US files espionage charges against military contractors with Turkish ties

PentagonIn a development that is expected to contribute to the downward spiral in Turkish-American relations, the United States government has reportedly filed espionage charges against three Department of Defense contractors with Turkish background. The three are believed to have been charged with transferring US military secrets abroad and are currently in prison.

A statement published by the US Pentagon said that the group consists of two men and a woman, all of whom are of Turkish background. Two of them are naturalized American citizens. They are listed as owners of a company that conducts research in military technology and has contracted for many years with the US Pentagon. All contracts were allegedly won following competitive bids and can only be awarded to bidders who are in possession of US citizenship and top security clearances. According to Turkey’s pro-government English-language newspaper, Daily Sabah, the three contractors have helped develop and manufacture parts for missile-launching systems used on American warplanes. They have also worked on several generations of grenade launchers used by the US military.

But on Sunday, the three contractors were arrested in simultaneous raids and charged with “funneling military secrets out of the country”, according to Sabah. The paper said the US government decided to arrest the three once it became known that some hardware parts related to the Pentagon bids handled by their company were being illegally manufactured in Turkey. There is no information in the Pentagon’s press release on whether the top-secret military components were also shared with the Turkish government. Relations between Washington and Ankara, two North Atlantic Treaty Organization member-states, have suffered since the failed July 15 military coup in Turkey. Many in the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blame Washington for the coup and for allegedly shielding the man behind it, the Islamic cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US state of Pennsylvania.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 October 2016 | Permalink

Danish court halts sales of book written by former spy boss (updated)

Jakob Scharf's "Ten Years With the PET"

Jakob Scharf’s “Ten Years With the PET”

A court in Denmark has issued an injunction that prevents retail outlets from selling a book written by the former director of the country’s domestic intelligence agency. Titled Seven Years with the PET, the book is based on a series of interviews with Jakob Scharf, who directed Denmark’s Police Intelligence Service (PET) from 2007 to 2013. The book was scheduled for general release in bookstores across the country on October 17 by its publisher, People’s Press. By the end of the first week of October, the Copenhagen-based publisher had already supplied 5,000 copies of the book to 40 bookstores across Denmark, and several copies had already found their way into the hands of readers.

But last Friday night, the PET filed a request for an injunction to be placed on retail sales of the book, arguing that its pages might contain information pertaining to state secrets. The injunction was granted by a court in Copenhagen overnight, and communicated in the early hours of Saturday morning to the publisher, two online retailers and over 40 bookstores. The PET is listed as the requester of the injunction, and a rarely used ‘state secrets’ clause is given as justification for the urgent measure. On Saturday, the current director of the PET, Finn Borch Andersen, spoke to Denmark’s TV2 channel about the injunction. He told the television station that his agency filed the injunction after commercials appeared on television, advertising the book as “an exposure of PET operations”. He added that PET personnel “are currently reading” the book and that the agency will ask for the injunction to be lifted if no sensitive information is found.

But on Monday, Danish newspaper Politiken said it would defy the court injunction and publish excerpts of Scharf’s book. Speaking on the same day, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Christian Jensen, dismissed the ban, which he said “directly attacks the fundamental liberties on which our open society and free press depends”. Politiken had been scheduled to serialize Scharf’s book and was among the recipients of the court injunction.

The PET made headlines in 2012, after it was revealed that one of its double agents, Morten Storm, successfully infiltrated al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The revelation caused controversy in Denmark because of Storm’s admission that he broke domestic and international law in the course of his activities, and led to a pledge by the country’s justice minister to impose more governmental control over the PET. Scharf, who led the agency from 2007 to 2013, was head of the organization after Denmark became targeted by Islamist extremists, following the publication in 2005 of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The latter is considered sacrilegious by literalist Muslims, including organizations that espouse militant versions of Islam.

Update Oct. 11, 2016, 12:35 GMT: It appears that Politiken proceeded to publish nearly the entire book on Sunday and Monday. The PET has just announced that it will withdraw its injunction request against the publication of the book, because it cannot be practically enforced at this point.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 October 2016 | Permalink

Arrested contractor may have worked for NSA’s elite cyber spy unit

NSAA United States federal contractor, who remains in detention following his arrest last summer for stealing classified documents, may have worked for an elite cyber espionage unit of the National Security Agency. The man was identified by The New York Times last week as Harold Thomas Martin III, a 51-year-old employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest federal contractors in the US. The paper said that, prior to joining Booz Allen Hamilton, Martin served as a US Navy officer for over a decade, where he specialized in cyber security and acquired a top secret clearance. But last August, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Martin’s house in Maryland and arrested him on charges of stealing government property and illegally removing classified material.

Media reports suggest that the FBI discovered significant quantities of classified information, some of it dating back to 2006, on a variety of electronic devices that Martin had stored —though apparently not hidden— in his house and car. Another interesting aspect of the case is that there is no proof at this point that Martin actually shared the classified information with a third party. There is some speculation that he may be behind a disclosure of a collection of NSA hacking tools, which were leaked in August of this year by a previously unknown group calling itself “the Shadow Brokers”. But some speculate that Martin may have taken the classified material home so he could write his dissertation for the PhD he is currently undertaking at the University of Maryland’s Information Systems program.

A few days ago, The Daily Beast quoted an unnamed former colleague of Martin who said that the NSA contractor was a member of one of the agency’s elite cyber spy units. The existence of the secretive unit, which is known as the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, was revealed in June 2013 by veteran NSA watcher Matthew M. Aid. Writing in Foreign Policy, Aid cited “a number of highly confidential sources” in alleging that the NSA maintained a substantial “hacker army” tasked with conducting offensive cyber espionage against foreign targets. More information on NSA’s TAO was provided in January 2014 by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. If The Daily Beast’s allegations about Martin are accurate, they would explain why anonymous government sources told The Washington Post last week that some of the documents Martin took home “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States”. The case also highlights the constant tension between security and the privatization of intelligence, which was also a major parameter in the case of Edward Snowden, another Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who defected to Russia in 2013.

Meanwhile, Martin remains in detention. If he is convicted, he will face up to 11 years behind bars.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 October 2016 | Permalink

Comment: Far-right militancy just as dangerous as Islamist extremism

Dylann RoofMany in the United States associate terrorism with contemporary versions of militant Islam. The data, however, tells a different story: since 2002, domestic extremists who hold far-right ideologies have struck more often and have killed more people than Islamic-inspired radicals. This blog has argued in the past that American counterterrorism policy creates a security vacuum by over-concentrating on Islamic-inspired radicals and largely ignoring domestic terrorist groups. In an insightful article published earlier this year in Newsweek magazine, Kurt Eichenwald, a 20-year veteran of investigative reporting and author of The Informant, argues that far-right radicalism is a bigger threat to American security than Islamic militancy, including the Islamic State.

Eichenwald cites a report by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, which was based on surveys from 382 law enforcement groups across the US. The report, published in June of last year, argues that American “law enforcement agencies […] consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence” they face. He also points to increasing incidents of surveillance of Muslim schools, religious and community centers in nearly a dozen states by members of far-right militia groups for what informants describe as “operational purposes”.

American counterterrorism specialists understand that the term “far-right militancy” encompasses thousands of groups of various sizes and capabilities, which are both wildly diverse and constantly evolving, says Eichenwald. Most experts separate the members of these groups into three distinct categories, namely violent racists, anti-federalist (or anti-government) radicals, and religious fundamentalists. These factions, which include dozens of sub-factions, do not usually work together and even have adversarial relations with each other. Violent racists operate as members of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in mostly rural and semi-urban settings. In urban environments, neo-Nazi and skinhead groups are more prevalent than the KKK. Anti-government radicals join armed militias that espouse various ideologies representing the so-called “sovereign citizens” worldview —namely the belief that federal, state or local laws are tyrannical and do not apply to them. The final category, religious fundamentalists, are members of various Christian identity groups that prioritize the Bible over the US Constitution and support the violent imposition of Christian religious codes on social life.

The list of these groups is growing, says Eichenwald, largely in reaction to economic pressures caused by the deep recession of 2007. The ascendency of Barack Obama to the US presidency has also radicalized the racist-oriented far right, he says, which overlaps to some extent with the militia movement. In 2008 there were 42 organized militia groups operating in the US. Today there are 276, he says, referring to information provided by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. There is no doubt that Islamic fundamentalism poses clear dangers to US security. But, as Eichenwald argues, this country has been extremely lucky to have avoided a repeat of the 1995 attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, which was carried out by a white supremacist guided by militant anti-government ideas. A repeat of such a massacre in recent years has not been due to lack of trying, says Eichenwald, and ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 October 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Is Putin planning to restore the Soviet-era KGB?

SVR hqLast week, following the results of Russia’s parliamentary election, Russian media run a story suggesting that the Kremlin is planning to implement far-reaching changes to the country’s intelligence apparatus. According to the Moscow-based daily Kommersant, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is considering merging Russia’s two major intelligence and counterterrorism agencies into one. Specifically, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, will merge with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, according to Kommersant. The merger will create a new amalgamated intelligence agency that will be named “Ministry of State Security”, or MGB, in Russian. The last time this title was used was from 1946 to 1953, during the last years of the reign of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was one of several agencies that were eventually combined to form the Soviet KGB in 1954.

If the Kommersant article is accurate, Russia’s two main intelligence agencies will merge after an institutional separation that has lasted a quarter of a century. They were separated shortly after the official end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, when it was recognized that the KGB was not under the complete control of the state. That became plainly obvious in August of that year, when the spy agency’s Director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped lead a military coup aimed at deposing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The two new agencies were given separate mandates: the SVR inherited the mission of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates and focused on collecting intelligence abroad; the FSB, on the other hand, assumed the KGB’s counterintelligence and counterterrorist missions. A host of smaller agencies, including the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and others, took on tasks such as communications interception, border control, political protection, etc.

Could these agencies merge again after 25 years of separation? Possibly, but it will take time. An entire generation of Russian intelligence officers has matured under separate institutional roofs in the post-Soviet era. Distinct bureaucratic systems and structures have developed and much duplication has ensued during that time. If a merger was to occur, entire directorates and units would have to be restructured or even eliminated. Leadership roles would have to be purged or redefined with considerable delicacy, so as to avoid inflaming bureaucratic turf battles. Russian bureaucracies are not known for their organizational skills, and it would be interesting to see how they deal with the inevitable confusion of a possible merger. It could be argued that, if Putin’s goal is to augment the power of the intelligence services —which is doubtful, given their long history of challenging the power of the Kremlin— he would be better off leaving them as they are today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2016 | Permalink

Germany’s most famous spy on trial for tax evasion, claims money is not his

Werner MaussThe most famous intelligence operative in Germany went on trial last week after his name was linked to dozens of offshore bank accounts and shell companies. But he claims he used these accounts to rescue hostages as part of his undercover work. Werner Mauss became known in 1997, when he was arrested in Colombia while using a forged passport. He had traveled to the Latin American country to secure the release of a German woman who had been kidnapped by leftist guerrillas. The Colombian authorities eventually released him, following heavy diplomatic pressure from the German government. But the German media began investigating his background, and it soon became known that he was working for the Federal Intelligence Service, specializing in negotiating the release of hostages.

Now, in his mid-70s, Mauss enjoys celebrity status in Germany. He claims on his personal website that he was directly involved in neutralizing over 100 criminal gangs and that his work led to the capture of 2,000 criminals and spies. He also claims to have helped prevent dangerous chemical substances from falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

Last Monday, however, Mauss appeared in court in the North Rhine-Westphalian city of Bochum, accused of placing millions of euros in undeclared offshore accounts. The German state prosecutor accuses the spy of having dozens of accounts in his name in offshore tax havens such as the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Panama. Government investigators say Mauss hid nearly €15 million (approximately $23 million) in secret accounts between 2002 and 2013. It appears that at least some of the accounts had been opened under aliases that Mauss used during his spy operations.

According to reports in the German media, Mauss first appeared on the government’s radar several years ago, when investigators in North Rhine-Westphalia purchased a CD from a whistleblower who worked in Luxembourg’s UBS bank. Earlier this year, Mauss’ name appeared again, this time in the so-called Panama papers, the massive data leak of documents belonging to Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that specialized in offshore wealth management.

According to his lawyers, Mauss did nothing wrong, and claims that he used the shell companies and offshore bank accounts to channel funds to kidnappers in order to secure the release of hostages. Mauss’ legal team also claims that the 76-year-old former spy cannot properly defend himself because he is prevented from speaking freely by the clandestine nature of his work for the government. It is believed that the trial will continue until the end of this year.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 3 October 2016 | Permalink

FBI seeking former Syrian intelligence officer reportedly hiding in Florida

Moustafa Abed AyoubA Syrian former intelligence officer, who was given American citizenship several years ago, is being sought by authorities in the United States. The man was named by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week as Moustafa Abed Ayoub, a 75-year-old resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A statement by the FBI said the wanted man is believed to be hiding in southern Florida, possibly in the Miami area. A reward is now offered for information leading directly to Ayoub, according to the FBI press release. The release did not specify whether the former intelligence officer is wanted in connection with the ongoing civil war in Syria.

The FBI press release described Ayoub as a former brigadier general in Syria’s powerful Mukhabarat, the Military Intelligence Directorate, which operates under the auspices of the country’s Ministry of Defense. He is reported to have served in the Mukhabarat for nearly 20 years, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. According to the FBI release, Ayoub served initially in Hama and Homs before he was transferred to Damascus. It appears that Ayoub is accused by the FBI of procuring American citizenship unlawfully, after giving deliberately false testimony during his naturalization proceedings. To be eligible for American citizenship, an applicant must have lived in the US for at least 30 months during the period leading to his or her naturalization application. Ayoub is accused of not telling immigration authorities that he had spent over 1,000 days outside the US in the months leading to his application for citizenship.

The FBI said it issued a warrant for Ayoub’s arrest in Florida, where he is believed to be hiding. However, the FBI release noted that Ayoub may have returned to Syria, or may be currently residing in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Author: Ian Allen| Date: 30 September 2016 | Permalink