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The spy agency has been receiving Americans' phone records for years. By Shane Harris

Multiple officials are now confirming that the National Security Agency's practice of collecting all telephone metadata from Verizon, as first reported by the Guardian, is part of a program that has been active for years. A US intelligence official tells me that orders of the kind delivered to Verizon in April are routine. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said today that the collection of metadata from phone companies is a seven-year-old practice. And an unnamed source told the Washington Post that the order appears to be similar to one first issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2006, and that it is “reissued routinely every 90 days” and not related to any particular government investigation. 

Here’s what else we know so far about this massive intelligence collection program, a few things we might infer, and some big unanswered questions. 

What is the government doing with all this phone metadata? 

According to a senior administration official, “Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.” 

This is a description of standard link analysis. Say the government obtains the phone number for a suspected terrorist. It then runs that number against the huge metadatabase. If there’s a match, presumably the government then obtains some other authority to find out who the number in the metadatabase belongs to; according to the court order, and the administration official, the metadata does not contain the names of phone subscribers. It’s just phone numbers, lengths of calls, and other associated data that’s not considered “content.” 

What can you learn with metadata but no content? 

A lot. In fact, telephone metadata can be more useful than the words spoken on the phone call. Starting with just one target’s phone number, analysts construct a social network. They can see who the target talks to most often. They can discern if he’s trying to obscure who he knows in the way he makes a call; the target calls one number, say, hangs up, and then within second someone calls the target from a different number. With metadata, you can also determine someone's location, both through physical landlines or, more often, by collecting cell phone tower data to locate and track him. Metadata is also useful for trying to track suspects that use multiple phones or disposable phones. For more on how instructive metadata can be, read this. 

Where is all that metadata being stored? 

According to the court order, at the National Security Agency. The electronic spying agency is headquartered in Ft. Meade, Md. But it has been running out of digital storage space there, as well as electricity to keep all its systems up and running. The NSA has built a new facility in the Utah desert, called, appropriately, the Utah Data Center. And it recently broke ground on another facility at Ft. Meade. 

How does that data get from the phone companies to the NSA?  

We still know little about the physical infrastructure that transmits the metadata. But we do know, from the order, that Verizon is sending the information to the NSA “on an ongoing daily basis.” That’s an extraordinary amount of information considering it covers millions of customers making multiple calls a day. In simple terms, we’re talking about a lot of pipes and cables leading from Verizon locations—like switching stations—to NSA facilities. We know from a whistleblower at AT&T that surveillance equipment was set up at the company’s offices in San Francisco as part of the NSA’s efforts to monitor terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. 

What else might the NSA or other government agencies be doing with this metadata? 

As I wrote in my book, The Watchers, the NSA has long been interested in trying to find unknown threats in very big data sets. You’ll hear this called “data mining” or “pattern analysis.” This is fundamentally a different kind of analysis than what I described above where the government takes a known suspect’s phone number and looks for connections in the big metadatabase. 

In pattern analysis, the NSA doesn’t know who the bad guy is. Analysts look at that huge body of information and try to establish patterns of activity that are associated with terrorist plotting. Or that they think are associated with terrorist plotting. 

The NSA spent years developing very complicated software to do this, and met with decidedly mixed results. One such invention was a graphing program that plotted thousands upon thousands of pieces of information and looked for relationships among them. Critics called the system the BAG, which stood for “the big ass graph.” For data geeks, this was cutting edge stuff. But for investigators, or for intelligence officials who were trying to target terrorist overseas, it wasn’t very useful. It produced lots of potentially interesting connections, but no definitive answers as to who were the bad guys. As one former high-level CIA officer involved in the agency’s drone program told me, “I don’t need [a big graph]. I just need to know whose ass to put a Hellfire missile on.” 

How big a database do you need to store all this metadata?

A very, very big one. And lots of them. That facility in Utah has 1 million square feet of storage space. 

But just storing the data isn’t enough. The NSA wants a way to manipulate it and analyze it in close to real-time. Back in 2004, the agency began building “in-memory” databases, which were different than traditional databases that stored information on disks. In-memory was built entirely with RAM, which allows a computer to hold data in storage and make it ready for use at an instant. With disks, the computer has to physically go find the data, retrieve it, and then bring it into a program. If you’re trying to analyze entire telephone networks at once—and that is precisely what the NSA wanted to do—a disk-based system will be too slow. But the NSA’s in-memory databases could perform analytical tasks on huge data sets in just a few seconds. 

The NSA poured oceans of telephone metadata into the in-memory systems in the hopes of building a real-time terrorist tracker. It was an unprecedented move for an organization of the NSA’s size, and it was extremely expensive. 

That was 2004. The court orders issued to Verizon, we’re told, go back to as early as 2006. It appears that the NSA has had an uninterrupted stream of metadata for at least seven years. But the agency was getting access almost immediately after 9/11. That could mean there’s more than a decade’s worth of phone records stored at the NSA’s facilities.

Posted at 01:39 PM/ET, 06/06/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
DOD officials disclosed names of military personnel who helped kill terrorist leader, despite commanders' concerns about their safety. By Shane Harris

From the looks of it, about the only people who were reluctant to help two top filmmakers on their movie about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden were the people who actually planned the raid and pulled it off. 

All the other key players, from the Pentagon to the White House to the CIA were on board and eager to tell the Obama administration’s side of the story to Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who, the day after the raid in May 2011, set to work on Zero Dark Thirty, trying to get access to top officials at the Defense Department and the CIA, as well as in the secretive confines of special operators who planned and executed the mission.  

The administration's exuberant, occasionally giddy assistance to the filmmakers, who had previously collaborated on an Oscar-winning film about the war in Iraq, is documented in a Defense Department Inspector General report obtained and posted online by the Project on Government Oversight. It finds that Leon Panetta, who at the time of the raid was the CIA Director, revealed names of special operations personnel involved in the raid, as well as other information that was designated Top Secret. 

Pentagon officials were also eager to assist the filmmakers and arrange meetings with people who helped plan the raid. In the course of these discussions, administration officials revealed the names of military special operators who were not supposed to be publicly identified, partly over concerns that they or their families could be targeted for retribution. 

But in contrast to the Obama administration's aggressive pursuit and prosecution of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and other leaks, apparently no action was taken against Panetta or the other officials who freely shared sensitive information with the filmmakers. Military officers thought operational security and protection of their forces should trump all. Political and policy level officials were not exactly indifferent to that concern, but they were keen to tell the administration’s side of this extraordinary story, and to ensure their bosses came off in the best possible light. 

Among those pushing hardest to cooperate with Bigelow and Boal was Douglas Wilson, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public affairs and the Pentagon’s top communications strategist. 

Wilson leaned on Adm. Eric Olson, the Special Operations commander, to cooperate with the filmmakers' research about the raid. Wilson noted that Panetta “wants the [Defense] Department to cooperate fully with the makers of the [bin Laden] movie.” Michael Vickers, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, was about to meet with the filmmakers and “want[s] to know what [to] say,” Wilson told Olson in an e-mail. 

Olson said Boal and Bigelow could use a set of talking points that had been drawn up “to ensure accuracy and provide context to the movie project.” Then he reminded Wilson that one of his special operations planners, who had been involved in preparations for the raid, should “not be identified by name as having participated in any way.” 

This planner, according to the inspector general report, apparently knew many of the details about the preparations for taking down bin Laden and how the raid unfolded. He was so involved that as negotiations with the filmmakers unfolded, the planner was seen as qualified to speak on behalf of Olson, as well as the commander of the elite Joint Special Operations Command, Adm. Bill McRaven. 

Olson was especially sensitive to protecting the planner’s identity from public disclosure. And McRaven said keeping the names of all those involved in the planning and execution of the raid a “top aspect” of the mission. The Defense Department had provided “inordinate security” to the operators and their families, according to McRaven, and had gone so far as to brief them on whom to call if they noticed anything suspicious at their homes. 

But at an interview in the Pentagon with Bigelow and Boal on July 15, 2011, Vickers gave the filmmakers with the name of that special operations planner. The next day, Boal e-mailed a public affairs desk officer at the Pentagon to “obtain access” to the planner. 

Vickers and Wilson exchanged e-mails. “Very many thanks for this,” Wilson wrote, referring to his meeting with Bigelow and Boal. “Think they came away very happy” from the meeting. Wilson said he’d put the filmmakers in touch with Olson’s “key planner,” and that this “should complete for now their requests of DOD.” 

Wilson exchanged a few excited emails with George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, who had also made himself available to Bigelow and Boal. “We’re going to the premiere of the Boal/Bigelow movie next year,” Little wrote. 

“We’ll be hosting it :-),” Wilson replied. 

Little, who was director of CIA public affairs at the time of the raid, said that Panetta hoped Al Pacino would play him in the movie. “That’s what he wants, no joke!” 

“They will,” Wilson replied. 

Panetta was portrayed in the film by James Gandolfini. 

At the same time, that special operations planner was sending e-mails to Pentagon officials, and speaking with Vickers, about the meeting he was expected to have with Bigelow and Boal. The planner wanted to talk first with a DOD public affairs officer, who noted in an e-mail exchange that press accounts were circulating about administration officials possibly providing the filmmakers with special access as well as classified information about the raid, something the public affairs officer denied. 

“We may want to let the dust settle a little,” the public affairs officer advised the special operations planner. 

According to the planner, this was his last communication with the public affairs officer, and he never met with Bigelow and Boal. 

But Boal did attend an awards ceremony at CIA headquarters on June 24, 2011, that recognized the efforts to track down bin Laden. DOD special operators were present, but not in a “cover status” that would have used a guise to protect where they worked and what they did, the report found. “No precautionary measures” were taken to keep Boal from identifying any of the operators. 

It was at this ceremony that Boal was given another name of a DOD special operator who was involved in the bin Laden mission, the report states. This operator was not in a cover status, but the individual's name was not supposed to be publicly revealed.  

There were conflicting accounts of whether the awards ceremony was a small gathering or a large affair, and whether it was really all that sensitive. According to one attendee, special operators were present in uniform with their names visible on their uniforms. 

But the DOD tried to stop Boal from attending, according to the report. A public affairs officer at the department claimed that Panetta’s chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, intervened and insisted that Boal come. Bash denied this, and said the decision to let Boal attend the ceremony came from discussions between the CIA’s public affairs shop and the filmmakers. (Little was the head of CIA public affairs at the time.) 

At the event, Panetta gave a speech and “specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,” the report says. He also provided information designated Top Secret and Secret--the report doesn’t say what the information was. 

Later, McRaven was personally introduced to Boal. He was “surprised and shocked” that a filmmaker was allowed to the ceremony at CIA headquarters, the report says. The event was closed to the press. 

Ultimately, no classified tactics, techniques, or procedures were revealed in the back and forth between Obama administration officials and the filmmakers, the report found. And McRaven and his subordinates said they weren't concerned that they had been. 

Still, the apparent lack of response by the administration to keep sensitive information from being publicly revealed stands in contrast to the aggressive attempts to staunch leaks of other secrets and details about intelligence and military operations. The episode also underscores the distinction between authorized disclosures--which these all appeared to be--and unauthorized ones. 

Posted at 08:56 AM/ET, 06/05/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The question of who knew what and when about the Boston bombings will get muddied by "information overload." By Shane Harris

More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, US intelligence agencies are doing a much better job sharing information about terrorism and other national security threats. Their challenge now "is largely one of information overload," says a new report by the Congressional Research Service, published last week. 

"Analysts now face the task of connecting disparate, minute data points buried within large volumes of intelligence traffic shared between different intelligence agencies. According to a [Director of National Intelligence] statement from July 2010, 'Terabytes of foreign intelligence information come in each day, vastly exceeding the entire text holdings of the Library of Congress, which is estimated at 10 terabytes.' In the additional views section of the Senate report on the Christmas day bombing attempt, Senators Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr noted that analysts who could have connected the dots prior to the incident struggled to search the large volume of terrorism-related intelligence available to them. The same problem was identified at the FBI in the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting." 

The crippling dilemma of information overload is not news. (See here, here, here.) But in the context of the Boston Marathon bombings, and the inevitable questions that will follow about who knew what when, it's important to keep this salient fact in mind: The US intelligence community does not have a problem collecting information. It has a problem understanding much of it. 

(Thanks, as always, to Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists for posting this CRS report, among many others.) 

Posted at 01:13 PM/ET, 05/01/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Through first-hand accounts of the CIA officers who tracked the world's most wanted man, an empathetic and engaging story emerges. By Shane Harris

Osama bin Laden may have met his fate at the hands of military men. But it's a lesser-known fact that, for more than a decade, many of the CIA officers who were tracking the terrorist leader were women. Indeed, for as long as the CIA has been in the business of finding the founder of al Qaeda, and eventually killing him, women have been leading much of the hunt. Some say it's work to which they're particularly well suited

The CIA established a group devoted exclusively to gathering and analyzing intelligence on bin Laden, known as Alec Station, in 1996. Counterterrorism wasn't the high-stakes, career-advancing line of work that it would become after the 9/11 attacks. And the members of Alec Station, many of whom were women, took a professional risk by pigeon-holing themselves into a profession that didn't seem to have a future. 

But this tight band of CIA officers, some of whom called themselves "the Sisterhood," had found a bit of refuge from the male-dominated culture of the agency, in which no woman has ever served as director. They also found a rare, and at the time maybe even unique kind of intelligence work, in which analysts--the traditionally desk-bound thinkers of the agency's Directorate of Intelligence--worked closely with those who ran spies and did the clandestine work of espionage in the field, the members of the agency's Directorate of Operations. Historically, those sides didn't mix much on a personal or professional level. But at Alec Station, analysts and operators worked together, and in fairly short order they realized that the man whom much of the CIA had written off as a feckless wannabe jihadist was poised to become extraordinarily dangerous. 

The story of how the CIA first got onto bin Laden's trail, and how it ultimately pointed Navy SEALs to his physical address in Pakistan, is the subject of the new documentary Manhunt, premiering Wednesday night on HBO. Directed by Greg Barker (Sergio, Koran by Heart), it "stars" some of the former members of the Sisterhood and other CIA officers who joined in the hunt for bin Laden and his al Qaeda brethren before and after the 9/11 attacks. The film is based on the book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad, by journalist Peter Bergen, the author of four books on al Qaeda who produced bin Laden's first television interview, for CNN in 1997.  

The film Manhunt is a work of broad ambition, so broad, and covering so many years, that after the first half hour, when we were still not very close to Abbottabad, I wondered how Barker would ever bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. (Even though we all know how this story ends.) But the film succeeds by turning the bin Laden story into a personal and intimate one, told entirely through the perspective of the people who actually tried to track him down. 

Not every member of Alec Station is here, nor is everyone who played a central role in bin Laden's ultimate demise. But those who speak on camera do so without aliases or disguises, and in numbers that, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented for any work of film or television. If Manhunt weren't also an engrossing story, it would still be notable just for brining into the Klieg lights so many people who spent their lives in the shadows. 

The film portrays intelligence work up close, with a particular emphasis on the role of women. Cindy Storer, a former CIA analyst, and Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, demonstrate how to locate a terrorist using fragments of disjointed and often contradictory information. We watch them tack photos and bits of paper to a white board, connecting the items with colored lines. The picture doesn't come together as quickly as some of Carrie Mathison's jazz-fueled intel binges on "Homeland," but like that fictional representation, real-life analysis is tedious, frequently maddening, and often unproductive. But when it pays off, it does so with lethal effects. 

There are times when Manhunt feels like fiction. Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11 and most purely represents the spying-side of the agency (now known as the National Clandestine Service), is as flamboyant and mischievous a character as you'd expect to find in an espionage potboiler. He's full of war stories and serves as the brawn to the analytic brains, and, visually at least, a strong masculine counterpoint to a story dominated by women. 

But like a good spy story, not everything is what it seems. Far from butting heads with his women colleagues, either owing to their gender or some link to the "other side" of the CIA bureaucracy, Martin fuses with them. And the farther we get in time from the 9/11 attacks, the more the distinctions across the CIA between men and women, analysts and operators, start to fade, until they become arbitrary. Bakos represents the final synthesis of the two--a targeting officer is both an analyst and an operator. And the blending of those two worlds brings us to the modern CIA, which is more a global paramilitary organization than a Cold War spy house. 

Manhunt is a work of empathetic storytelling. Barker doesn't want to tell you the story of finding bin Laden so much as show you how the hunters did it. And because you walk in his subjects' shoes, you feel their triumphs and their failures acutely. You can imagine yourself sitting in an office like theirs, doing mind-numbing work and taking it home in your head at night. You can grieve with the CIA officers who talk, through tears, about their friends and co-workers who were killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009, an event that the film accurately portrays as a turning point in the CIA's war against al Qaeda--it galvanized the agency to recommit to finding bin Laden. These testimonials make the bin Laden story, which has been the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, accessible. 

Manhunt inevitably draws comparisons to that other big movie about killing bin Laden. But while Zero Dark Thirty purports to be a work of journalism, Manhunt actually is. There are no pseudonyms or character composites. And when some of the same events are portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, which is a superb film, they feel beyond the realm of our everyday experience. We can more easily imagine ourselves like Storer, showing up to work every day and banging her head against a desk, than we can see ourselves on the deck of a  Blackhawk helicopter, wearing night-vision goggles and carrying an assault rifle. 

Barker's empathy imposes certain limits on his film. You don't know where he stands on some of the most controversial and socially important questions of the bin Laden story, such as whether torture produced information that helped the CIA finish their manhunt. When Barker and I met in Washington a few weeks ago, he told me it's the mark of a successful film that you can't say for sure what he thinks. Not everyone who watches Manhunt will be satisfied with Barker's approach, which leaves some very big questions about some very dark days not fully answered.  

But we shouldn't expect every story about bin Laden to be told through the lens of a moral dilemma. It's enough, at least for this film, to show people doing a job, one that was measured in years and lives lost, and that changed those who did it, just as it changed history. 

Posted at 03:05 PM/ET, 04/29/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Top Bush officials, analysts, and lower-level interrogators understood that many detainees were not terrorists. By Shane Harris

In 2002, members of the Pentagon's Criminal Investigation Task Force sent reports about the interrogations of prisoners Guantanamo Bay back to Washington. There, a small group of researchers in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency applied cutting-edge data mining tools to the reports in order to find connections between the detainees and terrorists. But instead of finding links to al Qaeda or militants, the analysts discovered that some of the detainees were innocent and had been captured in Afghanistan without cause or evidence. 

Far from speeding up the release of the detainees, this information was used as a kind of baseline for what a "non-terrorist" looked like. The data tools then were re-calibrated to disregard certain attributes in the interrogation reports and to search for others that were deemed germane to the interrogators' work. The innocent prisoners--termed "dirt farmers" in military parlance--remained at Guantanamo for the time being. 

I reported this information in my book, The Watchers, which came out in 2010. I mention it again today in light of a post by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, which points back to an earlier article by Jason Leopold about an important chapter in the Guantanamo saga that you may have forgotten, or overlooked at the time. 

Top Bush administration officials were aware, as early as August 2002, that the "vast majority" of the initial group of 742 detainees at Guantanamo were innocent of any connection to terrorism. That was the sworn statement of Lawrence Wilkerson, formerly the right-hand-man to Colin Powell at the State Department, in a 2010 lawsuit by a former Guantanamo detainee. The innocent men at Guantanamo, Wilkerson said, were swept up in a harried and "incompetent" process that produced no evidence for the basis of their detention. 

This made news at the time. And though it wasn't exactly a revelation that there were innocent people in Guantanamo, Wilkerson advanced the story by swearing that senior officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were aware of the problem and did nothing about it. Their view, according to Wilkerson, was that "innocent people languishing in Guantánamo for years was justified by the broader war on terror and the capture of the small number of terrorists who were responsible for the September 11 attacks, or other acts terrorism." 

Friedersdorf asks why this story hasn't gotten more traction, and says the next time Powell appears in public, journalists should ask him to respond to what Wilkerson said. (He was asked at the time but said he hadn't read the full statement.) I'd be more interested in what Cheney and Rumsfeld have to say. 

I don't have a great answer for why this story hasn't been repeated more often. But I think it's important to note that Wilkerson and other senior Bush administration officials were not the only ones who knew about the innocent detainees at Guantanamo. This extended down to the level of the interrogators themselves and to counterterrorism analysts. This was hardly a secret held at the highest reaches of power. It was a widely known fact, and at the time, little was done to address it. 

(Also worth noting, a similar statement from Wilkerson, made in 2012, was attached to this declaration by an attorney for prisoners in Afghanistan.) 

Posted at 02:14 PM/ET, 04/26/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
An ex-CIA officer writes about an often-overlooked side of the spying business. By Shane Harris

If you've been watching the nearly non-stop coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, you've seen a parade of alleged terrorism experts on the major networks and cable outlets. If you've seen Phil Mudd's face, however, you've seen the genuine article

Image: University of Pennsylvania Press

Mudd was the deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and, later, the first-ever deputy director of the National Security Branch at the FBI. He left government in 2010, and now he's out with a new book that is part memoir, part inside look at the United States' hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist. 

Takedown: Inside the Hunt for al Qaeda starts with Mudd, in 1984, driving up to the gates at CIA headquarters to answer a help-wanted ad he heard about through a family friend. "I have my resume here," Mudd told the guard through a rolled-down car window. (Not having seen the ad himself, Mudd didn't have an address to mail his application.) A month or so later, he writes, he came home to a message on his answering machine from a guy who only gave his first name. Mudd "knew instantly, despite my ignorance about intelligence, national security, or Washington itself, that this was the CIA." 

Mudd's book is not a story of clandestine operators and special forces, but of the people who try to "connect" those proverbial dots about nascent, ambiguous terrorist plots, and who ultimately played just as vital a role in taking down Osama bin Laden as their gun-toting colleagues. The book is meant to evoke empathy for the pain-staking, frequently confounding work of what some have compared to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box. 

Of the CIA's failure to stop the 9/11 attacks, Mudd writes, "It is not that reasoned intelligence analysis could not have pieced together such a story; we learned a painful lesson about understanding this adversary that day. But no one could have believed the scenario that unfolded with enough conviction to take the kind of action needed to fight this threat--global military and intelligence operations, along with diplomacy--that came to convulse the planet."  

Mudd's memoir will feel at home alongside operations-focused accounts of the CIA's war in the shadows, not because it's full of breathtaking adventures from the field, but because it's steeped in a particular culture and ultimately has the ring of authenticity. Mudd explains how the agency crafts the President's Daily Brief in such a way that it sounds more like a daily newspaper than a top secret intelligence document. But that's what you'd expect from someone whose job was to talk to top policymakers about classified material. For Mudd, this was a matter of routine, and while the significance of his line of work was not lost on him, it perhaps didn't seem as novel or enthralling as it may sound to an outsider. 

There are some pretty harrowing war stories in the book. Mudd was part of a small CIA team that went to Afghanistan to help overthrow the Taliban, when the agency "took the gloves off," as Cofer Black, then the director of the Counterterrorist Center, liked to put it. But the book makes its most valuable contributions to the bin Laden story when we see Mudd trafficking in information--the most powerful currency in Washington--obtained from many parts of the vast intelligence system. He takes you deep into the confusing process of sorting all those puzzle pieces and explains that murky process in a clarifying way. 

Posted at 05:57 PM/ET, 04/22/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
CIA's former bin Laden hunters say don't rule out a foreign terrorist organization in the Boston bombings. By Shane Harris

The FBI has released photos and video of two men described as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings and has asked for the public's help locating them. FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers emphasized during a press conference that no detail was too small, and that these are the only two men the FBI considers suspects at this point. The public was urged to disregard other photos at this point and to call 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324), prompt #3 with information. 

Officials did not say whether they think the suspects are part of a known terrorist group, whether foreign or domestic. A press conference in Boston this afternoon was short on details of the investigation. The man in the white cap, DesLauriers said, is believed to have put down a backpack that contained one of the two bombs. 

It's obviously too early to say definitively who these men are or how they may or may not be connected to an organized group. But three former CIA officers who I spoke with this morning--before these photos were publicized--cautioned against ruling our a foreign connection at this early stage. The former officers were in Washington to talk about their role in the upcoming HBO documentary Manhunt, about the CIA's search for Osama bin Laden--in which they all played key roles. I'll have more on the movie in a few weeks. I asked them to give me their read on the unfolding investigation in Boston. 

They all thought that it was premature to say this is not the work of al Qaeda or some foreign terrorist group. Just because this attack doesn't fit AQ's previous signatures doesn't mean the group hasn't changed up the playbook. And just because there were apparently few, if any, warning signs or chatter in the run-up doesn't mean that the attack must have been planned by a domestic terrorist group. 

"My fear has always been that al Qaeda would go low-tech and tactical," said Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11. Martin worried that the group would move away from its trademark spectacular attacks that cause mass casualties (blowing up buildings and airplanes) towards assaults on soft targets, such as shopping malls, that might result in fewer deaths but still end up sewing panic and confusion, and that are easier to plan and harder to interdict. The finish line of the Boston Marathon, Martin said, is a very soft target and a very high-profile one. 

When bin Laden was alive, al Qaeda tended to favor bigger, large-scale attacks. But now that he's dead, the strategy may have shifted, noted Cindy Storer, an analyst who was part of the CIA "sisterhood" following bin Laden's trail in the 1990s. Martin added that an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's long-time no. 2, is now in charge of the group, and that Egyptian terrorist groups have historically used the lower-scale, tactical attacks like the one in Boston. 

Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, also urged people not to over-generalize al Qaeda. There are multiple variants and offshoots. Might the Boston attack have been executed by a group that hasn't shown up on the radar yet? Al Qaeda and its affiliates have also successfully recruited westerners and others who might draw less suspicion and have an easier time entering the United States, she said. Indeed, the group has made no secret of its desire to do so. 

Everyone cautioned they were just speculating, but their insights were nevertheless instructive. For instance, despite some commentary that the attack must be the work of amateurs because it didn't kill more people and involved improvised bombs, all three former officers said the attack reflected a high degree of skill, and possibly some significant training. For starters, the attackers--they didn't know how many there were this morning--built two bombs that went off as planned. That's not as easy as you might think. Building an explosive device that works as intended it not as simple as following a recipe on the Internet. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square car bomber, couldn't do it. Neither could Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber who tried to blow up an airplane mid-flight. 

Second, the attackers were able to "infiltrate, execute, and exfiltrate," as Martin put it, meaning they got to their target, planted and set off the devices, and then got away without being caught. Martin called that "disconcerting." Pulling off this kind of mission isn't easy, and the fact that investigators are coming up short on leads lends credence to the idea that the attacker may have been trained in how to avoid detection. Martin speculated that they might have used disguises like wigs or hats, which would make them harder to find now. (In the photos, both men are wearing ball caps. One is wearing sunglasses.) 

Even though the signs don't point to a traditional al Qaeda attack, that doesn't mean it was planned at home or is the work of a lone-wolf. We could be witnessing something new, or a variation on an old strategy. 

Posted at 04:11 PM/ET, 04/18/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()

Federal investigators trying to identify the culprit of the Boston Marathon bombings are being flooded with with photographs and videos sent in by the public. 

A spokesperson for the FBI’s Boston Field Office, which is leading the case, said they’ve been “inundated with material,” including images captured on cell phones that have been sent to the office by e-mail. The FBI isn’t commenting on how many items it has received or on how it’s dividing up the laborious process of looking at the images for clues. “It’s being worked on, everything is coming in here,” the spokesperson said. 

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center, a federally supported “fusion center,” is also receiving tips from the public. However it’s passing all that information along to the FBI. Asked how many images the center has received, an employee there said, “I don't have a number. I don't think anybody does, but it’s a lot.” 

An employee at the Commonwealth Fusion Center, which is part of the Massachusetts state government, referred all inquiries to the Boston Field Office. 

This afternoon, CNN and Reuters reported that authorities in Boston may have identified a suspect in the bombings from surveillance video at a Lord & Taylor department store. A press conference is expected at 5 PM. UPDATE: Those initial reports turn out to be incorrect, with multiple news organizations now reporting no arrests have been made. 

You can get a sense of what FBI investigators are going through from this Reddit thread, where members are taking on a crowd-sourced version of the painstaking imagery analysis. 

The intelligence community has the capability to process and analyze large volumes of imagery data. But so far, sources tell me that the FBI has the lead on this investigation and has not asked for assistance from other agencies. One intelligence official says that if the FBI were to ask for outside assistance, they might bring in help from a fusion center, but at least in Massachusetts, that’s not happening. 

For the past two days, investigators have been coming up short on leads. Sources close to the investigation said that the likely break would come from some of the images now being collected. 

There’s a fairly standard playbook that intelligence and security agencies follow in the wake of a terrorist attack. A kind of “all-hands” message will be sent to the several intelligence agencies, with the request that they re-examine any information they’ve collected recently that might have bearing on the current case, one former official explained. The paucity of leads suggests these agencies didn’t find much. One official said that there had been no chatter or indications of an attack by a foreign group leading up to the bombing or after it. 

The FBI requests that anyone with images of the bombing site or the surrounding areas send the material to the Boston Field Office at  

Posted at 01:30 PM/ET, 04/17/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
New book explores how the CIA and the US military have evolved as killers and spies. By Shane Harris

In 2006, as the war in Iraq was reaching a fever pitch, a Pentagon employee working on special operations teamed up with a Czech technology entrepreneur who had dabbled in the porn business and devised what they considered an ingenious plan. Knowing that video games played on mobile phones were popular throughout the Middle East, the team wanted to build games that contained positive messages about the United States. But the games weren't just about propaganda. Every download would give the United States a window into the digital comings and goings of whomever was playing it it, a cyber foothold that could allow American spies to potentially track and collect information on thousands of people. 

Image: The Penguin Press

The propaganda/spy campaign was dubbed Native Echo, and it was conceived by Michael Furlong, a colorful civilian employee working for US Special Operations Command, and a company called U-Turn, which was headquartered in Prague and founded by a pro-American Czech national named Jan Obrman, whose parents had fled the Soviets in the 1960s. The idea was to target Middle Eastern teenagers in "high risk/unfriendly areas," and over time to integrate the US messages "into the lifestyle of the targets," ideally to make them more amenable to US armed forces, and to counter the rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists.

The full account of this previously unreported intelligence operation is found in the new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. The book explores the ways in which the CIA--which before 9/11 had long been out of the business of killing people--and the US military--which had not been the domain of spies--have often changed roles over the past decade. It is filled with characters, like Furlong, who move between the membranes of these two worlds, and find themselves at home in either one. 

Mazzetti writes that the first mobile game developed for Native Echo was modeled on the popular Call of Duty series. This new "shooter" game, Iraqi Hero, "took the player on an odyssey through the streets of Baghdad, shooting up insurgents trying to kill civilians in a wave of terrorist attacks," Mazzetti writes. "The goal was to reach an Iraqi police station and deliver the secret plans for an upcoming insurgent attack, plans that had been stolen from a militia group's headquarters." 

Native Echo was timed to coincide with the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Its "main focus was on combatting the flood of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and parts of North Africa," Mazzetti writes. 

As an intelligence collection program, Native Echo was both broad and audacious: 

"Thousands of people would be sending their mobile-phone numbers and other identifying information to U-Turn, and that information could be stored in military databases and used for complex data-mining operations carried out by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. The spies wouldn't have to go hunting for information; it would come to them." 

In order to hide the US role in the scheme, "Furlong convinced [U-Turn's] executives to create an offshore company that could receive Pentagon contracts but not be tied directly to the United States," Mazzetti writes. Obrman set up JD Media Transmission Systems, LLC, incorporated in the Seychelles Islands, in order to receive money transfers from the US through a foreign bank account. 

Furlong was a master at working the byzantine procurement bureaucracy to further his covert plans. "Taking advantage of a law that allows firms owned by Native Americas to get a leg up when bidding on government contracts, Furlong arranged for U-Turn to partner with Wyandotte Net Tel, a firm located on a tiny speck of tribal lands in eastern Oklahoma," Mazzetti writes. 

U-Turn developed two more games for Native Echo--Oil Tycoon, which challenged players to protect vital pipelines and infrastructure, and City Mayor, in which players became urban planners and rebuilt a fictional city destroyed by terrorists. The team came up with various ways to distribute the games, including by hand via memory cards, which could be sold or given away in markets and bazaars, Mazzetti reports. "The way to get far wider distribution, however, was to post the games on Web sites and blogs frequented by gamers in the Middle East. This allowed [Special Operations Command] to monitor how many people were downloading the games and, more important, who was doing it." 

Mazzetti concludes that it's hard to know how far Native Echo went, and even how many companies like U-Turn were hired to create propaganda for the military. Furlong came up with other wild ideas, some of which were never approved. But the relationship between the military and U-Turn blossomed, and it offers a concrete illustration of how the armed forces evolved into a network of spies. 

The Way of the Knife is full of stories like this, of people living on the edge between two worlds, frequently not sure how to operate on turf that had long been forbidden. The book is a culmination of Mazzetti's years of reporting on the intersections of the military and the CIA, and it is a forceful, compelling articulation of a new way of war. Mazzetti's reporting has been among some of the most important, in that it has shed light on usually hidden practices, particularly the use of brutal interrogations on terrorist detainees.  As the book unfolds, we see how the 9/11 attacks shake the CIA out of their Cold War culture of espionage, and turn the agency into a highly-efficient global killing force. 

I spoke with Mazzetti yesterday as he was heading off to New York to begin a book tour. He said that he began working after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that the first few months of writing were filled with some anxiety, since his journalism beat was now the hottest around. Lots of his competitors were writing books and long magazine articles about the raid. But Mazzetti said that he wanted to write something broader, to show how the long arc of the war on terror has fundamentally changed how the US fights. 

"I covered the Pentagon for five years, and then I have been covering the intelligence world since 2006," Mazzetti said. "And really, I realized that I was kind of covering the same beat. The lines that existed before 9/11, where the military did this and the spies did that, really have blurred." 

Mazzetti said he's glad to be back at the Times after a 15-month book leave. He had missed the collegiality of an office. Writing a book is solitary business. But in the midst of the project, Mazzetti and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed Max, their first child. 

"I can't wait until he is old enough to read this book," Mazzetti writes in his acknowledgments. "I cherish the memories of the mornings we spent together during the first few months, and of the smiles he delivered when I came home at the end of particularly frustrating days of book writing. They put things in perspective." 


Posted at 02:12 PM/ET, 04/09/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
File under: "ain't gonna happen" By Shane Harris

A non-partisan group of former military officers wants the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty to use any media appearances or acceptance speeches at the Oscars this weekend to call on the Senate Intelligence Committee to release a classified, 6,000-page report on the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which feature prominently in the film. 

The group has written to Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Megan Ellison and others associated with the movie urging them to use their turn in the spotlight and "make the case for transparency on this issue..." 

Right. Because antagonizing the Senate intel committee is exactly what the ZDT crew wants to do right now. Said committee is investigating whether the CIA gave the filmmakers "inappropriate" access to classified information. And the senators will also look at whether CIA officials made the case that torturing terrorist suspects provided useful intelligence--a case that some observers (this one included) think that the film makes, even though its creators have argued, awkwardly, that it doesn't. 

Boal, the screenwriter, and Bigelow, the director, got extraordinary access to CIA and other administration officials during the making of their Oscar-nominated film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, far more than has been afforded to journalists. The Hollywood backlash has been palpable, and perhaps most evidenced by the fact that Bigelow, a previous Oscar winner for her Iraq War film Hurtlocker, was passed over this time for a Best Director nomination. 

When I saw the DC screening of Zero Dark Thirty earlier this year, I thought Bigelow and Boal were notably cautious in their remarks about the controversy their film has also generated in Washington. Bigelow, who knew she was under intense official scrutiny, seemed genuinely nervous to be in a room full of politicos, feds, and journalists.  And Boal looked as if he was biting his tongue, wanting to rebut his critics but careful not to stir the hornets' nest. 

I doubt the writer or the director intend to make themselves public martyrs for government transparency. The harder they push on the Senate Intelligence Committee to say what it knows about torture, the more they open themselves up to questions about what special access the CIA gave the filmmakers. And that is not a conversation they want to have. 

Posted at 03:52 PM/ET, 02/21/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()