Nerve agent used in Skripal attack ‘could have killed thousands’ say experts

GRUThe amount of poison smuggled into Britain for a near-fatal attack on Russian former spy Sergei Skripal was powerful enough to kill “thousands of people”, according those leading the investigation into the incident. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying for Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March of this year, after being poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Investigators from Britain and other Western countries have identified the poison used in the attack on the Skripals as novichok. The term (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a series of rarely used nerve agents that were developed the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s. It is believed that the poison was smuggled into the United Kingdom hidden inside an imitation perfume bottle, which had been fitted with a custom-made pump used to apply the poison. British authorities have determined that the assailants sprayed the poison on the doorway —including the handle— of the Skripals’ house in Salisbury. They then discarded the perfume bottle, containing the leftover novichok, in a garbage can before leaving the country in a hurry. The bottle was eventually recovered by Salisbury resident Charlie Rowley. His partner, Dawn Sturgess, died of poisoning after she applied some of the contents of the bottle on her wrists. British government scientists have since been examining the contents of the perfume bottle found inside Sturgess’ home.

On Thursday, BBC Television’s Panorama investigative program aired an episode entitled “Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack: The Inside Story”. Among those interviewed was Dean Haydon, a British Deputy Assistant Commissioner who is leading the ongoing investigation into the Salisbury attack. He told Panorama that “a significant amount” of novichuk was left behind by the assailants inside the discarded perfume bottle. The amount of poison in the discarded bottle could have been used to kill “thousands”, he said, adding that the way it was applied to the Skripals’ home was “completely reckless”. The BBC program’s producers also spoke to a British government chemical weapons scientist, identified only as “Tim”, who is credited with having identified the substance used on the Skripals. He told the program that less than 100g of novichuk was used against the Skripals, leaving the vast majority of the nerve agent inside the bottle. Given that novichuk is “one of the deadliest substances known”, which has a “unique ability to poison individuals at very low concentrations”, the scientist said he was shocked by the amount of poison that was smuggled into Britain by the assailants.

The assailants have been identified by British intelligence as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin (cover name “Alexander Petrov”) and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (cover name “Ruslan Boshirov”). Both men are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack on the Skripals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 November 2018 | Permalink

Advertisements

Western spy agencies thwarted alleged Russian plot to hack Swiss chemical lab

OPCW HagueWestern intelligence agencies thwarted a plot involving two Russians intending to travel to a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and hack its computer systems. According to two separate reports by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, the two were apprehended in The Hague in early 2018. The reports also said that the Russians were found in possession of equipment that could be used to compromise computer networks. They are believed to work for the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, Russia’s foremost military intelligence agency. The apprehension was the result of cooperation between various European intelligence services, reportedly including the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Organization (MIVD).

The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, has been commissioned by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the case of the Skripals, the laboratory said it was able to duplicate findings made earlier by a British laboratory.

Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) reportedly confirmed the arrest and subsequent expulsion of the two Russians. The Swiss agency said it “cooperated actively with Dutch and British partners” and thus “contributed to preventing illegal actions against a sensitive Swiss infrastructure”. The office of the Public Prosecutor in the Swiss capital Bern said that the two Russians had been the subject of a criminal investigation that began as early as March 2017. They were allegedly suspected of hacking the computer network of the regional office of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Lausanne. The Spiez laboratory was a target of hacking attempts earlier this year, according to a laboratory spokesperson. “We defended ourselves against that. No data was lost”, the spokesperson stated.

On April 14, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stated that he had obtained the confidential Spiez lab report about the Skripal case “from a confidential source”. That report confirmed earlier findings made by a British laboratory. But the OPCW, of which Russia is a member, states that its protocols do not involve dissemination of scientific reports to OPCW member states. Hence, the question is how Foreign Minister Lavrov got hold of the document.

As intelNews reported in March, in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning the Dutch government expelled two employees of the Russian embassy in The Hague. In a letter [.pdf] sent to the Dutch parliament on March 26 —the day when a large number of countries announced punitive measures against Russia— Holland’s foreign and internal affairs ministers stated that they had decided to expel the two Russian diplomats “in close consultation with allies and partners”. The Russians were ordered to leave the Netherlands within two weeks. It is unknown whether the two expelled Russian diplomats are the same two who were apprehended in The Hague, since none have been publicly named.

A November 2017 parliamentary letter from Dutch minister of internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren, states[4] that Russian intelligence officers are “structurally present” in the Netherlands in various sectors of society to covertly collect intelligence. The letter added that, in addition to traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) methods, Russia deploys digital means to influence decision-making processes and public opinion in Holland.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 17 September 2018 | Permalink

Montenegro seeks arrest of ex-CIA officer accused of role in pro-Russian coup

Montenegro coupGovernment prosecutors in Montenegro, the youngest member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, claim that a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency helped pro-Russian plotters organize a coup in 2016. In October of that year, authorities in Montenegro accused “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” of staging a failed plot. Their goal was allegedly to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović, spark a pro-Russian coup in the country, and prevent its entry into NATO. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested in Montenegro for allegedly planning an armed coup. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, 2016, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had even hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović, according to Montenegrin police. After killing the prime minister, the plotters allegedly planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup.

Russia has vehemently denied the allegations. But in March of last year, the then British foreign secretary Boris Johnson appeared to validate the Montenegrin government’s allegations. Since then, a sensational trial has been taking place in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica of the 20 men who were arrested in October 2016, in addition to two Russians who are being tried in absentia. During the trial, prosecutors fingered Joseph Assad, a former CIA officer, as a co-conspirator in the coup plot. The Egyptian-born Assad served as a counter-terrorism expert in the CIA after arriving in the US in 1990, but eventually left the agency to launch his own security firm. It is believed that at the time of the alleged coup plot, Assad’s firm was employed by Aron Shaviv, a political strategist connected with the Democratic Front, a vocal pro-Russian opposition party in Montenegro. Shaviv, who has joint British and Israeli citizenship, said he hired Assad’s firm to provide counter-surveillance against Montenegro’s security services. According to Shaviv, the Montenegrin authorities spied on him and harassed him because of his connections to a domestic political party that is seen as pro-Russian.

But prosecutors in the trial of the alleged coup plotters claim that Assad’s role was to organize and provide escape routes and methods for the coup plotters. In light of these allegations, a warrant has been issued for Assad, accusing him of “operating a criminal enterprise”, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Assad has rejected the charges as a “deception campaign”. In a statement issued on Saturday, he said he was “a loyal American who had no role in any crimes or coup in Montenegro”. Meanwhile, the Democratic Front and a number of other opposition parties in Montenegro denounced the government’s claims of a failed coup as “publicity stunts” aimed at distracting the country’s citizens from the state of the economy and other domestic concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2018 | Permalink

US diplomats secretly met with Taliban without Afghan government

TalibanIn a dramatic change to longstanding policy, senior United States diplomats have reportedly held secret meetings with Taliban leaders without the presence –and presumably knowledge– of the Afghan government. For over a decade, the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they view as a puppet regime controlled by Washington. They have instead sought to speak directly with the United States, without Kabul’s mediation. In 2015, the United States sought to initiate peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha, but the effort collapsed after the Afghan government denounced it and demanded a seat at the table. The negotiation process has remained dormant since then.

Last week, however, The Wall Street Journal reported that a series of unannounced meetings have been taking place between a delegation of senior Taliban officials and an American team led by Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. On Saturday, The New York Times confirmed the story, saying that meetings between the two sides were being held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an informal diplomatic mission. Citing “two senior Taliban officials”, The Times said that the American diplomats have been meeting with members of the Taliban’s political commissariat. But the paper said it had no information about the substance or progress of the talks. If The Times’ claims are accurate, they would mark a dramatic reversal of longstanding US policy on the Taliban. Since 2001, Washington has consistently argued that any negotiation process involving the Taliban would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. Therefore, direct talks between Washington and the Taliban without Kabul’s mediation would mark a major shift in America’s security strategy in Afghanistan and beyond.

The New York Times said it contacted the US Department of State in Washington, seeking clarification about the alleged talks. But a spokesman refused to discuss the claims and insisted that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government”. However, The Times noted that the spokesman did not expressly deny the existence of the talks with the Taliban.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2018 | Permalink

Judge rules that Trump’s tweet did not disclose top-secret CIA operation in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyA United States federal judge ruled on Monday that a tweet by President Donald Trump did not inadvertently disclose a top-secret program by the Central Intelligence Agency to aid rebel groups in Syria. The lawsuit, brought by The New York Times, centered on news reports published in 2017 by Reuters, The Washington Post, and others, claiming that the US president had terminated an extensive CIA program that provided assistance to rebel forces engaged in the Syrian Civil War. The program was reportedly initiated by US President Barack Obama, who in 2015 instructed the CIA to assist armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Aside from training, the CIA assistance reportedly included the provision of light and heavy ammunition, such as antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

But President Trump allegedly terminated $1 billion program soon after he took office. Last July, the president openly disputed an account by The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous, which claimed that Trump had ended the program as a concession to Russia. In a tweet, Trump said: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad”. Shortly afterwards, another newspaper, The New York Times, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, arguing that the president’s tweet had effectively disclosed the existence of the covert CIA program and seeking full details from the government. But the CIA rejected the The New York Times’ rationale, at which point the paper took the case to court.

But on Monday, US District Court Judge Andrew Carter Jr. dismissed the paper’s argument. In a 20-page decision, posted online by the US-based news website Politico, Judge Carter said that President Trump’s tweet had been too vague and ambiguous to be considered as effectively declassifying the secret CIA program. At no point did the US president “make an unequivocal statement, or any statement for that matter, indicating that he was declassifying information”, said the judge. Additionally, Trump’s tweet and other public statements on the matter did not undermine the legal authority of the US government to continue to keep details about the CIA program under wraps. According to Politico, which reported on Judge Carter’s decision, this development will make it difficult for other FOIA filers to use Trump’s tweets as justification for seeking information about secret government programs. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Monday that it would seek to appeal Judge Carter’s decision.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 July 2018 | Permalink

Report reveals deeper CIA role in 1963 Vietnam coup and Diem’s assassination

Ngo Dinh DiemA newly declassified report by the Inspector General of the United States Central Intelligence Agency reveals that the South Vietnamese generals who overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 used CIA money “to reward opposition military who joined the coup”. Acknowledging that “the passing of these funds is obviously a very sensitive matter”, the CIA Inspector General’s report contradicts the sworn testimony of Lucien E. Conein, the CIA liaison with the South Vietnamese generals. In 1975, Conein told a United States Senate committee that the agency funds, approximately $70,000 or 3 million piasters, were used for food, medical supplies, and “death benefits” for the families of South Vietnamese soldiers killed in the coup.

The report (.pdf), one of the 19,000 JFK assassination documents released by the US National Archives on Thursday, also contains new details about the South Vietnamese generals’ decision to assassinate Diem that contradict a conclusion of the coup’s history written by the CIA station in Saigon. The majority of the generals, said the CIA at the time, “desired President Diem to have honorable retirement from the political scene in South Vietnam and exile”. According to a newly declassified portion of the 49-page document written by the CIA’s Inspector General, an unidentified field-grade South Vietnamese officer who provided the CIA station with pictures of the bloodied bodies of Diem and his brother and advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, said that “most of the generals” favored their immediate execution: “The ultimate decision was to kill them. A Captain Nhung was designated as executioner”.

A redacted version of the Inspector General’s report, dated May 31, 1967, was released by the National Archives in November 2017. In that version of the report, the paragraphs related to the use of CIA funds and the generals’ decision to murder Diem were excised.

* William J. Rust is the author of four books about US relations with Southeast Asia countries during the cold war, including Kennedy in Vietnam. He is currently completing a book about US relations with Indonesia.

 

Report from Holland: Cable-bound interceptions and ‘dragnets’

Wet op de Inlichtingen- en VeiligheidsdienstenFor the past year, the Netherlands has had a new law governing its two secret services, the AIVD and the MIVD. The new Intelligence and Security Services Act (Wet op de inlichtingen- en veiligheidsdiensten or Wiv) was and still is heavily criticized, especially because it allows untargeted access to cable-bound telephone and internet traffic. Under the previous law, which dates from 2002, the intelligence services were only allowed to conduct bulk interception of wireless transmissions, like satellite and radio communications —besides of course the traditional targeted telephone and internet taps aimed at individual targets.

That prohibition of bulk cable tapping is not the only thing that makes Dutch intelligence services different from those of many other countries. Probably the biggest difference is the fact that the Wiv applies to both foreign and domestic operations, as if the two secret services were responsible for both domestic security and foreign intelligence.

The General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst, or AIVD) covers the civilian domain, and focuses at Jihadist terrorism, radicalization, rightwing and leftwing extremism, counter-intelligence and countering cyber threats. This is mostly domestic, but the AIVD also has a small branch that gathers foreign intelligence from and about a select range of countries. The Military Intelligence and Security Service (Militaire Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst, or MIVD) covers military issues, and is therefore more foreign-orientated than its civilian counterpart. The MIVD is responsible for the security of Dutch armed forces and for collecting foreign intelligence in military matters, while at the same time providing support of Dutch military missions abroad, like for example in Mali. When it comes to Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), the AIVD and MIVD combined their efforts in a joint unit called the Joint SIGINT Cyber Unit (JSCU), which became operational in 2014. The JSCU is responsible for most of the technical interception capabilities, from traditional wiretaps to cyber operations. The JSCU is not allowed to conduct offensive cyber operations. The latter are conducted by the Defence Cyber Command (DCC) of the Dutch armed forces. Read more of this post