MI6 chiefs used secret slush fund to finance operations, document shows

Sir Stewart MenziesSuccessive directors of the Secret Intelligence Service used a secret slush fund to finance spy operations without British government oversight after World War II, according to a top-secret document unearthed in London. The document was found in a collection belonging to the personal archive of the secretary of the British cabinet, which was released by the United Kingdom’s National Archives. It was discovered earlier this year by Dr Rory Cormac, Associate Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Nottingham in England. It forms the basis of an episode of BBC Radio 4’s investigative history program, Document, which was aired last weekend. In the program, the BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera explains that the discovery of the secret slush fund reveals new information about the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service. It also raises questions about the underground activities of British spies in the Middle East following the British Empire’s postwar retreat.

Historically, the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service —known commonly as MI6— have been indirectly supervised by the British Parliament and its committees, which fund the agency through a secret vote. The use of the agency’s funds to carry out operations is also monitored by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who exercises political control over MI6. However, the document uncovered by Dr Cormac shows that, for many years, successive directors of the secretive spy agency financed operations using a sizeable personal fund, the existence of which was not disclosed to the government. The document describes a meeting held in 1952 between Sir Stewart Menzies, who was then the outgoing director of MI, and the permanent secretaries —essentially the top-ranking civil servants— to the Foreign Office and the Treasury. The meeting was held to prepare the ground for Sir Stewart’s retirement and to facilitate the smooth handover of power to his successor, Major-General Sir John Sinclair, who became director of MI6 in 1953. Read more of this post

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Three former South Korean spy chiefs charged with illegally diverting secret funds

NIS South KoreaA South Korean prosecutor has charged three former directors of the country’s spy agency of secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid the country’s disgraced former President, Park Geun-hye. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The conservative politician was impeached late last year, following accusations of corruption, bribing and extortion. In March this year, Mrs. Park’s government was brought down and she is currently in prison, awaiting trial. Her successor in the presidency, leftist politician Moon Jae-in, was elected after pledging to combat corruption in South Korea’s political inner circle.

As part of his anti-corruption campaign, Mr. Moon has overseen the purging of numerous senior officials from the NIS, after the agency admitted that it tried to influence the outcome of the 2012 presidential election in favor of Mrs. Park. In the latest round of corruption charges, the three former directors of the NIS are accused of funneling payments of between $45,000 and $91,000 a month to the office of the president. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. As such, it were not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to prosecutors. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors claim that the indictments of the three former NIS chiefs reveal high-level collusion between Mrs. Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party, also known as the Grand National Party, and the spy agency. Earlier this month, two presidential aides who served under Mrs. Park were arrested for transferring the cash payments in briefcases from the NIS to the president’s office. Two of the three former NIS directors, Nam Jae-joon and Lee Byung-kee were denied bail and are currently in jail. The third, Lee Byung-ho, was not deemed to be a flight risk and remains free while preparing his defense.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 November 2017 | Permalink

US diplomats in Russia to be guarded by firm with ties to senior ex-KGB official

US embassy in RussiaSeveral American diplomatic facilities in Russia, including the United States embassy in Moscow, as well as consulates in other major Russian cities, will be guarded by a firm with ties to a former senior KGB official. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the company, Elite Security Holdings, is headquartered in Moscow but has offices throughout Europe and the former Soviet republics. The firm has its roots in an earlier venture co-founded by former KGB official Viktor G. Budanov. The 82-year-old Budanov served as director of the KGB’s K Directorate, also known as Second Chief Directorate, which was responsible for counterintelligence. Budanov no longer owns any part of Elite Security Holdings. But his son, Dimitri Budanov, is believed to be in charge of the firm’s headquarters in the Russian capital. The family is known to be politically close to Vladimir Putin, who served together in the KGB with Viktor Budanov in East Germany in the 1980s.

Elite Security Holdings was awarded a no-bid contract by the US Department of State’s Office of Acquisitions —meaning that no other company was solicited by the US government for the contract. The agreement was struck once US diplomatic facilities in Russia were forced by Moscow to cut their staff by 755 employees. That resulted in the firing of many staff members, most of them local Russians, whose job was to guard the perimeters of US diplomatic facilities, screen visitors, and patrol the embassy grounds. To make up for the loss of personnel, the Department of State hired Elite Security Holdings, which is authorized to operate in Russia as a private local company; its staff members are therefore not considered to be employees of Washington. But the private firm retains close links to Budanov, who spent 25 years outthinking the CIA as head of the KGB’s counterintelligence directorate.

The Times spoke to an anonymous US State Department official, who said that Elite Security Holdings personnel would not have access to the embassy’s secure areas. The official also told the paper that all Elite Security Holdings employees had been carefully screened by “relevant national and local agencies” and posed no threat to the security of US diplomatic facilities. The latter would still be primarily protected by US Marines, who are detailed to the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. According to The Times, Elite Security Holdings personnel will work at the US embassy in Moscow, and the consulates in Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 November 2017 | Permalink

Cold-War-era Soviet spy George Blake issues rare statement from Moscow

George BlakeOne of the Cold War’s most recognizable spy figures, George Blake, who escaped to the Soviet Union after betraying British intelligence, issued a rare statement last week, praising the successor agency to Soviet-era KGB. Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Dutch mother and a British father. Having fought with the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, he escaped to Britain, where he joined the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, in 1944. He was serving in a British diplomatic post in Korea in 1950, when he was captured by advancing North Korean troops and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. He was eventually freed, but, unbeknownst to MI6, had become a communist and come in contact with the Soviet KGB while in captivity. Blake remained in the service of the KGB as a defector-in-place until 1961, when he was arrested and tried for espionage.

After a mostly closed-door trial, Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison, which at that time was the longest prison sentence ever imposed in Britain. However, he managed to escape in 1966, with the help of Irish republican prisoners in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he was serving his sentence. With the help of Soviet intelligence, Blake made his way to France and from there to Germany and East Berlin, hiding inside a wooden box in the back of a delivery van. He eventually resurfaced in Moscow, where he has lived ever since, in a small, government-provided dacha (Russian cottage) located on the outskirts of the Russian capital.

Last Friday, Blake issued a statement on the eve of his 95th birthday. The statement was posted on the SVR’s official website and published by several Russian news agencies. The convicted spy said that he placed his hopes for the peace of mankind on the “men and women” of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service —the main institutional descendant of the Soviet KGB. Blake praised the SVR’s officers as “heroes” who are engaged in “a true battle between good and evil” at a time when “the danger of nuclear war and the resulting self-destruction of humankind” is a real threat. The spy added that the prospect of nuclear annihilation has been “put on the agenda by irresponsible politicians”, in what Russian news agencies interpreted as a comment that was directed against United States President Donald Trump.

The end of Blake’s statement is followed by a second statement, written by the Director of the SVR, Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, who was appointed to his current post by Russian President Vladimir Putin a year ago, congratulates Blake on his 95th birthday and calls him a “reliable old comrade” and “a man of great wisdom”. Blake is “a proficient teacher”, says  Naryshkin, who has been a longtime role model for the officers of the SVR.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2017 | Permalink

Political tension grows in Zimbabwe as army chief threatens coup

General Constantine ChiwengaPolitical affairs in Zimbabwe took an unprecedented turn on Monday, as the chief of the armed forces warned the country’s President, Robert Mugabe, that the military would “not hesitate to step in” to stop infighting within the ruling party. General Constantino Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, took the extremely rare step of summoning reporters for a press conference at the military’s headquarters in Harare on Monday. A direct intervention of this kind is unprecedented in the politics of Zimbabwe, a country that is tightly ruled by its authoritarian President, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is also President and First Secretary of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the party that has dominated Zimbabwean politics since it assumed power in 1980.

General Chiwenga reportedly spoke in the presence of nearly 100 senior military officers, who were seated in the conference room and appeared to support his intervention. The press conference was called less than a week after President Mugabe fired his second-in-command in ZANU-PF, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The 75-year-old longtime confidante of Mugabe was dismissed from his post after speaking out against Mugabe and his wife, Grace, 52. It is thought that Mugabe, the world’s oldest president at 93, is preparing to appoint his wife in his place, something that has angered some in his party, including Mnangagwa. Addressing Mugabe directly, Mnangagwa said that ZANU-PF is “not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please”. He was removed soon afterwards, on November 6, and is currently believed to have fled in exile in China, but has vowed to return to Zimbabwe.

Political observers in southern Africa warned that Mnangagwa’s firing was a risky move for Mugabe. The 75-year-old former ZANU-PF guerrilla previously served as Zimbabwe’s Minister for Security and Defence, and has powerful connections in the country’s armed forces. General Chiwenga’s intervention on Monday appeared aimed at sending a message to Mnangagwa that the troops will not accept his dismissal. The general warned that “the current purging” within ZANU-PF was “clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background” —referring to the so-called Bush War between the leftist ZANU-PF and the Rhodesian military in the 1970s. The purge, said Chiwenga, “must stop forthwith”, because “when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in”. The general went further, commenting on Zimbabwe’s political instability and economic woes: “There is distress, trepidation and despondence within the nation”, he said, which is caused by “squabbling” within the ruling party. Because of that, “there has been no meaningful development in the country for the past five years”, resulting in “cash shortages and rising commodity prices”, added the general.

The next party congress of ZANU-PF is scheduled for December in Harare. Until last week, it was expected that Grace Mugabe would be appointed vice president at that time, replacing Mnangagwa. But with General Chiwenga’s unprecedented intervention on Monday, it remains to be seen whether President Mugabe’s strategy will unfold as planned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 November 2017 | Permalink

US airport screenings failed to detect 70% of hidden weapons in tests

TSA screeningAttempts by undercover investigators to smuggle weapons, explosives and contraband aboard American passenger flights were successful between 70 and 80 percent of the time in the past year, according to reports. The results of the investigations were revealed in Congress behind closed doors on Wednesday of last week, prompting lawmakers to severely criticize the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA was founded in November 2001 in direct response to the tragic events of September 11 of that year. It is primarily concerned with air travel and is responsible for ensuring the safety of the traveling public across the US.

The TSA’s security systems in airports across America are regularly tested by undercover investigators, who are hired to examine and assess the effectiveness of these systems. Last week, several US news media reported that the latest round of tests showed that undercover investigators were more often than not able to sneak dangerous items onboard civilian aircraft. Smuggled items allegedly included guns, explosives and knives, which could be used to carry out hijackings similar to those that brought down four commercial airliners in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. The precise rate of success of the recent tests has not been confirmed, because it has not been released to the public. ABC News said that the rate was close to 80 percent, while CBS reported that it was closer to 70 percent.

Remarkably, similar tests conducted in 2015 were successful 95 percent of the time, meaning that the TSA did considerably better in this year’s tests, despite its abysmally low rate of detection. On Wednesday, members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security expressed serious concerns about the TSA’s lack of success. They aired their criticisms in the presence of Vice Admiral Peter Pekoske (ret.) who currently serves as the TSA’s Administrator. Some members of the committee also criticized the insistence of the White House on building a border wall instead of investing in air travel security. On Thursday, the TSA released a statement saying it took the results of the recent tests “very seriously” and that it was already taking active measures to “improve screening effectiveness at [airport] checkpoints” across America.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 November 2017 | Permalink | Research credit: C.F.

Fire at top-secret Moscow facility highlights rapid growth of Russian spy headquarters

SVR MoscowA massive fire that broke out at a top-secret spy facility in Moscow on Wednesday brought to the foreground prior reports about the unprecedented growth of the headquarters of Russia’s foreign spy service. The fire was reported at a government compound in Yasenevo, a leafy district on the southern outskirts of the Russian capital. The compound serves as the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known by its initials, SVR. The SVR is one of the successor agencies to the Soviet-era KGB. During Soviet times, the present-day SVR was known as the First Chief Directorate or First Main Directorate of the KGB. Despite its name change, however, its mission remains the same, namely to collect secrets from targets outside the Russian Federation —often through the use of espionage— and to disseminate intelligence to the president.

The fire, which local news agencies described as “huge”, was reported early in the afternoon of Wednesday. Television images showed smoke coming out of one of the multistory towers that make up the SVR building complex. According to SVR spokesman Sergey Ivanov, the fire started in what he called “a technical installation” that houses “a cable gallery” and is located beneath the multistory building. The 21-story tower block is adjacent to a large Y-shaped building and is visible for several miles around. It became operational in the early 1970s, when the KGB’s First Chief Directorate began a decade-long process of moving to the new, state-of-the-art complex in the southern suburbs of the Russian capital. Today the complex houses the entire apparatus of the SVR, including its espionage wing, and is informally known as les (the forest) or kontora (the office). Approximately 15 fire crews arrived at the scene soon afterwards, and were able to coordinate their movements despite the fact that mobile communications are blocked at the site of the compound.

The SVR spokesman added that the fire is believed to have begun at a section of the facility that is undergoing extensive maintenance work. Three members of the crew that were initially missing during the early stage of the fire were later rescued, said Ivanov, and the fire was eventually extinguished without causing fatalities or injuries. But the incident highlighted the reportedly unprecedented growth of the SVR complex that observers have noted in recent years. As intelNews reported in 2016, satellite images show that the top-secret facility has doubled —and possibly tripled— in size in the past decade. The most recent images were compiled by Allen Thomson, an analyst who worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s and 1980s. They were published by Steven Aftergood, who edits the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog. The images clearly show that at least three more large buildings have been erected alongside the landmark skyscraper and the adjoining Y-shaped office block. These additions, said Aftergood in 2016, appear to have increased the SVR headquarters’ floor space “by a factor of two or more”. Moreover, the nearby parking capacity at the complex “appears to have quadrupled”, he added. Observers often describe the compound as a constant construction site, with new buildings and facilities being built at an unprecedented speed.

On Wednesday evening, SVR officials told the Moscow-based TASS news agency that the agency would investigate the cause of the fire. It was “too early to give any comments” about it, they said, but the SVR had already initiated an official probe into the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 November 2017 | Permalink