American spies use US Federal Reserve to monitor foreign banks

Federal Reserve Bank of New YorkAmerican intelligence services have made use of a little-known confidentiality exception to spy on the financial activities of foreign banks who have accounts with the United States Federal Reserve, according to Reuters. Established in 1913, the Federal Reserve System is the central banking structure of the US. It oversees and regulates the nation’s financial institutions, and is tasked with —among other things— maintaining the stability of the American financial system. Additionally, however, the Federal Reserve offers a host of financial services to official (government-owned or sanctioned) foreign institutions. Thus, over 250 foreign banks (typically central banks) from dozens of countries have deposited nearly $3.3 trillion in assets at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks in the US. Depositing assets at a US Federal Reserve Bank, allows these foreign ‘depository institutions’ to use the US Federal Reserve as a ‘custodial institution’. Through it, they get direct and immediate access to American debt markets, where they can trade directly in dollars — the reserve currency of the global economy.

As one would expect, the ‘custodial services’ provided to foreign state banks by the US Federal Reserve are subject to strict confidentiality rules. However, according to a report published yesterday by Reuters, US intelligence agencies have found ways to circumvent these rules and monitor the activities of foreign banks who use the US Federal Reserve’s services. The news agency said it interviewed “more than a dozen current and former senior [Federal Reserve] and [US] Treasury [Department] officials”, including executives and division heads. It concludes that the US Intelligence Community has “leveraged the [US Federal Reserve’s] position at the center of global finance” to gain insights into the financial activities of foreign governments.

Specifically, the report alleges that American spies have made regular use of a little-known “need to know” exception clause to the US Federal Reserve’s confidentiality rules, and have been able to monitor the financial activities of selected foreign governments. These include Libya, Yemen, Iraq, China, Russia and Turkey, among others, says Reuters. In its report, the news agency says that the exception clause has been used at least seven times in the past 15 years. In some of these instances, the intelligence gathered led to “specific US responses” in relation to the financing of terrorism, or large-scale money-laundering. In other cases, the intelligence gathered helped Washington closely monitor market activity in areas of interest around the world, says Reuters.

The news agency contacted the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and was told by a spokesperson that the exception to the Federal Reserve’s confidentiality rules “has been used on rare occasions and on a limited basis”. These instances related to “issues as compliance with sanctions requirements and anti-money laundering principles”, said the spokesperson. The US government did not respond to calls for comments.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2017 | Permalink

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Yuri Drozdov, handler of Soviet undercover spies during Cold War, dies at 91

Yuri DrozdovGeneral Yuri Ivanovich Drozdov, who held senior positions in the Soviet KGB for 35 years, and handled a global network of Soviet undercover officers from 1979 until 1991, has died at the age of 91. Drozdov was born in Minsk, Soviet Belarus, in 1925. His father, Ivan Dmitrievich Drozdov, was an officer in the tsarist army who sided with the communists in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. After serving in World War II, Yuri Drozdov joined the KGB in 1956. Following his training, he was appointed liaison officer between the KGB and East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, commonly known as the Stasi.

His knowledge of East German intelligence affairs prompted his involvement in the famous 1962 spy-swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets surrendered the American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been captured in May 1960, when the U-2 spy plane he was piloting was shot down over Soviet airspace. In return, they received Rudolf Abel (real name Vilyam Fisher) a Soviet undercover spy who was captured in New York in 1957, posing as an American citizen. From 1964 until 1968, Drozdov was stationed in Beijing, China, where he served as the KGB rezident, effectively the agency’s chief of station. He returned to Moscow and in 1975 was posted under diplomatic cover in the United States, where he commanded the KGB’s station in New York until 1979.

Upon his return to the USSR, Drozdov was promoted to chief of the KGB’s Directorate S, which handled the agency’s worldwide network of so-called illegals —intelligence officers serving abroad without official cover or formal connection to the Soviet Union. Shortly after his return to Moscow, Drozdov also headed Operation STORM-333, a daring attack on the presidential palace in Afghanistan, during which Soviet special forces killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and essentially fired the opening shots of the decade-long Soviet-Afghan war. The experience prompted Drozdov to recommend to his superiors the establishment of a new KGB special-forces unit. It was created in 1981 under the name Vympel (Pennant) and headed by Drozdov himself. He commanded several Vympel missions in and out of the USSR before resigning from the KGB in 1991.

Little is known about the specifics of Drozdov’s death. It is believed that he died on June 21, surrounded by his family. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), a successor agency of the KGB, issued a brief statement commemorating Drozdov’s service. It was followed by a statement issued by the office of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, which praised Drozdov as “a legendary spy, outstanding professional […], incredible person and true patriot”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 June 2017 | Permalink

German intelligence agency spied on thousands of targets in the United States

BND GermanyThe foreign intelligence service of Germany spied on at least 4,000 targets in the United States from 1998 until 2006, according to a leaked document published yesterday by leading German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. The German investigative weekly said that the surveillance was carried out by the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The Hamburg-based magazine claimed to have in its possession a list of approximately 4,000 “selector keywords”, unique distinguishing terms, addresses or numbers that identify individual targets for surveillance. The list allegedly includes names, telephone or fax numbers, and email addresses of people that the BND had identified as worthy of individual attention between 1998 and 2006.

According to Der Spiegel, the list of targets in the United States includes officials in the White House, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of State. Their work and private phone numbers, and often emails, are listed in the BND document. The latter also focuses on the American military sector, paying particular attention to the US Air Force and the Marine Coprs. Other targets include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the US Pentagon’s intelligence organization. In addition to US government targets, the BND exercised surveillance on American companies with ties to the state, such as Lockheed Martin, as well as state-owned universities. The leaked list also includes targets in international organizations that have an institutional presence in the US, such as the International Monetary Fund and the Arab League, which has an office in Washington. Hundreds of foreign embassies and consulates in the US were also targeted, said Der Spiegel.

German-American relations suffered a major setback in 2013, when it was revealed that Washington had spied on the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In response to the revelations, Germany expelled the Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Berlin —the most senior American intelligence officer in the country. It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s revelations will affect the current relations between the two transatlantic allies. Neither the BND nor the US embassy in Berlin responded to questions about Der Spiegel‘s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 June 2017 | Permalink

Rare case of female lone-wolf dissident republican ends in conviction in N. Ireland

Christine ConnorA British court has convicted a lone-wolf female dissident Irish republican, who plotted attacks against police officers after using Facebook to lure two men into joining a fictitious militant organization. Her two male accomplices took their own lives in recent months. The rare case centers on Christine Connor, a 31-year-old resident of Northern Ireland and self-described dissident republican.

The term ‘dissident republican’ refers to secessionist militants who campaign for the union between Northern Ireland —which currently belongs to the United Kingdom— and the Republic of Ireland, which gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. In 1998, after a decades-long armed campaign, the majority of Irish republicans surrendered their weapons and accepted the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which outlines a peaceful resolution to the problem of Northern Ireland’s status. But some republican activists rejected the agreement and vowed to continue to use violence to achieve the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. These are known as dissident republicans and typically support a number of paramilitary secessionist groups, such as the Continuity Irish Republican Army and the Real Irish Republican Army.

But Christine Connor did not belong to any of these groups. Instead, she used Facebook to create a fictitious dissident republican organization called ‘United Struggle’, and declared war on the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She then created another fictitious social media account using the image of Sanne Alexandra Andersson, a Swedish model and fashion personality. Connor then used her fake online persona to lure two men into joining the militant organization that she claimed to lead. One of them was Stuart Downes, an Englishman from the town of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh-English border. She convinced him to build explosive devices, which the police described as “sophisticated, fully functioning bombs”. In May of 2003, Connor used the devices in an unsuccessful attempt to kill two police officers in north Belfast.

The lone-wolf militant used her fake social media accounts to lure another man, an American called Zachary Gelvinger, into joining ‘United Struggle’. Gelvinger, who sent hundreds of dollars to Connor’s organization, had his home searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and was arrested in the United Kingdom while attempting to visit Connor in prison, in July of 2013. Downes, the Englishman, was arrested by police in Shrewsbury shortly after making a phone call from a public phone box to claim responsibility on behalf of ‘United Struggle’ for Connor’s failed attempt to kill the police officers in Belfast. Tragically, Downes killed himself in June of 2016. Gelvinger, the American member of ‘United Struggle’, killed himself in May of this year.

Remarkably, neither of the two men had any connection to Northern Ireland or any previous involvement in republican politics in or out of the United Kingdom. Last month, Connor pleaded guilty to a score of offenses, including terrorism. Last Tuesday, she was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 June 2017 | Permalink

Islamic State’s cyber army still ‘largely intact’ despite America’s efforts

US Cyber CommandThe global reach of the Islamic State through the use of the internet remains “largely intact” despite relentless efforts by some of America’s most advanced cyber warfare experts to neutralize the group’s online presence. It is now over a year since the United States Department of Defense announced that it had launched a cyber war against the Islamic State —the militant Sunni Muslim group that today controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

At that time, the Pentagon’s Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), put in motion plans that included the deployment of computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks and other cyber weapons against computers, internet servers and cell phone networks belonging to the Islamic State. As intelNews wrote at the time, the idea behind the plan was that an all-out online war against the Sunni militant group would hurt its public image and prevent it from launching armed attacks against targets abroad. Additionally, the Pentagon aimed to disrupt the Islamic State’s ability to recruit new members online, to spread its propaganda and to coordinate operations through the use of encrypted communications.

However, according to The New York Times, American military commanders are disappointed with the Cyber Command’s efforts. The Pentagon is quickly discovering, says the paper, that its cyber warfare methods, which were designed for fixed targets in countries like North Korea and Iran, are ineffective against the mobile and polymorphic cyber army of the Islamic State. In many instances, US Pentagon hackers wipe out online information found on Islamic State servers, only to see it reappear elsewhere online within hours. In other cases, US Cyber Command experts uncover Islamic State information stored on the cloud, but are unable to access it because it is strongly encrypted.

According to The Times, the lack of progress in the cyber war against the Islamic State was one of the reasons why the administration of President Barack Obama sought to replace Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, who also led the US Cyber Command —and continues to do so under the Donald Trump administration.

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

Israeli spy agency to launch anonymous technology investment fund

MossadThe Mossad, Israel’s primary intelligence agency, is preparing to launch a technology investment fund that will support Israeli-based hi-tech startups, with an eye to utilizing cutting-edge technologies in its spy operations. Israeli spy services are known internationally for their advanced use of technology in intelligence collection and special operations. But the planned investment fund is expected to systematize the Mossad’s use of cutting-edge technological solutions to intelligence challenges. It is interpreted by some commentators as “mark[ing] a new and surprising turn” in the spy agency’s approach to technology.

On Wednesday, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz said it spoke to several unnamed Israeli bankers, who confirmed that the Mossad was “putting the finishing touches” on the anonymous technology investment fund. The bankers also told the newspaper that the fund would be officially launched “at the end of this month”. Once launched, the fund will invest in Israeli-owned technology startups, using money from the Mossad’s budget, without any outside capital. But instead of getting its share of the financial profit, the Mossad will ask instead to own the rights to the startup companies’ end-products and to be able to use them in intelligence-related work, said Ha’aretz.

According to the Israeli newspaper, the move by the Mossad is partly modeled after In-Q-Tel, a not-for-profit venture capital firm that operates as the technology investment firm of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Based in Arlington, Virginia, In-Q-Tel invests in hi-tech technology startups focusing on new technologies that may be of use to the US Intelligence Community. Ha’aretz said it contacted the office of the Israeli prime minister for information about the Mossad’s alleged investment fund, and was told that the prime minster was looking into the matter.

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

Miami police arrest Panama’s ex-president on charges of wiretapping

Ricardo MartinelliPolice in the United States have arrested Panama’s former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is wanted in the Central American country on charges of using state resources to spy on his political opponents and business rivals. The center-right US-educated businessman won the 2009 presidential election in the country with a landslide, receiving over 60 percent of the national vote. His election prompted positive comments from Washington, because it marked a rare ascent to power of a conservative Latin American leader in a sea of socialist heads of state. But the euphoria did not last long. In 2014, Martinelli was succeeded in the presidency by his Vice President, Juan Carlos Varela. Varela promptly launched nearly 200 criminal investigations against his former political partner on issues ranging from embezzlement of state funds to political espionage.

Martinelli is now accused of embezzling $45 million in funds that should have been allocated to a government-run school lunch program for children of disadvantaged families. According to Panamanian prosecutors, Martinelli diverted $13 million of these funds to launch a secret wiretapping program that targeted some of his main political opponents and business rivals. Some of the individuals allegedly targeted in the secret surveillance program were senior members of Martinelli’s own Party of Democratic Change, Supreme Court judges, lawyers, journalists and union activists. The government of Panama also claims that Martinelli wiretapped the telephones of his business rivals, as well as their family members and mistresses.

It appears that Martinelli’s allies within the Panamanian government notified him early on that corruption investigations would be launched against him. This would explain why the former political strongman was able to flee the country days before these investigations were officially launched. Since January 2015, Martinelli has lived in Florida. In 2016, the government of Panama issued an arrest warrant against Martinelli. It also notified the international police agency, Interpol. Last month, Interpol circulated a ‘red notice’, an official alert notifying its counterparts around the world of a wanted individual. On Tuesday, US Marshals arrested Martinelli at his home in the city of Coral Gables in Florida, in response to the red notice issued by Interpol.

Speaking to reporters in Miami on Tuesday, Martinelli’s legal team questioned the timing of the Panamanian government’s arrest warrant, claiming that it came soon after the former president announced he would be running again for office. But the office of Adam S. Fels, the assistant US attorney who ordered Martinelli’s arrest, said that the US intended to fulfill its treaty obligations with the government of Panama. Martinelli is currently in prison in Miami and is expected to remain there until his preliminary court date on June 20.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 June 2017 | Permalink