Last week, Wikileaks announced that technology firms will get “exclusive access” to details of the CIA’s cyber-warfare programme. The statement comes after the anti-secrecy website published thousands of the US spy agency’s secret documents, including what it says are the CIA’s hacking tools.
On Thursday 9 March, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange stated that, after some thought, he had decided to give the tech community further leaks first. Mr Assange disclosed that “once the material is effectively disarmed, we will publish details.” US federal agencies have already launched a criminal investigation into the release of the documents.
In its first tranche of leaks, Wikileaks alleged that the CIA had developed what Mr Assange called “a giant arsenal” of malware to attack “all the systems that average people use.” Tech firms, including Apple and Google, have since stated that hey are developing counter-measures to combat any malware that the CIA may have developed. Mr Assange has disclosed that his organization had “a lost more information on the cyber-weapons programme,” noting that while Wikileaks maintained a neutral position on most of its leaks, in this case it did make a strong stance, stating “we want to secure communications technology because, without it, journalists aren’t able to hold the state to account.” Mr Assange also claimed that the intelligence service had known for weeks that Wikileaks had access to the material and done nothing about it.
On Thursday, Mr Assange also spoke more about the Umbrage programme, which was revealed in the first leaked documents. He stated that a whole section of the CIA is working on Umbrage, a system that attempts to trick people into thinking that they have been hacked by other groups or countries by collecting malware from other nation states, such as Russia. He noted that “the technology is designed to be unaccountable,” and claimed that an anti-virus expert, who was not named, had come forward to say that he believed sophisticated malware that he had previously attributed to Iran, Russia and China, now looked like something that the CIA had developed. Mr Assange went on to say that “the type of attack system corresponds to a description we published of that attack system unless of course China has already got hold of these parts of the CIA arsenal and is using it to pretend to be the CIA,” adding that the intelligence agency could potentially be causing the tech industry “billions of dollars of damage.”
This month, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released about 13 million pages of declassified documents online. The full archive is made up of almost 800,000 files, which had previously only been accessible at the National Archives in Maryland.
The move came after lengthy efforts from freedom of information advocates and a lawsuit against the CIA. Documents that have been released online include the papers of Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, as well as several hundred thousands of pages of intelligence analysis and science research and development.
The more unusual records that have been released are documents from the Stargate Project, which dealt with psychic powers and extrasensory perception. Those include records of testing on celebrity psychic Uri Geller in 1973, when he was already a well-established performer. Memos detail how Mr Geller was able to partly replicate pictures drawn in another room with varying, but sometimes precise, accuracy, leading the researches to write that he “demonstrated his paranormal perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”
While most of the information has technically been publically available since the mid-1990s, it has been very difficult to access ass the records were only available on four computers located in the back of a library at the National Archives in Maryland, between 09:00 and 16:30 each day.
According to CIA Director John Brennan, the efforts of the US-led coalition that is fighting the so-called Islamic State (IS) group have failed to reduce its ability to carry out militant attacks.
Speaking to the Senate intelligence committee, in an update on the threat from extremists, Mr Brennan told the hearing that the group remains “formidable” despite territorial losses. He stated, “unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL (Islamic State) on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” He indicated that he estimates that IS now has more fighters than al-Qaeda when that militant group was at its strongest, adding that there are as many as 22,000 IS fighters operating in Iraq and neighbouring Syria. He also indicated that the CIA is particularly concerned about the growth of Libya as an IS base.
While Mr Brennan indicated that the US-led coalition had made progress against IS, the group has “a large cadre of Western fighter who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West,” warning that “to compensate for territorial losses, ISIL will probably rely more on guerrilla tactics, including high-profile attacks outside territory it holds.”
Mr Brennan’s appearance comes just days after the attack on a gay nightclub in Florida. The gunman, Omar Mateen, had pledged allegiance to IS, however Mr Brennan told the hearing that the CIA had not uncovered any direct link between Mateen and foreign militant groups.
On 18 May, the office of the US National Intelligence Director James Clapper disclosed that US Presidential campaigns and related organizations have been targeted by hackers. His office however did not provide details on specific intrusions.
In a statement, Mr Clapper’s spokesman, Brain Hale, disclosed that “we’re aware that campaigns and related organizations and individuals are targeted by actors with a variety of motivations – from philosophical differences to espionage – and capabilities – from defacements to intrusions.” He deferred to the FBI for details on specific incidents. Earlier, Clapper had disclosed that the US intelligence community had “already had some indications” of hacking attempts against presidential candidates. At a morning event at the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington, Clapper stated that “as the campaign intensifies we’ll probably have more” attacks.
The last two US presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 witnesses a barrage of cyber attacks from a range of adversaries targeting President Barack Obama’s campaign and the campaigns of his Republican rivals. US intelligence officials have disclosed that many of the previous assaults were linked to Chinese hackers.
On Tuesday, the White House confirmed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has ended the use of vaccine programmes in its spying operations amidst concerns for the safety of health workers. In a letter to US public health schools, a White House aide indicated that the CIA had stopped such practices in August 2013.
In a letter dated 16 May, the White House assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, Lisa Monaco, wrote that CIA director John Brennan had directed the agency to cease “operational use of vaccine programmes.” The letter further indicated, “similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programmes,” adding that the policy applied worldwide to US and non-US persons alike.
The CIA had used a fake vaccine programme in a bid to locate Osama Bin Laden before US Special Forces killed in May 2011. Genetic material obtained through a fake door-to-door hepatitis B vaccination programme reportedly helped the CIA confirm Bin Laden’s whereabouts in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. The Pakistani doctor accused of running the vaccination campaign remains in jail. Dr Shakil Afridi was convicted of having ties to militant groups, which he has denied. He was imprisoned in 2012 in a move that is widely seen as punishment for his helping the CIA, with sources indicating that he is regarded as a traitor by Pakistan’s security agencies.
The CIA’s decision to end the use of vaccine programmes in its spying operations comes after a wave of deadly attacks by militants on polio vaccination workers in Pakistan. According to CIA spokesman Dean Boyd, “by publicizing this policy, our objective is to dispel one canard that militant groups have used as justification for cowardly attacks against vaccination providers.”
However despite the CIA ending the programme in August, a number of health workers have been targeted, kidnapped or killed as militants suspected that they were either CIA agents or had links to it. Since January, sixty-six cases of polio have been declared in Pakistan, compared with only eight during the same period last year. The geographical spread of the cases suggests that they are mostly sourced to the north-western Wairistan tribal region. Militants who control this region have banned vaccinations, citing that health workers may include American spies. In turn, more than sixty polio workers and security personnel were killed in the country between December 2012 and April 2014. According to Pakistani officials and humanitarian workers, most of them were killed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
While the CIA’s announcement of ending such vaccination programmes is seen as a positive step, the CIA’s spokesman has warned that “many obstacles” still remain and will likely stand in the way of vaccination programmes. These include myths that vaccinations cause sterility or HIV along with claims that they are spy programmes run by Western governments. Mr Boyd noted “while the CIA can do little about the former, the CIA director felt he could do something important to dispel the latter and he acted,” adding “it is important to note that militant groups have a long history of attacking humanitarian aid workers in Pakistan and those attacks began years before the raid against the Bin Laden compound and years before any press reports claiming a CIA-sponsored vaccination programme.”
In Pakistan, the decision will likely be welcomed, as polio has been spreading fast since the Taliban banned the vaccination campaign two years ago. Prior to the release of the letter, Professor Ibrahim Khan, an intermediary for the Taliban, had indicated that the militants wanted assurances that the vaccination programme was not being used for other purposes. He further added that he was hopeful that the Taliban would then lift the ban on the vaccine. However this is contingent on the success of peace negotiations with the Pakistani government. Currently, the talks have stalled, with the Ministry of Interior indicating that access to the polio vaccination will lead the agenda in the next round of talks.