Obama can’t point to a single time the NSA call records program prevented a terrorist attack

National Security Agency defenders, including President Obama, continue to cite the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001 when defending the program that scoops up domestic call records in bulk. But asked specifically, on Friday, if he could identify a time when that program stopped a similar attack, President Obama couldn’t. That’s because the program hasn’t prevented a second 9/11.

At the end of the year news conference, Reuters’s Mark Felsenthal asked:

As you review how to rein in the National Security Agency, a federal judge says that, for example, the government has failed to cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata actually stopped an imminent attack. Are you able to identify any specific examples when it did so? Are you convinced that the collection of that data is useful to national security to continue as it is?

But President Obama never answered the question about a specific examples. Instead he spoke more broadly and tied the program, again, back to 9/11.

What I’ve said in the past continues to be the case, which is that the NSA, in executing this program, believed, based on experiences from 9/11, that it was important for us to be able to track, if there was a phone number of a known terrorist outside of the United States calling into the United States, where that call might have gone and that having that data in one place and retained for a certain period of time allowed them to be confident in pursuing various investigations of terrorist threats.

The president’s reliance on a 9/11 narrative is expected. The terrorist attack was a defining moment for a generation and now serves as a tragic reminder of a time when the U.S. government failed to protect its citizens. It’s understandable that any president would want to be seen as vigilant in preventing another such attack.

But the reason the president can’t cite a specific time the phone meta-data program stopped a similar tragedy is because it hasn’t.

Law professor Geoffrey Stone, a member of the presidential task force charged with reviewing NSA programs, told NBC News the group specifically looked for times when the program may have helped prevent a terrorist attack, but “found none.” The task force’s final report reflects that, saying:

Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.

But the lack of evidence that the program is effective will probably not prevent the NSA’s defenders from continuing to invoke 9/11 to protect the program. Another member of the task force, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, admitted the group had found that “the program to date has not played a significant role in stopping terrorist attacks in the United States,” but earlier in his interview credited the NSA as one of the agencies responsible for the lack of successful terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.

CIA’s anti-terrorism effort called ‘colossal flop’

CIA officers given ‘non-official cover,’ often posing as business executives, tried to collect intelligence on terrorists. The NOC program reportedly has had few successes.

WASHINGTON — Several years ago, a senior officer in the CIA clandestine service attended a closed-door conference for overseas operatives. Speakers included case officers who were working in the manner Hollywood usually portrays spies — out on their own.

Most CIA officers abroad pose as U.S. diplomats. But those given what’s called non-official cover are known as NOCs, pronounced “knocks,” and they typically pose as business executives. At the forum, the NOCs spoke of their cover jobs, their false identities and measures taken to protect them. Few said much about gathering intelligence.

A colleague passed a caustic note to the senior officer. “Lots of business,” it read. “Little espionage.”

Twelve years after the CIA began a major push to get its operatives out of embassy cubicles and into foreign universities, businesses and other local perches to collect intelligence on terrorists and rogue nations, the effort has been a disappointment, current and former U.S. officials say. Along with other parts of the CIA, the budget of the so-called Global Deployment Initiative, which covers the NOC program, is now being cut.

“It was a colossal flop,” a former senior CIA official said in sentiments echoed by a dozen former colleagues, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified program.

Spurred by Congress after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA rushed to put its eyes and ears in gritty corners of the globe where Al Qaeda and other adversaries operate or recruit. The risk was considerable: Unlike CIA officers in embassies, NOCs have no diplomatic immunity if caught, and could face imprisonment or worse.

The CIA spent at least $3 billion on the program, and the number of specially trained spies grew from dozens to hundreds. The entire clandestine service is believed to total about 5,000 people.

But because of inexperience, bureaucratic hurdles, lack of language skills and other problems, only a few of the deep-cover officers recruited useful intelligence sources, several former officers said.

Some of the most ambitious efforts were aimed at Iran, former officers said. The CIA created front companies and elaborate fake identities for operatives trying to recruit sources inside Iran’s nuclear and missile procurement networks.

But Iranian authorities were able to expose American operatives, said two former senior CIA officials. They were transferred back to CIA headquarters in Virginia or other U.S. posts.

Sometimes the CIA didn’t send the right people with the right cover, said Joseph Wippl, former chief of the CIA’s Europe division. Others were posted “a zillion miles from where their targets were located,” he said.

CIA leaders also were reluctant to put the special spies in harm’s way.

“There was just a great unwillingness to put NOCs in really, really dangerous places,” said another former case officer. “If you’re a high-grade agency manager, are you going to sign off on a memo that puts Joe Schmuckatelli in Pyongyang? Whether you are a careerist or not, that is a hard decision for anybody to make.”

The program also was tainted by financial irregularities, according to a former senior CIA official. The CIA’s inspector general found that some NOCs billed the agency for unjustified time and expenses, three former officials said, and it forced a few to repay money.

A CIA spokesman, Todd Ebitz, declined to comment about the NOC program, its budget or its problems.

“The agency does not discuss publicly any cover techniques that it may employ,” he wrote in an email. “The CIA does keep the congressional intelligence oversight committees fully informed of its activities, which are constantly evolving to meet the threats to national security. And, while the details of the agency budget remain properly classified, sequestration and budget cutbacks have affected the entire federal government, including CIA.”

The best-known NOC was Valerie Plame. In the mid-1990s, while in Brussels, she posed as an energy analyst for a Boston-based firm, Brewster Jennings & Associates, which the CIA later acknowledged was a front company. Plame maintained her false identity after she moved back to CIA headquarters in 1997, traveling frequently to the Middle East and elsewhere to recruit agents who could spy in Iran and elsewhere.

Her CIA career ended in 2003 after Bush administration officials leaked her name to the press in an effort to discredit her husband, who had claimed the White House had manipulated intelligence on Iraq. A White House aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Plame’s best-selling book on the case, “Fair Game,” was turned into a Hollywood film.

Masking spies as engineers, consultants or other professions has long been part of the CIA playbook. But the push took on new urgency after the 2001 terrorist attacks exposed the CIA’s lack of informants inside Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.

It wasn’t that CIA officers were expected to personally infiltrate Al Qaeda. But working outside the embassy might make it easier to recruit local sources in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere who could collect intelligence on terrorist money, aims and intentions.

In 2004, then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss announced a new effort to put more officers under deep cover to gain what he called “close-in access to the plans and intentions” of America’s adversaries. Soon after, Congress passed legislation permitting undercover CIA officers serving overseas to keep salaries from their civilian cover jobs even if it exceeded their federal paychecks.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee pressed the CIA to go further. They attached a provision to their 2006 intelligence authorization measure questioning whether the spy service was “committed to doing what is needed to ensure that NOC operations are successful.”

The agency doubled down. A growing number of recruits at the CIA training facility at Camp Peary, Va., known as the Farm — including the class of 2008, the largest in CIA history — was made up of NOCs, former officials said.

Unlike their classmates, they were barred from making cellphone calls or using the Internet in order to hide any ties to the CIA. Later, many would operate in their own names, holding real jobs for multinational companies around the globe.

But when it came to penetrating terrorist networks, NOCs suffered the same shortcomings as other CIA officers — too few spoke Urdu, Pashto, Dari or other necessary languages, or could disappear in local cultures, former CIA officers say.

In 2008, a former CIA operative’s biting memoir, “The Human Factor,” was published, describing his 15 years overseas targeting nuclear networks and terrorist groups. He wrote that the CIA had spent at least $3 billion since 2001 to get deep-cover operatives overseas, but only a few had been successfully deployed.

“There were only a handful of effective NOCs overseas, and that never changed,” the author, who uses the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, said in a telephone interview.

In 2010, then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta gave a speech promising “new approaches to cover.” But the vast majority of case officers continue to pose as diplomats, U.S. officials say.

John Maguire, who retired from the CIA in 2005, argues that the CIA could help the NOC program by doing more to establish legitimate commerce for the front companies. But that would cause headaches for CIA administrators, he acknowledged.

Maguire said he knew only three successful NOCs in his 23 years as a case officer. “They were absolute nightmares for the administrative bureaucracy of the agency,” he said.

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Seymour M. Hersh: Whose sarin?

Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.

In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.

He cited a list of what appeared to be hard-won evidence of Assad’s culpability: ‘In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighbourhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.’ Obama’s certainty was echoed at the time by Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, who told the New York Times: ‘No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence’ directly linking Assad and his regime to the sarin attacks.

But in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote. A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: ‘The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, “How can we help this guy” – Obama – “when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?”’

The complaints focus on what Washington did not have: any advance warning from the assumed source of the attack. The military intelligence community has for years produced a highly classified early morning intelligence summary, known as the Morning Report, for the secretary of defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a copy also goes to the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. The Morning Report includes no political or economic information, but provides a summary of important military events around the world, with all available intelligence about them. A senior intelligence consultant told me that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20 August through 23 August. For two days – 20 and 21 August – there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more than the public.

Obama left Washington early on 21 August for a hectic two-day speaking tour in New York and Pennsylvania; according to the White House press office, he was briefed later that day on the attack, and the growing public and media furore. The lack of any immediate inside intelligence was made clear on 22 August, when Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters: ‘We are unable to conclusively determine [chemical weapons] use. But we are focused every minute of every day since these events happened … on doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts.’ The administration’s tone had hardened by 27 August, when Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, told reporters – without providing any specific information – that any suggestions that the Syrian government was not responsible ‘are as preposterous as suggestions that the attack itself didn’t occur’.

The absence of immediate alarm inside the American intelligence community demonstrates that there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack. And there are at least two ways the US could have known about it in advance: both were touched on in one of the top secret American intelligence documents that have been made public in recent months by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor.

On 29 August, the Washington Post published excerpts from the annual budget for all national intelligence programmes, agency by agency, provided by Snowden. In consultation with the Obama administration, the newspaper chose to publish only a slim portion of the 178-page document, which has a classification higher than top secret, but it summarised and published a section dealing with problem areas. One problem area was the gap in coverage targeting Assad’s office. The document said that the NSA’s worldwide electronic eavesdropping facilities had been ‘able to monitor unencrypted communications among senior military officials at the outset of the civil war there’. But it was ‘a vulnerability that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces apparently later recognised’. In other words, the NSA no longer had access to the conversations of the top military leadership in Syria, which would have included crucial communications from Assad, such as orders for a nerve gas attack. (In its public statements since 21 August, the Obama administration has never claimed to have specific information connecting Assad himself to the attack.)

The Post report also provided the first indication of a secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. The sensors are monitored by the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that controls all US intelligence satellites in orbit. According to the Post summary, the NRO is also assigned ‘to extract data from sensors placed on the ground’ inside Syria. The former senior intelligence official, who had direct knowledge of the programme, told me that NRO sensors have been implanted near all known chemical warfare sites in Syria. They are designed to provide constant monitoring of the movement of chemical warheads stored by the military. But far more important, in terms of early warning, is the sensors’ ability to alert US and Israeli intelligence when warheads are being loaded with sarin. (As a neighbouring country, Israel has always been on the alert for changes in the Syrian chemical arsenal, and works closely with American intelligence on early warnings.) A chemical warhead, once loaded with sarin, has a shelf life of a few days or less – the nerve agent begins eroding the rocket almost immediately: it’s a use-it-or-lose-it mass killer. ‘The Syrian army doesn’t have three days to prepare for a chemical attack,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘We created the sensor system for immediate reaction, like an air raid warning or a fire alarm. You can’t have a warning over three days because everyone involved would be dead. It is either right now or you’re history. You do not spend three days getting ready to fire nerve gas.’ The sensors detected no movement in the months and days before 21 August, the former official said. It is of course possible that sarin had been supplied to the Syrian army by other means, but the lack of warning meant that Washington was unable to monitor the events in Eastern Ghouta as they unfolded.

The sensors had worked in the past, as the Syrian leadership knew all too well. Last December the sensor system picked up signs of what seemed to be sarin production at a chemical weapons depot. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian army was simulating sarin production as part of an exercise (all militaries constantly carry out such exercises) or actually preparing an attack. At the time, Obama publicly warned Syria that using sarin was ‘totally unacceptable’; a similar message was also passed by diplomatic means. The event was later determined to be part of a series of exercises, according to the former senior intelligence official: ‘If what the sensors saw last December was so important that the president had to call and say, “Knock it off,” why didn’t the president issue the same warning three days before the gas attack in August?’

The NSA would of course monitor Assad’s office around the clock if it could, the former official said. Other communications – from various army units in combat throughout Syria – would be far less important, and not analysed in real time. ‘There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications,’ he said, ‘and it would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.’ But the ‘chatter’ is routinely stored on computers. Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.

*

The White House needed nine days to assemble its case against the Syrian government. On 30 August it invited a select group of Washington journalists (at least one often critical reporter, Jonathan Landay, the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was not invited), and handed them a document carefully labelled as a ‘government assessment’, rather than as an assessment by the intelligence community. The document laid out what was essentially a political argument to bolster the administration’s case against the Assad government. It was, however, more specific than Obama would be later, in his speech on 10 September: American intelligence, it stated, knew that Syria had begun ‘preparing chemical munitions’ three days before the attack. In an aggressive speech later that day, John Kerry provided more details. He said that Syria’s ‘chemical weapons personnel were on the ground, in the area, making preparations’ by 18 August. ‘We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.’ The government assessment and Kerry’s comments made it seem as if the administration had been tracking the sarin attack as it happened. It is this version of events, untrue but unchallenged, that was widely reported at the time.

An unforseen reaction came in the form of complaints from the Free Syrian Army’s leadership and others about the lack of warning. ‘It’s unbelievable they did nothing to warn people or try to stop the regime before the crime,’ Razan Zaitouneh, an opposition member who lived in one of the towns struck by sarin, told Foreign Policy. The Daily Mail was more blunt: ‘Intelligence report says US officials knew about nerve-gas attack in Syria three days before it killed over 1400 people – including more than 400 children.’ (The number of deaths attributable to the attack varied widely, from at least 1429, as initially claimed by the Obama administration, to many fewer. A Syrian human rights group reported 502 deaths; Médicins sans Frontières put it at 355; and a French report listed 281 known fatalities. The strikingly precise US total was later reported by the Wall Street Journal to have been based not on an actual body count, but on an extrapolation by CIA analysts, who scanned more than a hundred YouTube videos from Eastern Ghouta into a computer system and looked for images of the dead. In other words, it was little more than a guess.)

Five days later, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded to the complaints. A statement to the Associated Press said that the intelligence behind the earlier administration assertions was not known at the time of the attack, but recovered only subsequently: ‘Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place. The intelligence community was able to gather and analyse information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons.’ But since the American press corps had their story, the retraction received scant attention. On 31 August the Washington Post, relying on the government assessment, had vividly reported on its front page that American intelligence was able to record ‘each step’ of the Syrian army attack in real time, ‘from the extensive preparations to the launching of rockets to the after-action assessments by Syrian officials’. It did not publish the AP corrective, and the White House maintained control of the narrative.

So when Obama said on 10 September that his administration knew Assad’s chemical weapons personnel had prepared the attack in advance, he was basing the statement not on an intercept caught as it happened, but on communications analysed days after 21 August. The former senior intelligence official explained that the hunt for relevant chatter went back to the exercise detected the previous December, in which, as Obama later said to the public, the Syrian army mobilised chemical weapons personnel and distributed gas masks to its troops. The White House’s government assessment and Obama’s speech were not descriptions of the specific events leading up to the 21 August attack, but an account of the sequence the Syrian military would have followed for any chemical attack. ‘They put together a back story,’ the former official said, ‘and there are lots of different pieces and parts. The template they used was the template that goes back to December.’ It is possible, of course, that Obama was unaware that this account was obtained from an analysis of Syrian army protocol for conducting a gas attack, rather than from direct evidence. Either way he had come to a hasty judgment.

The press would follow suit. The UN report on 16 September confirming the use of sarin was careful to note that its investigators’ access to the attack sites, which came five days after the gassing, had been controlled by rebel forces. ‘As with other sites,’ the report warned, ‘the locations have been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the mission … During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.’ Still, the New York Times seized on the report, as did American and British officials, and claimed that it provided crucial evidence backing up the administration’s assertions. An annex to the UN report reproduced YouTube photographs of some recovered munitions, including a rocket that ‘indicatively matches’ the specifics of a 330mm calibre artillery rocket. The New York Times wrote that the existence of the rockets essentially proved that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack ‘because the weapons in question had not been previously documented or reported to be in possession of the insurgency’.

Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at MIT, reviewed the UN photos with a group of his colleagues and concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was ‘something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop’. The rocket in the photos, he added, fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal. The New York Times, again relying on data in the UN report, also analysed the flight path of two of the spent rockets that were believed to have carried sarin, and concluded that the angle of descent ‘pointed directly’ to their being fired from a Syrian army base more than nine kilometres from the landing zone. Postol, who has served as the scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the Pentagon, said that the assertions in the Times and elsewhere ‘were not based on actual observations’. He concluded that the flight path analyses in particular were, as he put it in an email, ‘totally nuts’ because a thorough study demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was ‘unlikely’ to be more than two kilometres. Postol and a colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, published an analysis two weeks after 21 August in which they correctly assessed that the rockets involved carried a far greater payload of sarin than previously estimated. The Times reported on that analysis at length, describing Postol and Lloyd as ‘leading weapons experts’. The pair’s later study about the rockets’ flight paths and range, which contradicted previous Times reporting, was emailed to the newspaper last week; it has so far gone unreported.

*

The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative. That information concerned al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group designated by the US and the UN as a terrorist organisation. Al-Nusra is known to have carried out scores of suicide bombings against Christians and other non-Sunni Muslim sects inside Syria, and to have attacked its nominal ally in the civil war, the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA). Its stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime and establish sharia law. (On 25 September al-Nusra joined several other Islamist rebel groups in repudiating the FSA and another secular faction, the Syrian National Coalition.)

The flurry of American interest in al-Nusra and sarin stemmed from a series of small-scale chemical weapons attacks in March and April; at the time, the Syrian government and the rebels each insisted the other was responsible. The UN eventually concluded that four chemical attacks had been carried out, but did not assign responsibility. A White House official told the press in late April that the intelligence community had assessed ‘with varying degrees of confidence’ that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks. Assad had crossed Obama’s ‘red line’. The April assessment made headlines, but some significant caveats were lost in translation. The unnamed official conducting the briefing acknowledged that intelligence community assessments ‘are not alone sufficient’. ‘We want,’ he said, ‘to investigate above and beyond those intelligence assessments to gather facts so that we can establish a credible and corroborated set of information that can then inform our decision-making.’ In other words, the White House had no direct evidence of Syrian army or government involvement, a fact that was only occasionally noted in the press coverage. Obama’s tough talk played well with the public and Congress, who view Assad as a ruthless murderer.

Two months later, a White House statement announced a change in the assessment of Syrian culpability and declared that the intelligence community now had ‘high confidence’ that the Assad government was responsible for as many as 150 deaths from attacks with sarin. More headlines were generated and the press was told that Obama, in response to the new intelligence, had ordered an increase in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. But once again there were significant caveats. The new intelligence included a report that Syrian officials had planned and executed the attacks. No specifics were provided, nor were those who provided the reports identified. The White House statement said that laboratory analysis had confirmed the use of sarin, but also that a positive finding of the nerve agent ‘does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination’. The White House further declared: ‘We have no reliable corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.’ The statement contradicted evidence that at the time was streaming into US intelligence agencies.

Already by late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.

On 20 June a four-page top secret cable summarising what had been learned about al-Nusra’s nerve gas capabilities was forwarded to David R. Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. ‘What Shedd was briefed on was extensive and comprehensive,’ the consultant said. ‘It was not a bunch of “we believes”.’ He told me that the cable made no assessment as to whether the rebels or the Syrian army had initiated the attacks in March and April, but it did confirm previous reports that al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin. A sample of the sarin that had been used was also recovered – with the help of an Israeli agent – but, according to the consultant, no further reporting about the sample showed up in cable traffic.

Independently of these assessments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assuming that US troops might be ordered into Syria to seize the government’s stockpile of chemical agents, called for an all-source analysis of the potential threat. ‘The Op Order provides the basis of execution of a military mission, if so ordered,’ the former senior intelligence official explained. ‘This includes the possible need to send American soldiers to a Syrian chemical site to defend it against rebel seizure. If the jihadist rebels were going to overrun the site, the assumption is that Assad would not fight us because we were protecting the chemical from the rebels. All Op Orders contain an intelligence threat component. We had technical analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, weapons people, and I & W [indications and warnings] people working on the problem … They concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas. The examination relied on signals and human intelligence, as well as the expressed intention and technical capability of the rebels.’

There is evidence that during the summer some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were troubled by the prospect of a ground invasion of Syria as well as by Obama’s professed desire to give rebel factions non-lethal support. In July, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, provided a gloomy assessment, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in public testimony that ‘thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces’ would be needed to seize Syria’s widely dispersed chemical warfare arsenal, along with ‘hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers’. Pentagon estimates put the number of troops at seventy thousand, in part because US forces would also have to guard the Syrian rocket fleet: accessing large volumes of the chemicals that create sarin without the means to deliver it would be of little value to a rebel force. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, Dempsey cautioned that a decision to grab the Syrian arsenal could have unintended consequences: ‘We have learned from the past ten years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state … Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.’

The CIA declined to comment for this article. Spokesmen for the DIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said they were not aware of the report to Shedd and, when provided with specific cable markings for the document, said they were unable to find it. Shawn Turner, head of public affairs for the ODNI, said that no American intelligence agency, including the DIA, ‘assesses that the al-Nusra Front has succeeded in developing a capacity to manufacture sarin’.

The administration’s public affairs officials are not as concerned about al-Nusra’s military potential as Shedd has been in his public statements. In late July, he gave an alarming account of al-Nusra’s strength at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. ‘I count no less than 1200 disparate groups in the opposition,’ Shedd said, according to a recording of his presentation. ‘And within the opposition, the al-Nusra Front is … most effective and is gaining in strength.’ This, he said, ‘is of serious concern to us. If left unchecked, I am very concerned that the most radical elements’ – he also cited al-Qaida in Iraq – ‘will take over.’ The civil war, he went on, ‘will only grow worse over time … Unfathomable violence is yet to come.’ Shedd made no mention of chemical weapons in his talk, but he was not allowed to: the reports his office received were highly classified.

*

A series of secret dispatches from Syria over the summer reported that members of the FSA were complaining to American intelligence operatives about repeated attacks on their forces by al-Nusra and al-Qaida fighters. The reports, according to the senior intelligence consultant who read them, provided evidence that the FSA is ‘more worried about the crazies than it is about Assad’. The FSA is largely composed of defectors from the Syrian army. The Obama administration, committed to the end of the Assad regime and continued support for the rebels, has sought in its public statements since the attack to downplay the influence of Salafist and Wahhabist factions. In early September, John Kerry dumbfounded a Congressional hearing with a sudden claim that al-Nusra and other Islamist groups were minority players in the Syrian opposition. He later withdrew the claim.

In both its public and private briefings after 21 August, the administration disregarded the available intelligence about al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin and continued to claim that the Assad government was in sole possession of chemical weapons. This was the message conveyed in the various secret briefings that members of Congress received in the days after the attack, when Obama was seeking support for his planned missile offensive against Syrian military installations. One legislator with more than two decades of experience in military affairs told me that he came away from one such briefing persuaded that ‘only the Assad government had sarin and the rebels did not.’ Similarly, following the release of the UN report on 16 September confirming that sarin was used on 21 August, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, told a press conference: ‘It’s very important to note that only the [Assad] regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin.’

It is not known whether the highly classified reporting on al-Nusra was made available to Power’s office, but her comment was a reflection of the attitude that swept through the administration. ‘The immediate assumption was that Assad had done it,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘The new director of the CIA, [John] Brennan, jumped to that conclusion … drives to the White House and says: “Look at what I’ve got!” It was all verbal; they just waved the bloody shirt. There was a lot of political pressure to bring Obama to the table to help the rebels, and there was wishful thinking that this [tying Assad to the sarin attack] would force Obama’s hand: “This is the Zimmermann telegram of the Syrian rebellion and now Obama can react.” Wishful thinking by the Samantha Power wing within the administration. Unfortunately, some members of the Joint Chiefs who were alerted that he was going to attack weren’t so sure it was a good thing.’

The proposed American missile attack on Syria never won public support and Obama turned quickly to the UN and the Russian proposal for dismantling the Syrian chemical warfare complex. Any possibility of military action was definitively averted on 26 September when the administration joined Russia in approving a draft UN resolution calling on the Assad government to get rid of its chemical arsenal. Obama’s retreat brought relief to many senior military officers. (One high-level special operations adviser told me that the ill-conceived American missile attack on Syrian military airfields and missile emplacements, as initially envisaged by the White House, would have been ‘like providing close air support for al-Nusra’.)

The administration’s distortion of the facts surrounding the sarin attack raises an unavoidable question: do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria? He had claimed to have an iron-clad case but suddenly agreed to take the issue to Congress, and later to accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons. It appears possible that at some point he was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans.

The UN resolution, which was adopted on 27 September by the Security Council, dealt indirectly with the notion that rebel forces such as al-Nusra would also be obliged to disarm: ‘no party in Syria should use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer [chemical] weapons.’ The resolution also calls for the immediate notification of the Security Council in the event that any ‘non-state actors’ acquire chemical weapons. No group was cited by name. While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone. There may be more to negotiate.

Military secretly developed mobile app games that spied on users, report says

The NSA, FBI, and CIA are infiltrating and spying on multi-player role playing games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, according to an NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden and published jointly by The Guardian, New York Times, and ProPublica.

According to the reports, the various intelligence agencies have so many undercover players inside these games that they established a “deconfliction” group to ensure that they weren’t spying on one another or interfering with the other agents’ missions. And true to NSA form, there’s zero evidence these spy games are worthwhile for counterterrorism purposes. The NSA document describing the efforts to spy on the private communications and activities of gamers does not include even one instance of the programs producing useful information for spies.

And it isn’t just World of Warcraft or Second Life. The NYT report cites anonymous sources who claim the Department of Defense has for years worked secretly with mobile app developers to create games that serve as intelligence collection streams for the NSA. We’ve known for some time that app developers often siphon sensitive information from users, who are kept in the dark about what exactly that free flashlight is doing on their phone. But now we have reason to believe the government is in on the app snooping:

The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command in 2006 and 2007 worked with several foreign companies — including an obscure digital media business based in Prague — to build games that could be downloaded to mobile phones, according to people involved in the effort. They said the games, which were not identified as creations of the Pentagon, were then used as vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users.

And it wouldn’t be a real spy story if the billion dollar global spy industry didn’t get a piece of the action. Unsurprisingly, war and intelligence contractors took notice of the government’s interest in infiltrating and spying on gaming networks.

Eager to cash in on the government’s growing interest in virtual worlds, several large private contractors have spent years pitching their services to American intelligence agencies. In one 66-page document from 2007, part of the cache released by Mr. Snowden, the contracting giant SAIC promoted its ability to support “intelligence collection in the game space,” and warned that online games could be used by militant groups to recruit followers and could provide “terrorist organizations with a powerful platform to reach core target audiences.”

It is unclear whether SAIC received a contract based on this proposal, but one former SAIC employee said that the company at one point had a lucrative contract with the C.I.A. for work that included monitoring the Internet for militant activity. An SAIC spokeswoman declined to comment.

In spring 2009, academics and defense contractors gathered at the Marriott at Washington Dulles International Airport to present proposals for a government study about how players’ behavior in a game like World of Warcraft might be linked to their real-world identities. “We were told it was highly likely that persons of interest were using virtual spaces to communicate or coordinate,” said Dmitri Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California who received grant money as part of the program.

After the conference, both SAIC and Lockheed Martin won contracts worth several million dollars, administered by an office within the intelligence community that finances research projects.

Did the government get any measurable intelligence benefit from those millions of dollars it gave to private corporations for research into players’ behavior in online games? Not exactly.

It is not clear how useful such research might be. A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found “younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,” such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.

Those involved in the project were told little by their government patrons. According to Nick Yee, a Palo Alto researcher who worked on the effort, “We were specifically asked not to speculate on the government’s motivations and goals.”

While it may seem silly that the NSA, FBI and CIA are all up in your virtual world, the fact that the government is investing significant time, money, and energy into unmasking and understanding players is not a game.

Documents reveal NSA’s extensive involvement in targeted killing program

 It was an innocuous e-mail, one of millions sent every day by spouses with updates on the situation at home. But this one was of particular interest to the National Security Agency and contained clues that put the sender’s husband in the crosshairs of a CIA drone.

Days later, Hassan Ghul — an associate of Osama bin Laden who provided a critical piece of intelligence that helped the CIA find the al-Qaeda leader — was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

296NSAtrackerThe U.S. government has never publicly acknowledged killing Ghul. But documents provided to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden confirm his demise in October 2012 and reveal the agency’s extensive involvement in the targeted killing program that has served as a centerpiece of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy.An al-Qaeda operative who had a knack for surfacing at dramatic moments in the post-Sept. 11 story line, Ghul was an emissary to Iraq for the terrorist group at the height of that war. He was captured in 2004 and helped expose bin Laden’s courier network before spending two years at a secret CIA prison. Then, in 2006, the United States delivered him to his native Pakistan, where he was released and returned to the al-Qaeda fold. But beyond filling in gaps about Ghul, the documents provide the most detailed account of the intricate collaboration between the CIA and the NSA in the drone campaign. The Post is withholding many details about those missions, at the request of U.S. intelligence officials who cited potential damage to ongoing operations and national security. The NSA is “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets,” an NSA spokeswoman said in a statement provided to The Post on Wednesday, adding that the agency’s operations “protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.” The e-mail from Ghul’s wife “about her current living conditions” contained enough detail to confirm the coordinates of that household, according to a document summarizing the mission. “This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1,” it said. The file is part of a collection of records in the Snowden trove that make clear that the drone campaign — often depicted as the CIA’s exclusive domain — relies heavily on the NSA’s ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of e-mail, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence, or SIGINT. To handle the expanding workload, the NSA created a secret unit known as the Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell, or CT MAC, to concentrate the agency’s vast resources on hard-to-find terrorism targets. The unit spent a year tracking Ghul and his courier network, tunneling into an array of systems and devices, before he was killed. Without those penetrations, the document concluded, “this opportunity would not have been possible.”
At a time when the NSA is facing intense criticism for gathering data on Americans, the drone files may bolster the agency’s case that its resources are focused on fighting terrorism and supporting U.S. operations overseas.“Ours is a noble cause,” NSA Director Keith B. Alexander said during a public event last month. “Our job is to defend this nation and to protect our civil liberties and privacy.”
The documents do not explain how the Ghul e-mail was obtained or whether it was intercepted using legal authorities that have emerged as a source of controversy in recent months and enable the NSA to compel technology giants including Microsoft and Google to turn over information about their users. Nor is there a reference to another NSA program facing scrutiny after Snowden’s leaks, its metadata collection of numbers dialed by nearly every person in the United States.To the contrary, the records indicate that the agency depends heavily on highly targeted network penetrations to gather information that wouldn’t otherwise be trapped in surveillance nets that it has set at key Internet gateways. The new documents are self-congratulatory in tone, drafted to tout the NSA’s counterterrorism capabilities. One is titled “CT MAC Hassan Gul Success.” The files make no mention of other agencies’ roles in a drone program that escalated dramatically in 2009 and 2010 before tapering off in recent years. Even so, former CIA officials said the files are an accurate reflection of the NSA’s contribution to finding targets in a campaign that has killed more than 3,000 people, including thousands of alleged militants and hundreds of civilians, in Pakistan, according to independent surveys. The officials said the agency has assigned senior analysts to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and deployed others to work alongside CIA counterparts at almost every major U.S. embassy or military base overseas. “NSA threw the kitchen sink at the FATA,” said a former U.S. intelligence official with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region in northwest Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s leadership is based. NSA employees rarely ventured beyond the security gates of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, officials said. Surveillance operations that required placing a device or sensor near an al-Qaeda compound were handled by the CIA’s Information Operations Center, which specializes in high-tech devices and “close-in” surveillance work. “But if you wanted huge coverage of the FATA, NSA had 10 times the manpower, 20 times the budget and 100 times the brainpower,” the former intelligence official said, comparing the surveillance resources of the NSA to the smaller capabilities of the agency’s IOC. The two agencies are the largest in the U.S. intelligence community, with budgets last year of $14.7 billion for the CIA and $10.8 billion for the NSA. “We provided the map,” the former official said, “and they just filled in the pieces.” In broad terms, the NSA relies on increasingly sophisticated versions of online attacks that are well-known among security experts. Many rely on software implants developed by the agency’s Tailored Access Operations division with code-names such as UNITEDRAKE and VALIDATOR. In other cases, the agency runs “man-in-the-middle” attacks in which it positions itself unnoticed midstream between computers communicating with one another, diverting files for real-time alerts and longer-term analysis in data repositories.

NSA HQ

NSA HQ

Through these and other tactics, the NSA is able to extract vast quantities of digital information, including audio files, imagery and keystroke logs. The operations amount to silent raids on suspected safe houses and often are carried out by experts sitting behind desks thousands of miles from their targets.The reach of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations division extends far beyond Pakistan. Other documents describe efforts to tunnel into systems used by al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa, each breach exposing other corridors.
An operation against a suspected facilitator for al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen led to a trove of files that could be used to “help NSA map out the movement of terrorists and aspiring extremists between Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Iran,” according to the documents. “This may enable NSA to better flag the movement of these individuals” to allied security services that “can put individuals on no-fly lists or monitor them once in country.”A single penetration yielded 90 encrypted al-Qaeda documents, 16 encryption keys, 30 unencrypted messages as well as “thousands” of chat logs, according to an inventory described in one of the Snowden documents. The operations are so easy, in some cases, that the NSA is able to start downloading data in less time than it takes the targeted machine to boot up. Last year, a user account on a social media Web site provided an instant portal to an al-Qaeda operative’s hard drive. “Within minutes, we successfully exploited the target,” the document said. The hunt for Ghul followed a more elaborate path. Ghul, who is listed in other documents as Mustafa Haji Muhammad Khan, had surfaced on U.S. radar as early as 2003, when an al-Qaeda detainee disclosed that Ghul escorted one of the intended hijackers to a Pakistani safe house a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A trusted facilitator and courier, Ghul was dispatched to Iraq in 2003 to deliver a message to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda firebrand who angered the network’s leaders in Pakistan by launching attacks that often slaughtered innocent Muslims. When Ghul made another attempt to enter Iraq in 2004, he was detained by Kurdish authorities in an operation directed by the CIA. Almost immediately, Ghul provided a piece of intelligence that would prove more consequential than he may have anticipated: He disclosed that bin Laden relied on a trusted courier known as al-Kuwaiti. The ripples from that revelation wouldn’t subside for years. The CIA went on to determine the true identity of al-Kuwaiti and followed him to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed in 2011. Because of the courier tip, Ghul became an unwitting figure in the contentious debate over CIA interrogation measures. He was held at a CIA black site in Eastern Europe, according to declassified Justice Department memos, where he was slapped and subjected to stress positions and sleep deprivation to break his will. Defenders of the interrogation program have cited Ghul’s courier disclosure as evidence that the agency’s interrogation program was crucial to getting bin Laden. But others, including former CIA operatives directly involved in Ghul’s case, said that he identified the courier while he was being interrogated by Kurdish authorities, who posed questions scripted by CIA analysts in the background.

The debate resurfaced amid the release of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” last year, in which a detainee’s slip after a brutal interrogation sequence is depicted as a breakthrough in the bin Laden hunt. Ghul’s case also has been explored in detail in a 6,000-page investigation of the CIA interrogation program by the Senate Intelligence Committee that has yet to be released.Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the panel, sought to settle the Ghul debate in a statement last year that alluded to his role but didn’t mention him by name.
“The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques,” Feinstein said in the statement, which was signed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).The George W. Bush administration’s decision to close the secret CIA prisons in 2006 set off a scramble to place prisoners whom the agency did not regard as dangerous or valuable enough to transfer to Guantanamo Bay. Ghul was not among the original 14 high-value CIA detainees sent to the U.S. installation in Cuba. Instead, he was turned over to the CIA’s counterpart in Pakistan, with ostensible assurances that he would remain in custody. A year later, Ghul was released. There was no public explanation from Pakistani authorities. CIA officials have noted that Ghul had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group supported by Pakistan’s intelligence service. By 2007, he had returned to al-Qaeda’s stronghold in Waziristan. In 2011, the Treasury Department named Ghul a target of U.S. counterterrorism sanctions. Since his release, the department said, he had helped al-Qaeda reestablish logistics networks, enabling al-Qaeda to move people and money in and out of the country. The NSA document described Ghul as al-Qaeda’s chief of military operations and detailed a broad surveillance effort to find him. “The most critical piece” came with a discovery that “provided a vector” for compounds used by Ghul, the document said. After months of investigation, and surveillance by CIA drones, the e-mail from his wife erased any remaining doubt. Even after Ghul was killed in Mir Ali, the NSA’s role in the drone strike wasn’t done. Although the attack was aimed at “an individual believed to be” the correct target, the outcome wasn’t certain until later when, “through SIGINT, it was confirmed that Hassan Ghul was in fact killed.”

By , and Barton Gellman

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