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The Star Online: World Updates

Snowden - 'no relationship' with Russian government

Posted: 28 May 2014 09:50 PM PDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden told a U.S. television interviewer on Wednesday he was not under the control of Russia's government and had given Moscow no intelligence documents after nearly a year of asylum there.

"I have no relationship with the Russian government at all," Snowden said in an interview with NBC News, his first with a U.S. television network. "I'm not supported by the Russian government. I'm not taking money from the Russian government. I'm not a spy."

The remarks by Snowden, whose leaks about highly classified U.S. surveillance programs shook the NSA and prompted limited reforms by President Barack Obama, were his most extensive to date on his relations with his host government.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials have said it is unlikely Russian security services have not squeezed Snowden for secrets.

"I think he is now being manipulated by Russian intelligence," former NSA director Keith Alexander said last month.

But Snowden - who said he wants to return to the United States - said he destroyed classified materials before transiting to a Moscow airport, where he was prevented from onward travel.

"I took nothing to Russia, so I could give them nothing," he told NBC's Brian Williams in the hour-long interview.

Later in the interview, Snowden briefly criticised the crackdown on freedom of expression under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Casting himself as a defender of privacy and civil liberties, he deemed it "frustrating" to "end up stuck in a place where those rights are being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair."

Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then Moscow last year, is believed to have accessed about 1.5 million secret documents, U.S. officials have said, although how many he actually took is unclear. The leaked documents revealed massive programs run by the NSA that gathered information on emails, phone calls and Internet use including, in many cases, by Americans.

He was charged last year in the United States with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person.

"If I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home," Snowden said.

U.S. officials said he was welcome to return to the United States if he wanted to face justice for leaking details of massive U.S. intelligence-gathering programs.

Secretary of State John Kerry invited Snowden to "man up and come back to the United States." "The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country where he has taken refuge," Kerry told the CBS "This Morning" program on Wednesday.

Snowden made clear he would not return to the United States and hope for the best. He said he would not simply "walk into a jail cell," and that if his one-year asylum in Russia, which expires on Aug. 1, "looks like it's going to run out, then of course I would apply for an extension."

The Guardian newspaper quoted Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and legal adviser to Snowden, responding to Kerry's comments. Wizner said it would be impossible for Snowdon to argue that his disclosures had served the common good if he returned home to face the current Espionage Act charges.

He also said Snowden would run the risk of facing numerous additional charges for each document that has been published.

"The exposure that he faces is virtually unlimited under this," Wizner said.

In one odd moment in the NBC interview, Snowden expressed sympathy for working-level NSA employees who have been castigated as a result of his leaks.

"People have demonized the NSA to a point that's too extreme," he said, adding that the problem is with senior-level officials who expand their surveillance powers without public debate.

(Reporting by Peter Cooney and Warren Strobel; Editing by Ken Wills and Simon Cameron-Moore)

Iranian hackers use fake Facebook accounts to spy on U.S., others

Posted: 28 May 2014 09:35 PM PDT

BOSTON (Reuters) - In an unprecedented, three-year cyber espionage campaign, Iranian hackers created false social networking accounts and a fake news website to spy on military and political leaders in the United States, Israel and other countries, a cyber intelligence firm said on Thursday.

ISight Partners, which uncovered the operation, said the hackers' targets include a four-star U.S. Navy admiral, U.S. lawmakers and ambassadors, members of the U.S.-Israeli lobby, and personnel from Britain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The firm declined to identify the victims and said it could not say what data had been stolen by the hackers, who were seeking credentials to access government and corporate networks, as well as infect machines with malicious software.

"If it's been going on for so long, clearly they have had success," iSight Executive Vice President Tiffany Jones told Reuters. The privately held company is based in Dallas, Texas and provides intelligence on cyber threats.

ISight dubbed the operation "Newscaster" because it said the Iranian hackers created six "personas" who appeared to work for a fake news site, NewsOnAir.org, which used content from the Associated Press, BBC, Reuters and other media outlets. The hackers created another eight personas who purported to work for defence contractors and other organizations, iSight said.

The hackers set up false accounts on Facebook and other online social networks for these 14 personas, populated their profiles with fictitious personal content, and then tried to befriend target victims, according to iSight.

The operation has been active since at least 2011, iSight said, noting that it was the most elaborate cyber espionage campaign using "social engineering" that has been uncovered to date from any nation.

To build credibility, the hackers would approach high-value targets by first establishing ties with the victims' friends, classmates, colleagues, relatives and other connections over social networks run by Facebook Inc, Google Inc and its YouTube, LinkedIn Corp and Twitter Inc.

The hackers would initially send the targets content that was not malicious, such as links to news articles on NewsOnAir.org, in a bid to establish trust. Then they would send links that infected PCs with malicious software, or direct targets to web portals that ask for network log-in credentials, iSight said.

The hackers used the 14 personas to make connections with more than 2,000 people, the firm said, adding that it believed the group ultimately targeted several hundred individuals.

"This campaign is not loud. It is low and slow," said Jones. "They want to be stealth. They want to be under the radar."

ISight said it had alerted some victims and social networking sites as well as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and overseas authorities. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.

Facebook Inc spokesman Jay Nancarrow said his company had discovered the hacking group while investigating suspicious friend requests and other activity on its website.

"We removed all of the offending profiles we found to be associated with the fake NewsOnAir organisation and we have used this case to further refine our systems that catch fake accounts at various points of interaction on the site and block malware from spreading," Nancarrow said.

LinkedIn spokesman Doug Madey said the site was investigating the report, though none of the 14 fake profiles uncovered by iSight were currently active.

Twitter declined to comment and Google could not immediately be reached for comment.


ISight disclosed its findings as evidence emerges that Iranian hacking groups are becoming increasingly aggressive.

Cybersecurity company FireEye Inc reported earlier this month that a group known as the Ajax Security Team has become the first Iranian hacking group to use custom-built malicious software for espionage.

Iranian hackers stepped up their activity in the wake of the Stuxnet attack on Tehran's nuclear program in 2010. The Stuxnet computer virus is widely believed to have been launched by the United States and Israel.

ISight said it could not ascertain whether the hackers were tied to the government in Tehran, though it believed they were supported by a nation state because of the complexity of the operation.

The firm said NewsOnAir.org was registered in Tehran and likely hosted by an Iranian provider. The Persian term "Parastoo" was used as a password for malware associated with the group, which appeared to work during business hours in Tehran, according to iSight.

Among the 14 false personas were reporters for NewsOnAir, including one with the same name as a Reuters journalist in Washington; six employees who purportedly worked for defence contractors; a systems administrator with the U.S. Navy; and an accountant working for a payment processor.

A spokesman for Thomson Reuters Corp, which owns Reuters, declined to comment.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

As Asia frets over China, warmer welcome likely for Japan PM's push

Posted: 28 May 2014 09:15 PM PDT

SINGAPORE/TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's message of a bigger global security role for Japan when he speaks at a regional forum this week is likely to find a receptive audience as concerns grow in Asia about China - although some will refrain from clapping too loud for fear of offending Beijing.

While Japan has a festering dispute with China over islands in the sea between the two Asian economic giants, tensions have also spiked between Beijing and several Southeast Asian nations over rival claims to the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

Abe is to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday, a forum for defence and security experts from Asia, including the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United States and Australia.

The conservative prime minister is expected to explain his stepped-up push to lift a ban that has kept Japan's military from fighting overseas since World War Two.

Despite harsh memories of Japan's wartime occupation of much of Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may be in favour because of China's increasing assertiveness.

"The ASEAN countries which have disputes with China will support him," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"Japan can be much more forthright on its criticism of China than ASEAN as a grouping can be."

Some of the most trenchant criticism of China has come from the Philippines and more recently, Vietnam.

Earlier this month, China parked a huge oil rig in waters that are also claimed by Vietnam, and scores of ships from the two countries have been squaring off in its vicinity. On Tuesday, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank, prompting Hanoi and Beijing to trade barbs over who was to blame.

China has also angered the Philippines with reclamation work on a disputed island and the building of what appears to be an airstrip.

"We welcome Japan's contribution to the enhancement of security and stability in the region, including its plan to play a larger security role in the region," a senior Philippine defence official said.


Other countries such as Malaysia, however, remain wary of angering China because of deep economic ties. Smaller nations in China's immediate neighbourhood, like Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, are also unlikely to show solidarity with Japan.

Abe's speech is also expected to stress respect for the rule of law and opposition to changing the status quo by force - typically Japanese code for criticising Beijing.

Chinese delegates at the dialogue, led by the tough and articulate former deputy foreign minister Fu Ying, are expected to make the case that Japan, not China, threatens regional security, because of Abe's efforts to stretch the limits of Japan's post-war, pacifist constitution and bolster the military.

"China has elevated its representation at the dialogue, which has always been weaker than the other major players. I'm sure the decision to invite Abe played a role in that," Cook said.

Abe has made clear that he wants to re-interpret the constitution's pacifist Article 9 to enable Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defence, or militarily aiding a friendly country under attack. Previous governments have said Japan has the right under international law but that exercising it exceeds the bounds of the war-renouncing Article 9.

Abe said on Thursday he hoped for a decision in time to reflect the change in an update of U.S.-Japan defence cooperation guidelines the allies want to finish by year-end.

"It is desirable that (the cabinet) will make a decision in time for that," Kyodo news agency quoted him as telling a parliamentary panel debating the proposed shift.

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is trying to persuade its more dovish coalition partner to agree to the historic policy change, which surveys show a majority of Japanese voters oppose.

"At this time, he has to keep saying it's about the defence of Japan and our citizens, but in Singapore, he should be saying it's about regional security," said Narushige Michishita at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

"He'll be walking on a tightrope."

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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