Did Navy SEAL say too much about bin Laden shooting?

Former Navy SEAL Robert O'Neill
Former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill

A Navy official says the service is investigating an allegation that the former Navy SEAL who claims he shot and killed Osama bin Laden may have revealed classified information to those not authorized to receive it.

Robert O’Neill has given numerous interviews since coming forward to say he was part of the operation that culminated in the death of the al-Qaida leader. O’Neill told The Associated Press last month that he has taken pains not to divulge classified information or compromise SEAL tactics.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Navy, Cdr. Ryan Perry, said in a statement that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had received an allegation that O’Neill may have revealed classified information to persons not authorized to receive such information. “In response, NCIS has initiated an investigation to determine the merit of the allegations,” Perry said.

A call to a spokeswoman for O’Neill was not immediately returned Tuesday night.

The revelations by O’Neill, who joined the Navy in 1995 and won two Silver and five Bronze Stars during his service, has generated discord among some current and former SEALs for breaking a code of silence regarding their missions. O’Neill has said that he believes the public has a right to know more details of the 2011 mission to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Pentagon officials have said that it’s not clear whose shots actually killed bin Laden. Another SEAL, Matt Bissonnette, has suggested that the point man who led the way to bin Laden’s bedroom fired the fatal shots, and that bin Laden was already down when he and a second SEAL, presumably O’Neill, shot bin Laden.
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Copyright © 2014 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Memories of 9/11 shape debate, opinion, over Syria

The World Trade Center as the second plane is about to strike.
The World Trade Center as the second plane is about to strike.

Twelve years later, haunting memories of Sept. 11 are shaping the debate over what to do about Syria.

As Americans mark the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation again is wrestling with painful questions about al-Qaida, weapons of mass destruction and the risks of American inaction. At the center of the debate is President Barack Obama, who has sought to move the U.S. away from what he has called the “perpetual wartime footing” it found itself on in the years after 9/11.

“America is not the world’s policeman,” Obama said Tuesday evening as he addressed the nation about the Syria conflict. “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”

Some people worry that a U.S. strike in Syria would embroil the American military in an extended and unwinnable conflict in the Middle East, evoking emotions many felt in the years after 9/11 as they watched America’s sons and daughters go back for second and third tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Others see Syria through a broader Mideast prism involving Iran. They fear that if the U.S. doesn’t assert itself now, America will start from a position of weakness if and when it confronts future threats in the region.

When Obama and the first lady stand on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday morning to commemorate 9/11 victims with a moment of silence, there’s a good chance at least some of these themes will be weighing on the president.

AL-QAIDA AS TOP THREAT

The international terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden became synonymous with “America’s enemy” in the days after 9/11. More than a decade later, bin Laden is dead and Obama says the group’s core is on the path to defeat. But blows to al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan have come amid growing concerns about al-Qaida’s strength in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and even Syria.

That foreign jihadi fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, are growing in ranks among rebels fighting Assad’s regime is a major concern for lawmakers and the U.S. Assad and his forces have sought to exploit that concern, arguing, in short, that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Assad said of a potential U.S. strike in an interview Sunday with American journalist Charlie Rose, “This is the war that is going to support al-Qaida and the same people that kill Americans in the 11th of September.”

STATE OF ALERT

Although Americans are far less jittery about the threat of terrorism than they were in the aftermath of 9/11, they’re still keenly aware of turmoil in the Middle East and its challenges for the U.S.

Nearly all Americans — 94 percent — say the war on terrorism has not yet been won, according to a new Associated Press poll. Just 14 percent of those Americans say it’s likely the U.S. will win it during the next 10 years.

Such sentiments were punctuated Tuesday when Obama, hours before his national address on Syria, signed a notice extending the national emergency for another year.

“The terrorist threat that led to the declaration on Sept. 14, 2001, of a national emergency continues,” Obama wrote to Congress.

Compounding concerns have been new threats to America’s embassies and consulates. A threat from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula led to the closing of 19 diplomatic posts across the Mideast and in Africa last month. And as Obama considered a strike in Syria last week, the State Department was ordering nonessential American diplomats to leave the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Lebanon because of the potential for retaliation from Iran-backed Hezbollah, a group allied with Assad.

IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

With the U.S. military struggling to absorb deep automatic spending cuts, few Americans are eager for the U.S. to get involved in a civil war already raging for more than two years, with no end in sight.

Obama, who ran for president as a critic of the Iraq war, ended it as president and is winding down the U.S. war in Afghanistan, is of similar mind.

“I know how tired the American people are of war generally, and particularly war in the Middle East. And so I don’t take these decisions lightly,” Obama said in an NBC interview Monday.

Obama and his aides know many Americans reflexively resist anything that calls to mind the aggressive stance President George W. Bush took after 9/11. They’re insisting any U.S. action will be limited and won’t involve troops on the ground.

“This is not Iraq or Afghanistan,” Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said repeatedly Sunday on political talk shows.

But Republicans are hearing a slightly different message. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., arranged for Republican congressional staffers to hear from Stephen Hadley, Bush’s former national security adviser, and Eric Edelman, once a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Both played major roles in the Iraq war and are now selling leery Republicans on a strike in Syria.

WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

“The lesson of September the 11th is take threats before they fully materialize,” Bush said in August 2006.

Those days, it was erroneous intelligence claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that incensed many Americans as civilian deaths hit record highs three years into the war in Iraq.

Today, there are few doubts chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Assad’s regime even acknowledged publicly this week that it possesses the weapons when it agreed to give them up as part of a budding diplomatic deal to avert a U.S. strike.

Obama acknowledges that Syria poses no direct or imminent threat to the U.S. But his pitch to Congress, the public and U.S. allies is rooted in the belief that if the world doesn’t act now to uphold a global norm against chemical weapons use, we all could be at risk down the line.

“Sometimes wars have started later because people didn’t do things that might have prevented them earlier,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday.

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AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

 

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More airborne terror ahead?

Outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller
Outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller

The nature of terrorism has changed in Robert Mueller‘s dozen years as FBI director, but his concerns for the future are much the same as when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, merely a week after he’d taken over the bureau. As he wraps up his FBI tenure, Mueller worries that terrorists will once again target planes or finally pull off an attack using a weapon of mass destruction.

Mueller sees terrorism as a shifting landscape, evolving from Osama bin Laden‘s global brand in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks to the splintering threats arising in the fallout from the Arab Spring across the Middle East.

“Every one of these countries now has cadres of individuals who you would put in the category of extremists, violent extremists, and that will present threats down the road,” Mueller said.

Mueller, the architect of the bureau’s transformation into a terrorism-fighting agency, spoke to reporters at FBI headquarters this week.

The director’s last day on the job is Sept. 4. His successor, former Justice Department official James Comey, will be on hand next week for the transition.

During Mueller’s tenure, terrorists were thwarted in their efforts to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001, a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas in 2009 and U.S.-bound cargo planes carrying printer cartridge bombs. But the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds in April and the 2009 shooting that killed 13 and injured more than 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, are powerful reminders that the protective net against terrorism is not infallible.

“I always say my biggest worry is … an attack on a plane,” Mueller said. “And secondly, it’s a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist and that includes a cyber-capability that trumps the defenses that we have.”

He also sees the risk of a cyberattack on a financial institution or on a sector such as energy “where we do not have sufficient barricades or preventive capabilities.”

Mueller’s initial foray into the world of counter-terrorism came more than two decades ago with the attack on Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up over Scotland in 1988.

“I spent lot of time on that investigation over at the Department of Justice” and “still spend time with the survivors of that horrible, horrible disaster,” said the director.

As he has in recent congressional testimony, Mueller defended the National Security Agency’s classified surveillance programs.

“I am fairly comfortable and confident that we are doing things the way the American public would expect us to,” said Mueller. He said the NSA programs are “tremendously important to the protection, not only from terrorist attacks, but from other threats to the United States.”

Regarding the disclosures of classified information by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, Mueller said “they have impacted” criminal investigations and are “in the process of impacting capabilities around the world.” He declined to give any details.

Mueller made the comments the same day that a new round of revelations about the surveillance showed that the NSA scooped up as many as 56,000 emails and other communications annually over three years by Americans not connected to terrorism. He spoke to reporters before those details were made public.

In the interview, he declined to comment on prospects that Congress might restrict the surveillance programs or require greater disclosure about the details of the programs.

Looking back, Mueller says he didn’t expect to be focused on terrorism when he took the job that has consumed the past 12 years of his life in law enforcement.

Mueller says he thought he would be overseeing the kinds of cases he had worked on as a federal prosecutor — organized crime, narcotics, public corruption and white-collar crime.

“I had in my own mind some ideas about where the bureau needed to go and then a week later we had Sept. 11,” Mueller said. “I did not expect I would be spending my time preventing terrorist attacks.” For the FBI, “it’s not what we want to do, or like doing, it’s what the American public expects us to do.”

The FBI often succeeded in that goal but not always.

“I would say you feel the most pain from what happened at some place like Fort Hood or what happened up in Boston,” Mueller said. “That’s not to say that you could have prevented it, that’s speculation. But the fact of the matter is, you sit down with victims’ families, you see the pain they go through and you always wonder whether there isn’t something more” that could have been done.
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Terrorists use online chat rooms

Checkpoint in Yemen (AP)
Checkpoint in Yemen (AP)

Al-Qaida fighters have been using secretive chat rooms and encrypted Internet message boards for planning and coordinating attacks — including the threatened if vague plot that U.S. officials say closed 19 diplomatic posts across Africa and the Middle East for more than a week.

It’s highly unlikely that al-Qaida’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, or his chief lieutenant in Yemen, Nasser al-Wahishi, were personally part of the Internet chatter or, given the intense manhunt for both by U.S. spy agencies, that they ever go online or pick up the phone to discuss terror plots, experts say.

But the unspecified call to arms by the al-Qaida leaders, using a multi-layered subterfuge to pass messages from couriers to tech-savvy underlings to attackers, provoked a quick reaction by the U.S. to protect Americans in far-flung corners of the world where the terror network is evolving into regional hubs.

For years, extremists have used online forums to share information and drum up support, and over the past decade they have developed systems that blend encryption programs with anonymity software to hide their tracks. Jihadist technology may now be so sophisticated and secretive, experts say, that many communications avoid detection by National Security Agency programs that were specifically designed to uncover terror plots.

A U.S. intelligence official said the unspecified threat was discussed in an online forum joined by so many jihadist groups that it included a representative from Boko Haram, the Nigerian insurgency that has loose and informal ties to al-Qaida. Two other intelligence officials characterized the threat as more of an alert to get ready to launch potential attacks than a discussion of specific targets.

One of the officials said the threat began with a message from al-Wahishi, head of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to al-Zawahri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as the core al-Qaida leader. The message essentially sought out al-Zawahri’s blessing to launch attacks. Al-Zawahri, in turn, sent out a response that was shared on the secretive online jihadi forum.

All three intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the threat.

Rita Katz, director of the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group that monitors jihadist websites, said it’s all but certain that neither al-Zawahri nor al-Wahishi would communicate directly online or on the phone.

Al-Zawahri’s location is unknown, but he was last believed to be in Pakistan, and al-Wahishi is said to be in Yemen. Given the nearly 2,000 miles between the two men, Katz said it’s most likely they separately composed encrypted messages, saved them on thumb drives, and handed them off to couriers who disseminated them on secure websites.

Bin Laden, who was killed in May 2011, issued his messages in much the same way.

“These guys are not living in a bubble,” said Katz, who has been watching al-Qaida and other jihadi communications for years. “They live in a reality that is facing the American intelligence interception with the best, most advanced technology that can be created. So they always try to find ways to get away from these interceptions to be able to deliver messages.”

She added: “I am sure they are delivering messages, through the message boards or by sending emails that are encrypted. But there is no way in my mind that Zawahri or Wahishi have access to the Internet, and I think Wahishi, at this stage of his life, is even afraid of going outside.”

Tracking and eliminating al-Qaida operatives in Yemen hasn’t been easy for the U.S. It took years for the CIA finally to kill the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike after an intense manhunt. By staying off the grid, al-Wahishi and other senior al-Qaida leaders in Yemen such as Qassim al-Rimi and top bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri have managed to remain alive. So frustrated was the CIA at one point, the spy agency considered killing the couriers passing messages in an attempt to disrupt the terrorist group’s plans, said a former senior U.S. official.

The idea was dropped because the couriers were not involved in lethal operations.

Exactly how U.S. spy systems picked up the latest threat is classified, and Shawn Turner, spokesman for U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper, refused to confirm or deny Katz’s analysis on how it might have happened. Intelligence officials have suggested that the plot was detected, in part at least, through NSA surveillance programs that have been under harsh worldwide criticism for privacy intrusions in the name of national security.

It’s not clear, however, that even the powerful U.S. spy systems would be able to crack jihadists’ encrypted messages without help from the inside.

Earlier this year, an al-Qaida-linked extremist propaganda organization known as the Global Islamic Media Front released an encrypted instant-messaging system known as “Asrar al-Dardashah,” or “Secrets of the Chat.” It was a texting version of the organization’s end-to-end encryption program that followers had been using for years. End-to-end encryption means messages are put into code so that only senders and receivers can access the content with secure “keys.”

After the NSA programs were revealed in June, jihadi websites began urging followers to also use software that would hide their Internet protocol addresses and, essentially, prevent them from being tracked online. That aimed to add another layer of security to the online traffic.

An Aug. 5 discussion about the U.S. embassy closings on a jihadi forum that is directly linked to al-Qaida underscored the need for “complete secrecy” in plotting attacks even while jeering the American response to the message between al-Zawahri and al-Wahishi.

In a post on the Shumukh al-Islam online forum, a writer who identified himself as Sayyed al-Mawqif noted American news reports that said the terror threat possibly was intercepted though phone calls or surveillance of jihadist chat rooms or message boards. Shumukh al-Islam is not an encrypted site, but it requires a password to access and does not frequently accept new visitors.

“Even if there will not be a jihadi operation, it is sufficient that the mujahideen brothers succeeded in putting fear in the hearts of the disbelievers and the human devils,” al-Mawqif wrote, according to a SITE translation of the transcript. “We hope to hear more about psychological wars like this one if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground.”

Encryption technology was once regulated by the U.S. for national security purposes, but it has been available to the public and used globally since the 1990s, including by human rights and free speech advocates.

“You can encrypt things in such a way that you can assume that even the NSA can’t undo them — there’s no back door,” said Dan Auerbach, a technology expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is challenging NSA eavesdropping in federal lawsuits.

“We think it is very important to have tools for privacy,” Auerbach said. But “when you develop a strong privacy-enhancing tool, it will help everyone — and this may include people considered by many to be ‘bad guys.'”

Other technology experts believe the government could access encrypted messages — with the help of Internet providers.

Depending on what software is used, Internet providers theoretically could be compelled to send the coded messages and their decryption keys to the government instead of to the intended recipient. Unknown vulnerabilities in software may also make it possible for hackers to break into computers and obtain messages.

It’s also possible that U.S. intelligence officials used a decidedly low-tech method to intercept the message between al-Zawahri and al-Wahishi — by planting a spy in the online forum. That has happened in the past, according to intelligence experts, most recently in a case now in federal court in Miami in which prosecutors say an undercover FBI agent snared two alleged terrorist recruiters in an online chat room by posing as a financial middleman.

Either way, and given al-Qaida’s global sprawl and attempts to fly under the radar, it’s certain that encrypted chat rooms and online sites are a mainstay for jihadi messages.

“This creates a bit of a cat-and-mouse game between terrorist groups that can buy commercial technology and intelligence agencies that are trying to find ways to continue to monitor,” said Seth Jones, a former adviser to U.S. special operations forces and counterterrorism expert at Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank that receives U.S. funding. “Some of the technology you can buy is pretty good, and it evolves, and it is a game that is constantly evolving.”

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Associated Press Writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report. On Twitter: Lara Jakes: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP and Adam Goldman: https://twitter.com/adamgoldmanap
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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