Ex-spy chief claims Palestinian officials worked with CIA to wiretap opponents

Telephones PalestineThe former head of the Palestinian Authority’s spy agency claims that the Palestinian government in the West Bank worked with the United States Central Intelligence Agency to wiretap thousands without court authorization. Tawfiq Tirawi, who headed the Palestinian General Intelligence from its founding in 1994 to 2008, has filed an official complaint against the Palestinian Authority and is calling for a criminal investigation into the alleged wiretaps. The complaint has also been signed by Jawad Obeidat, who is the president of the West Bank’s Bar Association. It is based on a leaked 37-page document that surfaced last month on the social networking application WhatsApp. The document was leaked by an anonymous individual who claims to have worked for a surveillance unit in the Palestinian Preventive Security Service, the Palestinian Authority’s domestic security service.

The leaked document appears to show that the Palestinian Preventive Security Service reached out to the CIA in 2013 asking for assistance with installing a communications surveillance system in the West Bank. The CIA agreed to provide the system in exchange for access to the intercepted data. The two agencies installed the interception system in the summer of 2014 and initiated what appears to have been a large-scale operation that included thousands of telephone subscribers. Initial targets of the operation included members of Hamas —the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip— as well as members of the Iran-supported Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. But, according to the Associated Press, over time the targets of the program expanded to include “thousands of Palestinians, from senior figures in militant groups to judges, lawyers, civic leaders and political allies of Abbas”. The list of targets included Tirawi and Obeidat, who filed the official complaint on Tuesday.

The anonymous leaker of the document said he decided to quit his job and reveal the information about the intercepts after US President Donald Trump shifted Washington’s policy on Israel’s capital, by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. Earlier in February, the Palestinian Authority dismissed the leaked document as “nonsense” and said it was part of a large conspiracy that sought to harm Palestinian interests. The CIA refused to comment on the allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 February 2018 | Permalink

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Swiss trying to change image as Europe’s spy hub, say officials

Federal Intelligence Service SwitzerlandOfficials in Switzerland say new laws enacted in recent months will help them change their country’s image as one of Europe’s most active spy venues. For decades, the small alpine country has been a destination of choice for intelligence officers from all over the world, who use it as a place to meet assets from third countries. For example, a case officer from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) will travel to Switzerland to meet her Algerian agent. She will exchange money and documents with him before she returns to Britain and he to Algeria, presumably after depositing his earnings into a Swiss bank account.

There are multiple reasons that explain Switzerland’s preferred status as a meeting place for spies and their handlers. The country is suitably located in the center of Europe and is a member of the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, which means that a passport is not required to enter it when arriving there from European Union member-states. Additionally, the country features an efficient transportation and telecommunication infrastructure, and its stable political system offers predictability and security, despite the limited size and strength of its law enforcement and security agencies. Perhaps most important of all, the Swiss have learned not to ask questions of visitors, many of whom flock to the country to entrust their cash to its privacy-conscious banking sector.

But, according to the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS), foreign spies and their handlers should find another venue to meet in secret. Speaking to the Sunday edition of Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper, FIS spokeswoman Isabelle Graber said she and her colleagues were aware that their country is a venue for meetings between intelligence operatives from third countries. Such meetings have “continued to rise in the last few years” and include “everyone from security agency employees to freelancers”, as “the market in trading secrets has exploded”, she said. That trend, added Graber, has led to a corresponding rise in meetings aimed at exchanging information for money. Many such meetings take place throughout Switzerland, she noted, and are “in violation of Swiss sovereignty and can lead to operations against the interests of the nation”.

In the past, said Graber, FIS was unable to prevent such activities on Swiss soil, due to pro-privacy legislation, which meant that the agency’s ability to combat foreign espionage in Switzerland was “far more limited than in other countries”. However, said the intelligence agency spokeswoman, the law recently changed to permit FIS to break into homes and hotels, hack into computers, wiretap phones, and implement surveillance on individuals believed to be spies or intelligence officers of foreign countries. Armed with the new legislation, the FIS is now “working hard to clear up third-country meetings [and] to prevent these from happening or at least disrupt them”, said Graber. Several times this year alone, FIS had forward information about “third-country meetings” to judicial authorities in Switzerland, she said.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 February 2018 | Permalink

North Korea used Berlin embassy to acquire nuclear tech, says German spy chief

North Korean embassy in BerlinNorth Korea used its embassy in Berlin to acquire technologies that were almost certainly used to advance its missile and nuclear weapons programs, according to the head of Germany’s counterintelligence agency. For many decades, Pyongyang has used a sophisticated international system of procurement to acquire technologies and material for its conventional and nuclear weapons programs. These secret methods have enabled the country to evade sanctions placed on it by the international community, which wants to foil North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

But according to Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), at least some of the technologies used by North Korea to advance its nuclear program were acquired through its embassy in Berlin. Maassen admitted this during an interview on ARD television, part of Germany’s national broadcasting service. The interview will be aired on Monday evening, but selected excerpts were published on Saturday on the website of NDR, Germany’s national radio broadcaster. Maassen was vague about the nature of the technology that the North Koreans acquired through their embassy in Berlin. But he said that North Korean diplomats and intelligence officers with diplomatic credentials engaged in acquiring so-called “dual use” technologies, which have both civilian and military uses. These, said Maassen, were acquired “with a view to [North Korea’s] missile program and sometimes also for the nuclear program”.

Maassen noted that the BfV had evidence of North Korean diplomats in Berlin attempting to procure dual use technologies as late as 2016 and 2017. “When we notice such actions, we prevent them”, said the BfV director, adding that in 2014 his agency prevented a North Korean diplomat from acquiring equipment that could have been used to develop chemical weapons. However, “we simply cannot guarantee that we are able to detect and block each and every attempt”, said Maassen.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 February 2018 | Permalink

Espionage threat is greater now than in Cold War, Australian agency warns

ASIO AustraliaForeign intelligence collection and espionage threats against Australia are greater today than at any time during the Cold War, according to a senior Australian intelligence official. The claim was made on Wednesday by Peter Vickery, deputy director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s primary counterintelligence agency. He was speaking before a parliamentary committee that is considering aspects of a proposed bill, which aims to combat foreign influence on Australian political and economic life. If enacted, the bill would require anyone who is professionally advocating or campaigning in favor of “foreign entities” to register with the government. Several opposition parties and groups, including the Catholic Church, have expressed concern, saying that the bill is too broad and could curtail the political and religious freedoms of Australians.

But ASIO has come out strongly in favor of the proposed bill. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Vickery warned that Australia is today facing more threats from espionage than during the Cold War. “Whilst [the Cold War] was obviously a very busy time” for ASIO, said Vickery, his agency’s assessment is that Cold War espionage was “not on the scale we are experiencing today” in Australia. During the Cold War, ASIO was cognizant and aware of the major adversaries, he added. But today, the espionage landscape features “a raft of unknown players”, many of whom operate on behalf of non-state actors, said Vickery. The phenomenon of globalization further-complicates counterintelligence efforts, he added, because foreign espionage can be conducted from afar with little effort. Vickery noted that espionage and foreign influence in Australia “is not something that we think might happen, or possibly could happen. It is happening now against Australian interests in Australia and Australian interests abroad”. He also warned that the public knows little about the extent of espionage and foreign-influence operations taking place “at a local, state and federal level” throughout the country.

Earlier this week, the Catholic Church of Australia came out in opposition to the proposed legislation, which it sees as too broad. The religious denomination, which represents approximately 20 percent of the country’s population, said that the bill was too broad and could force Australian Catholics to register as agents of a foreign power. Technically, the Catholic Church is headquartered at the Vatican, which would make the organization a foreign entity under the proposed bill, the Church said in a statement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2018 | Permalink

Taliban pose open threat to 70% of Afghanistan, BBC study finds

TalibanThe Taliban have an open and constant presence in 70 percent of Afghanistan, according to an extensive study undertaken by the BBC, which was conducted over several months in every corner of the country. The report comes nearly 17 years after a military coalition led by the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then, Western forces, most of them members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have spent countless lives and billions of dollars in an effort to defeat the Pashtun-led insurgency of the Taliban. American forces in the country, which at the end of 2009 numbered close to 100,000 troops, were reduced to a force of fewer than 8,000 by 2014, when US President Barack Obama declared the war over.

But the BBC study has found that the Taliban have grown in strength since the US military withdrawal, and are now more powerful than at any time in the past decade. The BBC said that it carried out the study between August and November of 2017, with the help of a large network of reporters who spoke to more than 1,200 local sources. Thousands of interviews were conducted either in person or by telephone with Afghans across the country, and every report of a Taliban-related violent incident was cross-referenced with as many as six other sources, said the BBC. The interviews covered every one of Afghanistan’s 399 districts, using a representative sample from both urban and rural areas.

The findings were described by one expert, Kate Clark, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, as “shocking”. They show that more than half of Afghanistan’s population resides in areas that are either mostly controlled by the Taliban, or where Taliban forces are openly and regularly active. The group is now in complete control of 14 Afghan districts, which represent 4 percent of the country’s territory. But they maintain an open armed presence in another 263 districts, which represent a further 66 percent of Afghan territory. No open Taliban presence was reported in 122 districts (30 percent of Afghanistan), but the BBC cautioned that many attacks by the Taliban are not reported by the locals. The statistics published in the study show that the Taliban have managed to establish strongholds far beyond their traditional strongholds of southeastern Afghanistan. They are now openly active in much of central, western, and even northern Afghanistan, where their power had been limited in the past.

The BBC reported that the Afghan government dismissed the findings of the study, arguing that its forces are in control of most areas in the country. The US government has not commented on the BBC study. US President Donald Trump said last week that his representatives would not hold talks with the Taliban, and announced that 1,000 more American troops would be sent to the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2018 | Permalink

China hacked African Union computer servers for five years, report claims

African UnionChinese spies hacked the computer servers of the African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, which the Chinese government funded and built as a gift to the organization, a French newspaper has claimed. Beijing donated $200 million toward the project and hired the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation to build the tower, which was completed in 2012. Since then, the impressive 330 feet, 19-storey skyscraper, with its reflective glass and brown stone exterior, has become the most recognizable feature of Addis Ababa’s skyline. The majority of the building material used to construct the tower was brought to Ethiopia from China. Beijing even paid for the cost of the furniture used in the impressive-looking building.

However, according to the Paris-based Le Monde Afrique newspaper, African Union technical staff found that the computer servers housed in the organization’s headquarters were secretly communicating with a server facility in Shanghai, China. The secret communications reportedly took place at the same time every night, namely between midnight and 2 in the morning. According to Le Monde Afrique, the African Union servers forwarded data to the servers in Shanghai from 2012, when the building opened its doors, until early 2017.

Interestingly, even though the organization was allegedly notified about the breach by its technical staff in January of 2017, there has been no public reaction on record. However, according to Le Monde Afrique, African Union officials took immediate steps to terminate the breach. These included replacing the Chinese-made servers with new servers purchased with African Union funds, without Beijing’s mediation. Additionally, new encryption was installed on the servers, and a service contract with Ethio Telecom, Ethiopia’s state-owned telecommu- nications service provider, which uses Chinese hardware, has been terminated.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the French newspaper’s allegations as “baseless” and “complete nonsense”. A statement issued by the ministry said that Beijing would “in no way interfere with the internal policies of African countries or do anything that would hurt their interests”.

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

Dutch spies identified Russian hackers who meddled in 2016 US election

Cozy BearDutch spies identified a notorious Russian hacker group that compromised computer servers belonging to the Democratic Party of the United States and notified American authorities of the attack, according to reports. In 2016, US intelligence agencies determined that a Russian hacker group known as Cozy Bear, or APT29, led a concerted effort to interfere in the US presidential election. The effort, which according to US intelligence agencies was sponsored by the Russian government, involved cyber-attacks against computer systems in the White House and the Department of State, among other targets. It also involved the theft of thousands of emails from computer servers belonging to the Democratic National Committee, which is the governing body of the Democratic Party. The stolen emails were eventually leaked to WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and other online outlets. Prior descriptions of the Russian hacking in the media have hinted that US intelligence agencies were notified of the Russian cyber-attacks by foreign spy agencies. But there was no mention of where the initial clues came from.

Last Thursday, the Dutch current affairs program Nieuwsuur, which airs daily on Holland’s NPO 2 television, said that the initial tipoff originated from the AIVD, Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service. On the same day, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published a detailed account of what it described as AIVD’s successful penetration of Cozy Bear. According to these reports, AIVD was able to penetrate Cozy Bear in mid-2014, before the hacker group intensified its campaign against political targets in the US. Citing “six American and Dutch sources who are familiar with the material, but wish to remain anonymous”, De Volkskrant said that the AIVD was able to detect the physical base of the Cozy Bear hackers. The latter appeared to be working out of an academic facility that was adjacent to Moscow’s Red Square. The AIVD team was then able to remotely take control of security camera networks located around the facility. Eventually, the Dutch team hacked into another security camera network located inside the buildings in which the hackers worked. They soon began to collect pictures and footage of Cozy Bear members, which they then compared with photos of “known Russian spies”, according to De Volkskrant.

The paper said that the AIVD team continued to monitor Cozy Bear’s activities until at least 2017, while sharing intelligence with the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency in the US. The intelligence was allegedly instrumental in alerting US spy agencies about Russian government-sponsored efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Several newspapers, including The Washington Post in the US and The Independent in Britain, contacted the AIVD and the MIVD —Holland’s military intelligence agency— over the weekend. But the two agencies said they would not comment on reports concerning Cozy Bear.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 January 2018 | Research credit: E.J. & E.K. | Permalink