Airbus fires employees for accessing classified German military documents

AirbusThe European multinational aerospace corporation Airbus has fired 16 of its employees for illegally possessing classified documents belonging to the German military. The Netherlands-registered aviation company, one of the world’s largest, has been cooperating with an investigation into the incident. The probe has been led by German authorities since September of 2018.

The incident, which German authorities have termed as industrial espionage, concerns two Airbus cybersecurity projects for weapons systems used by the German military. The projects are led by Airbus scientists at the company’s Communications, Intelligence and Security (CIS) program line, which is based in the German city of Munich. In September of last year, German media reported that a number of Airbus employees at the CIS facility had been found to possess classified files belonging to the German military, which they should not have been able to access.

An Airbus official said at the time that the classified documents related “to two future German [military] procurement projects”, and that the company had “self-reported […] potential wrongdoings by several employees […] to German authorities”. The official added that “[s]ome of our employees had documents that they shouldn’t have had”. It later emerged that the documents related to plans by the German Armed Forces to acquire a communication system from one of Airbus’ rival companies.

Following the September 2018 announcement, Airbus said that it had suspended 20 of its employees while it conducted an “ongoing internal review with the support of an external law firm”. At the same time it said that it was “fully cooperating with relevant authorities [in Germany] to resolve the matter”. It was also reported at the time that the German military had taken disciplinary action against one of its employees, but no further information was disclosed.

It has now emerged that Airbus has fired 16 of its CIS employees who were suspended last year. The news was first announced on Sunday by Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA), Germany’s largest news agency. Airbus subsequently confirmed the DPA’s report, but provided no further details about the case. It is not currently known whether the case has been closed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2019 | Permalink

Extradition fight over Russian man held in Greece may point to spies’ use of bitcoin

Aleksandr VinnikAn intense fight between the United States and Russia over the extradition of a Russian cryptocurrency tycoon being held in Greece, is raising questions about the possible use of cryptocurrencies by spies. The tycoon in question is Aleksandr Vinnik, 39, who in 2011 co-founded BTC-e, an international cryptocurrency-trading platform. BTC-e allowed users to buy or sell several popular cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and litecoin, using Russian rubles, United States dollars, or European Union euro currencies. Although headquartered in Russia, BTC-e’s servers were located in Bulgaria, while its operations were conducted through its offshore components in Cyprus and the Seychelles.

By 2015, BTC-e was reportedly facilitating just over 3 percent of the worldwide daily volume of cryptocurrency trading. But, according to some sources, the company was also facilitating up to 70 percent of worldwide criminal activity involving cryptocurrencies. Washington alleges that the company was built on a model that relied heavily on the activities of criminal entities, as the latter sought the ability to conduct online monetary transactions without being tracked by governments.

In 2017, American authorities seized BTC-e’s website —a move that terminated the company’s operations. Washington also prompted authorities in Greece to arrest Vinnik, while he was vacationing at a Greek resort with his family. The Russian co-founder of BTC-e is today in a Greek prison, awaiting a decision by the Greek authorities to extradite him to the United States. If this happens, he will be tried on 21 counts of international money laundering and a host of other criminal charges.

Interestingly, however, shortly after Vinnik’s arrest, the Russian government filed a court order to have Greece extradite him to Russia, where he is reportedly wanted for relatively minor fraud-related charges. What is more, the Greek government was directly lobbied by no other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin —an unusually high-level approach, when one considers Vinnik’s trivial charges in Russia. France has also sought to have Vinnik extradited there, instead of the United States.

What lies behind these moves? There are many who believe that American authorities moved against BTC-e after realizing that Russian spies used the company to hide their traces while trying to meddle with the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. A recent report by the State Department’s RFE/RL news website claims that a number of London-based observers from groups such as Global Witness and Elliptic Enterprises believe there are strong links between Russian spy agencies and BTC-e. American authorities have managed to access information about the inner workings of BTC-e’s website. They are probably viewing Vinnik as an intelligence asset, who can potentially shed light on the company’s alleged role as a money laundering mechanism for Russian spies —and probably others as well.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2019 | Permalink

As Australia launches probe, skeptics cast doubts on Chinese defector’s spy claims

Wang LiqiangAs the Australian government has launched an official investigation into the claims made by a self-styled Chinese intelligence defector, some skeptics have begun to cast doubts about his revelations. The claims of Wang “William” Liqiang have dominated news headlines in Australia for over a week. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Australian spy agency confirmed last week that Mr. Wang had provided a 17-page sworn statement, in which he detailed his work as an undercover intelligence officer for Chinese military intelligence. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they plan to carry out espionage operations on behalf of Bejing. Some media reports claimed that Mr. Wang had shared details about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia. The Australian government said on Tuesday that an official investigation had been launched into Mr. Wang’s claims.

But some skeptics in Australia and elsewhere have begun to raise doubts about the Chinese defector’s claims, suggesting that he has given little —if any information— that is genuinely new. Some argue that Mr. Wang is much too young to have been entrusted with senior-level responsibilities in the intelligence agency of a country that rarely promotes twenty-somethings in high-ranking positions. Additionally, Mr. Wang appears to have no military background —he claims to have been recruited while studying fine art— which is not typical of a Chinese military intelligence operative.

Furthermore, Mr. Wang episode interviewers from Australian television’s 60 Minutes program that he began feeling tormented by moral dilemmas when his staff officers supplied him with a fake passport bearing a different name, in preparation for an operation in Taiwan. However, by his own admission, Mr. Wang had been supplied with fake passports for previous operations, so it is not clear why he lost his nerve at the time he did. In fact, case officers usually covet the opportunity to go undercover and feel a sense of exhilaration when they receive fake identification documents for an undercover mission.

Is Mr. Wang not sharing the entire background to his decision to defect to Australia? Or could he be deliberately amplifying his role in Chinese intelligence, in an effort to appear useful to the Australian government and thus secure political protection by Canberra? In the words of Alex Joske, an analyst at the  International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the details in some of Mr. Wang’s claims mean that “government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Europol culls thousands of Islamic State online accounts in ‘day of action’

Telegram AppThe law enforcement agency of the European Union, in cooperation with the popular online messaging service Telegram, has culled thousands of Islamic State online accounts in what it described as “a day of action”. The operation was coordinated by the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, better known as Europol. The agency coordinated its activities with the popular instant-messaging service Telegram, which the Islamic State has used as its main platform of mass communication since 2014.

In a press release that appeared on its website on Friday, Europol said that it had managed to locate “a significant portion of key actors within the Islamic State network on Telegram” and “push [them] away from the platform”. The messaging app confirmed the joint “day of action” with Europol and said it took down over 5,000 “terrorist accounts and bots” from its network on November 22 and 23. The company said this was nearly 10 times higher than the usual number of user accounts taken down daily for violating its user agreement.

The BBC said that the removal of the accounts appeared to affect heavily the activities of the Nashir News Agency, an Islamic State propaganda outlet that uses the Telegram app to publicize press releases from the Islamic State. Dozens of online channels and community groups that were moderated by Nashir News Agency editors were also impacted, as their moderators had disappeared from the network. On Saturday, some Telegram users began posting information about replacement accounts for Nashir News Agency press releases, but these too were taken down within hours.

This was the second major “day of action” against online terrorist propaganda that Europol coordinated, with the first one being in April of last year. But critics argue that such efforts are unlikely to have a long-term impact on the ability of terrorist groups to spread online propaganda, unless they are constant and systematic. Meanwhile, Islamic State sympathizers criticized the Telegram service on other social media platforms and warned that moves to silence the group would result in its membership going deeper underground.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Chinese defector reveals identities of Chinese undercover spies in Asia and Australia

Wang LiqiangA Chinese intelligence defector has reportedly given the Australian government information about entire networks of Chinese undercover spies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, according to reports. The story of Wang “William” Liqiang, made headlines all over Australia during the weekend, culminating in an entire episode of 60 Minutes Australia about him airing on Sunday. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son, who live in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

Police in the Chinese city of Shanghai claim that Mr. Wang is a small-time criminal who has been found guilty of using fraudulent documents and has a 15-month suspended prison sentence on his record. In a statement issued on Sunday, China’s embassy in Canberra described Mr. Wang as a “convicted fraudster” who was “wanted by police after fleeing [China] on a fake passport”. But according to reports in the Australian media, Mr. Wang has provided the ASIO with a 17-page sworn statement, in which he details his work as an undercover intelligence officer. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they organize and implement espionage operations on behalf of Bejing.

In a leading article published on Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald referred to Mr. Wang as “the first Chinese operative to ever blow his cover” and claimed that he had given the ASIO “a trove of unprecedented inside intelligence” about Chinese espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The newspaper said that the defector had revealed details about entire networks of Chinese intelligence operatives in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He also reportedly provided identifying information about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, Australian media said yesterday that the ASIO was examining allegations that a Chinese espionage ring tried to recruit an Australian businessman of Chinese background and convince him to run for parliament. According to reports, the spy ring approached Nick Zhao, a successful luxury car dealer, and offered to fund his political campaign with nearly $700,000 (AUS$1 million) if he run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Australia. Zhao reportedly told the ASIO about the incident last year, shortly before he was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. His death remains under investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 2019 | Permalink

South Korea rejects US pressure to maintain intelligence agreement with Japan

South Korea JapanSouth Korea appears determined to reject calls from the United States to maintain an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, as relations between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington continue to experience tensions. The South Korean government has been issuing warnings since August that it will not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which is scheduled to lapse on Saturday. The agreement dates to 2016; it facilitates the sharing of intelligence between South Korea and Japan about North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

The agreement has fallen victim to an escalating tit-for-tat row between the two Asian countries, which is rooted in the use of forced Korean labor by Japan in World War II. South Korea is demanding financial compensation for the use of slave labor, including sex slaves, by Japanese occupation troops during Korea’s annexation by Japan from 1910 until 1945. In July, Tokyo responded to a mass boycott of Japanese goods by South Korean consumers by limiting the export of electronics to be used in South Korea’s ship-building industry. It also removed South Korea from the list of countries with the ability to fast-track their exports to Japan. South Korea responded last summer by threatening to effectively abandon GSOMIA.

Since that time, Washington has been pressuring Seoul to remain in the treaty. The United States is widely seen as the architect of GSOMIA, as it worked closely with Japan and South Korea for over 6 years to convince them to agree to exchange intelligence, despite their deep-rooted mutual animosity. The White House has traditionally viewed GSOMIA as a significant parameter in security cooperation between its allies in the Far East. Back in August, American officials warned that terminating GSOMIA would threaten its ability to monitor North Korean nuclear activity.

But Seoul is not willing to back down. On Thursday, the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kang Kyung-wha, said that unless there was “a change in Japan’s attitude, our position is we won’t reconsider”. Kang Gi-jung, Political Affairs Secretary to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, added that Seoul would “not wave a white flag”. Japan’s Minister of Defense, Taro Kono, urged South Korea to “make a sensible decision” and warned that Seoul, not Tokyo, would be the biggest victim of the termination of GSOMIA. Most observers expect that GSOMIA will simply expire come Saturday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 November 2019 | Permalink

Turkey arrests German embassy lawyer on espionage charges

Germany Embassy TurkeyTurkish authorities have charged a lawyer working for the German embassy in Ankara with espionage, further-straining the already tense relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which reported on the arrest, did not name the lawyer, but said he is a Turkish citizen and was arrested in September.

The newsmagazine said the lawyer had been hired by the German embassy to obtain information about Turkish citizens who had applied for political asylum in Germany. German authorities would regularly give the lawyer identifying information about asylum applicants. The lawyer would then verify with Turkish police that the applicants had a blank criminal record and were not wanted for participation in criminal activity. The German embassy would then forward the information collected by the lawyer to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (known in Germany as BAMF), which would subsequently approve or reject the asylum applications.

Following the lawyer’s arrest by the Turkish National Intelligence Service (MİT), German authorities are concerned that the Turkish government has seized identifying information on at least 50 Turkish applicants for political asylum in Germany. Some of these applicants are reportedly members of Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority. Others are alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen a United States-based former political ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Turkey accuses of having orchestrated the failed 2016 military coup against Erdoğan.

The German Foreign Office has described the lawyer’s arrest as “incomprehensible” and has reportedly warned those asylum seekers affected by it that their safety may be endangered. Meanwhile, German diplomats are engaged in high-level talks with the Turkish government to secure the lawyer’s release, according to Spiegel. The effort is being led by no other than Martin Erdmann, a veteran diplomat who is serving as Germany’s ambassador to Turkey.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 November 2019 | Permalink