Monday, September 13, 2010

Osama Bin here - Done that ....

Western intelligence agencies were able to form a detailed picture of Osama bin Laden’s movements in the years after 9/11; and came closer to capturing or killing him than has so far been acknowledged, a former European intelligence official has disclosed.

The former official, who declined to be identified, told CNN that in 2003 and 2004 an informant in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region with close connections to Al Qaeda’s top leadership provided a stream of reliable information on bin Laden’s movements. But the information was never quite fresh enough for Western intelligence agencies to target Al Qaeda’s leader.

Nearly nine years ago, bin Laden and others in the al Qaeda leadership escaped as its last haven among the caves and mountains of Tora Bora – close to the border with Pakistan - came under withering U.S. air attacks. Despite being the world’s most sought after fugitive, to date very little has been reliably reported about his movements beyond a consensus that he is now likely hiding somewhere in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The former official said that in the period after Osama bin Laden left Tora Bora, under pressure and on the run, he and his lieutenants were little able to communicate with each other. But gradually, al Qaeda restored its communications and was able to resume meetings.

Bin Laden even met with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at some point before the latter’s arrest in February 2003. Additionally, Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri were frequently in the same area and regularly in communication.

During this time, Western intelligence agencies were able to draw up a detailed map tracing Bin Laden’s movements, according to the former intelligence official. In 2003-04 Bin Laden spent time in several areas - amid the rugged mountains of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); and in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, a more heavily populated area where Pakistan ’s security forces had a greater presence.

But according to the former official, Bin Laden shunned big cities, preferring to stay in rural areas. The intelligence stream indicated that Al Qaeda’s leader also made several trips across into Afghanistan during this period, despite the presence of tens of thousands of US troops.

In a high stakes game of hide and seek, Western intelligence agencies were always playing catch-up as Bin Laden moved from location to location.

Tantalizingly at one point, according to the former official, information about his exact location was only one week old. But the intelligence stream on Bin Laden’s movements never resulted in what is known as “actionable intelligence” that could have led to his capture or assassination.

After 2004 the intelligence stream dried up, according to the former official, who did not elaborate why. But he said that despite the setback, information on Al Qaeda’s leaders’ movements never completely dried up; and recent intelligence suggested Bin Laden and Zawahiri were still in close geographic proximity and able to communicate with each other.

However, few al Qaeda followers get to meet them. European and American jihadists who joined up with Al Qaeda in 2008 have subsequently told Western interrogators that for security reasons access for them to Bin Laden was strictly off-limits.


Silent Eagles sales to Saudi Arabia?

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama's administration will soon notify Congress of plans to offer advanced military aircraft to Saudi Arabia in a massive deal worth up to $60 billion, congressional sources said September 13.

New updated F-15 fighters are among the arms included in the White House proposal. (U.S. Defense Department)

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the transaction has not yet been formally announced, confirmed a Wall Street Journal report about the deal but warned that key U.S. lawmakers would block the move.

"You can fully expect that a hold will be placed on this deal," thought to be the largest ever arms sale of its kind, said a senior congressional source.

"There is serious concern about some sensitive material which is expected to be included in the deal," said another source, who told AFP that Obama aides would brief congressional staff on the deal on Monday.

A "hold" would come from the chair or ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee or Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which typically must sign off on arms transfers, and could change what is in the package.

The Journal, which cited unnamed officials, said the administration was also in talks with the kingdom about potential naval and missile-defense upgrades that could be worth tens of billions of dollars more.

The administration sees the sale as part of a broader policy aimed at shoring up Arab allies against Iran, the report said.

The $60 billion in fighter jets and helicopters is the top-line amount requested by the Saudis, even though the kingdom is likely to commit initially to buying only about half that amount, the paper said.

In its notification to Congress, expected to be submitted this week or next, the administration will authorize the Saudis to buy as many as 84 new F-15 fighters, upgrade 70 more, and purchase three types of helicopters - 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds, The Journal said.

The notification will set off a congressional review. Lawmakers could push for changes, try to impose conditions or block the deal altogether, though that is not expected, the paper said.

Another congressional source confirmed the broad outlines of the Journal's report but cautioned "the exact dollar amounts in these things is always iffy."

Earlier media reports said that to assuage Israel's concerns, the Obama administration has decided not to offer Saudi Arabia so-called standoff systems, which are advanced long-range weapons that can be attached to F-15s for use in offensive operations against land- and sea-based targets.

Today's excerpt from The Interceptors Club and the Secret of the Black Manta

Spy Craft

It’s funny now, when we look back how we thought we were ahead of the game, putting our heads together and trying to think three or four moves ahead of Pepper, but what we didn’t know he was a professional spook, trained to think ten steps ahead. We were amateurs and didn’t know (then) how much we didn’t know.

The world of a real spy is very different than portrayed by Hollywood. Real spies don’t drive English sports cars, wear tuxedos, drink martinis and rarely are involved in shoot-outs or car chases because that would draw attention and the last thing a spy wants is attention. Real spies think the fictional spy, James Bond is nothing but a big joke because everyone knows he’s a spy.

Spying is all about collecting information for the government one is spying for. It’s about gaining the trust of people with access to the information you seek and then persuading them (either through blackmail, coercion or bribery) to pass it on to you.

This next chapter is the first lesson in the nuts and bolts of espionage. Little did we know our teacher was a practicing master.

- Stanley Dodson

Colonel Pepper typed up two progress reports on two separate computers. One was on his official AFOSI work computer located in his office, the second he composed a few hours later on his personal laptop he always kept in his sight at all times.

The first report was for General Hogle, a skillfully written fictional report detailing his meeting with the Interceptors and how they were just a bunch of precocious kids who accidentally encountered Excalibur and made a model of it.

It was Pepper’s recommendation he have the kids sign an inadvertent disclosure to a classified program agreement and have the model confiscated and destroyed.

He also explained he had sufficiently put the fear of prosecution into these kids (who really didn’t mean any harm) and who were just in the wrong place at the right time. Since it was displayed as a “hypothetical” design, the damage was minimal and the cat hadn’t been let out of the proverbial bag.

It was Pepper’s recommendation that the case be considered closed.

The second report was for his spy-handler Chin. It also included a report on the Interceptors, and how they could be used unwittingly to fill their needs, gathering intelligence for them on Excalibur.

Although this report did include his interviews with Static and his gang, he did leave out one important fact that he felt that Chin did not need to know.

He didn’t tell them they were just teenagers. He knew his North Korean intelligence contact would not believe kids were able to succeed where their best-trained agents had failed.

The report for Hogle would be printed and hand-delivered to the general via a secure courier.

The other (to his North Korean spy masters) would travel over the internet and be posted on a public website in plain sight, but encrypted to prevent interception.

To insure that he would never be uncovered as a spy, Pepper took great efforts to keep his secret files safe.

He never typed up his reports on a computer attached to the internet. He knew from experience that by hooking up a phone line to a computer it became a gateway to almost anyone and especially to the FBI or CIA.

Although he used a laptop computer to covertly send his reports, he did so in a unique way that left no trace.

As part of his duties as an AFOSI agent, he was well aware there were powerful programs that could recover even erased files from a computer hard drive. He took great pains to insure the hard drive on his personal computer remained pristine. To do this he saved his secret files on tiny secure media cards, the type usually used inside digital cameras.

These cards could hold over 4 gigabytes of documents and were only half size of a tea bag (and wafer thin) and could be easily hidden in places that even the most diligent spy hunter would never look.

But Pepper didn’t bother to hide his files in some remote location. He knew they would only be safe if kept close at hand.

Since AFOSI officers were routinely investigated by internal Air Force security agents (charged with finding spies) he kept them close by at all times, inside his compact digital camera tucked away in the breast pocket of his uniform.

Since a camera was part of his normal investigating gear it would not seem out of place for him to be carrying one. If by chance he was ever suspected of being a spy (and the camera was confiscated) all one would find on the card were what looked like ordinary snap-shots any amateur shutterbug would take.

But cleverly imbedded in the images were all of Pepper’s stolen secrets, interlaced inside innocuous looking photographs of sunrises, landscapes and vacation snapshots.

To hide his files inside the photographs, he used a commonly available program known as “Outguess” utilizing a technique in intelligence circles known as steganographic encoding.

Since it would also be very suspect to have such a program on his personal computer it was kept stored on another photo media card and never mounted on his hard drive. In this way a routine search of his computer would show nothing to arouse suspicions.

To transmit the imbedded documents to his handlers he just simply posted them on a photography website known as, where amateur photographers could display their talents.

It made Pepper smile to think that at any given moments thousands of people could be viewing his photos without knowing they were looking at top-secret military documents.


One more time for Discovery ...

Nasa's shuttle Discovery is getting ready to blast off into space one last time, after technicians re-attached a main separation nut that fell off on Friday.

The orbiter has now been bolted to its external fuel tank and is set to go on its 39th and final mission to the International Space Station on 1 November.

An internal nut on the left side of the shuttle slipped out of position and fell into the aft compartment during the preparations for the flight.

The Discovery lift-off is planned to be the penultimate launch before the shuttle fleet retires early next year.

The Endeavour orbiter is scheduled to head for the skies on 26 February. This is expected to be the programme's 140th and last voyage.

Nut problem
Discovery was towed from its hanger and into the Nasa's Kennedy Space Center's vehicle assembly building in Florida on Thursday.

But after technicians managed to attach a large separation system bolt on the lower right side of the shuttle's belly, an internal nut slipped out of position and fell off.

The bolts ensure that the fuel tank separates from the orbiter after the craft pierces the atmosphere.

The issue with the missing nut was successfully resolved on Saturday and the bolt had been re-positioned.

It was yet another delay after the orbiter was taken to the assembly building a day late because of a broken water main.

'Final' mission
If everything else goes well, Discovery should be moved to launch pad on 21 September and ready for lift-off on 1 November.

The STS-133 crew, headed by commander Steve Lindsey, will deliver spare parts, supplies and a new module to the ISS.

The astronauts plan to fly to the Kennedy Space Center on 12 October. They will then take part in a dress-rehearsal countdown a few days later.

The flight is expected to be Discovery's final voyage
Discovery is set to dock with the ISS at around 1pm on 3 November and head back to Earth on 10 November, landing at the Kennedy Space Center on 12 November.

After that the orbiter, the oldest in service, is likely to end up on public display, probably at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC.


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