British government releases MI5 file on little-known Cold War spy

Cedric BelfrageThe British government has released a nine-volume file on an influential film critic who some believe was “one of the most important spies the Soviet Union ever had”. Cedric Belfrage was born in 1904 in London and read English Literature at Cambridge University in the 1920s. While a student at Cambridge he made a name for himself as a reviewer of motion pictures, and by the early 1930s he was known as Britain’s highest-paid film critic. Soon afterwards he moved to the American city of Los Angeles, where he became a film and theater correspondent for British tabloid newspaper The Daily Express. But a multivolume file on him compiled by the British Security Service (MI5) and released last week by the National Archives in London, confirms that Belfrage spied for Soviet intelligence under the codename BENJAMIN.

According to the file, Belfrage turned to communism after witnessing the effects of the Great Depression in the United States. After a 1936 trip to the USSR, he reached out to the Communist Party of the US, which eventually put him in touch with a number of Soviet intelligence operatives in America. In 1940, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) set up the British Security Coordination (BSC) in New York. It was a clandestine propaganda project aimed at turning local public opinion in favor of America’s entry into World War II. Belfrage was one of many writers and intellectuals that were recruited by the BSC to help counter the prevalent isolationist sentiment in the country. The film critic worked for MI6 until 1943, and then returned to Britain to join another wartime propaganda outfit, the Political Warfare Executive.

At war’s end, Belfrage returned to the US, only to find that he had attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI had discovered that the British film critic had dealings with the Communist Party in the 1930s and suspected that he may have worked for Soviet intelligence. Further investigations revealed that Belfrage had indeed conducted espionage under the guidance of Jacob Golos, a Ukrainian-born American who managed a large network of pro-Soviet spies in America in the interwar period. But when he was questioned by the FBI, Belfrage said that he had given Golos a number of British —not American— government documents under direct orders by MI6. The latter allegedly hoped that the Soviets would reciprocate the move within the context of the anti-Nazi alliance between the UK and the USSR.

Eventually, Belfrage was brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the US Congress in 1953. The Committee was conducting public hearings aimed at unmasking suspected communist sympathizers in the American entertainment industry. But the British-born film critic refused to answer questions put to him, prompting HUAC to recommend that he should be deported from the country. The government adopted the Committee’s recommendation and deported Belfrage in 1955 for having been a member of the Communist Party under a fake name. Belfrage traveled throughout the Caribbean and Latin America before settling in Mexico, where he died in 1990, aged 86.

Interestingly, the British files reveal that MI5 decided not to prosecute Belfrage, most likely in order to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that British intelligence had employed a Soviet spy. The decision was probably not unrelated to the public scandal that followed the escape of the so-called Cambridge spies to the Soviet Union. Interestingly, Belfrage studied at Cambridge at the same time that Kim Philby (Soviet cryptonym STANLEY), Donald Duart Maclean (HOMER) and Guy Burgess (HICKS) were students there. But there is no evidence he ever collaborated with them, as he was not interested in politics at that time.

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

US warns China against use of non-official-cover operatives

Chinese Ministry of State SecurityThe White House has warned the Chinese government to stop deploying on American soil intelligence operatives masquerading as tourists, business executives or other false covers. Nowadays the standard practice for intelligence personnel deployed abroad is to be posted as diplomatic staff in a foreign embassy or consulate. But there are some intelligence officers who do not follow that practice. These are known as non-official-cover operatives, or NOCs in American intelligence parlance. NOCs are typically high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the diplomatic authorities of the country that is employing them. They typically pose as business executives, students, academics, journalists, or non-profit agency workers. Unlike official-cover officers, who are protected by diplomatic immunity, NOCs have no such protection. If arrested by authorities of their host country, they can be tried and convicted for operating as unregistered agents of a foreign government.

According to The New York Times, a significant number of Chinese NOCs have recently entered the United States as part of the Chinese government’s Operation FOX HUNT. Supervised by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), FOX HUNT is aimed at the thousands of former officials and other fugitives from China, who are alleged to have embezzled funds and are now living abroad, usually in considerable wealth. As part of the MSS operation, teams of intelligence agents are said to have been dispatched around the world in order to hunt down these fugitives, many of whom are believed to have embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds. Chinese media reports claim that nearly 1000 such fugitives have been “repatriated”, either voluntarily or involuntarily, since the launch of FOX HUNT. The tactics used by the Chinese NOCs are not clear, and some suspect that they include direct or indirect threats against the fugitives’ family members in China. Chinese reports have described FOX HUNT operatives as “mostly young, highly skilled”, and accustomed to “rapid-fire deployment” around the world.

The Times said that Washington views the parts of Operation FOX HUNT that take place on US soil as “a departure from the routine practice of secret government intelligence gathering” that both America and China practice against each other. The US, therefore, does not want Chinese officers without official diplomatic credentials, but posing instead as students, tourists or business representatives, engaging in intelligence operations on US soil, said the paper. It added that Washington’s warning had been delivered to Beijing “in recent weeks”. The Times article did not include specific descriptions of FOX RUN activities on American soil.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2015 | Permalink

CIA’s internal watchdog post remains vacant despite mounting calls to fill it

CIAThe administration of United States President Barack Obama has yet to nominate a replacement for the Central Intelligence Agency’s inspector general despite calls by Congress to quickly fill the sensitive post. The position has remained vacant since the end of January of this year, when David Buckley resigned after four years on the job. The position was created in 1989 in the aftermath of the so-called Iran-Contra affair, as part of a broader effort to institute independent oversight of the CIA. The Agency’s inspector general is tasked with, among other things, probing allegations of institutional illegality or personnel misconduct, and evaluating concerns raised by whistleblowers.

According to Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent of Yahoo News, there are “mounting concerns on Capitol Hill” about the failure of the White House to nominate a replacement for Buckley, more than six months following his departure. Isikoff wrote that Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Ca), who chairs the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote to President Obama in June urging him to nominate a new CIA inspector general “as soon as possible”. In her letter, Feinstein expressed alarm over the delay, which could adversely affect a growing list of sensitive internal probes at the Agency. But the White House has yet to respond to Feinstein, let alone nominate a candidate for the position, said Isikoff.

Several government watchdogs and observers told Yahoo News that the situation at the CIA inspector general’s office is “hardly unique” and noted that the process for appointing inspector generals for US government agencies usually “takes too long”. Moreover, the Agency’s office of the inspector general is not headless; it is led by interim inspector general Christopher R. Sharpley, a government lawyer who worked under Buckley. However, many wonder whether the delay stems from the President’s inability to find an individual with a reputation for impartiality and the determination to handle one of the US Intelligence Community’s most challenging posts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 August 2015 | Permalink

Is brother of China’s ex-chief of staff seeking to defect to the US?

Ling WanchengA well-connected Chinese businessman, described by officials as potentially one of the most damaging defectors in the history of modern China, is reputed to have requested political asylum in the United States. Ling Wancheng, 54, is the multimillionaire brother of Ling Jihua, a close aide of China’s former premier, Hu Jintao, who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party of China to eventually lead its Central Committee’s General Office. With the help of his brother’s connections and political influence, Ling Wancheng transformed himself from a journalist to an entrepreneur in the early 2000s. Soon after receiving his graduate degree in business administration, he founded an investment firm and joined China’s nouveau riche elite. His wealth, which is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, coupled with his older brother’s senior position within the Communist Party, made him one of China’s most politically connected entrepreneurs.

However, the Ling family’s fortunes turned dramatically for the worse in March of 2012, when Ling Jihua’s 23-year-old son was killed in a Beijing street while driving a Ferrari after a night of wild partying. Two half-naked women, who were also riding in the car, were seriously injured; one later died of her wounds. The circumstances of the crash, as well as Ling Jihua’s failed efforts to cover it up, were seen as symbolic of a spoiled generation of government officials, whose corrupt practices have isolated the Communist Party from the Chinese populace. Soon afterwards, the new administration of President Xi Jinping initiated a massive anti-corruption campaign as a means of restoring the reputation of the Communist Party. Ling was immediately demoted, cut off from the top echelons of the Chinese government, and in 2014 there were rumors that he would soon be facing a corruption investigation. In July of this year, it was officially announced that Ling had been expelled from the Communist Party and that he would be facing trial on charges of accepting bribes.

The announcement of Ling’s trial stated that he was accused of “accepting certain bribes for himself and on behalf of his family”. But no charges were filed against Ling Wancheng, and there were rumors that he was being pressured by Communist Party officials to testify against his brother. But it appears that the multimillionaire businessman, who owns several properties in the US, was able to flee China and is now in an undisclosed location on US soil. The New York Times, who tried to locate Ling earlier this week, spoke to unnamed American officials, who confirmed that he had indeed fled China and was in the US. The officials refused to confirm that Ling had applied for asylum. But they said that, if he did defect to America, Ling “could become one of the most damaging defectors in the history of the People’s Republic”, due to his political connections.

The Times added that Beijing had contacted the White House requesting that Ling be extradited to China. But the administration of US President Barack Obama appears unwilling to satisfy the Chinese government’s request, given that Chinese hackers are believed to be responsible for the recent theft of up to 24 million American government workers’ personal data.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 August 2015 | Permalink

Memos confirm secret NSA deal with leading cryptography vendor

William FriedmanIn 2007 I wrote in my “National Security Agency: The Historiography of Concealment” that America’s leading signals intelligence agency had made a secret deal with Crypto AG, a Swiss-based manufacturer of cryptographical equipment. The agreement, which lasted for much of the Cold War, allowed the NSA to read the classified messages of dozens of nations that purchased encoding equipment from Crypto AG. As I expected, the claim drew criticism from individuals connected with Crypto AG, including company scientists, who argued that the Swiss manufacturer would never have agreed to a deal that undermined its professional reputation as a trusted and neutral vendor of cryptological devices. Now, however, the BBC has revealed two recently declassified NSA memos that provide concrete proof of the deal.

My 2007 claim was based on a string of well documented allegations that surfaced in the early 1980s. While conducting research for his seminal book The Puzzle Palace, historian James Bamford came across references to Project BORIS, which involved a pact between the NSA and the Swiss company. To be precise, the deal appeared to have been struck between the Swiss inventor and Crypto AG founder Boris Hagelin and William F. Friedman, an American cryptologist who led the Armed Forces Security Agency, a forerunner of the NSA. The two men were united by a deep personal friendship, which was forged during World War II by their mutual hatred of Nazism.

Bamford’s claim was echoed in 1996 by Scott Shane and Tom Bowman, reporters for The Baltimore Sun. In a six-part investigative series about the NSA, the two journalists wrote that Friedman visited Hagelin during a trip to Switzerland in 1955 and asked for his help so that American could dominate its Cold War rivals. According to Shane and Bowman, Hagelin agreed and built a type of cryptological backdoor in Crypto AG’s devices, which allowed the NSA to read millions of messages for many decades. The company, of course, reacted furiously, saying that claims of a secret deal were “pure invention”.

On Thursday, however, BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera confirmed that a BBC investigation of 55,000 pages of documents, which were declassified by the NSA in April, found proof of the secret agreement. The declassified material, said Corera, contains two versions of the same NSA memorandum, as well as an earlier draft, which refer to a “gentleman’s agreement” between Friedman and Hagelin. Under the agreement, Crypto AG would inform the NSA about periodical changes to the technical specifications of its encoding machines. The company would also provide the American spy agency with detailed lists showing the precise models purchased by various national governments around the world. Furthermore, Crypto AG agreed not to sell the more advanced, customizable models of its equipment to countries viewed by Washington as directly adversarial. This, says the BBC, amounted to Crypto AG deceiving some of its customers, by offering them “watered-down versions” of its encoding devices.

Corera notes that there is no evidence in the memos that Crypto AG built any kind of back door in its devices for use by the NSA. Instead, by providing the American agency with detailed operational knowledge of the devices, it enabled American codebreakers to reduce the time and effort needed to break encoded messages intercepted by the NSA.

There are a couple of minor errors in Corera’s article. For instance, the “father of American code-breaking” is not Friedman, as he claims, but Herbert Yardley, who led the so-called Black Chamber (also known as the Cipher Bureau) in 1919, long before Friedman was in the picture. Additionally, he fails to mention Bowman’s contribution to Shane’s Baltimore Sun article, which was published in 1996, not 1995, as he writes. These minor errors aside, however, the BBC discovery is absolutely crucial for our understanding of cryptological history in the Cold War.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2015 | Permalink

US Congressional review considers impact of federal database hack

Office of Personnel Management 2A United States Congressional review into last month’s cyber theft of millions of government personnel records has concluded that its impact will go far “beyond mere theft of classified information”. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June, when hackers broke into the computer system of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Part of OPM’s job is to handle applications for security clearances for all agencies of the US federal government. Consequently, the breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans —including intelligence officers— who have filed applications for security clearances.

So far, however, there is no concrete proof in the public domain that the hack was perpetrated by agents of a foreign government for the purpose of espionage. Although there are strong suspicions in favor of the espionage theory, there are still some who believe that the cyber theft could have been the financially motivated work of a sophisticated criminal ring. But a new report produced by the Congressional Research Service, which is the research wing of the US Congress, seems to be favoring the view that “the OPM data were taken for espionage rather than for criminal purposes”. The report was completed on July 17 and circulated on a restricted basis. But it was acquired by the Secrecy News blog of the Federation of American Scientists, which published it on Tuesday.

The 10-page document points out that strictly financial reasons, such as identity theft or credit card fraud, cannot be ruled out as possible motivations of the massive data breach. But it points out that the stolen data have yet to appear in so-called “darknet” websites that are used by the criminal underworld to buy and sell such information. This is highly unusual, particularly when one considers the massive size of the data theft, which involves millions of Americans’ credit card and Social Security numbers. Experts doubt, therefore, that the OPM data “will ever appear for sale in the online black market”. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that the breach falls “in the category of intelligence-gathering, rather than commercial espionage”, according to the report.

The above conclusion could have far-reaching consequences, says the report. One such possible consequence is that high-resolution fingerprints that were contained in the OPM database could be used to blow the covers of American case officers posing as diplomats, and even deep-cover intelligence operatives working secretly abroad. Furthermore, the hackers that are in possession of the stolen files could use them to create high-quality forged documents, or even publish them in efforts to cause embarrassment to American intelligence agencies.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 July 2015 | Permalink: http://intelnews.org/2015/07/30/01-1746/

Will Israeli spy Pollard receive secret spy wages after US lets him go?

Jonathan PollardLawyers for Jonathan Pollard, an American with Israeli citizenship who spied on the United States for Israel in the 1980s, confirmed on Tuesday that he will be released in November, by which time he will have served 30 years of a life sentence. The news was welcomed by Pollard’s supporters in Israel, who consider him a hero, as well as by pro-Israel Americans, who have been pressuring the US government to release him. But 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?

Stein was referring to a practice that is common among intelligence agencies, namely to deposit cash in offshore bank accounts as a way of compensating their assets. The latter can gradually access those funds during trips abroad, usually after their retirement, long after having ceased their espionage activities. If the asset is arrested or perishes, the funds are usually passed on to the asset’s surviving relatives. This method protects the asset from the prying eyes of counterintelligence agencies in the asset’s home country, and sends a message to future recruits that assets and their families will be taken care of by their handlers.

Following Pollard’s arrest in 1985, US government prosecutors repeatedly rejected the view, put forward by Pollard’s legal team, that the former US Navy analyst was a romantic who had spied on the US for Israel because he wanted to assist a small country surrounded by enemies. They told the court that Pollard had also spied for South Africa and had tried to spy for Australia, before finally settling for working for Israel. Far from being a romantic, they said, Pollard was a calculated businessman, who sought financial compensation for his services to the Jewish state. Indeed, according to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pollard had pocketed at least $50,000 from his Israeli handers by the time of his arrest, in addition to receiving several expensive items as gifts. The spy had also been promised that Israel would deposit $30,000 every year in a Swiss bank account, which Pollard could access after his retirement.

In his article published Tuesday, Stein wonders whether Israel has 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 come November, 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 said he spoke to Pollard’s New York lawyer, Eliot Lauer, who called the rumors of a secret Swiss bank account “poppycock” and added that Pollard had been “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. Stein contacted the US Parole Commission, NCIS and the Central Intelligence Agency, but all declined comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 July 2015 | Permalink: http://intelnews.org/2015/07/29/01-1745/

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