Unprecedented trial of ‘secret prisoner’ in Australia raises legal questions

Alexander Maconochie CentreAn unprecedented closed-door trial of a man identified only as “Witness J”, who was convicted earlier this year of a crime that cannot be revealed, has raised questions about the relationship between security and the law in Australia. The man, who is also known as “Prisoner 123458”, was sentenced to a jail sentence in February of this year. His sentencing came following a closed-door hearing, which was described by a judge as “generally undesirable” and “unusual”.

Witness J is believed to be in his mid-30s and to have served as an intelligence officer in the Australian military, with a Top Secret security clearance. According to ABC News, he served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor and had a distinguished service record. But he drew the attention of counterintelligence investigators in 2018, while undergoing a five-year re-evaluation of his security clearance status. During that time he was reportedly serving as a civilian in an undisclosed country in Southeast Asia.

ABC News said that “some anomalies in [Witness J’s] answers” —presumably while he was undergoing a polygraph test— raised further questions about whether “he could be compromised”. This, according to ABC News, coincided with the deterioration of his mental health, which led him to seek “internal help” from his employer on several occasions. Reportedly, his Top-Secret clearance status did not allow him to seek outside professional advice about his condition. Witness J was eventually jailed in mid-May 2018 and spent a month in solitary confinement. He was then placed in a high-security wing for serious sex offenders at the Alexander Maconochie Centre prison in Canberra. This was not because he was a sex offender, but because it was determined that he would be safer there than in the other wings of the prison.

In February of this year, Witness J was sentenced in a closed-door trial, held under the secrecy provisions of Australia’s 2004 National Security Act. Australia’s Attorney General, Christian Porter, told ABC that the information shared in Witness J’s hearing was “of a kind that could endanger the lives or safety of others”. The only reason why records of Witness J’s incarceration have appeared on the public record was because officers of the Australian Federal Police obtained a warrant to search his prison cell in order to confiscate a personal memoir that they allege the prisoner composed about his case during his incarceration.

It is believed that Witness J was released from prison in August of this year, 16 months before completing his sentence. He is not able to speak to the press, or identify himself in public in connection with this case. According to ABC News, he is only allowed to refer to his conviction as having been for “mishandling classified information”. Several experts have commented on the secret trial of Witness J One expert, Bret Walker, a barrister and former independent national security legislation monitor, told “ABC News that the case of Witness J was “a perfectly well-intentioned piece of national security legislation might not be operating in the way one would like”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 09 December 2019 | Permalink

Estonian court to release defense official who spied for Russia for 13 years

Herman SimmA court in Estonia has ordered the release of a former senior defense official who spied on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for Russia, causing what experts described at the time as “the most serious case of espionage against NATO since the end of the Cold War”. Herman Simm was a high-level official at the Estonian Ministry of Defense, who once led the country’s National Security Authority. This meant that he was in charge of Estonia’s national cyber defense systems and supervised the issuing of security clearances.

He was arrested in 2008 along with his wife and charged with spying for Russia for over a decade. At the time of his arrest Simm was responsible for handling all of Estonia’s classified and top secret material regarding NATO. This prompted European and American security officials to describe Simm as the most damaging spy against NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In February of 2009 Simm was sentenced to 12½ years in prison.

On Thursday, a county court in Estonia’s southeastern city of Tartu ruled that Simm is eligible for parole, because he has served the majority of his prison sentence without committing any disciplinary infractions. Officials from the Tartu County Prison and the prosecutor’s office agreed that early release would provide Simm with an incentive to abide with Estonian law. The court also stated in its decision that Simm had no more access to classified information and that he was of no further interest to foreign countries and intelligence organizations.

Simm is expected to be released within days, and will remain under probation until March of 2021. The court’s decision can be appealed by December 20.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 December 2019 | Permalink

London accused of hiding report about Russian meddling in Brexit referendum

BrexitThe British government has been accused by opposition parties, and by pro-remain conservative figures, of trying to conceal a report documenting Russian meddling in British politics. The report documents the results of an investigation into Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the outcome of the 2017 general election in the United Kingdom, as well as the result of the 2016 European Union referendum, which ended in victory for the pro-Brexit campaign.

The investigation was carried out by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and is largely based on closed-door testimony by senior officials from Britain’s intelligence community. It reportedly contains evidence from Russia experts in agencies such as the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

According to media reports the probe was completed in March of this year and underwent a redaction process to safeguard intelligence methods and sources. On October 15 it was submitted to Downing Street and on October 17 it reportedly landed on the desk of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. British opposition politicians allege that even sensitive reports are usually made public no later than 10 days after they are submitted to Downing Street, which means that the document should have been released prior to October 28.

Some fear that, with Parliament about to suspend operations on Tuesday, in anticipation for December’s general election, the report will effectively remain hidden from public view until the spring of 2020. On Friday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn publicly urged the government to release the report and claimed that the prime minster may have “something to hide”. But cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom argued that it is not unusual for parliamentary committee reports to remain in the government’s hands until they are properly evaluated. “The government has to respond properly, it cannot respond in haste”, said Leadsom.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 November 2019 | Permalink

Executive of Danish bank implicated in massive money laundering found dead

Danske BankThe former chief executive of Danske Bank’s subsidiary in Estonia, which is implicated in a massive money laundering scheme, has been found dead in an apparent suicide in Tallinn. Aivar Rehe, 56, headed the Estonian subsidiary of the Copenhagen-based Danske Bank, one of Northern Europe’s largest retail banks, which was founded in 1871. He belonged to a group of dynamic young entrepreneurs who spearheaded the privatization of the Estonian economy in the post-Soviet era.

But the reputation of the Estonian banking sector was tarnished last year, when a criminal investigation was launched into an alleged money laundering scandal. The investigation focused on customers from Russia and other Eastern European countries who allegedly used Danske Bank’s subsidiary in Estonia to launder billions of dollars in illicit funds. The probe prompted Danske Bank to pull out of the Baltic countries. Meanwhile, the probe extended to Sweden, Germany and the United States. Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, is currently being investigated for allegedly helping facilitate Danske Bank’s customers launder money by converting it into United States dollars. The criminal probe has damaged the previously spotless reputation of the Scandinavian banking sector and has made Central European banks hesitant to do business in the Baltics. Some financial observers have even warned that the Danske Bank scandal could drag the Baltic economies into a prolonged recession.

Rehe was not involved in the money laundering scandal. However, much of the money laundering took place between 2007 and 2015, when he was in charge of the Estonian subsidiary of Danske Bank. Under his leadership the bank’s operations were allegedly marred by “deficiencies in controls and governance”, which allowed for criminal activity to occur unnoticed, according to an internal Danske Bank investigation into the money laundering affair. Rehe had been missing from his home since Monday, having apparently left without taking his wallet and cellphone. His body was discovered on Wednesday in the garden of his home in the Estonian capital. Police have ruled his death an apparent suicide and believe that no foul play was involved.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Far-right terrorism a transnational threat backed by state actors, says US official

Slavic UnionThreats posed by white supremacist and other far-right groups are now global in nature and are increasingly backed by state actors, according to a Congressional testimony by an American former counterterrorism official. The testimony was delivered by Joshua Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism at the United States National Security Council. Geltzer, who now directs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, testified on Friday before two subcommittees of the US House of Representatives. The Subcommittee on National Security and the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a joint hearing entitled “Confronting Violent White Supremacy”.

Geltzer said in his testimony [.pdf] that the type of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups in America cannot any more be characterized as “domestic”, because it is quickly becoming transnational in character. White supremacist violence in America is part of a “global surge” that is “increasingly interlinked and internationalized”. In fact, the attackers themselves internationalize their role in this global movement by referencing white supremacist violence in other parts of the world to justify the use of violence in the US, said Geltzer. He added that the emerging center of this global surge of white supremacist violence appears to be located in Ukraine and Russia. It is there that funds provided by the Russian government are being used to train and educate white supremacist leaders in guerrilla warfare, social media propaganda and various forms of ideological training.

It is therefore imperative, said Geltzer, that the US Intelligence Community begins to examine white supremacist violence within this new transnational context. For instance, it would be helpful if the mission of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was changed to include a concentration in so-called “domestic terrorism”, including white supremacist violence, he argued.

Also on Friday, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled its new strategy report. The report views “domestic terrorism and mass attacks” as a growing threat to the United States that is equal in magnitude to the threat posed by Islamist terrorists. The report identifies what it describes as “a disturbing rise in attacks motivated by domestic terrorist ideologies”. One of the most powerful drivers of this new wave of domestic violence is “white supremacy”, according to the DHS.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 September 2019 | Permalink

Gas explosion reported at Russian research facility that houses Ebola and smallpox

Vector RussiaRussian authorities announced on Tuesday that a gas explosion had damaged a section of a medical facility in Siberia that houses live samples of viruses such as Ebola and smallpox, but added that there was no need to declare a biomedical emergency. The explosion reportedly took place on Monday at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector. The six-floor concrete and steel facility is located in the isolated Siberian town of Kotsovo, near the city of Novosibirsk, 600 miles from the Mongolian border.

Vector was founded in 1974 by the Soviet state to study mass infectious agents that could be used to build biological weapons. Today it remains as one of the world’s largest virology research centers, specializing in the treatment of some of the most lethal infectious diseases, such as Ebola, tularemia and swine flu. The Vector facility is believed to be one of two locations in the world that house live samples of the smallpox virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States city of Atlanta is also believed to house samples of the virus.

According to a statement issued on Tuesday by the Russian state-owned news agency TASS, the Vector facility sustained an explosion on Monday afternoon local time. The explosion was reportedly caused by a gas canister used by workers who were carrying out repairs at a sanitary inspection room located on the fifth floor of the Vector facility. An employee suffered unspecified injuries as a result of the explosion, according to the statement. However, “no work with biological agents was being carried out in the [Vector] building” at the time of the explosion, so there was no need for a state of emergency, according to the statement. Russian media reported on Tuesday that Vector personnel were present on the site and that no biological threat alerts had been issued.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 September 2019 | Permalink

Shia militia blames US and Israel for mystery explosions throughout Iraq

Popular Mobilization ForcesIraq’s largest Shia militia, which controls parts of Iraq’s territory that were aptured from the Islamic State, has accused the United States and Israel for a series of mystery explosions at its arms depots around the country. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 Shia militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces because they view them as American-supported.

In the past month, however, there have been at least three mystery explosions at arms depots controlled by the PMF throughout Iraq. On July 19, Arab media reported that a blast killed two Iranian military engineers at a PMF facility. Then on August 12 a massive explosion destroyed part of the al-Saqr military base in Baghdad, killing at least one person and injuring 30. The base reportedly housed an arms depot that was shared by the Shia-dominated Iraqi federal police and the PMF (the two are often indistinguishable in post-ISIS Iraq). On August 20 two more explosions were reported at a PMF arms depot located about 55 miles north of Baghdad. It is not known if anyone was killed or injured in the latest attack. Prior to the August 20 explosions, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had banned all unauthorized flights over Iraq in an attempt to prevent further attacks on arms depots. But the move did not prevent yet another mystery attack.

In recent days, Iraq has been rife with rumors and conspiracy theories about who could be behind the attacks. Many are accusing the United States and Israel, while some are blaming ISIS or Iraqi militias who are competing against the PMF for control. A leaked Iraqi government report into the incidents claimed that they were caused by drone strikes. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the PMF said that the attacks had been carried out by Israeli drones with American intelligence support in order to weaken Shia influence in Iraq. When asked about the mystery explosions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran has no immunity anywhere […]. We will act and are currently acting against Iran wherever necessary”. Meanwhile, the PMF pledged to use “all means at its disposal to deter and prevent [future] attacks” on its facilities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2019 | Permalink