TBR News September 2, 2016

Sep 02 2016

The Voice of the White House  

Washington, D.C.  September 2, 2016:  “The reason why Washington and Hillary blame Putin and the Russians for hacking into all manner of, for them at least, prohibited internet and email sites is that what is on those sites will prove to be disastrous to Hillary’s campaign. Though only a portion of these trolling have been released, the parties involved are well aware of what is coming. As a result, the shriek of ‘Blame Putin!’ goes up and its parallel racket is ‘Blame Trump.’ Of course the blame is not with either of these two scratching posts but with the thoroughly corrupt and venal politicians. America, and the world, would be far better off if the lot of them were fed to the alligators in Florida.”

There’s almost no chance our elections can get hacked by the Russians. Here’s why.

August 31, 2016

by Philip Bump and Amber Phillips

The Washington Post

Political campaigns are all about numbers. If you get more votes than the competition, you win. One hundred is greater than 99, and so 100 becomes mayor or governor or president.

It’s the determination of those numbers that’s always been the point of concern in the integrity of elections. The famous saying that it’s not the voter but the person who counts the votes that matters (usually incorrectly attributed to Joseph Stalin) reinforces the point: If 100 votes are cast but only 90 counted, the system breaks down.

This presidential election cycle, that integrity has been questioned. First, the Republican front-runner suggested without evidence that an eventual loss in Pennsylvania would be the result of voter fraud. Second, and much more substantially, the FBI warned state elections officials this week of possible attempts to hack state election systems after breaches in Arizona and Illinois. The likely culprits were agents of the Russian government, putting the alleged Stalin motto into practice.

That news prompted a flurry of news stories and administration attention. The White House has asked an intelligence task force to look at Russia’s repeated hacks of political systems. FBI director James B. Comey said his agency took “very seriously” any attempt to “influence the conduct of affairs in our country.”

That’s the question at its root: Could hackers change the numbers to change our elections? The Fix spoke by phone and email with Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University to get an answer. In summary: It would be harder than we think — in part because we tend to conflate a number of very different election systems.

“One of the challenges the public has in sorting through the various threads of the current election cycle’s stories is understanding the differences between a campaign system, an election system and a voting system,” King told us.

The campaign system is the tool set used by candidates or parties to get people elected. The election system covers voter registration systems and other data centralization and is specific to jurisdictions. The voting system is the actual process of voting: the machines, the ballots and the designations of who votes where and on what. Information flows between these systems, but not always in two directions:

Campaigns, for example, use voter registration data from the elections system but don’t send information back to it. So if a campaign is hacked (or if the Democratic National Committee is), there’s no risk to the voter registration database.

Confusing these systems can mean misunderstanding the threat — and the intent of the hackers. Take what happened in Arizona or Illinois, where voter files were lifted from the election system.

“When I hear about a hack, and it’s attributed to a Russian IP address, my first reaction is it’s identity theft,” King said. “They’re looking for large lists of critical information that can be used to create identities for credit card theft, etc. I don’t instinctively think it’s an attack on our election system.”

The important point King makes is that hacking the elections system and the voting system are very different in nature and effect. “If the election systems were hacked, there are paper backups of the electors list — every precinct has to maintain a paper copy of the voter list — so you could disrupt an election by attacking those election systems,” he said. “But most importantly, you could not alter the outcome of the election by hacking those systems. That would have to occur in the voting system” — the actual process of casting ballots. And that’s harder than it seems.

After the stories about the hacks of election systems came out, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections wrote a letter to voters in that state explaining how it protects the voting system itself. The steps delineated are:

1.Before each election, a public test of the tabulating system is conducted to ensure that the machines are functioning as expected. King describes this process (which is not unique to Florida) as “an opportunity for members of the public and media to come and observe the ballot is correct and it can capture voter intent correctly and can tabulate it.”

2.On election night, results are encoded with multiple layers of encryption and transmitted to a central gathering point.

3.Voting machines themselves are not connected to the Internet, preventing them all from being hacked at once.

4.Thumb drives with results are also transmitted to the central location. Those drives are digitally signed and secured before Election Day, preventing their being replaced with a drive from somewhere else.

5.If there are any corrupted or unusually slow results transmitted to the central location, the results from the thumb drives are used.

6.Election night totals are transmitted to the state as unofficial results via both an encrypted device and over a separate network system.

7.A week after the election, the results in each precinct are reviewed by looking at the paper totals. Any discrepancies are “researched and noted.” The Florida vote is backed up by paper ballots (which isn’t the case everywhere), facilitating that research.

Only once those checks are complete is the result certified.

That’s the process that needs to be hacked to directly change the results of the election, not a hack of the voter registration database. There are hundreds of similar setups in all 50 states that similarly flow upward to state agencies. That distribution is an asset, not a flaw.

There are caveats, of course. For one thing, a hack of the voter registration database could make it easier to identify voters who could be used as targets of fraud (people who are dead or who don’t vote often). There can be tampering by campaign officials. And no system, no matter how well-protected, is unhackable, including the listed process above.

Each of those caveats is very unlikely for a number of reasons. Voter fraud is far, far harder than it seems, requiring a lot of people to break federal law for it to approach any sort of meaningful scale. Sure, some elections are won by a few hundred votes — but tipping that election means finding a few hundred people to cast ballots in the right place ahead of time. That’s harder than it may sound. Campaign officials can and have toyed with results, but being caught means losing a job and prison time — with the problem of scale still looming. The process above could conceivably be hacked, I guess, but if you can figure out how to do it without being caught, you could probably get a lucrative job somewhere else much more easily.

So why so much concern about the election being hacked this year?

“It would be an understatement to say this is an unusual election, so when you have the nominee of one party declaring that if his opponent wins, it has to be rigged, that message resonates,” King said. He also acts as an election official, meaning he knows the challenge of rebutting concerns about fraud firsthand.

“As an election official, I frequently find myself challenged to prove the negative,” he said. “The conspiracists never have to prove their theories, but the election official has to prove the negative, which we know is impossible to prove. Can I prove that the Arizona system was not hacked by Russian state operatives? I cannot.”

The best we can do is create as many obstacles to stealing elections as possible in advance, to do our best to make sure that 100 equals 100. Happily, people like King have been thinking about how to do this for years.

Leaked Catalogue Reveals a Vast Array of Military Spy Gear Offered to U.S. Police

September 1 2016

by Sam Biddle

The Intercept

A confidential, 120-page catalogue of spy equipment, originating from British defense firm Cobham and circulated to U.S. law enforcement, touts gear that can intercept wireless calls and text messages, locate people via their mobile phones, and jam cellular communications in a particular area.

The catalogue was obtained by The Intercept as part of a large trove of documents originating within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where spokesperson Molly Best confirmed Cobham wares have been purchased but did not provide further information. The document provides a rare look at the wide range of electronic surveillance tactics used by police and militaries in the U.S. and abroad, offering equipment ranging from black boxes that can monitor an entire town’s cellular signals to microphones hidden in lighters and cameras hidden in trashcans. Markings date it to 2014.

Cobham, recently cited among several major British firms exporting surveillance technology to oppressive regimes, has counted police in the United States among its clients, Cobham spokesperson Greg Caires confirmed. The company spun off its “Tactical Communications and Surveillance” business into “Domo Tactical Communications” earlier this year, presumably shifting many of those clients to the new subsidiary. Caires declined to comment further on the catalogue obtained by The Intercept or confirm its authenticity, but said it “looked authentic” to him.

“By design, these devices are indiscriminate and operate across a wide area where many people may be present,” said Richard Tynan, a technologist at Privacy International, of the gear in the Cobham catalogue. Such “indiscriminate surveillance systems that are not targeted in any way based on prior suspicion” are “the essence of mass surveillance,” he added.

The national controversy over military-grade spy gear trickling down to local police has largely focused on the “Stingray,” a single type of cellular spy box manufactured by a single company, Harris Corp. But the menu of options available to domestic law enforcement is enormous and poorly understood, mostly because of efforts by both manufacturers and their police clientele to suppress information about their functionality and use. What little we know about Stingrays has often been the result of hard-fought FOIA lawsuits or courtroom disclosures by the government. When the Wall Street Journal began reporting on the use of the Stingray in 2011, the FBI declined to comment on the grounds that even discussing the device’s existence could jeopardize its usefulness. The effort to pry out details about the tool is ongoing; just this past April, the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation prevailed in a federal court case, getting the government to admit it used a Stingray in Wisconsin.

Unsurprisingly, the Cobham catalogue describes itself as “proprietary and confidential” and demands that it “must be returned upon request.” Information about Cobham’s own suite of Stingray-style boxes is almost nonexistent on the web. But starting far down on Page 105 of the catalogue is a section titled “Cellular Surveillance,” wherein the U.K.-based manufacturer of defense and intelligence-oriented hardware lays out all the small wonders it sells for spying on people’s private conversations, whether they’re in Baghdad or Baltimore:

ACLU attorney Nathan Wessler, who has made Stingray-like devices a major focus of his work for the civil liberties group said “the note at the top of the page about the ability to intercept calls and text messages (in addition to the ability to geo-locate phones)” is of particular interest, because “domestic law enforcement agencies generally say they don’t use that capability.” Also remarkable to Wessler is the claim that cellphone users can be “tracked to less than 1 [meter] of accuracy.”

Tynan said Cobham’s cellular surveillance devices are, like the Stingray, standard “IMSI catchers,” deeply controversial equipment that can be used to create fake cellular networks and swallow up International Mobile Subscriber Identity fingerprints, calls, and texts. But he noted that such devices can operate on a vast scale:

The Cobham devices in this catalogue are standard interception devices with the ability to masquerade as 1-4 base stations simultaneously. This would allow it to pretend to be 4 different operators or 4 base stations from the same operator or any combination. These specifications allow for the interception of up to 4 calls at a time. The operational distance of these devices would be around 1-2 KM for 3G and significantly greater for 2G devices. Devices of this type can typically acquire the unique identifiers of handsets at a rate of 200 per minute.

Cobham also offers equipment capable of causing immense cellular blackouts and bulk data collection, including the “3G-N” — operated via laptop.The mammoth “GSM-XPZ PV,” meanwhile, has a maximum output power of 50W, which would make it comparable to cellular antennae constructed by the likes of AT&T or Verizon. Anyone inside its radius (potentially miles from the box itself) could be subject to invisible surveillance.

The slimmer “GSM-XPZ HP Plus,” which appears to be operated via a handheld device, can “take control of target phones” and “create [an] exclusion zone to deny GSM network coverage,” the catalogue states.

Also noteworthy are two “direction finding units” — trackers used for following the location of someone’s smartphone (and presumably its user). One, named the “Evolve4-Hand Held Direction Finder,” actually allows a soldier or neighborhood police officer to carry a hidden antenna inside his clothing that he can use to track someone’s whereabouts,

Another, similar device uses a larger antenna that can be mounted onto any car — a design that raises an eyebrow for Wessler: “The low profile means that it is difficult to identify police use of the technology.”

This low-profile technology not only allows agents in a vehicle to track someone’s location via their mobile phone, but it is also “designed to work with any GSM manipulation,” presumably meaning cellular jamming and interception.

Tools for covert spying make up a large part of the catalogue, particularly in the audio and video surveillance sections, where sensors are hidden in everything from pocket knives and birdhouses to suspenders.

Elsewhere in the catalogue, Cobham boasts of a corporate history going back more than 70 years, brags about tripling in size since 1997, and talks about “clients and partners in over 100 countries.” Among the company’s stated goals are “to keep people safe and to improve communications.”

But the proliferation of spy tools like those sold by Cobham is actually eroding safety, according to Tynan. “As we move to a more connected world where cars, toys, fridges, and even implantable devices contain miniature cellphone technology, the capability to cause harm using one of these devices becomes ever greater,” he said. “It is unacceptable for our modern critical infrastructure to be so vulnerable to such interception,” and therefore “it is vital that the international standards that underpin our communications are built to the highest security standard possible.”

The Other Speech: Hillary the Hawk Spreads Her Wings

Did she threaten to attack Russia?

September 2, 2016

by Justin Raimondo


While the media and the American people were avidly watching and commenting on Donald Trump’s much-awaited immigration speech, another peroration by a presidential candidate somehow got overlooked: Hillary Clinton’s appearance before the American Legion. Overshadowed by Trump’s visit to Mexico, and his subsequent stem-winder, Hillary’s performance was greeted with tepid applause by her military audience, and pointedly ignored by her media cheering section. The reason for the latter’s silence is perhaps due to the fact that it underscores one of her biggest vulnerabilities: her militant interventionism in an age when the American people are sick and tired of foreign wars.

She didn’t waste any time getting down to her basic theme. Once through the preliminaries, she said:

“Thanks for your service in our armed forces. You wore the uniform. You took an oath. You put your life on the line to protect the greatest country on Earth. There are some who may argue with that, but not around me.”

Who is she talking about? I’ve never heard anyone dispute that our soldiers put their lives on the line: and while a few old-fashioned Marxists and so-called “social justice warriors” may disagree that this is the greatest country on earth, they’re all supporting her, if I’m not mistaken, rather than Trump. So whom is she arguing with?

Incredibly, she is trying to characterize her opponent – someone who has adopted “America First” as his campaign slogan – as being somehow anti-American.

Now, Trump may have his demagogic qualities, but they have more to do with his tone rather than the content of what he has to say: with Hillary, it’s the opposite. She somehow manages to utter the most vicious lines in a carefully modulated monotone. Like one of those killers who, after doing the deed, goes off to the church social, she then segued into praise for Boys Nation, Girls Nation, and the various American Legion auxiliaries.

That’s her style: paragraphs of boilerplate and bromides, interspersed with flashes of demagoguery. And so we must wade through the swamps of regurgitated rhetoric – references to Lincoln’s “last best hope,” Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” and something Robert Kennedy is supposed to have said – before we get to the theme of this philippic: “The United States is an exceptional nation,” itself a bromide borrowed from every political candidate in recent memory. Through sheer momentum, this soon morphs into an ode to global interventionism:

“And part of what makes America an exceptional nation, is that we are also an indispensable nation. In fact, we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead. My friends, we are so lucky to be Americans. It is an extraordinary blessing. It’s why so many people, from so many places, want to be Americans too. But it’s also a serious responsibility. The decisions we make and the actions we take, even the actions we don’t take, affect millions even billions of lives.

“You know that; you’ve seen it.

“Now all of this may seem evident, especially to men and women who have worn the uniform. You may wonder how anyone could disagree.”

Where does this “indispensable nation” nonsense come from? She’s citing, without attribution, Madeleine Albright, who told interviewer Matt Lauer on “The Today Show”:

”If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

The irony of this is astounding if one remembers the context: the year was 1998. Bill Clinton had announced his intention to start bombing Iraq, which – we were told – had “weapons of mass destruction.” Economic sanctions were squeezing the life out of Iraq’s women, children, and elderly – a crime Madame Albright told Lesley Stahl was “worth it.” In short, this was the prelude to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was carried out by Clinton’s successor: the Clintons, however, laid the groundwork.

Albright and the Clinton administration didn’t stand tall enough to see as far into the future as was necessary to get a glimpse of the disaster that was the Iraq war – a war Mrs. Clinton voted for and avidly supported until political opportunism forced her to back down.

Hillary defines “American exceptionalism” in terms of an exceptional arrogance. It doesn’t mean patriotism, it doesn’t mean that our system is uniquely libertarian. Nor is she saying that the American Revolution was a signal event that held up the torch of human freedom so that all the world’s peoples might see it and marvel at its light. What she means is that we have not only the right but also the moral responsibility to intervene in every conflict, no matter how far from our shores or how removed from our actual interests.

This comes across when she attacks Trump for giving credit to Vladimir Putin’s critique of her brand of “exceptionalism”:

“But, in fact, my opponent in this race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world. In fact, when Vladimir Putin, of all people, criticized American exceptionalism, my opponent agreed with him, saying, and I quote, ‘if you’re in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional.’ Well maybe you don’t want to hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

“My opponent misses something important. When we say America is exceptional, it doesn’t mean that people from other places don’t feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity. Our power comes with a responsibility to lead, humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.”

This nonsense about our “unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress” demonstrates either ignorance of history, or else contempt for it. The British Empire imagined itself playing an identical role – and where are they now? A spent force, reduced to playing the role of second or even third fiddle to the US, economically broken. Indeed, every empire has always thought of itself as “a force for peace and progress” whose abilities were “unparalleled” – so read countless inscriptions on crumbling Roman ruins. The Soviets claimed to represent the forces of “peace and progress,” and their ideology proclaimed their inevitable triumph. One of their favorite phrases has been taken up by President Obama and American “progressives,” who declare themselves to be “on the right side of history.” But history has no “right side” – only the relentless rule that hubris is always punished.

And so we are now being punished, with the horror in the Middle East and the threat of terrorism on the soil of the homeland. Yet according to Mrs. Clinton, we must be willing – even glad – to take on this punishment. We must grin and bear it as we pay the cost in lives, in dollars, in the exhaustion of our nation: “No matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.”

This is crazy: there is no other word for it. Is she saying that we must pursue this ephemeral “leadership” no matter what the costs? Should we bankrupt the country, lest we abdicate our sacred duty to save the world from itself? This isn’t “leadership” – it’s recklessness.

Hillary is quite correct when she avers that “No other country in the world has alliances like ours” – although not in the way she intended. Yes, it’s true, our alliances – actually, client state relationships – span the globe, but their uniqueness lies in the fact that we pay them for the privilege of protecting them. Billions of taxpayer dollars are shipped overseas in military and economic aid, and nothing comes back: e.g. of all the members of NATO, only little Estonia pays its agreed upon share of the costs of maintaining extensive forces in Europe. And those forces are there to “deter” an attack from Russia that is less likely than an alien invasion of flying saucers – that is, unless Hillary gets her way and we find ourselves in the middle of another cold war with Russia.

And part of the costs – the most substantial one – of our empire of “allies” is that there are countless tripwires all across the globe that could drag us into an overseas conflict at any moment. The territorial integrity of Lower Slobbovia, Upper Volta, and every little Balkans backwater is our responsibility to uphold and defend – with the lives of our soldiers, if need be. And what do we get for it in return? Politicians like Mrs. Clinton get to make speeches about how glorious it all is – but is it?

The American people don’t think so: every poll shows that they aren’t willing to pay any price, bear any burden – as John F. Kennedy stupidly averred when exhorting us to fight in Vietnam. They want to start putting America first – not Ukraine, not Syria, but this country. And if that be “isolationism,” then so be it.

Toward the end of her speech, Hillary really bares her fangs and gives us an indication of what life is going to be like under the Clinton Restoration. While claiming that she’ll only use military force as “a last resort” – the typical rhetoric of warmongers – she hints at what the future holds:

“You’ve seen reports. Russia’s hacked into a lot of things. China’s hacked into a lot of things. Russia even hacked into the Democratic National Committee, maybe even some state election systems. So, we’ve got to step up our game. Make sure we are well defended and able to take the fight to those who go after us.

“As President, I will make it clear, that the United States will treat cyber attacks just like any other attack. We will be ready with serious political, economic and military responses.”

If that isn’t a veiled threat to attack Russia in retaliation for their alleged “cyber-attacks” on the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton Foundation, then what is she trying to say?

This should scare the bejesus out of “liberals” and others on the left who have been scammed into jumping on the Clinton bandwagon in the name of stopping Trump. Are we really going to start World War III in order to avenge the honor of Debbie Wasserman Schultz? Given how problematic attribution is in the case of cyber-attacks, this threat of “military action” makes Dr. Strangelove look sane.

For all the yelping and screeching in the media about how Trump is “unstable,” and even crazy, this threat shows that Hillary in quite simply unhinged. Her major theme these days resembles something out of Joe McCarthy’s playbook: her campaign has come right out and said Trump is “Putin’s puppet.” And since she so clearly believes the Russians are actively disrupting her efforts to take the White House, it’s reasonable to assume her policy toward Russia will reflect this in a vindictive campaign of revenge.

And they tell us Trump is “scary”!

If Hillary Clinton doesn’t scare you, then you aren’t paying attention.

Berlin not distancing itself from Armenia resolution

A German government spokesman denied claims made in a news report that Berlin was going to tone down a resolution calling the murder of Armenians a genocide. Leaders pointed out, however, that it is not legally binding.

September 2, 2016


The German news magazine “Der Spiegel” had reported on Friday that Berlin planned a gesture to appease Turkish government anger over the Bundestag’s Armenia resolution. That report, however, was denied by German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

He said there could be no talk of Germany distancing itself from the parliamentary resolution.

The report in “Der Spiegel” said Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government hoped to resolve a dispute that has seen German parliamentarians barred from visiting Bundeswehr troops stationed at the Incirlik airbase in eastern Turkey.

Germany’s lower house  unanimously backed a resolution in early June that explicitly declared the ethnic slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman regime during World War I to have been a genocide.

In response, Ankara blocked German parliamentarians from visiting German troops stations at Incirlik, where the Bundeswehr is engaged in operations against “Islamic State” (IS). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the vote, recalled his ambassador to Berlin for consultations and threatened further action.

The head of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in parliament said the chancellor would not distance herself from the resolution. Volker Kauder told a committee meeting on Friday that she had called him personally to make it known that she was in favor of the resolution.

Diplomatic hot potato

Germany’s Foreign Ministry has sought to resolve the dispute in recent weeks, with officials reportedly being told that Ankara wanted the German government to distance itself from the legislature’s vote. According to “Der Spiegel,” a spokesman would reiterate that the resolution had no legal effect on the actions of the German government.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pointed out on Friday that the Bundestag resolution was non-binding.

“The German Bundestag naturally has every right and the freedom to express itself on political issues,” Steinmeier said. “But the Bundestag itself said that there is not a legally binding basis for every resolution.”

Even when it passed the Bundestag, it was clear to lawmakers that the resolution was non-binding.

Both Steinmeier and Merkel are reported to privately support the parliament’s position.

Seibert said on Friday, however, that there could not be any talk of Germany distancing itself from the Armenia resolution.

Call for redeployment

Steinmeier is a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has said Germany should redeploy its troops to another support base in the Middle East, should German parliamentarians continue to be barred from visiting personnel.

Although Germany is not directly engaged in combat operations against IS, it has deployed a number of surveillance aircraft to assist the US-led coalition. The German parliament is scheduled to decide on a mandate to extend the mission in December.

The topic of the murder of some 1.5 million Armenians and other Christians by the Ottomans during 1915-16 is a particularly sensitive one in Turkey, which claims the figures are inflated and that the killings do not constitute genocide.

The Pentagon’s Not-So-Secret Commando Army

The U.S. military is mum on Special Operations bases around the world, but they’re public knowledge

August 31, 2016

by Joseph Trevithick

War Is Boring

Thousands of elite U.S. troops operate around in the world and largely in secret. To help manage these soldiers and their missions, the Pentagon has established a network of small command posts around the world.

But despite the existence of these units being public knowledge — which reveal in part how America fights wars in the 21st century — the U.S. military’s top commando headquarters would prefer not to talk about them.

In September 2014, War Is Boring submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any orders related to so-called “Special Operations Command (Forward)” entities. In February, we finally received an answer.

“It has been determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of records concerning the matters relating to those set forth in your request is classified,” James Boisselle, the Deputy Chief of Staff for U.S. Special Operations Command, wrote back.

“USSOCOM neither confirms nor denies that such records may or may not exist.”

We appealed this decision, pointing out that the command posts in question are regularly discussed in unclassified news items, and that it would be logical to assume the Pentagon would require formal orders for the creation of any new unit.

In August, Director of Oversight and Compliance Joo Chung sent a second letter saying that she had rejected our arguments and upheld SOCOM’s original opinion.

But these headquarters are out in the open.

Historically and today, one of the main jobs of Special Operations soldiers is training, advising and otherwise working with foreign allies. The United States possesses the largest commando force in the world and makes active use of it.

Nearly 10,000 elite American troops are in more than 80 different countries on “any given day,” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel told senators in March.

The commandos don’t go alone. Which is why the job of managing them falls to smaller headquarters known as “forward commands.” Depending on the location, these centers handle everything from coordinating secret missions to mundane tasks such as filing paperwork.

We sought the orders creating these entities to help demystify their work, find out which units still exist and otherwise establish a more granular picture of where commandos have “boots on the ground.”

The various headquarters are not permanent, and often change their names and structures. But by 2014, the Pentagon appeared to have settled on “Special Operations Command Forward” as a common naming convention for these groups.While the Pentagon can be tight-lipped about what these troops do on a day-to-day basis, their existence and basic functions are not a secret. When War Is Boring submitted its FOIA request, we had identified eight of these groups based in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

The Middle East command centers are likely some of the oldest. After the U.S. military drove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait in 1991, it set up one of the command posts there. By 2000, the United States had created two additional headquarters in Bahrain and Qatar.

The Pentagon has since appeared to have consolidated much of this infrastructure in Bahrain.

In January 2012, Wired’s Danger Room highlighted the existence of a special task force in Bahrain. A year earlier at a defense industry symposium, Army Col. Joe Osborne revealed more forward command posts in Lebanon, Pakistan and Yemen.

U.S. commandos moved into Pakistan soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But after a series of spats between Washington and Islamabad in 2011, ending with the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, Pakistan ordered the Americans out … although not for long. The commandos quietly returned the following year.

In Yemen, the United States sent commandos to help local authorities fight Al Qaeda’s local franchise. The elite troops left after the country’s government collapsed in September 2014.

But in an apparent partnership of opportunity, militias loyal to former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi minority group — once fierce enemies — banded together to fight the new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Then in April, U.S. special operators returned as a Saudi Arabia-led coalition battled the rebels from the air and on the ground.

And after fighting broke out in Lebanon between the government and Fatah Al Islam militants in 2007, Washington took a renewed interest in the country. U.S. military aid flowed to Beirut, and the commando headquarters there was a logical extension of this increased support.

As of 2012, the Pentagon had just three individuals assigned to the Lebanon command center, according to the Army’s Special Warfare magazine. To the best of our knowledge, this organization still exists. And in June, a Pentagon contract for garbage trucks in Jordan included a mailing address for the apparently still-active headquarters in Qatar.

The command posts extend beyond the Middle East and South Asia. Since 9/11, at least three elite American task forces popped up in Africa.

One command post in Djibouti is focused on helping countries in East Africa fight the Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab and its splinter factions. The second — initially in Burkina Faso — targeted Al Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahel region that divides North Africa from Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2011, the Pentagon set up a third command post in Uganda to hunt warlord Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Despite having lost much of its fighting strength over two decades of fighting, the LRA is still a threat to innocent civilians — including children whom Kony’s forces abduct into their ranks.

Sometime in 2013, the Pentagon renamed these units. The U.S. Special Operations Command’s 2014 “fact book” mentions all three by their new names, with their old titles in parentheses.

The U.S. military has created more organizations in less obvious places. By 2007, the Pentagon’s top headquarters for missions in Latin America was pursuing what it called a “regional war on terror.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, as Washington looked to halt the flow of narcotics, the Pentagon formed a particularly close relationship with its counterparts in Colombia. After 9/11, American officials offered evidence to suggest there was some overlap between the illicit drug trade by rebel groups including the FARC and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

“Clearly Hezbollah is taking advantage of the ungoverned space and the lucrative drug and human smuggling trade networks that extend through to the Andean Ridge, Central America, and the Caribbean,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Christian Averett, U.S. Navy Lt. Louis Cervantes and Army Maj. Patrick O’Hara wrote in a shared thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School.

The Pentagon’s response involved two elite forward command posts in South America, the officers explained in their unclassified academic study. One of these headquarters primarily arranged U.S. support for Colombian military operations including “high value target ‘snatch and grab’ operations.”

Another post in Paraguay coordinated aid to countries in the “Southern Cone,” which stretches from Brazil to Chile.

At the same time, the Pentagon was in the process of setting up a third commando headquarters which shared space with the existing American task force at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras.

The Pentagon has continued to create, transform and perhaps even remove elite command posts from hotspots around the world. As of June, there were two new units in Europe, according to a special double edition of Special Warfare. The magazine featured specific information on elite troops working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Georgia, Estonia and Romania.

While details are sparse, one group apparently focused on activities in Southern Europe, while the other worked in Eastern Europe. We were not aware of these units when we filed our FOIA request, and it is entirely possible they did not yet exist.

However, after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Pentagon stepped up training exercises and other aid to nearby NATO members. Among other activities, the two headquarters coordinate “psychological warfare” missions clearly aimed at countering Kremlin propaganda.

These missions provide “a discreet yet robust, cost-effective, highly adaptable and diverse tool ideally suited to the … environment,” Special Warfare explained. The special troops can further work with allies on “target audience analysis, influence techniques, propaganda analysis and social media exploitation.”

It’s likely that we will continue to learn more about these units and any new forward headquarters as time goes on. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on, Washington sees commandos — and drones — as a way to avoid large, long-term and potentially unpopular operations.

Given this trend, we wonder how long the Pentagon will be able to keep the very existence of records related to the creation of these units — or lack thereof — a secret.

Faked Conspiracy Photos

by Robert D. Fiete, ITT Industries


Like it or not, fake images are everywhere and have become a part of today’s culture. Thanks to the popularity of digital cameras and the availability of desktop imaging software that allows users to easily manipulate images, fake images have become commonplace, especially on the Internet. We see many images that defy common sense and it is natural for us to question the authenticity of these images. Most of have seen images that are obvious fakes, such as the 80-foot grasshopper climbing the Empire State Building, but we naturally assume that these images are fake and know that they were created simply for our amusement. Unfortunately there are too many times when a fake image has been created but it is advertised as real, challenging us to decide for ourselves whether the image is real of fake.

A fake image can be defined as an image of an object or scene that wasn’t captured as the image would imply. In general, fake images are created to generate a deception, but not all fake images are bad. The motivation may be simply for harmless entertainment, which accounts for most fake images generated today. Fake images can be generated for research and development purposes, e.g. to understand image quality issues with different camera designs. The fake images that concern us most are those that are created to perpetuate a lie. Some people will generate fake images for profit, such as a picture of an alien, a ghost, or an alien ghost of Elvis that they can then sell to a tabloid. Probably the most dangerous motive for generating fake images is to alter the public’s perception of truth for political reasons. It would be nice a reliable method existed for determining if an image is real or fake, but unfortunately none exists. We can hope to catch most of the fake images, however, if we understand how fake image are made and what characteristics to look for.

Creating Fake Images

Although generating fake images historically originated with darkroom tricks, today almost every fake image is made using a computer. Even though it is getting more difficult to discern a real image from a fake image as image processing software improves, image analysis can still be used to detect traits that can expose many of them as fakes. To understand how fake images can be detected we must first understand how they can be made on computers. The two most common methods today for generating fake images are to “paint” a new image outright or to alter an existing image that has been captured by a camera.

A digital image is essentially a grid of numbers, where each number represents the brightness of each picture element, or pixel, in the image (An 8-bit image can have 28=256 gray-level values, with a value of 0 representing black and a value of 255 representing white. A color image is made by combining a red image, a green image, and a blue image. Adding together different gray-level values from the red, green, and blue image produces the various color values.

Since a digital image is simply a grid of numbers, it is conceivable for an artist to create a computer-generated image by “painting” a grid of numbers to represent any object or scene that could be captured with a digital camera. For a 24-bit color image composed of an 8-bit red, green, and blue image, there are almost 17 million possible colors for each pixel. A 4″x6″ image at 300 dpi (dots per inch) will have over 2 million pixels, thus there are over 36 thousand billion numbers that can be considered to make the color digital image. Realistically all of the possible numbers do not need to be considered by the artist, but serious thought does need to be put into the values that will be used, especially when illumination and edges are considered. If the computer generated image is to look like a real photograph, then the image must be consistent with all of the laws of physics applicable to generating a real image.

Many of the classic painters, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, had an amazing talent to incorporate the proper shading, texture, tone, and color into their paintings that were consistent with the real world thus adding an amazing amount of realism to their work. However, their paintings do not look like modern photographs because they do not contain sufficient detail to match all of the physical properties associated with photographic imaging. (Actually, most artists probably would have been quite unhappy if their works of art looked like a modern photograph.)

In order to create a digital image that looks like a real photograph, the correct brightness values must be determined on a pixel-by-pixel basis to match the physical imaging properties, which could take months to years, depending on the image size, without the aid of computer software to perform the calculation. This problem was solved with the development of computer graphics software, designed to generate images of 3D objects with realistic illumination conditions. A rendering operation adds lighting, shading, colors, and texture to a mesh form of the object that is created by the artist. Ray tracing models produce the best quality by projecting many rays of light and modeling all of the physical qualities between the light and the objects in the scene, including reflection, refraction, transmission, scattering, absorption, and diffraction. The artist must simulate enough rays of light to cover every pixel in the image, which can be very time consuming if many rays of light are used. We have all seen the impressive results of computer animation in many feature films, creating dinosaurs or aliens that come to life on the screen. However, generating impressive detail in fake images using computer graphics, especially in a movie sequence, is still very difficult due to the complex calculations that need to be performed and the software is not accessible to the average PC user.

The most common method of generating a fake image, due to its simplicity, is to alter an existing image that was captured by a camera. The image can be altered by changing the context of the image, such as claiming that an actual image of a lampshade is actually an image of alien spaceship, or the image can be altered by changing the content of the image, such as superimposing an image of a cow onto an image of the moon

Creating a fake image by altering the context of an image has historically been the preferred method for creating hoaxes because it requires no alterations and the image is an actual image captured by a camera; hence the image, and the film negative if it exists, will pass the scrutiny of scientific tests. A famous example of a faked image by altering the context is the “Surgeon’s Photo” taken in 1934 by Robert Wilson who claimed it was a photograph of the Loch Ness Monster The image fooled many experts until an accomplice confessed in 1994 that the monster was nothing more than a toy submarine with the model of a serpent head attached.

The Cottingley Hoax is another example of fake images created by altering the context In 1917 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths took photographs of winged fairies near their home in England. Inspection of the images showed no alterations and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for creating the master sleuth Sherlock Holmes, deemed them authentic. Sixty years later the girls admitted that the fairies were paper cutouts held in place with hat pins.

Altering the content of an existing image most likely originated when early photographers were compelled to touch up the photographs of their paying customers to remove wrinkles and blemishes. Many people in the 19th century were accustomed to having flattering portraits painted of them and were not very tolerant at seeing the way they looked to the camera, which could not tell a lie. As dark room processes advanced, adding and removing people from images became a standard trick. When photographers were unable to get an entire family together for a family portrait, they would set up the subjects such that the missing individuals could be added at a later time (see Figure 5). Altering images became routine for many political regimes in the 20th century, especially for propaganda. It was not uncommon for some governments to remove people from historic photographs when these people fell out of favor with the ruling party.

Today, altering the content of an image does not require dark room tricks but merely a PC with image editing software. Desktop software is readily available and easy to use, allowing anyone to quickly and creatively alter images. The easiest approach is to simply cut a section from one image and embed it into another image (see Figure 6). The desktop software allows the creator to modify the extracted image to the appropriate size and rotation. The software on the market today is so easy to use that that pre-school children have little difficulty creating impressive altered images.

Identifying Fake Images

If an image is deemed suspicious, then we can first look for clues by visual inspection and then proceed with scientific inspection if necessary. The first line of defense for detecting a possible fake image is our own perception. We have a keen ability to sense that something is wrong with an image and trusting our common sense works most of the time. If an image looks unbelievable, then it probably is unbelievable and is a fake If an image looks real and similar images are easily obtained, then it probably is real since there would be no motive to warrant the time and effort to create the fake image. Unfortunately life isn’t that simple. There are examples of fake images that we believe are real because they do not draw suspicion (see Figure 8) and there are examples of unbelievable images that are in fact real images. These real but unbelievable images are the ones that fascinate us but also make it harder to discount the images that we suspect are fake. Images that we believe to be real but are in fact fake are bothersome because they unfairly manipulate our sense of truth.

Using computer animation software to create a fake image works well in movies but generally does not fool the public when used to pass off a fake image as real. Our perception is very sensitive to subtle details in the composure and texture of objects in an image, especially when viewing images of people. Most computer-generated scenes, especially those involving people or animals, have a “cartoon look” about them when scrutinized. People generally look like mannequins and subtle details are missing. Images that circulated on the Internet claiming to be actual satellite images of the space shuttle Columbia exploding in space could easily be recognized as the work of computer animation when viewed closely (see Figure 9). The ability to generate realistic computer generated people is improving dramatically over time as software technology and mathematical models progress.

A fake image created by altering the context is the hardest to positively identify as fake since the image is real and will pass scientific tests on the validity of the image itself. Most fake UFO images cannot be immediately discounted as fake because they are indeed real photographs of objects that the viewer cannot properly identify, leaving the image subject to interpretation. The key to identifying a fake image when the context is altered is to identify aspects of the image that are inconsistent with the image description, i.e. catch the perpetrator in a lie. For example, the time and date claimed may be inconsistent with the sun’s position or the known weather conditions for that date.

Photographs published in 1932 reportedly showing scenes from WWI dogfights were amazing due to their sharpness and clarity But the amazing clarity was a clue that the images were probably fake because they appeared too sharp given the relatively long exposures required from cameras at the time and the amount of motion and vibration on the airplane. The images were not proven to be fakes until 1984 when the model airplanes used in the images were discovered.

When the image content has been altered, we focus on the aspect of the image that makes the image unbelievable. Images that have had their content altered will usually have physical inconsistencies in the image that may be apparent under visual inspection. Unfortunately, these inconsistencies are not always apparent in the image and the image may not be proven to be fake until the original unaltered image is discovered

The physical traits of the image that can be assessed include the illumination conditions, edge sharpness, resolution, tone, relative scale, and noise characteristics. Many of the computer animated scenes created for movies and electronic games do not adhere to the laws of physics, but this is usually intentional to save cost and to make the scenes more entertaining.

A common inconsistency found when the image content is altered is the mismatch of radiometric or illumination conditions between the altered part and the rest of the image. The altered part of the image may have shadowing that is not consistent; indicating that is was illuminated under different conditions from rest of the image. This is commonly seen when an object captured at one time of the day is added to an image that was captured at a different time of the day. Also, the light illuminating the altered part may not be consistent with the diffuse or specular light illuminating the rest of the scene. This effect is commonly seen when an object captured with a photographic flash is added to an image that was acquired with outdoor or studio lighting. Color, contrast, and tone will also vary for different illumination conditions, thus creating a mismatch of these characteristics between different images

An image claiming to be a satellite image of the Northeast blackout in 2003 circulated on the Internet shortly after the blackout occurred The image was quickly identified as a fake because the blackout area is pure black compared to the other areas with no light sources. Other clues to this deception include the false satellite name, the unlikely lack of clouds anywhere over North and Central America, and the fact that the blackout was not total over the Northeast. The original image is a composite of many DMSP satellite images acquired between 1994 and 1995

One must be very careful when analyzing the illumination characteristics of the scene. The shadows and illumination conditions can be misleading, especially if the three-dimensional aspects of the scene are not taken into account. The Apollo 11 moon landing images appear to contain “anomalies” that some people use to argue that the moon landing was staged in a studio. These “anomalies” include shadows on the lunar surface that are not parallel and objects that appear illuminated even though they are in the shadows, both suggesting that there were light sources other than the sun, as well as the lack of stars in the black sky, suggesting that a black back-drop was used on a studio set. Of course, all of these so-called anomalies are exactly what we expect to see in the images if we truly understand the imaging conditions on the lunar surface. The shadows are not parallel as seen in the images because the lunar surface is not flat and the objects are not necessarily parallel to one another in height, the shadows are illuminated from the light scattering off of the lunar surface, and the stars do not appear in the images because the camera exposure was set for the brightness of the lunar surface.

Creators of fake images usually ignore the known physical properties of creating an image with a camera. The most significant camera effects are edge sharpness, influenced by the lens diffraction, focus, and motion blur; perspective geometry; and noise properties, usually from the detector and compression. Computer animated images are usually created without any camera effects since this will degrade the image quality and make the images less appealing to the audience. This, however, results in images that are physically impossible to capture with a camera in the real world.

When an object is added or deleted from an image, an edge is usually created that has a sharpness that is inconsistent with the rest of the image. Even an in-focus image will exhibit some blurring due to the diffraction of light from the camera aperture. The behavior of the blurring in the image is well understood and can be mathematically modeled if the camera design is known. Even if the camera design is not known, measurements within the image can produce a relatively accurate mathematical model of the camera that can provide reasonable predictions. Cutting an object from one image and inserting it into another image will create a sharp edge at the boundary of the inserted object that is sharper than physically possible. This sharpness is easily seen and creates an obvious sign that the image has been altered, so smudging tools in image processing software are usually used to reduce the visibility of these edges This smudging, however, will usually produce blurred edges around the object that are inconsistent with the rest of the image.

Most images will exhibit some amount of noise, primarily from the detector or from the image compression that was applied. The noise characteristics of an altered portion of an image can be inconsistent with the rest of the image. Magnifying digital images will generally exhibit graininess due to the detector noise and artifacts from the compression algorithm, depending on the level of compression. When images have been altered, the creator usually blurs the edges or other portions of the image to blend in the object, but this changes the noise characteristics, allowing the alteration to be detected

Finally, an understanding of how image processing alters the image characteristics can lead to signs of alteration. For example, when the image contrast is enhanced, the resulting gray-level histogram of the image will usually display “holes” or gray-level values that contain are no longer present in the image. An object from one image that is inserted into a second image may exhibit a different histogram that will indicate that it was not originally part of the second image. However, if an image has been enhanced using an adaptive processing algorithm, then the image characteristics, such as the gray-level histogram or the edge sharpness, can change locally even though no other alteration have been made. Adaptive processing should not be used on real images if the integrity of the image is to be preserved. Unfortunately, if the image is processed after the alteration has been made, such as compressing the image, then the holes in the histogram may be filled in and the histogram will no longer look suspicious

The Difficulty of Detecting Fake Images

Most of the people generating fake images know little or nothing about the physics of the image chain, yet lots of fake images fool us because they seem to have properties that are consistent with real images. How is this possible? Images with altered context are actual images; hence image analysis will not show that the image itself is inconsistent with physics, only that the perpetrator is being untruthful. Images with altered content will usually show signs of alteration if the image is created quickly and carelessly. The anomalies created in an altered image can be reduced by having an understanding of the imaging chain properties and taking the time and effort to ensure that the entire image is consistent at the pixel level, but this is rarely performed due to the knowledge and time required.

The simplest method to reduce the detection of the anomalies in an altered image is to degrade the quality of the image of the alteration. The most common methods are blurring the edges, adding random noise, reducing the size of the image, or compressing the image, all of which will cover up telltale signs of the manipulation. Many fake images have such poor quality that accurate measurements cannot be made to determine if inconsistencies exist. Admittedly, most creators of fake images do not reduce the quality with the intent of making image analysis more difficult, but instead reduce the quality by resizing and compressing the image simply to reduce the file size. However, reducing the image quality to hide the inconsistencies may reduce the impact that the creator of the altered image had hoped for. For example, inconsistent edge blurring can be reduced in altered images if the image is sub-sampled to a smaller size, but this could lead to unsatisfactory aliasing artifacts.

Image steganography offers a method for embedding hidden information into an image. Information pertaining to the unaltered image can be encoded and embedded into the image such that it is not visible. The information can also be encrypted, requiring a key to decode the embedded information so that unauthorized users cannot alter the information. The embedded information can withstand most alterations and processing such as scale, rotation, compression, and cropping. As an example, an edge map of the image can be created, encoded, and embedded into the image itself. If an image is suspected of being altered, then the embedded information can be extracted using the key and compared to the image. Any differences between the edge map of the current image and the edge map embedded in the image can prove if the image was altered

Although image analysis tools can help detect many fake images, currently there is no way to stop somebody from spending the time and resources to make a fake image that is not detectible. All one can do is hope that an inconsistency can be found, thus indicating that the image is fake. Methods currently being developed, such as image stenography and control coding in printers, can aid in the prevention and detection of altered images that are passed off as real images. Two great references for checking the authenticity of images being distributed on the Internet are The Museum of Hoaxes and Urban Legends Reference Pages. For further reading on fake images, a good reference is Photo Fakery, by Dino Brugioni.


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