North Korea accuses US of murder plot as CIA opens new DPRK mission center

North KoreaThe United States Central Intelligence Agency has announced the establishment of a new center focusing on North Korea, shortly after Pyongyang accused Washington of plotting to assassinate its supreme leader. Last week, the regime’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Han Song Ryol, said the CIA tried to kill North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. He was speaking during a meeting with foreign diplomats in the North Korean capital, where he repeated previously stated claims by government officials that American spies had tried to assassinate their country’s leader. According to Pyongyang, the plot involved an attack by a North Korean CIA agent, who had been trained in the use of a biochemical weapon by his handlers. The North Koreans also accuse South Korea of collaborating with the alleged CIA assassination plot, claiming that Seoul either bribed or blackmailed the would-be assassin.

Meanwhile, the CIA announced last week that it has established a dedicated center focusing on developments in the Korean peninsula. The purpose of the center, said the CIA, is to “address […] the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea”. There are only 11 such centers in the CIA, which the Agency calls “Mission Centers”. They focus on specific issues or locations around the world, in accordance with the geopolitical priorities of the US policymaker community, led by the White House. The establishment of a dedicated Korean Mission Center is designed to reflect the elevation of the North Korean government’s missile program to a critical foreign-policy issue by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The new Mission Center will be located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and will bring together several intelligence analysts and even operations officers from a variety of directorates and units across the Agency. The goal of the new Center, according to the CIA, is to “integrate [these individuals] in one entity” in order to produce regular situation reports and analytical forecasts from the troubled region. Speaking to reporters late last week, CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak said that the new Mission Center would allow Langley to “harness the full resources, capabilities and authorities of the Agency” in dealing with Pyongyang. But she refused to comment on North Korea’s allegations that the CIA tried to assassinate the communist state’s leader.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 May 2017 | Permalink

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CIA director makes unannounced visit to South Korea to discuss tensions

Korean DMZThe director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency made an unannounced visit to South Korea over the weekend, to discuss the rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula with his South Korean counterpart and other senior officials. A spokesperson from the US embassy in Seoul made an official announcement on Monday, in which he revealed the visit by Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who was appointed by US President Donald Trump in January of this year. When asked for details, however, the spokesperson refused to provide them. Consequently, Pompeo’s date of arrival to Seoul remains unknown, as is his date of departure. It is believed that he is now back in the US.

During his visit to the South Korean capital, Pompeo met with South Korean counterpart, Lee Byung-ho, who heads South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. South Korean media reports said Pompeo also met with senior officials in the office of the South Korean president. Additionally, he is said to have held several meetings with American intelligence and military officials stationed in South Korea, including a meeting with General Vincent Brooks, commander of United States Forces Korea. Reports in local media outlets said Pompeo’s visit aimed to coordinate American and South Korean intelligence responses to what Washington claims is increasing provocation by North Korea. The United States objects to North Korea’s repeated missile tests in recent weeks. On Saturday, Pyongyang attempted to launch a missile without success. The attempt, the third one in a month, elicited strong criticism from Washington and Seoul.

Pompeo’s trip to Seoul marked the fourth visit to South Korea by a senior US government official in recent weeks. The CIA director’s unannounced visit was preceded by separate official visits to Seoul by US Vice President Mike pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Additionally, last Wednesday the White House organized an “extraordinary national security briefing” about North Korea for members of the United States Senate. The briefing featured presentations by senior American diplomats and military officials.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 May 2017 | Permalink

Same hacker group is targeting French and German elections, says report

Konrad Adenauer FoundationThe same group cyber-spies that attacked the campaign of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is now attacking German institutions that are connected to the country’s ruling coalition parties, according to a report by a leading cyber-security firm. The Tokyo-based security software company Trend Micro published a 41-page report on Tuesday, in which it tracks and traces the attacks against French and German political targets over the past two years. The report, entitled From Espionage to Cyber Propaganda: Pawn Storm’s Activities over the Past Two Years, concludes that the hackers are seeking to influence the results of the national elections in the European Union’s two most powerful nations, France and Germany.

The Trend Micro report focuses on a mysterious group that cyber-security experts have dubbed Pawn Storm —otherwise known as Sednit, Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy, and STRONTIUM. It says that the group has launched an aggressive phishing campaign against German political institutions, which has intensified in the past two months. The group allegedly set up fake computer servers in Germany and the Ukraine, and used them to try to infiltrate the computer networks of two elite German think-tanks, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FEF). The KAF is connected with the Christian Democratic Union party, which is led by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The FEF has strong ties with the centrist Social Democratic Party, which is part of Germany’s governing alliance.

The report’s leading author, cyber-security expert Feike Hacquebord, told the Reuters news agency that the hackers were possibly seeking to infiltrate the two think-tanks as a means of gaining access to the two political parties that are connected with them. Some cyber-security experts in Europe and the United States have said that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, the country’s military intelligence agency, known as GRU, is behind the cyber-attacks on France, Germany and the United States. But the Trend Micro report did not attempt to place blame on Moscow or any other country for the cyber-attacks. The Kremlin has denied involvement with the alleged hacking operations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 April 2017 | Permalink

New report details one of history’s “largest ever” cyber espionage operations

GCHQ center in Cheltenham, EnglandA new report authored by a consortium of government and private organizations in Britain has revealed the existence of a computer hacking operation, allegedly based in China, that is said to be “one of the largest ever” such campaigns globally. The operation is believed to have compromised sensitive information from an inestimable number of private companies in Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. The report was produced by a consortium of public and private organizations, including BAE systems and the London-based National Cyber Security Centre, an office of the United Kingdom’s signals intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters. It details the outcome of Operation CLOUD HOPPER, which was launched to uncover the cyber espionage activities.

According to the report, the attacks were first launched several years ago against targets in Japan’s government and private sector. But after 2016, they spread to at least 14 other countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is claimed that the attacks are “highly likely” to originate from China, given that the targets selected appear to be “closely aligned with strategic Chinese interests”. The authors of the report have named the hacker group APT10, but provide limited information about its possible links —or lack thereof— with the Chinese government.

The report claims that APT10 uses specially designed malware that is customized for most of their targets, thus constituting what experts describe as “spear fishing”. Past successful attacks have already resulted in an “unprecedented web of victims” who have had their information compromised, say the authors. The victims’ losses range from intellectual property to personal data. One of the report’s authors, Dr. Adrian Nish, who is head of threat intelligence at BAE Systems, told the BBC that it is currently impossible to estimate the number of organizations and agencies that have been impacted by APT10’s activities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 April 2017 | Permalink

FBI accuses US State Department official of contacts with Chinese spies

US Department of StateAn employee of the United States Department of State has been charged with lying to authorities about her contacts with Chinese intelligence operatives, who gave her money and gifts in return for information. Candace Claiborne, 60, joined the Department of State in 1999 as an office management specialist. She lives in Washington, DC, but has served overseas in American diplomatic facilities in Baghdad, Iraq, Khartoum, Sudan, and China, where she was stationed in Beijing and Shanghai. According to information provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Claiborne had a top security clearance, which required her to report contacts with foreign nationals.

However, federal prosecutors said earlier this week that Claiborne interacted on a regular basis with Chinese intelligence personnel without informing her employer. According to court documents, her contacts with the Chinese were extensive and occurred from 2011 until earlier this year. The Chinese gave Claiborne gifts, including computers and smartphones, tuition-free studies in a Chinese technical school, and an all-expenses-paid holiday to Thailand. They also gave her a regular stipend and provided her with a furnished apartment abroad, according to prosecutors. In return, Claiborne allegedly gave the Chinese information relating to American economic policy on China, among other topics.

It appears that the FBI monitored the State Department employee for a while, after securing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrant. When it confronted Claiborne, she apparently denied the accusations and lied to FBI agents. She is now charged with obstruction of justice and providing false statements to the FBI. Claiborne is currently under house arrest and will remain there until April 18, when she will appear at a preliminary hearing in Washington. She is reportedly facing a maximum of 25 years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 March 2017 | Permalink

Trump authorizes CIA to bring back regular use of drone strikes

DroneUnited States President Donald Trump has reportedly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to bring back the routine use of lethal airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which his predecessor, Barack Obama, curtailed in 2013. Washington began employing limited strikes by UAVs, otherwise known as drones, in the early 1990s, during the administration of President Bill Clinton. But it was under the Obama administration that the use of drone strikes reached an all-time high, with hundreds of such attacks documented after 2008. It is believed that Obama used this remote attack method to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while at the same time keeping his promise of bringing back American troops from the Middle East and Central Asia. However, in 2013 the US president severely curtailed the controversial program, which some say damaged America’s image by inflicting civilian casualties.

But on Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump had resuscitated the drone program and authorized the CIA to begin using Predator drones on a regular basis against identified targets in the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the newspaper, the president gave senior CIA project mangers the right to authorize drone strikes. Under the Obama administration, the president himself, or especially designated National Security Council officials, had to give the go-ahead before the CIA could carry out drone strikes around the world.

The Wall Street Journal said that President Trump made the decision on January 21, just hours after taking office, following a secret meeting with senior officials from the CIA. According to the report, the CIA requested some time to rebuild the program. But the agency has allegedly conducted at least one drone strike, which targeted Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a known al-Qaeda senior commander in Syria, who was reputed to be a son-in-law of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 March 2017 | Permalink

Russia possibly tried to kill Montenegro PM, says British foreign secretary

Boris JohsonBoris Johnson, the British foreign secretary has said in an interview that Russian spies may have orchestrated last year’s failed attempt to kill the then-prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Dukanović. Mr. Johnson, a senior figure in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, was a major contender for the prime minister’s position in 2016, after the administration of David Cameron collapsed under the weight of the Brexit vote result. Speaking on Sunday morning to reporter Robert Peston, of Britain’s ITV television network, Mr. Johnson said that the West should “engage” with Russia, but warned that it should also “beware” of Moscow’s “dirty tricks” in Europe and the United States.

The British foreign secretary spoke following reports that British intelligence services called an emergency meeting with representatives of the country’s major political parties, in order to warn them that Russia planned to use cyber-attacks to disrupt regional and national elections in the country. Mr. Johnson said that the government had “no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment”. But he added that there was “plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that. And there is no doubt”, he went on, “that they’ve been up to all sorts of dirty tricks”. Some of those “dirty tricks”, said Mr. Johnson, targeted the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, where last year there was “an attempted coup and possibly an attempted assassination”.

The British politician was referring to allegations made last October by authorities in Montenegro that “nationalists from Russia” and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had allegedly hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in Montenegro, according to authorities. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia vehemently denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is preparing to visit Moscow in a few days to meet with his Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. He told ITV that he planned to deliver his “personal feeling” to Mr. Lavrov, which “is one of deep, deep sadness” about Russia’s foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 March 2017 | Permalink