Russian espionage in Germany rising sharply, says Berlin

Embassy of Russia in BerlinBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Russian espionage activity in Germany has reached levels not seen since the days of the Cold War, according to senior counterintelligence officials in Berlin. An article published in weekly newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag on Sunday said Russian intelligence-gathering activities in the German capital center on infiltrating German political institutions and corporations. The Berlin-based publication said Russian spies typically seek to gain “intimate knowledge” of German energy policy as well as corporate practices. Another area of interest for Russian intelligence concerns Germany’s activities in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Citing Hans-Georg Maassen, Director of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV —Germany’s primary counterintelligence agency), Die Welt said that no foreign intelligence service is more active on German soil than Russia’s SVR —one of the KGB’s successor agencies. Most Russian intelligence officers “pose as embassy workers”, said the paper, adding that the BfV believes up to a third of all Russian diplomats stationed at the German capital have a “background in intelligence gathering”. According to Burkhard Even, who directs the BfV’s counterintelligence operations, the primary task of Russian intelligence operatives in Germany is to “closely analyze individuals who could be of interest” to Moscow. Those targeted —usually key staffers at the Bundestag (Germany’s federal parliament) or major German companies— are then systematically accosted by Russian ‘diplomats’. The latter often ask to take them out to lunch or dinner, said Maaßen, and will often pick up the bill. Read more of this post

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Pilot program gives Syrian rebels advanced Western weaponry

Syrian rebelsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A pilot program operated by American and Saudi intelligence services has allegedly supplied Syrian rebel groups with sophisticated Western weaponry for the first time. Last weekend, The Wall Street Journal cited “people briefed on the effort” as stating that “a small number” of advanced American antitank missiles have been offered to Syrian rebel groups. The move is reportedly part of a new clandestine program, which, if successful, could open the door to “larger flows” of sophisticated Western-made weaponry in the hands of Syrian rebels. The paper said that Washington made the decision to give the weapons to the rebels following the collapse of the Western-backed peace talks early this year, coupled by the apparent military victories of Syrian government forces on the ground in the embattled Middle Eastern country. The effort is apparently part of a “small, tailored program”, which The Journal says is coordinated by American and Saudi intelligence services, aimed at “testing the waters” in Syria. Specifically, Washington and Riyadh are trying to discern whether these advanced weapons will fall into the hands of some of Islamist-inspired rebel groups on the ground, some of which have strong links with al-Qaeda. According to the paper, American and Saudi intelligence operatives have funneled “about a dozen” BCM-71 TOW armor piercing antitank systems to at least one rebel group on the ground. The group, Harakat Hazm, emerged earlier this year through the union of several small secular rebel groups in northern Syria. One weapons expert told The Journal that the antitank systems are equipped with a “complex, fingerprint-keyed security device” that should hopefully help limit the number of individuals that can fire the weapons. The article adds that US and Saudi intelligence services have entered a period of closer collaboration aimed at increasing material support for the Syrian rebels. Read more of this post

Saudi Arabia replaces spy chief who failed to deliver on Syria

Prince Bandar bin SultanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Saudi Arabia has replaced its intelligence chief, who is widely seen as the architect of the kingdom’s interventionist policy on the Syrian civil war. The government-owned Saudi Press Agency announced on Tuesday that prince Bandar bin Sultan had been “relieved of his post at his own request”. Bandar was born in 1946 to a concubine of crown prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, 12th son of Saudi monarch King Abdulaziz. In 1983, Bandar was appointed ambassador to the United States, a post he held until 2005. He developed numerous connections in Washington and rose to become a leading operator in Middle East affairs, enjoying to this day very close personal ties with Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. In 2012 he was appointed director of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, the country’s primary intelligence organization. Since that time, he has been the primary planner of Riyadh’s hawkish policy on the Syrian civil war, which has been to openly support the rebel groups fighting to oust the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia began supplying weapons, cash and intelligence to the Syrian rebels as soon as Bandar took control of the country’s intelligence apparatus. But his once close relations with Washington went sour last year, when he described US President Barack Obama’s refusal to launch military strikes on Syria as a “major shift” in American Middle East policy. He also angered the US by criticizing it’s rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is Riyadh’s major regional adversary. Perhaps most important of all, Bandar appears to have underestimated the strength of the al-Assad administration and over-confidently advising King Abdullah in 2012 that the Syrian government’s days were numbered. The stalemate in the Syrian civil war seems to have frustrated the Saudi government, which began to gradually distancing itself from Bandar’s musings since January. Read more of this post

White House confirms CIA Director visited Ukraine

John BrennanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
White House officials has confirmed that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency visited Ukraine over the weekend, following reports in the Russian media. On Sunday, Moscow urged Washington to respond to allegations in the Russian press that CIA Director John Brennan had made an incognito visit to Ukrainian capital Kiev. The reports alleged that Brennan, who assumed the directorship of the CIA a year ago, traveled to Ukraine on official business under a false identity in order to avoid attention. Russian media further alleged that the CIA head met with a host of Ukrainian intelligence and security officials and advised them on how to respond to the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. Initially, Washington denied comment on the allegations. But early on Monday White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Brennan had indeed traveled to Ukraine over the weekend. He said that the White House normally declines comment on the whereabouts of the CIA Director. However, “given the extraordinary circumstances” in the case of Ukraine, he said he was willing to confirm that Brennan was in Kiev over the weekend “as part of a trip to Europe”. He went on to state that he hoped the official confirmation of Brennan’s trip by the White House would suffice to discredit the “false claims being leveled by the Russians at the CIA”. Carney added that there was nothing inherently suspicious about a CIA Director’s trip to a foreign country. He argued that “senior-level visits of intelligence officials [abroad] are a standard means of fostering mutually beneficial security cooperation” and that such visits —some of which have been to Russia— go back “to the beginnings of the post-Cold War era”. Read more of this post

United States allegedly not sharing Russia intelligence with Ukraine

Russian troops in UkraineBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The United States is not sharing with the Ukrainian government detailed intelligence or Russia’s military buildup, according to American lawmakers. Moscow is reportedly deploying large numbers of troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine, while US intelligence agencies have allegedly detected the presence of Russian military supply lines that would be required for a land invasion of Ukraine. The US administration of President Barack Obama has publicly expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian government and has warned the Kremlin that any military incursions into eastern Ukraine would constitute a grave “historical error” that would bear serious consequences for the Russian leadership. But according to American news reporting website The Daily Beast, Washington has instructed the American military and intelligence community to refrain from sharing detailed intelligence on Russia’s military buildup with Ukrainian authorities. Details being kept from Ukrainian eyes include “imagery, intercepts and analysis” that pinpoint the exact location of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border. They also include intelligence predictions of how Russian units would deploy during a possible invasion of Ukraine. The Daily Beast, which is owned by Newsweek, cited “US officials and members of Congress” who were briefed by intelligence personnel earlier this week on the situation in Ukraine. They told the news website that senior American military officials have been instructed “to refrain from briefing their Ukrainian counterparts in detail” about information on Russian troop movements held by American intelligence agencies. The Daily Beast quotes Republican Representative Michael Turner, chair of a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that oversees America’s tactical air and land force strength. Turner told the website that he is “not confident” that Washington is “sharing any of that kind of [detailed military] information” with Kiev. Read more of this post

CEO of private bank shot dead in Liechtenstein

Bank FrickBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The chief executive officer of a private bank in the alpine principality of Liechtenstein has been shot dead at the bank’s headquarters, according to reports. Liechtenstein police said Monday that a 48-year-old bank executive had been shot dead inside the underground car park of the bank’s headquarters. The report said the fatal shooting took place in the village of Balzers, located near Liechtenstein’s border with Switzerland. The police statement did not name the bank or the executive. Later on Monday, however, Swiss news outlet Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (The Voice of Switzerland) identified the shooting victim as Jürgen Frick, CEO of Bank Frick. Headquartered in Balzers, the family-run bank was founded in 1998 as a private financial establishment. In addition to its Liechtenstein office, Bank Frick also maintains a branch in London’s Mayfair district, in the United Kingdom. Liechtenstein police said on Monday it was looking for a suspected gunman, identified as Jürgen Hermann, a former fund manager, who was spotted in the bank’s surveillance cameras around the time of the shooting. Hermann, who lives in Liechtenstein’s Mauren municipality, was also seen fleeing the scene of the crime in Smart car. Swiss media later reported that Hermann describes himself on his personal website as “the Robin Hood of Liechtenstein” and as the tax-haven’s “public enemy No. 1”. German media said Hermann has been involved in longstanding feuds with the government of Liechtenstein over “financial issues”. In his website, the suspected shooter has uploaded statements demanding that the government of Liechtenstein returns to him “investments worth millions”, which were allegedly “destroyed by the financial mafia of Liechtenstein”. The principality’s police say they found Hermann’s driver license and passport thrown by the side of a road near the river Rhine, and suspect that Hermann might have killed himself. Read more of this post

Analysis: Time for Western spy agencies to refocus on Russia?

Pro-Russian celebrations in CrimeaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
During the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies relied on legions of Soviet specialists to make sense of the Kremlin’s policy maneuvers. The American Intelligence Community in particular was almost exclusively engaged in collecting information on the USSR. To the extent that American intelligence collectors were active in countries other than the USSR, it was primarily in order to monitor Soviet activity. The implosion of the Soviet Union brought about a relaxation of Western intelligence collection efforts against Russian targets, a process that was further fueled by the 9/11 attacks. The latter turned the attention of Western intelligence collectors on Islamist-inspired militancy in the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim regions. The legions of Western Sovietologists and Russia specialists saw their careers stagnate, as counterterrorism became the predominant buzzword in intelligence circles. But the recent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia is prompting a reexamination of intelligence collection priorities among Western spy agencies. A recent analysis piece by the Reuters news agency suggests that some Western intelligence planners view the events in Crimea as “demonstrating a dramatic need for renewed focus” on Russia. There is concern among intelligence specialists, says Reuters, that no signals chatter was detected in Russia in the weeks prior to the invasion of Crimea to indicate an imminent Russian takeover of Ukrainian territory. This alleged weakness is coupled by concerns among some foreign-policy planners that the West is potentially entering “a new era of [...] confrontation with Moscow”, argues Reuters. If this is true, then Western intelligence agencies will need to replenish their level of expertise on Russia, which, according to some intelligence insiders, “has diminished drastically” in the last decade. Read more of this post

US created fake social network firm to foster dissent in Cuba

Cell phone user in CubaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A United States government agency secretly created a bogus social networking platform in order to foment political unrest in Cuba, according to a report by the Associated Press. Over 40,000 subscribers regularly used the ZunZuneo social networking service that began operating in the communist Caribbean island in 2009. The service, dubbed “Cuba’s Twitter” was based on SMS messages sent via mobile telephone subscribers. Its rapid success was attributed to the strict controls over Internet usage that are in place in Cuba, as well as the population’s relative lack of access to networked computers. But The Associated Press revealed on Thursday that ZunZuneo was in fact a secret program devised by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is a federal body operating under the Department of State. The news agency reported that the US government was able to conceal its role in building and sustaining the network by operating through a complex system of front companies set up in the Cayman Islands and in Spain. The latter were used to register ZunZuneo’s parent company and to pay the company’s bills, as well as to route millions of subscribers’ text messages without the involvement of servers based on US soil. The report stated that ZunZuneo’s corporate website even carried “bogus advertisements” strategically placed to give the site a realistic corporate look. It is worth noting that the social networking service suddenly stopped working in 2012, without providing a warning or an explanation to its tens of thousands of subscribers. But the Associated Press said the reason the service was terminated was that the US taxpayer’s money used to sustain the program simply run out. The news agency argued in its report that the program was covert in nature and should have been subjected to Presidential authorization and Congressional scrutiny. Read more of this post

Senate report: CIA misled US government about torture

CIA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A United States Senate report on the use of torture to extract intelligence from terrorism detainees accuses the Central Intelligence Agency of severely overstating the usefulness of the information gained. Details of the long-awaited report, produced after a four-year investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have been leaked to The Washington Post. The paper reports that the probe is a damning indictment on the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program, implemented during the administration of President George W. Bush. The report contains over 20 different conclusions. But the most critical are that the CIA misled the government and the American public by: (a) understating the severity of the interrogation methods used; and (b) overstating the actionable intelligence extracted through torture. The Post cites unnamed “US officials” who have reviewed the Senate report as stating that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program “yielded little, if any, significant intelligence”. According to one source, in some cases the Agency proceeded to waterboard terrorism detainees after recognizing that all actionable intelligence had already been extracted from them. In one instance, says the paper, nearly all valuable intelligence gained from al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida was extracted by CIA interrogators before he was subjected to waterboarding nearly 100 times. Notably, the Senate report also highlights deep divisions within the CIA, as many units protested the practices employed under the Agency’s interrogation program. But The Post also quotes “current and former officials” who are critical of the Senate report for containing “factual errors” and “misguided conclusions”. One CIA veteran told the paper that the 6,300-page document reflected “Federal Bureau of Investigation biases”, and that CIA officials are critical of the fact that one of the report’s main authors is a former FBI analyst.
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NSA ‘high-target’ list includes names of 122 world leaders

NSA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A list of high-priority intelligence targets published over the weekend includes the names of over a hundred current and former heads of state, who were systematically targeted by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). The list appears to be part of a wider “Target Knowledge Base” assembled by the NSA in order to help produce “complete profiles” of what the NSA calls “high-priority intelligence targets”. The list is contained in a classified top-secret briefing created by the NSA in 2009. It was published by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which said it acquired it from American intelligence defector Edward Snowden. Snowden, a former computer expert for the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency, is currently living in Russia, where he has been offered political asylum. The leaked briefing explains the function of an extensive NSA signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection program codenamed NYMROD. The computer-based program is allegedly able to sift through millions of SIGINT reports and collate information on individual targets from the transcripts of intercepted telephone calls, faxes, as well as computer data. The list provided to Der Spiegel by Snowden contains 122 names of international political figures, said the newsmagazine, adding that all of them were “heads of foreign governments”. It includes the name of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko, as well as Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. Colombia’s former President, Alvaro Uribe, and Malaysia’s Prime Minster from 2003 to 2009, Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, also figure on the list. Interestingly, the leaders of Malaysia, Somalia, the Palestinian Authority and Peru top the NSA’s list of high-value executive targets. Read more of this post

Leader of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists killed by security forces

Oleksandr MuzychkoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A senior official of Ukraine’s largest far-right group, which played a central role in anti-government protests earlier this year, has been shot dead by security forces, according to reports. The official, Oleksandr Muzychko, was the chief coordinator in western Ukraine of the Right Sector, known locally as Pravyi Sektor. The organization, which was founded in November of 2013, operates as an alliance of far-right Ukrainian nationalist groupings, whose ideological leanings range from ultra-conservative to openly neo-Nazi. The group’s active membership is estimated at below 10,000. However, its well-organized paramilitary wing was instrumental in helping demonstrators fight against government forces in the streets of Ukraine during the Euromaidan civil unrest that toppled the government earlier this year. Despite his vocal stance in favor of the anti-government demonstrators, Muzychko, who had in the past expressed strong anti-Russian and anti-Semitic views, was viewed as an embarrassment by Ukraine’s pro-Western authorities. The latter routinely referred to him as “a criminal” and “extortionist” —referring to his sting in prison following his conviction for extortion in 1999. Earlier this month, Russian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Muzychko, whom they accuse of having been part of a group of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists that fought alongside Muslim Chechen rebels against Russian forces in the Russian Caucasus. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior, Muzychko, known locally as ‘Sashko Bily’, died during a shoot-out with Ukrainian security forces in a restaurant in the northwestern Ukrainian city of Rivne, which is considered a stronghold of the Right Sector. In a press conference on Tuesday, Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister, Vladimir Yevdokimov, said security forces had gone to the restaurant to arrest Muzychko and “three other gang members”. According to Yevdokimov, the high-profile Right Sector official was gunned down after he opened fire at the security forces, injuring one, and then tried to escape. But Ukrainian parliamentarian Oles Doniy told journalists that Muzychko had been killed under custody, after he was kidnapped by unknown assailants. Doniy said Muzychko’s body was later found “dumped with his hands tied behind his back and two bullet wounds in his heart”. Authorities in Kiev said the three “gang members” arrested at the site of the shootout had been taken in for questioning. Meanwhile, members of the Right Sector have threatened revenge for Muzychko’s killing.

Afghan officials see foreign spy agency behind bloody hotel attack

AfghanistanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Afghanistan’s intelligence community believes a foreign spy agency was behind last week’s bloody attack on a luxury hotel that left nine people dead. Last Thursday evening, a group of young men entered the five-star Serena Hotel, located a few blocks away from the Presidential Palace and key government ministry buildings in Afghan capital Kabul. Three hours later, the men, who had hidden handguns in their shoes, entered the hotel restaurant and shot indiscriminately at patrons. They were eventually shot dead by Afghan Special Forces, but not before they had managed to shoot over a dozen people at point blank range, killing nine, including two Canadians, an American and a Paraguayan. Four children and a senior reporter with Agence France Presse were among the dead, while the wounded included an Afghan member of parliament. Many blamed the attack on the Taliban or the Haqqani network, an Islamist militant group responsible for countless high-profile attacks in Kabul and other Afghan cities. Soon afterwards, the Taliban issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, which they said was aimed at demonstrating the ease with which Afghan government security measures could be evaded. On Monday, however, a press release issued by the Office of the Afghan President said a “foreign intelligence service”, rather than an indigenous militant group, was behind the attack. The press release, which bore the signature of Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, said intelligence officials from the National Directorate for Security had briefed Afghanistan’s National Security Council about the findings of an investigation on the attack. In the statement, which was issued in both Pashto and English, the President’s Office said that neither the Taliban nor the Haqqani network “were even aware” that the attack at the Serena Hotel was going to take place. Instead, the operation “was a direct attack by an intelligence service outside the country”, said the statement. A subsequent announcement released by the Afghan government placed blame on Pakistani intelligence services, saying they were directly involved in the attack. It also stated that an unnamed “Pakistani diplomat” had been seen filming inside the Serena Hotel “a while ago”. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected Kabul’s allegations, saying it was “highly disturbing that attempts are being made to somehow implicate Pakistan in this terrorist incident”.

 

CIA places Iran operations division chief on administrative leave

CIA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The chief of Iran operations at the United States Central Intelligence Agency has been placed on paid administrative leave, allegedly for creating a hostile work environment that ended up impeding the Agency’s output. According to The Los Angeles Times, many members of the CIA’s Iran operations division had launched an “open rebellion” against their 46-year-old chief, which the paper identified by name. In an article published on Saturday, The Times stated that the veteran intelligence officer, who has now been removed from the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, had previously served at CIA stations in Iraq, Russia and the Balkans. The paper added that, in 2010, the CIA had to pull out the officer from Pakistan, after he was publicly named as the Agency’s station chief in Islamabad. Some American officials have identified Pakistan’s intelligence services as the source of the leak that led to the officer’s public exposure, which was allegedly intended as retribution to a series of previous drone attacks by the CIA on Pakistani soil. The Times quoted “three former officials” who accused the chief of the Iran division of exercising a divisive and abusive management style, which led many of the division’s senior employees to request to be transferred elsewhere in the CIA. One unnamed source told the paper that, as a result of the division chief’s treatment and the open rebellion by his staff, the Iran office “was not functioning”. The veteran officer was “sent home” two weeks ago, after an internal investigation by the Office of the CIA Inspector General found that he had essentially lost the trust and respect of the division’s staff. Read more of this post

Obama comments on Senate-CIA dispute, fails to mention Feinstein

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Yesterday in a radio interview I opined that I would not be surprised if the White House stepped in to mediate the ongoing dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Today, President Barack Obama broke his silence “with respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA”, as he said. But he refused to take sides —or did he? On Wednesday afternoon, the President responded to a question on the matter by a White House pool correspondent. The question related to the increasingly heated public spat between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The latter is tasked, along with its sister body in the House of Representatives, with exercising legislative oversight of the Intelligence Community. Many members of the Committee, which is currently investigating the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation against terrorism detainees, believe that, not only was the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods illegal, but that it also failed to generate useful intelligence. The CIA, however, denies this, and has been quite possessive of documents relating to the issue, which the Committee believes has a right to access. The Agency has now asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to look into whether Congressional staffers illegally removed classified documents from the CIA’s archives that were beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation. The Committee has in turn asked the Bureau to investigate whether the CIA illegally searched the computers used by staffers to carry out their research into CIA files.

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Comment: The significance of the spat between Congress and the CIA

John Brennan and Dianne FeinsteinBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had gone out of her way in recent days to avoid commenting on the ongoing quarrel between her Committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That ended yesterday, when she gave a press conference accusing the CIA of illegally spying on her Committee’s Congressional staffers. Her stunning announcement came shortly after her tense meeting with the Director of the CIA, a bad-tempered John Brennan. She told the media that at the meeting she requested from Brennan an apology and acknowledgement that the alleged CIA spying was “inappropriate”. By her own account, she failed to get either, so she decided to go public. In an interview I gave yesterday to Michigan’s WILS 1230 AM’s Capital City Recap, I argued that the quarrel between the two government bodies is not in itself important. What is important, I told radio host Mike Cohen, is that the dispute has entered the public arena. A routine ‘push and shove’ mêlée has turned into an all-out fistfight in full view of the media. One Republican Senator, Lindsay Graham, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the time had come for “the legislative branch [to] declare war on the CIA”. In response to the Committee’s accusations, the CIA has apparently instructed the Department of Justice to investigate the alleged removal by Congressional staffers of classified documents that were “protected by executive privilege [and were] beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation”.

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