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September 12, 2013
Notes from the Pentagon

FBI targets Syrian hackers
A hacker group linked to the Syrian government was “highly effective” in conducting cyberattacks against social media over the past several months, according to an FBI advisory.

“The [Syrian Electronic Army‘s] primary capabilities include spearphishing, Web defacements, and hijacking social media accounts to spread propaganda,” the FBI said. “Over the past several months, the SEA has been highly effective in compromising multiple high-profile media outlets.”

The Aug. 30 notice states that the Syrian Electronic Army is a “pro-regime” hacker group that grew out of 2011 protests against the government. It has been “compromising high-profile media outlets in an effort to spread pro-regime propaganda.”

One new tactic used by the group is attacking third-party computer networks, including a Domain Name System registrar and a Web content recommendation site, the notice said.

The FBI also blamed the group for the high-profile cyberattack on the Twitter account of The Associated Press in April. The false tweet stated that President Obama had been injured. It sent stocks plunging more than 128 points in seconds, although the market recovered.

The incident highlights the damage that cyberattacks on social media can cause.

The FBI notice, issued as discussions about a U.S. military strike against the Syrian regime are underway, also warned that other hacker groups sympathetic to the Syrian Electronic Army also may take part in computer network operations against U.S. websites and networks.

“Please maintain heightened awareness of your network traffic and take appropriate steps to maintain your network security,” the FBI said, asking anyone who suspects cyberstrikes to contact its Cyber Task Force.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week that one possible form of retaliation by the Syrian regime to a U.S. military strike would be a cyberattack.

“There’s actions he could probably seek to achieve in cyber,” Gen. Dempsey said. “And we are alert to all of the possibilities and are mitigating strategies in the way we’ve positioned ourselves in the region.”

Security specialists say the Syrian Electronic Army was founded several years ago by a computer group under President Bashar Assad. It is reportedly funded by a relative of Mr. Assad who owns Syria’s SyriaTel telecommunications and Internet service provider.

China ratchets up tensions
As world attention remains sharply focused on Syria and talk about a U.S. military strike, tensions are on the rise in Asia between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

China this week carried out several military provocations near the islands.

On Monday, the Chinese military conducted the first known surveillance flight of an unmanned aircraft near the Senkakus, triggering protests from Tokyo and the scrambling of jet fighters.

The drone, identified by analysts as a BZK-05 unmanned aerial vehicle flew over the East China Sea about 62 miles north of the Senkakus and then returned to China. It did not enter Japanese airspace.

A day earlier, the Japanese Defense Ministry released photos of a Chinese H-6 bomber flying through the Miyako Strait. The bomber is one of China’s strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, which also include land-based missiles and submarines.

On Tuesday, seven Chinese Coast Guard vessels sailed inside Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus.

“China is ratcheting up pressure in the East China Sea by deploying long-range air patrols to add to its frequent deployment of coast guard ships to harass Japanese coast guard ships guarding the Senkaku Islands,” said Richard Fisher Jr., a China military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategic Center.

Mr. Fisher said the dispatch of unmanned aircraft for long-range patrols is a cost-effective pressure tactic by the People’s Liberation Army and also allows China to take more risks by sending spy planes closer to sensitive areas.

“This ratchets up psychological pressures as it forces Japan to contemplate more aggressive action for which China may have ready-made escalation responses,” he told Inside the Ring.

Japan’s notification of the drone incident was meant to signal China that it is capable of countering the surveillance. For China, Monday’s encounter was likely a Chinese electronic intelligence-gathering exercise aimed at monitoring Japan’s military response. The intelligence would be valuable for any military confrontation between the two Asian powers.

The drone is similar to Israel’s Heron UAV in size and performance, estimated to be 40 hours of flight time. Its main mission is surveillance, and the aircraft has not been observed to be equipped with missiles.

A Chinese defense official confirmed the drone flight to Japan’s NHK television and said it was part of routine exercises.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry protested the UAV flight, and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters Tuesday that Japan Self-Defense Forces are stepping up surveillance of the area.

Wednesday marked the first anniversary of the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the Senkakus from private owners in an effort to limit the controversy over the uninhabited islands.

Instead, Tokyo’s purchase touched off government-supported Chinese riots against Japan.

Chinese military commentator Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan added to the tensions by criticizing Japan for its claims over the Senkakus. Gen. Luo on Sept. 1 issued a threat that China’s nuclear forces would “frighten Japan” and “guarantee China’s victory” in any conflict.

Pacepa honored
Ion Mihai Pacepa, a high-ranking Romanian intelligence officer who defected to the United States and exposed communist intelligence and deception operations, was honored by the Romanian government 35 years after he was sentenced to death by the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

“I have just became the first major Cold War intelligence defector to the CIA officially rehabilitated by his native country’s government and invited to visit that country as an honored guest,” Mr. Pacepa wrote in a recent email to friends.

The rehabilitation was announced last month in a letter from the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism and for the Remembrance of the Romanian Diaspora, an official institution under Romanian Prime Minister Victor-Viorel Ponta.

The letter praised Mr. Pacepa for “the major role you played in unmasking the criminal nature of the communist dictatorship in Romania, and especially the illegal and despotic role of the political police of the totalitarian regime.”

The death sentence was overturned by the post-communist government in 1999, but full rehabilitation was not carried out until last month.

“With this invitation, [the institute] intends to commemorate the moment of your definitive and irrevocable break with the totalitarian communist regime and to present the Romanian academia with a real and unequivocal view of these events,” the letter said, noting recent efforts by some academics to revise the history of the Ceausescu regime.

Mr. Pacepa said receiving the letter was “a great day for me, for which I owe you very special thanks.” He thanked Arnaud de Borchgrave, a former editor-in-chief of The Washington Times, for writing articles in 2004 in this newspaper about Mr. Pacepa and Romania.

“I hope this will encourage other enemy spy chiefs to do what I did,” Mr. Pacepa said.

“We are at war with terrorism, and we need more than speeches on intelligence. We need new Pacepas — from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea — who are able to tell us what not even the most sophisticated CIA satellites can: what terrorist despots have in mind, and what their most secret plans against us are.”

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