Situation Report: Chinese hacking partnerships; Afghan and U.S. officials push back on sex abuse scandal; Russia on base building spree; Iraq intel fight grows; and lots more
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
You’ve got a friend in me. On the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington, two security firms have uncovered proof a Chinese military unit is responsible for a wide-ranging cyber espionage campaign against Southeast Asian countries competing with China in the South China Sea.
But the best part of the story is how the researchers made the connection. Turns out, it was partly a simple case of laziness with a username that allowed cybersecurity firms ThreatConnect and Defense Group Inc. to link the army and the Naikon hacker group. The trail led to a man named Ge Xing, a member of People’s Liberation Army Unit 78020 who apparently used the username greensky27 all over the Web, including for work, creating a virtual map for researchers to trace the hacks.
The dominoes fall. What’s one more disturbing cyber story? FP’s Elias Groll writes that the hack of the Office of Personnel Management first revealed in June was much bigger than originally reported. The OPM said Wednesday that suspected Chinese hackers made off with 5.6 million sets of fingerprints, a much higher number than the 1.1 million that had previously been estimated. While there isn’t much that anyone can do with fingerprints just yet, an OPM spokesman offered the chilling assessment that this “could change over time as technology evolves.”
People have the power. We’re starting to get more detail on the specifics of the revolt by a group of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) intelligence analysts, who argue that the command is scrubbing their work to make the fight against the Islamic State look more successful than it is. The New York Times tells us that the long time senior Iraq analyst at Centcom, Gregory Hooker, is at the heart of the growing crisis, and “the allegations call into question how much the president — this one or the next — can rely on Centcom for honest assessments of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other crisis spots.”
Cultural divides in the long war. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is trying to reassure his American benefactors that he completely rejects the sexual abuse of boys by his nation’s security forces. On Wednesday, Ghani issued a statement promising to undertake “serious measures” to prevent sexual abuse of children. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army continues to move forward on dismissing a Green Beret who roughed up an Afghan police commander who admitted to raping a young boy and beating his mother.
Human rights and Afghan researchers tell FP’s Paul McLeary that the practice of sexual slavery — while repugnant to many Afghans — is rife among the security leadership in the country. Meanwhile, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) continues to fire off letters to Defense Secretary Ash Carter to get answers as to why Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland is losing his job for trying to protect a child.
P.R. push at the U.N. Amid reports of civilian casualties in Yemen directly related to the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states “have mounted a diplomatic and public relations campaign to burnish the country’s reputation in New York and Washington,” reports FP’s Colum Lynch in an exclusive bit. Lynch obtained U.N. documents showing the Saudi-led coalition has killed or injured 590 children over the last several months, or about 73 percent of all child casualties. Overall, more than 1,900 civilians have been killed in Yemen since the bombing campaign began in March.
The Saudis and their Gulf allies have also been working to stymie a an independent inquiry into human rights violations in Yemen. According to notes from a meeting that Lynch obtained, Gulf countries Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have argued for shelving plans for an independent inquiry into rights abuses in Yemen, arguing that the local government should first be reestablished, and lead any investigation.
Numbers behind U.S. support. One often overlooked component of the air war in Yemen is the intelligence and logistical support provided by the United States. We have known that the U.S. military provides aerial refueling for coalition jets, but numbers have been hard to come by. SitRep, however, has managed to get some details. Since April 5, American tankers have flown 345 refueling sorties, logging almost 2,900 flight hours while pumping 12.3 million lbs. of fuel into thirsty coalition aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Defense Department spokesman Maj. Roger Cabiness II told SitRep that the cost of all that fuel will be reimbursed.
Sorry, Vladimir. FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson get the details on a great story about how the U.S. has squashed a Russian initiative at the U.N. to push through a resolution on fighting terrorism that would, in effect, give cover to Russian forays into the Middle East.
Good morning, all. We’re happy you clicked through yet again. There’s lots happening out there and we’re trying to fit it all in here. But as always, your voices are welcome. Please pass along any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information that you may have at your disposal. Best way is to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
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It’s base-building season for Russia. In addition to the multiple new facilities Moscow is constructing in Syria to house fighter planes, drones, tanks, and troops, come plans for yet another base to be built on the border with Ukraine.
Moscow has also announced plans for a new air base in Belarus, close to the border with NATO member Lithuania. FP’s Reid Standish writes that Aleksandr Lukashenko, the autocratic Belarusian leader of the past two decades, has made moves recently to pull away from Moscow’s orbit. But with the new base, “Putin has signalled his desire to keep the unpredictable Lukashenko within the Kremlin’s orbit and avoid a rapprochement between Belarus and the West in the process.”
A Ukrainian Livejournal blogger going by the handle “Askai707” has put forward an interesting argument based on social media posts of Russian soldiers that members of Russia’s 6th Tank Brigade fought in the bloody August 2014 battle for Ilovaysk, a town in the Donetsk area of Ukraine. The report, which open source investigative site Bellingcat translated and posted, names a number of members of the Russian brigade, tracing the unit and its presence at the battle through photographs posted by the soldiers as well as the serial numbers on their tanks. The battle for Ilovaysk took the lives of 366 Ukrainian soldiers after they were surrounded by what the Ukrainian government claimed were rebels backed by Russian troops.
NATO can defend the Baltics — that’s the message offered by General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Bradshaw, speaking during the Steadfast Pyramid and Steadfast Pinnacle 2015 exercises in Riga, Latvia, said that the alliance has plenty of resources at its disposal to protect the Baltic states, but also called out Russia for aggressive behavior and military buildup. “We hold armed forces in proportion to the task of collective defense and no more. We question why neighbors of NATO should seek to do any different.”
What’s the takeaway from Ash Carter’s chat with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu? The Pentagon is ready to talk again — but only if the Russians bring some new ideas to the table on how to fix Syria, short of building more bases for the Russian war machine.
The Pentagon is disputing reports that the latest batch of Syrian rebels it trained to take on the Islamic State have forked over their weapons to the Nusra Front. Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis claimed on Wednesday that U.S. forces are still in contact with the rebels, and Central Command issued a statement claiming the U.S.-issued weapons are still “under the positive control” of rebels. However, Armament Research Services notes that a Twitter account believed to be operated by a Dutch member of Nusra tweeted out pictures of the group in possession of a U.S. M14EBR-RI rifle — a specific model of weapon that researchers have documented in the hands of U.S.-trained rebels.
Over the past several days, news reports have been chocked full of satellite imagery showing Russian Su-30, Su-24 and Su-25 jets parked at the Latakia air base in Syria. But how did the planes manage to slip into Syria without much notice? Over at The Aviationist, Dave Cenciotti outlines an interesting theory. One of his sources suggests that the jets snuck into Syria by closely trailing the Russian cargo planes, easily traceable through flight-tracking sites, headed to the country, including a stopover in Iran.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey is offering some big picture thoughts on the role of the military in national security policymaking as he prepares to retire. Too often, Dempsey argues, policymakers approach global conflicts with by reaching for military power first, rather than attempting a more balanced, whole-of-government approach that applies diplomatic, economic and other tools. “I do think there’s a recognition that most conflicts have these underlying issues … and that the military instrument, while it can bring a degree of stability to provide an opportunity for those underlying issues to be resolved, in and of itself and solely, it cannot resolve those,” Dempsey said.
Following talks with Indian External Affairs Minister Shushma Swaraj ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement on Wednesday for India to assist the U.S. in providing military training to six African countries involved in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Popular Science goes inside the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, the forensic bomb laboratory that investigates improvised explosive devices from the many conflicts across the world. The lab has handled more than 100,000 bombs since the war in Iraq began, tracing them to 2,700 suspects, including the identification and arrest of an Iraqi al-Qaeda bombmaker who had settled in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The Department of “Pew!”
More things with more lasers on them is apparently the future for Pentagon weaponry. Defense One reports that General Atomics is studying the possibility of attaching a 150 kilowatt laser to its Avenger drone, the company’s successor to its the iconic Predator and Reaper UAVs. The move is an engineering challenge, requiring fixes that allow the moving drone to hit a target on the ground through any environmental obstacles, and shrink down the laser such that it can be carried by a drone.
The Defense Department has never had to operate with its budget under a continuing resolution for an entire year, but it might have to do it. The Hill reports that the Pentagon is girding for the possibility, which would mean an effective $6.6 billion cut to the Army affecting new equipment purchases, maintenance, research and development and the construction of housing and new facilities. Overall, a continuing resolution would cut $25 billion from the Defense Department’s budget, the paper quotes Center for Strategic and International Studies’ budget analyst Todd Harrison.
Tweet of the Day
RT @JosephHDempsey Force Protection? – #Russia Air Force #Syria deployment greater combat capability then [sic] neighbouring #Iraq Air Force
Patches! Who doesn’t love patches? Centcom has approved handsome new shoulder patches for the 3,335 U.S. troops in the Middle East training Iraqi troops and conducting bombing missions on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. We even have a pic of the new bling here.
Correction, Sept. 24, 2015: A post Thursday about two security firms finding new evidence of Chinese hacking was worded imprecisely. The initial phrasing said “the two have managed to break into sensitive computer networks,” which implied the companies themselves had penetrated third-party networks. The firms — ThreatConnect and Defense Group Inc. — had in actuality investigated the hacks, not been responsible for them.