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CIA “Command and Control” in Syria

Yesterday, in a story describing the state of affairs following the suicide bomb that took out key members of Bashar al Assad’s national security team, David Ignatius described CIA’s (and Israel’s) involvement in Syria this way:

The CIA has been working with the Syrian opposition for several weeks under a non-lethal directive that allows the United States to evaluate groups and assist them with command and control. Scores of Israeli intelligence officers are also operating along Syria’s border, though they are keeping a low profile.

Even before I read Ignatius’ piece, I wondered if we had shared intelligence with the rebels, helping them to decimate Assad’s team so effectively. Certainly, intelligence sharing could be included under non-lethal activities.

And now, Middle Eastern sources are reporting this RUMINT.

Reports in the Arab-language press indicate the head of Iran’s covert foreign operations Quds force was killed in Wednesday’s bombing in Damascus.
Al-Quds Force’s long-elusive commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, is reported to have made several trips to Damascua to meet with Assad and his top commanders since January of this year.
Iran has made no bones about having bolstered Assad’s embattled regime with members of its own elite Revolutionary Guard, but the death of Suleimani would be a direct blow to Tehran.

Suleimani, who masterminded al-Quds Force operations in Iraq and covert activities throughout the Persian Gulf and Lebanon, is a key figure in Iranian policymaking, particularly in security matters.

A combat veteran of Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, Suleimani took command of the al-Quds Force in the late 1990s and has become a powerful figure in the upper echelons of the Tehran regime.

His death in Wednesday’s bombing could indicate Syria’s rebels have covert support from Western nations in their anti-Assad campaign.

Well now, that would be rather remarkable “luck,” wouldn’t it? Those feisty Islamist-tied rebels taking out Assad’s national security team and our enemy, all in one terrorist attack?

Additionally, Syrian rebels have seized the border crossing points between Syrian and Iraq, another pressing issue Ignatius rather presciently raised yesterday.

The main transit routes into Syria come from the four points of the compass — Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. The two key axes, in terms of Western assistance, are Turkey and Jordan, both close allies of the United States. The two potential flash points for spreading the sectarian fighting are Lebanon and Iraq, both of which have substantial Shiite militias allied with Iran, which backs Assad.

It all seems to be falling into place for the Islamist backed rebels, huh?

Meanwhile, in probably but not definitely unrelated news, King Abdullah just named Bandar bin Sultan to head Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service.

I wonder. Is the War on Terror still operative? Or has CIA been swapping prepositions of late?

Update: Wrong! Bandar’s appointment is totally related to Syria. He was appointed because he’s the guy who partnered with us the last time (save Libya) we used Islamists to clandestinely overthrow a country.

For Saudis and Westerners who remember Prince Bandar as a driving force rallying international support and procuring weapons for Muslim fighters seeking to push Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s, the appointment was a sign that the Saudis might play a more influential role as uprisings that may remake the Arab world, especially in Syria.

“In these very hectic moments for Saudi foreign policy…we need Bandar bin Sultan,” said Abdullah al-Shammri, a political analyst. “He’s a volcano, and we need a volcano at this moment.”

Mr. al-Shammri cited what he called Prince Bandar’s “special relationship” with American officials. He also mentioned parallels between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia working together in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and current circumstances in Syria, where the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others are trying to overcome Russian objections to tougher action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Bashar al-Assad, Gitmo Judge and Jury

As Steven Aftergood reported, Syrian Gitmo detainee Abdulhadi Omer Mahmoud Faraj has challenged the government’s inane policy prohibiting detainee attorneys from refuting the claims made in Gitmo files. The motion argues that letting the claims go unrebutted jeopardizes any chance Faraj might have for repatriation or resettlement, and even endangers his family in Syria.

Abu Zubaydah’s Evidence

One problem, the motion argues, is the allegations in his Gitmo file come from, “unreliable claims made by individuals under conditions that amount to coercion, if not torture.” Faraj’s Gitmo file includes the following claims:

  • In a 2002 CIA report, Abdurahman Khadr (Omar’s brother, who was then working as a CIA informant) said the Syrian guesthouse in Kabul at which Faraj stayed conducted document forgery
  • In a 2002 CIA report, Abu Zubaydah said he helped fund the Syrian guesthouse
  • In a 2002, 2003, and 2005 CIA reports, Abu Zubaydah said one person at the guesthouse was an expert forger, another was a bomber with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and a third met with him in 2001; only the third, Maasoum Abdah Mouhammad, is among the group of 4-5 Syrians with whom Faraj allegedly had the closest ties, and he was transferred to Bulgaria in 2010
  • Mohammed Basardah, notorious for falsely implicating a large number of detainees, claimed that another of the Syrians Faraj had ties with was fighting with him at Tora Bora

In other words, many of the claims against Faraj constitute claims made by the two most unreliable Gitmo witnesses–and another who was then on the CIA payroll–implicating others associated with Faraj. Most of those claims were minimized or ignored in Faraj’s most recent Administrative Review Board.

Syrian Military Intelligence Evidence

The motion discusses the other problem with his Gitmo file more obliquely, with a reference to Syrian human rights violations, including its dubious allegations that opposition figures are Islamic extremists.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Syrian security services regularly arrest men suspected of Islamist affiliation or sympathies” and torture them to obtain confessions.

[snip]

Given the current violent response by the Syrian government to pro-democracy protesters, the unchallenged narrative depicting Mr. Faraj as a “terrorist” only increases the risk of harm to him and his family.

But the Gitmo file clearly reveals the problem: some of the key allegations against Faraj come from two CIA reports, dating to 2001, recording claims passed on by Syrian Military Intelligence.

Syrian authorities dismantled terrorist cells in Damascus and Hamah, SY in 2000, arresting fifteen members of the cells while some cell members, including SY-327, escaped. The Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) stated that those who escaped were believed to have fled to Afghanistan.

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Defying the Rules of Gravity, Obama Directs Sanctions Solely against Israel’s Enemies

In conjunction with his speech at the Holocaust Museum yesterday and announcement of the Atrocities Prevention Board, President Obama also rolled out sanctions against those who use IT to repress human rights. The Treasury Department the sanctions GRAHVITY (I think they get it from “GRAve Human rights abuses Via Information TechnologY” or some such Orwellian acronym).

There’s a problem with that. We are all subject to gravity.

But only Israel’s enemies–Iran and Syria–are subject to GRAHVITY.

This exclusive application was set up in yesterday’s speech when Elie Wiesel suggested the point of remembering the Holocaust was to guarantee the strength of Israel and ensure its enemies–in this case, Syria and Iran–are removed from office (and deprived of the same weapons Israel stockpiles against them).

Have you learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the Holocaust Number 1 denier, Ahmadinejad, is still a President, he who threatens to use nuclear weapons–to use nuclear weapons–to destroy the Jewish state?

[snip]

Now, I hope you understand, in this place [the Museum], why Israel is so important, not only to the Jew that I am and the Jewish people, but to the world. Israel cannot not remember. And because it remembers, it must be strong, just to defend its own survival and its own destiny.

Obama’s focus was broader. In his speech, he listed Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya (with no mention of the civilian casualties NATO caused), the Lords Resistance Army.

But Obama, too, focuses primarily on Syria.

In this speech, the sole reason to ensure internet freedom, according to Obama, is to bring about regime change in Syria.

And when innocents suffer, it tears at our conscience. Elie alluded to what we feel as we see the Syrian people subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights. And we have to do everything we can. And as we do, we have to remember that despite all the tanks and all the snipers, all the torture and brutality unleashed against them, the Syrian people still brave the streets. They still demand to be heard. They still seek their dignity. The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up.

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The War-Mongers Find Their Great White Whale

Der Speigel reports that a German ship that allegedly picked up Iranian weapons in (US-dominated) Djibouti and headed from there towards Syria has been stopped to check whether the allegation it contains arms is correct.

A German-owned freighter loaded with weapons from Iran was stopped on Friday near the Syrian port of Tartus in the Mediterranean Sea, SPIEGEL has learned.

A few days prior, the Atlantic Cruiser, owned by the Emden carrier Bockstiegel, had allegedly picked up heavy military equipment and munitions meant for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime from an Iranian freighter at the Djibouti port. The cargo, desperately needed reinforcements for Assad’s crackdown on dissidents, was supposed to be unloaded on Friday.But defectors from inside the Syrian government had learned of the delivery and warned the shipping company. On Friday the Atlantic Cruiser suddenly changed course, heading for the Turkish harbor of Iskenderun instead. Then the ship stopped some 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Tartus, sailing in circles for the next few hours.

“We stopped the ship after getting information on the weapons cargo,” shipping agent Torsten Lüddeke of Hamburg-based C.E.G. Bulk Chartering told SPIEGEL.

Iran? Check. Providing arms to Bashar al-Assad? Check. Exposed by (western-backed) rebels? Check.

The whole thing seems made to order for those trying to sow war against Iran and its allies.

The best part of this–at which none of the newspapers reporting on this seem to have blinked–is the name of the shipping company that chartered the ship:

the ship had been chartered by an Odessa, Ukraine-based company called White Whale Shipping

Hahahahaha! This is rich! We’re hunting a white whale in the eastern Mediterranean as people try to gin up another war.

Spooky AssadLeaks: The Provenance of the Emails

As I wrote in this post, I got interested in the provenance of a set of leaked Bashar al-Assad emails largely because of the way in which two of them were used to suggest, dubiously, Nir Rosen was an Assad agent.

The Guardian and Al Arabiya have both offered posts describing, in part, how they came by the emails, with the Guardian’s offering more details. The short version is:

March 15, 2011: Uprising escalates in Daraa.

Late March: “a young government worker in Damascus” handed off a slip of paper to a friend. The paper had four codes (plus or including the two email addresses, the Guardian is not clear) that would provide access to personal email accounts of Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma. The friend was apparently supposed to pass them onto “a small group of exiled Syrians who would know what to do with them.”

June: “Two Syrian professionals in a Gulf state” obtain the emails. The Guardian doesn’t explain whether they were the original intended recipients, nor does it explain the delay. Though it does include a blurb describing their sudden awakening to politics that makes it clear the Guardian has spoken to at least one of the activists and replicated their self-narrative uncritically.

The uprising in the southern Syrian city of Deraa on 15 March had empowered them, as it had hundreds of thousands of others in the totalitarian state. They were now determined to do what they could to bring an end to more than four decades of rule by the Assad clan.

“It was clear who we were dealing with,” said one of the activists. “This was the president and his wife. There was no doubt.”

August 6: Sabu solicits Syrian MOD hacker to “disrupt govt communication systems.”

June to December: The emails are used with increasing frequency over time; Assad appears to build a PR strategy using them.

January: Anonymous (which had been infiltrated by the FBI since at least June, the same month the Syrian activists purportedly got the email codes) hacks Bashar al-Assad’s servers, accessing 78 different email accounts.

February 7: Anonymous releases the Assad emails which were published by Ha-aretz, claims the password was 12345. These are, at least in part, the very same emails being released today. Assad’s brother-in-law Firas al-Akhras emails him to tell him the inbox of the Ministry of Presidential Affairs had been leaked. All the emails are shut down.

March 15, 2012: The emails published.

In their narratives, neither the Guardian nor al Arabiya note that the FBI had been running Sabu since last June, precisely the same month the “activists” reportedly got the “secret codes” (12345?) that would allow them to access the Assad emails.

Now there are plenty of questions I have about this: Who was the mole, how did he or she get this information, who was the friend, what caused the 3-month delay. All of those questions, of course, are particularly interesting giving the coincidence of timing with the Sabu recruitment.

And why release these emails now? Just because of the one-year anniversary of Daraa, and the other events planned for the day?

Suffice it to say it feels a lot like outside entities–aside from whatever professionals-turned-activists purportedly monitored these accounts–were involved.

With that feeling in mind, two more details worth noting. First, al Arabiya’s story on how they got the emails focuses instead on what they didn’t publish: a bunch of “scandalous emails.”

Hundreds of “scandalous” emails were accordingly deleted by Al Arabiya.

By comparison, the Guardian said only it didn’t publish personal emails. Both sources, however, want people–perhaps including Assad?–to know that there were more emails that may be out there.

The other thing I find interesting is the detail the Guardian pays to Assad’s email habits.

[The Syrian activists in the Gulf state] soon noticed differences in the way the couple used their email accounts. “We had to be quick with Bashar’s emails,” one of the activists said. “He would delete most as soon as they arrived in his inbox, whereas his wife wouldn’t. So as soon as they went from unread to read we had to get them fast.”

Deleting emails as soon as they arrive shows a degree of awareness of web security. So too did the fact that Assad never attached his name or initials to any of the emails he sent. However, many of the emails that arrived in his inbox are addressed to him as president and contain intimate details of events and discussions that were not known outside of the inner sanctum and would have been very difficult to manipulate.

Even before I remembered that the same guy the Guardian claims was showing some web security used “12345” as his password, this entire passage sounded bogus, more like a way to provide cover for some other means to collect these emails that don’t involve more sophisticated wiretapping of packets, as opposed to email in-boxes.

But once you remember this is a guy who reportedly used “12345” as his password, then the entire claim Assad was practicing good security becomes laughable. Which makes this entire passage suspect.

There are two stories of how Bashar al-Assad got his emails hacked in the last year. In one version, Syrian activists managed to spy on their dictator in real time and are presumably releasing emails that lack a smoking gun (but did include “scandalous” emails) as a sort of anniversary present for Assad. The other story involves the FBI flipping at least one hacker and having him continue to hack at their command.

Or maybe there’s just one, far more intriguing story.

Spooky AssadLeaks: The Nir Rosen Connection

Something curious has happened in the last few days while I’ve been traveling. The Guardian and Al Arabiya have been publishing leaked emails from Bashar al-Assad and his wife, showing both to be callous assholes but not otherwise producing a smoking gun (though I do hope to return to what they show about how they evaded sanctions).

In the last day or so, attention has shifted to two emails (here’s a translation of the first) between Assad aides and Assad, mentioning the journalist Nir Rosen. A number of people read them to suggest Rosen was an agent of Assad’s, perhaps even exposing other Western journalists who were sneaking into Syria.

Rosen responded to the allegations here, saying in part,

I believe the trove of leaked emails from the Syrian government are indeed all real. The emails which contain my name are certainly real, I don’t mind saying. They are from people who were introduced to me and other western journalists as media and public relations advisers to the Syrian government or the president himself. They are the same people who arranged for the ABC News interview with Barbara Walters, for the Sunday Times interview with Bashar al Assad, for Agence France Presse, and for others to enter Syria. This is normal. How else does a journalist enter a country such as Syria?

In November 2011 after al Jazeera conducted a live interview with Iran’s president Ahmedinajad, I tried to persuade media advisers to the Syrian president that they should grant a similar one to al Jazeera’s English network. I sent them several emails trying to persuade them it was a good idea, including an email with my CV and biography. I also met with these media officials to try to persuade them.

And as this November email also shows, I forwarded them a link to a BBC program on Syria done by the heroic Paul Wood in order to try to persuade them that journalists are coming in anyway and they might as well let al Jazeera in formally.

Importantly, the fact that I had to send my resume and biography to establish my credentials for an interview bid with Assad and the very need for sending these things shows I was not an agent for them.

I suspect all sorts of people will continue to focus on Rosen.

If you haven’t been following his work, a number of people have pointed to Rosen as one of the very few people giving a nuanced picture of what is going on in Syria right now. As an example, in this Q&A he talks about the stalemate-degrading-into-civil-war Syria is in right now.

Only a “Hama” could change the equation. Nobody can say exactly what that would entail, because “Hama” has become an epithet, a symbol, it just means for something terrible to happen. So, until now there is no Hama-type event that the opposition or international media could use to give leaders in Turkey or the West a pretext for humanitarian intervention or to delegitimise the country’s leadership. Such an incident would have to be so grave that international opponents would use it to obliterate the Russian and Chinese veto in the United Nations, and to criminalise those two countries for their backing of the Syrian regime.

In any case, that’s the Nir Rosen background to the emails.

All of which led me to ask where the emails came from. I have no doubt they’re real (or at least most of them)–Rosen has confirmed the emails mentioning him appear to be real. Here’s the Guardian’s description of who did and did not confirm the authenticity of emails involving them.

But having the entire contents of one or two email inboxes is not the same as reliably understanding how they came to be obtained and published. That’s the question I’d like to look at in more detail in a follow-up post.