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Oct. 29, 2015
Notes from the Pentagon

Russian military flights over Iraq questioned
Iraq’s government has told the United States that it will not permit Russian military forces to conduct air and missile strikes inside the country. But Baghdad is allowing Russian military aircraft to overfly its territory to resupply its forces, despite a request from the United States to deny the flights.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, disclosed during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday that the U.S. government asked the governments of Bulgaria and Iraq to close their airspace to Russian aircraft several weeks before Moscow’s Syria military intervention.

Mr. Cotton suggested that Bulgaria agreed to deny the overflights but that Baghdad rejected the U.S. request. Both Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Marine Corps. Gen. Joseph Dunford didn’t dispute that the diplomatic requests to deny Russian military supply flights were made, but he declined to detail the specifics.

“I would say it’s problematic for Russia to be resupplying its forces in Syria by flying through Iraq,” Mr. Cotton said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “We should renew our request that they exclude Russian aircraft from their airspace. And our military should be ready to assist them in excluding Russian aircraft from their airspace.”

Gen. Dunford confirmed that Russian supply flights have passed through Iraq but said it was “not at the understanding of the Iraqi government.”

Iraq’s small F-16 force has limited capabilities to prevent intrusions of its airspace, the four-star general said.

During a visit to Iraq recently, Gen. Dunford said, he received assurances from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other Iraqi leaders that Baghdad would not align with Russia in battling Islamic State militants.

“And I explained to them how difficult it would be for us to continue to provide support if the Russians were invited in to conduct airstrikes,” he said, “and I was assured at every level that that wouldn’t be the case.”

Russia conducted 59 airstrikes from Oct. 23 through Oct. 25 in northern Syria, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

NSA: Snowden leaks helped terrorists
Hundreds of international terrorists have changed their electronic communications operating procedures and can no longer be tracked by National Security Agency electronic spies, the NSA’s deputy director disclosed this week.

NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett outlined the damage caused by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in an interview with the BBC.

“We have kept track of what our targets have said about disclosures and what that means for them, and we’ve seen in the high hundreds of targets who have said, ‘Hey, we are vulnerable to these sorts of detection techniques and we need to change the way that we do that,’ and a number of them have, including several terrorist organizations and one in particular that had a mature operational plot directed against Western Europe and the U.S.,” Mr. Ledgett said, without elaborating.

“So we’ve actually seen them move away from our ability to do that as a result of those disclosures, as a direct result,” he said.

Mr. Ledgett, who headed the special NSA task force to deal with the Snowden disclosures of some 1.7 million secret NSA documents beginning in 2013, disputed claims that the former contractor was a whistleblower seeking to expose NSA wrongdoing.

The deputy director said public discussion of NSA surveillance is positive, but the way the debate came about is wrong.

“You hear claims that he was a whistleblower and that he tried to raise things. Those are just not true,” Mr. Ledgett said.

Mr. Snowden, who fled initially to Hong Kong and is currently under Russian government protection in Moscow, has asserted that the NSA is involved in illegal surveillance of Americans and is seeking to create an unrestricted secret police state. Those claims remain unproven since he provided documents to anti-secrecy and anti-surveillance advocates.

Critics say most of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures didn’t involve domestic U.S. electronic surveillance and that most of his documents disclosed by news outlets compromised sensitive methods used by the NSA to spy electronically.

Mr. Ledgett also told the news agency that the risk of foreign nations conducting cyberattacks is growing.

“If you are connected to the Internet, you are vulnerable to determined nation-state attackers,” he said. “The barrier to entry is going down and as everybody in the world becomes more connected with computers and information systems, the vulnerabilities are going up.”

The solution is to build better defenses and prepare to conduct offensive counter-cyberattacks.

The NSA’s No. 2 official also said the “jury is still out” on whether China will curb economic cyberespionage as agreed during the summit last month between President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “In any big organization, when guidance is sent down, then sometimes it takes awhile to get to the working level,” he said.

Two years ago, Mr. Ledgett revealed that Mr. Snowden used a hacking method called “scraping” within classified intelligence websites to gather and steal secret information.

One damaging impact was Mr. Snowden’s release of NSA spying requirements that showed NSA’s interests and gaps including some 31,000 targets, among them China, Iran and Russia.

U.S. adversaries would gain “a road map of what we know, what we don’t know, and give them, implicitly, a way to protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community’s view,” Mr. Ledgett told the CBS program “60 Minutes” in December 2013.

Pentagon plays down South China Sea transit
The Pentagon and U.S. military sought to play down the long-anticipated freedom of navigation operation by the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen through the South China Sea on Tuesday in an apparent bid to avoid upsetting China.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at first refused to comment on the ship’s passage near the South China Sea’s Spratly island chain, but under sharp questioning from senators reluctantly confirmed that the warship passage at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, criticized Mr. Carter for not publicly commenting on the ship’s transit.

“Why would you not confirm or deny that that happened since all the details and the action happened? This is what frustrates members of this committee when it’s there in the media, saturating the media, and you won’t even tell us,” Mr. McCain said.

“I do understand your frustration, and that is to match it with my own frustration, which is that these are operations that we should be conducting normally,” Mr. Carter said.

Mr. McCain then stated: “But the American people should know about it. And we’re their representatives. And you refuse to even confirm or deny something that is all over the media and confirmed by everyone? And you come before this committee and say you won’t comment on it? Why?”

The defense secretary said he did not like to talk about military operations, but then added that “what you read in the newspaper is accurate, but I don’t want to say more than that, and I don’t want to say when or whether and how we operate anywhere in the world.”

China called the ship transit a military provocation and a challenge to Beijing’s sovereign maritime claims.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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