Bulgarian ex-spy director jailed for embezzling millions from public coffers

Kircho KirovA former director of Bulgaria’s intelligence service, who headed the agency for nearly a decade, has been jailed for embezzling millions of dollars from public funds. General Kircho Kirov, 67, was director of the Bulgarian National Intelligence Service (NIS) from February 2003 until January 2012. After stepping down from his post he was appointed national security advisor to Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boiko Borissov. But he soon fell out with Borrisov and was fired after just two months on the job. Now Borissov’s administration has jailed Kircho for 15 years, accusing him of misappropriating funds intended for NIS operations.

Government prosecutors said that during his tenure as NIS director, General Kircho conspired with a subordinate NIS employee, Dimitar Lidarev, to siphon NIS funds to a private account. They told a court in Bulgarian capital Sofia that General Kircho and Lidarev falsified documents to allow them to divert nearly $3.2 million to private accounts for their personal use. Most of the funds were stolen between 2007 and 2011, according to court documents. On Tuesday, the court handed General Kircho a 15 year jail sentence and ordered the confiscation of 50 percent of his personal assets. Lidarev, who was General Kircho’s co-defendant at his trial, was sentenced to three years in prison with another five years’ probation, for aiding and abetting General Kircho’s embezzlement by forging documents. The court decision quashed General Kircho’s appeal against an earlier sentence, delivered in 2015, that jailed him for 10 years for embezzling nearly $4 million of state funds between 2007 and 2011.

Throughout his latest trial, General Kircho insisted he was innocent and accused government prosecutors of carrying out a politically motivated campaign against him, directed by his former ally, Prime Minister Borissov. The former spy director added that he was targeted as part of a deliberate effort to convince the European Union that Bulgaria is targeting financial corruption. Next week, Prime Minister Borissov’s government will be facing a no-confidence vote in parliament, over claims that corruption remains rife in the Balkan country of 7 million people.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 January 2018 | Permalink

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Pakistan halts intelligence cooperation with US, but US embassy denies knowledge

Khurram Dastgir KhanPakistan said on Tuesday that it had suspended military and intelligence cooperation with the United States in the wake of Washington’s decision to stop security assistance to Pakistan. On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Minister of Defense, Khurram Dastgir Khan, said that his country had terminated all cooperation with the US in the areas of defense and intelligence. He said that the move was a response to the announcement by US President Donald Trump last week that Washington would stop providing security assistance to Pakistan. American officials stated that the change in policy took place because Pakistan had allegedly deceived America in the global war on terrorism. On Thursday last week, the President Trump accused the Pakistani government of having given the US “nothing but lies and deceit”. Trump’s accusation was followed by an official statement by the Pentagon, which said that Pakistan should cease to provide “sanctuaries in its territory for Taliban and Haqqani network leaders and operatives”.

On Tuesday, while speaking at a conference in Islamabad, Defense Minister Khan said that Pakistan had suspended “a wide field of intelligence cooperation and defense cooperation”. He was speaking during a conference hosted by the Institute of Strategic Studies, which is a government-sponsored think-tank based in the Pakistani capital. Khan accused the US of treating Pakistan as a “scapegoat” for its military and political failures in neighboring Afghanistan. He also warned Washington that Pakistan would not allow America’s war in Afghanistan to be fought on Pakistan’s territory. He ended his talk, entitled “Contours of Security Environment of Pakistan”, with what he described as “a reminder”, saying that Washington needs Pakistan’s support in its efforts against the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan: “Logistics trumps strategy”, he said.

But the Voice of America news service reported on Tuesday that the US embassy in Islamabad had no information about Khan’s announcement concerning Pakistan’s termination of military and intelligence cooperation with Washington. A spokesman at the embassy told the news service that the embassy had “not received any formal communication regarding a suspension” of military and intelligence cooperation by Islamabad. Last week, the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis insisted that his department kept open lines of communications with the Pakistani military leadership despite the suspension of security assistance by Washington. Islamabad said that communication lines with North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces remained open, but military cooperation with Washington had been terminated.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 January 2018 | Permalink

Man who attended Charlottesville far-right rally tried to derail passenger train

Amtrak trainA man who attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, with members of a neo-Nazi organization, has been charged with terrorism offences after he tried to derail a passenger train. Taylor M. Wilson, of St. Charles, Missouri, was arrested by federal law enforcement officials on October 22, after he attempted to sabotage a passenger train with 175 people aboard in rural Nebraska. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wilson entered the train’s engine room and pulled the emergency brakes, thus bringing the train to a sudden halt. He was eventually subdued by a train conductor and other railway employees, who successfully prevented him from reaching for a loaded revolver that he had with him. Following his arrest, police found in his backpack a box of ammunition, a knife, a hammer, and a full-face respirator mask with a filter.

Now the FBI says that Wilson boarded the train intent on carrying out a terrorist assault, and that he pulled the train’s breaks “with intent to harm those aboard”. In court documents that were unsealed last week, FBI agents state that a search of Wilson’s property in Missouri uncovered a large weapons cache consisting of fifteen firearms, some of which were automatic. Nearly 1,000 rounds of ammunition were also confiscated from Wilson’s house, where federal officers also found literature published by American white supremacist organizations like the National Socialist Movement. According to the indictment, some of the weapons and white nationalist literature had been hidden inside a concealed compartment located behind a refrigerator unit.

It appears that Wilson obtained most of his firearms legally and that he had been issued a concealed carry permit. However, the FBI claims that Wilson’s firearms “have been used for, or obtained in anticipation of engaging in, or planning to engage in, criminal offenses against the United States”. In addition to this claim, the FBI indictment states that Wilson traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of last year to attend the “Unite the Right” rally, which was organized by various white supremacist, white nationalist, neo-Nazi and militia groups. The FBI says that it has statements from Wilson’s associates and at least one family member, who claim that the accused traveled to Charlottesville as part of a contingent of a neo-Nazi group.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 January 2018 | Permalink

South Korean ex-president took millions in bribes from spy agency, say prosecutors

 Park Geun-hyeSouth Korea’s disgraced former president, Park Geun-hye, has been charged with accepting bribes amounting to millions of dollars from the country’s spy agency, according to reports. Park made history in 2013, by becoming the first woman president in South Korean history. However, almost as soon as she assumed office, her administration became embroiled in successive corruption scandals. By 2016, Park’s presidency had been brought to a standstill due to mass protests urging her removal from power, while increasing numbers of officials and administrators were refusing to work with her. She was eventually impeached in 2017, after the Constitutional Court of Korea found that she had violated the country’s laws by promoting the interests of personal friends and private corporations in return for cash and favors. She is currently in custody awaiting trial for 18 different charges, including abuse of power, coercion, blackmail and bribery.

On Thursday, government prosecutors charged Park with accepting between $50,000 and $190,000 in monthly bribes from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The monthly sums were allegedly delivered to Park almost as soon as she assumed the nation’s presidency, in 2013, and continued until the summer of 2016. Prosecutors allege that the monthly bribes total in excess of $3 million. Prosecutors allege that the cash was delivered to Park’s aides in deserted parking lots and side streets located near the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential palace. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. It was therefore not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to court documents. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park and her aides for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.

In November, prosecutors charged three former directors of the NIS with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to Park. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed the NIS between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The new charges will add two more counts, one of embezzlement of funds and one of bribery, to Park’s long list of accusations. The disgraced former president is expected to remain in custody until March 3.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 January 2018 | Permalink

Nuclear scientist expelled from China kills himself in North Korean prison

Sinuiju North KoreaA North Korean nuclear scientist who defected to China but was involuntarily sent back to North Korea in November reportedly killed himself in his North Korean cell hours before he was due to be interrogated. Information about the scientist’s alleged suicide was issued on Thursday by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a multilingual news service based in Washington, DC, which is funded by the United States government. The service said its reporters spoke to an anonymous source in North Hamgyong province, North Korea’s northernmost region that borders China. The source identified the late scientist as Hyun Cheol Huh, but cautioned that this may not be his real name, because the North Korean security services are known to “use […] fake names when referring to important persons” in their custody.

Hyun was reportedly a senior nuclear researcher at North Korea’s Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, an institution that plays a crucial role in North Korea’s biological and nuclear weapons programs. According to RFA, Hyun defected while on vacation from his work. He traveled to the Chinese border to visit relatives, but did not file an application for travel documents. These are required for travel within North Korea. He then disappeared. On November 4, China Immigration Inspection officers arrested a large group of undocumented North Korean nationals in the city of Dandong, reportedly after receiving a tip by North Korean intelligence. Among them was Hyun, who was involuntarily sent back to North Korea on November 17 by the Chinese authorities.

As is common practice with captured North Korean defectors, the scientist was placed in solitary confinement in Sinŭiju, a city on the Yalu River right across the Chinese border. But when guards entered Hyun’s cell to take him to his first interrogation, they found him dead. The source told RFA that Hyun “killed himself only a few hours after he was placed in solitary confinement at the State Security Department in Sinuiju city”. Hyun’s death was reportedly caused by poison, which he is believed to have taken with the intent of taking his own life. There was no explanation of where and how Hyun was able to secure the poison. “He must have been searched many times while being taken from China to Sinuiju, so it’s a mystery how he was able to conceal the poison he took”, the source told RFA. The source added that upon his arrest Hyun did not tell Chinese Immigration Inspection officers that he was a nuclear scientist. Doing so would probably have averted his expulsion back to North Korea.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 December 2017 | Permalink

Russian hackers behind US election attacks also targeted hundreds of journalists

Fancy BearThe Russian hacker group that targeted the United States presidential election in 2016 also attacked hundreds of reporters around the world, most of them Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows. The group is often referred to in cyber security circles as Fancy Bear, but is also known as Pawn Storm, Sednit, APT28, Sofacy, and STRONTIUM. It has been linked to a long-lasting series or coordinated attacks against at least 150 senior figures in the US Democratic Party. The attacks occurred in the run-up to last year’s presidential elections in the US, which resulted in a victory for Donald Trump. The hacker group’s targets included Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta. But its hackers also went after senior US diplomatic and intelligence officials, as well as foreign officials in countries like Canada and the Ukraine.

Now a new investigation by the Associated Press news agency, based on data collected over a period of two years by the cyber security firm Secureworks, appears to show that Fancy Bear also attacked journalists. In a leading article published last week, the Associated Press said that journalists appeared to be the third largest professional group targeted by Fancy Bear, after politicians and diplomats. The investigation shows that nearly half of all journalists that were systematically targeted by the hacker group worked for a single newspaper, The New York Times. At least fifty Times reporters feature on the hacker group’s target list. The latter includes another 50 reporters working for Russian outlets that known to be critical of the Kremlin, and dozens of Eastern European reporters based in the Baltics, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine.

The Associated Press said that prominent names on the Fancy Bear target list include The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, The Daily Beast’s intelligence correspondent Shane Harris, CNN’s security correspondent Michael Weiss, and Ellen Barry, the former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. The report also said that some American journalists were not only targeted online, but also physically. One of them, The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, claims that she was routinely followed by Russian-speaking men in the period leading up to the 2016 presidential election. In April of this year, a study by the Tokyo-based cybersecurity firm Trend Micro showed that Fancy Bear was behind systematic efforts to subvert recent national elections in France and Germany. And a few weeks ago, Russian media reported that Konstantin Kozlovsky, a member of the prolific Russian hacker group Lurk, alleged that he had been hired by the Kremlin to help target the US Democratic Party.

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

Russian hacker claims he was hired by Kremlin to target US Democratic Party

Konstantin KozlovskyA member of a prolific Russian hacker group reportedly stated in court that he was hired by the Russian government to break into the computer systems of the Democratic Party in the United States. The hacker, Konstantin Kozlovsky, operated online as a member of Lurk, a notorious hacker group whose members are believed to have stolen in excess of $45 million from hundreds of companies since 2011. Most of the group’s members were apprehended in a wave of 50 arrests that took place throughout Russia in the summer of 2016. The group’s nine most senior members, Kozlovsky being one of them, were put on trial earlier this year.

Last Monday, Russian website The Bell reported that Kozlovsky said during his court testimony in August of this year that he was hired by the Kremlin to hack into the computers of the Democratic Party in the US. The website claimed that he and his fellow Lurk hackers regularly worked for the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service. For nearly a decade, said Kozlovsky, he and other hackers “performed different tasks on assignments by FSB officers”. In his testimony of August 15, Kozlovsky reportedly said that some of the tasks performed by Lurk on behalf of the FSB included hacking into the computers of the Democratic National Committee, which is the governing body for the Democratic Party in the US. He also claimed that he and his fellow hackers stole emails belonging to the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Bell published Kozlovsky’s claims on its website in both Russian and English. According to to The Times of London, the website also posted minutes from the court hearing, as well as a recording of Kozlovsky’s testimony, on its page on Facebook. Kozlovsky also claimed that the FSB recruited him in 2008, when he was 16 years old, and that he worked under the supervision of Dmitry Dokuchaev, a notorious criminal hacker known as ‘Forb’, who was arrested and subsequently recruited by the FSB. Kozlovsky added that he participated in “very serious military enterprises of the United States and other organizations” under Dokuchaev’s supervision.

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