National Security

FP’s Situation Report: Ariel Sharon ‘near death’; Skype and Snapchat get hacked; NYT calls for Snowden to get plea deal or clemency; the DEA’s hooker problem outlined; and a bit more.

By Dan Lamothe

Death nears for Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel. The New York Times reports that he is suffering from kidney failure, and it doesn't look good. From Jodi Rudoren: "A spokesman for the hospital that has been treating Mr. Sharon, 85, said that ‘there has been a deterioration in his medical condition.' A person who had been briefed on the situation, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because of its delicacy, said Mr. Sharon had suffered a setback about a month ago and spent two weeks in intensive care after emergency surgery, then seemed to have stabilized before the most recent turn. ‘It looks pretty bad, but it's not a matter of hours,' said another person with knowledge of his situation who also spoke on the condition of anonymity." More here.

Sharon, 85, was a divisive figure in Middle Eastern politics for decades, and has been in a vegetative state since 2006. He rose to power as a controversial military commander, and pushed heavily for Israeli settlements in occupied areas of Palestine. He later shocked many by calling for the complete withdrawal of his constituents from the Gaza Strip in 2005. One detailed 2006 profile of him can be found in The Guardian here.

Skype, the popular Internet phone call provider, got hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army. Looks like the group wanted to make a point. From Techcrunch's Matt Burns: "The Syrian Electronic Army is at it again. The group just hacked Skype's blog and twitter accounts, spreading an anti-NSA, anti-Microsoft message in the process. ‘Don't use Microsoft emails (hotmail,outlook), They are monitoring your accounts and selling the data to the governments", says one posting. ‘Hacked by Syrian Electronic Army.. Stop Spying!', says another. Skype, the service itself, does not appear to be affected. The group also gained control of Skype's Facebook although that message has since been deleted. However, the postings were up for nearly 40 minutes."

If you're wondering what they're talking about, a bit more of a reminder from Techcrunch: "Earlier this year, it was revealed that the NSA could eavesdrop on Skype video calls, completely invalidating Microsoft's previous claims that the service was secure. However, following that logic, the SEA is likely targeting nearly every technology company after last week's revelations regarding the scope of the NSA's access." More here.

Things are appear to be uglier for Snapchat, which also got hacked to start 2014. Up to 4.6 million people may be affected. From Anthony Wing Kosner, writing for Forbes: "Anonymous hackers have claimed to use the reported Snapchat API exploit to compile a database of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and their associated phone numbers and geographical regions. The site, SnapchatDB.info, offers the information as a SQL database dump (reportedly 40MB) or as a CSV file. Instructions on the pages say, ‘You are downloading 4.6 million users' phone number information, along with their usernames. People tend to use the same username around the web so you can use this information to find phone number information associated with Facebook and Twitter accounts, or simply to figure out the phone numbers of people you wish to get in touch with.'"

Why did they do it? Apparently, to make a point. More in Forbes: "It is clear that the hackers are trying to prod Snapchat to acknowledge the severity of their security holes and make the needed patches. They claim that the database ‘contains username and phone number pairs of a vast majority of the Snapchat users.' They used the security exploits documented last week by Gibson Security that Snapchat ‘dismissed.' SnapchatDB claims that this information ‘is being shared with the public to raise awareness on the issue. The company was too reluctant at patching the exploit until they knew it was too late and companies that we trust with our information should be more careful when dealing with it.'" More here.

Welcome to Thursday's edition of Situation Report, and a belated Happy New Year. I'm Dan Lamothe, and like many of you, I have my eyes turned to the Northeast today as the aptly named snowstorm Hercules bears down. You know life is going to get a little cray-cray when analysts says it will be "a corker of a storm." (More on that here.) I'll be filling in for Gordon Lubold, your usual Situation Report poobah, for the rest of the week. If you'd like to sign up for the newsletter, send Gordon a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll add you. And if you like what you see, tell a friend. Register free for Situation Report and other FP products here. As always, if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, you gotta say something -- to Situation Report. One more thing: please follow me at @DanLamothe, and Gordon at @glubold.

Did you see the one about DEA agents hanging out with hookers in Colombia? FP's own Shane Harris dropped a bit of an exclusive bombshell just before New Year's Eve: "A special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to solicit sex as many as 50 times using a government-issued cell phone. Another sent text messages to a transvestite prostitute he found on a Web site. And a third had a very curious definition of the word ‘sex.' Those are some of the eye-popping details found in a previously unreleased report from the Justice Department inspector general, obtained by Foreign Policy under the Freedom of Information Act. It shows that three DEA special agents in Colombia solicited sex from prostitutes on numerous occasions, arranged for encounters using their government-issued cell phones, and brought women back to their government-furnished apartments, putting themselves at risk for blackmail or coercion and jeopardizing national security information. The men were implicated by their cell phone call histories and contacts, which showed numerous communications with prostitutes. And when the agents were confronted with the evidence, they tried to conceal the extent of their activities, with two agents going so far as to erase numbers and other data in their cell phones before handing them over to investigators."

Oh, Cartagena. More from Shane Harris: "The incident stems from a raucous night in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012, when nine Secret Service agents providing security for President Obama's visit during the Summit of the Americas were found to have paid or solicited prostitutes. Two of the DEA agents arranged for a supervisor in the Secret Service's intelligence division, which investigates threats against the president, to receive an ‘erotic massage,' which included oral sex, from a prostitute in one of the DEA agent's apartment." More here.

Cut Edward Snowden a deal, says the New York Times. The newspaper's influential editorial page has stirred the pot by saying the whistle-blower -- the bane of the NSA's existence at this point - should not get hammered by the United States for disclosing questionable intelligence-gathering practices. From its editorial, which lit up Twitter last night with discussion: "Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community." More here.

Another surveillance network is now helping with science. So reports the Washington Post's Joby Warrick from Vienna: "The engineers who designed the world's first truly planetary surveillance network two decades ago envisioned it as a way to detect illegal nuclear weapons tests. Today, the nearly completed International Monitoring System is proving adept at tasks its inventors never imagined. The system's scores of listening stations continuously eavesdrop on Earth itself, offering clues about man-made and natural disasters as well as a window into some of nature's most mysterious processes. The Obama administration hopes the network's capabilities will persuade a reluctant Senate to approve a nuclear test-ban treaty that stalled in Congress more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, without the treaty and wholly without fanfare, new stations come on line almost every month.

How does it work? More from the Post: "The monitoring system is a latticework of sensors -- including radiation detectors and machines that measure seismic activity or low-frequency sound waves -- spread out across 89 countries as well as the oceans and polar regions. Like a giant stethoscope, it listens for irregularities in Earth's natural rhythms, collecting and transmitting terabytes of data to a small office in the Austrian capital. The network was designed to help enforce the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which outlawed explosive testing of nuclear weapons. But while the treaty has never entered into force -- the United States and seven other countries have declined to ratify it, in part because of concerns over verification -- the monitoring network has steadily grown over the years, from a handful of stations in 2003 to more than 270." More here.

How Zionist extremists helped create Britain's surveillance state. FP takes a long look at how MI5 worked to fight perceived threats to its security early in the Cold War, using recently declassified documents to do so. From Calder Walton: "Recently declassified intelligence records reveal that at the end of the war the main priority for MI5 was the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, specifically from the two main Zionist terrorist groups operating in the Mandate of Palestine, which had been placed under British control in 1921. They were called the Irgun Zevai Leumi (‘National Military Organization,' or the Irgun for short) and the Lehi (an acronym in Hebrew for ‘Freedom Fighters of Israel'), which the British also termed the "Stern Gang," after its founding leader, Avraham Stern. The Irgun and the Stern Gang believed that British policies in Palestine in the post-war years -- blocking the creation of an independent Jewish state -- legitimized the use of violence against British targets. MI5's involvement with counterterrorism, which preoccupies it down to the present day, arose in the immediate post-war years when it dealt with the Irgun and Stern Gang."

More from Walton: "MI5's involvement in dealing with Zionist terrorism offers a striking new interpretation of the history of the early Cold War. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the overwhelming priority for the intelligence services of Britain and other Western powers would lie with counterespionage, but as we can now see, in the crucial transition period from World War to Cold War, MI5 was instead primarily concerned with counterterrorism." More here.

National Security

FP’s Situation Report: Giving the Haqqani Network a pass?; Dobbins gets slammed; al-Qaida apologies for Yemen attack; Less burial space for vets; Want that contract? Get to the “church” on time; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Is the Obama administration giving a pass to some of Afghanistan's most notorious insurgents? The Haqqani Network has long been one of the most lethal and dangerous insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan. Now it's forcing an interagency battle of wills in Washington. More than a year ago, the Obama administration designated the Haqqani Network a foreign terrorist organization, but critics of White House policy say it has done little to try to dismantle an insurgent group seen as one of the biggest threats to stability in Afghanistan. That may be about to change, as Congress attempts to force the White House to put some teeth in its policy.

Tucked inside the defense spending bill the U.S. Senate passed late Thursday evening is a provision that forces the administration to come up with a plan to attack the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network where it lives -- by going after its cash. It's an effort the White House and the State Department have been resistant to pursue as it attempts to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, build momentum toward a peace settlement in the region and mend ties with the Pakistani government - the very government with which the Haqqanis have had ties for years.  But the provision stayed in the bill.

"We need a comprehensive strategy from them about how the network operates, how they recruit and how they travel," a Congressional staffer told Foreign Policy. "Shockingly, nothing like this has been done."

Although the amendment requires a range of actions, its primary function is to force the Obama Administration to get serious about curtailing the Network's financing.

Dunford writes a letter to Hagel. Congressional frustration over this issue has been mounting with the administration for more than a year. Obama's team first designated the Haqqanis a foreign terrorist group in September 2012 but seemed to do little to go after the network's finances or learn much about its recruiting and other activities. Then last month, Gen. Joe Dunford, the top commander in Afghanistan, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raising concerns about the lack of a comprehensive effort to counter the Network. The letter, whose contents are classified, hinted that a whole-of-government approach would put added pressure on the Haqqanis and fully leverage its designation as a foreign terrorist organization.

Congress slams Dobbins. On Dec. 11, House members met with Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins to discuss the issue but came away angry that Dobbins was not taking their concerns seriously.

"The manner in which the Ambassador addressed Members' questions was not helpful to our efforts to address this important issue mutually," according to a Dec. 20 letter six members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry obtained by Foreign Policy. "Frankly, his manner was one of the least professional engagements we have had with the Administration." Read the rest of our story, coming up on foreignpolicy.com later this morning.

Welcome to Monday's edition of Situation Report where we note that we're going on holiday hiatus - today is our last day for awhile. Look for our boy Dan Lamothe to crank it up starting Jan. 2 - and we'll be back Jan. 6. See you in the new year and thank you very much for reading Situation Report. You've made 2013 full of awesomeness one day after another.

If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. If you like what you see, tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. And one more thing: please follow us @glubold.

Speaking of terrorist cash flows: Two activists in the Mideast, one from Qatar and another from Yemen, are accused of having terror links. The Daily Beast's Eli Lake: "The U.S. government this week said the head of a human rights organization working on behalf of Islamist political prisoners was also a financier for al Qaeda. Most of the world knows Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi as a Qatari history professor and human-rights activist. The Swiss-based organization he founded, known as al-Karama from the Arab word for dignity, has worked closely with the United Nations and American human rights groups, most notably Human Rights Watch. According to the U.S. government, however, al-Naimi is also a major financier of al Qaeda. On Wednesday, the Treasury Department issued a designation of al-Naimi that said he oversaw the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen over the last 11 years. In 2013, the designation says, al-Naimi ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al Qaeda via the group's representative in Syria. In the same notice, the Treasury Department also designated Abdulwahab Al-Humayqani, al-Karama's representative in Yemen, as a financier and member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's Yemen affiliate. On Twitter, al-Naimi acknowledged that he and al-Humayqani, whom he calls by his first name, were designated for supporting terrorism. Al-Naimi has resigned as president of al-Karama's board, but told the group's senior leadership that he intends to challenge the Treasury Department's designation." Read the rest here.

Wha? Al-Qaida apologizes for attack on hospital in Yemen. AP's Maamoun Youssef: "In a rare public apology, the militant leader of al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen has said that one of his fighters disobeyed orders and attacked a hospital attached to the Defense Ministry during a December assault that killed 52 people. Qassim al-Rimi, commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said in a video posted on militant websites that the attackers were warned in advance not to enter the hospital within the complex, nor a place for prayer there. But he said one fighter did. ‘Now we acknowledge our mistake and guilt,' al-Rimi said in a video released late Saturday by al-Qaeda's media arm al-Mallahem. ‘We offer our apology and condolences to the victims' families. We accept full responsibility for what happened in the hospital and will pay blood money for the victims' families.' The apology seemed prompted by Yemen state television earlier broadcasting a video showing a gunman attacking doctors and other hospital staff. Several al-Qaeda jihadis tried to dismiss the video as fake on militant websites, but the outcry apparently embarrassed the al-Qaeda branch to the point of issuing an unusual expression of regret from the group." Read the rest here.

In South Sudan, a rush to the exits for Americans. The WSJ's Heidi Vogt: "The U.S. military on Sunday rushed to evacuate American citizens from a rebel-held town in South Sudan, the latest sign that a country the U.S. helped create might be spiraling toward civil war. About 15 Americans were evacuated on Sunday from the town of Bor in helicopters, according to a State Department spokeswoman. The flights were part of a broader exodus of international workers and South Sudanese from fighting between factions of South Sudan's army. The U.S. has evacuated about 380 U.S. officials and private citizens, said the spokeswoman, Jen Psaki. A political power struggle between former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir ahead of 2015 elections appears to have set off the violence. It quickly descended into ethnic clashes that risk splitting the country of 10 million. By Sunday, rebel factions allied with Mr. Machar, a member of the Nuer ethnic group, had solidified control of territory they seized in a week of gunbattles with government forces that have left 500 dead, according to figures provided by South Sudan's military, other officials and the U.N." More here.

Wanna meet Kim Jong Un's family? Hurry up, before it's too late.The North Korean dictator has been taking care of the family business. But last week, he had executed his uncle for treason. In "Next of Kim" on Foreign Policy, Dennis Halpin writes: "In the mid-18th century, Korea was ruled by King Yeongjo, who governed according to austere Confucian principles. One day, he began to hear reports that his son, Crown Prince Sado, was addicted to wine and women; more worryingly, Sado would wander the streets at night, randomly committing murder. There were even rumors that Sado sought to overthrow the king and seize power. Fearing for the safety of his kingdom but unable to order the death of his own son, Yeongjo ordered him placed outside in a box used for the storage of rice. Most Koreans know what happened to the 'rice box prince,' as Sado later came to be known -- he died of starvation and suffocation, as those in the palace heard his cries for help.

Fast-forward 250 years later, and we're back asking the same question: Is blood really thicker than water? Ordering the execution of one's uncle, as Kim Jong Un did on Dec. 12, is brutal in any culture, but especially so in a place like North Korea, where even decades of totalitarian rule have not worn away strong Confucian traditions of filial piety. It's important to remember that Jang Song Thaek, who was long thought to be the second most powerful man in North Korea, married into the Kim family. But Kim still violated a serious taboo by having him killed." Read the rest here.

Burial space in demand for vets. The WSJ's Ben Kesling and Erica Phillips: "As interments of veterans and their dependents climb to a record level, the Department of Veterans Affairs is rushing to add burial space at the fastest rate since the Civil War. The project is adding thousands of burial sites and vault spaces across the country. But a Nevada congresswoman is pressing the VA to add more national cemeteries, especially in Western states that now have few cemeteries but whose senior populations are growing. ‘The prestige of being buried in a national cemetery is something every veteran is entitled to,' said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat, who has been prodding the VA to open more such cemeteries in places like Nevada. It is among about a dozen U.S. states that lack a federally funded and operated national cemetery, and rely mostly on veterans' cemeteries run by states or Native American tribal governments." Read the rest, plus look at two graphs depicting the issue, here.

Window Dressing: Why Obama's attempts at intel reform probably won't go anywhere. FP's own Elias Groll: Eventually, President Barack Obama is going to have to go on the offensive in the debate over how to reform American intelligence gathering practices, and on Friday, he offered a few hints as to how he might do so.

In an end-of-year press conference before he left for his Hawaii vacation, Obama signaled a willingness to place control of a controversial database of telephone records in the hands of a third-party. Additionally, the president said that he may be willing to grant foreigners some privacy protections." More here.

Navy extends bennies to gay spouses in Japan. The WaPo's Josh Hicks: "...The change came after U.S. and Japanese officials agreed to an interpretation of the status of forces agreement between the two nations, concluding that the term ‘spouses' applied to all individuals who are legally married to Department of Defense personnel. ‘We are thankful for the support of the Japanese government as we worked through this review, and in supporting our efforts to meet the DOD guidance," said Lt. Col. David Honchul, a spokesman for U.S. armed forces in Japan." Read the rest here.

Ray Mabus on the Navy's prostitution and bribery scandal: "we go after people." FP's Dan Lamothe from Friday's presser at the Pentagon: "For months, the U.S. Navy has weathered a titillating scandal involving a fat-cat defense contractor from Malaysia who allegedly used cash bribes, prostitutes and posh hotel rooms to lure top Navy officials into providing classified information he used to defraud the United States. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus addressed the controversy for the first time Friday, pushing back against the notion the service is a soft target for corruption while acknowledging even more Navy officers could be take down by an ongoing investigation. ‘We go after people,' he told reporters at the Pentagon. ‘We have set up procedures to try to prevent fraud, but any time -- any time -- you have this kind of money, there are going to be people trying to steal. Trying to defraud the government.'" More here.

Want to get a contract with the federal government? Get to the church, er, the place, on time! A Florence, Ala. Company learned the hard way that deadlines means deadlines. The firm, RDT-Semper Tek JV, LLC, protested the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to reject their proposal for a contract when a messenger failed to deliver the bid on time. The Comptroller General at the GAO denied the request. We love some of the facts of this case - (and by the way how much money did it cost to establish them?) "...We turn next to the portion of this protest where the protester and agency disagree about the facts. According to a statement prepared by RDT's representative, he arrived at the facility, parked his car, and knocked at the mailroom door "at approximately 1:58 p.m." Decl. of RDT Representative (Aug. 30, 2013), at 2. He explained that the door was opened "almost immediately" by a female mailroom clerk. Id. He informed her that he had a proposal to drop off, and she escorted him to a counter in the mailroom where she then asked him if he wanted a receipt. Id. The RDT representative requested a receipt, and the mailroom clerk walked to the back of the mailroom, turned left and went out of his sight, and "was gone for several minutes." Id. When the clerk returned she handed the RDT representative a hand-written receipt on a plain piece of paper. The RDT representative then thanked her, picked up the receipt, and left. Id. The RDT representative states that he did not read the receipt when it was given to him because he was so confident that the package had been delivered on time." We thank the friend of Situation Report for pointing this whole thing out, and read the rest of the investigation here.

Closing in: Obama and Congress are getting Gitmo closer to closed. The National Journal's Stacy Kaper this morning: "The tide is turning in favor of President Obama's long-suffering bid to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Obama issued an executive order to close the Cuba-based detention facility on the opening days of his presidency. Five years later, it remains open, a sharp reminder of the chasm between the idealism of campaigning and the harsh reality of governing. But after years of setbacks, the president is making progress toward closing the base-and Congress is helping. The administration is using the limited executive authority it has to move prisoners out. And following two and a half years in which the administration did not transfer any detainees, the last few months have seen a series of aggressive moves to transfer them elsewhere, dwindling Gitmo's population to 158 as of Dec. 20." More here.

Gitmo detainees are going home. Former Pentagon spokesman J.D. Gordon asks, could terror attacks rise? Gordon: Americans should brace for shock.  More terrorist attacks may be on the way. In a likely precursor to a wave of Guantanamo detainee repatriations overseas, President Obama has released two "high risk" Saudi battle-hardened al-Qaeda veterans of the Afghanistan War, one of whom had volunteered for a suicide mission. Said Muhammad Husyan Qahtani and Hamoud Abdullah Hamoud were whisked away this week by a Saudi jet to enter a 3-month rehabilitation program for radical Islamic militants." Read the rest here.

Who knew? NORAD spends a whopping $231 billion-with-a-B on tracking Santa Claus. JK! It's the Duffel Blog: "Many know the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve. Few know how much it costs the American taxpayer. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) puts the cost of tracking Santa at $231 billion this year, a ten percent increase from 2012. The costs began to accrue in the planning stages. Due to Pentagon rules, a large scale publicity stunt needs to be supervised by several generals. Six Lieutenant Generals were honorarily promoted, four from the Air Force and two from the Army. Their promotion ceremonies alone cost $88 billion." Read the rest here.