Why the Bargain Reward for Ibrahim al-Asiri?

For 5 years, Ibrahim al-Asiri has been the chief boogeyman in US efforts to scare Americans about terrorism from AQAP (and to justify huge outlays for dumb machines TSA can use). Almost yearly, the CIA leaks to ABC News that Asiri has mastered yet another new scary feat, such as surgically implanting bombs in someone’s stomach cavity. More recently, the story has been that Asiri trained some of the western terror recruits in Syria (never mind McClatchy’s report the real threat stems from a French defector).

Which is why I’m surprised that the Rewards for Justice announcement including him yesterday only offered $5 million for his capture (as compared to Nasir al-Wuhayshi — though admittedly Wuhayshi is actually the leader of AQAP, contrary to what the press implies).

Just as interesting is the description the Rewards for Justice announcement and an earlier terrorist designation uses for Asiri. Both make absolutely no mention of the UndieBomb 1.0, toner cartridge, or UndieBomb 2.0 plots in which Asiri has always been claimed to be a central figure.

Instead, State mentions only Asiri’s alleged attempt to kill our chief Saudi intelligence partner, Mohammed bin Nayef, with a bomb hidden in his brother’s rectum. Or maybe underwear. Details, as they always are with Asiri, are fuzzy.

The Secretary of State has designated al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operative and bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri under E.O. 13224, which targets terrorists and their supporters. This action will help stem the flow of finances to al-Asiri by blocking all property subject to U.S. jurisdiction in which al-Asiri has an interest and prohibiting all transactions by U.S. persons with al-Asiri. AQAP has previously been designated by the United States under Executive Order 13224 and as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Al-Asiri is an AQAP operative and serves as the terrorist organization’s primary bomb maker. Before joining AQAP, al-Asiri was part of an al-Qa’ida affiliated terrorist cell in Saudi Arabia and was involved in planned bombings of oil facilities in the Kingdom.

Al-Asiri gained particular notoriety for the recruitment of his younger brother as a suicide bomber in a failed assassination attempt of Saudi Prince Muhammed bin Nayif. Although the assassination attempt failed, the brutality, novelty and sophistication of the plot is illustrative of the threat posed by al-Asiri. Al-Asiri is credited with designing the remotely detonated device, which contained one pound of explosives concealed inside his brother’s body.

Al-Asiri is currently wanted by the Government of Saudi Arabia. In addition, Interpol has published an Orange Notice warning the public about the threat posed by him.

Remember, even by the time Asiri was designated as a terrorist in 2011, US prosecutors were well on their way to prosecuting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his attempt to take down a Detroit-bound jet; Abdulmutallab was charged with conspiracy, and FBI allegedly found Asiri’s fingerprint on the bomb. Plus, they had Abdulmutallab’s confession implicating Asiri.

And yet … not a mention of these things in State’s descriptions of Asiri.

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Saddam’s WMD: Technology Made In USA, Delivered by Rumsfeld

In a blockbuster story published last night by the New York Times, C.J. Shivers lays out chapter and verse on the despicable way the US military covered up the discovery of chemical weapons in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Even worse is the cover-up of injuries sustained by US troops from those weapons, their denial of treatment and denial of recognition or their injuries sustained on the battlefront.

Why was this covered up, you might ask? After all, if George W. Bush would joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner about looking under White House furniture for Saddam’s WMD’s, why didn’t the US blast out the news of the WMD’s that had supposedly prompted the US invasion?

The answer is simple. The chemical weapons that were found did not date to the time frame when the US was accusing Saddam of “illegally” producing them. Instead, they were old chemical weapons that dated from the time Saddam was our friend. They come from the time when the US sent Donald Rumsfeld to shake Saddam’s hand and to grease the skids for Iraq to get chemical weapons to use in their war against Iran.

Chivers give us the details:

From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.

In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

/snip/

The New York Times found 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003. American officials said that the actual tally of exposed troops was slightly higher, but that the government’s official count was classified.

/snip/

Then, during the long occupation, American troops began encountering old chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.

All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all. Some were empty, though many of them still contained potent mustard agent or residual sarin. Most could not have been used as designed, and when they ruptured dispersed the chemical agents over a limited area, according to those who collected the majority of them.

But here is the real kicker:

Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong. “They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Mr. Lampier said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”

Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.

Good old USA technology, conveniently exported to European firms that we helped to build factories in Iraq to produce chemical weapons to be used against Iran. That is what caused injury to US servicemen who were routinely denied care and quickly sent back into battle because they weren’t missing limbs. Chivers talked to a number of those soldiers and their stories are so consistent they nearly blend together. Also consistent was the instant classification of the injuries, presumably because of the embarrassment to the Bush Administration they would cause should the press look into them too rigorously.

Sadly, though, the story is not yet over. The US left Iraq in 2011, knowing that chemical weapons were still stored in bunkers at Al Muthanna. At the end of Chivers’ report: Continue reading

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Moussaoui Wants to Testify Against the Saudi Banks

Zacarias Moussaoui sent a letter to the judge presiding over a lawsuit against Jordanian Arab Bank, offering to testify against that bank and several Saudi banks that he says supported 9/11.

I want to testify against financial institutions such as Arab Bank, Saudi American Bank, the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia for their support and financing of Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda from the time of the Eastern Africa embassy bombing, U.S.S. Cole bombing and 9/11.

As Alison Frankel — who broke this story — noted, Moussaoui’s testimony would be inappropriate in the case in question, which found that Arab Bank funded Hamas.

But that’s not the most interesting part of her report (and Moussaoui’s letter). He claims the lawyers for the 9/11 victims have tried to meet with him in the SuperMax at Florence, CO, and also claims he sent a letter to the judge presiding over that case, where his testimony would be on point.

Moussaoui said that plaintiffs’ lawyers representing victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have requested permission to meet with him but that prison officials have denied the request. Moussaoui also claimed that he has previously offered to testify about al Qaeda financing in letters to the judge overseeing the Sept. 11 victims’ consolidated litigation, U.S. District Judge George Daniels of Manhattan, but that he does not know if the prison has mailed them. The docket in that case does not show any communications from Moussaoui, who was once named as a defendant by Sept. 11 victims.

The implication is that the Special Administrative Measures to which Moussaoui is subject may be preventing his letters from getting out or plaintiffs lawyers from being able to meet with him.

I’m not convinced Moussaoui would really have known about the financing of the 9/11 attack; from reports, al Qaeda kept the operation much better compartmented than that, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly had real questions about the competence of Moussaoui (which is why he got others for the mission). Plus, Moussaoui’s been in solitary so long, it’s unclear how cogent he can be (though his letter sounds more cogent than some of what he sent during his own trial).

Still, I am curious whether the government has been using the SAMs imposed on Moussaoui as yet another way to bury larger Saudi complicity in the attacks.

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The Fossil Fueled Military Battles Climate Change

“The responsibility of the Department of Defense is the security of our country.” Thus begins DOD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaption Road Map, released yesterday to much acclaim.

But then two paragraphs later, it refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” not a threat.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of
the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these
impacts.

A few more paragraphs later, it admits this report primarily looks at climate change’s impact on DOD, not its impact on the US.

Our first step in planning for these challenges is to identify the effects of climate change on the Department with tangible and
specific metrics, using the best available science.

I don’t mean to be churlish — and I do recognize that DOD is quite forward-thinking, among government agencies for its awareness of and initial preparations for climate change.

But that’s sort of the point. This is as good as it gets. And only secondarily does even one of the most progressive agencies in government, with respect to climate change, get to this kind of admission.

Maintaining stability within and among other nations is an important means of avoiding full-­scale military conflicts. The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability. These developments could undermine already-fragile governments that are unable to respond effectively or challenge currently-stable governments, as well as increasing competition and tension between countries vying for limited resources.   These gaps in governance can create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism. Here in the U.S., state and  local governments responding to the effects of extreme weather may seek increased [Defense Support of Civil Authorities].

Climate change is going to be hell. It’s going to cause wars. And it will even require addition DOD resources domestically, in the form of Reserve troops to help local authorities cope with emergencies. And — though DOD doesn’t say it, certainly not in its publicly released document — the US is one of the places that will struggle with governance of the internal effects of climate change, even if they’ll do better than, say, Bangladesh or some harder hit countries. Certainly the US is no model of proactive government preparing for these disasters!

Meanwhile, here’s what else DOD does in the name of fulfilling its responsibility for the security of the country. (h/t OTB)

To date, there have been approximately 240 coalition air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since air operations began nearly a month ago.

[snip]

What goes underreported and, hence, underappreciated, is the magnitude of the overall air operation being conducted in support of or in addition to the actual air strikes against targets on the ground. Simply put, behind every successful air strike is a massive supporting infrastructure of aircraft, ground operations and planning activities. Air strikes are not conducted in isolation. Every strike package consists not only of bomb-carrying aircraft but others providing the protection, electronic warfare support, aerial refueling, battle space management and intelligence. The 240 strikes in Iraq and Syria were supported by some 3,800 aircraft sorties, 1,700 tanker flights and over 700 ISR sorties. There have also been thousands of flights by transport aircraft, C-17s and C-130s making up the largest fraction, providing humanitarian relief but also moving personnel and essential supplies into the region.

Behind all these aircraft stands the supporting personnel and infrastructure necessary to any air operation. These range from ground crews and air traffic controllers to maintainers, armorers and intel personnel. Then there are the people in the air operations center who put together the air tasking order that details all the air activities for a 24-hour period. There are more people and more complexity when it is a joint and coalition operation.

Doing the math, this means there have been around 20 supporting sorties for each strike conducted. This is in a fairly benign environment.

That is, even while DOD notes — laudably, given how dysfunctional our government is — that climate change is going to destabilize countries and will even require deployment of the Reserve to limit instability in our own country, it is burning up fossil fuels at an alarming rate, even in its relatively circumscribed operation against ISIL.

This report edges us closer to the point where we call climate change a threat to the US, rather than just a threat multiplier to all the other things looming out there.

But until we’re there — until we recognize that climate change has killed far more people in the US since 9/11 than terrorism — we will continue to burn fossil fuel as a first or second response to threats on the other side of the world.

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Ebola Transmission: Health Care Worker Practice Most Important Consideration

Not long after we learned that a health care worker treating Thomas Duncan has tested positive for Ebola, I ran across this terse tweet from Mackey Dunn, the pen name of Don Weiss, who is “a medical epidemiologist with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene”. The tweet linked to this short but incredibly important blog post. In the post, Weiss notes the baffling development that a health care worker, who wore full personal protective equipment (PPE), contracted Ebola from Duncan even though at this point, none of his family or other close contacts, who did not have full PPE, have developed symptoms of the disease.

That set of facts prompts Weiss to pose the question “So, what does this tell us about Ebola and how we can attain control?” His answer begins:

One, that Ebola patients become more infectious as the illness progresses. The newly reported case in a healthcare worker had onset on October 10th. If we take 9 days as the mean incubation period for Ebola this means the healthcare worker’s exposure was sometime around October 1, which was day 8 of Mr. Duncan’s illness. This is similar to what was seen with SARS, that patients become more infectious (and dangerous) with time.

In setting up the circumstances for his question, Weiss had noted that Duncan was hospitalized, ending exposure to family members, on day 5 of his disease.

Although he doesn’t mention it, this aspect of Ebola, where patients produce more virus and become more infectious during the course of a fatal infection, also accounts for why burial practices are so important to containing the spread of Ebola. Patients produce the most virus and are thus at their most infectious at death.

The converse also appears to be true. Duncan was symptom-free when he flew from Liberia to Dallas on September 19 to 20. At 24 days since the end of that trip, we have now passed the incubation period, commonly given as 2-21 days, for Ebola to develop in anyone who could have been exposed during the flights. No infections among those airline passengers have been reported. I have yet to see a major media outlet mention this point, though.

We are now at 16 days since Duncan was hospitalized, ending his family’s direct exposure, so we have passed the two-thirds point of the incubation period for them (and well past the 9 days that Weiss gives as the average incubation period for Ebola).

The second part of Weiss’ musings on the infection of the nurse is extremely important:

Second, that only hospitals that are well prepared to care for highly infectious patients should be allowed to do so. Standard practice is to have a staff person dedicated to observing the donning (putting on) and doffing (taking off) of PPE. This observation should continue throughout the period of clinical care (from an ante-room with a window). Perhaps gentle reminders during the doffing can avoid the presumed situation in Spain where the nurse may have touched her face with a gloved hand.

When a patient presents to a hospital early in the illness there is time to transfer to such a facility. That’s the plan here in NYC. Bellevue hospital has a specially equipped ward to care for Ebola patients. Their staff are well trained. The number of healthcare workers entering the room should be kept to a minimum, especially after day 7 of the illness.

Weiss was prescient in his push for an observer for workers putting on and taking off PPE. In today’s New York Times, we have this on the CDC’s thoughts regarding improving practices for health care workers treating Ebola patients: Continue reading

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Jim Comey Lied When He Claimed FBI Needs a Judge to Read Your Email

I believe that Americans should be deeply skeptical of government power. You cannot trust people in power. The founders knew that. That’s why they divided power among three branches, to set interest against interest. — FBI Director Jim Comey

As part of a piece on James Risen’s stories, 60 Minutes did an interview with Jim Comey. It rehearsed his role in running up hospital steps in 2004 to prevent Andy Card from getting an ill John Ashcroft to rubber stamp illegal surveillance — without mentioning that Comey and the other hospital heroes promptly got the same program authorized by bullying the FISA Court. Trevor Timm called out this aspect of 60 Minutes’ report here.

CBS also permitted Comey to engage in Apple encryption fear-mongering without challenge. CNN, to its credit, called Comey on his misrepresentations here.

But perhaps Comey’s biggest stretcher came when Scott Pelley asked him whether FBI engages in surveillance without a court order.

Scott Pelley: There is no surveillance without court order?

James Comey: By the FBI? No. We don’t do electronic surveillance without a court order.

Scott Pelley: You know that some people are going to roll their eyes when they hear that?

James Comey: Yeah, but we cannot read your emails or listen to your calls without going to a federal judge, making a showing of probable cause that you are a terrorist, an agent of a foreign power, or a serious criminal of some sort, and get permission for a limited period of time to intercept those communications. It is an extremely burdensome process. And I like it that way.

Comey was admittedly careful to caveat his answer, stating that FBI does not engage in “electronic surveillance” without a court order. That probably excludes FBI’s use of National Security Letters. Though as DOJ’s Inspector General has made clear, FBI uses NSLs for a number of things — including communities of interest, obtaining one or possibly two degree collection of phone records, as well as a bunch of other things that remain redacted — that the NSL law didn’t envision. Indeed, FBI’s NSL requests have gotten so exotic that some Internet companies started to refuse — successfully — in 2009 to comply with the requests, forcing FBI to use Section 215 orders instead.

But the second part of that exchange — Comey’s claim that “we cannot read your emails without going to a federal judge” is egregiously false.

As both ODNI and PCLOB have made clear, FBI can and does query incidentally collected data obtained under Section 702 (PRISM) — that is, it accesses email content — without a warrant. Alarmingly, it does so at the assessment level, before FBI even has any real evidence of wrong-doing.

Second, whenever the FBI opens a new national security investigation or assessment, FBI personnel will query previously acquired information from a variety of sources, including Section 702, for information relevant to the investigation or assessment. With some frequency, FBI personnel will also query this data, including Section 702–acquired information, in the course of criminal investigations and assessments that are unrelated to national security efforts.

That’s not conducting electronic surveillance — because FBI gets the email after the electronic surveillance has already occurred. But that does entail warrantless access of US person content, and does so without any review by a judge. Indeed, with Section 702 collection, a judge never even reviews the foreign targets, much less the US incidental collection accessed by the FBI.

Now I get that Jim Comey is a terrifically charismatic guy, with great PR instincts. But still, 60 Minutes is supposed to be a journalism show. Why, when Comey was telling 60 Minutes straight out they should not trust the government, did they let him make so many bogus claims?

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The No Fly List and DOJ’s Notice Concessions

Congratulations to the ACLU, which last week got 6 of its 13 No Fly List plaintiffs moved off the No Fly List.

Seven American citizens who were banned by the government from air travel received word yesterday evening that they are cleared to fly. For them, the notice ends a years-long struggle to find out why they were blacklisted and clear their names. As of last night, the seven can finally make plans to visit family, travel for work, and take vacations abroad.

The seven – six men and one women – had been on the government No Fly List, which prevented them from flying to, from, and over U.S. airspace. Even after they were surrounded by TSA agents at the airport and questioned by the FBI, the government refused to officially confirm that they were included on the list. They were also never provided reasons for being banned from air travel, or given a meaningful opportunity to contest the ban. In short, our clients have been locked in a fight to regain their freedoms with virtually no information.

The notice that the seven are “not currently on the No Fly List” came after a federal court last week set deadlines for the government in the ACLU’s challenge to the No Fly List. The court ruled that the government must notify our clients of their status on or off the No Fly List, give reasons to those still on the list, and provide an opportunity for them to challenge those reasons. The first of those deadlines was yesterday, and the government must complete reconsideration of the remaining cases by January 16.

The remaining 6 (2 of whom, curiously, worked in the Middle East with tech companies) will now be given some kind of due process.

Which got me thinking about this Charlie Savage story from several weeks ago. It describes how, following DOJ’s recognition that it needs to give notice to some, but definitely not all of the people identified using Section 702, the government is now debating whether it needs to give those sanctioned by the Treasury notice under FISA. At the very end of the story, Savage notes that legal experts say DOJ may have to give notice to some on the No Fly List as well.

Legal specialists said the government could also be invoking arguments against providing a FISA notice even at the court stage, which is adversarial. It may say, for example, that Congress could not have intended the law to apply in situations where the recipients of the notice could not do anything with that information. For example, most foreigners abroad could not argue that the warrantless surveillance violated their rights — because the Constitution does not cover them — and so they could not ask to have the evidence suppressed.

Still, the experts said surveillance-derived information could affect Americans who did have constitutional rights, like the approximately 800 people placed on the “no fly” list, which prevents people from boarding aircraft, as well as applicants for licenses like those that allow people to work behind airport security checkpoints.

“Very significant decisions about people’s lives are made on this kind of evidence,” said Jameel Jaffer, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer. “When all this takes place in secret, you don’t have an opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s surveillance methods.”

In June, a Federal District Court judge struck down the process for challenging being put on the “no fly” list, saying it was too opaque and violated Americans’ due-process rights. She ordered the government to give people more information about why they are on the list.

Which has me wondering: what may distinguish the 7 ACLU plaintiffs who were removed from the No Fly List from the 6 who remain on it is how they were identified. That is, the government can avoid giving notice simply by moving people off the list.

There is some reason to believe the government does use Section 702 data — and nothing more — to put people on the No Fly List. If that’s right, then the legal requirement that those affected get more notice may make the government more cautious about whom it places on the list.

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Is Someone Funding Saudi’s Oil Flood?

Iran, Venezuela, Algeria, Nigeria, Russia, Ecuador, Iraq, Angola. Those are the countries the budgets of which will face significant shortfalls if the Saudis succeed in their bid to drive the oil price down below $90/barrel for the year or more. Kuwait, the Emirates, Qatar — all Saudi partners (albeit reluctantly, in Qatar’s case) in whatever the hell it is doing — can afford the cuts, with Libya on the bubble.

New reports make it clear the Saudis intend to keep prices low for some time — and will force customers to lock in for a year.

Some, like Zero Hedge’s Tyler Durden, have suggested this ploy is part of the plan the US and Saudis made when the Saudis finally agreed to engage in combat against ISIL.

I’m not sure I buy that though. Cutting prices will make it far harder for Iraq’s Shia led government to invest in the fight against ISIL. So long as Western sanctions continue, it will destabilize Iran significantly, not only making it a lot harder for Iran to help Iraq and Syria, but also undermining the government that has chosen to deal with the US. The cuts will also destabilize Iran’s allies in Venezuela and Ecuador. Oligarchic forces have been trying to foment a coup in the former country for some time and this may well help to do so.

The cut, made just before winter strengthens Vladimir Putin’s hand with Ukraine and the rest of Europe, and made in such a way that may make Europe as dependent on the Saudis as they are on Russia, will make it harder for Putin to play the waiting game that otherwise was bound to achieve his objectives in Ukraine. Without that Ukrainian victory, Putin will be unable to invest resources as heavily in Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Saudis have been trying to undercut Russia for some time and — to the extent the ruble exchange with the dollar doesn’t shelter Russia from these changes [Update: though see Mark Adomanis on how this is hurting Russian consumers] — this price cut will hurt Russia too.

Ultimately, though, I suspect the US is just as much the target of this move as Iran and Russia are. Since the US refused to take out Assad last year and inched forward with its Iran deal, the Saudis have been worried about having Shia Iran and Iraq take over its role as the swing producer in the world, mirroring what happened in 1976 when the US replaced Iran’s Shah with the Saudis. By destabilizing the government in negotiations with the US, the price cut will make it a lot harder to achieve such a deal.

Just as importantly, the US is now a petro-state. And this price cut will make fracking (and deepwater drilling) unprofitable. We’ve been fracking largely to give ourselves some breathing room from the Saudis; cutting the price will make it far harder for us to sustain that effort (and will make some renewables uncompetitive).

To me, then, this move looks like part of an effort to force the outcome the Saudis have been chasing for a decade and even more aggressively since the Arab Spring: to paralyze Shia governments just as the chaos of ISIL threatens to remap the Middle East.

The Saudis may well claim to be supporting our fight against ISIL, but the long-term commitment to dropping oil prices, looks more like an effort to undercut it.

All that said, something remains unexplained here. The Saudi break-even point is $90/barrel. Oil prices are already below that and may drop still further. And the Saudis rely on bribery just as much as some other petro-states to keep their populace from rising up. How will the Saudis sustain this for a year or more, if that’s what they’re doing (especially since they are at least purportedly contributing to the ISIL fight)?

Saudis have low debt-to-GDP right now, so it may be they’ll just finance this play. But I wonder whether some cash rich Asian country has backed this move? What better way to end US hegemony than to ensure it gets sucked into another unwinnable war in the Middle East, wallowing in really cheap oil for the middle term, with the understanding that it will replace the US after the US exhausts itself with this latest Mideast adventure?

Sure, low oil prices might help Democrats retain the Senate. Low oil prices certainly will avoid any immediate backlash against the ISIL war. So it may well be this is part of a deal with the Obama Administration. But if so, it seems like a counterproductive deal, because it’s going to make it even harder to achieve any success against ISIL.

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Described Focus of Protest in Kabul Dependent on News Outlet

Khaama Press photo of Sunday's protest in Kabul.

Khaama Press photo of Sunday’s protest in Kabul.

A protest variously described as featuring “over a hundred”, “hundreds” or “over 500″ protesters took place in Kabul on Sunday. The object of the protest, however, was very dependent on whose report (or even whose headline) on the protest is being read.

The Wall Street Journal ran with the headline “Islamic State’s Siege of Kobani, Syria Sparks Protest in Kabul, Afghanistan” while Iran’s PressTV went with “Afghan protesters blast US-led forces, BSA”. Remarkably, Afghanistan’s Khaama Press did not see it necessary to spin the focus of the protest in a particular direction, using the headline “Afghans protest against Islamic State, US and NATO forces in Kabul”.

The Khaama Press article quickly sums up the protest:

Over 500 people participated in a demonstration against the Islamic State and presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The protesters were shouting slogans against the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and in support of the Kurdish people who are fighting the Islamic State militants.

Protesters were also carrying signs purporting crimes committed by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and resistance of the female Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State.

The US and NATO were also accused by protester for supporting the extremist groups in Afghanistan and Kobane.

We learn in the article that the protest was organized by the Solidarity party of Afghanistan, which Khaama described as “a small and left wing political party in the country”. Presumably, since they were allowed to stage the protest, the ban on the party issued in 2012 must have been lifted.

One has to read the Wall Street Journal article very carefully to find any evidence of the US criticism that was in the protest. The article opens:

Residents of Kabul have a war on their own doorstep: The provinces around the Afghan capital have seen an upsurge in violence this year.

But the conflict in Syria was on the minds of demonstrators who marched Sunday in solidarity with the town of Kobani, Syria, currently under siege by Islamic State militants.

Over a hundred Afghans—most of them women—held placards supporting Kurdish fighters defending the city.

Near the end, the article mentions, but dismisses as “conspiracy theory”, the accusations of US involvement in the creation of ISIS:

Conspiracy theories often thrive in Afghanistan, and at Sunday’s protest, many demonstrators expressed the belief that Islamic State was a U.S. creation. Some held placards saying, “Yankee Go Home.”

The article then mentions the BSA without stating that it was also a target of the protest other than citing the “Yankee Go Home” sign.

PressTV, on the other hand, focused exclusively on the anti-US aspects of the protest. In fact, the video accompanying their story does not match the photo that is used in the video frame while the video isn’t playing. The photo, which is full-frame, shows protesters somewhere burning an American flag, but the video itself-which appears to match the same event in the Khaama Press photo-only partially fills the frame and does not show any flag-burning. PressTV opens:

Afghan protesters have staged a rally in the streets of the nation’s capital, Kabul, to reiterate their opposition to the continued presence of US-led troops in the war-ravaged country.

Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the capital on Sunday to also express their outrage against the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed by the newly-inaugurated President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

The protesters were reportedly carrying banners pointing to alleged crimes committed by US and NATO forces across Afghanistan

Remarkably, even though Iran is staunchly opposed to ISIS, the PressTV story makes no mention of the protest also being aimed against ISIS, or even of the accusations of a US role in the creation of ISIS.

Congratulations to Khaama Press for choosing to not spin a story that major outlets in the US and Iran used as propaganda pieces.

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A Remarkable Date for the Virgin Birth of the Silk Road Investigation

As Wired first reported, there’s been an interesting exchange in the Silk Road prosecution. In September, the former FBI Agent who helped to bust accused Silk Road operator Ross Ulbricht, Christopher Tarbell, submitted a declaration explaining the genesis of the investigation by claiming the FBI got access to the Silk Road server because it became accessible via a non-Tor browser. In response, Ulbricht lawyer Joshua Horowitz submitted a declaration claiming Tarbell’s claims were implausible because the FBI wouldn’t have been able to get into Silk Road’s back end. The government responded by claiming that even if it did hack the website, it would not have been illegal.

Given that the SR Server was hosting a blatantly criminal website, it would have been reasonable for the FBI to “hack” into it in order to search it, as anysuch “hack” would simply have constituted a search of foreign property known to contain criminal evidence, for which a warrant was not necessary .

On Friday, Judge Katherine Forrest rejected Ulbricht’s efforts to throw out the evidence from the alleged hack, accepting the government’s argument that Ulbricht had no expectation of privacy on that server regardless of when and how the government accessed it.

The temporal problems with the government’s story

Most of the coverage on this exchange has focused on the technical claims. But just as interesting are the temporal claims. Horowitz summarizes that problem this way:

[S]everal critical files provided in discovery contain modification dates predating the first date Agent Tarbell claims Icelandic authorities imaged the Silk Road Server, thereby casting serious doubt on the chronology and methodology of his account;

The government claims that server was first imaged on July 23,2013.

As I’ll lay out below, Horowitz and Tarbell provide a lot of details suggesting something — perhaps the imaging of the server, perhaps something more – happened six weeks earlier.

But before we get there, consider the date: June 6, 2013.

June 6, 2013 was the day after the afternoon publication of the first Snowden leak, and the day before the Guardian made it clear their leak included cyberwar materials.

That is, the FBI claims to have officially “found” the Silk Road server at the same time the Snowden leaks started, even while they date their investigation to 6 weeks later.

The June 6 materials

FBI’s Tarbell is much vaguer about this timing than Ulbricht’s team is. As Tarbell tells it, on some unknown date in early June 2013, he and a colleague were sniffing Silk Road data when they discovered an IP not known to be tied to Tor.

In or about early June 2013, another member of CY-2 and I closely examined the traffic data being sent from the Silk Road website when we entered responses to the prompts contained in the Silk Road login interface.

That led them to look further, according to Tarbell. When he typed the IP into a non-Tor browser, he discovered it was leaking.

When I typed the Subject IP Address into an ordinary (non-Tor) web browser, a part of the Silk Road login screen (the CAPTCHA prompt) appeared. Based on my training and experience, this indicated that the Subject IP Address was the IP address of the SR Server, and that it was “leaking” from the SR Server because the computer code underlying the login interface was not properly configured at the time to work on Tor.

That led the government to ask Iceland, on June 12, to image the server. Iceland didn’t do so, according to the official narrative, until the next month.

The defense doesn’t buy this — in part, because Tarbell claims he didn’t adhere to forensics standard procedure by keeping copies of his packet sniffing.

Failure to preserve packet logs recorded while investigating the Silk Road servers would defy the most basic principles of forensic investigative techniques.

[snip]

[T]he government’s position is that former SA Tarbell conducted his investigation of Silk Road, and penetrated the Silk Road Server, without documenting his work in any way.

According to the government, the only record of Tarbell’s access to the server from this period is from access logs dated June 11.

[A]n excerpt of 19 lines from Nginx access logs, attached hereto as Exhibit 5, supposedly showing law enforcement access to the .49 server from a non-Tor IP address June 11, 2013, between 16:58:36 and 17:00:40. According to the Government, this is the only contemporaneous record of the actions described by the Tarbell Declaration at ¶¶ 7-8.9

Given that this bears a particular date, I find it all the more curious that Tarbell doesn’t date when he was doing the packet sniffing.

There are a number of other details that point back to that June 6 date. Perhaps most significant is that Iceland imaged a server Silk Road had earlier been using on June 6.

There are a total of 4 tarballs in the first item of discovery: home, var, all, and orange21 – all contained in .tar.gz files. The mtime for orange21.tar.gz is consistent with the July 23, 2013 image date. However, the other 3 tarballs have an mtime of June 6, 2013, as shown below22:

  • root 30720 Jun 6 2013 home.tar.gz
  • root 737095680 Jun 6 2013 var.tar.gz
  • root 1728276480 Jun 6 2013 all.tar.gz
  • root 22360048285 Jul 23 2013 orange21.tar.gz

The modification date of the tarballs is consistent with an imaging date of June 6, 2013, a full six weeks before the July 23, 2013, imaging of the .49 Server, a fact never mentioned in the Tarbell Declaration.

Though — as the defense points out — Tarbell didn’t mention that earlier imaging. He notes an earlier “lead” on the Silk Road server that resolved by May, and he notes that after Ulbricht’s arrest they obtained record of him noting leaks in the server.

5 After Ulbricht’s arrest, evidence was discovered on his computer reflecting that IP address leaks were a recurring problem for him. In a file containing a log Ulbricht kept of his actions in administering the Silk Road website, there are multiple entries discussing various leaks of IP addresses of servers involved in running the Silk Road website and the steps he took to remedy them.  For example, a March 25, 2013 entry states that the server had been “ddosd” – i.e., subjected to a distributed denial of service attack, involving flooding the server with traffic – which, Ulbricht concluded, meant “someone knew the real IP.” The entry further notes that it appeared someone had “discovered the IP via a leak” and that Ulbricht “migrated to a new server” as a result. A May 3, 2013 entry similarly states: “Leaked IP of webserver to public and had to redeploy/shred [the server].” Another entry, from May 26, 2013, states that, as a result of changes he made to the Silk Road discussion forum, he “leaked [the] ip [address of the forum server] twice” and had to change servers.

[snip]

7 Several months earlier, the FBI had developed a lead on a different server at the same Data Center in Iceland (“Server-1”), which resulted in an official request for similar assistance with respect to that server on February 28, 2013. See Ex. B. Due to delays in processing the request, Icelandic authorities did not produce traffic data for Server-1 to the FBI until May 2013. See Ex. A. By the time the FBI received the Server-1 traffic data, there was little activity on Server-1, indicating that it was no longer hosting a website. (As a result, the FBI did not request that Icelandic authorities proceed with imaging Server-1.) There was still some outbound Tor traffic flowing from Server-1, though, consistent with it being used as a Tor node; yet Server-1 was not included in the public list of Tor nodes, see supra n.4. Based on this fact, I believed, by the time of the June 12 Request, that the administrator of Silk Road was using Server-1 as a Tor “bridge” when connecting to the SR Server, as indicated in the June 12 Request. See Ex. A, at 1. (A Tor “bridge” is a private Tor node that can be used to access the Tor network, as opposed to using a
public Tor node that could be detected on one’s Internet traffic. See Tor: Bridges, available at http://torproject.org/docs/bridges.) To be clear, however, the traffic data obtained for Server-1 did not reflect any connection to, or otherwise lead to the identification of, the Subject IP Address. The Subject IP Address was independently identified solely by the means described above – i.e., by examining the traffic data sent back from the Silk Road website when we interacted with its user login interface.

The two other details that point to June 6 may not actually exonerate Ulbricht. Silk Road’s live-ssl config file was altered on June 7, which is the earliest date for the site configuration provided in discovery (though page 23 has some additional dates).

The mtime for the live-ssl configuration file provided in Item 1 of discovery is June 7, 2013, and the phpmyadmin configuration is July 6, 2013.8

8 Since Item 1 is the oldest image provided in discovery the defense does not have site configuration data prior to June 7, 2013.

And, as Horowitz reiterates, the earliest date for which the defense was provided discovery of a server imaging was June 6.

According to the government, the earliest image was captured June 6, 2013, and the latest in November 2013.

From a technical stand point, I’m not sure what to make of this.

A remarkable coincidence

It’s clear, however, that FBI was tracking Silk Road well before June, and for some reason decided to make June the official start date (and, perhaps more significantly, official discovery start date; they’ve refused earlier discovery because it won’ t be used in trial) of their investigation. At the same time, it seems that Ulbricht’s defense seems reluctant to explain why they’re asking for earlier discovery; perhaps that’s because they’d have to admit Ulbricht was aware of probes of the website before then. Forrest rejected their argument because Ulbricht refused to submit a declaration that this was his server.

But I am rather struck by the timing. As I said, the first Edward Snowden story — the June 5, 2013 Verizon release that could have no tie to the Silk Road investigation and, the next day, the WaPo and Guardian PRISM releases (there were very late Google and Facebook requests that seem like parallel construction, but since Ulbricht is a US citizen, his communications should not have been available via PRISM) — was roughly the day before the day Iceland imaged the other server.

I asked both Glenn Greenwald and Bart Gellman, and it seems the earliest the government could have had official notice of that story may have been late on June 4 though probably June 5 (things get funny with the Guardian, apparently, because of Greenwich Mean Time). A more relevant leak to the Silk Road investigation was the President’s Policy Directive on cyberwar — which Guardian published on June 7 (they may not have warned the government until that morning however).

So it may all be one big coincidence – that the government created a virgin birth for the Silk Road investigation that happened to be the same day that a torrent of leaks on the NSA and GCHQ started, ultimately revealing things like the government’s targeting of the Tor network (just days after Ulbricht was arrested on October 2, 2013).

But it certainly seems possible that those investigating Silk Road felt the need to begin to roll up the investigation as that torrent of leaks started, perhaps worrying that the methods they (or GCHQ) were using might be exposed before they had collected the evidence.

Update: A few more points about this. My suspicion is that, if there is a tie between the Snowden leaks and the Silk Road investigation, it stems from the government’s recognition that some of the methods it used to find Ulbricht would become known through Snowden’s leaks, so it moved to establish an alternate means of discovery before Ulbricht might learn of those actual methods. As one example, recall that subsequent to Snowden’s leaks about XKeyscore, Jacob Appelbaum got information showing XKeyscore tracks those who use Tor. While there are a number of things it seems Ulbricht’s lawyers believe were parallel constructed (unnamed “law enforcement officers” got warrants for his Gmail and Facebook accounts in September), they most aggressively fought the use of a Title III Pen Register to track IP addresses personally associated with Ulbricht, also in September. It seems that would have been available via other means, especially XKeyscore, especially since by encrypting communication Ulbricht’s communications could be retained indefinitely under NSA’s minimization procedures.

Additionally, the language the government used to refuse information on a range of law enforcement and spying agencies sure sounds like they clean teamed this investigation.

The Government also objects to the unbounded definition of the term “government” set forth in the September 17 Requests. Specifically, the requests ask the prosecution to search for information within “not only the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, but also the Offices in all other Districts, any and all government entities and law enforcement agencies, including but not limited to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations, National Security Agency, and any foreign government and/or intelligence agencies, particularly those with which the U.S. has a cooperative intelligence gathering relationship, i.e., Government Communications Headquarters (“GCHQ”), the British counterpart to the NSA.”

Even in the Brady context, the law is clear that a prosecutor has a duty to learn only of “evidence known to . . . others acting on the government’s behalf in the case.”

The government is not denying they had other means to identify Ulbricht (nor is it denying that it worked with partners like GCHQ on this). Rather, it is just claiming that the FBI officers involved in this prosecution didn’t see those methods.

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