Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Ariel Sharon ‘near death’; Skype and Snapchat get hacked; NYT calls for Snowden to get plea deal or clemency; the DEA’s hooker problem outlined; and a bit more.

FP’s Situation Report: Ariel Sharon ‘near death’; Skype and Snapchat get hacked; NYT calls for Snowden to get plea deal or clemency; the DEA’s hooker problem outlined; and a bit more.

By Dan Lamothe

Death nears for Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel. The New York Times reports that he is suffering from kidney failure, and it doesn’t look good. From Jodi Rudoren: "A spokesman for the hospital that has been treating Mr. Sharon, 85, said that ‘there has been a deterioration in his medical condition.’ A person who had been briefed on the situation, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because of its delicacy, said Mr. Sharon had suffered a setback about a month ago and spent two weeks in intensive care after emergency surgery, then seemed to have stabilized before the most recent turn. ‘It looks pretty bad, but it’s not a matter of hours,’ said another person with knowledge of his situation who also spoke on the condition of anonymity." More here.

Sharon, 85, was a divisive figure in Middle Eastern politics for decades, and has been in a vegetative state since 2006. He rose to power as a controversial military commander, and pushed heavily for Israeli settlements in occupied areas of Palestine. He later shocked many by calling for the complete withdrawal of his constituents from the Gaza Strip in 2005. One detailed 2006 profile of him can be found in The Guardian here.

Skype, the popular Internet phone call provider, got hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army. Looks like the group wanted to make a point. From Techcrunch’s Matt Burns: "The Syrian Electronic Army is at it again. The group just hacked Skype’s blog and twitter accounts, spreading an anti-NSA, anti-Microsoft message in the process. ‘Don’t use Microsoft emails (hotmail,outlook), They are monitoring your accounts and selling the data to the governments", says one posting. ‘Hacked by Syrian Electronic Army.. Stop Spying!’, says another. Skype, the service itself, does not appear to be affected. The group also gained control of Skype’s Facebook although that message has since been deleted. However, the postings were up for nearly 40 minutes."

If you’re wondering what they’re talking about, a bit more of a reminder from Techcrunch: "Earlier this year, it was revealed that the NSA could eavesdrop on Skype video calls, completely invalidating Microsoft’s previous claims that the service was secure. However, following that logic, the SEA is likely targeting nearly every technology company after last week’s revelations regarding the scope of the NSA’s access." More here.

Things are appear to be uglier for Snapchat, which also got hacked to start 2014. Up to 4.6 million people may be affected. From Anthony Wing Kosner, writing for Forbes: "Anonymous hackers have claimed to use the reported Snapchat API exploit to compile a database of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and their associated phone numbers and geographical regions. The site, SnapchatDB.info, offers the information as a SQL database dump (reportedly 40MB) or as a CSV file. Instructions on the pages say, ‘You are downloading 4.6 million users’ phone number information, along with their usernames. People tend to use the same username around the web so you can use this information to find phone number information associated with Facebook and Twitter accounts, or simply to figure out the phone numbers of people you wish to get in touch with.’"

Why did they do it? Apparently, to make a point. More in Forbes: "It is clear that the hackers are trying to prod Snapchat to acknowledge the severity of their security holes and make the needed patches. They claim that the database ‘contains username and phone number pairs of a vast majority of the Snapchat users.’ They used the security exploits documented last week by Gibson Security that Snapchat ‘dismissed.’ SnapchatDB claims that this information ‘is being shared with the public to raise awareness on the issue. The company was too reluctant at patching the exploit until they knew it was too late and companies that we trust with our information should be more careful when dealing with it.’" More here.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report, and a belated Happy New Year. I’m Dan Lamothe, and like many of you, I have my eyes turned to the Northeast today as the aptly named snowstorm Hercules bears down. You know life is going to get a little cray-cray when analysts says it will be "a corker of a storm." (More on that here.) I’ll be filling in for Gordon Lubold, your usual Situation Report poobah, for the rest of the week. If you’d like to sign up for the newsletter, send Gordon a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we’ll add you. And if you like what you see, tell a friend. Register free for Situation Report and other FP products here. As always, if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, you gotta say something — to Situation Report. One more thing: please follow me at @DanLamothe, and Gordon at @glubold.

Did you see the one about DEA agents hanging out with hookers in Colombia? FP’s own Shane Harris dropped a bit of an exclusive bombshell just before New Year’s Eve: "A special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to solicit sex as many as 50 times using a government-issued cell phone. Another sent text messages to a transvestite prostitute he found on a Web site. And a third had a very curious definition of the word ‘sex.’ Those are some of the eye-popping details found in a previously unreleased report from the Justice Department inspector general, obtained by Foreign Policy under the Freedom of Information Act. It shows that three DEA special agents in Colombia solicited sex from prostitutes on numerous occasions, arranged for encounters using their government-issued cell phones, and brought women back to their government-furnished apartments, putting themselves at risk for blackmail or coercion and jeopardizing national security information. The men were implicated by their cell phone call histories and contacts, which showed numerous communications with prostitutes. And when the agents were confronted with the evidence, they tried to conceal the extent of their activities, with two agents going so far as to erase numbers and other data in their cell phones before handing them over to investigators."

Oh, Cartagena. More from Shane Harris: "The incident stems from a raucous night in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012, when nine Secret Service agents providing security for President Obama’s visit during the Summit of the Americas were found to have paid or solicited prostitutes. Two of the DEA agents arranged for a supervisor in the Secret Service’s intelligence division, which investigates threats against the president, to receive an ‘erotic massage,’ which included oral sex, from a prostitute in one of the DEA agent’s apartment." More here.

Cut Edward Snowden a deal, says the New York Times. The newspaper’s influential editorial page has stirred the pot by saying the whistle-blower — the bane of the NSA’s existence at this point – should not get hammered by the United States for disclosing questionable intelligence-gathering practices. From its editorial, which lit up Twitter last night with discussion: "Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community." More here.

Another surveillance network is now helping with science. So reports the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick from Vienna: "The engineers who designed the world’s first truly planetary surveillance network two decades ago envisioned it as a way to detect illegal nuclear weapons tests. Today, the nearly completed International Monitoring System is proving adept at tasks its inventors never imagined. The system’s scores of listening stations continuously eavesdrop on Earth itself, offering clues about man-made and natural disasters as well as a window into some of nature’s most mysterious processes. The Obama administration hopes the network’s capabilities will persuade a reluctant Senate to approve a nuclear test-ban treaty that stalled in Congress more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, without the treaty and wholly without fanfare, new stations come on line almost every month.

How does it work? More from the Post: "The monitoring system is a latticework of sensors — including radiation detectors and machines that measure seismic activity or low-frequency sound waves — spread out across 89 countries as well as the oceans and polar regions. Like a giant stethoscope, it listens for irregularities in Earth’s natural rhythms, collecting and transmitting terabytes of data to a small office in the Austrian capital. The network was designed to help enforce the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which outlawed explosive testing of nuclear weapons. But while the treaty has never entered into force — the United States and seven other countries have declined to ratify it, in part because of concerns over verification — the monitoring network has steadily grown over the years, from a handful of stations in 2003 to more than 270." More here.

How Zionist extremists helped create Britain’s surveillance state. FP takes a long look at how MI5 worked to fight perceived threats to its security early in the Cold War, using recently declassified documents to do so. From Calder Walton: "Recently declassified intelligence records reveal that at the end of the war the main priority for MI5 was the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, specifically from the two main Zionist terrorist groups operating in the Mandate of Palestine, which had been placed under British control in 1921. They were called the Irgun Zevai Leumi (‘National Military Organization,’ or the Irgun for short) and the Lehi (an acronym in Hebrew for ‘Freedom Fighters of Israel’), which the British also termed the "Stern Gang," after its founding leader, Avraham Stern. The Irgun and the Stern Gang believed that British policies in Palestine in the post-war years — blocking the creation of an independent Jewish state — legitimized the use of violence against British targets. MI5’s involvement with counterterrorism, which preoccupies it down to the present day, arose in the immediate post-war years when it dealt with the Irgun and Stern Gang."

More from Walton: "MI5’s involvement in dealing with Zionist terrorism offers a striking new interpretation of the history of the early Cold War. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the overwhelming priority for the intelligence services of Britain and other Western powers would lie with counterespionage, but as we can now see, in the crucial transition period from World War to Cold War, MI5 was instead primarily concerned with counterterrorism." More here.