bulk — complies with Section 703 and 704. But it at least lays out some limits on NSA’s overseas spying.


To all this, Obama’s solution is to propose self-restraint on the NSA.


Again, it is the role of the President — and the White House more generally — to oversee activities conducted under Article II authority. The language Obama uses here suggests an NSA unbound by his control, one he “proposes” to rein in rather than “orders” to do so.


That equates to NSA operating beyond the law, both here and abroad.



Illuminating The Billion Dollar U.S. Intelligence Budget: Project SpyLighter Documents NSA Surveillance Technology11/26/2013 Forbes


Documents released by the U.S. National Security Agency in the last couple of months, following successful Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as part of a new crowdsourcing project called SpyLighter, reveal the agency purchased products from Packet Forensics and VUPEN Security in 2010 and 2012. The two companies are well known for selling Internet surveillance technology and software exploits to governments and businesses world-wide.


The requests were filed by Heather Akers-Healy just weeks after the Washington Post published top-secret documents, obtained from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, disclosing the $52.6 billion “black budget” that funds the NSA and other agencies in the United States intelligence community. In the requests, Akers-Healy asked for copies of contracts with VUPEN and Packet Forensics, and any final reports generated and delivered by the companies to the agency, over the past 10 years.


Inspired by projects such as WikiLeaks and Telecomix Blue Cabinet, the California-based human rights and privacy activist says she filed the requests in hopes of getting “more information regarding the tactics and technology in use by the NSA.” “The Snowden files are illuminating but specific technological details have sometimes been withheld.”


Project SpyLighter, led by Akers-Healy and Jason Gulledge, launched unofficially on Sept. 16, 2013, when the spy agency responded with a 19-page document detailing a contract with French security firm VUPEN, just 11 days after the request was filed. The goal of the project is to use FOIA requests to obtain “more information about vendors and technology in use by the NSA and other agencies,” says Akers-Healy. “Anyone who signs up at the Muckrock website [which allows users to request, analyze, and share government documents] can participate in SpyLighter.”


The contract shows that the agency purchased a 12-month subscription of the VUPEN Binary Analysis and Exploits Service in Sept. 2012. Though the amount paid to VUPEN for this service has been redacted by the NSA, analysts have estimated that VUPEN’s clients pay around $100,000 annually for a subscription. The service includes in-depth analysis of vulnerabilities, exploits and proof-of-concept code for software such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Adobe Flash Player and many more.


Responding to the publication of VUPEN’s one-year long contract with the U.S. spy agency, VUPEN’s chief executive and lead hacker, Chaouki Bekrar, tweeted, “We all had great fun with yesterday news, let’s extend the pleasure of transparency to US companies & laugh together.” Bekrar went on to suggest that Project SpyLighter also file FOIA requests for information related to exploits sold by U.S. companies, including ManTech, Raytheon and Harris Corp.


VUPEN has not commented on whether the NSA renewed the subscription for another year.


Another response from the agency came on Nov. 15, 2013, when it released copies of contracts with Packet Forensics from 2010 and 2012. One of the main selling points for the privately-held U.S. company seems to be the simplification of surveillance; one of their sales brochures says that “if you can surf the Internet and use e-mail, you can perform a cyber investigation.” According to the company’s website, their products allow customers to perform “stealth packet filtering and transparent redirection” and surveil “networks using deep packet inspection.”


Details about the product purchased have been redacted, but the 2010 contract shows the NSA spent $17,500 on products delivered to the agency’s Interagency Training Center in Fort Washington, Maryland. In 2012, the spy agency purchased software and software licenses for a total of $500,000.


Akers-Healy says the “quick, successful response [to the request for contracts with VUPEN] provided impetus to expand and file for additional vendors,” and more than 35 FOIA requests have so far been filed as part of Project SpyLighter. The requests are asking for copies of contracts and invoices between the NSA, as well as other U.S. spy agencies, and a number of different intelligence contractors, including Harris Corp., ManTech, Palantir and Gamma International.


It is far from common to receive responsive documents less than two weeks after filing a request with a U.S. government agency, as was the case with Akers-Healy’s initial request to the NSA. Agencies often fight releases for months or years, and requests are often rejected for being too vague, too broad or too burdensome to complete. In some cases, agencies will respond saying the release of the information requested would be a threat to national security.


“Unfortunately subsequent requests have not gone as smoothly and many are currently in appeal,” says Akers-Healy. She has already appealed the NSA’s decision to redact the amount of the VUPEN contract and the product names in the contracts with Packet Forensics. “This has been a learning experience. We are learning as we go and will publish tips so that others will have an easier time in filing.”


Disclaimer: the author has filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests on muckrock.com as part of Project SpyLighter.


2M Stolen Passwords Discovered on Russian Language Website


December 5, 2014

RIA Novosti


WASHINGTON, – Two million stolen passwords for popular websites, including Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and Google, have been discovered on a Russian language website by a US online security company.


Researchers for SpiderLabs, a division of Trustwave, found the stolen information while investigating a Netherlands-based server used by cyber criminals to control a huge network of computers that had been infected with malicious software.


They uncovered data from more than 326,000 Facebook accounts, 60,000 Google accounts, more than 59,000 Yahoo accounts and nearly 22,000 Twitter accounts, with victims based in countries around the world, SpiderLabs wrote on its blog.


The company also noted that thousands of accounts for two popular Russian language social media sites, Odnoklassniki and VKontakte, had also been compromised.


SpiderLabs told Reuters on Thursday that it had reported its findings to the biggest firms among the more than 90,000 websites and Internet service providers affected.


Facebook and Twitter representatives told Reuters that they had already reset the stolen passwords. Google made no comment, and Yahoo representatives could not be reached, Reuters reported.


The discovery has highlighted the lax security habits of many Internet users. SpiderLabs said that the most commonly used password was “123456,” which was popular with more than 15,000 of the victims.


Other common passwords included “123456789,” “1234” and “password.” Security researcher Graham Cluly told the BBC on Wednesday that 30-40 percent of people use the same password for multiple sites.


“That’s certainly something people shouldn’t do,” he said.


Cluly added that selecting predictable passwords, such as the examples highlighted by SpiderLabs, was “as much use as a chocolate teapot.”



Displaced by Hurricane Sandy and Living in Limbo, Instead of at Home

December 6, 2013

by Patrick McGeehan and Griff Palmer  

New York Times


LONG BEACH, N.Y. — For Kathryn Fitzgerald and her young daughter, Megan, home was a modest three-bedroom house here, on a tightly packed segment of Delaware Avenue two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. That was the only home that Megan had ever known, until Hurricane Sandy hit and a rank mixture of floodwater and untreated sewage rose to chest-high in the lower level of the house


Since then, they have lived in rental apartments and Megan, now 9, attended an unfamiliar school in another town for a while as her mother appealed for enough aid to rebuild the life they had.


When inspectors arrived at Ms. Fitzgerald’s house in November 2012, they pronounced her house “substantially damaged,” meaning that more than half of its value had been destroyed overnight. But her homeowner’s insurance policy did not cover flood damage.


            She had a federally subsidized flood insurance policy, but the company that wrote it offered her just $71,000. She appealed, arguing that her three-bedroom house had been worth more than double that, but her appeal was denied. She appealed again, and was again denied.


Lacking the wherewithal to start overhauling her house and believing that it was too vulnerable to another big storm, Ms. Fitzgerald paid $11,500 to have it torn down. Now she owns a sandlot surrounded by a fence bearing a sign that warns against trespassing.


“This has been a horrendously hard year for me,” she said. “If I don’t think of this in a way that is going to relieve the anger and upset, then I’ll just go back to crying every day.”


More than a year after one of the country’s largest-ever disaster recovery efforts began, Ms. Fitzgerald is among the more than 30,000 residents of New York and New Jersey who remain displaced by the storm, mired in a bureaucratic and financial limbo.


Imposing on relatives and draining their savings while pleading for assistance from a dizzying array of government agencies, they say they fear they will never get home.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had provided $1.4 billion in direct aid to victims of the storm and $7.9 billion in flood insurance payouts, and that the Small Business Administration had made $2.4 billion in low-interest loans to homeowners and businesses. What it did not announce was that less than half of the people who sought emergency money received any, as an analysis by The New York Times of FEMA data shows, or that in many cases flood insurance covered only a fraction of the losses.


According to the analysis by The Times, in the areas in and around New York City that were hit hardest by the storm, almost half of the people who received assistance from FEMA got less than $5,000. Most of that money was intended to cover housing and other emergency costs immediately after the storm.


Hurricane Sandy was a storm like no other in the history of New York. It left more than 100 people dead and caused enormous structural damage that will take years to repair.


FEMA has received claims for nearly 16 million square feet of drywall, 56,000 furnaces and water heaters and enough paint to cover 43 million square feet.


But the most the agency gave in “individual assistance” to any single homeowner was about $36,000. The agency’s representatives instructed homeowners to file claims on their flood insurance policies, if they had one, and to apply for loans from the Small Business Administration, if they qualified. But as those first, small installments ran out, the frustration of negotiating with insurers added to the stress of being displaced.


“I think flood insurance underpayments is the single biggest reason for why the rebuilding hasn’t really taken off,” said Benjamin R. Rajotte, director of the Disaster Relief Clinic at the Touro Law Center in Central Islip, N.Y. “Frequently, people are coming in saying they received half or less of what it would take to rebuild their house, not even to raise them up but just to rebuild.”


Officials at FEMA, which oversees the national flood insurance program, said that adjusters had incentive to cover all eligible losses, but that some policyholders might be disappointed at receiving money for what things were worth, rather than what it would cost to replace them. Those with complaints may appeal the decisions.


Many residents of the region were also surprised to have claims denied for damage to the foundations of their houses because the damage was deemed to have resulted from “earth movement,” not storm flooding.


Some of those displaced, like Rochelle Grubb of Far Rockaway, Queens, had no insurance at all against a flood.


Ms. Grubb, 41, a special-needs teacher at Public School 256 in Queens, had allowed her flood insurance to lapse before her house on Beach 101st Street was inundated by the fast-rising water.


In early December, she said she had been tutoring and her husband, Timothy, had been working overtime to come up with the $270,000 they estimated it would cost them to rebuild.


They said they expected it would be more than a year before they could return to their house, but they do have flood insurance now. Ms. Grubb said she had to buy it to qualify for a $135,000 loan she received from the Small Business Administration.


“It’s 101 Street but we all called it One Hundred and Fun Street,” she said, referring to her close-knit neighbors. “Now when we see each other, we’d just hug and cry. And we’re like, when, when, when?”


Too Much Red Tape


FEMA officials say that their primary goal is to provide emergency aid in the days and weeks after a disaster strikes — the first splash of what is known in Washington as the cascade of federal assistance.


The process of obtaining full compensation for losses is designed to involve several steps and to frustrate efforts to take unfair advantage, as some were accused of doing after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, government officials say.


Standing beside Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in Manhattan in late October, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that more care was being taken to minimize fraud. “We’re not just sending checks willy-nilly,” he said.


The biggest chunks of federal aid for residents come not from FEMA but from HUD, which received $16 billion from Congress to dole out in grants to state and local agencies. That money was part of a total federal allocation of about $60 billion in recovery money.


So far, New York City and the States of New York and New Jersey have received more than $10.2 billion of that money. But they have handed out only a small fraction of it.


By the anniversary of the storm on Oct. 29, New Jersey had spent about $230 million of its grants, but New York City and New York State had made very few payments through their rebuilding programs, known as Build it Back in the city and New York Rising on Long Island.


Robert Smith, 64, a retired New York Police Department detective, said he had nearly given up hope on receiving enough money to rebuild the cottage he shared with his wife in the Broad Channel section of Queens. “FEMA has been totally insensitive to what I consider our basic needs,” said Mr. Smith, who has been living with his wife in their cabin upstate.


As for the Build It Back program, he said he had talked to dozens of homeowners in Broad Channel and none had received any money from that program. “It’s close to 15 months later and the only thing we’re getting is a bureaucracy and promises,” Mr. Smith said. “I want nothing more than to go back to live in Queens, or buy me out.”


Caswell F. Holloway IV, the deputy mayor overseeing Build It Back, said city officials waited until HUD had made its second allocation to the program before telling applicants how much they might receive.


The state’s New York Rising program kicked into high gear this October, sending out 4,200 letters that promised $450 million to homeowners and families on Long Island. A second mass-mailing, in November, promised payments to an additional 350 recipients.


            In late October, the announcement of the latest portion of federal money spurred Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York to declare that “the aid spigot is now open, money will be flowing.” He conceded that “in Year 1, we all agree, the aid flowed too slowly” and said that there was “too much red tape.”


Only a few of those payments have been made so far, but state officials said on Friday that they had asked HUD to allow them to send more than $650 million directly to 6,666 homeowners before the end of the year.


Garrett J. Kaiser, a heavy equipment operator who lives with his wife and two children in Patchogue on Long Island, became one of the first beneficiaries of the state’s program this week.


Mr. Kaiser, 37, and his family lived for months in a camping trailer in their next-door neighbors’ driveway after the nearby bay rose up and filled their single-level house with two feet of water.


After the storm, he set about tearing out the soaked Sheetrock almost immediately, then had the structure raised seven feet. He personally rebuilt much of it, dipping into his family’s savings before he started receiving installments of insurance proceeds that totaled $115,000. In late October, he was one of the first applicants to the New York Rising program to sign the final paperwork to close a deal.


The promised payment of $38,000 would cover all of the expenses that FEMA and flood insurance did not, he said last month. He added that he had heard of people receiving promises of as much as $250,000 from New York Rising and that everyone he knew who had applied to the program was satisfied

“Now I feel blessed that the storm hit because I have a wonderful new home,” said Mr. Kaiser, who has gone into business elevating other homes in flood-prone areas. “I’m staying forever.”


On Wednesday evening, Mr. Kaiser had not yet received any money from New York Rising. But after an inquiry from a reporter about the delay, Mr. Kaiser said the full $38,000 was deposited in his account on Thursday.


An Uneven Recovery


Conni Freestone and her boyfriend, David Fagan, have been sleeping on air mattresses in a rented bungalow they have shared with Ms. Freestone’s ailing, 63-year-old mother in Toms River, N.J.


They had been living in her mother’s home in nearby Point Pleasant when the hurricane drove water from a creek into the garage and main floor of the two-story house. The flood ruined most of the instruments used by Mr. Fagan’s band and the equipment Ms. Freestone used as a freelance photographer. But the flood insurance on the house did not cover those contents.


Ms. Freestone had been frustrated by the slow response of FEMA to their many appeals for help and found out only after pestering Gov. Chris Christie in public that the agency had estimated the damage to the house at less than $7,000. (An aide to Mr. Christie investigated and discovered the low estimate.)


That sum amounted to a fraction of the $83,000 a local contractor said the repairs would cost. The family had been paying for his work out of equity withdrawn from the house, which was their main asset.


Much of that work, including electrical wiring, proved shoddy, Ms. Freestone said, and the family was afraid to move back in. With mold climbing the new drywall, they decided to sue the first contractor and find another. But they had received just $55,000 from their insurance policies, so they kept asking for more help as the anniversary of the storm came and went.


“I felt like I was begging,” Ms. Freestone said of her frequent appeals to FEMA and state agencies. “When I did suck it up and begged, I got shot down. I’m used to being the volunteer, not the one asking for help.”


The disparities in recovery from Hurricane Sandy are on stark display in Long Beach, N.Y., on the block of modest homes where Ms. Fitzgerald and Megan lived next door to a couple, Anne Walsh and Penny Ryan. Their two-story houses, which stood side by side on lots of just 1,800 square feet, suffered similar damage when the floodwaters rose above their floorboards.


But Long Beach officials did not declare Ms. Walsh and Ms. Ryan’s house to be “substantially damaged.” And that determination has made all the difference.


Unlike Ms. Fitzgerald, they were cleared to fix up their home without having to elevate it off the ground. So now Ms. Walsh and Ms. Ryan return from work in New York City to a pin-neat living room with a gleaming floor made of Brazilian teak.


Within weeks after the waters receded, Ms. Walsh, a nurse, and Ms. Ryan, a public school principal, had dipped into their savings to pay a contractor to start tearing out and replace the ruined floors and walls. All told, they said, they had spent about $200,000 to restore their home — considerably more than they recouped through FEMA, flood insurance and a $26,000 grant from New York Rising.


“We went from having a comfortable lifestyle to being totally in debt,” said Ms. Ryan, 50.


Ms. Walsh said she thought it would take five years for the neighborhood they cherished to come fully back to life. Some houses still sit dark and boarded up, others are being raised several feet to avoid another flooding.


Ms. Fitzgerald had held out hope that the New York Rising program would come through with a grant big enough to bridge the wide gap between what she received from her insurance companies and what it would cost to build a house from scratch so close to New York City.


When she finally got her answer from New York Rising, Ms. Fitzgerald said she was “wrecked” by “bitter disappointment.”


The state had calculated that her house could be rebuilt for $160,000, so they subtracted the $84,000 they say she had received from other sources since the storm and awarded her $76,000. She said that she thought it would cost closer to $250,000 to rebuild.


And she has already spent some of her insurance proceeds to pay for demolition and plans and permits for a new house, leaving her with far less than what she needs to rebuild.


“I’m not looking for anything fabulous,” Ms. Fitzgerald said, choking back the frustration of not knowing if she and her daughter would ever get back to Delaware Avenue. “I love that block,” she said. “I want to build back.”



Whose sarin?

December 8, 2013

by Seymour M. Hersh

London Review of Books


Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.


In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.


He cited a list of what appeared to be hard-won evidence of Assad’s culpability: ‘In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighbourhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.’ Obama’s certainty was echoed at the time by Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, who told the New York Times: ‘No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence’ directly linking Assad and his regime to the sarin attacks.


But in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote. A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: ‘The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, “How can we help this guy” – Obama – “when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?”’


The complaints focus on what Washington did not have: any advance warning from the assumed source of the attack. The military intelligence community has for years produced a highly classified early morning intelligence summary, known as the Morning Report, for the secretary of defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a copy also goes to the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. The Morning Report includes no political or economic information, but provides a summary of important military events around the world, with all available intelligence about them. A senior intelligence consultant told me that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20 August through 23 August. For two days – 20 and 21 August – there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more than the public.


Obama left Washington early on 21 August for a hectic two-day speaking tour in New York and Pennsylvania; according to the White House press office, he was briefed later that day on the attack, and the growing public and media furore. The lack of any immediate inside intelligence was made clear on 22 August, when Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters: ‘We are unable to conclusively determine [chemical weapons] use. But we are focused every minute of every day since these events happened … on doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts.’ The administration’s tone had hardened by 27 August, when Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, told reporters – without providing any specific information – that any suggestions that the Syrian government was not responsible ‘are as preposterous as suggestions that the attack itself didn’t occur’.


The absence of immediate alarm inside the American intelligence community demonstrates that there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack. And there are at least two ways the US could have known about it in advance: both were touched on in one of the top secret American intelligence documents that have been made public in recent months by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor.


On 29 August, the Washington Post published excerpts from the annual budget for all national intelligence programmes, agency by agency, provided by Snowden. In consultation with the Obama administration, the newspaper chose to publish only a slim portion of the 178-page document, which has a classification higher than top secret, but it summarised and published a section dealing with problem areas. One problem area was the gap in coverage targeting Assad’s office. The document said that the NSA’s worldwide electronic eavesdropping facilities had been ‘able to monitor unencrypted communications among senior military officials at the outset of the civil war there’. But it was ‘a vulnerability that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces apparently later recognised’. In other words, the NSA no longer had access to the conversations of the top military leadership in Syria, which would have included crucial communications from Assad, such as orders for a nerve gas attack. (In its public statements since 21 August, the Obama administration has never claimed to have specific information connecting Assad himself to the attack.)


The Post report also provided the first indication of a secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. The sensors are monitored by the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that controls all US intelligence satellites in orbit. According to the Post summary, the NRO is also assigned ‘to extract data from sensors placed on the ground’ inside Syria. The former senior intelligence official, who had direct knowledge of the programme, told me that NRO sensors have been implanted near all known chemical warfare sites in Syria. They are designed to provide constant monitoring of the movement of chemical warheads stored by the military. But far more important, in terms of early warning, is the sensors’ ability to alert US and Israeli intelligence when warheads are being loaded with sarin. (As a neighbouring country, Israel has always been on the alert for changes in the Syrian chemical arsenal, and works closely with American intelligence on early warnings.) A chemical warhead, once loaded with sarin, has a shelf life of a few days or less – the nerve agent begins eroding the rocket almost immediately: it’s a use-it-or-lose-it mass killer. ‘The Syrian army doesn’t have three days to prepare for a chemical attack,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘We created the sensor system for immediate reaction, like an air raid warning or a fire alarm. You can’t have a warning over three days because everyone involved would be dead. It is either right now or you’re history. You do not spend three days getting ready to fire nerve gas.’ The sensors detected no movement in the months and days before 21 August, the former official said. It is of course possible that sarin had been supplied to the Syrian army by other means, but the lack of warning meant that Washington was unable to monitor the events in Eastern Ghouta as they unfolded.


The sensors had worked in the past, as the Syrian leadership knew all too well. Last December the sensor system picked up signs of what seemed to be sarin production at a chemical weapons depot. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian army was simulating sarin production as part of an exercise (all militaries constantly carry out such exercises) or actually preparing an attack. At the time, Obama publicly warned Syria that using sarin was ‘totally unacceptable’; a similar message was also passed by diplomatic means. The event was later determined to be part of a series of exercises, according to the former senior intelligence official: ‘If what the sensors saw last December was so important that the president had to call and say, “Knock it off,” why didn’t the president issue the same warning three days before the gas attack in August?’


The NSA would of course monitor Assad’s office around the clock if it could, the former official said. Other communications – from various army units in combat throughout Syria – would be far less important, and not analysed in real time. ‘There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications,’ he said, ‘and it would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.’ But the ‘chatter’ is routinely stored on computers. Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.


            The White House needed nine days to assemble its case against the Syrian government. On 30 August it invited a select group of Washington journalists (at least one often critical reporter, Jonathan Landay, the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was not invited), and handed them a document carefully labelled as a ‘government assessment’, rather than as an assessment by the intelligence community. The document laid out what was essentially a political argument to bolster the administration’s case against the Assad government. It was, however, more specific than Obama would be later, in his speech on 10 September: American intelligence, it stated, knew that Syria had begun ‘preparing chemical munitions’ three days before the attack. In an aggressive speech later that day, John Kerry provided more details. He said that Syria’s ‘chemical weapons personnel were on the ground, in the area, making preparations’ by 18 August. ‘We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.’ The government assessment and Kerry’s comments made it seem as if the administration had been tracking the sarin attack as it happened. It is this version of events, untrue but unchallenged, that was widely reported at the time.


An unforseen reaction came in the form of complaints from the Free Syrian Army’s leadership and others about the lack of warning. ‘It’s unbelievable they did nothing to warn people or try to stop the regime before the crime,’ Razan Zaitouneh, an opposition member who lived in one of the towns struck by sarin, told Foreign Policy. The Daily Mail was more blunt: ‘Intelligence report says US officials knew about nerve-gas attack in Syria three days before it killed over 1400 people – including more than 400 children.’ (The number of deaths attributable to the attack varied widely, from at least 1429, as initially claimed by the Obama administration, to many fewer. A Syrian human rights group reported 502 deaths; Médicins sans Frontières put it at 355; and a French report listed 281 known fatalities. The strikingly precise US total was later reported by the Wall Street Journal to have been based not on an actual body count, but on an extrapolation by CIA analysts, who scanned more than a hundred YouTube videos from Eastern Ghouta into a computer system and looked for images of the dead. In other words, it was little more than a guess.)


Five days later, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded to the complaints. A statement to the Associated Press said that the intelligence behind the earlier administration assertions was not known at the time of the attack, but recovered only subsequently: ‘Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place. The intelligence community was able to gather and analyse information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons.’ But since the American press corps had their story, the retraction received scant attention. On 31 August the Washington Post, relying on the government assessment, had vividly reported on its front page that American intelligence was able to record ‘each step’ of the Syrian army attack in real time, ‘from the extensive preparations to the launching of rockets to the after-action assessments by Syrian officials’. It did not publish the AP corrective, and the White House maintained control of the narrative.


So when Obama said on 10 September that his administration knew Assad’s chemical weapons personnel had prepared the attack in advance, he was basing the statement not on an intercept caught as it happened, but on communications analysed days after 21 August. The former senior intelligence official explained that the hunt for relevant chatter went back to the exercise detected the previous December, in which, as Obama later said to the public, the Syrian army mobilised chemical weapons personnel and distributed gas masks to its troops. The White House’s government assessment and Obama’s speech were not descriptions of the specific events leading up to the 21 August attack, but an account of the sequence the Syrian military would have followed for any chemical attack. ‘They put together a back story,’ the former official said, ‘and there are lots of different pieces and parts. The template they used was the template that goes back to December.’ It is possible, of course, that Obama was unaware that this account was obtained from an analysis of Syrian army protocol for conducting a gas attack, rather than from direct evidence. Either way he had come to a hasty judgment.


The press would follow suit. The UN report on 16 September confirming the use of sarin was careful to note that its investigators’ access to the attack sites, which came five days after the gassing, had been controlled by rebel forces. ‘As with other sites,’ the report warned, ‘the locations have been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the mission … During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.’ Still, the New York Times seized on the report, as did American and British officials, and claimed that it provided crucial evidence backing up the administration’s assertions. An annex to the UN report reproduced YouTube photographs of some recovered munitions, including a rocket that ‘indicatively matches’ the specifics of a 330mm calibre artillery rocket. The New York Times wrote that the existence of the rockets essentially proved that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack ‘because the weapons in question had not been previously documented or reported to be in possession of the insurgency’.


Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at MIT, reviewed the UN photos with a group of his colleagues and concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was ‘something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop’. The rocket in the photos, he added, fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal. The New York Times, again relying on data in the UN report, also analysed the flight path of two of the spent rockets that were believed to have carried sarin, and concluded that the angle of descent ‘pointed directly’ to their being fired from a Syrian army base more than nine kilometres from the landing zone. Postol, who has served as the scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the Pentagon, said that the assertions in the Times and elsewhere ‘were not based on actual observations’. He concluded that the flight path analyses in particular were, as he put it in an email, ‘totally nuts’ because a thorough study demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was ‘unlikely’ to be more than two kilometres. Postol and a colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, published an analysis two weeks after 21 August in which they correctly assessed that the rockets involved carried a far greater payload of sarin than previously estimated. The Times reported on that analysis at length, describing Postol and Lloyd as ‘leading weapons experts’. The pair’s later study about the rockets’ flight paths and range, which contradicted previous Times reporting, was emailed to the newspaper last week; it has so far gone unreported.


            The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative. That information concerned al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group designated by the US and the UN as a terrorist organisation. Al-Nusra is known to have carried out scores of suicide bombings against Christians and other non-Sunni Muslim sects inside Syria, and to have attacked its nominal ally in the civil war, the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA). Its stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime and establish sharia law. (On 25 September al-Nusra joined several other Islamist rebel groups in repudiating the FSA and another secular faction, the Syrian National Coalition.)


The flurry of American interest in al-Nusra and sarin stemmed from a series of small-scale chemical weapons attacks in March and April; at the time, the Syrian government and the rebels each insisted the other was responsible. The UN eventually concluded that four chemical attacks had been carried out, but did not assign responsibility. A White House official told the press in late April that the intelligence community had assessed ‘with varying degrees of confidence’ that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks. Assad had crossed Obama’s ‘red line’. The April assessment made headlines, but some significant caveats were lost in translation. The unnamed official conducting the briefing acknowledged that intelligence community assessments ‘are not alone sufficient’. ‘We want,’ he said, ‘to investigate above and beyond those intelligence assessments to gather facts so that we can establish a credible and corroborated set of information that can then inform our decision-making.’ In other words, the White House had no direct evidence of Syrian army or government involvement, a fact that was only occasionally noted in the press coverage. Obama’s tough talk played well with the public and Congress, who view Assad as a ruthless murderer.


Two months later, a White House statement announced a change in the assessment of Syrian culpability and declared that the intelligence community now had ‘high confidence’ that the Assad government was responsible for as many as 150 deaths from attacks with sarin. More headlines were generated and the press was told that Obama, in response to the new intelligence, had ordered an increase in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. But once again there were significant caveats. The new intelligence included a report that Syrian officials had planned and executed the attacks. No specifics were provided, nor were those who provided the reports identified. The White House statement said that laboratory analysis had confirmed the use of sarin, but also that a positive finding of the nerve agent ‘does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination’. The White House further declared: ‘We have no reliable corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.’ The statement contradicted evidence that at the time was streaming into US intelligence agencies.


Already by late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.


On 20 June a four-page top secret cable summarising what had been learned about al-Nusra’s nerve gas capabilities was forwarded to David R. Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. ‘What Shedd was briefed on was extensive and comprehensive,’ the consultant said. ‘It was not a bunch of “we believes”.’ He told me that the cable made no assessment as to whether the rebels or the Syrian army had initiated the attacks in March and April, but it did confirm previous reports that al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin. A sample of the sarin that had been used was also recovered – with the help of an Israeli agent – but, according to the consultant, no further reporting about the sample showed up in cable traffic.


Independently of these assessments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assuming that US troops might be ordered into Syria to seize the government’s stockpile of chemical agents, called for an all-source analysis of the potential threat. ‘The Op Order provides the basis of execution of a military mission, if so ordered,’ the former senior intelligence official explained. ‘This includes the possible need to send American soldiers to a Syrian chemical site to defend it against rebel seizure. If the jihadist rebels were going to overrun the site, the assumption is that Assad would not fight us because we were protecting the chemical from the rebels. All Op Orders contain an intelligence threat component. We had technical analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, weapons people, and I & W [indications and warnings] people working on the problem … They concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas. The examination relied on signals and human intelligence, as well as the expressed intention and technical capability of the rebels.’


There is evidence that during the summer some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were troubled by the prospect of a ground invasion of Syria as well as by Obama’s professed desire to give rebel factions non-lethal support. In July, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, provided a gloomy assessment, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in public testimony that ‘thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces’ would be needed to seize Syria’s widely dispersed chemical warfare arsenal, along with ‘hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers’. Pentagon estimates put the number of troops at seventy thousand, in part because US forces would also have to guard the Syrian rocket fleet: accessing large volumes of the chemicals that create sarin without the means to deliver it would be of little value to a rebel force. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, Dempsey cautioned that a decision to grab the Syrian arsenal could have unintended consequences: ‘We have learned from the past ten years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state … Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.’


The CIA declined to comment for this article. Spokesmen for the DIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said they were not aware of the report to Shedd and, when provided with specific cable markings for the document, said they were unable to find it. Shawn Turner, head of public affairs for the ODNI, said that no American intelligence agency, including the DIA, ‘assesses that the al-Nusra Front has succeeded in developing a capacity to manufacture sarin’.


The administration’s public affairs officials are not as concerned about al-Nusra’s military potential as Shedd has been in his public statements. In late July, he gave an alarming account of al-Nusra’s strength at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. ‘I count no less than 1200 disparate groups in the opposition,’ Shedd said, according to a recording of his presentation. ‘And within the opposition, the al-Nusra Front is … most effective and is gaining in strength.’ This, he said, ‘is of serious concern to us. If left unchecked, I am very concerned that the most radical elements’ – he also cited al-Qaida in Iraq – ‘will take over.’ The civil war, he went on, ‘will only grow worse over time … Unfathomable violence is yet to come.’ Shedd made no mention of chemical weapons in his talk, but he was not allowed to: the reports his office received were highly classified.


            A series of secret dispatches from Syria over the summer reported that members of the FSA were complaining to American intelligence operatives about repeated attacks on their forces by al-Nusra and al-Qaida fighters. The reports, according to the senior intelligence consultant who read them, provided evidence that the FSA is ‘more worried about the crazies than it is about Assad’. The FSA is largely composed of defectors from the Syrian army. The Obama administration, committed to the end of the Assad regime and continued support for the rebels, has sought in its public statements since the attack to downplay the influence of Salafist and Wahhabist factions. In early September, John Kerry dumbfounded a Congressional hearing with a sudden claim that al-Nusra and other Islamist groups were minority players in the Syrian opposition. He later withdrew the claim.


In both its public and private briefings after 21 August, the administration disregarded the available intelligence about al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin and continued to claim that the Assad government was in sole possession of chemical weapons. This was the message conveyed in the various secret briefings that members of Congress received in the days after the attack, when Obama was seeking support for his planned missile offensive against Syrian military installations. One legislator with more than two decades of experience in military affairs told me that he came away from one such briefing persuaded that ‘only the Assad government had sarin and the rebels did not.’ Similarly, following the release of the UN report on 16 September confirming that sarin was used on 21 August, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, told a press conference: ‘It’s very important to note that only the [Assad] regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin.’


It is not known whether the highly classified reporting on al-Nusra was made available to Power’s office, but her comment was a reflection of the attitude that swept through the administration. ‘The immediate assumption was that Assad had done it,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘The new director of the CIA, [John] Brennan, jumped to that conclusion … drives to the White House and says: “Look at what I’ve got!” It was all verbal; they just waved the bloody shirt. There was a lot of political pressure to bring Obama to the table to help the rebels, and there was wishful thinking that this [tying Assad to the sarin attack] would force Obama’s hand: “This is the Zimmermann telegram of the Syrian rebellion and now Obama can react.” Wishful thinking by the Samantha Power wing within the administration. Unfortunately, some members of the Joint Chiefs who were alerted that he was going to attack weren’t so sure it was a good thing.’


The proposed American missile attack on Syria never won public support and Obama turned quickly to the UN and the Russian proposal for dismantling the Syrian chemical warfare complex. Any possibility of military action was definitively averted on 26 September when the administration joined Russia in approving a draft UN resolution calling on the Assad government to get rid of its chemical arsenal. Obama’s retreat brought relief to many senior military officers. (One high-level special operations adviser told me that the ill-conceived American missile attack on Syrian military airfields and missile emplacements, as initially envisaged by the White House, would have been ‘like providing close air support for al-Nusra’.)


The administration’s distortion of the facts surrounding the sarin attack raises an unavoidable question: do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria? He had claimed to have an iron-clad case but suddenly agreed to take the issue to Congress, and later to accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons. It appears possible that at some point he was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans.


The UN resolution, which was adopted on 27 September by the Security Council, dealt indirectly with the notion that rebel forces such as al-Nusra would also be obliged to disarm: ‘no party in Syria should use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer [chemical] weapons.’ The resolution also calls for the immediate notification of the Security Council in the event that any ‘non-state actors’ acquire chemical weapons. No group was cited by name. While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone. There may be more to negotiate.

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