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

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

07. Western spy agencies hacked into Russia’s version of Google. Media reports tend to portray Western intelligence agencies as constantly defending themselves against cyber attacks from abroad —notably from North Korea, Iran and Russia. The reality of cyber espionage is far more complicated, as intelligence agencies from all sides adopt defensive and offensive postures, often concurrently. One example of this complexity emerged in last June, when the Reuters news agency reported that Western spy agencies used a malware described as the “crown jewel” of cyber-espionage tools to hack into Russia’s version of Google. The hackers targeted Yandex (Яндекс), the largest technology venture company in the Russian Federation and the fifth most popular search engine in the world. Yandex also provides services such as mapping and email in Russia and several other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. The hackers appeared to be interested in acquiring technical information about how Yandex authenticates user accounts. That information could potentially enable them to impersonate Yandex users and access private information such as email messages, geolocation information, and other sensitive data. Reuters said that the hackers attempted to breach Yandex for purposes of espionage, not sabotage or disruption, or stealing intellectual property for commercial purposes.

06. The CIA may have lost 17 of its spies in Iran. If the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown. As we explained in July, losing 17 assets in one big sweep sounds fantastical. However, if it is true, it would mark one of the biggest intelligence-collection disasters in the CIA’s 72-year history. What may be equally worrying for the CIA is that the Iranians claim to have visually identified a number of CIA case officers, whose job is to recruit and handle foreign assets. If the Iranians are telling the truth, many units at the CIA will be in recovery mode for quite some time.

05. NATO allies use spy agencies to back opposing sides in Libyan War. The chaos that is the Libyan Civil War deepened this year, largely because foreign countries are backing opposing sides in the conflict. In April, several European Union member-states, led by Italy, criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiations table. France has joined the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades. In 2011 he returned to Libya in order to launch a military campaign from the eastern city of Tobruk. Since that time, he has led the LNA in a war of attrition against the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the Libyan capital Tripoli. The GNA is supported by Italy, and more recently Turkey, which has offered to send troops to help the GNA in its war against the LNA. It is wroth noting that, in 2017, two leading international legal scholars accused Haftar of having ordered his troops to commit war crimes. Ryan Goodman, a professor and former special counsel to the general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, and Alex Whiting, a Harvard University law professor who served as an international criminal prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said that in September of 2015, Haftar openly urged his troops to “to take no prisoners” in battle.

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

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 1 January 2020 | Permalink

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

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