British and Canadian Governments Accidentally Exposed Passwords and Security Plans to the Entire Internet

By misconfiguring pages on Trello, a popular project management website, the governments of the United Kingdom and Canada exposed to the entire internet details of software bugs and security plans, as well as passwords for servers, official internet domains, conference calls, and an event-planning system.

The U.K. government also exposed a small quantity of code for running a government website, as well as a limited number of emails. All told, between the two governments, a total of 50 Trello pages, known on the site as “boards,” were published on the open web and indexed by Google.

The computer researcher who found the sensitive material, Kushagra Pathak, had disclosed just this past April a wide swath of additional private data exposed to the public on Trello, which is widely used by software developers, among others. That earlier disclosure revealed how, on dozens of public Trello boards run by various organizations and individuals, the information available included email and social media credentials, as well as specific information on unfixed bugs and security vulnerabilities. Pathak even found an NGO sharing login details to a donor management software database, which in turn contained, he said, personally identifiable information and financial records on donors. In both the April and new security research, the sensitive data on Trello was tracked down starting with a simple Google query.

The data exposures underscore how easy it has become to improperly leak sensitive data in the era of cloud computing. More broadly, they show how the use and development of software has become a complex endeavor, involving a wide range of independent online systems, and how this complexity itself represents a security risk, encouraging users and developers to take shortcuts intended to cut through the morass. Tools like Trello can help master the tangle of development in a safe and constructive way, but can also be misused.

He hopes to draw attention to what he believes is a major issue: the proliferation of sensitive information on public Trello boards. It is incredibly easy to search for such boards on Google.

In his new research, Pathak first discovered 25 public Trello boards belonging to different U.K. government departments. These included login credentials to a U.K. government account on a domain registrar, emails that had been pasted onto the boards, a link to a snippet of backend code of a government site, and information on bugs, albeit not bugs disclosing security issues. Also included were boards with conference call details and access codes, login information for a server administration tool known as CPanel, a discussion of how to prevent personal information from being exposed to Google’s web analytics platform, and details about an earlier incident in which such information was exposed to the platform. Pathak reported this through the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre, which identified the boards and removed most of them within two or three days.

Shortly thereafter, Pathak found 25 Canadian government boards that had even more sensitive information, such as remote file access, or FTP, credentials, and login details for the Eventbrite event-planning platform. Other boards included a link to an Excel file about managing control of web applications, discussion of additional security testing in the aftermath of a recent security incident, links to a Google folder with research documents, a security working group’s board with tasks related to audits and security testing, and a bug discussion. Pathak reported these to the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre, which also took prompt action to remove the boards, most of which were down within a week.

Pathak began researching computer science and hacking when he was young, eventually teaching himself to program. He hopes to draw attention to what he believes is a major issue: the proliferation of sensitive information on public Trello boards. It is incredibly easy to search such boards on Google; one could recently find and search within them, for example, using the search modifier like “inurl:https://trello.com/b/,” which restricts Google to finding only results whose address begins with that text. Trello cards can be searched with the modifier “inurl:https://trello.com/c/” — this yields thousands (if not millions) of results, and many contain sensitive information.

Pathak said that in many cases, it can be very difficult to identify the organization to which a board belongs. “I literally spent hours finding the contact details of organizations to which a board belonged so I could report them,” he told me.

Trello co-founder Michael Pryor provided a written statement highlighting the company’s privacy safeguards.

“Trello boards are set to private by default and must be manually changed to public by the user,” the statement read. “We strive to make sure public boards are being created intentionally and have built in safeguards to confirm the intention of a user before they make a  board publicly visible. Additionally, visibility settings are displayed persistently on the top of every board.”

In a Medium comment, Pathak said that he has seen many organizations using public Trello boards to share useful information that they want to be listed in the search results, so there are good reasons to expose some boards. But he also said it’s possible that some boards are made public due to sheer laziness: it’s slightly easier to make a board public and share the URL internally than it is to add people to a Trello team of authorized viewers.

It’s true, as Pryor stated, that Trello’s boards are set to private by default and that when a user sets a board to public, the visibility setting and what it entails (including search engine indexing) is clearly explained. But Pathak had three additional suggestions to these built-in safeguards: Trello could highlight the visibility in red if a board is set to public; it could show a pop-up notice to users when they create or change board visibility to public in order to let them know that this can be viewed by anyone with the link and is indexed by search engines; and it could add could add to the Trello interface that automatically checks to try and detect if a user has posted a username or password to a public board.

Informed of Pathak’s suggestions, Pryor said that Trello is looking at other similar cloud apps and how they balance users’ quite often safe decision to share a set of information publicly with the desire to protect against inappropriate sharing of sensitive data. In the meantime, security researchers who find additional boards with sensitive information can send them to support@trello.com, and Trello will get in contact with the owner and close them down if needed, according to Pryor.

U.K.’s Government Digital Service, which declined to comment for publication, provided its staff with internal communication guidance to make sure it is using online tools such as Trello appropriately; the guidance states that no personal or sensitive data should be published on Trello. The service also has an Information Assurance Team to guide staff on the appropriate use of online tools.

A written statement provided by a spokesperson for the government of Canada said, “The Government of Canada recognizes that open access to modern digital tools is essential to transforming how public servants work and serve Canadians. … Departments and agencies of the Government of Canada must also apply adequate security controls to protect their users, information, and assets. This includes ensuring that their users are appropriately educated about their obligation to safeguard information and assets and to never use external web services and tools for communicating or storing sensitive information unless the service is approved by the appropriate security and technical authorities. Government of Canada employees are being reminded of their obligation never to communicate or store sensitive information on Trello boards or any other unauthorized digital tool or service.”

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Donald Trump Isn’t Just Slashing the Refugee Quota, He’s Dismantling the Entire Resettlement System

It has been four years since Deborah Jane was attacked by a gang of men led by her abusive ex-husband. The men scalded the then-39-year-old mother of four with acid as punishment for speaking out about the domestic abuse suffered by many women in her rural Ugandan community. Maimed and fearing for her life, Jane fled to Nairobi, Kenya, where, after a lengthy process, she won a coveted spot on the list of refugees to be resettled in the United States. She arrived alone in Columbus, Ohio, in January 2016, and immediately applied to have her children — the youngest of whom was 4 years old — to join her in the U.S. A year later, around the same time Donald Trump assumed the presidency, her paperwork was approved. “We just needed the children to do interviews, medical — a few things, and then they’d be able to come,” Jane told The Intercept, “But since then, there has been only silence.”

Jane’s soft voice is weary. Now 43, she works as a home-care nurse by day and pulls overnight shifts at a local bakery while also attending business school, but her fight to reunite with her children has become a full-time job of its own. She has lobbied numerous times at the offices of both Ohio senators — Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman — and has sought legal help from refugee advocacy groups and local churches, but feels no closer to an answer. “No one can tell me what the real problem is — only that their cases are not moving. I think the current administration just doesn’t want refugees like me to come here. I don’t know why,” she said. “But I don’t believe God wants me to be separated from my children forever. I will keep praying. I will never give up.”

“I think the current administration just doesn’t want refugees like me to come here. I don’t know why.”

The roadblocks Jane faces are part of what advocates describe as an apparently concerted effort by the Trump White House to systematically dismantle the nation’s refugee resettlement program. Some of this onslaught has been explicit: As the world’s already-unprecedented refugee population continues to climb, the Trump administration is considering slashing the annual refugee cap to 25,000 for the 2019 fiscal year, down from this year’s historic low of 45,000, the New York Times reported earlier this month. The administration last year suspended all refugee resettlement for 120 days and diverted resources and personnel away from refugee processing, further weakening an already-backlogged system. These disruptions have caused a cascade of delays and interagency confusion, while a lack of transparency leaves refugees and advocates alike at the mercy of an increasingly antagonistic system. Sources familiar with the program describe chaos amid shifting security protocols, with particular detriment to refugees from the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries.

The president is expected to announce his recommended refugee quota in September, ahead of the October 1 start of the fiscal year. Regardless of what he decides, however, advocates report that the refugee quota is no longer a reliable indicator of actual refugee admissions. At the current pace, the administration is on track to settle about 20,000 refugees — out of a global population of roughly 25 million — by September 30, the end of the fiscal year. In 2017, the U.S. admitted only 33,000 refugees, marking the first time that the country resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world. “In the past, refugee numbers fluctuated at times, but it was always understood to be temporary, with the goal to return to the normal numbers around 95,000,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project, “but this is different. It seems as if the administration is trying to rewrite the status quo — a status quo that is very hostile to refugees, and immigrants in general.”

A refugee ceiling of 25,000 would be the lowest since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, and it would follow the hard-line approach to all types of immigration touted by White House adviser Stephen Miller. Last year, Miller pushed for even more aggressive cuts to the refugee resettlement program — suggesting a cap of 15,000 — but faced pushback from other administration officials, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke. With Tillerson’s and Duke’s departures earlier this year, refugee advocates fear that Miller may prevail this time around. “We don’t get any insider information. We just hear what the government chooses to announce to the public, and then we have to adjust accordingly,” said Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham, which has a State Department contract to resettle refugees. When Trump set a cap of 45,000 last year, Clark said, roughly 60,000 already-vetted refugees were left in limbo. “Since Trump took office, we’ve learned to prepare for the worst. More cuts would be tragic, but they wouldn’t surprise us.”

Demonstrators gather in solidarity against President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. and suspending the nation’s refugee program Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, outside City Hall in Cincinnati. In addition, earlier in the day Mayor John Cranley declared Cincinnati a "sanctuary city," meaning city will not enforce federal immigration laws against people who are here illegally, in keeping with current policy. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Demonstrators gather on Jan. 30, 2017, in solidarity against President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. and suspending the nation’s refugee program, outside City Hall in Cincinnati.

Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Trump’s war on refugees started on the campaign trail, where he warned audiences to “lock their doors” to refugees, casting them as criminals and extremists, and he wasted no time in codifying this hostility upon reaching the White House. He imposed a 120-day moratorium on all refugee admissions with the same pen stroke he used to sign the now-infamous travel ban. “The current administration has politicized refugees in a way we’ve never seen, even after September 11,” said Bates. “The signals we’re getting from the White House now is that this is not a temporary response to any particular event. It seems to be a permanent, blanket stance that is anti-refugee.”

The 120-day ban on refugee admissions expired last October, but the resettlement system has struggled to recover. The administration has burdened the program with new “extreme vetting” measures and additional procedures, drastically slowing a sprawling interagency process that already takes an average of two years to complete. The FBI is one of the agencies that runs background checks on refugees, and as the Daily Beast recently reported, its turnover for those cases has dropped from hundreds a week to the single digits. Approximately 100 officers from the Refugee Affairs Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, known as USCIS, are now handling domestic asylum cases, according to an agency official. As a result, there are fewer personnel available to process refugee cases abroad. Other sources close to the issue estimate that the backlog of applications includes over 200,000 refugees abroad who are awaiting interviews by U.S. officials, with about only 30 refugee officers available to conduct these assessments worldwide. As a result, applicant interviews — a prerequisite to resettlement — have been suspended or delayed, often causing medical clearances and other elements of their applications to expire.

It is likely that the refugee program will have to be rebuilt if a future U.S. administration moves toward welcoming more refugees.

The government does not publicize the precise timing or locations of circuit rides — the trips USCIS officials make abroad to conduct interviews and decide on applications — citing security concerns. USCIS spokesperson Michael Bars told The Intercept that while “USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis,” the government began in early 2017 to reassign some refugee officers to the Asylum Division. “Ultimately, this diversion of resources compromises the ability for officers to conduct interviews abroad for individuals legitimately seeking refugee status.”

The result has been the reduction of the overall refugee flow to a bare trickle. “The pipeline has dried up,” said Clark of World Relief. “When there aren’t enough people abroad to interview and process the cases, there is no way to keep the stream of vetted refugees coming.” In the past year, Clark said, his Durham office has seen only about one-third of its usual number of cases. “In 10 years of this work, I’ve seen numbers fluctuate somewhat, but the changes under the Trump administration have been by far the most drastic,” he said. “This feels like a different kind of change.”

The drastic decrease in refugee admissions has led to the weakening of decades-old systems that help refugees transition to life in their new home, making it likely that the program will have to be rebuilt if a future U.S. administration moves toward welcoming more refugees. Many refugee centers have shut down, while many others have been forced to cut staff, said Clark. “What made matters worse was, at the beginning of the fiscal year 2016, when [President Barack Obama] was pushing to take more refugees, many of us were told to beef up our staff in order to be able to accept 85,000 to 100,000. Then, after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the number was slashed to 45,000. Several hundred staff members lost their jobs.”

The institutional slow-down is just one element of Trump’s multipronged overhaul of the system. A closer look at refugee arrival data suggests the administration is also driving the program toward specific ethnic and demographic trends. Last month, the Refugee Council USA, an umbrella organization of resettlement programs contracted to work with the State Department, issued a damning report card on the administration’s performance in the first 10 months of the fiscal year. The report highlighted the disparity in nations of origin: As of July, the U.S. had settled fewer than a third of the number of Middle Eastern refugees expected, and barely half of those expected from Africa. In contrast, the country has welcomed roughly 75 percent of expected East Asian refugees, and all but fulfilled its projected number for Europeans.

“We’re getting fewer Afghans, no Syrians — the pattern seems clear.”

The Middle East, which hosts some of the world’s largest refugee populations, has been particularly neglected in terms of circuit rides, according to recent media reports that indicate that refugee processing in the region has essentially been halted. Indeed, as of July 31, the U.S. had admitted only 221 refugees from the Middle East, according to State Department data. Bars, the USCIS spokesperson, declined to comment on these allegations, but said the agency works with the State Department to determine the routes for those interviews. (The State Department did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.) On the ground, resettlement workers are noticing the difference. “We’ve definitely seen a shift in the nationalities of our clients since Trump,” said Clark. “We’re getting fewer Afghans, no Syrians — the pattern seems clear.”

Sirine Shebaya, senior staff attorney at the national civil rights and legal organization Muslim Advocates, said the religious makeup of the incoming refugee pool is striking as well. “Despite the fact that over half of the world’s refugees come from three Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan — admissions of Muslim-identifying refugees fell by 94 percent between January and November 2017,” she said. As of May, only about 2,000 Muslim refugees had been admitted this fiscal year, down from 38,900 in fiscal year 2016. Syria, Iraq, and Somalia are no longer among the top five countries of origin for refugees, reversing a trend that had taken shape in recent years. Shebaya blames a combination of burdensome vetting measures, Trump’s myriad bans, and an overall anti-Muslim sentiment for the reversal. “It seems that the government is intent on making it as difficult as possible for Muslims to come to the United States, whether as refugees or immigrants.”

Advocates are concerned “that the administration may use the shortfall in resettlements as an argument for lowering the ceiling,” Bates said. “It’s a strategic as well as moral failure to cut refugee resettlement at any time, but especially as we’re facing the worst crisis since World War II.” As it is, fewer than 1 percent of the worldwide refugee population can expect to be resettled, and Bates is worried that Trump’s race to the bottom will set a hostile example for other host countries. “Since Trump took office, we’ve seen many other nations start resettling fewer refugees, too. It’s a desperate time. And what happens next is really anyone’s guess.”

Top photo: Man Sing Sutam, a 48-year-old refugee from Bhutan, practices writing in English during a U.S. citizenship class in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 23, 2018. Columbus has the largest Bhutanese population in the United States.

The post Donald Trump Isn’t Just Slashing the Refugee Quota, He’s Dismantling the Entire Resettlement System appeared first on The Intercept.

328 NSA Documents Reveal “Vast Network” of Iranian Agents, Details of a Key Intelligence Coup, and A Fervor for Voice Matching Technology

It began not by tapping enemy insurgents’ phones or capturing their emails, but by following the money.

When the National Security Agency discovered that Iran may have been buying computer chips from the United States, routing them through a U.S. ally, and potentially supplying them to detonate bombs against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it credited so-called economic intelligence with the find.

And the solution was not a death blow delivered by the military, but rather a new regulation on the export of certain technologies via the Commerce Department, which the spy agency said would end up “saving American and coalition lives.”

The unusual strategy of tracing monetary flows to stop explosions is one of many significant disclosures contained in a batch of 328 internal NSA documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden and released by The Intercept today after research and redaction.

Also included in the material, which originates from SIDtoday, the newsletter of the agency’s core Signals Intelligence Directorate, is the untold story of how intelligence related to Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was finally acquired; an assessment that a “vast … network of Iranian agents”  operated in Iraq and influenced its government; a major push to hone the agency’s voice identification technology; details on how NSA staff deployed abroad viewed, and sometimes stereotyped, their host countries; and grumbling about having to comply with public-records laws.

Those stories and others are detailed in the highlights below; the NSA declined to answer questions about them. Also with this SIDtoday release, drawing on the same set of documents, Peter Maass profiles the NSA’s “SIGINT Curmudgeon,” Rahe Clancy, who wrote a beloved set of articles for SIDtoday, trying to instigate change from within the agency and riling up his fellow spies against its corporatization. Alleen Brown and Miriam Pensack, meanwhile, detail instances in which the NSA has spied on environmental disputes and around issues like climate change, overfishing, and water scarcity. And Micah Lee reveals that the NSA infiltrated virtual private computer networks used by various airlines, the Al Jazeera news network, and the Iraqi government.

RAWAH, IRAQ - NOVEMBER 23: In this handout provided by the USMC and released on November 27, 2006, U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., commander for Multi-National Forces-Iraq, speaks with U.S. Army Maj. Sean Bastian, commanding officer of a military transition team, during a Thanksgiving Day visit November 23, 2006 at Combat Outpost Rawah in Iraq's Al Anbar Province. Military transition teams are groups of U.S. service members who mentor Iraqi soldiers to eventually relieve Coalition Forces of security operations in Iraq. Casey complimented the Marines on the good work they've done in the region, and urged them to continue that work. Marines from the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion arrived in Iraq three months ago and provides security to this region of the Al Anbar Province. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Sapp/USMC via Getty Images)

U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., commander for Multi-National Force-Iraq, speaks with U.S. Army Maj. Sean Bastian, commanding officer of a military transition team, during a Thanksgiving Day visit Nov. 23, 2006, at Combat Outpost Rawah in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

Photo: Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Sapp/USMC via Getty Images

In Iraq, a “Vast and Disperse Network of Iranian Agents”

The NSA caught Iran smuggling American microprocessors that may have been used to bomb U.S. troops in Iraq, according to a May 2006 SIDtoday article. To import the chips, Iran set up front companies in the United Arab Emirates, an agency staffer wrote; the front companies then sent the microprocessors to customers in Iran and Syria.

The chips had both civilian and military capabilities and “have been used or are capable of being used” in the improvised explosive devices used extensively against U.S. forces in Iraq, the report concluded. Intelligence on the chip smuggling came not from intercepted military or diplomatic communications, as is typical at the agency, but rather through “economic reporting.”

Earlier the same year, an NSA representative who was embedded with U.S. Special Operations Command stated in a top-secret SIDtoday report that analysts had discovered “a vast and disperse network of Iranian agents in Iraq serving the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

In Kuwait, different NSA units deployed a satellite interception system to hear conversations between Iranian agents, according to SIDtoday. This produced new intelligence reports that “have focused on Iran’s (and specifically Iran’s external paramilitary and intelligence forces’) activities in Iraq and the influence they wield on important figures in the new Iraqi Government.”

SIDtoday’s 2006 reporting on Iran’s involvement in Iraq buttressed comments by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American military commander in Iraq, who told reporters in June that year that the military was “quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, I.E.D. technology and training to Shia extremist groups in Iraq.” By 2017, the New York Times would say that Iran dominated Iraq: Iran-sponsored militias dominated in Iraq’s south, and cabinet politicians who resisted Iran lost their jobs, while U.S. efforts in Iraq primarily focused on chasing the Islamic State in the country’s north.

U.S. Army soldiers make radio contact after arriving by helicopter at night at an undisclosed location south of Baghdad, Iraq where they believed a top leader of the insurgency and close associated of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was hiding, Sunday, June 5, 2005. Although the insurgent leader was not found, Americans and soldiers from the Iraqi Intervention Force detained 15 people. (AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg)

U.S. Army soldiers make radio contact after arriving by helicopter at night at an undisclosed location south of Baghdad, where they believed a top leader of the insurgency and close associated of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was hiding, June 5, 2005.

Photo: Jacob Silberberg/AP

How Key Al-Zarqawi Intelligence Was Obtained

In Iraq, at a strategic level, the U.S. was concerned about Iran; at the ground level, its top priority in 2006 was finding the Jordanian Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the most wanted terrorist in the country. Al-Zarqawi was the leader of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq and a fugitive from a Jordanian death sentence. The reward for information resulting in his capture or death reached $25 million.

Zarqawi was brutal to Iraqis as well as Americans. According to Joby Warrick, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” “The Jordanian also would seek to strike fear into Americans and other Westerners in Iraq with a series of kidnappings and videotaped beheadings. The first victim, Pennsylvania businessman Nicholas Berg, was butchered on camera by a hooded Islamist that CIA officers later confirmed was Zarqawi himself.”

NSA specialists were able to figure out the location of the internet cafe in Baghdad where the courier was about to access an email account.  An important message from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, “outlining al-Qaeda’s strategic vision for Iraq,” was obtained.

A major breakthrough had come in 2005, when NSA analysts intercepted, via a courier in Iraq, emails that were intended for al-Zarqawi from Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan. In partnership with U.S. forces, NSA specialists in geospatial intelligence and counterterrorism were able to figure out the location of the internet cafe in Baghdad where the courier was about to access an email account. The courier and a “traveling partner” were caught, and an important message from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, “outlining al-Qaeda’s strategic vision for Iraq,” was obtained. The 15-page document was made public by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2005, but the circumstances under which it was obtained appear to have not been previously reported. (Warrick’s book said “the CIA’s acquisition of the letter was a closely-guarded secret” and stated only that “the surveillance net” around al-Zarqawi “had snagged a singular piece of correspondence.”)

By early 2006, SIDtoday continued to report on how signals intelligence successes helped capture lesser-known figures. But the primary target remained at large and continued to issue propaganda videos. An intelligence analyst described the intensity of an assignment to a task force in Mosul, Iraq: “We worked for 14 to 18 hours a day, pouring over traffic and piecing together data to find threats or information that would help us locate and go get bad guys. You would feel every minute of those days, but you’d wake up one morning and it would be August.” 

Back at NSA headquarters, new mathematical analysis tools supplemented old-school language expertise in the process of reviewing audio recordings of al-Zarqawi posted on the open web, confirming his voice.

At last, on June 7, 2006, the “primary PC,” which stands for “precious cargo,” was found and dealt a death blow. In SIDtoday, an analyst from the NSA Cryptologic Services Group described the work of the Special Operations Task Force leading up to the targeted bomb strike that killed al-Zarqawi and others, reportedly in a two-story house near Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, saying that a combination of signals intelligence, imagery intelligence, human intelligence, and “detainee reporting” uncovered the identity and location of al-Zarqawi’s “personal religious advisor,” Sheikh ‘Abd-al-Rahman, who was followed to al-Zarqawi’s hiding place and perished with him.

In this television image from Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, right, listens as his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri speaks at an undisclosed location, in this image made from undated video tape broadcast by the station Monday April 15, 2002. Al-Jazeera editor-in-chief Ibrahim Hilal said the excerpts were from an hour-long video, complete with narration and graphics, delivered by hand to the station's Doha, Qatar offices a week ago. At bottom right is the station's logo. (AP Photo/Al-Jazeera/APTN)

In this television image from Arab satellite station Al Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, right, listens as his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri speaks at an undisclosed location, in this image made from undated video tape broadcast by the station, April 15, 2002.

Photo: Al-Jazeera/APTN/AP

Fervor for Voice Matching Technology

By the end of 2006, the NSA had come to believe that audio fingerprinting as performed against al-Zarqawi could be used as a simple fix for a host of complex problems, from freeing hostages to curbing nuclear weapons proliferation, according to a series of SIDtoday articles.

Despite repeated setbacks, the NSA remained enthusiastic about voice matching technology, which identifies people by the sound of their voice. The agency had help: According to SIDtoday, voice matching techniques were developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory on the back of efforts to confirm the authenticity of broadcasts by Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

A February 2006 SIDtoday article described some of the difficulties inherent in voice matching, noting that Al Qaeda second-in-command al-Zawahiri displayed more “tonal diversity” than usual following a botched drone strike against him. (The attack killed at least 18 in the Pakistani village of Damadola but missed al-Zawahiri, reportedly due to faulty intelligence on his location.)

“During the 30 Jan message — lasting about three minutes — the terrorist never quite settled down, probably rattled by the attempt on his life and the vehement content,” the article stated. Despite al-Zawahiri’s shaky voice, “mathematical voice matching produced a perfect score of 99% upon comparison with previous soundfiles on this speaker from the same source.”

Six weeks later, another article described how two of five transmissions by al-Zawahiri in a nine-month span failed to yield a high-confidence voice match with previous transmissions. This was solved with new technology from MIT, which “allows optimal combination of vocal-tract models from contentious intercepts,” according to SIDtoday. The lesson to NSA: “Careful modeling” is “critical” for making voice identification actually work — and particularly important once voice matching is applied on a “large scale” to identify those “bent on terrorist activities against U.S. forces or the local populace.”

The same article goes on to describe a hand-held device, close to going into production, which would provide field access to MIT’s “mathematical engine” and voice matching estimates in “hostile environments.”

A May 2006 article describes another voice recognition stumble, when an October 2003 audio recording of bin Laden could not identify the Al Qaeda chief’s voice because it “proved to be of too low quality.” The file was later “enhanced” using software from a “local vendor … to yield a perfect match.” Still, there were successes, credited to the MIT software, with which “voice matching has become simplicity itself.” For example, an April 2006 recording of bin Laden was successfully matched against a January 2005 recording of bin Laden and against multiple other recordings.

The May SIDtoday article included references to screenshots of the MIT software’s “Speaker Comparison Algorithm” interface. Though those screenshots were not included in the SIDtoday articles as provided by Snowden, two images from an article on Lincoln Laboratory’s webpage — which were removed during the course of reporting this article — refer to a similarly named interface:  

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Screenshots of MIT Lincoln Lab’s VOCALinc tool, which was “sponsored by the Department of Defense” and developed “utilizing U.S. government operational data.”

Screenshots: MIT Lincoln Lab

The MIT voice identification software was so important to the NSA that the agency approved a four-hour course on it based on MIT documentation and added the class to the National Cryptologic School syllabus, according to a July 2006 SIDtoday article.

The code, or an MIT-updated version of it, appears to have still been in use nearly eight years later. According to publicly available documentation from 2014, MIT Lincoln Lab’s VOCALinc tool was “already in use by several entities,” including “intelligence missions concerning national security” in areas such as terrorism. The document also references the development of “unseen devices such as body microphones and multirecording systems.” (Lincoln Lab did not provide responses to questions in the weeks leading up to publication of this article, although a spokesperson indicated he would try to get a response from a staffer “if sponsors allow him to discuss these topics.”)

Perhaps the clearest example of the enthusiasm for audio fingerprinting at the NSA in 2006 comes from an article written in March by the agency’s “Technical Director, Operational Technologies,” Adolf Cusmariu.

In the article — titled “Nuclear Sleuthing — Can SIGINT Help?” — Cusmariu took the idea at the base of the NSA’s voice matching technology to a new level of optimism.

What if, Cusmariu asked, the NSA scanned intercepted phone calls for the distinct sound generated by centrifuges used in uranium enrichment facilities? Could this help identify hidden nuclear weapons facilities in “rogue states like Iran and North Korea?”

What if, Cusmariu asked, the NSA scanned intercepted phone calls for the distinct sound generated by centrifuges used in uranium enrichment facilities?

There were several problems with the idea. First, there was the issue of background noise — the sound of the centrifuges inevitably mixing with other audio sources — “making unequivocal fingerprinting problematic.” Then, there was the fact that “the person making the call would have to be located inside, or at least near, the centrifuge compound for the acoustical signature to be audible.”

“Yes, a needle in a haystack!” Cusmariu admitted, but nonetheless, “algorithms have been developed … looking for just such signatures.” Unfortunately, “no convincing evidence has been found so far.”

Public records show that, in the months following these articles, Cusmariu filed for patents on “identifying duplicate voice recording” and “comparing voice signals that reduces false alarms.” Both were granted and describe methods similar to those discussed in SIDtoday, but with different applications.

To be sure, there was reason for some level of optimism about voice recognition technology. A brief — and top secret — SIDtoday article from May 2006 suggested that voice identification helped free the Briton Norman Kember and two Canadian fellow peace activists, who were held hostage in Baghdad. The successful operation was widely reported at the time, but the fact that voice ID helped identify the hostage-takers was not made public.

The CIA and the NSA staff of the Special Collection Service site in Baghdad worked together to find the kidnappers for several nights leading up to March 23, 2006, the article disclosed. On the final night, British and American spies, working side by side “to eliminate incorrect targets through voice identification,” were able to isolate “the specific terrorist believed to be holding the hostages.” The article does not, however, state whether the match was made by a computer, human, or combination of the two.

Eventually, the NSA played a pivotal role in developing voice matching technology, as described in Ava Kofman’s exposé earlier this year in The Intercept.

 “Dragon Team” Helped NSA Thwart Cordless Phones Used by Insurgents

Although it lacked the technical glamour of voice matching, the NSA saw its effort against high-powered cordless phones as critical to protecting U.S. troops on the ground. Early on in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the simple, rugged devices, also known as HPCPs, were in common use by insurgents, including as a means of triggering improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. SIDtoday articles from 2003 complained that these handsets, which could communicate with other handsets that were also within a 50-mile range of the radio base station, created an “intelligence gap,” and were such a problem that the NSA hosted a “Worldwide HPCP Conference” to understand, and design attacks against, this technology.

Less than three years later, the NSA had made significant progress. A SIDtoday article from May 2006 said a “dragon team” of NSA researchers developed a tool called “FIRESTORM” that supported a denial-of-service attack capability against cordless phone networks. FIRESTORM could prevent IED attacks and support an ability to “ping” a specific device, “forcing the targeted HPCP to emit an RF signal that can be geolocated by any asset in the area.” The dragon team had been “eagerly working with potential users to move this capability out of the development lab and into the fight.”

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Sugar Grove station in West Virginia.

Screenshot: Google Map

How NSA Staff Viewed the Rest of the World

The NSA needed staff paying attention to issues, like HPCPs, that resonated only once you were outside the bubble of Washington, D.C., and Fort Meade, Maryland — or which could only be addressed effectively from another country. To do so, it needed to convince them of the benefits of relocation. The perennial “SID Around the World” series within SIDtoday described daily life on assignment to global NSA locations, often in glowing terms. With a substantial portion of agency postings in remote locations, where big satellite dishes can dominate empty landscapes, or in offices on military bases, or in the underground bunkers below them, the idea was to make working abroad for the NSA sound fun. But in just its third year, the series seemed to fall back on lazy stereotypes and imperious complaining.

The series seemed to fall back on lazy stereotypes and imperious complaining.

A lucky staffer in Bangkok, an “adventurous woman,” is most enthusiastic about the cost of living there. “You can hire a maid for less than $100 a month or $1200 per year as a single person,” she wrote. “Most domestic services include: cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and babysitting children and/or pets. Tell me where you find that kind of help so cheaply? And the Thai domestic help are kind and trustworthy; therefore, no need to worry about your valuables.” You can live like a queen.

In 2006, to one staffer, the Japanese “fascination with technology” was notable; they carried cellphones equipped with two-way video conferencing and web browsing, and drove cars equipped with GPS. 

Yet “[d]espite having one of the oldest cultures in the world, the Japanese seem very innocent and naive.” Really?

It seems there were some ugly Americans on assignment.

Traffic was bad, or the roads are narrow, in EnglandJapan, and Turkey, too.

In Turkey, the cuisine was “world-class,” although lacking variety: “Probably 90 percent of Turkish restaurants offer no more than 4 or 5 traditional Turkish dishes.”

Indeed, culinary attractions, a staple of the series, seemed sparse. In fact, NSA staffers were introducing America’s Fourth of July fare and Italian dishes to the villagers of rural Yorkshire, where they tasted English boiled beef and potatoes with a “wilted sprig of parsley” on top. No really, “it is actually very good and certainly doesn’t deserve the bad reviews that it has been getting.”

But the shopping! In Ankara, the fruit was so fresh, the price was so cheap, and there were, again, “world-class” handicrafts. In Thailand, there were many “wonders for a single woman to enjoy,” like gorgeous silk fabrics, gems, and jewelry.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., one of the best parts of a Utah posting was the dusty road trip on I-15 to California. And from the Sugar Grove station in West Virginia, the nearest shopping was 40 miles away, in another state, over snow, black ice, and curvy roads in the winter. Nothing was said about the cuisine. Getting to work at the underground NSA site required driving to the top of a mountain from the U.S. Naval Information Operations Command center at Sugar Grove, a naval base in landlocked West Virginia. There were occasional bear sightings. Since its 2006 appearance in SIDtoday, the naval base has been decommissioned and sold, but the underground NSA facility continues to operate with its secret mission.

Through its sister publication Field of Vision, The Intercept covered Sugar Grove with a film and story last year. As Sam Biddle reported at the time, “antennas at the NSA listening post, codenamed TIMBERLINE, were built to capture Soviet satellite messages as they bounced off the moon, imbuing a pristine stretch of Appalachia with a sort of cosmic gravity.” The former base is scheduled to reopen in October as a substance abuse treatment center.

The most enthusiastic appraisal of daily signals intelligence life was contributed by a GCHQ staffer assigned to the NSA Fort Meade headquarters from the United Kingdom. The temporary Marylander loved the food (“crab cakes!! Maryland crab soup!”), the climate, the roads, the local countryside, and the cheap gas. They and their wife were delighted by football and baseball games, and even by deer nibbling on flower beds. The Britons also enjoyed the friendly neighbors and, in a turnaround, were the hosts for the Fourth of July barbecue, leading “several spirited renderings of the Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Informing the Public at the NSA: “A Dirty Job, But Someone’s Got To Do It”

It wasn’t just people in other countries who seemed foreign to some NSA staff; voluntarily providing information to the American public provoked some strange and not entirely welcome sensations as well. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times reported in December 2005 that the NSA had been secretly authorized to spy on U.S. communications without a warrant. The Pulitzer Prize Board, in awarding the U.S.’s highest journalism honor, credited the pair with inspiring “a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty.”

Fulfilling public information requests is a “disruption to … day-to-day operations.”

This debate, in turn, seems to have inspired a surge in Freedom of Information Act requests directed at the NSA. The requests, in which journalists and other citizens try and pry information from the notoriously secretive agency, spiked to more than 1,600 in the first half of 2006, from 800 in the course of an entire normal year, a member of the Intelligence Security Issues division disclosed in SIDtoday. The staffer did not mention Risen (now at The Intercept) or Lichtblau, but did cite “the agency appearing so frequently in the news” as the cause of the increase.

In SIDtoday, the Intelligence Security Issues staffer portrayed the NSA’s response to handling FOIA requests in terms typically reserved for a trip to the dentist for a root canal, describing his department’s work as “a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it,” and promising to make fulfilling FOIA requests “as painless as possible,” even though fulfilling the requests is a “disruption to … day-to-day operations.” One wonders what adjectives the Intelligence Security Issues division deployed seven years later to explicate the process, when the Snowden revelations prompted an 888 percent rise in FOIA requests to the agency.  

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: In this photo illustration, the Skype internet phone program is seen September 1, 2009 in New York City. EBay announced it will sell most of its Skype online phone service to a group of investors for $1.9 billion, a deal that values Skype at $2.75 billion. (Photo Illustration by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Skype internet phone program is seen on Sept. 1, 2009, in New York City.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

NSA Decided It Was Legal To Spy on Some U.S. Phone Numbers

Sometimes, if a law became inconvenient, the NSA could do more than grumble; it could change its interpretation of the rule. For most people, the arrival of online phone call services like Skype and Vonage was a boon; it allowed them to dodge long-distance calling fees and to take their number with them anywhere around the world. The NSA, however, realized in 2006 that it had a big problem with such convenience: Online calling services might allow targets to acquire phone numbers with U.S. area codes and thus become off-limits to the agency, which is not supposed to conduct domestic spying.

“A target may be physically located in Iraq but have a US or UK phone number,” an NSA staffer grappling with the issue wrote in SIDtoday. NSA had previously interpreted a federal legal document, United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, as barring the targeting of U.S. numbers, and built safeguards into various online systems, causing U.S. numbers to be “minimized upon presentation … and restricted from contact chaining,” a process in which a network of connected people is mapped, according to SIDtoday. In response to the rise of internet calling, the NSA developed techniques “for identifying the foreign status” of phone numbers, and the agency’s Office of General Counsel ruled that U.S. phone numbers affiliated with online calling services could be classified as foreign and targeted for surveillance if the number was “identified on foreign links” and was associated with an online calling service such as Vonage.

WASHINGTON - MARCH 31: U.S. President George W. Bush (C) holds a copy of a presidential commision's report on pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction while flanked by Judge Laurence Silberman (R) and former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb (L) of Virginia, co-chairmen of the commission during a press conference March 31, 2005 in Washington, DC. Among other issues, the report indicated that U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong in most prewar assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

U.S. President George W. Bush holds a copy of a presidential commission’s report on pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction while flanked by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, co-chairs of the commission, during a press conference on March 31, 2005, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Back to Basics: NSA Staff Instructed on Better Analyzing and Sharing Information

Whatever its success collecting and exploiting signals intelligence, the NSA was concerned its staff might not be communicating or disseminating this intelligence properly. “Write Right,” SIDtoday’s monthly column on authoring effective reports, brought to its 2006 edition a new focus on how to effectively route information to other intelligence agencies and federal entities, a process referred to officially (and dully) within NSA as “information sharing.”

The new attention to broad intelligence dissemination may have been a response to the scathing report of the so-called WMD Commission in March 2005, which stated, among other things:

The Intelligence Community’s performance in assessing Iraq’s pre-war weapons of mass destruction programs was a major intelligence failure. The failure was not merely that the Intelligence Community’s assessments were wrong. There were also serious shortcomings in the way these assessments were made and communicated to policymakers.

A maxim on intelligence from Colin Powell, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is quoted twice in SIDtoday’s 2006 “Write Right” columns, once in May and again in December: “Tell me what you know, tell me what you don’t know, tell me what you think; always distinguish which is which.” Columns previously devoted to spell-checking or capitalization began giving advice on adding context (“collateral”) and analysis (“comment”) — and on how to provide analysis without editorializing. Warnings about the use of web research as “collateral” sources included a prohibition on citing Wikipedia.

With information sharing as the new norm, the “Write Right” author (and guest authors) repeated the need to understand and follow changing policies and to make sure that a report is releasable to the intended recipients. This guidance included what could or could not be discussed on the agency’s collaborative discussion forum, called “Enlighten.” No chit-chat: “The ENLIGHTEN system is an aid to professionals in doing their jobs,” according to the forum’s primer, which is quoted in an October 2006 “Write Right.” “All information posted on ENLIGHTEN must pertain to Agency-related (official) business. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES IS ENLIGHTEN AUTHORIZED FOR DISSEMINATING PERSONAL OR NON-OFFICIAL INFORMATION.”

Customers queue outside the Apple Store in London for the launch of the iPhone 3G on July 11, 2008. O2, Apple's network partner for the handset, said Apple stores were having "technical issues" connecting to 02's online systems. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Customers queue outside the Apple Store in London for the launch of the iPhone 3G on July 11, 2008.

Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

The NSA Goes After Newer (3G!) Phones and “Social Networks”

Rapid change was buffeting not just NSA’s information-sharing practices but some of the core communications systems the agency surveilled as well, and in early 2006 the agency held multiple internal events to explain newly developed techniques to evolve its intelligence collection in parallel with these systems.

One SIDtoday article announced a “brown bag session” about exploiting video from third-generation, or 3G, cellphones, including “basic instructions on how best to search, analyze and use camera cell phone video data.” 3G mobile data networks first became commercially available in Japan in 2001, in South Korea and the United States in 2002, and in the United Kingdom in 2003. By 2008, the United States and Europe alone had over 127 million 3G users.

Another article announced an “open house” hosted by the “Social Network Analysis Workcenter” to show off “ASSIMILATOR,” a new web-based tool for analyzing the social networks of surveillance targets. In this case, “social network” refers to the list of people a target communicates with based on signals intelligence from a variety of sources, not social networking services.

Top photo: A U.S. soldier at a press conference in Baghdad takes down an older photo in order to display the latest image purporting to show the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda-linked militant who led a bloody campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and hostage beheadings in Iraq.

The post 328 NSA Documents Reveal “Vast Network” of Iranian Agents, Details of a Key Intelligence Coup, and A Fervor for Voice Matching Technology appeared first on The Intercept.

328 NSA Documents Reveal “Vast Network” of Iranian Agents, Details of a Key Intelligence Coup, and A Fervor for Voice Matching Technology

It began not by tapping enemy insurgents’ phones or capturing their emails, but by following the money.

When the National Security Agency discovered that Iran may have been buying computer chips from the United States, routing them through a U.S. ally, and potentially supplying them to detonate bombs against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it credited so-called economic intelligence with the find.

And the solution was not a death blow delivered by the military, but rather a new regulation on the export of certain technologies via the Commerce Department, which the spy agency said would end up “saving American and coalition lives.”

The unusual strategy of tracing monetary flows to stop explosions is one of many significant disclosures contained in a batch of 328 internal NSA documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden and released by The Intercept today after research and redaction.

Also included in the material, which originates from SIDtoday, the newsletter of the agency’s core Signals Intelligence Directorate, is the untold story of how intelligence related to Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was finally acquired; an assessment that a “vast … network of Iranian agents”  operated in Iraq and influenced its government; a major push to hone the agency’s voice identification technology; details on how NSA staff deployed abroad viewed, and sometimes stereotyped, their host countries; and grumbling about having to comply with public-records laws.

Those stories and others are detailed in the highlights below; the NSA declined to answer questions about them. Also with this SIDtoday release, drawing on the same set of documents, Peter Maass profiles the NSA’s “SIGINT Curmudgeon,” Rahe Clancy, who wrote a beloved set of articles for SIDtoday, trying to instigate change from within the agency and riling up his fellow spies against its corporatization. Alleen Brown and Miriam Pensack, meanwhile, detail instances in which the NSA has spied on environmental disputes and around issues like climate change, overfishing, and water scarcity. And Micah Lee reveals that the NSA infiltrated virtual private computer networks used by various airlines, the Al Jazeera news network, and the Iraqi government.

RAWAH, IRAQ - NOVEMBER 23: In this handout provided by the USMC and released on November 27, 2006, U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., commander for Multi-National Forces-Iraq, speaks with U.S. Army Maj. Sean Bastian, commanding officer of a military transition team, during a Thanksgiving Day visit November 23, 2006 at Combat Outpost Rawah in Iraq's Al Anbar Province. Military transition teams are groups of U.S. service members who mentor Iraqi soldiers to eventually relieve Coalition Forces of security operations in Iraq. Casey complimented the Marines on the good work they've done in the region, and urged them to continue that work. Marines from the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion arrived in Iraq three months ago and provides security to this region of the Al Anbar Province. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Sapp/USMC via Getty Images)

U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., commander for Multi-National Force-Iraq, speaks with U.S. Army Maj. Sean Bastian, commanding officer of a military transition team, during a Thanksgiving Day visit Nov. 23, 2006, at Combat Outpost Rawah in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

Photo: Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Sapp/USMC via Getty Images

In Iraq, a “Vast and Disperse Network of Iranian Agents”

The NSA caught Iran smuggling American microprocessors that may have been used to bomb U.S. troops in Iraq, according to a May 2006 SIDtoday article. To import the chips, Iran set up front companies in the United Arab Emirates, an agency staffer wrote; the front companies then sent the microprocessors to customers in Iran and Syria.

The chips had both civilian and military capabilities and “have been used or are capable of being used” in the improvised explosive devices used extensively against U.S. forces in Iraq, the report concluded. Intelligence on the chip smuggling came not from intercepted military or diplomatic communications, as is typical at the agency, but rather through “economic reporting.”

Earlier the same year, an NSA representative who was embedded with U.S. Special Operations Command stated in a top-secret SIDtoday report that analysts had discovered “a vast and disperse network of Iranian agents in Iraq serving the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

In Kuwait, different NSA units deployed a satellite interception system to hear conversations between Iranian agents, according to SIDtoday. This produced new intelligence reports that “have focused on Iran’s (and specifically Iran’s external paramilitary and intelligence forces’) activities in Iraq and the influence they wield on important figures in the new Iraqi Government.”

SIDtoday’s 2006 reporting on Iran’s involvement in Iraq buttressed comments by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American military commander in Iraq, who told reporters in June that year that the military was “quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, I.E.D. technology and training to Shia extremist groups in Iraq.” By 2017, the New York Times would say that Iran dominated Iraq: Iran-sponsored militias dominated in Iraq’s south, and cabinet politicians who resisted Iran lost their jobs, while U.S. efforts in Iraq primarily focused on chasing the Islamic State in the country’s north.

U.S. Army soldiers make radio contact after arriving by helicopter at night at an undisclosed location south of Baghdad, Iraq where they believed a top leader of the insurgency and close associated of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was hiding, Sunday, June 5, 2005. Although the insurgent leader was not found, Americans and soldiers from the Iraqi Intervention Force detained 15 people. (AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg)

U.S. Army soldiers make radio contact after arriving by helicopter at night at an undisclosed location south of Baghdad, where they believed a top leader of the insurgency and close associated of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was hiding, June 5, 2005.

Photo: Jacob Silberberg/AP

How Key Al-Zarqawi Intelligence Was Obtained

In Iraq, at a strategic level, the U.S. was concerned about Iran; at the ground level, its top priority in 2006 was finding the Jordanian Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the most wanted terrorist in the country. Al-Zarqawi was the leader of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq and a fugitive from a Jordanian death sentence. The reward for information resulting in his capture or death reached $25 million.

Zarqawi was brutal to Iraqis as well as Americans. According to Joby Warrick, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” “The Jordanian also would seek to strike fear into Americans and other Westerners in Iraq with a series of kidnappings and videotaped beheadings. The first victim, Pennsylvania businessman Nicholas Berg, was butchered on camera by a hooded Islamist that CIA officers later confirmed was Zarqawi himself.”

NSA specialists were able to figure out the location of the internet cafe in Baghdad where the courier was about to access an email account.  An important message from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, “outlining al-Qaeda’s strategic vision for Iraq,” was obtained.

A major breakthrough had come in 2005, when NSA analysts intercepted, via a courier in Iraq, emails that were intended for al-Zarqawi from Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan. In partnership with U.S. forces, NSA specialists in geospatial intelligence and counterterrorism were able to figure out the location of the internet cafe in Baghdad where the courier was about to access an email account. The courier and a “traveling partner” were caught, and an important message from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, “outlining al-Qaeda’s strategic vision for Iraq,” was obtained. The 15-page document was made public by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2005, but the circumstances under which it was obtained appear to have not been previously reported. (Warrick’s book said “the CIA’s acquisition of the letter was a closely-guarded secret” and stated only that “the surveillance net” around al-Zarqawi “had snagged a singular piece of correspondence.”)

By early 2006, SIDtoday continued to report on how signals intelligence successes helped capture lesser-known figures. But the primary target remained at large and continued to issue propaganda videos. An intelligence analyst described the intensity of an assignment to a task force in Mosul, Iraq: “We worked for 14 to 18 hours a day, pouring over traffic and piecing together data to find threats or information that would help us locate and go get bad guys. You would feel every minute of those days, but you’d wake up one morning and it would be August.” 

Back at NSA headquarters, new mathematical analysis tools supplemented old-school language expertise in the process of reviewing audio recordings of al-Zarqawi posted on the open web, confirming his voice.

At last, on June 7, 2006, the “primary PC,” which stands for “precious cargo,” was found and dealt a death blow. In SIDtoday, an analyst from the NSA Cryptologic Services Group described the work of the Special Operations Task Force leading up to the targeted bomb strike that killed al-Zarqawi and others, reportedly in a two-story house near Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, saying that a combination of signals intelligence, imagery intelligence, human intelligence, and “detainee reporting” uncovered the identity and location of al-Zarqawi’s “personal religious advisor,” Sheikh ‘Abd-al-Rahman, who was followed to al-Zarqawi’s hiding place and perished with him.

In this television image from Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, right, listens as his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri speaks at an undisclosed location, in this image made from undated video tape broadcast by the station Monday April 15, 2002. Al-Jazeera editor-in-chief Ibrahim Hilal said the excerpts were from an hour-long video, complete with narration and graphics, delivered by hand to the station's Doha, Qatar offices a week ago. At bottom right is the station's logo. (AP Photo/Al-Jazeera/APTN)

In this television image from Arab satellite station Al Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, right, listens as his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri speaks at an undisclosed location, in this image made from undated video tape broadcast by the station, April 15, 2002.

Photo: Al-Jazeera/APTN/AP

Fervor for Voice Matching Technology

By the end of 2006, the NSA had come to believe that audio fingerprinting as performed against al-Zarqawi could be used as a simple fix for a host of complex problems, from freeing hostages to curbing nuclear weapons proliferation, according to a series of SIDtoday articles.

Despite repeated setbacks, the NSA remained enthusiastic about voice matching technology, which identifies people by the sound of their voice. The agency had help: According to SIDtoday, voice matching techniques were developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory on the back of efforts to confirm the authenticity of broadcasts by Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

A February 2006 SIDtoday article described some of the difficulties inherent in voice matching, noting that Al Qaeda second-in-command al-Zawahiri displayed more “tonal diversity” than usual following a botched drone strike against him. (The attack killed at least 18 in the Pakistani village of Damadola but missed al-Zawahiri, reportedly due to faulty intelligence on his location.)

“During the 30 Jan message — lasting about three minutes — the terrorist never quite settled down, probably rattled by the attempt on his life and the vehement content,” the article stated. Despite al-Zawahiri’s shaky voice, “mathematical voice matching produced a perfect score of 99% upon comparison with previous soundfiles on this speaker from the same source.”

Six weeks later, another article described how two of five transmissions by al-Zawahiri in a nine-month span failed to yield a high-confidence voice match with previous transmissions. This was solved with new technology from MIT, which “allows optimal combination of vocal-tract models from contentious intercepts,” according to SIDtoday. The lesson to NSA: “Careful modeling” is “critical” for making voice identification actually work — and particularly important once voice matching is applied on a “large scale” to identify those “bent on terrorist activities against U.S. forces or the local populace.”

The same article goes on to describe a hand-held device, close to going into production, which would provide field access to MIT’s “mathematical engine” and voice matching estimates in “hostile environments.”

A May 2006 article describes another voice recognition stumble, when an October 2003 audio recording of bin Laden could not identify the Al Qaeda chief’s voice because it “proved to be of too low quality.” The file was later “enhanced” using software from a “local vendor … to yield a perfect match.” Still, there were successes, credited to the MIT software, with which “voice matching has become simplicity itself.” For example, an April 2006 recording of bin Laden was successfully matched against a January 2005 recording of bin Laden and against multiple other recordings.

The May SIDtoday article included references to screenshots of the MIT software’s “Speaker Comparison Algorithm” interface. Though those screenshots were not included in the SIDtoday articles as provided by Snowden, two images from an article on Lincoln Laboratory’s webpage — which were removed during the course of reporting this article — refer to a similarly named interface:  

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Screenshots of MIT Lincoln Lab’s VOCALinc tool, which was “sponsored by the Department of Defense” and developed “utilizing U.S. government operational data.”

Screenshots: MIT Lincoln Lab

The MIT voice identification software was so important to the NSA that the agency approved a four-hour course on it based on MIT documentation and added the class to the National Cryptologic School syllabus, according to a July 2006 SIDtoday article.

The code, or an MIT-updated version of it, appears to have still been in use nearly eight years later. According to publicly available documentation from 2014, MIT Lincoln Lab’s VOCALinc tool was “already in use by several entities,” including “intelligence missions concerning national security” in areas such as terrorism. The document also references the development of “unseen devices such as body microphones and multirecording systems.” (Lincoln Lab did not provide responses to questions in the weeks leading up to publication of this article, although a spokesperson indicated he would try to get a response from a staffer “if sponsors allow him to discuss these topics.”)

Perhaps the clearest example of the enthusiasm for audio fingerprinting at the NSA in 2006 comes from an article written in March by the agency’s “Technical Director, Operational Technologies,” Adolf Cusmariu.

In the article — titled “Nuclear Sleuthing — Can SIGINT Help?” — Cusmariu took the idea at the base of the NSA’s voice matching technology to a new level of optimism.

What if, Cusmariu asked, the NSA scanned intercepted phone calls for the distinct sound generated by centrifuges used in uranium enrichment facilities? Could this help identify hidden nuclear weapons facilities in “rogue states like Iran and North Korea?”

What if, Cusmariu asked, the NSA scanned intercepted phone calls for the distinct sound generated by centrifuges used in uranium enrichment facilities?

There were several problems with the idea. First, there was the issue of background noise — the sound of the centrifuges inevitably mixing with other audio sources — “making unequivocal fingerprinting problematic.” Then, there was the fact that “the person making the call would have to be located inside, or at least near, the centrifuge compound for the acoustical signature to be audible.”

“Yes, a needle in a haystack!” Cusmariu admitted, but nonetheless, “algorithms have been developed … looking for just such signatures.” Unfortunately, “no convincing evidence has been found so far.”

Public records show that, in the months following these articles, Cusmariu filed for patents on “identifying duplicate voice recording” and “comparing voice signals that reduces false alarms.” Both were granted and describe methods similar to those discussed in SIDtoday, but with different applications.

To be sure, there was reason for some level of optimism about voice recognition technology. A brief — and top secret — SIDtoday article from May 2006 suggested that voice identification helped free the Briton Norman Kember and two Canadian fellow peace activists, who were held hostage in Baghdad. The successful operation was widely reported at the time, but the fact that voice ID helped identify the hostage-takers was not made public.

The CIA and the NSA staff of the Special Collection Service site in Baghdad worked together to find the kidnappers for several nights leading up to March 23, 2006, the article disclosed. On the final night, British and American spies, working side by side “to eliminate incorrect targets through voice identification,” were able to isolate “the specific terrorist believed to be holding the hostages.” The article does not, however, state whether the match was made by a computer, human, or combination of the two.

Eventually, the NSA played a pivotal role in developing voice matching technology, as described in Ava Kofman’s exposé earlier this year in The Intercept.

 “Dragon Team” Helped NSA Thwart Cordless Phones Used by Insurgents

Although it lacked the technical glamour of voice matching, the NSA saw its effort against high-powered cordless phones as critical to protecting U.S. troops on the ground. Early on in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the simple, rugged devices, also known as HPCPs, were in common use by insurgents, including as a means of triggering improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. SIDtoday articles from 2003 complained that these handsets, which could communicate with other handsets that were also within a 50-mile range of the radio base station, created an “intelligence gap,” and were such a problem that the NSA hosted a “Worldwide HPCP Conference” to understand, and design attacks against, this technology.

Less than three years later, the NSA had made significant progress. A SIDtoday article from May 2006 said a “dragon team” of NSA researchers developed a tool called “FIRESTORM” that supported a denial-of-service attack capability against cordless phone networks. FIRESTORM could prevent IED attacks and support an ability to “ping” a specific device, “forcing the targeted HPCP to emit an RF signal that can be geolocated by any asset in the area.” The dragon team had been “eagerly working with potential users to move this capability out of the development lab and into the fight.”

sugar-grove-1-1534195038

Sugar Grove station in West Virginia.

Screenshot: Google Map

How NSA Staff Viewed the Rest of the World

The NSA needed staff paying attention to issues, like HPCPs, that resonated only once you were outside the bubble of Washington, D.C., and Fort Meade, Maryland — or which could only be addressed effectively from another country. To do so, it needed to convince them of the benefits of relocation. The perennial “SID Around the World” series within SIDtoday described daily life on assignment to global NSA locations, often in glowing terms. With a substantial portion of agency postings in remote locations, where big satellite dishes can dominate empty landscapes, or in offices on military bases, or in the underground bunkers below them, the idea was to make working abroad for the NSA sound fun. But in just its third year, the series seemed to fall back on lazy stereotypes and imperious complaining.

The series seemed to fall back on lazy stereotypes and imperious complaining.

A lucky staffer in Bangkok, an “adventurous woman,” is most enthusiastic about the cost of living there. “You can hire a maid for less than $100 a month or $1200 per year as a single person,” she wrote. “Most domestic services include: cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and babysitting children and/or pets. Tell me where you find that kind of help so cheaply? And the Thai domestic help are kind and trustworthy; therefore, no need to worry about your valuables.” You can live like a queen.

In 2006, to one staffer, the Japanese “fascination with technology” was notable; they carried cellphones equipped with two-way video conferencing and web browsing, and drove cars equipped with GPS. 

Yet “[d]espite having one of the oldest cultures in the world, the Japanese seem very innocent and naive.” Really?

It seems there were some ugly Americans on assignment.

Traffic was bad, or the roads are narrow, in EnglandJapan, and Turkey, too.

In Turkey, the cuisine was “world-class,” although lacking variety: “Probably 90 percent of Turkish restaurants offer no more than 4 or 5 traditional Turkish dishes.”

Indeed, culinary attractions, a staple of the series, seemed sparse. In fact, NSA staffers were introducing America’s Fourth of July fare and Italian dishes to the villagers of rural Yorkshire, where they tasted English boiled beef and potatoes with a “wilted sprig of parsley” on top. No really, “it is actually very good and certainly doesn’t deserve the bad reviews that it has been getting.”

But the shopping! In Ankara, the fruit was so fresh, the price was so cheap, and there were, again, “world-class” handicrafts. In Thailand, there were many “wonders for a single woman to enjoy,” like gorgeous silk fabrics, gems, and jewelry.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., one of the best parts of a Utah posting was the dusty road trip on I-15 to California. And from the Sugar Grove station in West Virginia, the nearest shopping was 40 miles away, in another state, over snow, black ice, and curvy roads in the winter. Nothing was said about the cuisine. Getting to work at the underground NSA site required driving to the top of a mountain from the U.S. Naval Information Operations Command center at Sugar Grove, a naval base in landlocked West Virginia. There were occasional bear sightings. Since its 2006 appearance in SIDtoday, the naval base has been decommissioned and sold, but the underground NSA facility continues to operate with its secret mission.

Through its sister publication Field of Vision, The Intercept covered Sugar Grove with a film and story last year. As Sam Biddle reported at the time, “antennas at the NSA listening post, codenamed TIMBERLINE, were built to capture Soviet satellite messages as they bounced off the moon, imbuing a pristine stretch of Appalachia with a sort of cosmic gravity.” The former base is scheduled to reopen in October as a substance abuse treatment center.

The most enthusiastic appraisal of daily signals intelligence life was contributed by a GCHQ staffer assigned to the NSA Fort Meade headquarters from the United Kingdom. The temporary Marylander loved the food (“crab cakes!! Maryland crab soup!”), the climate, the roads, the local countryside, and the cheap gas. They and their wife were delighted by football and baseball games, and even by deer nibbling on flower beds. The Britons also enjoyed the friendly neighbors and, in a turnaround, were the hosts for the Fourth of July barbecue, leading “several spirited renderings of the Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Informing the Public at the NSA: “A Dirty Job, But Someone’s Got To Do It”

It wasn’t just people in other countries who seemed foreign to some NSA staff; voluntarily providing information to the American public provoked some strange and not entirely welcome sensations as well. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times reported in December 2005 that the NSA had been secretly authorized to spy on U.S. communications without a warrant. The Pulitzer Prize Board, in awarding the U.S.’s highest journalism honor, credited the pair with inspiring “a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty.”

Fulfilling public information requests is a “disruption to … day-to-day operations.”

This debate, in turn, seems to have inspired a surge in Freedom of Information Act requests directed at the NSA. The requests, in which journalists and other citizens try and pry information from the notoriously secretive agency, spiked to more than 1,600 in the first half of 2006, from 800 in the course of an entire normal year, a member of the Intelligence Security Issues division disclosed in SIDtoday. The staffer did not mention Risen (now at The Intercept) or Lichtblau, but did cite “the agency appearing so frequently in the news” as the cause of the increase.

In SIDtoday, the Intelligence Security Issues staffer portrayed the NSA’s response to handling FOIA requests in terms typically reserved for a trip to the dentist for a root canal, describing his department’s work as “a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it,” and promising to make fulfilling FOIA requests “as painless as possible,” even though fulfilling the requests is a “disruption to … day-to-day operations.” One wonders what adjectives the Intelligence Security Issues division deployed seven years later to explicate the process, when the Snowden revelations prompted an 888 percent rise in FOIA requests to the agency.  

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: In this photo illustration, the Skype internet phone program is seen September 1, 2009 in New York City. EBay announced it will sell most of its Skype online phone service to a group of investors for $1.9 billion, a deal that values Skype at $2.75 billion. (Photo Illustration by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Skype internet phone program is seen on Sept. 1, 2009, in New York City.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

NSA Decided It Was Legal To Spy on Some U.S. Phone Numbers

Sometimes, if a law became inconvenient, the NSA could do more than grumble; it could change its interpretation of the rule. For most people, the arrival of online phone call services like Skype and Vonage was a boon; it allowed them to dodge long-distance calling fees and to take their number with them anywhere around the world. The NSA, however, realized in 2006 that it had a big problem with such convenience: Online calling services might allow targets to acquire phone numbers with U.S. area codes and thus become off-limits to the agency, which is not supposed to conduct domestic spying.

“A target may be physically located in Iraq but have a US or UK phone number,” an NSA staffer grappling with the issue wrote in SIDtoday. NSA had previously interpreted a federal legal document, United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, as barring the targeting of U.S. numbers, and built safeguards into various online systems, causing U.S. numbers to be “minimized upon presentation … and restricted from contact chaining,” a process in which a network of connected people is mapped, according to SIDtoday. In response to the rise of internet calling, the NSA developed techniques “for identifying the foreign status” of phone numbers, and the agency’s Office of General Counsel ruled that U.S. phone numbers affiliated with online calling services could be classified as foreign and targeted for surveillance if the number was “identified on foreign links” and was associated with an online calling service such as Vonage.

WASHINGTON - MARCH 31: U.S. President George W. Bush (C) holds a copy of a presidential commision's report on pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction while flanked by Judge Laurence Silberman (R) and former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb (L) of Virginia, co-chairmen of the commission during a press conference March 31, 2005 in Washington, DC. Among other issues, the report indicated that U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong in most prewar assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

U.S. President George W. Bush holds a copy of a presidential commission’s report on pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction while flanked by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, co-chairs of the commission, during a press conference on March 31, 2005, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Back to Basics: NSA Staff Instructed on Better Analyzing and Sharing Information

Whatever its success collecting and exploiting signals intelligence, the NSA was concerned its staff might not be communicating or disseminating this intelligence properly. “Write Right,” SIDtoday’s monthly column on authoring effective reports, brought to its 2006 edition a new focus on how to effectively route information to other intelligence agencies and federal entities, a process referred to officially (and dully) within NSA as “information sharing.”

The new attention to broad intelligence dissemination may have been a response to the scathing report of the so-called WMD Commission in March 2005, which stated, among other things:

The Intelligence Community’s performance in assessing Iraq’s pre-war weapons of mass destruction programs was a major intelligence failure. The failure was not merely that the Intelligence Community’s assessments were wrong. There were also serious shortcomings in the way these assessments were made and communicated to policymakers.

A maxim on intelligence from Colin Powell, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is quoted twice in SIDtoday’s 2006 “Write Right” columns, once in May and again in December: “Tell me what you know, tell me what you don’t know, tell me what you think; always distinguish which is which.” Columns previously devoted to spell-checking or capitalization began giving advice on adding context (“collateral”) and analysis (“comment”) — and on how to provide analysis without editorializing. Warnings about the use of web research as “collateral” sources included a prohibition on citing Wikipedia.

With information sharing as the new norm, the “Write Right” author (and guest authors) repeated the need to understand and follow changing policies and to make sure that a report is releasable to the intended recipients. This guidance included what could or could not be discussed on the agency’s collaborative discussion forum, called “Enlighten.” No chit-chat: “The ENLIGHTEN system is an aid to professionals in doing their jobs,” according to the forum’s primer, which is quoted in an October 2006 “Write Right.” “All information posted on ENLIGHTEN must pertain to Agency-related (official) business. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES IS ENLIGHTEN AUTHORIZED FOR DISSEMINATING PERSONAL OR NON-OFFICIAL INFORMATION.”

Customers queue outside the Apple Store in London for the launch of the iPhone 3G on July 11, 2008. O2, Apple's network partner for the handset, said Apple stores were having "technical issues" connecting to 02's online systems. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Customers queue outside the Apple Store in London for the launch of the iPhone 3G on July 11, 2008.

Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

The NSA Goes After Newer (3G!) Phones and “Social Networks”

Rapid change was buffeting not just NSA’s information-sharing practices but some of the core communications systems the agency surveilled as well, and in early 2006 the agency held multiple internal events to explain newly developed techniques to evolve its intelligence collection in parallel with these systems.

One SIDtoday article announced a “brown bag session” about exploiting video from third-generation, or 3G, cellphones, including “basic instructions on how best to search, analyze and use camera cell phone video data.” 3G mobile data networks first became commercially available in Japan in 2001, in South Korea and the United States in 2002, and in the United Kingdom in 2003. By 2008, the United States and Europe alone had over 127 million 3G users.

Another article announced an “open house” hosted by the “Social Network Analysis Workcenter” to show off “ASSIMILATOR,” a new web-based tool for analyzing the social networks of surveillance targets. In this case, “social network” refers to the list of people a target communicates with based on signals intelligence from a variety of sources, not social networking services.

Top photo: A U.S. soldier at a press conference in Baghdad takes down an older photo in order to display the latest image purporting to show the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda-linked militant who led a bloody campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and hostage beheadings in Iraq.

The post 328 NSA Documents Reveal “Vast Network” of Iranian Agents, Details of a Key Intelligence Coup, and A Fervor for Voice Matching Technology appeared first on The Intercept.

Elizabeth Warren Demands in Letter That U.S. Military Explain Its Role in Yemen Bombings

In the wake of a U.S.-backed bombing last week that killed dozens of children on a school bus in north Yemen, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is demanding answers about how U.S. military advisers support and oversee the Saudi and UAE bombing campaign in Yemen.

Warren sent a letter on Tuesday to Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command and top commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, requesting that he clarify past congressional testimony about the U.S. role in the Yemen war. Warren’s letter referenced an article by The Intercept about an airstrike in May, based on a U.S. intelligence report that recounts in detail, minute by minute, how the strike unfolded and American munitions were used.

Votel has previously suggested that the U.S. has little knowledge about how Saudi Arabia and the UAE use American weapons, and does not track the aircraft missions that the U.S. helps refuel. During a congressional hearing in March, Warren asked Votel whether CENTCOM tracks what aircraft do after the U.S. refuels them. He responded, “Senator, we do not.” Votel also denied knowing whether U.S.-produced munitions were used in specific strikes when the media has reported on civilian deaths.

However, earlier this month The Intercept published a detailed article about a coalition airstrike in May, which targeted a site in Yemen’s Northern Saada governorate where a dozen family members slept in tents; the bomb happened to miss the tents, so the civilians survived. The article quoted an intelligence report that includes “what appear to be comments from an American intelligence analyst” who closely supervised the strike from a coalition command center in Riyadh, suggesting that U.S. military observers have detailed information about how strikes unfold.

Eric Eikenberry, an advocacy officer for the U.S.-based Yemen Peace Project, told The Intercept that the existence of an intelligence report shows that coalition airstrikes are more closely supervised than Votel had indicated. “When it comes to Yemen, the priorities of General Votel and the rest of the administration are obscene,” he wrote in an email. “We knew that the United States was providing the fuel, weapons, and intelligence for coalition strikes, and now we know that the U.S. is perfectly capable of assessing strikes on civilian targets that use U.S. munitions.”

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began bombing Yemen in March of 2015, after a rebel group commonly known as the Houthis deposed the country’s Saudi-backed president. In the three years since, the countries have relied on support from both the Trump and Obama administrations, which have provided targeting intelligence, flown mid-air refueling missions for coalition aircraft, and resupplied them with tens of billions of dollars in weapons.

Warren’s letter references the intelligence report in The Intercept, asking how U.S. intelligence analysts could have produced such a complete picture of the strike if, as Votel claimed, the Pentagon is doing so little to tracking the missions.

“This report appeared to indicate that one or more U.S. representatives were present in the Saudi command center at the time the strike was approved and executed,” Warren wrote. “The reported presence of U.S. advisors in a command center responsible for actively approving and directing such airstrikes, and the reported existence of at least one U.S. intelligence assessment of an airstrike acknowledging the use of U.S.-manufactured munitions, raise questions about whether the U.S. does in fact have the capability to track the origins, purpose and results of U.S.-supported airstrikes should it choose to do so.”

Warren’s letter contains a list of detailed questions about U.S. oversight of Saudi bombings, asking about the role of U.S. advisers in the targeting process, and whether U.S. military officers are present in coalition command centers overseeing operations. The letter also asks whether the Pentagon conducts “after action assessments or … intelligence reports summarizing coalition airstrikes in Yemen, such as the one reported by The Intercept.” The letter asks the Defense Department to “provide unclassified answers … to the extent possible” and requests copies of the intelligence reports.

Since the beginning of the war, U.S.-backed airstrikes have hit countless civilian targets, including schools, hospitals, and food and water infrastructures. Last week, the U.S.-backed coalition bombed a school bus in North Yemen, reportedly killing dozens of boys between the ages of 6 and 11. UNICEF called the strike the “worst attack on children since Yemen’s brutal war escalated in 2015,” and the U.N. Secretary General called for an “independent and prompt investigation” into the strike.

Warren’s letter comes at a time of mounting frustration on Capitol Hill toward the U.S. role in the war. In June, Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he would hold up a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until the Trump administration answered his questions about civilian casualties and U.S. strategy in the war.

“I am concerned that our policies are enabling perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Menendez wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Top photo: On Aug. 12, 2018, a Yemeni child receives medical treatment at a hospital in Saada, Yemen, after he was injured by an airstrike which hit a bus he was riding earlier this week.

The post Elizabeth Warren Demands in Letter That U.S. Military Explain Its Role in Yemen Bombings appeared first on The Intercept.

There’s a Lot of Injustice at Home — but We Can’t Let Ourselves Miss Crimes Abroad

TOPSHOT - Yemeni children vent anger against Riyadh and Washington on August 13, 2018 as they take part in a mass funeral in the northern Yemeni city of Saada, a stronghold of the Iran-backed Huthi rebels, for children killed in an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition last week. - At least 29 children were among those killed in the air raid on August 9 on a bus in a crowded market in Dahyan, Saada province, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Yemeni children take part in a mass funeral in the northern Yemeni city of Saada on Aug. 13, 2018, for children killed in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition last week.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Every single day of the week, I receive tons of personal emails from people all over the country. At least half of them are heartbreaking stories of personally experienced bigotry, racism, or police brutality.

There’s a Baltimore police officer shattering the face and ribs of an unarmed, nonviolent black man. There’s a Mississippi health care worker openly calling a black woman “nigger” to her face after purchasing doughnuts from her. There’s a Tulsa beauty shop employee punching a black woman so hard in the face that she had to go to the hospital to get her lip stitched back together. There are Florida prosecutors finally deciding to charge a white man in the shooting death of a black father who was defending his family from harassment at a local convenience store.

Then there’s new audio of President Donald Trump’s campaign staff openly discussing how he allegedly called black people niggers and how to contain the potential damage.

That’s all just from this week.

It’s overwhelming, not just for the victims — though certainly for them — but also for the millions of observers left to wonder if any of those things could happen to them or their loved ones.

James Baldwin once wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” When he wrote those words, social media had not been invented yet. Now, in 2018, it’s hard to be black in America and not be relatively conscious — the internet has made it easy for bad news to get around — so there’s a lot of rage to go around.

Yet as we are increasingly rage-filled and frustrated about what is going on at home, many people, including myself, are flat-out missing egregious war crimes abroad.

I’m an informed dude — but still, between fighting to protect my own family, speaking out against injustice in the United States, and helping local candidates with their campaigns, I am absolutely embarrassed to say that I just learned the full extent of what I think may be one of the most egregious crimes against humanity in recent memory.

A child injured in a deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike on Thursday rests in a hospital in Saada, Yemen, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018. Yemen's shiite rebels are backing a United Nations' call for an investigation into the airstrike in the country's north that hit a bus carrying civilians, many of them school children in a busy market, killing dozens of people including many children. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

A child injured in a deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike on Thursday rests in a hospital in Saada, Yemen, on Aug. 12, 2018.

Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

Last Thursday, a bus carrying dozens and dozens of happy, young school boys in Yemen was struck by a missile. It blew the bus and most of the children to bits. At least 40 of the children died and 56 more children were injured. The carnage was unthinkable. Some of the kids who died had their bodies broken down to unrecognizable fragments.

And guess what? The missile was fired by a Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition working closely with the U.S. to carry out a brutal war in Yemen. The U.S. is giving military and intelligence support to the coalition, which human rights groups have said might be committing war crimes.

So, we have to ask: Do Yemeni lives matter?

If these beautiful boys were Americans or Europeans, how much more coverage would this horrendous attack have received?

This many kids were not killed on 9/11.

This many kids were not killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

This many kids have never even been killed in this nation’s worst mass shooting.

In one fell swoop, the American-backed, American-armed Saudi regime murdered more kids than have ever been killed in one single attack in modern American history.

Yet I can count the number of influential politicians in the United States speaking about this on one hand. Do the others not care? Is it that they are complicit in their support of the military industrial complex and the Saudi regime, so they don’t feel like they can really speak out? Or are they overwhelmed too?

Whatever the case, we must find a way to have a truly international worldview — so that when something this horrendous happens, it registers with us and outrages us the way it truly should.

The post There’s a Lot of Injustice at Home — but We Can’t Let Ourselves Miss Crimes Abroad appeared first on The Intercept.

One Million Muslim Uighurs Have Been Detained by China, the U.N. Says. Where’s the Global Outrage?

This picture taken on June 25, 2017 shows police patrolling in a night food market near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a day before the Eid al-Fitr holiday.The increasingly strict curbs imposed on the mostly Muslim Uighur population have stifled life in the tense Xinjiang region, where beards are partially banned and no one is allowed to pray in public. Beijing says the restrictions and heavy police presence seek to control the spread of Islamic extremism and separatist movements, but analysts warn that Xinjiang is becoming an open air prison. / AFP PHOTO / Johannes EISELE / TO GO WITH China-religion-politics, FOCUS by Ben Dooley (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Police patrol in a night food market near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on June 25, 2017, a day before the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

It was on September 16, 2001, five days after the 9/11 attacks, that President George W. Bush declared his now-infamous “war on terrorism.” Other governments around the world followed suit — but few matched the speed, intensity, and sheer cynicism with which the autocrats in Beijing aligned themselves with the Bush administration.

Dogged by protests and revolts from a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority called the Uighurs in the vast and autonomous Central Asian border region of Xinjiang — or East Turkestan, as it is historically referred to by the Uighurs — the Chinese spotted an opportunity. In the weeks and months after 9/11, Beijing began submitting documents to the United Nations alleging that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM — a group that few people had ever heard of, or could even confirm the existence of — was a “major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden” and “an important part of his terrorist forces.” By September 2002, both the U.N. and the United States had listed ETIM as a “terrorist organization” — throwing the Uighurs under the geopolitical bus.

One. Million. People. There are around 11 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, which means that almost one in 10 of them has been detained.

Fast forward 17 years: On Friday, a panel of U.N. human rights experts said Uighurs in Xinjiang were being treated as “enemies of the state” and announced that it had received credible reports about the “arbitrary and mass detention of almost 1 million Uighurs” in “counter-extremism centers.”

One. Million. People. It’s an astonishingly high number. In the context of the Uighur population as a whole, it’s even more shocking: There are around 11 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, which means that almost one in 10 of them has been detained, according to the U.N. How is this not anything other than one of the biggest, and most underreported, human rights crises in the world today?

KASHGAR, CHINA - JUNE 28: A Chinese flag flies over a local mosque recently closed by authorities as an ethnic Uyghur woman sells bread at her bakery on June 28, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. Kashgar has long been considered the cultural heart of Xinjiang for the province's nearly 10 million Muslim Uyghurs. At an historic crossroads linking China to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, the city has changed under Chinese rule with government development, unofficial Han Chinese settlement to the western province, and restrictions imposed by the Communist Party. Beijing says it regards Kashgar's development as an improvement to the local economy, but many Uyghurs consider it a threat that is eroding their language, traditions, and cultural identity. The friction has fuelled a separatist movement that has sometimes turned violent, triggering a crackdown on what China's government considers 'terrorist acts' by religious extremists. Tension has increased with stepped up security in the city and the enforcement of measures including restrictions at mosques. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A Chinese flag flies over a local mosque that had been closed by authorities as an ethnically Uighur woman sells bread at her bakery on June 28, 2017, in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

To be clear, the Chinese have launched vicious crackdowns against the Uighurs on several occasions since 9/11 — most notably, the “strike hard and punish” campaign of 2009. In fact, ever since Chinese communist forces conquered and occupied the short-lived East Turkestan Republic in 1949 and turned it into the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, any attempts by Uighurs to demand greater freedom or autonomy from Beijing have been brutally stamped out. This, it seems, is how the Chinese do “assimilation.”

Yet, as Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin told me, the sheer scale of this latest crackdown should be seen as a “turning point.” The Chinese government is currently “engaged in a mass brainwashing operation that requires the detention of hundreds of thousands of people, arbitrarily, outside of any legal framework, in order to subject them to intense political indoctrination, in the hope that this will make them into a more compliant and loyal political entity,” Bequelin said.

It won’t work, of course. As Bequelin pointed out, “There is no way that China can ensure it has sufficient loyalty from the Uighur people.” The Chinese, he said, will instead “create a generation with very deep grievances because they are detained outside of any kind of legal framework and they are treated as colonial subjects.” Every colonial project, he added, “generates its own anti-colonial project.”

KASHGAR, CHINA - JULY 1: A ethnic Uyghur woman sweeps outside her house on July 1, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. Kashgar has long been considered the cultural heart of Xinjiang for the province's nearly 10 million Muslim Uyghurs. At an historic crossroads linking China to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, the city has changed under Chinese rule with government development, unofficial Han Chinese settlement to the western province, and restrictions imposed by the Communist Party. Beijing says it regards Kashgar's development as an improvement to the local economy, but many Uyghurs consider it a threat that is eroding their language, traditions, and cultural identity. The friction has fuelled a separatist movement that has sometimes turned violent, triggering a crackdown on what China's government considers 'terrorist acts' by religious extremists. Tension has increased with stepped up security in the city and the enforcement of measures including restrictions at mosques. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A Uighur woman sweeps outside her house on July 1, 2017, in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

As with the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, China’s war on terror in Xinjiang risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the Chinese — like the Americans and the Israelis — don’t really give a damn about alleged terrorist threats. This has much less to do with security and much more to with politics. Beijing is asserting control over a restless province that borders eight countries — including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other economic factors come into play, too: Xinjiang is home to the country’s largest reserves of coal and natural gas.

Fighting terrorism, though, has become a useful cover for authoritarian governments around the world. Bequelin, who is the East Asia director at Amnesty International and a former visiting scholar at Yale Law School’s China Center, draws a “direct line” from the Bush declaration of a war on terror in 2001 to the repression of the Uighurs in 2018. “The war on terror rhetoric immensely benefitted the Chinese,” said Bequelin. “It was a 180-degree turn for the discourse of the Chinese state with respect to its ability in Xinjiang: from minimizing and trying to hide it to casting its efforts and suppression of any form of dissent as ‘counterterrorism.’ So there is a direct line here.”

“The war on terror rhetoric immensely benefitted the Chinese.”

That isn’t to say that Uighur militant groups are a myth, but the few that do exist are small, weak, and pose very little threat to the Chinese state. Most are inspired by local factors rather than international alliances. To quote Michael Clarke, an Australian academic who has studied Xinjiang, “It’s not that China shouldn’t be concerned about [global terrorist ties], but the core issue is that the linkages have been exaggerated by the Chinese government.”

It isn’t encouragement from the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, Bequelin noted, but the ongoing persecution in Xinjiang that “will drive certain people to embrace radical forms of anti-state protests, including violence” — maybe even “using the jihadi grammar to oppose the state.” Think about it: Since 9/11, jihadist groups have succeeded in recruiting young and angry Muslim men from across the globe by claiming their enemies are fighting a “war against Islam.” But why should the Uighurs have to watch propaganda videos online when they can see what is happening in front of their eyes?

The Chinese government seems bent on humiliating and abusing the Muslims of Xinjiang. In recent years, Beijing has banned Uighur parents from naming their sons “Muhammad”; children from entering mosques; and government employees from fasting during Ramadan. Muslim men are prohibited from growing “abnormally” long beards, while Muslim women cannot wear the face veil in public.

Then there are the “political camps for indoctrination,” cited by the U.N. panel last week, in which hundreds of thousands of detainees are forced to shout Communist Party slogans; declare their loyalty only to the Chinese dictator, President Xi Jinping; and are “lectured about the dangers of Islam.”

The word “Orwellian,” therefore, does not do justice to the harrowing accounts of abuses coming out of Xinjiang, rightly dubbed a “police state” and “apartheid with Chinese characteristics” by The Economist. The U.N. panel said it was a “massive internment camp” — “a sort of ‘no-rights zone.’”

Demonstrators waving the flag of East Turkestan attend a protest of supporters of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and Turkish nationalists to denounce China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims during a deadly riot in July 2009 in Urumqi, in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, on July 5, 2018. - Nearly 200 people died during a series of violent riots that broke out on July 5, 2009 over several days in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in northwestern China, between Uyghurs and Han people. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP)

Demonstrators attend a protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, on July 5, 2018, to denounce China’s treatment of ethnically Uighur Muslims during a deadly riot in July 2009.

Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

So where is the global outcry? Where are the protests from Western governments, which so often claim to value human rights above all else? President Donald Trump says he has “a lot of respect for China” and likes to brag that Xi Jinping is “a friend of mine.” On a visit to China earlier this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May won plaudits from Chinese state-run media for being “pragmatic” and ignoring Western journalists and activists who “keep pestering [her] to criticize Beijing” over human rights abuses. Her fellow European leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, has visited China 11 times in 12 years — but has never publicly raised the issue of the Uighurs on any of those trips.

Where is the outrage from the governments of majority-Muslim countries, which so often claim to speak on behalf of their oppressed Muslim brothers and sisters across the globe?

Where is the outrage from the governments of majority-Muslim countries, which so often claim to speak on behalf of their oppressed Muslim brothers and sisters across the globe? They are loud in their condemnation of Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians and Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. But a million Muslims behind bars? Beards and veils banned? Imams humiliated? The news out of Xinjiang has been met only with radio silence from the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Take the Turkish government, which in the past has spoken out in defense of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, but these days is keen on cozying up to Beijing. Or consider the Iranian government, which not long ago announced a “new chapter” in Tehran-Beijing relations, praising China for having stood “by the side of the Iranian nation during hard days.”

“We are an occupied territory,” said Uighur diaspora leader Anwar Yusuf Turani, in 2015. “We know the plights of our Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine, Kashmir, but why doesn’t the Muslim world know about our struggle?”

It’s a good question. Some might say it is unrealistic to expect Western or Middle Eastern countries to stand up to China, which has such massive political and economic leverage over them. According to Amnesty’s Bequelin, though, leverage works both ways. He points to the fact that the European Union is China’s biggest trade partner, so of course “the EU can do a lot more.”

“It’s an easy justification to say countries can’t say anything because China is too important to them as an investor or trade partner,” he said. Yet, “if Egypt, or Turkey, or the OIC, or a broad alliance at the United Nations, were to start asking questions that are raising legitimate concerns and did not sound hostile … it could put China on the back foot and might ultimately lead the leadership [in Beijing] to change their calculations about what they’re doing in Xinjiang.”

So far, however, both liberals in the West and Muslims in the East have utterly failed the Uighurs of Xinjiang. The Uighurs are being subjected to a brutal and vile campaign of cultural cleansing, of mass detention, torture, and brainwashing at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, while the rest of us stand by and watch. How is this happening in 2018? We should all hang our heads in shame.

The post One Million Muslim Uighurs Have Been Detained by China, the U.N. Says. Where’s the Global Outrage? appeared first on The Intercept.

A Palestinian Bedouin Village Braces for Forcible Transfer as Israel Seeks to Split the West Bank in Half

Rayyah has lived in Khan al-Ahmar all of her 47 years. She raised nine children there, and 24 grandchildren; one more is on the way. Her family and neighbors, members of a Bedouin community known as the Jahalin, found refuge on this scorched patch of rocks and dust in the 1950s, after they were expelled from the land they had inhabited for generations, in the Negev desert, following the establishment of the Israeli state. The land Khan al-Ahmar stands on was under Jordanian control when the Jahalin arrived. Today, this smatter of tin roofs and tarps sits on the side of a highway in the occupied West Bank, surrounded by a fast-growing ring of Israeli settlements, which — while illegal — have become de facto suburbs of Jerusalem.

The village, which is home to less than 200 people and where the only building with walls is a school made of mud and old tires, has become the latest front line in a conflict over land that for decades has determined the fates of Palestinians like the Jahalin. Israel wants the village razed, its residents evicted, and their land annexed to its ever-expanding settlements. Khan al-Ahmar residents say they are not going anywhere and have been able to rally remarkable international support around their cause, delaying demolition through a yearslong legal battle that remains nonetheless stacked against them.

While Khan al-Ahmar’s plight is hardly unique, what is exceptional about the embattled community — which is surrounded by the illegal settlements of Kfar Adumim, Ma’ale Adumim, Alon, and Nofei Prat — is its position as one of the last-standing obstacles in the way of a decadesold plan to establish a contiguous Jewish presence between the West Bank and Jerusalem.

A picture shows the interior of a house at the Khan Al-Ahmar village on July 26, 2018

The interiors of homes in Khan al-Ahmar on July 26, 2018.

Photo: Samar Hazboun for The Intercept

On August 1, Israel’s Supreme Court confirmed an earlier ruling authorizing the village’s razing but temporarily delayed demolition, giving the Israeli government five days to come up with more suitable relocation plans than those it had previously offered — near a dump, and without any land the Bedouins could use to graze their animals.

A day after the deadline, on August 7, the government proposed moving Khan al-Ahmar residents to temporary tents before relocating them again to a new site south of Jericho along with other Bedouin communities facing demolition — but only on the condition that they would leave Khan al-Ahmar voluntarily. Israel forcibly removed other Jahalin Bedouin communities in the late 1990s, and while violent evictions of individual Palestinian families have continued since then, Israeli officials have tried to steer clear of large forcible transfers — an ugly spectacle, as well as a war crime.

In a statement, Tawfiq Jabareen, an attorney representing Khan al-Ahmar, rejected the proposal, which he said proved that “the plan of the state of Israel is to evacuate all Palestinian Bedouin and move them near Area A,” closer to areas under the Palestinian Authority, “in order to expand the Jewish settlements in places that will be emptied of Palestinians.” Khan al-Ahmar residents have made clear that they have no plans to leave their homes, making forcible eviction a likely outcome.

“The Bedouins are used to being in the sun, they have lived their whole life in the sun. If Israel demolishes their homes, they’ll stay here anyway,” Eid Abu Khamis, Khan al-Ahmar’s leader, told The Intercept. “If they put up a boundary — a meter away from it, this is where all the women and all the children of the community will stay.”

“If the children die from the heat, I didn’t demolish their homes, they did.”

A picture shows a the outside of a Palestinian Bedouin house at the Khan Al-Ahmar village on July 26, 2018

The outside of a Palestinian Bedouin house in Khan al-Ahmar on July 26, 2018.

Photo: Samar Hazboun for The Intercept

A Strategic Wedge

Israeli authorities routinely demolish homes built without permits — which are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain — and often use demolitions as collective punishment against the families of Palestinians who attempt attacks against Israelis. In July, Israel demolished a daycare and a women’s community center in Jabal al Baba, another Bedouin community outside Jerusalem, as well as several homes in the village of Abu Nawwar, near the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, leaving 64 people, mostly children, homeless.

map-2-03-1534001372

Map: Soohee Cho

But Khan al-Ahmar sits in a uniquely strategic position close to what Israel refers to as “E1” — an area it intends to expand to create spatial continuity between the West Bank settlements and Jerusalem. So far, those plans have mostly stalled following international pressure, but advocates fear Khan-al Ahmar’s demolition will be the first step toward implementing that plan, which would further fragment Palestinian areas, isolating Palestinian-majority East Jerusalem and splitting the occupied West Bank in half.

In the 1970s, when Israel expropriated the area surrounding Khan al-Ahmar, Uri Ariel, a founder of the Kfar Adumim settlement and today the country’s minister of agriculture and rural development, made no secret the move was part of a plan to establish “a Jewish corridor from the sea, through Jerusalem, to the Jordan river, which will put a wedge in the territorial continuity of Arab inhabitation between Judea and Samaria” — the names used by Israel to refer to the occupied West Bank.

“This is a particularly strategic wedge because it’s in the narrowest part of the West Bank, and because it will complete the process of isolating East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank,” said Amit Gilutz, a spokesperson for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, pointing to Khan al-Ahmar on a map dissected by an intricate pattern of current and planned separation barriers and settlements, and Palestinian areas under various forms of Israeli control.

“It’s fragmenting the society itself,” he added, noting that Israel can easily control isolated Palestinian enclaves by blocking access to their entrance and cutting them off entirely. “From a control perspective, that is very efficient, because if you want to disconnect their access, all you need is a military jeep. You put the thing on the road and that’s it.”

Israeli workers place container houses near the town of Al-Eizariyah in the occupied West Bank near East Jerusalem on July 9, 2018, to absorb residents of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar who are set to be evicted from their homes. - Khan al-Ahmar, which Israeli authorities say was illegally constructed and the supreme court in May rejected a final appeal against its demolition, is located near several Israeli settlements along a road leading to the Dead Sea. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli workers place container houses near the town of Al-Eizariyah in the occupied West Bank on July 9, 2018, to absorb residents of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, who are set to be evicted.

Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

The plan to force the Bedouins out so the settlements can expand is hardly a secret: In May, days after a court largely made up of settlers upheld demolition orders against Khan al-Ahmar, the Israeli government approved the construction of a new neighborhood in Kfar Adumim, “reaching 500 meters from my home,” Abu Khamis told The Intercept.

Israel argues that Khan al-Ahmar’s school and homes are illegal because they were built without permits or an approved zoning plan — hiding behind a façade of legality the reality that Palestinians have virtually no access to either, and that what is illegal is the Israeli occupation of their land. Since it occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, Israel has declared 347,000 acres of occupied territory — nearly a quarter of the West Bank — as state land. But 99.7 percent of the state land Israel has allocated for public use so far — some 167,000 acres — has gone toward the development of illegal Israeli settlements, the watchdog group Peace Now recently learned through a public records request. A meager 0.24 percent of that land was allocated to Palestinians.

After the Oslo Agreements, in the 1990s, the West Bank was divided into Areas A and B, which are under the limited control of the Palestinian Authority, and Area C, under exclusive Israeli military control. While the arrangement was supposed to be temporary, Israel has effectively treated Area C as its expansion grounds — and some 400,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements there, protected by the military. With Palestinian chances of obtaining building permits in Area C “slim to none,” according to analysis by B’Tselem, most have given up on the process altogether.

There are more than 150 Palestinian communities in Area C without zoning plans and therefore at constant risk of expulsion, including 12 — some 1,400 people — around Khan al-Ahmar, according to B’Tselem. But while Bedouins living in the area around Jerusalem are particularly vulnerable, similar efforts to cut off Palestinian areas of the West Bank are also underway in the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills. “What Israel wants and has been striving toward very consistently is maximum land under its control, minimum Palestinians on it,” said Gilutz. “For the most part, Israel has been creating this ‘course of life’ environment, trying to force people off of their land as if by their wish, while avoiding the textbook example of a forcible transfer, which is clearly a war crime.”

Palestinian Bedouin men sit together at the Al-Khan Al-Ahmar village on July 26, 2018.

Palestinian Bedouin men sit together in Khan al-Ahmar on July 26, 2018.

Photo: Samar Hazboun for The Intercept

“They Want to Scare Us”

Israeli efforts to make life in Khan al-Ahmar so difficult that its residents leave of their own volition started when the nearby settlement of Kfar Adumim was built in the early 1980s. The settlers took over areas the Bedouins had used to graze their animals. If sheep or donkeys wandered into the settlement, settlers would take them and sell them back to the Bedouins, Rayya said last month, surrounded by some of her daughters and grandchildren. “If we went too close, they started shooting.”

Rayyah spoke to The Intercept from her home — three shacks of tin, tarps, and scrap wood she shares with her large family. Like many Palestinians in Area C, Khan al-Ahmar residents are not allowed to put up new structures or bring in construction material, so when Rayyah’s sons got married or new children were born, everyone squeezed into the structures they had already built, even though they, too, are subject to demolition. “If I put something up, they’ll come and destroy it,” she said, adding that a drone flies over the village every day, photographing anything new that residents may have built.

Recently, Israeli officials came into the village and confiscated solar panels that an aid organization had donated. Then last month, they came in with bulldozers and leveled the areas between tents and huts into a dusty road that residents speculate will be used by the army when it comes to drag them away. Tensions flared that day, and several residents, including an 18-year-old girl, were arrested. Since then, the Israeli military has kept a close eye on the village. “We can’t sleep. Maybe they’re not doing anything, but their presence there, it’s creating tension,” said Rayyah. “They come because they want to make us leave, they want to scare us.”

Rayyah was particularly worried about the school, which a group of Italian volunteers built in 2009 with the help of kids from the village, who painted their classrooms with hand prints and drawings of books and flowers. Before the school was built, children from Khan al-Ahmar would leave at 6 a.m. and walk on the highway waiting for rides, or trek to schools in Jericho. “It was very difficult for them,” said Rayyah. “They’d have to wait in the sun for a long time.”

Israeli authorities have destroyed or confiscated at least 12 Palestinian school buildings since 2016, and 44 Palestinian schools, including Khan al-Ahmar’s, are currently at risk of demolition, Human Rights Watch found. Over a third of Palestinians living in Area C don’t have access to primary schools and are not allowed by Israeli authorities to build any — leaving 10,000 children to attend schools in tents or other temporary structures with no heat or air conditioning.

But the mud walls of the school in Khan al-Ahmar — a sign of permanence — bothered neighboring settlers, and shortly after it was built, representatives of Kfar Adumim and the pro-settlement group Regavim petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to enforce earlier demolition orders against the village. As the Supreme Court first upheld and then froze authorization to demolish Khan al-Ahmar, life in the small community carried on between hope and fear, while delegations of activists and Palestinian and foreign officials made trips to visit.

Abu Khamees (C) speaks during a press conference at the Al-Khan Al-Ahmar village on July 26, 2018.

Eid Abu Khamis, center, speaks during a press conference in Khan al-Ahmar on July 26, 2018.

Photo: Samar Hazboun for The Intercept

In July, addressing several foreign diplomats under a large tent in Khan al-Ahmar, Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called Israel’s plans to demolish the village and evict its residents “ethnic cleansing.” “You begin with evicting and demolishing the community of Khan al-Ahmar, and one day you may destroy Dura, Jericho, parts of Ramallah,” he added, referring to some of the West Bank’s most populous cities.

Bedouins live largely removed from the rest of Palestinian society, and it took some time for Palestinian leaders to take on Khan-al Ahmar’s cause. “Lately they have woken up,” said Abu Khamis, adding that Israel’s plan to dissect the West Bank would effectively put a nail in the coffin of Palestinian plans to build a state there. “They understand that if this corridor is built, then their government is over.”

To Rayyah, talk of a Palestinian state in the West Bank seems far removed from the reality at hand — the only home she has ever known slated for demolition, and her 24 grandchildren facing displacement.

“We have faith. Without faith we can’t go on,” she said. “We’re going to pray. And we’ll stay.”

Top photo: Rayyah washes dishes at her home in the village of Khan al-Ahmar on July 26, 2018.

The post A Palestinian Bedouin Village Braces for Forcible Transfer as Israel Seeks to Split the West Bank in Half appeared first on The Intercept.

Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014

A confidential report by Israeli military police investigators seen by The Intercept explains how a tragic series of mistakes by air force, naval, and intelligence officers led to an airstrike in which four Palestinian boys playing on a beach in Gaza in 2014 were killed by missiles launched from an armed drone.

Testimony from the officers involved in the attack, which has been concealed from the public until now, confirms for the first time that the children — four cousins ages 10 and 11 — were pursued and killed by drone operators who somehow mistook them, in broad daylight, for Hamas militants.

The testimony raises new questions about whether the attack, which unfolded in front of dozens of journalists and triggered global outrage, was carried out with reckless disregard for civilian life and without proper authorization. After killing the first boy, the drone operators told investigators, they had sought clarification from their superiors as to how far along the beach, used by civilians, they could pursue the fleeing survivors. Less than a minute later, as the boys ran for their lives, the drone operators decided to launch a second missile, killing three more children, despite never getting an answer to their question.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer representing the families of the victims, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones to kill Palestinians poses “many questions concerning human judgment, ethics, and compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Remotely piloted bombers “alter the process of human decision-making,” Bishara said, and the use of the technology in the 2014 beach attack “expands the circle of people responsible for the actual killing of the Bakr children.”

Just hours before the attack, on the morning of July 16, 2014, the public relations unit of the Israel Defense Forces had been promoting the idea that the live video feeds provided by drones enabled its air force to avoid killing Palestinian civilians.

The PR unit released operational footage, apparently taken from the screens of Israeli drone operators, which documented how three Israeli airstrikes had been called off that week because figures, identified as civilians, had appeared close to targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Those images were released one week into Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza in which Israel would eventually kill 1,391 civilians, including 526 children.

Later that same day, at about 3:30 p.m., an Israeli Hermes 450 surveillance drone hovering over a beach in Gaza City transmitted images of eight figures clambering from the strand onto a jetty.

A small shipping container on the jetty had been destroyed by an Israeli missile the day before, based on intelligence indicating that it might have been used by Hamas naval commandos to store weapons. Some analysts have questioned that intelligence, however, since there were no secondary explosions after the structure was hit and journalists staying in nearby hotels reported that no militants had been seen around the jetty that week.

The Israeli military police report reviewed by The Intercept documents what happened next. After one of the figures on the jetty entered the container that had been destroyed the previous day, an Israeli air force commander at the Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, ordered the operators of a second drone, which was armed, to fire a missile at the container.

As my colleagues Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke reported in 2016, although the Israeli government maintains an official stance of secrecy around its use of drones to carry out airstrikes, hacked Israeli surveillance images provided to The Intercept by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed an Israeli drone armed with missiles in 2010.

Speaking privately to a visiting American diplomat after Israel’s 2009 offensive in Gaza, Avichai Mandelblit, who was the country’s chief military prosecutor at the time and now serves as its attorney general, acknowledged that two missiles that injured civilians in a mosque had been fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to a leaked State Department cable.

One reason that Israel might decline to acknowledge that its drones have been used to kill Palestinian children is that such information could complicate sales of its drones to foreign governments. In June, the state-owned company Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $600 million deal to lease Heron drones to Germany’s defense ministry. That deal was initially delayed by concerns from German politicians that the drones, to be used for surveillance, could also be armed. The same state-owned company has also sold drones to Turkey, a strongly pro-Palestinian nation, which has nonetheless used the Israeli technology to bomb Kurds in Iraq.

The Israeli military police report on the 2014 strike seen by The Intercept offers the most direct evidence to date that Israel has used armed drones to launch attacks in Gaza. Testimony from the drone operators, commanders, and intelligence officers who took part in the attack confirms that they used an armed drone to fire the missile that slammed into the jetty, killing the person who had entered the container, and also to launch a second strike, which killed three of the survivors as they fled across the beach.

According to the testimony of one naval officer involved in the strikes, the mission was initially considered “a great success,” because the strike team believed, wrongly, that they had killed four Hamas militants preparing to launch an attack on Israeli forces.

Within minutes of the two strikes, however, a group of international journalists who had witnessed the attack from nearby hotels reported that the victims torn apart by the missiles were not adult militants but four small boys, cousins who were 10 and 11 years old. Another four boys from the same family survived the attack, but were left with shrapnel wounds and deep emotional scars.

Harrowing images of the children running desperately across the beach after the first missile had killed their cousin were quickly shared by a Palestinian photographer, an Al Jazeera reporter and a camera crew from French television.

A brutal image of the immediate aftermath captured by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times, one of the journalists who witnessed the attack, made the killing of the four boys, all of them sons of Gaza fishermen from the Bakr family, reverberate worldwide.

The French TV correspondent Liseron Boudoul, whose report that day included distressing video of the boys running along the beach before the second strike, noted that she and other witnesses to the attack were unclear where, exactly, the missiles had come from — although initial speculation centered on Israeli naval vessels seen just offshore.

The secret testimony from the Israeli military personnel involved in the attack establishes for the first time that the drone operators treated the jetty as a free-fire zone on the mistaken assumption that it was off-limits to anyone but militants.

After images of the attack prompted widespread outrage, Israel’s army conducted a review of the mission and recommended that a military police investigation into possible criminal negligence be conducted. The testimonies collected by the military police from the strike team were included in a report presented to Israel’s military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, 11 months after the boys were killed.

Efroni did not release the testimonies, but did make a summary of the report’s findings public on June 11, 2015, when he closed the investigation without filing any charges. Israel’s chief military prosecutor decided that no further criminal or disciplinary measures would be taken, since the investigators had concluded that “it would not have been possible for the operational entities involved to have identified these figures, via aerial surveillance, as children.”

Efroni did not explain why that was impossible. Two days before the strike in question, Israel’s military PR unit had released another video clip in which drone operators could be heard deciding to halt strikes because they had identified figures in their live feeds as children.

Adalah, also known as the Haifa-based Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has spent the past three years fighting on behalf of the families of the boys — Ismail Bakr, 10; Ahed Bakr, 10; Zakaria Bakr, 10; and Mohammed Bakr, 11 — to have the decision not to prosecute the soldiers overturned by an Israeli court.

Much of that time has been spent waiting for Israel’s attorney general, Mandelblit, to simply reply to appeals filed by Adalah and two Gazan rights groups, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

In February, Adalah said in a statement that Israel’s own investigation “revealed that the Israeli military did not take any measures to ascertain whether the targets on the ground were civilians, let alone children, prior to intentionally directing the attacks against them.”

Bishara, one of the Adalah lawyers representing the boys’ families, told The Intercept in a telephone interview that the Israeli investigation of the killings, in which the military cleared itself of wrongdoing, was flawed in several ways. To start with, the testimonies were only collected by the military police four months after the incident, and only considered what could be seen of the beach through the drone cameras. No testimony was taken from the international journalists who witnessed the attack, and the accounts of Palestinian witnesses, including written affidavits from boys injured in the strikes, were discounted.

A Wall Street Journal video report filed on the day of the attack by Nick Casey, a correspondent staying in a hotel close to the jetty, cast doubt on the Israeli intelligence that designated the site a Hamas compound. Casey’s report, which featured images of the first young victim’s mangled body being taken from the jetty, explained that “no one knew why this place had been bombarded; there have been no Hamas attacks from here and no rockets that we’ve seen.”

When the Israeli authorities closed the case in 2015, Alexander Marquardt, a former ABC Jerusalem correspondent who had also witnessed the attack, disputed the finding that the jetty was sealed off from the beach, arguing that it was open to civilians.

According to the testimony seen by The Intercept, one of the officers involved in the missile strikes told investigators that when he saw one of the figures entering the destroyed container, he had checked with an intelligence officer to be sure that only militants could enter the compound before opening fire.

However, the chief intelligence naval officer, a woman identified only as “Colonel N.” in the report, testified that since the entrance to the area was unguarded on the day of the attack, it was not closed to civilians.

Although the copy of the report reviewed by The Intercept includes redactions, there is no indication as to why this apparent discrepancy between the two testimonies was ignored when the decision to close the investigation was made.

One of the officers also testified that although the site was surrounded by a fence when the intelligence estimate was made before Operation Protective Edge began, the fence could have been destroyed in the previous day’s attack, leaving the jetty open to the public.

One soldier told investigators that according to “dozens” of statements from Gaza fishermen, the local population was aware that the jetty was a Hamas compound. The source of this claim is unknown, however, and a lawyer who has worked on the Adalah appeal told The Intercept that there was no evidence to support it in the parts of the report the army was obliged to share with the victims’ families.

Everyone involved in the strike, including the air force officer who coordinated the attack from Palmachim air base, told investigators that even though they had a live video feed of the area during the attack, “we couldn’t tell they were children.”

The testimonies also reveal a crucial moment when the attack could have been halted, but was not. After the first missile was fired at the shack, killing one of the boys, and the other children ran out to the beach, the attack team requested clarification about how far onto the beach they were permitted to fire.

The attack team radioed a superior officer, asking where, exactly, the area designated a closed military zone ended. They wanted to know if there was a point at which they could no longer shoot at the fleeing figures, as they approached an area of beach umbrellas and tents used by civilians.

When they received no response to that query, the attack team fired a second missile at the fleeing children, about 30 seconds after the first strike, which killed three of the boys and wounded at least one more of their cousins.

One naval officer, who took part in the life-and-death decisions, testified that to the best of his recollection, they had launched the second missile while the fleeing figures were still inside what they took to be a closed military compound, but the missile had landed after the fleeing figures were already outside it, on the beach.

The air force officer who coordinated the strikes told investigators that he had previously been in charge of “hundreds of attacks,” but this incident remained “engraved” in his memory because the intelligence that the strike team was given was a 180-degree difference from the facts on the ground.

Adalah, which filed an updated appeal in the case in May and is still waiting for a response, also noted that the Israeli authorities have refused to let lawyers for the families see any of the video from the two drones recorded during the attack.

Without seeing that video, it is impossible to say whether or not the drone operators should have been able to tell that their targets were children, but Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect who has investigated drone strikes, has argued in the past that the optical resolution of drone cameras might not be nearly as high as military commanders claim.

After previously analyzing drone surveillance video of suspected Islamic State militants in Iraq, Weizman said it was only possible to tell that the figures were carrying weapons, and that one of them was a child, by studying their shadows. That identification was only possible, he said, because the video was “taken either very early or very late in the day.”

Since there would be no long shadow in aerial images recorded earlier in the afternoon — like those of the boys playing on the beach in Gaza that July day at around 3:30 p.m. — Weizman observed that high-resolution images selectively released by military commanders to justify airstrikes “could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.” Most of the footage “that is continuously harvested by drones,” Weizman said, is “far more ambiguous.”

Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones was something of an open secret, but since the technology did not yet cut humans out of the decision-making process, the military commanders who ordered the strikes, and the drone pilots who executed them, were no less responsible for killing the boys than if they had been flying over the beach in a jet or a helicopter at the time.

A spokesperson for Israel’s military did not respond to a request for comment.

Top Photo: Smoke billowed from a beachside shack in Gaza City on July 16, 2014, after two missiles fired by Israeli drone operators killed four young boys mistaken for militants.

The post Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014 appeared first on The Intercept.

Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014

A confidential report by Israeli military police investigators seen by The Intercept explains how a tragic series of mistakes by air force, naval, and intelligence officers led to an airstrike in which four Palestinian boys playing on a beach in Gaza in 2014 were killed by missiles launched from an armed drone.

Testimony from the officers involved in the attack, which has been concealed from the public until now, confirms for the first time that the children — four cousins ages 10 and 11 — were pursued and killed by drone operators who somehow mistook them, in broad daylight, for Hamas militants.

The testimony raises new questions about whether the attack, which unfolded in front of dozens of journalists and triggered global outrage, was carried out with reckless disregard for civilian life and without proper authorization. After killing the first boy, the drone operators told investigators, they had sought clarification from their superiors as to how far along the beach, used by civilians, they could pursue the fleeing survivors. Less than a minute later, as the boys ran for their lives, the drone operators decided to launch a second missile, killing three more children, despite never getting an answer to their question.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer representing the families of the victims, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones to kill Palestinians poses “many questions concerning human judgment, ethics, and compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Remotely piloted bombers “alter the process of human decision-making,” Bishara said, and the use of the technology in the 2014 beach attack “expands the circle of people responsible for the actual killing of the Bakr children.”

Just hours before the attack, on the morning of July 16, 2014, the public relations unit of the Israel Defense Forces had been promoting the idea that the live video feeds provided by drones enabled its air force to avoid killing Palestinian civilians.

The PR unit released operational footage, apparently taken from the screens of Israeli drone operators, which documented how three Israeli airstrikes had been called off that week because figures, identified as civilians, had appeared close to targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Those images were released one week into Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza in which Israel would eventually kill 1,391 civilians, including 526 children.

Later that same day, at about 3:30 p.m., an Israeli Hermes 450 surveillance drone hovering over a beach in Gaza City transmitted images of eight figures clambering from the strand onto a jetty.

A small shipping container on the jetty had been destroyed by an Israeli missile the day before, based on intelligence indicating that it might have been used by Hamas naval commandos to store weapons. Some analysts have questioned that intelligence, however, since there were no secondary explosions after the structure was hit and journalists staying in nearby hotels reported that no militants had been seen around the jetty that week.

The Israeli military police report reviewed by The Intercept documents what happened next. After one of the figures on the jetty entered the container that had been destroyed the previous day, an Israeli air force commander at the Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, ordered the operators of a second drone, which was armed, to fire a missile at the container.

As my colleagues Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke reported in 2016, although the Israeli government maintains an official stance of secrecy around its use of drones to carry out airstrikes, hacked Israeli surveillance images provided to The Intercept by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed an Israeli drone armed with missiles in 2010.

Speaking privately to a visiting American diplomat after Israel’s 2009 offensive in Gaza, Avichai Mandelblit, who was the country’s chief military prosecutor at the time and now serves as its attorney general, acknowledged that two missiles that injured civilians in a mosque had been fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to a leaked State Department cable.

One reason that Israel might decline to acknowledge that its drones have been used to kill Palestinian children is that such information could complicate sales of its drones to foreign governments. In June, the state-owned company Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $600 million deal to lease Heron drones to Germany’s defense ministry. That deal was initially delayed by concerns from German politicians that the drones, to be used for surveillance, could also be armed. The same state-owned company has also sold drones to Turkey, a strongly pro-Palestinian nation, which has nonetheless used the Israeli technology to bomb Kurds in Iraq.

The Israeli military police report on the 2014 strike seen by The Intercept offers the most direct evidence to date that Israel has used armed drones to launch attacks in Gaza. Testimony from the drone operators, commanders, and intelligence officers who took part in the attack confirms that they used an armed drone to fire the missile that slammed into the jetty, killing the person who had entered the container, and also to launch a second strike, which killed three of the survivors as they fled across the beach.

According to the testimony of one naval officer involved in the strikes, the mission was initially considered “a great success,” because the strike team believed, wrongly, that they had killed four Hamas militants preparing to launch an attack on Israeli forces.

Within minutes of the two strikes, however, a group of international journalists who had witnessed the attack from nearby hotels reported that the victims torn apart by the missiles were not adult militants but four small boys, cousins who were 10 and 11 years old. Another four boys from the same family survived the attack, but were left with shrapnel wounds and deep emotional scars.

Harrowing images of the children running desperately across the beach after the first missile had killed their cousin were quickly shared by a Palestinian photographer, an Al Jazeera reporter and a camera crew from French television.

A brutal image of the immediate aftermath captured by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times, one of the journalists who witnessed the attack, made the killing of the four boys, all of them sons of Gaza fishermen from the Bakr family, reverberate worldwide.

The French TV correspondent Liseron Boudoul, whose report that day included distressing video of the boys running along the beach before the second strike, noted that she and other witnesses to the attack were unclear where, exactly, the missiles had come from — although initial speculation centered on Israeli naval vessels seen just offshore.

The secret testimony from the Israeli military personnel involved in the attack establishes for the first time that the drone operators treated the jetty as a free-fire zone on the mistaken assumption that it was off-limits to anyone but militants.

After images of the attack prompted widespread outrage, Israel’s army conducted a review of the mission and recommended that a military police investigation into possible criminal negligence be conducted. The testimonies collected by the military police from the strike team were included in a report presented to Israel’s military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, 11 months after the boys were killed.

Efroni did not release the testimonies, but did make a summary of the report’s findings public on June 11, 2015, when he closed the investigation without filing any charges. Israel’s chief military prosecutor decided that no further criminal or disciplinary measures would be taken, since the investigators had concluded that “it would not have been possible for the operational entities involved to have identified these figures, via aerial surveillance, as children.”

Efroni did not explain why that was impossible. Two days before the strike in question, Israel’s military PR unit had released another video clip in which drone operators could be heard deciding to halt strikes because they had identified figures in their live feeds as children.

Adalah, also known as the Haifa-based Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has spent the past three years fighting on behalf of the families of the boys — Ismail Bakr, 10; Ahed Bakr, 10; Zakaria Bakr, 10; and Mohammed Bakr, 11 — to have the decision not to prosecute the soldiers overturned by an Israeli court.

Much of that time has been spent waiting for Israel’s attorney general, Mandelblit, to simply reply to appeals filed by Adalah and two Gazan rights groups, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

In February, Adalah said in a statement that Israel’s own investigation “revealed that the Israeli military did not take any measures to ascertain whether the targets on the ground were civilians, let alone children, prior to intentionally directing the attacks against them.”

Bishara, one of the Adalah lawyers representing the boys’ families, told The Intercept in a telephone interview that the Israeli investigation of the killings, in which the military cleared itself of wrongdoing, was flawed in several ways. To start with, the testimonies were only collected by the military police four months after the incident, and only considered what could be seen of the beach through the drone cameras. No testimony was taken from the international journalists who witnessed the attack, and the accounts of Palestinian witnesses, including written affidavits from boys injured in the strikes, were discounted.

A Wall Street Journal video report filed on the day of the attack by Nick Casey, a correspondent staying in a hotel close to the jetty, cast doubt on the Israeli intelligence that designated the site a Hamas compound. Casey’s report, which featured images of the first young victim’s mangled body being taken from the jetty, explained that “no one knew why this place had been bombarded; there have been no Hamas attacks from here and no rockets that we’ve seen.”

When the Israeli authorities closed the case in 2015, Alexander Marquardt, a former ABC Jerusalem correspondent who had also witnessed the attack, disputed the finding that the jetty was sealed off from the beach, arguing that it was open to civilians.

According to the testimony seen by The Intercept, one of the officers involved in the missile strikes told investigators that when he saw one of the figures entering the destroyed container, he had checked with an intelligence officer to be sure that only militants could enter the compound before opening fire.

However, the chief intelligence naval officer, a woman identified only as “Colonel N.” in the report, testified that since the entrance to the area was unguarded on the day of the attack, it was not closed to civilians.

Although the copy of the report reviewed by The Intercept includes redactions, there is no indication as to why this apparent discrepancy between the two testimonies was ignored when the decision to close the investigation was made.

One of the officers also testified that although the site was surrounded by a fence when the intelligence estimate was made before Operation Protective Edge began, the fence could have been destroyed in the previous day’s attack, leaving the jetty open to the public.

One soldier told investigators that according to “dozens” of statements from Gaza fishermen, the local population was aware that the jetty was a Hamas compound. The source of this claim is unknown, however, and a lawyer who has worked on the Adalah appeal told The Intercept that there was no evidence to support it in the parts of the report the army was obliged to share with the victims’ families.

Everyone involved in the strike, including the air force officer who coordinated the attack from Palmachim air base, told investigators that even though they had a live video feed of the area during the attack, “we couldn’t tell they were children.”

The testimonies also reveal a crucial moment when the attack could have been halted, but was not. After the first missile was fired at the shack, killing one of the boys, and the other children ran out to the beach, the attack team requested clarification about how far onto the beach they were permitted to fire.

The attack team radioed a superior officer, asking where, exactly, the area designated a closed military zone ended. They wanted to know if there was a point at which they could no longer shoot at the fleeing figures, as they approached an area of beach umbrellas and tents used by civilians.

When they received no response to that query, the attack team fired a second missile at the fleeing children, about 30 seconds after the first strike, which killed three of the boys and wounded at least one more of their cousins.

One naval officer, who took part in the life-and-death decisions, testified that to the best of his recollection, they had launched the second missile while the fleeing figures were still inside what they took to be a closed military compound, but the missile had landed after the fleeing figures were already outside it, on the beach.

The air force officer who coordinated the strikes told investigators that he had previously been in charge of “hundreds of attacks,” but this incident remained “engraved” in his memory because the intelligence that the strike team was given was a 180-degree difference from the facts on the ground.

Adalah, which filed an updated appeal in the case in May and is still waiting for a response, also noted that the Israeli authorities have refused to let lawyers for the families see any of the video from the two drones recorded during the attack.

Without seeing that video, it is impossible to say whether or not the drone operators should have been able to tell that their targets were children, but Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect who has investigated drone strikes, has argued in the past that the optical resolution of drone cameras might not be nearly as high as military commanders claim.

After previously analyzing drone surveillance video of suspected Islamic State militants in Iraq, Weizman said it was only possible to tell that the figures were carrying weapons, and that one of them was a child, by studying their shadows. That identification was only possible, he said, because the video was “taken either very early or very late in the day.”

Since there would be no long shadow in aerial images recorded earlier in the afternoon — like those of the boys playing on the beach in Gaza that July day at around 3:30 p.m. — Weizman observed that high-resolution images selectively released by military commanders to justify airstrikes “could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.” Most of the footage “that is continuously harvested by drones,” Weizman said, is “far more ambiguous.”

Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones was something of an open secret, but since the technology did not yet cut humans out of the decision-making process, the military commanders who ordered the strikes, and the drone pilots who executed them, were no less responsible for killing the boys than if they had been flying over the beach in a jet or a helicopter at the time.

A spokesperson for Israel’s military did not respond to a request for comment.

Top Photo: Smoke billowed from a beachside shack in Gaza City on July 16, 2014, after two missiles fired by Israeli drone operators killed four young boys mistaken for militants.

The post Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014 appeared first on The Intercept.