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Posts Tagged ‘#usa’


What’s the next big threat to US intelligence? Donald Trump

January 16, 2017

Donald Trump has been on Twitter again this morning, this time in reaction to an admonishment made on Sunday by outgoing CIA director John Brennan criticising the president-elect for comparing the US intelligence community with Nazi Germany and urging him to rein in “talking and tweeting” that could impact on national security. Trump responded by slamming the credibility of US intelligence on key national security issues and attacking Brennan personally. “Was this the leaker of Fake News?” Trump tweeted.

This spat is the latest in a series of hostile exchanges that reflect ever-worsening discord between the US president-elect and the American intelligence institutions. The implications are potentially severe, not only for the day-to-day operations of the US intelligence agencies but also for the very prospect of rational government, which relies on a functioning relationship between those whose job it is to understand the world and those who make decisions.

It’s safe to say that the US intelligence community’s handling of the Trump dossier did nothing to improve its relationship with the incoming commander-in-chief. The two-page summary of unverified reports suggesting “kompromat” on Trump, which landed on the desks of the president and president-elect, handed Trump and his team the opportunity to accuse them of being complicit in the spread of “fake news” and “phoney stuff”.

While these accusations are unfounded and over the top – the Trump dossier has nothing to do with the separate problem of fake news – the situation does highlight the critical need for intelligence professionals to adhere to the tradecraft standards that command the trust that decision-makers must place in them. The tradecraft that matters most these days for intelligence organisations (contrary to fake news peddlers) relates to the analysis and assessment of information, rather than its collection. In an age of information abundance, collecting information is arguably less challenging than the task of extracting value from it for decision-making purposes. Indeed, information becomes intelligence only after it has been analysed and assessed, and decision-makers require intelligent judgments.

While the professionalisation of intelligence in government circles has led to the development of cutting-edge analytical and assessment techniques, the corporate intelligence world tends to be less sophisticated, where the line between “intelligence” and “information” is more blurred. The privately produced source reports about Trump do not constitute intelligence product; they simply present information that might or might not be true. It remains surprising, therefore, that a two-page summary of this reporting, which fell well short of normal tradecraft standards, was included in high-level government briefings.

The fallout of the Trump dossier handling will present unprecedented challenges to US intelligence organisations, activities and knowledge. As former CIA acting director Mike Morell warned on CBS’s Face the Nation on 8 January, staff morale will undoubtedly suffer if President Trump turns out to be permanently uninterested in what they do. It is unlikely that he will seek to actively invest in the intelligence community or empower its leadership; there is already loose talk suggesting the administration aims to weaken the influence of the office of the director of national intelligence, who is supposed to serve as the principal adviser to the president on such matters, following the perceived mishandling of Russian hacking claims.

Even if Trump doesn’t restructure US intelligence organisations in any meaningful way, it remains highly doubtful that he will ever become a keen consumer of intelligence material. As per Morell’s warning, the existence of a commander-in-chief that doesn’t appear to value intelligence product or process could jeopardise the US’s ability to recruit sources, especially those motivated by a strong sense of patriotism and the desire to make a difference. A disengaged president would surely do little to incentivise agents to take risks to provide information if there is little prospect of that information ever influencing the thinking of high-level decision-makers serving in a Trump administration.

Perhaps most concerning, however, are questions surrounding the status and handling of intelligence as a type of knowledge, especially as it pertains to national security, foreign affairs and defence. “I know more about Islamic State than the generals do” is a statement typical of Trump, but the emergence of a thick “post-truth” atmosphere seeping through American (and British) political and media institutions risks stifling expert opinion where it is needed most.

In 1949, the great American academic and serviceman Sherman Kent introduced the concept of “strategic intelligence”. The core idea was that intelligence played a critical role in supporting rational government, by helping policymakers gain a “big picture” understanding of the world around them and make informed strategic decisions. It became the backbone of the western intelligence model, which serves as the blueprint for the US and other democratic countries worldwide.

Its fundamental purpose is to “provide truth to power”, promote evidence-based thinking, and present perspectives that might challenge the preconceptions of those in charge. It stands in stark contrast to politicised models, often found in totalitarian states, that feature organisations that struggle to resist the pressure to simply say what their political masters want to hear. History shows us that the relationship between intelligence and policy has rarely been straightforward, but it will struggle to provide any examples of previous US presidents-elect publicly denigrating the very institutions that US policymakers rely on for objective insight and evidence-based perspectives that might serve to challenge the ideological convictions of politicians.

The western intelligence model has survived in the US for almost 70 years. It may now be facing its sternest test yet.

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China electronics firm to recall some U.S. products after hacking attack

October 24, 2016

Chinese firm Hangzhou Xiongmai Technology Co Ltd said it will recall some of its products sold in the United States after it was identified by security researchers as having made parts for devices that were targeted in a major hacking attack on Friday.

Hackers unleashed a complex attack on the Internet through common devices like webcams and digital recorders, and cut access to some of the world’s best known websites in a stunning breach of global internet stability.

The electronics components firm, which makes parts for surveillance cameras, said in a statement on its official microblog that it would recall some of its earlier products sold in the United States, strengthen password functions and send users a patch for products made before April last year.

It said the biggest issue was users not changing default passwords, adding that, overall, its products were well protected from cyber security breaches. It said reports that its products made up the bulk of those targeted in the attack were false.

“Security issues are a problem facing all mankind. Since industry giants have experienced them, Xiongmai is not afraid to experience them once, too,” the company statement said.

Friday’s cyber attack alarmed security experts because it represented a new type of threat rooted in the proliferation of simple digital devices such as webcams. These often lack proper security, and hackers found a way to harness millions of them to flood a target with so much traffic that it couldn’t cope.

The main products Xiongmai is to recall are all webcam models, it said.

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Citing Paris Attack, CIA Director Criticizes Surveillance Reform Efforts

November 17, 2015

Citing Paris Attack, CIA Director Criticizes Surveillance Reform Efforts

CIA Director John Brennan said Monday he suspects the Islamic State is currently working on more terrorist plots against the West following Friday’s attack in Paris that killed at least 129 people and injured hundreds more. He also criticized new privacy protections enacted after Edward Snowden’s disclosures about U.S. government surveillance practices.

“I would anticipate that this is not the only operation ISIL has in the pipeline,” Brennan told a crowd at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not going to content itself with violence inside of the Syrian and Iraqi borders.”

Brennan’s remarks come on the heels of a new Islamic State video released Monday proclaiming all countries playing a role in air strikes against the group in Iraq and Syria would be a target. The video specifically pinpointed Washington as in its crosshairs.

“We swear that we will strike America at its center in Washington,” says a man in the video, which surfaced on a site the Islamic State uses to post its messages. The authenticity of the video could not be immediately verified.

In his remarks, Brennan said the attacks should serve as a “wake-up call” for those misrepresenting what intelligence services do to protect innocent civilians. He cited “a number of unauthorized disclosures, and a lot of handwringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists.”

He added that “policy” and “legal” actions that have since been taken now “make our ability collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging.” In June, President Barack Obama signed into law legislation reforming a government surveillance program that vacuumed up millions of Americans’ telephone records. Passage of the USA Freedom Act was the result of a compromise between privacy advocates and the intelligence community.

Brennan’s remarks immediately sparked criticisms from civil liberties advocates who have fought for greater privacy protections from government surveillance and now fear the Paris attacks could roll them back.

For months, FBI and other law enforcement officials have pressed Congress about needing to access encrypted communications of potential criminals or terrorists that are concealed by smartphones and messaging apps. Privacy advocates and technologists worry that providing authorities with exceptional access to phones would be exploited by hackers and make the Internet more vulnerable to security breaches. The advocates also believe U.S. spies already have intrusive surveillance capabilities that put too much power in the government’s hands.

In his speech, Brennan underscored the challenges facing intelligence services, given the numerous ways terrorists can hide their communications from law enforcement. “They have gone to school on what it is that they need to do to in order to keep their activities concealed from the authorities,” he said.

Brennan also said the United States had “strategic warning” about the terrorist attack in Paris, but did not provide details, other than to say it was “not a surprise.” He said he believed the attack was planned over “several months.”

During a press conference in Turkey, which is hosting the G-20 summit, Obama said “there were no specific mentions of this particular attack” the United States could have used before it was launched to prevent the violence.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Snowden: Democratic debate showed major shift in how I am perceived

November 9, 2015

NSA whistleblower points to ‘extraordinary change’ in attitudes as he notes that Democratic candidates for US president did not call him a traitor

Edward Snowden says he plans to attempt to vote in the 2016 election.
 Edward Snowden says he plans to attempt to vote in the 2016 election. Photograph: Alan Rusbridger for the Guardian

Edward Snowden has described the Democratic presidential debate last month as marking an “extraordinary change” in attitudes towards him.

In a lengthy interview with Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter published on Friday, Snowden said he had been encouraged by the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, her main challenger for the Democratic nomination.

During the televised encounter, both candidates called for Snowden to face trial, but Sanders said he thought the NSA whistleblower had “played a very important role in educating the American people”.

That marked an important shift in the US debate over Snowden’s action, he said.

The former National Security Agency analyst said it had taken 30 years for Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war, to shift from being described regularly as a traitor.

But not once in the debate had Snowden been referred to as a traitor.

Snowden, who is living in exile in Moscow after leaking tens of thousands of secret documents from the NSA and its sister agency in the UK, GCHQ, said: “I did see the debate live. It was actually extraordinarily encouraging. In 2013, they were calling for me to be hanged. They were using the word ‘traitor’ and things like ‘blood on your hands’.

“Nobody on the stage, as far as I know, used the word traitor now. In just two years, that’s an extraordinary change.”

In the debate, Clinton said that Snowden had violated US law and should face trial.

Sanders also suggested that he ought to be tried. “I think there should be a penalty to that,” he said. “But I think that education should be taken into consideration before the sentencing.”

Snowden, asked if he would vote, said he would definitely try, even if only as a symbolic gesture.

“I’ll send them my vote by mail. It’s not like it will count in a meaningful way because such a small portion of the votes come by mail. But that’s not the point; the point is the expression of it,” he said.

Snowden, who in the past supported the Republican Ron Paul, was asked if he would vote for Clinton or Donald Trump. He laughed, declining to comment on the grounds that it would be too inflammatory.

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