Top CIA official departing
June 12th, 2013
07:07 PM ET

Top CIA official departing

By Pam Benson

Seemingly the perennial bridesmaid, Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell is retiring after a 33-year career.

His successor is Avril Haines, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama who will become the first woman to occupy the No. 2 spot.

Morell, 54, has been deputy director for the past three years and twice has been called to serve as acting chief.

The first time he covered a two-month gap in the summer of 2011 between the departure of Leon Panetta and the arrival of David Petraeus.
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Bombing suspect was in security files, but not on watch lists
April 24th, 2013
02:47 PM ET

Bombing suspect was in security files, but not on watch lists

By Pam Benson

The name of one Boston Marathon bombing suspect was included in U.S. law enforcement and counterterrorism databases, but he was not on any watch list that would have prevented him from flying or required additional screening when he left or entered the country, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials.

After the FBI was asked by the Russians in early 2011 to investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev's possible connection to jihadist causes, his name was put on a Customs and Border Prevention list known as TECS, used to detect unusual or suspicious travel, so that the FBI and other agencies would know if he traveled outside the United States.

The FBI investigation turned up no terrorism threat or any other derogatory information and the case was closed in June of 2011.

Several months later in the fall of 2011, the CIA received from the Russians information almost identical to what had been given to the FBI, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
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North Korea difficult intel target
North Korea President Kim Jung Un with military officers
April 4th, 2013
05:17 PM ET

North Korea difficult intel target

From Pam Benson

A former senior US official, who recently retired, says North Korea is a difficult target for the intelligence community but "the coverage is very extensive using national technical means: imagery, intercepts and other means."  The official said, "It's hard to get in there, but we do have external capabilities. Looking, listening and watching are all in play."

Moving a missile to the east coast is "very discernible", the official said, even on mobile launchers. The mobile launchers are more difficult–one or two might get through, the official said, but North Korea has limited routes to take whether by rail or road. "It's not a large country with an intricate transportation system."

What is difficult to ascertain is its uranium enrichment program. It could be buried in underground facilities where there are no air samples, nothing to collect.

There are other shortfalls for gathering intelligence on North Korea, in particular a lack of human intelligence, the official said. "We don't have physical access, minimal, if at all," the official said.

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Woman heads CIA spy unit for first time
March 29th, 2013
05:33 PM ET

Woman heads CIA spy unit for first time

By Pam Benson

Another glass ceiling has been cracked at least temporarily with a woman now running the CIA's spy division.

The long time CIA veteran leading the National Clandestine Service on an acting basis cannot be publicly named because she is still a covert officer.

The question is whether she will get the job permanently. But her background could be problematic for new CIA boss John Brennan.

According to sources familiar with her career, she was assigned to a senior position at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

In that role, she was involved in the controversial interrogation and detention program set up as the agency tracked and captured suspected al Qaeda terrorists.

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March 13th, 2013
06:16 PM ET

Material in North Korea's nuclear test unclear, worrying for U.S.

By Jill Dougherty and Pam Benson

More than a month after North Korea tested a nuclear device, the United States is unable to pinpoint whether the regime was able to use uranium to fuel the explosion, a capability that would represent a significantly enhanced nuclear program.

The lack of clarity comes as North Korea ratchets up its bellicose rhetoric each day.

New video broadcast on North Korean television showed the nation's leader, Kim Jong Un, addressing his troops along the border on Monday and issuing a blood-chilling threat, "Throw all enemies into the caldron, break their waists and crack their windpipes." It was the same location he and his late father visited in November 2010, just two days before the North shelled an island, killing four South Koreans.

The bellicose comments have been intensifying over the past months, increasing worry about Kim's unpredictability.

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Iran: Haven or prison for al Qaeda?
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith
March 8th, 2013
05:30 PM ET

Iran: Haven or prison for al Qaeda?

By Pam Benson

The arrest of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, who had been living in Iran for the past decade, has once again raised questions about whether the Iranian government is providing a haven or barrier to the terror group.

Al Qaeda and its members held under "house arrest" in Iran over the past decade have had a complicated relationship with the Tehran regime, one which allowed the detainees to often times continue supporting the terror group's operations in the region.

Current and former U.S. officials say al Qaeda in Iran managed to be fairly active in facilitating the movement of money and people into Pakistan where the core leadership has safe haven in tribal areas.

"They helped move people in and out of FATA through Iran for operational reasons," one former senior counter-terrorism official told CNN.

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White House providing Benghazi e-mails to Senate panel
Damage at US Mission in Benhgazi, Libya
February 26th, 2013
12:50 PM ET

White House providing Benghazi e-mails to Senate panel

By Pam Benson

Senate Intelligence Committee members will have access Tuesday to the e-mails associated with the development of the intelligence community's talking points on the attack at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, a committee aide said.

The Obama administration will provide the e-mails for members and some committee staff to read, take notes and ask questions in the committee's classified hearing room, the aide said. Members will not get copies of the documents.

Republican senators have threatened to hold up the nomination of John Brennan to be the next CIA director until they receive e-mails exchanged between the White House and the CIA concerning the public talking points used by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice for her appearances on Sunday talk shows the weekend after the September attack.

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White House sending Benghazi emails to Senate
Damaged room at U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya
February 22nd, 2013
04:14 PM ET

White House sending Benghazi emails to Senate

By Pam Benson

The White House has agreed to turn over to the Senate Intelligence Committee additional e-mails and intelligence reports related to the lethal attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, according to a congressional source.

The source said some of the materials have already been received by the panel and others "will be provided shortly."

Republican senators have threatened to hold up the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director until they receive e-mails exchanged between the White House and the spy agency concerning public talking points about the deadly attack last September 11.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice relied on those talking points to explain the Obama administration's version of events several days after the armed assault. Her televised comments ignited an election-year controversy, fueled by Republicans, over whether the administration was being truthful about the nature of the attack.

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Drone court considered
February 9th, 2013
11:48 AM ET

Drone court considered

By Pam Benson

Should federal judges weigh in on a president's decision to pursue and kill terrorists overseas?

The suggestion, raised at this week's nomination hearing of John Brennan to be CIA director, goes to the heart of the debate on whether President Barack Obama or any U.S. leader should have unfettered power to order the targeted killing of Americans overseas who are al Qaeda terrorists.

Some Democratic senators argued there should be a check on the president's authority to use lethal force, particularly against Americans, as occurred in September 2011 when a CIA-operated armed drone killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

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Revealed:  North Korea's upgraded nuke test site
Location of possible command bunker at suspected nuclear test tunnel at Pung-gye-Ri nuclear test site in North Korea
January 24th, 2013
09:00 PM ET

Revealed: North Korea's upgraded nuke test site

By Pam Benson

Satellite imagery of a North Korean nuclear test site identifies what could be key installations that would likely play a prominent role if Kim Jong Un orders a test, which the government threatened to do on Thursday.

The analysis of the Pung-gye-Ri Nuclear Test site by U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North blog shows recently completed structures essential to an underground nuclear weapons test.

One is believed to be a command and control bunker. Another photo shows what appears to be a radio relay system that zigzags through a valley, which the 38North analysts believe could be used as part of a communications system linking the bunker to the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang.

Why sticks won't work with North Korea

"Located about 150 meters (164 yards) north of the test tunnel entrance, the bunker, used only when a test is about to be conducted, would contain equipment for controlling the nuclear device, managing instruments for gathering test data and communicating with authorities in Pyongyang," the report stated. "The bunker would also provide shelter for all personnel in the area."

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