Posts Tagged ‘intelligence’

China’s New National Security Commission: President Xi Jinping seeks coordinated approach to domestic and foreign challenges

April 15, 2014


China's President Xi Jinping speaks at the College of Europe at the Concert Hall in Bruges, northern Belgium April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Logghe/Pool

China’s President Xi Jinping speaks at the College of Europe at the Concert Hall in Bruges, northern Belgium April 1, 2014.  Credit: Reuters/Yves Logghe/Pool

(Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping held the first meeting of a new national security commission on Tuesday, saying China needed a coordinated approach to domestic and foreign challenges, including social unrest, in “the most complex time in history”.

China announced the formation of the commission in November at the end of a key party meeting to map out reforms.

Experts say it is based on the National Security Council in the United States and will increase coordination among the various wings of China’s security bureaucracy, split now among the police, military, intelligence and diplomatic services.

Possible international flashpoints for China include Japan, North Korea and the South China Sea. China says it also faces considerable threats at home, pointing to continued unrest in two regions heavily populated by ethnic minorities which chafe at Chinese rule – Tibet and Xinjiang.

Xi told the commission’s first meeting that China faced the “most complex time in history” at home and abroad when it came to its security, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

China must “implement and put into practice an overall national security view, paying attention to external as well as internal security”, Xi was cited as saying.

While Xi listed areas ranging from economic to nuclear security, he also said the commission had to “take political security as its base” and “seek stability”, references to protecting the ruling Communist Party’s hold on power and dealing with domestic unrest.

“Security is the condition for development. We can only make the country rich by building up military power, and only with military power can we protect the country,” Xi said.

The report did not mention any specific topics that were discussed.

On Monday, Xi urged the air force to adopt an integrated air and space defense capability, in what state media called a response to the increasing military use of space by the United States and others.

While Beijing insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, a Pentagon report last year highlighted China’s increasing space capability and said Beijing was pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.

Fears of a space arms race with the United States and other powers mounted after China blew up one of its own weather satellites with a ground-based missile in January 2007.

Visiting air force headquarters in Beijing, Xi, who is also head of the military, told officers “to speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities”, Xinhua said.

It gave no details of how China expects to do this.

China has been increasingly ambitious in developing its space programs for military, commercial and scientific purposes. Xi has said he wanted China to establish itself as a space superpower.

But it is still playing catch-up to established space superpowers the United States and Russia. China’s Jade Rabbit moon rover has been beset by technical difficulties since landing to great domestic fanfare in mid-December.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)


Chinese soldiers take part in an exercise in Heihe, northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, April 9, 2014 (AFP Photo/)

Photo: Chinese people wear face masks with “No to Kunming PX,” paraxylene, written on signs and  chant slogans as they hold a protest against a planned refinery project in downtown Kunming in southwest China’s Yunnan province Saturday, May 4, 2013. After word spread about an environmental protest that was planned for Saturday in the central Chinese city of Chengdu, drugstores and printing shops were ordered to report anyone making certain purchases. Microbloggers say government fliers urged people not to demonstrate, and schools were told to stay open to keep students on campus. Meanwhile, hundreds of people – many wearing mouth masks – gathered in Kunming to protest a planned refinery project in the area. The demonstrators demanded information transparency and that public health be safeguarded. (AP Photo)

Demonstrators set trash bins on fire as they protest against a chemical plant project in Maoming

Demonstrators set trash bins on fire as they protest against a chemical plant project in Maoming Photo: Reuters
Chinese soldiers watch Muslim Uighur women in Xinjiang

Middle East Peace: I was against the release of the spy before I was for it

April 2, 2014

John Kerry and Washington’s decades-long fight over releasing Israel’s controversial spy.

By Shane Harris and John Hudson


In January 1999, a bipartisan group of senators sent a strongly worded letter to President Bill Clinton urging him not to commute the prison sentence of Jonathan Pollard, who was then in the 12th year of a life sentence for spying for Israel. Freeing Pollard, the lawmakers said, would “imply a condonation of spying against the United States by an ally,” would overlook the “enormity” of Pollard’s offenses and the damage he had caused to national security, and would undermine the United States’ ability to share secrets with foreign governments. Among the 60 signatories of the letter was John Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, Kerry is singing a very different tune.

Now, as the secretary of state, Kerry has supported using Pollard’s potential release as a bargaining chip in the Obama administration’s attempts to salvage the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The outcome of those talks was in doubt Tuesday as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority opted to press for statehood through the United Nations, a move that Israel has long said would as a deal-breaker. A planned meeting between Kerry and Abbas was canceled as a result. Abbas said he’d made the move because Israel hadn’t released a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners. The Obama administration had envisioned potentially releasing Pollard — who is seen as a national hero by many Israelis — to help persuade Jerusalem to let those Palestinian prisoners go.

Kerry wasn’t alone in opposing Pollard’s release in 1999, when the issue was similarly under consideration as a possible sweetener for Israel during its on-again, off-again talks with the Palestinians. Kerry’s allies at the time included then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, now the secretary of defense, as well as Dianne Feinstein, the current chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Mitch McConnell, the current Senate minority leader; John McCain, a former Republican nominee for president; and Patrick Leahy, now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kerry and Hagel in particular now find themselves in the awkward position of serving in an administration that is considering letting Pollard go, exactly the outcome they once railed against. A spokesperson for Hagel said, “The secretary will keep private his counsel for the president.” A spokesperson for Kerry wouldn’t discuss details of any negotiations. Neither Hagel’s nor Kerry’s spokesperson addressed the positions they’d taken in 1999. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama, who has the sole authority to commute Pollard’s sentence or grant him a pardon, “has not made a decision” on the question.

The signatories largely had strong pro-Israel voting records, but their contempt for Pollard crossed party lines and was striking in its ferocity. “Any grant of clemency would now be viewed as an acquiescence to external political pressures and a vindication of Pollard’s specious claims of unfairness and victimization…. This would send the wrong signal to employees within the Intelligence Community. It is an inviolable principle that those entrusted with America’s secrets must protect them, without exception, irrespective of their own personal views or sympathies.”

Pollard has long maintained that he gave Israel classified intelligence in order to help the country protect itself from surprise attacks by other countries in the Middle East. But intelligence officials have dismissed those claims and said Pollard also tried to sell classified information to at least four other governments. A former U.S. intelligence official who was involved in the government’s damage assessment of Pollard’s spying said in an interview he was motivated largely by money to pay for an alleged cocaine habit.

“It was all about money, and he put most of it up his nose. He was known in Washington as the ‘candy man’ for God’s sake,” the former official said. “He’s reinvented himself as someone else, and a large number of Israelis have fallen for it and a large number of Americans and stupid politicians have fallen for it.”

Pollard is seen very differently in Israel, where every prime minister since the time of his arrest in 1985 has called for his release. In the late 1990s, the presidents of 55 major American Jewish organizations jointly called for Pollard to be set free. And for decades, there’ve been mass protests in both Israel and the United States calling on a succession of American presidents to free Pollard, both on humanitarian grounds and, his supporters say, because he gave information to a close U.S. ally and was unjustly accused of betraying the United States. Many of those protests are organized by Pollard’s wife, whom he married while in prison and who remains one of his staunchest defenders.

The potential release of Pollard in 1999 wasn’t the first time Clinton had considered letting Israel’s most notorious spy go free. Clinton had previously denied Pollard’s request for commutation, citing “his lack of remorse” and “the continuing threat to national security that he pose[s].” The former intelligence official said that the government feared if Pollard were ever released, he would continue to spy for Israel or other governments. Clinton ultimately declined to commute Pollard’s sentence in 1999, under pressure from lawmakers and his own director of central intelligence, George Tenet, who said he’d resign if Pollard were released.

For his part, Pollard on Tuesday passed up on the opportunity to apply for parole — he would be eligible for early release in 2015 — and appears insistent on being granted commutation.

Some of the signatories to the 1999 letter have since changed their minds. Joe Lieberman, then a Democratic senator from Connecticut, said in a statement Tuesday that Pollard “has served a very long time in jail and paid a heavy price for his crimes. Based on that fact, and my understanding that Pollard’s health is apparently bad, I believe there is justification for his release from prison at this time.” McCain has likewise softened his stance; he said in 2011 that he also supports releasing Pollard.

A person familiar with Kerry, speaking on backgound, disputed the relevance of the letter that the secretary signed. “We’re not going to speculate on a 15-year-old letter signed by 60 United States senators back with Y2K was a front-page story and George Clooney was just a doctor on ‘E.R.’ … Kerry’s focus is on how we can make progress in the peace process today,” this person said.

But the heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees, along with lawmakers from both parties, roundly opposed releasing Pollard in various remarks to journalists on Tuesday. Feinstein, who’d been among the 60 signatories on the 1999 letter, told reporters, “It’s hard for me to see how [freeing Pollard] would jump-start” the rocky peace talks. “It’s one thing after an agreement. It’s totally another thing before an agreement.”

Pollard was working as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy when he was arrested in 1985. He supplied Israel with a huge cache of classified Defense Department documents, including a 10-volume manual that spelled out how the National Security Agency intercepted Soviet communications, as well as technical details of military spy satellites. Retired Adm. Thomas Brooks, the former director of naval intelligence and Pollard’s onetime boss, said in an interview that the amount of highly classified material the confessed spy disclosed “is exceeded only by Edward Snowden,” the former NSA contractor who gave millions of pages of classified documents about eavesdropping systems to journalists.

This article has been updated to include comments from a person familiar with Kerry.




Obama’s NSA Plan Wins Early Praise But Faces a Long Legislative Process

March 26, 2014


“It marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public’s seat at the table of government.”

President Obama’s plan to end the sweeping collection of phone records while giving the NSA access to cellphone numbers faces a long legislative process. But many in Congress cheer the idea.

By Ken Dilanian
The Los Angeles Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama‘s new plan for the National Security Agency would significantly curb its authority, ending its vast collection of Americans’ telephone records, but at the same time give the spy agency access to millions of cellphone records it currently does not reach.

The compromise, which would require Congress‘ approval, won praise Tuesday from prominent lawmakers, including leading defenders and critics of the agency. But it faces a lengthy legislative process during which the agency will continue to collect and store the records of millions of U.S. telephone calls.

At a news conference in The Hague, where he took part in a world meeting on nuclear security, Obama said the Justice Department and intelligence agencies had given him “an option that I think is workable” and that “addresses the two core concerns that people have” about the most controversial surveillance program revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.


The first concern, Obama said, was that the government not control a vast archive of U.S. telephone call data. Currently, the NSA collects records of virtually all land-line telephone calls in the U.S. and stores them for five years.

Under the administration proposal, the government would no longer keep that archive. Instead, all telephone companies, including cellphone providers, would be required to keep call records for 18 months, the current industry standard.

The second concern, Obama said, was that the NSA be allowed to search only those phone records under a specific court order. Previously, a blanket court order required telephone companies to turn call records over to the NSA, but no judge scrutinized analysts’ decisions about which numbers to look at.

In February, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved Obama’s request to require judicial approval for each search. The new proposal would write that requirement into law, with an exception for emergencies.

U.S. intelligence agencies have to “win back the trust, not just of governments but more importantly of ordinary citizens” around the world, Obama said. Doing so is “not going to happen overnight because I think that there’s a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical, in particular, of U.S. intelligence services,” he added.

The new plan should help make Americans more comfortable with the surveillance program, he said. Obama repeated his belief that “some of the reporting here in Europe, as well as the United States, frankly, has been pretty sensationalized,” and he said that U.S. intelligence analysts had exercised their authority judiciously. But such power could be abused in the future, he said.

“The fears about our privacy in this age of the Internet and big data are justified,” he said.

The NSA does not obtain the contents of communications under the telephone program. But the ability to map a person’s communications with times, dates and the numbers called can provide a window into someone’s activities and connections.

Snowden’s disclosures to journalists made the existence of the program public in June. It was the first of a stream of stories that have revealed some of the government’s most sensitive electronic intelligence efforts.

In a statement through his lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia, called Obama’s proposal a “turning point.”

“It marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public’s seat at the table of government,” his statement said.

The NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, also embraced the proposal. “I think it’s the right thing to do, and I think it addresses our counter-terrorism operational mission requirements,” he said in an interview.

Alexander, who is retiring Friday, has been lobbying members of Congress to adopt the plan. NSA officials consider the compromise the best outcome the agency could hope for, particularly since its authority to collect phone records will expire in 18 months unless Congress reauthorizes it.

Congressional critics of the spy agency praised some aspects of the proposal, but urged the NSA to immediately halt further collection of telephone records until Congress acts.

“This is the start of the end of dragnet surveillance in America,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Joined by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in an unusual bipartisan alliance, Wyden has pressured the White House over the NSA’s activities.

“They can stop immediately,” Paul said. “There’s nothing forcing them to keep collecting the data.”

Administration officials, however, say they plan to continue the collection for at least three more months while Congress debates. They have not ruled out continuing longer if Congress does not act.

Two leading NSA supporters, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, unveiled their own proposal Tuesday that tracks the White House plan in most respects, with a major exception: It would not require court approval each time phone records are searched.

The parts of the administration proposal dealing with cellphone companies would provide significant benefits for the NSA, Alexander acknowledged in the interview. Although the agency’s archive includes hundreds of millions of telephone records, U.S. officials disclosed last month that it did not reach a large segment of cellphone calls. As a result, the NSA may collect only about 30% of call data in the country.

The administration’s new plan would require cellphone providers to keep records much as land-line companies do, significantly expanding the NSA’s access to information.

“This could actually make the program more efficient and more effective [and] at the same time more protective of civil liberties,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who proposed legislation in January similar to the White House plan.

White House officials have been laying the groundwork with phone service providers, which would be required to standardize their records and make them available on a continuously updated basis. The NSA would be allowed to search up to two “hops” of phone numbers connected to a number linked to a terrorist, meaning all the numbers connected to the suspect number and all the numbers connected to that first set of connections.

The once-secret program, authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, is used by the NSA to analyze links between callers in an effort to identify hidden terrorist plots in the United States. Intelligence officials have said it played a role in thwarting at least a dozen terrorist plots. Critics say only one case was discovered as a direct result of a phone record search — an Anaheim cab driver who was sentenced last month to six years in prison for sending money to Somalia’s Al Qaeda affiliate.

Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in The Hague contributed to this report.,0,6343193.story#ixzz2x3WDgxcc

Putin’s Coup: U.S. Intelligence Failed To Warn Of Russia’s Crimea Invasion — “It was classic maskirovka.”

March 24, 2014


Russia might have evaded the U.S.’s eavesdropping in Crimea. Above, armed men outside Simferopol airport.  Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman
The Wall Street Jounal

U.S. military satellites spied Russian troops amassing within striking distance of Crimea last month. But intelligence analysts were surprised because they hadn’t intercepted any telltale communications where Russian leaders, military commanders or soldiers discussed plans to invade.

America’s vaunted global surveillance is a vital tool for U.S. intelligence services, especially as an early-warning system and as a way to corroborate other evidence. In Crimea, though, U.S. intelligence officials are concluding that Russian planners might have gotten a jump on the West by evading U.S. eavesdropping.

“Even though there was a warning, we didn’t have the information to be able to say exactly what was going to happen,” a senior U.S. official says.

To close the information gap, U.S. spy agencies and the military are rushing to expand satellite coverage and communications-interception efforts across Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states. U.S. officials hope the “surge” in assets and analysts will improve tracking of the Russian military and tip off the U.S. to any possible intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin before he acts on them.

The U.S. moves will happen quickly. “We have gone into crisis-response mode,” a senior official says.

Still, as Russia brings additional forces to areas near the border with eastern Ukraine, America’s spy chiefs are worried that Russian leaders might be able to cloak their next move by shielding more communications from the U.S., according to officials familiar with the matter. “That is the question we’re all asking ourselves,” one top U.S. official says.

The Obama administration is “very nervous,” says a person close to the discussions. “This is uncharted territory.”

It all comes amid the backdrop of a worried government in Kiev. Ukraine’s foreign minister said Sunday that the troop buildup is increasing the possibility of war with Russia.

Months before the takeover, U.S. spy agencies told White House policy makers that Mr. Putin could make a play for Crimea, home to strategically important Russian naval installations. That led to an unsuccessful diplomatic push by the Obama administration.

When the moment arrived, U.S. attention was focused on the troops on Russian soil. Instead, forces already inside Crimea were spearheading the takeover of the peninsula, before U.S. spy agencies fully realized what was happening.

Citing conflicting assessments from intelligence agencies, Rep. Michael Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has launched a review of whether spy agencies misjudged Mr. Putin’s intentions. Agency officials say the differences were relatively small and reflected the competing analysis that policy makers expect intelligence agencies to conduct.

Some Obama administration, military and intelligence officials say they doubt the U.S. could have done much differently. Even with a clearer understanding of Mr. Putin’s plans, the Obama administration thought it had few options to stop him. U.S. spy chiefs told President Barack Obama three days before the Crimea operation that Russia could take over the peninsula so fast that Washington might find out only when it was done.

Some U.S. military and intelligence officials say Russia’s war planners might have used knowledge about the U.S.’s usual surveillance techniques to change communication methods about the looming invasion. U.S. officials haven’t determined how Russia hid its military plans from U.S. eavesdropping equipment that picks up digital and electronic communications.

Crimean and Russian flags on the Crimean parliament Feb. 27. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. spy satellites and other intelligence-gathering assets have been focused less on Russia and more on counterterrorism, the Middle East and Asia, reflecting shifting U.S. priorities.

“This is the kind of thing young military officers are going to be reading about in their history books,” says one senior U.S. official.

As early as December, U.S. intelligence analysts and diplomats got indications that Mr. Putin had his eye on Crimea. Widespread protests in Kiev against then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych concerned the Kremlin. The analysts and diplomats warned that Moscow could take unspecified measures to protect Russian interests in Crimea if the situation worsened.

The U.S. military’s European Command asked the Pentagon to increase intelligence-collection efforts in the region, including satellite coverage. Images showed what U.S. officials described as typical military movements at Russian bases in Crimea.

Looking back, some U.S. officials now suspect Russia might have been trickling more highly trained units into Crimea in small numbers. But U.S. intelligence analysts didn’t pick up any such indications before the takeover, officials briefed on the intelligence-gathering effort say.

In early February, Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, dispatched a team of embassy officers to Crimea. The details they brought back were sketchy but raised concerns in diplomatic circles.

Human-rights activists, members of the Tartar community and other local contacts told the American team that new political groups were being formed in Crimea with a clear anti-Kiev agenda. Yet nothing in the internal reports written about the visit made Mr. Pyatt and other diplomats think Russia was planning to invade, according to officials.

A turning point came after violence started to grow on Feb. 18, a U.S. intelligence official says. Officials began to examine whether a “rapid change in government” in Kiev would draw Moscow into the conflict militarily.

U.S. suspicions peaked on Feb. 25, four days before the Russians seized Crimea. Russia’s Defense Ministry invited the U.S. military attaché in Moscow to a briefing, where officials spelled out plans for a massive military exercise near Ukraine and Crimea.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials say they worried the exercise was cover for a move on Ukraine, a tactic Moscow used in 2008 before its intervention in Georgia. Intelligence assessments delivered to policy makers after the briefing put the word “exercises” in quotation marks, reflecting skepticism among analysts. Satellite images showed a clear troop buildup near Ukraine.

European Command officials again asked for more intelligence-collection resources. The military increased satellite coverage of Ukraine and Russia but couldn’t steer too many resources away from Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and other hot spots, U.S. officials say.

In Feb. 26 briefings to Mr. Obama and other policy makers, James Clapper,  the director of national intelligence, and other spy chiefs singled out Crimea as a flashpoint. The assessment said the Russian military was likely making preparations for possible operations in Crimea. Mr. Obama was told the operations could be launched with little warning.

But U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t have corroborating evidence. Mr. Putin and other Russian leaders gave little away in internal communications picked up by the U.S. “We didn’t have someone saying: ‘Let’s do this,’ ” one U.S. official recalls.

It isn’t clear if Russian leaders deliberately avoided communicating about the invasion or simply found a way to do so without detection by the U.S. Another possibility: Mr. Putin made a last-minute decision to seize Crimea—and told almost no one other than those responsible for carrying out the invasion. Some U.S. and U.K. officials believe that Russia’s takeover plan was drawn up in advance and ready to go, reducing the need to discuss it.

Inside Crimea, Russian troops exercised what U.S. officials describe as extraordinary discipline in their radio and cellphone communications. Remarks that were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies revealed no hint of the plans.

On Feb. 27, Mr. Pyatt sent an urgent note to Washington. A picture attached to his note showed Russian flags flying at Crimea’s parliament building. U.S. officials didn’t know if the forces that seized the building were Russian or a rogue unit of the Ukrainian police force involved in the crackdown on protesters in Kiev.

There were no Americans on the ground in Crimea to check reports of Russian military movements, U.S. officials say. The U.S. also didn’t have drones overhead to gather real-time intelligence, officials say. That increased the U.S.’s reliance on satellite imagery and information gleaned from an analysis of social media, which was muddled by Russian disinformation. State Department officials declined to discuss any technical-intelligence activities.

If Mr. Putin decided to launch a takeover, many U.S. intelligence analysts thought he would use troops participating in the military exercises. Officials now say they underestimated the quality of Russian forces inside Crimea.

One intelligence official says the U.S. had “definitive information that Russia was using its military to take control of the peninsula” by the night of Feb. 27, declining to be more specific. The next morning, as armed gunmen in unmarked uniforms seized strategic points in Crimea, U.S. intelligence agencies told policy makers that the gunmen likely were Russian troops.

Still, the consensus assessment from Mr. Clapper’s office to Mr. Obama couldn’t assign “high confidence” to reports that Russia was seizing Crimea by force because of a lack of corroborating information.

Later on Feb. 28, Mr. Obama issued his final public warning to Mr. Putin about violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. By then, though, the Crimean peninsula was under Russian military control, U.S. intelligence officials said later.

Pentagon officials say much of their real-time intelligence came from local reports filed through the embassy in Kiev. The defense attache and other embassy officials worked the phones, calling Ukrainian border patrol and navy contacts. Some of those contacts told the Americans they were burning sensitive documents and reported details of Russian movements.

U.S. military officials also made urgent calls to their counterparts in Russia. Not surprisingly, Russian military officials offered little information. Some of them claimed to be surprised. “It was classic maskirovka,” says a senior U.S. official, using the Russian word for camouflage. Spies use the word to describe Moscow’s tradition of sophisticated deception tactics.

Write to Adam Entous at, Julian E. Barnes at and Siobhan Gorman at

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: U.S. Renews Evaluation of Evidence of a Terrorist Action

March 17, 2014

By Michael S. Schmidt & Scott Shane
The New York Times

WASHINGTON: With malicious intent strongly suspected in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, US intelligence and law enforcement agencies renewed their search over the weekend for any evidence that the plane’s diversion was part of a terrorist plot. But they have found nothing so far, senior officials said, and their efforts have been limited by the Malaysian authorities’ refusal to accept large-scale US assistance.

There are just two FBI agents in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, where local investigators are hunting for clues that the two pilots or any of the other 237 people on board had links to militant groups or other motives to hijack the flight.

In the days after the plane went missing on March 8, US investigators scoured their huge intelligence databases for information about those on board but came up dry.

“We just don’t have the right to just take over the investigation,” said a senior US official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing. “There’s not a whole lot we can do absent of a request from them for more help or a development that relates to information we may have.”

With no obvious motive apparent, US investigators are considering a range of possibilities, though they caution that all remain merely speculative. Among them are involvement by al-Qaida’s Southeast Asian affiliate, which once discussed recruiting commercial pilots in Malaysia to crash a plane; an act by members of China’s Uighur minority, who have recently become more militant and could conceivably have targeted a plane headed to Beijing; a lone-wolf attack by someone without ties to established terrorist groups; or even a suicidal move by a troubled individual.

A central puzzle is why anyone would hijack a jetliner and then fly it for hours over the open ocean, as seems to be the most likely case. On Saturday, the Malaysian authorities opened a criminal inquiry after learning that two tracking devices aboard the aircraft had been turned off several minutes apart, indicating deliberate action, and that the plane appeared to have flown for as long as seven hours more.

US officials said the announcement of the criminal investigation did not change their view of the situation, as the Malaysians offered little evidence that had not already been learned in the past week.

Several senior US officials have played down the possibility that a terrorist network was behind the plane’s disappearance because no group has claimed responsibility for it. They said intelligence agencies had not detected chatter among terrorists about such a plot. Given the lack of traditional militant “signatures,” one official said, if terrorists were behind the episode, “it would be unlike anything we have seen before.”

In response to the news that Malaysian authorities had taken a flight simulator from the chief pilot’s home, US officials said that they were eager to know what the investigators had found and were willing to help search the computers. But as of Sunday afternoon, the officials said they knew little about the findings.

Chief Pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, seated in front of the flight simulator he built in his home.

As part of their efforts in the days after the plane went missing to determine what had occurred, US analysts and law enforcement agencies conducted link analysis — a computer-based investigative technique that tries to make connections between individuals based on extensive government and airline databases – on the pilots and two Iranian passengers who were traveling on stolen passports. Those efforts, along with interviews with family members of the Iranian men and of two Americans who were on the plane, yielded nothing that pointed to terrorism, officials said.

“If it is a criminal act where the pilot decided to crash the airliner, there is little the US can do,” said Rick Nelson, vice president of business development at Cross Match Technologies and a former senior counterterrorism official. “It’s very difficult to stop someone who one day decides to crash a plane. It is difficult to predict and to mitigate.”

The FBI, which has had an agent based at the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur for more than a decade, has developed a working relationship with law enforcement officials there in recent years. But US officials said they believed that the Malaysian leaders had rebuffed their offers of assistance because they did not want to appear as though they needed help with such a high-profile investigation.

Because two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, one group with a conceivable motive to hijack the plane would be militant members of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group in China. Malaysian and Chinese news reports identified one passenger as Uighur, but US officials said they had no evidence that the passenger was associated with militant groups.

On Friday, Abdullah Mansour, the leader of the rebel Turkestan Islamic Party, told Reuters in an interview from his hide-out in Pakistan that the Uighurs’ “fight against China is our Islamic responsibility.” But he made no mention of the missing airliner.

Investigators are keeping in mind the long history of al-Qaida connections and terrorist plots in Southeast Asia, including the double bombing of nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002, which killed more than 200 people. That attack was carried out by members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional militant group with close ties to al-Qaida.

As investigators focus on the pilots and study possible motives for a hijacking, certain tactics that al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah considered years ago may be newly relevant. In 2001, leaders of the two groups discussed recruiting a Malaysian or Indonesian commercial pilot for a terrorist mission, according to a 2006 book by Kenneth J. Conboy, an American author who specializes in militant groups in Southeast Asia.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, considered using such pilots for a second wave of attacks on buildings or landmarks in the United States. Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian who studied biochemistry at California State University and experimented with biological weapons for al-Qaida before Sept. 11, proposed crashing a commercial airliner into a passing US warship, the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, according to a local intelligence report cited in Conboy’s book on Jemaah Islamiyah, “The Second Front.”

Yazid was free from 2008 until last year, when he was detained in Malaysia and charged with helping to recruit fighters to send to Syria. He remains in custody.

A version of this article appears in print on March 17, 2014, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: As U.S. Looks for Terror Links in Plane Case, Malaysia Rejects Extensive Help.

U.S.-Japan alliance at point of disagreements: U.S. worried about provoking China; Japan alarmed at China’s rapid military buildup

March 10, 2014

By Nobuhiro Kubo, Linda Sieg and Phil Stewart

TOKYO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As Japan and the United States start talks on how to respond to armed incidents that fall short of a full-scale attack on Japan, officials in Tokyo worry that their ally is reluctant to send China a strong message of deterrence.

Military officials meet this week in Hawaii to review bilateral defense guidelines for the first time in 17 years. Tokyo hopes to zero in on specific perceived threats, notably China’s claims to Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea, while Washington is emphasizing broader discussions, officials on both sides say.

Washington takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China, but recognizes that Japan administers them and says they fall under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which obligates America to come to Japan’s defense.

A group of disputed islands, Uotsuri island , Minamikojima and Kitakojima, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is seen in the East China Sea

A group of disputed islands, Uotsuri island (top), Minamikojima (bottom) and Kitakojima, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is seen in the East China Sea, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 2012. REUTERS/Kyodo

But even as Asia-Pacific security tensions mount, U.S. officials have made clear they do not want to get pulled into a conflict between the world’s second- and third-biggest economies.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is alarmed at China’s rapid military buildup. Beijing in turn accuses Tokyo of being a regional threat, citing Abe’s more nationalist stance, his reversal of years of falling military spending and his visit to a shrine that Asian countries see as glorifying Japan’s wartime past.

“Japan wants to prioritize discussions on China and clarify the respective U.S. and Japanese roles in the event of a ‘grey zone’ incident,” said a Japanese government official, referring to less than full-scale, systematic military attacks backed by a state but still representing a threat to Japan’s security.

Tokyo wants Washington to join in drafting scenarios for how the two allies would respond in specific cases, he said.

But Washington is worried about provoking China by being too specific, say Japanese officials and experts.

“The United States is certainly ambivalent about this because they think it would drag them into a confrontation and possibly a conflict with China,” said Narushige Michishita, who was a national security adviser to the government of Junichiro Koizumi from 2001-2006.

A U.S. defense official rejected the idea that Washington worries about antagonizing China but stressed that the guideline review is a broad exercise, including the Korean peninsula and global contingencies.

“There is a tendency to distil all this back to the Senkaku islands,” the official said. “It’s not about any particular contingency. It’s about making the U.S.-Japan alliance more flexible and responsive to a security environment that’s not as black and white as we were thinking about in 1997.”

Singling out China, the official said, is “too simplistic a narrative”.


Underlying Tokyo’s concerns are worries that Washington might one day be unable or unwilling to defend Japan, despite President Barack Obama’s strategic “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region. This fear is adding momentum to Abe’s drive to beef up Japan’s forces while loosening constitutional limits on military actions overseas.

If Washington does not get involved in specifically addressing the China threat, “it would undermine the credibility of the alliance and might end up encouraging China to be bolder,” said Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

“U.S. policy makers will have to walk a thin line and try to strike a balance between maintaining credibility and deterrence, and preventing excessive involvement in the situation.”

High on the agenda in Hawaii will be “grey zone” incidents. Japanese government officials offer such hypothetical examples as a landing of Chinese special forces disguised as fishermen on the disputed islands.

When the guidelines were last updated in 1997, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs were seen as the biggest threat. Japan was less nervous then about China’s military expansion, and issues such as cyber-warfare barely existed.

The old guidelines “are too binary,” said the U.S. official. “We’re either in peacetime or we’re on full contingency.” This is “far too inflexible and rigid a framework” for today’s threats, the official said.

Tokyo’s strategic planners have become increasingly concerned about grey-zone incidents since Sino-Japanese tensions over the tiny uninhabited islands increased in 2012. Japanese and Chinese vessels and aircraft regularly play cat-and-mouse in the disputed areas, with Tokyo often scrambling fighter jets against what it says are incursions of its air and sea territory.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday there was “no room for compromise” with Japan on questions of history and disputed territory, “each inch” of which it would defend from its Asian neighbor.


The guidelines to update the U.S.-Japanese defense alliance, agreed to in October, coincides with Abe’s push to bolster Japan’s military and ease the constraints of the post-war, pacifist constitution on the country’s armed forces. That includes his plan to lift a self-imposed ban on giving military aid to an ally under attack.

The update, which the two sides aim to wrap up by the end of the year, also follows years of Washington urging Japan to take on a bigger role in the alliance, the core of Tokyo’s post-war security policy.

But American voters are weary of foreign wars after Iraq and Afghanistan and wary of being entangled in any new conflicts, experts say.

“U.S. public opinion is more negative toward involvement in foreign wars than even during the Vietnam War,” said former senior Japanese diplomat Yoshiji Nogami, now president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “If the alliance is firm, then the chance of (America) being drawn in will be less, but this point is not fully understood by ordinary Americans.”

Japan has its own headaches over grey-zone incidents. Government officials and many security experts say the authorities must close loopholes between situations where only Japan’s Coast Guard and police can act and those where the military can be mobilized.

Examples, Abe recently told parliament, could include a foreign submarine lurking in Japanese waters despite repeated warnings to surface and identify itself or leave, and aggression against remote islands to which police or the Coast Guard could not promptly respond.

“A legal gap like that at a time when the security environment surrounding our country is getting tougher would render deterrence … dysfunctional and put the people in grave danger,” Abe said. A panel of Japanese security experts is expected to recommend revising laws to close that gap.

Washington wants to know how far Japan’s military “can expand its roles, missions and capability,” said another Japanese official.

U.S. involvement in grey-zone incidents could include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the U.S. official said. The guideline review will likely focus in part on strengthening cooperation in those areas, as well as “maritime domain awareness … early on, possibly in a grey-zone kind of situation,” he said.

That would be a more likely outcome than more direct military action by U.S. forces, said ex-diplomat Nogami.

Where grey-zone tensions are rising, joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are vital, he said. “The reason that is needed is to prevent the grey zone from becoming black.”

(Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by William Mallard and Jeremy Laurence)

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Russian spy ship visits Havana

February 27, 2014
Mystery: A Soviet-made Lada limousine passes by the warship. Neither Cuba nor Russia have given any explanation for the presence of the intelligence vesselMystery: A Soviet-made Lada limousine passes by the warship. Neither Cuba nor Russia have given any explanation for the presence of the intelligence vessel

(Reuters) – A Russian spy ship slipped into Havana Bay for an unannounced visit during a period of turmoil in Ukraine and displays of military strength elsewhere in the world.

The Viktor Leonov SSV-175, part of the Vishnya class of intelligence ships, quietly entered Cuban waters earlier this week and was docked at a cruise ship terminal on Thursday, its crew casually taking in the view of the old colonial section of the Cuban capital as passers-by gawked.

Russian warships have come and gone in Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union, usually with much publicity and the opportunity for Cubans to visit the ship. This time there was no mention in the Cuban state-run media.

Russia has been stung by recent unrest in Ukraine, where a pro-Russian government was ousted in favor of one seeking an alliance with the West, and where Russia has a major naval base near Sevastopol on the Black Sea.

Russia on Wednesday put 150,000 troops on high alert in Central and Western Russia, including areas bordering Ukraine, in a show of strength. Moscow denied the drill was linked to events in Ukraine.

On Wednesday in Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia planned to increase its military projection abroad, including in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The Russian Navy intelligence vessel in Havana was commissioned by the Soviet Union in 1988 near the end of the Cold War, outfitted with electronic surveillance equipment and missile defense systems and is a signals intelligence asset of the Russian Navy, according to the Russian government.

The 94-meter (309-foot) ship was receiving food, but no maintenance or fuel, port employees said.

A Russian embassy official described the visit as “friendly,” saying members of the crew joined Havana officials in laying a wreath at a monument to Soviet soldiers.

“It was scheduled to stay three or four days. It should leave tomorrow,” said the embassy spokesman, who declined to identify himself.

The former Soviet Union and communist-run Cuba were close allies for decades, and the Soviets built a major intelligence base on the outskirts of Havana that was closed soon after the demise of European communism.

During the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, two U.S. ships including the USS Mount Whitney sailed into the Black Sea as part of U.S. security measures.

(Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Writing by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Gregorio)


Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov CCB-175 docked in Havana

February 27, 2014

By Daily Mail Reporter and Associated Press

A Russian spy ship docked in Havana on Wednesday, and neither Cuba nor Russia offered any mention or explanation of the mysterious visit that is reminiscent of the Cold War.

AFP reported that the Viktor Leonov CCB-175 boat, that measures 300 feet long and 47.5 feet wide, appeared in the section of Havana’s port usually used by cruise ships.

The intelligence vessel bristles with electronic eavesdropping equipment and weaponry, including AK-630 rapid-fire cannons and surface-to-air missiles.

Bringing back memories: Tourists in a old American car pass by the Russian Viktor Leonov spy ship that docked in Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday


Bringing back memories: Tourists in a old American car pass by the Russian Viktor Leonov spy ship that docked in Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday

Mystery: A Soviet-made Lada limousine passes by the warship. Neither Cuba nor Russia have given any explanation for the presence of the intelligence vessel


Mystery: A Soviet-made Lada limousine passes by the warship. Neither Cuba nor Russia have given any explanation for the presence of the intelligence vessel

Cuba’s visitor is from the Vishnya or Meridian-class, which was built for Russia’s navy in the 1980s and is still in service today. AFP reports that the Viktor Leonov has a crew of about 200 sailors.

Previous visits by Russian military ships to Cuba have usually been acknowledged by the state’s media or authorities.

Meanwhile, the United States warned Moscow over Russia’s maneuvers near the troubled Ukraine.


Russia ordered 150,000 troops to test their combat readiness Wednesday in a show of force that prompted a blunt warning from the US that any military intervention in Ukraine would be a ‘grave mistake.’

Vladimir Putin’s announcement of huge  new war games came as Ukraine’s protest leaders named a millionaire  former banker to head a new government after the pro-Russian president  went into hiding.

The new  government, which is expected to be formally approved by parliament  Thursday, will face the hugely complicated task of restoring stability  in a country that is not only deeply divided politically but on the  verge of financial collapse.

Facilities: The Russian ship docked at the port in Havana


Facilities: The Russian ship docked at the port in Havana

Its fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the capital last week.

In Kiev’s Independence Square, the heart of the protest movement against Yanukovych, the interim leaders who seized control after he disappeared proposed Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the country’s new prime minister.

The 39-year-old served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010, and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the U.S.

Across Ukraine, the divided allegiances between Russia and the West were on full display as fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russia protesters in the strategic Crimea peninsula.

Amid the tensions, Putin put the military on alert for massive exercises involving most of the military units in western Russia, and announced measures to tighten security at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

The maneuvers will involve some 150,000 troops, 880 tanks, 90 aircraft and 80 navy ships, and are intended to ‘check the troops’ readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security,’ Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

Tension A Pro-Russia demonstration in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine on Tuesday. Across Ukraine, the divided allegiances between Russia and the West were on full display as fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russia protesters.


Tension A Pro-Russia demonstration in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine on Tuesday. Across Ukraine, the divided allegiances between Russia and the West were on full display as fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russia protesters.

The move prompted a sharp rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned Russia against any military intervention in Ukraine.

‘Any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge, a grave mistake,’ Kerry told reporters in Washington.

‘The territorial integrity of Ukraine needs to be respected,’ Kerry said.

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Germany, France to mastermind European data network – bypassing US

February 16, 2014


Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's President Francois Hollande (R) (Reuters / Francois Lenoir)

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Francois Hollande (R) (Reuters / Francois Lenoir)

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande will review plans to build up a trustworthy data protection network in Europe. The challenge is to avoid data passing through the US after revelations of mass NSA spying in Germany and France.

Merkel has been one of the biggest supporters of greater data  protection in Europe since the revelations that the US tapped her  phone emerged in a Der Spiegel news report in October, based on  information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Earlier, France learned from reports in Le Monde that the NSA has  also been recording dozens of millions of French phone calls,  including those of the French authorities. According to the  report, in just one month between December 10, 2012 and January  8, 2013, the NSA recorded a total of 70.3 million French phone  calls.

Meanwhile, according to the Snowden revelations, the German  Chancellor’s mobile phone has been on an NSA target list since  2002 and was codenamed “GE Chancellor Merkel.” The  monitoring operation was allegedly still in force even a few  weeks before US President Barack Obama’s visit to Berlin in June  2013.

Washington has denied it monitored Merkel’s personal phone,  insisting that its surveillance practices are focused on threats  to national security, namely terrorism. Merkel, who grew up in  East Germany, where phone tapping was common practice, compared the NSA’s spying to that of the Stasi  secret police in the former German Democratic Republic, and  accused the US of a grave breach of trust. According to polls,  the Germans have lost confidence in the US as a trustworthy  partner, and a majority of Germans consider Edward Snowden a  hero. It’s believed that his revelations have hit Berlin  particularly hard since Germany is not a member of the so-called   “Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance which includes NSA-equivalent  agencies in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, exchanging  intelligence with each other on a regular basis.

In the wake of the revelations about US global spying activities,  the German government has made it mandatory for ministers to use   encryption on their phones to secure their  communications against intrusion. Berlin has also prohibited the  use of iPhones for official business, as they are not compatible  with encryption.

France and Germany have been seeking bilateral talks with the  United States to discuss the issue of the snooping, with Merkel’s  government pressing for a “no spying” agreement with Washington.  Negotiations on an anti-spying agreement began in August 2013,  but the US has been reluctant to sign such a deal, Süddeutsche  Zeitung reported in mid-January, citing a Federal Intelligence  Service (BND) employee as saying: “We’re getting nothing.”

Merkel, who is due to visit France on Wednesday, said in her  weekly podcast that she disapproved of companies such as Google  and Facebook, basing their operations in countries with low  levels of data protection, while in reality being active in  countries with high data protection.

“Above all, we’ll talk about European providers that offer  security for our citizens, so that one shouldn’t have to send  emails and other information across the Atlantic. Rather, one  could build up a communication network inside Europe,” she  said.

Hollande’s office said France agrees with Berlin’s proposals,  Reuters reported, citing an official as saying: “Now that the  German government is formed, it is important that we take up the  initiative together.”

Press freedom in the United States has suffered “one of the most significant declines” ever — US down in World Press Freedom Index

February 16, 2014


Reuters / Gary Cameron

Reuters / Gary Cameron

Press freedom in the United States has suffered “one of the most significant declines” in the last year after sacrificing information to national security, with the NSA surveillance scandal topping the list of wrongdoing.

That’s according to The  World Press Freedom Index for 2014 from Reporters Without  Borders (RWB), which put the US in 46th place out of 180  countries, a 13-place drop from last year.

This time American misdemeanors were in the report’s chapter on   “Information sacrificed to national security and  surveillance,” which says: “Countries that pride  themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law”   too often sacrifice the freedom of speech to “an overly broad and  abusive interpretation of national security needs.”

“Investigative journalism often suffers as a result” of  a “disturbing retreat from democratic practices,” the  RWB report said.

The RWB recalled all recent major assaults on the freedom of  press in the US, be it the conviction of US Army whistleblower Bradley  (Chelsea) Manning or the manhunt for former NSA contractor Edward Snowden,  whose revelations about pervasive worldwide surveillance  conducted by the US intelligence’s made WikiLeaks publications of Manning’s files pale by  comparison.

Another notorious attack on journalism mentioned by the RWB was  the seizure of “thousands and thousands” of Associated  Press phone calls by the US Justice Department, which was  searching for a leak in the CIA.

The RWB recalled scandalous cases of freelance digital journalist  Barrett Brown, who now faces 105 years in prison for sharing a link  to stolen classified data, and New York Times reporter James  Risen, who also faces a term in jail if he does not testify against CIA whistleblower Jeffrey  Sterling.

Throughout 2013 a number of US journalists have been issued with  subpoenas and pressured to reveal off-the-record sources they  relied upon, which prompted some activists to call for a media shield law to protect journalists’ sources and  thousands of internet-involved organizations to organize protest against massive electronic  surveillance.

In 2012, the US fell even lower, to 47th position, after tumbling  27 positions – a result of a series of arrests of high-profile  journalists during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Freedom of speech in Britain, a close US ally, by comparison, was  viewed as less restricted, with the country in 33rd place. The UK  fell back three places after the exposure of deep collaboration  between American and British security and intelligence services  in suppressing the freedom of the press.

While UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) agency  actually taught American NSA how to conduct online espionage,  Britain has been evaluated quite mildly, only suffering a minor  decline in the index. The only incident mentioned by the RWB was  the detention of David Miranda, the partner of  ex-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who revealed NSA spy  programs.

RWB did not considered the most recent revelation about British  intelligence, found practicing not just spying but actively using   cyber-attacks to deal with such information  disseminators as Anonymous and LulzSec hacktivists, or that global media watchdogs are  planning to investigate press freedom in the UK.

Also, Glenn Greenwald’s revelations about UK and US mainstream  media being “devoted servants” of the intelligence  agencies seemingly have not affected the rating.

Meanwhile WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is still trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy in London,  with the freedom of information campaigner still being pursued by  UK and Swedish justice.

In the 2014 RWB index, Russia was placed 148th, the same as in  last year’s ranking. Though praising “the resistance of civil  society” in the country, the report still accuses Moscow of  “using UN bodies and regional alliances such as the Shanghai  Cooperation Organization in its efforts to undermine  international standards on freedom of information.”


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