Archive for the ‘National Security’ Category

Twelve years ago (!!!), I wrote my first story for CNN. The subject was Australian Gitmo detainee David Hicks, who had just gotten access to a lawyer at the time.

The BBC is reporting his lawyer expects the U.S. will clear his conviction on terrorism charges.

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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.

In a single frame, cartoonist Milt Priggee manages to describe the situation over Syria:

Reminds me of this scene from a John Woo movie. I nominate John Travolta for the role of Assad.

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.


Seriously, Iron Koala is the name of a nuclear proliferation exercise chaired by the Australian government:

Ever since the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC in 2010 and the follow up in Seoul, South Korea earlier this year, nuclear security has been top of the agenda for world leaders.

Australia has a strong presence in this arena, as exemplified by ANSTO’s recent hosting of a well-attended Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) activity here in Sydney. Known as Iron Koala, the exercise was organised by the GICNT Nuclear Forensic Working Group of which Australia is the Chair. Iron Koala participants (pictured outside the ANSTO Discovery Centre) came from many professions and included: governmental policy makers, law enforcement officers, nuclear regulators and nuclear forensics technical experts

The purpose of the event was to increase awareness that there needs to be legislated, regulated and practiced information sharing between countries and professions, in order to successfully combat nuclear trafficking.

Iron Koala was hailed as extremely successful by the attendees and its timeliness was demonstrated by the fact that it attracted 79 delegates from 24 nations with strong participation from countries in our region.

Iron Koala participants came from many professions and included: governmental policy makers, law enforcement officers, nuclear regulators and nuclear forensics technical experts. This breadth of expertise allowed the participants to better understand each other’s requirements and language, and to forge new communication networks.

By now, most of you have seen this exchange between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama about the attack on the diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya in which four Americans were killed on September 11:

Here’s the transcript of that exchange:

CROWLEY: Because we’re — we’re closing in, I want to still get a lot of people in. I want to ask you something, Mr. President, and then have the governor just quickly.

Your secretary of state, as I’m sure you know, has said that she takes full responsibility for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Does the buck stop with your secretary of state as far as what went on here?

OBAMA: Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president and I’m always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.

The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.

And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.

And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.

CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to…

ROMNEY: Yes, I — I…

CROWLEY: … quickly to this please.

ROMNEY: I — I think interesting the president just said something which — which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That’s what I said.

ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.

It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?

OBAMA: Please proceed governor.

ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

CROWLEY: It — it — it — he did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror…

OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

CROWLEY: He — he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.

The key – and largely unnoticed – part of this exchange was not Candy Crowley’s factcheck of Romney. Rather, it was President Obama’s gentle nudge to “Please proceed, governor.” Having watched that Libya exchange replayed several times on the news over the past two days, I couldn’t help but notice Obama’s poker face as he said this. It reminds me of Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous phrase, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

Obama got the first response to the question, and Romney was clearly chomping at the bit to respond because he and the Republican party view the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack as a political liability to be exploited. Looking back on it, it seems as if Obama saw where Romney was heading with his attack and rather than cut him off, encouraged him to continue with his train of thought and he played right into Obama’s hands.

Jon Stewart weighed in on it during last night’s Daily Show (scroll to 1:38 in the clip).