Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2020, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when intelNews was launched, 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 2021 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2020. They are listed below in reverse order of significance, starting from 10 and leading up to 1. This is part one in a three-part series. Part two will be available on Wednesday and part three on Thursday.

08. Spanish high court broadens illegal wiretap probe to include senior politicians. In September, Spain’s highest criminal court broadened the scope of the Gürtel case, which refers to one of the most extensive corruption scandals in Spanish political history. It centers on an extensive network of tax evasion, bribery and money laundering, which brought together leading business executives, criminal kingpins, and senior politicians from Spain’s conservative Partido Popular (PP). In 2018, the scandal effectively brought an end to the government of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and has virtually annihilated the PP’s once robust electoral popularity. But this corruption investigation is now resulting in several related probes, among which is Operation KITCHEN, an espionage effort connected to the Gürtel case, which targeted Luis Bárcenas, a PP senator and treasurer. It turns out that, once senior government executives realized Bárcenas was about to turn government witness, they set up an espionage operation aimed at preventing him from doing so. Now a new series of prosecutions is taking place in connection to Operation KITCHEN, involving leading PP figures.

09. Massive hacker attack triggers emergency US National Security Council meeting. The computer systems of the United States government are targeted by hackers every minute of every day. These attacks do not usually prompt emergency meetings of the National Security Council —the country’s most senior decision-making body, which is chaired by no other than the president. But the massive data breach that was uncovered earlier this month did just that, with some experts describing it as potentially being among “the most impactful espionage campaigns on record”. Although only discovered two weeks ago, the cyberespionage campaign is believed to date to last spring, possibly as early as March. Sources called it a highly sophisticated operation that originated from a “top-tier” adversary —a term that refers to a handful of state actors that have access to the most elite cyber operatives and advanced technologies in existence. It will take weeks to uncover the extent of the damage caused by this breach, and many months —possibly even longer— to recover from it. Security expert Bruce Schneier said that, in order to fend off against “persistent access, the only way to ensure that your network isn’t compromised is to burn it to the ground and rebuild it, similar to reinstalling your computer’s operating system to recover from a bad hack”.

10. In extremely rare move, Russia’s spy agency disclosed identities of undercover officers. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which inherited the external intelligence functions of the Soviet-era KGB, does not usually disclose the identities of its undercover operatives. But in January of this year, in an extremely rare move, its director, Sergei Naryshkin, did just that during a commemoration event marking the centenary of the KGB and the SVR. The identities of seven non-official-cover officers, referred to in Russian as ‘pазведчики-нелегалы’, or ‘illegals’ —most of whom are now retired or dead— were disclosed along with brief biographical notes. The term illegals refers to undercover intelligence officers who are secretly posted abroad without diplomatic cover. Accordingly, they have no official connection to a Russian diplomatic facility, while some even pose as citizens of third countries. The accompanying biographies released by the SVR disclose no specifics about the countries in which these illegals operated, the type of work they carried out, and the specific dates in which they were active. Most of them operated between the late 1960s and the early 1990s.

This is part one in a three-part series; Part two will be available on December 30 and part three on December 31.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 29 December 2020 | 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 biggest spy-related stories of 2020, part I

  1. david vincent barr says:

    I hope that this web site is politically neutral. If so then I will be a frequent customer. If I detect a bend to the left or the right then I am gone.

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