Able Danger Blog


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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Able Danger and Alberto Gonzales

Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters sums it up better than I could:

Two years ago, the tantalizing story of Able Danger came to light as three of its team went public with information on the cutting-edge data-mining program. Coincidentally, as the AD story got fitfully reported over the succeeding months, the New York Times revealed an NSA surveillance plan that monitored communications on suspected terrorist lines and cell phones from points abroad into the US without a wiretap. Now it looks like the two may have more in common than first thought, at least conceptually, and that may prove that Alberto Gonzales told the truth in testimony this week in the Senate:


A fierce dispute within the Bush administration in early 2004 over a National Security Agency warrantless surveillance program was related to concerns about the NSA's searches of huge computer databases, the New York Times reported today.
The agency's data mining was also linked to a dramatic chain of events in March 2004, including threats of resignation from senior Justice Department officials and an unusual nighttime visit by White House aides to the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, the Times reported, citing current and former officials briefed on the program.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, one of the aides who went to the hospital, was questioned closely about that episode during a contentious Senate hearing on Tuesday. Gonzales characterized the internal debate as centering on "other intelligence activities" than the NSA's warrantless surveillance program, whose existence President Bush confirmed in December 2005.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III contradicted Gonzales, his boss, two days later, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee that the disagreement involved "an NSA program that has been much discussed." ...

The report of a data mining component to the dispute suggests that Gonzales's testimony could be correct. A group of Senate Democrats, including two who have been privy to classified briefings about the NSA program, called last week for a special prosecutor to consider perjury charges against Gonzales.

The report also provides further evidence that the NSA surveillance operation was far more extensive than has been acknowledged by the Bush administration, which has consistently sought to describe the program in narrow terms and to emphasize that the effort was legal.


This may be good news for Gonzales, but will likely prompt more questions about the NSA's surveillance program. The AD program got shut down in a hurry before 9/11, in some tellings because it got a little too indiscriminate with its connections between Clinton administration officials and potential enemies, but more likely because of its potential to cross lines separating military intelligence and domestic privacy laws. If the Pentagon's lawyers got a case of the shakes around AD, the Department of Justice could easily have felt the same way about a similar program centered at the NSA.

Would a data-mining effort be so closely attached to the terrorist-surveillance program (TSP) that the Senate would consider them one and the same? It seems unlikely -- which benefits Gonzales. The NSA would not need to "data mine" communications they have already intercepted; they would know exactly what was in them. To the extent they created databases for these intercepts, mining them would cause no great issue for the DoJ. If the intercepts were themselves illegal, that would be its own issue, not mining them for connections to other intercepts.

If, however, the NSA employed data-mining on publicly-available databases in the same manner that Able Danger did, one could see why the Congressional delegation would have objected. The NSA is supposed to be more outward-directed, analogous to the CIA. Conducting domestic surveillance should be a brief for the FBI, which has more controls over how they can access domestic data. An NSA data-mining program that utilized domestic data could trip the same alarm warnings that Able Danger did, implying a great deal less control over domestic spying than Congress demanded in its FISA legislation.

Given that the data used in AD was publicly available, the mechanics of the data-mining of a similar program at NSA may not have created any legal problems. However, if the NSA ran the program, that might have been enough to get strenuous objections from Congress and the Department of Justice -- which should have been in charge of a program like that, through the FBI. The threats of resignations and the uproar from the Congressional oversight delegation would have sent Gonzales to John Ashcroft's hospital room for approval for the data-mining program ... which Ashcroft apparently refused.

So, in terms of Gonzales, this appears to answer questions of perjury erupting from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and also explain why Gonzales wanted to answer the questions in camera. However, it opens up a whole new can of worms for both the White House and Congress on whether continuing an Able Danger-like program through the NSA was appropriate, if in fact that's what this was. And it could go a long way to explaining why both Congress and the White House did their best to tube the probe into Able Danger.

Friday, July 27, 2007

New details on Tillman's death

From the AP:

SAN FRANCISCO - Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Pat Tillman's forehead and tried without success to get authorities to investigate whether the former NFL player's death amounted to a crime, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

"The medical evidence did not match up with the, with the scenario as described," a doctor who examined Tillman's body after he was killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2004 told investigators.

The doctors — whose names were blacked out — said that the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the Army Ranger was cut down by an M-16 fired from a mere 10 yards or so away.

Ultimately, the Pentagon did conduct a criminal investigation, and asked Tillman's comrades whether he was disliked by his men and whether they had any reason to believe he was deliberately killed. The Pentagon eventually ruled that Tillman's death at the hands of his comrades was a friendly-fire accident.

The medical examiners' suspicions were outlined in 2,300 pages of testimony released to the AP this week by the Defense Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Among other information contained in the documents:

• In his last words moments before he was killed, Tillman snapped at a panicky comrade under fire to shut up and stop "sniveling."

• Army attorneys sent each other congratulatory e-mails for keeping criminal investigators at bay as the Army conducted an internal friendly-fire investigation that resulted in administrative, or non-criminal, punishments.

• The three-star general who kept the truth about Tillman's death from his family and the public told investigators some 70 times that he had a bad memory and couldn't recall details of his actions.

• No evidence at all of enemy fire was found at the scene — no one was hit by enemy fire, nor was any government equipment struck.

The Pentagon and the Bush administration have been criticized in recent months for lying about the circumstances of Tillman's death. The military initially told the public and the Tillman family that he had been killed by enemy fire. Only weeks later did the Pentagon acknowledge he was gunned down by fellow Rangers.

With questions lingering about how high in the Bush administration the deception reached, Congress is preparing for yet another hearing next week.

The Pentagon is separately preparing a new round of punishments, including a stinging demotion of retired Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., 60, according to military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the punishments under consideration have not been made public.

In more than four hours of questioning by the Pentagon inspector general's office in December 2006, Kensinger repeatedly contradicted other officers' testimony, and sometimes his own. He said on some 70 occasions that he did not recall something.

At one point, he said: "You've got me really scared about my brain right now. I'm really having a problem."

Tillman's mother, Mary Tillman, who has long suggested that her son was deliberately killed by his comrades, said she is still looking for answers and looks forward to the congressional hearings next week.

"Nothing is going to bring Pat back. It's about justice for Pat and justice for other soldiers. The nation has been deceived," she said.

The documents show that a doctor who autopsied Tillman's body was suspicious of the three gunshot wounds to the forehead. The doctor said he took the unusual step of calling the Army's Human Resources Command and was rebuffed. He then asked an official at the Army's Criminal Investigation Division if the CID would consider opening a criminal case.

"He said he talked to his higher headquarters and they had said no," the doctor testified.

Also according to the documents, investigators pressed officers and soldiers on a question Mrs. Tillman has been asking all along.

"Have you, at any time since this incident occurred back on April 22, 2004, have you ever received any information even rumor that Cpl. Tillman was killed by anybody within his own unit intentionally?" an investigator asked then-Capt. Richard Scott.

Scott, and others who were asked, said they were certain the shooting was accidental.

Investigators also asked soldiers and commanders whether Tillman was disliked, whether anyone was jealous of his celebrity, or if he was considered arrogant. They said Tillman was respected, admired and well-liked.

The documents also shed new light on Tillman's last moments.

It has been widely reported by the AP and others that Spc. Bryan O'Neal, who was at Tillman's side as he was killed, told investigators that Tillman was waving his arms shouting "Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat (expletive) Tillman, damn it!" again and again.

But the latest documents give a different account from a chaplain who debriefed the entire unit days after Tillman was killed.

The chaplain said that O'Neal told him he was hugging the ground at Tillman's side, "crying out to God, help us. And Tillman says to him, `Would you shut your (expletive) mouth? God's not going to help you; you need to do something for yourself, you sniveling ..."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Page Five

National Intelligence Estimate:

Key Judgments

We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially al- Qa’ida, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

We assess that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al-Qa’ida to attack the US Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11. These measures have helped disrupt known plots against the United States since 9/11.

• We are concerned, however, that this level of international cooperation may wane as
9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge.

Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qa’ida senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qa’ida will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.

• As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat
environment.

We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups. Of note, we assess that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.

We assess that al-Qa’ida’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the US population. The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices, and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles.

• We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical,
biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

U.S. intel warns al-Qaida has rebuilt

From the AP:

WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded al-Qaida has rebuilt its operating capability to a level not seen since just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, The Associated Press has learned.

The conclusion suggests that the network that launched the most devastating terror attack on the United States has been able to regroup along the Afghan-Pakistani border despite nearly six years of bombings, war and other tactics aimed at crippling it.

Still, numerous government officials say they know of no specific, credible threat of a new attack on U.S. soil.

A counterterrorism official familiar with a five-page summary of the new government threat assessment called it a stark appraisal to be discussed at the White House on Thursday as part of a broader meeting on an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate.

The official and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the secret report remains classified.

Counterterrorism analysts produced the document, titled "Al-Qaida better positioned to strike the West." The document focuses on the terror group's safe haven in Pakistan and makes a range of observations about the threat posed to the United States and its allies, officials said.

Al-Qaida is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," the official said, paraphrasing the report's conclusions. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."

The group also has created "the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives," the official quoted the report as saying.

At the same time, this official said, the report speaks of "significant gaps in intelligence" so U.S. authorities may be ignorant of potential or planned attacks.

John Kringen, who heads the CIA's analysis directorate, echoed the concerns about al-Qaida's resurgence during testimony and conversations with reporters at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.

"They seem to be fairly well settled into the safe haven and the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan," Kringen testified. "We see more training. We see more money. We see more communications. We see that activity rising."

The threat assessment comes as the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies prepare a National Intelligence Estimate focusing on threats to the United States. A senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while the high-level analysis was being finalized, said the document has been in the works for roughly two years.

Kringen and aides to National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell would not comment on the details of that analysis. "Preparation of the estimate is not a response to any specific threat," McConnell's spokesman Ross Feinstein said, adding that it would probably be ready for distribution this summer.

Counterterrorism officials have been increasingly concerned about al-Qaida's recent operations. This week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a "gut feeling" that the United States faced a heightened risk of attack this summer.

Kringen said he wouldn't attach a summer time frame to the concern. In studying the threat, he said he begins with the premise that al-Qaida would consider attacking the U.S. a "home run hit" and that the easiest way to get into the United States would be through Europe.

The new threat assessment puts particular focus on Pakistan, as did Kringen.

"Sooner or later you have to quit permitting them to have a safe haven" along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he told the House committee. "At the end of the day, when we have had success, it is when you've been able to get them worried about who was informing on them, get them worried about who was coming after them."

Several European countries — among them Britain, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands — are also highlighted in the threat assessment partly because they have arrangements with the Pakistani government that allow their citizens easier access to Pakistan than others, according to the counterterrorism official.

This is more troubling because all four are part of the U.S. visa waiver program, and their citizens can enter the United States without additional security scrutiny, the official said.

The report also notes that al-Qaida has increased its public statements, although analysts stressed that those video and audio messages aren't reliable indicators of the actions the group may take.

The Bush administration has repeatedly cited al-Qaida as a key justification for continuing the fight in Iraq.

"The No. 1 enemy in Iraq is al-Qaida," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday. "Al-Qaida continues to be the chief organizer of mayhem within Iraq, the chief organization for killing innocent Iraqis."

The findings could bolster the president's hand at a moment when support on Capitol Hill for the war is eroding and the administration is struggling to defend its decision for a military buildup in Iraq. A progress report that the White House is releasing to Congress this week is expected to indicate scant progress on the political and military benchmarks set for Iraq.

The threat assessment says that al-Qaida stepped up efforts to "improve its core operational capability" in late 2004 but did not succeed until December of 2006 after the Pakistani government signed a peace agreement with tribal leaders that effectively removed government military presence from the northwest frontier with Afghanistan.

The agreement allows Taliban and al-Qaida operatives to move across the border with impunity and establish and run training centers, the report says, according to the official.

It also says that al-Qaida is particularly interested in building up the numbers in its middle ranks, or operational positions, so there is not as great a lag in attacks when such people are killed.

"Being No. 3 in al-Qaida is a bad job. We regularly get to the No. 3 person," Tom Fingar, the top U.S. intelligence analyst, told the House panel.

The counterterror official said the report does not focus on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, his whereabouts or his role in the terrorist network. Officials say al-Qaida has become more like a "family-oriented" mob organization with leadership roles in cells and other groups being handed from father to son, or cousin to uncle.

Yet bin Laden's whereabouts are still of great interest to intelligence agencies. Although he has not been heard from for some time, Kringen said officials believe he is still alive and living under the protection of tribal leaders in the border area.

Armed Services Committee members expressed frustration that more was not being done to get bin Laden and tamp down activity in the tribal areas. The senior intelligence analysts tried to portray the difficulty of operating in the area despite a $25 million bounty on the head of bin Laden and his top deputy.

"They are in an environment that is more hostile to us than it is to al-Qaida," Fingar said.

Two interesting stories

Data on Americans mined for terror risk

All but one of the databases — the one to track terrorists — have been up and running for several years, the report showed. The lone exception is the System to Assess Risk, or STAR, program to rate the threat posed by people already identified as suspected terrorists or named on terror watch lists.

The system, still under construction, is designed to help counterterror investigators save time by narrowing the field of people who pose the greatest potential threat and will not label anyone a terrorist, Boyd said.

But it could be based, in part at least, on commercial or public information that might not be accurate — potentially ranking an innocent person as a terror threat. Watch lists, for example, have mistakenly identified people as suspects based on their similar names or birthdates to terrorists.

The Justice report also leaves open the possibility that the STAR program might draw up lists of terror suspects based on information from other sources, including from Data Mart. The report described Data Mart as a collector of government information, but also travel data from the Airlines Reporting Corp. and other information from private data-aggregators like Choicepoint. Private data aggregators often sell commercial credit records as well as other databases, like voter and vehicle registration.


FBI Plans Initiative To Profile Terrorists

The Federal Bureau of Investigations is developing a computer-profiling system that would enable investigators to target possible terror suspects, according to a Justice Department report submitted to Congress yesterday.

The System to Assess Risk, or STAR, assigns risk scores to possible suspects based on a variety of information, similar to the way a credit bureau assigns a rating based on a consumer's spending behavior and debt. The program focuses on foreign suspects but also includes data about some U.S. residents. A prototype is expected to be tested this year.

Justice Department officials said the system offers analysts a powerful new tool for finding possible terrorists. They said it is an effort to automate what analysts have been doing manually.

"STAR does not label anyone a terrorist," the report said. "Only individuals considered emergent foreign threats (as opposed to other criminal activity such as U.S. bank robbery threats) will be analyzed."

Some lawmakers said, however, that the report raises new questions about the government's power to use personal information and intelligence without accountability.

"The Bush administration has expanded the use of this technology, often in secret, to collect and sift through Americans' most sensitive personal information," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which received a copy of the report on data-mining initiatives.

The use of data mining in the war on terror has sparked criticism. An airplane-passenger screening program called CAPPS II was revamped and renamed because of civil liberty concerns. An effort to collect Americans' personal and financial data called Total Information Awareness was killed.

Law enforcement and national security officials have continued working on other programs to use computers to sift through information for signs of threats. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, flags travelers entering and leaving the United States who may be potential suspects through a risk-assessment program called the Automated Targeting System.

STAR is being developed by the FBI's Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, which tracks suspected terrorists inside the country or as they enter.

Both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI's STAR programs create their ratings based on certain rules. In the case of STAR, a person's score would increase if his or her name matches one on a terrorist watch list, for example. A country of origin could also be weighted in a person's score.

After STAR has received the names of persons of interest, it runs them through an FBI "data mart" that includes classified and unclassified information from the government, airlines and commercial data brokers such as ChoicePoint. Then it runs them through the terrorist screening center database, which contains hundreds of thousands of names, as well as through a database containing information on non-citizens who enter the country. It also runs the names against information provided by data broker Accurint, which tracks addresses, phone numbers and driver's licenses.

The report said access to STAR would be limited to trained users and that data would be obtained lawfully. Results would be kept within the FBI's terrorist task force, the report said.

Privacy expert David Sobel, senior counsel for the nonprofit advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the government's system depends on potentially unreliable data. "If we can't assess the accuracy of the information being fed into the system, it's very hard to assess the effectiveness of the system."

The STAR system would be subject to a privacy-impact assessment before launched in final form.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Internet the Breeding Ground for Global Terrorism

From ABC News:

In recent days the Internet has emerged as a crucial tool for both terrorists and investigators.

"When you have got all these al Qaeda Web sites flourishing 'round the world, we have got to take on this extremist propaganda," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.

Fertile Ground for Recruitment

Three men were jailed Thursday in London for allegedly inciting terror on the Internet.

They are accused of posting recruitment videos and terror attack footage and hosting online chat forums about terrorism. One message, posted in 2005, reads: "We are 45 doctors and we are determined to undertake jihad and take the battle inside America."

The possible targets mentioned in those Internet posts include a naval base in Florida, an unspecified army base in Virginia and the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

FBI officials tell ABC News those threats are most likely terrorist bravado, but they are still being cautious.

"Any threat should be taken seriously and chatter sometimes results in attacks," said FBI agent Glen Jenvey.

Web sites also serve to encourage terrorist recruits.

"It's the growth place for terrorist recruitment, and particularly among the 15- to 25-year-old," said Sally Leivesley, a terrorism adviser to the British government, "and sometimes they're recruited either as fighters, suicide bombers or even to do reconnaissance on our cities."

Friday, July 06, 2007

Business people in the news

Posted Friday, July 6, 2007

Curt Weldon, chief strategic officer of Defense Solutions Inc. and former member of Congress, received the Harry Maitland Lifetime Achievement Award by the Delaware County Firemen's Association of Pennsylvania. In 1987, he founded and was the first co-chairman of the Congressional Fire and Emergency Services Caucus. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, he led the effort to pass the Assistance to Firefighters' Grant Program, which has provided more than $3 billion in direct funding to local fire departments. In 2004, he included the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Firefighters Act of 2003 in the Defense Authorization bill, which Congress approved.


As some readers might recall, he was also a volunteer fire chief before serving as the mayor of Marcus Hook, PA and winning his first election to Congress in 1986.