Iranian military official says West used lizards to spy on Iran’s nuclear program

Hassan FiruzabadiThe former chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces has said that foreign governments used different species of lizards, including chameleons, to spy on the Iranian nuclear program. The claim was made by Hassan Firuzabadi, a veteran Iranian military official, who from 1989 to 2016 served as the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces —the most senior military post in the Islamic Republic. Since his retirement in 2016, Firuzabadi has served in a number of key consultancy roles and is currently a senior military advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s reform-minded supreme leader.

On Tuesday, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), a pro-reformist news and analysis outlet, published a lengthy interview with Firuzabadi. The former military strongman was speaking in response to reports earlier this week that a prominent Iranian-Canadian environmental campaigner had died in prison, allegedly of suicide. Kavous Seyed Emami, 63, was a professor of sociology, director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and political activist. He was arrested with seven of his colleagues on January 24 and charged with espionage. On February 9, Emami’s family said that they had been informed by authorities of his death in prison, reportedly as a result of suicide. The news was later confirmed by Iran’s chief prosecutor. Emami’s family, as well as numerous environmental campaigners and activists, dispute the government’s claims of suicide as a cause of his death.

But in his interview published on ILNA’s website, Firuzabadi claimed that environmental activists with links to foreign countries have in the past been found to engage in espionage against the Islamic Republic. He told the news outlet that some years ago Iranian authorities arrested a group of foreigners who were visiting Iran to raise funds for Palestinian political prisoners. He added that among the foreigners’ possessions authorities found “a species of desert reptile, like a chameleon”, which puzzled them. Firuzabadi then said that, “following studies” on the lizards, Iranian authorities concluded that their skin “attracts atomic waves”. They therefore concluded that the foreigners were in fact “nuclear spies” who had entered Iran in order to “find out where [in the country] are uranium mines and where the government is engaged in nuclear-related activities”. Firuzabadi also said that many foreigners who are engaged in environmental activism “are not even aware of the fact that they are actually spying” on Iran.

But Western scientists and science reporters dismissed Firuzabadi’s claims as fantastical. On Tuesday, John Timmer, science editor for the United States-based technology and science website Ars Technica, called the Iranian military official’s claims “insane” and added that there was “no scientific evidence that reptiles […] are effective as Geiger counters”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 February 2018 | Research credit: C.F. | Permalink

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Presidential candidate accuses Mexican government of political policing

Ricardo AnayaA high-profile presidential candidate in Mexico accused the government of political policing after he caught an agent of the country’s intelligence agency trailing him during a campaign trip. The candidate, Ricardo Anaya, is a rising rightwing politician who previously served as president of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies and leader of the largest opposition group in the country, the National Action Party. In December of last year, Anaya announced his candidacy for the presidency, for which he will compete in July. His primary opponents are the center-leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and José Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Opposition candidates have long accused the PRI of using state intelligence agencies to spy on them. The accusations surfaced again this week, after Anaya claimed that he was illegally followed by a government intelligence officer during an election campaign trip in Veracruz. The rightist politician said the officer, who was not wearing a uniform, followed his campaign car in a black sports utility vehicle. On Tuesday, Anaya’s campaign team publicized a video showing the presidential candidate walking up to the intelligence officer and asking him who he was. In the video, the officer says he works for Mexico’s National Center for Security and Investigation (CISEN) and claims he is there to protect the candidate from security threats. The officer is then told by Anaya that he never requested a security detail, but responds that he is simply following orders issued by his superiors.

On Wednesday, Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior, Alfonso Navarrete, told reporters that the man in the video is indeed a longtime intelligence employee of CISEN. But he added that the officer’s mission had been to “report potential mishaps” and to protect Anaya from possible attacks by Mexico’s notorious drug cartels. When he was told by reporters that Anaya had not asked to be protected by CISEN, Navarrete claimed that he thought the candidate had been notified by the government about CISEN’s “discreet presence” in his campaign. The interior secretary then said that the incident had been a mistake, and that CISEN simply failed to notify Anaya of its activities. But Anaya dismissed Navarrete’s claims as lies and said he had been followed by other CISEN officers since the beginning of his campaign.

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

Conflicting reports of Russian fighters killed by US forces in Syria

Kurdish SDF There are conflicting reports of Russian and Ukrainian fighters having been killed by American forces in northeastern Syria, with some sources claiming that up to 200 Russians and Ukrainians, most of them private contractors working for the Syrian government, were left dead in clashes last week. If such reports are accurate, they could point to the most lethal American-Russian confrontation since the end of World War II.

According to the United States Department of Defense, the armed confrontation took place on February 7. On that day, a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria. A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Thomas F. Veale, told reporters last week that the pro-government forces crossed the Euphrates near the town of Khursham, in Syria’s Deir al-Zour region. The town is firmly held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish armed faction that is supported by the US. Veale said that the Syrian government forces advanced in a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars”. The SDF force in the area, which includes embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimates that over 100 attackers were left dead, with another 200-300 injured. There were allegedly no SDF fatalities during the clash.

On February 8, CBS News cited an unnamed US Pentagon official, who claimed that Russians were among the dead in Deir al-Zour. The BBC said that “at least two Russians” were killed in the attack, while The New York Times raised the toll to “perhaps dozens”. But US news network Bloomberg claimed that over 200 Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainian mercenaries were among the dead. Citing anonymously “three Russians [and] one US official […] familiar with the matter”, the network said that most of the fatalities were Russian and Ukrainian private contractors who were fighting in Syria in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. These reports mark the first known instance of Russian citizens killed by American forces in Syria. If the Bloomberg account is accurate, the Deir al-Zour clash could be the most extensive armed confrontation between Americans and Russians since the end of World War II.

Bloomberg said that it spoke by phone to one Russian military contractor who said that “dozens of his wounded men” were still receiving treatment at military hospitals in Russia. On February 8, the Syrian government accused Washington of carrying out a “brutal massacre” in Deir al-Zour, but said nothing about foreign fighters. A statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense said that 25 Syrian troops were hurt in the attack, but denied that Russian soldiers had participated in the February 7 clashes. Speaking on behalf of the Kremlin, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow only tracked casualty data about its official military forces stationed in Syria. He added that no Russian forces were stationed in Deir al-Zour. At a press conference last week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2018 | Research credit: N.L. | Permalink

Latvian citizen arrested for allegedly spying for Russia

Latvian Security PoliceThe Latvian Security Police have announced the arrest of a man who is suspected of spying for a foreign country, with some reports claiming it is Russia. The Latvian state-owned news agency, LETA, said late last month that the man, who has not been named, was arrested by Security Police officers on Tuesday, December 19, 2017. However, the arrest was not announced by Latvian authorities until recently. A statement issued by government authorities in Riga said that the man’s arrest had been followed by searches at several different properties in the Latvian capital.

The detainee, who is reportedly a Latvian national, is being investigated for espionage and has already been charged with illegally possessing a firearm. A court in the Latvian capital ruled last week that the suspect should be remanded in custody. Initially, the Security Police refused to identify the detainee or reveal the name of the country that he allegedly spied for. But some private Latvian news outlets, who are believed to be close to the government, said on the morning of February 7 that the detainee worked for the Russian state. One report claimed that the man was tasked with collecting military-related information from the region of Latvia that borders Russia. He would then share the information with his Russian handlers, according to the report. On February 8, the Security Police confirmed that the detainee was indeed suspected of working for Russia. According to the agency, he gave his Russian handlers information about the National Armed Forces, Latvia’s military force.

Also on February 8, Latvian authorities warned the country’s citizens that they should remain vigilant. A government statement said that Moscow was intensely interested in collecting classified information about Latvia and that the Russian secret services preferred to recruit Latvians when the latter visited Russia. Reports late last week said that, if found guilty of spying, the detained man could face up to 14 years in prison.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 February 2018 | Permalink

US immigration and customs agency seeks to join Intelligence Community

Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICEThe United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is reportedly seeking to join the Intelligence Community, which includes the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other intelligence-focused arms of the federal government. Currently, ICE is a federal law enforcement that operates under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. It consists of two components: Homeland Security Investigations, which probes cross-border criminal activity, including drugs and weapons trafficking, money laundering and cybercrime; and Enforcement and Removal Operations, whose mission is to find and capture undocumented aliens.

But some senior ICE officials have been exploring the possibility of joining the US Intelligence Community. According to The Daily Beast, which reported the alleged plans, the officials believe that by joining the Intelligence Community, ICE will become privy to intelligence that will assist in its mission. They also claim that membership in the Intelligence Community would afford ICE “greater prestige, credibility and authority” within the federal government. The Daily Beast reports that ICE’s effort to join the Intelligence Community began during the administration of US President Barack Obama. However, it has picked up steam following the election of President Donald Trump. Some believe that President Trump would be willing to sign an executive order that would incorporate ICE in the Intelligence Community.

Some civil liberties watchdogs, however, are weary of such plans. They claim that ICE is a domestic law enforcement agency and should not have access to practices and techniques used by spy agencies like the CIA or the National Security Agency. The latter frequently break the laws of foreign countries in pursuit of their mission, which is to steal foreign intelligence. These agencies are characterized by a different culture, say critics, which is not respectful of legal constraints. But supporters of ICE’s proposed inclusion into the Intelligence Community argue that there are several law enforcement agencies that are already members of the Intelligence Community. Notably, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration —both law enforcement agencies— belong to the Intelligence Community.

The Daily Beast said it contacted ICE but a spokesperson refused to comment on the story. The Department of Homeland Security did not return emails and phone calls about the proposal to include ICE in the Intelligence Community.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 2018 | Permalink

Ex-spy chief claims Palestinian officials worked with CIA to wiretap opponents

Telephones PalestineThe former head of the Palestinian Authority’s spy agency claims that the Palestinian government in the West Bank worked with the United States Central Intelligence Agency to wiretap thousands without court authorization. Tawfiq Tirawi, who headed the Palestinian General Intelligence from its founding in 1994 to 2008, has filed an official complaint against the Palestinian Authority and is calling for a criminal investigation into the alleged wiretaps. The complaint has also been signed by Jawad Obeidat, who is the president of the West Bank’s Bar Association. It is based on a leaked 37-page document that surfaced last month on the social networking application WhatsApp. The document was leaked by an anonymous individual who claims to have worked for a surveillance unit in the Palestinian Preventive Security Service, the Palestinian Authority’s domestic security service.

The leaked document appears to show that the Palestinian Preventive Security Service reached out to the CIA in 2013 asking for assistance with installing a communications surveillance system in the West Bank. The CIA agreed to provide the system in exchange for access to the intercepted data. The two agencies installed the interception system in the summer of 2014 and initiated what appears to have been a large-scale operation that included thousands of telephone subscribers. Initial targets of the operation included members of Hamas —the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip— as well as members of the Iran-supported Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. But, according to the Associated Press, over time the targets of the program expanded to include “thousands of Palestinians, from senior figures in militant groups to judges, lawyers, civic leaders and political allies of Abbas”. The list of targets included Tirawi and Obeidat, who filed the official complaint on Tuesday.

The anonymous leaker of the document said he decided to quit his job and reveal the information about the intercepts after US President Donald Trump shifted Washington’s policy on Israel’s capital, by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. Earlier in February, the Palestinian Authority dismissed the leaked document as “nonsense” and said it was part of a large conspiracy that sought to harm Palestinian interests. The CIA refused to comment on the allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 February 2018 | Permalink

Espionage threat is greater now than in Cold War, Australian agency warns

ASIO AustraliaForeign intelligence collection and espionage threats against Australia are greater today than at any time during the Cold War, according to a senior Australian intelligence official. The claim was made on Wednesday by Peter Vickery, deputy director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s primary counterintelligence agency. He was speaking before a parliamentary committee that is considering aspects of a proposed bill, which aims to combat foreign influence on Australian political and economic life. If enacted, the bill would require anyone who is professionally advocating or campaigning in favor of “foreign entities” to register with the government. Several opposition parties and groups, including the Catholic Church, have expressed concern, saying that the bill is too broad and could curtail the political and religious freedoms of Australians.

But ASIO has come out strongly in favor of the proposed bill. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Vickery warned that Australia is today facing more threats from espionage than during the Cold War. “Whilst [the Cold War] was obviously a very busy time” for ASIO, said Vickery, his agency’s assessment is that Cold War espionage was “not on the scale we are experiencing today” in Australia. During the Cold War, ASIO was cognizant and aware of the major adversaries, he added. But today, the espionage landscape features “a raft of unknown players”, many of whom operate on behalf of non-state actors, said Vickery. The phenomenon of globalization further-complicates counterintelligence efforts, he added, because foreign espionage can be conducted from afar with little effort. Vickery noted that espionage and foreign influence in Australia “is not something that we think might happen, or possibly could happen. It is happening now against Australian interests in Australia and Australian interests abroad”. He also warned that the public knows little about the extent of espionage and foreign-influence operations taking place “at a local, state and federal level” throughout the country.

Earlier this week, the Catholic Church of Australia came out in opposition to the proposed legislation, which it sees as too broad. The religious denomination, which represents approximately 20 percent of the country’s population, said that the bill was too broad and could force Australian Catholics to register as agents of a foreign power. Technically, the Catholic Church is headquartered at the Vatican, which would make the organization a foreign entity under the proposed bill, the Church said in a statement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2018 | Permalink