Defector claims US agreed to let thousands of Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

Islamic State convoy in SyriaA senior former commander of one of Syria’s largest Kurdish rebel groups, who recently defected to Turkey, has accused the United States of agreeing to let thousands of heavily armed Islamic State fighters escape from Raqqa in exchange for conquering the city without a fight. The Syrian city served as the de facto capital of the Islamic State from early 2014 until October of this year, when it was captured by a coalition of forces supported by the United States and other Western powers. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish militia, was among the groups that captured Raqqa. One of its spokesmen, Talal Silo, told Western media correspondents back in October that the Western-backed coalition had allowed fewer than 300 hardline fighters of the Islamic State to leave the war-ravaged city during the final stages of the battle.

But several news agencies reported at the time that a large convoy of vehicles was seen leaving Raqqa, composed of dozens of trucks, buses and over a hundred cars. The BBC reported on November 13 that the convoy was 4 miles long and was seen heading toward Deir ez-Sor, an Islamic State stronghold located two hours’ drive southeast of Raqqa. Coalition partners, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and France, denied that such a convoy existed. But the BBC’s claims have now been corroborated by Silo, the same SDF spokesman who last October rejected them as fictional. In October, Silo, who is a Syrian Turkoman, defected to Turkey and is now living in Ankara under heavy security protection. He told the Reuters news agency in a recent  interview that the BBC’s claims were correct, and that the number of Islamic State militants who were allowed to leave Raqqa with their weapons were in their thousands, not 300 as the SDF had originally claimed.

According to Silo, a secret agreement was reached between the Western-backed coalition and the Islamic State for the evacuation of “about 4,000 people” from Raqqa. Of those fewer than 500 were unarmed civilians, said Silo. He added that the convoy went to Deir ez-Sor, which at the time was still under the control of Islamic State. The SDF defector also told Reuters that the deal struck with the Islamic State was kept secret from media correspondents. The latter were told that they were not allowed to approach Raqqa due to heavy fighting, when the real goal was to prevent them from witnessing the peaceful departure of the Islamic State convoys. According to Silo, the deal was approved by all members of the Western-backed coalition, including the United States.

On Thursday, the SDF denied that Silo’s allegations were true and claimed that he was being pressured to make them by Turkey. The Turkish government accuses the SDF of being a Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), with which it is at war. American military officials also denied Silo’s claims, calling them “false and contrived”. The officials said that the US “does not make deals with terrorists”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 December 2017 | Permalink

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Polish counterintelligence chief questioned over alleged deal with Russia

General Piotr PytelThe former director of Poland’s military counterintelligence agency has been questioned by the country’s military police, over allegedly illegal cooperation with Russian intelligence. From 2006 to 2012, General Piotr Pytel was head of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MCS), which is responsible for domestic security and for ensuring the war-readiness of Poland’s armed forces. According to government prosecutors, General Pytel struck an illegal agreement with the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, in 2010. The alleged agreement concerned the return to Poland of troops who had been sent to serve in Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Several hundred Polish troops participated in ISAF, a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Security Council in 2001.

General Pytel’s critics claim that he reached out to the FSB without authorization, and struck an agreement allowing for the passage of Polish troops through Russian soil on their way back to Poland from Central Asia. Some in the Polish government claim that the passage of Polish troops through Russia allowed the Russian spy services to collect intelligence on the Polish armed forces and thus weakened the Polish military vis-à-vis Russia. Polish authorities also accuse Genera Pytel’s predecessor at the helm of the MCS, General Janusz Nosek, of striking similar agreements with Moscow. These agreements were not authorized by NATO or the Polish high command and thus exceeded the prerogative of the MCS directors, according to prosecutors. The same prosecutors also questioned Donald Tusk, the current President of the European Council, who was Prime Minister of Poland in 2010. Mr. Tusk is also suspected of colluding with the Russian FSB, according to some reports.

But Mr. Tusk, and Generals Pytel and Nosek, deny that they engaged in illegal dealings with Russia and accuse the Polish prosecutor’s office of engaging in a political witch-hunt. All three of the accused belong to the Civil Platform, a liberal political party that is now in opposition but was the ruling party in the country from 2007 to 2015. Members of the Civil Platform have accused the Minister of Defense, Antoni Macierewicz, a member of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), of politically persecuting his opponents. In statements made on social media on Wednesday, Mr. Tusk said he was proud to have worked with the two MCS former directors, whom he described “shining example[s] of responsibility, patriotism and honor”. He also called for Minister of Defense Macierewicz to resign.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 6 December 2017 | Permalink

Turkey issues warrant for ex-CIA officer over alleged role in 2016 coup

Recep Tayyip ErdoğanThe Turkish government has issued a warrant for the arrest of a former officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which Ankara claims was instrumental in the failed July 2016 attempt to topple the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The move comes amidst heightened tensions in relations between Ankara and Washington. The two NATO allies have partially revoked entry visas for each other’s citizens, while it is alleged that Michael Flynn, US President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, had an illegal agreement with Turkey to help abduct a Turkish dissident cleric living in Pennsylvania and help transport him to Turkey.

The warrant was issued on December 1 by the Office of the Chief Public Prosecutor in Istanbul. It seeks the arrest of Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old former analyst in the CIA, who lives in Canada. The warrant identifies Fuller as a “former CIA official” and claims that he attempted to “overthrow the government of the Republic of Turkey” and obstruct “the missions” of the Turkish government. The reference here is to the July 2016 coup, which the Turkish government claims was carried out by the so-called Gülen movement. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims that its members have stealthily infiltrated Turkish state institutions since the 1980s. Ever since the failed coup, Ankara has engaged in a controversial campaign to remove so-called Gülenists from prominent posts in government and the private sector. More than 50,000 people have been arrested on terrorism charges and are awaiting trial. Another 150,000 public and private sector employees have been summarily fired from their job.

Many in Turkey accuse the CIA of having colluded with Gülenists to topple Erdoğan’s pro-Islamist government. Fuller is accused of having strong links with Gülen and of having been instrumental in helping the exiled cleric receive permanent residency in the US. Some Turkish media claim that Fuller acted as a “CIA handler” of Gülen, who is accused of being a CIA agent. Fuller’s CIA career involved a tour in Turkey in the 1960s. He concluded his career as a member of the US National Intelligence Council, a body that helps coordinate the US Intelligence Community’s broad and long-term strategic planning. In 1988, Fuller joined the RAND Corporation, a research think-tank with close links to the US Department of Defense. After 2006, he taught history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, where he lives today.

Fuller emailed a statement to major news agencies on Friday, rejecting the Turkish government’s allegations and saying that Ankara was using him as “a choice target”. The former CIA officer said he had not been to Turkey in over five years, and that he had only met Gülen once in 2002 in Istanbul. At that time, said Fuller in his statement, he had been out of the CIA for 15 years. Further on in his statement, Fuller said that he understood why some Turks accused the CIA of having planned the 2016 coup, given the agency’s history of meddling in domestic Turkish politics. However, he said he had nothing to do with the coup attempt, which he described as “pathetic, ill-conceived and amateurish”. The CIA has not commented on Ankara’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 December 2017 | Permalink

Trump administration allegedly considering plan to privatize CIA operations

Trump CIAThe United States Central Intelligence Agency and the White House are considering several proposals to hire private companies to carry out covert operations abroad, according to a report. BuzzFeed News said on Thursday that the proposals were communicated to the White House in the summer. The news site, which described the proposed plans as “highly unusual”, quoted “three sources who have been briefed on or have direct knowledge of the proposals”. The sources told BuzzFeed that, if approved, the plans would include the establishment of large intelligence networks in so-called “denied areas” —namely foreign environments deemed hostile. The networks would recruit and handle local agents, carry out psychological operations, capture terrorism suspects and rendition them to the US or third countries. “Islamic extremism” is mentioned as the primary target of the proposals.

According to BuzzFeed, one of the proposals involves Amyntor Group, a private company headquartered in the remote town of Whitefish, in northwestern Montana. The company is staffed by former members of the US Intelligence Community who have security clearances. It specializes in intelligence training and risk assessment. But it also collects and analyzes intelligence and provides counterintelligence services for government agencies in America and what it calls “friendly foreign governments” abroad. The company has reportedly been holding discussions with senior officials in the administration of President Donald Trump in recent weeks, according to two of BuzzFeed’s sources. The same sources say that the move toward privatization of some intelligence operations is being led by a feeling in the Trump administration that the CIA has a negative view of the White House. They claim that the CIA is not prepared to go along with the Trump administration’s efforts to make the agency’s operations more aggressive and, in the words of its new director, Mike Pompeo, “much more vicious”. They therefore see privatization as a way to bypass the resistance and skepticism of the CIA’s upper management.

BuzzFeed said it contacted the CIA about the Amyntor Group proposal, but the agency preferred not to comment. A press officer for the National Security Council, which is chaired by President Trump, said that its members were not aware of the privatization proposals. Amyntor Group commented through one of its lawyers, who told BuzzFeed that any contract signed between the company and the US government would be directed and controlled “by the proper government authority”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 December 2017 | Permalink

Senior Chinese Army general accused of corruption found dead

Zhang YangA senior Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military official, who was seen as a close ally of President Xi Jinping, has allegedly committed suicide, according to Chinese state media. Zhang Yang was one of the most high-profile generals in the Chinese PLA. His rise to power after Xi became president of China was meteoric. He was appointed member of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China, which exercises political supervision of the Chinese armed forces. In addition to his role in the CMC, Zhang directed the General Political Department of the PLA’s Ground Force, which made him the top political commissar in the army.

However, in August of this year Zhang suddenly stopped making public appearances. An article soon appeared in Sing Tao, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, alleging that the general had been questioned by anti-corruption investigators as part of President Xi’s nationwide campaign against sleaze. At around the same time, Hong Kong media said that President Xi would soon announce sweeping changes in the makeup of the CMC. It was also announced that General Zhang would step down from his director’s role in the army’s General Political Department. But media in Beijing reported nothing about Zhang, and there was speculation that he may have been imprisoned or even executed. The rumors intensified after September 1, when a front-page article in Sing Tao claimed that he had been dishonorably discharged from the PLA and imprisoned on charges of “serious violations of [Chinese Communist] Party discipline”.

Media in Beijing remained silent until Tuesday of this week, when a report issued by Xinhua News Agency, China’s government-run news agency, said that the former general had been found dead in his home in Beijing. According to the report, Zhang was found dead by a relative on Thursday, November 23. The brief report also mentioned that Zhang had been questioned by authorities in recent months in connection with “bribery and large-scale property crimes”. The Chinese Communist Party has not commented on Zhang’s death.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 November 2017 | Permalink

MI5 releases new information about Soviet ‘Portland Spy Ring’

DocumentFiles released on Monday by the British government reveal new evidence about one of the most prolific Soviet spy rings that operated in the West after World War II, which became known as the Portland Spy Ring. Some of the members of the Portland Spy Ring were Soviet operatives who, at the time of their arrest, posed as citizens of third countries. All were non-official-cover intelligence officers, or NOCs, as they are known in Western intelligence parlance. Their Soviet —and nowadays Russian— equivalents are known as illegals. NOCs are high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the authorities of the country that employs them. During much of the Cold War, NOCs posed 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 engaging in espionage.

The existence of the Portland Spy Ring has been known since 1961, when British authorities arrested five people throughout England. Two of them were British citizens, Harry Houghton, a clerk at the Royal Navy’s Underwater Detection Establishment facility in Dorset, England, and his mistress, Ethel Gee. Their Soviet handler was Konon Molody, a Soviet intelligence officer who was posing as a Canadian, under the name Gordon Lonsdale. Also arrested was a married couple from New Zealand, Peter and Helen Kroger. But in reality they were Americans, whose real names were Morris and Lona Cohen, and had worked for Soviet intelligence since the late 1930s. Collectively, the five were referred in media reports as members of the Portland Spy Ring.

The newly declassified files about the spy ring were released by the Security Service, known commonly as MI5, Britain’s primary counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency. They reveal how British authorities managed to bust the Portland Spy Ring. According to the files, the initial tip-off came from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The American agency had managed to recruit Michael Goleniewski, codename SNIPER, a Polish military counterintelligence officer, who led the technical office of Poland’s military intelligence. In the spring of 1960, Goleniewski told the CIA that Polish intelligence were running a British agent who was recruited while serving in the office of the naval attaché at the British embassy in Warsaw. The CIA shared the information with British intelligence, who soon identified the agent as Harry Houghton in Dorset. MI5 agents followed Houghton and his girlfriend, Ethel Gee, as they met with a successful Canadian businessman in London, Gordon Lonsdale (real name Konon Molody). Molody had grown up with a family member in California in the 1930s, and spoke fluent English. He had joined Soviet intelligence during World War II and sent to Britain posing as a Canadian. When he arrived there, in 1954, he established the KGB’s first known illegal residency in the British Isles.

In turn, Molody led MI5 to Peter and Helen Kroger from New Zealand (real names Morris and Lona Cohen), who were posing as antique book dealers. The couple acted as couriers, radio operators and technical support officers for Molody. They were born in the United States and had been recruited by Soviet intelligence in the 1930s. It is now known that they had contacts with several other Soviet illegals in America, including Rudolf Abel (real name William Fisher) who was captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1957. The couple had left the United States on orders of the KGB in 1952 and reappeared in the United Kingdom using New Zealand passports and new names.

The newly declassified documents show that MI5 decided to move against the five members of the Portland Spy Ring after Goleniewski became an open defector and was exfiltrated to the United States by officers in the CIA’s Berlin station. British authorities feared that Goleniewski’s open defection would prompt the Soviets to pull out Houghton, whose identity was known to Goleniewski. Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison. They were released in 1970, married the following year, and died in the 1980s. Molody was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 1964 and exchanged for Greville Wynne, a British spy captured in the USSR. The Cohens received 20 year sentences, but were released in 1969 and exchanged with Gerald Brooke, a British teacher who was arrested in the USSR for smuggling anti-communist literature and trying to organize dissidents inside the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2017 | Permalink

Israeli armed raid in Syria reportedly led to US banning laptops on some flights

Ibrahim al-AsiriA temporary ban issued by United States authorities on laptop computers onboard some commercial flights earlier this year came from a tip by Israeli intelligence, according to a new report. The report was published last week in the American magazine Vanity Fair. It claimed that Israeli commandos carried out a dangerous night-time operation deep inside Syria, in order to acquire physical proof that the Islamic State had  built bombs that were not detectable by X-ray screening systems at airports. But some Israeli intelligence officials became infuriated with Donald Trump after the US President allegedly gave Russia background information about the commando operation, according to the article.

The order to temporarily ban electronic devices larger than cellphones was issued by the US government on March 20, 2017. It applied to direct flights to the US departing from a dozen international airports in the Middle East. In June, the New York Times alleged that the ban was aimed at stopping Islamic State operatives from bringing onboard airplanes bombs disguised as laptop batteries. The paper also said that the information about these bombs had been acquired by Israeli government hackers who had penetrated Islamic State computer systems. But now a new report by Vanity Fair claims that Tel Aviv tipped off the Americans following a commando raid deep inside Syrian territory, which acquired physical evidence of the bombs. The magazine alleges that the raid was carried out by the Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, under the supervision of the Mossad, Israel’s external spy agency. Its target was a highly secretive cell of explosives experts, who were led Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi militant who built bombs for the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Mossad shared some of the intelligence from that raid with the Central Intelligence Agency, which in turn told President Trump. That led to the decision to ban laptops from selected flights, until X-ray machines at airports were modified to detect the new type of bomb.

The Vanity Fair article repeats earlier claims that President Trump shared intelligence given to him by the Israelis with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak, when he met them in May of this year. According to Israeli sources, Mr. Trump did not tell the Russian officials that Israel was behind the operation. But he allegedly identified the city in Syria where the raid took place, and in doing so placed the life of an Israeli human asset at risk, according to some. The Israeli government will not comment on these allegations. Additionally, Vanity Fair said that one “former Mossad officer with knowledge of the operation and its aftermath” would not say whether the asset in question had been safely exfiltrated from Syria or even whether he or she was still alive.

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