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San Bernardino Shooter Malik Said She Was Pregnant When She Sought U.S. Green Card

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Tashfeen Malik apparently claimed she was pregnant when she was interviewed by a visa officer after she had applied for permanent U.S. residence in the fall of 2014.

A note scrawled in red ink on a page in Malik’s application reads: “applicant is pregnant due on 05-21-15,” a congressional official who has reviewed her immigration record said Monday.

Malik and her Chicago-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, were killed in a shootout with police on Dec. 2 after they launched a shooting rampage in San Bernardino that killed 14 people.

The couple had left their 6-month-old daughter with a relative before the attack. They managed to conceal their growing attraction to jihadist violence until the day of the massacre, when Malik used Facebook to pledge allegiance to the head of Islamic State.

It appears that Malik, who was born in Pakistan, became pregnant shortly after she arrived in the U.S. on July 27, 2014, on a K-1 fiancee visa. The couple had previously married in Saudi Arabia, and then obtained a marriage license from Riverside County, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2014.

Malik signed the six-page I-485 application for permanent residence on Sept. 20, 2014.

She submitted her application with family photos showing her and Farook together, and a financial statement from Farook that listed his income as a San Bernardino County environmental health specialist at about $48,000 per year, according to the congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the application has not been released.

At some point after submitting the form, Malik met with a visa officer who would have attempted to judge whether her marriage with Farook was real or a sham.

The exact date of the officer’s interview with Malik is not marked on the form. She was granted a green card in July 2015.

Malik’s pregnancy may have been noted as evidence to show her marriage was legitimate. The note was written on the bottom half of Page 2 of the form, over a section set aside for listing the names of the applicant’s children.

On the following pages, Malik checked “No” next to questions asking if she had ever joined an insurgent organization, had ever been a member of the Communist Party, had committed acts of torture or had killed anyone.

In response to questions, Malik also denied she planned to engage in espionage or overthrow the U.S. government.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provided the green card application to lawmakers, but it has not been made public. Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, posted Malik’s K-1 visa application online last week with some personal details blacked out.

In a letter sent to congressional committees Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security said “all required procedures were followed” in vetting her K-1 visa application, and later in approving her application to become a lawful permanent resident.

A copy of the letter, which is marked “for official use only,” was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

“Tashfeen Malik was subjected to numerous background checks at all stages of the review process,” the letter states. “Those background checks did not reveal any derogatory information about Malik.”

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Tashfeen Malik, (L), and Syed Farook are pictured passing through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in this July 27, 2014 handout photo obtained by Reuters December 8, 2015.   REUTERS/US Customs and Border Protection/Handout via Reuters

 

Pentagon Ponders Cyberattacks On Islamic State

By Brian Bennett, David S. Cloud and W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is considering increasing the pace and scope of cyberattacks against Islamic State, arguing that more aggressive efforts to disable the extremist group’s computers, servers and cellphones could help curtail its appeal and disrupt potential terrorist attacks.

Military hackers and coders at Cyber Command, based at Fort Meade, Md., have developed an array of malware that could be used to sabotage the militants’ propaganda and recruitment capabilities, said U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal discussions.

But closing off the extremists’ communications faces resistance from the FBI and intelligence officials. They warn that too sweeping an effort to constrict Internet, social media and cellphone access in Syria and Iraq would shut a critical window into the militants’ locations, leadership and intentions.

Moreover, a shutdown of communication nodes could affect humanitarian aid organizations, opposition groups, U.S.-backed rebels and others caught up in the Syrian civil war. A virus could spread to computers outside the country.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will meet with his cybercommanders this week at the Pentagon to examine the options, including jamming and viruses, that could be used to target the Sunni Muslim group’s communications, according to the officials.

The White House directed senior Pentagon officials to prepare options for a stepped-up cyberoffensive after evidence indicated that the husband-and-wife shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2 had become self-radicalized on the Internet and had pledged fealty to Islamic State on Facebook, said the officials.

Those in the White House “want to see options” for cyberattacks, said one official. “That doesn’t mean they are all in play. It just means they want to look at what ways we can pressure” Islamic State.

For now, the White House is leaning toward more targeted cyberattacks when intelligence can pinpoint specific phones, computers or other digital devices used by the Web-savvy militants.

“If you do see something that is in service of an active operation, you may want to take some action to disrupt that operation,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in an interview.

But there are apparently limits to U.S. cybercapabilities. On Dec. 9, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Islamic State hackers “have developed an encrypted app and can communicate anywhere in the world from an iPhone without any ability for us to pick up those communications. … They have mastered this dark space.”

The issue has erupted in the 2016 presidential campaign. In response to a question at the Republican candidates’ debate Tuesday, front-runner Donald Trump sparked a heated exchange when he said he was “open to closing (the Internet in) areas where we are at war with somebody.”

U.S. officials have long criticized China, Cuba, North Korea and other authoritarian states for limiting or barring public access to the Internet and social media.

Cyber Command, which is responsible for U.S. offensive operations in cyberspace, has targeted some computer networks and social media accounts since President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes and other operations against Islamic State in August 2014, officials said.

But some Pentagon officials privately argue more can be done. They say computer viruses, so-called Trojan horse attachments, denial of service attacks and other digital assaults should be used to take down Islamic State communications.

Experts warn that a blackout probably wouldn’t last — and could backfire. The militants could send messages and videos through flash drives, satellite phones, or other devices or platforms. Encryption, already widely used by the militants, would make tracking them more difficult.

“The more we go after them and take them down, the more we push them into secure areas online,” said Jeff Bardin, a computer security consultant and former Air Force linguist who reads Arabic and tracks radical Islamic groups online.

After Twitter began shutting Islamic State’s official accounts in 2014, for example, the group encouraged its operatives and followers to use encrypted social apps such as Telegram, or to use stronger privacy settings that made them harder to monitor.

Trying to chase and close the volume of traffic on social media may be impossible.

Extremists send about 90,000 Twitter messages a day, according to the Counter Extremism Project, a New York-based nonprofit that tracks militants’ messages online and pressures social media companies to identify and disable accounts that promote extremist groups.

Moreover, intelligence officials say Islamic State has become more adept at changing computers, cellphones and messaging apps when one is compromised.

When its websites are shut down or recruiters are blocked, they often switch to other sites or accounts and the communication gets out.

“Sitting there trying to play whack-a-mole to knock these communications platforms off can be so complicated and so resource intensive and only marginally effective,” said John D. Cohen, a former senior Homeland Security counterterrorism official who teaches at Rutgers University.

The Obama administration has chosen a middle course so far, shutting the most egregious Islamic State website and accounts — and using others to track and kill recruiters and operatives.

In August, a U.S. drone strike near Raqqah, Syria, killed Junaid Hussain, a British-born hacker who had posted the names, addresses and photos of about 1,300 U.S. military and other officials online and urged followers to attack them.

Officials said Hussain also had been in contact with one of the two armed men who sought to attack a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest last May in Garland, Texas. Police there shot and killed the two assailants.

FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee this month that one of the men had exchanged 109 messages “with an overseas terrorist” on the morning of the attempted attack.

“We have no idea what he said because those messages were encrypted,” said Comey.

A month later, the U.S. fired missiles into a building in Syria after a militant published several posts on social media that were embedded with his precise geolocation coordinates.

Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Aerial view of the United States military headquarters, the Pentagon, September 28, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

 

Surging To 2nd Place, Fiorina Tries To Seize ‘Important Moment’ For Campaign

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

Carly Fiorina tried to extend her surge in the polls Sunday, portraying herself in a television interview as a tough negotiator and hard-nosed manager willing to winnow down government inefficiency and bureaucracy.

With one poll showing her in second place in the crowded field of Republican presidential candidates, Fiorina defended her record at Hewlett-Packard, doubled down on cutting federal funding to Planned Parenthood, and said she would be able to bring Democrats to the table on entitlements, cutting taxes and boosting border security.

An increased number of Republican voters, at least for now, have seized on Fiorina as an antidote to Donald Trump’s bombastic style and headline-grabbing quips.

“It’s obviously a very important moment, because now more people know who I am and we know, based on what’s happened before this debate, that as people come to know me and they understand who I am and what I’ve done and most importantly, what I will do, they tend to support me,” Fiorina said on “Fox News Sunday.”

On Wednesday, Fiorina took on Trump’s reported insults about her, clashed with him over their business records and spoke out strongly against Planned Parenthood’s collection of fetal body parts for medical research. Twenty-three million people watched the GOP debate.

The leading GOP candidates remain those who have never held political office, reflecting frustration with career politicians among Republican voters.

Fiorina ranked second with 15 percent in a CNN/ORC poll, moving just ahead of Ben Carson. The poll showed Trump as the front-runner with 24 percent support, an 8 percent decrease from a poll one month earlier. Of Republicans who watched the debate, 52 percent identified Fiorina as the winner and 31 percent said Trump was the loser Wednesday night.

Questioned about 30,000 layoffs at Hewlett-Packard while she was running the troubled tech company, Fiorina described the rounds of job eliminations as culling a “big bloated bureaucracy that costs too much” and was becoming “inept.”

“By the way,” Fiorina said, “that’s what we have in Washington, D.C.”

As president, Fiorina said, she would not replace any of the 256,000 baby boomers projected to retire from federal service in the next “four or five” years.

When asked if she was aware that a European subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard had sold hundreds of millions of dollars of computers to Iran while she was chief executive, Fiorina said the company is a larger global enterprise than any one of the 50 U.S. states. With a company that large, Fiorina said, “it’s impossible to ensure that nothing wrong ever happens.”

Those sales to Iran were discovered three years after Fiorina left Hewlett-Packard, she said. The transactions were investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as possible violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

“In fact, the SEC investigation proved that neither I nor anyone else in management knew about it and the facts of the matter were the European subsidiary apparently was doing business with another company in the Middle East. That company was doing business with another company that was doing business with Iran. And when the company discovered this three years after I left, they cut off all ties with those companies,” she said. “It shouldn’t have happened, obviously.”

Fiorina continued to go on offense against Planned Parenthood, saying congressional Republicans should shut down the government if annual funding for the organization moves forward next month. Some GOP strategists have advised against a shutdown, saying it could lead to a backlash from voters. Fiorina disagreed and welcomed a showdown.

“President Obama can explain to the American people why it is so important to him to continue to fund this organization that no one denies is engaged in this kind of barbarity,” Fiorina said.

Planned Parenthood has come under renewed fire from Republicans following an undercover investigation by an advocacy organization into abortion clinics that pass fetal body parts to medical research labs.

Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton said she plans to roll out a proposal for controlling the cost of prescription drugs, a problem not addressed in President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“We have a lot of positives. But there are issues that need to be addressed,” Clinton said. “I’m going to address them this week, starting with how we’re going to try to control the cost of skyrocketing prescription drugs. It’s something I hear about everywhere I go.”

Clinton’s lead in the Democratic primary has weakened in recent weeks as revelations continue to mount about her use of a private email server for official communications while secretary of state. “What I did was allowed – it was fully above board,” she said. “I’m sorry that I made a choice that has raised all these questions,” she said, repeating a previous explanation that she didn’t want to use two email accounts. “I didn’t make the best choice.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina waits backstage while being introduced at the Education Summit in Londonderry, New Hampshire August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Bin Laden’s Papers Show He Studied U.S. Terrorism Investigations And Military History

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday released details of what it calls “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” more than 400 documents, reports, books, and other materials seized during the May 2011 raid by Navy SEALs in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

The public release, the most expansive since the raid, suggests that the now-dead al-Qaida leader had eclectic interests and closely followed U.S. policy and operations relating to the terrorist network he founded.

He regularly downloaded U.S. indictments of accused terrorists as well as applications for U.S. passports, visas, and other immigration documents. His library of several dozen English-language books included works by Bob Woodward and Noam Chomsky.

And his collection of downloaded media included a Los Angeles Times review of a BBC documentary from January 2005.

The trove also included dozens of newly declassified letters, in Arabic with English translations, between bin Laden and his lieutenants around the globe. Bin Laden wrote about fundraising and recruiting young leaders as well as how the terrorist group could take advantage of the unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring protests.

Bin Laden also collected 19 reports on France’s economy and military capabilities, indicating an interest in launching attacks inside the country. The raid also seized about 30 computer manuals, as well as documents believed to be used by other members of the bin Laden household, such as a video game guide for “Delta Force: Xtreme 2,” silk-screening instructions, and a sports nutrition pamphlet.

The release comes as the administration struggles to gain ground in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State, the al-Qaida offshoot that has overshadowed bin Laden’s organization as a terrorist threat around the globe.

It also serves to rebut claims by legendary journalist Seymour Hersh that the SEAL commandos took nothing from the compound in the city of Abbottabad.

Still, the material reveals more about bin Laden’s years in forced solitude than it does about the organization that launched the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans.

Intelligence officials are considering hundreds more documents for release “in the near future,” Jeffrey Anchukaitis, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said in a statement.

“All documents whose publication will not hurt ongoing operations against Al Qaeda or their affiliates will be released,” Anchukaitis said.

A trickle of reports from the bin Laden raid have been made public over the last three years. Seventeen reports on the haul written by the West Point Combating Terrorism Center were released in 2012. More than a dozen additional reports have been declassified for use in court cases.

Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called Wednesday’s massive release “a step in the right direction,” but said there were “hundreds” of additional reports about information gleaned from the haul at bin Laden’s compound that should be declassified and released.

“The public deserves more,” Nunes said in a statement. He pushed to include a requirement in the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act to further declassify intelligence reports about the raid.

“It is in the interest of the American public for citizens, academics, journalists, and historians to have the opportunity to read and understand bin Laden’s documents,” Nunes said.

Photo: DEAD Osama Bin Laden via Flickr

Homeland Security Chief: Funding Should Not Be ‘Political Football’ In Immigration Fight

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The nation’s Homeland Security chief pushed back Thursday against Republican threats to cut off funding for the department to protest President Barack Obama’s immigration policies.

The department’s budget runs out at the end of February, and Republicans have threatened to hold up additional appropriations unless the Obama administration pulls back plans to stop the deportation of up to 4 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.

“In these times, the Homeland Security budget of this country should not be a political football,” Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, said at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.

The United States faces increased threats from terrorist groups, Johnson said, particularly in the wake of the three-day killing spree that left 17 people dead in Paris this month. An al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen claimed responsibility.

To press his point, Johnson showed the audience a photo of himself as an 8-year-old boy with his family next to their Buick convertible. It was parked a few feet from the U.S. Capitol during a sightseeing visit in 1966.

That would not be allowed today, Johnson said.

“Sadly, there are threats to our homeland security today that did not exist in 1966,” Johnson said. “We have to be vigilant.”

Johnson said that his agency and the FBI do a “reasonably good job” of tracking Westerners who have joined the civil war in Syria, or the insurgency in Iraq, and may try to return home to launch attacks.

Europe faces a greater immediate danger, Johnson said, because thousands of French, British, German, Dutch and other citizens have traveled to Syria, compared with about 100 Americans.

“They have much bigger numbers,” he said.

Johnson said his department is reviewing security measures to screen travelers, mostly from countries in Europe, who don’t require visas to enter the United States.

U.S. lawmakers have asked the administration to further restrict the so-called visa waiver program to help prevent fighters with European passports from crossing a U.S. border.

Earlier this month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) described the visa waiver program as the “Achilles’ heel of America.”

Passengers from visa waiver countries need not be interviewed by an American consular officer. They instead fill out an online information form before boarding a U.S.-bound flight.

The information is checked against U.S. databases for ties to terrorist groups or suspicious travel patterns. Last year, the U.S. increased the amount of information such travelers must provide.

Three former secretaries of homeland security also spoke out Thursday about threats by Congress to shut down funding for the department.

Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano sent a joint letter to Senate leaders asking them not to link Homeland Security funding with the effort to stop Obama’s immigration actions.
“Funding for the entire agency should not be put in jeopardy by the debate about immigration,” the three wrote in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

Ridge and Chertoff served in the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. Napolitano, a Democrat, headed the department during Obama’s first term.

Obama has said he would veto a spending bill that stripped funding for his new executive actions on immigration.

In addition to enforcing immigration and customs laws, the Homeland Security Department is responsible for aviation and border security, protecting the president and responding to natural disasters.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Cheney Leads Defense Of CIA Torture Of Prisoners

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senior Bush administration officials Sunday slammed the Senate study on the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation tactics, and defended the techniques as necessary to get information from senior al-Qaida operatives who had stopped talking to interrogators.

“I’d do it again in a minute,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “It absolutely did work.”

The report released last week by the Democrat-led Senate Intelligence Committee revived a decade-old debate about whether the U.S. should use coercive interrogation techniques to get information from terrorists and if such methods produce accurate and useful information.

CIA cables written at the time show that detainees had provided key information before the harsh tactics, such as waterboarding, confinement in small spaces and beatings, had been used. The study concluded that the use of torture was not effective and did not produce actionable intelligence about an imminent attack.

Cheney called the report “a cheap-shot piece of political business,” and criticized the Senate investigation for not interviewing CIA personnel. “The report is seriously flawed,” Cheney said. “They didn’t talk to anybody who knew anything about the program. They didn’t talk to anyone who was in the program.”

The Senate staff said they reviewed the transcripts of interviews with CIA staff conducted by the CIA’s inspector general.

Later on Meet the Press, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said the Democratic staff of the committee reviewed 6 million pages of documents. “There are a mountain of contradictions,” he said.

“Facts aren’t partisan,” Wyden said, adding that the Department of Justice should review the new facts in the report and reconsider the department’s decision not to prosecute those involved in the CIA’s program.

Jose Rodriguez, who helped design the detention and interrogation program as head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, defended his decision in 2005 to destroy recordings of CIA interrogation sessions.

“I knew the tapes would leak some day,” Rodriguez said on Fox News Sunday. He destroyed the tapes out of concern for the safety of the CIA officers whose faces appeared in the footage, he said. He was afraid that if the tapes were made public, a-Qaida would “go after them and their families.”

“I was concerned for their safety,” he said.

“This is one of the most highly reviewed covert action programs in the history of the agency,” Rodriguez said. “In the end no prosecutable offenses were found — no one tortured anyone else,” Rodriguez said.

Karl Rove, who was a senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, said on Fox News Sunday that all of the interrogation techniques were “carefully designed” and approved by administration lawyers.

The Senate study details multiple instances where interrogators appeared to act outside of their legal authorities and used techniques that were not approved.

Rove denied this. He said the detainees that received “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding” were on hunger strikes. But medical experts have said that neither technique is a legitimate medical procedure.

When it came to the use of waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning that was used on at least three senior al-Qaida members, Rove said the style of waterboarding used by Japanese soldiers on prisoners during World War II was different from the technique used by the CIA.

Unlike the Japanese method, Rove said, when the CIA waterboarded detainees, the “feet were elevated” to prevent the lungs from filling up with water. “Very careful standards were put in place,” Rove said.

The Senate study documents a program that was poorly managed, lost track of detainees, and created an environment in which some interrogators beat detainees, chained them to walls for days at a time and locked them into coffin-like boxes. There is no record of President George W. Bush being formally briefed by CIA officials about the program until 2006, the study states.

But Cheney said Bush was well aware of the program. Cheney was in briefings nearly six days a week with Bush and the director of the CIA, George Tenet, he said. Bush “knew what we were doing, he authorized it,” Cheney said.

The Bush administration was “very careful to stop short of torture,” Cheney said.

“Torture to me,” Cheney said, “is an American citizen on his cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death” on the top floors of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney said.

Pressed on the fact that 26 of the 119 detainees in the CIA’s custody were held in error, Cheney said he’s more concerned about the U.S. releasing “bad guys” from custody. Many former detainees that have been released have returned to the battlefield. Abu Bakr Baghdadi, for example, now leads the Islamic State and was once held by the U.S. military in Iraq.

One CIA detainee mistakenly held was named Gul Rahman. Rahman froze to death while chained to the floor of a CIA “black site” in Afghanistan.

“I am more concerned with bad guys who were let out and released than a few that were innocent,” Cheney said. “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective” to prevent a future attack, Cheney said.

CIA Director John O. Brennan said Thursday during an televised speech and press conference at CIA headquarters, that there were management failures during the program and that some of the methods used were “abhorrent.” The question of whether the specific “enhanced” interrogation techniques prodded detainees into giving up unique information is “unknowable,” Brennan said, but the CIA’s detention program as a whole was effective and helped save lives.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Sony Cyberattack Investigation Points To North Korea, Lawmaker Says

By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators are getting closer to confirming that North Korea was behind the embarrassing cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems, the head of the House Intelligence Committee said Friday.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the committee, said a “clue” indicates North Korea was probably behind the attacks, either acting on its own or through a criminal organization.

Rogers, a former FBI agent, pointed to statements from Pyongyang in which North Korea denied responsibility but did not condemn the attacks.

“I would argue as a former FBI agent that, when a nation state says that ‘This group … did this on behalf of the North Korean people … and we appreciate it,’ as we would say in the FBI: that is a clue,” Rogers said.

Rogers stopped short of saying that U.S. officials have definitively confirmed the source of the attack, although he said the investigation was making headway.

“I do believe our attribution is getting much, much better,” Rogers said.

Rogers said his statements were based on publicly available information.

The North Korean government publicly threatened Sony Pictures over the summer that its planned release of The Interview, a comedy that depicts a fictional assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, would be considered an act of war.

In recent weeks, the still-unsolved cyberattack on Sony computer systems has led to leaks on the Internet of confidential Sony emails, salary figures, thousands of Social Security numbers and footage from unreleased films.

The breach damaged critical files on the company’s computers and is expected to cost the studio tens of millions of dollars, officials have said.

North Korean officials might have tried to stop the release of film, which stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, “because they thought it would be damaging to the leader in North Korea,” Rogers said.

“Obviously they missed the boat on what makes America tick: They may have done more sales for that movie than ever before,” Rogers told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Rogers said the latest digital attack on a major American company should be a wake-up call for other businesses with intellectual property or other sensitive information to erect stronger cyberdefenses.

“Sony showed now there is a destructive part of these cyberattacks that are very, very dangerous,” he said. “Imagine you are a financial institution getting its data destroyed — that has economic consequences that should keep us all up at night.”

Congress passed cybersecurity legislation this month. It did not include a provision that Rogers supported, and privacy groups opposed, to allow the National Security Agency to directly share source code of malicious attacks with American businesses and vice versa.

Civil liberties groups said the NSA could not be trusted to have direct access to the computer networks of U.S. companies.

The legislation that passed is a “long way” from what is needed, Rogers said.

“It’s not going to get at our ability to stop bad guys from doing bad things, but it starts to build our foundation” for more protections, Rogers said.

Photo: Keith Martin via Flickr

Intelligence Gleaned From CIA Torture Focus Of Debate

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Did torture make America safer?

The conclusion of a Senate committee that investigated CIA interrogation of terrorism suspects is that it did not — that intelligence gained under duress stopped no imminent plots. But that is hotly disputed by current and former CIA officials, former members of the George W. Bush White House and some Republican senators.

The exhaustive report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released Tuesday undermines or disproves major CIA claims of success, including some that dominated headlines and frightened Americans a decade ago.

The report cites internal CIA documents that show the key intelligence either came from other sources, was obtained before the individual was tortured, or was based on bogus threats.

In May 2002, for example, senior Bush aides announced they had disrupted a deadly radiological “dirty bomb” plot by Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who had gone to Afghanistan.

After Padilla’s arrest, administration officials publicly credited the CIA’s interrogations of al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah for disrupting the dirty bomb plot.

But Padilla was arrested three months before Zubaydah was subjected to 17 straight days of waterboarding and other painful practices. Padilla ultimately was convicted in a civilian court of terrorism-related charges but was never charged with a dirty bomb plot.

In 2005, the head of the agency’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear group mocked what he called CIA “lore” that it had stopped Padilla from building a dirty bomb.

“Anyone who believes you can build a (radiological dispersion device) by ‘putting uranium in buckets and spinning them clockwise over your head to separate the uranium’ is not going to advance al-Qaida’s nuclear capabilities,” he wrote, according to a memo cited in the Senate report.

In 2006, Bush similarly credited the CIA interrogations for helping to foil a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate and other Western targets in Karachi, Pakistan. Agency officials said they had obtained the details from Ammar al Baluchi and Walid bin Attash, two al-Qaida figures held at secret CIA prisons.

But the Senate report says the two operatives had revealed the plot weeks earlier to Pakistani officials, who had passed it to the CIA, leading the consulate to beef up security. In internal cables, CIA officials acknowledged they knew about the danger before the two repeated the details under torture.

In 2006, the White House also announced that al-Qaida had planned to launch a “second wave” attack on the West Coast after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including crashing a plane into the former Library Tower in downtown Los Angeles. The CIA said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times in one month, had revealed the plot.

But the Senate report says the CIA had learned about it much earlier, in January 2002, after arresting a Malaysian member of al-Qaida. Mohammed simply confirmed it after he was tortured, investigators found.

The CIA also claimed credit in 2003, when the Justice Department charged Iyman Faris, a Pakistani American in Ohio, with a plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its suspension cables with blowtorches. The CIA repeatedly said it had learned of the plot from waterboarding Mohammed.

That is misleading at best. The report says a court-approved wiretap of another American, Majid Khan, prompted the FBI to investigate Faris.

When confronted, he acknowledged meeting Mohammed but said he had decided the plan to destroy U.S. bridges was unfeasible and therefore not a threat. Court papers show he subsequently worked as a double agent for the FBI and later pleaded guilty to separate terrorism charges.

The CIA also said that after waterboarding, Mohammed had revealed a plan to hijack aircraft to crash into London’s Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf commercial district.

The report says the CIA knew about the plot months before Mohammed was captured, however. In internal cables, the CIA deemed the plot “not imminent” because al-Qaida couldn’t find pilots to take on the suicide mission.

Perhaps most critically, the Senate report challenges the CIA’s claims that its use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a key role in identifying Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier who ultimately led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

The report says an al-Qaida operative named Hassan Ghul described the courier as bin Laden’s “closest assistant” after Ghul’s arrest in 2004, but before he was subjected to CIA torture.

“He sang like a Tweety Bird,” a CIA officer told the CIA inspector general about Ghul’s initial questioning. “He opened up right away and was cooperative from the outset.”

Despite his apparent cooperation, Ghul was transferred to a secret CIA prison where he was “shaved, barbered, stripped and placed in the standing position against the wall” and forced to stay awake for 59 hours.

The Senate report states Ghul, who suffered hallucinations and heart palpitations, provided no “other information of substance” after his torture.

Former CIA officials and some Republicans dispute that narrative. They say that after Ghul was sleep deprived and humiliated, he provided more detail about a specific message the courier delivered for bin Laden to al-Qaida operations chief Abu Faraj al-Libi.

A detainee at a different CIA prison first mentioned the name of bin Laden’s courier and a possible connection to al-Libi during a “period of enhanced interrogation,” according to the rebuttal of the Senate report’s claims by Republicans on the intelligence committee.

The minority report also says Mohammed and two other high-ranking al-Qaida operatives subjected to brutal treatment had denied knowing the courier. That was a “clear sign” to CIA analysts that the detainees had “something to hide,” tipping them off to the courier’s “true importance,” according to the rebuttal.

Critics also said the Senate report went too far in claiming that intelligence gained under torture could have been obtained through other sources or technical means.

“It’s impossible to know in hindsight” if non-coercive interrogations could have obtained the same intelligence, the CIA said in a statement.

“The answer to this question is and will forever remain unknowable,” CIA Director John Brennan said in a separate statement. Claims that harsh interrogations produced no unique intelligence that disrupted terrorist plots are “wrong,” he said.

In internal assessments, the CIA concluded in 2004 and 2005 that the interrogations had helped thwart plots. But the Senate study says the evaluations did not check whether critical intelligence was obtained before or after harsh methods were used.

Committee investigators reviewed 6.3 million pages of internal CIA emails, reports, memos and other documents in assembling the report. They did not interview CIA officers involved because of an ongoing Justice Department investigation. Critics have seized on the failure to conduct interviews to argue that the report is one-sided and incomplete.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was one of three Republicans who voted to declassify the executive summary released Tuesday, part of a 6,700-page report that remains classified.

Whether the waterboarding and other harsh techniques were effective is not the point, she argued. “Torture need not be ineffective to be wrong,” she said.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

U.S. Shuts Down Last Detention Center In Afghanistan

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military shut its last detention center in Afghanistan on Wednesday, a day after a Senate Intelligence Committee report highlighted torture of terrorism suspects at former CIA-run prisons in the country.

The U.S. military shuttered its prison at Bagram air base north of Kabul after handing over two Tunisian prisoners to Afghan authorities, and after releasing a Jordanian prisoner, who will be sent home or resettled with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Pentagon officials said.

Under a bilateral security agreement that takes effect Jan. 1, the government of Afghanistan will be responsible for all detention facilities in the country. The Bagram facility thus closed three weeks earlier than it might have.

The Tunisians, Ridha Ahmad Najjar, (also known as Redha al-Najar) and Lutfi al-Arabi al-Gharisi, will be imprisoned by Afghan authorities. The Jordanian, Taheer Halaf, is not considered a security threat and was set free in Afghanistan, officials said.

In a statement, Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the last three prisoners in U.S. custody were transferred “after careful review” by the Defense and State Departments.

“Effective Dec. 10, 2014, the Defense Department no longer operates detention facilities in Afghanistan or maintains custody of any detainees,” he said.

AFP Photo/Wakil Kohsar

Graphic Report On CIA Interrogations, Torture Released By Senate Panel

By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA’s brutal interrogation program lost track of captives, led to false confessions and fabricated information, and produced no useful intelligence about imminent terrorist attacks, according to a long-delayed Senate study.

The 499-page executive summary released Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee contains previously unknown details so disturbing and so graphic that the State Department has warned U.S. embassies overseas to prepare for possible protests around the globe.

The document, the result of a six-year investigation by Democrats on the committee, concludes that the CIA provided “extensive inaccurate information” to Congress about its interrogation techniques, that CIA management of the program was “inadequate and deeply flawed,” and that the methods were “far more brutal” than the CIA has acknowledged.

The conclusions instantly revived a partisan debate over whether the Bush White House permitted techniques so harsh they amounted to torture — as well as the dispute over whether they produced clues that ultimately led to the CIA-led raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

“Under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has pushed the investigation. She described the era as “one of the lowest points in our nation’s history.”

The CIA, which has prepared a 120-page response, argues that some detainees provided valuable intelligence after undergoing waterboarding and other painful techniques, even if they led to unauthorized abuses reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

“The Bush administration took us down a path to torture (and) we shouldn’t have done that,” said a senior intelligence official who was authorized to discuss the report before it was released but who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But to say (the interrogations) produced not a shred of intelligence, that distorts the record.”

The details are startling at times. One detainee in CIA custody was “chained to a wall in the standing position for 17 days” and looked like “a dog who had been kenneled,” according to a CIA description cited in the report.

Some detainees were kept awake for nearly 180 hours, “usually standing or in painful stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads.” Some were placed in ice water baths.

At least five captives were subjected to painful rectal rehydration or rectal feeding, without documented medical necessity. In one case, the CIA put a captive’s lunch — hummus, raisins, pasta and nuts — into a blender and inserted the food into his colon through a tube.

The CIA applied its methods “in near nonstop fashion for days or weeks at a time,” the document states.

Some of the agency officers responsible had “documented personal and professional problems of a serious nature — including histories of violence and abusive treatment of others — that should have called into question their employment,” let alone their suitability to run a sensitive CIA program, the report states.

The most gruesome conditions described occurred at a site in a former brick factory north of Kabul, Afghanistan, that was used by the CIA for interrogations starting in November 2002.

In the facility, referred to as “COBALT” in the Senate report but code-named Salt Pit by the CIA, conditions were so dungeon-like that interrogators wore headlamps to navigate pitch-dark passageways.

“At times, detainees there were walked around naked and shackled with their hands above their head,” the report states. “At other times, naked detainees were hooded and dragged up and down corridors while being slapped and punched.”

An Afghan militant named Gul Rahman died in the Salt Pit of suspected hypothermia in November 2002 after he was beaten, stripped naked from the waist down and left chained to a concrete floor in near-freezing temperatures.

The CIA has long admitted to using waterboarding, which simulates drowning by pouring water into a person’s nose and mouth, on three high-ranking al-Qaida detainees in 2002 and 2003.

But Senate staffers found a photograph in CIA files of a waterboard, a wet floor and buckets of water at the Salt Pit, where the CIA claimed it never used the technique. The CIA was later unable to explain the presence of what investigators called “the well-worn waterboard” at the site.

A career CIA officer who had been internally admonished in the 1980s for misconduct initially was chosen to run the interrogation program. But in 2003, he wrote a message describing his intention to leave the CIA because the interrogation program was a “train (wreck)” and he was “getting off.”

The report raises questions about how much President George W. Bush knew of the detention and interrogation program at the time.

It says the CIA prepared a briefing for him in August 2002, but was told by White House aides that Bush would not receive the report, according to CIA internal messages reviewed by Senate staff.

The CIA’s inspector general recommended that the CIA brief the president in 2004. But no record indicates Bush was briefed until 2006. In a CIA report of that meeting, Bush was described as “uncomfortable” with the description of a detainee chained to the ceiling and left to defecate on himself.

The CIA briefed Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales on July 24, 2003, about its treatment of detainees, according to notes by the CIA’s acting general counsel at the time, John A. Rizzo.

The Senate committee reviewed 20 cases where the CIA said its interrogations had led to intelligence successes.

“Each of those examples was found to be wrong in fundamental respects,” the report concludes.

In some cases, investigators found no relationship between the claimed success and any information provided by the detainee. In other cases, the CIA “inaccurately misrepresented that unique information was acquired from a CIA detainee” as a result of the interrogations, when the intelligence was either acquired earlier or was available from other sources.

The methods “regularly resulted in fabricated information,” the report concludes. The CIA “was often unaware” the information was false, however, leading the agency astray as it scrambled to track terrorists and prevent further attacks.

At least 26 of the 119 who were held in CIA custody “were wrongfully held,” the report states. But it adds that a full accounting of how many people were imprisoned, and how they were treated, may never be known “due to poor CIA record-keeping.”

In all, 39 of the 119 detainees were subject to the harsh interrogation techniques between 2002 and 2008, the report found.

The detention program began after Bush signed a classified covert action memorandum six days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The spy service subsequently built and ran “black sites,” or secret prisons, in Thailand, Poland, Romania, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The names of the countries are blacked out in the unclassified report.

On Feb. 7, 2002, Bush signed a separate memo stating that the Geneva Conventions requiring humane treatment of prisoners in a conflict did not apply to al-Qaida or Taliban detainees.

Legal authorization to use harsh interrogation methods came on Aug. 1, 2002, when the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council issued two memos concluding that the CIA’s proposed “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not violate federal anti-torture laws.

The first waterboarding, against al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan, began three days later and continued for nearly a month, the report says.

During one session, he became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open full mouth,” the report states.

Contrary to subsequent CIA claims, agency personnel were instructed to give the interrogations priority over medical care for Zubaydah, who had been shot in the thigh, abdomen and stomach during his capture.

A second al-Qaida suspect, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, was waterboarded at the same CIA site that November. While in custody, he was also threatened with a handgun and an electric drill.

In March 2003, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was captured and subjected to coercive interrogation, including 183 instances of waterboarding.

Muhammad repeatedly provided false information under questioning. He confirmed an intelligence tip that al-Qaida had a cell of African-American operatives in Montana. The FBI assigned field agents to chase the lead, but came up empty.

In November 2005, contrary to directions from the Bush White House and the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, authorized the destruction of videotapes of the waterboarding of Zubaydah and Nashiri.

The Senate report is based on 6.3 million pages of CIA internal cables, emails, chat logs and other communications, as well as interviews conducted by the CIA’s inspector general and the agency’s internal history of the interrogation program.

The executive summary was declassified, with some sections blacked out to protect the identity of CIA officers and some countries that hosted “black sites.”

Investigators were not permitted to speak to the CIA interrogators because of concerns about disrupting a Justice Department inquiry. Republicans on the committee also withdrew from participating in the study in 2009 because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

The Republicans did not rejoin the investigation when President Barack Obama announced in April 2009 that prosecutors would not press criminal charges against CIA officials who participated in interrogations consistent with the legal memoranda issued under the Bush administration.

The full classified report is more than 6,700 pages long and will not be released.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

Dianne Feinstein Leaving Senate Intelligence Job As Clash On Interrogations Report Is Unresolved

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As head of the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2009, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has spent hundreds of hours in secret briefings and seen thousands of pictures from battlefields in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. She keeps two images with her.

One shows a little girl wearing a gingham dress, white tights and black Mary Janes — but the girl’s head is gone. Another is of a teenage boy, duct tape over his mouth, eyes bulging out, being forced to hold two severed heads.

“To me, it’s what we are up against,” Feinstein said in an interview. “It is a testament to pure evil.”

The senior senator from California has spent more than 14 years on the Senate’s most secretive committee, and through much of that time, she has defended the country’s intelligence establishment.

She insisted that the National Security Agency was right to secretly collect data on huge numbers of telephone calls made by Americans. And she backed the CIA’s covert use of Predator drones to conduct targeted killings in half a dozen nations.

But as she prepares to turn over the committee’s gavel next month to Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-NC), Feinstein’s tenure as chairwoman is closing during a fight over a project that pits her against the CIA. Her staff has completed a 6,000-page report evaluating and criticizing the agency’s use during the George W. Bush administration of harsh interrogation tactics, which President Barack Obama and others call torture.

Since April, Feinstein has been fighting with the CIA and the White House to make public as much as possible of the report’s 480-page executive summary.

In recent days, Feinstein and administration officials have resolved the final debates over how much will be blacked out of the public version of the report. Then on Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, acting on behalf of the administration, called Feinstein to ask her to delay the release. Making the report public now would threaten the security of American personnel overseas, Kerry told her.

The request put Feinstein in a difficult position — delay the release and run the risk that Burr and the Republicans will block the report after they take over in January, or go ahead and take the blame if Americans in foreign countries are harmed.

At the heart of the report is a review of 20 cases in which interrogators used brutality and inhumane treatment to produce what the CIA says was useful intelligence.

Leon E. Panetta, who was CIA director from 2009 to 2011, wrote in his memoir, Worthy Fights, that such methods should not have been used, but that the CIA got “critical intelligence” from them. “What we can’t know — what we’ll never know — is whether those were the only ways to elicit that information,” Panetta wrote.

Feinstein believes her report does provide a definitive answer. “The staff has looked at all 20 and they believe that isn’t true,” Feinstein said, referring to the claim that the harsh methods led to actionable intelligence. The committee’s six-year review of thousands of CIA documents concluded that the harsh interrogations were ineffective and that the information learned, in most cases, could have been found using other methods.

The report specifically says that the harsh tactics were not necessary to obtain details that led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s courier and ultimately to bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

The battle over the report contrasts with much of Feinstein’s tenure. Even her Republican opponents praise her efforts to steer the committee after the turmoil of the Bush era.

“I never felt like Dianne was being a partisan Democrat when it comes to national security, and I think that’s why she and I kind of ‘gee-hawed’ so well together,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who has been the top Republican on the committee but is retiring from the Senate at the end of the month.

Feinstein and Chambliss cut through the political whirl surrounding the attacks on an American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 to produce a bipartisan report that dismissed claims that a “tactical warning” had predicted an attack that day.

After five years of stalemate in the debate over how top Bush administration officials had used intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, Feinstein ushered four bipartisan bills through Congress that defined the authority of the intelligence agencies to conduct covert and clandestine operations.

Feinstein also defended the CIA against efforts by the Pentagon to eclipse the agency’s covert drone program. She believes the CIA has a better track record than the military and more experience with the strikes.

“They have the patience and they wait until the situation is right,” Feinstein said. “There are not hot heads” making the decision on when to fire, she said.

She has sent committee staff members into the CIA “more than 50 times” to make unannounced visits to watch the operation of the drone program, she said.

The number of civilians killed in CIA strikes has declined in the last few years, she said. “Collateral damage is low,” Feinstein said, which was one of her goals when she increased oversight of the targeting-killing program after she took control of the committee.

But none of that has yielded backing for Feinstein on the interrogation report.

Republicans were initially part of the study but pulled out in 2009, saying they did not want to interfere with a Department of Justice investigation into the deaths of two detainees held in CIA custody.

Even some of those who side with Feinstein in criticizing the CIA’s actions are skeptical of the effort that has gone into the report.

“It’s probably beating a dead horse,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in an interview, referring to the thousands of hours that Feinstein’s staff spent compiling the classified report. Obama banned coercive interrogation methods and ordered the CIA to close its remaining overseas prisons on his first full day in office in January 2009, Graham noted.

But, Graham added, the extensive documentation could prevent a future administration from resorting to similar methods.

“It is important not to repeat these things,” Graham said.

The final chapter in the debate began in August, when the White House presented Feinstein with a declassified version of the summary in which about 15 percent was blacked out.

Feinstein was angry. The redactions obscured the roles of key CIA officers, she said, and the public would not be able to understand how people inside the agency had made crucial decisions.

“They redacted our argument,” Feinstein said.

After Feinstein’s staff hit an impasse with CIA Director John Brennan, the White House took over the negotiations, “for some unfathomable reason,” Feinstein said.

Over the summer, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough visited Feinstein at her home in California. But Feinstein felt McDonough hadn’t crossed the country to negotiate so much as “to make their position clear.”

The White House’s involvement was “not received well,” Feinstein said.

Ultimately, the amount blacked out in the report was reduced to about 5 percent But Feinstein lost a major argument over using pseudonyms to refer to CIA officers. Administration officials argued that identifying the agents, even by a pseudonym, would put them in jeopardy. In the end, most of the names of CIA officers are blacked out; only some senior-level officials are mentioned by their true names.

The study showed that “management was poor” for the interrogation program, Feinstein said, and that some analysts were giving operational orders, against normal practice.

“We have to get this report out,” Feinstein said, even if she had to give in on some of her demands for transparency. “We will find another way to make known some of the problems.”

The interrogations undermined “societal and constitutional values that we are very proud of,” Feinstein said. “Anybody who reads this is going to never let this happen again.”

Photo: Senate Democratic Women to Outline How Women are More Burdened by Student Loan Debt, in Part Due to the Gender Wage Gap (Senate Democrats/Flickr)

Intelligence Gap Poses Major Challenges In U.S.-Led Air War Against Islamic State

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In mid-September, as the U.S. military prepared to launch cruise missiles against Islamic State militants in Syria for the first time, CIA analysts lobbied to expand the target list to include eight possible locations for leaders of a band of battle-hardened al-Qaida operatives moving between towns west of Aleppo.

The previously obscure Khorasan Group, believed to be led by a 33-year-old Kuwaiti named Muhsin Fadhli, was getting closer to being able to execute a terrorist attack on a passenger jet by concealing explosives in clothing or cellphones, the analysts feared. Fadhli reportedly moved to Syria last year to recruit European militants to launch terrorist strikes in the West.

Intelligence officials in Washington also worried that the group’s leaders would stop using phones and other traceable devices once the bombing began. If they didn’t hit the tight-knit cell — and Fadhli in particular — in the initial wave of airstrikes, the CIA analysts argued, they didn’t know when they’d get another chance.

The CIA prevailed, and the analysts believed Fadhli was visiting one of the compounds in northwestern Syria that was pulverized in the opening salvo of 47 Tomahawks on Sept. 23. Early communications intercepts gave the CIA hope he had been killed.

But nearly two months later, U.S. spy agencies have not been able to confirm Fadhli’s death, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the operation. The intelligence gap reflects far broader problems for the expanding U.S.-led air war against the heavily armed Islamic State fighters and others considered terrorists who have captured large parts of Syria and Iraq.

“It’s a black hole,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in discussing intelligence, on the challenge of tracking terrorists and assessing casualties in a war zone that is in effect off-limits to U.S. personnel.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have identified about a dozen Americans fighting with militants in Syria or Iraq, for example, including some who have joined the Islamic State. But U.S. intelligence analysts have struggled to develop a complete picture of their movements or what roles they play in the militant groups.

U.S. intelligence agencies have poured resources into the war since the spring, and the CIA has set up a training camp in Jordan for Syrian fighters. They also rely on information gathered from U.S.-backed rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army.

The White House now is considering expanding the CIA’s role in arming and training fighters deemed friendly, The Washington Post reported Saturday. The clandestine operation now vets and trains about 400 fighters a month, but the CIA-backed factions have struggled to take and hold territory. In one recent battle, they fled positions in a battle with the Nusra Front, abandoning their weapons to the group, which is al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.

So far, U.S. aircraft have launched at least three raids on targets associated with the Khorasan Group. U.S. officials say the network operates in coordination with the Nusra Front and poses a direct terrorist threat to the United States and its allies, although some counterterrorism experts in the region question that analysis.

How successful the raids were remains an open question.

In the second attack, on Nov. 7, a U.S. drone fired a missile at a vehicle in Syria’s Idlib province. The intended target was French-born militant David Drugeon, a 24-year-old convert to Islam who is believed to be a skilled bomb maker operating with the Khorasan Group.

Early intelligence reports indicated that Drugeon may have been killed in the strike. But analysts are still working to confirm his death.

“We’d like for him to be dead,” a U.S. official said.

American officials similarly had their hopes raised when Iraqi state television reported last week that airstrikes in northern Iraq had killed or severely wounded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State.

But a 16-minute voice recording released Thursday by the group appeared to contradict those reports. Al-Baghdadi sounded very much alive as he boasted that his network was expanding to include militant groups in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria.

U.S. intelligence relies heavily on information gleaned from intercepted telephone conversations, text messages, email, and Internet communications.

Spy plane and satellite images can help analysts estimate how many were killed in a missile blast and, in some cases, those in attendance, but they cannot identify specifically who died.

Without the ability to go into a rebel-held area and collect tissue samples for DNA analysis after an airstrike, U.S. intelligence must use reports from local informants and allied forces in the area.

“Having an American spotter in the bulrushes when the building is blown up, he comes in and takes a chunk of hand — that’s the gold standard” for confirming who was killed in an airstrike, said a senior intelligence official who has extensive experience in tracking terrorist organizations, speaking in an interview.

“Sometimes the liaisons bring in a hand,” the official said. Without tissue samples, intelligence analysts must rely on “lesser” pieces of evidence such as monitoring a beacon hidden on a target’s car that shows it arriving at a location, or a Predator drone seeing the target enter the building but not exiting after the strike.

The lack of reliable intelligence in Iraq is especially frustrating for the CIA given that the agency built a massive spying operation after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and during the eight-year war that followed.

But the agency closed most of its satellite posts and withdrew much of its staff when U.S. troops were pulled out at the end of 2011, leaving little direct intelligence from Anbar province and other areas where Islamic State now has established control.

U.S. intelligence hasn’t had a robust covert presence in Syria since the civil war erupted there more than three years ago, officials said. It is heavily reliant on the intelligence services of Arab allies in the region for information on the shifting front lines and deadly mix of militant groups.

“We lack good intelligence resources on the ground and we don’t have good resources of human intelligence,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

The militants already have learned to use counterintelligence techniques. In intercepted communications, Schiff said, intelligence analysts guard for both deliberately misleading claims and mistaken claims that people have been killed.

“Even if you have a credible intercept, they could be deliberately trying to deceive you and sometimes they do,” he said.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said a closer relationship with rebel groups in Syria would allow the CIA to develop a deeper network of informants.

“We just don’t have the assets on the ground — that would have been one advantage of arming the Syrian moderates two years ago,” he said. “Syria is such a fluid environment, it would be very difficult to develop assets now.”

MCT Photo/Raja Abdulrahim/Los Angeles Times

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Obama Weighs Ambitious List Of Immigration Rule Changes

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Shortly before President Barack Obama left for Asia last weekend, aides gave him an ambitious list of potential actions he could order to change the enforcement of federal immigration laws without congressional approval.

Aides said Obama will get final recommendations from his aides as early as next Tuesday, and will make his decision — and an announcement — before the end of December.

He could decide to protect as many as 5 million immigrants who are in the country illegally from possible deportation.

Whatever he decides is likely to enrage Republicans, who warned after last week’s midterm elections that any executive action on immigration would “poison the well” on cooperation with the new GOP-led Congress.

Obama told a news conference after the elections that he would announce some changes before the end of the year.

The package under consideration is likely to touch many parts of the immigration system.

It includes tweaks to how work visas are awarded, new instructions on who should be detained for violating immigration law, and pay raises for immigration officers, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The biggest impact is expected to come from a proposed program that could allow some of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally to come forward, pay a fee and submit to a background check in exchange for a work permit and a temporary reprieve from deportation, the official said.

That initiative would be similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was created by Obama in 2012 and has so far granted work permits to more than 680,000 people who were brought to the country illegally as children. Those who are approved for deferred action are protected from being expelled from the United States for two years, and the deferrals can be renewed.

Obama is still deciding how far to expand the deferred action program.

Some aides are pushing him to include parents of children who are U.S. citizens, as well as parents of DACA recipients who have been in the country for several years.

If Obama agrees, as many as 5 million people could be eligible to apply under those two categories.

But that number could be pared down if additional requirements, such as proof of a 10-year presence in the U.S., are added.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Islamic State Making Millions Despite U.S. Bid To Halt Money Flow

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Islamic State still generates tens of millions of dollars a month in illicit income despite a U.S.-led effort to cut the financing streams that have helped turn the once-obscure militant group into a terrorist organization unlike any previously seen, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Thursday.

U.S. and allied airstrikes have pounded small oil refineries that the Sunni militants captured in eastern Syria, slowing but not halting their ability to process and sell smuggled oil and petroleum products at discounted rates on the black market in neighboring Turkey and elsewhere.

But in Iraq, U.S. financial officials say, dozens of local bank branches remain free to transfer money in and out of cities and towns controlled by the militants, giving them some access to financial systems.

In his first public comments on the still-evolving U.S. effort, David S. Cohen, the Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said Islamic State has “amassed wealth at an unprecedented pace,” including taking in at least $20 million in ransom payoffs this year.

With the exception of some state-sponsored groups, Islamic State is “probably the best funded terrorist organization we have confronted,” he said, and stopping it will take time.

“We have no silver bullet, no secret weapon to empty ISIL’s coffers overnight,” Cohen said, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “This will be a sustained fight and we are in the early stages.”

The slow progress on the financial front comes as the Obama administration has defended its ten-week-old military operation. More than 600 airstrikes by the U.S. and allies have yet to dislodge the militants from any major cities or areas in Syria and Iraq.

Speaking at the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Cohen said Islamic State raises tens of millions of dollars a month through the sale of stolen oil, ransoms for kidnapping victims, theft and extortion in areas it controls and, to a lesser extent, donations from donors and financiers in Persian Gulf nations.

Although precise figures are impossible to obtain, U.S. investigators estimated that Islamic State earned about $1 million a day from oil sales beginning in mid-June, when the group’s military blitz through western Iraq vastly expanded its territory and its access to oil fields and refineries.

Coalition airstrikes and other efforts since August have “begun to impair” those sales, Cohen said. The International Energy Agency reported last week that the militant group’s ability to produce, refine and smuggle oil had been “significantly hampered.”

Treasury and State Department officials met Oct. 17 with representatives of 20 nations and organizations in an attempt to financially isolate and undermine Islamic State, as well as its allies in al-Qaida-linked Al Nusra Front and its ostensible enemies in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus.

In addition to selling oil and refined petroleum products directly to middlemen and smugglers in Turkey, Islamic State has sold oil to Kurds in Iraq for resale in Turkey, Cohen said. “And in a further indication of the Assad regime’s depravity, it seems the Syrian government has made an arrangement to purchase oil from ISIL,” he said.

U.S. military planners have held back from disabling or destroying Iraqi pipelines, refineries and other oil production facilities because the government in Baghdad still hopes to push the militants out and doesn’t want to make expensive and lengthy repairs to the electrical grid and oil production facilities.

Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, said in a telephone interview Thursday that his government wants to preserve infrastructure for what he called the “day-after scenario,” should the government regain control.

For now, Cohen said, Islamic State poses a tougher challenge than other traditional terrorist groups.

Unlike al-Qaida, it draws relatively little of its revenue from foreign donors, who typically send funds from abroad. Tracking down and blocking such bank transfers is one of the Treasury Department’s most powerful tools.

The bulk of Islamic State’s money comes instead, Cohen said, from local criminal and terrorist activities. The group raises several million dollars a month through what he called a “sophisticated extortion racket,” extracting payments from people passing through or conducting business in territory it controls.

In Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, Islamic State fighters have gone “home to home, business to business, demanding cash at gunpoint,” he said.

Religious minorities have been forced to pay tributes, and militants have robbed banks, looted and sold antiquities, and stolen livestock and crops from farmers, Cohen said. In some cases, militants also levy a 10 percent fee on cash withdrawals from bank branches.

“Make no mistake: This is not taxation in return for services or even for real protection,” he said. “It is theft, pure and simple.”

A complete crackdown is impractical. The Iraqi government has been reluctant to close bank branches in Mosul and other cities under Islamic State control because it would be disruptive to business and the millions of people in those areas.

Partly as a result, U.S. investigators have struggled to distinguish between legitimate commercial transactions and withdrawals for or by the militants.

“We have been in discussion with the Iraqi government and others about concerns about bank branches within ISIL-controlled territories,” Cohen said.

The militants now control so much territory, especially in Iraq’s Sunni dominated regions, that U.S. officials are struggling with “a lot of difficult questions about how to take action against ISIS without alienating the local population,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, referring to Islamic State by another acronym.

“We need to be realistic about just how much we can go after their income as long as they are in control of that oil-producing area,” Schiff said. “In terms of stopping the extortion or the kidnapping or the fees that they levy, there is little way to get at that income.”

Islamic State “has not only established a safe haven but has determined it is going to run a war economy and not destroy the financial infrastructure in doing so,” Juan C. Zarate, President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser from 2005 to 2009, said in a telephone interview.

“This presents a real complication for the Treasury because you obviously want to deny ISIS the use of those bank branches and finances but you don’t want to strangle all the economic activity for the people living in those territories,” Zarate said.

Still, Cohen described Islamic State’s territorial ambitions as a financial burden.

Iraqi provinces now under the group’s sway were slated to receive more than $2 billion in budget subsidies from the government in Baghdad this year, a largesse that “far outstrips” Islamic State revenue, he said.

“What this means is that ISIL cannot possibly meet the most basic needs of the people it seeks to rule,” Cohen said.

AFP Photo

Passengers From Ebola-Stricken Countries To Use Five U.S. Airports

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Passengers flying to the U.S. from three Ebola-stricken countries will have to fly into one of five designated American airports for additional screening, including having their temperature taken, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Tuesday.

The restriction was immediately criticized by House Republicans who want a complete ban on travelers coming from West African countries with high Ebola infection rates.

Starting Wednesday, airline passengers coming from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea must fly into New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, or Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Johnson said.

Those airports already receive about 94 percent of travelers coming to the U.S. from the three West African countries. There are currently no direct flights from those countries into the U.S. About 150 passengers from West Africa arrive in the U.S. daily. Travelers not already flying into the designated airports will have to rebook flights, Johnson said.

At all land and seaports, immigration officers have been instructed to pull aside anyone who has traveled to Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea in the previous 21 days. The Department of Homeland Security tracks airline manifests and other travel information of people who have traveled in West Africa.

The Obama administration could add more travel restrictions later, Johnson said.

“We are continually evaluating whether additional restrictions or added screening and precautionary measures are necessary to protect the American people, and will act accordingly,” he said.

But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the current restrictions fall short of what is needed to stop the virus from spreading in the U.S.

“The administration must do more to protect Americans,” Goodlatte said in a statement.

Goodlatte plans to introduce a resolution in the House in favor of blocking all foreign nationals from Ebola-stricken countries from entering the U.S. Obama administration officials and health experts have said that such a ban would make it harder to track people who may be carrying the virus because travelers would try to evade the ban by going overland into neighboring countries before flying overseas.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president has concluded for now that a travel ban would hurt, not help.

“Our views on the travel ban haven’t changed,” he said. “A travel ban would only serve to put the American people at greater risk …. Individuals who have spent time in West Africa would … conceal the true nature of their travel history.”

Intensive screening prior to air travel, and on arrival, are more effective, Earnest said. Still, he added that Obama wasn’t ruling out a travel ban at some point in the future if the situation calls for it.

“The president’s open to it,” Earnest said.

With the November midterm election approaching, increasing travel restrictions have become part of the campaign debate. A poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post this month showed that 67 percent of Americans surveyed said they would support “restricting entry to the United States by people who’ve been in affected countries.”

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised the changes announced Tuesday, calling the airport restrictions “a good and effective step toward tightening the net and further protecting our citizens.”

Christi Parsons in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Carl de Souza

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Some Central Americans Can Now Seek U.S. Refugee Status From Home

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In an effort to discourage thousands of unaccompanied children from trying to enter the U.S. illegally, President Barack Obama has instructed immigration officials to allow citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to apply for refugee status in their home countries for the first time.

The order, contained in a White House memo to the State Department, did not say how many refugee applications should be approved. But the program is unlikely to stem the flood of unaccompanied minors that began pouring across the Southwest border last spring.

The same memo capped the total number of refugees the administration will admit from all of Latin America and the Caribbean at 4,000 in the fiscal year that began this week, down from 5,000 last year.

Under the new plan, the State Department will begin accepting refugee applications at U.S. embassies in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador by the end of December, according to spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

“We are establishing in-country refugee processing to provide a safe, legal and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that children are currently undertaking to join relatives in the U.S.,” Katherine Vargas, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Vargas added that officials at the State and Homeland Security departments were still deciding exactly who would qualify for the refugee program. Immigration rights advocates hope targets of gang violence or sexual abuse may qualify.

About 66,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended on the Southwest border in the last fiscal year, twice as many as the previous year. Many said they were fleeing an onslaught of drug violence and crime back home.

The surge sparked alarm in many border towns, overwhelmed social service agencies and forced the Obama administration to recalibrate its plans for immigration reform.

Border Patrol stations in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where most of the Central American children crossed the border, have struggled to care for the minors before they are handed over to social service agencies. Most eventually are placed with relatives in the U.S. while they await immigration hearings in court.

The influx has waned in the last three months, a change officials attribute to public service announcements in Central America warning of the dangers of the journey through Mexico, and blistering summer temperatures in the desert. Border officials are bracing for another wave of children as the weather cools.

Immigration rights advocates criticized the expanded refugee process as inadequate.

“We are concerned that the scope of this program is so small, it really won’t address the magnitude of the problem,” Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said in an interview.

“It’s like putting out a job announcement but not having any jobs that can be filled,” Chen said.

Until now, the only people who could apply directly for U.S. refugee status from overseas were Cuban dissidents, persecuted religious minorities in Eurasia and the Baltics with close family ties in the U.S., and Iraqi citizens who worked for the U.S. government, U.S. media or U.S. nongovernmental organizations after the 2003 American-led invasion.

People who are still overseas also may be designated as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and be admitted to the United States.

But in most cases, foreign nationals must arrive on American soil before they can seek asylum on religious or political grounds, or because they faced violence for being a member of a persecuted social group.

In some cases, women who have been victims of domestic abuse and youths who have received death threats for refusing to join a gang have qualified for asylum, even if they applied from outside the country.

AFP Photo/ Mark Ralston

Honduran Children May Be Allowed To Apply For U.S. Admission From Home

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The White House is considering a proposal that would allow Honduran children to apply for admission to the United States as refugees or on humanitarian grounds while still in their native country.

It is one of several plans under review to deter Central American kids from making the difficult and dangerous journey to the Southwest border, White House officials said Thursday. If successful, the program could be expanded to include other volatile nations, such as Guatemala and El Salvador.

Under the plan, children fleeing dangerous street gangs plaguing cities in Honduras, or other threats, would be interviewed by American immigration officials and temporarily sheltered in Honduras while their cases are considered.

Supporters of the plan said it would help children who are genuinely in danger and reduce the number of minors traveling along smuggling routes through Mexico. Critics said it would only increase the number of refugees and worsen the current backlog of applications from Central America.

The idea is similar to a proposal from Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, to boost the number of visas by 5,000 for young people coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Of the 57,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended at the Southwest border since Oct. 1, more than 45,000 have been from these three countries. Their numbers have overwhelmed social services and created a humanitarian crisis.

The presidents of Guatemala and Honduras, who were in Washington on Thursday, said changing the U.S. immigration system would be helpful, but insufficient. If the United States wants to stem the tide of children illegally crossing its Southwest border, it should increase investment in Central America to improve security and dismantle drug cartels, they said.

They met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill before speaking about the border crisis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. They are scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Friday.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said he appreciated the attention the crisis had brought to economic conditions in Honduras, where 45 percent of the populace lives on less than $1 a day.

But the vast majority of children are fleeing violence and crime, he said. “Where the greatest drug violence lies — that is where the most children are departing,” he said.

Hernandez said he had been working to purge Honduras of corrupt officials and to extradite accused drug lords to the United States. He recently launched an overhaul of the government’s immigration department.

“The old immigration officials were in cahoots with the drug traffickers,” he said.

In the last decade, the United States has poured billions of dollars into fighting drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia through programs such as the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia. But the money has largely passed over Central America, Hernandez said.

As a result, drug lords “poured into Central America and linked up with gangs in an unholy alliance,” Hernandez said.

“We are picking up the pieces because they all came home to roost in Central America, and that is what we are dealing with,” he said.

Since 2008, the State Department has spent more than $642 million through a program called the Central American Regional Security Initiative. The money went to countries including Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

But the program has been too small to be effective, and more money is needed, Hernandez said.

“One dollar of investment in Central America is one dollar invested in U.S. security,” Hernandez said.

Congress is unlikely to open the tap for these countries, said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who met with ambassadors from Central American countries this week. He said he told them not to expect a flow of money from the United States.

“I said, ‘In case you don’t remember, our government shut down last year'” over a budget dispute, he said.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said his country was preparing to receive the children and families who will eventually be deported from the United States.

But solving the crisis will require more attention and investment from the United States, he said. Among countries investing in Guatemala, the U.S. ranks seventh, he said — below Canada, Russia, and Colombia.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Michael Robinson Chavez

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