CIA report says Saudi crown prince sent text messages to Khashoggi killer

Saud al-QahtaniSaudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent at least eleven text messages to the man in charge of the 15-member hit team that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month, according to a classified report produced by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA report was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, which said in a leading article on Saturday that the Saudi royal had sent the messages in the hours before and after Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi government adviser who moved to the US and became a vocal critic of the kingdom’s style of governance. He was killed and later dismembered by a hit team inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone for a scheduled visit in order to be issued written proof of his divorce from his former wife in Saudi Arabia.

Late last month, the CIA and its British equivalent, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), were reported to have concluded that Khashoggi’s murder was directly ordered by Prince Salman. But US President Donald Trump and leading members of his cabinet, including Secretaries of State Mike Pompeo and Defense James Mattis, have disputed these claims, saying there is “no smoking gun” that proves Prince Salman’s involvement. The US president said that Saudi Arabia was “a great ally” of Washington and that Prince Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder was unclear. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t”, he told reporters in Washington on November 20, referring to the prince, whom he considers a personal friend. Instead, the White House has placed blame for the journalist’s murder on Saud al-Qahtani (pictured), a former advisor to Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah, who is believed to have coordinated Khashoggi’s killing.

But new a new CIA assessment of Khashoggi’s murder that was leaked to The Wall Street Journal claims that the US spy agency has concluded with “medium-to-high” confidence that Prince Salman “personally targeted” the journalist and “probably ordered his death”. The leaked report, said The Journal, rests on several findings, including the fact that the prince sent at least 11 messages to al-Qahtani in the hours right before and right after the latter’s hit-team killed Khashoggi in Istanbul. The CIA report states that the Agency does not have access to the contents of the texts. But it states that this pattern of communication, along with other pieces of evidence “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 December 2018 | Permalink

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US government plans background checks on Chinese students over espionage fears

Chinese students in USAThe United States government plan to impose tighter visa restrictions and wider background checks on Chinese nationals studying at American universities, over espionage concerns. The news follows reports earlier this year that the administration of US President Donald Trump considered banning all Chinese nationals from studying at American universities. In October of this year, The Financial Times reported that the White House came close to imposing the ban, after it was allegedly proposed by Stephen Miller, speechwriter and senior advisor to Trump. Miller became known as the main architect of Executive Order 13769 —the travel ban imposed on citizens of several countries, most of them predominantly Muslim. According to The Financial Times, Trump was eventually dissuaded from imposing the Chinese student ban by Terry Branstad, US ambassador to China.

Now, however, the Trump administration is reportedly considering the possibility of imposing deeper background checks and additional vetting on all Chinese nationals wishing to study in the US. Citing “a US official and three congressional and university sources”, Reuters said on Thursday that the measures would apply to all Chinese students wishing to register in undergraduate and graduate academic programs in the US. The news agency quoted a “senior US official” as saying that “no Chinese student who’s coming [to the US] is untethered from the state […. They all have] to go through a party and government approval process”. Reuters reported that the proposed plan includes a comprehensive examination of the applicants’ phone records and their presence on social media platforms. The goal would be to verify that the applicants are not connected with Chinese government agencies. As part of the proposed plan, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies would provide counterintelligence training to university officials.

However, the plan has many American universities —including elite Ivy League schools— worried that they may be losing up to $14 billion in tuition and other fees spent annually by more than 350,000 Chinese nationals studying in the US. The fear is that the latter may be looking to study elsewhere, in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Reuters said that many of America’s top universities are “regularly sharing strategies to thwart” plans by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for Chinese nationals to study in the US. The news agency said it contacted the Chinese ambassador to Washington, who called the White House’s fears of espionage by Chinese students “groundless” and “very indecent”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2018 | Permalink

New law to give Australian intelligence officers more rights to use firearms

Australian Secret Intelligence ServiceThe Australian government has proposed a new law that would give intelligence officers broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. If it is approved by parliament, the new law would apply to the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), a civilian intelligence agency that carries out covert and clandestine operations abroad. Modeled after Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), ASIS was established in 1952, but its existence was not officially acknowledged by the Australian government until 25 years later, in 1977.

In 2004, ASIS was given legal permission for the first time to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. However, under current Australian law, this is allowed only as a last resort. ASIS personnel engaged in overseas operations are allowed to employ firearms in self-defense or to protect their agents —foreigners that have been recruited by ASIS to spy for Australia. However, the current government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison argues that ASIS personnel must be given broader powers to exercise “reasonable force” via the use of firearms during overseas operations. In a speech on Wednesday, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said that the overseas environment in which ASIS operates today is more complex than that of 2004, when the current laws of engagement were enacted. She added that nowadays ASIS personnel work in more hazardous locations, including warzones, and carry out “more dangerous missions in new places and circumstances”.

The government argues that the proposed changes will allow ASIS personnel to “protect a broader range of people and use reasonable force if someone poses a risk to an operation”. The new law will give ASIS officers permission to open fire against adversaries in order to protect parties other than themselves —such as hostages— or to avoid getting captured. This, says the government, will allow them to efficiently “protect Australia and its interests”. The last time that the Australian government flirted with the idea of giving ASIS broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations was in 2010. That year, the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commissioned a multimillion dollar independent review of the Australian intelligence community’s mission and operations. The review proposed that ASIS personnel be allowed more powers to carry and handle weapons while engaging in “paramilitary activities” outside Australia. But the proposal was never enacted into law.

The latest proposal by the Morrison administration is scheduled to be discussed in the Australian Parliament today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2018 | Permalink

Head of CIA’s Korean mission center to resign, say sources

Andrew KimA senior North Korea expert in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who has been instrumental in the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, has tendered his resignation, according to sources. The official was identified last may by US media as Andrew Kim, a former South Korean citizen who moved to the US with his parents when he was 13 years old. According to sources, Kim joined the CIA after graduating from college and rose through the Agency’s ranks to serve its stations in Moscow, Beijing and Bangkok. His most recent overseas post was reportedly in Seoul, where he served as the CIA’s station chief —the most senior American intelligence official in the country.

Following his return to the US from Seoul, Kim reportedly retired, but returned last year to head the CIA’s new Korea Mission Center (KMC). The purpose of the specialized unit is to analyze Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, which the administration of US President Donald Trump considers as matters of priority for the White House. It was as head of the KMC that Kim reportedly met Mike Pompeo once he became Director of the CIA in January 2017. The two men worked closely together and it is believed that Kim’s role was instrumental in organizing the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang that led to last summer’s historic high-level meeting between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. According to American and South Korean media, Kim accompanied the then-CIA director on his secret trip to North Korea. He also accompanied Pompeo on his trips to North Korea once the Kansas Republican became Secretary of State.

The Yonhap News Agency said on Tuesday that Kim initially intended to leave his CIA post in the summer, but was persuaded by Secretary Pompeo to continue. However, he has now tendered his resignation, which will take effect on December 20. Citing “multiple sources”, including “a senior official at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service”, the Seoul-based news agency said that Kim plans to take up an academic post at Stanford University, adding that he intends to continue serving as an adviser to the secretary of state. Prior media reports have stated that “Kim is widely viewed as a hawk on North Korea”, so there are suspicions that his departure from the CIA stems from his disagreement with the policy of negotiation signaled by President Trump. However, the CIA has not commented on the Yonhap report. The South Korean agency said that the CIA is already reviewing candidates to succeed Kim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2018 | Permalink

French senior civil servant arrested on suspicion of spying for North Korea

Benoît QuennedeyA senior civil servant in the upper house of the French parliament has been arrested on suspicion of spying for North Korea, according to prosecutors. The news of the suspected spy’s arrest was first reported on Monday by Quotidien, a daily politics and culture show on the Monaco-based television channel TMC. The show cited “a judicial source in Paris” and said that France’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), was in charge of the espionage case.

The senior administrator has been identified as Benoit Quennedey, a civil servant who liaises between the French Senate and the Department of Architecture and Heritage, which operates under France’s Ministry of Culture. Quennedey was reportedly detained on Sunday morning and his office in the French Senate was raided by DGSI officers on the same day. Quotidien said that he was arrested on suspicion of “collecting and delivering to a foreign power information likely to subvert core national interests”. The report did not provide specific information about the type of information that Quennedey is believed to have passed to North Korea. It did state, however, that a counterintelligence investigation into his activities began in March of this year.

Quennedey is believed to be the president of the Franco-Korean Friendship Association, the French branch of a Spanish-based organization that lobbies in favor of international support for North Korea. Korea Friendship Association branches exist in over 30 countries and are believed to be officially sanctioned by Pyongyang. They operate as something akin to the pre-World War II Comintern (Communist International), a Moscow-sanctioned international pressure group that advocated in favor of Soviet-style communism around the world. French media reported on Monday that Quennedey traveled extensively to the Korean Peninsula in the past decade and has written a French-language book on North Korea. News reports said that the French President Emmanuel Macron had been made aware of Quennedey’s arrest. The senior civil servant faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty of espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 November 2018 | Permalink

Four times more Sunni Islamist militants today than on 9/11, study finds

Al-Qaeda in YemenThere are four times as many Sunni Islamist militants today in the world than on September 11, 2001, despite an almost 20 year-long war campaign by the United States and its allies, according to a new report. Washington launched the ‘global war on terrorism’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that were perpetrated by al-Qaeda. In the ensuing years, American and other Western troops have engaged militarily in over a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and the Philippines. But a new study by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the West’s efforts to combat Sunni militancy are failing —and may even be making the problem worse. The report by the Washington-based think-tank states that the number of active Sunni Islamist militants today is as much as “270 percent greater than in 2001, when the 9/11 attacks occurred”.

Entitled “The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat”, the 71-page report is one of the most extensive ever undertaken on this topic, drawing on information from data sets that date back nearly 40 years. It warns that, despite the rapid loss of territory suffered by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, armed Sunni militancy is “far from defeated”. The number of Salafi-jihadists —active proponents of armed fight against perceived enemies of Islam— has slightly declined in comparison to 2016, but it remains at near-peak levels over a 38-year period, says the CSIS report. It estimates that there are today as many as 230,000 Salafi-jihadists in almost 70 countries. Most of them are based in Syria (as many as 70,500), Afghanistan (as many as 64,000), Pakistan (up to 40,000), and Iraq (up to 15,000). Nearly 30,000 more are in Africa, primarily in Somalia, Nigeria and the Sahel region.

These fighters, and the groups they fight under, are far more resilient than Western antiterrorist strategists tend to assume, claims the report. They are also inadvertently aided by successive policy failures by the US and its closest Western allies. The latter focus primarily on the military aspects of counterterrorism campaigns, while ignoring the importance of improving local governance in territories where Sunni Islamism is rife, argues the report. Therefore, as the US and its allies continue to engage “in a seemingly endless [military] confrontation with a metastasizing set of militant groups”, they face seemingly endless waves of militants, who are becoming increasingly capable of resisting Western conventional military force. The report is available online in .pdf form, here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 November 2018 | Permalink

Norwegian spy service seeks right to break law during espionage operations

Royal Norwegian Ministry of DefenseNorway’s supreme legislature body is considering a bill that would offer immunity from prosecution to intelligence officers and informants who are authorized by the country’s spy service to conduct espionage. The bill has been proposed on behalf of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Defense, which supervises the operations of the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS), Norway’s primary intelligence agency. The NIS operates primarily abroad and is the only institution of the Norwegian state that can be authorized by the government to break laws in foreign countries. However, supporters of the new bill point out that NIS overseas operations can also break Norwegian law. That is something that the proposed bill addresses, they argue.

The proposed bill offers immunity from prosecution to NIS case officers and their assets —either informants or foreign spies— who may commit offenses under Norwegian law, as part of authorized espionage operations. In its consultation note that accompanies the proposed bill, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense admits that a number of NIS operations “already violate existing Norwegian laws”. That is inevitable, argues the Ministry, because officers and informants who engage in espionage operations will often “act contrary to the stipulations of criminal law […] as part of their assignments”. They may, in other words, “do certain things that would be illegal if they were done not on behalf of the intelligence service”, states the consultation note.

The document does not provide details of the types of offenses that are committed in pursuit of intelligence operations, arguing that “the offenses that the NIS commits, as well as its methods, must remain secret”. It does, however, suggest that intelligence officers may make use of “false or misleading identities, documents and information”. They may also “smuggle large amounts of cash from the country”, which they will use to pay foreign assets. Given that these assets receive Norwegian taxpayers’ funds, and that some of them end up settling in Norway, it is important that their proceeds not be considered taxable income under Norwegian law, according to the Defense Ministry. By reporting their revenue to the Norwegian Tax Administration, these assets would make their NIS connection known, and thus blow their cover, the document states.

The Defense Ministry notes that the new bill “will have little legal significance”, as NIS espionage operations are generally shielded from prosecution under Norway’s existing legal codes. It will, however, formalize the NIS’ legal scope and allow the agency to assure its case officers that they can perform their missions without fearing arrest or prosecution, so long as they act within the parameters of their authorized missions. The spy agency will also be able to recruit more “informants, sources and contractors”, says the document.

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