Archive for the ‘Investigative’ Category

Monday: The Washington Post reveals his congressional office’s Downton Abbey-themed makeover:

The Rayburn House Office Building is a labyrinth of beige offices.

And then, there’s . . . Rep. Aaron Schock’s new digs.

Bright red walls. A gold-colored wall sconce with black candles. A Federal-style bull’s-eye mirror with an eagle perched on top. And this is just the Illinois Republican’s outer office.

“It’s actually based off of the red room in ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” said the woman behind the front desk, comparing it to the luxurious set piece at the heart of the British period drama.

Thursday: Schock communications aide Benjamin Cole resigns after a series of racist Facebook posts he wrote were discovered by Buzzfeed and ThinkProgress:

A top adviser to Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock has resigned after controversial posts were found on his Facebook page.

Benjamin Cole, a senior adviser to Schock, told POLITICO he resigned and that Schock, a Republican, accepted his resignation.

The posts had Cole likening black people to animals and said a mosque should be built on the White House grounds for President Barack Obama.

It caps quite a strange week for Schock’s office. The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Schock had decorated his office in the manner of the British show “Downton Abbey.” Cole had interacted with the reporter and tried to tamp down the story. His back and forth with the Post reporter was detailed in the story.

Friday: Blue Nation Review reports Schock sold his Peoria, Illinois home to a wealthy donor for a nearly $797,000 profit:

Now there’s this: the month before the 2012 elections, Congressman Schock sold his house to a major Republican donor who was also one of his campaign supporters for a price that appears to far exceed the market value at the time.

If Schock had some sort of quid pro quo real estate deal with the donor, this is the exact same thing that brought down Duke Cunningham ten years ago.

Fascinating reads in Global Post and the Washington Post about the history and location of one of the CIA’s infamous black sites in Poland during the early years of GWOT.

Check out other reporting about black sites from the New Yorker, the Daily Beast, and the New York Review of Books.

The Malaysia Airlines 370 story keeps getting stranger… The latest in the New York Times:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has shifted to include anyone on board with a navigation or aircraft background in response to evidence that the plane was deliberately diverted from its route and, after communication was lost, navigated by someone with deep experience at the controls.

“In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia said at a news conference on Saturday.

This new phase of the investigation has brought new scrutiny to the lives of two people who certainly had those skills: the pilot and first officer, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, both Malaysian citizens — although neither has been declared a suspect in the plane’s disappearance. Investigators are also apparently searching the passenger list for anyone else with similar skills who might have rerouted the plane, willfully or under coercion.

During 9/11 and the immediate aftermath, U.S. intelligence was able to piece together fairly quickly who the hijackers were and establish their ties to al Qaeda, based on passenger manifests and phone calls from the hijacked planes. In this case, there have been no communications from the hijacked plane, so intelligence officials and presumably the media only have the passenger manifests to work with. If there is any conclusive proof that a passenger or crew member had means and motive to do something like this, it should turn up fairly quickly due to the considerable investigative resources being put into this by multiple governments and news organizations.

There is a long and infamous history of airplane hijackings around the world, with many of the most famous cases happening during the 1960s and 1970s. The tactical appeal of airplane hijackings can be summed up in two reasons: 1) mobility to go wherever the hijackers want, and 2) inaccessability and inescapability. Nobody will be able to storm a plane or try to get off it while it’s in the air – with exceptions to Steven Seagal and D.B. Cooper. The conventional wisdom of airplane hijackings – that the hijackers are taking hostages to achieve a rational political objective with an outcome that would ensure their own survival – was turned on its head by the events of 9/11.

If it was a hijacking, the deviation from the norm from hijackings of the past as of this writing is the lack of anybody claiming responsibility or making some type of political demand or other in exchange for the safety of the hostages. Assuming the Central Asia flight path theory is correct, that might help narrow the nationality or political agenda of possible suspects.

One scenario that I had considered a possibility – but has seemingly been ruled out at this point – is something akin to the Payne Stewart crash: that the aircraft lost cabin pressurization and kept flying off course until it ran out of fuel and crashed in the water somewhere.

The Daily Beast reporting today:

The crucial intercept that prompted the U.S. government to close embassies in 22 countries was a conference call between al Qaeda’s senior leaders and representatives of several of the group’s affiliates throughout the region.

The intercept provided the U.S. intelligence community with a rare glimpse into how al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, manages a global organization that includes affiliates in Africa, the Middle East, and southwest and southeast Asia.

Several news outlets reported Monday on an intercepted communication last week between Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate based in Yemen. But The Daily Beast has learned that the discussion between the two al Qaeda leaders happened in a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. All told, said one U.S. intelligence official, more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were on the call.

To be sure, the CIA had been tracking the threat posed by Wuhayshi for months. An earlier communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi delivered through a courier was picked up last month, according to three U.S. intelligence officials. But the conference call provided a new sense of urgency for the U.S. government, the sources said.

Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The presence of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates operating in the Sinai was one reason the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, according to one U.S. intelligence official. “These guys already proved they could hit Eilat. It’s not out of the range of possibilities that they could hit us in Tel Aviv,” the official said.

Al Qaeda leaders had assumed the conference calls, which give Zawahiri the ability to manage his organization from a remote location, were secure. But leaks about the original intercepts have likely exposed the operation that allowed the U.S. intelligence community to listen in on the al Qaeda board meetings.

Fascinating read, but I’m surprised al Qaeda would get one – let alone multiple – leader on a conference call, given the NSA’s well-documented technical capabilities in hacking or intercepting electronic communications even before the Edward Snowden leaks. Given the relentless pressure being placed on them by U.S. and allied military and intelligence services, I would assume they’d resort to paper and smoke signals for their communications from here on out.

As a child of the 80s, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out my favorite quote from the story:

“This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” one U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast, referring to the coalition of villains featured in the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends.

The Obama campaign released this simple but brutal ad yesterday: A series of headlines from recent weeks about Romney’s tenure at Bain, outsourcing jobs, and use of offshore tax havens, set to audio of Romney’s off-key performance of “America the Beautiful” at a campaign event in Florida last January. TPM’s David Kurtz compares this ad to the Lyndon Johnson campaign’s now legendary “Daisy” ad from the 1964 election.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows appeared on NPR yesterday to discuss the ad, and during the course of that conversation, the comparison was made between what Obama is doing to Romney now to what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Republican operatives did to John Kerry’s military record in Vietnam during the 2004 Election. An excerpt from that conversation:

FALLOWS: It has. And I think it’s worth focusing on why this is such a potential problem for the Romney campaign. The entire reason behind his campaign through the last year in the Republican primaries and now in the next four months in the general election is that America has business problems. He is a businessman, therefore, he’s the right person for the job.

And what the Obama campaign is doing on the basis of this Bain imbroglio is something similar to what George W. Bush was doing to John Kerry back in 2004 in the episode known as swiftboating. And by that, I mean making something that a candidate has assumed to be his strength, which, in John Kerry’s case was his military background, into a weakness.

RAZ: And so if the Obama campaign can make Mitt Romney’s business background not the presumed basis of his campaign, but instead a source of controversy, a source of potential weakness for him, that really does make problems in the campaign for the Romney team.

So if the Obama campaign is swiftboating, as you say, Mitt Romney – I mean, one of the criticisms of John Kerry was that he didn’t respond to this back in 2004, and Romney is only started to respond to it.

FALLOWS: Exactly. And I should make clear, in saying swiftboating, I’m not asserting that these are false accusations. I’m just saying they have this jujitsu effect. And it’s actually surprising the Romney team is not better prepared for them than it is. Number one, because they’ve had the last eight years since the John Kerry episode. Number two, over the last year, this is what Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and others were using as their angle of attack on Mitt Romney’s business background too.

Fallows’s analogy of the Bain attack being political jiujitsu by turning a candidate’s strength into a potential liability is correct. However, there are a few other reasons why the swiftboating analogy is not accurate here that are worth pointing out (Full disclosure/background: I reviewed hundreds of pages of military records for Kerry and others while working at CNN during the course of the Swift Boat controversy as it was playing out in 2004.)

  • After having reviewed multiple incident reports and service records obtained independently through Freedom of Information Act requests, documents filed contemporaneously at the time backed Kerry’s version of the events, every single time. In other words, the underlying basis for challenging Kerry’s service record was entirely false. In Romney’s case, independent reporting of multiple news organizations, as well as Bain Capital’s SEC filings and his 2002 testimony before the Ballot Law Commission in Massachusetts are the basis for questioning his version of events.
  • The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were an independent 527 group. This ad – and the entire strategy of attacking Romney’s record at Bain – was a direct hit organized by the Obama campaign.
  • Romney was attacked for his Bain record during the 2012 Republican primaries. He could have put a lot of these issues to rest if he had put the information out there months ago. Kerry’s military service was never challenged during the Democratic primaries, and did not become an issue until the Swift Boat group started running ads shortly after Kerry accepted his party’s nomination.
  • His continued refusal to release tax returns beyond 2010 is also compounding the problem. Also consider that when Romney was being vetted to be John McCain’s possible running mate back in 2008, he gave the McCain campaign 23 years’ worth of tax returns. Even though his tax returns and the end of his tenure at Bain are two completely separate issues, the Obama campaign has effectively joined them together at the hip. In this respect, Romney’s response is similar to Kerry’s refusal to release his full personnel and medical file (Standard Form 180) back in 2004.

The Obama campaign has effectively turned Romney’s record in the private sector – in his words, one of the main reasons why he should be elected president – into a liability. However, after looking at everything the Swift Boat campaign did to John Kerry, the analogy should end there. Romney’s current problem is almost entirely of his own making – the conflicting answers he’s given in the past and last week, as well as the SEC documents and his own refusal to release more tax returns.

Update: Business Insider compares Romney’s handling of the Bain questioning to Bill Clinton’s infamous and widely mocked “the meaning of the word ‘is'” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Update II: Fallows has written a blog post elaborating on his swiftboating comments during the NPR interview. The whole thing is worth a read.

Update III: Another Kerry 2004/Romney 2012 comparison that has nothing to do with swiftboating –  both candidates used the same slogan, “Believe in America.”

 

While the administration and the media have focused much of the public’s attention on the intelligence gold mine recovered by Navy SEALs during the Osama bin Laden operation, it is important to remember a less dramatic, but important angle that both the government and the press can look into: the financial lifeline that allowed the Al Qaeda leader and his family to build and live in that compound for years.

Al Qaeda has demonstrated it has the knowledge and savvy to use the financial and banking system to achieve its ends. The 9/11 plot, which investigators believe cost the organization between $400,000-500,000 to carry out, was financed almost entirely by Al Qaeda using a combination of cash couriers, conventional wire transfers and banking methods in the United States and overseas. Reforms implemented in the aftermath of 9/11 have made it more difficult to use a financial or banking institution to launder or transfer funds for nefarious purposes. By focusing on the compound, investigators may be able to collect more information about Al Qaeda, which could potentially be just as promising as any of the data from the raid.

Anyone who has ever bought a property or built a home knows that the entire process is inherently a team sport, requiring the participation of multiple individuals to see through to the end.  Simply put, Osama bin Laden couldn’t have bought the land, filed the paperwork, hired people to design and build the compound, overseen the construction, set up heating, water and electricity, and pay for bills, taxes and living expenses by himself. At every step of the way, he needed intermediaries to do it on his behalf and pay for the goods received or services rendered. Separating the individual components necessary to build that compound and make it function may uncover possible Al Qaeda operatives, calculate the costs, and possibly get a sense of the organization’s financial state at the time the compound was being built and while bin Laden was living there.

According to property records obtained by the Associated Press, a man named Mohammed Arshad bought adjoining plots of land in 2004-2005 to build the compound for $48,000.   Two of the plots were purchased using an unidentified middleman who may have passed them on to Arshad – one of several possible aliases he used – who may have been bin Laden’s courier that inadvertently tipped off U.S. intelligence officials to the location and existence of the compound.

The courier and his brother who lived in the compound are literally a dead end from an interrogation perspective – both men were killed during the raid. However, the money trail may still yield promising leads.  Unless the plots of land were bought using cash, there would have been some type of transaction involving at least one financial institution, whether it was paid as a wire transfer or a check.  Following the money from the transaction to its original source may yield more leads: the name or alias of an operative or holding company, contact information, or other persons who helped to facilitate the deal.

After the acquisition of the land, it would have been necessary to hire professionals to design and build the compound, meager as it was. Gul Mohammed, identified by The Sun as the builder of the compound, was quoted by the tabloid saying he never saw bin Laden or knew he was living there, and described the oversight of the project saying, “Only one or sometimes two would come to supervise my work – and they never cared about money.” Unless Al Qaeda was somehow able to keep the job in house with someone affiliated with or trusted by the organization, checking with architects, contractors, or construction firms in Abbottabad or nearby cities may generate even further leads on the amount of money paid and who – possibly the courier and his brother based on media accounts by the previous owners of the land and the builder – was responsible for overseeing the entire project.

Although photographs of the compound and the video of Bin Laden watching himself on TV show that it was far from luxurious, housing and feeding as many as three dozen people required some basic utilities for the compound, specifically water, electricity and heating.  A private or government-owned utility company presumably would have been responsible for installing the necessary infrastructure during the construction process, and would have issued bills and collected revenues from one of the residents or an intermediary.

Moreover, the courier or another person may have had to pay some type of taxes on the property, on a one-time or recurring basis. If so, corresponding records might exist for the compound in a federal or local tax agency in Pakistan.

By taking these possible leads, in conjunction with accounts from local merchants who provided goods and services to the residents of the compound, it may be possible to calculate an estimate for how much it cost Al Qaeda to build and maintain the property. This information, if cross-referenced with previously available intelligence about the organization or some of the new material obtained during the raid, could help government officials create a picture of Al Qaeda’s financial structure and health during the past few years. By doing so, it may be possible to better assess its capability to carry out an operation or to function as an organization.

Bin Laden had been living there for at least five years, President Obama told 60 Minutes, and he didn’t do it alone: “We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don’t know who or what that support network was.” Excluding the question of whether or not anyone in the Pakistani government was involved, the existence of the compound alone and all that was necessary to build it and keep it operational for its residents proves bin Laden had a support network in his personal circle for his immediate daily needs.

To use an old cliché, money makes the world go round. Support networks for any criminal or terrorist organization require money to function.  Looking into how much it cost to build this compound and where the money came from could yield more leads on Al Qaeda worth pursuing.  Such information may contribute to achieving President Obama’s objective of “badly disabling” the group, because history has shown that understanding and disrupting the financial lifelines of criminal or terrorist networks can be just as damaging to them as bombs and bullets.

What does a guy cooped up in a house for five years with multiple wives do to pass the time? Apparently, he (or someone else living in the compound) had a porno collection:

(Reuters) – A stash of pornography was found in the hideout of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. commandos who killed him, current and former U.S. officials said on Friday.

The pornography recovered in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive, according to the officials, who discussed the discovery with Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The officials said they were not yet sure precisely where in the compound the pornography was discovered or who had been viewing it. Specifically, the officials said they did not know if bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the materials.

Even though no one knows whose material this was, or if bin Laden himself ever viewed it, U.S. officials have been brutally effective at chipping away at bin Laden’s carefully constructed image of a pious man risking it all for the cause. In the 12 days since the raid, we’ve found out that he was caught flat-footed by U.S. Navy SEALs, was obsessed with his self-image in the media, and now we discover this. It’s a good PR/public diplomacy pushback at bringing down bin Laden’s mystique and showing him for who and what he really was.

Not to mention that this discovery is going to be fodder for every late night comedian in the world. Even the press is having fun with this. As Politico reporter Josh Gerstein put it: “Readying my #FOIA for bin Laden’s porn. Fear JWatch will beat me to it. May require ProPublica or NYT to delve into it”