Analysis: 2 US cases provide unique window into Iran’s global terror network

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, June 23, 2017:

On June 8, the Department of Justice (DOJ) made an announcement that deserves more attention. Two alleged Hizballah operatives had been arrested inside the United States after carrying out various missions on behalf of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist organization. The plots took the men around the globe, from Thailand to Panama and even into the heart of New York City.

Both men are naturalized U.S. citizens. And they are both accused of performing surveillance on prospective targets for Hizballah’s highly secretive external operations wing, known as the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).

Ali Kourani, a 32-year-old who was living in the Bronx, New York (pictured on the right*), allegedly gathered “information regarding operations and security at airports in the U.S. and elsewhere,” while also “surveilling U.S. military and law enforcement facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn.” Hizballah asked Kourani to identify “individuals affiliated with the Israeli Defense Force” inside the U.S. and locate “weapons suppliers in the U.S. who could provide firearms to support IJO operations” as well. Kourani allegedly conducted all of these missions on behalf of his IJO “handler,” who was safely ensconced back home in Lebanon.

Samer el Debek, a 37-year-old resident of Dearborn, Michigan, is charged with “casing security procedures at the Panama Canal and the Israeli Embassy” in Panama, identifying “areas of weakness and construction at the Panama Canal,” and determining for Hizballah “how close someone could get to a ship passing through the Canal.” His “IJO handlers” also “asked him for photographs of the U.S. Embassy” in Panama, as well as “details” concerning its “security procedures.” (El Debek told authorities he did not provide Hizballah with the information requested on the American embassy.)

The charges brought against Kourani and El Debek have not been proven in a court of law. They remain allegations that have yet to be weighed by the criminal justice system. Still, the legal filings in both cases provide a unique window into how the FBI and the U.S. government are tracking Hizballah’s international terror network, including inside America.

Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization first gained infamy in the 1980s, when it orchestrated various attacks on Americans and Europeans in Lebanon and elsewhere. In some ways, the IJO could be credited with launching the modern jihadist war against the U.S., pioneering the use of near-simultaneous suicide bombings. Such tactics would later be adopted by Sunni jihadists, including al Qaeda, with devastating effects.

The IJO has avoided public scrutiny at times. The public’s attention has been mainly focused on the Islamic State of late. This is understandable as the so-called caliphate inspires, directs and guides terrorist operations around the globe.

But the U.S. government’s recent filings, including the sworn affidavits of two FBI agents responsible for tracking Hizballah, make it clear that the IJO continues to manage a sophisticated, clandestine web of operatives who are trained to carry out Iran’s bidding.

The IJO uses multiple aliases, including “External Security Organization” and “910.” The government describes it as a “component of Hizballah responsible for the planning and coordination of intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities on behalf of” the terror group “outside of Lebanon.” The IJO’s “operatives” are usually “assigned a Lebanon-based ‘handler,’ sometimes referred to as a mentor,” and this person is “responsible for providing taskings, debriefing operatives, and arranging training.”

The IJO often compartmentalizes its operations, conducting them “in stages” and “sending waves of one or more operatives with separate taskings such as surveillance, obtaining and storing necessary components and equipment, and attack execution.” Indeed, the government explains that the IJO’s handlers keep the procurement of ammonium nitrate-based products used for bomb-making separate from other terror-related tasks so as to avoid generating additional scrutiny.

Neither Kourani, nor El Debek is accused of conspiring to commit an imminent attack. But US officials think their work was part of longer-term planning.

“Pre-operational surveillance is one of the hallmarks of [Hizballah] in planning for future attacks,” Commissioner James P. O’Neill of the New York Police Department (NYPD) explained in a statement.

The surveillance performed in New York City was done “in support of anticipated IJO terrorist attacks,” according to the complaint against Kourani.

Reading through the extensive legal paperwork, totaling dozens of pages, one is left to wonder who else Hizballah may have stationed here inside the U.S. as part of its patient plotting.

The sections that follow below are based on the U.S. government’s complaints and affidavits. In many cases, these same filings say the details cited were originally provided, in whole or in part, by Kourani and El Debek themselves during interviews with the FBI.

Kourani allegedly admitted he was an IJO “sleeper” operative

Ali Kourani (also known as “Jacob Lewis” and “Daniel”) was born near Bint Jbeil, Lebanon in 1984 and relocated to the U.S. as a young man in 2003. He went on to receive “a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering in 2009” and a MBA in 2013.

Kourani sat for “multiple voluntary interviews” with the FBI in 2016 and 2017, and much of the evidence cited in the complaint against him is sourced to his own admissions during these sessions. At one point, he apparently said he hoped to exchange information for “financial support and immigration benefits for certain” relatives, but the FBI says it didn’t agree to this quid pro quo proposal.

Kourani allegedly compared his family to the “Bin Ladens of Lebanon,” describing one brother as the “face of Hizballah” in one area of Lebanon. He was first trained at a 45-day Hizballah “boot camp” in the year 2000. He was just 16 years old at the time, but claimed that his “family’s connections to a high-ranking Hizballah official named Haider Kourani” allowed him to attend the camp. Kourani was allegedly “taught to fire AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers, as well as basic military tactics.”

His “family’s home was destroyed by an Israeli bombing” during the 2006 Lebanon War. Approximately two years later, according to Kourani, he was “recruited by” Hizballah’s Sheikh Hussein Kourani to serve in the IJO.

Kourani described the IJO as being responsible for “black ops” carried out by Hizballah and “the Iranians.” Kourani also explained that the IJO is “operated” by Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who reports “directly to Ali Khamenei,” the Iranian Supreme Leader.

Kourani told the FBI that he was “recruited to join the IJO in light of his education and residence in the United States.” But there was another sinister motive for Hizballah’s interest in him. The IJO was developing a network of “sleepers” who “maintained ostensibly normal lies but could be activated and tasked with conducting IJO operations,” Kourani purportedly said.

Indeed, Kourani “identified himself” as one of these IJO “sleeper” operatives, “working undercover in the United States” and covertly “conducting IJO intelligence-gathering and surveillance missions” given to him by his handlers in Lebanon.

Kourani identified one IJO handler as “Fadi” (also known as “Hajj”) and explained the elaborate security protocols Hizballah took. In addition to be questioned about his own background, Kourani was trained on “conducting interrogations, resisting interrogations, and surveillance techniques.”

Fadi “typically wore a mask during their meetings,” explaining that the IJO’s “golden rule” is “the less you know the better it is.” Fadi “acted as” Kourani’s handler until about Sept. 2015, when Kourani claims he “was deactivated by the IJO.”

Fadi told Kourani to obtain a U.S. citizenship, a passport and related documents, thereby making it easier for him to travel around the world on behalf of Hizballah. The IJO’s man also instructed Kourani on how they could communicate securely, using code words and other basic tradecraft.

IJO surveillance in New York City, including at John F. Kennedy International Airport

The most striking allegations against Kourani involve his surveillance of potential targets in New York City on behalf of Hizballah.

Fadi “directed” Kourani to “surveil and collect information regarding military and intelligence targets in the New York City area,” the FBI found. Kourani then “conducted physical surveillance” on three locations in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn. The buildings he surveilled include: “a U.S. government facility, which includes FBI offices”; a “U.S. Army National Guard facility”; a “U.S. Secret Service facility”; and a “U.S. Army Armory facility.” Kourani transferred his video surveillance on “at least one” of these targets to “Fadi and other IJO personnel in Lebanon.”

According to the complaint, Fadi had Kourani surveil airports in the New York area. “In response,” Kourani “provided detailed information to Fadi regarding specific security protocols; baggage-screening and collection practices; and the locations of surveillance cameras, security personnel, law enforcement officers, and magnetometers at JFK and an international airport in another country.”

Fadi tasked Kourani with other missions as well. He told Kourani to “obtain surveillance equipment in the United States” – including “drones, night-vision goggles, and high-powered cameras” – “so that the underlying technology could be studied and replicated by the IJO.” He also had Kourani “cultivate contacts” who “could provide firearms for use in potential future IJO operations in the United States” (Fadi allegedly deemed these contacts unsuitable for arms purchases), while also collecting “intelligence regarding individuals…affiliated with the” Israeli Defense Forces.

Read more

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Vlad Tepes Interviews Former CIA Station Chief, Brad Johnson

Interview One on jihad and politics:

Interview Two on the Jihadist playbook,  “The Manchester Manual”Carlos the Jackal’s “Revolutionary Islam” and much more:

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Blackwater Founder Erik Prince Recommends ‘Cheaper, Lighter’ Afghanistan Approach

AFP

Breitbart, by Kristina Wong, June 12, 2017:

Blackwater founder and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince is recommending, as the Trump administration debates its Afghanistan War approach, that the U.S. military go back to its light footprint approach in Afghanistan.

Prince told the “Breitbart News Sunday” radio program that the approach – which would see CIA, special operators, and contractors working with Afghan forces to target terrorists – would be more effective and save the U.S. billions of dollars annually.

“I say go back to the model that worked, for a couple hundred years in the region, by the East India company, which used professional Western soldiers who were contracted and lived with trained with and when necessary fought with their local counterparts,” he said.

Prince said the most effective time the U.S. had in Afghanistan against terrorism was the first 12 months after the September 2001 attack, where CIA, special operators, and contractors worked with local Afghan forces with air support.

“That really put the Taliban and al Qaeda on the back heels,” he said. “The more we’ve gone into a conventional approach in Afghanistan, the more we are losing.”

Prince, who has advised the Trump campaign, argued that the light footprint approach was more effective.

“[It] literally puts them side by side, living in the same base. Believe me – if you’re a trainer, and your life depends on the success of the unit, you are going to make sure the men are paid, fed, equipped,” he said.

Prince also argued that the light footprint approach would also be “much cheaper, more sustainable” – about 10 percent of the current costs.

“We’re spending, this year as a country, $45 billion there… That’s a staggering amount of money, and this is a time when [the Department of Defense] needs more money to reset equip and airplanes and boats and tanks and everything else,” he said.

Prince argued that today’s approach is not working.

There are currently about 8,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan conducting a train-and-advise mission as well as a counterterrorism mission. After former President Obama declared the combat mission over in December 2014, the Taliban have made a comeback, and now control about a third of the country.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has also established a nascent presence on the ground there.

“The way the U.S. Army does it now, is the Americans live on one base, the Afghans live on another base, they act have to fly over to the other base, maybe see them once or twice a week, they don’t really go on missions with them anymore and it really lives the indigenous units hanging,” he said.

“So they go out on patrol, they can’t get the fires support, they can’t get resupply, they can’t [be medically evacuated], they miss the basic soldiering that would let them be successful,” he said.

He said many of the 300,000-plus Afghan forces supported by the U.S. are “ghosts” – with corrupt officials pocketing the money instead. Plus, he said supporting that many forces is beyond Afghanistan’s capability.

The approach Prince recommended tracks with one that some of Trump’s advisers are advocating for – a focus on the counterterrorism mission versus nation building, with special operators training Afghan forces.

Another approach under consideration, backed by National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is surging an additional 3,000 U.S. troops, and hitting the Taliban harder to force it back to the negotiating table.

Prince also recommended putting a U.S. leader in charge of Afghanistan that would extend past the limited tours that U.S. military commanders normally have there, and relaxing rules of engagement.

“We’ve had 17 different commanders in a 15-year period. No great football team or sports teams changes its coaches every year, yet we’ve done that more than every year and with predictable results,” he said.

He also recommended pushing Afghans to sustain is own economy, including passing a mining law necessary to take advantage of the $1 trillion in minerals the country is estimated to have.

Prince said that, currently, Afghanistan’s economy is 90 percent dependent on donor aid, and its security budget totally dependent on the U.S.

“There is gold, copper and iron ore, and a bunch of rare earth elements, lithium — all very high value stuff and oil and gas as well,” he said. “But all the experts at the State Department have yet to get the Afghans to pass a mining law.”

Meanwhile, he said the Taliban is raking in money from opium, hashish, gold, lapis, marble, and pistachios.

“The Taliban has dominated each of those spaces, each of those parts of the economy and that’s what they use to fund their entire insurgency and that’s why they’re able to pay well, and to grow and to flourish, and it’s really, really frustrating.”

The U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, after the Taliban allowed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York that killed 2,996 people and wounded more than 6,000 others.

The CIA and special operators led the successful invasion, toppling the Taliban from power and establishing a presence there from which to go after al Qaeda. Many fled into Pakistan, including bin Laden, who was later killed there in 2011.

But since then, the U.S. and NATO countries have had a presence of more than a hundred thousand troops there. Former President Barack Obama in 2009 ordered a troop surge of around 30,000 into the country, simultaneously announcing they would begin to withdraw in 18 months – a timeline that angered U.S. military commanders who felt it was a signal to the Taliban to wait coalition forces out.

After U.S. troops began withdrawing and Obama declared the end of the U.S. combat mission in 2014, the Taliban has made a comeback and now control at least a third of the territory and about as much of the population.

Today, Prince said, there are about 20 different terrorist groups there.

“The Taliban continues to be aligned 100 percent to al Qaeda and its where number terrorist attacks — the most notable one being the 9/11 attacks, emanated from Afghanistan,” he said.

“We have to accept that Afghanistan is a very rough place. It’s resident to 20 different terrorist org and there’s a lot of bad things that emanate from there so getting to a manageable state.”

Prince noted that the Taliban has retaken Sangin, a district in southern Afghanistan that U.S. troops fought hard to pacify, and recently held a victory parade out in the open.

“They had a victory parade in broad daylight with hundreds of Taliban and dozens of vehicles. They did it in broad daylight an they were unafraid of someone attacking them,” he said. “The terrorists have to fear waking up the next morning.”

American Authorities Working On Charges To Arrest Julian Assange

The Resurgent, by Chris Queen, April 21, 2017:

Insiders at the Justice Department say that authorities are putting together what they need in order to arrest Julian Assange. After nearly seven years of investigations and confidence from the Obama administration that charges would be difficult to prosecute, American officials now believe they have what they need to move a prosecution forward.

Obama’s Justice Department was hesitant to pursue charges against Assange because Wikileaks was not the only organization to publish the information that Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning procured. But CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a speech that the Trump Justice Department is ready to move forward.

He said WikiLeaks “directed Chelsea Manning to intercept specific secret information, and it overwhelmingly focuses on the United States.”

“It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: A non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” Pompeo said.

US intelligence agencies have also determined that Russian intelligence used WikiLeaks to publish emails aimed at undermining the campaign of Hillary Clinton, as part of a broader operation to meddle in the US 2016 presidential election.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said publicly that arresting Assange is a “priority.”

 “We are going to step up our effort and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks,” he said. “This is a matter that’s gone beyond anything I’m aware of. We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks and some of them are quite serious. So yes, it is a priority. We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.”

Assange’s attorney Barry Pollack has said that the has had no contact with the Justice Department – and even that authorities have refused to speak with him – and he claims that Wikileaks is no different than news organizations that used information that Manning had stolen.

Assange has tried to hide behind the First Amendment for himself and for Wikileaks, but Pompeo has asserted that the Swede has no First Amendment protection as a non-citizen seeking asylum in a foreign country. He is currently staying at the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on allegation of rape. The left-leaning president-elect in Ecuador has promised to continue harboring Assange.

The ACLU is already up in arms about the very idea of charges against Assange, because – you guessed it – it’s the Trump administration bringing the charges.

Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, argued that US prosecution of Assange sets a dangerous precedent.

“Never in the history of this country has a publisher been prosecuted for presenting truthful information to the public,” Wizner told CNN. “Any prosecution of WikiLeaks for publishing government secrets would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations.”

It will be interesting to see how the Justice Department goes forward in pursuing charges and whether they will stick. Stay tuned.

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Confirmed: John Brennan Colluded With Foreign Spies to Defeat Trump

The American Spectator, by George Neumayr, April 19, 2017:

In article in the Guardian last week provides more confirmation that John Brennan was the American progenitor of political espionage aimed at defeating Donald Trump. One side did collude with foreign powers to tip the election — Hillary’s.

Seeking to retain his position as CIA director under Hillary, Brennan teamed up with British spies and Estonian spies to cripple Trump’s candidacy. He used their phony intelligence as a pretext for a multi-agency investigation into Trump, which led the FBI to probe a computer server connected to Trump Tower and gave cover to Susan Rice, among other Hillary supporters, to spy on Trump and his people.

John Brennan’s CIA operated like a branch office of the Hillary campaign, leaking out mentions of this bogus investigation to the press in the hopes of inflicting maximum political damage on Trump. An official in the intelligence community tells TAS that Brennan’s retinue of political radicals didn’t even bother to hide their activism, decorating offices with “Hillary for president cups” and other campaign paraphernalia.

A supporter of the American Communist Party at the height of the Cold War, Brennan brought into the CIA a raft of subversives and gave them plum positions from which to gather and leak political espionage on Trump. He bastardized standards so that these left-wing activists could burrow in and take career positions. Under the patina of that phony professionalism, they could then present their politicized judgments as “non-partisan.”

The Guardian story is written in a style designed to flatter its sources (they are cast as high-minded whistleblowers), but the upshot of it is devastating for them, nonetheless, and explains why all the criminal leaks against Trump first originated in the British press. According to the story, Brennan got his anti-Trump tips primarily from British spies but also Estonian spies and others. The story confirms that the seed of the espionage into Trump was planted by Estonia. The BBC’s Paul Wood reported last year that the intelligence agency of an unnamed Baltic State had tipped Brennan off in April 2016 to a conversation purporting to show that the Kremlin was funneling cash into the Trump campaign.

Any other CIA director would have disregarded such a flaky tip, recognizing that Estonia was eager to see Trump lose (its officials had bought into Hillary’s propaganda that Trump was going to pull out of NATO and leave Baltic countries exposed to Putin). But Brennan opportunistically seized on it, as he later that summer seized on the half-baked intelligence of British spy agencies (also full of officials who wanted to see Trump lose).

The Guardian says that British spy head Robert Hannigan “passed material in summer 2016 to the CIA chief, John Brennan.” To ensure that these flaky tips leaked out, Brennan disseminated them on Capitol Hill. In August and September of 2016, he gave briefings to the “Gang of Eight” about them, which then turned up on the front page of the New York Times.

All of this took place at the very moment Brennan was auditioning for Hillary. He desperately wanted to keep his job and despised Trump for his alleged “Muslim ban,” a matter near and dear to Brennan’s heart. Not only was he an apologist for the Muslim Brotherhood, but Brennan’s Islamophilia dated to his days in college, when he spent a year in Cairo learning Arabic and taking courses in Middle Eastern studies. He later got a graduate degree with an emphasis in Middle Eastern studies. In 1996, his ties to the Islamic world tightened after he became the CIA’s station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He once recalled that “during a 25-year career in government, I was privileged to serve in positions across the Middle East — as a political officer with the State Department and as a CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, I saw how our Saudi partners fulfilled their duty as custodians of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. I marveled at the majesty of the Hajj and the devotion of those who fulfilled their duty as Muslims by making that privilege — that pilgrimage.”

Out of this Islamophilia came a special dislike of Michael Flynn, who had planned to rip up the Obama-era “reset” with Muslim countries. Furious with Flynn for his apostasy from political correctness, Brennan and other Obama aides couldn’t resist the temptation to take him out after rifling through transcripts of his calls with the Russian ambassador. They caught him in a lie to Mike Pence and made sure the press knew about it.

Were the media not so completely in the tank for Obama and Hillary, all of this political mischief would make for a compelling 2016 version of All the President’s Men. Instead, the public gets a steady stream of Orwellian propaganda about the sudden propriety of political espionage. The headline writers at Pravda couldn’t improve on this week’s official lie, tweeted out by the Maggie Habermans: “Susan Rice Did Nothing Wrong, Say Both Dem and Republican House Aides.”

Liberals pompously quote the saying — “the bigger the lie, the more it will be believed” — even as their media enshrine it. Historians will look back on 2016 and marvel at the audacity of its big lie: whispers of an imaginary Trump-Russia collusion that wafted up from the fever swamps of a real collusion between John Brennan and foreign powers seeking Trump’s defeat.

CIA’s Pompeo rips WikiLeaks as ‘hostile intelligence service’ abetted by Russia

Fox News, April 13, 2017:

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, in his first speech since taking over the agency, lambasted WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange — calling the group a “non-state hostile intelligence service” that is often abetted by “state actors like Russia.”

Speaking Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Pompeo called Assange a “fraud,” someone with no “moral compass” and a “narcissist who has created nothing of value.”

He asserted that Assange and former National Security Agency staffer and famed leaker Edward Snowden “seek to use that information to make a name for themselves” and they “care nothing about the lives they put at risk or the damage they cause to national security.”

Asked why he would focus on WikiLeaks rather than other issues, Pompeo said he felt it was vital to inform the American people about the threat they pose.

In the case of Snowden, Pompeo said the detrimental impact of his leaks was expansive and that more than 1,000 foreign targets attempted to change their means of communication as a result of the Snowden disclosures.

“The bottom line is that it became harder for us in the intelligence community to keep Americans safe. It became harder to monitor the communications of terrorist organizations that are bent on bringing bloodshed to our shores.  Snowden’s disclosures helped these groups find ways to hide themselves in the crowded digital forest,” he said.

Last week, WikiLeaks released the latest chapter in its ongoing “Vault 7” series of cyber and hacking tools that it claims were stolen from the CIA.

According to its release, the new leaked information contains 27 documents from the CIA’s Grasshopper Framework, which is allegedly the software tools used by the CIA to infiltrate Microsoft’s Windows platform.

The former Kansas congressman began his speech by telling the story of Philip Agee, a founding member of the magazine Counterspy, which advocated for the exposure of intelligence agents.

In September 1974, Agee’s magazine publicly identified Richard Welch as the CIA chief of station in Athens, Greece and published his address. One year later, Agee was assassinated.

“Today, there are still plenty of Philip Agees in the world, and the harm they inflict on U.S. institutions and personnel is just as serious today as it was back then,” said the director.

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Wednesday, Assange said he shared the goal of the Post and The New York Times “to publish noteworthy content.”

The director also came to the defense of his agency and CIA agents who cannot “speak up for themselves” given their positions.

He said that “regardless of what you see on the silver screen, we do not pursue covert action on a whim without approval or accountability” and that when covert action takes place, “there is oversight and accountability every step of the way.”

Obama used NSA & FBI to spy on Trump – veteran CIA officer Gary Berntsen

RT – SophieCo, March 17, 2017: (go to RT for video)

The mighty CIA has fallen victim to a major breach, with WikiLeaks revealing the true scope of the Agency’s ability for cyber-espionage. Its tools seem to be aimed at ordinary citizens – your phone, your car, your TV, even your fridge can become an instrument of surveillance in the hands of the CIA. How does the CIA use these tools, and why do they need them in the first place? And as WikiLeaks promises even more revelations, how is all of this going to shape the already tense relationship between new president and the intelligence community? A man who has spent over two decades in the CIA’s clandestine service – Gary Berntsen is on SophieCo.

Follow @SophieCo_RT

Sophie Shevardnadze: Gary Berntsen, former CIA official, welcome to the show, great to have you with us. Now, Vault 7, a major batch of CIA docs revealed by Wikileaks uncovers the agency’s cyber tools. We’re talking about world’s most powerful intelligence agency – how exactly did the CIA lose control of its arsenal of hacking weapons?

Gary Berntsen: First off, I’d like to say that the world has changed a lot in the last several decades, and people are communicating in many different ways and intelligence services, whether they be American or Russian, are covering these communications and their coverage of those communications has evolved. Without commenting on the specific validity of those tools, it was clear that the CIA was surely using contractors to be involved in this process, not just staff officers, and that individuals decided that they had problems with U.S. policy, and have leaked these things to Wikileaks. This is a large problem, for the U.S. community, but just as the U.S. is having problems, the Russia face similar problems. Just this week you had multiple members of the FSB charged with hacking as well, and they have been charged by the U.S. government. So both services who are competitors, face challenges as we’ve entered a new era of mass communications.

SS: So like you’re saying, the leaker or leakers of the CIA docs is presumably a CIA contractor – should the agency be spending more effort on vetting its own officers? Is the process rigorous enough?

GB: Clearly. Look… There have been individuals since the dawn of history. Espionage is the second oldest occupation, have conducted spying and espionage operations, and there have been people who have turned against their own side and worked for competitors and worked for those opposing the country or the group that they’re working with. It’s been a problem from the beginning, and it continues to be a problem, and the U.S. clearly is going to have to do a much better job at vetting those individuals who are given security clearances, without a doubt.

SS: The CIA studied the flaws in the software of devices like iPhones, Androids, Smart TVs, apps like Whatsapp that left them exposed to hacking, but didn’t care about patching those up –  so, in essence the agency chose to leave Americans vulnerable to cyberattacks, rather than protect them?

GB: I think you have to understand, in this world that we’re operating and the number one target of our intelligence community are terrorists. Since the attacks of 9\11, 16 years ago, the obsession of the American intelligence community is to identify those planning terrorist attacks, collecting information on them and being able to defeat them. These individuals are using all these means of communication. I have spoken with many security services around the world, since my retirement back in 2005-2006, a lot of them have had problems covering the communications of somebody’s very devices and programs that you’ve talked about – whether they be narcotraffickers or salafist jihadists, they are all piggybacking off of commercial communications. Therefore the need for modern intelligence services to sort of provide coverage of all means of communications. And there’s a price that you pay for that.

SS: One of the most disturbing parts of the leaks is the “Weeping Angel” program – CIA hacking into Samsung Smart TVs to record what’s going on even when the TV appears to be turned off. Why are the CIA’s tools designed to penetrate devices used by ordinary Western citizens at home?

GB: Look, I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with Western homes, because the CIA doesn’t do technical operations against American citizens – that’s prohibited by the law. If the CIA does anything in the U.S., it does it side-by-side with the FBI, and it does it according to FISA – the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act laws. It’s gotta go to the judge to do those things. Those tools are used primarily against the individuals and terrorists that are targeting the U.S. or other foreign entities that we see as a significant threat to the U.S. national security, which is the normal functioning of any intelligence service.

SS: Just like you say, the CIA insists it never uses its investigative tools on American citizens in the US, but, we’re wondering, exactly how many terrorist camps in the Middle East have Samsung Smart TVs to watch their favorite shows on? Does it seem like the CIA lost its direction?

GB: Plenty of them.

SS: Plenty?…

GB: I’ve travelled in the Middle East, Samsungs are sold everywhere. Sophie, Samsung TVs are sold all over the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East, I’ve seen them in Afghanistan, I’ve seen them everywhere. So, any kind of devices that you can imagine, people are using everywhere. We’re in a global economy now.

SS: The CIA has tools to hack iPhones – but they make up only around 15 % of the world’s smartphone market. IPhones are not popular among terrorists, but they are among business and political elites – so are they the real target here?

GB: No. The CIA in relative terms to the size of the world is a small organisation. It is an organisation that has roughly 20 or more thousand people – it’s not that large in terms of covering a planet with 7 billion people. We have significant threats to the U.S. and to the Western world. We live in an age of super-terrorism, we live in an age when individuals, small groups of people, can leverage technology at a lethal effect. The greatest threats to this planet are not just nuclear, they are bio. The U.S. needs to have as many tools as possible to defend itself against these threats, as does Russia want to have similar types of tools to defend itself. You too, Russian people have suffered from a number of terrible terrorist acts.

SS: Wikileaks suggest the CIA copied the hacking habits of other nations to create a fake electronic trace – why would the CIA need that?

GB: The CIA, as any intelligence service, would look to conduct coverage in the most unobtrusive fashion as possible. It is going to do its operations so that they can collect and collect again and again against terrorist organisations, where and whenever it can, because sometimes threats are not just static, they are continuous.

SS: You know this better, so enlighten me: does the he CIA have the authorisation to create the surveillance tools it had in the first place? Who gives it such authorisation?

GB: The CIA was created in 1947 by the National Security Act of the U.S. and does two different things – it does FI (foreign intelligence) collection and it does CA – covert action. Its rules for collection of intelligence were enshrined in the law that created it, the CIA Act 110, in 1949, but the covert action part of this, where it does active measures, when it gets involved in things – all of those are covered by law. The Presidential finding had to be written, it had to be presented to the President. The President’s signs off on those things. Those things are then briefed to members of Congress, or the House Permanent Subcommittee for Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence. We have a very rigorous process of review of the activities of our intelligence communities in the U.S.

SS: But you’re talking about the activities in terms of operations. I’m just asking – does CIA need any authorisation or permission to create the tools it has in its arsenal? Or it can just go ahead…

GB: Those tools         and the creation of collection tools falls under the same laws that allowed the CIA to be established. And that was the 1949 Intelligence Act. And also, subsequently, the laws in 1975. Yes.

SS: So, the CIA programme names are quite colourful, sometimes wacky –  “Weeping Angel”, “Swamp Monkey”, “Brutal Kangaroo” – is there a point to these, is there any logic, or are they completely random? I always wondered…

GB: There’s absolutely no point to that, and it’s random.

SS:Okay, so how do you come up with those names? Who… like, one says: “Monkey” and another one says: “Kangaroo”?…

GB: I’m sure they are computer-generated.

SS: Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him during the campaign… Could the CIA have actually spied on the president? It seems like the agency doesn’t have the best relationship with Donald Trump – how far can they go?

GB: Let me just say this: the President used the word “wiretapping” but I think it was very clear to us that have been in the intelligence business, that this was a synonym for “surveillance”. Because most people are on cellphones, people aren’t using landlines anymore, so there’s no “wiretapping”, okay. These all fall under the Intelligence Surveillance Act, as I stated earlier, this thing existing in the U.S.. It was clear to President Trump and to those in his campaign, after they were elected, and they did a review back that the Obama Administration sought FISA authorisation to do surveillance of the Trump campaign in July and then in October. They were denied in July, they were given approval in October, and in October they did some types of surveillance of the Trump campaign. This is why the President, of course, tweeted, that he had been “wiretapped” – of course “wiretapping” being a synonym for the surveillance against his campaign, which was never heard of in the U.S. political history that I can remember, I can’t recall any way of this being done. It’s an outrage, and at the same time, Congressional hearings are going to be held and they are going to review all of these things, and they are going to find out exactly what happened and what was done. It’s unclear right now, but all we do know – and it has been broken in the media that there were two efforts, and at the second one, the authorisation was given. That would never have been done by the CIA, because they don’t do that sort of coverage in the U.S.. That would either be the FBI or the NSA, with legal authorities and those authorities… the problem that the Trump administration had is they believed that the information from these things was distributed incorrectly. Any time an American –  and this is according to the U.S. law – any time an American is on the wire in the U.S., their names got to be minimized from this and it clearly wasn’t done and the Trump administration was put in a bad light because of this.

SS: If what you’re saying is true, how does that fall under foreign intelligence? Is that more of the FBI-NSA expertise?

GB: It was FBI and NSA – it was clearly the FBI and the NSA that were involved, it would never have been the CIA doing that, they don’t listen to telephones in the U.S., they read the product of other agencies that would provide those things, but clearly, there were individuals on those phone calls that they believed were foreign and were targeting those with potential communications with the Trump campaign. Let’s be clear here – General Clapper, the DNI for President Obama, stated before he left office, that there was no, I repeat, no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. This has been something that has been dragged out again, and again, and again, by the media. This is a continuing drumbeat of the mainstream, left-wing media of the U.S., topaint the President in the poorest light, to attempt to discredit Donald Trump.

SS: With the intelligence agencies bringing down Trump’s advisors like Michael Flynn – and you said the people behind that were Obama’s loyalists – can we talk about the intelligence agencies being too independent from the White House, playing their own politics?

GB: I think part of the problem that we’ve seen during the handover of power from President Obama to President Trump was that there was a number of holdovers that went from political appointee to career status that had been placed in the NatSec apparatus and certain parts of the intelligence organisations. It is clear that President Trump and his team are determined to remove those people to make sure that there’s a continuity of purpose and people aren’t leaking information that would put the Administration into a negative light. That’s the goal of the administration, to conduct itself consistent with the goals of securing the country from terrorism and other potential threats – whether they be counter-narcotics, or intelligence agencies trying to breach our… you know, the information that we hold secure.

SS: Here’s a bit of conspiracy theories – could it be that the domestic surveillance agencies like the NSA or the FBI orchestrated the Vault 7 leaks  – to damage CIA, stop it from infringing on their turf?

GB :I really don’t think so and that is conspiracy  thinking. You have to understand something, in the intelligence communities in the U.S., whether it be the CIA and FBI, we’ve done a lot of cross-fertilizations. When I was in senior position in CIA’s counterterrorism center, I had a deputy who was an FBI officer. An office in FBI HQ down in Washington had an FBI lead with a CIA deputy. There’s a lot more cooperation than one would think. There are individuals that do assignments in each other’s organisations to help foster levels of cooperation. I had members of NSA in my staff when I was at CIA, members of diplomatic security, members of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and it was run like a task force, so, there’s a lot more cooperation than the media presents, they always think that there are these huge major battles between the organisations and that’s rarely true.

SS: Generally speaking – is there rivalry between American intel agencies at all? Competition for resources, maybe?

GB: I think, sometimes, between the Bureau and the CIA – the CIA is the dominant agency abroad, and the FBI is the dominant agency in the U.S. What they do abroad, they frequently have to get cleared by us, what we do domestically, we have to get cleared by them, and sometimes there’s some friction, but usually, we’re able to work this out. It makes for great news, the CIA fighting FBI, but the reality is that there’s a lot more cooperation than confrontation. We are all in the business of trying to secure the American homeland and American interests globally.

SS: I’m still thinking a lot about the whole point of having this hacking arsenal for the CIA since you talk on their behalf – the possibility to hack phones, computers, TVs and cars – if the actual terrorist attacks on US soil, like San Bernardino, Orlando are still missed?

GB: Look. There are hundreds of individuals, if not thousands, planning efforts against the U.S. at any  time. It can be many-many things. And the U.S. security services, there’s the CIA, the FBI, NSA – block many-many of these things, but it is impossible to stop them all. Remember, this is an open society here, in America, with 320 million people, here. We try to foster open economic system, we allow more immigration to America than all countries in the world combined. This is a great political experiment here, but it’s also very difficult to police. There are times that the U.S. security services are going to fail. It’s inevitable. We just have to try the best we can, do the best job that we can, while protecting the values that attract so many people to the U.S.

SS:The former CIA director John Brennan is saying Trump’s order to temporarily ban travel from some Muslim states is not going to help fight terrorism in ‘any significant way’. And the countries where the terrorists have previously come from – like Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan, it’s true – aren’t on the list. So does he maybe have a point?

GB: John Brennan is acting more like a political operative than a former director of CIA. The countries that Mr. Trump had banned initially, or at least had put a partial, sort of a delay – where states like Somalia, Libya, the Sudan, Iran – places where we couldn’t trust local vetting. Remember something, when someone immigrates to the U.S., we have what’s called an “immigration packet”: they may have to get a chest X-ray to make sure they don’t bring any diseases with them, they have to have background check on any place they’ve ever lived, and in most of these places there are no security forces to do background checks on people that came from Damascus, because parts of Damascus are totally destroyed – there’s been warfare. It is actually a very reasonable thing for President Trump to ask for delay in these areas. Look, the Crown-Prince, the Deputy Crown-Prince of Saudi Arabia was just in the United States and met with Donald Trump, and he said he didn’t believe it was a “ban on Muslims”. This was not a “ban on Muslims”, it was an effort to slow down and to create more opportunity to vet those individuals coming from states where there’s a preponderance of terrorist organisations operating. A reasonable step by President Trump, something he promised during the campaign, something he’s fulfilling. But again, I repeat – America allows more immigration into the U.S., than all countries combined. So, we really don’t need to be lectured on who we let in and who we don’t let in.

SS: But I still wonder if the Crown-Prince would’ve had the same comment had Saudi Arabia been on that ban list. Anyways, Michael Hayden, ex-CIA…

GB: Wait a second, Sophie – the Saudis have a reasonable form to police their society, and they provide accurate police checks. If they didn’t create accurate police checks, we would’ve given the delay to them as well.

SS: Ok, I got your point. Now, Michael Hayden, ex-CIA and NSA chief, pointed out that the US intelligence enlists agents in the Muslim world with the promise of eventual emigration to America – is Trump’s travel ban order going to hurt American intelligence gathering efforts in the Middle East?

GB: No, the question here – there were individuals that worked as translators for us in Afghanistan and Iraq and serving in such roles as translators, they were promised the ability to immigrate to the United States. Unfortunately, some of them were blocked in the first ban that was put down, because individuals who wrote that, didn’t consider that. That has been considered in the re-write, that the Trump administration had submitted, which is now being attacked by a judge in Hawaii, and so it was taken into consideration, but… the objective here was to help those that helped U.S. forces on the ground, especially those who were translators, in ground combat operations, where they risked their lives alongside American soldiers.

SS:You worked in Afghanistan – you were close to capturing Bin Laden back in 2001 – what kind of spying tools are actually used on the ground by the CIA to catch terrorists?

GB: The CIA as does any intelligence service in the world, is a human business. It’s a business where we work with local security forces to strengthen their police and intelligence forces, we attempt to leverage them, we have our own people on the ground that speak the language, we’re trying to help build transportation there. There’s no “secret sauce” here. There’s no super-technology that changes the country’s ability to conduct intelligence collections or operations. In Afghanistan the greatest thing that the U.S. has is broad support and assistance to Afghan men and women across the country. We liberated half of the population, and for women were providing education, and when the people see what we were doing: trying to build schools, providing USAID projects – all of these things – this makes the population willing to work with and support the United States. Frequently, members of the insurgence groups will see this and sometimes they do actually cross the lines and cooperate with us. So, it’s a full range of American political power, whether it’s hard or soft, that is the strength of the American intelligence services – because  people in the world actually believe – and correctly so – that American more than generally a force of good in the world.

SS: Gary, thank you so much for this interesting interview and insight into the world of the CIA. We’ve been talking to Gary Berntsen, former top CIA officer, veteran of the agency, talking about the politics of American intelligence in the Trump era. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.

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While searching for the RT video on YouTube I found this recent interview with Gary Berntsen by Newsfirst Sri Lanka: