Burn Bag: No emergency notification cascade. Sigh.

Via Burn Bag:

Last Friday, an armed former fed committed murder/suicide in the federal building in NYC where Diplomatic Security has an office.  The response from DS New York management? No emergency notification cascade, no immediate accountability of all personnel…not a word from the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) or ASAC. 

Via reactiongifs.com

Via reactiongifs.com

 

Related items: 

 

 

OIG Compliance Review: Minimum Security Standards For Overseas Facilities Remain a Hard Nut to Crack

Posted: 2:00 pm EDT

 

Three ARB-related IG reports were issued this past week, two of them, the Audit of the DOS Implementation of the Vital Presence Validation Process and the Review of the Implementation of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board Recommendation have been designated as Classified. The third one, the Compliance Followup Review of the 2013 Special Review of the Accountability Review Board Process is available in full online.

On September 25, 2013, State/OIG released its Special Review of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) Process. That report contains 20 formal and 8 informal recommendations. For the status of the 20 formal recommendations, see Appendix B of the report.  For the status of the informal recommendations, see Appendix C of the report. The OIG notes that the action taken by State at some Benghazi ARB recommendations “did not appear to align with the intent of the recommendations and some Benghazi ARB recommendations did not appear to address the underlying security issues adequately.”

Thirteen of the formal recommendations and five of the informal recommendations are related to the ARB process. The remaining seven formal and three informal recommendations mirror or are closely related to the Benghazi ARB recommendations. As stated in the ARB process review report, the ARB process team’s rationale for issuing these recommendations was that the action taken to date on some of the Benghazi ARB recommendations did not appear to align with the intent of the recommendations and some Benghazi ARB recommendations did not appear to address the underlying security issues adequately. The classified annex to the report provides an assessment of the Department’s implementation of the recommendations of the Benghazi ARB as of the date of the review. Its focus is on the implementation of the 64 tasks S/ES issued in response to the Benghazi ARB recommendations. It contains no OIG recommendations.

In the Compliance Followup Review or CFR dated August 2015, State/OIG reissued one recommendation from the 2013 inspection report, that the Under Secretary of State for Management, in coordination with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, develop minimum security standards that must be met prior to occupying facilities located in designated high-risk, high-threat locations and include these minimum standards for occupancy in the Foreign Affairs Handbook as appropriate. The report also include a little nugget about DOD cooperation with investigative reports of security-related incidents that involve State Department personnel, specifically mentioning “the incident in Zabul Province, Afghanistan.” That’s the incident where FSO Anne Smedinghoff and four others were killed in Zabul, Afghanistan in April 2013.

Outstanding Recommendation on Minimum Security Standards 

Recommendation 17 of the ARB process review report recommended that the Department develop minimum security standards that must be met prior to occupying facilities in HRHT locations. The Department rejected this recommendation, stating that existing Overseas Security Policy Board standards apply to all posts and that separate security standards for HRHT posts would not provide better or more secure operating environments. Furthermore, recognizing that Overseas Security Policy Board standards cannot be met at all locations, the Department has a high threshold for exceptions to these standards and the waiver and exceptions process requires “tailored mitigation strategies in order to achieve the intent of the standards.”5

Although OIG acknowledges the Department’s assertion of a “high threshold for exceptions,” the Department’s response does not meet the recommendation’s requirement for standards that must be met prior to occupancy. As was noted in the ARB process review report, “…occupying temporary facilities that require waivers and exceptions to security standards is dangerous, especially considering that the Department occupies these facilities long before permanent security improvements are completed.”6 As the Department has not identified minimum security standards that must be met prior to occupancy, Recommendation 17 is being reissued.

Recommendation CFR 1: The Office of the Under Secretary of State for Management, in coordination with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, should develop minimum security standards that must be met prior to occupying facilities located in Department of State-designated high-risk, high-threat environments and include new minimum security standards of occupancy in the Foreign Affairs Handbook as appropriate. (Action: M, in coordination with DS and OBO)

So, basically back to where it was before Benghazi, when there were no minimum security standards prior to occupying temporary facilities.

How high is this “high threshold of exceptions” that’s being asserted?

Risk management process now called “tailored mitigation strategies” — resulting in waivers of Inman standards?

So waivers will continue to be executed?

And temporary facilities will continue to be occupied?

Key Findings:

  • The Department of State has complied with all the formal and informal recommendations of the 2013 Special Review of the Accountability Review Board Process, except one, which has been reissued in this report.
  • The Department of State has implemented regulatory and procedural changes to delineate clearly who is responsible for implementation, and oversight of implementation, of Accountability Review Board recommendations. The Under Secretary for Management, in coordination with the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, is responsible for implementation of Accountability Review Board recommendations. The Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources is responsible for overseeing the Department’s progress in Accountability Review Board implementation, which places accountability for implementation at an appropriately high level in the Department of State.
  • The Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation manages the Accountability Review Board function. The Accountability Review Board process review report was critical of the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation’s recordkeeping and files of past Accountability Review Boards. The Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation has since revised its Accountability Review Board recordkeeping guidelines. These revised guidelines have yet to be tested, as no Accountability Review Board has met since the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, which issued its report in December 2012.

More details excerpted from the IG report

Flow of Information

Formal Recommendations 1, 2, 3, and 9—as well as Informal Recommendations 1 and 3—concern the flow of information within the Department and from the Department to Congress. The recommendations introduce additional reporting requirements for all incidents that might meet the criteria to convene an ARB, as well as a more clearly defined list of congressional recipients for the Secretary’s Report to Congress. Recommendation 9 tasks S/ES with creating a baseline list of congressional recipients for the Secretary’s report to Congress. That list is now more clearly specified and included in regulations governing the ARB process.

Informal Recommendation 3 requires broader circulation of ARB reports as well as the Secretary’s report to Congress. The M/PRI position is that these reports belong to the Secretary and their dissemination should be at the Secretary’s discretion. OIG continues to believe that the Secretary should exercise discretion and circulate ARB reports and subsequent reports to Congress more widely within the Department.

ARB Recordkeeping

In December 2014, M/PRI revised its ARB recordkeeping guidelines regarding those records to be retained and safeguarded. However, because no ARB has convened since Benghazi, these revised guidelines remain untested. Although these guidelines require recording and transcribing telephone interviews, they do not mandate verbatim transcripts of all interviews, including in-person meetings, as the Inspector General suggested in his May 29, 2014, memorandum to the D/MR.

Action Memo for the Secretary

In compliance with Recommendation 1, the OIG CFR team found that M/PRI now drafts an action memo for the Secretary after every Permanent Coordinating Committee (PCC) meeting detailing the PCC decision, even if the PCC does not recommend convening an ARB.

In response to Recommendation 4, the Under Secretary for Management amended 12 FAM 030 to require vetting and reporting security-related incidents, which do not result in convening a PCC. Those cases will be communicated to the Secretary.

Alternative Review

To meet the intent of Recommendation 2, M/PRI has included in its instructions to the PCC chair a reminder to PCC members that if the PCC votes not to convene an ARB, the PCC should decide whether to recommend that the Secretary request an alternative review.

Terminology

Recommendation 5 recommends establishing written criteria to define the key terms “serious injury,” “significant destruction of property,” and “at or related to a U.S. mission abroad.” The 2013 OIG inspection team found that ambiguity in the terminology had led to their inconsistent application as criteria in decisions to convene ARBs.

ARB Implementation

Recommendations 10 and 11 recommend institutionalizing the oversight of the implementation of ARB recommendations as a responsibility of D/MR. M/PRI’s revision of 12 FAM 030 and addition of 12 Foreign Affairs Handbook (FAH)-12 now clearly delineate who is responsible for managing the ARB process and who is responsible for oversight of implementation of ARB recommendations. The Deputy Secretary’s responsibility for overseeing implementation of ARB recommendations places accountability for implementation at an appropriately high level in the Department.

Personnel Performance 

Recommendation 19 tasks M/PRI, in coordination with the Bureau of Human Resources and the Office of the Legal Adviser, to prepare clear guidelines for ARBs on recommendations dealing with issues of poor personnel performance. M/PRI has revised its standing guidance to ARB members, referring them to the Department’s new leadership principles in 3 FAM 1214, 4138, and 4532 when documenting instances of unsatisfactory performance or poor leadership. The Department further codified this ARB authority by expanding the list of grounds for taking disciplinary or separation action against an employee, including “conduct by a senior official that demonstrates unsatisfactory leadership in relation to a security incident under review by an [ARB] convened pursuant to 22 U.S.C. 4831.” In addition, in January 2013 the Department began seeking an amendment to the ARB statute (22 U.S.C. 4834(c)) to provide explicitly that unsatisfactory leadership may be a basis for disciplinary action and that the ARB would have the appropriate authority to recommend such action. No change to the statute has yet been made.

Strengthening Security at High-Risk, High-Threat Posts

New courses:  Guided by a panel of senior DS special agents and outside organizations, DS updated its former High Threat Tactical Course to create a suite of mandatory courses for DS agents assigned to HRHT locations, drawing on lessons learned from the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and Herat, Afghanistan. The cornerstone of these courses is the “High Threat Operations Course” (HT-310), which, as of October 1, 2013, was made mandatory for all DS agents at grades FS 04 through 06 who are assigned to HRHT locations. Similar, but shorter duration courses (HT-310E and HT-315) are required for senior and mid-level DS agents assigned to such locations.

Marine Detachments

The Department, in coordination with DOD, has added 20 new MSG detachments, and Marine Corps Headquarters has created the Marine Security Augmentation Unit. Although some HRHT posts still lack MSG detachments, for example, because of the lack of host government approval, the Department has made progress in deploying new detachments and increasing the size of existing detachments.[…] The June 2013 revision of the memorandum of agreement also includes a revision of the MSG mission. In the previous version, the MSG’s primary mission was to prevent the compromise of classified information. Their secondary mission was the protection of personnel and facilities. In the revised memorandum of agreement, the mission of the MSG is to protect mission personnel and prevent the compromise of national security information.

DS Agents Embed With DOD Forces

An additional area of security improvement beyond reliance on the host government has been the Department’s closer relationship with DOD, whose personnel have been involved in every Department contingency operation at an HRHT post since the Benghazi attack. Furthermore, DS agents are now embedded in DOD expeditionary forces.

About That Zabul Incident

Recommendation 6 recommends that the Department seek greater assurances from the Department of Defense (DOD) in providing investigative reports of security-related incidents that involve Department personnel. The Department makes its requests via Executive Secretary memorandum to the equivalent DOD addressee, in accordance with 5 FAH-1 H-120. The DOD counterpart has been responsive in delivering requested materials in all the recent instances, including the incident in Zabul Province, Afghanistan. M/PRI will continue to monitor DOD responses to requests for reports in the future.

That means, the State Department now has the Army investigation report into the death of FSO Anne Smedinghoff and four others in Zabul, Afghanistan in April 2013.  See Zabul Attack: Spox Says State Dept Did Its Own Review, It’s Classified, and There’s Now a Checklist! Zabul Attack: Walking But Not Lost, More Details But Not Official; Plus Update on Kelly HuntArmy Report: Poor planning led to FSO Anne Smedinghoff and troops’ death in Afghanistan.

The Chicago Tribune FOIA’ed that Army report but did not make the document public. The State Department internal report of the incident as far as we are aware, remains Classified. Then State Department spox, Jennifer Psaki referred to “multiple investigations” in April 2014;  none publicly released.

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Related item:

ISP-C-15-33 | Compliance Followup Review of the Special Review of the Accountability Review Board Process | August 2015

 

State Dept Responds to Purported ISIS ‘Hit List’ — This Gives Me A Sad

Posted: 3:18 pm EDT

On August 16, we blogged this: Purported ISIS ‘Hit List’ With 1,482 Targets Includes State Department Names.  We asked the State Department about this over the weekend. We wanted to know if the agency has been able to confirmed the affected State personnel. The State Department, on background, told us this:

We acknowledge the reports. While we will not comment on or confirm the specifics of this particular assertion, we know that malicious actors often target email accounts of government and business leaders across the United States.

We’ve also inquired about its response, or guidance to personnel , if any, and the State Department, still on background, would only say this:

We believe it is important for not only government and private sector companies but also individuals to improve their cybersecurity practices. That is why this Administration is working hard to raise our cyber defenses across the board.

Yikes! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  

Well, we hope they’re talking to employees behind the firewall with more substance than this two-sentence practically useless response.

*

We have not been able to find anything State Department related-response/guidance on this on the public net, but DOD has some useful reminders posted on the wide-web, no logons required. The first set of slides below is actually a social networking cybersecurity awareness briefing by Diplomatic Security. The slide set appears dated a few years back (uses 2009 examples) and is not available, as far as we can tell, from state.gov. We found this set posted on the slideshare site maintained by the Defense Department. The other two set of slides are on opsec for families and one on geotagging safety for those who posts photos online. both from the DOD site.

Social Networking Cybersecurity Awareness


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Social Media Cyber Security Awareness Briefing | OPSEC For Families

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Social Media Roundup/Geotagging Safety

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Purported ISIS ‘Hit List’ With 1,482 Targets Includes State Department Names

Posted: 6:52 pm EDT


According
to CNN, a group calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division recently posted online a purported list of names and contacts for Americans it refers to as “targets,” according to officials.

Though the legitimacy of the list is questionable, and much of the information it contains is outdated, the message claims to provide the phone numbers, locations, and “passwords” for 1400 American government and military personnel as well as purported credit card numbers, and excerpts of some Facebook chats.

The Guardian describes the list as a spreadsheet, published online last week which exposes names, email addresses, phone numbers and passwords. The 1,482 names include members of the U.S. Marine Corps, NASA, the State Department, the U.S. Air Force, and the FBI.

The Daily Mail  reports that the list includes an accompanying message that reads:  ‘Know that we are in your emails and computer systems, watching and recording your every move, we have your names and addresses, we are in your emails and social media accounts.’

The list apparently also includes the names of eight Australians and UK government personnel. In Australia where there this is huge news, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the press, “We’ve just discovered that it’s actually able to launch cyber attacks in this country so this is a very sophisticated and deadly threat to us even here in Australia.” A chief executive of a forensic data firm in the country went so far as to advise that Canberra’s public servants get off social media. He also recommended that “on the day [ADFA] cadets enlist, their entire electronic lives be erased” and that “they should not exist on digital networks until they retire from Defence.”

The reaction here is a little less ZOMG!  Last week, then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said in a press conference that “this is the second or third time they’ve claimed that and the first two times I’ll tell you, whatever lists they got were not taken by any cyber attack.”

“This is no different than the other two,” Odierno said. “But I take it seriously because it’s clear what they’re trying to do … even though I believe they have not been successful with their plan.”

CNN reports that Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool also cautioned that many of the military email addresses looked at least several years old, based on their suffixes. He said that shortly after this list was posted, a reminder went out to service personnel that they should limit the personal information they put on social media. “If any of your information on it is accurate, you’re very concerned,” former Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend told CNN, “as are government officials.”

According to the Washington Examiner, State Department employees comprise about a quarter of the alleged personal information on the list. That would be about 370 names. It also says that at the bottom of the leaked document, originally posted on zonehmirrors.org, are receipts from State Department employees along with their credit card numbers.  The report notes that Islamic State supporters tweeted a link to the document and also tweeted, in one instance, information claiming to be the personal details of a staff member from the U.S. embassy in Cairo that said: “To the lone wolves of Egypt.”

Technology security expert, Troy Hunt,  writes that “nothing makes headlines like a combination of ISIS / hackers / terrorism!” and has taken a closer look with an analysis here. Mr. Hunt’s conclusion — drawn merely from looking at the leaked list and applying what he observed from experience with previous data dumps leaked list —  is that “the data is almost certainly from multiple locations and very unlikely to be from a single data breach.” Also that “most of the data is easily discoverable via either existing data breaches or information intentionally made public.” He writes, “Even the source of the amalgamated data is unverifiable – it could be someone who does indeed wish harm on the individuals named, it could be a kid in his pyjamas, there’s just not enough information to draw a conclusion either way.”

In his analysis of the ISIS list, Mr. Hunt says that “there are many sources from which attributes in this list can be compiled.” As an example, he cited the Adobe breach of 2013 in which 152M records were leaked, which includes 257k .gov email addresses. He writes:

The ISIS list has a lot of state.gov email addresses – Adobe leaked 1,657 of those and they look just like this:

state.gov email addresses in the Adobe data breach

state.gov email addresses in the Adobe data breach via Troy Hunt (used with permission)

“Adobe also leaked password hints so you can begin to quite easily build a profile around people working in the US State Department,” he said.

Would be good to know if any of the names in the Adobe breach are showing up in the ISIS list. We have not seen the purported ISIS list or the names from the Adobe hack but we hope somebody at State is looking at those names. Folks probably need to work on their password hints, too.

In a separate post, Mr. Hunt also notes this:

“The hyperbole and the fear, uncertainty and doubt that spread over this was just off the scale compared to the significance of the actual data. Here we have what amounts to little more than easily discoverable information mostly already in the public domain and suddenly it’s become a huge terror hack. [….] However, the legitimacy of the claims that this was an “ISIS hack” appear to have gotten in the way of a good story and the news has simply run with it.

A couple more reading clips below from Troy Hunt:

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There’s not much one can do with the Adobe, Target, Home Depot, OPM hack except to sign up for credit monitoring service or put a credit freeze on one’s account. That is, if we’re concerned about identity thief. But those services  will not work against potential blackmails related to a foreign government hack, or online threats related to potentially scraped data, collected from websites and social media accounts.

We are persuaded by Mr. Hunt’s analysis that this was not a real hack. But real or not, the information is out there and thinking about ‘lone wolf’ offenders seduced by ISIS’ call, in the U.S. or elsewhere is not paranoid.  Folks might consider this a good excuse to review their digital footprint.

The threats online — whether real or part of propaganda — is not going to abate anytime soon. This is the world as it is, and not an attempt at hyperbole.  Employees overseas can report these threats to RSOs but hey, have you seen the rundown of the RSO’s managed programs?   We don’t even know what specific office at State tracks these breaches or who has responsibility for online threats. Was anyone notified by State when the Adobe breach occurred in 2013 and leaked hundreds of official emails? Were those emails changed?  A talkinghead writinghead would like to know.

Also some of USG’s overseas posts still display the official email addresses of personnel in public affairs, and those dealing with contracts, solicitations, and acquisitions on their websites. Those should be generic e-mail accounts not linked to an individual’s name but linked instead to the section, function or office, e.g. Sanaacontracts@state.gov. Makes better sense as people rotate jobs anyway.

We’re trying to find if Diplomatic Security has any response, guidance, reminder for State Department personnel given this report and the Burn Bag received earlier.  Would be a good time as any to issue an opsec reminder. We will have a follow-up post if/when we get an official response.

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The Purposeful and Targeted Cultivation of a Relationship with a Consular Officer

Posted: 1:04 am EDT

 

Former FSO Michael T. Sestak was arrested in Thailand on May 7, 2013. He was initially arraigned on September 13, 2013 and pled guilty on November 6, 2013.  He is scheduled to be sentenced on August 14 before Judge John D. Bates at the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. The USG is recommending (#303) that Mr. Sestak be sentenced to a term of 84 months of incarceration followed by 3 years of supervised release.

The USG in its memorandum in aid of sentencing writes:

The U.S. State Department is dedicated to administering its visa programs fairly and without graft or corruption. SESTAK and his co-conspirators damaged the reputation of the U.S. State Department by tainting the process and likely preventing deserving applicants from obtaining visas.

This was not a momentary lapse in judgment for any of the conspirators, including SESTAK. This was a sophisticated scheme that exploited a system and made millions of dollars after months of careful planning and substantial efforts to cover their tracks.
[….]
SESTAK has provided substantial assistance to the government from the time of his initial detention on May 9, 2013. On that date, the defendant waived his Miranda rights and agreed to be interviewed. During this initial interview, the defendant acknowledged his guilt and provided investigators with information regarding the conspiracy, including details about how the scheme actually operated and how the proceeds were laundered and moved out of Vietnam. While SESTAK was somewhat naïve and uninformed about the full extent of the conspiracy and the deep involvement of Binh Vo’s family members, he never minimized his own critical role in the scheme.

Mr. Sestak’s lawyer, Gray B. Broughton in his court filing argues that as of August 14, 2015, Mr. Sestak will have already forfeited over twenty-seven (27) months of his liberty in facilities designed for short-term detention and that a thirty-three (33) month sentence will serve as adequate punishment. “As a result of his indictment and conviction, Michael lost his job with the State Department and will never again be able to work in a similar capacity in public service. Even worse than the incarceration and job loss is Michael Sestak’s loss of reputation. The amount of shame and contrition that Michael Sestak continues to carry with him cannot be overstated. The loss of one’s profession and reputation is a severe punishment that serves the retributive goals of sentencing.” 

We will keep tabs on the sentencing set for Friday morning. Meanwhile, below is an excerpt from the court filing which is instructive, particularly, the emails exchanged by some of the conspirators.  If you’re a consular officer and somebody wants to make you an “honorary” brother, or sister, some other pretend relative, or fairy godparent, you gotta run as fast and as far away as possible!

This is what a purposeful and targeted cultivation of a relationship with a consular officer overseas looks like.  Note that this is an excerpt from the defense filing:

When Michael arrived in Vietnam, he had hit a personal low. Michael had become dissatisfied working for the State Department and had contemplated resigning at the end of his assignment to Poland. Michael had witnessed others being promoted who he believed were less deserving than he was. To make matters worse, Michael’s involvement in the fruitless search for WMD throughout Iraq shook his previously unwavering trust in the United States Government.
[…]
Most significantly, when Michael arrived in Vietnam, his personal life was totally unfulfilling. Within his first year assigned to Vietnam, Michael turned 40. Michael was unmarried, had no children, and no serious prospects for finding someone to share life together.  One aspect of being a Foreign Service Officer was that Michael changed countries every two years, usually coming back to Washington D.C. for several months in between for training. In both Spain and Poland, Michael had a girlfriend that he met towards the end of his tour. Unable to further develop these relationships in such a short amount of time, Michael arrived at his next assignment unaccompanied. It was during these transitions that Michael began to question the meaning of life and finding true happiness.
[…]
It was during this time and with this personal baggage that Michael first met Binh Vo. They met at Michael’s very first Consulate event in Vietnam in August 2010. Binh Vo and a Vietnamese businessman approached Michael and started talking. Binh Vo and Michael were approximately the same age; similarly, Binh Vo was American and well-educated.
[…]
Binh Vo slowly became Michael’s closest confident. Their friendship developed to the point where they met almost daily for meals or coffee. Binh Vo introduced Michael to his siblings, who went out of their way to include Michael in “family-only” functions. Binh Vo’s siblings referred to Michael as an honorary “Vo” brother. This circle of new-found friends constituted roughly 80% of Michael’s social activity in Vietnam. As described above, Michael was unable to develop any real friendships with American employees at the Consulate and he didn’t really have any Vietnamese friends; the few Vietnamese men that Michael met who ran in the same circles would ultimately harass Michael for visa “favors.” For the first year and four months of Michael’s time in Vietnam, Binh Vo was the only single male with whom he could communicate and socialize without reporting requirements because Binh Vo was American. Additionally, Binh Vo was always available, had a comparable level of education, and didn’t ask any favors.

Michael felt very fortunate to have stumbled upon a great relationship with Binh Vo and his family. Michael was unaware that Binh Vo and his family had targeted Michael from the onset and that every coffee, meal, family dinner, and drink was an orchestrated, results-driven event with the end goal of executing Binh Vo’s scheme to fraudulently sell non-immigrant visas to Vietnamese citizens.

As the Government stated in its sentencing memorandum for Binh Vo, Binh Vo “purposefully cultivated a relationship with Sestak in order to recruit him to approve visas for the conspiracy.” Government Mem., Doc. 289 at 8. Binh Vo exploited the weakness that Michael tried to hide, but some easily saw.
[…]

The Government’s sentencing memorandum illustrates how Binh Vo and his family preyed on Michael’s weakness and transformed him from a law-abiding officer and government official into a willing participant of the Vo’s scheme to enrich themselves:

The defendant [Binh Vo] orchestrated the visa fraud conspiracy from beginning to end. During the summer of 2011, according to electronic communications between the defendant [Binh Vo]’s sister and another co-conspirator, [Binh Vo] cultivated a relationship with [Michael] Sestak in order to get Sestak to approve visas for their family and acquaintances.

In a Google chat dated June 1, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo stated to an acquaintance:

[L]ast night we went out with this guy who works at the consulate — he’s the one that approves peoples visas… and he’s this single guy who wants to find someone to be wth [sic]… and my brother knows that – so he’s been trying to get this guy out and introduce him to people… so then later he can do him favors like … have him approve visas for people.

In an email dated June 1, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo stated to her boyfriend:

This guy who works for the US consulate here came out and joined us for dinner. He’s the guy that approves Visas for Vietnamese people to go to the United States so he’s a really good connection to have. My brother plans on using him to get [a sister-in-law’s] Visa to go to the States so [the sister-in-law] will most likely travel back with me in August . . . he just likes to people watch — he does this with the consulate guy (Mike) and they check out girls.

In a Google chat dated June 27, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo again discussed the sister-in-law referenced in the above paragraph.

I applied for her Visa … so her interview is July 13th … and i told the consulate guy … so he said he’ll pull her file … but now he knows our family … so he’s more trusting … but she’ll most likely get accepted this time … because Mike will pull up her file … and he considers Binh like his best friend.

In another Google chat dated June 27, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo discussed Sestak:

I have to go out now… it’s freaking 11P and Binh forgot it was Mike’s birthday… this loser guy who works for the consulate but we have to go out because he’s going to help us get [the sister-in-law’s] visa ugh

The USG in its court filing says that “the conduct that led to the present charges appears to be significantly out of character for the defendant.” It has also credited Mr. Sestak for accepting responsibility for his actions and for expression of remorse:

As far as the government is aware, prior to these offenses SESTAK had an unblemished record first as a as a police officer, then a Deputy United States Marshal, a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer, and finally as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. The fact that he immediately accepted responsibility for his actions at the time of his initial detention and agreed to cooperate with the government from that day forward supports the government’s belief that the defendant is not a career criminal. The defendant’s cooperation has included numerous meetings and debriefings and significant assistance with the sale of the condominiums in Thailand that he purchased with the illegal proceeds from the scheme. Since the time of his initial detention in May 2013, the defendant has repeatedly expressed shame and genuine remorse for his actions.

Mr. Sestak faces 19-24 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The USG is asking for 84 months or 7 years and three years of supervised release. Defense is asking for 33 months. We’ll have to wait until August 14 to hear Judge Bates’ decision.

We’ve posted a couple of the publicly available Sestak documents in the forum’s Document Dump for friends of the blog. Click here to login. It looks like all of Mr. Sestak’s cooperation with the government is related to the cases against the other conspirators and the disposal of properties purchased through illegal proceeds.  We want to know how can the next Sestak be prevented from happening; he maybe in the best position to answer that question. We’ve requested to do an interview with him after the sentencing.  Will keep you posted.

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Binh Tang Vo Gets 8 Years For Conspiring With Former U.S. Consulate Official in Visa Scheme

Posted: 3:42 pm EDT

 

We have previously blogged about the Sestak visa scheme in this blog (see Michael T. Sestak Visa Scandal: Two Co-Conspirators Sentenced to 10 Months and 16 MonthsFSO Michael T. Sestak Pleads Guilty in Visa Fraud-Bribery Case, Faces 19-24 Years in Prison). Last month, the Justice Department announced that Binh Tang Vo, a U.S. citizen and one of the alleged conspirators pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison plus forfeiture of nearly $5.1 million. Court records indicate that Michaell Sestak’s sentencing had been rescheduled for this month.

Via USDOJ:

Man Sentenced to Eight Years in Prison for Conspiring With Former U.S. Consulate Official in Visa Scheme | Vietnam-Based Scheme Yielded Millions of Dollars in Bribes

WASHINGTON  Binh Tang Vo, 41, an American citizen who had been living in Vietnam, was sentenced today to eight years in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud, bribery of a public official, and conspiracy to commit money laundering, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Vincent H. Cohen, Jr. and Bill A. Miller, Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).

Vo pled guilty to the charges in March 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The plea agreement, which was contingent upon the Court’s approval, called for a prison sentence between six and eight years, as well as forfeiture of nearly $5.1 million. The Honorable Emmet G. Sullivan accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Vo accordingly today.

Vo was arrested on Sept. 24, 2013, at Washington Dulles International Airport and has been held without bond ever since.

According to a statement of facts in support of his guilty plea, Vo conspired with co-defendant Michael Sestak and others to obtain visas to the United States for Vietnamese citizens.  Sestak was the Non-Immigrant Visa Chief in the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from August 2010 to September 2012.

As outlined in the statement of facts, Vo and Sestak conspired with other U.S. citizens and Vietnamese citizens to advertise the scheme and recruit customers. Co-conspirators reached out to people in Vietnam and the United States and advertised the scheme by creating a website and by spreading the word through emails and telephone calls.  The conspirators told potential customers that once the customers obtained a visa from the scheme, they could disappear, get married or return to Vietnam and be assured of receiving visas in the future.

Vo and his co-conspirators received biographical information and photographs from customers and assisted them with their visa applications.  Upon submitting an application, the applicant would receive an appointment at the Consulate, be interviewed by Sestak, and approved for a visa. Applicants or their families generally paid between $30,000 and $60,000 per visa.  Nearly 500 fraudulent visas were issued as a result of the conspiracy.

Applicants paid for their visas in Vietnam, or by routing money to co-conspirators in the United States.  Vo admitted to receiving millions of dollars for arranging for Sestak to approve the visas.  He ultimately moved some of the money out of Vietnam by using money launderers to move funds through off-shore banks.  Co-conspirators also had money laundered through off-shore banks to bank accounts in the United States.

“Binh Vo conspired with a corrupt U.S. Consulate Official to collect bribes in exchange for issuing visas that allowed nearly 500 Vietnamese nationals to enter the United States,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Cohen.  “Binh Vo and his family members recruited bribe-paying customers by telling them that once in the United States they could disappear or get married.  He collected millions of dollars in bribes by undermining the integrity of the process used to screen foreign visitors to our country.  This prison sentence demonstrates our commitment to preserving the integrity of a process that is critical to our national security.”

“The U.S. visa is one of the most coveted travel documents in the world. Foreign nationals who acquire visas fraudulently to enter the United States could do so in order to carry out any number of criminal activities, including terrorism,” said Director Miller. “This case demonstrates Diplomatic Security’s unwavering commitment to investigating visa fraud and ensuring that those who commit this crime are brought to justice.”

Sestak, 44, pled guilty in November 2013 to one count each of conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud and to defraud the United States, bribery of a public official, and conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from illegal activity. He is scheduled to be sentenced July 1, 2015.

Hong Vo, 29, an American citizen, and Truc Thanh Huynh, 31, a Vietnamese citizen, also pled guilty to conspiring with Sestak and Binh Vo.  Hong Vo is Binh Vo’s sister, and Truc Thanh Huynh is Binh Vo’s cousin. Hong Vo was sentenced in March 2014 to seven months in prison and three months of home detention. Truc Tranh Huynh was sentenced in February 2014 to 16 months of incarceration.

According to the statement of facts, fraudulent visas granted by Sestak were connected to an Internet Protocol (“IP”) address controlled by Hong Vo. Huynh allegedly participated in the visa scheme by obtaining documents necessary for the visa applications, collecting money and providing model questions and answers for visa applicants.  Sestak also allegedly approved a visa for Huynh to the United States, the application for which was submitted by the IP address controlled by Hong Vo.

The case was investigated and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brenda J. Johnson, Alessio D. Evangelista of the National Security Section, and Catherine K. Connelly and Jennifer Ambuehl of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, as well former Assistant U.S Attorneys Christopher Kavanaugh, and Mona N. Sahaf.

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Security Incident Prompts Closure of USCG Istanbul, Will Reopen to Public on August 11

Posted: 2:52 pm EDT

 

Following the reported gunfire at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul today, the U.S. Ambassy in Ankara released the following statement:

The U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul was attacked by gunfire early this morning, August 10.  The Consulate was closed at the time and nobody was injured. The Consulate plans to reopen on August 11 to resume normal business.  U.S. Embassy Ankara remains open.  The Embassy is in contact with Turkish law enforcement and security officials who are investigating this incident.

Media reports say that a radical Turkish Marxist group, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front (DHKP-C), known in the 1990s as Dev Sol (Revolutionary Left) has claimed responsibility for the attack.  The same group claimed responsibility for a 2013 suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, which killed Turkish security guard, Mustafa Akarsu (see US Embassy Turkey: Suicide Bomber Kills Local Guard Mustafa Akarsu, Wounds One).

The State Department designated DHKP/C a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997, and reviewed and maintained this designation on July 24, 2013.  Its Rewards for Justice program offered rewards on April 2, 2014 for information on three key leaders of this terrorist organization, two of them women. (in Turkish: Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Partisi-Cephesi, or DHKP/C). The Department authorized rewards of up to $3 million each for information leading to the location of Musa Asoglu, Zerrin Sari, and Seher Demir Sen.

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In related news, yesterday, six F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 31st Fighter Wing, accompanied by approximately 300 personnel and cargo deployed from Aviano Air Base, Italy, to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. This deployment coincides with Turkey’s decision to host U.S. aircraft to conduct counter-ISIL operations.

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US Embassy El Salvador Warns of Increased Frequency and Intensity of Security Incidents

Posted: 1:45 am EDT

The 2015 Crime and Safety Report from the Regional Security Office released in May this year, notes that crime in El Salvador can run the gamut from credit card skimming to homicide and is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known victims and targets of opportunity. The effect and threat of violent crime in the capital city of San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many U.S. citizens live and work, leads to greater isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Crimes of every type routinely occur. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid travel into the downtown area of San Salvador “unless absolutely necessary” and travel outside the cities and to Guatemala or Honduras should only be done during daylight hours and with multiple vehicle convoys for safety. Excerpt:

The threat from transnational criminal organizations is prevalent throughout Central America. There is some evidence that the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas may have infiltrated El Salvador, although only in extremely low numbers. El Salvador has hundreds of gang “cliques,” with more than 20,000 members. Violent, well-armed, U.S.-style street gang growth continues, with the 18th Street (Barrio 18) and MS-13 (“Mara Salvatrucha”) gangs being the largest. Gangs concentrate on narcotics and arms trafficking, murder for hire, carjacking, extortion, and violent street crime. The gangs have collaborated with Mexican drug cartels to carry out murders and have sold the cartels weapons and explosives left over from the war and/or from the military. Recognizing the threat posed by MS-13, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) in their list of Specially Designated Nationals. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence when resisted. Many of the gangs are comprised of unemployed youth who do not hesitate to use deadly force when perpetrating crimes.

A contributing factor to crime is the presence of impoverished shanty communities in the midst of high-income residential and higher-end commercial areas in the capital. There are few if any areas immune from violent crime. However, the presence of armed security and the use of security features at homes have proven to be successful in combating home invasions. In 2014, armed robberies continued to be the greatest security threat facing diplomats, tourists, and business persons. Home invasions/burglaries during daylight continue to be prevalent in residential neighborhoods in San Salvador. Some home invasions occur when individuals posing as delivery men or police officers gain access to a home.

Extortion persists as a very common, effective criminal enterprise. Hitting a peak in 2009, the number of extortions has dropped from 4,528 reported cases of extortion in 2006 to 2,480 reported cases in 2014. Many of the extortion calls originate from prisons.

There were 2,480 car thefts and 1,331 carjackings reported in 2014. Not tracked however, are the significant numbers of smash-and-grab-type of auto burglaries pervasive throughout the urban areas of El Salvador.

El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and the Department of State updated the Travel Warning for El Salvador in November 2014 to notify U.S. citizens about travel safety concerns and challenges. Police statistics show an increase in annual homicides during 2014, attributed primarily to the cessation of a controversial 2012 truce between local gangs. Crime statistics showed that the 2014 annual homicide rate — 68.6 per 100,000 inhabitants — was significantly higher than the previous year’s 43.7 per 100,000 rate. In 2014, authorities recorded 3,912 homicides, a 55.7 percent increase from the 2,513 in 2013.

Rape remains a serious concern; in 2013 and 2014, an average of 376 rapes per year were reported. Services for victims of rape are very limited, and many victims choose not to participate in the investigation and prosecution of the crime for fear of not being treated respectfully by the authorities. Many murder victims show signs of rape, and survivors of rape may not report the crime for fear of retaliation.

El Salvador is not a danger post for allowances purposes. It is a 15% COLA and 15% hardship differential  post according to the latest bi-weekly update from state.gov.

The Crime and Safety Report is an annual product of the Regional Security Office (RSO) of every U.S. embassy. Read the full report here.

elsalvador_map_2010worldfactbook_300_1

Image from CIA World Factbook 2010

 

On July 29, the US Embassy in El Salvador issued a security message to American citizens residing in El Salvador on the increased risk of crime and violence in the country:

In recent weeks, there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of security incidents in El Salvador, including multiple attacks on transportation workers and security forces.  The U.S. Embassy is aware that criminal elements in El Salvador have threatened to escalate the level of violence by attacking hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and other public venues.  The grenade attack at a major hotel on July 25 demonstrates both a will and a capability to carry out such plans.

The Embassy is not aware of any threat specifically directed against U.S. citizens in El Salvador.  However, the violence of recent weeks, coupled with this new information, demonstrates the need for sustained caution and high security awareness at all times. Review your personal security plans, avoid outdoor seating (as at restaurants and bars), and monitor local news stations for updates.  Take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security. Please see the below excerpt from the Travel Warning for El Salvador:

U.S. citizens should remain alert to their surroundings, especially when entering or exiting their homes or hotels, cars, garages, schools, and workplaces.  Whenever possible, travel in groups.  U.S. Embassy security officials advise all U.S. government personnel not to walk, run, or cycle in unguarded streets and parks, even in groups, and recommend exercising only in gyms and fitness centers.  Avoid wearing expensive jewelry, and do not carry large sums of money or display cash, ATM/credit cards, or other valuables.  Avoid walking at night in most areas of El Salvador. Incidents of crime along roads, including carjacking, are common in El Salvador.  Motorists should avoid traveling at night and always drive with their doors locked to deter potential robberies at traffic lights and on congested downtown streets.  Travel on public transportation, especially buses, both within and outside the capital, is risky and not recommended.  The Embassy advises official visitors and personnel to avoid using mini-buses and regular buses and to use only radio-dispatched taxis or those stationed in front of major hotels.

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You’ve Seen the Boooooks, Now Get Ready For the Benghazi Movies!

Posted: 3:24  am EDT

 

We’ve stopped counting the number of Benghazi reports coming out of Congress a long time ago just as we’ve stopped counting the number of Benghazi books populating Amazon, B&N, Ebay,  and even Walmart. But now comes the movies. We’re starting the counting game again.  Maybe we’ll hire junior to do the reviews.

In September 2013, Deadline reported that Thunder Road had acquired The Embassy House to use as the basis for a feature movie. Oh, wait, that’s the book that was withdrawn by the publisher following the CBS News-Lara Logan blowup. But who knows? Maybe there will still be a movie called Not the Embassy House, because Benghazi, after all, was not an embassy. We have no intention of reading the book, but a retired FSO who wrote about it here has something shareable:

In an explanatory note, the author wrote that he used the terms “Embassy,” “Consulate” and “Diplomatic Mission” – replete with capital letters – interchangeably throughout. Moreover, wrote the author, “My understanding is that when the ambassador visits, it becomes the embassy.” Say what?

Noooooo ….

Did you just scream inside your head?  Yeah, me, too.  Anyway, the Hollywood Reporter said that HBO has optioned the book, Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi, with Jerry Weintraub on board to executive produce.  Under Fire is authored by former DSS Agent and Stratfor VP Fred Burton, and Samuel M. Katz.

In February 2015, Variety reported that Relativity Media has teamed with producer Dana Brunetti (produced Fifty Shades, Moneyball, Captain Phillips) for an untitled movie about two Americans who were killed during the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Special Mission Compound in Benghazi.  According to the report, the studio “bought the life rights of CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, the fomer U.S. Navy SEALs who rescued 30 Americans in the attacks at the CIA Annex in Benghazi.”

This past March, Deadline reported that Alcon Entertainment has acquired rights to the spec script Zero Footprint which tells the story of the 18-month “off book” operation that ended with the fatal 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi. “The Alcon project is told through the eyes of the ex-Special Forces operator who undertook the mission — a real military hero — who must remain nameless for security reasons.”

So maybe 3-4 movies currently in the works.  Maybe more?  The first one that’ll hit the screen, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s nonfiction book.  Trailer below.  The movie by Michael Bay, known for directing big-budget action films like  Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Transformers was filmed in Malta and Morocco and is set to hit theaters in January 2016. 

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Related post

Near, far, wherever you are, Benghazi will go on and on … oh, but do you want to buy a Benghazi thong?