TIME National Security

Feds Tracking 150 Americans Who Went to Syria Amid Terror Fears

Television cameras record FBI Director James Comey as he answers questions from reporters during a news conference at the FBI office in Boston, Mass., Nov. 18, 2014.
Television cameras record FBI Director James Comey as he answers questions from reporters during a news conference at the FBI office in Boston, Mass., Nov. 18, 2014. Brian Snyder—Reuters

Determined to prevent "a future 9/11"

American authorities are tracking about 150 U.S. citizens who have traveled to Syria in recent months amid fears they may have gone there to fight for militant groups, the head of the FBI said Tuesday.

“We have tracked coming up on close to 150 people who traveled from the United States to Syria, for all manner of motivations,” FBI Director James Comey told reporters in Boston, according to the New York Times. “A significant number of them to fight.”

Authorities are particularly concerned about Americans who may have gone to fight alongside militants of the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which a U.S.-led military coalition has been hammering with air strikes in both Iraq and Syria for months.

“We are determined not to allow future lines to be drawn from a terrorist diaspora out of Syria to a future 9/11,” Comey added.

[NYT]

TIME National Security

Obama Said to Order Review of U.S. Hostage Policy

In the wake of several high-profile hostage cases with terror groups

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of how the United States responds to Americans who are detained abroad, according to a recent letter from a Pentagon official to a member of Congress, in the wake of several high-profile hostage cases with terror groups.

The letter from Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of defense for policy, came in response to an inquiry from Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and outlines that emphasis will be placed on themes including “family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies.”

The government’s refusal to pay ransom has been publicly debated in recent months following the executions of Americans by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Hunter’s letter was dated Aug. 20, one day after a video emerged of the beheading of journalist James Foley. A similar video appeared in September showing the death of journalist Steven Sotloff and, this past weekend, of American aid worker Peter (Abdul-Rahman) Kassig.

On Monday, according to ABC News, National Security Council Spokesman Alistair Baskey said the “comprehensive review” would include the FBI, Departments of Defense and State and larger intelligence community.

Read more at ABC News

TIME Terrorism

Peter Kassig’s Powerful Silence Before ISIS Beheaded Him

Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig ISIS Islamic State
Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig is pictured making a food delivery to refugees in Lebanonís Bekaa Valley in this May 2013 handout photo. Reuters

The former Army Ranger did not address the camera.

It’s tough to take any solace when the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria commits a murder, as it made clear yet again on Sunday it had done with the release of a video of the apparent beheading of American Peter Kassig.

But as grimly depressing as the video was—this is the fifth recorded killing of a Westerner released by the group since August—it differed from those that came before.

The video didn’t feature as many high production values or multi-camera angles. Most startling, Kassig, an Indiana native, didn’t make a final statement into his captors’ cameras, as those who died before him had done (he did, however, speak to Time early last year before he was kidnapped).

Kassig, 26, “doesn’t have much to say,” said ISIS’s British-accented, black-robed executioner on the video.

There is speculation over why this video is different.

“The likeliest possibility is that something went wrong when they were beheading him,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the New York Times.

But there’s another possibility. “I don’t know how this went down, or if it really did,” tweeted Andrew Exum. “But I like the idea of the Ranger not saying a damn thing.”

Kassig became a Ranger in 2006, and served with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Iraq in 2007. Exum himself is a former Ranger, an elite band of soldiers that the Army declares to be its “premier direct-action raid force.”

Kassig knew what he faced, and he knew the Ranger Creed, which says:

Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers…

Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one-hundred-percent and then some.

Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.

His family, and his nation, can take solace in Ranger Kassig’s silent courage before his country’s enemies.

Read next: Graphic ISIS Video Claims US Aid Worker Beheaded

TIME National Security

State Department Shuts Down Unclassified Email System Over Hacker Attack

The department's classified systems, however, remain unaffected

The U.S. State Department disabled its entire unclassified email system on Friday in the face of a cyberattack, a senior official said.

Technicians are working to repair the potential damage caused to the system by hackers and the State Department is expected to address the closure early this week once those repairs are made, the Associated Press reports.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said unusual activity was first detected in the system in October, around the same time hackers targeted the White House computer network. The U.S. Postal Service and the National Weather Service are among the agencies that have since reported similar attacks.

The department’s classified systems remained unaffected, and the unclassified email is expected to be operational again by Monday or Tuesday.

[AP]

TIME Terrorism

Graphic ISIS Video Claims US Aid Worker Beheaded

Peter Kassig in front of a truck somewhere along the Syrian border between late 2012 and autumn 2013 as Special Emergency Response and Assistance (SERA) was delivering supplies to refugees before the American aid worker was held captive by Islamic State jihadists.
Peter Kassig in front of a truck somewhere along the Syrian border between late 2012 and autumn 2013 as Special Emergency Response and Assistance (SERA) was delivering supplies to refugees before the American aid worker was held captive by Islamic State jihadists. AFP/Getty Images

(BEIRUT) — The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria released a graphic video on Sunday in which a black-clad militant claimed to have beheaded U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, who was captured last year.

The militant was standing over a severed head, but it was not immediately possible to confirm that it was Kassig, 26, who was pictured in the video. U.S. officials said they were working to determine the video’s authenticity and the Kassig family said it was awaiting the outcome of the investigation.

The video, which was posted on websites used by the group in the past, appeared to be the latest in a series of blood-soaked messages to the U.S. warning of further brutality if it does not abandon its air campaign in Iraq and Syria.

“This is Peter Edward Kassig, a U.S. citizen, of your country; Peter who fought against the Muslims in Iraq, while serving as a soldier,” the militant says near the end of the nearly 16-minute video. He speaks in an audible British accent despite his voice being distorted to make it more difficult to identify him.

The video identifies the militant’s location as Dabiq, a small town in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, near the Turkish border.

The video also shows what appears to be the mass beheading of several Syrian soldiers captured by the group. The militants warn that U.S. soldiers will meet a similar fate.

“We say to you, Obama…you claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago,” the militant said. “Here you are: you have not withdrawn. Rather, you hid some of your forces behind your proxies,” he said, apparently referring to Western-backed Syrian rebels, Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi military.

“Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

Kassig, a former U.S. Army Ranger, was providing medical aid to Syrians fleeing the civil war when he was captured inside Syria on Oct. 1, 2013. His friends say he converted to Islam in captivity and took the first name Abdul-Rahman.

Previous videos have shown the beheading of two American journalists and two British aid workers. The latest video did not show the person identified as Kassig being beheaded. Unlike previous videos, it did not show other Western captives or directly threaten to behead anyone else.

The group also holds British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has been shown in several videos delivering long statements in English on the group’s behalf, perhaps under duress.

Kassig’s family said in a statement they were aware of the reports of the video and were awaiting confirmation from the U.S. government.

“The family respectfully asks that the news media avoid playing into the hostage takers’ hands and refrain from publishing or broadcasting photographs or video distributed by the hostage takers,” they said.

“We prefer our son is written about and remembered for his important work and the love he shared with friends and family, not in the manner the hostage takers would use to manipulate Americans and further their cause.”

The White House said the U.S. intelligence community was working to determine the authenticity of the video. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said that if the video is authentic, the White House would be “appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American.”

The White House expressed its deepest condolences to Kassig’s family and friends, Meehan said.

The video emerged just minutes after President Barack Obama departed Australia for the U.S. The president was in Australia for the Group of 20 economic summit.

Kassig formed the aid organization Special Emergency Response and Assistance, or SERA, in Turkey to provide aid and assistance to Syrian refugees. He began delivering food and medical supplies to Syrian refugee camps in 2012 and is also a trained medical assistant who provided trauma care to wounded Syrian civilians. His friends say he helped train 150 civilians in providing medical aid.

ISIS has beheaded and shot dead hundreds of captives — mainly Syrian and Iraqi soldiers — during its sweep across the two countries, and has celebrated its mass killings in a series of slickly produced, extremely graphic videos.

The group has declared an Islamic caliphate in the areas under its control in Syria and Iraq, which it governs according to an extremely violent interpretation of Shariah law.

The U.S. began launching air strikes in Iraq and Syria earlier this year in a bid to halt the group’s rapid advance and eventually degrade and destroy it.

The fight against the militant group adds another layer to Syria’s complex civil war, now in its fourth year, which began as an uprising against President Bashar Assad.

ISIS emerged from the remains of al-Qaeda in Iraq and spread to Syria, where it battled both government forces and rebel groups as it carved out its self-styled Islamic state.

In June the group swept into northern Iraq, capturing about a third of the country, including the second largest city Mosul, and eventually prompting the U.S. to resume military operations in the country less than three years after withdrawing. In September the U.S. expanded the air campaign to Syria.

TIME National Security

More Band-Aids for the Nation’s Ailing Nuclear-Weapons Force

A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. Airman John Parie—U.S. Air Force/Reuters

Pentagon beefs up spending to keep yesterday’s weapons ready for tomorrow

The U.S. military’s nuclear force — both its hardware (the weapons) and its software (the people who operate those weapons) — is in disarray. That can only come as a surprise to those who don’t concede the Cold War is over, and that neither the funding, nor the required mindset, exists to keep it going indefinitely.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that a pair of reviews calls for spending about $7.5 billion over the next five years to shore up the nation’s nuclear weapons, as well as the bombers, land-based missiles and submarines that carry them. “The reviews found evidence of systematic problems that if not addressed could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of the elements of the force in the future,” he said. “These problems include manning; infrastructure; and skill deficiencies; a culture of micro-management; and over-inspection and inadequate communication, follow-up, and accountability by senior department in nuclear enterprise leadership.”

There was a palpable sense of national mission when you visited nuclear sites during the Cold War. While that remains true at most sites, there’s a feeling gleaned from speaking with current nuclear officers that their mission isn’t as vital as it once was. Congress feels the same way, which is why the nation’s nuclear-weapons organization has been nickled-and-dimed, relatively speaking, for the past 25 years (although it’s slated to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years).

Hagel ordered the reviews in January, after reports of widespread cheating surfaced among the airmen operating the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base. The Navy also discovered that some of its sailors had apparently cheated on tests involving the nuclear reactors that power some of the service’s ships and subs. The panels recommended more than 100 changes, which will be monitored by a newly created Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group that will report directly to Hagel every three months.

“Our nuclear triad deters nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and our partners,” Hagel told reporters. “It prevents potential adversaries from trying to escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression, and it provides the means for effective response should deterrence fail.”

Arms-control advocates disagree. “Apart from deterring a nuclear attack, nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy, but our arsenal is still configured and sized for a Cold War world that no longer exists,” says Kingston Reif of the non-profit Arms Control Association. “There are simply no plausible military missions for these weapons given their destructive power, the current security environment and the prowess of U.S. conventional forces.”

The Air Force has already made improvements. Last month, missile launch officers became eligible to receive up to $300 monthly because of the importance of their mission. New uniform and cold-weather gear also have been provided the ICBM crews, who work in North Dakota and Wyoming as well as Montana. It has added 1,100 more troops to its nuclear force (the Navy’s hiring 2,500 more). Last week, the Air Force awarded 25 airmen the new Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service medals to honor their work.

The roots of the problem runs deep. Over the past two decades, the Air Force has shifted responsibility for its ICBMs around like an unwanted child. The missiles bounced from Curtis Lemay’s Strategic Air Command, where they had been since becoming operational in 1959, to Air Combat Command in 1992. They moved to Space Command in 1993, and finally to Global Strike Command in 2009, created as a mini-SAC following a pair of nuclear snafus of 2007-08 that led to the cashiering of the Air Force’s top two officials. “We mattered under Strategic Air Command,” Dana Struckman, a retired colonel who manned missiles from 1989 to 1993, said earlier this year. “The Cold War was still on, and we had a sense of purpose that I don’t think they have today.”

Some official Air Force reports acknowledge the problem. “Many current senior Air Force leaders interviewed were cynical about the nuclear mission, its future, and its true (versus publicly stated) priority to the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force paper said. Commanders routinely told nuclear airmen that they were in a “sunset business” and “were not contributing to the fight that mattered,” it added. A second Pentagon study noted that most airmen manning ICBMs “were not volunteers for missile duty.”

Hagel conceded the problems aren’t new. “Previous reviews of our nuclear enterprise lacked clear follow-up mechanisms,” he said. “Recommendations were implemented without the necessary follow-through to assess that they were implemented effectively. There was a lack of accountability.” To fix that, he said he has assigned Pentagon cost experts to monitor the new changes being made so that the Defense Department knows “what’s working and what’s not.”

The defense secretary pledged to “hold our leaders accountable up and down the chain of command.” That’s because the problems aren’t confined to the lower ranks. The Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey — in charge of all the nation’s ICBMs — last year after an official trip to Moscow, where he drank excessively and cavorted with “suspect” women. During a layover at a Swiss airport, witnesses told Pentagon investigators that Carey “appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.”

Those still in charge don’t see their assignment as a Cold War mission. “I don’t think we’re any more a Cold War force than an aircraft carrier, or Special Ops, or the UH-1 helicopter,” Lieut. Gen. James Kowalksi, chief of Global Strike Command, said of his nuclear arsenal last year. A Russian first strike, in fact, has become such a “remote” possibility that it’s “hardly worth discussing,” he said. “The greatest risk to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Kowalski became the No. 2 officer in U.S. Strategic Command in October 2013, overseeing the nation’s entire nuclear arsenal, after President Obama fired Vice Adm. Tim Giardina from the post for allegedly gambling in an Iowa casino with counterfeit chips. The charge — a felony — happened at Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, a 15-minute drive across the Missouri River from the nation’s nuclear headquarters.

Hagel implied Friday that operating the nation’s most deadly weapons in the 21st century is kind of like using enough wax and elbow grease to shine up an old jalopy: “We must restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era, so our most talented young men and women see the nuclear pathway as promising in value.” Only one problem: the most talented young men and women know the Cold War ended before they were born. Given that, they also know there’s no way to restore the resolve and purpose those manning the weapons against the Soviet Union once felt.

TIME National Security

Hagel to Order Nuke-Force Overhaul to Fix Failures

Chuck Hagel
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to a question during a briefing at the Pentagon on Oct. 30, 2014 Susan Walsh—AP

The AP documented numerous missteps over the past two years, including misbehavior by ICBM force leaders, lapses in training, violations of security rules and exam cheating

(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has concluded that problems in the nation’s nuclear forces are rooted in a lack of investment, inattention by high-level leaders and sagging morale, and is ordering top-to-bottom changes, vowing to invest billions of dollars to fix the management of the world’s most deadly weapons, two senior defense officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Hagel ordered two lengthy reviews of the nuclear force after a series of stories by the AP revealed numerous problems in management, morale, security and safety, leading to several firings, demotions and other disciplinary actions against a range of Air Force personnel from generals to airmen.

Hagel’s moves, while not dramatic, are designed to get at the core of the problem, the officials said.

The senior defense officials discussed the reviews and Hagel’s response to them on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be cited by name.

Hagel was expected to announce his decisions at a morning news conference Friday and then fly to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, home of a Minuteman 3 missile unit whose recent setbacks are emblematic of the trouble dogging the broader force.

The Air Force has been hit hardest by the problems, particularly its Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile force based in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. The AP documented numerous missteps over the past two years, including misbehavior by ICBM force leaders, lapses in training, violations of security rules and exam cheating.

The Navy, which operates nuclear-armed submarines, had its own exam-cheating scandal this year and has suffered from a shortage of personnel.

Hagel’s reviews concluded that the structure of U.S. nuclear forces is so incoherent that it cannot be properly managed in its current form, and that this problem explains why top-level officials often are unaware of trouble below them.

The reviews also found that a combination of problems amount to fundamental flaws, rather than random or period slip-ups that can easily be fixed, the defense officials said. They said the nuclear forces are currently meeting the demands of the mission but are finding it increasingly hard to cope.

To illustrate the degree of decay in the ICBM force, the review found that maintenance crews had access to only one tool set required to tighten bolts on the warhead end of the Minuteman 3 missile, and that this single tool set was being used by crews at all three ICBM bases. They had to share it via Federal Express delivery, the defense officials said. The crews now have one at each of the three bases.

When he ordered the two reviews in February, shortly after the Air Force announced it was investigating an exam-cheating ring at one ICBM base and a related drug investigation implicating missile crew members, Hagel was said to be flabbergasted that such misbehavior could be infecting the force.

“He said, ‘What is going on here?’” one of the senior defense officials recalled.

Among his more significant moves, Hagel authorized the Air Force to put a four-star general in charge of its nuclear forces, the two senior defense officials said.

The top Air Force nuclear commander currently is a three-star. Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson is responsible not only for the 450 Minuteman ICBMs but also the nuclear bomber force. Hagel has concluded that a four-star would be able to exert more influence within the Air Force, the defense officials said.

Hagel also OK’d a proposal to upgrade the top nuclear force official at Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon from a two-star general to a three-star, the officials said.

The review’s authors, retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch and retired Navy Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., found fault with one of the unique features of life in the nuclear forces. It is called the Personnel Reliability Program, designed to monitor the mental fitness of people to be entrusted with the world’s deadliest weapons.

Over time, that program has devolved into a burdensome administrative exercise that detracts from the mission, the authors found, according to the senior defense officials. Hagel ordered that it be overhauled.

Hagel concluded that despite tight Pentagon budgets, billions of dollars more will be needed over the next five years to upgrade equipment. That will include a proposal to replace the Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey helicopter fleet that is part of the security forces at ICBM bases. The Air Force declared them out of date years ago but put available resources into other priorities.

The defense officials said Hagel would propose an amount between $1 billion and $10 billion in additional investment. An exact amount had not yet been determined.

Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said Thursday that while he had not seen the Hagel reviews or heard what actions Hagel was ordering, he was skeptical that it would make much difference.

“Throwing money after problems may fix some technical issues but it is unlikely to resolve the dissolution that must come from sitting in a silo hole in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come,” Kristensen said.

A cascade of embarrassments befell the Air Force over the past two years, beginning with an AP story in May 2013 revealing one missile officer’s lament of “rot” inside the force. Another AP story in November disclosed that an independent assessment for the Air Force found signs of “burnout” and elevated levels of personal misconduct among missile launch crews and missile security forces.

The AP also disclosed last year that four ICBM launch officers were disciplined for violating security rules by opening the blast door to their underground command post while one crew member was asleep.

Just last week the AP disclosed that the Air Force fired two nuclear commanders and disciplined a third, providing evidence that leadership lapses are continuing even as top Air Force officials attempt to bring stability to the ICBM force.

The most senior officer to be relieved Nov. 3 was Col. Carl Jones, vice commander of the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force base in Wyoming. He had been investigated for inappropriate behavior, including alleged cruelty toward a subordinate.

TIME Security

Report: Feds Using Airplanes to Target Criminal Suspects’ Cell-Phone Data

Cessna taxiing
Wellsie82—Moment Open/Getty Images

Devices on planes said to simulate cell towers and trick phones into reporting data

The Justice Department is using equipment on board aircraft that simulates cell towers to collect data from criminal suspects’ cell phones, according to a report Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources familiar with the operations, reports that a program operating under the U.S. Marshals Service is said to use small aircraft flying from five different airports around the country. Devices aboard those planes called “dirtboxes” essentially trick the suspects’ cellphones into thinking they’re connecting to legitimate cell towers from big wireless carriers like Verizon or AT&T, allowing the feds to scoop up personal data and location information about those targeted.

However, the report details those devices could be gathering data from “tens of thousands” of Americans in a single flight, meaning nonsuspects are likely to be included in the data roundup. The new report could shed some light on earlier reports of mysterious “phony” cell towers that security researchers have found around the country.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal

TIME National Security

Revealed: The Navy SEAL Who Killed bin Laden

Former SEALs preemptively revealed his name in protest of his decision to come forward

The identity of the Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama bin Laden was a closely held secret until Thursday, when a site operated by former SEALs disclosed his name.

Robert O’Neill, a 38-year-old Montana native, was planning to reveal that he killed bin Laden in the May 2011 raid next week in interviews with Fox News and the Washington Post. But the former SEALs released his name in protest of his decision to come forward.

Read more at the Washington Post

Read next: Former Navy SEAL Who Wrote Bin Laden Raid Book Under Investigation

TIME National Security

Former Navy SEAL Who Wrote Bin Laden Raid Book Under Investigation

Book Review No Easy Day
"No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden," by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer. AP

Matt Bissonnette wrote 'No Easy Day' (2012) under the pen name Mark Owen

A former Navy SEAL is being investigated by the Justice Department for potentially outing classified material in his best-selling book about the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to a new report.

An attorney for Matt Bissonnette told The New York Times that his client, who wrote No Easy Day under the name Mark Owen, had apologized for not allowing the Pentagon to sign off on his book and offered to relinquish a portion of the millions in royalties he earned from it. Others familiar with the probe said investigators are also interested in Bissonnette’s paid speeches at corporate events.

The report of an investigation comes as Bissonnette readies to release a second book called No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL.

[NYT]

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