Firm founded by ex-Blackwater boss to operate in China’s Xinjiang province

Erik PrinceA security firm founded by Erik Prince, the former boss of the private military company Blackwater, has announced a deal with the Chinese state to operate a training facility in China’s largely Muslim Xinjiang province. In the months following the United States invasion of Iraq, Blackwater was hired by the Department of State to provide diplomatic security at several locations throughout the Middle Eastern country. By 2010, when the company was abruptly sold to a group of private investors, its tactics in Iraq had prompted international controversy. Prince went on to help found Frontier Services Group (FSG), another private security firm registered in Hong Kong. The company provides security training to personnel working for Chinese companies. Its specialization is training personnel of Chinese firms based abroad, mainly in regions of Africa.

The announcement of the new training center was posted on the FSG’s Chinese-language website. It said that one of FSG’s subsidiaries had struck an agreement to build and operate a “training center” at the Kashgar Caohu industrial park in the city of Kashgar, one of China’s westernmost cities, situated near the country’s border with Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The city of 1 million people is located in the province of Xinjiang. In recent months, Beijing has been heavily criticized by several Western countries for allegedly carrying out mass detentions of Uighur Muslims, which make up about half of Xinjiang’s population. Uighurs are ethnically related to the peoples of Central Asia and speak a Turkic dialect. Some see the Chinese state as an occupier and advocate secession, often combined with calls to create an Islamic caliphate. China denies the allegations of mass detentions and claims that Uighurs are voluntarily enrolled in “educational and training facilities”, where they are de-radicalized through political and cultural instruction. Up to a million Uighurs are believed to have been enrolled in these facilities in the past year.

It is worth noting that the initial announcement of the Kashgar Caohu training center agreement between FSG and its Chinese client was eventually deleted from the company’s website. Late last week, an FSG spokesperson told several news agencies, including Reuters, that Prince was not involved in what was described in a statement as a “preliminary agreement” for a training center in Xinjiang. The spokesperson added that Prince probably had “no involvement whatsoever” in the agreement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 5 February 2019 | Permalink

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Huawei fires Chinese employee arrested in Poland for spying

Huawei PolandThe Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has fired one of its employees who was arrested last week in Poland on charges of spying for China, saying that his actions had “no relation to the company”. The man, identified in media reports as Wang Weijing, was arrested last Tuesday by Polish counterintelligence officers who conducted searches of Huawei’s offices in Warsaw and seized electronic hardware and documents. Wang reportedly learned Polish at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In 2006, he was posted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Chinese consulate in Gdansk, Poland’s largest Baltic Sea port city. In 2011, he left the Foreign Service and joined Huawei, which employed him at its offices in Poland.

Reports from Poland said that Wang was arrested alongside a Polish national, who was identified in media reports only as Piotr D. He is believed to be a mid-level executive of Orange, a French multinational telecommunications carrier who is Huawei’s main domestic partner in Poland. Polish media also reported that, prior to joining Orange, Piotr D. was an upper-level manager in an unnamed Polish intelligence agency. Piotr D.’s house was searched by security officers on Tuesday, along with Wang’s house. The two arrests came six weeks after Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, was arrested in Canada. Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was reportedly detained on December 1 in Vancouver at the request of the United States. Washington says it has evidence that Meng “tried to evade the American embargo against Iran”.

Over the weekend, Poland’s Internal Affairs Minister, Joachim Brudzinski, said that the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization —of which Poland is a member— should develop a joint position on whether to continue to allow Huawei to operate in Europe. But his call was reportedly met with a lukewarm response from government and private-sector leaders. Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was concerned about Wang’s arrest and urged Warsaw to treat him “with fairness”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 January 2019 | Permalink

China seeks clarification over alleged spy equipment ordered by US embassies

US embassy Berlin GermanyThe Chinese government says it is seeking explanations from Washington after a leaked procurement database showed that American embassies purchased data forensics software and various tactical spy equipment. The purported database was published on December 21 by the international anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange, who is accused by some in the United States of having violated its espionage laws. WikiLeaks has dubbed the database the “US Embassy Shopping List” and says that it contains over 16,000 procurement requests from officials at American embassies located all over the world.

Most procurement requests included in the WikiLeaks database appear to be for commonplace items or services, such as passenger transportation, heating oil, outdoor freezers, or garage gates maintenance and repair. But there are some requests for so-called “tactical spy equipment”, such as those ordered by the US embassies in Colombia and El Salvador. These appear to be for miniature surveillance cameras hidden into everyday objects, such as buttons, baseball caps, watches and ties. Nearly 100 such items were requested for procurement by the US embassy in San Salvador. Several embassies ordered hardware and software for forensic examination of mobile phones. For example, the US embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, ordered a “Cell Phone Analyzer”, which allows users to access data from cell phones while bypassing security measures such as passwords. Similar devices were ordered by the US embassies in Berlin (pictured), and Kiev, capital of Ukraine, where fears were expressed on Monday about a possible military action by Russian troops during the holidays.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was seeking “clarifications” from Washington about the documents made public by WikiLeaks. Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said that the US owed “the rest of the world an explanation […] for what has recently been revealed by WikiLeaks”. Chunying also spoke about prior WikiLeaks revelations, including the so-called “PRISM-gate” in 2013, which revealed extensive intelligence-collection activities by the US on numerous countries, including some if its allies, such as Germany and France. She went on to ask, “why do American embassies buy so much secret surveillance equipment?”. Authorities in Washington had made no comment on the WikiLeaks revelation as of Tuesday morning.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 December 2018 | Permalink

Cyber spies accessed thousands of European Union diplomatic cables

European Commission buildingA group of hackers, allegedly working for the Chinese military, accessed thousands of classified diplomatic cables from the European Union during a protracted cyber-espionage operation, a report has revealed. Over 100 organizations are believed to have been targeted in the multi-year cyber-espionage campaign, including the United Nations, international labor groups, as well as government ministries from dozens of countries. The operation was revealed on Tuesday by Area 1, a cyber-security company founded by former officials of the United States National Security Agency, and reported by The New York Times.

The compromised cables come primarily from the European Union’s COREU communication network, a Telex-based network that uses teleprinters to exchange text-based messages. The European Union uses the COREU network to transmit information that is classified “limited” or “restricted” between officials representing the executive governments of the European Union’s member states, members of the European Commission, foreign-ministry officials, and other approved parties. Top-secret information (“tres secret” in European Union parlance) is typically not shared on the COREU network. Consequently, the hacked cables contain mostly low-level information. That does not mean, however, that their access by at least one adversary power does not represent a serious security breach. Area 1 said that its forensic examination of the method used by the hackers reveals a set of cyber-espionage techniques that are closely associated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These clues, in association with the PLA’s long history of attacking Western diplomatic targets, point to Beijing as a very likely culprit behind the attacks, according to Area 1.

The American cyber-security firm said it was able to access the compromised European Union cables and made over 1,100 of them available to The New York Times. The paper reported on Tuesday that the cables reflect increasing tension between Brussels and Washington, as European Union diplomats attempt to get a handle on the unpredictability of United States President Donald Trump. A series of diplomatic cables discusses the whether the European Union should bypass the White House and work directly with the Republican-controlled US Congress, which is viewed as more reliable and responsible. Another set of diplomatic exchanges describes the frustration of the Beijing’s leadership with Trump, which Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have described to European Union officials as “a bully [engaged in a] no-rules freestyle boxing match”.

The Times said that it notified the European Union of the breach of its diplomatic cables and was told that officials were “aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and [were] actively investigating the issue”. The paper also contacted the White House National Security Council but did not get a response.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 December 2018 | Permalink

Canada arrests daughter of Chinese telecom giant’s founder at US request

Meng WanzhouThe daughter of the founder of Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers, has been arrested in Canada, reportedly at the request of the United States. Meng Wanzhou (pictured, also known as Sabrina Meng) serves as Huawei’s deputy chair and chief financial officer. She is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei a former officer in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, who established the company in 1988 and has since amassed a personal fortune estimated at $3.5 billion. By virtue of her family background and position in Huawei, Meng is often referred to as “a member of China’s corporate royalty”.

Few details of Meng’s arrest have been publicized. On Wednesday, Canada’s Department of Justice confirmed that the Huawei CFO was detained on December 1 in Vancouver as she was transferring between flights. The Justice Department also confirmed that the arrest occurred at the request of American law enforcement officials. In a carefully worded statement, the Canadian government said Meng is “sought for extradition by the United States” and that her bail hearing will be taking place this coming Friday. On Wednesday, the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail cited an unnamed “Canadian law enforcement source with knowledge of the arrest”, who said that US authorities had evidence that Meng “tried to evade the American embargo against Iran”. This statement appears to refer to reports in Western media in April of this year, according to which the US Departments of Commerce and Treasury were probing suspected violations of Washington’s sanctions against Iran and North Korea by Huawei.

The embassy of China in Canada immediately protested news of Meng’s arrest, saying that the Huawei CFO had been detained despite “not violating any American or Canadian law”. In a statement issued on Wednesday, the embassy added that it had “lodged stern representations” to the Canadian government and “urged them to immediately […] restore the personal freedom of Ms. Meng Wanzhou”. Meanwhile, a representative at Huawei’s corporate headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen told the BBC that the company is certain “the Canadian and US legal systems will ultimately reach a just conclusion” in the case.

Several officials in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other Western countries, have repeatedly flagged Huawei as a company that is uncomfortably close to the Chinese government and its intelligence agencies. In 2011, the US Open Source Center, which acts as the open-source intelligence arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, became the first US government agency to openly link Huawei with the Chinese intelligence establishment. In 2013, the British government launched an official review of Huawei’s involvement in the UK Cyber Security Evaluations Centre in Oxfordshire, England, following a British Parliament report that raised strong concerns about the Chinese company’s links with the government in Beijing. And in 2017 the Australian government expressed concern about Huawei’s plan to provide high-speed Internet to the Solomon Islands, a small Pacific island nation with which Australia shares Internet resources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 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

CIA suffered ‘catastrophic’ compromise of its spy communication system

CIAThe United States Central Intelligence Agency suffered a “catastrophic” compromise of the system it uses to communicate with spies, which caused the death of “dozens of people around the world” according to sources. This is alleged in a major report published on Friday by Yahoo News, which cites “conversations with eleven former US intelligence and government officials directly familiar with the matter”. The report by the online news service describes the compromise of an Internet-based covert platform used by the CIA to facilitate the clandestine communication between CIA officers and their sources —known as agents or spies— around the world.

According to Yahoo News, the online communication system had been developed in the years after 9/11 by the US Intelligence Community for use in warzones in the Middle East and Central Asia. It was eventually adopted for extensive use by the CIA, which saw it as a practical method for exchanging sensitive information between CIA case officers and their assets in so-called ‘denied areas’. The term refers to regions of the world where face-to-face communication between CIA case officers and their assets is difficult and dangerous due to the presence of ultra-hostile intelligence services or non-state adversaries like the Taliban or al-Qaeda. However, it appears that the system was flawed: it was too elementary to withstand sustained scrutiny by Internet-savvy counterintelligence experts working for state actors like Iran, China or Russia.

In September of 2009, Washington made a series of impressively detailed revelations about the advanced status of Iran’s nuclear program. These angered Tehran, which redoubled its efforts to stop the US and others from acquiring intelligence information about the status of its nuclear program. Some sources told Yahoo News that one of the CIA assets inside Iran’s nuclear program was convinced by the Iranians to become a double spy. He proceeded to give Tehran crucial information about the CIA’s online communication system. Based on these initial clues, the Iranians allegedly used Google-based techniques “that one official described as rudimentary” to identify an entire network of CIA-maintained websites that were used to communicate with assets in Iran and elsewhere. The Iranians then kept tabs on these websites and located their users in order to gradually unravel an entire network of CIA agents inside their country. Around that time, Iranian media announced that the Islamic Republic’s counterintelligence agencies had broken up an extensive CIA spy ring consisting of more than 30 informants.

The Yahoo News report says that the CIA was able to successfully exfiltrate some of its assets from Iran before the authorities were able to apprehend them. The agency also had to recall a number of undercover officers, after they were identified by the Iranians. The effects of the compromise, however, persisted on a global scale, according to former US intelligence officials. In 2011 and 2012, another network of CIA spies was busted in China, leading to the arrest and execution of as many as three dozen assets working for the US. Many, says Yahoo News, believe that the Iranians coached the Chinese on how to use the CIA’s online communication system to identify clandestine methods and sources used by the agency.

Along with other specialist websites, IntelNews monitored these developments as they took place separately in Iran and China. However, the Yahoo News report is the first to piece together these seemingly disparate developments and suggest that they were likely triggered by the same root cause. What is more, the report suggests that the CIA had been warned about the potential shortcomings of its online communication system before 2009, when the first penetrations began to occur. In response to the compromise, the CIA has reportedly modified, and at times completely abandoned, its online communication system. However, the implications of the system’s compromise continue to “unwind worldwide” and the CIA is “still dealing with the fallout”, according to sources. The effects on the agency’s operational work are likely to persist for years, said Yahoo News.

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