US offensive cyber campaign disabled Iran’s strike capabilities, say sources

IRGC IranThe Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is still recovering from the damage it suffered by an offensive American cyber campaign against it that took place in June, according to sources. The attack allegedly degraded the IRGC’s ability to strike at oil tankers and other ships in the Persian Gulf. The New York Times said on Thursday that the cyber attack took place on June 20, hours after United States President Donald Trump called off airstrikes on Iran. The White House had considered launching the airstrikes in retaliation against the downing of an American surveillance drone by Iranian forces and their alleged use of limpet mines against commercial oil tankers by the IRGC the previous month.

The paper did not reveal details of the cyber campaign, but said it did not target any part of Iran’s missile or other defense programs. Its mission was to degrade the covert strike capabilities of the IRGC, which operates in a paramilitary capacity and is not supervised by the military. Washington blamed the IRGC for the limpet mine attacks against oil tankers, and expressed concerns that they would continue. The cyber attack corrupted the computer databases and communications networks that the IRGC uses to co-ordinate covert operations at sea, and resulted in the temporary cessation of IRGC attacks on oil tankers, said The Times.

The June 20 cyber attacks were not meant to be permanent but their effects have endured much longer than was expected, according to the paper. It cited claims by anonymous senior American officials that the IRGC is “still trying to repair critical communications systems and has not recovered the data lost in the attack”. It is also worth noting that, according to US sources, Iran did not escalate its own cyber attacks against Western targets in retaliation to the American cyber campaign against the IRGC.

However, according to The Times, some American officials have expressed doubts about the wisdom and long-term impact of the cyber operation. They claim that the cyber attack gave the Iranians the opportunity to collect valuable information about US cyber capabilities. It also allowed them to detect and fix their vulnerabilities so that they are now better able to defend against future cyber attacks. Lastly, the attacks neutralized IRGC communications networks, which the US had penetrated and was collecting vital intelligence from, they argue.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2019 | Permalink

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In unprecedented move, US plans to block undersea cable linking US with China

undersea telecommunications cableIn a move observers describe as unprecedented, a United States government regulator is preparing to recommend blocking the construction of an 8,000-mile long undersea cable linking America with China, allegedly due to national security concerns. Washington has never before halted the construction of undersea cables, which form the global backbone of the Internet by facilitating nearly 100% of Internet traffic. Much of the undersea cable network is in the process of being replaced by modern optical cables that can facilitate faster Internet-based communications than ever before.

One such scheme is the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), an 8,000-mile undersea cable construction project funded by Google, Facebook and Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group Co., one of China’s largest telecommunications-hardware manufacturers. The PLCN’s completion will produce the first-ever direct Internet link between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and is expected to increase Internet speeds in both China and the United States. Most of the PLCN has been laid and its completion is projected for this year.

But now an American regulatory panel plans to recommend blocking the PLCN’s final construction phase. According to The Wall Street Journal, the panel fears that the $300 million undersea cable project may facilitate Chinese espionage. The Justice Department-led panel is known as Team Telecom and consists of officials from several American government agencies, said the paper, citing “individuals involved in the discussion” about PLCN.

Never before has the US blocked the construction of an undersea cable, reported The Journal. National security concerns have been raised with reference to past undersea cable projects, some of whom were partially funded by Chinese-owned companies. But the projects eventually went ahead after the manufacturers were able to demonstrate that the design of the undersea cables forbade the installation of wiretaps. If the PLCN project is blocked, therefore, it will be the first such case in the history of the Internet in America.

The paper said that supporters of the PLCN argue that it would give American government regulators more control over the security of Internet traffic before it even reaches US territory. Additionally, PLCN investors claim that the completion of the project will provide American companies with broader access to consumers in Asia. Google, Facebook, Dr. Peng Telecom and the US government declined to comment on the news report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2019 | Permalink

Chechen shot dead in broad daylight in Berlin, Russian spy services suspected

Zelimkhan KhangoshviliAuthorities in Germany suspect that Moscow may have been behind the assassination of a Chechen separatist who was shot in broad daylight in Berlin by a man wearing a wig and carrying a pistol fitted with a silencer. The victim of the attack was Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, 40, who was a leading figure in the so-called Second Chechen War. The conflict pitted the Russian military against groups of Muslim fighters in the North Caucasus between 1999 and 2009.

Khangoshvili, a Muslim who was born in Georgia, was a bodyguard of Aslan Maskhadov, the self-described leader of the Muslim separatists in the Northern Caucasus. Maskhadov was killed in 2005 in a raid by Russian Special Forces, and Khangoshvili fled to his native Georgia. In 2015, Khangoshvili sought political asylum in Germany after two men tried to kill him in Tbilisi. The German authorities initially placed him on a terrorism watch list, but removed him after he began to collaborate with German counterterrorism agencies and participate in programs designed to de-radicalize Muslim youth.

Khangoshvili was reportedly killed last Friday as he was walking to his local mosque. Witnesses said a man on a bicycle approached Khangoshvili from behind as he was walking in the middle of Kleiner Tiergarten, a small park in downtown Berlin. The cyclist shot Khangoshvili and then immediately fled the scene on his bicycle. Police later found a Glock 26 semi-automatic pistol fitted with a silencer, a wig and the assailants bicycle. All had been dumped in a nearby lake. Later that evening the police announced the arrest of a Russian citizen identified only as “Vadim S.”, who is alleged to have shot Khangoshvili.

German newsmagazine Der Spiegel quoted Martin Steltner, from the Berlin prosecutor’s office, who said that Vadim S. had arrived in Berlin from Moscow via Paris less than a week before Khangoshvili’s murder. Steltner added that there were “indications the deed was pre-planned and may have political motives behind it”. An anonymous source from German intelligence told Der Spiegel that “if it turns out that a state actor like Russia is behind this, we will have a second [Sergei] Skripal case on our hands, with all that this entails”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 August 2019 | Permalink

The CIA will not spy on UAE despite its actions against US interests, say sources

US embassy EmiratesThe United States Central Intelligence Agency will not collect human intelligence on the United Arab Emirates, even though the oil kingdom’s actions often run directly counter to American interests, according to sources. The CIA’s policy, which some sources described as “highly unusual”, fails to recognize the growing distance between American interests and the UAE’s foreign policies, according to Reuters. The news agency cited “three former CIA officials familiar with the matter” who claimed that the CIA’s policy is out of touch and may be endangering US national security.

The CIA collects human intelligence on every nation whose actions or decision affect American interests. Such nations include close American allies like Israel, Germany and Saudi Arabia. The nations that are excluded from the CIA’s target list is very short, and includes its so-called “Five Eyes” partners, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Bizarrely, however, this exclusive list includes the UAE, according to an allegation made by Reuters on Monday. The CIA is believed to have “a liaison relationship” with the UAE’s Intelligence Community when it comes to collecting intelligence on common adversaries, such as Iran, or non-state threats like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. But it does not collect intelligence on the UAE, despite the fact that the tiny but powerful oil kingdom “operates as a rogue state” in the Middle East and beyond, according to some former CIA officials. The UAE leadership was instrumental in propping up, and eventually abandoning, Sudan’s autocratic leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The small oil kingdom is now heavily involved in the political strife in Sudan, while also funding militias in Yemen, Libya and Somalia, said Reuters. It now has military bases in several parts of Africa, such as Eritrea and Somaliland, and its leaders are forging increasingly close links with China and Russia.

One anonymous CIA official told Reuters that the CIA’s failure to adapt its intelligence-collection policy to the UAE’s growing military and political power is nothing short of “a dereliction of duty”. The news agency said it contacted the CIA, the National Security Agency and the White House with questions about American intelligence activities in the UAE, but received no response. The government of the UAE and the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to requests for comments.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 August 2019 | Permalink

Russian deep-cover spy speaks to Western media for first time

Elena Vavilova Andrei BezrukovOne of the ten Russian deep-cover spies who were arrested in the United States in 2010, and swapped with American- and British-handled spies held by Moscow, has spoken to Western media for the first time. Elena Vavilova was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in June of 2010 along with her husband, Andrei Bezrukov. In its two decades of operating under deep cover in the US, the married couple used the stolen identities of two dead Canadian citizens, Tracy Foley and Donald Heathfield. Vavilova claimed to be of French-Canadian origin and worked as a real estate agent. The couple never spoke Russian at home and their two sons, Alex and Tim Foley, were unaware of their parents’ secret identities.

Last week, Vavilova, who now works as a private consultant in Moscow, spoke to Shaun Walker, Russia correspondent for British newspaper The Guardian. It was the first face-to-face encounter between a Western news outlet and one of the 10 outed Russian ‘illegals’. The reason for the interview was Vavilova’s upcoming book, A Woman Who Can Keep Secrets (in Russian), which presents a fictionalized account of her career and marriage to Bezrukov. It offers rare insights into the longstanding Russian ‘illegals’ program, which dates back to Soviet times. The book’s two protagonists meet as students in Siberia, where they are eventually recruited by the KGB, and spend several years training in languages and tradecraft. Part of their training includes living in a KGB house modeled after suburban American homes, so that they can get used to domestic life in the West. This account is believed to include true elements of the lives and careers of Vavilova and Bezrukov. The two married in Russia but moved to Canada separately, using fake Canadian identities. They pretended to meet for the first time in Canada, where they ‘dated’ and eventually ‘married’ before moving to the US to begin their espionage work.

Vavilova told Walker that the popular view of the 10 Russian illegals as having achieved little of intelligence value during their time in the US is misguided. “Of course I can’t talk about it”, she said, “but I know what we were doing and it doesn’t matter what others say”. She also said that training for illegals involved learning how to handle guns and using martial arts. But she added that these skills were never used in the field and were mostly good for building self-confidence —especially for missions that took place under cover of night in America, where street crime was far more prevalent than in Russia during the Cold War. Walker said that Vavilova’s English remains perfect, as does her husband’s. Like Vavilova, Bezrukov now works as a consultant and also teaches at a university in Moscow. Vavilova refused to discuss current Russian politics in her interview.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 August 2019 | Permalink

South Korea ends intelligence pact with Japan as bilateral relations enter crisis mode

Japan South KoreaSouth Korea has formally terminated an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, as relations between the two countries have reached their lowest point since they formally recognized each other in 1965. Seoul’s decision is the latest move in a tit-for-tad row sparked by the use of forced Korean labor by Japan in World War II. South Korea is demanding financial compensation for the use of slave labor, including sex slaves, by Japanese occupation troops during Korea’s annexation by Japan from 1910 until 1945. Last month, Tokyo responded to a mass boycott of Japanese goods by South Korean consumers by limiting the export of electronics to be used in South Korea’s ship-building industry. A few days ago, Tokyo also removed South Korea from the list of countries with the ability to fast-track their exports to Japan.

Earlier this week, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan met in China in an attempt to bridge the differences between the two countries. But the negotiations failed. This morning South Korea responded to Japan’s latest move by refusing to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). This treaty between Japan and South Korea, which was due to be renewed today, facilitates the sharing of intelligence about North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. But the South Korean government announced it would not renew the agreement, following a decision taken by the country’ National Security Council. The country’s President, Moon Jae-in, has agreed with the decision. A South Korean government spokesman said South Korea had determined that maintaining “an agreement we signed with the aim of exchanging military information which is sensitive to security […] would not serve our national interest”.

Japan called South Korea’s decision to scrap GSOMIA “extremely regrettable” and said that it “completely misreads the security situation” in the region. It added that it would continue to cooperate with South Korea “where cooperation is necessary”. Late last night, Tokyo summoned the South Korean ambassador to Japan to voice its disapproval of Seoul’s decision. Meanwhile there has been no response from the United States government, which was the architect of GSOMIA in 2016. Washington worked closely with the two countries for over 6 years to convince them to agree to exchange intelligence, despite their mutual animosity. American observers have warned that the termination of GSOMIA “threatens real-time information sharing between the United States, Japan and South Korea to monitor North Korean nuclear activity”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2019 | Permalink

Shia militia blames US and Israel for mystery explosions throughout Iraq

Popular Mobilization ForcesIraq’s largest Shia militia, which controls parts of Iraq’s territory that were aptured from the Islamic State, has accused the United States and Israel for a series of mystery explosions at its arms depots around the country. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 Shia militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces because they view them as American-supported.

In the past month, however, there have been at least three mystery explosions at arms depots controlled by the PMF throughout Iraq. On July 19, Arab media reported that a blast killed two Iranian military engineers at a PMF facility. Then on August 12 a massive explosion destroyed part of the al-Saqr military base in Baghdad, killing at least one person and injuring 30. The base reportedly housed an arms depot that was shared by the Shia-dominated Iraqi federal police and the PMF (the two are often indistinguishable in post-ISIS Iraq). On August 20 two more explosions were reported at a PMF arms depot located about 55 miles north of Baghdad. It is not known if anyone was killed or injured in the latest attack. Prior to the August 20 explosions, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had banned all unauthorized flights over Iraq in an attempt to prevent further attacks on arms depots. But the move did not prevent yet another mystery attack.

In recent days, Iraq has been rife with rumors and conspiracy theories about who could be behind the attacks. Many are accusing the United States and Israel, while some are blaming ISIS or Iraqi militias who are competing against the PMF for control. A leaked Iraqi government report into the incidents claimed that they were caused by drone strikes. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the PMF said that the attacks had been carried out by Israeli drones with American intelligence support in order to weaken Shia influence in Iraq. When asked about the mystery explosions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran has no immunity anywhere […]. We will act and are currently acting against Iran wherever necessary”. Meanwhile, the PMF pledged to use “all means at its disposal to deter and prevent [future] attacks” on its facilities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2019 | Permalink