US, British intelligence agencies spied on Israelis and Palestinians, files show

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign AffairsDocuments accessed by a French newspaper show that American and British intelligence agencies worked together to spy on diplomats, academic researchers and defense contractors in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Last year, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States National Security Agency spied on senior Israeli politicians throughout the last decade, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Now French daily Le Monde has alleged that the NSA teamed up with its British equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters to spy on Israeli foreign service officials and diplomats, academic researchers and defense contractors. The newspaper also alleged that British and American spies targeted Palestinian government officials.

According to Le Monde, the information came from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former employee of the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency, who is currently living in Russia. Snowden defected there in June 2013, after initially fleeing to Hong Kong with millions of stolen US government documents in his possession. In a leading article on Wednesday, the newspaper claimed that British and American spy agencies have systematically targeted senior officials in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. Several Israeli foreign service officials stationed abroad have also been targeted, said Le Monde, including Israel’s ambassadors to Nigeria and Kenya. But the Anglo-American intelligence alliance has also targeted Palestinian government institutions, including the Office of the Secretary General of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Senior Palestinian officials that have been spied on include Ahmed Qurei, a former prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, and Ahmad Tibi, a member of the Israeli Knesset who served as an advisor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the 1990s.

Palestinian diplomats stationed around the world have also been targeted by the NSA and the GCHQ, said Le Monde, in cities such as Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, Islamabad, Pretoria, and Kuala Lumpur. The documents also show that the two intelligence agencies have spied on Israeli defense contractors, including a company named Ophir Optronics, which works in the areas of laser and fiber optic technologies. Finally, the French newspaper said that research centers throughout Israel had been targeted, including scientific laboratories located at the Jerusalem-based Hebrew University.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 December 2016 | Permalink

Russia says it foiled major foreign cyber attack on its financial system

FSB - IARussian authorities say they prevented a large-scale cyber attack by “a foreign intelligence service”, which had been designed to destabilize the country’s financial system and subvert its economy. In an official statement published on its website last week, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said the perpetrators of the foiled attack had planned to carry it out on December 5. The spy agency, which stems from the Soviet-era KGB, said that the cyber attack had been designed to bring down computer systems belonging to some of Russia’s largest banking institutions.

Text to the statement by the FSB, the planned attack consisted of several components. One component included the use of social media and text messages to be spread through the mobile phone system. The goal was to spread rumors claiming that Russia’s financial system was facing imminent collapse and create panic in the Russian stock exchange. The FSB alleged that several large cities throughout Russia were to be targeted under the foiled plan. The spy agency claimed that the attack originated from a “foreign intelligence service”, but did not identify any countries as culprits of the operation. However, it said that a Ukrainian web hosting company had been used as a base from which to launch the attack through servers located in the Netherlands. On Friday, the Ukrainian web host, BlazingFast, denied that its systems had been used to prepare an attack on the Russian financial sector. In a statement published on Facebook, the company said it had not been contacted by Russian authorities, and assumed that the FSB had “been able to handle the situation without the need of BlazingFast’s cooperation”. It added that it was willing “to cooperate with any legal entity” to investigate Russia’s accusations.

In August of this year, the FSB disclosed that “a meticulously coded and sophisticated virus” had been found on the computer networks of at least 20 major Russian agencies and organizations. As intelNews reported at the time, the targets appeared to have been carefully selected by the malware’s authors. They included government bodies, weapons laboratories and defense contractors located throughout Russia.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 December | Permalink

Senior US intelligence official tells Congress not to ‘micromanage’ spy efforts

James ClapperThe United States’ senior intelligence officer has told Congress that new legislation requiring spy agencies to act against alleged Russian covert operations constitutes “micromanagement” of the American Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Authorization bill, which includes a number of intelligence-related requirements and provisions, is debated and enacted each year by Congress. This year’s legislation has already been approved by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. Last week it was enacted by the House, while the Senate is preparing to debate it this week.

The legislation currently under debate includes instructions to the US Intelligence Community to set up an interagency committee to formulate responses to perceived Russian covert operations around the world. The term ‘covert operations’ refers to actions by intelligence agencies designed to influence foreign political, military or economic affairs or events. The topic received media attention during the 2016 US presidential election, when Washington repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to shape its outcome. This year’s Intelligence Authorization bill requires every US intelligence agency to appoint a representative to serve on a joint panel that will address alleged Russian covert operations in the US, Europe and elsewhere in the world.

But in September of this year, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, America’s most senior intelligence official, authored a letter to Congress arguing that the requirement for an interagency panel to look into Russian covert operations should be scrapped. According to the Reuters news agency, which said last week that it saw a copy of the letter, Clapper argues that his letter echoes the unanimous view of the US Intelligence Community. He goes on to claim that the requirement to set up a special committee with an operational focus exceeds Congress’ role of overseer of the Intelligence Community and enters the realm of prescribing intelligence tasks. That, says Clapper in his letter, amounts to “micromanagement” of the Intelligence Community by Congress. Furthermore, he argues, the Intelligence Community has already taken steps to address Russian covert operations, thus the suggested panel would “duplicate current work” on the issue. Finally, Clapper’s letter suggests that the required panel would “hinder cooperation” with some of America’s overseas allies, though the Reuters report did not explain the precise justification for that claim.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 December 2016 | Permalink

Outgoing CIA director says scrapping Iran nuclear deal would be ‘disastrous’

John BrennanThe outgoing director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency has warned in an interview that it would be “disastrous” for Washington to abandon a nuclear treaty with Iran, which was agreed in 2015. John Brennan is a career intelligence officer and fluent Arabic speaker, who has served in the CIA for 25 years. He was appointed director of the agency in March of 2013 by President Barack Obama and is scheduled to leave the position in January of 2017, after nearly four years at the helm of the CIA.

Earlier this week, in the first interview given by a serving CIA director to a British media agency, Brennan told the BBC that he hoped the incoming administration in Washington would show “prudence and discipline” in security matters. He was referring to the administration of US president-elect Donald Trump, which is currently taking shape in preparation for January. The business tycoon said during his election campaign that he would scrap the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international agreement reached in 2015 between Iran and a group of nations known as the P5+1, namely the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. As part of the deal, Iran has agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.

The man chosen by Trump to replace Brennan at the helm of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, is a member of the so-called Tea Party Movement within the Republican Party and a fierce critic of the Iran deal. But Brennan told the BBC that “it would be the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that agreement”. The outgoing CIA director said it would be “unprecedented” for an American administration to scrap an international agreement struck by its predecessor. Additionally, said Brennan, if Washington abandons the treaty it will strengthen hardliners in the Islamic Republic and would cause neighboring states to pursue their own nuclear programs in response to Tehran’s. During his interview, Brennan also cautioned the Trump administration to “be wary of Russian promises” and not to trust the advances of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

Hungarian media accuses Russia of working with far-right militia

Hungarian National FrontMedia in Hungary have accused the Russian government of funding and training one of Hungary’s most notorious far-right organizations. The Hungarian National Front (MNA) was founded in 1989 as the Hungarian National Socialist Action Group. After the end of communism in Hungary, the organization began to espouse an openly neo-Nazi ideology, led by its leader, István Győrkös, a self-styled unreconstructed fascist. Győrkös, who idolizes Hungary’s wartime anti-Semitic Arrow Cross movement, set up links with similar groups in Central and Southern Europe. He served several prison terms in the 1990s for illegally possessing weapons and explosives and openly espousing pro-Nazi ideas. On November 6, Győrkös was taken to custody after opening fire against officers from the National Bureau of Investigation, who tried to enter his house to search for weapons. One officer was killed in the shootout.

Following Győrkös’ arrest, Hungarian police have conducted several raids throughout the country, targeting MNA members’ homes and offices. According to a report in the London-based Financial Times newspaper, the raids have uncovered weapons stockpiles that are more sizeable and technologically advanced than expected. And, according to the paper, some Hungarian media now allege that the MNA has been armed, funded and trained by Moscow. Emails exchanged between MNA members, which were leaked to the Hungarian press, allegedly show that the party’s leadership consciously cultivated a pro-Russian strategy in recent years, including an outright support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Győrkös also allegedly used party funds to set up a Hungarian-language website with pro-Russian information about the war in eastern Ukraine. Some unnamed Hungarian officials have claimed in the press that the government has evidence of joint training exercises between members of the MNA and Russian intelligence officers in eastern Hungary.

The Financial Times article quotes Hungarian investigative reporter András Dezső, who has written extensively about the Hungarian far-right, as saying that the Kremlin will work with whichever Eastern European political groups can help destabilize local politics, regardless of ideology. It also quotes Hungary’s former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who argues that the current government in Budapest has turned the blind eye to Russian intelligence activities in the country, which has effectively “turned Budapest into a ‘Little Moscow’”. The country’s current Prime Minister, conservative Viktor Orbán, has kept a moderately friendly stance toward Russia, having argued repeatedly at European Union meetings that Brussels should not impose economic sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2016 | Permalink

Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2016 | Permalink