New Zealand spy agency warns of persistent foreign espionage threats

NZSIS New ZealandThe intelligence agency of New Zealand has issued a report warning that the country is being targeted by foreign spies who operate using fake covers. Many of them aim to infiltrate some of the highest levels of the government, according to the agency. The warning appeared in the annual report of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), the country’s main national intelligence organization, which is responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence and counter- terrorism. The NZSIS’ latest report covers the 12 months leading up to June 30, 2016. The unclassified version of the report was presented last week to the New Zealand House of Representatives, which must by law be kept informed about the activities of the NZSIS.

The report warns that “[f]oreign powers continue to conduct espionage activity and other hostile state-sponsored activities, including foreign interference, against New Zealand”. To illustrate this point, the report mentions the case of an alleged “foreign intelligence officer” who entered New Zealand under a “cover identity”, presumably in 2016. The officer approached and met senior New Zealand government officials, including some “with high level security clearances”, claims the report. The undercover officer also came in contact with individuals who worked in “key New Zealand business facilities” and sensitive industries, according to the document. However, NZSIS was able to identify the officer and subsequently contacted all New Zealand government officials that came in contact with the officer. The officials were debriefed and advised to be “cautious in their conversations” with foreign nationals, said the report.

The case study may point to efforts by foreign intelligence agencies to gain insights or manipulate the operations of New Zealand’s government and business community, said NZSIS. However, when asked by reporters, the agency refused to provide further details of the case of the foreign undercover officer. An agency spokesman said simply that the case highlights “some of the security threats that New Zealand currently faces”. The NZSIS is currently in the middle of a hiring spree, after its budget was raised last year. It is estimated that the agency’s staff has increased by nearly a fifth since late 2015.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 January 2017 | Permalink

Indonesia halts joint military training with Australia ‘over espionage fears’

Indonesia AustraliaThe Indonesian military has halted all forms of cooperation with the armed forces of Australia, with some media reports suggesting that the decision was prompted by fears of espionage. Indonesia and Australia have held joined military training sessions for many decades. In recent weeks, members of the Kopassus, the elite special forces of the Indonesian military, were training on a base in Perth, Australia, with their counterparts in the Australian Special Air Service. On Wednesday, however, the Indonesian government said that it was suspending all military cooperation with Canberra, effective immediately.

The unexpected announcement was made by a spokesman of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, who said that “all forms of cooperation with the Australian military, including joint training” would be “temporarily withheld”. When asked about the reasons behind the sudden move, the spokesman said it was “due to multiple reasons”, but refused to give specifics. Later on Wednesday, Indonesian officials said some print material had been found at the training center in Perth, which offended the Indonesian people. But Australian media suggested that the Indonesian government had decided to terminate the joint military training program because it feared that its special forces troops would be recruited as spies by the Australians. Some reports brought up some relevant comments made in November of last year by a senior Indonesian military official, General Gatot Nurmantyo. The general said he had ended military cooperation between troops under his command and their Australian colleagues due to fears that his troops may be compromised by the Australians during training.

But Australia’s Minister of Defense, Marise Payne, rejected that Australian espionage activities were behind Jakarta’s surprise decision. Speaking on ABC Radio on Wednesday, Payne said it was “not the case” that Australian intelligence officers had tried to recruit Indonesian soldiers. That “is something which we would not countenance”, she said. In 2013, Indonesia withdrew its ambassador from Canberra and terminated all military and intelligence cooperation with Australia, after it emerged that Australian spies had targeted the communications of the Indonesian President and other senior officials. But tensions subsided in August of 2014, when the two countries signed a joint agreement aimed at curbing their intelligence activities against each other. The last time Australia and Indonesia halted military cooperation was in 1999, when it was revealed that Kopassus troops had taken part in human rights abuses in East Timor. But the joint training was resumed in 2002, after the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, many of them Australian tourists.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 January | Permalink

Accused Chinese nuclear spy ‘to plead guilty’ in US court this week

China General Nuclear PowerA man at the center of the first case of Chinese nuclear espionage in United States history will be pleading guilty on Friday, according to court documents. This could mean that the alleged spy has decided to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) details of Chinese nuclear espionage in the US. The accused man is Szuhsiung ‘Allen’ Ho, a Taiwanese-born engineer and naturalized American citizen. Ho was arrested by the FBI in April on charges of sharing American nuclear secrets with the government of China.

The investigation began when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) contacted the FBI with concerns about Ching Huey, a TVA senior manager. When the FBI questioned the TVA executive, he admitted that Allen Ho had paid him in exchange for information about nuclear power production. He also said that he had traveled to China for that purpose, and that the Chinese government had covered his travel expenses. A few months later, the FBI arrested Ho in Atlanta, Georgia, and charged him with espionage. The FBI also claims that Ho’s US business firm, Energy Technology International, gave secrets to China General Nuclear Power, a Chinese company that supplies nuclear energy technology to the Chinese government. According to Ho’s indictment, he used his technical expertise and business acumen to give Beijing US government information that could help China’s civilian and military nuclear program.

Government prosecutors argued successfully that Ho, who has close family in China, including a son from a former marriage, could flee there if freed. Prosecutors also claim that Ho has access to several million US dollars abroad. For the past months, Ho’s defense denied the espionage accusations against him. But on Tuesday, a newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Ho has been charged, said that the jailed engineer is preparing to plead guilty in court on Friday. Observers believe that this move by Ho’s legal team means that he has decided to cooperate with the FBI. He could therefore provide US authorities with information about Chinese nuclear espionage in the US, and secrets on “the inner workings of China’s nuclear program”, said the newspaper.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 4 January 2017 | Permalink

German security agencies had watched Berlin market attacker for a year

Berlin Christmas market attackThe central suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack had been on the radar of German security agencies since January of this year, because he had links with radical Islamists and sought to buy guns for a terrorist attack. Anis Amiri, 23, left his native Tunisia in 2011, soon after the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring there. He lived in Italy for three years before arriving in Germany in July 2015. In April of this year, he applied for an asylum in Germany. According to German authorities, Amiri was arrested multiple times in Tunisia for drug-related offenses. He is also believed to have used at least six different aliases since moving to Europe, and to have claimed to be a citizen of Lebanon and Egypt at different times.

On Wednesday, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed that Amiri’s cell phone and email accounts had been monitored by German security agencies at least since January of this year. The decision to monitor his telecommunications was reportedly taken by officials at Germany’s Center for Terrorism Defense (GTAZ). The agency functions as a fusion center for intelligence cooperation between German police and spy services. The newspaper said that Amiri was deemed suspicious because of his connections with several radical Islamists, who were arrested in Germany in recent months. They include Abu Walaa, a vocal supporter of the Islamic State who was captured in Northern Germany in November. According to anonymous German officials, Amiri had also told friends that he was seeking people to help him purchase weapons and use them to carry out attacks on civilians in Europe.

Last summer, Amiri was involved in a scuffle between rival drug gangs in Berlin, in which at least one knife was used. But he disappeared for several weeks when police tried to question him about it. He was eventually arrested and questioned by police in Berlin. It was discovered that, according to one German official, Amiri “was highly mobile”, moving between Berlin and northern Germany every few weeks. But, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, German authorities did not have enough evidence against him to keep him in detention. Shortly after Amiri’s arrest and subsequent release, German authorities decided to turn down his application for asylum due to security concerns. He was due to be deported from Germany before December 31. The German police is now offering up to €100,000 for Amiri’s capture.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 December 2016 | Permalink

New director appointed to head Pakistan’s all-powerful intelligence agency

 Lt. Gen. Naveed MukhtarA new director, with considerable experience in counterterrorism, has been appointed to lead Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), believed by some to be one of the most powerful spy agencies in the world. Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense announced on Sunday that Lt. Gen. Naveed Mukhtar will be replacing Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, who has led the ISI since November of 2014. The appointment of Gen. Mukhtar comes less than a month after a major change of leadership in the Pakistani military, which saw the appointment of General Javed Qamar Bajwa as the new Chief of Army Staff. It is believed that the appointment of the new ISI director represents a personal choice of the newly appointed Gen. Bajwa.

Both the outgoing and incoming directors of the ISI are from the same generation of military officers, having been commissioned in 1982 and 1983 respectively. Both attended Pakistan’s prestigious National Defense University and earned graduate degrees at the United States Army War College in Pennsylvania. But while Gen. Akhtar specializes in counterinsurgency, and spent much of his career in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, his successor, Gen. Mukhtar, has a background in intelligence with a focus on counterterrorism. Although he most recently served in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most populous metropolitan center, Gen. Mukhtar made his mark in the military by leading the ISI’s counterterrorism branch in the capital Islamabad. It is said, therefore, that his appointment to the directorship of the ISI may signal a turn away from running Taliban agents in Afghanistan, for which the ISI is notorious, and concentrating instead of combatting militant groups at home.

The change in the ISI’s leadership comes at a particularly complicated period in Pakistani security. The country’s relations with its neighbor and arch-nemesis India are experiencing a major crisis following the so-called ‘summer of unrest’ in Kashmir. The term refers to a period of tension between the two countries, sparked by popular unrest and violent protests by the predominantly Muslim inhabitants of the Indian-administered region of Jammu and Kashmir. The region remained under a military curfew for nearly two months, during which nearly 100 people died and over 15,000 were injured. There are some in Islamabad who believe that Gen. Akhtar was removed from the ISI because he failed to contain the unrest in Kashmir. He has now been appointed president of Pakistan’s National Defense University in Islamabad.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 December 2016 | Permalink

Russia says it foiled major foreign cyber attack on its financial system

FSB - IARussian authorities say they prevented a large-scale cyber attack by “a foreign intelligence service”, which had been designed to destabilize the country’s financial system and subvert its economy. In an official statement published on its website last week, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said the perpetrators of the foiled attack had planned to carry it out on December 5. The spy agency, which stems from the Soviet-era KGB, said that the cyber attack had been designed to bring down computer systems belonging to some of Russia’s largest banking institutions.

Text to the statement by the FSB, the planned attack consisted of several components. One component included the use of social media and text messages to be spread through the mobile phone system. The goal was to spread rumors claiming that Russia’s financial system was facing imminent collapse and create panic in the Russian stock exchange. The FSB alleged that several large cities throughout Russia were to be targeted under the foiled plan. The spy agency claimed that the attack originated from a “foreign intelligence service”, but did not identify any countries as culprits of the operation. However, it said that a Ukrainian web hosting company had been used as a base from which to launch the attack through servers located in the Netherlands. On Friday, the Ukrainian web host, BlazingFast, denied that its systems had been used to prepare an attack on the Russian financial sector. In a statement published on Facebook, the company said it had not been contacted by Russian authorities, and assumed that the FSB had “been able to handle the situation without the need of BlazingFast’s cooperation”. It added that it was willing “to cooperate with any legal entity” to investigate Russia’s accusations.

In August of this year, the FSB disclosed that “a meticulously coded and sophisticated virus” had been found on the computer networks of at least 20 major Russian agencies and organizations. As intelNews reported at the time, the targets appeared to have been carefully selected by the malware’s authors. They included government bodies, weapons laboratories and defense contractors located throughout Russia.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 December | Permalink

Senior US intelligence official tells Congress not to ‘micromanage’ spy efforts

James ClapperThe United States’ senior intelligence officer has told Congress that new legislation requiring spy agencies to act against alleged Russian covert operations constitutes “micromanagement” of the American Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Authorization bill, which includes a number of intelligence-related requirements and provisions, is debated and enacted each year by Congress. This year’s legislation has already been approved by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. Last week it was enacted by the House, while the Senate is preparing to debate it this week.

The legislation currently under debate includes instructions to the US Intelligence Community to set up an interagency committee to formulate responses to perceived Russian covert operations around the world. The term ‘covert operations’ refers to actions by intelligence agencies designed to influence foreign political, military or economic affairs or events. The topic received media attention during the 2016 US presidential election, when Washington repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to shape its outcome. This year’s Intelligence Authorization bill requires every US intelligence agency to appoint a representative to serve on a joint panel that will address alleged Russian covert operations in the US, Europe and elsewhere in the world.

But in September of this year, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, America’s most senior intelligence official, authored a letter to Congress arguing that the requirement for an interagency panel to look into Russian covert operations should be scrapped. According to the Reuters news agency, which said last week that it saw a copy of the letter, Clapper argues that his letter echoes the unanimous view of the US Intelligence Community. He goes on to claim that the requirement to set up a special committee with an operational focus exceeds Congress’ role of overseer of the Intelligence Community and enters the realm of prescribing intelligence tasks. That, says Clapper in his letter, amounts to “micromanagement” of the Intelligence Community by Congress. Furthermore, he argues, the Intelligence Community has already taken steps to address Russian covert operations, thus the suggested panel would “duplicate current work” on the issue. Finally, Clapper’s letter suggests that the required panel would “hinder cooperation” with some of America’s overseas allies, though the Reuters report did not explain the precise justification for that claim.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 December 2016 | Permalink