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.)
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.
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 Boston@ic.fbi.gov.
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."
John Brennan's confirmation hearing for CIA Director has suddenly become a lot more consequential.
In the past few days, we've gotten a window into Brennan's role in the Bush-era terrorist interrogation program--it looks more significant than previously reported--and now comes a leaked Justice Department "white paper" that describes the administration's rationale for why targeted killings of U.S. citizens, a program that Brennan has overseen, are legal.
The revelations in both documents seem obviously engineered to put Brennan in the hot seat about two controversial programs, one of which, targeted killings, some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee still believe they have insufficient information. So, now we know the likely frame for Thursday's confirmation hearing, and I presume that some significant debate will turn on the question of what constitutes an "imminent threat."
The leaked Justice Department white paper arguably attempts to redefine what most people would consider the common sense definition of imminent threat--that is, an enemy is about to take up arms against you, or is preparing to attack you. Think bombers readying for takeoff, or a foreign nation basing missiles within range of the United States or its allies.
But that's not the kind of imminence the administration is looking for when deciding whether to kill a U.S. citizen. Indeed, the white paper argues that it would have made no sense to wait for the 9/11 hijackers to board airplanes before moving with lethal, preemptive force against them, had that been an option.
The paper argues that terrorist groups are always plotting, and that they would presumably strike if they had the opportunity. So if someone is a member of Al Qaeda, or an affiliate, he by definition poses a threat to America. But that doesn't mean said terrorist is poised to strike, and therefore, in a given moment, constitutes an imminent threat. Does it?
Now we enter a gray area that this white paper is unable to clear up.
"Imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity, the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on Americans," the white paper states in a section that addresses the central issues. (The question of imminence comprises much of the 16-page document.) Nothing in that sentence tells you when a terrorist is judged to be an imminent threat. Rather, it describes the considerations government officials must make when determining whether to kill him now. Or, imminently.
"Thus, a decision maker determining whether an al-Qa'ida operational leader presents an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States must take into account that certain members of [AQ] (including any potential target of lethal force) are continually plotting attacks against the United States; that [AQ] would engage in such attacks regularly to the extent it were able to do so; that the U.S. government may not be aware of all [AQ] plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur; and that, in light of these predicates, the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has a high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties."
This paragraph could be summed up as "a list of reasons not to not kill a terrorist."
The white paper attempts to give some more detail on the decision-making process for concluding that someone is, in fact, imminently threatening the United States. But it's thin.
"A high-level official [the white paper never specifies that this must be the President] could conclude, for example, that an individual posts an 'imminent threat' of violent attack against the United States where he is an operational leader of [AQ] or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planing terrorist attacks against the United States."
Ok, we're getting somewhere. You're an operational leader of a terrorist cell, you're a very dangerous guy.
"Moreover, where the [AQ] member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member's involvement in [AQ's] continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat."
That seems a reasonable conclusion to draw, presuming that the evidence of previous activities is sound. I doubt anyone would argue that a terrorist who has attempted to kill Americans, but who has failed, won't try to do so again.
But nothing in the white paper constitutes a check list of all the requirements or characteristics for becoming an imminent threat in the government's eyes. Does the high-level official rely on visual identification of a target from drone footage? Intercepted communications showing X degrees of separation to a known terrorist group? Human tips? Some combination of the above? Is two out of three enough?
We're not likely to hear anything about these specifics, not in an open, unclassified hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the white paper doesn't go there.
"This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render" a lawful targeted killing, it states. So, this paper can be described as the legal rationale for targeted killing in theory, if not as practiced by the Obama administration today. This is not a new revelation. (Indeed, the white paper references some speeches on this subject by senior administration officials.) But the introduction of the white paper into the public domain creates many new dynamics, and not just for Brennan's upcoming confirmation hearing.
One last point that may have implications beyond the realm of counterterrorism. Does the administration think its legal rationale for targeted killings is flexible enough to be applied to non-terrorist threats to national security? Could it justify, say, killing a member of a hacker collective whom the government believes is trying to take down a power grid with a cyber attack?
The white paper "does not assess what might be required to render a lethal operation against a U.S. citizen lawful in other circumstances," it states. So, the paper doesn't say the rationale could not be used against hackers. It just doesn't assess the question at all. If the potential breadth of the rationale does come up at Brennan's hearing, we'll be in the land of "hypotheticals," and in Washington, those are always easy to dodge.