This morning, the Federal Communications Commission voted to guarantee the open Internet through so-called net neutrality rules, and with it, forged ahead with one of the biggest policy accomplishments of the Obama administration.
“This is probably the most important ruling in the history of the FCC,” says Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press.
Net neutrality, a principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally, was a founding concept for the web. But many Internet service providers have attempted to change that. Cell phone companies have attempted to block apps that could compete with their services and cable companies have pressed for paid prioritization, seeking extra income by forcing users to pay for faster connections to select websites.
For Internet start-ups and political activists alike, the efforts by the ISP industry to move away from net neutrality represented a transformation of the Internet, from a place in which all voices were equal to a world of big incumbent websites and corporate media-dominated information sources. “The question came down to, who ultimately controls this Internet? Is it going to be these powerful corporations?” says Karr.
And only a year ago, prospects for protecting net neutrality seemed doomed. The Internet service provider industry, including companies such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable, had lobbied furiously against the rule, spending tens of millions on lobbying and on so-called “astroturf” efforts to pay third party groups to support their position. In January of 2014, a federal court struck down a previous iteration of the open Internet rules after Verizon filed suit. And shortly thereafter, the newly installed FCC chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable and cell phone lobbyist, began moving forward with a plan that would allow broadband providers to create Internet fast lanes and slow lanes.
Now, with the FCC voting to reclassify Internet access providers under Title II of the Communications Act, net neutrality rules are stronger than ever. The credit for such a seachange, say activists who agitated for the decision, belongs to a mix of online and traditional activism.
Pro-net neutrality protesters quickly made headlines by storming hearings, confronting Wheeler at public events, and carrying out a string of stunts designed to raise public awareness.
Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice, stresses that the strength of the net neutrality movement relied on the diversity of its coalition. She says Color of Change, National Hispanic Media Coalition, immigrant rights’ groups, activists from Black Lives Matter and communities of color “took it to the streets, to the doorstep of the ISPs.”
“What happened? The people happened, organizing happened,” Cyril says.
Karr, who has worked on net neutrality advocacy for over a decade, also emphasized the role of a large coalition, “from librarians to free speech advocates,” with a shared interest in Internet freedom. “It also took a host of different tactics,” he says. “Protests in Philadelphia, protests in San Francisco, people making videos on YouTube — not coordinating in some centralized fashion, but many groups using their own creative strength and reaching out to their own constituents around this goal of convincing the FCC to reclassify Internet access providers under Title II.”
David Segal, co-founder of Demand Progress, notes confrontational tactics also made a difference. “Once it became clear that the grassroots were demanding Title II and the strongest rules possible, politicians and companies started sticking their necks out and helped propel Americans forward.”
What makes net neutrality different from many other policy debates is that the medium in which people learned about the issue was the very thing being threatened, says Segal.
“People on the Internet care about the wellbeing of the Internet,” he observed. “It’s very easy to remind people that the sites they’re reading might be disrupted.” And from an organizing point of view, using sites such as Tumblr or Reddit as a platform was critical for spreading the message.
Other developments also helped shift the debate. HBO host John Oliver mobilized his viewers to flood the FCC with more than 45,000 comments in support of reclassification. A number of websites also participated in the “Internet Slowdown Day,” a protest to call attention to what might happen under paid prioritization without strong net neutrality.
Much ink has been spilled over the tactics around major policy debates of the Obama years. For many critics, the top-down approach favored by the administration has doomed many of the president’s own priorities.
Harvard professor Theda Skocpol pins the blame for the failure to pass major climate change legislation on “CEOs and Big Enviro honchos” who eschewed grassroots organizing in favor of backroom deals. She notes that the proponents of climate change legislation used an “insider-grand bargaining political style that, unbeknownst to its sponsors, was unlikely to succeed given fast-changing realities in US partisan politics and governing institutions.”
Following Obama’s first election win in 2008, the president retired his grassroots “Organizing for America” army of volunteers into a wing of the Democratic National Committee, and reportedly pressured activist groups not to publicly criticize his administration.
The past year of organizing around net neutrality defied this strategy.
To be sure, telephone and Internet companies are likely to try to undermine the rules that were voted on today. Earlier this week, former FCC chair and current cable industry lobbyist Michael Powell pledged legal action against reclassification. Another route would be for congressional allies of the industry to try to revoke FCC authority through the appropriations process or through a major rewrite of the Telecommunications Act.
Still, activists have been celebrating.
“The lawyers on our team say the Title II jurisdiction is the one with the most solid grounding so we’re hopeful that we’ll stand in court,” says Segal.
Plus, “there are some signals that morale is very low on the other side,” he adds, referring to a New York Times article that suggests even the ISP industry’s strong allies in Congress may give up the fight.
Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The post Net Neutrality Is Here — Thanks To an Unprecedented Guerrilla Activism Campaign appeared first on The Intercept.
“OUR BROTHERS ARE there,” Khalid said when he heard I was going to Ukraine. “Buy a local SIM card when you get there, send me the number and then wait for someone to call you.”
Khalid, who uses a pseudonym, leads the Islamic State’s underground branch in Istanbul. He came from Syria to help control the flood of volunteers arriving in Turkey from all over the world, wanting to join the global jihad. Now, he wanted to put me in touch with Rizvan, a “brother” fighting with Muslims in Ukraine.
The “brothers” are members of ISIS and other underground Islamic organizations, men who have abandoned their own countries and cities. Often using pseudonyms and fake identities, they are working and fighting in the Middle East, Africa and the Caucasus, slipping across borders without visas. Some are fighting to create a new Caliphate — heaven on earth. Others — like Chechens, Kurds and Dagestanis — say they are fighting for freedom, independence and self-determination. They are on every continent, and in almost every country, and now they are in Ukraine, too.
In the West, most look at the war in Ukraine as simply a battle between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. But the truth on the ground is now far more complex, particularly when it comes to the volunteer battalions fighting on the side of Ukraine. Ostensibly state-sanctioned, but not necessarily state-controlled, some have been supported by Ukrainian oligarchs, and others by private citizens. Less talked about, however, is the Dudayev battalion, named after the first president of Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and founded by Isa Munayev, a Chechen commander who fought in two wars against Russia.
Ukraine is now becoming an important stop-off point for the brothers, like Rizvan. In Ukraine, you can buy a passport and a new identity. For $15,000, a fighter receives a new name and a legal document attesting to Ukrainian citizenship. Ukraine doesn’t belong to the European Union, but it’s an easy pathway for immigration to the West. Ukrainians have few difficulties obtaining visas to neighboring Poland, where they can work on construction sites and in restaurants, filling the gap left by the millions of Poles who have left in search of work in the United Kingdom and Germany.
You can also do business in Ukraine that’s not quite legal. You can earn easy money for the brothers fighting in the Caucasus, Syria and Afghanistan. You can “legally” acquire unregistered weapons to fight the Russian-backed separatists, and then export them by bribing corrupt Ukrainian customs officers.
“Our goal here is to get weapons, which will be sent to the Caucasus,” Rizvan, the brother who meets me first in Kiev, admits without hesitation.
WITH HIS WHITE hair and beard, Rizvan is still physically fit, even at 57. He’s been a fighter his entire adult life. Born in a small mountain village in the Caucasus, on the border between Dagestan and Chechnya, Rizvan belongs to an ethnic minority known as the Lak, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim.
The world that Rizvan inhabits — the world of the brothers — is something new. When he first became a fighter, there wasn’t any Internet or cell phones, or cameras on the street, or drones. Rizvan joined the brothers when the Soviet Union collapsed, and he went to fight for a better world, first against the Russians in Chechnya and Dagestan during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. He then moved to Azerbaijan, where he was eventually arrested in 2004 on suspicion of maintaining contact with al Qaeda.
Even though Rizvan admits to fighting with Islamic organizations, he claims the actual basis for the arrest in Azerbaijan — illegal possession of weapons — was false. Authorities couldn’t find anything suspicious where he was living (Rizvan was staying at the time with his “brothers” in the jihad movement) but in his wife’s home they found a single hand grenade. Rizvan was charged with illegal weapons possession and sent to prison for several years.
In prison, he says he was tortured and deliberately housed in a cell with prisoners infected with tuberculosis. Rizvan took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, accusing the authorities in Azerbaijan of depriving him of due process. The court eventually agreed, and asked the Azerbaijani government to pay Rizvan 2,400 euros in compensation, plus another 1,000 euros for court costs.
But when Rizvan was released from prison, he didn’t want to stay in Azerbaijan, fearing he would be rearrested, or even framed for a crime and again accused of terrorism. “Some of our people disappear and are never found,” he says. “There was one brother [who disappeared], and when he was brought for burial, a card was found showing that he was one of 30 people held in detention in Russia.”
In Russia, a warrant was issued for Rizvan’s arrest. Returning to his small mountain village was out of the question. If he goes back, his family will end up paying for what he does, anyhow. “They get to us through our families,” he says. He condemns those who refused to leave their own country and fight the infidels. This was the choice: either stay, or go abroad where “you can breathe freedom.”
“Man is born free,” Rizvan says. “We are slaves of God and not the slaves of people, especially those who are against their own people, and break the laws of God. There is only one law: the law of God.”
After his release from prison in Azerbaijan, Rizvan became the eternal wanderer, a rebel — and one of the brothers now in Ukraine. He came because Munayev, now head of the Dudayev battalion, decided the brothers should fight in Ukraine. “I am here today because my brother, Isa, called us and said, ‘It’s time to repay your debt,’” Rizvan says. “There was a time when the brothers from Ukraine came [to Chechnya] and fought against the common enemy, the aggressor, the occupier.”
That debt is to Ukrainians like Oleksandr Muzychko, who became one of the brothers, even though he never converted to Islam. Muzyczko, along with other Ukrainian volunteers, joined Chechen fighters and took part in the first Chechen war against Russia. He commanded a branch of Ukrainian volunteers, called “Viking,” which fought under famed Chechen militant leader Shamil Basayev. Muzychko died last year in Ukraine under mysterious circumstances.
Rizvan has been in Ukraine for almost a year, and hasn’t seen his family since he arrived. Their last separation lasted almost seven years. He’s never had time to raise children, or even really to get to know them. Although he’s a grandfather, he only has one son — a small family by Caucasian standards, but better for him, since a smaller family costs less. His wife calls often and asks for money, but Rizvan rarely has any to give her.
I N THE 17th century, the area to the east of the Dnieper River was known as the “wilderness,” an ungoverned territory that attracted refugees, criminals and peasants — a place beyond the reach of the Russian empire. Today, this part of Ukraine plays a similar role, this time for Muslim brothers. In eastern Ukraine, the green flag of jihad flies over some of the private battalions’ bases.
For many Muslims, like Rizvan, the war in Ukraine’s Donbass region is just the next stage in the fight against the Russian empire. It doesn’t matter to them whether their ultimate goal is a Caliphate in the Middle East, or simply to have the Caucuses free of Russian influence — the brothers are united not by nation, but by a sense of community and solidarity.
But the brothers barely have the financial means for fighting or living. They are poor, and very rarely receive grants from the so-called Islamic humanitarian organizations. They must earn money for themselves, and this is usually done by force. Amber is one of the ideas Rizvan has for financing the “company of brothers” fighting in eastern Ukraine — the Dudayev battalion, which includes Muslims from several nations, Ukrainians, Georgians, and even a few Russians.
The brothers had hoped the Ukrainian authorities would appreciate their dedication and willingness to give their lives in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, but they miscalculated. Like other branches of fighters — Aidar, Azov and Donbass — the government, for the most part, ignores them. They’re armed volunteers outside the control of Kiev, and Ukraine’s politicians also fear that one day, instead of fighting Russians in the east, the volunteers will turn on the government in Kiev. So ordinary people help the volunteers, but it’s not enough. The fighters associated with the Ukrainian nationalist Right Sector get money, cars and houses from the rich oligarchs.
Rizvan has a different plan. He’s afraid that if they begin stealing from the rich, the Ukrainian government will quickly declare their armed branch illegal. He’s decided to work in the underground economy — uncontrolled by the state — which the brothers know best.
Back in the ’90s, the amber mines in the vast forests surrounding the city of Rivne were state-owned and badly run, so residents began illegally mining; it was a chance at easy money. Soon, however, the mafia took over. For the right daily fee, miners could work and sell amber to the mafia at a fixed price: $100 per kilogram. The mafia conspired with local militia, prosecutors and the governor. That was the way business worked.
As a result, although Ukraine officially produces 3 tons of amber annually, more than 15 tons are illegally exported to Poland each year. There, the ore is processed and sold at a substantial profit. The Rivne mines operate 24 hours a day. Hundreds of people with shovels in hand search the forest; they pay less to the mafia, but they extract less amber and earn less. The better off are those who have a water pump. Those people pump water at high pressure into the earth between the trees, until a cavity 2 to 3 meters deep forms. Amber, which is lighter than water, rises to the surface.
At one point, Rizvan disappeared in Rivne for several weeks. When he returned, he was disappointed; he’d failed to convince the local mafia to cooperate with the brothers’ fight for an independent Ukraine. But now, he has other arguments to persuade them. His men are holding up the mines, by not allowing anyone into the forest. Either the local gangsters share their profits, or no one will get paid.
Rizvan doesn’t like this job. He knows it won’t bring him any glory, and could land him in prison. He would have preferred to be among the fighters at the front lines, where everything is clear and clean. He says he can still fight, but he’s already too old to really endure the rigors of battle, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. He may still be physically fit, but fighters don’t usually last longer than a few years. Then they lose their strength and will to fight.
He has other orders from Munayev: he’s supposed to organize a “direct response group” in Kiev. The group will be a sort of rear echelon unit that take care of problems, like if someone tries to discredit the Dudayev battalion. It will also collect debts or scare off competition. There’s no doubt the new branch will work behind the lines, where there isn’t war, but there is money — as long as you know where to get it. If need be, the direct response group volunteers will watch over the mines in Rivne, or “will acquire” money from illegal casinos, which operate by the hundreds in Kiev.
Rizvan sends me photos of the group’s criminal exploits: they came into the casinos with weapons, and broke into the safes and slot machines. They disappeared quickly, and were never punished. The money went to food, uniforms, boots, tactical vests and other equipment necessary for the fighters. The mafia knows they can’t beat them at this game. The brothers are too good, because they are armed and experienced in battle. The police aren’t interested in getting involved either. In the end, it’s illegal gambling.
I told Rizvan that it’s a dangerous game. He laughed.
“It’s child’s play,” he says. “We used to do this in Dagestan. No one will lift a finger. Don’t worry.”
RIZVAN FINALLY DROVE me to see his “older brother,” to Isa Munayev, and his secret base located many miles west of Donetsk.
Riding in an old Chrysler that Rizvan bought in Poland, we drove for several hours, on potholed and snowy roads. Rizvan had glued to the car one of the emblems of Ukraine’s ATO, the so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation, which includes both soldiers and volunteers in the fight against separatists.
The bumper sticker allows him to drive through police traffic stops without being held up — or if he is stopped, they won’t demand bribes as they do from other drivers. The ATO sticker, Rizvan’s camouflage uniform, and a gun in his belt are enough to settle matters. Policemen salute him and wish him good luck.
He drives fast, not wanting to rest, sleep or even drink coffee. If he stops, it’s to check the compass on his belt to check the direction of Mecca. When it’s time to pray, he stops the car, turns off the engine, places his scarf in the snow and bows down to Allah.
Asked whether — after so many hardships, after so many years, and at his age, almost 60 now — he would finally like to rest, he answered indignantly, “How could I feel tired?”
There’s much more work to do, according to Rizvan. “There’s been a small result, but we will rest only when we’ve reached our goals,” he says. “I’m carrying out orders, written in the Holy Quran. ‘Listen to God, the Prophet.’ And I listen to him and do what I’m told.”
On the way into the city of Kryvyi Rih, we met with Dima, a young businessman — under 40 — but already worth some $5 million. He’s recently lost nearly $3 million from his business in Donetsk, which has been hit hard by the war. Dima worked for Igor Kolomoisky, one of the oligarchs who had been funding Ukraine’s volunteer battalions. Dima and Rizvan have only known each other for a short time. Rizvan claimed Dima owed him a lot of money, although it’s unclear from what. Rizvan kept bothering him, threatening to blackmail him. Finally, he got $20,000 from Dima.
That’s not nearly enough to support the Dudayev battalion. But Rizvan had something bigger to offer Dima: amber. Now, Dima was ready to talk. He came up with the idea to find buyers in the Persian Gulf, including wealthy sheikhs. They would like to sell an entire house of amber: furniture, stairs, floors, and inlaid stones. It only takes contacts, and Rizvan has them. The brothers from Saudi Arabia like to help the jihad in the Caucasus and the Middle East.
The next day, Rizvan was behind the wheel again. The old Chrysler barely moved, its engine overheated. A mechanic with an engineering degree and experience working in Soviet arms factories connected a plastic bottle filled with dirty water to the radiator using a rubber hose.
“I don’t know how long I’ll last,” Rizvan says suddenly. “It depends on God. I’ll probably die on this road. But I don’t have any other road to take.”
Photos: Tomasz Glowacki
Next: The Life and Death of a Chechen Commander
The post In Midst of War, Ukraine Becomes Gateway for Jihad appeared first on The Intercept.
On Tuesday, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman reported on the “equivalent of a CIA black site” operated by police in Chicago. When computer program analyst Kory Wright opened the story, he told me, “I immediately recognized the building” — because, the Chicago resident says, he was zip-tied to a bench there for hours in an intentionally overheated room without access to water or a bathroom, eventually giving false statements to try and end his ordeal.
A friend of Wright’s swept up in the same police raid described his own brutal treatment at the facility, known as Homan Square, including attacks to his face and genitals. The experiences of the two men line up with the way defense attorneys described the “black site” warehouse to Ackerman: as a place where detainees were held off the books, without access to lawyers, while being beaten or shackled for long periods of time.
Wright claims that nine years ago, he spent “at least six [brutal] hours” at the Homan facility on his 21st birthday. He says that he was never read his Miranda rights, and that his arrest was not put into the police system until after his ordeal was over. Wright was reminded of the facility again this week when he noticed a tweet from a writer he admires, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, linking to Ackerman’s story. Ackerman compared Homan Square to the network of shadowy torture centers built by the CIA across the Middle East — but focused “on Americans, most often poor, black and brown,” rather than on purported overseas terrorists.
Also unlike CIA black sites, Homan Square wasn’t a completely furtive enterprise. Several lawyers and anti-police brutality advocates with whom I spoke knew that suspects were routinely detained at Homan. The facility houses many of the police department’s special units, including the anti-gang and anti-drug task forces, along with the evidence-retrieval unit. Once suspects arrived at Homan, they did not have to be booked immediately, at least not as far as the police department was concerned, according to the people with whom I spoke. In fact, it was possible that a suspect’s arrest report wouldn’t show that he or she had ever been to Homan. Further, police could detain individuals at Homan for hours, or disappear them, before shipping them off to a district station for processing.
The Chicago Police Department declined to address the specific allegations from Wright and his friend, providing only a general statement denying abuses at Homan Square. (The same statement also appears in Ackerman’s story.) “CPD abides by all laws, rules and guidelines pertaining to any interviews of suspects or witnesses, at Homan Square or any other CPD facility,” the statement read. “There are always records of anyone who is arrested by CPD, and this is not any different at Homan Square.”
Kory Wright disagrees.
It was late on the hot morning of June 29, 2006 — Kory Wright’s 21st birthday — when he set out for the North Lawndale residence of a relative, a short walk from his own. “I know they got a lot of connections over there, and he said I can get my hair braided, so I came over and I was getting my hair braided,” Wright says. He says this relative sold crack cocaine, and that his mother had warned him prior to June 29 to keep his distance, but “you know, they good people.”
As Wright was having his hair braided on the porch, “a nice clean lady comes and asks to buy some drugs.” According to Wright, the woman “had a fifty [dollar bill]. And I exchanged the fifty. I gave her the change and then she completed her transaction with my [relative].”
Wright claims the drug-buyer was an undercover cop, and that the entire transaction was recorded by Chicago police, because two or three minutes after the drug deal, officers in plain clothes swarmed the house and detained Wright, two of his relatives, and one of his friends, Deandre Hutcherson. “They searched us first and then they took us all down to that one place I’m talking about,” Wright says, referring to the Homan interrogation site. Wright and Hutcherson both insist the police never read them their Miranda rights.
“When we first got to that place, we went in a garage and they walked us up the stairs,” he says. Phone calls to counsel and family were denied, Wright and Hutcherson say, while no fingerprints were taken, and no paperwork was filled out — which means there was no evidence they were ever there. “I tried to tell them it was my birthday,” he says, “and I think I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He [a Chicago police officer] got the nerve to go get his friend, and they, like, sung happy birthday.” Wright believes the virulent police officers were taunting him. “I see it [Homan] everyday. I shudder,” says Wright, whose neighborhood was just south of the facility.
The four men were split up and placed in small, separate rooms that were the size of office cubicles. It was a steamy summer day, and Wright was sweating profusely at Homan; he believes the police either turned the heat on, or turned the air conditioning off, to sweat him out. “When we first got in there it was room-temperature, and before he [a Chicago police officer] left, he was like, ‘It’s gon’ get a little hot in here,’” says Hutcherson, now 29.
For six hours, a sweaty Wright sat zip-tied to a bench with no access to a restroom, a telephone or water. “They strapped me — like across, kind of — to a bench, and my hands were strapped on both sides of me,” he says. “I can’t even scratch my face.” When Wright first arrived at Homan, he was left alone for a while in the hot room. Wright asked the police if he could call his mother, but instead, various police officers came “in and out. They were badgering me with questions. ‘Tell me about this murder!’” one officer shouted. Wright provided his interrogator with false information and names, with the hope of making it stop. He told me he was “trying to get out of the situation and give them something they wanted.”
Meanwhile, Hutcherson — also shackled to a bench — was being interrogated in another room. “He [a Chicago police officer] gets up, walking toward me,” Hutcherson alleges. “I already know what’s finna happen. I brace myself, and he hit me a little bit and then take his foot and stepped on my groin.” According to Hutcherson, the officer struck him two or three times in the face before kicking his penis.
“You must think I’m a fucking idiot,” Hutcherson says his attacker told him. Within an hour, Hutcherson, who was in town for his mother’s funeral, faked an asthma attack that unnerved the police. He says they then released him from detention and sent him on his way.
The descriptions that Wright and Hutcherson provided of their experiences at Homan are eerily similar to how Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, described such torture in The Atlantic:
Isolation, deprivation of food, other outside contact. It’s meant to be a lot of touchless torture. So they’re not touching you, which in the human-rights field is more powerful and scary because it doesn’t leave marks but leaves huge internal wounds.
Siska has known about the goings-on at Homan “since about the mid- to late-2000s.” Siska also said that most of those detained at Homan are poor, black and brown people suspected of street crimes. When I asked why reporters haven’t covered the abuses allegedly occurring there, Siska replied with a slight chuckle, “That’s the million dollar question. The problem is a lot of reporters agree with the police perspective.”
More broadly, Wright’s tale is typical of low-income, minoritized people victimized by America’s criminal justice system. Eventually, he was taken to Cook County jail, where he was processed and charged with distribution of heroin and cocaine. Given his low-income status, Wright’s only option for counsel was a public defender.
Wright’s lawyer, he says, was pregnant and overworked, while Wright suffered through multiple continuances. When his public defender gave birth, Wright was assigned a new attorney, who also, naturally, had a taxing caseload. In the end, the drug charges against Wright were thrown out, though not before he’d spent six months under house arrest because his mother lacked the money to fund a bond for release.
Kory Wright was attending Wilbur Wright Community College, and taking criminal justice courses, when he was detained at Homan. He says he had hopes of becoming a police officer in the city of Chicago before that June day. Wright told me a story about how police — when he was 16 years old — had roughed up him up, along with some friends of his. Afterwards, Wright decided he wanted to be a counterweight to that sort of police-initiated harassment, which regularly afflicts communities such as North Lawndale. But his experience at Homan, and his subsequent arrest, caused him to miss a semester of school.
Fortunately, Wright recovered, and today, at age 29, he is working on his master’s degree in network engineering at DePaul University. He lives in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and is the father of a new baby girl. But the touchless torture he says he suffered at Homan continues to haunt him. “The whole thing caused a rift between me and my mom. I didn’t like being black at all after that, and when I got to DePaul, I started trying to be as white as possible,” a doleful Wright told me. “Being black is a curse.”
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty (top); Courtesy of Kory Wright (second)
Die neu stationierten A 10-Kampfjets in Spangdahlem dienen der militärischen Eskalation der NATO gegenüber Russland
AT A SENATE Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran’s nuclear program in October 2013, more than a dozen men and women in yellow rain jackets sat in the gallery seats of the wood-paneled room, a bright presence amid the standard-issue dark suits of Washington. It wasn’t raining.
They were supporters of the Iranian exile opposition group the Mojahedin-e Khalq, often referred to as the MEK, but known to most Iranians as the Mojahedin. Activists distribute all manner of yellow paraphernalia at the group’s demonstrations: hats , banners , flags , inflatable rubber clapper sticks , and, most of all, the jackets . The yellow jackets — often emblazoned with portraits of the group’s two co-leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi — have become its calling card.
During the hearing, the powerful then-Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, spoke out for the Mojahedin. About an hour and a half into the proceedings, Menendez issued an explicit threat to Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman over attacks against the group’s members in Iraq.
Another assault had been lodged against a camp in the Iraqi desert where former Mojahedin fighters were holed up — dozens of the unarmed, expatriate Iranians had died in the raid,with conflicting accounts of who was responsible . Menendez, a hard-line opponent of the Iranian regime and skeptic of nuclear negotiations led by Sherman, blamed Iran’s allies, the Iraqi government, for letting the attacks happen. He expressed preparedness to use his clout as chairman of the committee to pressure the Iraqis.
“One thing that this committee can do,” Menendez said, wagging his pencil at Sherman, “since it has jurisdiction over all weapons sales, is that I doubt very much that we are going to see any approval of any weapons sales to Iraq until we get this situation in a place in which people’s lives are saved.”
The threat sounded like a hypothetical, but it wasn’t: as Menendez spoke, he was blocking a major weapons deal with Iraq — a sale that would eventually be worth more than $6 billion in Apache helicopters and associated equipment and support, marking, perhaps, the first major Capitol Hill achievement for the Mojahedin since being removed from the U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations the year before.
On Capitol Hill, Mojahedin sympathizers clad in yellow jackets frequently appear at hearings dealing with Iran — or Iraq, where thousands of the groups’ fighters ended up in the 1980s, and where, beginning in the late 2000s, they came under a series of attacks that killed dozens. “You couldn’t show up at an Iraq hearing without lots of people wearing yellow jackets,” one former Congressional staffer said.
The group’s supporters try to arrive early to take their seats in hearing rooms, but “because people didn’t want every Iraq hearing to be a U.S. Ambassador with 40 people in yellow jackets sitting behind them,” the former staffer recalled, offices would dispatch interns to arrive before the Mojahedin followers “to fill those seats and push the MEK back.”
In the intervening years, even while constrained by their terrorism designation, the group and its affiliates poured millions of dollars into a sophisticated effort to rehab their image, creating an influential lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. Via an opaque network of Iranian-American community organizations, supporters circumvented anti-terrorism laws to garner many fans in Washington, at least in some quarters, where they quietly pressed their case for hard-line policies against the Iranian regime through meetings with sympathetic members of Congress. “It’s their Hill outreach strategy that accomplishes nearly everything they’re able to do,” the former staffer explained. “Given how small they are and how marginal they actually are, the amount of influence they wield is actually kind of amazing.”
Congressional hawks like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), and the frequently eye-roll worthy Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), could be counted on to bring up the Mojahedin again and again. But not everyone on the Hill was initially convinced. As long as the terrorist designation was in place, many influential members of Congress wouldn’t speak out for the group. In 2012, after that steady drumbeat and an intense public relations effort, the Mojahedin successfully overturned the terrorist designation.
Since being legitimized, the group’s influence on Capitol Hill spread from the fringes of Congress to include more mainstream and respected Republicans and Democrats. Most of their lobbying focuses on their members’ well-being in Iraq, said a current Hill staffer, who works in foreign policy. But, the staffer added, “undergirding this is all this neocon-friendly warmongering, this intense push for regime change, this intense hatred for [Iranian president Hassan] Rouhani — they’re not subtle about this at all.”
Menendez’s advocacy for the Mojahedin at the October hearing wasn’t new, but it signaled that by 2013 the group had come full circle: from an outlaw terrorist outfit to a player on Capitol Hill. How that happened is a classic story of money, politics and the enduring appeal of exile groups promising regime change.
T HROUGHOUT ITS 50-YEAR struggle, the Mojahedin has operated by the principle that the enemy of its enemy is its friend, giving rise to a past littered with ill-conceived alliances, tactical missteps and eventually its designation as a terrorist group.
The group’s origins date to the mid-1960s, when a small circle of mostly middle class university students pored over revolutionary and religious tracts, creating a unique Islamo-Marxist ideology and eventually forming the Mojahedin-e Khalq, meaning “Holy warriors of the people.” After recruiting among young intellectuals, the Mojahedin sent some of its members to train in desert camps in Jordan and Lebanon belonging to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1971, the group sought to launch its revolution by bombing a major power plant that supplied Tehran with electricity. But the Shah’s notorious security services foiled the plot, and around half the group’s early membership ended up in the Shah’s prisons. The next year, nine leaders were executed.
Yet the group continued its small-scale strikes against the monarchist regime and its allies. Between 1973 and 1976, the Mojahedin assassinated six Americans in Iran: three military men and three civilian contractors with the American manufacturing conglomerate Rockwell International. “Widely credited in Tehran for these attacks at the time, the Mojahedin themselves claimed responsibility for these murders in their publications,” said a 1994 State Department report on the group’s activities.
Initially, a “leadership cadre” ran the Mojahedin by committee, according to a 2009 Rand Corp. report about the group. By the late 1970s, however, the Mojahedin rallied around Massoud Rajavi, a charismatic figure sporting a thick mustache and coiffed black hair who was one of the group’s only surviving early leaders. YouTube videos of his old speeches capture a rousing orator, with thoughtful, soft-spoken passages punctuated by intense stem-winding that brings the crowd to applause, often chanting “Rajavi, Rajavi!”
With unrest percolating in Iran, Rajavi sought to cooperate with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leader, but shortly after the Shah fell, Khomeini, a conservative cleric not fond of lay radicals, carried out a ruthless crackdown against the group. Rajavi and his followers fled into exile, initially to Paris, where his sway grew more authoritarian and he married his third wife, Maryam, appointing her co-leader.
By 1986, Rajavi began forging his next alliance, with Saddam Hussein. He relocated to Iraq and reorganized the 7,000 members who followed into an army, which Hussein supplied with heavy weapons and tracts of land, including a desert base that would be called Camp Ashraf. The group joined the Iraqi dictator’s bloody war against Iran, engendering much antipathy among Iranians. Out of favor with Khomeini and isolated in the Iraqi desert, the Marxism of the group’s early years began to dissipate, replaced by the singular goal of overthrowing the Islamic Republic and installing the Rajavis as Iran’s leaders. The group also turned further into cultish behavior; Rajavi and Maryam mandated divorces and celibacy for their soldiers, even as they elevated their own partnership.
After the First Gulf War, Hussein reportedly used the Mojahedin as a militia to quell sectarian and ethnic uprisings, alienating many Iraqis. “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” Maryam Rajavi told her followers during the attacks, according to the The New York Times Magazine.
In the meantime, the Mojahedin turned to attacking the Iranian regime abroad. “In April 1992 the MEK carried out attacks on Iranian embassies in 13 different countries, demonstrating the group’s ability to mount large-scale operations overseas,” said a 1997 State Department report.
That year, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright designated the Mojahedin a Foreign Terrorist Organization, among 29 other groups, barring it from fundraising in the U.S. “We are aware that some of the designations made today may be challenged in court,” Albright said. “But we’re also confident that the designations are fully justified.”
Under pressure, Maryam Rajavi eventually sought to remake the Mojahedin’s image by renouncing violence; after being linked to 350 attacks between 2000 and 2001, according to Rand Corp., the group has not claimed responsibility for any subsequent violent offenses. That about-face did little good, at least in the eyes of the U.S. government. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the White House cited the group’s presence in the country to buttress claims that Saddam Hussein was harboring terrorists.
But when the U.S. arrived at the Mojahedin’s camps, after conflicting reports of an initial skirmish, the group’s leadership waved a white flag, then signed a ceasefire — paving the way for its members to receive protection under the Geneva Convention s. Massoud Rajavi has not been publicly seen since , and Maryam Rajavi became the sole face of the group to the outside world.
For years, the Mojahedin languished at Camp Ashraf — guarded by U.S. forces — and refused to be moved , except en masse. The U.S. military eventually handed over control of its perimeter to the Iraqi government, and in July 2009, Iraqi security forces raided the camp, resulting in the deaths of at least nine refugees, according to Amnesty International . Dozens more were allegedly detained and tortured. Another raid took place in April 2011. The Mojahedin claimed 34 were killed and more than 300 injured. “With the threat of another Srebrenica looming in Ashraf, intervention is absolutely essential,” Maryam Rajavi said at the time. But no intervention came.
In September 2012, the U.S. agreed to remove the Mojahedin from the terrorist list; a key factor would be the group’s cooperation in relocating to a former U.S. military base called Camp Liberty, closer to Baghdad. The United Nations facilitated the move to Liberty, with plans for eventual third-country resettlement. Most of the few thousand remaining ex-fighters relocated, but about 100 stayed behind. In September 2013, according to Foreign Policy, Iranian-backed Shia militias reportedly killed at least 50 unarmed Mojahedin, about half of those remaining at Ashraf.
Pro-Mojahedin activists were outraged. Their exact numbers can be hard to divine: the Mojahedin themselves often won’t declare their membership. In the U.S. today, an umbrella organization of groups declaring allegiance to Maryam Rajavi — the innocuously named Organization of Iranian-American Communities — claims its network covers over thirty states. That does not include a bevy of small Washington-based pro-Mojahedin groups, or the organization’s official office, which, long-dormant, reopened near the White House after the 2012 de-listing. After the slaughter at Ashraf, the activists sprang into action.
“I remember the day of the attack at Camp Ashraf,” said Shirin Nariman, a pro-Mojahedin activist based in the Washington area. “Three of us, we just went to the Senate. We started going door to door. Nobody told us to do it. We were upset.” Not all the offices welcomed the activists. But “Menendez responded very well,” Nariman said, adding that Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) also gave them time. “At least they are opening their ears and hearing us. But [the] White House is closing its ears and doesn’t want to hear.”
Not all Capitol Hill overtures by the group’s supporters have worked, however. In late 2013, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) returned $2,600 from a supporter of the Mojahedin in Virginia. “During routine due diligence by campaign staff, it was discovered that a few donors had associations the campaign was uncomfortable with,” a spokesman for Graham’s campaign told Politico. “In an abundance of caution, the contributions were refunded.”
And some Hill staffers, while sympathetic to the Mojahedin’s plight in Iraq, remain wary of their broader agenda. “We should be concerned about human rights violations anywhere,” explained the Congressional staffer who works on foreign policy. “But a key tenet of President Obama’s foreign policy has been de-escalating our relationship and to get a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue with Iran. And the MEK has been working against that agenda on the Hill.”
The staffer went on: “They lead with Camp Ashraf. Back in the day it was an immediate pivot to lets get them off the terrorist list.” Now, he said, they segue from the group’s situation at Camp Liberty into regime change in Iran.
While many Congressional aides may have viewed the yellow vest-wearing activists as shrill voices for regime change in Iran and an annoyance at hearings, the Mojahedin, over the course of nearly two decades, had cultivated a valuable relationship with Menendez, one of the Senate’s most influential foreign policy voices.
IN THE EARLY days of the group’s efforts to be removed from the U.S. terrorist list, the most vocal support the Mojahedin received came from a few members of Congress, who viewed the Mojahedin as a cudgel to use against the Islamic Republic, such as Poe and Rohrabacher, who joined longtime stalwart Ros-Lehtinen. (In 2011, a Congressional delegation chaired by Rohrabacher was reportedly asked by the Iraqi government to leave the country after raising the massacres against Mojahedin members in a meeting.)
Menendez remained largely silent on the Mojahedin while it was on the State Department’s terrorism list; during his first term as a Senator, from 2006 through 2012, he rarely, if ever, brought the group up.statement.
In June 2014, Menendez delivered a video address to a Mojahedin rally in Paris. He reassured Maryam Rajavi and her followers that aid to Iraq would depend on the country’s treatment of the several thousand former Mojahedin fighters left stranded there. “I told [then-Iraqi] Prime Minister Maliki in person last year that his commitment to the safety and security of the MEK members at Camp Liberty is a critical factor in my future support for any assistance to Iraq,” he said in the video, to the cheering, yellow-clad Mojahedin throngs.
The outspoken advocacy for the group coincided with the rise of campaign contributions from Mojahedin supporters to Menendez, according to an analysis conducted by The Intercept. Assisted in part by the work of independent researcher Joanne Stocker, The Intercept compiled a cross-section of political giving by supporters of the organization in the U.S. between 2009 — when the campaign to de-list the Mojahedin ramped up — and the present. The Intercept’s study examined giving by people listed by the pro-Mojahedin OIAC network, as well as supporters and activists identified by other news articles, and a former Congressional staffer who has tracked the group.
Never a pronounced player in campaign donations, Mojahedin supporters have nonetheless put hundreds of thousands of dollars into American electoral politics. Since 2009, those included in The Intercept study sent around $330,000 into politicians’ and election committees’ coffers.
Before de-listing, from the start of 2009 until September 2012, John McCain and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) topped The Intercept’s survey of Mohajedin-related campaign contributions, receiving $11,350 and $11,150, respectively.
Menendez only received two donations from supporters tracked by The Intercept before September 2012, but after the State Department removed the group from the terrorist list, the money started to flow. In the past two years, Menendez took in more than $25,000 from donors with ties to the Mojahedin, making him the largest recipient in the study over this period. (The next two top recipients received less than half of Menendez’s total during the same period. McCain, still top recipient of the study’s Mojahedin-related donations after de-listing, received $10,800, and Rohrabacher received $10,300.)
But the campaign contributions alone don’t explain Menendez’s advocacy for the Mojahedin. The first former Hill staffer, who described efforts to move the Mojahedin back at hearings, said some Congressional offices were wary of the group, but described an alternative approach where “even if your constituent is crazy, you take the meeting and you listen carefully and you try to help them.”
The former staffer said of Menendez, “Sometimes it gets him into trouble when his staff doesn’t vet people well enough.” He also noted another dynamic at play: “Menendez is sort of known for these immigrant minority groups. He has a special place in his heart for them, based on his Cuban background, and I think sometimes it clouds his judgment — sometimes he doesn’t make the best decisions.”
EVEN BEFORE THE group was put on the terrorist list, another prominent senator got involved with the Mojahedin. During the 1990s, first as a Democratic House member and then a Senator from New Jersey, Robert Torricelli had been an outspoken opponent of Iran’s Islamic regime and a supporter of the Mojahedin, hoping the latter would deliver a deadly blow to the former, an enemy government of the United States.
The advocacy attracted the attention of a Congressional staffer named Kenneth Timmerman, who had followed Iran issues before his time on the hill. “Torricelli was already one of a handful of people who were notorious for their support of the MEK,” Timmerman told The Intercept. “Torricelli’s involvement as a supporter of the MEK was very well known, certainly to people who work on the Hill.”
Timmerman described a robust Mojahedin lobbying operation at the time. “They would come to Congressional offices in a very intimidating fashion to young staffers who were inexperienced and didn’t know who they were,” he said. The support they received rested on three pillars, Timmerman added: ignorance about the group, a handful of campaign contributions, and “a kind of widespread view that we really don’t like the Iranian regime, so let’s help anybody that’s against the Iranian regime.”
Timmerman’s description of yesteryear matched that of the current Congressional staffer who works on foreign policy. “They’ll send grassroots staffers to meet with you and then just wait in your office to ambush you,” the current staffer said. “They’d basically filibuster you for an hour.” He added that the “the lack of institutional knowledge on the Hill and turnover in staffs” left an opening for the group’s supporters.
Timmerman, for his part, wholeheartedly supports regime change in Iran, but nonetheless rejects the Mojahedin, whom he considers terrorists. When he left the House, Timmerman launched a foundation dedicated to democracy in Iran and wrote extensively on the subject, mostly for right-of-center outlets (his other writing has included raising questions about President Obama’s birth certificate). One of his pieces, published in 1998 in the American Spectator, focused on contributions to Torricelli’s campaigns from “MEK officers, supporters and sympathizers.” Using FEC records listing campaign contributions, Timmerman recalled, he compiled his own database and then queried it for people known to be affiliated with the Mojahedin, as well as those named by his sources.
According to Timmerman’s analysis, Torricelli received some $136,000 between April 1993 and November 1996 — before the Mojahedin was designated as a terrorist group. (In a 2002 Newsweek report, Torricelli’s aides dismissed the alleged amount as exaggerated.)
“In his House days,” Timmerman wrote in the American Spectator, Torricelli “sponsored more than a half-dozen resolutions and letters of support for the organization.” Timmerman also cited Mojahedin promotional materials that claimed Torricelli introduced several of the group’s members to President Bill Clinton during a fundraising dinner in late 1997.
Support for the Mojahedin caught up with Torricelli during his failed 2002 bid for reelection to the Senate. His Republican challenger, Douglas Forrester, attacked Torricelli during a debate for supporting the group’s removal from the terrorist list, and for taking money from the Mojahedin’s supporters. The embattled incumbent defended himself — justifying his support for “Iranians who oppose the Iranian government” — but backed down the next day. Torricelli told the New Jersey newspaper, the Star-Ledger that he wouldn’t continue to advocate for the group’s de-listing. “If the organization is engaging in activities against civilians that are of terrorist nature, the State Department has every right to ban their activities and have no contact with them,” he told the paper.
In an interview the following day with The New York Times, Torricelli elaborated. “Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he said.
Timmerman responded dryly when asked by The Intercept about Torricelli’s change of heart: “I’m not sure how sincere it was.”
By 2011, the law firm Mayer Brown retained Torricelli as part of the team working on the Mojahedin’s legal challenges to its place on the terrorist list. And Torricelli again took up vocal and active support for the Mojahedin, calling for the group to be de-listed at public forums organized by pro-Mojahedin American groups. “Does it have benefit that we continue to ostracize and label opponents of the regime as terrorists, when the facts say otherwise?” Torricelli said at a 2011 event on U.S. policy toward Iran. “Is it even possible to oppose a terrorist state, and be a terrorist yourself?”
The Intercept made several attempts to contact Torricelli for this article. When reached by phone, Torricelli declined to answer any questions about his relationship with the Mojahedin, and hung up the phone.
Dozens of former American officials, ranging from politicians to bureaucrats, have spoken at events organized by Mojahedin supporters. Some received staggering sums — as much as $40,000 — to give an address, and many called for the Mojahedin’s removal from the terrorism list, praising the organization as a viable, democratic government in exile of Iran. According to data collected by the Huffington Post, the pro-Mojahedin roster included former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani , former Bush White House chief of staff Andy Card , former Vermont governor Howard Dean and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), among many others.
By early 2013, after the Mojahedin was wiped from the terrorist list, Torricelli found new employment with the group — as its Washington lobbyist. Rosemont Associates LLC, the ex-Senator’s consulting firm, took up a contract with the Mojahedin’s Paris-based political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. According to federal filings, Torricelli’s Capitol Hill lobbying for other clients ended between 2012 and 2013; only the Mojahedin were left. Disclosures for foreign lobbies indicate his firm planned to take in $35,000 per month for its work on behalf of the organization.
Most of Torricelli’s interactions with Washington, according to the filings, involved State Department offices that deal with the Mojahedin or its areas of interest, frequently revolving around the refugees’ security in Iraq. But Torricelli also, however, made contact on Capitol Hill on the group’s behalf, though he didn’t cast a wide net: the lobbying disclosures reveal that Torricelli, as of late 2014, had only reached out to a single Congressional office about the Mojahedin: that of former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez.
“For 20 years,” Menendez said at a recent Senate hearing, “I have been working on the issue of Iran, when people were not paying attention.” Back in 1998, the two New Jersey politicians appeared at a Mojahedin demonstration at the U.N.’s New York headquarters, a year after the group was designated a terrorist organization. Torricelli was still in the Senate ,and Menendez held a seat in the House. “At the rally,” the Associated Press reported at the time , Torricelli, Menendez and another lawmaker “supported the group’s call for a new democratic regime in Tehran.”
Between April 2013 and January 2014, Torricelli reached out to Menendez’s then chief-of-staff Dan O’Brien seven times. Three separate contacts, however, were with Menendez himself: phone calls in April and August of 2013, and an in-person meeting last January — at the same time Menendez was coming under administration pressure to release his hold on the Apache helicopters.
DURING THE SUMMER of 2013, the Iraqi government faced growing sectarian strife. The militant group Islamic State — a Sunni radical outfit formed during the spring, and still going by the moniker Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — organized camps in Iraqi territory to train and regroup for the fight in Syria.
The Mojahedin, perhaps chastened by their own labeling as terrorists, rely heavily on the word “extremism” in conjunction with ISIS, warning that it’s the Iranian regime, with its “puppet” government in Iraq, that represents the most significant terrorist threat.
Iraq, meanwhile, had been pushing its main military supplier, the United States, for more weapons to combat ISIS, specifically advanced attack helicopters called Apaches. The Obama administration advanced a proposal to supply Iraq with the Apaches — a deal that would eventually involve 24 by a sale and six by a lease that would allow the Iraqis to field the equipment more quickly.
When it comes to foreign military sales, the executive branch gives the Senate Foreign Relations and the House Foreign Affairs committees advance notification, and chairs and ranking members can object. After Obama officials apprised the relevant committees of its proposal, in July, several members blocked the sale over skepticism of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The administration launched a back-room offensive on Capitol Hill to clear the way for the deal. Officials from the Departments of State and Defense “in their briefings before Congress made it very clear that sending these Apaches to the Iraqis was crucial to beating back the threat coming from ISIS to Iraq from Syria,” said another former Hill aide, who attended the briefings. “State was terrified that without these helicopters,” the Iraqis “didn’t have the capability to kill these guys.”
Most would eventually be convinced to lift their holds, but Menendez held firm , creating palpable tension with the administration. Anonymous sniping between the Senator’s aides and White House officials appeared in the press, with Senate staffers telling Defense News the administration was failing to make Iraq a priority, and an administration official calling the accusation “offensive and incorrect.” Menendez’s public explanation centered around Maliki’s record of attacks against civilians and tacitly allowing Iran’s use of Iraqi airspace to support the Syrian regime; many in Washington at the time were sour on Maliki’s growing authoritarianism, sectarian patronage and failure to professionalize the Iraqi military.
“There are a lot of good reasons they” — Congress — “might have held up a sale,” said Sam Brannen, recently a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon employee. But Brannen, who said he has no special insight into Menendez’s reasoning, added, “That there might be some more parochial reasons, that aren’t as good, would not surprise me.”
A U.S. official, who also wouldn’t speak to Menendez’s motivations, confirmed Congress’s focus on the Mojahedin. “The MEK issue was clearly a concern for members of Congress,” the official said. “Whether that played a role holding up the arms sales, I don’t know. But it was certainly an issue for Congress.”
Senators “raised lots of issues — among them the MEK — with the Apaches,” Lukman Faily, the Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. told The Intercept. “The issue of the MEK,” Faily said, “came up in most of my meetings with the House and Senate, especially the Foreign [Relations Committee].”
Six months into the hold on the helicopter sale, in January 2014, ISIS forces swarmed Iraqi cities in the Sunni west, at least briefly holding two major urban areas . It’s doubtful the Apaches could have been in action soon enough to stave off ISIS’s territorial gains. “It would have taken months and months to train the Iraqis to use them,” said Brannen, the former CSIS fellow, said of the helicopters intended for lease.
Michael Wahid Hanna, an expert at the Century Foundation with extensive experience on Iraq, explained, “I don’t know if [the Apaches] would have had a strategic effect, maybe a tactical one. Hitting, basically, IS camps obviously would’ve helped.”
After ISIS’s battlefield successes, Menendez consulted with the administration and received a letter from the Iraqi government. “He was looking for an out,” recalled the former Hill aide who attended the briefings. Menendez said he got assurances from the Obama administration promising oversight of the Apaches — and lifted his objections on Jan. 25, leaving the Mojahedin in Camp Liberty under the ultimate control of the Iraqi government.
Adam Sharon, a spokesman for Menendez, did not respond to any questions about the senator’s relationship with the Mojahedin. “The direct concern with the Apaches was what safeguards were in place to ensure that minorities weren’t being attacked,” Sharon said.
The Apache deal, however, eventually stalled. The ISIS advances amplified Maliki’s largely self-induced political crisis. A State Department official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak officially, cited fiscal and capacity issues on Iraq’s end, and said the U.S. was working it over with the new Iraqi government. (In August, Maliki’s party ousted him as prime minister.) “While we’re still supportive of the sale,” the State Department official told The Intercept, “Iraq hasn’t been in a position to accept the sale.”
ISIS took over more Iraqi cities starting last June, and the United States began its own air war to beat the group back in August. In October, the U.S. military ended up using its own Apache attack helicopters in raids against ISIS positions.
FOR THE MOJAHEDIN, stalling the Iraq Apache deal was just a small victory. The real goal has always been regime change in Tehran. Last September, the moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani arrived in New York for his second U.N. General Assembly, accompanied by his nuclear negotiators to engage in another round of the now-extended talks. Mojahedin supporters organized a protest against Rouhani’s appearance.
Several hundred braved a sporadic rain in yellow ponchos distributed by the organizers, holding aloft yellow umbrellas. (Mojahid supporters have been known to recruit volunteers on expense-paid trips for such events.) The pro-Mojahedin demonstrators — some of them non-Iranian, with cursory knowledge of the group — listened to an morning of speeches at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, nestled between demonstrations against the ouster of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, and devotees of the persecuted Chinese spiritual movement, Falun Gong.
Along the barricades that sectioned off the protesters from the dignitaries on stage — which included former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a frequent speaker at Mojahedin events — demonstrators held up a pair of cut-out placards. One, in black, read, “No 2 Rouhani”; the other, naturally in yellow, said, “Yes to Rajavi.” Massoud Rajavi still hasn’t been seen publicly since 2003.
For his part, Torricelli’s advocacy for the Mojahedin has only become more fervent. “My name is Bob Torricelli and I am a soldier in the liberation of Iran,” he thundered at a Mojahedin conference in Paris during the summer of that year, to a huge crowd of yellow-clad supporters who interrupted his speech with applause and chants.
“First we gathered in Frankfurt, in London and Paris and New York by the hundreds. Then we came to Paris by the thousands. Hear me well, Mullahs: soon we will come to the streets of Tehran by the millions, and take back the future of the people of Iran.”
“The mullahs may talk to Merkel, or Obama or Hollande,” Torricelli continued, referring to three of the heads of state — Germany’s Angela Merkel, Obama and France’s François Hollande — now in nuclear negotiations with Iran. “They can talk all they want. We as a people of those nations know: There’s nothing left to say. The regime must go.”
Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP; Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Landov; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Mark Wilson/Getty Images
- Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton are reporting fellows with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute
The post Long March of the Yellow Jackets: How a One-Time Terrorist Group Prevailed on Capitol Hill appeared first on The Intercept.
The FBI and major media outlets yesterday trumpeted the agency’s latest counter-terrorism triumph: the arrest of three Brooklyn men, ages 19 to 30, on charges of conspiring to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS (photo of joint FBI/NYPD press conference, above). As my colleague Murtaza Hussain ably documents, “it appears that none of the three men was in any condition to travel or support the Islamic State, without help from the FBI informant.” One of the frightening terrorist villains told the FBI informant that, beyond having no money, he had encountered a significant problem in following through on the FBI’s plot: his mom had taken away his passport. Noting the bizarre and unhinged ranting of one of the suspects, Hussain noted on Twitter that this case “sounds like another victory for the FBI over the mentally ill.”
In this regard, this latest arrest appears to be quite similar to the overwhelming majority of terrorism arrests the FBI has proudly touted over the last decade. As my colleague Andrew Fishman and I wrote last month – after the FBI manipulated a 20-year-old loner who lived with his parents into allegedly agreeing to join an FBI-created plot to attack the Capitol – these cases follow a very clear pattern:
The known facts from this latest case seem to fit well within a now-familiar FBI pattern whereby the agency does not disrupt planned domestic terror attacks but rather creates them, then publicly praises itself for stopping its own plots.
First, they target a Muslim: not due to any evidence of intent or capability to engage in terrorism, but rather for the “radical” political views he expresses. In most cases, the Muslim targeted by the FBI is a very young (late teens, early 20s), adrift, unemployed loner who has shown no signs of mastering basic life functions, let alone carrying out a serious terror attack, and has no known involvement with actual terrorist groups.
They then find another Muslim who is highly motivated to help disrupt a “terror plot”: either because they’re being paid substantial sums of money by the FBI or because (as appears to be the case here) they are charged with some unrelated crime and are desperate to please the FBI in exchange for leniency (or both). The FBI then gives the informant a detailed attack plan, and sometimes even the money and other instruments to carry it out, and the informant then shares all of that with the target. Typically, the informant also induces, lures, cajoles, and persuades the target to agree to carry out the FBI-designed plot. In some instances where the target refuses to go along, they have their informant offer huge cash inducements to the impoverished target.
Once they finally get the target to agree, the FBI swoops in at the last minute, arrests the target, issues a press release praising themselves for disrupting a dangerous attack (which it conceived of, funded, and recruited the operatives for), and the DOJ and federal judges send their target to prison for years or even decades (where they are kept in special GITMO-like units). Subservient U.S. courts uphold the charges by applying such a broad and permissive interpretation of “entrapment” that it could almost never be successfully invoked.
One can, if one really wishes, debate whether the FBI should be engaging in such behavior. For reasons I and many others have repeatedly argued, these cases are unjust in the extreme: a form of pre-emptory prosecution where vulnerable individuals are targeted and manipulated not for any criminal acts they have committed but rather for the bad political views they have expressed. They end up sending young people to prison for decades for “crimes” which even their sentencing judges acknowledge they never would have seriously considered, let alone committed, in the absence of FBI trickery. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking this is a justifiable tactic, but I’m certain there are people who believe that. Let’s leave that question to the side for the moment in favor of a different issue.
We’re constantly bombarded with dire warnings about the grave threat of home-grown terrorists, “lone wolf” extremists, and ISIS. So intensified are these official warnings that The New York Times earlier this month cited anonymous U.S. intelligence officials to warn of the growing ISIS threat and announce “the prospect of a new global war on terror.”
But how serious of a threat can all of this be, at least domestically, if the FBI continually has to resort to manufacturing its own plots by trolling the internet in search of young drifters and/or the mentally ill whom they target, recruit and then manipulate into joining? Does that not, by itself, demonstrate how over-hyped and insubstantial this “threat” actually is? Shouldn’t there be actual plots, ones that are created and fueled without the help of the FBI, that the agency should devote its massive resources to stopping?
This FBI tactic would be akin to having the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) constantly warn of the severe threat posed by drug addiction while it simultaneously uses pushers on its payroll to deliberately get people hooked on drugs so that they can arrest the addicts they’ve created and thus justify their own warnings and budgets (and that kind of threat-creation, just by the way, is not all that far off from what the other federal law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, are actually doing). As we noted the last time we wrote about this, the Justice Department is aggressively pressuring U.S. allies to employ these same entrapment tactics in order to create their own terrorists, who can then be paraded around as proof of the grave threat.
Threats that are real, and substantial, do not need to be manufactured and concocted. Indeed, as the blogger Digby, citing Juan Cole, recently showed, run-of-the-mill “lone wolf” gun violence is so much of a greater threat to Americans than “domestic terror” by every statistical metric that it’s almost impossible to overstate the disparity:
In that regard, it is not difficult to understand why “domestic terror” and “homegrown extremism” are things the FBI is desperately determined to create. But this FBI terror-plot-concoction should, by itself, suffice to demonstrate how wildly exaggerated this threat actually is.
Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP
UPDATE: The ACLU of Massachusetts Kade Crockford notes this extraordinarily revealing quote from former FBI assistant director Thomas Fuentes, as he defends one of the worst FBI terror “sting” operations of all (the Cromitie prosecution we describe at length here):
If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that “We won the war on terror and everything’s great,” cuz the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’—it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive.
That is the FBI’s terrorism strategy – keep fear alive – and it drives everything they do.
The post Why Does the FBI Have to Manufacture its Own Plots if Terrorism and ISIS Are Such Grave Threats? appeared first on The Intercept.
Die Nachdenkseiten bringens:
"Die Geschichte der deutschen Sicherheitsbehörden ist eine Geschichte von Skandalen und rechtsstaatlicher Verwahrlosung"
Vom US-Folterreport zu den deutschen Verhältnissen - und mit Wolfgang Neskovic, dem umtriebigen Streiter für das Recht - Respekt und Beifall!
The FBI Wednesday announced the arrest of three men it alleges planned to help the Islamic State, news that at first appeared to confirm fears that radical extremism is spreading to the United States.
“The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies,”District Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a press release announcing the arrests. “We will vigorously prosecute those who attempt to travel to Syria to wage violent jihad on behalf of ISIL and those who support them.”
Left unmentioned in the FBI statement, however, is the integral role a paid informant appears to have played in generating the charges against the men, and helping turn a fantastical “plot” into something even remotely tangible. It appears that none of the three men was in any condition to travel or support the Islamic State, without help from the FBI informant.
On February 25th, two Brooklyn men were arrested following FBI and New York Police Department anti-terror raids and charged with providing “material support” to the Islamic State. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, and Akhror Saidakhmetov 19, are alleged to have made arrangements to travel to Syria, and also to have expressed willingness to conduct attacks in the United States “if ordered to do so” by the group. A third man, Abror Habibov, 30, was arrested in Florida and charged with helping provide financial support for their travel plans.
According to the criminal complaint against the three, the FBI first began investigating Juraboev after he made postings on Uzbek-language social media sites in August 2014 praising the Islamic State and offering to pledge allegiance to them. While these postings were made anonymously, Juraboev neglected to conceal his IP address which led to him being quickly identified by authorities.
On August 15, 2014, Juraboev was visited at a Brooklyn residence by FBI agents; he openly expressed his desire to join Islamic State to them. He is said to have told the agents he desired to travel and join the group, but that “he currently lacked the means to go there.” Juraboev is also said to have told the FBI agents in this interview of his desire to kill President Obama, but stated that he does not have any “means or imminent plans to do so.”
Three days after that initial visit, FBI agents visited him again; he reiterated these violent and criminal desires, stating his willingness to kill President Obama if he were ordered to do so by any member of Islamic State, and also telling the agents he was willing to “plant a bomb on Coney Island if so ordered by ISIL”.
In the interviews, Juraboev also mentioned Saidakhmetov, 19, as someone who shared his basic views and desire to travel to areas controlled by the Islamic State. Transcripts of a recorded conversation between the two in mid-September show them apparently expressing their desire to travel to Syria via Istanbul, and trying to determine logistics of the trip. Juraboev also apparently communicated at this time with people online to discuss the feasibility of traveling to Syria and joining the Islamic State.
Shortly after this, the FBI introduced them to a confidential informant, who “approached Juraboev at a mosque, while posing as an ideologically sympathetic individual, and met Saidakhmetov the same day.” The informant befriended the two men, who told him of their desire to go to Syria. According to the criminal complaint, the informant was paid for his services and perceived by the defendants to be an “older and more experienced person.”
In a recorded discussion on September 24th, Saidakhmetov told the informant his plans had been halted as his mother had taken his passport away to prevent him from traveling. A transcript of this discussion describes the informant suggesting possible routes that Saidakhmetov could take to reach Syria, after which the two went to watch videos of Islamic State training camps together.
Over the next several months the informant evidently developed a relationship of trust with both Juraboev and Saidakhmetov, even possibly moving into an apartment with Juraboev, and convincing both of them that he intended to travel to Syria and join Islamic State. During this time, other ideas were also floated, including potentially joining the U.S. Army to become double agents, something that was ultimately dismissed as impractical.
Though Juraboev in his initial FBI interviews said he lacked the financial means to travel, he obtained, after meeting the informant, enough money to purchase tickets for airfare to Istanbul near the end of 2014. Saidakhmetov, whose passport had been confiscated by his mother, at one point asked the informant to help him fill out new travel documents and even forge his signature, which the informant “advised Saidakhmetov [he] did”.
Juraboev and Saidakhmetov then made arrangements to travel to Turkey and from there cross the border into Syria. Throughout this time, they continued to believe that the informant was also buying tickets and traveling with them to join the Islamic State.
Habibov, the oldest defendant at age 30, is alleged to have provided funds to pay for Saidakhmetov’s trip and to have inquired about the potential of finding further support for him once he arrived in Syria. Habibov also is alleged to have asked about the potential of providing contacts for “another brother who appears to be smarter” but who also lacks connections. This “smarter brother,” as the complaint indicates, is in fact a reference to the FBI informant.
Despite his efforts, there is no indication Habibov succeeded in procuring any contacts for either of the travelers.
Saidakhmetov was arrested on February 25th at JFK airport in New York as he arrived to board his flight to Istanbul. In the run-up to his arrest, he had also allegedly proposed a plan to gain control cockpit and “[divert] the plane to the Islamic State, so that the Islamic State would gain a plane.” Juraboev, not scheduled to leave for Turkey until March 29th, and Habibov, were also arrested on the same day at separate locations.
Since the time that FBI agents first made contact with Juraboev in August 2014, a total of seven months elapsed until the arrests were made. During this time, the group stayed under close surveillance, and an informant was introduced who was evidently older and considered to be “more experienced” by the defendants.
Crucially, it appears that only after the introduction of the informant did any actual actual arrangements to commit a criminal act come into existence.
It stands to reason that during this extended time period, particularly after a seemingly unhinged Juraboev openly expressed his violent and criminal fantasies to FBI agents, other tactics of intervention could have been taken to prevent he and Saidakhmetov from going down this path.
The covert informant under the direction of the FBI evidently helped encourage the two towards terrorism over the course of these months. Instead of dissuading them, the informant went so far as to watch recruitment videos with the 19-year old Saidakhmetov and help him make his travel documents.
A 2011 study conducted by Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley found that of 508 post-9/11 terrorism defendants, “Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money,” with operatives being paid as much as $100,000 per assignment. Of the sting operations that resulted in terrorism arrests, nearly a third are believed to have been led by an agent provocateur in the employ of the FBI.
In one conversation recorded in the criminal complaint, Habibov asked an unnamed third party about Juraboev’s mental state. “Yes, I think he is normal. I am just saying . . . I don’t know,” the unnamed person responded. “He didn’t take any precautions. He just blurted out without hesitation.”
The post Confidential Informant Played Key Role in FBI Foiling Its Own Terror Plot appeared first on The Intercept.
Nine days before Rodney Reed was scheduled to die in Texas for a crime he swears he didn’t commit, the state’s highest criminal court issued a stay of execution. The order came down late Monday afternoon, in response to an appeal citing new and compelling scientific evidence that challenges the state’s timeline of events in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites, which sent Reed to death row.
Reed’s attorney Bryce Benjet, with the Innocence Project, praised the court’s decision in a statement to reporters, saying his office was “extremely relieved” and that it expected “there will be proper consideration of the powerful new evidence of his innocence.”
Specifically at issue is Stites’s time of death. The state maintains she was abducted and murdered sometime just after 3 a.m. on April 23, 1996, after leaving her home in Giddings, Texas, to make the 30-mile drive to neighboring Bastrop for her grocery store shift. Stites’s body was found that afternoon, partially-clothed and dumped in a wooded area roughly 10 miles outside Bastrop.
But, as The Intercept reported last week, three renowned forensic pathologists now say that timeline is off by hours. The doctors say that their review of the physical evidence — including crime scene video and photos — reveals decompositional changes to Stites’s body that place her actual time of death well before midnight on April 22. They say blood pooling visible under her skin indicates that Stites was killed and her body left in a forward slumping position for up to six hours before she was moved and dumped in the woods.
If this is the case, Reed cannot be responsible for the crime. According to statements made to police by Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell Jr., he was alone with Stites in the couple’s apartment that night, from 8 p.m. on, until she left for work at 3 a.m.
The three doctors cited in Reed’s appeal say Fennell’s story is “medically and scientifically” impossible.
Their damning conclusion lends credence to what Reed’s supporters have insisted upon for years: that Fennell himself, then a local police officer, is the man who killed Stites. Reed maintains that he and Stites were in the midst of a risky romantic affair, and that Fennell killed her after he learned of the relationship.
Indeed, last fall The Intercept published a detailed report chronicling Fennell’s troubling history of violence, both on and off the job, and which included the rape of a different Texas woman, while he was on duty and in uniform. Fennell is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for the crime.
In a separate appeal, Reed’s attorneys are asking the same Texas high court that issued the stay of execution to order DNA testing on never-before-tested items connected to Stites’s murder. These include two pieces of a braided leather belt used to strangle Stites. In November, a district judge denied Reed’s request for DNA testing, ruling that no amount of testing would undermine Reed’s conviction.
But because the new scientific evidence “eviscerates” the state’s theory of the crime, Benjet argues, it also invalidates the lower-court judge’s opinion that further DNA testing would be irrelevant.
“DNA testing of the murder weapon and other evidence handled by the killer can exonerate Mr. Reed, possibly identify the real murderer, and ensure that justice is done,” the appeal says.
The state counters that DNA testing is unnecessary and, in a separate brief filed Monday, that the real goal by Reed’s defense is to “unreasonably delay” his execution.
Reed’s case was the subject of a recent two-hour episode of the A&E series “Dead Again.” In it, detectives reinvestigate the case and conclude Reed did not murder Stites. The episode can be viewed here.
Reed now awaits decisions on his latest appeals. There is no timeline for the court to rule.
Photo: Jana Birchum
The post Rodney Reed Will Not Die Next Week — But Texas Still Wants to Kill Him appeared first on The Intercept.
The Transportation Security Administration said it is unlikely to detect and unable to extinguish what an FBI report called “the greatest potential incendiary threat to aviation,” according to a classified document obtained by The Intercept. Yet despite that warning, sources said TSA is not adequately prepared to respond to the threat.
Thermite — a mixture of rust and aluminum powder — could be used against a commercial aircraft, TSA warned in a Dec. 2014 document, marked secret. “The ignition of a thermite-based incendiary device on an aircraft at altitude could result in catastrophic damage and the death of every person onboard,” the advisory said.
TSA said it is unlikely to spot an easy-to-assemble thermite-based incendiary device during security screening procedures, and the use of currently available extinguishers carried on aircrafts would create a violent reaction. The TSA warning is based on FBI testing done in 2011, and a subsequent report.
A thermite device, though difficult to ignite, would “produce toxic gasses, which can act as nerve poison, as well as a thick black smoke that will significantly inhibit any potential for in-flight safety officers to address the burn.”
TSA warned federal air marshals not to use customary methods of extinguishing fires — the water or halon fire extinguishers currently found on most aircraft — which would make the reaction worse, creating toxic fumes. Instead, air marshals are told to “recognize a thermite ignition” — but TSA has provided no training or guidance on how to do so, according to multiple sources familiar with the issue.
TSA circulated these Dec. 2014 materials through briefings, according to sources familiar with the issue, but did not offer up guidance on what to do with this information, and equipment that could mitigate this threat, like specific dry chemical extinguishers, has not been provided. According to the TSA advisory, federal air marshals and other on-flight officers should: recognize a thermite ignition, advise the captain immediately, ensure the individual who ignited the device is “rendered inoperable,” and move passengers away from the affected area.
“We’re supposed to brief our [federal air marshals] to identify a thermite ignition — but they tell us nothing,” said one current TSA official, who asked not to be named because the official is not authorized to speak to the press. “So our guys are Googling, ‘What does thermite look like? How do you extinguish thermite fires?’ This is not at all helpful.”
Several aviation officials, who also asked not be named, confirmed they had been briefed on the threat, but given no information or training on identifying thermite ignition. “They say to identify something we don’t know how to identify and say there is nothing we can do,” one federal air marshal said. “So basically, we hope it’s placed somewhere it does minimal damage, but basically we’re [screwed].”
Aviation security officials who spoke with The Intercept said TSA floods its employees with intelligence products from other agencies on various types of threats, but does not tell its employees what, if anything, to do about this threat. “You’re signing off on this saying you’ve received this briefing,” a former transportation security official said. “This covers their ass in case something happens, they can say, ‘We shared our intel.’”
“As a general matter, DHS, the FBI and other partners in aviation security regularly share information on potential threats affecting air travel safety,” S.Y. Lee, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, told The Intercept in a statement. “This information is shared in a timely and consistent fashion. When relevant and actionable information is developed, we work to identify countermeasures to mitigate the threat.”
The TSA bulletin was distributed by the agency’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis in response to a Dec. 10 classified 29-page FBI Intelligence Assessment titled, “Threat Assessment of Viable Incendiary Devices to Passengers and Aircraft.” A copy of that report was also obtained by The Intercept.
According to the FBI’s description of their tests, thermite devices “spew molten metal and hot gasses” and can potentially “burn through steel and every other material” on the aircraft.
The FBI did not respond to requests for comment on the report.
How large of a threat thermite represents to aviation security is up for debate, however.
“Available reporting at this classification level, however, does not indicate any extremist interest in thermite to target aircraft,” the FBI report said.
A source with knowledge of current threats to aviation said other intelligence gained from safe houses overseas points to greater interest, not in thermite, but in other types of incendiary materials.
Jimmie Oxley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, and an expert in explosives and explosives detection, said thermite — though a theoretical threat — seemed an unlikely candidate to slip through security, particularly since the would-be terrorist would also have to carry an igniter. “You’ve got to get a pound of something that is a really thick mass through security without anyone noticing,” she said. “I find that hard to believe.”
The problem is one of practicalities, said Oxley, who has worked with the FBI and other federal agencies on explosives testing, but was not aware of the specific TSA or FBI reports on thermite obtained by The Intercept. If the hope were to burn a hole through the aircraft, then the thermite would have to be placed on the floor, and then there’s still no guarantee it would take down the aircraft.
Setting off thermite is also impractical, according to Oxley. “Somebody has to give you time to play on the plane,” she said. “Like with the shoe bomber, people do notice if you’re doing something weird in this day and age.”
While declining to address thermite specifically, Lee, the Homeland Security spokesman, insisted that the aviation security system is robust: “Today, all air travelers are subject to a robust security system that employs multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen, including: intelligence gathering and analysis, cross-checking passenger manifests against watchlists, thorough screening at checkpoints, random canine team screening at airports, reinforced cockpit doors, Federal Air Marshals, armed pilots and a vigilant public. In combination, these layers provide enhanced security creating a much stronger and protected transportation system for the traveling public. TSA continually assesses and evaluates the current threat environment and will adjust security measures as necessary to ensure the highest levels of aviation security without unnecessary disruption to travelers.”
- Sharon Weinberger contributed to this article.
Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
The post Exclusive: TSA Issues Secret Warning on ‘Catastrophic’ Threat to Aviation appeared first on The Intercept.
Gemalto, the French-Dutch digital security giant, confirmed that it believes American and British spies were behind a “particularly sophisticated intrusion” of its internal computer networks, as reported by The Intercept last week.
This morning, the company tried to downplay the significance of NSA and GCHQ efforts against its mobile phone encryption keys — and, in the process, made erroneous statements about cellphone technology and sweeping claims about its own security that experts describe as highly questionable.
Gemalto, which is the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, launched an internal investigation after The Intercept six days ago revealed that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ hacked the company and cyberstalked its employees. In the secret documents, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the intelligence agencies described a successful effort to obtain secret encryption keys used to protect hundreds of millions of mobile devices across the globe.
The company was eager to address the claims that its systems and encryption keys had been massively compromised. At one point in stock trading after publication of the report, Gemalto suffered a half billion dollar hit to its market capitalization. The stock only partially recovered in the following days.
After the brief investigation, Gemalto now says that the NSA and GCHQ operations in 2010-2011 would not allow the intelligence agencies to spy on 3G and 4G networks, and that theft would have been rare after 2010, when it deployed a “secure transfer system.” The company also said the spy agency hacks only affected “the outer parts of our networks – our office networks — which are in contact with the outside world.”
Security experts and cryptography specialists immediately challenged Gemalto’s claim to have done a “thorough” investigation into the state-sponsored attack in just six days, saying the company was greatly underestimating the abilities of the NSA and GCHQ to penetrate its systems without leaving detectable traces.
“Gemalto learned about this five-year old hack by GCHQ when the The Intercept called them up for a comment last week. That doesn’t sound like they’re on top of things, and it certainly suggests they don’t have the in-house capability to detect and thwart sophisticated state-sponsored attacks,” says Christopher Soghoian, the chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. He adds that Gemalto remains “a high-profile target for intelligence agencies.”
Matthew Green, a cryptography specialist at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, said, “This is an investigation that seems mainly designed to produce positive statements. It is not an investigation at all.”
In its statement, Gemalto asserted:
“While the intrusions described above were serious, sophisticated attacks, nothing was detected in other parts of our network. No breaches were found in the infrastructure running our SIM activity or in other parts of the secure network which manage our other products such as banking cards, ID cards or electronic passports. Each of these networks is isolated from one another and they are not connected to external networks.
It is extremely difficult to remotely attack a large number of SIM cards on an individual basis. This fact, combined with the complex architecture of our networks explains why the intelligence services instead, chose to target the data as it was transmitted between suppliers and mobile operators as explained in the documents.”
But security and encryption experts told The Intercept that Gemalto’s statements about its investigation contained a significant error about cellphone technology. The company also made sweeping, overly-optimistic statements about the security and stability of Gemalto’s networks, and dramatically underplayed the significance of the NSA-GCHQ targeting of the company and its employees. “Their ‘investigation’ seem to have consisted of asking their security team which attacks they detected over the past few years. That isn’t much of an investigation, and it certainly won’t reveal successful nation-state attacks,” says the ACLU’s Soghoian.
Security expert Ronald Prins, co-founder of the Dutch firm Fox IT, told The Intercept, “A true forensic investigation in such a complex environment is not possible in this time frame.”
“A damage assessment is more what this looks like,” he added.
In a written presentation of its findings, Gemalto claims that “in the case of an eventual key theft, the intelligence services would only be able to spy on communications on second generation 2G mobile networks. 3G and 4G networks are not vulnerable.” Gemalto also referred to its own “custom algorithms” and other, unspecified additional security mechanisms on top of the 3G and 4G standards.
Green, the Johns Hopkins cryptography specialist said Gemalto’s claims are flatly incorrect.
“No encryption mechanism stands up to key theft,” Green says, “which means Gemalto is either convinced that the additional keys could not also have been stolen or they’re saying that their mechanisms have some proprietary ‘secret sauce’ and that GCHQ, backed by the resources of NSA, could not have reverse engineered them. That’s a deeply worrying statement.”
“I think you could make that statement against some gang of Internet hackers,” Green adds. “But you don’t get to make it against nation state adversaries. It simply doesn’t have a place in the conversation. They are saying that NSA/GCHQ could not have breached those technologies due to ‘additional encryption’ mechanisms that they don’t specify and yet here we have evidence that GCHQ and NSA were actively compromising encryption keys.”
In a press conference today in Paris, Gemalto’s CEO, Olivier Piou said his company will not take legal action against the NSA and GCHQ. “It’s difficult to prove our conclusions legally, so we’re not going to take legal action,” he said. “The history of going after a state shows it is costly, lengthy and rather arbitrary.”
There has been significant commercial pressure and political attention placed on Gemalto since The Intercept’s report. Wireless network providers on multiple continents demanded answers and some, like Deutsche Telekom, took immediate action to change their encryption algorithms on Gemalto-supplied SIM cards. The Australian Privacy Commissioner has launched an investigation and several members of the European Union parliament and Dutch parliament have asked individual governments to launch investigations. German opposition lawmakers say they are initiating a probe into the hack as well.
On Wednesday, Gerard Schouw, a member of the Dutch parliament, submitted formal questions about the Gemalto hack and the findings of the company’s internal investigation to the interior minister. “Will the Minister address this matter with the Ambassadors of the United States and the United Kingdom? If not, why is the Minister not prepared to do so? If so, when will the Minister do this?” Schouw asked. “How does the Minister assess the claim by Gemalto that the attack could only lead to wiretapping 2G-network connections, and that 3G and 4G-type networks are not susceptible to this kind of hacks?”
China Mobile, which uses Gemalto SIM cards, has more wireless network customers than any company in the world. This week it announced it was investigating the breach and the Chinese government said it was “concerned” about the Gemalto hack. “We are opposed to any country attempting to use information technology products to conduct cyber surveillance,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “This not only harms the interests of consumers but also undermines users’ confidence.” He did not mention that China itself engages in widespread, state-sponsored hacking.
While Gemalto is clearly trying to calm its investors and customers, security experts say the company’s statements appear intended to reassure the public about the company’s security rather than to demonstrate that it is taking the breach seriously.
The documents published by The Intercept relate to hacks done in 2010-2011. The idea that spy agencies are no longer targeting the company—and its competitors—with more sophisticated intrusions, according to Soghoian, is ridiculous. “Gemalto is as much of an interesting target in 2015 as they were in 2010. Gemalto’s security team may want to keep looking, not just for GCHQ and NSA, but also, for the Chinese, Russians and Israelis too,” he said.
Green, the Johns Hopkins cryptographer, says this hack should be “a wake-up call that manufacturers are considered valuable targets by intelligence agencies. There’s a lot of effort in here to minimize and deny the impact of some old attacks, but who cares about old attacks? What I would like to see is some indication that they’re taking this seriously going forward, that they’re hardening their systems and closing any loopholes — because loopholes clearly existed. That would make me enormously more confident than this response.”
Green says that the Gemalto hack evidences a disturbing trend that is on the rise: the targeting of innocent employees of tech firms and the companies themselves. (The same tactic was used by GCHQ in its attack on Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom).
“Once upon a time we might have believed that corporations like this were not considered valid targets for intelligence agencies, that GCHQ would not go after system administrators and corporations in allied nations. All of those assumptions are out the window, so now we’re in this new environment, where everyone is a valid target,” he says. “In computer security, we talk about ‘threat models,’ which is a way to determine who your adversary is, and what their capabilities are. This news means everyone has to change their threat model.”
Additional reporting by Ryan Gallagher. Josh Begley contributed to this report.
Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images