April 5, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 6:00 PM


The Bogus Susan Rice Story Shows How Desperate the White House Is Getting : Susan Rice's alleged "unmasking" wasn't illegal, or even unusual. (Fred Kaplan, 4/04/17, Slate)

I asked retired Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency, whether it's unlawful or even unusual for someone in Rice's position to ask the NSA to unmask the names of Americans caught up in intercepts. He replied, in an email, "Absolutely lawful. Even somewhat routine."

He added, "The request to unmask would not be automatically granted. NSA would adjudicate that, although I'm certain a request from the national security adviser would carry great weight."

Hayden also said, "There are very plausible, legitimate reasons why she would request such information." Though he didn't elaborate on what those reasons might have been, the pertinent regulations specify that unmasking might be requested, and allowed, if the names in question are pertinent to foreign intelligence. When Rice made her request, there were ongoing investigations of Russia's involvement in the election, of the role Trump advisers might have played in this involvement, and of efforts by some of these advisers to undermine U.S. foreign policy, specifically on sanctions toward Russia.

"To summarize, on its face, not even close to a smoking gun."

It's worth noting that we don't know--or at least no news story about the incident has reported--whether the NSA granted Rice's request and gave her the unmasked names. Even if she did, Hayden emphasized in his email, "the identities would be unmasked only for her"--and not for any other official who received the transcript.

"To summarize," Hayden wrote in his email, "on its face, not even close to a smoking gun."

It's hardly out of the ordinary for a White House official like Rice, with high security clearances, to request unmasking. In Tuesday's Washington Post, Glenn Kessler quotes Michael Doran, a former NSC aide under President George W. Bush, as saying, "I did it a couple of times."

Posted by orrinj at 5:48 PM


A Robot with Its Head in the Cloud Tackles Warehouse Picking : A dexterous new robotic gripper can manipulate unfamiliar objects, and it shares what it learns with a hive mind in the cloud. (Will Knight  April 5, 2017, MIT Technology Review)

Hidden inside a busy industrial building in Somerville, Massachusetts, a robot arm spends its day picking up seemingly random objects--bottles of shampoo, onions, cans of shaving foam--from a conveyor belt that goes in a circle about 10 meters in diameter.

The odd-looking setup is a test bed for a system that could take on many of the mundane picking tasks currently done by hand in warehouses and fulfillment centers. And it shows how advances in robotic hardware, computer vision, and teleoperation, along with the ability for machines to learn collaboratively via the cloud, may transform warehouse fulfillment in coming years.

The new robotic picking platform, which uses a combination of a hybrid gripper and machine learning, and which was developed by a startup called RightHand Robotics, can handle a wide variety of objects faster and more reliably than existing systems.

Posted by orrinj at 5:45 PM


With prison strike, Barghouti hopes to prove Palestinian street still his (AVI ISSACHAROFF, April 5, 2017, Times of Israel)

Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti wants all of the 2,890 Fatah party prisoners in Israeli jails, as well as those from other movements, to go on an indefinite hunger strike on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners' Day.

On the surface the move by Barghouti -- who is serving five life sentences for masterminding a series of deadly attacks at the start of the Second Intifada -- is aimed at Israel, but the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah would do well to notice as well, as the popular Palestinian leader is likely attempting to flex his political muscles, despite an attempt by Ramallah to isolate him. [...]

Next year, the man who has become a Palestinian symbol will celebrate his 60th birthday. During his time in prison, he has become a grandfather.

In the Fatah Central Committee's leadership elections (the party's most senior institution), he won first place. His wife, Fadwa, took the top place in the movement's Revolutionary Council elections (the party's second most senior institution). He is ostensibly the movement's undisputed leader, despite being behind bars.

Posted by orrinj at 5:42 PM


The likely culprits behind the St. Petersburg bombing (Peter Bergen and David Sterman, 4/04/17, CNN)

The large number of "foreign fighters" from Russia and the Central Asian states who have joined ISIS compounds the ISIS threat to Russia.

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin estimated the number of fighters who had left for Syria and Iraq from Russia and the former Soviet republics at 5,000 to 7,000.

The Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence consulting firm that tracks foreign fighters who have joined ISIS, placed the number of fighters from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, another post-Soviet central Asian state, at 500 each.

ISIS has also relied upon its Central Asian recruits to carry out attacks in the past. ISIS recruits from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Russia killed more than 40 people at Istanbul airport in June 2016.

If the attack on St. Petersburg was carried out by ISIS relying upon at least one Central Asian recruit, it would provide further evidence of the expansive and multi-layered threat ISIS poses to Russia.

ISIS despises the Russian government for its support of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and so it's no surprise that ISIS began targeting Russia in 2015, around the same time that Russia first intervened in the Syrian civil war.

On October 31, 2015, ISIS bombed a Russian airliner carrying vacationing passengers from Sinai, Egypt to St. Petersburg, killing 224 people. ISIS celebrated the attack both in its English language magazine Dabiq as well as in its Russian language magazine Istok. The attack carried out by ISIS' Sinai affiliate illustrates how wide-ranging the threat to Russia is.

As ISIS loses on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, contingents of Russian ISIS fighters who survive may try and make their way home to foment additional terrorism on Russian soil.

Posted by orrinj at 1:11 PM


In reversal, Bannon removed from National Security Council role (Dan Merica and Jeremy Diamond, 4/05/17, CNN)

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's chief strategist, has been removed from his permanent seat at the National Security Council, multiple sources tell CNN, moving the council into a more traditional format.

Next is removing him from the Administration.

Posted by orrinj at 11:42 AM


Capitol Hill's Love-Hate Relationship with FISA (Caroline Lynch, April 5, 2017, Lawfare)

Little credit--and little attention--is given to FISA tools when they succeed in preventing a terror plot, even a plot carried out by an American. For instance, despite the recent obsession with  privacy concerns surrounding incidental collection, the use of such collection to investigate Mohamed Osman Mohamud's 2010 plot to bomb Portland's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony has gone largely unnoticed by Congress.

But when terror attacks are successfully carried out on U.S. soil, such as those in Boston, San Bernardino, and Orlando, Congress is quick to question why they weren't prevented, what intelligence was lacking, and what additional intelligence tools are needed to make sure it doesn't happen again. Congress wants the FBI and other intelligence agencies to identify and disrupt all terror plots and espionage, including those carried out by Americans, but it struggles with whether and to what extent our intelligence tools should be used against its own constituents.

In the month since President Trump's now infamous tweet accusing President Obama of personally wiretapping him, an odd phenomenon has been occurring on Capitol Hill. Democratic members, typically more vocal opponents of FISA's perceived intrusion on American's privacy, including incidental collection, have been noticeably mum about the alleged incidental collection of Trump campaign and transition staff communications. Republicans, on the other hand, are suddenly queasy about FISA's treatment of U.S. person communications, even those lawfully collected and properly masked.

Posted by orrinj at 9:16 AM



As [Michael Rogers, the director of the N.S.A., ] explained in his March 20th testimony, the first step is to determine whether the intercepted communication has "intelligence value." He said, "We'll ask ourselves, is there criminal activity involved, is there a threat, potential threat or harm to U.S. individuals being discussed in a conversation." If the N.S.A. determines that the information doesn't have value, it purges the data. If it determines that it does, it masks the identity of the Americans before circulating the intelligence. If a policymaker wants to unmask the identity of a redacted name that she comes across in a report, so she can better understand the intelligence, she can make that request to the N.S.A. [...]

Rogers said that the N.S.A. uses a two-part test to evaluate unmasking requests: "Is there a valid need to know in the course of the execution of their official duties?" and "Is the identification necessary to truly understand the context of the intelligence value that the report is designed to generate?"

The answer to these questions is often yes. "Masking and unmasking happens every single day, dozens of times, or hundreds of times. I don't even know the numbers," Jim Himes, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me. "There needs to be a process followed. It's a fairly rigorous process, involving lots of review by counsels and that sort of thing."

As if it weren't inept enough when Donald revealed that the feds had been forced to surveil Trump Towers, he's now driven home the point that the surveillance was capturing significant intelligence about the illicit activities his team was up to with foreign agents.

Never Mind The Russians, Meet The Bot King Who Helps Trump Win Twitter (Joseph Bernstein, 4/05/17, BuzzFeed News)

At 7:23 on Sunday evening, the conservative internet personality Mike Cernovich tweeted that former national security adviser Susan Rice had requested the "unmasking" of Americans connected to the Trump campaign who were incidentally mentioned in surveillance readouts. At 7:30, the owner of the Twitter account MicroMagicJingleTM noticed, and began blasting out dozens of tweets and retweets about the story.

"Would be nice to get 'Susan Rice' trending," he tweeted at 8:16. And then he made exactly that happen.

MicroMagicJingleTM is the latest incarnation of MicroChip, a notorious pro-Trump Twitter ringleader once described by a Republican strategist as the "Trumpbot overlord." He has been suspended from the service so frequently, he can't recall the exact number of times. A voluminous tweeter, his specialty is making hashtags trend. Over the next 24 hours, following his own call to arms, MicroChip tweeted or retweeted more than 300 times about Rice, including everything from a photoshopped image of Donald Trump eating her head out of a taco bowl to demands that she die in jail, and almost always accompanied by the tag #SusanRice. Meanwhile, in massive threaded tweets and DM groups, he implored others to do likewise.

By 9 a.m. Monday, the tag was being tweeted nearly 20,000 times an hour, and was trending on Twitter; by 11 a.m., 34,000 an hour.

Posted by orrinj at 7:50 AM


Affordable Care Act Gains Majority Approval for First Time (Jim Norman, 4/04/17, Gallup)

Fifty-five percent of Americans now support the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a major turnaround from five months ago when 42% approved and 53% disapproved. This is the first time a majority of Americans have approved of the healthcare law, also known as Obamacare, since Gallup first asked about it in this format in November 2012.

Posted by orrinj at 4:40 AM


Sorry, But Susan Rice Is Not Your 'Smoking Gun' (Brian Barrett, 4/04/17, Wired)

First: A US citizen's name appearing in an intelligence report does not mean that person was the target of a surveillance operation. They're more likely to have been on the other end of a phone call or email with a foreign national, one that the intelligence community believes to have some sort of value, and received clearance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to surveil. People like, say, the sort of diplomats and foreign officials with whom the Trump transition team would have communicated extensively. It's known as "incidental collection," and it's both totally legal and completely unsurprising.

In cases of incidental collection under FISA, the agency who garnered the material automatically "masks" the names of any US citizens. Masking provides an important Fourth Amendment safeguard--but it's also not an inalienable right.

"The most commonly used standard by which a national security official can ask for a US person named to be unmasked is: Is the identity necessary to understand the foreign intelligence value of the information?" says Carrie Cordero, a national security lawyer who has worked directly on FISA process issues.

Frequently, it is. According to a the intelligence community's 2016 transparency report, in 2015 the NSA issued 4,290 reports that included identifying information about US citizens under FISA's Section 702, which allows for surveillance of non-US individuals. In 1,122 of those cases, the agency ultimately unmasked the information.

"This is a standard practice," says Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program.

There's nothing inherently suspicious about incidental collection, and unmasking happens with decent regularity. The only potential scandal that could erupt from some such practices would relate to who requested the unmasking, and why? Which brings us to Susan Rice.

Masked Marauders
It's easy enough to see how a senior Obama administration official requesting the unmasking of Trump associates could cause a tempest. But less so when you consider the specific associate.

"The national security advisor, every day, as part of the National Security Council, gets a compilation of intelligence reports every morning," says Goitein. "To the extent that the reports include US person information that has been masked, per standard procedure, you would certainly expect the people who received those reports to be among the people who are requesting the unmasking."

That aligns with a brief interview Rice gave to NBC's Andrea Mitchell. "There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a US person was referred to, name not provided," Rice said. "Sometimes in that context in order to understand the importance of that report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that US official was."

All of which, again, isn't just legal. It's routine, especially for someone in Rice's position at the time.

"There's certainly nothing illegal about it," says Cordero. "The decision to request an unmask is a judgment call based on an individual's national security responsibilities, and their need to understand the context."