France’s ex-cyber spy chief speaks candidly about hacking operations

Bernard BarbierThe former director of France’s cyber spy agency has spoken candidly about the recent activities and current state of French cyber espionage, admitting for the first time that France engages in offensive cyber operations. Between 2006 and 2013, Bernard Barbier was director of the technical division of the General Directorate for External Security, France’s external intelligence agency, which is commonly known as DGSE. During his tenure at DGSE, the organization’s technical division witnessed unprecedented financial and administrative growth. Today it is said to employ over 2500 people, nearly half of DGSE’s total personnel.

Earlier this month, Barbier was interviewed on stage during a symposium held by the CentraleSupélec, a top French engineering university based in Paris. He spoke with surprising candor about France’s cyber espionage operations. In the first part of his interview, which can be watched on YouTube, he recounted the history of what he described as “France’s cyber army”. He said that France began to build “teams of hackers” in 1992. Around that time, the DGSE purchased an American-built Cray supercomputer, said Barbier, and soon discovered that it could use the machine’s immense computing power to break passwords. More recently, said the former cyber spy chief, the DGSE has been trying to “catch up” with its American and British counterparts, the National Security Agency and the Government Communications Headquarters, by increasing its annual budget to over half a billion and hiring hundreds of young hackers. Many of these new employees have little to no university education, said Barbier, and are instead self-taught, having started hacking in their teenage years.

Like most governments, France will not officially admit to conducting offensive cyber operations using computer hacking and other techniques. But Barbier said during his interview that France was behind an offensive cyber operation that targeted Iran in 2009. He added that the DGSE has also directed cyber operations against Canada, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Norway, as well as its European Union partners Spain and Greece. He also complained that French government executives do not understand the importance of cyber operations and are not aiming high enough when it comes to planning, direction and hiring. The DGSE’s technical division still needs between 200 and 300 more staff members, Barbier argued in his interview.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 September 2016 | Permalink

US spy agencies are significantly expanding operations against Russia

CIAAmerican intelligence agencies are diverting counterterrorist resources to Russian accounts, prompting some commentators to describe the move as the greatest expansion of spy operations against Russia since the Cold War. In a leading article published on Wednesday, The Washington Post’s Greg Miller cites unnamed United States officials in describing “a shift in resources across spy services”. The shift allegedly reflects an increasing emphasis on Russia, with many of the resources coming from accounts focusing on terrorism threats and war zones in the Middle East and Central Asia, which were created in the aftermath of 9/11.

In contrast to the Cold War, when US intelligence agencies devoted most of their resources to the Soviet Union and its allies around the world, today the US Intelligence Community designates “at most 10 percent” of its budget on espionage targeting Russia, according to Miller. But this is now beginning to change, he says, as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has now “moved Russia up the list of intelligence priorities for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse” in 1991. This move, which reflects current national-security priorities in the White House, will have a spiraling effect on the resources devoted to Russia by every American intelligence agency. There will be more human intelligence collection conducted by the CIA against Russian targets, more attention paid by the National Security Agency to Russian communications, and more reconnaissance activity over Russia by satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, among other changes.

This change in direction comes after a prolonged period of tension between Washington and Moscow, which has been marked by America’s intervention in North Africa during the Arab Spring, which Moscow strongly objected to, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Syrian Civil War, and numerous instances of cyber espionage. As a result, says Miller, “surging tensions now cut across nearly every aspect of the US-Russia relationship”. He adds that some voices in Washington have raised concerns about the slow response by the US Intelligence Community to Russia’s resurgence as a world actor, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He quotes one unnamed senior US intelligence official as saying that American spy agencies are now “playing catch-up big time with Russia”. However, some US officials stress that, given the level of reduction in US intelligence capabilities targeting Russia since 1991, it will take years to rebuild them. Regardless, they say, there is no desire in Washington to return to Cold War levels of intelligence activity any time soon.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 September 2016 | Permalink

Soviet memoirs suggest KGB abducted and murdered Swedish diplomat

Raoul WallenbergThe recently discovered memoirs of a former director of the Soviet KGB suggest that a senior Swedish diplomat, who disappeared mysteriously in the closing stages of World War II, was killed on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is one of the 20th century’s unsolved espionage mysteries. In 1944 and 1945, the 33-year-old Wallenberg was Sweden’s ambassador to Budapest, the capital of German-allied Hungary. During his time there, Wallenberg is said to have saved over 20,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, by supplying them with Swedish travel documents, or smuggling them out of the country through a network of safe houses. He also reportedly dissuaded German military commanders from launching an all-out armed attack on Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.

But Wallenberg was also an American intelligence asset, having been recruited by a US spy operating out of the War Refugee Board, an American government outfit with offices throughout Eastern Europe. In January of 1945, as the Soviet Red Army descended on Hungary, Moscow gave orders for Wallenberg’s arrest on charges of spying for Washington. The Swedish diplomat disappeared, never to be seen in public again. Some historians speculate that Joseph Stalin initially intended to exchange Wallenberg for a number of Soviet diplomats and intelligence officers who had defected to Sweden. According to official Soviet government reports, Wallenberg died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947, while being interrogated at the Lubyanka, a KGB-affiliated prison complex in downtown Moscow. Despite the claims of the official Soviet record, historians have cited periodic reports that Wallenberg may have managed to survive in the Soviet concentration camp system until as late as the 1980s.

But the recently discovered memoirs of Ivan Serov, who directed the KGB from 1954 to 1958, appear to support the prevalent theory about Wallenberg’s demise in 1947. Serov led the feared Soviet intelligence agency under the reformer Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin in the premiership of the USSR. Khrushchev appointed Serov to conduct an official probe into Wallenberg’s fate. Serov’s memoirs were found in 2012 by one of his granddaughters, Vera Serova, inside several suitcases that had been secretly encased inside a wall in the family’s summer home. According to British newspaper The Times, the documents indicate that Wallenberg was indeed held for two years in the Lubyanka, where he was regularly interrogated by the KGB. The latter were certain that the Swedish diplomat was an American spy who had also been close to Nazi Germany’s diplomatic delegation in Hungary. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin considered exchanging him for Soviet assets in the West. But eventually Wallenberg “lost his value [and] Stalin didn’t see any point in sending him home”, according to Serov’s memoirs. The KGB strongman adds that “undoubtedly, Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947”. Further on, he notes that, according to Viktor Abakumov, who headed the MGB —a KGB predecessor agency— in the mid-1940s, the order to kill Wallenberg came from Stalin himself.

In 2011, Lt. Gen. Vasily Khristoforov, Chief Archivist for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), one of two successor agencies to the old Soviet KGB, gave an interview about Wallenberg, in which he said that most of the Soviet documentation on the Swedish diplomat had been systematically destroyed in the 1950s. But he said that historical reports of Wallenberg’s survival into the 1980s were “a product of […] people’s imagination”, and insisted that he was “one hundred percent certain […] that Wallenberg never was in any prison” other than the Lubyanka. An investigation by the Swedish government into the diplomat’s disappearance and eventual fate is ongoing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2016 | Permalink

Flow of foreign fighters to ISIS drops to near zero, intel assessments show

ISIS meetingThe transfer of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State and other Sunni militant groups has been all but eliminated in countries across the world, according to intelligence assessments. In previous years, it has been estimated that nearly as many as 2,000 foreign recruits, both men and women, crossed into Syria each month, mainly from Turkey, with the intention of joining armed Sunni groups. By the end of 2015, it was believed that over 30,000 foreign nationals from close to 90 countries had entered Syria and Iraq to fight for one of the Sunni-inspired opposition groups taking part in the Syrian civil war. Most of these foreign recruits joined the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

But current intelligence assessments produced by analysts in the US Intelligence Community suggest that the total inflow of foreign recruits has trickled down to a total of just 50 since the beginning of 2016. Many European countries, notably Belgium and Britain, have not seen any of their nationals leaving for Syria or Iraq this year, while fewer than 10 Americans have done so since January. According to The Washington Post, which last week published a report on the subject, this unprecedented trend is largely attributable to the shrinking territory —and presumably operational strength— of the Islamic State. Some experts note that, like al-Qaeda before it, the Islamic State is now seen as “failing entity” by Sunnis, prompting many aspiring jihadists to not wish to be associated with the group. It has also becoming more difficult for individuals to enter Syria, as Western governments and Turkey have grown progressively vigilant of young men and women seeking to travel to regional warzones. The Islamic State has also lost its control over regions that are adjacent to Turkey’s borders, which discourages Turkish and Syrian smugglers from attempting to transfer people across the notoriously porous border.

But even though the decline is sustainable, and marks “an important milestone” in multinational endeavors to combat the growth of the Islamic State, The Washington Post notes that it also raises critical questions about the future of Western security. Specifically, the paper wonders whether the terrorism threat from the Islamic State is easing, or if it is “morphing into a more dangerous new phase”, in which potential recruits are instructed to attack Western targets and former recruits disperse into conflict-prone areas across the world to spread the jihad there.

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

FBI arrests two more members of hacker group that targeted CIA director

Computer hackingTwo more members of a computer hacker group that targeted senior United States intelligence officials, including the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, have been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The arrests of Justin Liverman, 24, and Andrew Boggs, 22, took place on Thursday in Morehead City and North Wilkesboro, in the US state of North Carolina. They are accused by the FBI of being members of Crackas With Attitude (CWA) an international group of computer hackers that specialized in targeting American intelligence and law enforcement officials.

Last October, the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks published personal emails and documents belonging to CIA Director John Brennan. The documents included a 47-page application for security clearance that Brennan had submitted to the US government a few years earlier. It was apparently found on his personal America Online (AOL) email account, which had been hacked by the CWA hacker group. Members of the group, who are all in their late teens or early 20s, routinely employed a method known as ‘social engineering’ to gain access to their victims’ information. The method refers to impersonating technicians or other service provider company personnel to gain access to private email or telephone accounts.

CWA members used these techniques to target dozens of senior US government officials from October 2015 until February 2016. Their targets included the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the Deputy Director of the FBI, Mark Giuliano. The hackers also gained access to electronic databases belonging to the US Department of Justice, from where they obtained the names, personal telephone numbers and home addresses of nearly 30,000 employees of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. That information was eventually published online by the hacker group.

In February, a 16-year-old hacker known as ‘Cracka’, who is the purported ringleader of CWA, and whose name cannot be released due to his young age, was arrested in the East Midlands region of Britain. It is believed that information on the teenager’s electronic devices eventually led the FBI to the capture of Liverman and Boggs. The two men have been charged with computer crime and are expected to appear in court in the US state of Virginia next week.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 2016 | Permalink

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was KGB agent, researchers claim

Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas

Two Israeli researchers claim that a document from the archives of the Cold-War-era KGB identifies the current president of the Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, as a Soviet agent. The document was found in the United Kingdom, and was smuggled out of Russia by a former senior archivist of the Soviet KGB. Abbas is the leader of the largely secular Palestinian group Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Unlike Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by Israel and its allies, Fatah is seen by Tel Aviv as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. That is disputed by Hamas, a religiously inspired group, which controls the Gaza Strip and maintains a tense relationship with Fatah and Abbas himself.

The allegation about Abbas’ past emerged on Wednesday in the Israeli media, after two local academic researchers disclosed the contents of a KGB document discovered at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre in Britain. The researchers, Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor, of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the document dates from 1983. It was found among thousands of similar documents that were secretly smuggled out of Russia in the early 1990s by British intelligence, following the defection of Vasili Mitrokhin, an archivist in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB during the Cold War. Some of the documents later formed the basis of a two-volume edition on the activities of Soviet intelligence, which was edited by Cambridge University Professor Christopher Andrew.

According to Remez and Ginor, the document identifies Mahmoud Abbas as a “KGB agent” based in Damascus, Syria, codenamed krotov, which in Russian means ‘mole’. Abbas was born in Palestine in 1935, but his family fled to Syria in 1948, following the establishment of the state of Israel and the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war. The young Abbas grew up in Damascus, where he went to university and joined the local branch of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, of which Fatah is a member. If true, the allegation that Abbas worked for the KGB will not come as a surprise to observers of Palestinian politics. For most of the Cold War, the PLO was known to be close to Moscow, while Abbas was intimately involved with the Palestinian-Soviet Friendship Association, a pro-Moscow group that was widely seen as an agent of communist influence in the Palestinian territories. But the document from the Mitrokhin archives may be the first concrete evidence that Abbas was handled by the KGB.

Palestinian officials quickly dismissed the document on Wednesday as a fabrication and a deliberate slander. Mohammed al-Madani, a member of the central committee of Fatah, and a close associate of Abbas, said the allegation was part of a “clear effort to damage [Abbas] by various actors, including the government of Israel”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2016 | Permalink

FBI warns against alleged Russian campaign to destabilize US elections

Putin and ObamaThe Federal Bureau of Investigation is among several intelligence agencies in the United States that have expressed concerns about an alleged Russian campaign to destabilize November’s presidential elections. The Washington Post, which revealed the FBI’s concerns on Monday, claimed that Moscow recently launched an “active measures” operation aimed at covertly sabotaging the integrity of the US election process. Russia’s goal, said the paper, was to “counter US leadership and influence in international affairs”, thus subverting America’s image, especially in countries of the former Eastern Bloc or former Soviet republics.

According to The Post, the FBI and other US intelligence agencies have “no definitive proof” that Moscow is attempting to promote public distrust in American political institutions. But there are strong indications that have made this topic “a priority” for intelligence officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, said the paper. These indications include the hack of the computer systems at the Democratic National Committee, the official governing body of the US Democratic Party, which was revealed in June. The hack resulted in the disclosure of over 20,000 internal emails and led to the resignation of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the DNC’s Chairwoman. According to The Post, the hack is “not yet officially ascribed by the US government to Russia”, but US intelligence officials are convinced that Moscow was behind it.

The DNC hack prompted the FBI to send a so-called “flash alert” to US election officials in July, urging them to remain vigilant against “attempts to penetrate election systems”, which have been detected in several states, according to the report. The unprecedented FBI alert did not expressly name Russia as a national-security threat, nor did it give details of electoral sabotage. But it urged state election officials to “be on the lookout for intrusions into their election systems”. Citing unnamed intelligence officials, The Post said that the investigation into alleged Russian operations against the US Presidential election is being coordinated by James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2016 | Permalink