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Homegrown Terrorism Festers in America’s Toxic Political Environment

The US needs to look at its violence problem without ideological blinders

It’s happened again. This week’s horrifying assassination attempt against Congressional Republicans as they practiced for a bipartisan charity baseball game reminds Americans that violence is ever present in our society.

Four innocent people were shot and the highest-ranking victim, Rep. Steve Scalise, remains in critical condition at this hour. However, the fact that Scalise is the majority whip in the House of Representatives may be the only reason there wasn’t a far worse massacre. As the third-ranking Republican in the House, Scalise travels with bodyguards from the Capitol Police (two of whom were shot while protecting Congress-members). Had they not been present, a much bloodier event would have surely transpired.

The gunman was fatally wounded by those bodyguards – thereby saving uncounted lives – in a wild melée with dozens of rounds expended in a firefight on a suburban baseball diamond. James Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old from the St. Louis suburbs, was exactly the sort of angry ne’er-do-well commonly associated with such killings. A man with a lengthy arrest record known for violent outbursts, Hodgkinson descended into ever-greater anger until he traveled to Virginia to kill his political enemies.

On social media and in person, Hodgkinson exuded hatred for Republicans in general and President Donald Trump in particular. Whether the difference between this killer’s ideological venom and that of millions of perfectly peaceful liberals was one of degree or kind looms as an important question right now. Regardless, it would help the country if citizens on both sides of the aisle took this week’s tragedy as an opportunity to tone down our increasingly shrill political rhetoric.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Return of Frankie and The Iceman

New trials for Balkan war criminals are set to reopen old wounds – and may expose Washington’s secret role

For the last 24 years, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague, has attempted to mete out justice to those accused of war crimes in the ugly conflicts which engulfed Southeastern Europe from 1991 to 1999. The track record of this UN-mandated court, termed the ICTY for short (said as ick-tee by Balkan cognoscienti) can be fairly assessed as mixed.

It’s put some certified bad guys behind bars – most infamously Slobodan Milošević, Serbia’s longtime president and the preeminent architect of the Balkan nightmares of the 1990s, who died in ICTY custody in 2006 before his trial was completed – but there have been plenty of missteps too. Back in 2012-13, several prominent Balkan war criminals who had been convicted by the ICTY after extended and expensive trials were released on appeal, leading to awkward questions about the tribunal’s practical effectiveness.

The court has faced doubters from the start, including those who suspect the ICTY’s less-than-even-handed justice is merely keeping political wounds open, rather than promoting much-needed healing in the lands of the former Yugoslavia, which remain politically traumatized by Communism’s collapse and the unpleasant conflicts which followed in its wake. Although – full disclosure alert – I’ve aided the ICTY as an expert witness in more than one case, I’ve been a skeptic too, suspecting that a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation model might have served the Balkans better than justice imported by outsiders.

The problem seemed to be resolving itself, however, as the ICTY was slated to shut its doors imminently since it had few cases left to try. By late last year, there was only one upcoming trial on the books, that of Ratko Mladić, the infamous commander of the Bosnian Serb military during that country’s brutal 1992-95 war.

The tribunal has been given new life, though, by a sensational trial slated to start this week which aims to prosecute two of the most sinister and shadowy of all the Balkan warlords who perpetrated crimes back in the 1990s. They are Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović, who a quarter-century ago were top officers of Serbia’s secret police. As such, they oversaw secret units of commandos and criminals who murdered and plundered their way across Croatia and Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s at Belgrade’s behest.

Read the rest at The Observer …

3 Big Takeaways from Comey Day in Washington

Yesterday’s much-anticipated testimony from the former FBI director included genuine bombshells – which some may have missed

After weeks of anticipation, yesterday James Comey testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, offering his account of how and why President Donald Trump unexpectedly fired him as FBI director one month ago. As expected, Comey came across as the careful and calm career legal bureaucrat which he is. Both the pro- and anti-Trump camps heard things they liked in Comey’s testimony.

Predictably, the president’s supporters are trumpeting things which they heard Comey say – or at least what they think they heard him say. Already the White House is running with Comey’s words which, they claim, vindicate the president and his version of how things went very wrong between Trump and his FBI director over the Bureau’s counterintelligence investigation of Russian interference in our 2016 election.

On the positive side, Trump’s supporters are taking comfort from Comey’s admission that he had, in fact, informed the president that he was not personally under FBI counterintelligence investigation last winter. This, while true, is something of a technicality, since Comey admitted that Russian interference in our 2016 election was very real – “with purpose and sophistication” as Comey put it – no matter what the president tweets.

When asked about this critical issue by Republican Senator Richard Burr, the SSCI chair, Comey’s responses were clear-cut:

Burr: Do you have any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 elections?

Comey: None.

Burr: Do you have any doubt that the Russian government was behind the intrusions in the D triple C systems and the subsequent leaks of that information?

Comey: No, no doubt.

Burr: Do you have any doubt the Russian government was behind the cyber intrusion in the state voter files?

Comey: No.

Read the rest at The Observer …

50 Years Ago: NSA’s Deadliest Day

A half-century ago, Israel attacked the USS Liberty, killing 34 Americans – an incident still shrouded in mystery

June 8, 1967 was the worst day in the history of the National Security Agency. On that date, Israeli airplanes and torpedo boats mauled and nearly sank an American spy ship in international waters, killing or maiming most of its crew. This tragedy appears as a footnote to Israelis, an unpleasant sideshow of their victorious Six Day War, while official Washington preferred the embarrassing episode be forgotten. But NSA has never let the Liberty and her ill-fated crew disappear from memory altogether.

The USS Liberty was owned and operated by the U.S. Navy, which euphemistically referred to her as one of its Technical Research Ships, but she really worked for NSA. A converted World War Two freighter, the Liberty was barely a warship, possessing minimal armament for self-defense, and her mission was very hush-hush. She sailed the world collecting signals intelligence on behalf of her bosses at Fort Meade, Maryland. Her hull contained a large top-secret room where sailors of the Naval Security Group, NSA’s Navy component, intercepted and translated foreign communications.

In the mid-1960s, the Liberty sailed from crisis to crisis, wherever NSA needed her on station to collect SIGINT, and the beginning of June 1967 found her off the coast of west Africa. However, the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East required her dispatch to the eastern Mediterranean, where war was about to break out again between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

On the fateful morning of June 8, the Liberty was sailing almost 30 miles north of the Sinai Peninsula, a war zone. By this point, the Six Day War’s fourth day, Israel was well on its way to defeating the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, an epic victory that changed the map of the Middle East. The Liberty was in position to monitor possible Soviet movements, since there was concern in Washington that Moscow might come to the aid of its humiliated Egyptian client. The Cold War was still very real and as a result most of the Naval Security Group linguists aboard were specialists in Russian and Arabic, not Hebrew.

A half-century on, considerable debate persists about what really happened to the Liberty on June 8, but the essential facts not in dispute are these. Throughout the morning, several Israeli warplanes individually approached the U.S. Navy vessel, in some cases circling above the Liberty, in an apparent reconnaissance effort. Just before 2 p.m., two Israeli Air Force Mirage fighter jets raked Liberty’s decks with cannon fire. They were soon joined by three Israeli Mystère attack jets which executed multiple attack runs on the American ship, offering cannon blasts, rocket fire, and even napalm. The jets made repeated low-level attacks on the nearly defenseless Liberty for about 20 minutes. By the time they ceased, Liberty’s radars and communications gear were destroyed, nine Americans were dead or dying, and dozens more were wounded.

Read the rest at The Observer …

NSA’s Latest Leak Debacle Explained

No Intelligence Community leaker has ever been unmasked and arrested this fast – here’s why

Yesterday began splendidly for The Intercept, the online news outlet which specializes in leaking the secrets of Western intelligence. They had a genuine bombshell on their hands – a current above-Top Secret document from the National Security Agency, which is that outlet’s preeminent bugbear. Moreover, the intelligence report The Intercept got its hands on deals with the hottest topic in Washington these days: Russian meddling in last year’s election.

Only published by NSA on May 5, after months of analysis, the highly classified report’s wordy title indicates its importance:

Russia/Cybersecurity: Main Intelligence Directorate Cyber Actors [Redacted] Target U.S. Companies and Local U.S. Government Officials Using Voter Registration-Themed Emails, Spoof Election-Related Products and Services, Research Absentee Ballot Email Addresses; August to November 2016 (TS//SI//OC//REL to US, FVEY//FISA)

Translated into normal English, this NSA signals intelligence study of cyber-espionage by the Russian General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate – GRU for short – demonstrates that Kremlin agents indeed attempted to covertly influence last year’s presidential election – precisely as Hillary Clinton and her backers have insisted. The political import of this leak is therefore genuinely massive.

The report’s high classification further indicates that this is a special NSA assessment worthy of attention. To translate it:

TS = Top Secret, the highest classification level in the Intelligence Community

SI = Special Intelligence, meaning this information was derived from SIGINT intercepts

OC = Originator Controlled, meaning this report cannot be disseminated or released without NSA’s permission

REL to USA, FVEY = This report can be released to Americans and other members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), assuming those individuals have the appropriate clearances

FISA = This report contains information obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, meaning a classified warrant was issued to spy on American(s)

Read the rest at The Observer …

There Is No Intelligence Solution to Britain’s Rivers of Blood

After three jihadist attacks in as many months, the United Kingdom is facing a protracted insurgency – not mere terrorism

It’s happened again. This time the target was the heart of London. Last night shortly after 10 p.m., weekend merry-making was shattered when a van careened wildly across London Bridge, running over innocents. After the van came to a halt, three men emerged, brandishing large knives which they proceeded to plunge into as many people as possible.

Eyewitnesses report the men, adorned with fake suicide bomb vests, were shouting “This is for Allah” as they ran foot-long blades into people walking along the trendy Borough High Street. Saturday night partiers barricaded themselves in pubs to save their lives. Eight minutes after the horror started it ended in gunfire. Armed police arrived at the scene and shot the three terrorists dead.

Now the police are following their standard procedure: Talking to eyewitnesses, gathering evidence from crime scenes, and rounding up anybody who might be involved, even peripherally. Several potential suspects have been taken into custody after police raids in East London, while at present the casualty count stands at seven dead (not including the terrorists) and 48 injured, many seriously.

This atrocity comes only 12 days after the horrific bomb attack in Manchester, at the end of an Ariana Grande concert, which slaughtered 22 innocents – many of them children – and maimed more than a hundred. The killer there, who blew himself up with an improvised explosive device loaded with nuts and bolts to inflict maximum shrapnel wounds, was Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British national.

Born in Manchester to Libyan refugee parents, Abedi fits the clichéd profile for homegrown jihadists in the West: a failed assimilation case, a ne’er-do-well dropout who got caught up in drugs and hooliganism, only to turn his life around by embracing the jihad. Abedi’s fervent radicalism made him notorious at his mosque. He was viewed by his community, rightly, as a troublemaker headed for nothing good.

Read the rest at The Observer …

NSA in Unprecedented Hunt for KremlinGate Evidence

America’s most important spy agency pulls out all the stops in its investigation of Russian interference in 2016

In my last column, I broke the news that Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, last week explained to his workforce that he had declined to assist President Donald Trump in his efforts to undermine the FBI and its counterintelligence investigation of the White House. As Rogers explained to agency personnel, “There is no question that we have evidence of election involvement and questionable contacts with the Russians.”

With this, Admiral Rogers confirmed the existence of highly classified signals intelligence which establishes some sort of collusion between Team Trump and the Kremlin during the 2016 election campaign. However, now that the Justice Department has appointed Robert Mueller special counsel charged with running the Russia investigation, NSA is pulling out all the stops to track down any additional evidence which might be relevant to the expanded inquiry into KremlinGate.

Specifically, last week NSA sent out an unprecedented order to the Directorate of Operations, the agency’s largest unit. The DO, as insiders term it, manages all of NSA’s SIGINT assets worldwide, making it the most important spy operation on earth. The email sent to every person assigned to the DO came from the Office of General Counsel, the NSA’s in-house lawyers, and it was something seldom seen at the agency – a preservation order.

This order charged every DO official, from junior analysts to senior managers, with finding any references to individuals involved in KremlinGate, especially high-ranking Americans – and preserving those records for Federal investigators. This includes intercepted phone calls and any transcripts of them, emails, online chats, faxes – anything which the agency might have picked up last year.

At the request of NSA officials, I will not name the specific individuals that DO personnel are on the lookout for in SIGINT intercepts, but allow me to establish that the list includes virtually all key members of Team Trump.

Read the rest at The Observer …