Off the Wires

Iran-Saudi war of words heats up ahead of hajj

September 7th, 2016  |  Source: AFP

A bitter war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified Wednesday ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage from which Iranians have been excluded for the first time in decades.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted the "incompetence" of the Saudi royal family as he met with the families of victims of a deadly stampede during last year's hajj.

"This incident proves once again that this cursed, evil family does not deserve to be in charge and manage the holy sites," Khamenei said.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were already at rock bottom before the regional rivals started trading caustic remarks ahead of the annual pilgrimage to Islam's holiest places in Saudi Arabia, which is due to start on Saturday.

Iranians have been blocked from the event after talks on safety and logistics fell apart in May.

"If the existing problems with the Saudi government were merely the issue of the hajj... maybe it would have been possible to find a way to resolve it," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting.

"Unfortunately, this government by committing crimes in the region and supporting terrorism in fact shed the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen," Rouhani said.

- 'Inappropriate and offensive' -

The week began with a furious rebuke from Khamenei, published on his website, in which he accused the Saudi royals of "murder" over the deaths of nearly 2,300 pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians, in last year's stampede.

Saudi Arabia claims the death toll was only 769 -- despite data from more than 30 countries suggesting it was far higher -- and has refused to release the details of its investigation into the disaster.

But the head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council hit back on Wednesday, calling Khamenei's remarks "inappropriate and offensive... and a desperate attempt to politicise" the hajj.

AFP/File /Iran was fiercely critical of the Saudi response to a deadly stampede during the 2015 hajj, which killed some 2,300 foreign pilgrims, including an estimated 464 Iranians

Saudi Arabia's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, also waded into the dispute, telling the Makkah daily on Tuesday: "We must understand these are not Muslims, they are children of Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one."

"Magi" is a reference to the Zoroastrian religion that was prevalent in Iran before Islam, and is sometimes used as an insult against Iranians.

Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the world needed to pay more attention to the "cold conflict" between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This week's verbal attacks "are an indication that the tensions that really ratcheted up earlier this year are still unresolved," she told AFP.

"Particularly when it comes to the pilgrimage and religious discourse, then it has quite damaging effects on sectarian relations around the world."

- A history of violence -

Iranian Presidency/AFP /Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the Muslim world to unite and "punish" the Saudi government for its actions in the region

The two dominant Middle Eastern powers follow different branches of Islam -- Shiite and Sunni -- and vie for regional dominance.

Iran boycotted the hajj for three years between 1988 and 1990 after clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police in 1987 left around 400 people dead.

Diplomatic ties were restored in 1991, but relations have deteriorated in recent years, particularly over the countries' support for opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

In January, relations were severed again after Iranian demonstrators torched the Saudi embassy and a consulate following the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Around 60,000 Iranians took part in last year's hajj, but the two sides could not reach an agreement on this year's pilgrimage.

A former senior US foreign policy official, John Hannah, last month cited Gulf sources in an article for Foreign Policy magazine, saying that "the Saudis did in fact go out of their way to make Iranian attendance difficult."

"(The) Saudis were insisting that the Iranians be kept in a closed camp, effectively barred from co-mingling and socialising with participants from other countries, often considered an essential element of the hajj experience," Hannah wrote.

His claims could not be independently verified. Saudi Arabia says Tehran made "unacceptable" demands, including the right to organise demonstrations "that would cause chaos".

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef reiterated those concerns on Monday, saying Iran wanted to "politicise hajj and convert it into an occasion to violate the teachings of Islam, through shouting slogans and disturbing the security of pilgrims."

Philippines scrambles to soothe tensions after Obama slur

September 6th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte sought to defuse a row with the United States on Tuesday, voicing regret for calling President Barack Obama a "son of a bitch", a comment that prompted Washington to call off a bilateral meeting.

The tiff between the two allies overshadowed the opening of a summit of East and Southeast Asian nations in Vientiane, Laos.

It also soured Obama's last swing as president through a region he has tried to make a focus of U.S. foreign policy, a strategy widely seen as a response to China's economic and military muscle-flexing.

Diplomats say strains with longtime ally the Philippines could compound Washington's difficulties in forging a united front with Southeast Asian partners on the geostrategic jostle with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Duterte has bristled repeatedly at criticism over his "war on drugs", which has killed about 2,400 people since he took office two months ago, and on Monday said it would be "rude" for Obama to raise the question of human rights when they met.

Such a conversation, Duterte told reporters, would prompt him to curse at Obama, using a Filipino phrase "putang ina" which can mean "son of a bitch" or "son of a whore".

He has previously used the epithet against Pope Francis, although he later apologized, and the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

After Washington called off Tuesday's bilateral meeting between Obama and Duterte in response to his latest comment, the Philippines issued two statements expressing regret and also briefed reporters.

"President Duterte explained that the press reports that President Obama would 'lecture' him on extrajudicial killings led to his strong comments, which in turn elicited concern," the Philippines government said in a statement.

"He regrets that his remarks to the press have caused much controversy," it added. "He expressed his deep regard and affinity for President Obama and for the enduring partnership between our nations."

Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the focus on Duterte's comments leading into the summit had not created a constructive environment for a bilateral meeting.

"All of the attention frankly was on those comments, and therefore not on the very substantive agenda that we have with the Philippines," he told reporters.

Officials from both countries said there would be no formal meeting rescheduled in Laos but a short conversation between the two presidents was possible.

Instead of the Duterte meeting, Obama held talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a day after North Korea fired three medium-range missiles into the sea. He urged a full implementation of sanctions against North Korea, adding that the missile test demonstrated the threat that Pyongyang posed

First U.S.-Cuba scheduled passenger flight in decades arrives

August 31st, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

A JetBlue Airways Corp (JBLU.O) passenger jet landed in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara on Wednesday, becoming the first scheduled commercial passenger flight from the United States to the island in more than a half century.
The arrival of the Airbus A320 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opened another chapter in the Obama administration's efforts to improve ties and increase trade and travel with the former Cold War foe. The Obama administration hopes regular scheduled flights will usher in an era of more routine travel to and from the Communist-ruled island.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes, other officials and journalists were aboard the 150-seat plane. Regular travelers, including some of Cuban descent, occupied nearly half the seats on a route that may be a commercial challenge, at least initially

Comey: FBI takes political hacking "very seriously"

August 30th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

FBI Director James Comey says the agency is closely watching what foreign countries are doing in light of allegations the Russian government is seeking to undermine the U.S. presidential election

Fed's Yellen says case for interest rate hike has strengthened

August 26th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

The case for a U.S. interest rate hike has strengthened in recent months, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said on Friday in a speech that left the door open for such a move as early as next month.

Yellen, speaking at an international gathering of central bankers and academics in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, did not say when the U.S. central bank would raise borrowing costs, and investors remained skeptical that such a move was imminent.

But the Fed chief said the U.S. economy was creating a lot of new jobs and would likely keep growing moderately, despite data earlier in the day showing only sluggish growth in the second quarter.

"In light of the continued solid performance of the labor market and our outlook for economic activity and inflation, I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months," Yellen said, adding that the Fed still thinks future rate increases should be "gradual."

Yellen did not give guidance on what the central bank needs to see before raising rates. Following her remarks, investors continued to bet there were roughly even odds of an increase at the Fed's December policy meeting.

"She's just kept the door open for a hike sooner rather than later," said Subadra Rajappa, an interest rate strategist at Societe Generale in Washington.

The Fed also has policy meetings scheduled in September and November, with prices for fed funds futures implying investors see much lower chances of a rate increase at either of those meetings.

Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, however, told CNBC on Friday that a rate hike in September and more than one hike before the end of the year were possible, though he added that it would depend on future economic data.

In her speech, Yellen said the U.S. central bank already thinks the economy is close to meeting its goals of maximum employment and stable prices. She also described consumer spending as "solid," but noted that business investment was weak and exports were taking a hit from a strong U.S. dollar.

The Fed raised rates in December, its first hike in nearly a decade, but it has held off further increases so far this year due to a global growth slowdown, financial market volatility and an inflation rate persistently below its 2 percent target.

The dollar jumped after Yellen's remarks and was about 0.50 percent higher against a basket of currencies .DXY in early afternoon trading. U.S. stock prices fell in choppy trading, while prices of U.S. Treasuries were mostly weaker.

Biden expects Guantanamo prison to close before Obama leaves office

August 25th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Thursday he expected the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would close before President Barack Obama leaves office in January.

"That is my hope and expectation," he told a news conference in Sweden.

The White House has been trying to close the facility since Obama took office but has been stymied by opposition in Congress.

'Three quarters of the town is not there anymore'

August 24th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

·     Death toll in Italian earthquake rises to 73

At least 73 people have died in an earthquake which devastated a string of small towns in central Italy in the early hours of Wednesday, the civil protection department said.

The quake struck when most residents were asleep, razing homes and buckling roads in a cluster of communities some 140 km (85 miles) east of Rome.

Zika in Miami

August 23rd, 2016  |  Source:

Debbie Wasserman Schultz drinks coffee next to cans of Cutter mosquito repellent that is being distributed to combat possible infection from the Zika virus in Miami Beach, Florida, 

Evidence points to another Snowden at the NSA

August 22nd, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

In the summer of 1972, state-of-the-art campaign spying consisted of amateur burglars, armed with duct tape and microphones, penetrating the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Today, amateur burglars have been replaced by cyberspies, who penetrated the DNC armed with computers and sophisticated hacking tools. 

Where the Watergate burglars came away empty-handed and in handcuffs, the modern- day cyber thieves walked away with tens of thousands of sensitive political documents and are still unidentified.

Now, in the latest twist, hacking tools themselves, likely stolen from the National Security Agency, are on the digital auction block. Once again, the usual suspects start with Russia – though there seems little evidence backing up the accusation. 


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In addition, if Russia had stolen the hacking tools, it would be senseless to publicize the theft, let alone put them up for sale. It would be like a safecracker stealing the combination to a bank vault and putting it on Facebook. Once revealed, companies and governments would patch their firewalls, just as the bank would change its combination. 

A more logical explanation could also be insider theft. If that’s the case, it’s one more reason to question the usefulness of an agency that secretly collects private information on millions of Americans but can’t keep its most valuable data from being stolen, or as it appears in this case, being used against us.

In what appeared more like a Saturday Night Live skit than an act of cybercrime, a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers put up for bid on the Internet what it called a “full state-sponsored toolset” of “cyberweapons.” “!!! Attention government sponsors of cyberwarfare and those who profit from it !!!! How much would you pay for enemies cyberweapons?” said the announcement. 

The group said it was releasing some NSA files for “free” and promised “better” ones to the highest bidder. However, those with loosing bids “Lose Lose,” it said, because they would not receive their money back. And should the total sum of the bids, in bitcoins, reach the equivalent of half a billion dollars, the group would make the whole lot public. 

While the “auction” seemed tongue in cheek, more like hacktivists than Russian high command, the sample documents were almost certainly real. The draft of a top-secret NSA manual for implanting offensive malware, released by Edward Snowden, contains code for a program codenamed SECONDDATE. That same 16-character string of numbers and characters is in the code released by the Shadow Brokers. The details from the manual were first released by The Intercept last Friday.

The authenticity of the NSA hacking tools were also confirmed by several ex-NSA officials who spoke to the media, including former members of the agency’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) unit, the home of hacking specialists.  

“Without a doubt, they’re the keys to the kingdom,” one former TAO employee told theWashington Post. “The stuff you’re talking about would undermine the security of a lot of major government and corporate networks both here and abroad.” Another added, “From what I saw, there was no doubt in my mind that it was legitimate.”

Like a bank robber’s tool kit for breaking into a vault, cyber exploitation tools, with codenames like EPICBANANA and BUZZDIRECTION, are designed to break into computer systems and networks. Just as the bank robber hopes to find a crack in the vault that has never been discovered, hackers search for digital cracks, or “exploits,” in computer programs like Windows. 

The most valuable are “zero day” exploits, meaning there have been zero days since Windows has discovered the “crack” in their programs. Through this crack, the hacker would be able to get into a system and exploit it, by stealing information, until the breach is eventually discovered and patched. According to the former NSA officials who viewed the Shadow Broker files, they contained a number of exploits, including zero-day exploits that the NSA often pays thousands of dollars for to private hacking groups.

The reasons given for laying the blame on Russia appear less convincing, however. “This is probably some Russian mind game, down to the bogus accent,” James A. Lewis, a computer expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told the New York Times. Why the Russians would engage in such a mind game, he never explained.

Rather than the NSA hacking tools being snatched as a result of a sophisticated cyber operation by Russia or some other nation, it seems more likely that an employee stole them. Experts who have analyzed the files suspect that they date to October 2013, five months after Edward Snowden left his contractor position with the NSA and fled to Hong Kong carrying flash drives containing hundreds of thousands of pages of NSA documents. 

So, if Snowden could not have stolen the hacking tools, there are indications that after he departed in May 2013, someone else did, possibly someone assigned to the agency’s highly sensitive Tailored Access Operations.

In December 2013, another highly secret NSA document quietly became public. It was a top secret TAO catalog of NSA hacking tools. Known as the Advanced Network Technology (ANT) catalog, it consisted of 50 pages of extensive pictures, diagrams and descriptions of tools for every kind of hack, mostly targeted at devices manufactured by U.S. companies, including Apple, Cisco, Dell and many others. 

Like the hacking tools, the catalog used similar codenames. Among the tools targeting Apple was one codenamed DROPOUTJEEP, which gives NSA total control of iPhones. "A software implant for the Apple iPhone,” says the ANT catalog, “includes the ability to remotely push/pull files from the device. SMS retrieval, contact-list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell-tower location, etc.” 

Another, codenamed IRATEMONK, is, “Technology that can infiltrate the firmware of hard drives manufactured by Maxtor, Samsung, Seagate and Western Digital.” 

In 2014, I spent three days in Moscow with Snowden for a magazine assignment and a PBS documentary. During our on-the-record conversations, he would not talk about the ANT catalog, perhaps not wanting to bring attention to another possible NSA whistleblower.

I was, however, given unrestricted access to his cache of documents. These included both the entire British, or GCHQ, files and the entire NSA files.

But going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find a single reference to the ANT catalog. This confirmed for me that it had likely been released by a second leaker. And if that person could have downloaded and removed the catalog of hacking tools, it’s also likely he or she could have also downloaded and removed the digital tools now being leaked.

In fact, a number of the same hacking implants and tools released by the Shadow Brokers are also in the ANT catalog, including those with codenames BANANAGLEE and JETPLOW. These can be used to create “a persistent back-door capability” into widely used Cisco firewalls, says the catalog. 

Consisting of about 300 megabytes of code, the tools could easily and quickly be transferred to a flash drive. But unlike the catalog, the tools themselves – thousands of ones and zeros – would have been useless if leaked to a publication. This could be one reason why they have not emerged until now.

Enter WikiLeaks. Just two days after the first Shadow Brokers message, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, sent out a Twitter message. “We had already obtained the archive of NSA cyberweapons released earlier today,” Assange wrote, “and will release our own pristine copy in due course.” 

Kalashnikov gunmaker opens store at Moscow's largest airport

August 19th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Gunmaker Kalashnikov, whose AK-47 assault rifle has armed Russian forces for 70 years and been the preferred weapon of insurgents across continents, has opened a store at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport selling souvenirs including plastic model guns, the company said.

An airport official said the shop, offering novelties including pens, umbrellas, bags, hats, camouflage gear and "I love AK" T-shirts, would be situated in the rail-link section of the airport complex. The model guns - automatic pistols and rifles - would very clearly be imitations and would pose no security problems, he added.

"Kalashnikov is one of the most popular brands that come to mind for most people in the world when they hear about Russia," Kalashnikov's head of marketing, Vladimir Dmitriev, said in a press release.

"So, we are pleased to provide the opportunity for everyone to take away from Russia a souvenir with our company brand."

The AK-47, the first rifle the firm produced, has acquired an iconic status due to its low production costs and reliability in extreme conditions. It was introduced in 1948, armed the whole of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in communist times and served largely pro-Soviet rebel forces across Africa and Asia.

Produced also under license beyond Russian frontiers, it remains one of the most popular assault rifles in the world.

Sheremetyevo International Airport is Moscow's and Russia's largest airport by passenger traffic. In 2015, it handled more than 31 million passengers.

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