Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, part III

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2019 may bring in this highly unpredictable field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2018. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part three in a three-part series; part one is available here. Part two is available here.

04. China flexes its HUMINT muscle. Much has been written about China’s cyber-espionage capabilities. These are undoubtedly formidable and growing. But in 2018 Beijing also showed that it is becoming increasingly active in human intelligence —namely the use of human spies to clandestinely collect information. In January, the FBI arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, who served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007, accusing him of having received “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” by China in exchange for carrying out espionage. In May, France confirmed the arrests of two French intelligence officers who are accused of spying for the Chinese government. The suspects are current and former officers in the General Directorate of External Security (DGSE), France’s primary external intelligence agency. At least one of the two suspects was reportedly stationed at the embassy of France in Beijing when French counterintelligence became aware of his alleged espionage. And in October the DGSE, along with France’s domestic security agency, the DGSI, warned of an “unprecedented threat” to security after nearly 4,000 leading French civil servants, scientists and senior executives were found to have been approached by Chinese spies using the popular social media network LinkedIn.

03. The Islamic State is quickly evolving into a clandestine organization. Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced that the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been defeated and that the he would be removing all US forces from Syria. Virtually no Western intelligence agency agrees with the view that ISIS has been defeated. In August, the US Department of Defense reported to Congress that ISIS retains over 30,000 armed fighters in Iraq and Syria. Another report by the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team warned that ISIS is morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. Earlier this month, the US Pentagon warned again that ISIS is swiftly returning to its insurgent roots, as observers in Iraq and Syria cautioned that the group is witnessing a revival. What is more, recent analysis by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting says that a campaign of revenge by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government against Sunni Arabs in regions once controlled by ISIS is aiding Islamists and fueling another pro-ISIS rebellion in the country. Overall, there are today four times as many Sunni Islamist militants in the world than on September 11, 2001, according to a study published in November by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

02. Nearly 150 Russian diplomats were expelled by 24 countries over Skripal poisoning. Relations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low this year, with the expulsion of nearly 150 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions came in response to Britain’s worldwide diplomatic effort to condemn Russia for the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, which was allegedly carried out by Russian government agents. They were publicized with a series of coordinated announcements that were issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of March 13, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian “undeclared intelligence officers” that had been expelled from Britain the previous week. As intelNews explained at the time, the expulsions sent a strong political message to Moscow and did disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence activities in the West. But they are expected to have a limited effect on Russia’s ability to carry out intelligence operations on foreign soil of the kind that allegedly targeted Skripal.

01. CIA suffered ‘catastrophic’ compromise of its spy communication system. That was alleged in a major report published by Yahoo News, which cited “conversations with eleven former US intelligence and government officials directly familiar with the matter”. The report described the compromise of an Internet-based covert platform used by the CIA to facilitate the clandestine communication between CIA case officers and their sources —known as agents or spies— around the world. It reportedly caused a “catastrophic” compromise of the system that the CIA uses to communicate with spies, which caused the death of “dozens of people around the world” according to sources. What is more, the report suggested that the CIA was warned about the potential shortcomings of its online communication system before 2009, when the first penetrations began to occur. In response to the compromise, the CIA has reportedly modified, and at times completely abandoned, its online communication system. However, the implications of the system’s compromise continue to “unwind worldwide” and the CIA is “still dealing with the fallout”, according to Yahoo News. The effects on the agency’s operational work are likely to persist for years, it said.

This is part three in a three-part series; part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2018 | Permalink

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

6 Responses to Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, part III

  1. “Radar O’Reilly” says:

    Actually Very Nice reviews, somehow some of these 2018 stories do need reminding as they mostly have orthogonal counter-stories. I do appreciate your three part news review, now I have to scratch my head and understand how we got to such a biphasic intel system. I know that all my hard-working securocracy colleagues know these stories to be accurate, they are justified by multiple sources, yet my many years of work still lead to the demonstratable substance that a dangerous bias, suppression of some other relevant facts is happening on similar stories in the press. When you talk to security oriented professionals at the coffee machine, at the watercooler, or at the margins of the security conference – they apparently believe ‘the other version’ just as much as ’the official version’. After my retirement from working with ENISA, the EDA & EUROPOL, excellent organisations all, I feel free to mention that the ‘coffee machine’ credulity occasionally needs to be mentioned on the internet. At least here on you did report the Iranian position accurately with one of your part II reviews on MEK conference. Many of the other intelligence happenings do need to be documented, they sometimes are very hard to find later. Enjoy your end of year’s celebrations, and best wishes for 2019

    (Trivially, there’s a missing “<<“ href link html element in the above part III)

  2. intelNews says:

    @Radar O’Reilly: Thanks for your astute comment and for catching the href link error. It has been corrected. [IA]

  3. Mark P says:

    Please explain your numbering system for each of the three parts of this story. I am interested in understanding your logic, because, at this point, there doesn’t appear to be any. Thanks!!!

  4. intelNews says:

    @Mark P: It’s a countdown. Part I had numbers 10, 9, 8. Part II had 7, 6, 5. Part III has 4, 3, 2, 1. Hope this helps. [JF]

  5. I understood the countdown till Part II… Didn’t understand the numbering in Part III… where it is 7,8,9,10… where is 4,3,2,1?

  6. intelNews says:

    @Shubham Ghosh: Sorry, the stupid automated paragraph-numbering system of the formatting editor took over. It should have 4,3,2,1 now. [JF]

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