CIA Prepping for Possible Cyber Strike Against Russia

Russian interference in U.S. Presidential election
Russian interference in U.S. Presidential election

The Obama administration is contemplating an unprecedented cyber covert action against Russia in retaliation for alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.

Current and former officials with direct knowledge of the situation say the CIA has been asked to deliver options to the White House for a wide-ranging “clandestine” cyber operation designed to harass and “embarrass” the Kremlin leadership.

CIA Headquarters
CIA Headquarters

The sources did not elaborate on the exact measures the CIA was considering, but said the agency had already begun opening cyber doors, selecting targets and making other preparations for an operation. Former intelligence officers told NBC News that the agency had gathered reams of documents that could expose unsavory tactics by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Vice President Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden told “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd on Friday that “we’re sending a message” to Putin and that “it will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.”

When asked if the American public will know a message was sent, the vice president replied, “Hope not.”

Retired Admiral James Stavridis
Retired Admiral James Stavridis
Retired Admiral James Stavridis told NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden that the U.S. should attack Russia’s ability to censor its internal internet traffic and expose the financial dealings of Putin and his associates.

“It’s well known that there’s great deal of offshore money moved outside of Russia from oligarchs,” he said. “It would be very embarrassing if that was revealed, and that would be a proportional response to what we’ve seen” in Russia’s alleged hacks and leaks targeting U.S. public opinion.

Sean Kanuck
Sean Kanuck

Sean Kanuck, who was until this spring the senior U.S. intelligence official responsible for analyzing Russian cyber capabilities, said not mounting a response would carry a cost.

“If you publicly accuse someone,” he said, “and don’t follow it up with a responsive action, that may weaken the credible threat of your response capability.”

President Obama will ultimately have to decide whether he will authorize a CIA operation. Officials told NBC News that for now there are divisions at the top of the administration about whether to proceed.

Two former CIA officers who worked on Russia told NBC News that there is a long history of the White House asking the CIA to come up with options for covert action against Russia, including cyber options — only to abandon the idea.

“We’ve always hesitated to use a lot of stuff we’ve had, but that’s a political decision,” one former officer said. “If someone has decided, `We’ve had enough of the Russians,’ there is a lot we can do. Step one is to remind them that two can play at this game and we have a lot of stuff. Step two, if you are looking to mess with their networks, we can do that, but then the issue becomes, they can do worse things to us in other places.”

A second former officer, who helped run intelligence operations against Russia, said he was asked several times in recent years to work on covert action plans, but “none of the options were particularly good, nor did we think that any of them would be particularly effective,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin is almost beyond embarrassing, he said, and anything the U.S. can do against, for example, Russian bank accounts, the Russian can do in response.

“Do you want to have Barack Obama bouncing checks?” he asked.

Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell expressed skepticism that the U.S. would go so far as to attack Russian networks.

“Physical attacks on networks is not something the U.S. wants to do because we don’t want to set a precedent for other countries to do it as well, including against us,” he said. “My own view is that our response shouldn’t be covert — it should overt, for everybody to see.”

The Obama administration is debating just that question, officials say — whether to respond to Russia via cyber means, or with traditional measures such as sanctions.

The CIA’s cyber operation is being prepared by a team within the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, documents indicate. According to officials, the team has a staff of hundreds and a budget in the hundreds of millions, they say.

The covert action plan is designed to protect the U.S. election system and insure that Russian hackers can’t interfere with the November vote, officials say. Another goal is to send a message to Russia that it has crossed a line, officials say.

While the National Security Agency is the center for American digital spying, the CIA is the lead agency for covert action and has its own cyber capabilities. It sometimes brings in the NSA and the Pentagon to help, officials say.

Retired Gen. Mike Hayden
Retired Gen. Mike Hayden

, who ran the CIA after leading the NSA, wrote this year: “We even had our own cyber force, the Information Operations Center (IOC), that former CIA director George Tenet launched and which had grown steadily under the next spy chief, Porter Goss, and me. The CIA didn’t try to replicate or try to compete with NSA… the IOC was a lot like Marine Corps aviation while NSA was an awful lot like America’s Air Force.”

“I would quote a Russian proverb,” said Adm. Stavridis, “which is, ‘Probe with bayonets. When you hit mush, proceed. When you hit steel withdraw.’ I think unless we stand up to this kind of cyber attack from Russia, we’ll only see more and more of it in the future.”

As U.S. Watches Mexico, Traffickers Slip In From Canada

US - Canada border marker
US – Canada border marker

While the Southern border with Mexico, about 2,000 miles, attracts much more attention, the 5,500-mile Northern border with Canada offers more opportunity for illegal crossing. In many places, there are few signs of where one nation ends and another begins. Some homes, farms and businesses even sit astride the two countries; in other areas, a small white obelisk is the only marker of a border. In the past year, agents made 3,000 apprehensions along the Northern border, compared with 100 times that many along the Southwestern border with Mexico. They also seized 700 pounds of marijuana and cocaine in the North compared with 1.6 million pounds along the heavily gated Southern border.

us-states-bordering-canadaBut the authorities acknowledge that they cannot say with certainty how much criminal activity occurs as a result of Northern border crossings because their means of detection are so limited.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp
Senator Heidi Heitkamp

“The problem is that we don’t know what the threats and risk are because so much attention is given to the Southwest border,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota.

This area is a haven for smugglers and cross-border criminal organizations. Each year, Border Patrol agents catch hundreds of drug smugglers and human traffickers who use the sparsely populated and heavily wooded areas along the Vermont-Canada border to bypass the agents, cameras, sensors and other electronic devices that the Department of Homeland Security has installed to make up for the lack of personnel.

The expanse and remoteness of much of the Northern border, which includes Alaska, make the task of law enforcement daunting, said Norman M. Lague, who leads the border patrol station in Champlain, N.Y., one of the eight stations in the Swanton region that oversee border security operations in Vermont, upstate New York and New Hampshire. “We do the best that we can with the resources we have,” he said.

The border with Canada, the largest between two countries in the world, has hardly warranted a mention in a presidential campaign dominated by Donald J. Trump’s call to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. But officials and law enforcement officers say that makes the region more vulnerable in many ways to exploitation by criminal enterprises and possible terrorists.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Department of Homeland Security has increased the number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the Northern border to more than 2,000, from about 340, in addition to adding ground sensors, drones and other detection devices. Nearly 18,000 agents patrol the Southwestern border with Mexico.

Ms. Heitkamp has sponsored legislation, along with several other senators from border states, including Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, and Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, that would require the Department of Homeland Security to assess the national security risks posed by the terrorist and criminal organizations operating on the Canadian border.
Senator Gary Peters
Senator Gary Peters
Senator Kelly Ayotte
Senator Kelly Ayotte

During a hearing last year before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, several law enforcement officials raised concerns about terrorists’ making their way to the United States through the sparsely populated areas along the border. In 2007, people from the Government Accountability Office managed to cross from Canada into the United States carrying a duffel bag with contents that looked like radioactive material, and they never encountered a law enforcement officer.

“No one is arguing that the Northern border is the same as what’s happening down on the Southwestern border, but we can’t forget about this area,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana. “If we take our eye off of that, they will go where the weakest link is.”

Drug smuggling is a continuing issue because the lack of security and natural barriers makes the point of entry from Canada much easier for the smugglers than the Southern border.

While marijuana is the main drug, officials say they are starting to see an increase in drugs like fentanyl, which contributes to the national opioid and prescription drug abuse crisis.

In January, Border Patrol agents arrested Cedrik Bourgault-Morin, 22, a Canadian from Quebec, after he was detected by night vision cameras and ground sensors along a railroad track near the border in the village of North Troy, Vt., pulling a sleigh with a 182-pound duffel bag. Agents said Mr. Bourgault-Morin, who was wearing white camouflage, was trying to hide the bag in the snow when he was caught.

Agents found 300 vacuum-sealed bags of Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, in the duffel bag. According to court records, the pills had a street value of $1.6 million. Mr. Bourgault-Morin was sentenced to one year in prison in August.

In addition to drugs, the smuggling of people is another challenge for law enforcement.

Bradley S. Curtis, the acting division chief for the Border Patrol Swanton Division, said agents had caught hundreds of people from dozens of countries trying to enter the United States through the dense forests and open fields.

“We’ve seen people from all over the world: Chinese, Haitians, Eastern Europeans, Brazilians, you name it,” Mr. Curtis said.

Law enforcement also faces another singular challenge in the North: Native American reservations where they have no legal authority to enter, making them attractive to drug smugglers.

Another issue is that officials here admit they do not actually know how many people and how much drugs get through. Officials acknowledge that many more people than they apprehend could be crossing the border illegally.

For example, cameras along the border recently showed four men dressed in camouflage outfits who appeared to have weapons crossing the border. Agents never caught them. Another camera image showed a group of about half a dozen people walking through the woods at night across the border. Agents said they had no information on the group.

“These guys make me nervous,” Mr. Curtis said. “My technology can show me when someone makes an entry, but it can’t tell me who they are, and we can’t always get there in time to catch them.”

Obama Administration Is Quietly Delaying Thousands of Deportation Cases

obama-administrationThe Obama administration is delaying deportation proceedings for recent immigrants in cities across the United States, allowing more than 56,000 of those who fled Central America since 2014 to remain in the country legally for several more years.

The shift, described in interviews with immigration lawyers, federal officials, and current and former judges, has been occurring without public attention for months. It amounts to an unannounced departure from the administration’s widely publicized pronouncements that cases tied to the so-called surge of 2014 would be rushed through the immigration courts in an effort to deter more Central Americans from entering the United States illegally.

Central American immigrants who had been released from United States Border Patrol detention waited at the Greyhound bus station in McAllen, Texas
Central American immigrants who had been released from United States Border Patrol detention waited at the Greyhound bus station in McAllen, Texas

The delayed cases are those of nearly half of the Central Americans who entered the United States as families since 2014, and close to a quarter of the total number of Central Americans who entered during that period, according to figures from the Justice Department.

The delays are being made as a cost-saving measure, federal officials said, because of a lapse in enforcement that allowed immigrants who were supposed to be enrolled in an electronic monitoring program to go free.

Some of those affected had failed to report to government offices to be fitted with GPS ankle bracelets, according to a February memo from the chief immigration judge, Print Maggard, in Arlington, Va.

Now that the government will not have to pay the daily fee of $4 to $8 a person to monitor such bracelets, the immigrants’ cases have been pushed back for years, some until 2023, judges and federal officials said. The cases of those who met their reporting obligations are still being expedited, with some cases moving faster than lawyers and judges had expected.

“The whole thing is docket chaos,” said Paul Schmidt, who retired in June after a 30-year career working for federal immigration agencies, the last 13 years as an immigration judge.

Philippine Shift Away From the U.S.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, center, at army headquarters in Taguig.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, center, at army headquarters in Taguig.

President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to expel American troops from the Philippines, accused the C.I.A. of plotting to kill him and insulted President Obama with an obscenity.

But beyond the blasts of hyperbole — he recently compared himself to Hitler — lies a real and potentially historic shift in Philippines foreign policy.

In public statements and interviews during the past week, Mr. Duterte’s top foreign policy advisers said he was seeking to break the Philippines out of the United States’ orbit and signal to China that he is ready to negotiate closer ties after years of wrangling over its military presence in the South China Sea.

The move is a radical departure for a country that has historically been the most dependable American ally in Southeast Asia, and could undermine Mr. Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia, a keystone of his foreign policy. That strategy depends on American allies to counter China’s increasing power in the region.

On the South China Sea, Mr. Duterte’s move has already tilted the balance of power, said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila. By declining to press claims against China over disputed territory there, despite a favorable ruling by a United Nations tribunal, Mr. Duterte has made it hard for the United States to galvanize international pressure on China over the issue.

philippeans-arbitrate-chinaThat dispute led to deteriorating relations under the previous Philippines administration, which filed a claim against China with the United Nations maritime tribunal over the Scarborough Shoal, a reef claimed by both nations and occupied by China.

The tribunal ruled in the Philippines’ favor in July. There is no enforcement mechanism for the ruling, and it has been dismissed by China.

But the victory has given Mr. Duterte a stronger hand in negotiations, where he is expected to use the ruling as leverage in reaching his own deal with China in a way that will allow its leaders to save face.

In August, he sent former President Fidel Ramos, 88, to Hong Kong to meet with officials in what Mr. Ramos described as an effort to build trust and find common interests.

scarborough-shoalesAdvisers to the president say one potential deal would be to let China maintain control of Scarborough Shoal if it made concessions such as restoring access to Filipino fishermen and investing in infrastructure development in the Philippines.

“He doesn’t want to provoke China any further,” Jesus G. Dureza, a longtime friend of Mr. Duterte’s who holds the cabinet post of peace adviser, said in an interview. “He feels aligning with our allies against China is not going to benefit the country.”

Mr. Dureza said he and other cabinet members favored opening direct talks with China in part because of fear that, despite a 65-year-old mutual defense treaty, the United States would not be willing to defend the Philippines.

“The idea is that our allies are not going to go to war for us, so why should we align with them?” he said.

Relations with Beijing have already grown warmer, he said, with Chinese officials saying that now “we can talk like Asians across the table with Asians.”

At the same time, despite the sometimes harsh words, Philippine officials have made it clear that the new president does not want to abandon the United States.

“While we would like to foster a closer relationship with China, we will certainly not engage in any alliance with China in a military viewpoint because that has never been the intention of the president,” Mr. Yasay, the foreign secretary, said at a Senate hearing on Thursday. “The president, on many occasions, has said categorically that he will only have one military alliance, and our only ally in that respect is the United States.”

That statement may suggest a future in which the Philippines plays the big powers against each other.

Russia Adds Hundreds of Warheads Under Nuclear Treaty

new-start-treaty-3Russia increased its deployed nuclear warheads over the past six months under a strategic arms reduction treaty as U.S. nuclear warhead stocks declined sharply, according to the State Department.

During the same period, the United States cut its deployed nuclear warheads by 114, increasing the disparity between the two nuclear powers. 

Russia’s warhead increases since 2011 suggest Moscow does not intend to cut its nuclear forces and will abandon the New START arms accord as part of a major nuclear buildup.

“It is now highly unlikely that Russia intends to comply with New START,” said Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear weapons specialist now with the National Institute for Policy.

Barack ObamaAt the same time, the Obama administration is continuing a program of unilateral nuclear disarmament despite promises by President Obama to modernize and maintain U.S. nuclear forces as long as strategic dangers are present.

The latest Russian warhead increases coincide with increased tensions between Moscow and the West.

The nuclear buildup is raising new fears Russia plans to break out of New START treaty limits rather than comply with the accord. Russian forces have deployed 249 warheads above the warhead limit set by the treaty to be reached by February 2018.

Since the treaty went into force in 2011, Moscow increased its total warhead stockpile from 1,537 warheads to 1,796 warheads, an increase of 259 warheads.

By contrast, the Obama administration has cut U.S. nuclear forces by 433 warheads during the same period.

Under New START, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 warheads. Deployed land-based and submarine-launched missiles and bombers will be cut to 700. Missile launchers and non-deployed heavy bombers will be reduced to 800.

While U.S. nuclear forces are very old and in need of modernization, Russian nuclear forces are being modernized. By 2020, nuclear missile submarines, land-based missiles, and bombers will be modernized, with 70 percent of the nuclear forces replaced with advanced systems, according to U.S. officials.

Other troubling signs of Russian nuclear weapons advances include intelligence reports that Moscow is expanding underground nuclear command bunkers, violating New START terms, and planning to double its warhead stockpiles for new multiple-warhead missiles.

Mark Schneider
Mark Schneider

Schneider added that the sharp U.S. nuclear cuts indicate the Obama administration is moving ahead with a unilateral disarmament scheme.

“I think it is also clear that the Obama administration has an unannounced program to implement Obama’s proposed one-third reduction in strategic nuclear forces from the New START level unilaterally,” he said.

A strategic military balance that existed in 2011 when the treaty was approved has now been reversed by Russian increases and U.S. cuts.

“In 2011, the United States had a lead of 263 deployed warheads,” Schneider said. “We are now 429 deployed warheads below Russia. The Russians will think this is quite important. It could impact Putin’s willingness to take risks.”

Regarding other New START provisions, Russia had reduced its deployed strategic delivery systems—land-based and submarine missiles and bombers—slightly from 521 systems to 508 systems. The United States cut its missile and bomber forces by 60 systems over the same six-month period.

Russia cut its deployed and non-deployed delivery systems, another New START category, by 18 launchers and bombers. The United States cut 30 systems over the same period.

US Considering Air Strikes On Assad Regime After Top General Warns It Could Lead To War With Russia

us-vs-russia-2Now that the gloves have come off in the faux diplomacy between Russia and the US, which culminated with Putin halting a Plutonium cleanup effort with the US, shortly before the US State Department announced it would end negotiations with Russia over Syria, the next step may be one which John Kerry warned last week is “back on the table“, namely the launch of military strikes on the Assad regime.

As Reuters hinted last week, at a Deputies Committee meeting at the White House, officials from the State Department, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed limited military strikes against the regime as a “means of forcing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to pay a cost for his violations of the cease-fire, disrupt his ability to continue committing war crimes against civilians in Aleppo, and raise the pressure on the regime to come back to the negotiating table in a serious way.” Or, in other words, to cut to the chase and go right back to what the US was hoping to achieve in Syria in the first place: another regime change.

Among the options considered include bombing Syrian air force runways using cruise missiles and other long-range weapons fired from coalition planes and ships. One proposed way to get around the White House’s long-standing objection to striking the Assad regime without a U.N. Security Council resolution would be to carry out the strikes covertly and without public acknowledgment, the official said. In other words, the warhawks in the administration are actively contemplating not only bypassing the White House, but flaunting the UN and launching a sovereign incursions, also known as a war, against Syria.

The CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represented in the Deputies Committee meeting by Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, expressed support for such “kinetic” options, the official said. That marked an increase of support for striking Assad compared with the last time such options were considered.

“There’s an increased mood in support of kinetic actions against the regime,” one senior administration official said. “The CIA and the Joint Staff have said that the fall of Aleppo would undermine America’s counterterrorism goals in Syria.”

The good news is that, at least for now, not everyone involved in the discussion is a hawkish neocon. According to WaPo there’s still skepticism that the White House will approve military action. Other administration officials told The Post this week that Obama is no more willing to commit U.S. military force inside Syria than he was previously and that each of the military options being discussed have negative risks or consequences.

There is another problem: launching bombing raids over Syria would necessarily require the creation of a “no fly zone” for Syrian and, more importantly, Russian warplanes.  However, during testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services last week General Joseph Dunford rang the alarm over a policy shift that is gaining more traction within the halls of Washington following the collapse of the ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia in Syria saying that it could result in a major international war which he was not prepared to advocate on behalf of.

The notable exchange took place after Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi asked about Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a no fly zone in Syria in response to allegations that Russia and Syria have intensified their aerial bombardment of rebel-held East Aleppo since the collapse of the ceasefire.

“What about the option of controlling the airspace so that barrel bombs cannot be dropped? What do you think of that option?” asked Wicker. “Right now, Senator, for us to control all of the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia. That is a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make,” said the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggesting the policy was too hawkish even for military leaders.

Since the report is, at least for now, just a trial balloon to gauge the Russian reaction to a potential US military incursion, we now wait to see what Putin’s reaction to the possibility of a US military campaign in Syria will be.

Philippines’ Duterte dares CIA to ‘oust’ him

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday (Oct 7) dared the United States’ CIA spy agency to try and oust him, as he branded Western critics of his deadly crime war “animals” and vowed many more killings. 

In two fiery speeches to mark his 100 days in office, Duterte repeatedly raised the prospect of local or foreign opponents seeking to remove him from power in an effort to stop the violence.

But he insisted he would not be intimidated and that his campaign against drugs, in which an average of more than 33 people a day are being killed, would not end.

“You want to oust me? You want to use the CIA? Go ahead,” Duterte said in a speech in his southern home town of Davao city, referring to the Central Intelligence Agency, while railing against US President Barack Obama and other critics.

Last month Duterte accused the CIA of plotting to kill him, but gave no specifics.

Also on Friday he referred to a local newspaper columnist who warned a “People Power” movement could form to try and topple Duterte, using the term coined for the revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

“Be my guest. I don’t give a shit,” he said.

“I’ll be ousted? Fine. If so it’s part of my destiny. Destiny carries so many things. If I die, that’s part of my destiny. Presidents get assassinated.”

philippines-mapDuterte was elected in a landslide this year mainly on a pledge to eradicate illegal drugs in society by killing tens of thousands of people.

Since taking office on June 30, police have killed 1,523 people and 1,838 others have died in unexplained circumstances, according to official figures.

A poll released this week showed Filipinos overwhelmingly approved of Duterte’s first 100 days as president.

Duterte insists police are only killing in self-defense and the unexplained deaths are mainly due to drug gangs suddenly fighting each other.

On Friday, Duterte again promised there would be no let-up.

“The drug campaign will not end. It will result in so many deaths and I do not apologize for it,” he said in Davao.

In a barrage of separate tirades against his Western critics, Duterte told them not to think they were smarter than him and he would be prepared with many counter questions if they interrogated him.

“If they are unable to answer, son of a whore, go home, you animal. I will kick you now. Do not piss me off. It cannot be that they are brighter than me, believe me,” he said.