National Security

FP’s Situation Report: More U.S. personnel pulled from South Sudan

By Dan Lamothe

The U.S. just announced it is pulling more personnel from the U.S. embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as the security situation there continues to deteriorate. New this morning from the State Department: "Due to the deteriorating security situation in South Sudan, today the United States has further drawn down staffing at our Embassy in Juba. We are taking this step out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel... The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya will provide consular services for U.S. citizens in South Sudan until further notice. We continue to strongly recommend that U.S. citizens in South Sudan depart immediately."

Here's how U.S. troops on the ground are handling it. A spokesman with U.S. Africa Command, Thomas Saunders, tells Situation Report this morning that two KC-130J aircraft assigned to the Marine Corps' crisis-response force have responded from Entebbe, Uganda, where they were positioned in recent days to be close to the mess in South Sudan. U.S. soldiers from the East Africa Response Force, or EARF, "will continue to provide security reinforcement to the U.S. embassy in Juba."

Meet your new likely public affairs flack in the Pentagon: Brent Colburn. Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News broke the news on Twitter last night (@ACapaccio) that the current chief of staff at the Housing and Urban Development Department will become an assistant for public affairs to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Colburn worked on both of President Obama's presidential campaigns and also was previously a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. Colburn himself is on Twitter at @cbrentcolburn. He will join Rear Adm. John Kirby, who is the newly-installed Pentagon press secretary. Colburn is expected to be in charge of the Department's massive public affairs apparatus while Kirby will focus on press operations for the Department and for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Welcome to Friday's snowy edition of Situation Report. I'm Dan Lamothe, and I'm filling again today for Gordon Lubold, your resident Situation Report ninja. 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 on Twitter at @DanLamothe, and Gordon at @glubold.

Two of the Iraqi cities America fought the hardest for are falling apart. That depressing news today comes from the New York Times, which reports that Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province are on the verge of being in the control of Al Qaeda. From Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, reporting from Baghdad: "Radical Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda threatened Thursday to seize control of Falluja and Ramadi, two of the most important cities in Iraq, setting fire to police stations, freeing prisoners from jail and occupying mosques, as the government rushed troop reinforcements to the areas. Dressed in black and waving the flag of Al Qaeda, the militants commandeered mosque loudspeakers to call for supporters to join their struggle in both cities in the western province of Anbar, which have increasingly become centers of Sunni extremism since American forces withdrew from the country at the end of 2011."

A little more salt in the wounds - and how this affects the Syrian civil war to the west. More from the New York Times: "The violence in Ramadi and Falluja had implications beyond Anbar's borders, as the Sunni militants fought beneath the same banner as the most hard-line jihadists they have inspired in Syria - the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. That fighting, and a deadly bombing in the Beirut area on Thursday, provided the latest evidence that the Syrian civil war was helping breed bloodshed and sectarian violence around the region, further destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq while fueling a resurgence of radical Islamist fighters." More here.

Things in Afghanistan, meanwhile, aren't quite so bad. The Wall Street Journal has a surprisingly optimistic report out of Helmand province this morning about the security situation there. Michael M. Phillips, who has spent as much time embedded with Marines there as anyone, reports that "Afghan security forces have come out on top in a key province that for years cost the U.S. and its allies dearly." And his reporting comes from violent Sangin district, which a number of recent news reports had suggested was under heavy Taliban influence. From Phillips' story: "Now, as U.S. and allied forces depart and leave the local army and police in charge of security, the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand-a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country's future. It is too early to declare victory in Helmand, says Col. B.J. Fitzpatrick, chief of staff for U.S. Marine forces in the province. But ‘what I will tell you,' he says, is that in 2013, ‘the Afghans took lead responsibility.'"

But there are still a lot of catches in Helmand. As we've reported previously, just because the Afghan military has control of the district centers there doesn't mean the Taliban doesn't cause problems. Phillips has that, too, along with an updating on ongoing logistically problems Afghan forces face. More from his story: "The Afghan military still struggles with some basic elements of warfare, including evacuation of casualties and resupply of vital materiel, U.S. and Afghan military officials say. In one incident, Afghan units desperate for truck batteries received steering wheels from Kabul instead, a U.S. military official says. Afghan Army Maj. Gen. Afzal Aman, the chief of operations at Afghanistan's defense ministry, acknowledges the Afghan dependence on the 49-nation coalition for logistics and intelligence support." More here.

And Afghan insurgents are being put back out on the street. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham sounded the alarm Thursday that dozens of Afghan insurgents have apparently been released, despite histories in which they killed coalition service members. From The Washington Post's Kevin Sieff: "In March, the United States transferred control of the Parwan prison next to Bagram air base - with its roughly 3,000 detainees - to the Afghan government. Since then, Graham said, the Afghans have released 560 detainees without trial, and ‘some of those have gone back to the fight.' The Afghan government is now considering releasing 88 detainees who are of particular concern to the United States. Collectively, Graham said, they killed 60 members of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)." More here.

NOM NOM NOM, chemical weapons. FP was on the scene yesterday in Portsmouth, Va., as the Pentagon sought to demonstrate its new, portable chemical weapons-eating capability on the MV Cape Ray. The ship is expected to leave soon to pick up chemical weapons coming out of Syria -- a creative solution, considering the risks. From my story: "Long before forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad launched a massive chemical weapons strike that nearly dragged the U.S. into Syria's civil war, the American government was trying to figure out a way to neutralize Assad's stockpile of nerve gas and other illicit weapons. No country seemed inclined to allow the work to be done on its own soil, and breaking them down in Syria in the middle of an ongoing civil war seemed fraught with potential nightmares. The world is about to see a possible solution: In the next few weeks, the United States expects to deploy the 648-foot, 22,000-ton MV Cape Ray with technology aboard that can break down the chemical agents used to make sarin and mustard gases. The steel-gray ship's personnel will pick up the chemicals in a port somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea - reportedly in Italy -- and then process them in international waters, where there are far fewer diplomatic and political issues than doing the work on land." More here.

Why pain rays and stun grenades were barely used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a busy day for your humble Situation Report correspondent yesterday. FP also published a new piece about the U.S. military's non-lethal weapons program. From my story: "Brian Long, the Active Denial System's program manager, told Foreign Policy that in the last few years, officials with the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program have ‘found kind of dichotomy' in the military. On one hand, commanders want to reduce civilian casualties, and want them quickly after they are requested. On the other hand, many units have been unwilling to spend the time training their troops to use them, even for situations where they hypothetically could help. ‘What we kind of realized was that despite the fielding, there was a sense that these things weren't really useful,' Long said in an interview at Quantico, Va., where the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is based. ‘There was a general unfamiliarity with these things.'" More here.

Bob Gates got hurt pretty badly after taking a spill. The former Pentagon chief's office released this statement yesterday: "Dr. Gates accidentally fell at his home in Washington State Wednesday evening and fractured his first vertebrae. He was treated at hospitals in Mount Vernon and Seattle and is now back at home with his family resting comfortably. He is expected to make a full recovery and thanks the medical staffs of both hospitals for the excellent care they provided him. He looks forward to the release of his new memoir ‘Duty' on January 14th, which he will be promoting wearing a neck brace." We wish him well.

More military catch-phrases? Why not. Geoffrey Ingersoll of Business Insider shares with us today "31 Phrases that Only People in the Military Will Understand." Among our favorites: "Mandofun" -- short for "mandatory fun," and "Gear adrift, is a gift." More on that latter phrase from Ingersoll: "Conversely, someone who takes unattended gear has not stolen it, they've ‘tactically acquired' it. Needless to say, if they get caught, it's still larceny under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Tactical acquisition is taught in boot camp, where recruits from one platoon will prey on another possibly less-aware platoon in order to get supplies and bragging rights." Read the rest here.

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.