Three former South Korean spy chiefs charged with illegally diverting secret funds

NIS South KoreaA South Korean prosecutor has charged three former directors of the country’s spy agency of secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid the country’s disgraced former President, Park Geun-hye. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The conservative politician was impeached late last year, following accusations of corruption, bribing and extortion. In March this year, Mrs. Park’s government was brought down and she is currently in prison, awaiting trial. Her successor in the presidency, leftist politician Moon Jae-in, was elected after pledging to combat corruption in South Korea’s political inner circle.

As part of his anti-corruption campaign, Mr. Moon has overseen the purging of numerous senior officials from the NIS, after the agency admitted that it tried to influence the outcome of the 2012 presidential election in favor of Mrs. Park. In the latest round of corruption charges, the three former directors of the NIS are accused of funneling payments of between $45,000 and $91,000 a month to the office of the president. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. As such, it were not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to prosecutors. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors claim that the indictments of the three former NIS chiefs reveal high-level collusion between Mrs. Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party, also known as the Grand National Party, and the spy agency. Earlier this month, two presidential aides who served under Mrs. Park were arrested for transferring the cash payments in briefcases from the NIS to the president’s office. Two of the three former NIS directors, Nam Jae-joon and Lee Byung-kee were denied bail and are currently in jail. The third, Lee Byung-ho, was not deemed to be a flight risk and remains free while preparing his defense.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 November 2017 | Permalink

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US diplomats in Russia to be guarded by firm with ties to senior ex-KGB official

US embassy in RussiaSeveral American diplomatic facilities in Russia, including the United States embassy in Moscow, as well as consulates in other major Russian cities, will be guarded by a firm with ties to a former senior KGB official. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the company, Elite Security Holdings, is headquartered in Moscow but has offices throughout Europe and the former Soviet republics. The firm has its roots in an earlier venture co-founded by former KGB official Viktor G. Budanov. The 82-year-old Budanov served as director of the KGB’s K Directorate, also known as Second Chief Directorate, which was responsible for counterintelligence. Budanov no longer owns any part of Elite Security Holdings. But his son, Dimitri Budanov, is believed to be in charge of the firm’s headquarters in the Russian capital. The family is known to be politically close to Vladimir Putin, who served together in the KGB with Viktor Budanov in East Germany in the 1980s.

Elite Security Holdings was awarded a no-bid contract by the US Department of State’s Office of Acquisitions —meaning that no other company was solicited by the US government for the contract. The agreement was struck once US diplomatic facilities in Russia were forced by Moscow to cut their staff by 755 employees. That resulted in the firing of many staff members, most of them local Russians, whose job was to guard the perimeters of US diplomatic facilities, screen visitors, and patrol the embassy grounds. To make up for the loss of personnel, the Department of State hired Elite Security Holdings, which is authorized to operate in Russia as a private local company; its staff members are therefore not considered to be employees of Washington. But the private firm retains close links to Budanov, who spent 25 years outthinking the CIA as head of the KGB’s counterintelligence directorate.

The Times spoke to an anonymous US State Department official, who said that Elite Security Holdings personnel would not have access to the embassy’s secure areas. The official also told the paper that all Elite Security Holdings employees had been carefully screened by “relevant national and local agencies” and posed no threat to the security of US diplomatic facilities. The latter would still be primarily protected by US Marines, who are detailed to the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. According to The Times, Elite Security Holdings personnel will work at the US embassy in Moscow, and the consulates in Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg.

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

US airport screenings failed to detect 70% of hidden weapons in tests

TSA screeningAttempts by undercover investigators to smuggle weapons, explosives and contraband aboard American passenger flights were successful between 70 and 80 percent of the time in the past year, according to reports. The results of the investigations were revealed in Congress behind closed doors on Wednesday of last week, prompting lawmakers to severely criticize the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA was founded in November 2001 in direct response to the tragic events of September 11 of that year. It is primarily concerned with air travel and is responsible for ensuring the safety of the traveling public across the US.

The TSA’s security systems in airports across America are regularly tested by undercover investigators, who are hired to examine and assess the effectiveness of these systems. Last week, several US news media reported that the latest round of tests showed that undercover investigators were more often than not able to sneak dangerous items onboard civilian aircraft. Smuggled items allegedly included guns, explosives and knives, which could be used to carry out hijackings similar to those that brought down four commercial airliners in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. The precise rate of success of the recent tests has not been confirmed, because it has not been released to the public. ABC News said that the rate was close to 80 percent, while CBS reported that it was closer to 70 percent.

Remarkably, similar tests conducted in 2015 were successful 95 percent of the time, meaning that the TSA did considerably better in this year’s tests, despite its abysmally low rate of detection. On Wednesday, members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security expressed serious concerns about the TSA’s lack of success. They aired their criticisms in the presence of Vice Admiral Peter Pekoske (ret.) who currently serves as the TSA’s Administrator. Some members of the committee also criticized the insistence of the White House on building a border wall instead of investing in air travel security. On Thursday, the TSA released a statement saying it took the results of the recent tests “very seriously” and that it was already taking active measures to “improve screening effectiveness at [airport] checkpoints” across America.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 November 2017 | Permalink | Research credit: C.F.

Iran upholds death sentence for man accused of helping Mossad kill scientists

Ahmadreza DjalaliA court in Iran has sentenced a prominent Iranian academic to death for allegedly helping Israel assassinate nuclear scientists and sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program. Four Iranian physicists, who were employed in Iran’s nuclear program, are known to have been assassinated between 2010 and 2012. Most were killed by magnetic bombs that were placed on their vehicles by unknown assailants, who were then able to escape on motorcycles. Tehran believes that the assassinations were carried out by the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, with the help of agents recruited by the Israelis from within Iran’s nuclear program.

On Tuesday, Iranian authorities revealed that one of these alleged Israeli agents has been sentenced to death following a secret trial. The office of Tehran’s public prosecutor did not name the alleged agent, but said that he admitted holding “several meetings with the Mossad”. During those meetings, the agent allegedly “provided [the Mossad] with sensitive information about Iran’s military and nuclear installations”, according to Iranian authorities. The Iranians claim that the agent, who is himself a physicist, gave Israel the names and addresses of at least 30 senior members of Tehran’s nuclear program. The list included nuclear physicists, engineers, as well as intelligence and military officials with nuclear specializations. In return for supplying inside information, the Israelis helped the alleged agent secure permanent residency in Sweden and financed his move there, according to the Iranian prosecutor’s office. Iran claims that the information given to the Mossad by the agent resulted in the assassination of at least one Iranian scientist.

In a statement published on Monday, the international human-rights pressure group Amnesty International identified the alleged Mossad agent as Ahmadreza Djalali, an expert in disaster medicine. Djalali’s name had been reported before in connection with a trial in Iran, but authorities in Tehran had not mentioned any connection between the accused and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Amnesty said that Djalali has taught and carried out research at several European universities, including the Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, lUniversity of Eastern Piedmont in northern Italy, and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. It is believed that he was arrested in Iran in 2016, during a visit from Sweden, where he has been living for several years. Iranian media said that Djalali was sentenced to death on October 21, and must appeal by November 10 if he wants to challenge his death verdict.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 October 2017 | Permalink

Australian spy agency says it is facing ‘unprecedented’ espionage threat

ASIO AustraliaThe primary intelligence agency of Australia says its resources are overextended as the country faces “espionage and foreign interference [of an] unprecedented” scale. In its annual report to the Australian houses of parliament, which was produced on Tuesday, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) says it lacks resources to counter “harmful espionage” and “malicious activity” against the country. The unclassified report is published every year as a summary of a much longer classified report, which is shared with senior government officials and senior civil servants. It is endorsed by ASIO Director Duncan Lewis, who serves as Australia’s Director-General of Security.

In its report for 2016-2017, the ASIO said its officers identified “a number of states and other actors” that were “conducting espionage and foreign interference against Australia”. Many of these were “foreign intelligence services”, which used a variety of intelligence-collection methods of seeking “access to privileged and/or classified information on Australia’s alliances and partnerships”. Foreign intelligence services also spied for information on Canberra’s position on various economic, diplomatic and military issues, and sought information on the country’s energy policy and the volume of its energy and mineral resources. Additionally, espionage was detected against Australian scientific and technical research centers, says the report.

The report goes on to describe the ASIO’s counterterrorism investigations and operations as being of “high volume and tempo”, and states that its services were sought “in higher levels” than ever by “many across both government and industry”. Combined with the “unprecedented scale” of espionage and foreign interference against Australia that it is called to combat, these demands meant that ASIO’s resources would “remain overextended” in the new year, according to the report.

In the past year, the agency says it was able to identify “foreign powers” that secretly sought to influence Australian public opinion, and shape the views of Australian media professionals, industry and government officials, and others, on matters that advanced the interests of other countries, says the report. There was also espionage by foreign powers against members of ethnic communities in Australia, as well as harassment and other covert influence operations that sought to minimize criticism of foreign governments by members of those ethic communities.

The unclassified ASIO report does not identify the “foreign powers” that allegedly sponsored espionage operations against Australia, nor does it specify whether any foreign agents were apprehended, jailed or expelled from the country for carrying out espionage.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 October 2017 | Permalink

French Special Forces were on plane that crashed in Ivory Coast, killing 4

Ivory CoastA plane crash that killed four off Côte d’Ivoire last week had been chartered by the French military as part of its counterinsurgency mission in West Africa, it has been admitted. Ivorian authorities identified the aircraft as a Ukrainian-made Antonov transport airplane. It reportedly took off from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on last Saturday morning. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft crash-landed in the Atlantic Ocean past Abidjan, one of West Africa’s largest cities, on the southern coast of Côte d’Ivoire. Local officials said the airplane broke in half and immediately caught fire. Of the ten people that were on board, four are reportedly dead; six others are seriously hurt. Reports said that the four dead passengers were all Moldovan nationals. Two other Moldovans and four French nationals were injured.

Late on Saturday, France’s Armed Forces Ministry said that it had chartered the Antonov aircraft, as part of Operation BARKHANE. The military operation began in August of 2014, as part of a broader effort by France to combat what it describes as an Islamist insurgency in the African Sahel region. Currently, French Special Forces are believed to be operational in at least five countries there, namely Niger, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. French government sources report that BARKHANE involves 4,000 French troops, commanded from an operational headquarters in N’Djamena, capital of Chad. Close to 1,000 of these troops are believed to be stationed in Burkina, mostly in the capital Ouagadougou. It is also believed that many of the transportation needs of Operation BARKHANE are facilitated by Ukrainian-built Antonovs, flown mostly to and from Abidjan by former Soviet pilots, who sub-contract their services to the French military. That would explain why there were Moldovans implicated in Saturday’s plane crash.

It is reminded that another airplane that had been chartered by the French military crashed in Malta in October of 2016, killing five French citizens. Paris later revealed that they were all employees of the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), France’s external intelligence agency. The plane was found to have been registered in the United States and operated by a company based in Luxembourg. The French government said on Sunday that it launched an investigation into the cause of Saturday’s crash. There were reports of a storm that hit Abidjan early on the day of the crash, but it is not known whether the storm is in any way connected with the crash.

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

Germany’s celebrity spy Werner Mauss on trial for multi-million dollar tax evasion

Werner MaussGermany’s most famous living spy is on trial this week for hiding assets totaling $50 million in offshore bank accounts. He claims the money was given to him by unspecified “Western intelligence agencies” for his services. Werner Mauss became widely known in 1997, when he was arrested in Colombia for using a forged passport. He had traveled to the Latin American country to secure the release of a German woman who had been kidnapped by leftist guerrillas. The Colombian authorities eventually released him, following heavy diplomatic pressure from the German government. But the German media began investigating his background, and it soon became apparent that he was working for the German Federal Intelligence Service.

Following his unmasking in 1997, Mauss enjoyed celebrity status in Germany. Published accounts of his exploits claim that he was directly involved in neutralizing over 100 criminal gangs and that his work led to the capture of 2,000 criminals and spies. Mauss also claims to have helped prevent dangerous chemical substances from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, and that he stopped the Italian Mafia from killing Pope Benedict. Last year, however, Mauss saw his celebrity status diminish after the German government charged him with tax evasion. German prosecutors uncovered several overseas bank accounts belonging to him, which they said contained tens of millions of dollars in hidden income. They alleged that Mauss used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle centered on expensive overseas holidays, luxury cars, expensive gifts to women, as well as a private jet.

On Monday, the 77-year-old Mauss made his final plea in a lengthy court case concerning two of his off-shore accounts, located in UBS bank branches in the Bahamas and Luxembourg. The prosecution alleges that he failed to pay tax on assets totaling in excess of $50 million in the decade between 2002 and 2012 alone. Additionally, it is claimed that Mauss traveled from Germany to Luxembourg several times a year, to withdraw approximately $330,000 in cash per month from his secret accounts. But the accused former spy claims that the money was given to him by “Western intelligence agencies” in return for his services against international crime and terrorism, and that he should not have to pay taxes on it. In previous court appearances, he claimed that the money was not his, but belonged to various Western intelligence agencies and he simply used it to carry out intelligence operations.

The trial continues. If Mauss is convicted, he could spend nearly seven years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 September 2017 | Permalink