Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, part I

End of Year 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 2020 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2019. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series. Part two is here. Part three is available here.

10. Germany’s BND now boasts the world’s largest spy headquarters. In February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurated the Zentrale des Bundesnachrichtendienstes, which is the new headquarters of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The BND, which operates as Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, is now believed to be the owner of the largest headquarters of any spy agency in the world. Interestingly, the German spy agency employs fewer than 7,000 employees, which is only a fraction of the employees employed by the BND’s American, Russian or Chinese equivalents. Some analysts have interpreted this development as part of Germany’s attempt to reassert itself as a major player in the global security landscape, especially following the election of US President Donald Trump, whom Berlin views as being disinterested in European security. During her inauguration speech, Chancellor Merkel said that the world was becoming “increasingly confusing”, which made the need for a “strong and efficient [German] foreign intelligence service […] more urgent than ever”. Interestingly, the new complex features a sizeable visitor’s center that is open to the public, making the BND the world’s first foreign intelligence agency with a public-access visitors’ facility.

09. Israel extends intelligence document classification period to 90 years. Israel, home of one of the world’s most active intelligence communities, augmented the secrecy of its espionage apparatus by raising the classification period of official intelligence documents to 90 years. Until the end of last January, government documents produced by Israel’s spy agencies, such as its external spy organization, the Mossad, or its domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, could remain hidden from public view for up to 70 years. In 2018, Israel’s Supreme Council of Archives, a body within the Israel State Archives that advises the Office of the Prime Minister on matters of classification, recommended against extending the classification period by more than five years. But in early 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the recommendation and managed to pass an amendment to the classification regulations, which will keep documents secret for 90 years from now on. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which published news of the amended regulation, said that documents from 1949, the year that the Shin Bet and the Mossad were founded, would normally have been published this year. But now they will remain hidden from public view until 2039. Documents relating to more recent cases will not be released until 2100.

08. The CIA kept a secret communication channel with North Korea for 10 years. The overtures made in recent years by US President Donald Trump to North Korea surprised many —but probably not the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In an article published in July, The Wall Street Journal claimed that an intelligence channel between the CIA and North Korean intelligence officials has been active for at least a decade. The previously unreported channel has led to a number of public meetings, such as the 2014 visit to Pyongyang by James Clapper, the then US Director of National Intelligence, as well as an earlier visit to the North Korean capital by former US President Bill Clinton in 2009. However, most of the contacts have been secret. They include several visits to North Korea by CIA official Joseph DeTrani before and after Clinton’s visit, as well as two trips to Pyongyang by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, in 2012 and 2013. His successor, Avril Haines, also visited North Korea, said The Journal, but noted that the channel went “dormant late in the Obama administration”. Upon becoming CIA director following the election of Trump to the presidency, Mike Pompeo was briefed about the secret channel’s existence and decided to resume it, with Trump’s agreement. That led to his eventual visit to North Korea along with Andrew Kim, who at the time headed the CIA’s Korea Mission Center. Eventually, this channel of communication facilitated the high-level summit between Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 in Singapore.

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

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 31 December 2019 | Permalink

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

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