The CSS Blog

Whodunnit? Russia and Coercion through Cyberspace

Blue Circuit

Courtesy of Yusuke Umezawa / Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 19 October 2016.

Late in May 2014, a group calling itself CyberBerkut leaked a map of the Ukrainian Dnipropetrovsk Oblast administration’s IT resources, information on the Central Election Commission of Ukraine’s servers, and the correspondence of its staff. In the following days, which included the country’s presidential election, CyberBerkut claimed they had again compromised the election commission’s servers, leaked more confidential information, conducted a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack the commission’s website (which instructed potential voters how and where to vote), and blocked the phones of election organizers. The group also released documents implying that the recently appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Igor Kolomoisky, was complicit in pro-European Ukrainian plans to promote the “correct” candidate for president of Ukraine.

Despite the best effort of the Russian group behind CyberBerkut, the center-right, pro-European Petro Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidency. But CyberBerkut wasn’t finished. Almost exactly five months later, the group used similar tactics in the days preceding the Ukrainian parliamentary elections. The results were largely the same: Pro-European candidates won the majority of seats. An uninitiated observer might be keen to discard these events as failed electioneering. After all, Moscow did not succeed in getting its men elected. But to label the operation a failure is to assume that the primary goal was to get pro-Russia officials elected. Over the course of the past four months, we have seen similar operations unfold in the United States, and — as was the case in Ukraine — there are reasons to believe that swaying the election is not the primary objective. Just as in the case of the CyberBerkut incidents, among the key observers of these operations in the United States have been cyber-security firms like FireEye. The manager of their information operations analysis team recently shared some of their findings with me, which informs the analysis below.

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The Moral Hazard of Inaction in War


Courtesy cea + / Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 19 August 2016.

When earlier this month the Obama administration released a newly declassified memorandum detailing the U.S. government’s policy on drone strikes, there was little new to be found. It mainly repeats the policies that were released in 2013, to include the vastly-more-than-what-the-law demands requirement of a “near certainty” that there would be zero civilian deaths in a given strike. What is glaringly missing is any formal appraisal of the civilian casualties likely to occur if a strike is not conducted.

Whatever political or even moral imperative there may be for the administration’s extralegal no-civilian-casualty drone policy, it is not the only ethical issue these strikes engage. After all, British philosopher John Stuart Mill observed in his 1859 essay that a “person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

A failure to formally include any evaluation of the consequences of not striking raises what I would call a “moral hazard.” Traditionally, “moral hazard” is an economics term defined as “the lack of any incentive to guard against a risk when you are protected against it (as by insurance).” However, as applied to drone operations (and other use-of-force situations), I would interpret it as decision-makers having a lack of any incentive to guard against the risk to civilians who might be killed if a targeted terrorist is not struck, because they are protected against the risk of criticism in the absence of a strike.

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The Role of Iraq’s Former Regime Elements in Islamic State

Portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, courtesy thierry ehrmann/flickr

This article was originally published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) on 5 May 2016.

Former Baathists—members of the Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein—including army and security officers, are today the most influential figures in the Islamic State (IS). The opportunism and ideological ambiguity of the former regime elements (FRE) make them ruthless tacticians who use torture and intimidation, but they should also be seen as a potential Achilles heel of the IS. The EU, together with the United States, needs to cooperate on political intelligence in order to examine the possibilities and conditions for weakening IS by bargaining with some of its key members.

Origins of Cooperation between Baathists and Jihadists

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority embarked on the “de-baathification” of Iraq, a process that aimed to remove senior Baath Party members from the country’s institutions and political system. More than 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) were dismissed and barred from further employment in the government sector, while being allowed to keep their weapons. In the faltering economy, dominated by the public sector, de-baathification meant social exclusion or at least a sudden deprivation of privileges that the elite had become used to over decades. Some of them formed local insurgent forces, and later joined the rising jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in 2006 established the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (today’s IS). To a large extent this cooperation resulted from discriminatory policies of the Shiah prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006–2014), who persecuted former officials and marginalised the entire Sunni population.

What united the FRE and the jihadists was the common enemy, the United States and Maliki’s government, rather than ideology. Even during the Faith Campaign (Hussein’s shift towards Islam in the 90s) Baath Party members lived relatively secular lives. Despite different ideological backgrounds, the common enemies and shared desire for power led to a strong synthesis of the jihadists and the ex-Baathists. The degree to which this occurred can be illustrated by the fact that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of IS, was elected to the position in 2010 owing to the support of a former intelligence colonel, Samir al-Khlifawi, who subsequently cleansed the IS management and replenished it with further FRE.

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The Swedish Counter-Intelligence Report on Hostile Russian Activities in the Region in a Comparative Context

IBM Blade Center with two HS22 and twelve HS21 Blade servers installed. Courtesy Bob Mical/Flickr

This article was originally published by PISM on 24 March 2016.

The Swedish counter-intelligence service’s latest annual assessments highlight the growing interest of Russian intelligence in Sweden’s national security issues. Soon after the publication of the unclassified version of the report, a series of cyberattacks on Swedish media took place. The increase in hostile Russian intelligence activities has been seen as connected to a public debate about the prospects for closer relations between Sweden and NATO. The U.S. perception of the Russian threats presented by Sweden’s counter-intelligence services does not deviate from public assessments by other Scandinavian countries’ assessments. This might suggest that the increased Russian activities are part of some broader strategy concerning Northern Europe.

On 17 March 2016, the Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen, or SÄPO) published an unclassified version of its annual assessment of intelligence and terrorist threats. The chapter on Russian disinformation and psychological operations stirred public interest and was followed by a series of coordinated and massive cyberattacks (DDoS-style, or “distributed denial of service”) on a number of websites in Sweden. A DDoS attack on 19 March resulted in seven of the main Swedish newspapers’ internet portals being unavailable.

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Debating Drones: A Response to Michael Hayden

Predator drone firing a rocket, courtesy KAZ Vorpal/flickr

This article was originally published by Peace Policy on 10 March 2016.

Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and NSA, recently published a New York Times op-ed article claiming that Americans should embrace drone warfare because it helps to keep us safe. The article seriously misrepresents the nature of the U.S. drone warfare program and triggered a number of sharp reactions.

Hayden claims that drones strikes have been extremely precise and that civilian casualties are low, but Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations contests these claims. Using data from non-governmental groups that monitor drone strikes, Zenko calculates that during the time Hayden was director of the CIA he personally authorized an estimated 48 drone strikes, which killed 532 people, 144 of whom were civilians. The civilian death toll in those strikes was 27 percent.

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