Jan 1, 2011

Most Dangerous Year Ever, From Secret Spaceships to Killer Drones

Sexy, sleeper spy cells. Nuke-scientists-turned-triple-agents. Secret space planes. Growing drone wars. Pentagon cyborgs. Mad dictators flipping their lids even worse than before. 2010 wasn't just the most dangerous year ever. It mighty have been the weirdest, too.

The Afghanistan War Gets Ultra-violent
For the first half of this year, the American strategy in Afghanistan was to try to kill as few people as possible. Then Gen. Stanley McChrystal's team ran their mouths in front of a Rolling Stone reporter, and everything changed.
Gen. David Petraeus took over. He dispatched special operations forces to take out thousands of militants. Petraeus' generals relied on massive surface-to-surface missiles to clear the Taliban out of Kandahar, and ordered tanks to help crush opponents in Helmand province. Air strikes — once a tool of last resort — hit their highest levels since the American invasion: 1,000 air attacks in one month alone. By November, one U.S. military official was boasting about America’s "awe, shock and firepower."
Taliban and other insurgent groups embraced the ultraviolence, too. Their bombs killed or wounded a thousand more troops in 2010 than they did in the previous year. The militants built more improvised explosives in November than in any month ever before.
To corral the insurgency, U.S. commanders unveiled a plan to scan millions of Afghan irises. They flew secret fertilizer bomb sniffers.
They handed out sensors to see through walls, and told their intelligence officers to start acting more like journalists. The military even briefly flirted with the idea of zapping Afghans with a microwave pain ray.
Some things stayed the same. America continued to supersize its mega-bases, and build new HQs for its special forces. Troops wondered out loud WTF they were doing there.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai remained our uneasy ally, despite the corruption, and despite the shaky leadership. "There is no plan B," Adm. Mike Mullen told Danger Room.
The ticket out of Afghanistan is supposed to be a newly trained Afghan army and police force. But first, the dudes need to learn to read. Which means that planned 2011 drawdown of U.S. forces in 2011 is more likely to happen in 2014. Or never.
—Noah Shachtman

The Spies Who Friended Us
In June, the cold war came back in style again as the FBI busted a network of Russian sleeper agents who had hidden in the United States for years. In a nod to the 21st> century, the spies had used social media to try to strengthen their cover identities, creating LinkedIn profiles and leaving behind a trail of steamy Facebook pics.
But their sloppy tradecraft, including using old-school radiograms to communicate, made them easy prey for American counterintelligence. And by the time the United States swapped the agents for some of its own imprisoned assets in Russia, it wasn’t clear that the departing spooks had managed to steal any actual secrets.
Fortunately, the 11 loveable sleeper scamps managed to become far more interesting as former spies than active ones. Donald Howard Heathfield (née Andrei Bezrukov) now draws on his experience as a mediocre spook to consult for the president of Russia’s largest oil company. Russia’s very own Bond girl, Anna Chapman, landed a similarly plush consulting gig, in addition to a photo spread in Russian Maxim and a job as spokeswoman for Putin’s United Russia party.
In Russia, the press has spun stories about the network being betrayed by mysterious, treasonous and likely fictional colleagues. And the spy scandal is thought to be fueling a bureaucratic turf war between Russia’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.
But don’t you worry, America. Boss-for-Life Vladimir Putin says those spies never meant to hurt you.
—Adam Rawnsley

Secret Spaceships, Super-Fast Missiles: UFOs Turn Real
For about half a day in November, something flew off of the coast of Los Angeles. And no one in the government seemed to have any idea what the hell it was. Suddenly, Unidentified Flying Objects were more than a historical curiosity.
Some observers believed it was a secret U.S. military missile or airplane, but in fact it was merely a high-flying passenger plane sketching a huge contrail at an odd angle to many viewers.
The L.A. contrail might have disappointed, but 2010 did offer up plenty of real secret missiles and mystery planes. In April, the Pentagon finally test-launched its Mach-20 Falcon glider, part of a revived Rumsfeld-era scheme to develop super-fast missiles capable of striking anywhere on the planet in just minutes.
Falcon crashed — perhaps to the relief of skeptics who believe the so-called "Prompt Global Strike" initiative could prove strategically destabilizing. It took until November for the Air Force to figure out what went wrong -- and to figure out why communications with 50 nuclear missiles briefly frizzled. The May test of the Mach-6 X-51 was smoother, keeping Global Strike alive for now.
Equally disturbing to some observers, in April the Air Force launched its X-37B robotic mini-space shuttle into orbit on its debut mission. The X-37B could be a lot of things — a satellite snoop, an orbital spy, even a bomber — but the Air Force insisted, somewhat unconvincingly, that it was just a space laboratory.
The X-37's safe return to Earth after eight months coincided with renewed interest in fast, high-flying, space-capable vehicles, promising another year of speculation and UFO sightings.
—David Axe

Military Medicine Aims for the Brain
Mental health was the Pentagon's top medical priority in 2010, as the military funded research to prevent, diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. But promising projects, like brain implants to repair gray matter and scans to spot PTSD, were marred by reports of flawed testing, misdiagnosis and mismanaged leadership. Independent research, including ecstasy psychotherapy and freaky neck injections, showed impressive potential — but have yet to see military backing. Instead, the armed forces seem more intent on developing neuroweapons that'll overwhelm enemy minds.
Progress in regenerative medicine surged ahead, with an extra $12 million in Pentagon funds to rush clinical trials of bone-fusing cement and muscle-building cell scaffolds. New limbs are still decades away, but prosthetics might soon be as good as the real thing. In July, military-backed scientists launched the first human trials of a mind-controlled arm, and Darpa's investigating a neural-prosthetic platform that would offer unprecedented sensitivity and freedom of movement.
And with 35 percent of Americans too flabby to serve, 2010 also saw Pentagon brass kick off efforts to whittle troop waistlines. They started by overhauling chow halls, investigating 24/7 diet-tracking and designing an exercise program for enlistees more accustomed to Wii Fit than wind sprints. All while advocating moderation by warning flabby troops against grueling, puke-inducing workout plans. Afghanistan is traumatic enough.
—Katie Drummond

It's A Drone's War. We Just Fight in It
By the end of 2009, we all thought the U.S. drone war in Pakistan had hit a new high. Turns out it was a false peak. The unmanned attacks doubled in 2010, and intensified as the year went on. There were more strikes from Labor Day to Christmas than the preceding nine months combined.
When the United Nations (among others) urged the Obama administration to only cut back on the drone targets, they did the opposite. No wonder the White House's December war-strategy review was all about the flying killer robots.
American officials have long warned that drones alone won't win our undeclared war in Pakistan. But the drones are only one part of the U.S. campaign there.
The CIA is backing a “paramilitary army” in Afghanistan to whack Pakistani militants, as well as network of Pashtun snitches to infiltrate insurgent networks across the border. U.S. Special Operations Forces are training up Islamabad's Army, and getting into some firefights of their own. And let's not even get into the exploits of sword-wielding, self-anointed Qaeda-hunter Gary Brooks Faulkner.
NATO helicopters are making cross-border raids, one of which killed dozens of Pakistanis. That caused the Islamabad government to shut down NATO supply lines, despite all the help the American-led coalition provided during a massive late-summer flood.
2011 promises to be even more drone-intensive than 2010. America is now sending robot planes on militant-hunting missions in Yemen.
Countries from China to Mexico to Iran now have unmanned air forces.
Every other military, it seems, is looking to acquire drone tech of its own. America is retooling its unmanned fleet, ditching the iconic Predator drones for the bigger, better-armed Reapers.
Defense contractors are developing stealthy, jet-powered drones and battling to build the world's first robotic fighter plane. Meanwhile, prototype robots are assembling themselves into swarms, learning to shape-shift, and wiping out entire minefields with one shot.
Watch your back, humans. There's no stopping these flying robots any more.
—Noah Shachtman

Cyber Command Switches On
The U.S. military has regional commands to oversee its operations in places like the Middle East. This year, the Pentagon set up a command for the internet, too. But the mission for this new U.S. Cyber Command is still murky — even though it officially reached its "full operational capability" in November and had a snazzy, sneaky logo before that.
Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads both CyberCom and the National Security Agency, said he wants “no role” in domestic, civilian-information defense. But he nonetheless swapped employees with the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to coordinate dot-com protection. And the Pentagon worked on plans to help shore up civilian "critical infrastructure."
Meanwhile, Joe Lieberman proposed giving the DHS "emergency" powers to take over civilian networks' security in the event of an information Katrina. Well-connected contractors raked in hundreds of millions after shouting "cyberwar!" The Pentagon (belatedly) embraced social media, and used texts, tweets and crowdsourcing to help rescue Haiti. The Navy was forced to pay a HP a $3.3 billion ransom for its networks. Google turned to the NSA after getting hacked, and then teamed up with the CIA to predict the future, using your Twitter feeds.
Maybe by next year, CyberCom will have a better handle on sealing up the military's porous networks. There have already been improvements -- attacks are dropping, overall. But the Pentagon doesn't even have a handle on how many computers it has, let alone how to stop a repeat of the most widespread hack attack in its history.
The military keeps banning (and un-banning and re-banning) disks and thumb drives to protect itself. Maybe CyberCom's next move should be to pare back a few of the 193 mind-numbing regulations that keep information defenders wrapped up.
—Noah Shachtman

Al-Qaida Lowers Its Expectations
It's been nearly a decade since Osama pulled off a mass-casualty attack on American soil. Instead, terrorist franchisees, affiliates and wannabes spent 2010 trying to pull off something in his name. And failing.
The closest shave came in May, when Faisal Shahzad, a Corey Feldman–looking American citizen, parked an SUV filled with explosives in Times Square. Not only did the car fail to explode, law enforcement apprehended Shahzad within days — with some help from well-timed viral videos and cellphone data — and he was ultimately sentenced to life in prison, hardly the Way of the Martyr that Shahzad videotaped himself desiring.
Another near miss came in October, when al-Qaida's Yemen-based branch lodged bombs in printer cartridges and mailed them to America. At least one of them, say British cops, would have exploded above the United States, if air-cargo workers had not spotted and removed it.
These days, those who preach bin Laden's message seem to care more about putting a W of any kind on the board. The size of the explosion (or the body count) doesn't seem to matter.
The Yemen-based group even published a magazine in English calling for DIY attacks like mowing down Washington, D.C., pedestrians with a tricked-out Ford F-150. It inspired a Virginia college kid to threaten the South Park guys over the internet — and do some serious time behind bars for trying to join the jihad in Somalia.
Smaller-scale terror attacks might not kill a lot of people, but they're great at getting the Department of Homeland Security to gum up air travel while taking naked pictures of your grandmother. That's why top terrorism officials ended the year by calling on the public not to freak out if the next Faisal Shahzad actually figures out how to blow up his Escalade.
—Spencer Ackerman

North Korea Loses (More of) Its Mind
Kim Jong Il might not be North Korea's Dear Leader for much longer. But before he turns over the keys to his belligerent Stalinist rogue state to son Kim Jong Un, he spent a year raising the bar for international provocation. To think: 2010 started with the elder Kim calling for a peace treaty to finally end the Korean war.
Peace was evidently the last thing on Kim's mind. one of the North's torpedoes ripped through a South Korean corvette in March, killing 46 sailors in one of the biggest risks of open war since the 1953 armistice. Within months, more than 8,000 U.S. and South Korean sailors, airmen and marines began a "show-of-force exercise post-provocation" near North Korean waters.
But the North just upped the ante: It unveiled a secret uranium-enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist. The operation gives it a path to more nuclear weapons independent of its apparently shuttered plutonium efforts.
And when the South Koreans launched a routine military drill on an island near North Korea last month, North Korea greeted them with an artillery barrage, killing four, and threatened outright war if new drills took place.
The North backed down from that boast. And Kim made it seem like he can't be bothered: He hung out on a duck farm during the November artillery crisis.
Maybe he's content that his experimental nuclear mines and torpedoes will protect his kid's reign. (Doubtful.) Or maybe he's secure in the knowledge that his uranium program is further along than the world suspects.
Either way, if the son is anything like the father, the Korean Peninsula is going to remain one of the world's crisis points in 2011 and beyond.
—Spencer Ackerman

Iran Gets Punked. Repeatedly
Iran may have a worldwide effort going to illicitly procure missile technology, and there's that whole nuclear program. But the mullahs got their eyes blackened a bit this year.
Most notably, a piece of malware called Stuxnet appeared to slip into their centrifuge-control systems, raising the intriguing prospect of international e-sabotage. (Wouldn't be the first time.) But even if Stuxnet was a freak accident, this was a bizarre year for Iran.
The Pentagon may be looking at ways of busting up Iranian nuclear-research bunkers, but U.S. intelligence found a different way of penetrating Iran's nuclear program. The CIA held one of its nuclear scientists inside the United States, apparently maintaining a years-long relationship with him, before he uploaded an I-was-kidnapped plea to YouTube (possibly to spare his family harassment from the regime).
Finally, in July, the scientist showed up at the Iranian-interests section of Pakistan's Washington embassy and demanded to go home. Iran promptly said there was no harm done. Sure.
If having its nuclear program penetrated by means technological and human wasn't enough, Iran got dissed in other ways, too. Russia tore up a contract to sell Iran an advanced air-defense system, leaving Iranian legislators sputtering threats to sue Moscow and then boasting that it built its own awesome anti-aircraft missiles.
To save face, Iran held a big fall air-defense drill, but its other military tech was greeted with international derision, like its Bavar-2 flying, spying boat. Similarly, its "Ambassador of Death" drone — a 13-foot missile-equipped UAV — probably isn't remotely Predator-grade.
Still, if Iran wants to reclaim its rogue-state mojo in 2011, it doesn't have to just continue its nuclear program: The Afghan intelligence service thinks Iran is smuggling shoulder-fired missiles and other weapons to its old enemy the Taliban.
Spencer Ackerman

The Wars — And The World — Get WikiLeaked
At the beginning of the year, very few people in the Pentagon had ever heard of Julian Assange. By the end of 2010, everyone from the top brass on down had condemned WikiLeaks as a menace — even while they admitted that the site's document dumps hadn't really hurt American government operations nearly as much as advertised.
Some of the WikiLeaked documents confirmed long-standing suspicions, like Pakistan's support of the Afghan insurgency, while others offered new revelations: Some insurgents came from countries fighting alongside the United States, like Turkey, and at least one American helicopter was shot down by insurgent surface-to-air missiles.
And not since Abu Ghraib did the world have as stomach-churning an image from the Iraq war as the "Collateral Murder" video, in which U.S. troops in a helicopter killed two Reuters journalists.
While our co-bloggers at Threat Level uncovered the young soldier who allegedly leaked the logs — and detailed internal dissension within the transparency group — we dove deep into the docs. We found that they exploded the myth of technologically primitive Iraqi insurgents, showing their truck-based rocket launchers and encrypted communications.
Iran trained insurgents and brought "neuroparalytic" chemical weapons into Iraq, hoping to bleed the United States and bolster its Shiite allies. Shiite Iraqis in the security services tortured detainees with "cables and waterpipes" and even a cat.
The CIA didn't think twice about conducting raids in Iraq if they meant finding a new intel trove. And perhaps most surprising of all, as recently as 2008, U.S. troops found remnants of Saddam's Gulf War–era weapons of mass destruction, the long-forgotten rationale for the war.
That wasn't all. The WikiLeaked documents detailed Iran's extensive weapons-smuggling network, a Saudi king's plan to outfit Guantanamo detainees with subcutaneous tracking devices, and the entire world's lust for killer drones.
Global diplomacy keeps on keeping on, and the leaked war docs proved to be surprisingly uneven barometers of the conflict. But the U.S. government isn't taking its chances.
The Air Force won't even let airmen read news sites that publish the leaks. Darpa, meanwhile, recruited a star hacker to spot future "insider threats" — and prevent tomorrow's Wiki doc dump.
—Spencer Ackerman
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