Outgoing CIA director says scrapping Iran nuclear deal would be ‘disastrous’

John BrennanThe outgoing director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency has warned in an interview that it would be “disastrous” for Washington to abandon a nuclear treaty with Iran, which was agreed in 2015. John Brennan is a career intelligence officer and fluent Arabic speaker, who has served in the CIA for 25 years. He was appointed director of the agency in March of 2013 by President Barack Obama and is scheduled to leave the position in January of 2017, after nearly four years at the helm of the CIA.

Earlier this week, in the first interview given by a serving CIA director to a British media agency, Brennan told the BBC that he hoped the incoming administration in Washington would show “prudence and discipline” in security matters. He was referring to the administration of US president-elect Donald Trump, which is currently taking shape in preparation for January. The business tycoon said during his election campaign that he would scrap the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international agreement reached in 2015 between Iran and a group of nations known as the P5+1, namely the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. As part of the deal, Iran has agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.

The man chosen by Trump to replace Brennan at the helm of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, is a member of the so-called Tea Party Movement within the Republican Party and a fierce critic of the Iran deal. But Brennan told the BBC that “it would be the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that agreement”. The outgoing CIA director said it would be “unprecedented” for an American administration to scrap an international agreement struck by its predecessor. Additionally, said Brennan, if Washington abandons the treaty it will strengthen hardliners in the Islamic Republic and would cause neighboring states to pursue their own nuclear programs in response to Tehran’s. During his interview, Brennan also cautioned the Trump administration to “be wary of Russian promises” and not to trust the advances of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

Hungarian media accuses Russia of working with far-right militia

Hungarian National FrontMedia in Hungary have accused the Russian government of funding and training one of Hungary’s most notorious far-right organizations. The Hungarian National Front (MNA) was founded in 1989 as the Hungarian National Socialist Action Group. After the end of communism in Hungary, the organization began to espouse an openly neo-Nazi ideology, led by its leader, István Győrkös, a self-styled unreconstructed fascist. Győrkös, who idolizes Hungary’s wartime anti-Semitic Arrow Cross movement, set up links with similar groups in Central and Southern Europe. He served several prison terms in the 1990s for illegally possessing weapons and explosives and openly espousing pro-Nazi ideas. On November 6, Győrkös was taken to custody after opening fire against officers from the National Bureau of Investigation, who tried to enter his house to search for weapons. One officer was killed in the shootout.

Following Győrkös’ arrest, Hungarian police have conducted several raids throughout the country, targeting MNA members’ homes and offices. According to a report in the London-based Financial Times newspaper, the raids have uncovered weapons stockpiles that are more sizeable and technologically advanced than expected. And, according to the paper, some Hungarian media now allege that the MNA has been armed, funded and trained by Moscow. Emails exchanged between MNA members, which were leaked to the Hungarian press, allegedly show that the party’s leadership consciously cultivated a pro-Russian strategy in recent years, including an outright support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Győrkös also allegedly used party funds to set up a Hungarian-language website with pro-Russian information about the war in eastern Ukraine. Some unnamed Hungarian officials have claimed in the press that the government has evidence of joint training exercises between members of the MNA and Russian intelligence officers in eastern Hungary.

The Financial Times article quotes Hungarian investigative reporter András Dezső, who has written extensively about the Hungarian far-right, as saying that the Kremlin will work with whichever Eastern European political groups can help destabilize local politics, regardless of ideology. It also quotes Hungary’s former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who argues that the current government in Budapest has turned the blind eye to Russian intelligence activities in the country, which has effectively “turned Budapest into a ‘Little Moscow’”. The country’s current Prime Minister, conservative Viktor Orbán, has kept a moderately friendly stance toward Russia, having argued repeatedly at European Union meetings that Brussels should not impose economic sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2016 | Permalink

Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2016 | Permalink

Court rules against German spy who was fired for dating foreign woman

BND GermanyA former employee of Germany’s spy agency, who was recalled from his post abroad after dating a foreign woman, has lost his legal battle to be compensated for lost earnings. The former intelligence officer, who has not been identified by name, worked for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known by its initials, BND. From 2006 to 2008, he served as the BND’s station chief in Riga, Latvia. The post implies that he the highest-ranking German intelligence officer in the small Baltic state. According to court documents, the BND station chief had explicit directions from his employer, in writing, not to fraternize with locals while serving in the Latvian capital. The instructions expressly forbade romantic affiliations with locals.

But, according to documents from the legal case, the intelligence officer failed to comply with agency policy and began dating a Latvian national. Soon he fell in love with her and invited her to move in with him. It was allegedly after the local woman moved in with him that he notified the BND about their relationship. The intelligence agency promptly recalled him from his post and demoted him —a move that, he claims, effectively ended his career. He therefore sued the BND, asking for reinstatement of his job and €400,000 ($420,000) in lost earnings. The plaintiff’s lawyers argued that, prior to inviting the woman to move in with him, he asked Latvian intelligence to run a background investigation on her, which came out clean. They also argued that Latvia is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and that the BND cooperates with its Latvian counterpart.

However, according to German news reports, the court rejected the plaintiff’s claims and threw out the case. The former BND officer has also been ordered to pay the legal costs associated with the court case. Intelligence officers posted abroad are typically warned to avoid entering in sexual or romantic relationships with non-vetted foreign nationals. Intelligence agencies fear that these situations could give rise to infiltration by rival agencies, or even enable extortion and blackmail to be carried out by adversary intelligence operatives.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 2016 | Permalink

Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia breaks silence to warn of spies

Chen YonglinA Chinese diplomat, who made international news headlines in 2005 when he defected to Australia, has ended a decade of silence to warn about an alleged increase in Chinese espionage operations against his adopted country. Chen Yonglin was a seasoned member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2001, when he was posted as a political affairs consul at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia. His job was to keep tabs on the Chinese expatriate community in Australia, with an emphasis on individuals and organizations deemed subversive by Beijing. He later revealed that his main preoccupation was targeting members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is illegal in China. He also targeted supporters of Taiwanese independence, as well as Tibetan and East Turkestan nationalists who were active on Australian soil.

But in 2005, Chen contacted the Australian government and said that he wanted to defect, along with his spouse and six-year-old daughter. He was eventually granted political asylum by Canberra, making his the highest-profile defection of a Chinese government employee to Australia in over half a century. During a subsequent testimony given to the Parliament of Australia, Chen said that he was in contact with Australian intelligence and was giving them information about alleged Chinese espionage activities. He said at the time that China operated a network of over 1,000 “secret agents and informants” in Australia. Chen distinguished agents and informants from Chinese intelligence officers, most of whom were stationed in Chinese diplomatic facilities.

Chen, who now works as a businessman, disappeared from the public limelight after his defection. But last weekend, he reappeared after a decade of obscurity and gave an interview to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. The ABC journalist reminded Chen that in 2005 he had estimated the number of Chinese agents and informants operating in Australia at 1,000, and asked him how many he thought were active today. Chen responded that an increase in the number is certain, given that “China is now the wealthiest government in the world”. That meant, said Chen, that Beijing has the funds that are necessary to maintain “a huge number of spies” in Australia. However, the former diplomat said that most Chinese agents are “casual informants”, not trained spies, and that they are dormant for long periods of time in between operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2016 | Permalink

NSA chief preempts move to fire him by entering talks with Trump

Michael S. RogersThe director of the United States National Security Agency has taken the unprecedented step of entering talks with president-elect Donald Trump, amidst reports that President Barack Obama may fire him. Admiral Michael S. Rogers, 57, a US Navy cryptologist with a military career that spans over three decades, has been at the helm of the NSA since April of 2014. Last weekend, however, The Washington Post alleged that senior US military and intelligence officials urged President Obama to fire him. Citing “several US officials familiar with the matter”, The Post said on Saturday that a recommendation to fire Admiral Rogers was delivered to the President in October by Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter and the Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.

Secretary Carter is allegedly displeased with the NSA director’s performance, following what The Post said were “persistent complaints from NSA personnel” that Admiral Rogers is “aloof, frequently absent” from his duties, and tends to disregard input from his advisors at NSA. DNI Clapper added to Rogers’ list of concerns, while also proposing that the NSA should be led by a civilian administrator. The paper alleged that the president agreed with the recommendations and had planned to replace Admiral Rogers with an acting NSA director shortly before the election of November 8. That would reportedly allow the incoming president to appoint a new director of their preference in the new year. However, the move was delayed due to ongoing discussions about balancing the NSA’s military and civilian roles.

In the meantime, it appears that the NSA director preempted his impending firing by entering negotiations with president-elect Donald Trump about joining the new administration. According to The Post, Trump is considering appointing Admiral Rogers to the post of DNI, to replace Clapper. The paper described the Admiral’s move to meet with Trump without notifying his superiors —including the president— as “unprecedented for a military officer”. The NSA director’s move has allegedly displeased the Obama administration, but it is unclear how the president will respond. During a press conference in Lima, Peru, on Sunday, President Obama declined to answer questions about Admiral Rogers’ rumored replacement. He described the NSA director as “a terrific patriot”, but added that it was not his practice to comment on matters relating to personnel appointments. The Department of Defense, Office of the DNI, and the NSA have all declined to comment on the matter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 November 2016 | Permalink