Spanish court rejects US request to extradite Venezuelan ex-spy chief

Hugo CarvajalSpain has refused to extradite Venezuela’s former spy chief to the United States, where he is wanted for drug-running. The decision is also an intelligence setback for Washington, as the former spy, Hugo Carvajal, is reputed to possess a “treasure trove” of inside information on the Venezuelan government. Carvajal is a retired general, a former diplomat, and a member of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s inner circle. From 2004 to 2011, under Chávez’s tutelage, Carvajal headed the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). In 2008 the US named Carvajal as a major facilitator of international drugs trafficking and imposed financial sanctions on his assets around the world. Washington accused Carvajal of assisting the paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) transport drugs from Latin America to Mexico and from there to the US.

In 2014, the US government officially charged Carvajal with orchestrating a shipment of 1,200lbs of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico. Washington also charged Carvajal with supplying FARC drug traffickers with Venezuelan passports bearing fake names, which they used to travel internationally to avoid detection. In February of this year, Carvajal publicly unexpectedly denounced Maduro and sided with his arch-nemesis, Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela. Carvajal urged the Venezuelan armed forces to stop siding with Maduro and support the US-backed Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president. In April of this year, Carvajal was arrested in Spain. Soon afterwards, the US Department of Justice filed a formal request for the former spy chief’s extradition to the US. An anonymous US official hinted at the time that Carvajal may have willingly given himself up to Spanish police to express his desire to cooperate with the US.

On Monday, however, Spain’s National Court (the country’s top criminal court) announced that Carvajal would not be extradited to the US. The former spy chief was released minutes after the court made its decision known. A court spokesman told reporters that a formal ruling and justification would be released “later”, but an official document has yet to be published. Carvajal’s lawyers told the court that the US request to have him extradited was politically motivated by the administration of US President Donald Trump. It is possible that the court may have sided with that view. There are also rumors that Carvajal may have agreed to cooperate with Spanish intelligence in return for receiving political asylum in Spain. The US Department of Justice has not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2019 | Permalink

Advertisements

US considering drastic increase in intel-sharing with Saudi Arabia after drone attacks

AramcoUnited States officials are considering increasing substantially America’s intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia following last weekend’s drone attacks that halved the Kingdom’s oil production and shook global markets. The attacks occurred in the early hours of Saturday, September 14, at two refineries located in eastern Saudi Arabia. The refineries are owned by Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, and are part of the world’s largest crude oil processing facility. The massive fires caused by the attacks were contained within hours and no casualties were reported. But the facilities had to cease operation so that repairs could be completed. This cut Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent reduction in global oil production. The impact on the world’s financial markets was immediate: by Monday morning, oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

The Houthi movement, a collection of Yemeni Shiite militias supported by Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack. A Houthi movement spokesman said on Sunday that the attacks had been carried out with the use of modified commercially available drones. He also warned that Saudi Arabia would experience more attacks of this kind in the future. Iran has rejected accusations by American and some Saudi officials that it was responsible for the attacks.

On Monday the Reuters news agency reported that the US is considering the possibility of drastically increasing the volume and quality of intelligence it shares with Saudi Arabia. The move is allegedly intended as one in a series of measures to be taken by Washington in response to Saturday’s drone attacks. In the past, the US has been selective in how much intelligence it shares with the Saudis, who have been involved in an increasingly bloody civil war in Yemen since 2015. Washington is weary of being seen to have a decisive role in support of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, in light of the criticism that the latter has drawn from numerous international bodies and governments around the world.

The US Congress has also condemned the Saudi campaign in an unusually bipartisan fashion, and has tried to stop President Donald Trump from providing material support to it. In May of this year, the US president defied Congress and signed two dozen arms sales agreements worth over $8 billion with the oil kingdom. The move upset many critics of Saudi Arabia in the Republican Party, who sharply criticized the Saudi government for killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last year. A possible decision by Washington to increase its intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia is bound to prompt a critical response from Congress, especially if it relates to the ongoing war in Yemen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 September 2019 | Permalink

Russia fired officials over Smolenkov defection, filed INTERPOL search request

INTERPOLThe Russian government reportedly fired a number of officials over the defection of a senior Kremlin aide, who alleged worked as an American spy. Meanwhile, Moscow has filed a search request with INTERPOL about the alleged defector’s whereabouts. News of the defection was reported on September 9 by the American news network CNN. The network alleged that the man —which it did not name— was exfiltrated from Russia in 2017 by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, over fears about his life. A subsequent report in the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant identified the alleged defector as Oleg Smolenkov, 50, and said that he disappeared along with his wife and three children in the summer of 2017 while on holiday in Montenegro.

On September 11, the Reuters news agency revealed that Smolenkov was a career diplomat who served as senior aide to Yuri Ushakov, Russia’s former ambassador to the United States and senior international affairs advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the Kremlin disputes claims that Smolenkov was a highly placed official or that he could have been in possession of damaging classified intelligence.

According to a new report from Russia’s InterFax news agency, the Kremlin disciplined a number of Russian officials for permitting Smolenkov and his family to travel to Montenegro. The disciplinary action was taken soon after Smolenkov’s disappearance and led to a number of firings, said InterFax, citing anonymous government sources. In the summer of 2016, the Kremlin had issued a travel ban for Montenegro, which barred government employees from traveling there, due to the deteriorating relations between Moscow and the former Yugoslav Republic. Montenegrin authorities had previously claimed that Russia tried to stage a coup and planned to kill the country’s prime minister. According to InterFax, an investigation by “the relevant law enforcement agencies” concluded that those officials who had allowed the Smolenkovs to travel to Montenegro had “violated the ban”. They were therefore “disciplined and [some] were fired”, said the anonymous source.

Meanwhile it was reported on Friday that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed a search request for Smolenkov and his family with INTERPOL, the international agency that facilitates worldwide cooperation between national police organizations. When asked about it by Western news media, a Russian government spokeswoman said that Russia did what any other country would do in this situation: it contacted INTERPOL with “questions regarding the disappearance of […] a citizen of Russia on the territory of a foreign state along with his family […] and his presence on the territory of the United States”, said the spokeswoman.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 September 2019 | Permalink

Israel planted surveillance devices targeting Trump, claims report

White HouseThe intelligence services of Israel planted surveillance devices around the White House in an attempt to spy on United States President Donald Trump and his senior advisors, according to a report published on Thursday. The report, authored by Politico’s Daniel Lippman, cited three former US officials with knowledge on the matter, “several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts”, it said.

According to Politico, the Israelis planted International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers —known in technical-surveillance lingo as “StingRays” after a leading hardware brand. StingRay devices are designed to simulate the activity of legitimate cell towers in order to trick cell phones into communicating with them. That allows StingRay users to monitor the physical whereabouts of targeted cell phones. Some of the more expensive Stingray models can intercept the actual content of telephone conversations and can even plant Trojans on the compromised phones of unsuspecting users.

Politico said that the StingRays found around the White House were of the highest technical sophistication, and were “likely intended” to spy on President Trump, his senior advisers and other close associates. Politico said it had no information on whether the attempt was successful. The spy devices were detected by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2017 and acknowledged by US government officials in 2018. Senior American intelligence officials allegedly told Politico that an exhaustive two-year investigation into the matter showed “with confidence [that] the Israelis were responsible” for the StingRays.

The investigation was led by the counterintelligence division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the help of the DHS and the Secret Service. The National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency are also known to assist such counterintelligence investigations. The devices were disassembled and their technical specifications were carefully inspected to assess their history and origins. Investigators reportedly concluded that very few countries have the technical and financial capabilities to build and plant such devices in the US, and that Israel was the most likely culprit.

Politico also said that some intelligence officials are unhappy about the Trump administration’s lack of response to the alleged spying by Israel. According to the officials, the White House did not file a protest —either publicly or privately— with the Israeli government, and “there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior”.  On Thursday afternoon, the US president voiced skepticism when asked by reporters about the Politico report: “I really would find that hard to believe”, said Trump, adding that his “relationship with Israel has been great”. Meanwhile the office of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the Politico report as “a blatant lie” and noted that Israel’s spy services had “a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the US”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2019 | Permalink

Tens of thousands of ISIS members are re-radicalizing inside Kurdish prison camps

Islamic State womenTens of thousands of supporters of the Islamic State, many of them women and children, are re-radicalizing inside vast Kurdish-run prison camps with inadequate security and almost no infrastructure or provisions. In a shocking report published last week, The Washington Post exposed the dire conditions at the al-Hawl prison camp in northern Syria, which the paper described as “a cauldron of radicalization” and “an academy” for captured supporters of the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS). Over 70,000 people are being held at the prison camp, of which 20,000 are believed to be women and 50,000 are children. Male members of the Islamic State are being held separately. Most of the 70,000 inmates in al-Hawl are Syrian and Iraqi citizens. An estimated 10,000 consist of Africans, Asians, Europeans and Arabs from countries other than Syria and Iraq. They are held in a separate annex of the prison camp and are believed to be the most radical of all the inmates.

The inmates of the al-Hawl prison camp are guarded and provided for by no more than 400 Kurdish fighters of the Western-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, according to The Post. The paper cited fourteen people, including inmates, Kurdish officials and aid workers, who claimed that the 400 guards are unable to enter the camp or provide even a semblance of law and order. Instead, law and order inside the prison is maintained by the women, who remain fully committed to the principles of the Islamic State, said the paper. They continue to follow the strict rules of the Islamic State and impose brutal punishment on those women and children who do not follow these rules. Women who speak to people from outside the prison camp, including journalists and lawyers, are later beaten and tortured; some have even been executed as a form of punishment, said The Post. Many of the Kurdish guards have also been attacked by the women and have been stabbed with makeshift weapons or had their arms and legs broken by them.

Islamic State paraphernalia, including black flags and pro-ISIS banners, are regularly confiscated from inmates. The latter have even managed to smuggle video messages to the outside world. In one such video message, a group of veiled al-Hawl inmates are seen holding the banner of the Islamic State and urging the group’s male members to “light the fire of jihad and free us [women] from these prisons”. The women in the video call themselves as “women of the mujahedeen” and issue a warning against “the enemies of Allah”: “you think you have imprisoned us in your rotten camp. But we are a ticking bomb. Just you wait and see”, they say. Responding to these messages, a Kurdish intelligence official told The Post that the Syrian Democratic Forces could “contain the women, but we can’t control their ideology”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 September 2019 | Permalink

Facebook shuts down suspected state effort to prop up Sudanese military regime

Sudan civil unrestFacebook has shut down a well-funded online campaign to support Sudan’s military regime, which some say is part of wider efforts by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to stop democratic reforms in Sudan. The northeast African country has experienced civil unrest for more than a year. In February Sudan’s longtime strongman, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, fell from power after 30 years, following prolonged popular protests. But the new military junta that succeeded him launched a violent campaign of suppression against the country’s pro-democracy movement. The junta’s leaders have relied heavily on ample support provided by three close American allies, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the student-led pro-democracy movement has taken to the Internet to mobilize the Sudanese population. The regime has at times shut down the Internet in an attempt to stop pro-democracy organizers from spreading their message online.

Now it has emerged that Facebook detected and terminated a systematic misinformation campaign to promote the views of the Sudanese regime while also slamming the pro-democracy movement as reckless and irresponsible. The campaign was reportedly carried out by two self-described “digital marketing” companies: New Waves, headquartered in Egypt, and Newave, which is based in the Emirates. According to Facebook, the two companies worked in parallel to establish hundreds of fake accounts on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. They also spent nearly $170,000 to promote material that was posted online by an army of paid users. The latter were allegedly paid $180 a month to post disinformation and other forms of carefully directed propaganda on social media. A total of 13.7 million Facebook and Instagram users were reached in the course of the disinformation campaign, according to Facebook. Twitter and Telegram were also employed by the two companies to post messages in favor of the Sudanese military. Other messages extoled the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, as well as Muse Bihi Abdi, president of the self-declared state of Somaliland. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are staunch supporters of both Haftar and Abdi.

Facebook said it had been unable to collect evidence of a direct link between the New Waves/Newave disinformation campaign and the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But it added that the features of the campaign bore the hallmarks of a state-run operation. The New York Times, which reported on the story last week, said the Emirati company, Newave, did not respond to several requests for a comment. Amr Hussein, an Egyptian former military officer who owns the Cairo-based New Wave, issued a public statement calling Facebook “liars” and denying he had any links to the Emirates.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 September 2019 | Permalink

CIA denies Trump’s mishandling led to alleged exfiltration of senior Russian asset

Trump CIA - JFThe United States Central Intelligence Agency has questioned the accuracy of a media report, which claimed that “repeated mishandling” of intelligence by President Donald Trump resulted in the exfiltration of a high-level source from Russia. According to the American news network CNN, the CIA carried out the exfiltration operation in 2017. Despite the success of the operation, the removal of the asset has left the US without this high-level source at a time when it is most needed, said CNN. The network cited “a person directly involved in the discussions” to exfiltrate the asset, but said it was withholding key details about the case in order to “reduce the risk of the person’s identification”.

According to CNN, the CIA asset was so highly placed inside the Kremlin that the US had “no equal alternative” inside the Russian government. The asset was in a position to provide “both insight and information” on Russia’s secretive President, Vladimir Putin. But by 2016, the sheer length of the asset’s cooperation with the CIA had caused some intelligence officials at Langley to consider exfiltrating him from Russia. Typically agents-in-place have short careers; they are either captured by their adversaries or are exfiltrated once their handlers start to believe that they are burned out or that their life may be in danger. But exfiltration operations in so-called “denied areas” —regions or countries with formidable counterintelligence resources that make it difficult for the CIA to operate there— are rare.

The CNN report claims that the decision to exfiltrate the high-level source was taken after a May 2017 meeting between Trump and Putin, with the participation of senior American and Russian officials. The latter included Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak. Citing an American “former senior intelligence official”, CNN alleges that Trump “repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence” at that meeting, which could have led to the exposure of the CIA’s asset. At that time, the CIA decided that it was time to exfiltrate the asset and proceeded to do so successfully.

But the CIA disputed the accuracy of CNN’s story. The agency’s Director of Public Affairs, Brittany Bramell, dismissed what she called “CNN’s narrative” as “inaccurate”. She added that the agency’s judgements about exfiltrations of agents are “life-or-death decisions” that are based solely on “objective analysis and sound collection”, not on “misguided speculation that the President [mishandled] our nation’s most sensitive intelligence —which he has access to each and every day”. CNN said on Monday that Trump and “a small number of senior officials” were told about the exfiltration in advance. The news network also said that it was not privy to details about the extraction operation or about the current whereabouts of the exfiltrated asset.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 September 2019 | Permalink