Czechs accuse Moscow of ‘most serious wave of cyberespionage’ in years

Czech Security Information ServiceThe main domestic intelligence agency of the Czech Republic has accused Russia of “the most serious wave of cyberespionage” to target the country in recent years. The claim was made on Monday in Prague by the Security Information Service (BIS), the primary domestic national intelligence agency of the Czech Republic. Details of the alleged cyberespionage plot are included in the BIS’ annual report, a declassified version of which was released this week.

According to the document, the cyberespionage attacks were carried out by a hacker group known as APT28 or Fancy Bear, which is believed to operate under the command of Russian intelligence. The hacker group allegedly targeted the Czech Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the headquarters of the country’s Armed Forces. As a result, the electronic communication system of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was compromised “at least since early 2016”, said the report (.pdf). More than 150 electronic mailboxes of ministry employees —including diplomats— were accessed, and a significant number of emails and attachments were copied by the hackers. The compromise was terminated a year later, when BIS security personnel detected the penetration. The BIS report goes on to say that a separate cyberespionage attack was carried out by a Russian-sponsored hacker group in December of 2016. An investigation into the attacks concluded that the hackers were not able to steal classified information, says the report. It adds, however, that they were able to access personal information about Czech government employees, which “may be used to launch subsequent attacks [or to] facilitate further illegitimate activities” by the hackers.

The BIS report concludes that the hacker campaign was part of “the most serious wave of cyberespionage” to target the Czech Republic in recent years. Its perpetrators appear to have targeted individuals in “virtually all the important institutions of the state” and will probably continue to do so in future attacks, it says. Moreover, other European countries probably faced similar cyberespionage breaches during the same period, though some of them may not be aware of it, according to the BIS. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis told parliament on Tuesday that his cabinet will discuss the BIS report findings and recommendations early in the new year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 December 2018 | Permalink

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MI6 spy chief outlines ‘fourth generation espionage’ in rare public speech

Alex YoungerThe director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service —known as MI6— has outlined the parameters of a new, “fourth generation of espionage”, which he said is needed to combat the “threats of the hybrid age”. Alex Younger, 55, is a career intelligence officer who joined MI6 in 1991, after serving in the British Army. He served as chief of global operations —considered the number two position at MI6— before being appointed director of the spy agency in October 2014. He previously served in the Middle East, Europe, and Afghanistan, where he represented MI6 as its most senior officer in the country following the US-led military invasion of 2001. Until this week, Younger had given a single public address since becoming director of MI6. But on Monday he spoke again, this time at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, from where he graduated with a degree in economics.

After cautioning his audience that MI6’s methods, operations and people —some of whom “have paid the ultimate price”— must remain secret, Younger said that technological progress has “profoundly changed [MI6’s] operating environment”. Technological change, as well as the degree of interconnectedness, he said, has made the world “dramatically more complicated”. He went on to add that the resulting ambiguity is referred to by MI6 as a constant stream of “hybrid threats”, namely challenges posed by nation-states operating “in the gray spaces of the hybrid era”. They do so in order to probe the West’s “institutions and defenses in ways that fall short of traditional warfare”, said Younger. The British spy chief added that MI6, as “one of the few truly global intelligence agencies” is well positioned to respond to hybrid threats, mostly by augmenting its human intelligence role —using human spies to collect information.

Human intelligence, which is MI6’s core task, “will never change fundamentally”, said Younger, adding that “in fact it will become even more important in a more complex world”. However, it will need to evolve to meet the challenges of the hybrid age. Younger said that MI6 was pioneering a “fourth generation of espionage”, which is the product of the fusion of traditional human skills with “accelerated [technological] innovation”. This new generation of espionage said Younger, relies not on individual work but on operations that are carried out by dynamic teams within and across state agencies. Additionally, the ultimate task of these operations is not simply to know the actions of one’s adversaries, but “to change their behavior”, said the British spy chief. Furthermore, in order to successfully develop fourth generation espionage capabilities, MI6 will have to “ensure that technology is on our side, not that of our opponents”, noted Younger. The spy chief gave an example by referring to the case of the near-fatal poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the Russian former double spy who was allegedly attacked by two Russian military intelligence officers in Salisbury, England, last March. It was “bulk data combined with modern analytics” that exposed the culprits of the operation, he said. But the same methods, which make the modern world more transparent, can posed “a serious challenge if used against us”, warned the MI6 chief.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 December 2018 | Permalink

CIA report says Saudi crown prince sent text messages to Khashoggi killer

Saud al-QahtaniSaudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent at least eleven text messages to the man in charge of the 15-member hit team that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month, according to a classified report produced by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA report was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, which said in a leading article on Saturday that the Saudi royal had sent the messages in the hours before and after Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi government adviser who moved to the US and became a vocal critic of the kingdom’s style of governance. He was killed and later dismembered by a hit team inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone for a scheduled visit in order to be issued written proof of his divorce from his former wife in Saudi Arabia.

Late last month, the CIA and its British equivalent, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), were reported to have concluded that Khashoggi’s murder was directly ordered by Prince Salman. But US President Donald Trump and leading members of his cabinet, including Secretaries of State Mike Pompeo and Defense James Mattis, have disputed these claims, saying there is “no smoking gun” that proves Prince Salman’s involvement. The US president said that Saudi Arabia was “a great ally” of Washington and that Prince Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder was unclear. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t”, he told reporters in Washington on November 20, referring to the prince, whom he considers a personal friend. Instead, the White House has placed blame for the journalist’s murder on Saud al-Qahtani (pictured), a former advisor to Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah, who is believed to have coordinated Khashoggi’s killing.

But new a new CIA assessment of Khashoggi’s murder that was leaked to The Wall Street Journal claims that the US spy agency has concluded with “medium-to-high” confidence that Prince Salman “personally targeted” the journalist and “probably ordered his death”. The leaked report, said The Journal, rests on several findings, including the fact that the prince sent at least 11 messages to al-Qahtani in the hours right before and right after the latter’s hit-team killed Khashoggi in Istanbul. The CIA report states that the Agency does not have access to the contents of the texts. But it states that this pattern of communication, along with other pieces of evidence “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 December 2018 | Permalink

US government plans background checks on Chinese students over espionage fears

Chinese students in USAThe United States government plan to impose tighter visa restrictions and wider background checks on Chinese nationals studying at American universities, over espionage concerns. The news follows reports earlier this year that the administration of US President Donald Trump considered banning all Chinese nationals from studying at American universities. In October of this year, The Financial Times reported that the White House came close to imposing the ban, after it was allegedly proposed by Stephen Miller, speechwriter and senior advisor to Trump. Miller became known as the main architect of Executive Order 13769 —the travel ban imposed on citizens of several countries, most of them predominantly Muslim. According to The Financial Times, Trump was eventually dissuaded from imposing the Chinese student ban by Terry Branstad, US ambassador to China.

Now, however, the Trump administration is reportedly considering the possibility of imposing deeper background checks and additional vetting on all Chinese nationals wishing to study in the US. Citing “a US official and three congressional and university sources”, Reuters said on Thursday that the measures would apply to all Chinese students wishing to register in undergraduate and graduate academic programs in the US. The news agency quoted a “senior US official” as saying that “no Chinese student who’s coming [to the US] is untethered from the state […. They all have] to go through a party and government approval process”. Reuters reported that the proposed plan includes a comprehensive examination of the applicants’ phone records and their presence on social media platforms. The goal would be to verify that the applicants are not connected with Chinese government agencies. As part of the proposed plan, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies would provide counterintelligence training to university officials.

However, the plan has many American universities —including elite Ivy League schools— worried that they may be losing up to $14 billion in tuition and other fees spent annually by more than 350,000 Chinese nationals studying in the US. The fear is that the latter may be looking to study elsewhere, in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Reuters said that many of America’s top universities are “regularly sharing strategies to thwart” plans by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for Chinese nationals to study in the US. The news agency said it contacted the Chinese ambassador to Washington, who called the White House’s fears of espionage by Chinese students “groundless” and “very indecent”.

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

New law to give Australian intelligence officers more rights to use firearms

Australian Secret Intelligence ServiceThe Australian government has proposed a new law that would give intelligence officers broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. If it is approved by parliament, the new law would apply to the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), a civilian intelligence agency that carries out covert and clandestine operations abroad. Modeled after Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), ASIS was established in 1952, but its existence was not officially acknowledged by the Australian government until 25 years later, in 1977.

In 2004, ASIS was given legal permission for the first time to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. However, under current Australian law, this is allowed only as a last resort. ASIS personnel engaged in overseas operations are allowed to employ firearms in self-defense or to protect their agents —foreigners that have been recruited by ASIS to spy for Australia. However, the current government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison argues that ASIS personnel must be given broader powers to exercise “reasonable force” via the use of firearms during overseas operations. In a speech on Wednesday, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said that the overseas environment in which ASIS operates today is more complex than that of 2004, when the current laws of engagement were enacted. She added that nowadays ASIS personnel work in more hazardous locations, including warzones, and carry out “more dangerous missions in new places and circumstances”.

The government argues that the proposed changes will allow ASIS personnel to “protect a broader range of people and use reasonable force if someone poses a risk to an operation”. The new law will give ASIS officers permission to open fire against adversaries in order to protect parties other than themselves —such as hostages— or to avoid getting captured. This, says the government, will allow them to efficiently “protect Australia and its interests”. The last time that the Australian government flirted with the idea of giving ASIS broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations was in 2010. That year, the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commissioned a multimillion dollar independent review of the Australian intelligence community’s mission and operations. The review proposed that ASIS personnel be allowed more powers to carry and handle weapons while engaging in “paramilitary activities” outside Australia. But the proposal was never enacted into law.

The latest proposal by the Morrison administration is scheduled to be discussed in the Australian Parliament today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2018 | Permalink

Head of CIA’s Korean mission center to resign, say sources

Andrew KimA senior North Korea expert in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who has been instrumental in the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, has tendered his resignation, according to sources. The official was identified last may by US media as Andrew Kim, a former South Korean citizen who moved to the US with his parents when he was 13 years old. According to sources, Kim joined the CIA after graduating from college and rose through the Agency’s ranks to serve its stations in Moscow, Beijing and Bangkok. His most recent overseas post was reportedly in Seoul, where he served as the CIA’s station chief —the most senior American intelligence official in the country.

Following his return to the US from Seoul, Kim reportedly retired, but returned last year to head the CIA’s new Korea Mission Center (KMC). The purpose of the specialized unit is to analyze Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, which the administration of US President Donald Trump considers as matters of priority for the White House. It was as head of the KMC that Kim reportedly met Mike Pompeo once he became Director of the CIA in January 2017. The two men worked closely together and it is believed that Kim’s role was instrumental in organizing the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang that led to last summer’s historic high-level meeting between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. According to American and South Korean media, Kim accompanied the then-CIA director on his secret trip to North Korea. He also accompanied Pompeo on his trips to North Korea once the Kansas Republican became Secretary of State.

The Yonhap News Agency said on Tuesday that Kim initially intended to leave his CIA post in the summer, but was persuaded by Secretary Pompeo to continue. However, he has now tendered his resignation, which will take effect on December 20. Citing “multiple sources”, including “a senior official at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service”, the Seoul-based news agency said that Kim plans to take up an academic post at Stanford University, adding that he intends to continue serving as an adviser to the secretary of state. Prior media reports have stated that “Kim is widely viewed as a hawk on North Korea”, so there are suspicions that his departure from the CIA stems from his disagreement with the policy of negotiation signaled by President Trump. However, the CIA has not commented on the Yonhap report. The South Korean agency said that the CIA is already reviewing candidates to succeed Kim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2018 | Permalink

French senior civil servant arrested on suspicion of spying for North Korea

Benoît QuennedeyA senior civil servant in the upper house of the French parliament has been arrested on suspicion of spying for North Korea, according to prosecutors. The news of the suspected spy’s arrest was first reported on Monday by Quotidien, a daily politics and culture show on the Monaco-based television channel TMC. The show cited “a judicial source in Paris” and said that France’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), was in charge of the espionage case.

The senior administrator has been identified as Benoit Quennedey, a civil servant who liaises between the French Senate and the Department of Architecture and Heritage, which operates under France’s Ministry of Culture. Quennedey was reportedly detained on Sunday morning and his office in the French Senate was raided by DGSI officers on the same day. Quotidien said that he was arrested on suspicion of “collecting and delivering to a foreign power information likely to subvert core national interests”. The report did not provide specific information about the type of information that Quennedey is believed to have passed to North Korea. It did state, however, that a counterintelligence investigation into his activities began in March of this year.

Quennedey is believed to be the president of the Franco-Korean Friendship Association, the French branch of a Spanish-based organization that lobbies in favor of international support for North Korea. Korea Friendship Association branches exist in over 30 countries and are believed to be officially sanctioned by Pyongyang. They operate as something akin to the pre-World War II Comintern (Communist International), a Moscow-sanctioned international pressure group that advocated in favor of Soviet-style communism around the world. French media reported on Monday that Quennedey traveled extensively to the Korean Peninsula in the past decade and has written a French-language book on North Korea. News reports said that the French President Emmanuel Macron had been made aware of Quennedey’s arrest. The senior civil servant faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty of espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 November 2018 | Permalink