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December 20 2014

December 22, 2014

 


20 December 2014

Newswire

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Isis: the inside story

The Guardian

Martin Chulov

Thursday 11 December 2014 01.00 EST

 

In the summer of 2004, a young jihadist in shackles and chains was walked by his captors slowly into the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq. He was nervous as two American soldiers led him through three brightly-lit buildings and then a maze of wire corridors, into an open yard, where men with middle-distance stares, wearing brightly-coloured prison uniforms, stood back warily, watching him.

“I knew some of them straight away,” he told me last month. “I had feared Bucca all the way down on the plane. But when I got there, it was much better than I thought. In every way.”

The jihadist, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed, entered Camp Bucca as a young man a decade ago, and is now a senior official within Islamic State (Isis) – having risen through its ranks with many of the men who served time alongside him in prison. Like him, the other detainees had been snatched by US soldiers from Iraq’s towns and cities and flown to a place that had already become infamous: a foreboding desert fortress that would shape the legacy of the US presence in Iraq.

The other prisoners did not take long to warm to him, Abu Ahmed recalled. They had also been terrified of Bucca, but quickly realised that far from their worst fears, the US-run prison provided an extraordinary opportunity. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else,” he told me. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”

It was at Camp Bucca that Abu Ahmed first met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of Isis who is now frequently described as the world’s most dangerous terrorist leader. From the beginning, Abu Ahmed said, others in the camp seemed to defer to him. “Even then, he was Abu Bakr. But none of us knew he would ever end up as leader.”

Abu Ahmed was an essential member of the earliest incarnation of the group. He had been galvanised into militancy as a young man by an American occupation that he and many like him believed was trying to impose a power shift in Iraq, favouring the country’s larger Shia population at the expense of the dominant Sunnis. His early role in what would become Isis led naturally to the senior position he now occupies within a revitalised insurgency that has spilled across the border into Syria. Most of his colleagues regard the crumbling order in the region as a fulfilment of their ambitions in Iraq – which had remained unfinished business, until the war in Syria gave them a new arena.

 

He agreed to speak publicly after more than two years of discussions, over the course of which he revealed his own past as one of Iraq’s most formidable and connected militants – and shared his deepening worry about Isis and its vision for the region. With Iraq and Syria ablaze, and the Middle East apparently condemned to another generation of upheaval and bloodshed at the hands of his fellow ideologues, Abu Ahmed is having second thoughts. The brutality of Isis is increasingly at odds with his own views, which have mellowed with age as he has come to believe that the teachings of the Qur’an can be interpreted and not read literally.

His misgivings about what the Islamic State has become led him to speak to the Guardian in a series of expansive conversations, which offer unique insight into its enigmatic leader and the nascent days of the terror group – stretching from 2004, when he met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Camp Bucca, to 2011, when the Iraqi insurgency crossed the border into Syria.

At the beginning, back in Bucca, the prisoner who would become the most wanted man in the world had already set himself apart from the other inmates, who saw him as aloof and opaque. But, Abu Ahmed recalled, the jailers had a very different impression of Baghdadi – they saw him as a conciliatory and calming influence in an environment short on certainty, and turned to him to help resolve conflicts among the inmates. “That was part of his act,” Abu Ahmed told me. “I got a feeling from him that he was hiding something inside, a darkness that he did not want to show other people. He was the opposite of other princes who were far easier to deal with. He was remote, far from us all.”

* * *

Baghdadi was born Ibrahim ibn Awwad al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971, in the Iraqi city of Samarra. He was detained by US forces in Falluja, west of Baghdad, in February 2004, months after he had helped found a militant group, Jeish Ahl al-Sunnah al-Jamaah, which had taken root in the restive Sunni communities around his home city.

“He was caught at his friend’s house,” said Dr Hisham al-Hashimi, an analyst who advises the Iraqi government on Isis. “His friend’s name was Nasif Jasim Nasif. Then he was moved to Bucca. The Americans never knew who they had.” Most of Baghdadi’s fellow prisoners – some 24,000 men, divided into 24 camps – seem to have been equally unaware. The prison was run along strictly hierarchical lines, down to a Teletubbies-like uniform colour scheme which allowed jailers and captives alike to recognise each detainee’s place in the pecking order. “The colour of the clothes we wore reflected our status,” said Abu Ahmed. “If I remember things correctly, red was for people who had done things wrong while in prison, white was a prison chief, green was for a long sentence and yellow and orange were normal.”

When Baghdadi, aged 33, arrived at Bucca, the Sunni-led anti-US insurgency was gathering steam across central and western Iraq. An invasion that had been sold as a war of liberation had become a grinding occupation. Iraq’s Sunnis, disenfranchised by the overthrow of their patron, Saddam Hussein, were taking the fight to US forces – and starting to turn their guns towards the beneficiaries of Hussein’s overthrow, the country’s majority Shia population.

 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis.

The small militant group that Baghdadi headed was one of dozens that sprouted from a broad Sunni revolt – many of which would soon come together under the flag of al-Qaida in Iraq, and then the Islamic State of Iraq. These were the precursors to the juggernaut now known simply as the Islamic State, which has, under Bagdhadi’s command, overrun much of the west and centre of the country and eastern Syria, and drawn the US military back to a deeply destabilised region less than three years after it left vowing never to return.

 

But at the time of his stay at Bucca, Baghdadi’s group was little-known, and he was a far less significant figure than the insurgency’s notional leader, the merciless Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who came to represent the sum of all fears for many in Iraq, Europe and the US. Baghdadi, however, had a unique way to distinguish himself from the other aspiring leaders inside Bucca and outside on Iraq’s savage streets: a pedigree that allowed him to claim direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. He had also obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad, and would draw on both to legitimise his unprecedented claim to anoint himself caliph of the Islamic world in July 2014, which realised a sense of destiny evident in the prison yard a decade earlier.

“Baghdadi was a quiet person,” said Abu Ahmed. “He has a charisma. You could feel that he was someone important. But there were others who were more important. I honestly did not think he would get this far.”

Baghdadi also seemed to have a way with his captors. According to Abu Ahmed, and two other men who were jailed at Bucca in 2004, the Americans saw him as a fixer who could solve fractious disputes between competing factions and keep the camp quiet.

“But as time went on, every time there was a problem in the camp, he was at the centre of it,” Abu Ahmed recalled. “He wanted to be the head of the prison – and when I look back now, he was using a policy of conquer and divide to get what he wanted, which was status. And it worked.” By December 2004, Baghdadi was deemed by his jailers to pose no further risk and his release was authorised.

“He was respected very much by the US army,” Abu Ahmed said. “If he wanted to visit people in another camp he could, but we couldn’t. And all the while, a new strategy, which he was leading, was rising under their noses, and that was to build the Islamic State. If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.”

As Isis has rampaged through the region, it has been led by men who spent time in US detention centres during the American occupation of Iraq – in addition to Bucca, the US also ran Camp Cropper, near Baghdad airport, and, for an ill-fated 18 months early in the war, Abu Ghraib prison on the capital’s western outskirts. Many of those released from these prisons – and indeed, several senior American officers who ran detention operations – have admitted that the prisons had an incendiary effect on the insurgency.

“I went to plenty of meetings where guys would come through and tell us how well it was all going,” said Ali Khedery, a special aide to all US ambassadors who served in Iraq from 2003-11, and to three US military commanders. But eventually even top American officers came to believe they had “actually become radicalising elements. They were counterproductive in many ways. They were being used to plan and organise, to appoint leaders and launch operations.”

We wrote each other’s details on the elastic of our boxer shorts. When we got out, we called each other Abu Ahmed agreed. “In prison, all of the princes were meeting regularly. We became very close to those we were jailed with. We knew their capabilities. We knew what they could and couldn’t do, how to use them for whatever reason. The most important people in Bucca were those who had been close to Zarqawi. He was recognised in 2004 as being the leader of the jihad.

“We had so much time to sit and plan,” he continued. “It was the perfect environment. We all agreed to get together when we got out. The way to reconnect was easy. We wrote each other’s details on the elastic of our boxer shorts. When we got out, we called. Everyone who was important to me was written on white elastic. I had their phone numbers, their villages. By 2009, many of us were back doing what we did before we were caught. But this time we were doing it better.”

According to Hisham al-Hashimi, the Baghdad-based analyst, the Iraqi government estimates that 17 of the 25 most important Islamic State leaders running the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US prisons between 2004 and 2011. Some were transferred from American custody to Iraqi prisons, where a series of jailbreaks in the last several years allowed many senior leaders to escape and rejoin the insurgent ranks.

Abu Ghraib was the scene of the biggest – and most damaging – breakout in 2013, with up to 500 inmates, many of them senior jihadists handed over by the departing US military, fleeing in July of that year after the prison was stormed by Islamic State forces, who launched a simultaneous, and equally successful, raid on nearby Taji prison.

Iraq’s government closed Abu Ghraib in April 2014 and it now stands empty, 15 miles from Baghdad’s western outskirts, near the frontline between Isis and Iraq’s security forces, who seem perennially under-prepared as they stare into the heat haze shimmering over the highway that leads towards the badlands of Falluja and Ramadi.

Parts of both cities have become a no-go zone for Iraq’s beleaguered troops, who have been battered and humiliated by Isis, a group of marauders unparalleled in Mesopotamia since the time of the Mongols. When I visited the abandoned prison late this summer, a group of disinterested Iraqi forces sat at a checkpoint on the main road to Baghdad, eating watermelon as the distant rumble of shellfire sounded in the distance. The imposing walls of Abu Ghraib were behind them, and their jihadist enemies were staked out further down the road.

The revelation of abuses at Abu Ghraib had a radicalising effect on many Iraqis, who saw the purported civility of American occupation as little improvement on the tyranny of Saddam. While Bucca had few abuse complaints prior to its closure in 2009, it was seen by Iraqis as a potent symbol of an unjust policy, which swept up husbands, fathers, and sons – some of them non-combatants – in regular neighbourhood raids, and sent them away to prison for months or years.

At the time, the US military countered that its detention operations were valid, and that similar practices had been deployed by other forces against insurgencies – such as the British in Northern Ireland, the Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Syrian and Egyptian regimes.

Even now, five years after the US closed down Bucca, the Pentagon defends the camp as an example of lawful policy for a turbulent time. “During operations in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, US Forces held thousands of Law of War detainees,” said Lt Col Myles B Caggins III, a US Department of Defense spokesman for detainee policy. “These type of detentions are common practice during armed conflict. Detaining potentially dangerous people is the legal and humane method of providing security and stability for civilian populations.”

* * *

Some time after Baghdadi was released from Bucca, Abu Ahmed was also freed. After being flown to Baghdad airport, he was picked up by men he had met in Bucca. They took him to a home in the west of the capital, where he immediately rejoined the jihad, which had transformed from a fight against an occupying army into a vicious and unrestrained war against Iraqi Shia.

Death squads were by then roaming Baghdad and much of central Iraq, killing members of opposite sects with routine savagery and exiling residents from neighbourhoods they dominated. The capital had quickly become a very different place to the city Abu Ahmed had left a year earlier. But with the help of new arrivals at Bucca, those inside the prison had been able to monitor every new development in the unfolding sectarian war. Abu Ahmed knew the environment he was returning to. And his camp commanders had plans for him.

The first thing he did when he was safe in west Baghdad was to undress, then carefully take a pair of scissors to his underwear. “I cut the fabric from my boxers and all the numbers were there. We reconnected. And we got to work.” Across Iraq, other ex-inmates were doing the same. “It really was that simple,” Abu Ahmed said, smiling for the first time in our conversation as he recalled how his captors had been outwitted. “Boxers helped us win the war.”

 

Zarqawi wanted a 9/11 moment to escalate the conflict – something that would take the fight to the heart of the enemy, Abu Ahmed recalled. In Iraq, that meant one of two targets – a seat of Shia power or, even better, a defining religious symbol. In February 2006, and again two months later, Zarqawi’s bombers destroyed the Imam al-Askari shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The sectarian war was fully ignited and Zarqawi’s ambitions realised.

Asked about the merits of this violent provocation, Abu Ahmed paused for the first time in our many conversations. “There was a reason for opening this war,” he said. “It was not because they are Shia, but because the Shia were pushing for it. The American army was facilitating the takeover of Iraq and giving the country to them. They were in cooperation with each other.”

He then reflected on the man who gave the orders. “Zarqawi was very smart. He was the best strategist that the Islamic State has had. Abu Omar [al-Baghdadi] was ruthless,” Abu Ahmed said, referring to Zarqawi’s successor, who was killed in a US-led raid in April 2010. “And Abu Bakr is the most bloodthirsty of all.

“After Zarqawi was killed, the people who liked killing even more than him became very important in the organisation. Their understanding of sharia and of humanity was very cheap. They don’t understand the Tawheed (the Qur’anic concept of God’s oneness) the way it was meant to be understood. The Tawheed should not have been forced by war.”

Despite reservations that were already starting to stir, by 2006, Abu Ahmed had become part of a killing machine that would operate at full speed for much of the following two years. Millions of citizens were displaced, neighbourhoods were cleansed along sectarian lines, and an entire population numbed by unchecked brutality.

That summer, the US finally caught up with Zarqawi, with the help of Jordanian intelligence, killing him in an airstrike north of Baghdad. From late 2006, the organisation was on the back foot – hampered by a tribal revolt that uprooted its leadership from Anbar and shrank its presence elsewhere in Iraq. But according to Abu Ahmed, the group used the opportunity to evolve, revealing a pragmatism in addition to its hardline ideology. For Isis, the relatively quiet years between 2008 and 2011 represented a lull, not a defeat.

By this time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had risen steadily through the group to become a trusted aide to its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and his deputy, the Egyptian jihadist Abu Ayub al-Masri. It was at this point, Abu Ahmed said, that Isis made an approach to the Ba’athist remnants of the old regime – ideological opponents who shared a common enemy in the US and the Shia-led government it backed.

Earlier incarnations of Isis had dabbled with the Ba’athists, who lost everything when Saddam was ousted, under the same premise that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. But by early 2008, Abu Ahmed and other sources said, these meetings had become far more frequent – and many of them were taking place in Syria.

Syria’s links to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq had been regularly raised by US officials in Baghdad and by the Iraqi government. Both were convinced that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, allowed jihadists to fly into Damascus airport, where military officials would escort them to the border with Iraq. “All the foreigners I knew got into Iraq that way,” Abu Ahmed told me. “It was no secret.”

* * *

From 2008, when the US began to negotiate the transition of its powers to Iraq’s feeble security institutions – and therefore pave the way to its own exit – the Americans increasingly turned to only a few trusted figures in the Iraqi government. One of them was Major General Hussein Ali Kamal, the director of intelligence in the country’s Interior Ministry. A secular Kurd who had the trust of the Shia establishment, one of Kamal’s many duties was to secure Baghdad against terror attacks.

 

Like the Americans, General Kamal was convinced that Syria was destabilising Iraq, an assessment based on the interrogations of jihadists who had been captured by his troops. Throughout 2009, in a series of interviews, Kamal laid out his evidence, using maps that plotted the routes used by jihadists to cross the border into western Iraq, and confessions that linked their journeys to specific mid-ranking officers in Syrian military intelligence.

Seventeen of the 25 most important Islamic State leaders now running the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US prisons

As Isis activity ebbed in Iraq, he had become increasingly obsessed with two meetings that had taken place in Syria early in 2009, which brought together Iraqi jihadists, Syrian officials and Ba’athists from both countries. (Kamal, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2012, died earlier this year, and authorised me to publish details of our conversations. “Just tell the truth,” he said during our last interview in June 2014.)

When I first met him in 2009, he was poring over transcripts of recordings that had been made at two secret meetings in Zabadani, near Damascus, in the spring of that year. The attendees included senior Iraqi Ba’athists who had taken refuge in Damascus since their patron Saddam was ousted, Syrian military intelligence officers, and senior figures in what was then known as al-Qaida in Iraq. The Syrians had developed links to the jihadists since the earliest days of the anti-US insurgency and had used them to unsettle the Americans and their plans for Iraq.

“By early in 2004/05, Islamic elements, jihadists and disenfranchised Ba’athists were starting to get together,” said Ali Khedery, the former adviser to American ambassadors and senior commanders in Bagdhad. “They were naturally disciplined, well organised people who knew the lay of the land. And over time, some folks who were Ba’athists became more and more Islamist and the insurgency raged. By 2007, General [David] Petraeus was saying there was crystal clear intelligence of cooperation between Syrian military intelligence and the jihadists. Though the motivations never really aligned 100%.”

In our conversations, Abu Ahmed emphasised the Syrian connection to Iraq’s insurgency. “The mujahideen all came through Syria,” he said. “I worked with many of them. Those in Bucca had flown to Damascus. A very small number had made it from Turkey, or Iran. But most came to Iraq with the help of the Syrians.”

The supply line was viewed by Iraqi officials as an existential threat to Iraq’s government and was the main source of the poisonous relationship between Nouri al-Maliki, then Iraq’s prime minister, and Bashar al-Assad. Maliki had become convinced early in the civil war that Assad was trying to undermine his regime as a way to embarrass the Americans, and the evidence he saw in 2009 from the meeting in Damascus took his loathing of the Syrian leader to a whole new level.

“We had a source in the room wearing a wire,” at the meeting in Zabadani, General Kamal told me at the time. “He is the most sensitive source we have ever had. As far as we know, this is the first time there has been a strategic level meeting between all of these groups. It marks a new point in history.”

The Ba’athists present led the meeting. Their aim, according to General Kamal’s source, was to launch a series of spectacular attacks in Baghdad and thereby undermine Maliki’s Shia-majority government, which had for the first time begun to assert some order in post-civil war Iraq. Until then, al-Qaida in Iraq and the Ba’athists had been fierce ideological enemies, but the rising power of the Shias – and their backers in Iran – brought them together to plan a major strike on the capital.

By July 2009, the Interior Ministry had increased security at all checkpoints across the Tigris river into Baghdad, making a commute at any time of day even more insufferable than normal. And then General Kamal received a message from his source in Syria. The extra security at the bridges had been spotted by the attack plotters, he said. New targets were being chosen, but he didn’t know what they were, or when they would be hit. For the next two weeks, Kamal worked well into the evening in his fortified office in the southern suburb of Arasat, before being sped by armoured convoy across the July 14 Bridge – which had been a target only days earlier – to his home inside the Green Zone.

For the rest of the month, General Kamal spent several hours each scorching night sweating it out on a treadmill, hoping that the exercise would clear his head and get him ahead of the attackers. “I may be losing weight, but I’m not finding the terrorists,” he told me during our last conversation before the attackers finally struck. “I know they’re planning something big.”

On the morning of 19 August, the first of three flat-bed trucks carrying three large 1000-litre water tanks, each filled with explosives, detonated on an overpass outside the Finance Ministry in south-eastern Baghdad. The blast sent a rumble across the Emerald City, raising desert soil that caked homes brown, and sending thousands of pigeons scattering through the sky. Three minutes later, a second enormous bomb blew up outside the Foreign Ministry on the northern edge of the Green Zone. Shortly after that, a third blast hit a police convoy near the Finance Ministry. More than 101 people were killed and nearly 600 wounded; it was one of the deadliest attacks in the six-year-old Iraqi insurgency.

“I failed,” Kamal told me that day. “We all failed.” Within hours, he was summoned to meet Maliki and his security chiefs. The prime minister was livid. “He told me to present what I had to the Syrians,” Kamal later said. “We arranged with Turkey to act as a mediator and I flew to Ankara to meet with them. I took this file” – he tapped a thick white folder on his desk – “and they could not argue with what we showed them. The case was completely solid and the Syrians knew it. Ali Mamlouk [the head of Syrian general security] was there. All he did was look at me smiling and say ‘I will not recognise any official from a country that is under US occupation’. It was a waste of time.” Iraq recalled its ambassador to Damascus, and Syria ordered its envoy to Baghdad home in retaliation. Throughout the rest of the year, and into early 2010, relations between Maliki and Assad remained toxic.

In March 2010, Iraqi forces, acting on a US tip, arrested an Islamic State leader named Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, who was revealed to be one of the group’s main commanders in Baghdad, and one of the very few people who had access to the group’s then leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Al-Rawi talked. And in a rare moment of collaboration, Iraq’s three main intelligence bodies, including General Kamal’s Intelligence Division, conspired to get a listening device and GPS location tracker in a flower box delivered to Abu Omar’s hideout.

After it was confirmed that Abu Omar and his deputy, Abu Ayub al-Masri, were present at a house six miles south-west of Tikrit, it was attacked in a US-led raid. Both men detonated suicide vests to avoid being captured. Messages to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were found on a computer inside the house. Much like Bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan, where he would be killed a little more than a year later, Abu Omar’s hideout had no internet connections or telephone lines – all important messages were carried in and out by only three men. One of them was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“Abu Bakr was a messenger for Abu Omar,” Abu Ahmed told me. “He became the closest aide to him. The messages that got to Osama bin Laden were sometimes drafted by him and their journey always started with him. When Abu Omar was killed, Abu Bakr was made leader. That time we all had in Bucca became very important again.”

The deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri were a serious blow to Isis, but the roles they had vacated were quickly filled by the alumni of Camp Bucca – whose upper echelons had begun preparing for this moment since their time behind the wire of their jail in southern Iraq. “For us it was an academy,” Abu Ahmed said, “but for them” – the senior leaders – “it was a management school. There wasn’t a void at all, because so many people had been mentored in prison.

“When [the civil war in] Syria became serious,” he continued, “it wasn’t difficult to transfer all that expertise to a different battle zone. The Iraqis are the most important people on the military and Shura councils in Isis now, and that is because of all of those years preparing for such an event. I underestimated Baghdadi. And America underestimated the role it played in making him what he is.”

* * *

Abu Ahmed remains a member of Isis; he is active in the group’s operations in both Iraq and Syria. Throughout our discussions, he portrayed himself as a man reluctant to stay with the group, and yet unwilling to risk any attempt to leave.

Life with Isis means power, money, wives and status – all attractive lures for young firebrands with a cause – but it also means killing and dominating for a worldview in which he no longer believes so fervently. He said hundreds of young men like him, who were drawn to a Sunni jihad after the US invasion, do not believe that the latest manifestation of the decade-long war remains true to its origins.

“The biggest mistake I made is to join them,” Abu Ahmed said, but added that leaving the group would mean that he and his family would certainly be killed. Staying and enforcing the group’s brutal vision, despite partially disavowing it, does not trouble Abu Ahmed, who sees himself as having few other options.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in Jihad,” he said. “I do,” he continued, his voice trailing away. “But what options do I have? If I leave, I am dead.”

The arc of his involvement with what is now the world’s most menacing terrorist group mirrors many others who now hold senior positions in the group: first a battle against an invading army, then a score to be settled with an ancient sectarian foe, and now, a war that could be acting out an end of days prophecy.

In the world of the Bucca alumni, there is little room for revisionism, or reflection. Abu Ahmed seems to feel himself swept along by events that are now far bigger than him, or anyone else.

“There are others who are not ideologues,” he said, referring to senior Isis members close to Baghdadi. “People who started out in Bucca, like me. And then it got bigger than any of us. This can’t be stopped now. This is out of the control of any man. Not Baghdadi, or anyone else in his circle.”

Martin Chulov covers the Middle East for the Guardian. He has reported from the region since 2005. Additional reporting by Salaam Riazk

 

 

Time Frame Set for US Tech Initiative

Industry, Analysts Cautious About DoD’s Push for Commercial Products

Dec. 14, 2014 – 11:20AM | By PAUL McLEARY | Comments


http://www.defensenews.com/article/20141214/DEFREG02/312150011/Time-Frame-Set-US-Tech-Initiative

 

WASHINGTON — The long-range research-and-development initiative recently touted by top Pentagon leadership to help counter advances being made by potential adversaries is still taking shape, but now there is at least a tentative timeline.

A team being run by Stephen Welby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering, is leading the effort and will spend the next six months looking at proposals from the defense industry and commercial firms to determine which ideas deserve further scrutiny and, potentially, investment.

Still, some industry observers and officials caution that differences in business culture and practices will raise hurdles to this effort.

As part of a wider acquisition reform called the Defense Innovation Initiative, Welby told reporters on Dec. 3, “we recognize that all good ideas don’t originate in this building.”

During his comments, Welby introduced a new request for information (RFI) to push the project along. The RFI identifies five major subject areas in which the Pentagon is interested in identifying breakthrough technologies: space technology, undersea technology, air dominance and strike technology, air and missile defense technology, and what they call “other technology-driven concepts,” which include everything from nanotechnologies to bio systems to cyber technologies.

The Pentagon will dedicate a team to each subject area for outreach and evaluation.

“We are inviting folks for a dialogue,” he added, insisting that despite past difficulties in reaching out to commercial tech firms, the Pentagon is keen to find out “what is emerging across the private sector that might shape the future of military capabilities.”

But don’t expect contracts anytime soon. The initiative won’t field any new technologies until about 2030, at the earliest.

“We are thinking about a decade out. We’re not talking about the next opportunity, the next win,” Welby cautioned. “There are no dollars associated with this” yet.

His group’s recommendations will be sent to Frank Kendall, the building’s top weapons buyer and one of the key drivers of what has been called the “offset” initiative. If all goes well, any investments will be included in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2017 budget request.

But while the Pentagon may be eager to capitalize on commercial sector innovations in robotics, autonomy, computing and cyber capabilities, it may be difficult to attract the most creative minds in Silicon Valley to government work.

In a note to investors this month, analyst Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners wrote that most of the technologies identified by the initiative are “either driven by commercial firms or have commercial applications.”

He identified autonomy as being the most clearly commercial, singling out Google’s work with autonomous cars and its investment in robot maker Boston Dynamics this year.

“Defense-centric firms may be able to team with or even acquire some of these firms,” he wrote, “but if DoD can change its business practices, there may be more direct competition for heritage defense firms.”

Most critically, Callan wrote that if Pentagon continues to insist on owning the intellectual property of the technologies it purchases, “that could remain a powerful deterrent to commercial firms” from collaborating with the government, since higher commercial profit margins would likely keep them in the public sector as opposed to signing long-term deals with the government.

In a Dec. 8 market commentary, Guggenheim Securities analyst Roman Schweizer also sounded a note of caution on the initiative, writing that the categories in the RFI “are so large that we expect there will be plenty of bureaucratic food fights for funding. And it’s doubtful that anything but a very large amount of funding would be needed to move the needle in any of those areas.”

During an event at The Atlantic Council in Washington on Dec. 10, Mike Petters, president and CEO of shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries, also sounded uncertain of the new thrust toward commercial technologies.

 

“My [shipbuilding] business for the last 30 years has been focused on process,” he said. But “we’re looking at a Pentagon that’s going to move to a more competitive environment, and it’s going to move to an environment where commercial standards are going to come more into play.”

Petters warned that defense companies haven’t always had happy experiences investing in commercial companies, but given the defense market today, it is becoming a necessity to both raise shareholder value in the short term, while keeping the company viable in the long run.

In making more commercial investments, “we will bring our shareholders along at an appropriate pace and continue to think through if there are those kinds of investments that create value that was not there otherwise.

“You can buy back shares, raise your dividend, you can do lots of stuff that will actually affect the perceived value of your company, but they’re not investments that are creating new value inside your business,” he said. “That’s an environment that we’re all struggling with now.” ■

 

The Pentagon’s Slush Fund

How the military gets what it wants—even when it’s not in the budget.

By JULIA HARTE

December 11, 2014

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/12/omnibus-bill-pentagon-slush-fund-113517.html#.VI7zCbV0yUm

 

What does an $810 million U.S. defense “initiative” to “reassure” Europe in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab have to do with emergency war needs in Afghanistan and Iraq? Absolutely nothing. So why does that hefty sum appear in the military’s budget, now pending on Capitol Hill, meant to support operations in those two Middle Eastern countries?

This is not how America’s war budget—otherwise known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund—is supposed to work. The White House in 2011 said that the OCO, originally established in 2001 under a different name, was just for “temporary and emergency requirements” for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, many experts are saying that its continued use is emblematic of a five-year collapse in Washington fiscal discipline.

The OCO budget isn’t subject to spending limits that cap the base defense budget for each of the next seven years; it’s often omitted altogether from tallies of how much the military spends each year; and, as an “emergency” fund, it’s subject to much less scrutiny than the rest of what the military asks for.

This sort of special war funding was supposed to decline and then disappear as combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, but that constraint has receded into the distance, if not disappeared altogether, as the OCO fund has become a larger catchall—a slush fund used by the military services, by lawmakers and by the White House to escape budgetary caps, officials and independent experts say.

Although President Barack Obama promised as a candidate in 2008 to “end the abuse” of wartime emergency spending, it’s now clear he will not do so before leaving office in 2016, these experts agree. This year the main defense authorization budget is likely to come in at a cool $521.3 billion, snugly within legal limits set for federal spending in 2015. But the OCO includes an additional $63 billion. More than a 10th of all Pentagon spending will remain uncapped and subject to much less scrutiny than the remainder.

The European initiative is just one of many programs in the OCO budget that have little or nothing to do with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The new Defense Authorization Act for 2015, which may be signed by the president as early as tomorrow, includes $55 million to retain the “air superiority presence” of the U.S. Air Force. Another $351 million of OCO funds would go to Israel for its Iron Dome missile defense system.

In the OCO portion of the separate omnibus appropriations bill for 2015, which Congress is trying to pass within the next few weeks, another $1.2 billion is set aside for the military’s reserve components to buy “miscellaneous equipment” the Pentagon didn’t even seek. And $3.3 billion is allocated to classified Air Force equipment purchases.

The OCO budget—which is higher than the entire budgets for most federal departments—as a result has become one of those Washington abominations that makes advocates of fiscal discipline inside and outside the Beltway shake their heads in dismay, even as they forecast its continued existence as a supposedly necessary adjunct to the main, or so-called “base” Pentagon budget. The OCO fund is valued because it can absorb costs that would otherwise push the base budget over its limit, an event that by law would trigger a variety of punishing new spending cuts for the Pentagon.

“We figure there’s about—well, there’s a lot of money in the OCO that should probably be in base. It’s not because we didn’t want it to be in the base; it’s just happened over 12 years,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work in September at a Washington meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. Going forward, he said, the government has three choices: remove the spending caps on the base budget, combine OCO and base funding without removing the caps or agree that OCO will continue into the future. He predicted the third option.

“With the crisis in Ebola, with all of these things, the European reassurance initiative, we’re going to have to have overseas contingency operations funding for some time,” Work said.

It’s not much of a secret anymore that OCO spending is only occasionally for emergency military tasks. Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, estimates that about half of the OCO budget in the new authorization bill covers expenses that actually should be included in the base budget.

Harrison says that portion has grown since 2012, based on the simple fact that the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan is shrinking faster than OCO spending. The Defense Department’s budget request for 2015 anticipated that troop levels in Afghanistan would drop by two-thirds from the previous year—but requested only a 36 percent cut in OCO funding for Afghanistan. As a result, OCO spending per service member in Afghanistan has risen to more than double what it was last year.

Jamal Brown, deputy press secretary for the Office of Management and Budget, did not return calls for comment. But other sources said that the administration, faced with a $115 billion gap over the next four years between what the budget caps allow and what the Pentagon wants to spend, now appears to regard OCO as a permanent fixture of the defense budget.

The Government Accountability Office noted in a June 2014 report, for example, that most of the Pentagon’s spending for the Central Command is in the OCO budget, even though many of those costs will persist beyond 2016, when U.S. operations in Afghanistan are supposed to end.

In the report, entitled “Guidance Needed to Transition U.S. Central Command’s Costs to the Base Budget,” GAO analyst John Pendleton urged the department to craft that guidance quickly and set a deadline for completing the shift. Although the Defense Department promised to provide such guidance by the end of July 2014, it has not yet done so, according to the GAO.

“This is an iterative process, not a one-time bit of guidance. The question of migrating costs from OCO to Base is being discussed at length throughout the ongoing budget process,” said Bill Urban, Defense Department spokesman, in an emailed comment. He declined to elaborate.

Moreover, the OCO budget isn’t a fiscal salve only once a year. The Defense Department comptroller can—and often does—ask the House and Senate committees on appropriations and armed services for permission throughout the year to add new spending to the OCO budget if programs already in that budget wind up costing less than anticipated. Often, additional non-emergency expenses sneak in during that process.

Over the past four years, for example, the Defense Department’s comptroller has sought congressional approval to add roughly $20 billion worth of expenditures to OCO to cover costs not previously stated in the budget, including many that do not appear to be emergencies or directly related to combat operations.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/12/omnibus-bill-pentagon-slush-fund-113517.html#ixzz3LygZU47C

 

FAA Delay: Comprehensive Set of Rules On Drone Use May Not Be Finalized Until 2017 or Later

by Press • 14 December 2014

http://www.suasnews.com/2014/12/33347/faa-delay-comprehensive-set-of-rules-on-drone-use-may-not-be-finalized-until-2017-or-later/?utm_source=sUAS+News+Daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=f8b76c9987-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_b3c0776dde-f8b76c9987-303662705

By Anjalee Khemlani

 

The government continues to delay in passing a comprehensive set of rules addressing drones, and it is unlikely to have anything until 2017.

In August, the Federal Aviation Administration missed a key deadline for developing rules for small commercial drones, which in turn infuriated the businesses who were looking to use it for product delivery services, according to the Washington Post.

But the FAA further upset the businesses, who are threatening to take their drone research overseas, because the government entity said it is likely to miss its original September 2015 deadline as well.

“We all agree that the project is taking too long,” Peggy Gilligan, a top FAA safety official, told a congressional House panel Wednesday.

In the meantime, the skies are increasingly more dangerous as the prevalence of drones grows.

Gizmodo reported that the number of drones crashing into airplanes has increased, and a restaurant chain recently caused an accident by flying a mistletoe-bearing drone around a restaurant, which ended when the drone cut a customer’s face open.

But the FAA said it is unable to quickly reach an agreement on a balanced set of rules.

“The consensus of opinion is the integration of unmanned systems will likely slip from the mandated deadline until 2017 or even later,” said Gerald Dillingham, the Government Accountability Office’s director of civil aviation.

Currently there are a few exceptions to the ban on commercial drones, and a couple universities have been approved for research.

But the decision on how to combine a safe airspace with the addition of thousands of small crafts–while keeping an eye on the normal operations and travel of the larger aircraft–is proving to be difficult.

The FAA has already announced some of the ideas, such as requiring pilot licenses to fly drones, but the attention to safety continues to delay a comprehensive set of rules.

Yet, the delay is proving unsafe already as having the system entirely unregulated can cause harm as well.

Read more: http://www.latinpost.com/articles/27739/20141213/regulations-to-govern-drone-use-may-not-be-finalized-until-2017.htm#ixzz3LqsC4OJn

 

Efforts Made toward Integration into the National Airspace Continue, but Many Actions Still Required

by Press • 16 December 2014

http://www.suasnews.com/2014/12/33374/efforts-made-toward-integration-into-the-national-airspace-continue-but-many-actions-still-required/?utm_source=sUAS+News+Daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=719e6eb646-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_b3c0776dde-719e6eb646-303662705

 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made progress toward implementing the requirements defined in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (the 2012 Act). As of December 2014, FAA had completed 9 of the 17 requirements in the 2012 Act. However, key requirements, such as the final rule for small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operations, remain incomplete. FAA officials have indicated that they are hoping to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking soon, with a timeline for issuing the final rule in late 2016 or early 2017. FAA has established the test sites as required in the Act, sites that will provide data on safety and operations to support UAS integration. However, some test site operators are uncertain about what research should be done at the site, and believe incentives are needed for industry to use the test sites. As of December 4, 2014, FAA granted seven commercial exemptions to the filmmaking industry allowing small UAS operations in the airspace. However, over 140 applications for exemptions were waiting to be reviewed for other commercial operations such as electric power line monitoring and precision agriculture.

 

Previously, GAO reported that several federal agencies and private sector stakeholders have research and development efforts under way focusing on technologies to allow safe and routine UAS operations. During GAO’s ongoing work, FAA has cited many accomplishments in research and development in the past fiscal year in areas such as detect and avoid, and command and control. Other federal agencies also have extensive research and development efforts supporting safe UAS integration, such as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project to provide research that will reduce technical barriers associated with UAS integration. Academic and private sector companies have researched multiple areas related to UAS integration.

GAO’s ongoing work found that other countries have progressed with UAS integration and allow limited commercial use. A 2014 MITRE study found that Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada have progressed further than the United States with regulations that support commercial UAS operations. For example, as of December 2014, Australia had issued 180 UAS operating certificates to businesses in industries including aerial surveying and photography. In addition, Canada recently issued new regulations exempting commercial operations of small UASs weighing 25 kilograms (55 lbs.) or less from receiving special approval.

 

Why GAO Did This Study

UASs are aircraft that do not carry a pilot aboard, but instead operate on pre-programmed routes or are manually controlled by following commands from pilot-operated ground control stations. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 put greater emphasis on the need to integrate UASs into the national airspace by requiring that FAA establish requirements governing them. FAA has developed a three-phased approach in its 5-year Roadmap to facilitate incremental steps toward seamless integration. However, in the absence of regulations, unauthorized UAS operations have, in some instances, compromised safety.

This testimony discusses 1) progress toward meeting UAS requirements from the 2012 Act, 2) key efforts underway on research and development, and 3) how other countries have progressed in developing UAS use for commercial purposes.

This testimony is based on GAO’s prior work and an ongoing study examining issues related to UAS integration into the national airspace system for civil and public UAS operations.

For more information, contact Gerald L. Dillingham at (202) 512-2834 or dillinghamg@gao.gov.

 

Study: Your all-electric car may not be so green

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/study-electric-car-may-not-114859842.html

Associated Press

By Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer

December 16, 2014 6:48 AM

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — People who own all-electric cars where coal generates the power may think they are helping the environment. But a new study finds their vehicles actually make the air dirtier, worsening global warming.

Ethanol isn’t so green, either.

 

“It’s kind of hard to beat gasoline” for public and environmental health, said study co-author Julian Marshall, an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. “A lot of the technologies that we think of as being clean … are not better than gasoline.”

The key is where the source of the electricity all-electric cars. If it comes from coal, the electric cars produce 3.6 times more soot and smog deaths than gas, because of the pollution made in generating the electricity, according to the study that is published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also are significantly worse at heat-trapping carbon dioxide that worsens global warming, it found.

The study examines environmental costs for cars’ entire life cycle, including where power comes from and the environmental effects of building batteries.

“Unfortunately, when a wire is connected to an electric vehicle at one end and a coal-fired power plant at the other end, the environmental consequences are worse than driving a normal gasoline-powered car,” said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who wasn’t part of the study but praised it.

The states with the highest percentage of electricity coming from coal, according to the Department of Energy, are West Virginia, Wyoming, Ohio, North Dakota, and Illinois.

Still, there’s something to be said for the idea of helping foster a cleaner technology that will be better once it is connected to a cleaner grid, said study co-author Jason Hill, another University of Minnesota engineering professor.

The study finds all-electric vehicles cause 86 percent more deaths from air pollution than do cars powered by regular gasoline. Coal produces 39 percent of the country’s electricity, according to the Department of Energy.

But if the power supply comes from natural gas, the all-electric car produces half as many air pollution health problems as gas-powered cars do. And if the power comes from wind, water or wave energy, it produces about one-quarter of the air pollution deaths.

Hybrids and diesel engines are cleaner than gas, causing fewer air pollution deaths and spewing less heat-trapping gas.

But ethanol isn’t, with 80 percent more air pollution mortality, according to the study.

“If we’re using ethanol for environmental benefits, for air quality and climate change, we’re going down the wrong path,” Hill said.

Journal: http://www.pnas.org

 

 

Chinese Air Force Shoots Down Unauthorised Flights

December 17, 2014


http://www.uasvision.com/2014/12/17/chines-air-force-shoots-down-unauthorised-flights/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=82c3d3ed8d-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_799756aeb7-82c3d3ed8d-297557637

 

A drone without an operating license that was shot down by the PLA Air Force in Beijing has brought light to the need for tightened regulations on privately-owned drones and other devices.

Last December, a flying drone reportedly owned by a Beijing-based technology company had interfered with the operation of several commercial flights. The operator ignored a series of warnings issued by the military and authorities, whereupon they shot down the aircraft with an armed helicopter, according to the party-run PLA Daily.

The drone turned out to be working on air photography and measurement. The owner did not apply to either the civil aviation authorities or the PLA Air Force in Beijing for permission to fly. As a result, the three drone operators at the time of the violation were arrested and charged with endangering public security, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

In China, permission from the air force is required to operate any flying kits below an altitude of 1,000 meters. The number of violations has skyrocketed since regulations on privately-owned general flights have been loosened in recent years.

Flying kits such as drones, delta wings, hang gliders and model airplanes are easily accessible, and the market has been growing at a 15% annual rate.

In this regard, experts have advised a legislative overhaul, defining each flying device’s scope of operation based on their specifications and use and specifying the appropriate monitoring authorities accordingly. Lastly, they have suggested reinforcing the penalties for violations.

The current law stipulates that all non-official aviation activities must abide by China’s Civil Aviation Law and that operation without permission will be subject to a fine of 20,000 to 100,000 yuan (US$3,200-$16,150) and a suspension of the operation license. Unauthorised operations that cause casualties could face criminal charges.

– See more at: http://www.uasvision.com/2014/12/17/chines-air-force-shoots-down-unauthorised-flights/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=82c3d3ed8d-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_799756aeb7-82c3d3ed8d-297557637#sthash.e9Y2ifH4.dpuf

 

 

Universities: Confusing Drone Rules Stifle Our Research

by Press • 17 December 2014

http://www.suasnews.com/2014/12/33395/universities-confusing-drone-rules-stifle-our-research/?utm_source=sUAS+News+Daily&utm_campaign=4cab9e7c0f-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b3c0776dde-4cab9e7c0f-303662705

BY KAVEH WADDELL

 

Academics who use drones for their research are pushing back on what they call overly restrictive federal regulations.

Two associations that together represent more than 200 American universities are complaining that the Federal Aviation Administration’s confusing policies on commercial drones are harmful to academic research.

The associations made the complaint in a memo they submitted to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget earlier this month, in which they argued that universities need access to drones for a wide variety of academic research. Universities have used drones for gathering data from storms, inspecting crops, mapping terrain, and recording sports practices.

Under current regulations, universities must get the go-ahead from the FAA in order to use drones for research. But the process of securing a permit is long and confusing, the memo says.

In their letter, the associations characterized the permit process as “a series of delays and moving targets.” Aggravated by the burdensome regulatory process, some universities have opted to ban research that uses drones altogether, “to the detriment of their scholarly and economic opportunities,” the letter states.

Except for a few special cases, only hobbyists and casual operators are currently allowed to fly drones without FAA approval, and that’s under a number of conditions. Drones can’t weigh more than 55 pounds and have to be flown away from populated areas, within sight of the operator.

So far, only 13 companies have gotten exemptions from the rule. In September, filmmakersgot the green light to fly drones on set, and last week, the FAA granted exemptions to a handful of companies that want to use drones for construction, surveying, or oil-rig inspections. The FAA is still reviewing dozens of exemption requests.

In August, a separate association of research universities sued the FAA for its regulations, which it called “a grave threat to science, research, education, and technological innovation across the United States.”

Academics have been complaining about drone regulations for some time. Since the FAA decided last year that only hobbyists can fly drones without permits, professors have been forced to change research plans and curricula because they didn’t get a drone permit in time.

The associations are calling on the FAA to create an exemption for drone use by universities, or at least for a “streamlined” process for approving drone research permits.

Last week, regulators appearing before a congressional panel admitted it was unlikely the FAA would meet a September 2015 deadline to develop a complete set of rules governing how commercial drones can be used.

Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation at the Government Accountability Office, told USA Today that final regulations may not be issued until 2017.

http://www.nationaljournal.com/domesticpolicy/universities-confusing-drone-rules-stifle-our-research-20141217

 

 

New York City Council Considers Drone Ban

Dec 19, 2014

http://www.uasvision.com/2014/12/19/new-york-city-council-considers-drone-ban/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=3ba55749bc-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_799756aeb7-3ba55749bc-297557637

 

The New York city council is eyeing a potential ban of private drones and the addition of fines, in two separate bills. The first bill is “more of an outright ban” of drones, proposed by Council member Dan Garodnick, and the other will create fines and areas where drones are prohibited, proposed by Council member Paul Vallone. The two bills may be combined, but that decision will be determined by further council committee review.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), can be purchased for less than a hundred dollars depending on the model. The easy access fuels fears of people attaching bombs in potential ‘lone wolf’ attacks or attaching cameras on for spying.

“Having these devices quietly peeping into windows and backyards rightly terrifies many New Yorkers, and we need to act,” said Council member Garodnick, adding that drones could be “dangerous, weaponised and intrusive when left unchecked.”

Council members expressed concern that drones are not regulated enough on the federal level, which poses a risk to public safety and privacy. There have been a number of “close call” incidents between drones and commercial and city air traffic where drones flew too close to the latter.

Although New York sees a large amount of air traffic, “its skies have remained lawless with the increased usage of drones,” said Council member Corey Johnson.

City agencies, including the police, would be exempt from the fines and prohibited areas, but Garodnick’s bill would require police to obtain warrants before using drones.

As for those who would like to see drones deliver pizza to their doorsteps, Garodnick quipped, “Let’s not rush toward a Jetsons’ future,” referencing the futuristic cartoon television show.

Source: Epoch Times

– See more at: http://www.uasvision.com/2014/12/19/new-york-city-council-considers-drone-ban/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=3ba55749bc-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_799756aeb7-3ba55749bc-297557637#sthash.6UhaSI8n.dpuf

 

Sony Hack: Is North Korea Really to Blame?

Experts Advocate Skepticism Pending Release of Any Proof

By Mathew J. Schwartz, December 18, 2014.

http://www.govinfosecurity.com/sony-hack-north-korea-really-to-blame-a-7692/op-1

 

Don’t take at face value the report that the U.S. government believes that North Korea hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment, numerous information security experts say.

Those cautions are being sounded in the wake of the New York Times reporting that unnamed U.S. intelligence officials now believe that the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was “centrally involved” in the Sony attack, and that the White House is still weighing how it wants to publicly respond.

But the report doesn’t define what “centrally involved” might mean, quote any officials by name, reveal which agency they might work for, or share the evidence that has been used to reach that conclusion. Accordingly, multiple information security experts have questioned the supposed connection between the attack against Sony and a cyber-squad being run by the Pyongyang-based government of communist dictator Kim Jong-Un.

Pending the release of any real evidence to back up the North Korea attribution claims, Jeffrey Carr, CEO of threat-intelligence sharing firm Gaia International, recommends skepticism. “My advice to journalists, business executives, policymakers and the general public is to challenge everything that you hear or read about the attribution of cyber-attacks,” Carr says in a blog post. “Demand to see the evidence [and] … be aware that the FBI, Secret Service, NSA [National Security Agency], CIA, and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] rarely agree with each other, that commercial cybersecurity companies are in the business of competing with each other, and that ‘cyber-intelligence’ is frequently the world’s biggest oxymoron.”

Attributing the Sony attack to North Korea would be expedient for hawkish politicians, not to mention Sony Pictures executives who have been embarrassed by their company’s poor security posture, and the contents of their leaked e-mails, says Marc Rogers, principal security researcher at distributed denial-of-service defense firm CloudFlare. “Blaming North Korea is the easy way out for a number of folks, including the security vendors and Sony management who are under the microscope for this,” he says.

Blaming North Korea also appears to square with the demand from the Guardians of Peace – Sony’s claimed attackers – that the movie studio not release The Interview. The comedy, which was due for a Dec. 25 release, centers on a tabloid TV reporting team that gets approached by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-Un. That follows Pyongyang in June denouncing the comedy, which it labeled as an “act of war that we will never tolerate,” and promising “merciless” retribution.

 

Sophisticated Attack

But the anti-forensic researcher – and zero-day exploit broker – known as the “Grugq” notes that the Sony attack is more sophisticated than anything that’s ever been traced to North Korea. That includes not just stealing large amounts of Sony data and infecting Sony systems with wiper malware, but also dribbling the stolen data out in batches via BitTorrent, as well as coordinating a media relations campaign that’s kept the Sony breach and related leaks at the top of the news for weeks.

“To handle this sophisticated media/Internet campaign so well would require a handler with strong English skills, deep knowledge of the Internet and western culture,” the Grugq says in a post to text-sharing site Zeropaste. “This would be someone quite senior and skilled. That is, I can’t see DPRK [North Korea] putting this sort of valuable resource onto what is essentially a petty attack against a company that has no strategic value for DPRK.”

 

Who Else Might Be Responsible?

Other security experts also question why North Korea would demonstrate – or squander – its cyberwarfare capabilities on a Hollywood film. “I can’t imagine a more unlikely scenario than that one,” Carr says.

Much of the North Korean connection appears to have been built on attackers’ having set their code-development tools to use the Korean language. But CloudFlare’s Rogers notes that it’s “trivial” to change the language settings in development tools right before compiling code, and notes that the dialect used by North Koreans differs from traditional Korean so much that it’s more likely would-be attackers would use tools programmed for Chinese.

As noted, the attackers’ focus on The Interview has been cited as another piece of evidence of North Korean involvement. But leaked Sony e-mails show that the Sony attack appeared to begin as an extortion attempt, launched by a group calling itself “God’sApstls.” It was only after news reports began mentioning that Pyongyang had denounced Sony Pictures earlier in 2014 for the forthcoming release of The Interview – following Sony suffering its wiper malware attack, and attackers leaking stolen Sony data – that the attackers even mentioned the film.

If North Korea didn’t sponsor the Sony attack, that still leaves plenty of potential culprits, many of which numerous security experts also find more plausible. One theory is that the hack was the work of chaos-seeking hacktivists. Or China could have launched the attack after potentially hacking Sony last year during business negotiations, Dateline suggests.

Alternately, as Wired posits, Sony may have been infiltrated by multiple groups, including nation-state-backed hackers, as well as hacktivists.

Rogers, meanwhile, says the technical aspects of the attack – and obvious penchant for revenge – suggest the work of an insider. “It’s clear from the hard-coded paths and passwords in the malware that whoever wrote it had extensive knowledge of Sony’s internal architecture and access to key passwords,” he says. “While it’s plausible that an attacker could have built up this knowledge over time and then used it to make the malware, Occam’s razor [the concept that the simplest theory is often correct] suggests the simpler explanation of an insider. It also fits with the pure revenge tact that this started out as.”

 

Sony Criticized for Canceling Film

The Sony attack rhetoric has escalated in recent days, with the Guardians of Peace – which has claimed credit for stealing and leaking Sony data, as well as a wiper malware attack that deleted an unknown number of Sony hard drives – issuing a vague “terror” threat against theater operators who opted to show The Interview. The comedy was scheduled to debut December 25.

The Department of Homeland Security reported that it saw “no credible intelligence” of an actual Sony-related “terror” plot, as did President Obama. “Well, the cyber-attack is very serious. We’re investigating, we’re taking it seriously,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News. “We’ll be vigilant, if we see something that we think is serious and credible, then we’ll alert the public. But for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies.”

Nevertheless, Sony on Dec. 17 said that it would indefinitely postpone the release of The Interview. A company spokesman said that the company is “deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company,” and added that Sony backed its filmmakers’ “right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

Some industry watchers think the move to yank the film’s release was a damage-control exercise on the part of Sony Pictures’ beleaguered executives. “I think they just want to wash their hands of it,” Matthew Belloni, executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter, tells USA Today.

Numerous entertainment industry figures also slammed Sony’s move, not least for the precedent that it now sets. “I think it is disgraceful that these theaters are not showing The Interview,” tweeted well-known producer Judd Apatow, who’s worked with The Interview star Seth Rogan before. “Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?”

In the wake of Sony cancelling the release of The Interview, New Regency reportedly canceled work on Pyongyang, a “paranoid thriller” set in North Korea that was due to begin filming in March. In response, former “Daily Show” actor Steve Carell, who was signed to star in the film, tweeted: “Sad day for creative expression.”

Some experts say it’s a sad day for information security as well. “If Sony is honestly going to cancel this movie in reaction to the demands of the G.O.P., it is both naïve and sets an incredibly dangerous precedent,” Al Pascual, director of fraud and security at Javelin Strategy and Research, tells Information Security Media Group.

 

 

What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls

Bottom of Form

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas comes but once a year — and usually not accompanied by so much big news.

Yesterday, just before he left for Christmas vacation, President Obama announced the United States will make a “proportional” response to North Korea’s computer hacking and threat campaign against Sony Pictures that led to the cancelling of the film, “The Interview.” Earlier in the week, Obama announced his intention to end the 54-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.

Americans will weigh in on both these topics in surveys we release early next week. If it’s in the news, it’s in our polls.

The week’s other major event was the massacre by the radical Islamic Taliban of 145 people, most of them children, in a school in Pakistan. U.S. voters are hesitant to join Pakistan in the search for the killers, but the incident has dramatically reduced support for negotiations with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.

Support for the use of unmanned drone aircraft to kill suspected terrorists overseas is now the highest it’s been in over two years.  
Nearly half of voters favor the harsh interrogation tactics used against suspected terrorists by the CIA and think they elicited valuable information that helped the United States.

After all, the number of voters who think the United States is winning the War on Terror continues to fall to new lows, and more than ever they see a terrorist attack as the biggest threat to this country.

Voters feel more strongly these days that the U.S. military should focus on defending America’s interests rather than addressing the problems of other nations.

Just 27% now believe the United States will still be the most powerful nation in the world by the end of the 21st century.

Looking ahead in the short term, voters are closely divided over whether the incoming Congress will make any difference, but they believe overwhelmingly that the president and the new Congress should work together rather than stand on principle.

However, only 24% are even somewhat confident that the president and the new Congress can work together.

The president’s daily job approval ratings have improved slightly since Election Day but still remain in the mid- to high negative teens. 

Voters continue to see Republicans as the party to trust when it comes to national security, economic growth and fiscal restraint. Democrats remain their first choice on issues like health care, education and the environment.

The lead on the Generic Congressional Ballot continues to swing back and forth between the two parties as it has weekly for months.

Enough of this heavy stuff. It’s Christmastime, and more Americans are feeling the spirit this holiday season.

More adults plan to make a charitable donation this year, but
fewer are sending Christmas cards.

With less than 10 days left until Christmas, though, 30% still had not begun their holiday shopping.

The good news for retailers is that consumer confidence has been climbing steadily over the past month to some of its highest levels of the year.

But buyers, beware: Americans are ending the year more in debt than they were at the beginning of 2014.

The number of homeowners who think they are likely to miss or be late on a mortgage payment in the next few months is at its highest level in over a year.

Yet homeowners remain fairly confident in their home’s short- and long-term value, and most still think their home is worth more than what they owe on their mortgage. Adults nationwide round out 2014 still believing owning a home is a family’s best investment but remain divided as to whether now’s a good time to sell in their area.

Voters are more positive about the fairness of the U.S. economy than they’ve been all year.

In other surveys last week:

— Twenty-five percent (25%) of voters think the United States is headed in the right direction.

Those under 40 have less confidence than their elders in voting as an agent for change and express more confidence in public protests and economic boycotts.

— Voters still strongly approve of the health care they are getting, but most also remain convinced that it will get worse under the new national health care law. 

— Voters continue to believe the government should cut spending to help the economy.

— Six years after the Wall Street meltdown, one-third of Americans still fear they will lose their money due to bank failure. Americans remain worried about inflation, too, but they are a bit less pessimistic about rising food prices that they have been in months.

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