Werner Stiller, one of the Cold War’s most notable defectors, dies

Werner StillerWerner Stiller, also known as Klaus-Peter Fischer, whose spectacular defection to the West in 1979 inflicted one of the Cold War’s most serious blows to the intelligence agency of East Germany, has died in Hungary. Stiller, 69, is believed to have died on December 20 of last year, but his death was not reported in the German media until last week. Born in 1947 in the German Democratic Republic, Stiller excelled in the sciences from an early age and eventually studied physics at the University of Leipzig, which was known at the time as Karl Marx Universitat. Shortly after graduating, he joined the GDR’s Ministry of State Security, commonly known as the Stasi. Within a few years, he was working as a case officer for the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance, the Stasi’s foreign intelligence division, where he was in charge of scientific espionage in the West. By the late 1970s, Stiller was handling nearly 30 spies —most of them abroad— who were regularly providing him with intelligence relating to nuclear research, weapons technologies, and biomedical research.

However, the Stasi vehemently disapproved of Stiller’s promiscuous lifestyle —he was married five times in his life and was reputed to have had many more affairs— which was one of the reasons why he decided to seek a new life in the West. In January of 1979, with the help of a waitress he was having an affair with, Stiller defected to West Germany along with a packet of microfiche containing hundreds of classified Stasi documents. He later helped the waitress escape to the West with her young son and an estimated 20,000 more pages of classified documents. The West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) eventually shared the information from Stiller’s defection with the United States Central Intelligence Agency. It led to the dramatic arrests of 17 Stasi agents and officers in Europe and the US, while at least 15 others escaped arrest at the last minute, after being urgently recalled back to East Germany. The Stasi is believed to have recalled an additional 40 operatives from several Western countries as a precaution in response to Stiller’s defection. The information that Stiller gave to the BND also helped visually identify the longtime director of the Stasi’s Main Directorate for Reconnaissance, Markus Wolf. Previously, Western intelligence services had no photographs of Wolf, who was known as ‘the man without a face’, due to the many decades he spent as an undercover officer.

In 1981, Stiller moved to the US, where the CIA provided him with a new identity, using the fake name Klaus-Peter Fischer, a Hungarian émigré. He studied economics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, before working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs in the US and eventually an exchange broker for Lehman Brothers in Germany. It is believed that the Stasi kept looking for Stiller until the dissolution of the GDR in 1990, with the intent of abducting him or killing him. In 1999, Stiller moved to Hungary, where he stayed until the end of his life. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

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

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Trump authorizes CIA to bring back regular use of drone strikes

DroneUnited States President Donald Trump has reportedly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to bring back the routine use of lethal airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which his predecessor, Barack Obama, curtailed in 2013. Washington began employing limited strikes by UAVs, otherwise known as drones, in the early 1990s, during the administration of President Bill Clinton. But it was under the Obama administration that the use of drone strikes reached an all-time high, with hundreds of such attacks documented after 2008. It is believed that Obama used this remote attack method to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while at the same time keeping his promise of bringing back American troops from the Middle East and Central Asia. However, in 2013 the US president severely curtailed the controversial program, which some say damaged America’s image by inflicting civilian casualties.

But on Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump had resuscitated the drone program and authorized the CIA to begin using Predator drones on a regular basis against identified targets in the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the newspaper, the president gave senior CIA project mangers the right to authorize drone strikes. Under the Obama administration, the president himself, or especially designated National Security Council officials, had to give the go-ahead before the CIA could carry out drone strikes around the world.

The Wall Street Journal said that President Trump made the decision on January 21, just hours after taking office, following a secret meeting with senior officials from the CIA. According to the report, the CIA requested some time to rebuild the program. But the agency has allegedly conducted at least one drone strike, which targeted Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a known al-Qaeda senior commander in Syria, who was reputed to be a son-in-law of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 March 2017 | Permalink

FBI launches criminal investigation into WikiLeaks’ CIA disclosures

WikiLeaksThe United States federal government has launched a criminal investigation into the public disclosure of thousands of documents that purportedly belong to the Central Intelligence Agency. The documents were released on Tuesday by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. They reveal what appear to be technical collection methods used by the CIA to extract information from digital applications and electronic devices, ranging from flash drives to smart screen televisions. WikiLeaks named the collection “Vault 7”, and said that it consists of nearly 8,000 web pages and 1,000 attachments. It also said that its editors redacted hundreds of pages of computer code, in order to prevent the public release of advanced cyberweapons allegedly used by the CIA to sabotage electronic devices and systems.

On Wednesday, former director of the CIA Michael Hayden told the BBC that the disclosure appeared “incredibly damaging”, because it revealed some of the methods that the CIA uses to acquire information. But some cybersecurity experts said that the techniques contained in the leaked documents did not appear to be uniquely advanced, and most focused on exploiting technical vulnerabilities that were generally known. Still, The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the CIA had begun to assess the damage caused by the release. The agency was also trying to contain the extent of the damage, and had even “halt[ed] work on some projects”, said The Times. Officials from the CIA are reportedly in communication with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which on Wednesday launched a criminal investigation into the “Vault 7” release.

The main purpose of the FBI investigation is to find out how WikiLeaks acquired the files. The website said that the documents were leaked by a CIA contractor, which would imply that they were accessed from a server outside the CIA’s computer network. However, federal investigators are not excluding the possibility that the leaker of the information may be a full-time CIA employee. Reports suggest that the FBI is preparing to conduct hundreds, and possibly thousands, of interviews with individuals who are believed to have had access to the documents that were released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, neither the FBI nor the CIA have commented on the authenticity of the information contained in “Vault 7”. WikiLeaks said that Tuesday’s release, which it codenamed “Year Zero”, was the first part of several installments of documents that will be released under its Vault 7 program.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 March 2017 | Permalink

Files released by WikiLeaks show advanced CIA technical collection methods

Julian AssangeThousands of documents belonging to the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which were released on Tuesday by the international anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, are almost certainly genuine. They reveal an entire universe of technical intelligence collection methods used by the CIA to extract information from digital applications and electronic devices, ranging from flash drives to smart screen televisions. WikiLeaks named the collection Vault 7, and said that it consists of nearly 8,000 web pages and 1,000 attachments. It also said that its editors redacted hundreds of pages of computer code, in order to prevent the public release of advanced cyberweapons that are allegedly used by the CIA to sabotage electronic devices and systems.

The information contained in the leaked documents is almost certainly genuine, and most likely belongs to the CIA —though many of the programs listed may be jointly run by the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA). These programs, with names such as McNUGGET, CRUNCHYLIMESKIES, ELDERPIGGY, ANGERQUAKE and WRECKINGCREW, appear to be designed to compromise computer systems using a series of sophisticated methods that force entry or exploit built-in vulnerabilities or systems. Targets include popular communications systems like Skype and WhatsApp, smartphones produced by Google and Apple, commercial software like PDF and Microsoft Windows, and even so-called smart televisions that connect to the Internet.

The WikiLeaks revelations are most likely related to operations conducted under the auspices of the Special Collection Service (SCS), a joint CIA/NSA program that dates to the earliest days of the Cold War. The program was started by the United States Armed Forces but was eventually transferred to civilian hands and monitored by the CIA. It used advanced communications-interception facilities around the world to collect information. Over the years, the CIA collaborated with the NSA and developed many SCS projects targeting several foreign countries using technical and human means. In recent years the SCS has been primarily operated by the NSA, which oversees the program’s technical platforms.

WikiLeaks did not reveal the source of the documents. But it said that they had been “circulated [by the CIA] among former US government hackers and contractors” and that it was one of the latter that leaked them to the anti-secrecy website. A statement by WikiLeaks said that Tuesday’s release, which it codenamed “Year Zero”, was part one of several installments of documents that will be released under its Vault 7 program. The site also claimed that the information in “Year Zero” has “eclipsed the total number of pages published over the first three years of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks”. The CIA, the NSA and the White House have not commented on this development.

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

Trump administration instructs CIA to halt support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyThe White House has instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some believe that the move indicates a change in American policy under United States President Donald Trump. But Syrian rebel commanders say they believe the move is temporary, and that military aid will be restored. For several years, the CIA has provided training and other forms of assistance to rebel groups in Syria, such as the New Syrian Force, which operate under the umbrella of the FSA. Aside from training, the assistance has included light and heavy ammunition, including antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

However, it appears that the CIA was instructed nearly a month ago by the White House to freeze all assistance to these rebel groups. Correspondents from the Reuters news agency said they confirmed the change in policy by speaking to senior rebel commanders from five armed groups operating under the FSA. These commanders told Reuters that they had not been given any official reason for the sudden termination of all CIA assistance. The change coincided with the change of guard at the White House, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Some in Washington, as well as some members of rebel factions in Syria, are concerned that the change in the CIA’s stance might denote a broader policy shift in the White House. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said repeatedly that he would end America’s overt and covert support for the FSA and would focus instead on defeating the Islamic State.

But the rebel commanders themselves told Reuters that the freeze in CIA support was due to a wave of renewed attacks against them by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a Sunni militant group that was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels said that the CIA was concerned that weaponry provided to the FSA would end up in the hands of jihadist militants, so it temporarily halted its support until Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could be pushed back by FSA forces. Reuters published comments by two anonymous officials who were familiar with the CIA’s operations in Syria. They told the newspaper that the freeze of the CIA’s program had “nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January”. Additionally, said Reuters, Mr. Trump’s policy in Syria remains unknown. Several newspapers and news agencies contacted the CIA asking for comments, but the agency declined all requests on Wednesday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 February 2017 | Permalink

Wall Street Journal alleges US spies hide sensitive intelligence from Trump

Donald Trump CIAIn a leading article published on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal alleged that American intelligence officials are choosing to withhold sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump, fearing that it might be compromised. The WSJ, America’s leading newspaper by circulation, which is highly influential in conservative circles, cited “current and former officials familiar with the matter”. The paper said it was unclear how much information had been withheld from President Trump. It added that at no point did intelligence officials keep the president in the dark about critical security threats by foreign states or potential terrorist attacks by non-state groups. However, intelligence officials are consciously and systematically withholding information from the White House that concerns “sources and methods”, said the article. The term refers to the precise methods used by the United States Intelligence Community to collect information, as well as the identification of sources —human or otherwise— of the information.

In recent weeks, several media outlets have alleged that American intelligence officials are skeptical about providing the White House with sensitive information. Late last month, Steve Hall, a former member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Senior Intelligence Service, told National Public Radio that the matter of President Trump’s trustworthiness was “a live question” at the CIA. But this week’s article in The WSJ marks the first time that a conservative media outlet alleges that senior American intelligence officials mistrust the president. According to the New York-based newspaper, the Intelligence Community is uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s “repeated expressions of admiration” for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Many intelligence officials are also disturbed by the US president’s public support for the alleged hacking of Democratic Party computer servers by the Kremlin.

Relations between the White House and the Intelligence Community are said to be extremely tense at the moment. On Wednesday, President Trump repeated his previously stated allegation that the US Intelligence Community is systematically leaking information to the media in order to subvert his administration’s work. The WSJ said it spoke to a representative from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which heads and oversees the US Intelligence Community. The representative questioned the accuracy of the newspaper’s allegations, saying that “any suggestion that the US intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true”. The report was also denied by an official at the White House, who said that Mr. Trump and his aides had no evidence “that leads us to believe that [The WSJ article] is an accurate account of what is actually happening”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 February 2017 | Permalink

Top aide to Trump’s security adviser denied security clearance by CIA

Michael FlynnA senior aide to Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser to United States President Donald Trump, will have to step down from his post because his application for a security clearance was rejected, say sources. Flynn had chosen Robin Townley, a former intelligence officer in the US Marine Corps, to serve as Senior Director for Africa on the National Security Council, a forum chaired by the president, which makes key decisions on domestic and foreign issues. Townley, who is described as “one of Flynn’s closest deputies”, held a top-secret security clearance for many years during his government career. But joining the National Security Council requires a so-called “sensitive compartmented information” clearance. This elite-status clearance allows designated individuals to access government programs and operations that are deemed highly sensitive.

According to Politico, Townley’s application for a sensitive compartmented information clearance was rejected last week. The news website cited two anonymous sources “with direct knowledge of the situation”, who said that Townley was informed on Friday that his application had been rejected. The rejection came from the Central Intelligence Agency, said Politico. One source told the website that the rejection had been met with agreement by Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s appointee to head the CIA. Townley cannot reapply for clearance, which means that he will have to give up his National Security Council post. Flynn will have to replace him.

The Politico report claims that Flynn and his team were “infuriated” by the CIA’s decision, which is expected to further-escalate tensions between the retired lieutenant-general and the Intelligence Community. Flynn has been criticized for his allegedly close connections to the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, he delivered a speech in Moscow in return for a fee, and dined with Putin. Earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated a telephone conversation between Flynn and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US, as part of a counterintelligence probe. Last week, The Washington Post alleged that Flynn and Kislyak discussed the topic of American economic sanctions on Russia, and that Flynn told the Russian diplomat that they would be lifted by the Trump administration.

The Politico report said that Flynn’s team views the rejection of Townley’s security clearance application as “a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him”. It also said that Flynn’s team believe that the Intelligence Community feels “threatened by Flynn and his allies”. The website contacted the National Security Council and the CIA but received no responses.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 February 2017 | Permalink