Spy agencies warn Turkish president of assassination attempt during Bosnia visit

Erdogan and CavusogluA number of European intelligence agencies have reportedly warned the Turkish government of a possible assassination attempt against the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during an official state visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. On Sunday the Turkish leader embarked on a week-long visit to the Balkans, beginning with Bosnia, which along with Albania is seen as Turkey’s strongest political ally in Europe. During his visit to Bosnia, Mr. Erdoğan is scheduled to meet with Bakir Izetbegovic, one of the country’s three presidents. He is also scheduled to address a rally of expatriate Turks in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, held in support of his ruling Justice and Development Party.

On Saturday night, Turkey’s state-owned TRT broadcaster reported that the Turkish president’s delegation had been warned about a possible assassination attempt against him. According to TRT, the information came initially from the intelligence services of the Republic of Macedonia, another state of the former Yugoslavia, which, like Bosnia, has a large Muslim population. Turkish intelligence were reportedly warned that a group of militant opponents of Mr. Erdoğan living in the Balkans were planning to kill him, said the report. It was allegedly followed by similar warnings issued by unnamed “Western intelligence agencies”. TRT did not provide further details about the alleged plot, but said that an “in-depth investigation” was underway by Turkish intelligence.

The Turkish president is facing one of the most direct challenges of his political career in less than two weeks, when Turks will go to the polls to elect a new parliament and —potentially— a new president. Some political commentators believe that, come June 2, Mr. Erdoğan may be removed from power after 15 years in the country’s leadership. But members of his government appeared unphased. One of them, Deputy Prime Minister Bakir Bozdag, tweeted on Saturday that warnings about Mr. Erdoğan’s life were “not new, and have always been there. Our President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not a person who will be afraid of the threats and change his policy”, wrote Mr. Bozdag. And he continued: “Those, who have not understood that yet, are fools”.

Author:  Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 May 2018 | Permalink

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NATO obtained Soviet Novichok nerve agents through German intelligence in 1990s

Sergei SkripalSome North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states obtained access to the Soviet Union’s so-called ‘Novichok’ nerve agents in the 1990s, through an informant recruited by German intelligence, according to reports. NATO countries refer to ‘Novichok-class’ nerve agents to describe a series of weaponized substances that were developed by the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia from the early 1970s to at least 1993. They are believed to be the deadliest nerve agents ever produced, but Moscow denies their very existence. A type of Novichok agent, described by British scientists as A234, is said to have been used in March of this year by the person or persons who tried to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s and has been living in England ever since he was released from a Russian prison in 2010.

On Thursday, two German newspapers, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and two regional public radio broadcasters, WDR and NDR, said that the NATO alliance has had access to the chemical composition of Novichok nerve agents since the period immediately following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Specifically, the reports claimed that the access was gained through a Russian scientist who became an informant for the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND. The scientist struck a deal with the BND: he provided the spy agency with technical information about the Novichok agents in exchange for safe passage to the West for him and his immediate family. Initially, the German government was reluctant to get its hands on material that was —and remains— classified as a weapon of mass destruction by international agencies. But eventually it asked for the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents and even acquired samples from the Russian informant.

According to media reports, the BND proceeded to share information about the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents with key NATO allies, including Sweden, France, Britain and the United States. The sharing of such a sensitive substance was approved by the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said the reports. In the following years, a handful of NATO countries proceeded to produce what media reports described as “limited quantities” of Novichok agents, reportedly in order to experiment with various defense measures against them and to produce antidotes. Russia has denied accusations that it was implicated in Skripal’s poisoning and has argued that other countries, some of them NATO members, have the capacity to produce Novichok agents.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2018 | Permalink

China gave ex-CIA officer “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” to spy on US

 Chinese Ministry of State SecurityChinese intelligence operatives gave a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” in exchange for carrying out espionage, according to court papers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, on January 15, accusing him of possessing classified information that included lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. Lee, 53, was reportedly arrested after a lengthy FBI sting operation, which included creating a fictional job in the US in order to entice Lee to travel to New York from Hong Kong, where he had been living after leaving the CIA in 2007.

Lee is now scheduled to appear before a US circuit court judge on Friday morning, in order to be officially charged with one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government and two counts of unlawfully retaining information pertaining to national defense. According to the indictment, in April of 2010 Lee met two officers of China’s Ministry of State Security. The meeting allegedly took place in Shenzhen, a city in southern China that borders Hong Kong. During that encounter, the indictment claims that Lee was offered “a gift of $100,000 in cash” in exchange of providing the Ministry of State Security with information about his career in the CIA. He was also told by the two Chinese intelligence officers that China would “take care of him for life” if he continued to cooperate with them.

In May of 2010, Lee deposited about $17,000 into one of his HSBC accounts in Hong Kong. Court documents allege that the deposit was the first of many that followed, and that they amounted to “hundreds of thousands of dollars”. These deposits continued to occurr until the end of 2013, when Lee made his last substantial cash deposit in Hong Kong. Throughout that time, Lee received regular written instructions from the Ministry of State Security, asking him to provide information about CIA operations. Lee did so at least 21 times, says the indictment. In one instance, he drew the floorplan of a CIA facility abroad and gave it to the Chinese, according to the indictment. Lee is expected to plead not guilty on Friday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 May 2018 | Permalink

Russia tried to kill ex-double spy because he trained Eastern European agencies

Sergei SkripalRussia may have made the decision to kill former double spy Sergei Skripal because he continued to provide counterintelligence assistance to Eastern European governments, according to media reports from Prague. Skripal, 66, a veteran military intelligence operative who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, has been living in England since 2010. He was recently released from hospital after he was poisoned with what London claims was a military-grade nerve agent. As soon as Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, fell critically ill in March of this year, some observers expressed skepticism at the suggestion that Moscow may have tried to assassinate the former double spy. Their argument was that Skripal was pardoned by the Kremlin in a spy-swap deal, in which ten Russian intelligence operatives were handed over to Moscow in exchange for four agents of United States and British intelligence organizations.

Typically a spy who has been pardoned as part of an authorized spy-swap will not need to worry about being targeted by the agency that he betrayed. If it indeed tried to kill Skripal, Russia may therefore have broken the unwritten rules of the espionage game, some argued. But according to the reputable Czech investigative newsmagazine Respekt, the Kremlin tried to kill Skripal because he broke the rules of his release, namely that he would not participate in any intelligence-related activities against Russia. Specifically, Respekt claimed on Sunday that Skripal traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, where he advised local intelligence agencies on how to defend against Russian espionage. According to the Prague-based newsmagazine, Skripal’s travels to countries like the Czech Republic and Estonia were facilitated by the British Secret Intelligence Service (known commonly as MI6). The British agency thus killed two birds with one stone, said Respect: on the one hand it cultivated friendly relations with Eastern European spy agencies, while at the same time it provided the out-of-work Russian defector with a steady income.

Skripal’s information was at times dated, said Respekt, but it was deemed valuable enough to entice intelligence officers from Estonia, the Czech Republic, and possibly other European intelligence agencies, to regularly travel to the United Kingdom and further-consult with Skripal. Skripal’s contacts with Eastern European intelligence personnel were kept strictly secret in order to protect him from the ire of the Kremlin. But Moscow found out about Skripal’s activities somehow, and decided to kill the former double spy, said Respekt. The Russian government has vehemently denied all allegations that it was behind an attempt to kill Skripal and his daughter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 May 2018 | Permalink

Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink

US government prosecutors confirm CIA officer passed information to China

CIAA case officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was arrested in January of this year for violating the Espionage Act, shared classified information with China, according to an official indictment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, on January 15, accusing him of possessing classified information that included lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. Lee, 53, was reportedly arrested after a lengthy FBI sting operation, which included creating a fictional job in the US in order to entice Lee to travel to New York from Hong Kong, where he had been living after leaving the CIA in 2007. However, the initial FBI complaint did not indict Lee for passing the top-secret information to anyone. There was speculation at the time that this was because the FBI had not been able to conclusively prove that Lee carried out espionage.

On Tuesday, however, Lee was formally indicted on conspiracy to gather and deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government. That charge came in addition to a previously stated charge of unlawfully retaining material related to American national defense. The indictment repeats earlier allegations that Lee was found to be in possession of classified documents that included the real names of CIA assets (foreign citizens who are recruited by CIA case officers to spy for the United States abroad) and the locations of “covert facilities” –safe houses that are typically used by CIA personnel to meet with assets in privacy. In what can be described as the most descriptive allegations that have surfaced against Lee, the indictment proceeds to claim that he was approached by two Chinese intelligence officers in 2010, three years after he left the CIA. The officers allegedly offered to give Lee a substantial amount of money in exchange for access to classified information. Additionally, according to the court documents, Lee was provided by his Chinese handlers with email addresses that he could use to communicate with them covertly, and did as instructed “until at least 2011”.

The documents further state that Lee made “numerous […] cash deposits”, which he struggled to explain when questioned by American counterintelligence officials. On several instances, Lee lied during questioning in order to cover up his financial activities, according to the indictment. Lee’s defense lawyer, Edward MacMahon, told the court on Tuesday that his client was “not a Chinese spy”, but “a loyal American who loves his country”. He also pointed out that Lee served in the US military and the CIA. The Chinese government has made no comment about the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 May 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: New legal framework for Dutch intelligence services becomes law

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On May 1, 2018, the legal framework for the Dutch intelligence community changed as the new Intelligence and Security Services Act became operational. Previously, both chambers of parliament discussed and accepted the Act on February 14 and July 11, 2018. A group of Amsterdam-based students, however, were worried that the Act —which includes the power to intercept cable-bound communication in bulk— would induce a surveillance state. They initiated a public referendum, which was held on March 21, 2018.

In what was an intense and prolonged public debate in the months leading up to the referendum, critics of the new Act advanced their views against it. Among them was the digital civil rights group Bits of Freedom, which argued that the power to intercept cable-bound communication in bulk would destroy “the core value of our free society, that a law-abiding citizen will not be monitored”. The Act also allows the General Intelligence and Security Service (known by its Dutch acronym AIVD) and the Military Intelligence and Security service (abbreviated as MIVD) to exchange large sets of unevaluated data with their foreign counterparts without prior approval by the new independent review commission. The services see this quid pro quo data sharing as essential for their counter-terrorism mission. But in the view of opponents, the fact that unevaluated and unanalyzed datasets are exchanged is unacceptable.

Additionally, Bits of Freedom was opposed to the real-time access to databases of partners (such as tax authorities, other governmental agencies, but also banks) that was granted to the intelligence and security services. They argued that the oversight bodies and the responsible minister should have to sign off on this (it should be noted however, that such database access will be only granted on a hit/no-hit basis, so there will be no free searches. Finally, and more broadly, it was argued that the new Act contained too many “open norms”. This was in line with the cabinet’s goal to formulate a new act that would be more independent of technological developments —the Act of 2002 was not, and therefore the update was seen as necessary. But it also remains unspecified in which specific circumstances and under what criteria and norms the new powers can and cannot be applied. Read more of this post