Book alleges 1980s British Labour Party leader was Soviet agent

Michael FootThe leadership of the Labour Party in Britain has reacted with disdain after a new book by a leading author and columnist claimed that Michael Foot, who led the Party in the early 1980s was paid agent of the Soviet KGB. Foot, a staunch and vocal representative of the postwar British left, was a member of parliament for over 40 years, eventually serving as leader of the House of Commons. He rose to the post of deputy leader of the Labour Party and in 1980 succeeded Jim Callahan as head of the Party. But he stepped down in 1983 in the aftermath of Labour’s largest electoral defeat in over half a century.

Two years later, in 1985, Oleg Gordievsky, a colonel in the Soviet KGB, defected to Britain and disclosed that he had been a double spy for the British from 1974 until his defection. In 1995, Gordievsky chronicled his years as a KGB officer and his espionage for Britain in a memoir, entitled Next Stop Execution. The book was abridged and serialized in the London-based Times newspaper. In it, Gordievsky claimed that Foot had been a Soviet “agent of influence” and was codenamed “Agent BOOT” by the KGB. Foot proceeded to sue The Times for libel, after the paper published a leading article headlined “KGB: Michael Foot was our agent”. The Labour Party politician won the lawsuit and was awarded financial restitution from the paper.

This past week, however, the allegations about Foot’s connections with Soviet intelligence resurfaced with the publication of The Spy and the Traitor, a new book chronicling the life and exploits of Gordievsky. In the book, Times columnist and author Ben Macintyre alleges that Gordievsky’s 1995 allegations about Foot were accurate and that Gordievsky passed them on to British intelligence before openly defecting to Britain. According to Macintyre, Gordievsky briefed Baron Armstrong of Ilminster, a senior civil servant and cabinet secretary to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Lord Armstrong, a well-connected veteran of British politics, in turn communicated the information to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in the summer of 1982, says Macintyre. The Times columnist alleges that MI6 received specific information from Lord Armstrong, according to which Foot had been in contact with the KGB for years and that he had been paid the equivalent of £37,000 ($49,000) in today’s money for his services. The spy agency eventually determined that Foot may not himself have been conscious that the Soviets were using him as an agent of influence. But MI6 officials viewed Gordievsky’s allegations significant enough to justify a warning given to Queen Elizabeth II, in case the Labour Party won the 1983 general election and Foot became Britain’s prime minister.

The latest allegations prompted a barrage of strong condemnations from current and former officials of the Labour Party. Its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who like Foot also comes from the left of the Party, denounced Macintyre for “smearing a dead man, who successfully defended himself [against the same allegations] when he was alive”. Labour’s deputy leader, John McDonnell, criticized The Times for “debasing [the] standards of journalism in this country. They used to be called the gutter press. Now they inhabit the sewers”, he said. Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot in the leadership of the Labour Party in 1983, said Macintyre’s allegations were “filthy” and described Foot as a “passionate and continual critic of the Soviet Union”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 September 2018 | Permalink

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Germany’s ruling coalition in ‘permanent crisis mode’ over far-right spy row

Hans-Georg MaassenGermany’s fragile ruling coalition continues to face strong criticism two days after removing the country’s domestic intelligence chief over concerns that he may harbor far-right sympathies. Hans-Georg Maassen, a career civil servant, led Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) from August 2012 until his removal on Thursday of this week. His hasty removal from the BfV was caused by the so-called Chemnitz protests, a series of prolonged anti-immigrant rallies, pogroms and riots that shook the east German city of Chemnitz in the last week of August of this year. They were prompted by news of the death of a German man, reportedly during a fight with two Kurdish immigrants. Videos of the protests surfaced on social media, showing participants throwing Nazi salutes, singing Nazi-era German songs and chasing people perceived to be immigrants in the streets of Chemnitz.

The controversy deepened when Maassen appeared to dispute the authenticity of the videos in an interview. The BfV director warned that the videos may have been faked as part of a disinformation campaign aimed at stirring racial tensions in Germany. The spy chief’s motives were questioned, however, when several investigative reporters, among them a team from the German public broadcaster association ARD, insisted that the videos were genuine and were posted online by people with real —not fake— accounts. Eventually Maassen became the focus of the story, as accusations surfaced that he may have leaked BfV documents to far-right activists and that he may even have coached them on how to evade government surveillance. The claims reignited widespread fears that members of Germany’s security and intelligence agencies may harbor sympathies for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a coalition of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi groups that has gained prominence since its establishment in 2013. Currently, the AfD is Germany’s third-largest party, having received nearly 13% of the vote in the 2017 federal elections. The AfD is also the country’s main opposition party in the Bundestag, since the two leading parties, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the liberal Social Democratic Party (SPD), are members of the governing coalition.

Following nearly two weeks of controversy, the German Chancellery announced on Thursday that Maassen would be removed from head of the BfV and would serve instead as second in command in the Federal Ministry of the Interior. The decision was seen as a difficult compromise between the three members of the governing coalition —the liberals of the SPD, who wanted Maassen fired, and the conservatives of the CSU and its Bavarian wing, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, who are in favor of tighter immigration policies. But the controversy surrounding Maassen continues in light of news that the former spy chief will see his income rise in his new post. In a report from Berlin, the Reuters news agency described Maassen’s reassignment as “a clumsy compromise” that highlighted the “dysfunctional relationship” of the three “loveless partners” in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fragile governing coalition. One critic, SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil, told the news agency that the Maassen controversy had caused the government to “slide into a permanent crisis mode”. Meanwhile the name of Maassen’s replacement at the helm of the BfV has not yet been announced.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2018 | Permalink

Dead Russian oligarch’s links to UK spy agencies must stay secret, judge rules

Aleksandr PerepilichnyA judge has ruled that the British government has the right to withhold information relating to alleged links between British spy agencies and a Russian millionaire who died in mysterious circumstances in England. Aleksandr Perepilichny was a wealthy and influential investment banker living in Moscow. In 2009, however, he fled Russia saying that his life had been threatened following a business disagreement. He resettled in Surrey, south of London, and began cooperating with Swiss authorities who were investigating a multimillion dollar money-laundering scheme involving senior Russian government officials. Described by some as the biggest tax fraud in Russian history, the scheme is said to have defrauded the Russian Treasury of at least $240 million.

On November 10, 2012, having just returned to his luxury Surrey home from a three-day trip to France, Perepilichny went out to jog. He was found dead later that evening, having collapsed in the middle of a side street near his house. He was 44. A postmortem examination concluded that Perepilichny had died of natural causes and pointed to the strong possibility of a heart attack. However, lawyers representing the late businessman’s family told a pre-inquest hearing that Perepilichny stomach was found to have traces of gelsemium, a shrub-like plant that is a “known weapon of assassination [used] by Chinese and Russian contract killers”.

The case is now being revisited following the failed attempt last March, allegedly by the Kremlin, to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a Russian former spy who defected to England in 2010. For the past several months, submissions have been filed for an inquest into Perepilichny’s mysterious death. But the British government said that it would not reveal any information relating to possible contacts between the late Russian businessman and British intelligence. The question was raised in June by lawyers representing Legal and General, Perepilichny’s life insurance company. They argued that if Perepilichny had close dealings with British intelligence, it would have raised significantly the threat that his life was under. But British Home Secretary Sajid Javid argued that releasing documents implicating the intelligence services with the late Russian businessman would endanger national security.

On Monday the judge leading the inquest into Perepilichny’s death ruled in favor of the British government’s position. The judge, Nicholas Hilliard QC, has security clearance and was therefore able to review the relevant evidence behind closed doors, during a secret session. He then ruled that “publicly releasing intelligence information [relating to Perepilichny] would pose a real risk of serious harm to national security”. Critics argue that the Skripal case has heightened public interest in Russian covert activities on British soil and that the public has the right to know whether the death of Perepilichny was in any way connected to the intelligence realm. The inquest continues this week.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence reevaluates safety of Russian defectors in light of Skripal poisoning

CIAIntelligence officials in the United States are feverishly reassessing the physical safety of dozens of Russian defectors, in light of the case of Russian double spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in England last March. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Like MI6, the US Central Intelligence Agency also has a protection program for foreign nationals whose life may be at risk because they spied for the US. The CIA’s protection division, called the National Resettlement Operations Center, helps resettle and sometimes hide and protect dozens of foreign agents, or assets, as they are known in CIA lingo. But following the Skripal case, some CIA resettlement officials have expressed concern that protection levels for some foreign assets may need to be significantly raised. The New York Times, which published the story last week, said that it spoke to “current and former American intelligence officials”, which it did not name. In light of those concerns, US counterintelligence officials have been carrying out what The Times described as “a wide-reaching review” of every Russian asset who has been resettled in the US. The purpose of the review is to assess the ease with which these former assets can be traced through their digital footprint on social media and other publicly available information.

According to the paper, several Russians who defected to the US after working for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies were tracked down by the Kremlin in recent years. In the mid-1990s, says The Times, the CIA actually found an explosive device placed under the car of a Russian defector living in the US. More recently, US intelligence traced the movements of a suspected Russian assassin who visited the neighborhood of a resettled Russian defector in Florida. In the past, Russian CIA assets who have been resettled in the US have voluntarily revealed their whereabouts by reaching out to relatives back in Russia out of homesickness. In some cases, they have left the US in order to meet a lover who may have been planted by the Russian spy services —with sometimes fatal consequences.

In addition to the US, at least one more country has initiated a thorough review of the way it protects former Russian assets living in its territory in light of the Skripal case. As intelNews reported in March, the British secret services tightened the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain only a week after the attempted murder of Skripal. Britain’s security services reportedly viewed the attack on Skripal as an intelligence failure and launched a comprehensive review of the risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter included attacks with chemical and radiological weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 September 2018 | Permalink

Western spy agencies thwarted alleged Russian plot to hack Swiss chemical lab

OPCW HagueWestern intelligence agencies thwarted a plot involving two Russians intending to travel to a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and hack its computer systems. According to two separate reports by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, the two were apprehended in The Hague in early 2018. The reports also said that the Russians were found in possession of equipment that could be used to compromise computer networks. They are believed to work for the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, Russia’s foremost military intelligence agency. The apprehension was the result of cooperation between various European intelligence services, reportedly including the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Organization (MIVD).

The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, has been commissioned by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the case of the Skripals, the laboratory said it was able to duplicate findings made earlier by a British laboratory.

Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) reportedly confirmed the arrest and subsequent expulsion of the two Russians. The Swiss agency said it “cooperated actively with Dutch and British partners” and thus “contributed to preventing illegal actions against a sensitive Swiss infrastructure”. The office of the Public Prosecutor in the Swiss capital Bern said that the two Russians had been the subject of a criminal investigation that began as early as March 2017. They were allegedly suspected of hacking the computer network of the regional office of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Lausanne. The Spiez laboratory was a target of hacking attempts earlier this year, according to a laboratory spokesperson. “We defended ourselves against that. No data was lost”, the spokesperson stated.

On April 14, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stated that he had obtained the confidential Spiez lab report about the Skripal case “from a confidential source”. That report confirmed earlier findings made by a British laboratory. But the OPCW, of which Russia is a member, states that its protocols do not involve dissemination of scientific reports to OPCW member states. Hence, the question is how Foreign Minister Lavrov got hold of the document.

As intelNews reported in March, in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning the Dutch government expelled two employees of the Russian embassy in The Hague. In a letter [.pdf] sent to the Dutch parliament on March 26 —the day when a large number of countries announced punitive measures against Russia— Holland’s foreign and internal affairs ministers stated that they had decided to expel the two Russian diplomats “in close consultation with allies and partners”. The Russians were ordered to leave the Netherlands within two weeks. It is unknown whether the two expelled Russian diplomats are the same two who were apprehended in The Hague, since none have been publicly named.

A November 2017 parliamentary letter from Dutch minister of internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren, states[4] that Russian intelligence officers are “structurally present” in the Netherlands in various sectors of society to covertly collect intelligence. The letter added that, in addition to traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) methods, Russia deploys digital means to influence decision-making processes and public opinion in Holland.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 17 September 2018 | Permalink

Iran spied on ISIS supporters through fake phone wallpaper app, say researchers

Cell Phone - IASupporters of the Islamic State, most of them Persian speakers, were spied on by the government of Iran after they downloaded a fake smartphone application with wallpaper images, according to an online security firm. Iran is a major adversary of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. The latter considers Shiism (Iran’s state religion) as an abomination. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), relies largely on supporters from the Arabic-speaking regions of the Levant. But according to estimates, Sunnis constitute about 10 percent of Iran’s population, and ISIS has found some fertile ground among Iran’s 8 million-strong Sunni minority. As a result, the government in Tehran is highly mistrustful of Iranian Sunnis, many of whom are ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris or Turkomans, and systematically spies on them.

According to the Israeli online security firm Check Point Software Technologies, one way in which Tehran has spied on Persian-speaking ISIS supporters is through fake smartphone applications. In an article published last week, the company said it had uncovered a state-sponsored surveillance operation that it had codenamed “Domestic Kitten”. The Check Point article said that the operation had gone on for more than two years, but had remained undetected “due to the artful deception of its attackers towards their targets”. The surveillance of targeted phones was carried out with the help of an application that featured pro-ISIS-themed wallpapers, which users could download on their devices. Yet another program linked to the same vendor was a fake version of the Firat News Agency mobile phone application. The Firat News Agency is a legitimate Iranian information service featuring news about Iran’s Kurdish minority. But both applications were in fact malware that gave a remote party full access to all text messages sent or received on the compromised phones. They also gave a remote party access to records of phone calls, Internet browser activity and bookmarks, and all files stored on the compromised phones. Additionally, the fake applications gave away the geo-location of compromised devices, and used their built-in cameras and microphones as surveillance devices.

Check Point said that the majority of compromised phones belonged to Persian-speaking members of Iran’s Kurdish and Turkoman minorities. The company stressed that it was not able to confirm the identity of the sponsoring party with absolute accuracy. However, the nature of the fake applications, the infrastructure of the surveillance operation, as well as the identities of those targeted, posed a strong possibility that “Domestic Kitten” was sponsored by the government of Iran, it concluded. Last July, the American cyber security firm Symantec said that it had uncovered a new cyber espionage group called “Leafminer”, which was allegedly sponsored by the Iranian state. The group had reportedly launched attacks on more than 800 agencies and organizations in in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 September 2018 | Permalink

US sees Russian weapon behind US diplomats’ mystery ailments, say officials

Kirtland Air Force BaseA Russian-made device caused the mystery ailments that affected more than two dozen American diplomats in Cuba and China, according to United States government officials who have been briefed on the matter. Since September of last year, Washington has recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana and at least two more diplomats from its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that they suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing as well as from various forms of brain injuries. In April of this year the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in the Cuban capital over similar health concerns. More recently, the US issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island and accused Cuba of neglecting to ensure the safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed there.

In early September, Douglas H. Smith, who heads the team of scientists tasked by the US government to examine the matter, said that microwave radiation was almost certainly responsible for the diplomats’ ailments. He added that microwaves were considered “a main suspect” and that his team of scientists was now “increasingly sure” that the diplomats had suffered brain injuries caused by microwave radiation. Now the US news network NBC reports that Russia is viewed as the primary culprit behind the mystery ailments that plagued US diplomats. Reporting on Tuesday the news network cited three unnamed officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump, as well as “congressional aides and others briefed on the investigation”. Specifically, NBC reported that the Russian connection was supported by “evidence from communications intercepts” (signals intelligence or SIGINT), though it did not elaborate on their precise nature. It also said that the ongoing investigation into the purported weapon involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency among other US intelligence and security agencies. Another leading actor in the investigation is the US Air Force, said NBC, stating that experts in its directed energy research program at the Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico, are trying to reverse-engineer the alleged weapons based on the symptoms that they cause.

But NBC noted that the evidence remains relatively inconclusive and is not yet sufficient to allow Washington to openly accuse Moscow of having masterminded the alleged microwave attacks on the US diplomats. The news network said it reached out to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence but received no response. A spokeswoman from the US Department of State said that the investigation into the diplomats’ ailments was ongoing and that the Department had made “no determination of who or what is responsible for the health attacks” on its personnel.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2018 | Permalink