Thursday, March 10, 2005

Spooked about terrorists on the inside

Today's New York Times confirms <> what we've known for some time about a lack of intelligence capabilities in the Middle East: As with Saddam's Iraq, U.S. spooks are groping in the dark when it comes to assessing Iran's development of nuclear weapons. (The Times rather politely describes the status quo as "inadequate to allow firm judgments" about the Iranian program.)
But that may be the least of worries -- these days it appears the agencies also lack good intel on themselves. According to the L.A. Times, U.S. counterintelligence officials are "increasingly concerned" that al-Qaida operatives have infiltrated U.S. spy agencies, including the CIA. The problem traces directly to two long-running deficiencies: a critical shortage of American intelligence officers skilled in foreign languages, and a dearth of human intelligence assets in key foreign regions.
"So far, about 40 Americans who sought positions at U.S. intelligence agencies have been red-flagged and turned away for possible ties to terrorist groups," said counterintelligence officials, according to the L.A. Times. That number includes "several applicants" detected at the CIA.
"Fear of possible penetration has grown because of what one official called 'an intense competition' among America's intelligence, military and contractor organizations. They are seeking to hire thousands of skilled linguists, trained analysts and clandestine operatives who can blend into overseas communities to collect intelligence and to recruit foreign agents inside terrorist cells.
"In some cases, the officials said, those most qualified for such sensitive jobs -- naturalized Americans who grew up in the Middle East or South Asia, for example, and who are native speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu and other crucial languages -- have proved the most difficult to vet during background checks. In addition, because of restrictions imposed by U.S. privacy laws, authorities at one spy service may not know that someone they had rejected later found a job at another agency or at a defense contractor working on classified systems."
Perhaps privacy laws are part of the problem, but what about the ongoing bureaucratic mess <> that is the Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security? It seems the administration's reorganization of the intelligence apparatus into one super-agency hasn't done much to improve efficiency; various agencies still rely on outsourcing for vetting recruits. "With vast increases in funding from Congress after the 2001 attacks, " the L.A. Times report continues, "the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies launched sweeping recruitment programs. Most have been deluged with thousands of resumes and job applications, forcing several spy services to contract background checks to private firms.
"Paul Redmond, a longtime CIA officer who works for the counterintelligence office, called it an 'actuarial certainty' that spies have infiltrated U.S. security agencies. He warned that, because of efforts since Sept. 11 to more widely share critical intelligence as part of broader reforms, the danger of espionage was growing. 'I think we're worse off than we've ever been,' he said."
There are a couple other striking segments in the report, drawn from a national conference on counterintelligence held last weekend at Texas A&M University. For one, the threat of infiltration isn't only from Islamic extremists, and isn't limited to the government sector. Lisa Bronson, the undersecretary of defense in charge of vetting exports of defense-related materials, told conference goers that "2,000 to 3,000 front companies" inside America are working to obtain so-called dual-use civilian equipment or information that could be used to help China's military.
And there were some rather intriguing comments made by the first President Bush, who served as CIA chief in the late 1970s.
"George H.W. Bush, whose presidential library is at Texas A&M, opened the weekend conference with a fervent defense of the CIA. Bush said it 'burns me up to see the agency under fire' for flawed intelligence on prewar Iraq."
The White House blame game has burned up a number of other folks , too. Maybe Bush the senior should have a heart-to-heart with junior about what else is really behind the various U.S. intelligence disasters <> of the last several years.
-- Mark Follman

Murder by Off-Duty Homeland Security Agent

PBU11 (Technorati Tag)
Amazing Murder related to Homeland Security Off-Duty Officer

3/11/2004 Update:


Grand Jury to Probe Killing
An off-duty federal officer shot a man during a fight at a Mission Viejo party, and the district attorney wants sworn testimony.
By H.G. Reza
Times Staff Writer

March 11, 2005

The Orange County Grand Jury will begin hearing testimony today on the shooting death of a 20-year-old man last month by an off-duty federal officer during a confrontation at a noisy party, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said.

Sheriff's officials said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Douglas Bates killed Bassim Chmait with a single shot to the head during an altercation Feb. 5 at a Mission Viejo apartment complex. Authorities said Bates, who lives in the complex, got into a fight with Chmait, of Laguna Hills, and four to six of Chmait's companions as they arrived at the party about 1:30 a.m.

The initial report of the incident by the Sheriff's Department said Bates came out of his apartment because he heard a disturbance and that his duty weapon discharged, perhaps accidentally.

The victim's brother, Omar Chmait, challenged the official version. Omar Chmait was not present, but he has said that witnesses, who were friends of the victim, contended that Bates had provoked the fight.

Law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation said several witnesses gave contradictory accounts of the shooting. On Thursday, Rackauckas said the grand jury would sort through the testimony and decide whether to indict Bates.

"There might be some credibility questions, and we want to lay all of that information out to the grand jury so they can make whatever credibility decisions need to be made," Rackauckas said. He expects the grand jury probe to be completed in two to three weeks.

Sheriff's detectives finished their investigation last week and forwarded their findings to the district attorney. Normally, prosecutors review such reports and decide whether the evidence warrants charges. But Rackauckas said his office and the Sheriff's Department decided it would be better to let the grand jury hear the facts and make a decision.

"It's a case where we think we need testimony under oath," he said. "There's further investigation to do. The grand jury is an investigative body, and we want the testimony of a number of people who could be witnesses."

He declined to say whether the grand jury was impaneled to hear the case because investigators were having problems getting key witnesses to talk to them, as some law enforcement officials have said.

"But it's certainly our intention to have [testimony from] everyone who might be a witness to any relevant part of what happened," Rackauckas said.

It was also learned Thursday that sheriff's investigators had summoned a deputy district attorney to the scene the night of the shooting when they discovered that the shooter was a law enforcement officer. "We have had a deputy district attorney [involved in the investigation], starting right away," Rackauckas said.

Chmait's family and friends have held weekly vigils outside the Madrid Apartments, in the 2800 block of Los Alisos Boulevard, calling for Bates' arrest. About three weeks ago, the family also organized a demonstration outside Rackauckas' office to press for the prosecution of Bates.

On Thursday, the victim's uncle, Hikmat Chmait of Irvine, expressed relief on behalf of the family.

"This gives us hope that maybe justice will be served," he said. Initially discouraged by what they perceived as the reluctance of authorities to pursue the case, Chmait said, the family was "feeling better" knowing that the evidence would be presented to the grand jury.

"We won't feel good, though," he said, until the family hears that Bates will be prosecuted. "I hope the prosecution prevails."

Rackauckas said he understood the family's concerns, but said prosecutors and the grand jury would make decisions based on the merits of the case.


Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.


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Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

Review of Book: 911 on Trial

Is Bush looking for Osama?

Secret FBI Report Questions Al Qaeda Capabilities
No 'True' Al Qaeda Sleeper Agents Have Been Found in U.S.
Mar. 9, 2005 - A secret FBI report obtained by ABC News concludes that while there is no doubt al Qaeda wants to hit the United States, its capability to do so is unclear.
"Al-Qa'ida leadership's intention to attack the United States is not in question," the report reads. (All spellings are as rendered in the original report.) "However, their capability to do so is unclear, particularly in regard to 'spectacular' operations. We believe al-Qa'ida's capability to launch attacks within the United States is dependent on its ability to infiltrate and maintain operatives in the United States."
And for all the worry about Osama bin Laden's sleeper cells or agents in the United States, a secret FBI assessment concludes it knows of none.
The 32-page assessment says flatly, "To date, we have not identified any true 'sleeper' agents in the US," seemingly contradicting the "sleeper cell" description prosecutors assigned to seven men in Lackawanna, N.Y., in 2002.
Overblown Sleeper Cell Threat?
"Limited reporting since March indicates al-Qa'ida has sought to recruit and train individuals to conduct attacks in the United States, but is inconclusive as to whether they have succeeded in placing operatives in this country," the report reads. "US Government efforts to date also have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers."
It also differs from testimony given by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who warned in the past that several sleeper cells were probably in place.
"Our greatest threat is from al Qaeda cells in the United States that we have not yet been able to identify," Mueller said at a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing in February 2003. "Finding and rooting out al Qaeda members once they have entered the United States and have had time to establish themselves is our most serious intelligence and law enforcement challenge."
When the secret report was issued last month, on Feb. 16, Mueller testified at a hearing before the same committee that the lack of evidence concerned him. "I am concerned about what we are not seeing," he said.
The report does cite several cases in which individuals have been seen as potential sleeper agents, including a member of the Saudi Arabian Air Force training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The Saudi was sent home after it was discovered he provided information to al Qaeda figures in Saudi Arabia, including "coordinates on landmarks in the US," the report says.
"It's not surprising because we believe the Saudi military is infiltrated at the junior officer level in Saudi Arabia," said Dick Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism czar and now an ABC News Consultant. "And there are so many of them who come here for training."
New Al Qaeda Recruits
The report also says al Qaeda is shifting tactics because its leaders are aware of profiles singling out adult Arab males.
"Al-Qa'ida places a premium on operatives who are not, or at least appear not to be, Arab, particularly those with European or Asian features, according to various detainee reporting," the report reads. "Detainees also report that al-Qa'ida is interested in recruiting US citizens to participate in US operations, particularly African-American converts to Islam."
But the report continues that "US recruits are hard to find and al-Qa'ida detainees have reported that US citizens can be difficult to work with, one senior detainee claimed that US citizens and others who grew up in the West, were too independent and thought they knew more about US operations than senior planners."
In addition, women and married couples with children are being actively recruited, according to the report.
"A senior al-Qa'ida detainee instructed an operative who is currently in US custody, to settle in the United States with his family and maintain a low profile before eventually conducting an attack," the report reads. "Al-Qa'ida operatives have also married US women to obtain US visas and foreign documentation from other countries, according to sensitive reporting."
No Solace in No Evidence
The FBI says it takes no solace in the lack of evidence, or about what it is not seeing.
"Individual operatives who possess a clean passport, have not come to the attention of intelligence agencies overseas, and lack a criminal record are unlikely to attract the attention of security agencies in the United States, unless they are in contact with known extremists," according to the report. "Al-Qa'ida has altered its operative profile, making it more difficult to screen visa applicants at embassies and individuals entering the United States at airports and other border crossings."
And the report suggests that instead of actual sleeper agents, lying in wait, al Qaeda may rely on disaffected Americans or other sympathizers, who might pick easier, softer targets such as shopping malls.
Clarke warned, "We have reason to believe that techniques like that and others we shouldn't talk about are well known to terrorists around the world."
ABC News' David Scott contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2005 ABC News Internet Ventures /* start correction */ .correction { margin-top:8px; border-top:1px solid #CCCCCC; padding-top:10px; margin-bottom:8px; border-bottom:1px solid #CCCCCC; padding-bottom:10px; font-family:arial,sans-serif; font-size:11px; color:#5A5A5A; } .correction strong { color:#CC0000; text-transform:uppercase; } /* end correction */
9/11 Panel's Findings Strain German Case
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page A12
HAMBURG, March 8 -- An attorney for the Sept. 11 commission testified Tuesday that the conspiracy to fly hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was conceived and planned outside Germany, complicating prosecutors' efforts to convict a Moroccan man for aiding the Hamburg cell that carried out the attacks.
Dietrich Snell, who headed the commission's team that investigated the origins and role of the Hamburg cell, told a panel of five German judges hearing the case that the ringleader, Mohamed Atta, and the other Sept. 11 hijackers did not develop the idea for the plot on their own. Rather, Snell testified, they were recruited by al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden during a visit to militant training camps in Afghanistan.
"This is a subject that we spent considerable time investigating," Snell said. "Ultimately, we did not arrive at the conclusion that there was solid evidence of any contact" between Hamburg cell members and al Qaeda leaders about the plot before the Hamburg group's trip to Afghanistan.
The commission's findings contradict the heart of Germany's case against the Moroccan defendant, Mounir Motassadeq, who is accused of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization.
Prosecutors must prove that important elements of the conspiracy took place in Germany. Before Sept. 11, 2001, it was legal in Germany to belong to a foreign terrorist organization such as al Qaeda as long as it was not active in the country.
Motassadeq, a college student in Hamburg before the attacks, was a close friend of Atta's and others involved in the operation. Prosecutors say he traveled with them to Afghanistan, gave them financial assistance and helped cover for their absence when they left for the United States to prepare for the hijackings. But prosecutors have been unable to produce direct evidence that Motassadeq knew about the plot, another crucial point necessary for a conviction.
German authorities and the judges had pressed the Sept. 11 commission since last summer to send an emissary to Hamburg to testify about the commission's landmark report released last summer. But after the first of Snell's two days of scheduled testimony, it was the defense that seemed most pleased with what he had to say.
"Today's statements have been very good for us," said Udo Jacob, an attorney for Motassadeq. "Everything so far has been nice."
Motassadeq, 31, was convicted on the charges in 2003 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, the maximum under German law. But an appeals court overturned the verdict, ruling that the evidence did not justify the result.
The appeals court also said Motassadeq deserved access to statements made by al Qaeda leaders in U.S. custody, reasoning that they could be used to help his defense.
In response, the U.S. Justice Department provided the German court with summaries of interrogations of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, two al Qaeda figures deeply involved in the hijacking plot. The statements were made public in August at the start of Motassadeq's retrial and largely supported the defendant's alibi -- that he was unaware of the plot and had been intentionally kept in the dark.
The judicial panel hearing the case has expressed frustration with what it considers a lack of cooperation from the United States. Requests to interview Binalshibh and Mohammed have been denied, as have petitions for more detailed investigative reports from the FBI and CIA.
On Tuesday, Ernst-Rainer Schudt, the presiding judge, repeatedly prodded Snell to provide background information about the commission's sources and findings. Snell declined for the most part, replying that such information was classified and that he was largely restricted to testifying about details in the commission's published report.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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