Deep-cover Russian spies posing as suburban Americans. Money covertly changing hands. Supposedly secret information moving via encryption software.
It’s an elaborate replay of Cold War intrigue that leaves some experts puzzled. But the FBI case against 11 people charged with conspiring to spy for Russia also raises concerns among counterintelligence veterans about new ways adversaries — including terrorists — may be seeking informational advantages.
Spying for foreign powers in the U.S. “is still active. Many, many countries are still engaged in it,” said David Szady, the FBI’s former top spy catcher and assistant director of counterintelligence, who retired in 2006 and works for a global security firm. “The threat now is probably as serious as ever.”
A Muslim cleric turned terrorist leader – targeted for assassination by the U.S. government – is a Colorado State University graduate who honed his preaching skills in Colorado mosques.
Born in New Mexico, Anwar al-Awlaki arrived in Colorado in 1990 to study at CSU after spending more than 11 years in Yemen. He graduated in 1994, records show, with a degree in civil engineering.
He left little mark here — no achievements notable or infamous — and relatively few in Fort Collins or Denver remember him.
Those who did know al-Awlaki recall his emerging gift for oratory and persuasion. Some sensed the stirrings of radicalism in his speeches before he left in the mid-1990s, eventually returning to Yemen.
Skepticism about Zazi case gives way to hard questions
The evolving case of terrorism suspect Najibullah Zazi — the Afghan immigrant jailed in an alleged bombing plot — initially struck some in Colorado’s Islamic community as another example of FBI overenthusiasm. But as details trickled out, skepticism morphed into surprise and embarrassment, prompting leaders to ask searching questions about themselves, the community and how U.S. actions abroad could imperil Americans at home.
Once it became clear to the FBI that Najibullah Zazi posed a real threat, some of the police and intelligence reforms instituted after the 2001 terrorist attacks worked just as planned.
Wiretaps helped reveal what Zazi was saying. Travel records were mined to build a record of Zazi’s journeys.
The arrest of Zazi, and apparent disruption of an alleged bombing plot, “is a situation brought about by the changes in the way we do business since 9/11 — knocking down the walls (between law enforcement agencies) that allows us to work collaboratively here and overseas,” Denver FBI Special Agent in Charge James Davis said in an interview.
But it is still too early for anyone outside of law enforcement to gauge whether the techniques and cooperation that led to Zazi’s arrest make the United States considerably safer than on Sept. 11, 2001.
If, for example, Zazi was able to attend an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, move from his New York neighborhood to Colorado, collect bomb-making chemicals and test them in a hotel suite kitchen without drawing the attention of the CIA, FBI or other federal agencies, then there’s still much work to be done, according to intelligence experts.
“It’s impossible to say, based on the facts of the investigation that have been made public so far, what breakthroughs were involved in the investigation and what can be claimed as a success,” said Paul Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, a 28-year CIA veteran who currently runs graduate security studies at Georgetown University.
Not knowing whether information about Zazi’s activities in Pakistan was developed by agents abroad or solely through police questioning in the United States, “there’s not a basis for drawing conclusions about pre- 9/11 vs. post- 9/11 differences,” Pillar said.
Zazi is charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Najibullah Zazi and his father, Mohammed, held in the investigation, are expected in court today.
FBI agents investigating what they describe as a plot to detonate homemade bombs in the United States released documents Sunday asserting that a Colorado airport-shuttle driver admitted to al-Qaeda training and had bomb-making notes in his laptop.Today, 24-year-old Najibullah Zazi and his father, Mohammed, 53, are scheduled to make initial appearances in federal court. They’ve been held in Denver County Jail since late Saturday, when FBI agents raided their apartment and arrested them on nonterrorism charges of making false statements.
Moving any large number of terror detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Colorado’s Supermax would require either shuffling current residents out of the Florence prison or expanding its capacity and resolving a long-running battle over adequate prison staffing.
As President Barack Obama and congressional leaders point toward the Colorado federal prison as a possible new home for some of the detainees, one big problem is the bed-space crunch. Supermax’s approximately 480 concrete cells already are jammed with the likes of Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols, Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and other notorious domestic criminals. There also are 33 international terrorists, including Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef and failed airline shoe bomber Richard Reid. Only one bed was not filled Thursday at Supermax, U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Tracy Billingsley said. Yet locals in the adjacent town of Florence say they’d probably would be supportive, Town Manager Tom Piltingsrud said. They took the initiative on establishing Supermax in the first place, scraping together money to buy land and then donating it to the government for the complex. They remain glad for the jobs it provides, Piltingsrud said. “It’s a recession-proof industry.”
There would seem to be a simple solution to the problem of piracy off Africa: Arm merchant ships to the teeth, put guards on board and shoot anyone who tries to climb on deck. But insurance and security costs, restrictions on weapons imposed by the world’s ports, and concerns about the safety of crews sailing with flammable or explosive cargo have led the industry to pause rather than arm crews.
Denver Water gives few details on Dillon Dam decision
Denver water authorities citing unspecified security concerns suddenly close a crucial dam road in booming Summit County. Residents erupt in protest. The Denver water authorities concede there’s no immediate threat, saying they based their move on a new vulnerability analysis by a federal security agency they could not name. Are jihadists able and likely to target a relatively unknown mountain dam?
Privacy advocates worry that officers’ snooping will entangle innocent people.
Hundreds of police, firefighters, paramedics and even utility workers have been trained and recently dispatched as “Terrorism Liaison Officers in Colorado and a handful of other statres to hunt for “suspicious activity” – and are reporting their findings into secret government databases. U.S. intelligence and homeland security officials say they support the widening use of TLOs – state-run under federal agreements – as part of a necessary integrated network for preventing attacks. But the vague nature of TLOs’ mission and their focus on reporting both legal and illegal activity has generated objections from privacy advocates and civil libertarians.
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Frequent flying by Russian strategic bombers near American airspace — drawing U.S. fighter jets — has military officials at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs on guard and angling for greater openness and cooperation. While odds are low that these increasing Russian forays will cause a catastrophe, “there’s more of a risk of something accidental happening,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Monday after meeting here with homeland defense commanders.
“We will clearly watch this evolution,” Mullen said of the Russian flights — not detected in such numbers since the Cold War. “We’ve got good military-to-military relations with the Russians. My sense is there’s no strategic intent to threaten the United States.”
To prevent problems, the Colorado-based North American Aerospace Defense and Northern commands initiated joint exercises with Russian counterparts here and in Alaska — a return to Cold War-era efforts to manage tensions.