Scandinavian phone company helps ex-Soviet republics spy on citizens

TeliaSonera CEO Lars NybergBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A highly profitable cellular telecommunications company, which is jointly owned by a Swedish-Finnish public-private consortium, is enabling some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes to spy on their own citizens, according to a new report. TeliaSonera AB, the dominant telephone company and mobile network operator in Sweden and Finland, is currently active in nearly 20 countries around the world. In 2011, it posted a net profit of nearly $3 billion, 25 percent of which came from the company’s operations in countries of the former Soviet Union. They include some of TeliaSonera’s most lucrative franchises, such as Geocell in Georgia, Kcell in Kazakhstan, Ucell in Uzebekistan, Tcell in Tajikistan, and Azercell in Azerbaijan, among others. But a new investigation by Sweden’s public broadcaster, Sveriges Television AB  (SVT), accuses TeliaSonera of knowingly giving some of the world’s most oppressive governments the means to spy on their own citizens. The report, which is available online in English, effectively states that TeliaSonera is directly complicit in some of the world’s most severe human rights abuses. The accusation is bound to cause embarrassment among senior officials in the Swedish government, which owns nearly 40 percent of TeliaSonera’s stock. The SVT investigation singles out Uzbekistan, Belarus and Azerbaijan, where TeliaSonera operates monopoly cellular networks on behalf of the state, “in exchange for lucrative contracts”. While running the networks, TeliaSonera allegedly grants local intelligence agencies complete and real-time access to the all telephone calls, pen-register data, and content of text messages exchanged by users. This, says the SVT report, has in turn facilitated several arrests of pro-democracy activists and political dissidents in countries like Belarus and Azerbaijan. Read more of this post

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News you may have missed #711 (ex-spy edition)

Glenn L. CarleBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Egypt ex-spy chief to run for President. Omar Suleiman, 74, announced his candidacy on Friday and collected around 72,000 signatures of eligible voters in one day, more than twice the 30,000 required. Hosni Mubarak’s former intelligence chief insisted that his bid for the presidency does not have the support of Egypt’s military rulers and accused Islamists of sending him death threats. Mr Suleiman, made vice-president by Mubarak in the last days of his three-decade rule, symbolizes that era’s tough security regime and poses a threat to Islamists, who were routinely harassed and arrested during Mubarak’s era, and to liberals, who spearheaded Mubarak’s ouster. But his candidacy might appeal to some Egyptians hoping for an end to political instability.
►►Ex-CIA officer says evidence in alleged case was flawed. Information from the US Central Intelligence Agency used by Canada to link accused Ottawa terrorist Mohamed Harkat to al-Qaeda was untrue, according to Glenn Carle, a retired CIA case officer who interrogated Harkat at secret CIA black site prisons in 2002. Speaking to promote his blistering memoir about the case, The Interrogator: An Education, Carle said that Harkat, who was thought to be Osama bin Laden’s main financial administrator, “wasn’t the senior member of al-Qaeda that we had assessed. He wasn’t even a member of al-Qaeda”. Yet as recently as 2010, Canadian Security Intelligence Service evidence and testimony before the Federal Court of Canada continued to point to Harkat’s relationship with Haji Pacha Wazir as evidence of Harkat’s ties to the bin Laden terror network.
►►Ex-KGB agent wins South Ossetia vote. Former senior KGB agent Leonid Tibilov has won a tense run-off to lead Georgia’s rebel pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, after two earlier polls ended in turmoil. Tibilov won 54.12 percent of the vote with all ballots counted against human rights commissioner David Sanakoyev’s 42.65 percent. The peaceful end to the election contrasts sharply with the angry protests that followed a November 27 ballot in which Alla Dzhioyeva, a female candidate who opposed the local administration was disqualified after coming out ahead in the poll. Dzhioyeva was then hospitalized in February after being interrogated and allegedly beaten by police following allegations that she planned to seize power.

US denies arms dealer’s release is part of swap deal with Iran

Amir Mirzaei HekmatiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS| intelNews.org |
The United States government has denied that the quiet release and deportation of an Iranian arms dealer is part of a secret deal to swap imprisoned agents with Iran. A US State Department spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that Iranian citizen and convicted arms smuggler Amir Hossein Ardebili had been released from US custody and was on his way back to Iran. Ardebili was captured and abducted by US government operatives in the Republic of Georgia in 2007, during a controversial sting operation. His abduction was the culmination of a three-year-long sting operation, during which he allegedly tried to arrange a clandestine shipment of sensitive military technology from the US to Iran. He was eventually extradited to the US in 2008, and sentenced the following year to five years in prison, for operating as an “arms acquisitions agent for the government of Iran”. Last month, however, he was discretely released from prison in Minnesota and handed over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. US State Department spokesman Noel Clay said that Ardebili was on his way to Tehran via Europe, because he had “completed serving his criminal sentence and has no legal immigration status in this country”. The spokesman also pointed out that Ardebili’s five-year prison sentence was meant to include the nearly two years he spent in Georgian and US detention, prior to his 2009 trial. But some observers, including Laura Rozen at Yahoo News, speculate that there might be a connection between Ardebili’s deportation and the reversal earlier this month of a death sentence imposed by a Tehran court on a former US marine captured in Iran on spy charges. Tehran recently announced that Amir Mirzaei Hekmati (pictured), from Arizona, who was captured in Iran while allegedly on a CIA mission, is to have his death sentence voided, and will face a retrial. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #685

Aleksandr Z. AnkvabBy IAN ALLEN| intelNews.org |
►►Abkhazia President survives assassination attempt. Unidentified assassins tried on Wednesday to kill Aleksandr Z. Ankvab, the president of Abkhazia, a Russian-backed rebel enclave of Georgia. The assailants used automatic rifles, grenade launchers and a powerful roadside bomb in an attack that raised fresh questions about Moscow’s ability to preserve order there.
►►Groups object to CIA declassification charges. Open government advocates are protesting a recently adopted CIA policy that allows the agency to charge up to $72 an hour to review requests to declassify secret records. The effect “will be to price the public out of submitting” requests for “mandatory declassification review,” the American Library Association, Sunlight Foundation and more than 30 other organizations said in a letter Thursday to CIA Director David Petraeus.
►►Analysis: Fallout from Syrian colonel’s abduction in Turkey. The smokescreen surrounding the abduction of Syrian Col. Hussein Harmush, who defected to Turkey in June 2011 before being handed over to the Syrian secret service in September 2011, has begun to clear in recent weeks following a judicial probe. Claims that Turkey’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), was involved in handing Harmush over to Syria were finally confirmed on February 2 when the Adana Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a written statement saying one MİT agent had been arrested for questioning and further MİT officials had been called to testify as “suspects” in the scandalous repatriation case.

Israeli-Iranian ‘dirty war’ nearing point of no return

Bomb blast in New DelhiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The ongoing intelligence war between Israel and Iran appears to be reaching unprecedented levels following the exposure earlier this week of a simultaneous bombing campaign against Israeli targets in Europe and Asia. The wife of Israel’s Defense Attaché in New Delhi, India, was among four people injured on Monday, after a magnetic bomb attached to her car exploded just 500 yards from the gates of the Israeli embassy. Three thousand miles away, in Tbilisi, Georgia, a sharp-eyed employee of the Israeli embassy there discovered a bomb attached to a diplomatic car; the device was eventually diffused by Georgian counterterrorist authorities. A few hours later, the government of Thailand announced that two Iranian nationals had been detained following an explosion at a rented house in the capital Bangkok, which critically injured one of the arrestees. A second man was reportedly arrested in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport while he was trying to board a flight to Malaysia. At least two other men, also Iranian nationals, remain at large, though Thai officials suspect they have already fled to Iran. (Update: Thai authorities have confirmed the bombers’ targets were Israeli diplomats). Speaking anonymously to Bloomberg news agency, US intelligence officials said that operations directed at Israeli targets were also “disrupted” in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, as well as in Bulgaria. Observers have also noted that the attack that injured the wife of the Israeli diplomat was carried out in one of Israel’s strongest allies in Asia, thus delivering a two-fold message to both Tel Aviv and New Delhi. India’s Home Affairs Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, told journalists yesterday that the attack in the Indian capital was conducted by a “well trained” motorcyclist, who attached “a magnetic device” to the car before speeding away. Read more of this post

CIA report sees Russia behind bombing of US embassy in Georgia

GRU emblem

GRU emblem

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A classified US intelligence report indicates that Russian intelligence is behind an ongoing string of bombings in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which have included an attack on the US embassy in Georgian capital Tbilisi. The attack, which took place on September 22, 2010, damaged the embassy’s exterior wall. A subsequent investigation by the Georgian Ministry of the Interior concluded that the bombing was coordinated by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces, also known as GRU. The investigation identified one GRU officer, Major Yevgeny Borisov, as the primary instigator of the attacks. Borisov, who is believed to be operating in Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia, was tried and convicted in absentia for his alleged role in the bombings. Now an article in The Washington Times says that a US intelligence report compiled last December by the CIA, with input from several US spy agencies, echoes the conclusions of the Georgian investigation into the bombings. The Times quotes “two US officials who have read” the report as saying that “it confirms the Georgian account” and fingers Major Borisov as the one of the main culprits behind the bombings. It also quotes “two Obama administration officials” who say that the US Department of State has taken up the issue with “the most senior levels of Russia’s Foreign Ministry”. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #547

Imtiaz Ahmad

Imtiaz Ahmad

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Finland cancels visa of ex-KGB general. We reported recently on the case of Mikhail Golovatov, a former commander of the Soviet KGB’s Alpha Group, who is wanted in Lithuania for alleged war crimes against the country’s secession movement in the early 1990s. Last week, Austria arrested Golovatov, but released him 24 hours later, claiming that his Lithuanian-issued European arrest warrant was “too vague” to justify his continued detention. There are now reports that the Finnish embassy in Moscow has annulled the Schengen visa it had previously issued to the former KGB officer. In a statement, Finnish officials said they would not have granted Golovatov a visa in the first place, except there had been “a spelling mistake in Golovatov’s first name”, which made them think he the applicant was not General Golovatov of KGB fame. Hmmm…. ►►Georgian ‘spy photographers’ to be released. In a bizarre twist to the ‘photojournalist spies’ saga in Georgia, the government has announced that the three will be released under an agreed plea-bargain deal, because they had given the authorities “information of particular importance for national security” about Russian intelligence operations in Georgia. The three have allegedly “revealed the identities of Russian spies working in the country as well as the names of their Georgian collaborators and cover organizations operating on behalf of Moscow”. The three, Zurab Kurtsikidze, Irakli Gedenidze and Giorgi Abdaladze, are all professional photojournalists, who are accused by Tbilisi of spying for Moscow. ►►Pakistani ex-spy director says US owes Pakistan. Imtiaz Ahmed (often spelled Ahmad) is the former Director General of Pakistan’s main domestic intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB). In a recent interview, he accused the United States of using the ‘war on terrorism’ as a strategic pretext for capturing energy resources and limiting China’s economic growth. He also said that the US owes the Pakistani intelligence agencies, because without them it could not have accomplished its task in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. IntelNews readers may remember the last time Ahmad had made headlines, when he revealed a series of CIA operations against Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Georgia charges photojournalists with spying for Russia

Irakli Gedenidze

Irakli Gedenidze

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Three well-known Georgian photojournalists have been arrested and charged with conducting espionage on behalf of the Russian Federation. They include Irakli Gedenidze, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s personal photographer, as well as Giorgi Abdaladze, who works for Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The leader of the alleged spy ring is Zurab Kurtsikidze, who works for Frankfurt-based European Pressphoto Agency. All three were arrested in early morning raids last Thursday, during which their homes and offices were searched by Georgian counterintelligence officers. A Georgian government statement issued the following day stated that the searches uncovered confidential information about the daily itinerary of Mr Saakashvili, as well as a classified diagram of the Presidential office. According to the statement, the classified documents were secretly accessed and photographed by Gedenidze and Abdaladze, who then passed them on to Kurtsikidze. He in turn turned them over to the GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Defense Ministry. Along with the statement, Georgian government prosecutors released surveillance recordings of telephone exchanges between the three photographers, in which they are heard discussing payment arrangements in return for classified documents surrendered to the Russians. Read more of this post

Comment: Russian Espionage Steals 2010 Limelight

GRU emblem

GRU emblem

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
As the first decade of the 21st century is coming to an end, few would dispute that Israeli and American spy agencies have been among the most talked-about intelligence organizations of 2010. The reasons for this are equally undeniable: the United States tops the list because of its political prominence, which inevitably attracts media attention; Israel tops it because of the sheer ferocity of its espionage output throughout the Middle East. And yet there is nothing new about this, since neither the Central Intelligence Agency nor the Mossad are exactly novices when it comes to high-profile media exposures. The same cannot be said with respect to Russian intelligence agencies, which went through a period of prolonged hibernation following the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the year that is about to end demonstrates that the stagnant interlude in Russian espionage may well be in its closing stages.

Read more of this post

News you may have missed #458

  • More arrests of alleged Russian agents in Georgia. The government of Georgia arrested six people suspected of being agents for Russia and accused them of staging a series of explosions, including one outside the US embassy in capital Tbilisi. At least 13 more people were arrested last month in Georgia, and are facing charges of spying for Moscow.
  • Iran defector says Tehran hosted N. Korean techs. Mohammad Reza Heydari, who resigned in January from his post as Iranian consul in Norway, and defected to the West, has told a conference in Paris that he saw North Korean technicians “repeatedly” travel to Iran.
  • Spy scandal MP helped second Russian woman stay in UK. British Liberal Democrat parliamentarian Mike Hancock, whose assistant, Katia Zatuliveter, is accused by MI5 of spying for Russia, helped 25-year-old Russian citizen Ekaterina Paderina stay in Britain after she ran into visa problems, in the late 1990s.

News you may have missed #454

  • Georgia lets Russian envoy visit jailed spy suspect. Georgia says it has allowed a representative of the Russian consulate to meet with a Russian citizen detained on charges of espionage. The jailed man is one of 13 individuals suspected of spying for Russia, who were arrested by Georgian counterintelligence earlier this month. Four of the detained suspects are Russian citizens and nine are Georgian nationals.
  • Danish agency aware of CIA spying since 2004. The Danish security services have released a statement saying they have known since 2004 that the US Embassy in Copenhagen was collecting information on Danish citizens. Last week, several Scandinavian countries launched investigations into the activities of intelligence gathering networks employed by US embassies.
  • Iran charges German reporters with espionage. Iranian officers detained the journalists, who were pretending to be tourists, as they conducted an interview with the son of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, condemned to death by stoning.

News you may have missed #452

  • Britain’s GCHQ turns to Google for help. GCHQ, Britain’s Cheltenham-based signals intelligence agency, is recruiting an expert on MapReduce, the patented number-crunching technique developed by Google to distribute the load of billions of web searches across its cluster of hundreds of thousands of commodity servers.
  • CIA double agent pleads guilty from prison. CIA officer Harold James Nicholson, who in 1997 was jailed for spying for Russia, has pleaded guilty to enlisting his son Nathan to sell the Russians more secrets and collect money owed to him by the Russian spy services.
  • Georgia offers to negotiate with Russia over spies. Tbilisi is ready for negotiations with Moscow on the repatriation of several alleged Russian spies arrested in Georgia, the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze has said.

News you may have missed #450

  • Nuke bomb material found in Georgia black market. Highly enriched uranium that could be used to make a nuclear bomb is on sale on the black market along the fringes of the former Soviet Union, according to evidence emerging from a secret trial in the Republic of Georgia.
  • CIA Director warns against leaks. Asserting that lives have been endangered and sources compromised by “a damaging spate of media leaks” in recent months, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta reminded the spy agency’s employees Monday that unauthorized disclosures of classified information “cannot be tolerated”.
  • US issues new unclassified information policy. The White House has issued an executive order to establish a uniform policy for handling “controlled unclassified information” (CUI), which is information that is restricted from disclosure because it involves personal privacy, proprietary data or law enforcement investigations not relating to national security.

Russia accuses Georgia of aiding al-Qaeda in North Caucasus

Dagestan

Dagestan

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
It may not make headlines in Western media, but Russia’s low-intensity war in Chechnya and Dagestan continues, with scores of separatists and government agents dying on an almost daily basis. Last week, Vyacheslav Shanshin the Dagestan regional director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, announced the killing by FSB agents of Makhmoud Mokhammed Shaaban. Egyptian-born Shaaban is said to have co-founded the al-Qaeda network in the Russian North Caucasus, along with Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab, whom the FSB managed to poison in 2002, with the help of a double agent. Shanshin also said that, like al-Khattab, Shaaban was partially funded and equipped by the Georgian secret services. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0279

  • Pakistani spy agencies drug political activists. Intelligence agencies in Pakistan are using drugs to extract information from political activists, with the cooperation of doctors on the payroll of the state, according to one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers.
  • Georgia jails alleged Russian spy. Vakhtang Maisaia, a military expert who advised Georgia’s mission to NATO, has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for spying for Russia during the 2008 South Ossetia War. Last week, Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, son of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-communist president, was formally charged with “collaborating with Russian intelligence services”.

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