Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part II

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in the series; part one was published yesterday.

5. CIA may have pulled officers from Beijing embassy following OPM hack. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June 2015, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management. The office, known as OPM, handles applications for security clearances for agencies of the federal government.ch 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. In late November it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pulled a number of officers from the United States embassy in Chinese capital Beijing, following the massive cyber hacking. The irony is that, according to The Washington Post, the records of CIA employees were not included in the compromised OPM database. The latter contains 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 paper.

4. Provisional IRA ‘still broadly in place’, says Northern Ireland police chief.. On July 28, 2005, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades, announced that was ceasing all paramilitary operations and disbanding as of that day. Three years later, the Independent Monitoring Commission declared that the PIRA’s Army Council, which steered the activities of the militant organization, was “no longer operational or functional”. In the ensuing years, which have seen the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that restored peace in Northern Ireland, it has been generally assumed that the PIRA had ceased to exist. In August, however, George Hamilton, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told reporters that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place” in the area. Hamilton was speaking in reference to the murder earlier that month of Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast. McGuigan, a 53-year-old father of nine, was a former member of the PIRA, who had fallen out with the organization. He was gunned down at his home, allegedly in retaliation for the murder last May of Gerard Jock Davison, a former commander of the PIRA, who was also shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast.

3. US Pentagon may have doctored intelligence reports on the Islamic State. Many Middle East observers, including this website, have made notably dire projections about the continuing reinforcement and territorial expansion of the Islamic State. In August, a leaked US intelligence report published by the Associated Press said the Islamic State’s strength had remained stable throughout 2014 and 2015, despite a US bombing campaign. However, earlier assessments by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which were communicated to senior US policymakers, including President Barack Obama, were far more optimistic about America’s ability to defeat the militant group. Why the discrepancy? According to The Washington Post, which published the story in late August, officials with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pentagon body that directs and coordinates American military operations in Egypt, the Middle East and Central Asia, had systematically doctored the conclusions of intelligence reports about the Islamic State before passing them on to American leaders. It appears that the evidence pointing to deliberate manipulation of intelligence assessments was convincing enough to prompt the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General to launch an official probe into the matter.

2. China and Taiwan swap jailed spies in historic first. Few ongoing intelligence conflicts are as fierce as the one that has been taking place between China and Taiwan since 1949, when the two countries emerged following a bitter civil conflict between communist and nationalist forces. Observers were therefore surprised when, two weeks ahead of a historic November 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the two countries announced a spy swap. The exchange, which took place in secret in late October, was the first of its kind in the history of the two bitter rivals. Taipei released Li Zhihao, a mysterious Chinese intelligence officer known in spy circles as “the man in black”, who had been arrested in 1999 and was serving a life sentence. In return, Beijing freed Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo, two colonels in Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau, who were arrested in mainland China’s nearly a decade ago. It is believed that they were the highest-ranked Taiwanese spies imprisoned in China. Their release, therefore, marks an unprecedented development in Chinese-Taiwanese relations.

1. Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, now officially sharing intelligence in war against ISIS. The increased involvement of major powers in Syria has been arguably the greatest intelligence-related development of 2015. The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, are only some of the state and non-state actors that are now actively engaged on the ground in Syria, both with armies and with intelligence personnel. A significant related development is the growing relationship between the intelligence apparatus of US ally Iraq and a number of countries with which Washington has an adversarial relationship. Intelligence-sharing had been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran. But in September of this year, Iraq entered the intelligence alliance for the first time. 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 is staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who pass on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. In October, The Washington Times reported that Iraq had been fully integrated into the Russian-led intelligence-sharing alliance, and that the Iraqi government was already using Russian-supplied intelligence in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2015 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part I

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in the series; part two is available here.

10. Is the United States military sharing intelligence with Syria? Officially, the US government is opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Washington has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family abandons power. But could it be that the common goal of combatting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked groups is prompting a behind-the-scenes collaboration between the two countries? In a report published recently in The London Review of Books, veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that America’s military leadership had secretly shared intelligence with Damascus in an effort to aid al-Assad’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria. What is more, Hersh alleged that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, had not authorized the intelligence sharing and was not aware of the secret arrangement. If Hersh’s sources are correct, this development would indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon over America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War.

9. After much speculation, the Mossad gets a new director. For years, intelligence observers have monitored the growing rift between Israel’s primary intelligence agency, the Mossad, and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In sharp contrast to the Likud party chairman, the Mossad has consistently argued that Iran voluntarily halted its nuclear program before 2012, and that establishing peace with the Palestinians is far more critical for Israel’s security than halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Moreover, senior former Mossad officials have joined calls urging Netanyahu to stop criticizing Washington’s Middle East policy and work together with the White House. In early December, the Israeli Prime Minister announced in a hastily announced press conference in Jerusalem that Yossi Cohen, a 30-year Mossad career officer, would lead the agency. Cohen left the Mossad in 2013 to chair Israel’s National Security Council and advise the prime minister, with whom he is believed to have a very close personal relationship. Does his new appointment mean that the Mossad will adopt a more pro-Likud stance on Israel’s foreign policy? Given the urgent regional pressures that Israel faces, it should not be long before we begin to find out.

8. The CIA was running a double spy inside German intelligence. In 2015, the relationship between the US and Germany continued to be negatively affected by the revelation two years ago that the National Security Agency had bugged the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, American intelligence agencies appear to have also targeted German government secrets using human assets. In July of 2014, Germany //expelled// the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Berlin, following the arrest of Marcus R., a 31-year-old, low-level clerk at the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s external intelligence agency. More details about the double spy emerged at his trial this year. The court was told that the spy may have given his American handlers information on the real identities, as well as operational aliases, of nearly 3,500 German intelligence operatives. German government prosecutors alleged that Marcus R. spied for the CIA for approximately two years, during which he supplied the American spy agency with around 200 classified German government documents in exchange for around €25,000 —approximately $30,000.

7. Who killed Alberto Nisman? In January of this year, Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and senior members of her cabinet, of having deliberately obstructed a terrorism investigation. It concerned the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, which killed nearly 100 people. For years, Israeli authorities have accused Iran of perpetrating the attacks. But Nisman claimed that senior Argentine politicians colluded with the government of Iran to obstruct the investigation into the attacks, in exchange for lucrative commercial deals with Tehran, involving oil and arms exports. Then, on January 19, just hours before he was due to give Congressional testimony on the subject, Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment, which had been locked from the inside. In response, President Kirchner accused the Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado (SIDE) of feeding Nisman fabricated information implicating her and her government minsters in a fictional collusion with the Islamic Republic, and then killing him in order to destabilize her rule. She has since dissolved SIDE and charged its leadership with involvement in Nisman’s killing.

6. NSA allegedly spied on every major French company. In June of this year, French President Francois Hollande convened an emergency meeting of the Conseil de la Défense, the country’s highest national security forum, to discuss revelations that the United States spied on three French heads of state, including himself. Documents leaked by American defector Edward Snowden appeared to implicate the US National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on President Hollande, as well as on Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, who ruled France from 1995 to 2012. Later that same month, however, further reports published by WikiLeaks suggested that the NSA collected information on export contracts by French companies and sought inside information on France’s position on international trade negotiations. According to the documents, the NSA target list included every major French company, including car makers Peugeot and Renault, banking conglomerate BNP Paribas, as well as Credit Agricole, one of Europe’s leading agricultural credit unions. It is one thing to collect political or military information on a foreign country; it is quite another to spy for financial reasons, as the US itself has argued before. But if the WikiLeaks documents are factual, it would mean that even Washington fails to refrain from economic espionage.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2015 | Permalink

US to release Israeli spy after 30 years in prison

Jonathan PollardA United States Navy intelligence analyst, who has served 30 years of a life sentence for spying on America for Israel, is set to be freed on Friday. Many in US counterintelligence consider Pollard, who acquired Israeli citizenship in 1995, as one of the most damaging double spies in American history. But he is widely viewed as a hero in Israel, and many Israelis, as well as pro-Israel Americans, have pressured the US administration of President Barack Obama to release him. There is intense speculation in Washington that Pollard is being released in order to quieten Israeli criticism of a recently struck international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in July of this year, suggesting that the Obama administration was “preparing to release” Pollard. Citing unnamed US officials, the paper claimed Washington hoped that the move would “smooth [America’s] relations with Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal”. The latter was signed last summer between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 nations, namely the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. The New York Times added to the speculation soon afterwards with a detailed front-page article, which confirmed that “some in Washington appeared to be highlighting” Pollard’s upcoming 30-year parole hearing in November. It added that the White House had been contemplating using Pollard’s release to appease, not only Tel Aviv, but also pro-Israel supporters in Congress, many of whom have campaigned for years in favor of Pollard’s release.

As intelNews reported back in July, Newsweek’s veteran intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein responded to the news of Pollard’s release by posing an interesting question: when Pollard is released, will he have access to close to $1 million in spy wages that his Israeli handlers are reputed to have deposited for him in a Swiss bank account? In his article, Stein wondered whether Israel had continued to deposit $30,000 a year in Pollard’s reputed Swiss bank account, which is a standard practice for intelligence agencies. If the answer is yes, then the amount available today would be in the neighborhood of $1 million. If Pollard moves to Israel following his release on Friday, as many believe he will, will he then have access to the money he earned by spying on the US government as an unregistered agent of a foreign power? And if so, how should this be expected to affect the already rocky relations between Washington and Tel Aviv?

Stein quoted Pollard’s New York lawyer, Eliot Lauer, who called the rumors of a secret Swiss bank account “poppycock” and added that Pollard had “secured employment and housing […] in the New York area”. Additionally, there are some who speculate that Pollard may not be allowed to leave the US as part of the conditions of his parole. At this stage, however, nobody knows for sure.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 November 2015 | Permalink

Analysis: The West should weigh carefully its response to the Paris carnage

Paris FranceParis is still reeling from Friday’s unprecedented carnage, which left at least 130 people dead and over 350 wounded. The six separate incidents included the first known suicide bombings in the country’s history and marked the deadliest coordinated attacks on French soil since World War II. The magnitude of the attacks prompted the French government to close the country’s borders and declare a nationwide state of emergency —the first since 1961. The shock from the mass killings is today reverberating throughout Europe, a continent that had not seen such a deadly incident since the Madrid train bombings of 2004, when a group of al-Qaeda-inspired militants killed 191 people in the Spanish capital. A response from France and its Western allies is to be expected. However, the West should pause and think very carefully before deepening its engagement in a chaotic and unpredictable war that is like nothing it has ever experienced. Specifically, Western leaders should consider the following:

I. The adversaries know and understand the West, its culture and way of life, far better than the West understands them. Ever since 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005, a number of Western observers have cautioned against the so-called “Islamization of Europe”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the events of 9/11 caused a widening gulf between an increasingly Islamophobic West and Muslims; the latter are viewed by European critics of Islam as foreign bodies. What is far more prevalent and important is the Europeanization of Islam, which means that adherents of radical Islam are studying and interacting with European culture, norms and values, more intensely than ever before. Consequently, armed attacks carried out by Islamist militants against Western targets reflect a deep understanding of Western culture that far exceeds the West’s understanding of them. The November 13 attacks in Paris typify this: they were not “indiscriminate”, as some have suggested. They were carefully selected to achieve core political objectives, while at the same time sending a symbolic message against the Western way of recreation, which Islamists view as decadent. That was highlighted in a statement about the Paris attacks issued by the Islamic State, in which the group singled out the Bataclan Theater as Q Quotea venue where “a party of perversity” was taking place. Europe’s response to this phenomenon is dismissal and indifference. Most Westerners are still at a loss trying to understand the basic differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, let alone the ideological and spiritual underpinnings of groups like the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others. The idea that radical Islam can be defeated before it is understood is naïve and dangerous.

II. The West does not have the intelligence and security infrastructure that is necessary to take on the Islamic State. It should not be forgotten that last Friday’s attacks took place despite the state of heightened alert that France has been under after the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015. Since that time, French authorities have reportedly managed to stop at least six advanced plots against civilian targets, while alert passengers were able to prevent a mass shooting aboard a French train in August of this year. However, if France deepens its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, these attacks will continue with a scale and complexity that is bound to stretch —and possibly overwhelm— the country’s security infrastructure. Nine months after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the presence of thousands of police officers and even troops in the streets of Paris has become common. But that did nothing to stop Friday’s attacks in a city of 2.2 million people, which features 35,000 cafés, 13,000 restaurants and over 2,000 hotels. The sheer number of these “soft targets” makes Paris a city that is virtually impossible to defend against determined suicide assailants. The French are also used to traveling with ease within their country and across Europe, as the borders between France and its neighbors, such as Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, have become practically meaningless. Moreover, French authorities estimate that at least 13,000 radicalized Muslims live in France —a fraction of the country’s nearly 6 million Muslim citizens, but large enough to overwhelm the French security services. Read more of this post

Dutch crime investigator charged with spying for organized criminals

AIVD HollandA 28-year-old criminal investigator of the Dutch National Crime Squad was arrested by Dutch police on September 29 over allegations of corruption, neglect of duty, and money laundering. The man, named as Mark M., applied for a job at the Dutch police in 2009. According to an online résumé, M. dropped out of professional college in journalism after several years of being self-employed as a freelance reporter covering crime issues.

According to Dutch media, M. did not pass the security screening carried out by the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) as part of the job application. But he was hired nonetheless as trainee in a less sensitive position that is not subject to security screening by the AIVD. The reported reason for M.’s failure to pass the screening process is that he is married to a Ukrainian woman. The AIVD has no intelligence-sharing relationship with its Ukrainian counterpart agency concerning security screenings.

M. is reported to have access to the files “of all large national criminal investigations”, and allegedly sold information on a large scale to drug organizations and criminal biker gangs. He is reported to have close ties with leaders of the biker gangs Satudarah and No Surrender.

Newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which first reported about M., states that the screening involved an investigation into M.’s social environment and personal finances. Television news service RTL Nieuws, which was the first to publicly name the man, reports that M. stood out for his luxurious lifestyle: driving a Porsche Cayenne, frequenting Curaçao and the Dominican Republic for holidays, and wearing expensive watches. During a search of his residence, the police found €235.000 ($266,266), as well as confidential police information that M. allegedly intended to sell.

The police is investigating the extent of the damage caused by M., as well as the precise investigations that he may have compromised. The question of why M. was hired despite not having passed the security screening is part of the investigation. It is, so far, believed that M. acted alone.

Addendum, Nov. 4, 2015: Pending a security clearance from the AIVD, M. was granted access to BlueView, a confidential police data search engine. When the AIVD refused to issue a security clearance, M. was transferred to the traffic department, but superiors failed to revoke his access to BlueView. In 2007, BlueView contained 55 million documents containing data about suspects, transcripts of interrogations and police reports. M.’s authorization level included access to information from the Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIE), that works with informants. M. was able to access BlueView for close to four years.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 20 October 2015 | Permalink

CIA using Macau casinos to recruit Chinese officials, says report

Sands casino in Macau ChinaOfficials in China think that United States spy agencies are using casinos in Macau to entrap Chinese government employees, according to a report produced on behalf of an American-owned casino chain in the former Portuguese colony. The report was produced by a private investigator and was commissioned by Sands China, the Macau branch of a casino venture owned by American gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson. Its goal was to investigate why the Chinese-appointed authorities in Macau were hostile to the gambling industry in general and Sands China in particular.

The report is dated June 25, 2010, and includes a warning that it should not be shared with Chinese officials in Macau or in mainland China. It cites several unnamed officials in China’s Liaison Office, which governs Macau and Hong Kong, as well as sources in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Chinese businessmen with close ties to the government in Beijing. It suggests that Beijing is weary of the damage caused to its public image by thousands of its employees gambling away an estimated $2 billion each year in Macau. Additionally, says the report, the central government in Beijing is hostile to the foreign-owned gambling industry in Macau because it believes that it collaborates with Western intelligence agencies. Sands China establishments in Macau, in particular, are believed by the Chinese government to be recruiting grounds for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, says the 2010 report.

Citing “well-placed sources” in the Chinese capital, the report suggests that the fear of espionage is “the primary subject” that causes Beijing’s hostility toward Sands China. It notes that “many of the [Chinese] officials we contacted were of the view that US intelligence agencies […] have penetrated and utilized the casinos [in Macau] to support their operations”. It adds that Chinese counterintelligence agencies have “evidence” that CIA operatives “monitor mainland government officials” who visit Macau to gamble, paying particular attention to those losing large amounts of money, or those visiting Macau without the knowledge of their superiors. They then “lure and entrap” them, forcing them “to cooperate with US government interests”.

The report was uncovered by the Investigative Reporting Program of the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and published on Wednesday in British broadsheet The Guardian. The paper said the report was among a set of documents filed with a court in Las Vegas, where the former head of Sands’ Macau casinos is suing the company for wrongful dismissal. The Guardian contacted the Sands Company, which rejected the contents of the report as “a collection of meaningless speculation”. Its senior vice president for global communications and corporate affairs, Ron Reese, also dismissed the report as “an idea for a movie script”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 July 2015 | Permalink: http://intelnews.org/2015/07/23/01-1741/

Leaked document confirms Israel was behind Syrian official’s killing

Tartus, SyriaA leaked document from an American intelligence agency appears to confirm that Israeli commandos were behind the assassination of a top Syrian government official, who was shot dead outside his luxury villa on the Syrian coast in 2008. Muhammad Suleiman had been a close aide of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even before the latter rose to power in 2000. Once al-Assad became ruler of Syria, Suleiman was appointed special presidential advisor in the areas of arms procurement and strategic weapons. He handled intelligence affairs for the Assad regime and he was involved in weapons transfers from Iran to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, while also helping train Hezbollah operatives. He was also rumored to have a senior administrative role in the Syrian nuclear weapons program.

On August 1, 2008, Suleiman was shot dead with bullet wounds to the head and neck fired from a silenced rifle. He was shot as he was hosting a party on the beach behind his luxury villa at the Rimal al Zahabiya (Golden Sands) resort area, located to the north of the Mediterranean port city of Taurus. The assassins are believed to have fired the shots from a yacht, which was seen rapidly sailing away from Rimal al Zahabiya moments after the shooting. Most observers put the blame squarely on Israel. In 2009, an investigative report by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said Israel had killed Suleiman due to his leading role in Syria’s nuclear program. However, a cable released by whistleblower website WikiLeaks in 2011 revealed that French intelligence analysts believed Suleiman had been killed as a result of a bloody power struggle within the Assad regime. These have been the two leading theories behind Suleiman’s mysterious killing.

On Wednesday, however, a document authored by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) was leaked, which shows that American intelligence analysts are certain that Israeli commandos were behind Suleiman’s assassination. The document was leaded by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who defected to Russia in 2013. It comes from Intellipedia, the US Intelligence community’s classified version of Wikipedia, which was formally launched in 2006. It describes Suleiman’s killing as an operation carried out by “Israeli naval commandos” and calls it “the first known instance of Israel targeting a legitimate [foreign] government official”. According to The Intercept, which published the leak, the Intellipedia document is labeled “SI”, which means that the information contained in it was not voluntarily shared with the US by Israel, but was rather acquired through the interception of electronic signals.

If the leaked document is accurate, it would mark the first confirmation by a government agency that Israel was indeed behind Suleiman’s assassination. The Intercept contacted the NSA and the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. However, neither party responded to several requests for comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 July 2015 | Permalink: http://intelnews.org/2015/07/16/01-1736/

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