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Sept. 25, 2014
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. military is trying to confirm if airstrikes killed Khorasan leader
U.S. military and intelligence officials are trying to confirm intelligence and social media reports that the leader of the al Qaeda offshoot in Syria known as the Khorasan Group was killed in Monday’s airstrikes.

Widespread Twitter messages after the U.S.-led Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Khorasan positions in the northwestern Syrian town of Kafr Daryan indicate that Khorasan leader Muhsin al-Fadhli was killed. The tweets have been circulated with the hashtag “#Martyrdom_Of_Muhsin_Al-Fadhli.”

Well-known jihadists also offered condolences for al-Fadhli, whom many described as the leader of al Qaeda-affiliate Nusra Front, not the Khorasan Group.

Many of the jihadists warned against using electronic communications and suggested the al Qaeda leader was targeted by electronic intelligence-gathering means. “We have warned time and again, and are still warning against, phones that are under surveillance, which many mujahedeen and leaders have,” one tweet stated.

“We just don’t have a confirmation to make at this point,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said of al-Fadhli’s reported death. “We don’t have personnel on the ground to verify, so we’re continuing to assess.”

U.S. Central Command said eight strikes were carried out late Monday against the Khorasan Group west of Aleppo and included hits on training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.

A senior Obama administration official who briefed reporters Tuesday on the airstrikes said al-Fadhli’s death has not been confirmed.

A second official said: “We’ve got every reason to believe that the work of the Department of Defense and our allies was quite effective last night.”

Russia under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, is in the grip of spy-traitor hysteria.

The campaign to brand as a traitor anyone viewed as opposing Mr. Putin and his neo-Soviet policies followed a speech earlier this year by the Russian leader.

Addressing the Russian Duma on March 18, Mr. Putin called liberal Russian oppositionists a Western-backed “fight column” and “national traitors,” terms with fascist overtones.

Russian bloggers took to the Internet to identify the term “national traitors” as a direct translation from the German “Nationalverraeter” used by Adolf Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” his Nazi manifesto.

A website called Traitors was created by Putinistas to expose so-called national traitors in the opposition and the news media.

Among those branded as traitors are musician Andrey Makarevich, who leads Russia’s oldest rock band, Time Machine; Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman; and the free media Internet radio station Ekho Moskvy.

Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda (“Star”) broadcast the first in a new eight-part series on Russian spies. The program included commentary from Andrey Lugovoy, a former KGB agent wanted by British authorities on suspicion of the 2006 murder of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London via radioactive polonium-210 poisoning.

In a promotional video for the series, Mr. Lugovoy states: “Traitors to the motherland will of course meet an ignominious end,” according to a U.S. government translation and analysis by a Western broadcaster.

The series’ first program told the story of Soviet diplomat Alexander Ogorodnik, who was recruited to spy for the CIA during the 1970s while working at the Soviet Embassy in Bogota, Colombia.

The Ogorodnik case is replete with Cold War spy betrayers.

Ogorodnik supplied valuable secrets from the Soviet Foreign Ministry under the code name “Trigon” and was caught after his betrayal by Czech agent Karel Koecher, who was posing as a translator inside the CIA.

Ogorodnik, who used what was, at the time, an advanced spy camera to photograph documents, also was handled by CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames when Ames was in charge of counterintelligence operations against Moscow.

Ogorodnik committed suicide rather than face arrest, and his handler, Martha D. Peterson — the CIA’s first woman operative in Moscow — was arrested in 1977 as she attempted to communicate with Ogorodnik.

Koecher was traded in a prisoner exchange in 1985 for Russian dissident Anatoly Scharansky, who now lives in Israel as a politician and author under the name Natan Saransk.

The upcoming retirement of the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has set off a race for his successor.

Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and committee chairman, announced in March he is leaving Congress at the end of the year to pursue a career as a radio host, setting off a scramble for the next leader of the key oversight panel.

The chairman and ranking member of what is known on Capitol Hill as the HPSCI (pronounced “hip-see”) belong to the Gang of Eight — senior House and Senate members who are granted exclusive access to the most intimate government secrets such as covert actions, intelligence operations and military operational plans.

The committee, with its Senate counterpart, oversees the vast secret bureaucracy of 16 intelligence agencies. Congressional sources say the committee is under fire from House Republicans over the constant dribbling of intelligence documents on the National Security Agency’s electronic spying programs revealed via renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Each new disclosure of Snowden documents about secret NSA programs has increased political pressure on HPSCI members, who have had to defend the programs and their prior knowledge of them to their colleagues. Non-HPSCI members are not permitted to be briefed on the programs, resulting in an undermining of House Republican support for critical intelligence capabilities.

Sentiment among pro-national security House Republicans indicates they are “tired of the government spying on them,” said a former government official close to the Congress.

House Republicans’ lack of access to HPSCI secrets has led to a growing anti-intelligence backlash, with some members voicing concerns that the HPSCI has become either a mouthpiece for U.S. intelligence agencies or is asleep at the switch in conducting oversight.

As leader of a select congressional panel, the next HPSCI chairman will be picked by House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who has insisted that committee leaders under his speakership be committed to bipartisanship.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told Inside the Ring: “Given the dangerous state of the world, this will be a critically important role next year, but at this point Chairman Rogers is still doing a great job.”

Mr. Boehner could appoint any member he chooses. Next in line in seniority is Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, who would likely pass because he is expected to be named chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, replacing outgoing chairman Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican.

After Mr. Thornberry is Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Mr. Miller may not be allowed to switch jobs because his committee is deeply involved in the Obama administration’s VA hospital scandal.

After Mr. Miller are Republican Reps. K. Michael Conaway of Texas and Peter T. King of New York, both of whom are said to be interested in the chairmanship. Mr. King’s national security credentials include his past chairmanship of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Other Republicans hoping to leapfrog to the top post: Reps. Devin Nunes of California, Lynn A. Westmoreland of Georgia and Mike Pompeo of Kansas.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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