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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama delegation switches hotels allegedly due to espionage fears

Waldorf AstoriaThe president of the United States and his delegation will be housed at a different hotel during a United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month, allegedly due to concerns over Chinese espionage activity. Since the late 1940s, the American president and his diplomatic entourage have resided at the Waldorf Astoria for several days in September, while attending the annual UN General Assembly in New York. The luxury hotel, which is located on Park Avenue on the island of Manhattan, has also served since 1947 as the residence of the US ambassador to the UN. That is also why the American delegation is usually hosted there, courtesy of the ambassador. This year, however, President Barack Obama and his sizeable delegation will be staying at the New York Palace Hotel, located at the corner of Manhattan’s 50th Street and Madison Avenue. The announcement was made last week by the White House and the US Department of State.

According to The Associated Press and The New York Times, the decision to relocate the American high-level delegation is primarily due to security concerns. The reports cited well-placed sources in the US government as stating that the relocation was prompted by the sale last year of the Waldorf Astoria to the Chinese firm Anbang Insurance Group. The McLean, VA-headquartered Hilton Worldwide Holdings, Inc., which sold the hotel to the Chinese firm, pocketed nearly $2 billion from the transaction. Based on the terms of the agreement, the American company will continue to operate the Waldorf Astoria until 2114. But Anbang announced last spring that the hotel would be undergoing a massive renovation program, which, according to media reports, has alarmed American counterintelligence officials. The latter are concerned that Chinese intelligence technicians may use the renovation to install eavesdropping equipment in Waldorf Astoria’s rooms and compromise the hotel’s Internet network.

The US diplomatic exit from the Waldorf Astoria was first reported back in mid-June, but was not confirmed by the White House or the Department of State. Since that time, no American cabinet official, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, has stayed at the Waldorf. But President Obama’s upcoming trip renewed the media’s interest in the change of hotels, and US government officials finally confirmed that the Chinese-owned hotel had been dropped based “on several considerations, including space, costs and security”. A State Department official told reporters last week that the change took “into account changing circumstances”. The Times also reported that the US government is examining whether its ambassador to the UN will continue to be headquartered at the Waldorf.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 September 2015 | Permalink

Dual US-Russian citizen pleads guilty to spying for Russia

Alexander FishenkoA resident of Texas, who is accused by United States authorities of setting up a front company in order to illegally acquire American technology on behalf of Russia’s intelligence services, has pleaded guilty to espionage charges. Alexander Fishenko, 49, was one of 11 people arrested in October 2012 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The arrests came during several raids in locations around Houston, Texas, which included the headquarters of Arc Electronics, Inc. The FBI accused the export firm of having shipped over $50 million-worth of military-grade micro-electronics since 2008. The supplies were received in Moscow, Russia, by a mysterious procurement company called Apex System LLC. Counter-intelligence investigators in the US claim that both firms are part of an elaborate scheme set up by Russian military intelligence, aimed at stealing dual-use electronics hardware created by American firms.

According to the indictment, Arc Electronics told its US suppliers that the microelectronics technologies were intended for use in various types of streetlights. But in reality, said the FBI, the company gave the hi-tech supplies to the Russian Ministry of Defense for use in airborne surveillance systems, as well as in remote weapons guidance systems, among other military applications. Federal prosecutors said that, for over four years, Arc Electronics engaged in a prolonged “surreptitious and systematic” scheme to circumvent US government export controls, thus seriously damaging US national security. Following the early-morning raids, the FBI unsealed indictments against 11 Arc Electronics employees, most of whom were charged with “acting as unregistered agents of the Russian Federation in the United States” —legal jargon for espionage.

Fishenko, who is originally from Kazakhstan, was scheduled to face trial on September 21 in New York. But on Wednesday he chose to plead guilty to the charges leveled against him. He is the fifth member of the 11 Apex System employees arrested back in 2012 to plead guilty to espionage. A government spokesman said the Fishenko’s plea did not result from an agreement to cooperate with the FBI. He now faces up to 15 years in prison. His lawyer, Richard Levitt, declined comment when he was contacted on Wednesday. The Russian government has denied that it had any involvement with Fishenko’s operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2015 | Permalink

Secret program gave CIA ‘unfiltered access’ to German communications

CIAThe United States Central Intelligence Agency had direct and unfiltered access to telecommunications data exchanged between German citizens, according to a new document that has surfaced in the German press. The program, codenamed GLOTAIC, was a collaboration between the CIA and Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which revealed the existence of the program last week, it lasted from 2004 to 2006. During those years, the CIA was given access to telephone and fax data carried by US telecommunications provider MCI Communications, which is owned by Verizon. The US-headquartered company owns a network switching facility in the German city of Hilden, located 10 miles east of Düsseldorf near the country’s border with Holland.

The existence of joint collection programs between the BND and American intelligence agencies has been established in the past, and has prompted the creation of a special investigative committee in the German parliament. The Committee of Inquiry into Intelligence Operations was set up in 2014, after files leaked by American defector Edward Snowden revealed that the US had been spying on the telephone communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But it has also been investigating whether the BND’s collaboration with American intelligence agencies violated the rights of German citizens.

The committee had previously been told that all telecommunications data given to the US by German agencies had previously been vetted by BND officers. But the GLOTAIC documents published by Der Spiegel states that audio recordings of intercepted telephone calls were “directly routed to the US” in the interests of technical efficiency. The parliamentary committee had also been told that the data shared with the CIA concerned non-German citizens using German telecommunications networks. But the documents published last week state that a “technical glitch” in the GLOTAIC system allowed “massive German traffic” to be directly accessed by the CIA without having been first filtered by the BND.

Another document published by Spiegel reveals that the BND warned project CLOTAIC supervisors that the agency faced “serious risks” should the secret operation become public, because it had allegedly violated German federal privacy regulations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2015 | Permalink


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