Russian spy service accused of role in Norwegian journalist’s firing

Thomas NilsenNorway’s state broadcaster has alleged that the Russian intelligence service pressured a Norwegian newspaper to fire one of its journalists who covered fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Ocean. Last week, journalist Thomas Nilsen was fired by The Barents Observer, a Norwegian government-run newspaper that covers developments in the Arctic. Headquartered in the northern Norwegian town of Kirkenes, The Barents Observer publishes daily news in English and Russian from the four countries that border the region, namely Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. It is owned by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat (NBS), a government-owned agency that aims to encourage collaboration between Norway and Russia, two countries that share fishing, fossil fuel and mining interests in the Barents Sea.

Since the end of the Cold War, the NBS has funded collaborative projects between Norway’s state-owned oil company Statoil, and its Russian equivalent, Rosneft, which aim to promote offshore oil exploration in the Barents region. The move reflects a recognition by the Norwegian government that close relations with Russia are vital for Norwegian interests. But Nilsen is one of many Norwegian investigative journalists who have challenged Oslo’s collaboration with Moscow in Arctic oil exploration. Last year, Mikhail Noskov, Russia’s consul in Kirkenes, spoke publicly against Nilsen’s reporting, which he described as “damaging to the bilateral relations between Norway and Russia”. He also reportedly contacted the offices of The Barents Observer to complain about Nilsen’s articles.

Last week, when Nilsen was fired, staff at the newspaper protested that his removal from the paper had been ordered by the government in Oslo and described it as a clear case of government censorship. But on Saturday, Norway’s state-owned NRK broadcaster said that Nielsen had been fired following pressure from the Russian Federal Security Service, known as FSB. Citing an unnamed Norwegian government source, NRK reporter Tormod Strand alleged that the FSB had threatened that cooperation between Russia and Norway in the Arctic would be negatively affected if Nilsen was not removed from his post. The NRK contacted the embassy of the Russian Federation in Oslo, where a spokesman denied that Moscow had intervened in any way in Nilsen’s firing. An official from the Norwegian government told the station that he had seen no evidence showing that Tormod’s allegations were factual.

Third person charged in probe into alleged US Pentagon ‘rogue operation’

PentagonA third person has been charged in a complex criminal investigation into the procurement of weapon silencers by the United States Department of Defense, which one American newspaper has described as a possible “rogue operation”. The case concerns the Directorate for Plans, Policy, Oversight and Integration, an obscure civilian-led Pentagon office, whose stated mission is to provide logistical support and procurement for intelligence operations conducted by the US Navy and Marine Corps.

According to media reports, more than three years ago the Directorate ordered 349 weapon suppressors, known commonly as silencers. By general admission, silencers are not the type of military hardware used in conventional combat. More importantly, the procurement cost of the silencers should have been no more than around $10,000. However, purchase records show that the Directorate paid the supplier of the silencers over $1.6 million. The supplier then turned out to be the brother of the Directorate’s officer in charge of intelligence, David W. Landersman. Last week it was revealed that Landersman became the third person to face charges of theft and conspiracy as part of the investigation.

Initially, Pentagon officials suggested that the silencers had been purchased for a top-secret operation codenamed UPSTAIRS. The operation was allegedly a “special-access program” aimed at arming foreign paramilitary forces while avoiding the risk of the weapons being traced back to the US. Though limited details were provided, one government witness told the court that military hardware acquired through UPSTAIRS was intended for the US Navy’s Sea, Air, Land Team 6, commonly known as US Navy SEAL Team 6. The special-forces team became famous in 2010, when it carried out the Central Intelligence Agency’s operation NEPTUNE SPEAR, which killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Later during the course of the investigation, however, SEAL Team 6 representatives told court officials that their unit “had not ordered the silencers” and knew nothing about them. Following that development, government prosecutors objected to further discussion of the case in open court due to the alleged “sensitive nature” of the case. Since then, much of the court documentation on the case has been filed under seal on grounds of national security.

But the discrepancies in the case led The Washington Post to speculate last year that the procurement of the weapons silencers may have been part of a “rogue operation”, that is, a military activity not authorized by the Pentagon leadership. The Post spoke to an unnamed “former senior Navy official familiar with the investigation”, who said the Pentagon’s Directorate for Plans, Policy, Oversight and Integration was “building its own mini law enforcement and intelligence agency” without oversight from higher-ups. Another unnamed source, a former Pentagon official familiar with the Directorate, told the paper that “deeper issues might be in play” in the case.

Last week, a Pentagon spokesman said Landersman was “no longer performing duties in any way associated with intelligence” for the US government, though he appeared to still be employed by the US Navy in a clerical capacity, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 October 2015 | Permalink

China announces arrests of Japanese citizens on espionage charges

Liaoning ChinaAuthorities in China announced last week the arrests of two Japanese citizens accused of spying for the national intelligence agency of Japan. According to a spokesman from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two men were been arrested last May “on suspicion of carrying out espionage activities” for Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency. Administered by Japan’s Ministry of Justice, the Public Security Intelligence Agency is tasked with protecting the country’s internal security by collecting intelligence both within and without Japan. The Agency has a long history of organizing human intelligence operations in mainland China.

Following China’s announcement last week, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, who serves as the government’s press secretary, denied that the two men had links with Japanese intelligence. But the Tokyo-based Kyodo news agency reported on Saturday that the two men had admitted that they had links with the Public Security Intelligence Agency. Citing unnamed Chinese and Japanese diplomats, Kyodo said the two men were on a mission to collect intelligence about Chinese military facilities, as well as to spy on Chinese military activities in the border regions between China and North Korea. The news agency said that both men were civilians and did not have diplomatic credentials. One of them is believed to be a 51-year-old who travels regularly to China. He was reportedly captured in the vicinity of a military facility in China’s eastern coastal province of Zhejiang. The other man was described by Kyoto as a 55-year-old North Korean defector to Japan; he was detained in the northeast province of Liaoning (photo), near China’s border with North Korea.

Kyoto said it contacted the Public Security Intelligence Agency, but a spokesman said he was not in a position to comment on the arrest of the two alleged spies. This is the third instance of arrests of Japanese spies in China on espionage charges since 2005. In the summer of that year, Beijing expelled two Japanese nationals for allegedly stealing military secrets. Five years later, four Japanese citizens were detained in Shijiazhuang, reportedly for spying on a Chinese military base there. All were released within a year of their capture.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 October 2015 | Permalink

Iran, Hezbollah to launch ground assault on Syria rebels, says Reuters

Syrian troopsHundreds of ground troops from Iran and Lebanon have been entering Syria in the past two weeks and are about to launch a large-scale ground attack against rebel groups, according to Reuters. The news agency quoted Lebanese sources “familiar with political and military developments in the conflict”. One source said that the Russian airstrikes in Syria, which began earlier this week, are the first phase of a large-scale military offensive against the Islamic State and other anti-government forces operating on the ground.

The Lebanese official told the news agency that hundreds of Iranian “soldiers and officers” had arrived in Syria in September. These forces “are not advisors”, said the source; rather, they have entered Syria “with equipment and weapons, specifically to participate in this battle. And they will be followed by more”, said the source, adding that some “Iraqis would also take part in the operation”, without specifying whether these would be regular troops or Iraqi Shiite militias. According to Reuters, the operation will be supported by Russian airstrikes and aims to recapture territory that is currently in the hands of various rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State.

Last week it was reported that the governments of Russia, Iraq and Iran had entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Syria, in an effort to defeat the forces fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. The announcement of the agreement came as Russia continued to reinforce its military presence in Syria by deploying troops in Latakia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 2 October 2015 | Permalink

CIA pulled officers from Beijing embassy following OPM database hack

Office of Personnel ManagementThe Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pulled a number of officers from the United States embassy in Chinese capital Beijing, after a massive cyber hacking incident compromised an American federal database containing millions of personnel records. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June of this year, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which handles applications for security clearances for agencies of the federal government. The breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans who have filed applications for security clearances —including intelligence officers.

According to sources in the US government, the records of CIA employees were not included in the compromised OPM database. However, that is precisely the problem, according to The Washington Post. The paper said on Wednesday that the compromised OPM records contain the background checks of employees in the US State Department, including those stationed at US embassies or consulates around the world. It follows that US diplomatic personnel stationed abroad whose names do not appear on the compromised OPM list “could be CIA officers”, according to The Post. The majority of CIA officers stationed abroad work under diplomatic cover; they are attached to an embassy or consulate and enjoy diplomatic protection, which is typically invoked if their official cover is blown. However, they still have to present their credentials and be authorized by their host country before they assume their diplomatic post. The CIA hopes that foreign counterintelligence agencies will not be able to distinguish intelligence personnel from actual diplomats.

Although the US has not officially pointed the finger at a particular country or group as being behind the OPM hack, anonymous sources in Washington have identified China as the culprit. If true, The Post’s claim that the CIA pulled several of its officers from the US embassy in Beijing would add more weight to the view that the Chinese intelligence services were behind the cyber theft. The paper quoted anonymous US officials who said that the CIA’s decision to remove its officers from Beijing was directly related to the OPM hack, and it was meant to safeguard their personal security, as well as to protect CIA programs currently underway in China.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 1 October 2015 | Permalink

Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, sign intel-sharing agreement against Islamic State

Tartus SyriaThe governments of Russia, Syria and Iran have entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, in an effort to defeat the Islamic State, it has been announced. Intelligence-sharing has been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran; but this is the first time that Iraq, an American ally, has entered the alliance. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries.

Iraqi officials said on Sunday that the intelligence-sharing agreement had been forged by Moscow, which was “increasingly concerned about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts” as members of the Islamic State. The announcement of the agreement comes as Russia has been reinforcing its military presence in Syria, by deploying troops in Latakia. Security observers have interpreted the move as a strong message by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is prepared to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The latter also enjoys strong support from Iran, which has poured billions of dollars in aid to support the regime in Damascus, and has deployed hundreds of Hezbollah advisers and militia members in defense of Assad.

Speaking from Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, the American spokesman for the Western-led military campaign against the Islamic State, said that Washington was respectful of Iraq’s need to enter into security agreements with other regional governments. But he added that the US objected to the Syrian government’s role in the intelligence-sharing agreement, because it was “brutalizing its own citizens”. The US government has also protested against the Russian government’s expansion of its base in Tartus and its increased military presence in Latakia. But, according to Foreign Policy, US officials have privately expressed support for the move, saying that “it could, in the short term, help rein in the Islamic state”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 September 2015 | Permalink

Hackers stole 5.6 million US government employee fingerprints

Office of Personnel Management 2A massive cyber hacking incident that compromised a United States federal database containing millions of personnel records also resulted in the theft of 5.6 million fingerprint records, American officials have said. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June of this year, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which handles applications for security clearances for all agencies of the federal government. The breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans who have filed applications for security clearances —including intelligence officers.

Back in July, OPM officials told reporters that just over 1 million fingerprint records had been compromised by the cyber hack. However, a new statement issued by the White House last week said that the actual number of stolen fingerprints from the OPM database was closer to 5.6 million. In a subsequent statement, the OPM said there was little that the hackers could do with the fingerprint records, and that the potential for exploitation was “currently limited”. But it added that, as technology continued to be developed, the risk of abuse of the stolen fingerprint records could increase. Therefore, an interagency working group would be put together to “review the potential ways adversaries could misuse fingerprint data now and in the future”, the OPM statement said. It added that the group would be staffed with fingerprint specialists for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

External American intelligence agencies, which typically send their officers abroad posing as diplomats, and sometimes under cover identities, are reportedly concerned that certain foreign counterintelligence agencies will be able to use the stolen fingerprints to identify the true identities or professional background of US government employees stationed abroad.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 September 2015 | Permalink


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,010 other followers