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Syrian Electronic Army takes credit for hacking AP Twitter account

After the Associated Press tweeted, "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured," it literally took only seconds for people to debunk the bomb scare.

 

AP immediately locked down the account (and it remains suspended as I write), but that wasn't before the Dow dropped 70 points (it rebounded within 10 minutes).

The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-Assad hackers that has been targeting major news organizations for months now, quickly took credit for the false tweet. In the AP's story about the hacking of its own Twitter feed, it stated that the incident "came after hackers made repeated attempts to steal the passwords of AP journalists." The SEA defaced the homepages of Al Jazeera and Reuters last year, and more recently they've been targeting social media accounts in particular. Last month, for instance, they got into the BBC's weather feed. In the past week alone, they've hit NPR and 60 Minutes. They've also gone after non-media targets, including Human Rights Watch and Columbia University.

The SEA's level of tact varies: Hackers weren't above making a fat joke about the emir of Qatar when they hacked @bbcweather last month. Other times, as when they broke into @60Minutes, they promoted the Assad regime's narrative that the United States is empowering terrorist groups in Syria. The "media scare" approach seems to be a new development, but it is unclear to what extent SEA attacks are planned and coordinated, or whether they are directly affiliated with the Assad government.

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What's the best way to detect chemical weapons?

If you're invested in the question of whether Syria has used chemical weapons on its own citizens, you've been exposed to a range of terms like "soil samples," "witness interviews," "dilated pupils," and "urine samples." For most laymen, it's not clear which piece of evidence is more reliable than the other. But the question couldn't be more important given allegations by France, Britain, and now Israel that Syrian forces have deployed chemical weapons -- an act that would constitute a "red line" for the United States if true. Since all evidence is not created equal, we asked international chemical weapons consultant Ralf Trapp about the various investigative techniques cited in the case of Syria -- and their value. 

Pictures of victims whose mouths are frothing and pupils are dilated

This evidence was cited today by Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the chief of research and analysis for the Israeli army's military intelligence division. "The dilated pupils, the frothing at the mouth and other signs testify, in our view, to the use of liquid chemical weapons, some kind of liquid chemical weapons, apparently sarin," said Brun. The quality of this evidence depends on a range of factors: Who took the pictures, how many pictures there are, how old the victims are, and whether the images are authentic. At the moment, it's not clear how many images the Israelis have seen, and it's very difficult to determine anything conclusively with a small number of images, said Trapp. "A small number of pictures from victims is an important lead, but isn't in itself evidence," he explained.

Soil samples

France and Britain say soil samples support charges that Syria used nerve agents in Aleppo, Homs, and possibly Damascus. According to Trapp, collecting soil samples is a reliable technique because chemical agents can remain in soil for a long time. The question in this case is: Was the sample protected from interference? The ideal scenario is if a soil sample is collected, packaged, and protected from outsiders, but little is publicly known about how the soil was collected in Syria.

Urine samples

No one has cited urine samples as evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria yet, but the CIA has requested urine samples from Syrian rebels, according to the New York Times. While this technique can be useful because certain biomarkers will appear in the urine of victims, it's recommended that the test be conducted within two days of the incident or a test could result in a false negative. Blood tests can also be useful, but are more difficult because they require a physician to draw the blood and the consent of the victim.

Witness interviews

The French and British have also cited "witness interviews," which can be valuable but rely crucially on how the interview is conducted. It's important to query a range of witnesses and compare the testimonies to each other for corroboration or contradiction. It's also important to avoid leading questions. If Trapp was assigned to Syria, he'd ask the witnesses simples questions: What happened? When did it happen? What did you see, hear, and smell?

Hair samples

The CIA is also seeking out hair samples, which can be useful because evidence can remain in the hair for a long time. Obviously, it's important to authenticate the individual and the context in which they were exposed before using the sample as evidence.


While each of the above pieces of evidence has value, Trapp adds that an optimal piece of evidence would be a chemical artillery shell discovered in the field. Thus far, that hasn't happened, which explains the reliance on other indicators.