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

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

Russia and Estonia conduct Cold-War-style spy swap

Estonia Russia spy-swapThe Russian and Estonian intelligence services have exchanged two men accused by each country of spying for the other, in a rare public example of what is commonly referred to as a ‘spy-swap’. The exchange took place on Saturday on a bridge over the Piusa River, which forms part of the Russian-Estonian border, separating Estonia’s Polva County from Russia’s Pskov Oblast.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said that it had handed to the Estonian government a man going by the name of Eston Kohver. Last year, Estonian officials accused Moscow of abducting Kohver, an employee of the Internal Security Service of Estonia, known as KaPo, from the vicinity of Luhamaa, a border-crossing facility in southeastern Estonia. But the Russian government said that Kohver had been captured by the FSB on Russian soil and was found to be carrying a firearm, cash and spy equipment “relating to the gathering of intelligence”.

Kohver was exchanged for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian KaPo officer who was arrested in February 2012 along with his wife, Viktoria Dressen, for allegedly spying for Russia. The Dressens were caught carrying classified Estonian government documents as Viktoria was attempting to board a flight to Moscow. Aleksei Dressen was sentenced to 16 years in prison, while Viktoria Dressen to six, for divulging state secrets. Russian media have since reported that Dressen had been secretly working for Russian counterintelligence since the early 1990s.

Soon after the spy- swap, KaPo Director Arnold Sinisalu told a press conference that the exchange had been agreed with the FSB following “long-term negotiations”, during which it became clear that “both sides were willing to find a suitable solution”. Kohver, sitting alongside Sinisalu, told reporters that it felt “good to be back in my homeland”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 September 2015 | Permalink

US spied on 143-member Iran delegation to 2007 UN summit

Manouchehr Mottaki and Mahmoud AhmadinejadThe United States National Security Agency spied on the Iranian president, foreign minister, and over 140 Iranian dignitaries who visited New York in 2007 to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. The allegation was aired on Wednesday by American television station NBC, which cited former intelligence officials and a top-secret report on the espionage operation. The original report was included in an October 2007 issue of SID Daily, an internal NSA newsletter published by the spy agency’s Signal Intelligence Division. The report, which is entitled “Tips for a Successful Quick Reaction Capability”, commends the espionage operation against the Iranian UN delegation as an exemplary illustration of a collaborative effort between managers, technical experts, and analysts.

The operation appears to have been directly initiated in early 2007 by the George W. Bush White House, which asked the NSA to spy on Iran’s UN delegation. The blanket permission included espionage conducted against the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki, who were scheduled to be in New York in September of that year to attend the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly. In response to the White House authorization, the NSA deployed a small army of technical experts and analysts to spy on the entire 143-member Iranian delegation for 19 hours a day during the summit.

The NSA teams were allegedly able to record, transcribe and analyze 2,000 conversations of various lengths per day. According to NBC, the NSA was able to intercept the personal conversations of President Ahmadinejad, a number of video conferences involving members of the Iranian delegation, as well as calls made using Skype. The latter were intercepted using a secret technology codenamed BLARNEY by NSA, while the agency also relied on bugs installed in hotel and conference rooms used by the Iranians, said NBC. The intercepted communications were subsequently examined by the NSA’s Social Network Analysis Office in an effort to map the “social networks” of the Iranian government’s senior echelons.

The Iranian government did not respond to NBC’s requests for comment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to arrive in New York today to attend the 70th UN General Assembly debate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 September 2015 | Permalink

New study documents views of defectors from Islamic State

Islamic State convoy in SyriaA new study by a British-based organization details for the first time the views of dozens of former Islamic State fighters who have defected from the group in the past year. The study shows that most defectors were disillusioned after witnessing high levels of corruption among Islamic State members, or in response to the extreme violence perpetrated by the group against other Sunni Muslims. The research was carried out by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), which said it gathered the publicly expressed views of nearly 60 Islamic State members who left the organization between August 2014 and August 2015.

According to ICSR Director Peter Neumann, who authored the report (.pdf), just over 30 percent of the defectors from the Islamic State are Syrian citizens, while one in four were born in other Middle Eastern countries. Neumann told a press conference held in London on Monday that many of the defectors saw life under the rule of the Islamic State as too austere. They also believed that the group was too unforgiving against fellow Sunni Muslims who did not agree with its stern doctrine. Some of the defectors complained that Islamic State commanders were more interested in launching attacks against other Sunni rebel groups than against the government of Syria, which is ostensibly the Islamic State’s foremost rival. Additionally, some defectors said that Islamic State commanders were obsessed and paranoid about alleged traitors and spies within the group’s ranks, and that they often ordered the execution of Islamic State fighters based on little or no evidence.

A smaller number of defectors said they had experienced racism from other Islamic State members, while others said that combat duties under Islamic State command was neither action-filled nor heroic. Moreover, luxury goods looted from civilians were rarely handed down to regular Islamic State troops by their commanders. Some defectors also stated that non-Arab fighters were used “as cannon fodder” by the Islamic State in battles that took place in Syria and Iraq. Neumann told reporters on Monday that the ICSR study challenged the portrayal of harmony and dedication that the Islamic State had carefully cultivated on social media.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 September 2015 | Permalink

Russia jails ex-military intelligence employee for contacting Swedish company

Tselina satelliteA court in Moscow has sentenced a former employee of Russia’s military intelligence agency to a lengthy prison term for seeking to work for a Swedish engineering firm. Gennady Krantsov worked for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, from 1990 to 2005. As a radio engineer, he is believed to have worked on a number of projects relating to satellite technology. The terms of his government contract reportedly forbade him from travelling outside Russia. He was also forbidden from participating in intelligence-related engineering projects for foreign governments or the private sector for a minimum of five years after leaving the GRU.

But he was arrested last year by Russia’s Federal Counterintelligence Service, known as FSK, allegedly for sending a letter to a Swedish engineering company seeking work. In 2013, when the FSK first questioned Kravtsov, it was told by the former GRU engineer that his letter to the Swedish firm contained no state secrets. Additionally, Kravtsov was not found to have received any funds from the Swedes. But the counterintelligence agency returned to arrest Kravtsov in 2014, claiming that a polygraph test he had taken showed that he had shared classified material with foreign agents. According to Russian government prosecutors, Kravtsov gave the Swedes information about Tselina-2, a military radio surveillance system designed to detect the location and activity of radio-emitting objects from space.

Kravtsov was convicted of state treason and stripped of his GRU rank of lieutenant colonel. He was sentenced on Monday to 14 years in a maximum-security penal colony. The judge said that he had violated his promise not to reveal information about his GRU-related work to foreign government officials. His lawyers, however, complained that the case had been held completely behind closed doors and that they had not been permitted to call witnesses or examine material that was central to the case.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 September 2015 | Permalink


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