Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part II

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in the series; part one was published yesterday.

5. CIA may have pulled officers from Beijing embassy following OPM hack. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June 2015, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management. The office, known as OPM, handles applications for security clearances for agencies of the federal government.ch The breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans who have filed applications for security clearances. In late November it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pulled a number of officers from the United States embassy in Chinese capital Beijing, following the massive cyber hacking. The irony is that, according to The Washington Post, the records of CIA employees were not included in the compromised OPM database. The latter contains the background checks of employees in the US State Department, including those stationed at US embassies or consulates around the world. It follows that US diplomatic personnel stationed abroad whose names do not appear on the compromised OPM list “could be CIA officers”, according to the paper.

4. Provisional IRA ‘still broadly in place’, says Northern Ireland police chief.. On July 28, 2005, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades, announced that was ceasing all paramilitary operations and disbanding as of that day. Three years later, the Independent Monitoring Commission declared that the PIRA’s Army Council, which steered the activities of the militant organization, was “no longer operational or functional”. In the ensuing years, which have seen the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that restored peace in Northern Ireland, it has been generally assumed that the PIRA had ceased to exist. In August, however, George Hamilton, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told reporters that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place” in the area. Hamilton was speaking in reference to the murder earlier that month of Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast. McGuigan, a 53-year-old father of nine, was a former member of the PIRA, who had fallen out with the organization. He was gunned down at his home, allegedly in retaliation for the murder last May of Gerard Jock Davison, a former commander of the PIRA, who was also shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast.

3. US Pentagon may have doctored intelligence reports on the Islamic State. Many Middle East observers, including this website, have made notably dire projections about the continuing reinforcement and territorial expansion of the Islamic State. In August, a leaked US intelligence report published by the Associated Press said the Islamic State’s strength had remained stable throughout 2014 and 2015, despite a US bombing campaign. However, earlier assessments by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which were communicated to senior US policymakers, including President Barack Obama, were far more optimistic about America’s ability to defeat the militant group. Why the discrepancy? According to The Washington Post, which published the story in late August, officials with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pentagon body that directs and coordinates American military operations in Egypt, the Middle East and Central Asia, had systematically doctored the conclusions of intelligence reports about the Islamic State before passing them on to American leaders. It appears that the evidence pointing to deliberate manipulation of intelligence assessments was convincing enough to prompt the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General to launch an official probe into the matter.

2. China and Taiwan swap jailed spies in historic first. Few ongoing intelligence conflicts are as fierce as the one that has been taking place between China and Taiwan since 1949, when the two countries emerged following a bitter civil conflict between communist and nationalist forces. Observers were therefore surprised when, two weeks ahead of a historic November 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the two countries announced a spy swap. The exchange, which took place in secret in late October, was the first of its kind in the history of the two bitter rivals. Taipei released Li Zhihao, a mysterious Chinese intelligence officer known in spy circles as “the man in black”, who had been arrested in 1999 and was serving a life sentence. In return, Beijing freed Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo, two colonels in Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau, who were arrested in mainland China’s nearly a decade ago. It is believed that they were the highest-ranked Taiwanese spies imprisoned in China. Their release, therefore, marks an unprecedented development in Chinese-Taiwanese relations.

1. Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, now officially sharing intelligence in war against ISIS. The increased involvement of major powers in Syria has been arguably the greatest intelligence-related development of 2015. The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, are only some of the state and non-state actors that are now actively engaged on the ground in Syria, both with armies and with intelligence personnel. A significant related development is the growing relationship between the intelligence apparatus of US ally Iraq and a number of countries with which Washington has an adversarial relationship. Intelligence-sharing had been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran. But in September of this year, Iraq entered the intelligence alliance for the first time. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It is staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who pass on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. In October, The Washington Times reported that Iraq had been fully integrated into the Russian-led intelligence-sharing alliance, and that the Iraqi government was already using Russian-supplied intelligence in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2015 | Permalink

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

One Response to Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part II

  1. TFH says:

    I wish you a happy, productive and fertile new year and thanks for the past ones. Thanks for keeping this blog up and for making me realize: 1) Those who do this job (spies) are just flesh and blood humans that have to deal with many the same workplace experiences as e.g. a filing clerk. 2) Spy stuff is going on 24/7 somewhere in the world.

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