TIME intelligence

White House Doesn’t Rule Out Cyber Counterattack in Sony Hack

Calls it a "serious national security matter"

The White House is treating the massive hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment as a “serious national security matter” and is currently devising a “proportional response” to the cyberattack, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Earnest said there have been a number of daily meetings at the White House about the hack, and that there are “a range of options that are under consideration right now” for a response. Earnest would not rule out a U.S. cyber counterattack on those behind the Sony hack, saying officials are mindful of the need for a “proportional response.”

“This is something that’s being treated as a serious national security matter,” he said. “There is evidence to indicate that we have seen destructive activity with malicious intent that was initiated by a sophisticated actor.”

Read more: Everything we know about Sony, The Interview and North Korea

Earnest would not publicly name the “sophisticated actor” behind the attack, even as U.S. officials have linked North Korea to the hack—something Pyongyang has denied. “I’m not in a position to confirm any attribution at this point,” Earnest said.

The incident remains under investigation by the Federal Bureau Investigation and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, and Earnest said those efforts are “progressing.” Earnest said it’s unlikely officials will be able to fully disclose the eventual response. “I don’t anticipate that we’ll be in a position where we’re gonna be able to be completely forthcoming about every single element of the response that has been decided upon,” he said.

Asked about Sony’s decision to pull the film The Interview from distribution in response to threats of 9/11-style attacks from hackers, Earnest said: “The White House stands squarely on the side of artists and other private citizens who want to freely express their views.”

Read more: You can’t see The Interview, but TIME’s movie critic did

“This is a decision that Sony should make,” Earnest added. “This is a private company.”

The hack exposed reams of employees’ data and embarrassing email exchanges between executives. It came as Sony was preparing to release The Interview, which has been fiercely criticized by North Korea for depicting a fictional assassination attempt of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un. With a growing number of movie theaters saying they wouldn’t screen the film amid the threads of attack, Sony canceled its release late Wednesday.

“Administration officials were consulted about the film prior to its release at the request of the company that was producing the movie,” Earnest said, confirming that officials had screened the film.

TIME National Security

Passengers Arriving in the U.S. Are Profiled by Nationality, TSA Head Says

John Pistole
Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 14, 2014 Molly Riley—AP

People from Yemen, Syria and certain other countries are subject to greater checks

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) profiles airline travelers based on national origin, screening passengers from Syria, Yemen and other nations with extra attention, the agency’s outgoing head said Tuesday.

John Pistole told the Associated Press that a passenger’s Yemeni or Syrian citizenship might be relevant to the TSA, just as a person’s citizenship of a South or Central American country might be relevant to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Though the Justice Department last week barred federal law-enforcement agencies from profiling based on religion and national origin, it gave an exception to the TSA, as well as to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other security-related agencies.

Pistole, who is leaving the agency at the end of the month, oversaw a reversal in the TSA’s screening practices to shift resources toward chiefly monitoring travelers designated as high or unknown risk. Most passengers are classified as “no known risk” and are now swiftly moved through the security process.

[AP]

TIME National Security

A Contrivance of an Alliance

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
U.S. Navy warplanes prepare to attack ISIS targets. Navy photo / Robert Burck

The U.S. is largely flying solo when it comes to attacking ISIS

The U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is complex. A coalition made up of the U.S. and seven allies began bombing ISIS targets in Iraq in August. A month later, the U.S. began bombing targets belonging to the militant group in Syria, along with four allies.

Should the civilized world care that none of the seven U.S. allies bombing ISIS targets in Iraq (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Netherlands and the United Kingdom) are bombing ISIS in Syria? And that, ipso facto, none of the four U.S. allies bombing targets in Syria (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) are bombing ISIS targets in Iraq?

Does it matter that the U.S. stands alone when it comes to bombing both?

Perhaps more important is the lopsided nature of the air strikes: since Sept. 23, the allies have accounted for nearly 40% of close air support, interdiction and escort sorties, and 25% of total missions flown. “Many of those sorties that conduct dynamic targeting in support of ground forces require specialized capability, and frequently they do not result in a necessary strike on [ISIS] forces, equipment or facilities,” Gary Boucher, spokesman for the campaign, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve, said Tuesday.

But the allies have accounted for only 14% of the air strikes. That’s less than one out of every seven. Think of it like a workweek: the U.S. military is working Monday through Saturday; and the allies work Sunday. It works out to an average of two non-U.S. daily air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, shared among seven nations, and less than one non-U.S. air strike per day among the four countries attacking ISIS targets in Syria.

“The real problem is how few sorties most other countries are flying,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A 62-country token alliance is only marginally better than the U.S. alone.”

As small as the allies’ contributions may be, there are back-home considerations driving which side of the porous Iraq-Syria border they’re bombing. Many of the nations bombing ISIS in Iraq fought alongside the U.S. there following the 2003 invasion, and don’t want their earlier sacrifices to be in vain. The states bombing inside Syria want to see Syrian President Bashar Assad gone.

The anemic response from the world community suggests the war against various forms of Islamic zealotry is going to get worse before it gets better. Following Monday’s jihadist-inspired bloodshed at an Australian chocolate shop, and Tuesday’s massacre of at least 141 people, nearly all of them schoolchildren, by Islamic militants at a military-run school in Pakistan, it’s past time to ask when the international community is going to come up with a plan to deal with this metastasizing horror.

The right response isn’t necessarily more bombing by more countries. The targets are often elusive and defy military action. But until there’s more buy-in from the rest of the world, Washington’s efforts, military and otherwise, are doomed.

TIME National Security

Majority of Americans Believe Torture Can Prevent Terrorism Sometimes

49 percent of Americans believe torture techniques such was waterboarding are sometimes justified

More than half of Americans (57 percent) believe that interrogation tactics such as waterboarding — techniques widely considered to be torture — are successful in preventing terrorist attacks at least some of the time.

Roughly a quarter (23 percent) believe that many of the techniques in the CIA’s interrogation program, publicized in a Senate Intelligence Committee report last week, produce reliable counterterrorism information often, CBS News reports. The poll of 1,003 adults was conducted by phone on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA.

Close to half (49 percent) of Americans believe interrogation techniques such as waterboarding are sometimes justified, while 36 percent believe they are never justified. The percentage of those who believe the techniques are justified has slightly risen, compared to three years ago.

Americans consider these interrogation techniques to be torture:

  • 73 percent believe threatening to sexually abuse a prisoner’s mother is torture
  • 70 percent believe forcing a detainee to stay awake for 180 hours is torture
  • 69 percent believe waterboarding is torture
  • 57 percent believe forcing detainees to take ice-water baths is torture

A little more than half (52 percent) of Americans believe publicizing the program tactics will negatively impact U.S. national security, while a third believe it will have no effect.

[CBS News]

TIME National Security

Dick Cheney on CIA Interrogations Order: ‘I’d Do It Again in a Minute’

Former Vice President appears on Meet the Press

Former Vice President Dick Cheney fiercely defended the CIA’s brutal, post-9/11 interrogation tactics on Sunday, days after the release of a controversial Senate report into the practices.

In a Meet the Press interview, Cheney, who has spoken in favor of the so-called enhanced interrogation program more than any other Bush administration official, said he has no qualms about seeing the order given again.

“I’d do it again in a minute,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

The former Vice President was sharply critical of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report, which was concluded in 2012 and partially declassified last week. It found that the interrogation practices were not effective, while the CIA maintains their efficacy is “unknowable.”

“It worked,” Cheney maintained. “It absolutely worked.”

MORE: What the Torture Report Reveals About Zero Dark Thirty

He drew a distinction between the report’s graphic description of “rectal feedings” and other tactics like waterboarding, which he maintained are not torture.

“What was done here was not one of the techniques approved,” Cheney said, adding that he believed it was carried out for medical reasons. At least five detainees were subjected to rectal rehydration or feeding, according to the report. “We made certain going forward we were not violating the law,” he continued.

Cheney said he was unconcerned by the report’s findings that more than two dozen detainees were found to be wrongfully held, including a mentally challenged man: “I’m more concerned with the bad guys that were released than the few that were innocent.”

He lauded the agency’s interrogators, who have come under renewed fire in the wake of the report’s release. “I’m perfectly comfortable that they should be praised,” he said. “They should be decorated.”

TIME National Security

Attack on Sony Marks a Dangerous Escalation in Cyber Warfare

US-ENTERTAINMENT-SONY-CYBER-ATTACK
The electronic attack on Sony Pictures marks a sharp escalation in cyber warfare, a senior lawmaker said Friday. Frederick J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

House intel chief warns that U.S. continues to ignore all-but-certain impending disaster

The recent cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment marks a sharp escalation in computer warfare and highlights the growing U.S. vulnerability to a cataclysmic attack, the outgoing chairman of the House Intelligence Committee warned Friday.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., says a nation-state is responsible for the attack. The culpable country, he suggested, is most likely North Korea, stung by the company’s new production of The Interview, a movie comedy built around a U.S. plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

“That was the first [time]—if you take at face value public reports—a nation state decided a retribution act could result in destroying data, bringing down a company,” Rogers said. While he declined to finger North Korea as the culprit, he made it clear he believes it is responsible.

Pyongyang has said it had nothing to do with the attack, which destroyed Sony computer files and took the company’s computers offline. The hackers also stole terabytes of embarrassing internal information, some of which has been leaked, including senior executives making racist jokes about President Obama. But North Korea praised the attack as a “righteous deed.”

“I would argue, as a former FBI guy,” Rogers said, “that when a nation state says ‘This group…did this on behalf of the North Korean people because of the Great Leader, and we appreciate it,’ as we would say in the FBI, that is a clue.”

Rogers said the U.S. must beef up its cyber defenses, and warned that the public continuing sense that it has more to fear from the federal National Security Agency than hackers is misplaced. A recent bill that would have given the NSA a bigger role in protecting U.S. computer systems failed to make it through the Senate after passing in the House.

Rogers said there has been a series of smaller attacks that should have awakened the U.S. to the problem:

I thought maybe Target would kind of do it, like `Hey, now we’re finally seeing how sophisticated these folks are. That was an international criminal enterprise using nation-state capability.’ I thought ‘Hey, that’ll be good—now we’ll get their attention.’ People went ‘Nah, whatever—it didn’t cost me any money.’ Then they went to SuperValu, it went to others, now it went to your medical records, it went into your financial records.

Even the attack on Sony didn’t have the impact Rogers believes it should have:

The result of Sony on the public psyche is, ‘Holy mackerel, I want to be a movie producer—those guys make a lot of money.’

Rogers, who is leaving Congress after 14 years to become a talk-radio host, said such nonchalance is dangerous. “Somebody, at some point, is going to decide to flick the switch,” he said. “And when they do, we will have a significant economic catastrophic event.”

TIME National Security

Guantanamo Bay Detainee Details ‘Sadistic’ Abuse

Guantanamo Bay Facility Continues To Serve As Detention Center For War Detainees
A Public Affairs Officer escorts media through the currently closed Camp X-Ray which was the first detention facility to hold 'enemy combatants' at the U.S. Naval Station on June 27, 2013 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Deprived of sleep, drugged, and forced to watch pornographic footage or videos of other prisoners being abused

A man detained in Guantanamo Bay for nearly 13 years has said he was subjected to “dirty and sadistic” abuse at the prison, days after a Senate report revealed the extent of the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation tactics.

In a first-person account for the human rights organization Reprieve and published on CNN, Samir Naji from Yemen says he was deprived of sleep, drugged, and forced to watch pornographic footage or videos of other prisoners being abused.

Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of being a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, was cleared for release in 2009 but remains in detention along with 135 other inmates.

“The dirty and sadistic methods I endured — which were then taken directly to Abu Ghraib — achieved nothing, except to shame that American flag hanging in the prison corridor,” he says in the account. “America cannot keep hiding from its past, and its present, like this. Our stories, and our continued detention, cannot be made to disappear.”

Read more at CNN

TIME Military

Zap Wars: U.S. Navy Successfully Tests Laser Weapon in the Persian Gulf

Service says ray gun can handle multiple threats at 59 cents a shot

For decades, the Pentagon has been saying that laser weapons are just around the corner. Thursday, the U.S. military finally turned that corner.

The Navy announced that it had deployed and fired a laser weapon this fall aboard a warship in the Persian Gulf. During a series of test shots, the laser hit and destroyed targets mounted atop a small boat, blasted a six-foot drone from the sky, and destroyed other moving targets.

“This is the first time in recorded history that a directed energy weapons system has ever deployed on anything,” Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, told reporters at the Pentagon. “A lot of people talk about it—we decided to go do it.”

The Navy’s laser weapon system—LaWS, in sea-service jargon—was fired from the USS Ponce, a one-time amphibious ship that was converted to an “afloat forward staging base” in 2012 and assigned to the 5th Fleet in Bahrain. Firing a laser from the surface of the Persian Gulf is challenging because heat, humidity, dust and salt water can reduce its power.

The Navy spent about $40 million over the past seven years developing LaWS, which actually consists of six commercial welding lasers lashed together and aimed at the same point. It has proven effective at ranges of up to about a mile.

A chief petty officer, sitting inside the ship’s combat information center, directs the solid-state laser with an Xbox-like controller. It generates about 30 kilowatts of destructive power, roughly equal to 40 horsepower. Three times as much power is lost as heat rather than light.

Navy officers say the weapon’s power is adjustable, ranging from distract to disable to destroy. They added it would be ideal for asymmetric threats, including small attack boats (a favorite tactic of Iran, which undoubtedly was paying close attention to the tests off its shore). U.S. Central Command has given the Ponce’s skipper approval to use the laser for self-defense, if needed.

“Light from a laser beam can reach a target almost instantly,” a July congressional report said. “After disabling one target, a laser can be redirected in several seconds to another target. Fast engagement times can be particularly important in situations, such as near-shore operations, where missiles, rockets, artillery shells, and mortars could be fired at Navy ships from relatively close distances.”

But lasers can be disabled by bad weather, and are limited to line-of-sight confrontations. Initially, they’ll complement a warship’s traditional longer-range guns and missiles. The lessons learned from the Ponce tests will be cranked into a new generation of laser weaponry, which the Navy hopes to begin installing on the fleet in the early 2020s.

Such weapons are safer than traditional shells and missiles, which are crammed with explosives and propellant. They’re considerably cheaper, too: the energy required to fire the Ponce’s laser costs 59 cents a shot, compared to a shell or missile, which can cost $1 million or more.

Read next: U.S. Closes Bagram Prison in Afghanistan

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Shadow Boxes in War Powers Debate

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014, before the Senate Foreign Relations hearing on "Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against IS."
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014, before the Senate Foreign Relations hearing on "Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against IS." Molly Riley—AP

Secretary of State talks military action against ISIS with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The Obama Administration’s policy on Syria is frequently criticized as muddy — for opposing both the regime of President Bashar Assad and a major extremist faction in that country’s civil war, yet mounting military operations only against the latter, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS. So there was a certain thematic unity in the appearance of Secretary of State John Kerry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

Kerry came to iron out the constitutional authorization for the administration’s military actions against the Sunni militants. Such weighty legal questions are never easy. In theory Congress could declare war, as Republican Sen. Rand Paul insists the Constitution demands. Tuesday’s proceedings, in fact, were sparked by Paul’s effort to attach a declaration of war to a water bill a few days earlier. “The Constitution is quite clear that this responsibility rests with Congress,” Paul told Kerry, nearly three hours into the marathon hearing.

But as Kerry pointed out in reply, the last time Congress declared war was for World War II. Conflicts since then have been authorized by other legal mechanisms, such as the War Powers Act, passed after the Vietnam War dragged on for more than a decade. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq went forward from separate Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, passed in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The White House maintains that those measures also authorize military action against ISIS, which has been going on since August in Iraq, and since September in Syria. So what was Kerry doing at Tuesday’s hearing?

Being diplomatic, apparently, as befits a Secretary of State. President Barack Obama has said that although he doesn’t really need a new authorization, a buy-in on any sustained military action makes good political and constitutional sense, and so he would welcome a measure specifically naming ISIS, or ISIL, as U.S. officials refer to the group. But as Foreign Relations Committee members complained at length, the White House has failed to provide language for such a bill. “The reason we’re here is a total failure of the President to lead on this issue by sending anything up here,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who serves as ranking minority member, but will become chair next year, when the GOP becomes majority in both chambers. “And we all want the same thing.”

Not exactly, Kerry said: From the administration’s point of view, the measure written by the Democratic Chairman, Sen.Robert Menedez of New Jersey, is a good starting point. But the President would rather remove language that limits the circumstances under which he could send ground troops into action — even though Obama has repeatedly stated ground troops will not be used against ISIS, except to train the Syrian and Iraqi forces that should do all the fighting. “I don’t think anyone wants to get into a long-term ground operation here,” Kerry said. “But we also don’t want to hamstring our generals.” The White House has not produced specific language it desires, however, perhaps to avoid headlines suggesting Obama wants to keep boots on the ground as an option.

Whatever the reason for the reticence, it irks members of both parties. “If he wants authority to win the fight, he’s got to tell us what the fight looks like,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican. Christopher Coons of Delaware, a Democratic Senator, complained the White House was turning its back on support from its own party: “We can’t go home and defend what the strategy is.”

The entire exercise, in a Lame Duck session, was academic at worst, and at best a dress rehearsal for the new year, when the Republicans will take control and — given the hawkish tenor of the GOP members — likely give Obama all the freedom he asks. Except for Paul, who scolded the administration on strict constructionist grounds, the harshest words were from Sen. John McCain, who called the hearing “kind of a charade.” The Arizona Republican stormed out after refusing to concede Kerry’s suggestion that more moderate Syrian rebels the administration has promised to arm are not, in fact, being left to die — owing, Kerry hinted, to secret measures that could not be discussed in a public setting. “More is being done, and more is being done than I can talk about in this hearing,” he said.

TIME intelligence

Torture Debate Once Again Hinges on a ‘Ticking Time Bomb’

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va. Larry Downing—Reuters

The metaphor comes back

In the debate over the government’s use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques to question terror suspects the classic scenario put forth to defend torture is the “ticking time bomb.” Throughout the 2000s, torture proponents raised the specter of an imminent attack on innocent Americans to argue that coercive tactics might not just be permissible but morally necessary.

In the wake of the release of a Senate report critical of the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture the metaphor has returned with a vengeance.

In summarizing the findings Tuesday on the floor of the Senate, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said that Senate investigators never found a single instance of it happening.

“At no time did the C.I.A.’s coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of intelligence on an imminent threat that many believe was the justification for the use of these techniques. The Committee never found an example of this hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario,” she said.

But in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal online shortly after Feinstein began speaking, six former directors and deputy directors of the CIA argued that was too narrow of a reading of what a “ticking time bomb” means.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, former directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden wrote that the CIA “had evidence that al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks,” that Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and reports (which turned out not to be accurate) that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York and evidence that al Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax.

“It felt like the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario—every single day,” they wrote.

On page 181, the Senate report notes that the “ticking time bomb” was also used as a justification by former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee in a response to a Department of Justice report. Bybee stated that “the ‘ticking time bomb’ that could justify the necessity defense was, in fact, a ‘real world’ scenario,” arguing that convicted terrorist Jose Padilla was believed to have planted a dirty bomb when he was captured, an account Senate investigators say was “inaccurate.”

According to The New Yorker, the “ticking time bomb” conceit first appeared in a 1960 novel about the counterinsurgency tactics France employed in defending its occupation of Algeria—a fictionalized account that does not appear to have been based in actual events. The scenario enjoyed its greatest notoriety as the central plot device for every season of the fictional show 24. But Senate investigators say that’s where it remains — in the realm of fiction.

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