Monthly Archives: September 2013

Naming the Dead of the CIA Drone War

Naming the Dead is a project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit research organisation based in London. The project aims to identify those killed in CIA drone strikes on Pakistan.  Over the past nine years, the tribal region of Pakistan’s north west has been hit by hundreds of drone attacks as the CIA has sought to stamp out al Qaeda fighters and the militant groups that have given them shelter.  Missiles launched from these high-tech, unmanned aircraft have hit homes, cars, schools, shops and gatherings. At least 2,500 people have been killed, according to data already collected by the Bureau as part of our wider Covert Drone War research.

Senior US officials have described drones as highly precise weapons that target and kill enemies of the US. John Brennan, who oversaw the development of the drone campaign and is now director of the CIA, has called drone technology an ‘essential tool’ for its ‘surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.’

Those killed by drones include high-ranking militant leaders – figures such as Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s feared second-in-command, or Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  But according to credible media reports analysed by the Bureau, the dead also include at least 400 civilians. Some were unlucky enough to be nearby when militants were attacked. Others were killed alongside their husbands or fathers, who were believed to be militants. Still others were mistaken for terrorists by drone operators sitting thousands of miles away.

In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.  For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.

Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.  In the future, the Bureau aims to identify more of the dead on a regular basis, and to uncover more details of those who have been killed. Where possible we will provide further identification – where they were killed, and their occupations, full names and ages. In the remote areas of Pakistan where drone strikes take place, official identification is rare. Few people possess identification cards, birth certificates, or even documents recording their relatives’ deaths. But wherever possible this project will provide documentation recording a person’s death.

Photographs of the destruction of a particular site are included in the database. Affidavits, photos, hospital records, student identification and transcripts of interviews with researchers are all provided when available. Over time, the Bureau aims to build on such currently scarce records in an attempt to properly scrutinise the little that is reported, and the claims being made – on all sides.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Offshore Havens: who is the next largest mass incorporator

Gambia_Export_Treemap. Image from wikipedia

After Guernsey, the Gambia? The smallest country in mainland Africa, a sliver on the west coast with a population of 1.8m, is trying to turn itself into an offshore financial centre. Central to the strategy is a state-of-the-art online corporate registry, offering quick and cheap incorporation of the types of secretive companies and trusts that drive financial investigators to distraction.

It is a counter-intuitive move at a time when offshore hubs are under fire from big economies that accuse them of aiding tax evasion or worse. But the idea of becoming a tax haven “will always loom large” for small states with few other options for economic development, says Jason Sharman of Griffith University in Australia. The Gambia’s economy is fairly open but still heavily dependent on tourism and peanuts.

With Britain cranking up pressure on its dependencies in the Caribbean and the English Channel, some of their customers will seek new homes offshore. And the overall market is proving resilient: after dipping in 2007-08, demand for offshore vehicles is back near pre-crisis levels in many jurisdictions, according to Appleby, a law firm.

The Gambia is not the only African country to take an interest. An attempt led by Barclays to develop Ghana into an offshore banking hub foundered in 2011 when the government, spooked by a warning from the OECD, declined to pass the required regulations. Tiny Anjouan, an island in the Indian Ocean, dabbled briefly with shell banks. Kenya is working with TheCityUK, which helps London’s financial district forge alliances, to set up an “International Financial Centre” (offshore centres’ preferred label for their activities) in Nairobi. TheCityUK is also in talks with Dubai, Istanbul and Moscow. Liberia is a successful shipping flag of convenience, although its registry is run from Virginia.

The Gambian registry already has “several hundred” companies, says Charlotte Pawar, a manager. But it will need many thousands to be considered a success, a tall order in a bitterly competitive market. Although it is easy to copy other places’ laws and product offerings (the Gambia’s resemble those of Mauritius), gaining traction is a struggle without the right network of tax treaties and the backing of the big corporate-service providers that buy offshore firms in bulk from favoured jurisdictions, for resale to law firms and individuals.

These sponsors are hard to impress. Only four of the many jurisdictions that have tried to enter the market since the late 1980s have proved really successful: Mauritius, the Seychelles, Belize and Samoa. The largest mass incorporator, Hong Kong-based Offshore Incorporations Limited, apparently has no plans to start selling Gambian vehicles. It could be a while before financial shells displace those around the country’s peanuts as a source of economic value

Offshore finance: Trawling for business, Economist, Aug. 24, at 65

Space-the Wild West and the Five Eyes

A radome at RAF Menwith Hill, a site with satellite downlink capabilities believed to be used by ECHELON.  Image from wikipedia

Space is a current and future battleground without terrain, where invisible enemies conceivably could mount undetectable attacks to devastating effect if the right deterrent and defensive plans aren’t pursued now, the assistant defense secretary for global strategic affairs told a think tank audience on Sept. 17, 2013  Madelyn R. Creedon spoke to a Stimson Center gathering whose audience included analysts focused on the question of deterrence in space. The center released a publication this week titled “Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations,” presenting a number of essays examining various perspectives on space deterrence.

Creedon noted that in Defense Department parlance, deterrence is “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or the belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” In other words, she said, if deterrence is effective, an adversary has or believes he has more to lose than to gain by attacking.  Deterrence remains a core defense strategy for the United States, she added, and the nation’s nuclear deterrent is “still alive and well.”  Creedon acknowledged that one classic approach to considering space deterrence — that is, preventing potential enemies from attacking U.S. or partner satellites and other military or economic assets in space — is to try to apply lessons learned during the Cold War. Then, the United States and the Soviet Union kept an uneasy diplomatic truce and piled up enough nuclear weapons to guarantee mutually assured destruction.

But one flaw to comparing the two deterrent challenges, she said, is that an attack that disables a satellite, unlike one from a nuclear warhead that flattens a major city, doesn’t threaten a nation’s existence. Another is that the two superpowers spent decades constructing an elaborate, mirrored, deterrent Cold War architecture and protocols, while space is still, comparatively, “the Wild West.” A third is that an attack in space or cyberspace may rely on digital rather than conventional weapons, and so could occur without warning or even detection.

“If there is an attack against a space asset, it isn’t visible,” she said. “You can’t watch it on CNN, and unless you’re directly affected by the capability that the space assets provide, you’re probably completely oblivious that the attack happened.”

She said DOD is developing and implementing what safeguards it can implement in space using four mutually supportive elements to deter others from taking action against U.S. assets:

— Working to internationalize norms and establish a code of conduct to enhance stability;

— Building coalitions to enhance security;

— Adding resilience to U.S. space architectures; and

— Preparing for an attack on U.S. and allied space assets using defenses “not necessarily in space.”

“We believe this four-element approach … will bolster deterrence,” Creedon said.

The department is working with the State Department and international partners to define elements of good behavior in space, she said. “States must remain committed to enhance the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others to maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, security and stability of the outer-space environment,” she added.  Creedon said work is underway to build deterrent coalitions and increase space awareness. She said the “Five Eyes” nations, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are extending their intelligence cooperation to expand their collective space situational awareness

The United States is meanwhile working to lower the benefit to potential attackers by employing more satellites, participating in satellite constellations with other countries and purchasing payload space on commercial satellites when feasible.  Creedon said the U.S. approach to space deterrence is similar to its strategy in any domain: take “prudent preparations to survive, and to operate through, and, hopefully, prevail in any conflict.”

By Karen Parrish, Official Describes Evolution of Space Deterrence, American Forces Press Service, Sept. 19, 2013

Man-in-the Middle Attack: UK against Belgium

man-in-the-middle attack

According to Spiegel, documents from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service was behind a cyber attack against Belgacom, a partly state-owned Belgian telecoms company. A “top secret” Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) presentation seen by SPIEGEL indicate that the goal of project, conducted under the codename “Operation Socialist,” was “to enable better exploitation of Belgacom” and to improve understanding of the provider’s infrastructure.

The presentation is undated, but another document indicates that access has been possible since 2010. The document shows that the Belgacom subsidiary Bics, a joint venture between Swisscom and South Africa’s MTN, was on the radar of the British spies.  Belgacom, whose major customers include institutions like the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, ordered an internal investigation following the recent revelations about spying by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) and determined it had been the subject of an attack. The company then referred the incident to Belgian prosecutors. Last week, Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo spoke of a “violation of the public firm’s integrity.”

When news first emerged of the cyber attack, suspicions in Belgium were initially directed at the NSA. But the presentation suggests that it was Belgium’s own European Union partner Britain that is behind “Operation Socialist,” even though the presentation indicates that the British used spying technology for the operation that the NSA had developed.  According to the slides in the GCHQ presentation, the attack was directed at several Belgacom employees and involved the planting of a highly developed attack technology referred to as a “Quantum Insert” (“QI”). It appears to be a method with which the person being targeted, without their knowledge, is redirected to websites that then plant malware on their computers that can then manipulate them. Some of the employees whose computers were infiltrated had “good access” to important parts of Belgacom’s infrastructure, and this seemed to please the British spies, according to the slides.

The documents also suggest that GCHQ continued to probe the areas of infrastructure to which the targeted employees had access. The undated presentation states that they were on the verge of accessing the Belgians’ central roaming router. The router is used to process international traffic. According to the presentation, the British wanted to use this access for complex attacks (“Man in the Middle” attacks)* on smartphone users. The head of GCHQ’s Network Analysis Centre (NAC) described Operation Socialist in the presentation as a “success.”

From Wikipedia: The man-in-the-middle attack (often abbreviated MITM, MitM, MIM, MiM, MITMA) in cryptography and computer security is a form of active eavesdropping in which the attacker makes independent connections with the victims and relays messages between them, making them believe that they are talking directly to each other over a private connection, when in fact the entire conversation is controlled by the attacker

Belgacom Attack: Britain’s GCHQ Hacked Belgian Telecoms Firm, Der Spiegel, Sept. 20, 2013

Trade Wars: the Partnerships

tpp protest

The American administration is serious about its goal of realising the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) this year (2013), a free-trade agreement bringing together a dozen countries, two-fifths of the world economy and one-third of all trade.Since it also involves Australia, Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, this is ambitious… But  the secrecy that cloaks the TPP talks, fuel the anxieties of anti-globalisation protesters worldwide. They see a plot to impose American standards and products on an unwitting and unwilling world…

Each of the 12 countries [that participate in the negotiations] wants its own exemptions, known as “carve-outs” in the jargon. Vietnam resists rules that have the effect of forcing textile manufacturers to buy yarn from other TPP members rather than non-members (ie, China). Australia objects to “investor-state dispute-settlement” provisions, which it sees as a threat to the government’s ability to stand up to multinationals. In many countries politicians have expressed concern about new intellectual-property protections. And everywhere, the lack of transparency in the talks feeds conspiracy theories.

Nor is the TPP the only trade game in Asia. Also (and not coincidentally) in Brunei this week there were talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The RCEP groups the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Seen as of lower “quality” than the TPP, the RCEP might for that reason have better prospects. But it is at a very early stage….

With provisions that seem aimed at ensuring China’s exclusion, many still see the TPP as the trade-policy arm of America’s strategic “pivot” to Asia. China has said it is “studying” the TPP. But for now, its involvement in the RCEP makes the two pacts look like rivals. America is trying to design a trade regime which China will eventually have to join—rather than getting to set its own rules as its clout increases. It is an ambition worth a few takeaway dinners; but not one susceptible to a quick fix.

Trade, Partnership and Politics, Economist, Aug. 24, 2013, at 40