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

Obama authorizes Special Forces, CIA, to conduct assassinations in Syria

Islamic State convoy in SyriaThe United States Central Intelligence Agency is collaborating with the country’s Special Forces in a targeted killing program aimed against senior members of the Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria. The program, which has been directly authorized by US President Barack Obama, is limited in scope and has so far involved fewer than a dozen strikes against suspected militants. But it is believed to reflect increasing frustration in Washington about the lack of progress shown by the military campaign against the Islamic State. Recent reports by American intelligence agencies confirm that the militant group is “fundamentally no weaker” today than it was a year ago, despite an intense US-led bombing campaign involving thousands of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

The Washington Post, which revealed the existence of the program on Tuesday, said it brought together the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The CTC is believed to be primarily responsible for identifying and locating senior Islamic State figures in Syria, while the JSOC is in charge of killing them, mostly through the use of unmanned drones, according the paper. The two agencies continue to operate separate drone centers, said The Post, in Virginia and North Carolina respectively; but they have exchanged several of advisors who have constant access to each other’s drone video feeds.

The goal of the targeted killing program is to assassinate what the CIA refers to as “high-value targets”, which includes Islamic State leaders and those members of the organization whose job is to build a membership base outside the territorial boundaries or the Islamic State’s self-described caliphate. The Post said that the list of Islamic State members killed by the CIA-JSOC program includes Junaid Hussain, a British citizen who was instrumental in building and maintaining the Islamic State’s outreach campaign on social media. The paper noted that the CIA-JSOC targeted killing campaign is not part of the wider American military offensive against the Islamic State.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 01 September 2015 | Permalink

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


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