Russian court jails Estonian aircraft executive to 12 years for espionage

Raivo SusiA Russian court has sentenced an Estonian aircraft business executive to 12 years at a maximum security prison, allegedly for having spied on Russia a decade ago. Little is known about the case of Raivo Susi, who co-owns two companies that are involved in the sale and maintenance of non-commercial aircraft. The Estonian businessman’s activities include the partial ownership of Aerohooldus OU, which provides training jet aircraft for use by the Air Force of Estonia –a member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Russian media have stated that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) began investigating Susi in January of 2016. By that time, the Estonian businessman was not actively engaging in espionage against Russia, but he was still in touch with his spy handlers, according to the Russians. A group of FSB officers arrested Susi at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February of 2016, as the Estonian businessman was preparing to board a flight from Moscow to the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Since that time, Susi has been held in prison awaiting trial. According to his Russian lawyer, Aleksei Toplygin, Susi faced charges of engaging in espionage against the Russian state from 2004 until 2007. No further information was released about Susi’s activities. His trial, which concluded on Monday in Moscow, was held behind closed doors. It is believed that Susi consistently denied having spied on Russia throughout his trial.

Susi’s espionage case is the latest in a string of spy affairs that have rocked Russian-Estonian relations during the past decade. In 2008, Estonian authorities arrested Herman Simm, a high-level official at the Estonian defense ministry, on charges of spying on behalf of Russian intelligence for nearly 30 years. In 2014, Eston Kohver, a counterintelligence officer in the Estonian Internal Security Service, was allegedly abducted by Russian troops near the Estonian-Russian border. Later that year, the Estonians arrested two Russian citizens, said to be former employees of the Soviet-era KGB, who allegedly crossed into Estonian territory without a permit. In 2015, the Russians exchanged Kohver for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian intelligence officer who was jailed in 2012 along with his wife, Viktoria Dressen, for allegedly spying for Russia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 December 2017 | Permalink

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German intelligence warns European officials of fake Chinese LinkedIn profiles

BfV GermanyIn an unusual step, German intelligence officials have issued a public warning about what they said are thousands of fake LinkedIn profiles created by Chinese spies to gather information about Western targets. On Sunday, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) held a press conference in which it said that it had discovered a wide-ranging effort by spy agencies in China to establish links with Westerners. The agency said that it undertook a 9-month investigation, during which it identified 10,000 German citizens who were contacted by Chinese spy-run fake profiles on LinkedIn. Across Europe, the number of targets could be in the hundreds of thousands, according to the BfV.

The main targets of the operation appear to be members of the German and European Union parliaments. Also targeted are members of the armed forces, lobbyists and researchers in private think tanks and foundations in Germany and across Europe. These individuals were all targeted as part of “a broad attempt to infiltrate Parliaments, ministries and administrations”, said BfV Director Hans-Georg Maassen. He added that the fake LinkedIn profiles are of people who claim to be scholars, consultants, recruiters for non-existent firms, or members of think tanks. Their profile photographs are usually visually appealing and are often taken from fashion catalogs or modeling websites. During the press conference BfV officials showed examples of what they said were fake LinkedIn accounts under the names “Rachel Li” and “Alex Li”. The two identified themselves as a headhunter for a company called RiseHR and a project manager at the Center for Sino-Europe Development Studies, respectively. The information on these accounts was purely fictitious, said the BfV officials.

Individuals who have been targeted by the Chinese include European politicians and senior diplomats, according to the Germans. Many were invited to all-expenses-paid conferences or fact-finding trips to China by their LinkedIn contacts, presumably in attempts to recruit them for Chinese intelligence. At the closing of the press conference, the BfV urged European officials to refrain from posting private information on social media, including LinkedIn, because foreign intelligence operatives are actively collecting data on users’ online and offline habits, political affiliations, personal hobbies and other interests. In a statement issued on Monday, the Chinese government dismissed the German allegations, saying that the BfV’s investigation was based on “complete hearsay” and was thus “groundless”. Beijing also urged German intelligence officials to “speak and act more responsibly”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2017 | Permalink

Defector claims US agreed to let thousands of Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

Islamic State convoy in SyriaA senior former commander of one of Syria’s largest Kurdish rebel groups, who recently defected to Turkey, has accused the United States of agreeing to let thousands of heavily armed Islamic State fighters escape from Raqqa in exchange for conquering the city without a fight. The Syrian city served as the de facto capital of the Islamic State from early 2014 until October of this year, when it was captured by a coalition of forces supported by the United States and other Western powers. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish militia, was among the groups that captured Raqqa. One of its spokesmen, Talal Silo, told Western media correspondents back in October that the Western-backed coalition had allowed fewer than 300 hardline fighters of the Islamic State to leave the war-ravaged city during the final stages of the battle.

But several news agencies reported at the time that a large convoy of vehicles was seen leaving Raqqa, composed of dozens of trucks, buses and over a hundred cars. The BBC reported on November 13 that the convoy was 4 miles long and was seen heading toward Deir ez-Sor, an Islamic State stronghold located two hours’ drive southeast of Raqqa. Coalition partners, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and France, denied that such a convoy existed. But the BBC’s claims have now been corroborated by Silo, the same SDF spokesman who last October rejected them as fictional. In October, Silo, who is a Syrian Turkoman, defected to Turkey and is now living in Ankara under heavy security protection. He told the Reuters news agency in a recent  interview that the BBC’s claims were correct, and that the number of Islamic State militants who were allowed to leave Raqqa with their weapons were in their thousands, not 300 as the SDF had originally claimed.

According to Silo, a secret agreement was reached between the Western-backed coalition and the Islamic State for the evacuation of “about 4,000 people” from Raqqa. Of those fewer than 500 were unarmed civilians, said Silo. He added that the convoy went to Deir ez-Sor, which at the time was still under the control of Islamic State. The SDF defector also told Reuters that the deal struck with the Islamic State was kept secret from media correspondents. The latter were told that they were not allowed to approach Raqqa due to heavy fighting, when the real goal was to prevent them from witnessing the peaceful departure of the Islamic State convoys. According to Silo, the deal was approved by all members of the Western-backed coalition, including the United States.

On Thursday, the SDF denied that Silo’s allegations were true and claimed that he was being pressured to make them by Turkey. The Turkish government accuses the SDF of being a Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), with which it is at war. American military officials also denied Silo’s claims, calling them “false and contrived”. The officials said that the US “does not make deals with terrorists”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 December 2017 | Permalink

Polish counterintelligence chief questioned over alleged deal with Russia

General Piotr PytelThe former director of Poland’s military counterintelligence agency has been questioned by the country’s military police, over allegedly illegal cooperation with Russian intelligence. From 2006 to 2012, General Piotr Pytel was head of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MCS), which is responsible for domestic security and for ensuring the war-readiness of Poland’s armed forces. According to government prosecutors, General Pytel struck an illegal agreement with the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, in 2010. The alleged agreement concerned the return to Poland of troops who had been sent to serve in Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Several hundred Polish troops participated in ISAF, a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Security Council in 2001.

General Pytel’s critics claim that he reached out to the FSB without authorization, and struck an agreement allowing for the passage of Polish troops through Russian soil on their way back to Poland from Central Asia. Some in the Polish government claim that the passage of Polish troops through Russia allowed the Russian spy services to collect intelligence on the Polish armed forces and thus weakened the Polish military vis-à-vis Russia. Polish authorities also accuse Genera Pytel’s predecessor at the helm of the MCS, General Janusz Nosek, of striking similar agreements with Moscow. These agreements were not authorized by NATO or the Polish high command and thus exceeded the prerogative of the MCS directors, according to prosecutors. The same prosecutors also questioned Donald Tusk, the current President of the European Council, who was Prime Minister of Poland in 2010. Mr. Tusk is also suspected of colluding with the Russian FSB, according to some reports.

But Mr. Tusk, and Generals Pytel and Nosek, deny that they engaged in illegal dealings with Russia and accuse the Polish prosecutor’s office of engaging in a political witch-hunt. All three of the accused belong to the Civil Platform, a liberal political party that is now in opposition but was the ruling party in the country from 2007 to 2015. Members of the Civil Platform have accused the Minister of Defense, Antoni Macierewicz, a member of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), of politically persecuting his opponents. In statements made on social media on Wednesday, Mr. Tusk said he was proud to have worked with the two MCS former directors, whom he described “shining example[s] of responsibility, patriotism and honor”. He also called for Minister of Defense Macierewicz to resign.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 6 December 2017 | Permalink

Turkey issues warrant for ex-CIA officer over alleged role in 2016 coup

Recep Tayyip ErdoğanThe Turkish government has issued a warrant for the arrest of a former officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which Ankara claims was instrumental in the failed July 2016 attempt to topple the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The move comes amidst heightened tensions in relations between Ankara and Washington. The two NATO allies have partially revoked entry visas for each other’s citizens, while it is alleged that Michael Flynn, US President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, had an illegal agreement with Turkey to help abduct a Turkish dissident cleric living in Pennsylvania and help transport him to Turkey.

The warrant was issued on December 1 by the Office of the Chief Public Prosecutor in Istanbul. It seeks the arrest of Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old former analyst in the CIA, who lives in Canada. The warrant identifies Fuller as a “former CIA official” and claims that he attempted to “overthrow the government of the Republic of Turkey” and obstruct “the missions” of the Turkish government. The reference here is to the July 2016 coup, which the Turkish government claims was carried out by the so-called Gülen movement. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims that its members have stealthily infiltrated Turkish state institutions since the 1980s. Ever since the failed coup, Ankara has engaged in a controversial campaign to remove so-called Gülenists from prominent posts in government and the private sector. More than 50,000 people have been arrested on terrorism charges and are awaiting trial. Another 150,000 public and private sector employees have been summarily fired from their job.

Many in Turkey accuse the CIA of having colluded with Gülenists to topple Erdoğan’s pro-Islamist government. Fuller is accused of having strong links with Gülen and of having been instrumental in helping the exiled cleric receive permanent residency in the US. Some Turkish media claim that Fuller acted as a “CIA handler” of Gülen, who is accused of being a CIA agent. Fuller’s CIA career involved a tour in Turkey in the 1960s. He concluded his career as a member of the US National Intelligence Council, a body that helps coordinate the US Intelligence Community’s broad and long-term strategic planning. In 1988, Fuller joined the RAND Corporation, a research think-tank with close links to the US Department of Defense. After 2006, he taught history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, where he lives today.

Fuller emailed a statement to major news agencies on Friday, rejecting the Turkish government’s allegations and saying that Ankara was using him as “a choice target”. The former CIA officer said he had not been to Turkey in over five years, and that he had only met Gülen once in 2002 in Istanbul. At that time, said Fuller in his statement, he had been out of the CIA for 15 years. Further on in his statement, Fuller said that he understood why some Turks accused the CIA of having planned the 2016 coup, given the agency’s history of meddling in domestic Turkish politics. However, he said he had nothing to do with the coup attempt, which he described as “pathetic, ill-conceived and amateurish”. The CIA has not commented on Ankara’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 December 2017 | Permalink

Trump administration allegedly considering plan to privatize CIA operations

Trump CIAThe United States Central Intelligence Agency and the White House are considering several proposals to hire private companies to carry out covert operations abroad, according to a report. BuzzFeed News said on Thursday that the proposals were communicated to the White House in the summer. The news site, which described the proposed plans as “highly unusual”, quoted “three sources who have been briefed on or have direct knowledge of the proposals”. The sources told BuzzFeed that, if approved, the plans would include the establishment of large intelligence networks in so-called “denied areas” —namely foreign environments deemed hostile. The networks would recruit and handle local agents, carry out psychological operations, capture terrorism suspects and rendition them to the US or third countries. “Islamic extremism” is mentioned as the primary target of the proposals.

According to BuzzFeed, one of the proposals involves Amyntor Group, a private company headquartered in the remote town of Whitefish, in northwestern Montana. The company is staffed by former members of the US Intelligence Community who have security clearances. It specializes in intelligence training and risk assessment. But it also collects and analyzes intelligence and provides counterintelligence services for government agencies in America and what it calls “friendly foreign governments” abroad. The company has reportedly been holding discussions with senior officials in the administration of President Donald Trump in recent weeks, according to two of BuzzFeed’s sources. The same sources say that the move toward privatization of some intelligence operations is being led by a feeling in the Trump administration that the CIA has a negative view of the White House. They claim that the CIA is not prepared to go along with the Trump administration’s efforts to make the agency’s operations more aggressive and, in the words of its new director, Mike Pompeo, “much more vicious”. They therefore see privatization as a way to bypass the resistance and skepticism of the CIA’s upper management.

BuzzFeed said it contacted the CIA about the Amyntor Group proposal, but the agency preferred not to comment. A press officer for the National Security Council, which is chaired by President Trump, said that its members were not aware of the privatization proposals. Amyntor Group commented through one of its lawyers, who told BuzzFeed that any contract signed between the company and the US government would be directed and controlled “by the proper government authority”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 December 2017 | Permalink

Senior Chinese Army general accused of corruption found dead

Zhang YangA senior Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military official, who was seen as a close ally of President Xi Jinping, has allegedly committed suicide, according to Chinese state media. Zhang Yang was one of the most high-profile generals in the Chinese PLA. His rise to power after Xi became president of China was meteoric. He was appointed member of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China, which exercises political supervision of the Chinese armed forces. In addition to his role in the CMC, Zhang directed the General Political Department of the PLA’s Ground Force, which made him the top political commissar in the army.

However, in August of this year Zhang suddenly stopped making public appearances. An article soon appeared in Sing Tao, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, alleging that the general had been questioned by anti-corruption investigators as part of President Xi’s nationwide campaign against sleaze. At around the same time, Hong Kong media said that President Xi would soon announce sweeping changes in the makeup of the CMC. It was also announced that General Zhang would step down from his director’s role in the army’s General Political Department. But media in Beijing reported nothing about Zhang, and there was speculation that he may have been imprisoned or even executed. The rumors intensified after September 1, when a front-page article in Sing Tao claimed that he had been dishonorably discharged from the PLA and imprisoned on charges of “serious violations of [Chinese Communist] Party discipline”.

Media in Beijing remained silent until Tuesday of this week, when a report issued by Xinhua News Agency, China’s government-run news agency, said that the former general had been found dead in his home in Beijing. According to the report, Zhang was found dead by a relative on Thursday, November 23. The brief report also mentioned that Zhang had been questioned by authorities in recent months in connection with “bribery and large-scale property crimes”. The Chinese Communist Party has not commented on Zhang’s death.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 November 2017 | Permalink