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.
The Defense Department yesterday released the names of three airmen killed when a KC-135 tanker crashed near Chon-Aryk, Kyrgyzstan, on May 3. They were assigned to the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron, Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. The cause of the crash is under investigation. Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft break into three parts in the air and hearing an explosion.
I wrote a few years ago about the Air Force's long and painful attempt to field a new fleet of tankers, which are among the oldest planes that the service flies. This latest crash brings to mind a fatal accident in 1999, when a tanker with the Washington Air National Guard went down near an air base in Germany after its horizontal stabilizer spontaneously locked into an extreme "nose-up" position. The aircraft pitched, becoming almost perpendicular to the ground, and then stalled and crashed short of the runway. All four crew members aboard died.
The Air Force grounded 350 tankers and inspected their stabilizers. Investigators never determined the cause of the malfunction, but the crash provided yet another reason to replace the KC-135 fleet.
The Air Force and its primary contractor, Boeing, probably can't build the new tankers any faster. But if this latest crash is found to be the result of a mechanical defect, that will add new urgency to the process, just as it did 14 years ago when old tankers started falling out of the sky.
If you want an idea of what "cyber warfare" means to the US Navy, check out this short video about the Tenth Fleet, home to the Navy's cyber warriors.
It's a bit melodramatic--though not so bad on production values. But it tells you how the Navy sees its role in the "fifth domain" of combat; protecting networks, stopping attacks, and, when necessary, pairing cyber offense with "kinetic" military force.
"Cyberspace is where the battles of the future will be won or lost," says the film's narrator. It's a hotly debated point, of course. But if you want a window into why the Navy--or at least the Tenth Fleet--believes this is true, have a look.
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.)
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.
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."
Ken Anderson and Ben Wittes, two good friends of Dead Drop, are embarking on an intriguing and from my perspective quite welcome new project. They're writing a book that will pull together all the significant speeches Obama administration officials have given on national security law, and then "weave it all back together, creating a synthetic account of the administration’s views that is worth more collectively than the sum of its parts."
Called Speaking the Law, it will be "a kind of handbook on the framework for counterterrorism," using administration officials' own words as the foundation. "Consider it the White Paper the administration has never issued," say Ken and Ben.
I suspect Obama administration officials themselves will be among this book's most avid readers, given the authors' premise, and that journalists and scholars will find it useful as well:
"There is a myth that the administration has had little to say on the subject of its counterterrorism authorities, especially targeted killing and drones--largely because it has declined to release publicly its Office of Legal Counsel targeted killing memoranda. Part of the point of Speaking the Law is to show how wrong this myth really is. The administration has actually said a huge amount. It’s just that it has said a great deal of it orally, and has broken up its utterances among a number of different statements."
The authors are publishing the chapters serially online, and then the Hoover Institution will put out a hardcover version when all the work is finished. The introduction and first chapter are available now.
When Ash Carter, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, was a 32-year-old associate professor at Harvard, he was asked to accompany a US arms control delegation to Moscow. The Reagan administration wanted to examine a new laser system that the Soviets claimed would be used to research the surface of Mars, but that might also be deployed as an space-based anti-missile system.
Carter had studied physics and had once worked as a missile-defense analyst. He was expected to give his analysis (the delegation later concluded the Soviet laser could violate a ballistic missile treaty that had been in place for 15 years), but he didn't expect his contribution to carry much weight.
"I was a nobody," Carter said at a dinner in Washington on Tuesday, honoring Brent Scowcroft, who was then a leading thinker on US-Soviet nuclear relations, and would, in a few years, be the national security adviser to George W. Bush. "Brent listened to me. He treated me as an equal." It was the beginning of a mentorship that, as Carter tells it, led to his advising a string of secretaries of defense, and now to his own position as the No. 2 at the Pentagon.
"The influence of Brent Scowcroft stands before you: Me."
When a protege talks about of his mentor, at the end of his career, the tone inevitably gets eulogistic. Scowcroft is 87. He has been out of government for two decades, though he remains an eminence grise in national security and business circles. And while Carter hardly gave a valediction, there was a certain wistfulness--how could there not be?--in saluting an aged Cold Warrior.
"We were closer to war with the Soviets than anyone, except Brent, might have realized," Carter said. "As you go to sleep tonight and reflect on this evening, remember it all could have been very different if not for [him]."
When it came time for Scowcroft to talk, he made no pretense of his utter bafflement at the complex state of global affairs today. In the Cold War, he said, "The threat of a thermonuclear war...was just over the horizon." But in the possibility of annihilation there was a certain clarity. "The world was given to us. Our strategy was containment. ...That made things a lot easier." He shook his head. "But not today. There is no overarching strategy." It was not a critique of any administration. Just an observation that, in his day, things were somehow simpler.
Scowcroft, smiling tenderly, turned to his pupil: "Ash Carter, thank you for taking time off tonight from problems I wouldn't wish on anyone."
It's rare to find a military brat who spent his childhood years living in one place. It's rarer still that the place is Washington, DC.
Gen. Larry Spencer, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was born at Walter Reed Hospital, in 1954. His father, Alfonzo, served in the Army and fought in the Korean War, and if not for a horrific accident, the Spencers might have lived the itinerant life of a typical military family.
Alfonzo was a heavy equipment operator, and while transporting a bulldozer from one town to another, he fell off the top and caught his left hand in the tracks. His mauled limb became infected with gangrene and the hand was amputated.
He came home and went for treatment in the hospital where his son was born. Doctors fashioned an innovative prosthetic device to give Alfonzo some dexterity. By today's standards, it was a primitive and grisly contraption.
"They cut a hole through his bicep," Spencer says. "As a kid, I could stick my finger right though it. They put a plastic sleeve on, and they had a metal hook on the end. Wires came up both sides of that sleeve. And there was a thing shaped like a hot dog that fit into the bicep. He would flex his muscle to move the hook."
Spencer says his dad was an expert marksman, and even with the new hand, he still was.
For Alfonzo, personal injury marked the beginning of a new career. He was assigned to the Forest Glenn Annex, nearby Walter Reed, where the Army was experimenting with new prosthetic technologies. "He was on the ground floor of that," Spencer says. Today, Walter Reed is still the site of the military's most advanced prosthetics research, and the technology has come a long way since the hole in Alfonozo's arm.
The Spencers lived in a quiet neighborhood in Southeast Washington. The city was different then, he says. "I never thought twice about going anywhere in DC. It wasn't considered dangerous."
Spencer joined the Boy Scouts. Before meetings, Alfonzo would inspect his son's uniform--shirt tucked, cap on straight, shoes shined. "It was not cool in Southeast to walk down the street in a uniform," Spencer says. Once he got far enough from the house, Spencer would remove his Boy Scout dress, change into street clothes, and stuff the uniform in his bag.
Spencer didn't seem destined for a military career. In high school, the family moved to Seat Pleasant, Maryland, in Prince George's County. Spencer was a standout football player at Central High School, and the team captain. "I played offense, defense, kickoff team, return team, punt team. We never came off the field. I loved football."
After graduation, Spencer played briefly in a semi-pro league in the area. "But I recognized at some point there wasn't a lot of future in it," he says. There was also no money it; the league's players were unpaid.
One day in 1971, with Vietnam War protests in high-gear across Washington, Spencer was walking through a shopping mall in Suitland, Maryland, off Branch Ave. "I don't know why," he says, "but I sort of of stumbled into the Air Force recruiter's office. And when I stumbled out of there, I was in the Air Force."
He didn't have a single semester hour of college credit. He went home to tell his parents that he'd joined up. "They couldn't believe it," he says. Spencer asked his dad to drop him off at the bus station early the next morning. Later, he took his first plane ride, down to Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, to begin basic training.
Spencer says he took to the regimented life immediately. Up early. Exercising all day. "It was like being at football practice." He worked his way through college at nights and eventually went to Officer Training School and was commissioned in 1980.
Unlike his father, Spencer did move around throughout his career, to various assignments in the US. But his roots stayed in Washington. His mother, Selma, lives 20 minutes from his office in the Pentagon. Spencer is a die-hard Redskins fan, and says one of the highlights of the past year was attending a game and meeting Robert Griffin III.
Spencer has been back at the Pentagon since 2006, working frequently on budget and personnel issues as the military braces for cuts and tries to reintegrate thousands of combat veterans into life stateside. It wasn't until recently that Spencer got the chance to talk with his father about his own experience in war.
Like a lot of veterans of his generation, Alfonzo never spoke about his service, his son says. "But we noticed little things. On the Fourth of July, the fireworks going off would bother him. But we didn't think much about it."
It was only eight years ago that Spencer found out what had happened to his father in Korea, including the details of his injury. Finally sharing his story, Alfonzo realized that he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty years after he'd gone to war, Alfonzo joined a group counseling program for veterans that met in Baltimore.
"I tell people now coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, my father waited until he was 80 years old to go in for PTSD [treatment]," Spencer says. The message is clear: Don't wait. Times have changed. Alfonzo died in 2009.
Spencer's parents probably wouldn't have guessed he'd one day become the highest-ranking African American in the Air Force. But he comes from a family of path breakers. In 1951, Spencer's mother, along with 450 of her classmates, walked out the doors of the all-black R. R. Moton High School, in Farmville, Va., to demand better conditions at their tiny school, which was built to handle only 150 students. The one story-building had eight classrooms, no gym, and no cafeteria. Moton's teachers earned less than their white counterparts at other county schools.
The student protest led to a lawsuit, which was later joined with Brown V. Board of Education and heard before the Supreme Court. In 1954, the justices ruled unanimously that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
In January, during celebrations honoring Martin Luther King, Spencer spoke at his mom's old high school, which is now a museum. "I am reminded of Dr. King's words," he said. "'Courage is an inner resolution to go forth despite obstacles. Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.'"
"My mother, her classmates and countless others during the civil rights movement are a key reason why I wear this Air Force uniform today. Many people sacrificed a lot back then to change a country that now allows me and others to graciously and happily sacrifice for it."
In the wake of news that the New York Times' computer networks were infiltrated by Chinese cyber spies, three more news organizations have reportedly had their networks infiltrated as part of what is being described as a broad campaign of espionage targeting American media companies.
The Wall Street Journal reports that its networks were infiltrated, "apparently to monitor its China coverage." The Journal also quotes a spokeswoman for Thomson Reuters PLC saying the Reuters news service was hacked twice last year.
Today, security journalist Brian Krebs reports that the Washington Post was hit, as well. According to a former Post information technology employee, Krebs reports:
"[A]ttackers compromised at least three servers and a multitude of desktops, installing malicious software that allowed the perpetrators to maintain access to the machines and the network.
"They seemed to have the ability to do anything they wanted on the network. 'They transmitted all domain information (usernames and passwords),' the former Post employee said on condition of anonymity. 'We spent the better half of 2012 chasing down compromised PCs and servers. [It] all pointed to being hacked by the Chinese. They had the ability to get around to different servers and hide their tracks. They seemed to have the ability to do anything they wanted on the network.'"
Security companies and government investigators responded to the breach, Krebs reports. And in a move that is sure to raise eyebrows in the Post newsroom, particularly among reporters covering national security and cyber espionage, "experts from the National Security Agency and Defense Department took one of the Post's servers for forensic analysis."
Krebs doesn't say whether the FBI was involved with the Post investigation. Presumably the bureau would have the lead in a case such as this. The Defense Department has the biggest and arguably most sophisticated computer forensics agency in the government, but the FBI has that capability, as well. It's not immediately clear why DOD agencies would take the computer equipment. But the DOD could be assisting the FBI.
There's news out of the New York Times this morning--about the New York Times. A long article details how hackers, whom the paper's bosses believe are in China, stole the passwords of Times employees, accessed the e-mail accounts of some reporters, and rooted around the Times networks for four months. The intruders appeared to be looking for the names of people who might have given information to a Times reporter working on a major expose of a top Chinese government official.
From the paper:
"The timing of the attacks coincided with the reporting for a Times investigation, published online on Oct. 25, that found that the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China's prime minister, had accumulated a fortune worth several billion dollars through business dealings.
"Security experts hired by The Times to detect and block the computer attacks gathered digital evidence that Chinese hackers, using methods that some consultants have associated with the Chinese military in the past, breached The Times's network. They broke into the e-mail accounts of its Shanghai bureau chief, David Barboza, who wrote the reports on Mr. Wen's relatives, and Jim Yardley, The Times's South Asia bureau chief in India, who previously worked as bureau chief in Beijing."
As a journalist--that is, someone who goes to considerable lengths to protect the information I collect and the identities of people I talk to--this is a chilling revelation. Deeply unsettling. And sadly, not at all surprising.
Foreign intelligence services have been targeting US corporations, members of Congress and their staff, think tanks and law firms, and defense contractors for years. In every instance, the spies are after secret, proprietary information, with an eye towards getting strategic advantage over US companies and the government. News reporters, particularly those in regular contact with foreign and US sources in governments and the private sector, would be prime targets for any credible intelligence service. I reported in 2011 that spies may have tried to impersonate a well-known Washington journalist, Bruce Stokes, in order to spy on the State Department. We journalists are low-hanging fruit.
"Security experts found evidence that the hackers stole the corporate passwords for every Times employee and used those to gain access to the personal computers of 53 employees, most of them outside The Times's newsroom."
Presumably, any reporter working in China is exercising some strong operational security. Hopefully, he's not keeping notes on a computer, not exchanging e-mails with sources, and limiting electronic communications. But it sounds like once the spies got into the network, via spear phishing, they had freedom to roam and gather information about many reporters.
"Computer security experts found no evidence that sensitive e-mails or files from the reporting of our articles about the Wen family were accessed, downloaded or copied," said Jill Abramson, the Times's executive editor. That's somewhat surprising, considering how long the intruders were inside the network.
Note, though, Abrams says no "sensitive" e-mails were accessed. That doesn't mean other, non-sensitive emails weren't read. And the Times article doesn't say--nor could experts know--whether the spies were able to glean any insights about a reporter's sources by examining the names of people sending e-mails, which one could see just by looking at the inbox, without having to open the e-mail or copy it.
It could be that the paper's security consultant, Mandiant, was able to prevent any massive exfiltration of sensitive information. Or maybe the spies just managed to find what they were looking for and didn't need to siphon off files. The Times article gives a pretty broad description of the cat and mouse game between the spies and the security experts.
"To get rid of the hackers, The Times blocked the compromised outside computers, removed every back door into its network, changed every employee password and wrapped additional security around its systems."
It seems that reporters weren't alerted to the ongoing investigation, which makes sense if Mandiant didn't want to tip anyone off to the investigation. (These are reporters, after all.) One Times scribe I know only found out about the past months events after reading the paper this morning.
Reporters' passwords were reset, apparently to the frustration of some.
"I would like to apologize to the NYT computer support folks I snapped at after they reset my password without warning," national reporter John Schwartz wrote in a tweet.
In reply, national security reporter Charlie Savage, tweeted, "Explains a lot of bustling yet somewhat inexplicably furtive activity by the IT support staff in recent months."
"[Y]es, and a lot of yelling by writers on deadline!" wrote Schwartz.
It would seem, based on the Times account, that the intruders were only interested in reporting about the Wen family. Mandiant found "no evidence" that those stolen passwords were used to seek any other kind of information. That suggests that this intrusion was targeted and disciplined.
However, the Times called the intrusion "part of a broader computer espionage campaign against American news media companies that have reported on Chinese leaders and corporations."
"Last year, Bloomberg News was targeted by Chinese hackers, and some employees' computers were infected, according to a person with knowledge of the company's internal investigation, after Bloomberg published an article on June 29 about the wealth accumulated by relatives of Xi Jinping, China's vice president at the time. Mr. Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party in November and is expected to become president in March. Ty Trippet, a spokesman for Bloomberg, confirmed that hackers had made attempts but said that 'no computer systems or computers were compromised.'"
No customer data was stolen from the Times, security experts said.
If the Times's reporting is accurate, we should presume that the attacks on it and Bloomberg are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I'd imagine news rooms across town and across the country today are going to search their networks for any suspicious activity. For its part, the Times became suspicious after learning of warnings from Chinese government officials that the investigation of Wen would "have consequences." On October 24, 2012, executives at the paper asked AT&T, which monitors the Times's networks, "to watch for unusual activity."
At least one security expert is sounding a skeptical note on all this, saying the Times has no basis for pointing the finger at China. Jeffrey Carr wrote on his blog:
"This article appears to be nothing more than an acknowledgment by the New York Times that they found hackers in their network (that's not really news); that China was to blame (that's Mandiant's go-to culprit), and that no customer data was lost (i.e., the Times isn't liable for a lawsuit).
"I think that Mandiant does good incident response work . . . however their China-centric view of the hacker world isn't always justified in my opinion."
Carr goes on to dissect the article and explain why he thinks other countries would have a motive to spy on the Times.
In his confirmation hearing this morning, Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel was asked about cyber threats against the United States, although the question tended towards threats to physical infrastructure rather than espionage.
"Cyber, I believe represents as big a threat to this country as any one specific threat," Hagel said, promising that he'd put "high priority" on the issue if confirmed. "It's an insidious, quiet kind of a threat threat we've never quite seen before. It can paralyze a nation a second."
Hagel said that the current Congress has to pick up cyber legislation that failed to pass last year. "You must, and you know that."