US announces arrest of two men charged with spying for Iran

Mujahedin-e KhalqAuthorities in the United States have announced the arrests of two men who have been charged with spying on American soil on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The men were reportedly arrested on August 9, but information about them was only released on Monday by the US Department of Justice. In a press statement published online, John Demers, US Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said the men were arrested because of concerns that they “acted on behalf of Iran”. They were identified as Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar, 38, and Majid Ghorbani, 59. Doostdar is reportedly a dual citizen of the US and Iran, while Ghorbani is an Iranian citizen who lives in the US state of California. The two men are not believed to be diplomats.

According to the US government, the men were observed “conducting surveillance of political opponents and engaging in other activities that could put Americans at risk”. The press statement alleges that Doostdar carried out surveillance of a Jewish center in Chicago, while Ghorbani attended meetings and rallies organized by Iranian opposition groups operating in the US. The press release identifies one such group as the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant faction that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Between 1970 and 1976, the group assassinated six American officials in Iran and in 1970 tried to kill the United States ambassador to the country. It initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations in exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups. Until 2009, the European Union and the US officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred against the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US.

On June 30 of this year, authorities in Belgium arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent, who were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria, while a fourth person was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests. All four individuals were charged with having planned a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the MEK-affiliated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris, France. It is not known whether the arrests in Europe are in any way connected with the cases of the two men held in the US.

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Japan releases files on 1942 Tokyo spy ring that helped USSR win World War II

Richard SorgeJapan has released secret documents from 1942 relating to the Tokyo spy ring led by Richard Sorge, a German who spied for the USSR and is often credited with helping Moscow win World War II. The documents detail efforts by the wartime Japanese government to trivialize the discovery of the Sorge spy ring, which was at the heart of modern Japan’s biggest spy scandal. Thirty-five people, many of them highly placed Japanese officials, were arrested in Tokyo in October of 1941 for spying for the Soviet Union. Sorge, the German head of the spy ring, had fought for the Central Powers in World War I, but had subsequently become a communist and trained in espionage by Soviet military intelligence. He was then sent to Tokyo where he struck a close friendship with the German Ambassador and joined the German embassy. He eventually informed Moscow that German ally Japan was not planning to invade Russia from the east. That tip allowed Stalin to move hundreds of thousands of troops from the Far East to the German front, which in turn helped the USSR beat back the Nazi advance and win the war.

Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, which has seen the declassified documents, said they were among the personal files of Taizo Ota, a Japanese counterintelligence official who led Division VI of Japan’s Ministry of Justice. The unit was in charge of political policing and counterespionage during World War II. The documents date from May 1942, which was when the Japanese government finally publicized the arrest of Sorge and his comrades, more than six months after they were caught spying for Moscow. The documents were issued by Japan’s Ministry of Justice but —according to experts— were most likely authored by officials in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who were in charge of investigating the Sorge spy ring case. According to Mainichi Shimbun, the documents were part of a broader effort by the Japanese government to cover up the espionage case by instructing the country’s media to give it marginal attention.

One document instructs newspaper editors to cover the incident on an inside page and to use a headline smaller than the length of four columns. Another document states that newspaper editors should not use pictures in reporting on the spy ring, and adds that no information other than what is included in government press releases should be printed. A third document specifically instructs newspaper editors to avoid all mention of Kinkazu Saionji, a core participant in the Sorge spy ring. Saionji was a member of Japan’s governing aristocracy and a grandson of former Prime Minister Kinmochi Saionji, the country’s most esteemed interwar politician. Indeed, much of the information in the newly unearthed documents details efforts by the Japanese state to conceal the magnitude of communist penetration in the country’s leading families and governing circles.

Coverage of the Sorge incident in Japan’s two leading newspapers of the time, the Nichi Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun indicate that the government pressure was successful, according to Mainichi Shimbun. Both papers covered the incident but neither paper published information about it on its front page, nor was there mention of Saionji or of other senior Japanese officials who were members of the Sorge spy ring. According to Japanese researchers, the documents provide rare detailed examples of attempts by the country’s wartime government to guide reporting on national-security affairs. The files are currently archived in the Modern Japanese Political History Materials Room of the National Diet Library in downtown Tokyo.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 August 2018 | Permalink

Brussels will ‘not comment’ on reports Britain is spying on EU Brexit committee

Sabine WeyandRelations between the European Union and the United Kingdom hit a new low on Thursday, as the European Council refused to comment on claims that British spy agencies have spied on Brexit negotiators in Brussels. Consultations between the two sides have progressed at an alarmingly slow pace ever since June 23, 2016, when voters in the island nation elected to leave the EU during a nationwide referendum. In March of 2017, London officially invoked Article 50 of the EU Treaty, which requires that Britain’s withdrawal from the multinational body be completed within two calendar years. But there are many who think that a mutual agreement will not be reached between the two sides.

On Wednesday, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph alleged that a number of EU Brexit negotiators believe that their closed-door meetings are being spied upon by the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6. According to The Telegraph, fears of espionage were raised by Sabine Weyand, a German EU official who is currently serving as Deputy Chief of the European Council’s Article 50 Working Party. On July 13, during a meeting of the European Council, Weyand reportedly said “it could not be excluded” that British intelligence agencies had found ways to listen in to the closed-door meetings of EU Brexit negotiators. According to The Telegraph, Weyand and other EU officials became suspicious after London appeared to be privy to information discussed on July 5 at a closed-door meeting of the Article 50 Working Party. Weyand told the European Council that the information had reached London “within hours” of it having been presented in Brussels. Just hours following the secret presentation, senior British government officials were reportedly lobbying in public against the information contained in it.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the European Commission, which operates as the EU’s cabinet, did not deny that concerns about espionage were raised by EU Brexit negotiators. When asked by reporters in Brussels about The Telegraph’s allegations, the spokesperson responded: “The Commission’s position today is that we cannot comment on these press reports”. As the press conference was taking place, British negotiators were arriving in Brussels in order to resume the latest round of Brexit talks with the EU’s Article 50 Working Party.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2018 | Permalink

Crowdfunding campaign seeks release of CIA’s mind control program files

CIA headquartersAn online fundraising campaign is seeking to secure the release of over 4,000 pages of documents relating to a controversial mind control program developed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The project, referred to as MKNAOMI/MKULTRA in US government files, was a joint effort by the CIA and the US Department of Defense to study the effects of substances such as heroin and LSD on the human brain. It began in 1953 and over the years involved the work of hundreds of scientists, many of whom were not aware they were working on a CIA project. But it was hurriedly shut down in 1976, once post-Watergate investigations by the US Congress revealed that it led to the death of at least one person and involved the application of drugs on hundreds of nonconsenting subjects. Several lawsuits relating to MKULTRA have been filed in US courts in recent years.

In 2004, the Black Vault, a volunteer website specializing in publishing declassified government documents, released tens of thousands of pages that were released by the CIA following a lengthy Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) application. The agency released the file along with an 85-page index that listed the file’s contents. But in 2016, a Black Vault reader noticed that some of the listings contained in the file were missing from the documents. Working through the news aggregation and discussion website Reddit, a group of readers identified all the irregularities in the released documents and notified Black Vault’s owner, John Greenwald. Greenwald then contacted the CIA and, following a two-year exchange with the agency’s FOIA desk, he was told that the missing pages would require a separate FOIA request. The reason, according to the CIA, is that the original FOIA request had requested documents pertaining to “mind control”, whereas the missing pages related to “behavioral modification”, which is a separate topic.

The CIA told Greenwald that releasing the pages pertaining to “behavioral modification” would require a payment of $425.80, at 10 cents per page. After failing to convince the CIA that it should release the pages for free, because they should have been included in the original 2004 FOIA petition, Greenwald decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign. He used the popular crowdfunding website GoFundMe to request $500 toward a new FOIA and related expenses. By Wednesday night, the campaign had exceeded the amount requested by Greenwald. The owner of the Black Vault website now says that he is preparing to file a FOIA for 4,358 pages about MKULTRA that are missing from the original 2004 document release.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 August 2018 | Permalink

ISIS remains strong with 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, experts warn

ISIS forces in RamadiThe Islamic State has recovered from some of its recent defeats in the battlefield and has as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria, according to two reports by American and United Nations experts. Last month, the Iraqi government announced that the war against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been won. The statement was echoed by the United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over. But now two new reports, one produced by the United States Department of Defense and the other by an expert UN panel, warn that both ISIS and al-Qaeda remain powerful, popular and dangerous in Iraq, Syria, and many other regions of the world.

The UN report was published on Monday by the organization’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which is tasked with monitoring the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions. The report recognizes that ISIS has suffered unprecedented military defeats in Iraq and Syria in the past year, and that many of its most hardened fighters are dead or have abandoned the conflict zones in the region. But it warns that the militant organization is now morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. What is more, ISIS’ center is backed by as many as 30,000 unreconstructed members, who are split roughly equally between the two countries. The US Pentagon report, which was delivered this week to Congress states that ISIS has as many as 17,100 fighters in Iraq and another 14,000 in Syria. Many of those surviving fighters are citizens of dozens of different countries around the world, according to the report. Some of them are still engaged in armed fighting, while others are “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas”, mostly in Iraq, the UN report states.

There are also tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, and in several West African and Southeast Asian countries, according to the reports’ authors. These fighters are led by commanders who remain in contact with senior ISIS leaders and continue to revere Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s central figure. In addition to ISIS, al-Qaeda also remains strong and dangerous, according to the UN report. Its regional structure “continues to show resilience” and in some regions of the world it is far stronger than ISIS. These include several regions of Africa, including areas of Somalia and the Sahel, as well as in Yemen, where al-Qaeda is believed to command as many as 7,000 armed fighters at the moment.

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

Canada seeks to take away passports from children of Russian spies

Vavilov FoleyTwo Canadian brothers, whose Russian-born parents fraudulently acquired Canadian citizenship before being arrested for spying on the United States for Moscow, are not entitled to Canadian citizenship, according to the government of Canada. Tim and Alex Vavilov are the sons of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, a married couple arrested in 2010 under Operation GHOST STORIES, a counterintelligence program run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Following the couple’s arrest, their sons, who allegedly grew up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that their parents were in fact Russian citizens and that their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Their English-sounding names and Canadian passports had been forged in the late 1980s by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary external intelligence agency.

But the two brothers, who had never been to Russia prior to their parents’ arrest in 2010, are currently involved in a prolonged legal battle to keep their Canadian citizenship, after the government of Canada refused to recognize their Canadian passports. The latter were annulled when it became clear that the Canadian passports of the brothers’ parents were fraudulent. According to the Canadian Citizenship Act, children born in Canada to “employees of a foreign government” are not entitled to Canadian nationality. But the brothers argue that they were 20 and 16 when their parents were arrested and were unaware of their double identities. It follows, they say, that they cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes, and insist that Canada is the only home they know.

Last year, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeals overturned the decision of a lower court and ordered the government to reinstate Alex Vavilov’s Canadian citizenship. According to the Appeals Court, the Vavilov could not be considered as having been born to employees of a foreign government, since his parents were not accredited diplomats, nor did they enjoy diplomatic privileges while living in Canada. Since that time, the two brothers have had their Canadian passports renewed and say they hope to be able to settle and work in Canada. But the Canadian government was given until September 20 of this year to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision, and take the case to the Supreme Court.

Now the Canadian government has filed a new court submission, effectively challenging the Federal Court of Appeals’ decision. It its submission, the government claims that the Vavilov brothers should be denied Canadian citizenship because their parents were, effectively, secret employees of a foreign government. The two Russian spies may not have been accredited by the Canadian state as foreign employees, it says, but they were in reality “dedicated to serving their home country, except in their case, the employment was carried out clandestinely”. Canada’s Supreme Court has said that it plans to hear the case before the end of the year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 August 2018 | Permalink

Montenegro seeks arrest of ex-CIA officer accused of role in pro-Russian coup

Montenegro coupGovernment prosecutors in Montenegro, the youngest member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, claim that a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency helped pro-Russian plotters organize a coup in 2016. In October of that year, authorities in Montenegro accused “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” of staging a failed plot. Their goal was allegedly to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović, spark a pro-Russian coup in the country, and prevent its entry into NATO. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested in Montenegro for allegedly planning an armed coup. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, 2016, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had even hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović, according to Montenegrin police. After killing the prime minister, the plotters allegedly planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup.

Russia has vehemently denied the allegations. But in March of last year, the then British foreign secretary Boris Johnson appeared to validate the Montenegrin government’s allegations. Since then, a sensational trial has been taking place in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica of the 20 men who were arrested in October 2016, in addition to two Russians who are being tried in absentia. During the trial, prosecutors fingered Joseph Assad, a former CIA officer, as a co-conspirator in the coup plot. The Egyptian-born Assad served as a counter-terrorism expert in the CIA after arriving in the US in 1990, but eventually left the agency to launch his own security firm. It is believed that at the time of the alleged coup plot, Assad’s firm was employed by Aron Shaviv, a political strategist connected with the Democratic Front, a vocal pro-Russian opposition party in Montenegro. Shaviv, who has joint British and Israeli citizenship, said he hired Assad’s firm to provide counter-surveillance against Montenegro’s security services. According to Shaviv, the Montenegrin authorities spied on him and harassed him because of his connections to a domestic political party that is seen as pro-Russian.

But prosecutors in the trial of the alleged coup plotters claim that Assad’s role was to organize and provide escape routes and methods for the coup plotters. In light of these allegations, a warrant has been issued for Assad, accusing him of “operating a criminal enterprise”, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Assad has rejected the charges as a “deception campaign”. In a statement issued on Saturday, he said he was “a loyal American who had no role in any crimes or coup in Montenegro”. Meanwhile, the Democratic Front and a number of other opposition parties in Montenegro denounced the government’s claims of a failed coup as “publicity stunts” aimed at distracting the country’s citizens from the state of the economy and other domestic concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2018 | Permalink