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National Security
May 21, 2019

After serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence, John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and convicted of providing support to the Taliban, is set to be released from an Indiana federal prison on Thursday.

Lindh was 20 when he was arrested. After converting from Catholicism to Islam at 16, he left the U.S. to study Arabic in Yemen at 17. He made his way to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was a Taliban volunteer at an al-Qaeda training camp. Because he is an American citizen, Lindh was tried in federal court, and at his sentencing decried acts of terrorism and said he was wrong to join the Taliban.

Two leaked documents show that the government questions whether Lindh has shed his extremist views, The New York Times reports. A May 2016 memo said Lindh "continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts," and a 2017 Federal Bureau of Prisons intelligence assessment states he made positive comments about the Islamic State.

Under his terms of release, Lindh will not be allowed to go online or own a device that can access the internet without permission from his probation officer, the Times reports. He also can't travel internationally or communicate with "any known extremist," and must go through mental health counseling.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's program on extremism, told the Times the government doesn't have a system in place to deal with people like Lindh, and the best move would be to "team him up with a mentor, somebody who perhaps had the same experiences as he may have had and came out on the other side better off because of it." Catherine Garcia

July 19, 2018

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said on Thursday that as soon as the Department of Justice learns that an American company, private organization, or person has been hacked or otherwise covertly attacked by a foreign entity trying to influence an election, they will be notified.

"Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them," Rosenstein said at the Aspen Security Forum. "The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda." Microsoft executive Tom Burt told forum attendees that his team has already determined that the Russian military agency GRU has targeted at least three candidates running for office in the November midterm elections.

This new policy comes in the wake of the disinformation campaign waged by Russia during the 2016 presidential election, and it's a good start, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Washington Post. "If this disclosure requirement had been around in 2016, I firmly believe that it would have served as a meaningful deterrent after Russia's interference was first discovered, and it would have informed voters more quickly and more forcefully that a foreign government was trying to effect their vote," he said. Catherine Garcia

February 15, 2018

Documents obtained by CNN show that as of November, more than 100 staffers in the Executive Office of the President were still operating on interim security clearances, including high-profile senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter.

People with full permanent clearances are supposed to be careful about the information they share with those operating on an interim basis, but as staff secretary, Porter saw a wide range of documents and ultimately decided what papers should go to President Trump's desk. It's not clear how many staffers have since been granted full clearances or if it was a backlog that caused the delay in approving clearances or the background checks.

In November, Ivanka Trump, Kushner, and Porter were all still operating with interim access to both Top Secret information and Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), CNN reports. Of the staffers who still had interim clearances in November, at least 24 began working for the Trump administration on Jan. 20, 2017. Read more about the clearance process at CNN. Catherine Garcia

November 4, 2016

American intelligence agencies are seriously assessing the credibility of a potential terror threat, government sources told CBS in a report published Friday. The information available so far indicates that al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, may be planning a strike in New York, Texas, or Virginia.

Though federal law enforcement agents are investigating, they emphasized to CBS that this report is by no means confirmed and Monday may well pass without incident.

"The counterterrorism and homeland security communities remain vigilant and well-postured to defend against attacks here in the United States," the FBI said in a vague statement responding to the news Friday. "The FBI, working with our federal, state and local counterparts, shares and assesses intelligence on a daily basis and will continue to work closely with law enforcement and intelligence community partners to identify and disrupt any potential threat to public safety." The Department of Homeland Security ignored a request for further comment from Reuters. Bonnie Kristian

June 21, 2016

For terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, Washington, D.C., is the number one target for obvious reasons: It is the heart of U.S. operations, it is the home of the president — and it has avoided a major terrorist attack.

Part of this is thanks to expensive counterterrorism programs that are in place to stop anything from a nightclub shooting to an improvised nuclear device. But in this day and age, the threat to the capital is more likely to come from a lone wolf attacker. Despite the enormous budget that goes toward thwarting a handful of dedicated terrorists, former Pentagon official Michael Sheehan told Newsweek that the country needs to scale back on the "obscene" spending that goes toward "activities that have a very marginal impact on our safety."

Take, for example, the bioterrorism program:

Since 2003, taxpayers have contributed $1.3 billion to the feds' BioWatch program, a network of pathogen detectors deployed in D.C. and 33 other cities [...] "The BioWatch program was a mistake from the start," a former top federal emergency medicine official tells Newsweek on condition of anonymity, saying he fears retaliation from the government for speaking out. The well-known problems with the detectors, he says, are both highly technical and practical. "Any sort of thing can blow into its filter papers, and then you are wrapping yourself around an axle," trying to figure out if it's real. Of the 149 suspected pathogen samples collected by BioWatch detectors nationwide, he reports, "none were a threat to public health." A 2003 tularemia alarm in Texas was traced to a dead rabbit. [Newsweek]

A program meant to detect cargo for radiation is also imprecise. "False positives, from such naturally radiating material as kitty litter, bananas, and ceramics, drove operators crazy, 'reduc[ing] the sense of urgency among those who respond to them,'" the Nuclear Threat Initiative said, as relayed by Newsweek. "Between May 2001 and March 2005, there were reportedly 10,000 false alarms." Jeva Lange

June 8, 2016

The Obama administration believes that close to a dozen former Guantanamo Bay detainees have gone on to launch attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and allied forces, killing about six Americans, U.S. officials told The Washington Post.

Without going into details, Paul Lewis of the Defense Department had announced in March that some former Guantanamo prisoners were behind the deaths of Americans abroad. The Post found that most of the suspected attacks by former detainees were directed at military personnel, but in one 2008 case, a female aid worker was killed. Information regarding the attacks, including the number of suspects and victims, is classified, but a source told the Post that nine of the detainees suspected in the attacks are either dead or in the custody of a foreign government; most were from Afghanistan; all were released during the George W. Bush administration; and because "many of these incidents were large-scale firefights in a war zone, we cannot always distinguish whether Americans were killed by the former detainees or by others in the same fight."

In a letter to President Obama, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) wrote that he must declassify the number of U.S. and NATO personnel killed by former detainees. "There appears to be a consistent and concerted effort by the administration to prevent Americans from knowing the truth regarding the terrorist activities and affiliations of past and present Guantanamo detainees," she said. Since Guantanamo opened in 2002, nearly 700 detainees have been released, and 80 remain imprisoned. Catherine Garcia

May 4, 2016

What happened in Paris and Brussels could possibly happen in the U.S., Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted in an exclusive interview with CNN, published Wednesday. "They do have that capacity," Clapper said of ISIS. "That's something we worry about a lot in the United States, that they could conjure up a raid like they did in Paris or Brussels." The March attacks in Brussels on a train and at an airport left at least 32 dead and 300 injured; the November attacks in Paris killed at least 130.

However, Obama pointed out, "We, here in the United States, face less of a threat than Europe" from ISIS. Still, he says, "the Paris-style attack, the Brussels style attack is the challenge that we're going to continue to face." Becca Stanek

July 23, 2015

At the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey said terrorist groups appear to be in the early stages of plotting cyberattacks against Americans.

"We are picking up signs of increasing interest," he said. "It's a small but potentially growing problem." Comey did not share any details on what type of attacks they might be working on, but did say groups that have a hard time recruiting followers in the U.S. are interested in cyberattacks.

Comey also said the FBI is looking at hundreds of people in all 50 states as part of active terrorism-related investigations, and the agency has found that ISIS and al Qaeda have two very different recruiting styles: Al Qaeda spends more time looking into a person's background, and sends them on small scale missions as a test. ISIS does not have the same standards, and targets "often unstable, troubled drug users" to carry out attacks anywhere in the U.S. The FBI is thoroughly investigating Mohammod Abdulazeez, the man who allegedly shot and killed five military members last week in Chattanooga, with Comey saying the agency is "literally trying to figure out every second of his life." Catherine Garcia

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