TBR News October 11, 2017

Oct 11 2017

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C., October 11, 2017: “In the great Internet propaganda wars now raging, the Russians are clearly ahead. And in the oil-rich middle east, the Russians are also ahead. The fanatic Sunni IS, funded by Saudi Arabia and trained by our very own CIA, is headed for extinction, thanks, in the main to Russian and Kurdish actions. One of the reasons for the Russian success is because while Russia has a strong, centralized leadership, the United States is run by committees composed of disparate economic, political and racial entities, each striving for dominance and none succeeding. After all, it has been very truly said that a camel was a horse designed by a Congressional committee.”

Table of Contents

  • Syria: Civilians trapped in Raqqa as ‘Islamic State’ makes last stand
  • Sputnik and RT Under Investigation
  • Trump suggests revoking NBC license after series of ‘fake news’
  • Could Catalonia make a success of independence?
  • Fearing Trump torpedo, Europe scrambles to save Iran deal
  • A Surprise From the Super volcano Under Yellowstone
  • The Scandal of Pentagon Spending
  • Information and Disinformation
  • The science of spying: how the CIA secretly recruits academics



Syria: Civilians trapped in Raqqa as ‘Islamic State’ makes last stand

With a “hard core of foreign fighters,” the notorious militant group has positioned itself for its last stand in Raqqa. The US-led coalition against “Islamic State” has rejected any negotiated withdrawal of militants.

October 11, 2017


As the fight to liberate the Syrian city of Raqqa from the “Islamic State” militant group draws to an end, its remaining fighters are expected to hold out “until the end,” according to Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for the US-led coalition against the group.

Dillon added that there are up to 400 militants believed to be left in the city, mostly concentrated in Raqqa’s historic center, where IS staged beheadings and crucifixions.

“The foreign fighters, we fully expect them to fight until the end – there’s a hard core of (foreign) fighters,” Dillon said. “But we have seen a rate of four to five ISIS fighters surrendering a week, including emirs – local leaders within Raqqa – over the past month.”

In June, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, began its offensive by surrounding the city and launching a multi-pronged assault with the help of aerial support from the US-led coalition.

‘Civilians trapped’

According to UN estimates, up to 8,000 civilians may still be trapped in Raqqa. The US-led coalition said the Raqqa Civic Council – a provisional administration set up by the SDF to govern after the fall of IS – has attempted to negotiate the release of civilians, fearing they may be used as human shields.

The Raqqa Civil Council is leading discussions to determine the best way to enable civilians trapped by Daesh to exit the city, where some are being held as human shields by the terrorists,” the coalition said in a statement, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

“Those departing Raqqa who are found to have fought for Daesh will be turned over to local authorities to face justice.”

Still a threat

IS has seen its territories in Iraq and Syria diminish drastically over the past year as the militant group facede multiple offensives from global powers and regional actors. Iraqi-led forces liberated Mosul earlier this year, marking a major victory over the militant group.

In 2014, the militant group rose to notoriety when it launched an offensive across Iraq and Syria, culminating in the occupation of Mosul, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a global caliphate in a historic mosque.

While IS has lost significant portions of territories it captured, European authorities have warned of the knock-on effect it could have, with returning foreign fighters posing a major threat to public safety.


Sputnik and RT Under Investigation

Is it news or propaganda? And what about the First Amendment?

October 10, 2017

Philip Giraldi

The Unz Review

Somehow everything keeps coming back around to Russia. In one of its recent initiatives, the Justice Department (DOJ) appears to be attacking the First Amendment as part of the apparent bipartisan program to make Vladimir Putin the fall guy for everything that goes wrong in Washington. In the past month, the DOJ has revealed that the FBI is investigating Russian owned news outlets Sputnik News and RT International and has sent letters to the latter demanding that one of its business affiliates register as a foreign agent by October 17th. The apparent line of inquiry that the Bureau is pursuing is that both are agencies of the Russian government and that both have been spreading disinformation that is intended to discredit the United States government and its institutions. This alleged action would make them, in the DOJ view, a propaganda arm of a foreign government rather than a news service. It also makes them subject to Department of the Treasury oversight under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.

Sputnik, which is owned by a Russian government media group headed by Putin consigliere Dimitri Kiselyov, has been under investigation due to the accusations made by a fired broadcaster named Andrew Feinberg. Feinberg, the former Sputnik White House correspondent, reportedly took with him a thumb drive containing some thousands of internal business files when he left his office. He has been interviewed by the FBI, has turned over his documents, and has claimed that much of the direction over what the network covered came from Moscow.

RT America, more television oriented than Sputnik, operates through two business entities: RTTV America and RTTV Studios. The Department of Justice has refused to identify which of the businesses has been targeted by a letter calling for registration under FARA, but it is believed to be RTTV America, which provides both operational support of the broadcasting as well as the production facilities. Both companies are actually owned by Russian-American businessman Alex Yazlovsky, though the funding for them presumably comes from the Russian government.

I have noticed very little pushback in the U.S. mainstream and alternative media regarding the Department of Justice moves, presumably because there is a broad consensus that the Russians have been interfering in our “democracy” and have had it coming. If that assumption on my part is correct, the silence over the issue reflects a certain naïvete while also constituting a near perfect example of a pervasive tunnel vision that obscures the significant collateral damage that might be forthcoming.

News organizations are normally considered to be exempt from the requirements of FARA. The Department of Justice action against the two Russian major media outlets is unprecedented insofar as I could determine. Even Qatar owned al-Jazeera, which was so vilified during the early stages of the Afghan War that it had its Kabul offices bombed by the U.S., did not have to register under FARA, was permitted to operate freely, and was even allowed to buy a television channel license for its American operations.

The DOJ is in effect saying that RT and Sputnik are nothing more than propaganda organs and do not qualify as journalism. I would have to disagree if one goes by the standards of contemporary journalism in the United States. America’s self-described “newspapers of record” the New York Times and the Washington Post pretend that they have a lock on stories that are “true.” The Post has adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” while the Times proclaims “The truth is more important now than ever,” but anyone who has read either paper regularly for the past year knows perfectly well that they have been as often as not leading propaganda organs for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, pushing a particular agenda and denigrating Donald Trump. They differ little from the admittedly biased television news reporting provided by Fox News and MSNBC.

What exactly did the Russians do? According to last January’s report signed off on by the FBI, CIA and NSA, which may have motivated the DOJ to take action, RT and Sputnik “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.” Well, they certainly got that one right and did better in their reporting of what was going on among the American public than either the Washington Post or New York Times.

Regarding Sputnik, Feinberg claimed inter alia that he was “pushed” to ask questions at White House press briefings suggesting that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was not responsible for some of the chemical attacks that had taken place. One wonders at Feinberg’s reluctance as Sputnik and RT were not the only ones expressing skepticism over the claims of Syrian involvement, which have been widely debunked. And why is expressing a credible alternative view on an event in Syria even regarded as propaganda damaging to the American public?

There is a difficult to distinguish line between FARA restricted “trying to influence opinion” using what is regarded a fake news and propaganda and legitimate journalism reporting stories where the “facts” have been challenged. Even real journalists choose to cover stories selectively, inevitably producing a certain narrative for the viewer, listener or reader. All news services do that to a greater or lesser extent.

I have considerable personal experience of RT in particular and, to a lesser extent, with Sputnik. I also know many others who have been interviewed by one or both. No one who has done so has ever been coached or urged to follow a particular line or support a specific position insofar as I know. Nor do I know anyone who has actually been paid to appear. Most of us who are interviewed are appreciative of the fact that we are allowed to air views that are essentially banned on the mainstream media to include critique of maladroit policies in places like Syria and Afghanistan and biting critiques of the war on terror.

Sputnik, in my opinion, does, however, lean heavily towards stories that are critical of the United States and its policies, while RT has a global reach and is much more balanced in what it covers. For sure, it too criticizes U.S. policies and is protective of the Russian government, but it does not substantially differ from other national news services that I have had done interviews for. I find as much uniquely generated negative reporting about the U.S. (usually linked to violence or guns) on BBC World News, France24 and Deutsche Welle as I do on RT International. To describe it as part of an “influence campaign” driven by a “state-run propaganda machine” has a kernel of truth but it is nevertheless a bit of a stretch since one could make the same claims about any government financed news service, including Voice of America. Governments only get into broadcasting to promote their points of view, not to inform the public.

There is a serious problem in the threats to use FARA as it could advance the ongoing erosion of freedom of the press in the United States by establishing the precedent that a foreign news services that is critical of the U.S. will no longer be tolerated. It is also hypocritical in that countries like Israel that interfere regularly in American politics are exempt from FARA registration because no one dares to take such a step, while Russia is fair game.

Going after news outlets also invites retaliation against U.S. media operating in Russia and, eventually, elsewhere. Currently Western media reports from Russia pretty much without being censored or pressured to avoid certain stories. I would note a recent series that appeared on CBS featuring the repulsive Stephen Colbert spending a week in Russia which mercilessly lampooned both the country and its government. No one arrested him or made him stop filming. No one claimed that he was trying to undermine the Russian government or discredit the country’s institutions, even though that is precisely what he was doing.

And then there is the issue of the “threat” posed by news media outlets like RT and Sputnik. Even combined the two services have limited access to the U.S. market, with a 2014 study suggesting that they have only 2.8 million actual weekly viewers. RT did not make the cut and is not included on the list of 100 most popular television channels in the U.S. and it has far less market penetration than other foreign news services like the BBC. It can be found on only a limited number of cable networks in a few, mostly urban areas. It does better in Europe, but its profile in the U.S. market is miniscule. As even bad news is good news in terms of selling a product, it probably did receive higher ratings when the intelligence agency report slamming it came out on it in January. Everyone probably wanted to learn what RT was all about.

So it seems to me that the United States’ moves against RT and Sputnik are little more than lashing out at a problem that is not really a problem in a bid to again promote the Russian “threat” to explain the ongoing dysfunction that prevails in America’s democratic process. One keeps reading or hearing how the American government has “indisputable” proof of Moscow’s intentions to subvert democracy in the U.S. as well as in Europe but the actual evidence is still elusive. Will Russiagate end with a bang or a whimper? No one seems to know.


Trump suggests revoking NBC license after series of ‘fake news’

October 11, 2017


US President Donald Trump has called an NBC report that he wanted a tenfold increase in the US nuclear arsenal “pure fiction” and suggested that the network deserves to have its license pulled after a series of reports that were challenged as false.

The president said that NBC News “made up” the report which, citing three unnamed officials, said that Trump wanted to dramatically increase the stockpile of US nuclear weapons.

With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?” he added.It’s frankly disgusting, the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” Trump said Wednesday afternoon, after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Washington.

“The press should speak more honestly,” he added. “They make up the sources. There are no sources.”

NBC’s report about the nuclear arsenal was “absolutely false,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement on Wednesday, adding, “This kind of erroneous reporting is irresponsible.”

Last week NBC reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson supposedly called Trump a “moron” and threatened to resign, only to be talked out of it by Vice President Mike Pence. That story also cited three unnamed officials.

Tillerson told reporters he had “never considered leaving” his post and described the story as “petty nonsense.” The vice president likewise denied the claims in the NBC story.

“At no time did he and the secretary ever discuss the prospect of the secretary’s resignation from the administration. Any reporting to the contrary is categorically false,” said Jarrod Agen, Pence’s spokesman.

Trump has long complained about major US media outlets trying to undermine him during and after the election. He labeled a number of them, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN, “fake news.”

“Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!” Trump tweeted last Thursday, the day after the Senate Intelligence Committee updated reporters about its months-long investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election.

Some news outlets will be left “with egg on their face” over their reporting on the Russia investigation, committee chairman Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) told CNN when asked about Trump’s statement.


Could Catalonia make a success of independence?

October 10, 2017

BBC News

Amid speculation that the Catalan parliament might unilaterally declare independence, some of the region’s banks decided to move their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain. Meanwhile, the government in Madrid says any such declaration would have no effect. But supposing the region did eventually secede, would Catalonia be able to stand on its own two feet?

Trappings of statehood

To the casual observer, Catalonia looks like it has already got many of the trappings of a state. Flags. A parliament. The leader, Carles Puigdemont.

The region has its own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. It has its own broadcast regulator, and even boasts a series of foreign “missions” – mini embassies that promote trade and investment in Catalonia around the world. Catalonia delivers some public services already – schools and healthcare, for example.

There’d be much more to set up in the event of independence, though. Border control. Customs. Proper international relations. Defence. A central bank. Inland revenue. Air traffic control.

All of these are currently run by Madrid.

But assuming it did create these new institutions – would it be able to pay for them?

Reasons to be cheerful

“Madrid nos roba” is a popular secessionist slogan – “Madrid is robbing us.” The received wisdom is that comparatively wealthy Catalonia pays in more than it gets out of the Spanish state.

Catalonia is certainly rich compared with other parts of Spain. It is home to just 16% of the Spanish population, but 19% of its GDP and more than a quarter of Spain’s foreign exports.

It punches above its weight in terms of tourism too – 18 million of Spain’s 75 million tourists chose Catalonia as their primary destination last year, easily the most visited region.

Tarragona has one of Europe’s largest chemical hubs.

Barcelona is one of the EU’s top 20 ports by weight of goods handled.

About a third of the working population has some form of tertiary education.

It’s also true that Catalans pay more in taxes than is spent on their region.

In 2014, the last year the Spanish government has figures for, Catalans paid nearly €10bn (£8.9bn) more in taxes than reached their region in public spending. Would an independent Catalonia get the difference back?

Some have argued that even if Catalonia gained a tax boost from independence, that might get swallowed up by having to create new public institutions and run them without the same economies of scale.

And some argue that it makes sense for the state to redistribute money from richer to poorer regions in this way.

A harder reckoning

Perhaps of greater concern is Catalonia’s public debt.

The Catalan government owes €77bn (£68bn) at the last count, or 35.4% of Catalonia’s GDP. Of that, €52bn is owed to the Spanish government.

In 2012, the Spanish government set up a special fund to provide cash to the regions, who were unable to borrow money on the international markets after the financial crisis. Catalonia has been by far the biggest beneficiary of this scheme, taking €67bn since it began.

Not only would Catalonia lose access to that scheme, but it would raise the question of how much debt Catalonia would be willing to repay after independence.

That question would surely cast a shadow over any negotiations. And on top of the sum owed by the regional government – would Madrid expect Barcelona to shoulder a share of the Spanish national debt?

Involuntary Catalexit?

The economic uncertainty created by the prospect of independence has already led to two banks deciding to move their head offices out of the region.

At least part of that uncertainty is over Catalonia’s relationship with Europe.

Two-thirds of Catalonia’s foreign exports go to the EU. It would need to reapply to become a member if it seceded from Spain – it wouldn’t get in automatically or immediately.

And it would require all EU members to agree – including Spain.

Some in the pro-independence camp feel that Catalonia could settle for single-market membership without joining the EU. Catalans may well be happy to pay for access, and continue to accept free movement of EU citizens across the region’s borders.

But if Spain chose to, it could make life difficult for an independent Catalonia.

There is also the question of currency.

In 2015, the governor of the Bank of Spain warned Catalans independence would cause the region to drop out of the euro automatically, losing access to the European Central Bank.

Normally, new EU member states must apply to join the euro.

They have to meet certain criteria, such as their debt not being too large a percentage of their gross domestic product (GDP).

Even if they meet those criteria, a qualified majority of eurozone countries has to approve their entry.

In theory, that means even if Catalonia became a new EU member state, it may well take time to rejoin the eurozone – and Spain and its allies could block that.

In practice, we just don’t know what would happen.

Nobody has ever declared independence from a member of the eurozone then asked to rejoin as a new country.

Could Catalonia use the euro without joining the eurozone? It does happen.

Some countries such as San Marino and Vatican City do so with the eurozone’s blessing, since they’re too small to ever become EU member states.

Others, such as Kosovo and Montenegro, use the euro without the EU’s blessing, and so don’t have access to the European Central Bank.

Again, whether either solution would be practical in Catalonia remains to be seen.


Fearing Trump torpedo, Europe scrambles to save Iran deal

October 11, 2017

by Noah Barkin and John Irish


BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) – European countries are scrambling to cobble together a package of measures they hope will keep the Iran nuclear deal on track if U.S. President Donald Trump ignores their pleas and decertifies the landmark 2015 agreement this week. The package would include a strong statement backing the deal by European powers, together with efforts to lobby the U.S. Congress and put wider pressure on Iran, officials said.

But without strong U.S. support for the deal, senior officials in Berlin, Paris and London say it may be only a matter of time before the pact between Tehran and six world powers unravels, with grave consequences for Middle East security, nonproliferation efforts and transatlantic ties.

The two-year-old agreement, under which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program for 15 years in exchange for sanctions relief, is viewed in Europe as a rare triumph of international diplomacy in the Middle East.

As tensions over North Korea’s nuclear activities risk boiling over into all-out war, any move by the United States to undermine the Iran deal is seen in Europe as utter folly.

European capitals have been delivering this message to the White House and Congress in one of the most intense lobbying campaigns in recent memory. In the past weeks, European ambassadors have met dozens of U.S. lawmakers. And on Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May lobbied Trump by phone.

Despite this, Trump is expected declare this week that Iran is not complying with the pact. He is also due to unveil a tough new strategy toward Iran – including designating its Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization – that could sink the deal.

“If the feeling is the United States no longer supports the agreement then the political reality is that the deal will be in serious jeopardy and its implementation will be very difficult,” a senior French diplomat told Reuters.

A decision by Trump to decertify would not automatically kill the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The expectation is that Trump would kick the ball to Congress, which would then have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions lifted as part of the JCPOA.


European officials said they were preparing a three-pronged strategy if this does occur.

First, Berlin, London and Paris would issue statements reaffirming their commitment to the deal.

Second, they would redouble efforts to lobby Congress, which appears keen to keep the deal, against any rash moves.

And third, they would present measures to pressure Iran over its ballistic missile program and destabilizing policies in the Middle East — areas that fall outside the narrowly-focused nuclear deal.

French President Emmanuel Macron alluded to this at the United Nations last month. Diplomats said the package was still in the works and they had not yet briefed Brussels on it.

With the third step, the Europeans hope to build a bridge to Washington while keeping the JCPOA intact. But a German diplomat said ratcheting up pressure on Tehran was like walking a tightrope: push too hard and the whole deal could fall apart.

“We all knew the JCPOA wasn’t perfect, but by calling its benefits into question I see us only losing,” said a senior European diplomat who has been involved in negotiations with Iran since 2003, well before Washington joined the talks under President Barack Obama.

If Trump follows through on his threats it will be the second time in four months that he has distanced the United States from a major multilateral agreement despite intense lobbying by partners and members of his own cabinet.

But in Europe, the Iran move would be seen as far more damaging than Trump’s decision in June to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

“The threat from Iran in terms of nuclear proliferation is more immediate. This is far more dangerous,” said Elmar Brok, a veteran foreign policy expert in the European Parliament and party ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

European officials and analysts fear a breakdown of the JCPOA could lead to an arms race in the Middle East, a military conflict between Iran and Israel and an escalation of regional proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

They fear it would also doom any chances, no matter how slim, for a negotiated deal with North Korea.


“At the end of the day it’s all about the risk of war,” said Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

There is also the danger of a further deterioration in transatlantic ties, especially if Washington targets European firms that do business in Iran.

Were that to happen, the EU ambassador to Washington, David O‘Sullivan, has said Brussels would revert to a 1990s-era law that shields European companies from extraterritorial sanctions.

Even if the EU were to take such a step, the senior French diplomat said European companies could think twice about their Iran commitments.

Among firms that have announced big deals in Iran since the JCPOA went into force are planemaker Airbus (AIR.PA), French energy group Total (TOTF.PA) and Germany’s Siemens (SIEGn.DE).

“One of the big difficulties of the agreement is ensuring the economic operators have confidence in the system and key to that is confidence in the United States,” the diplomat said.

Any signs that European companies are pulling back could prompt the Iranians to reassess the merits of the nuclear deal.

“The agreement with Iran is like a delicate plant,” said Omid Nouripour, an Iranian-born lawmaker with the German Greens party, which is expected to be part of Merkel’s next coalition government.

“It is a sign of what diplomacy can achieve but it is fragile. The American president doesn’t appear to believe in diplomacy. He seems intent on crushing this plant.”

Writing by Noah Barkin; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Giles Elgood


A Surprise From the Super volcano Under Yellowstone

October 10, 2017

by Shannon Hall

The New York Times

Beneath Yellowstone National Park lies a super volcano, a behemoth far more powerful than your average volcano. It has the ability to expel more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of rock and ash at once — 2,500 times more material than erupted from Mount St. Helens in 1980, which killed 57 people. That could blanket most of the United States in a thick layer of ash and even plunge the Earth into a volcanic winter.

Yellowstone’s last super eruption occurred 631,000 years ago. And it’s not the planet’s only buried super volcano. Scientists suspect that a super eruption scars the planet every 100,000 years, causing many to ask when we can next expect such an explosive planet-changing event.

To answer that question, scientists are seeking lessons from Yellowstone’s past. And the results have been surprising. They show that the forces that drive these rare and violent events can move much more rapidly than volcanologists previously anticipated.

The early evidence, presented at a recent volcanology conference, shows that Yellowstone’s most recent super eruption was sparked when new magma moved into the system only decades before the eruption. Previous estimates assumed that the geological process that led to the event took millenniums to occur.

To reach that conclusion, Hannah Shamloo, a graduate student at Arizona State University, and her colleagues spent weeks at Yellowstone’s Lava Creek Tuff — a fossilized ash deposit from its last super eruption. There, they hauled rocks under the heat of the sun to gather samples, occasionally suspending their work when a bison or a bear roamed nearby.

Ms. Shamloo later analyzed trace crystals in the volcanic leftovers, allowing her to pin down changes before the super volcano’s eruption. Each crystal once resided within the vast, seething ocean of magma deep underground. As the crystals grew outward, layer upon layer, they recorded changes in temperature, pressure and water content beneath the volcano, much like a set of tree rings.

“We expected that there might be processes happening over thousands of years preceding the eruption,” said Christy Till, a geologist at Arizona State, and Ms. Shamloo’s dissertation adviser. Instead, the outer rims of the crystals revealed a clear uptick in temperature and a change in composition that occurred on a rapid time scale. That could mean the super eruption transpired only decades after an injection of fresh magma beneath the volcano.

The time scale is the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. It’s even shorter than a previous study that found that another ancient super volcano beneath California’s Long Valley caldera awoke hundreds of years before its eruption. As such, scientists are just now starting to realize that the conditions that lead to super eruptions might emerge within a human lifetime.

“It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” said Ms. Shamloo, though she warned that there’s more work to do before scientists can verify a precise time scale.

Kari Cooper, a geochemist at the University of California, Davis who was not involved in the research, said Ms. Shamloo and Dr. Till’s research offered more insights into the time frames of super eruptions, although she is not yet convinced that scientists can pin down the precise trigger of the last Yellowstone event. Geologists must now figure out what kick-starts the rapid movements leading up to super eruptions.

It’s one thing to think about this slow gradual buildup — it’s another thing to think about how you mobilize 1,000 cubic kilometers of magma in a decade,” she said.

As the research advances, scientists hope they will be able to spot future super eruptions in the making. The odds of Yellowstone, or any other super volcano, erupting anytime soon are small. But understanding the largest eruptions can only help scientists better understand, and therefore forecast, the entire spectrum of volcanic eruptions — something that Dr. Cooper thinks will be possible in a matter of decades.

Correction: October 11, 2017 

An earlier version of a home page headline for this article misstated the location of a super volcano that drives geological activity. It is beneath Yellowstone National Park, not Yosemite. Additionally, the amount of material that could be expelled by the super volcano was miscalculated. It is 2,500 times more than erupted from Mount St. Helens in 1980, not 250,000.


The Scandal of Pentagon Spending

Your Tax Dollars Support Troops of Defense Contractor CEOs

by William D. Hartung


Here’s a question for you: How do you spell boondoggle?

The answer (in case you didn’t already know): P-e-n-t-a-g-o-n.

Hawks on Capitol Hill and in the U.S. military routinely justify increases in the Defense Department’s already munificent budget by arguing that yet more money is needed to “support the troops.”  If you’re already nodding in agreement, let me explain just where a huge chunk of the Pentagon budget — hundreds of billions of dollars — really goes.  Keep in mind that it’s your money we’re talking about.

The answer couldn’t be more straightforward: it goes directly to private corporations and much of it is then wasted on useless overhead, fat executive salaries, and startling (yet commonplace) cost overruns on weapons systems and other military hardware that, in the end, won’t even perform as promised.  Too often the result isweapons that aren’t needed at prices we can’t afford.  If anyone truly wanted to help the troops, loosening the corporate grip on the Pentagon budget would be an excellent place to start.

The numbers are staggering.  In fiscal year 2016, the Pentagon issued $304 billionin contract awards to corporations — nearly half of the department’s $600 billion-plus budget for that year.  And keep in mind that not all contractors are created equal. According to the Federal Procurement Data System’s top 100 contractors report for 2016, the biggest beneficiaries by a country mile were Lockheed Martin ($36.2 billion), Boeing ($24.3 billion), Raytheon ($12.8 billion), General Dynamics ($12.7 billion), and Northrop Grumman ($10.7 billion). Together, these five firms gobbled up nearly $100 billion of your tax dollars, about one-third of all the Pentagon’s contract awards in 2016.

And remember: the Pentagon buys more than just weapons.  Health care companies like Humana ($3.6 billion), United Health Group ($2.9 billion), and Health Net ($2.6 billion) cash in as well, and they’re joined by, among others, pharmaceutical companies like McKesson ($2.7 billion) and universities deeply involved in military-industrial complex research like MIT ($1 billion) and Johns Hopkins ($902 million).

The real question is: How much of this money actually promotes the defense of the country and how much is essentially a subsidy to weapons makers and other corporations more focused on their bottom lines than giving the taxpayers value for their money?

“Modernizing” the Military-Industrial Complex

Let’s start with the obvious (but seldom said).  Some arms company expenditures clearly have no more of a national security rationale than Tom Price’s air travel did for the promotion of American health. Take the compensation that defense company CEOs get, for example.  The heads of the top five Pentagon contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman — made a cumulative $96 million last year.  These are companies that are significantly or, in the cases of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, almost entirely dependent on government dollars.  That means one thing: your tax dollars are basically paying their exorbitant salaries.  And that $96 million figure doesn’t even count the scores of other highly paid executives and board members at major weapons contractors like these. Don’t you feel safer already?

Donald Trump initially spent a fair amount of tweeting energy bragging about how he was going to bring such contractors to heel on their pricing practices for weapons systems.  In fact, he’s already turned out to be good news indeed for major contractors, most of whom have seen sharp upturns in revenues and profits in the first two quarters of this year (compared to the same period in what was still the Obama era).  Among other things, Trump has proven eager to lift restrictions on U.S. weapons sales abroad (and enlist State Department and Pentagon officials to spend more of their time shilling such weaponry).  As a result, future American arms deals are already on a precipitous upward trajectory and, as one defense industry analyst has noted, “both commercial aerospace and the defense sectors expect improvement for the remainder of 2017 with the potential for new records in both revenue and operating profit.”

Whether such increases in the funds flowing to major weapons contractors will accelerate yet more depends, in part, on the outcome of this year’s budget debate in which Trump and Congress are competing to see who can sponsor the biggest increase in Pentagon spending.  Trump has backed a $54 billion budgetary rise, while the Senate, in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, backed a $90 billion increase.  The only thing standing between the contractors and another huge payday is the question of whether Congress can, in fact, pass a budget this year or if its representatives will have to fall back on a continuing resolution that would keep spending at last year’s levels.

Needless to say, Lockheed Martin and its cohorts are doing everything in their power to break the budget deadlock and open the spigot to release the huge funding increases they feel entitled to.  In the process, they are spending impressive sums (undoubtedly, in part, also your tax dollars) to promote their interests in Washington.  The defense industry has, for instance, anted up $65 million on Political Action Committee contributions since 2009.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the bulk of that sum has been lavished on the congressional representatives who are in the best position to help the industry — particularly members of the armed services and defense appropriations committees of the House and Senate.  In recent years, these contributions have tilted Republican, with nearly two-thirds of the contributions going to GOP candidates.  But this ratio will shift back toward the Democrats, should they retake control of Congress at any point.  For weapons contractors, it’s ultimately not about party or ideology but about buying access and influence with whoever has the power to appropriate money for them.

The arms industry’s investment in lobbying is even more impressive.  The defense sector has spent a total of more than $1 billion on that productive activity since 2009, employing anywhere from 700 to 1,000 lobbyists in any given year. To put that in perspective, you’re talking about significantly more than one lobbyist per member of Congress, the majority of whom zipped through Washington’s famed “revolving door”; they moved, that is, from positions in Congress or the Pentagon to posts at weapons companies from which they could proselytize their former colleagues.

This process, of course, allows newly minted lobbyists to use their privileged contacts with former government colleagues to promote the special interests of their corporate clients.  It also ensures that congressional staffers, military officers, and Pentagon bureaucrats nearing the end of their careers and looking toward a lucrative future will be inclined to cut major contractors some slack.  Why not, when they are looking forward to a big payday with that same cast of characters after they leave government?

An egregious example — the case of Darleen Druyun — offers an inside look at how a Pentagon official curries favor with future corporate employers.  Druyun was a high-ranking Pentagon procurement officer who rigged contracts for Boeing while negotiating for a job with that company (which was already employing her daughter and son-in-law).  The Druyun case was the exception that proves the rule.  She actually did nine months in prison for her actions, thanks in large part to Senator John McCain’s dogged pursuit of the case.  Lesser cases of influence peddling, however, occur all the time and no one faces jail time for them. As long as the lure of big corporate payoffs remains so central to the lives of government employees, the game will regularly be tilted toward their potential future employers.

In other words, what we’re getting in return for the hundreds of billions of dollars we shower on those weapons firms is a raw deal and that revolving door is but one example of it.  Don’t forget the endemic waste, fraud, and abuse that is part and parcel of the Pentagon budget — of that is, an outfit that has proven incapable of even auditing itself.  As with influence peddling, when it comes to that trio there’s a scale that ranges from the criminal to the merely outrageous.  In the first category, you might start with the “Fat Leonard” scandal, named for a corporate executive who bribed dozens of Navy officials with money, vacations, and prostitutes to get the inside track on contracts to help maintain U.S. ships based in ports in the Pacific. So far, 29 criminal indictments have been handed down in the case.

That one got the headlines, but the biggest sources of corporate waste when it comes to Pentagon dollars are such a part of everyday life in Washington that they go largely unnoticed.  The Pentagon, for example, employs more than 600,000 private contractors.  There are so many of them and they are so poorly monitored that the Pentagon (as it has reluctantly acknowledged) doesn’t even have an accurate count of how many of them it has hired. What we do know is that many are carrying out redundant tasks that could be done more cheaply by government employees.  Cutting the contractor work force by 15% — theoretically an easy task but light years beyond anything presently imaginable — would save a quick $20 billion a year.

Then there are the big weapons programs. As the Project on Government Oversight has shown, the Lockheed Martin F-35 combat aircraft — supposedly a state-of-the-art plane for the twenty-first century — has had so many cost and performance issues that it may never be fully ready for combat.  That, however, hasn’t stopped the Pentagon from planning to spend $1.4 trillion to build and maintain more than 2,400 of these defective planes during the lifetime of the program.

Last but hardly least, don’t forget the Pentagon’s misguided plan to spend more than $1 trillion in the next three decades on a whole new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and land- and air-based missiles. The United States nuclear arsenal already has more than 4,000 nuclear warheads in its active stockpile, with 1,700 deployed and ready to be launched on a moment’s notice.

Even if one accepts the idea that there is a need for nuclear weapons to deter other countries (like, say, North Korea), this could be accomplished with an arsenal a fraction of the size of the current one. Two analysts from U.S. war colleges have estimated that about 300 deliverable nuclear warheads would be enough to dissuade any nation from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon. Anything else represents sheer excess, not to mention a huge source of unjustified revenue and profits for weapons contractors.  (And note that the current trillion-dollar “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal was initiated under President Barack Obama, a man who won the Nobel Prize for his urge to abolish all such weaponry.  Take that as a measure of the power of America’s corporate nuclear lobby.)

Military Spending Generates Jobs (for Lobbyists and Overpaid CEOs)

In addition to “supporting the troops,” the other common argument in Washington for runaway Pentagon spending is: jobs, jobs, jobs.  And there can be no question that if you plow hundreds of billions of dollars into new weapons systems, you will create some new employment opportunities. What’s surprising is how relatively few jobs actually flow these days from such Pentagon expenditures.

In 2011, a study by economists from the University of Massachusetts made this blindingly clear.  What they showed was that military spending is the worst way to create jobs.  Putting the same money into any other area — from infrastructure to transportation to alternative energy to health care or education — creates up to twice as many jobs as military spending does.  If it’s about jobs, there are plenty of alternatives to throwing vast piles of tax dollars at a wasteful Pentagon.

The challenge here is political, not economic.  The question at hand is how to get a president and a Congress who are willing to buck the arms lobby and invest in what would quite literally be more constructive activities.

Contractors aid and abet the process of investing in the Pentagon by routinely exaggerating the number of jobs their programs create.  The F-35 is a classic example.  Lockheed Martin has a handy interactive map on its website that claims the program supports 125,000 jobs in 46 states. When I took a closer look at the company’s analysis and compared it with standard economic estimating procedures, however, I found that the true number is less than half that many jobs generated.

In fact, according to Lockheed’s own figures, more than half of the jobs generated by the program are in just two states, Texas and California.  In short, the F-35 creates nothing like the number of jobs the company claims and those jobs aren’t spread as widely or evenly across the country as their propaganda suggests.  In truth, the best jobs generated by Pentagon spending are the ones for well-heeled lobbyists and overpaid corporate executives.

So the next time someone suggests that the Pentagon needs yet more money for the troops, just remember that what they’re actually talking about are troops of overpaid defense contractors, not members of the armed forces.  If you want to “defend” this country, maybe it’s time to protect it from the predators that President Dwight D. Eisenhower once memorably called “the military-industrial complex.”


Information and Disinformation

October 11, 2017

by Christian Jürs

With the collapse of communism in Russia, as opposed to the United States, an increasing amount of information and documentation has become available to historians and researchers. Great care has to be taken, however, to consider the source of this information because the descendant of the dreaded NKVD, the KGB, has been reorganized but still maintains the security of its own files. Documents from this source are to be considered as extraordinarily suspect insofar as accuracy is concerned. This agency, which supplied carloads of faked documents for Stalin’s murderous purges, is still in the business of preparing counterfeit papers to suit whatever needs might arise. Foreign journalists pay large sums in hard currency and are given boxes of papers for research and eventual publication, just as the Stasi sold the counterfeit Hitler diaries for much needed foreign currency.

In the area of early communist organizations and history, much of the information is considered harmless historical background and is often released without the doctoring and fabrications found in papers relating to more current events. Anything relating to assassinations, high-level Soviet agents in foreign countries, Soviet agendas of subversion and aggression and their intelligence contacts with foreigners in sympathy with the aims of the former Soviet Union are certainly not available. A thick file on Lee Harvey Oswald has been displayed, but never opened to anyone, and other files on such political personalities as Willi Brandt, former West German Chancellor, and US President William Clinton are not for public consumption. Although at least one American intelligence agency firmly believed that Roosevelt’s chief advisor, Harry Hopkins, was in the pay of the Russians, no file on Hopkins, who spent considerable time in direct contact with Stalin, is even admitted to exist by current Russian officials.

It should be noted that the Soviet intelligence agencies kept extensive files on anyone of interest to them. Records of persons known to be hostile to their aims share the same locked archives as files covering those known to be sympathetic to or cooperative with Soviet ideology and intentions.

Post-communist Russian intelligence agencies have made a healthy profit selling stacks of counterfeit papers to journalists. Most of these papers were forged during the Cold War and deal with various individuals at high levels in the Third Reich. Military plans, diaries of the prominent, correspondence dealing with such matters as the slaughter of civilians and so on were cranked out by the forgery factory in the KGB and sequestered until they were needed for propaganda campaigns. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Germany was no longer an ally of the United States to be vilified but was, instead, a wealthy potential trading partner against whom these paper weapons were not needed.

Even with the release of former Soviet files, no one should be surprised about the internal and external programs of murders and assassinations ordered by Stalin and carried out by his immense cadre of ideological killers. Although it was far easier to liquidate Polish prisoners of war, internal dissidents, uncooperative Ukrainian peasants and potential sources of rebellion in conquered territories, Stalin’s NKVD (which changed its title to KGB after Stalin’s death but not its aims) found ways to kill dangerous opponents outside the borders of the communist empire.

White Russian leaders in Paris, exiled Leon Trotsky in Mexico and inconvenient foreigners were shot, poisoned, hacked to death or kidnapped and dismembered inside Soviet diplomatic missions in hidden rooms set aside for this purpose.

Unlike Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin had a much clearer view of his own goals and his massacres and assassinations had a far more pragmatic basis than mere revenge and killing for its own sake.

The duplication of Soviet agent messages sent from the United States and Canada to Moscow is of considerable interest in current times. US intercepts of Soviet radio traffic were purported to be extremely difficult to decrypt and were termed the Venona Project. The allegation has been made that the US National Security Agency, one of the best equipped and effective agencies in the world in the area of interception and decoding, and its predecessors in this field, have labored for over 30 years to break the Soviet agents’ coded messages. The statement has been made that only fragments have been decoded in all that time.

The fact that the Germans intercepted and decoded identical messages, sent in a different code from Canada, is not mentioned, but a reading of it makes it very clear why the hitherto unfathomable delays have occurred in the release of Venona material, because these US intercepts shows the degree and extent of Soviet penetration of American top-level intelligence, military and political circles. The material is shocking in the extreme as the names of some of the leading luminaries of the Roosevelt New Deal are encountered.

The delays in releasing Venona appear to be more in the nature of political damage control rather than code complexities. The top secret atomic bomb program, the Manhattan Project, was compromised and Soviet agents were either in place in or had close contact with very high-level persons in the Roosevelt Cabinet, OSS, FBI, Treasury Department and War Department.

It appears that Roosevelt himself, though not an actual communist, had no difficulties in utilizing their services both to maintain his presidency and assist Josef Stalin, his closest ally in the war against Hitler. The OSS was so infiltrated with avowed Communists that Harry Truman disbanded it as quickly as he could when he became President in 1945. Cabinet-level personages suspected of working for Stalin’s agents were quietly retired and a very discreet shake-up was instituted.

That the Roosevelt Administration was filled with Soviet sympathizers and actual agents is well known. The many lists of these reflect the names of many prominent Soviet sources but in all fairness, a distinction must be made between a source and an agent.

A source could well be a person sympathetic to the Soviet system, a US government official who was merely cooperating openly with a wartime ally, a high-level Roosevelt Administration personage who was acting as an official conduit between the President and the Soviet government, or even a name stuck into a report by an ambitious Soviet agent to impress Moscow with his contacts.

In reviewing material released by the US National Security Agency on the Venona project and comparing this with far more extensive material intercepted by the Germans during the war, it becomes evident that actual agents in place are never referred to by their actual names but are given code names while sources, whatever their ideology, are almost always identified by their own names. Closer reading of the German and US intercepts indicates that often a source would be turned into an actual agent and at that point, a code name would be used in transmissions.

However, Soviet agents were not noted for their intelligence and even these disguised entities are easily identified in the texts by addresses, positions or reference to previous input.

The legacy of Stalin’s army of spies is with us today, and fear of their exposure is a motivating factor in the timorous release of information to the general public.


The science of spying: how the CIA secretly recruits academics

In order to tempt nuclear scientists from countries such as Iran or North Korea to defect, US spy agencies routinely send agents to academic conferences – or even host their own fake ones.

October 10, 2017

by Daniel Golden

The Guardian

The CIA agent tapped softly on the hotel room door. After the keynote speeches, panel discussions and dinner, the conference attendees had retired for the night. Audio and visual surveillance of the room showed that the nuclear scientist’s minders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were sleeping, but he was still awake. Sure enough, he opened the door, alone.

According to a person familiar with this encounter, which took place about a decade ago, the agency had been preparing it for months. Through a business front, it had funded and staged the conference at an unsuspecting foreign centre of scientific research, invited speakers and guests, and planted operatives among the kitchen workers and other staff, just so it could entice the nuclear expert out of Iran, separate him for a few minutes from his guards, and pitch him one-to-one. A last-minute snag had almost derailed the plans: the target switched hotels because the conference’s preferred hotel cost $75 more than his superiors in Iran were willing to spend.

To show his sincerity and goodwill, the agent put his hand over his heart. “Salam habibi,” he said. “I’m from the CIA, and I want you to board a plane with me to the United States.” The agent could read the Iranian’s reactions on his face: a mix of shock, fear and curiosity. From prior experience with defectors, he knew the thousand questions flooding the scientist’s mind: What about my family? How will you protect me? Where will I live? How will I support myself? How do I get a visa? Do I have time to pack? What happens if I say no?

The scientist started to ask one, but the agent interrupted him. “First, get the ice bucket,” he said.


“If any of your guards wake up, you can tell them you’re going to get some ice.”

In perhaps its most audacious and elaborate incursion into academia, the CIA has secretly spent millions of dollars staging scientific conferences around the world. Its purpose was to lure Iranian nuclear scientists out of their homeland and into an accessible setting, where its intelligence officers could approach them individually and press them to defect. In other words, the agency sought to delay Iran’s development of nuclear weapons by exploiting academia’s internationalism, and pulling off a mass deception on the institutions that hosted the conferences and the professors who attended and spoke at them. The people attending the conference had no idea they were acting in a drama that simulated reality but was stage-managed from afar. Whether the national security mission justified this manipulation of the professoriate can be debated, but there’s little doubt that most academics would have balked at being dupes in a CIA scheme.

More than any other academic arena, conferences lend themselves to espionage. Assisted by globalisation, these social and intellectual rituals have become ubiquitous. Like stops on the world golf or tennis circuits, they sprout up wherever the climate is favourable, and draw a jet-setting crowd. What they lack in prize money, they make up for in prestige. Although researchers chat electronically all the time, virtual meetings are no substitute for getting together with peers, networking for jobs, checking out the latest gadgets and delivering papers that will later be published in volumes of conference proceedings. “The attraction of the conference circuit,” English novelist David Lodge wrote in Small World, his 1984 send-up of academic life, is that “it’s a way of converting work into play, combining professionalism with tourism, and all at someone else’s expense. Write a paper and see the world!”

The importance of a conference may be measured not just by the number of Nobel prize-winners or Oxford dons it attracts, but by the number of spies. US and foreign intelligence officers flock to conferences for the same reason that army recruiters concentrate on low-income neighbourhoods: they make the best hunting grounds. While a university campus might have only one or two professors of interest to an intelligence service, the right conference – on drone technology, perhaps, or Isis – could have dozens.

“Every intelligence service in the world works conferences, sponsors conferences, and looks for ways to get people to conferences,” said one former CIA operative.

“Recruitment is a long process of seduction,” says Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and former special advisor to the British foreign office. “The first stage is to arrange to be at the same workshop as a target. Even if you just exchange banalities, the next time you can say, ‘Did I see you in Istanbul?’”

The FBI warned American academics in 2011 to be cautious about conferences, citing this scenario: “A researcher receives an unsolicited invitation to submit a paper for an international conference. She submits a paper and it is accepted. At the conference, the hosts ask for a copy of her presentation. The hosts hook a thumb drive to her laptop, and unbeknownst to her, download every file and data source from her computer.”

The FBI and CIA swarm conferences, too. At gatherings in the US, says one former FBI agent, “foreign intelligence officers try to collect Americans; we try to collect them”. The CIA is involved with conferences in various ways: it sends officers to them; it hosts them through front companies in the Washington area, so that the intelligence community can tap academic wisdom; and it mounts sham conferences to reach potential defectors from hostile countries.

The CIA monitors upcoming conferences worldwide and identifies those of interest. Suppose there is an international conference in Pakistan on centrifuge technology: the CIA would send its own agent undercover, or enlist a professor who might be going anyway to report back. If it learns that an Iranian nuclear scientist attended the conference, it might peg him for possible recruitment at the next year’s meeting.

Intelligence from academic conferences can shape policy. It helped persuade the George W Bush administration –mistakenly, as it turned out – that Saddam Hussein was still developing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “What our spies and informants were noticing, of course, was that Iraqi scientists specialising in chemistry, biology and, to a lesser extent, nuclear power kept showing up at international symposia,” former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou wrote in a 2009 memoir. “They presented papers, listened to the presentation of others, took copious notes, and returned to Jordan, where they could transmit overland back to Iraq.”

Some of those spies may have drawn the wrong conclusions because they lacked advanced degrees in chemistry, biology or nuclear power. Without expertise, agents might misunderstand the subject matter, or be exposed as frauds. At conferences hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on topics such as isotope hydrology and fusion energy, “there are probably more intelligence officers roaming the hallways than actual scientists,” says Gene Coyle, who worked for the CIA from 1976 to 2006. “There’s one slight problem. If you’re going to send a CIA guy to attend one of these conferences, he has to talk the talk. It’s hard to send a history major. ‘Yes, I have a PhD in plasma physics.’ Also, that’s a very small world. If you say you’re from the Fermi Institute in Chicago, they say: ‘You must know Bob, Fred, Susie.’”

Instead, Coyle says, the agency may enlist a suitable professor through the National Resources Division, its clandestine domestic service, which has a “working relationship” with a number of scientists. “If they see a conference in Vienna, they might say, ‘Professor Smith, that would seem natural for you to attend.’”

“Smith might say: ‘I am attending it, I’ll let you know who I chatted with. If I bump into an Iranian, I won’t run in the opposite direction.’ If he says, ‘I’d love to attend, but the travel budget at the university is pretty tight,’ the CIA or FBI might say: ‘Well, you know, we might be able to take care of your ticket, in economy class.’”

A spy’s courtship of a professor often begins with a seemingly random encounter – known in the trade as a “bump” – at an academic conference. One former CIA operative overseas explained to me how it works. I’ll call him “R”.

“I recruited a ton of people at conferences,” R told me. “I was good at it, and it’s not that hard.”

Between assignmentshe would peruse a list of upcoming conferences, pick one, and identify a scientist of interest who seemed likely to attend after having spoken at least twice at the same event in previous years. R would assign trainees at the CIA and National Security Agency to develop a profile of the target – where they had gone to college, who their instructors were, and so on. Then he would cable headquarters, asking for travel funding. The trick was to make the cable persuasive enough to score the expense money, but not so compelling that other agents who read it, and were based closer to the conference, would try to go after the same target.

Next he developed his cover – typically, as a businessman. He invented a company name, built an off-the-shelf website and printed business cards. He created billing, phone and credit card records for the nonexistent company. For his name, he chose one of his seven aliases.

R was no scientist. He couldn’t drop in a line about the Riemann hypothesis as an icebreaker. Instead, figuring that most scientists are socially awkward introverts, he would sidle up to the target at the edge of the conference’s get-together session and say, “Do you hate crowds as much as I do?” Then he would walk away. “The bump is fleeting,” R said. “You just register your face in their mind.” No one else should notice the bump. It’s a rookie mistake to approach a target in front of other people who might be minders assigned by the professor’s own country. The minders would report the conversation, compromising the target’s security and making them unwilling or unable to entertain further overtures.

For the rest of the conference, R would “run around like crazy”, bumping into the scientist at every opportunity. With each contact, called “time on target” in CIA jargon and counted in his job-performance metrics, he insinuated himself into the professor’s affections. For instance, having done his homework, R would say he had read a wonderful article on such-and-such topic but couldn’t remember the author’s name. “That was me,” the scientist would say, blushing.

After a couple of days, R would invite the scientist to lunch or dinner and make his pitch: his company was interested in the scientist’s field, and would like to support their work. “Every academic I have ever met is constantly trying to figure how to get grants to continue his research. That’s all they talk about,” he explained. They would agree on a specific project, and the price, which varied by the scientist’s country: “$1,000 to $5,000 for a Pakistani. Korea is more.” Once the CIA pays a foreign professor, even if they are unaware at first of the funding source, it controls them, because exposure of the relationship might imperil their career or even their life in their native country.

Scientific conferences have become such a draw for intelligence agents that one of the biggest concerns for CIA operatives is interference from agency colleagues trapping the same academic prey. “We tend to flood events like these,” a former CIA officer who writes under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones observed in his 2008 book, The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture.

At one 2005 conference in Paris that he anticipated would be a “perfect watering hole for visiting rogue-state weapons scientists”, Jones recalled, his heart sank as he glanced across the room and saw two CIA agents (who were themselves professors). He avoided their line of sight while he roamed the gathering, eyeballing nametags and trawling for “people who might make good sources”, ideally from North Korea, Iran, Libya, Russia or China.

“I’m surprised there’s so much open intelligence presence at these conferences,” Karsten Geier said. “There are so many people running around from so many acronyms.” Geier, head of cybersecurity policy for the German foreign office, and I were chatting at the Sixth Annual International Conference on Cyber Engagement, held in April 2016 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The religious art, stained-glass windows and classical quotations lining Gaston Hall enveloped the directors of the NSA and the FBI like an elaborate disguise as they gave keynote addresses on combating one of the most daunting challenges of the 21st century: cyberattacks.

The NSA’s former top codebreaker spoke, as did the ex-chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the deputy director of Italy’s security department, and the director of a centre that does classified research for Swedish intelligence. The name tags that almost all of the 700 attendees wore showed that they worked for the US government, foreign embassies, intelligence contractors or vendors of cyber-related products, or they taught at universities.

Perhaps not all of the intelligence presence was open. Officially, 40 nations – from Brazil to Mauritius, Serbia to Sri Lanka – were represented at the conference, but not Russia. Yet, hovering in the rear of the balcony, a slender young man carrying a briefcase listened to the panels. No name tag adorned his lapel. I approached him, introduced myself,and asked his name. “Alexander,” he said, and, after a pause, “Belousov.”

“How do you like the conference?”

“No,” he said, trying to ward off further inquiries. “I am from Russian embassy. I don’t have any opinions. I would like to know, that’s all.”

I proffered a business card, and requested his, in vain. “I am here only a month. My cards are still being produced.”

I persisted, asking about his job at the embassy. (A check of a diplomatic directory showed him as a “second secretary”.) He looked at his watch. “I am sorry. I must go.”

When the CIA wants Prof John Booth’s opinion, it phones him to find out if he is available to speak at a conference. But the agency’s name is nowhere to be found on the conference’s formal invitation and agenda, which invariably list a Washington-area contractor as the sponsor.

By hiding its role, the CIA makes it easier for scholars to share their insights. They take credit for their presentations on their CV without disclosing that they consulted for the CIA, which might alienate some academic colleagues, as well as the countries where they conduct their research.

An emeritus professor of political science at the University of North Texas, Booth specialises in studying Latin America, a region where history has taught officials to be wary of the CIA. “If you were intending to return to Latin America, it was very important that your CV not reflect” these kinds of presentations, Booth told me in March 2016. “When you go to one of these conferences, if there are intelligence or defence agency principals there, it’s invisible on your CV. It provides a fig leaf for participants. There’s still some bias in academia against this. I don’t go around in Latin American studies meetings saying I spent time at a conference run by the CIA.”

The CIA arranges conferences on foreign policy issues so that its analysts, who are often immersed in classified details, can learn from scholars who understand the big picture and are familiar with publicly available sources. Participating professors are generally paid a $1,000 honorarium, plus expenses. With scholarly presentations followed by questions and answers, the sessions are like those at any academic meeting, except that many attendees – presumably, CIA analysts – wear name tags with only their first names.

Of 10 intelligence agency conferences that Booth attended over the years – most recently a 2015 session about a wave of Central American refugee children pouring into the US – the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence [ODNI] ran only one or two directly. The rest were outsourced to Centra Technology Inc, the leader of a growing industry of intermediaries in the Washington area –“cutouts” in espionage parlance – that run conferences for the CIA.

The CIA supplies Centra with funding and a list of people to invite, who gather in Centra’s Conference Center in Arlington, Virginia. It’s “an ideal setting for our clients’ conferences, meetings, games, and collaborative activities,” according to Centra’s website.

“If you know anything, when you see Centra, you know it’s likely to be CIA or ODNI,” said Robert Jervis, a Columbia University professor of international politics and longtime CIA consultant. “They do feel that for some academics thin cover is useful.”

Established in 1997, Centra has received more than $200m in government contracts, including $40m from the CIA for administrative support, such as compiling and redacting classified cables and documents for the five-year Senate Intelligence Committee study of the agency’s torture programme. In 2015, its executive ranks teemed with former intelligence officials. Founder and chief executive Harold Rosenbaum was a science and technology adviser to the CIA. Senior vice president Rick Bogusky headed the Korea division at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Vice president for research James Harris managed analytic programmes at the CIA for 22 years. Peggy Lyons, director of global access, was a longtime CIA manager and officer with several tours in East Asia. David Kanin, Centra analytic director, spent 31 years as a CIA analyst.

Like Booth, Indiana University political scientist Sumit Ganguly has spoken at several Centra conferences. “Anybody who works with Centra knows they’re in effect working for the US government,” he says. “If it said CIA, there are others who would fret about it. I make no bones about it to my colleagues. If it sticks in their craw, it’s their tough luck. I am an American citizen. I feel I should proffer the best possible advice to my government.”

Another political scientist, who has given four presentations for Centra, said he was told that it represented unnamed “clients”. He didn’t realise the clients were US intelligence agencies until he noticed audience members with first-name-only name tags. He later ran into one or two of the same people at an academic conference. They weren’t wearing name tags and weren’t listed in the programme.

Centra strives to mask its CIA connections. It removed its executives’ biographies from its website in 2015. The “featured customers” listed there include the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Army and 16 other branches of the federal government – but not the CIA. When I phoned Rosenbaum and asked him about Centra holding conferences for the CIA, he said: “You’re calling the wrong person. We have nothing to do with that.” And then he hung up.

I dropped by Centra’s offices on the fifth floor of a building in Burlington, Massachusetts, a northern suburb of Boston. The sign-in sheet asked visitors for their citizenship and “type of visit”: classified or not. The receptionist fetched human resources director Dianne Colpitts. She politely heard me out, checked with Rosenbaum, and told me that Centra wouldn’t comment. “To be frank,” she said, “our customers prefer us not to talk to the media.”

For Iranian academics escaping to the west, academic conferences are a modern-day underground railroad. The CIA has taken full advantage of this vulnerability. Beginning under President George W Bush, the US government had “endless money” for covert efforts to delay Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, the Institute for Science and International Security’s David Albright told me. One programme was the CIA’s Operation Brain Drain, which sought to spur top Iranian nuclear scientists to defect.

Because it was hard to approach the scientists in Iran, the CIA enticed them to conferences in friendly or neutral countries, a former intelligence officer told me. In consultation with Israel, the agency would choose a prospect. Then it would set up a conference at a prestigious scientific institute through a cutout, typically a businessman, who would underwrite the symposium with $500,000 to $2m in agency funds. The businessman might own a technology company, or the agency might create a shell company for him so that his support would seem legitimate to the institute, which was unaware of the CIA’s hand. “The more clueless the academics are, the safer it is for everybody,” the ex-officer told me. Each cutout knew he was helping the CIA, but he didn’t know why, and the agency would use him only once.

The conference would focus on an aspect of nuclear physics that had civilian applications, and also dovetailed with the Iranian target’s research interests. Typically, Iran’s nuclear scientists also held university appointments. Like professors anywhere, they enjoyed a junket. Iran’s government sometimes allowed them to go to conferences, though under guard, to keep up with the latest research and meet suppliers of cutting-edge technology – and for propaganda.

“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”

The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.

With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”

Even after the scientist agreed to defect, he might reconsider and run away. “You’re constantly re-recruiting the guy,” the ex-officer said. Once he was safely in a car to the airport, the CIA coordinated the necessary visas and flight documents with allied intelligence agencies. It would also spare no effort to bring his wife and children to the US – though not his mistress, as one scientist requested. The agency would resettle the scientist and his family and provide long-term benefits, including paying for the children’s college and graduate school.

Enough scientists defected to the US, through academic conferences and other routes, to hinder Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, the ex-officer familiar with the operation told me. He said an engineer who assembled centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear programme agreed to defect on one condition: that he pursue a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, the CIA had spirited him out of Iran without credentials such as diplomas and transcripts. At first, MIT refused the CIA’s request to consider him. But the agency persisted, and the renowned engineering school agreed to accommodate the CIA by waiving its usual screening procedures. It mustered a group of professors from related departments to grill the defector. He aced the oral exam, was admitted, and earned his doctorate.

MIT administrators deny any knowledge of the episode. “I’m completely ignorant of this,” said Gang Chen, chairman of mechanical engineering. However, two academics corroborated key elements of the story. Muhammad Sahimi, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California who studies Iranian nuclear and political development, told me that a defector from Iran’s nuclear programme received a doctorate from MIT in mechanical engineering. Timothy Gutowski, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering, said: “I do know of a young man that was here in our lab. Somehow I learned that he did work on centrifuges in Iran. I started thinking: ‘What went on here?”

With Iran’s agreement in 2015 to limit nuclear weapons development in return for the lifting of international sanctions, recruitment of defectors from the programme by US intelligence lost some urgency. But if President Trump scraps or seeks to renegotiate the deal, which he denounced in a September speech to the United Nations General Assembly, CIA-staged conferences to snag key Iranian nuclear scientists could make a clandestine comeback.

No responses yet

Leave a Reply