Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part one here.

5. Turkey’s intelligence agency wins the 2016 ‘clueless’ award. It seems everyone predicted the July 15 coup in Turkey, except its spy agency. Unlike countless political analysts in Turkey and abroad, who have been warning about a possible coup as early as October 2015, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was caught in the dark. So unprepared was the agency, that it was unable to defend its headquarters in Ankara from an attack on the morning of July 16 by military helicopters. Meanwhile, dozens of Turkish nationals with diplomatic passports have been applying for political asylum in Germany and elsewhere since the coup. How many of those are MİT personnel, one wonders?

4. Panama papers leak shows immense extent of global financial crime. This year saw the unauthorized release of the Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked documents that represent history’s largest leak. The documents were leaked form the vaults of the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, and reveal secret information relating to over 200,000 offshore entities. This website opined at the time that the Panama Papers reveal the enormous extent of tax evasion and money laundering on a worldwide scale, which now directly threatens the very survival of the postwar welfare state. National intelligence agencies must begin to view offshore tax evasion as an existential threat to the security of organized government and need to augment their economic role as part of their overall mission to protect and secure law-abiding citizens.

3. Nuclear power plant computers found to be infected with viruses. In April, the computers of Gundremmingen, a nuclear power plant in southern Germany, were found to be infected with computer viruses that are designed to steal files and provide attackers with remote control of the system. The power plant is located in Germany’s southern district of Günzburg, about 75 miles northwest of the city of Munich. It is owned and operated by RWE AG, Germany’s second-largest electricity producer. RWE AG insisted that the malware did not pose a threat to the nuclear power plant’s computer systems, because the facility is not connected to the Internet. But there was no explanation of how the viruses found their way into the nuclear power plant’s systems in the first place.

2. German intelligence accuses Russia of pretending to be ISIS online. In June, a German intelligence report alleged that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is in fact a Russian front, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. The Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of ISIS. Now, however, a German intelligence report claims that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact a project of APT28 (also known as ‘Pawn Storm’), a notorious Russian hacking collective with close ties to Russian intelligence. The findings of the German intelligence report echo previous assessments by French and American authorities.

1. Intelligence features heavily in domestic US politics. Many, including this website, saw last week’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by US President Barack Obama as a move directed “more towoard domestic American politics than foreign policy”. The expulsion aimed to expose Moscow’s alleged campaign of interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. But another of its goals was to force president-elect Donald Trump, seen widely as a Russo-file, to take sides. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying Moscow “reserves the right” to retaliate, but would not do so at this point. The Russian response was unexpected and highly uncharacteristic, an important reminder of the uncharted waters that US politics –and US-Russian relations– have entered in 2016. Still, it is remarkable to see the president-elect of the US effectively side with the Kremlin and not with his own country’s Intelligence Community. If nothing more, 2017 promises to be exceedingly interesting from an intelligence point of view.

This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part I here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: US expulsion of Russian spies is mostly symbolic, aimed domestically

Russian embassy in WashingtonThere had been rumors for some time about a possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. The White House confirmed the rumors on Thursday morning, by announcing the expulsion of 35 accredited Russian diplomats from the US, and the reclamation of two “recreational facilities” used by Russian diplomats in New York and Maryland. Washington said the Russian diplomats are spies operating under diplomatic cover and that the recreational facilities were being “used for Russian intelligence activities”. Although the sanctions may seem significant at first, they are mostly symbolic, and their impact will be temporary and limited. They may even end up hurting the United States more than Russia.

As I told Newsweek‘s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein earlier today, the current size of Russia’s human-intelligence presence in the United States is estimated at more than 100 officers. Therefore, the expulsion of a third of those operatives will set back Russian human-intelligence activities on US soil —but only temporarily, since most of the expelled officers will be replaced in time. Moreover, Moscow will probably respond in kind, so Washington is likely to suffer a proportional reduction of its human-intelligence presence in Russia. That could hurt the US more than Russia, because the American human-intelligence presence in Russia is smaller and more needed in a relatively closed society as Russia’s. Thus, a proportional expulsion of Russian and American spies from each other’s territory may actually harm Washington more than Moscow.

In reality, the expulsions and sanctions pertain more to domestic American politics than foreign policy. They are designed to place the incoming president, Donald Trump, who is seen as a friend of Russia, in a difficult position, by further-complicating Russian-American relations in the last weeks of President Barack Obama’s Administration. These measures should arguably have been implemented much earlier this year, and certainly before November 8, when they may have had some impact. At this late stage, they can hardly be taken seriously, given the inconsistency in US national policy toward Russia, as shown in the differing viewpoints of the Obama and Trump teams.

Assuming that Russia was indeed behind a systematic effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election, it has already achieved one of its main goals. It was to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole and to divide America by intensifying the already growing mistrust between American —and by extension Western— civil society and its political institutions. Moscow will see the US response, such as it is, as a price worth paying, given the broader accomplishments of its covert operation against US democracy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

10. Kim Philby videotaped lecture surfaces in Germany. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB from the early 1930s until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Lebanon. Philby’s defection shocked Western intelligence and is seen as one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War. In April of this year, the BBC found a videotaped lecture by Philby in the archives of the BStU, the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records in Germany. During the one-hour lecture, filmed in 1981, Philby addresses a select audience of operations officers from the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security of the former East Germany. Excerpts were aired publicly for the first time.

9. Britain’s MI6 to increase in size by 40% by 2020. It was revealed in July that, according to satellite images, the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, has doubled, and possibly tripled, in size in the past nine years. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British government plans to implement a 40 percent increase in personnel numbers for MI6 over the next four years. The agency, which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, currently employs about 2,500 people. But that number will rise to approximately 3,500 by 2020. Experts agree that we are witnessing the most significant growth in the size of state intelligence agencies since the end of the Cold War.

8. Israel’s Mossad has a successful year, allegedly. It has been quite a year for Israel’s primary external intelligence agency, the Mossad. In 2015, the secretive organization got a new director, Yossi Cohen. Since that time, it has emerged that Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, a senior member of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, has defected to Israel. Mossad is also believed to be behind the killing of Mohamed Zaouari, a senior aviation engineer who headed Hamas’ unmanned aerial vehicle program. Zaouari was shot dead outside his home in Tunisia earlier this month, by a group of assailants using gun silencers.

7. Information points to previously unknown ISIS spy agency. According to The New York Times, the Islamic State has set up a secretive intelligence agency whose task is to set up sleeper cells abroad and has already sent “hundreds of operatives” to Europe and Asia. The ISIS intelligence agency goes by the name Emni and appears to be a multilevel organization that includes domestic and external operational components. Emni’s external unit is tasked with conducting terrorist operations abroad. These are the responsibility of several lieutenants, who are permitted to recruit the most capable members of ISIS from around the world.

6. South Korea announces most high-profile defection from North since Korean War. An announcement issued by the South Korean government in April said it had given political asylum to a colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who worked for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division. The unnamed man is the most high profile defector to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to authorities in Seoul. Meanwhile, Thae Yong-Ho, the second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, also defected with his wife and children in August, and was given political asylum in South Korea.

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

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

US government to set up ‘anti-propaganda center’ after Obama signs new law

Barack ObamaUnited States President Barack Obama has signed a new law that designates $160 million to set up a government center for “countering foreign propaganda and disinformation”. The law authorizes the US departments of State and Defense to work with other federal agencies in establishing the new body. Its precise tasks are not yet known, nor is the role in it —if any— of intelligence agencies, though the Director of National Intelligence is mentioned in the body of the legislation.

The legislation is entitled “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act”, and it was introduced in both chambers of the US Congress last spring by Republican and Democrat legislators. It was initially entitled “Countering Information Warfare Act”, but was subsequently revised and included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017. It was approved by the House of Representatives on December 2, and by the Senate on December 8. President Obama signed it into law on December 23. Under the new law, the Department of Justice has to take initiative within 180 days, and collaborate with the Department of Defense, before reaching out to “other relevant departments and agencies”. Resulting from this process will be the establishment of a “Center for Information Analysis and Response”. The goal of the Center will be to collect and analyze “foreign government information warfare efforts”, and to “expose and counter foreign information operations” directed against “US national security interests”. The plan will be funded in the amount of $160 million over two years.

Rob Portman, a Republican US Senator from Ohio, who co-sponsored the bill, hailed it as “a critical step towards confronting the extensive, and destabilizing, foreign propaganda and disinformation operations being waged against us by our enemies overseas”. But the Russian government-owned broadcaster RT called the new law “ominous” and “controversial”, and said the US government was “itself pushing propaganda on its own domestic population”. In an article published on Tuesday, the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post said the new legislation was aimed at China, as well as at Russia. The newspaper cited Chinese experts who warned that Washington and Beijing “could head down the slippery slope toward ideological confrontation” as a result of the new law.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Is Putin planning to restore the Soviet-era KGB?

SVR hqLast week, following the results of Russia’s parliamentary election, Russian media run a story suggesting that the Kremlin is planning to implement far-reaching changes to the country’s intelligence apparatus. According to the Moscow-based daily Kommersant, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is considering merging Russia’s two major intelligence and counterterrorism agencies into one. Specifically, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, will merge with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, according to Kommersant. The merger will create a new amalgamated intelligence agency that will be named “Ministry of State Security”, or MGB, in Russian. The last time this title was used was from 1946 to 1953, during the last years of the reign of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was one of several agencies that were eventually combined to form the Soviet KGB in 1954.

If the Kommersant article is accurate, Russia’s two main intelligence agencies will merge after an institutional separation that has lasted a quarter of a century. They were separated shortly after the official end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, when it was recognized that the KGB was not under the complete control of the state. That became plainly obvious in August of that year, when the spy agency’s Director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped lead a military coup aimed at deposing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The two new agencies were given separate mandates: the SVR inherited the mission of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates and focused on collecting intelligence abroad; the FSB, on the other hand, assumed the KGB’s counterintelligence and counterterrorist missions. A host of smaller agencies, including the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and others, took on tasks such as communications interception, border control, political protection, etc.

Could these agencies merge again after 25 years of separation? Possibly, but it will take time. An entire generation of Russian intelligence officers has matured under separate institutional roofs in the post-Soviet era. Distinct bureaucratic systems and structures have developed and much duplication has ensued during that time. If a merger was to occur, entire directorates and units would have to be restructured or even eliminated. Leadership roles would have to be purged or redefined with considerable delicacy, so as to avoid inflaming bureaucratic turf battles. Russian bureaucracies are not known for their organizational skills, and it would be interesting to see how they deal with the inevitable confusion of a possible merger. It could be argued that, if Putin’s goal is to augment the power of the intelligence services —which is doubtful, given their long history of challenging the power of the Kremlin— he would be better off leaving them as they are today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2016 | Permalink

Monitoring continues as Libya’s chemical weapons are shipped to Germany

ISIS LibyaAs United States air strikes and special-forces operations continue in Libya, Libya’s Government of National Accord deputy prime minister, Mussa al-Koni, confirmed on Tuesday that their remaining chemical weapons left over from the Gaddafi era has been shipped to Germany for safekeeping. The process was supervised by the United Nations, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2298 (2016) adopted on July 22. The concern was the Islamic State getting their hands on the chemical stockpile that was stored in the central Jafa area, about 140 miles south of Sirte, where pro-government forces are currently fighting Islamic State militants.

Islamic State forces acquiring CBRN from Africa or producing it while in the region has been a continuous concern. Islamic State and other militant organizations are expanding throughout Africa’s 11.67 million mi². These groups can be very innovative and resourceful. As the Egyptian delegation highlighted in a UN Security Council debate on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction last week, the Islamic State and other groups have already caused destruction in Iraq, and possibly also in Syria by using chemical weapons. The Egyptians and other African countries see a real possibility of these weapons spreading further in Libya and from there to the Horn of Africa or elsewhere on the continent. The final departure of Gaddafi’s stockpile is welcome news, but Islamist militants know how to acquire such weapons, are trying to produce them and know how to cross borders.

African intelligence and law enforcement agencies are alert to these and other new threats. Intelligence reports have indicated groups such as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) have made multiple attempts to manufacture poison, gas, biological and radioactive agents. Training camps, particularly in the Sahel area, specialized in biological and chemical weapons are known to exist. Many African nations have put their national interests aside to counter cross border Islamist or criminal threats. In late September 2010, Algeria set up a regional intelligence center in Algiers, bringing together the countries of the region to fight against militant groups, including CBRN trafficking. Similar centers around the continent exist like Kenya’s common intelligence centre in Nairobi used for joint training on investigation skills and on ways to protect borders. The center also is used to monitor and address threats posed by militant groups in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. A more recent regional intelligence center, similar to Kenya’s, was established in Kampla, Uganda, which is supported by the African Union and seeks to prevent possible attacks by militant groups.

Another concern the Centers and domestic African intelligence agencies are investigating is the recruitment of African youth by Islamist groups.  “[The Islamic State] has attracted about 5,000 Africans to join them in Iraq and Syria. Some of them are from the East Africa Community and IGAD regions”, proclaimed the African Union Commissioner for Peace Security Smail Chergui in July 2015.

Author: Scott Firsing is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington

US Congressional probe finds DoD intelligence on Islamic State was altered

ISISAn investigation by Republican lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives has reportedly found that military intelligence analysts were pressured into changing reports on the Islamic State by their superiors. The investigation follows allegations made a year ago by analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s primary human-intelligence agency. As many as 50 analysts claimed that their reports about the Islamic State were being deliberately tweaked by officials at the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pentagon body that directs and coordinates American military operations in Egypt, the Middle East and Central Asia. Some of the reports related to al-Qaeda activity in Iraq and Syria, but most were about the Islamic State, the militant Sunni organization that controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

The allegations prompted two separate investigations, one by the Department of Defense and one by a task force consisting of Republican members of three committees in the US House of Representatives —namely the Committee on Armed Services, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Defense Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations. According to The Daily Beast, the committees have now concluded their five-month investigation and are preparing to release a 10-page report before the end of August. Citing three unnamed US officials, the website claims that the soon-to-be-released report will corroborate claims by DIA analysts that their intelligence reports were deliberately doctored in order to make American efforts against ISIS seem more successful than they have been.

According to the three officials, who are reportedly “familiar with the task force’s findings”, the 10-page document will not corroborate claims that the pressure on the intelligence analysts was exercised by senior sources inside the White House. But they told the website that the Congressional investigation could continue after the release of the report. The Daily Beast said it contacted CENTCOM for a comment on the story, but was told that the Pentagon body has yet to receive the task force report. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s own investigation into the analysts’ allegations continues and expected to release its findings by the end of 2016.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 August 2016 | Permalink