FBI acting head says he will report attempts to stop Russia probe

Andrew McCabeThe interim director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has told an intelligence panel in the United States Senate that he will not hesitate to report any attempts by the White House to interfere with an official investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. Andrew McCabe assumed the leadership of the FBI on Tuesday, after US President Donald Trump abruptly fired the Bureau’s director, James Comey. A trained lawyer who joined the FBI in 1996, McCabe amassed significant experience in countering organized crime and terrorism before being appointed Deputy Director of the Bureau in 2016.

It is worth noting that Republican Party officials have criticized McCabe for being close to former Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, campaigned for a seat in the Virginia State Senate in 2015, on a Democratic Party ticket.

McCabe spoke on Thursday before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, along with the directors of five other American intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. During their testimony, the six intelligence officials repeated their agencies’ previously stated claims that Moscow engaged in systematic efforts to assist the election of Donald Trump in last November’s presidential elections. McCabe also responded to specific questions by Democratic senators about alleged attempts by the White House to prevent probes in to Russia’s alleged intervention.

When asked by Democratic Senator Mark Warner whether he would inform the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence of attempts by the Trump administration to stop the probe, McCabe responded saying: “I absolutely do”. There are currently at least three parallel investigations into Russia’s alleged involvement in the US presidential elections, of which the Senate’s is one. The US House of Representatives and the Department of Justice are also conducting separate investigations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 May 2017 | Permalink

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Israeli spy agencies’ budget has doubled in ten years

Yossi CohenThe combined budget of the two primary intelligence agencies of Israel, the Mossad and the Shin Bet, has doubled in the past decade, according to a report issued by the Israeli Ministry of Finance. Shin Bet is Israel’s domestic intelligence service, and is primarily responsible for counterterrorism and counterintelligence. The Mossad is Israel’s primary intelligence service, which means that it collects intelligence from foreign targets. The secretive agency also conducts covert and clandestine operations when authorized to do so by Israel’s government. The two agencies tend to work together with varying degrees of succces, but have distinct budgets.

Last week saw a rare instance of the release of a government report on the finances of these two agencies, which tend to shy away from discussing details about their financial scope. The information was included in a larger report about the Israeli government budget for 2018. The Finance Ministry report said that the 2018 budget for the Shin Bet and the Mossad will reach 8.6 billion shekels in the coming year. That amounts to approximately $2.5 billion. The ministry report noted that the budget for the two spy agencies has increased by just under 10 percent since last year. The same budget for 2017 was 7.8 billion shekels. That represented an increase of 300 million shekels from the 2016 budget.

Observers noted, however, that, although seemingly incremental, Israel’s spy budget for the Shin Bet and the Mossad appears to have doubled in just a decade. In 2006, under the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the combined Shin Bet/Mossad annual budget was below 4.5 billion shekels. By 2009, when Olmert was succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu, the budget for the Shin Bet and the Mossad had reached 5.3 billion shekels. But Netanyahu, who promotes his image as a big believer in the capabilities of the Israeli intelligence community, presided over large budgetary increases for the Shin Bet and the Mossad alike. During his presidency, the Israeli intelligence community has seen near-unprecedented rates of growth in both its size and wealth.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 May 2017 | Permalink

Swiss officials defend alleged spying on German tax-fraud investigators

SwitzerlandSenior Swiss government officials, including the defense minister and the director of the country’s intelligence agency, have defended Switzerland’s right to spy on European tax-fraud investigators who meddle in Swiss affairs. Earlier this week, German authorities announced the arrest of a Swiss national who was allegedly spying on the activities of German tax-fraud investigators in Frankfurt. According to German officials and media reports, the man, identified only as Daniel M., is an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service. The agency, known by its German-language initials, NDB, is Switzerland’s main intelligence organization.

As intelNews reported on Monday, Daniel M. was said to be monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to stop German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. In the past decade, German authorities have paid nearly $100 million to employees of Swiss banks in return for information about the identities of German bank account holders in the small alpine country. The Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information, a practice that goes against Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. On Tuesday, Germany’s Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, summoned Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, Christine Schraner Burgener, to the Foreign Ministry, in order discuss Daniel M.’s arrest. A press statement that the Foreign Ministry sent on Tuesday to the German media said that the meeting had been called “in the interest of German-Swiss friendship”.

But the Swiss do not appear to be interested in discussing. On Tuesday, Markus Seiler, Director of the NDB, defended his agency’s right to spy on anyone who “uses illegal methods in Switzerland to steal state or business secrets”. Seiler, who was speaking in Bern, classified all such practices as espionage targeting the the Swiss economy. Asked by reporters whether Daniel M. was an NDB employee, Seiler said he could not comment. But he defended the NDB’s right to “fight the theft of business secrets” and “uphold Swiss laws”. He also refused to specify whether the NDB is active in Germany, stating instead that the agency is “active at home and abroad”. Switzerland’s Minister of Defense, Guy Parmelin, who supervises the NDB’s activities, was equally general when asked to discuss the arrest of Daniel M. He said simply that he and other Swiss government officials had to “protect [the NDB’s] methods and sources”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 April 2017 | Permalink

CIA director makes unannounced visit to South Korea to discuss tensions

Korean DMZThe director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency made an unannounced visit to South Korea over the weekend, to discuss the rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula with his South Korean counterpart and other senior officials. A spokesperson from the US embassy in Seoul made an official announcement on Monday, in which he revealed the visit by Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who was appointed by US President Donald Trump in January of this year. When asked for details, however, the spokesperson refused to provide them. Consequently, Pompeo’s date of arrival to Seoul remains unknown, as is his date of departure. It is believed that he is now back in the US.

During his visit to the South Korean capital, Pompeo met with South Korean counterpart, Lee Byung-ho, who heads South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. South Korean media reports said Pompeo also met with senior officials in the office of the South Korean president. Additionally, he is said to have held several meetings with American intelligence and military officials stationed in South Korea, including a meeting with General Vincent Brooks, commander of United States Forces Korea. Reports in local media outlets said Pompeo’s visit aimed to coordinate American and South Korean intelligence responses to what Washington claims is increasing provocation by North Korea. The United States objects to North Korea’s repeated missile tests in recent weeks. On Saturday, Pyongyang attempted to launch a missile without success. The attempt, the third one in a month, elicited strong criticism from Washington and Seoul.

Pompeo’s trip to Seoul marked the fourth visit to South Korea by a senior US government official in recent weeks. The CIA director’s unannounced visit was preceded by separate official visits to Seoul by US Vice President Mike pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Additionally, last Wednesday the White House organized an “extraordinary national security briefing” about North Korea for members of the United States Senate. The briefing featured presentations by senior American diplomats and military officials.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 May 2017 | Permalink

Germany arrests Swiss spy who was monitoring tax-fraud investigators

Frankfurt AirportAuthorities in Germany have announced the arrest of a Swiss national who was allegedly spying on the activities of German tax-fraud investigators in Frankfurt. According to prosecutors in the German state of Hesse, of which Frankfurt is the largest city, the Swiss man was arrested on Friday and is currently in custody. He has been identified only as Daniel M., and is believed to be in his mid-50s. According to news reports, German counterintelligence officers had been monitoring the suspect for over a year. They were issued a warrant for his arrest in December of last year, but waited until he was on German soil to arrest him. He was arrested at Frankfurt Airport.

German federal prosecutors said simply that Daniel M. was employed in the financial and banking sectors of Germany until early 2012. However after that time, he is believed to have been employed by “the intelligence service of a foreign power”. German officials refused to identify the “foreign power”. However, the Berlin-based German newspaper Die Welt said on Sunday that the Swiss man arrested on Friday is an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service. The agency, known by its German-language initials, NDB, is Switzerland’s main intelligence agency, tasked with safeguarding the security of the small alpine nation by collecting and analyzing information.

The question is, what was a Swiss spy doing in Germany, and why was he arrested? According to Die Welt, Daniel M. was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to stop German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. The German government believes that billions of euros are deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws.

It is believed that Daniel M. was arrested while monitoring efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. Soon after the Swiss man’s arrest, officers from Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) searched a hotel room, several apartments and a number of business premises in Frankfurt and nearby cities. It is worth noting that Frankfurt is a major global financial center, which also hosts the headquarters of the European Central Bank. If found guilty, Daniel M. could face up to 10 years in prison for espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 May 2017 | Permalink

French spy agencies conclude Assad government was behind Syria gas attack

Khan SheikhunA comprehensive report released yesterday by the French Intelligence Community concludes with certainty that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the April 4 sarin gas attack in northwestern Syria. The report, a “national evaluation” based on France’s own intelligence sources and scientific analysis of samples collected from the site of the attack, indicates that the poison gas used in the attack came from stockpiles that belong to the Syrian government.

The sarin gas attack targeted Khan Sheikhun, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the southern region of Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The city is located on the main highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus with the city of Aleppo in the north of the country. The surprise attack killed nearly 100 people and drew near-universal condemnation from the international community. It also sparked a military attack by the United States, which launched a missile attack at a Syrian military base from where the sarin gas attack allegedly originated.

On Wednesday, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced the publication of a report, which, he said, proves conclusively that the Syrian government perpetrated the attack. The six-page declassified version of the report concludes that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians”. It alleges that the conclusion rests on “intelligence collected by our services”, which includes “samples from the scene of the attack”. The latter are reportedly identical with samples collected from sites of previous chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government. Additionally, the French report concludes that the attack was conducted with the use of airplanes, which the Syrian rebel forces do not have.

The French intelligence report comes after a similar report from the United States concluded that Assad’s government was behind the attack on Khan Sheikhun. A few days after the attack, medical tests conducted on victims of the attack by Turkish experts showed that sarin gas had been used, but did not implicate a specific culprit. The Syrian and Russian governments deny all involvement in the attack and claim that it was carried out by al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 April 2017 | Permalink

Same hacker group is targeting French and German elections, says report

Konrad Adenauer FoundationThe same group cyber-spies that attacked the campaign of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is now attacking German institutions that are connected to the country’s ruling coalition parties, according to a report by a leading cyber-security firm. The Tokyo-based security software company Trend Micro published a 41-page report on Tuesday, in which it tracks and traces the attacks against French and German political targets over the past two years. The report, entitled From Espionage to Cyber Propaganda: Pawn Storm’s Activities over the Past Two Years, concludes that the hackers are seeking to influence the results of the national elections in the European Union’s two most powerful nations, France and Germany.

The Trend Micro report focuses on a mysterious group that cyber-security experts have dubbed Pawn Storm —otherwise known as Sednit, Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy, and STRONTIUM. It says that the group has launched an aggressive phishing campaign against German political institutions, which has intensified in the past two months. The group allegedly set up fake computer servers in Germany and the Ukraine, and used them to try to infiltrate the computer networks of two elite German think-tanks, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FEF). The KAF is connected with the Christian Democratic Union party, which is led by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The FEF has strong ties with the centrist Social Democratic Party, which is part of Germany’s governing alliance.

The report’s leading author, cyber-security expert Feike Hacquebord, told the Reuters news agency that the hackers were possibly seeking to infiltrate the two think-tanks as a means of gaining access to the two political parties that are connected with them. Some cyber-security experts in Europe and the United States have said that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, the country’s military intelligence agency, known as GRU, is behind the cyber-attacks on France, Germany and the United States. But the Trend Micro report did not attempt to place blame on Moscow or any other country for the cyber-attacks. The Kremlin has denied involvement with the alleged hacking operations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 April 2017 | Permalink