CIA to return to traditional espionage against state actors, says new director

Gina HaspelThe United States Central Intelligence Agency will return to traditional espionage against foreign states and focus less on counterterrorism against non-state actors, said its new director in her first public appearance. Gina Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 as a reports officer and completed several undercover tours overseas before serving as chief of station. She rose through the ranks to become deputy director of the National Clandestine Service and was appointed deputy director of the CIA in 2017. In May of this year, she became the Agency’s first female director, despite some controversy that arose from her role as chief of a CIA undercover facility (so-called “black site”) in Thailand. Critics alleged that Agency personnel under her command practiced enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, on terrorism detainees.

On Monday, Haspel gave a talk at the University of Louisville, from where she graduated in 1978 with a degree in languages and journalism, having transferred there from the University of Kentucky. It was her first public appearance after being sworn in as CIA director. She told the audience that she intends to steer the Agency back to traditional intelligence collection against “current and potential […] nation-state adversaries” and away from counterterrorism operations against non-state actors. The latter took center stage after the events of September 11, 2001. Filling current “intelligence gaps” on countries like Russia and China will be “a strategic priority” for the CIA, said Haspel, adding that the Agency will seek to “sharpen its focus on nation-state adversaries”. She spoke at length about China, stating that Beijing was “working to diminish US influence” and expand its own authority “beyond their own region, in places like Africa, Latin America, the Pacific islands [and] South Asia”.

The CIA’s hiring priorities will reflect the Agency’s strategic shift, said Haspel. The Agency will seek to expand its foreign footprint by “increasing the number of [its] officers stationed overseas”. Priority for these assignments will be given to foreign-language speakers with skills in Chinese, Arabic and Farsi, among other target languages. Interestingly, the CIA director added Turkish, French and Spanish to the list. She also said that the Agency will “invest more heavily on […] counternarcotics efforts abroad”. Last but not least, Haspel spoke about the need for increased transparency, diversity and inclusion at the CIA, which last year marked its 70th anniversary.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2018 | Permalink

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CIA informants inside Russia are going silent, say US sources

Kremlin, RussiaSecret informants inside the Russian government, which the United States has relied on in recent years for tips about Moscow’s strategy and tactics, have gone silent in recent months, according to sources. Over many years, US intelligence agencies have built networks of Russian informants. These consist of officials placed in senior positions inside the Kremlin and other Russian government institutions, who can help shed light on Russia’s political maneuvers. These informants were crucial in enabling the US Intelligence Community to issue warnings of possible Russian meddling in the American presidential elections of November 2016. Since then, US spy agencies have largely relied on these informants to produce detailed assessments of Russian intelligence activities targeting the US, and propose measures against those involved.

But on Friday, The New York Times said in an article that these vital sources of information in Moscow have been going silent in recent months. Citing “current and former officials”, the paper said that US officials did not believe that the informants have been captured or killed. Instead, they have voluntarily “gone underground” because of “more aggressive counterintelligence” practiced by Russian security agencies. Moscow has stepped up attempts to detect spies operating inside Russia since the Sergei Skripal incident, when relations between it and most Western countries sank to their lowest point since the Cold War. In turn, Western informants operating in Russia have “decided it is too dangerous to pass information” and have gone “silent for their own protection”, said The Times.

This situation, however, has left the Central Intelligence Agency and other US spy agencies “in the dark” about the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, just as America is nearing its mid-term elections. The lack of information has been exacerbated by the expulsion of dozens of American diplomats from Russia in March of this year. Moscow announced the expulsions in response to Washington’s decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats in protest against the attempt —allegedly by Russia— to kill Sergei Skripal in England. Many of the diplomats who were expelled from Russia were in fact intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover. Few of those are now left on Russian soil and, according to The Times, “are under incredible surveillance” by Russian counterintelligence agencies. Washington is still collecting information from Russia through other channels, including communication intercepts, which, according to The Times, “remain strong”. But the paper cited anonymous American officials who “acknowledged the degradation in the [overall flow of] information collected from Russia.

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

Crowdfunding campaign seeks release of CIA’s mind control program files

CIA headquartersAn online fundraising campaign is seeking to secure the release of over 4,000 pages of documents relating to a controversial mind control program developed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The project, referred to as MKNAOMI/MKULTRA in US government files, was a joint effort by the CIA and the US Department of Defense to study the effects of substances such as heroin and LSD on the human brain. It began in 1953 and over the years involved the work of hundreds of scientists, many of whom were not aware they were working on a CIA project. But it was hurriedly shut down in 1976, once post-Watergate investigations by the US Congress revealed that it led to the death of at least one person and involved the application of drugs on hundreds of nonconsenting subjects. Several lawsuits relating to MKULTRA have been filed in US courts in recent years.

In 2004, the Black Vault, a volunteer website specializing in publishing declassified government documents, released tens of thousands of pages that were released by the CIA following a lengthy Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) application. The agency released the file along with an 85-page index that listed the file’s contents. But in 2016, a Black Vault reader noticed that some of the listings contained in the file were missing from the documents. Working through the news aggregation and discussion website Reddit, a group of readers identified all the irregularities in the released documents and notified Black Vault’s owner, John Greenwald. Greenwald then contacted the CIA and, following a two-year exchange with the agency’s FOIA desk, he was told that the missing pages would require a separate FOIA request. The reason, according to the CIA, is that the original FOIA request had requested documents pertaining to “mind control”, whereas the missing pages related to “behavioral modification”, which is a separate topic.

The CIA told Greenwald that releasing the pages pertaining to “behavioral modification” would require a payment of $425.80, at 10 cents per page. After failing to convince the CIA that it should release the pages for free, because they should have been included in the original 2004 FOIA petition, Greenwald decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign. He used the popular crowdfunding website GoFundMe to request $500 toward a new FOIA and related expenses. By Wednesday night, the campaign had exceeded the amount requested by Greenwald. The owner of the Black Vault website now says that he is preparing to file a FOIA for 4,358 pages about MKULTRA that are missing from the original 2004 document release.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 August 2018 | Permalink

Montenegro seeks arrest of ex-CIA officer accused of role in pro-Russian coup

Montenegro coupGovernment prosecutors in Montenegro, the youngest member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, claim that a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency helped pro-Russian plotters organize a coup in 2016. In October of that year, authorities in Montenegro accused “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” of staging a failed plot. Their goal was allegedly to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović, spark a pro-Russian coup in the country, and prevent its entry into NATO. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested in Montenegro for allegedly planning an armed coup. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, 2016, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had even hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović, according to Montenegrin police. After killing the prime minister, the plotters allegedly planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup.

Russia has vehemently denied the allegations. But in March of last year, the then British foreign secretary Boris Johnson appeared to validate the Montenegrin government’s allegations. Since then, a sensational trial has been taking place in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica of the 20 men who were arrested in October 2016, in addition to two Russians who are being tried in absentia. During the trial, prosecutors fingered Joseph Assad, a former CIA officer, as a co-conspirator in the coup plot. The Egyptian-born Assad served as a counter-terrorism expert in the CIA after arriving in the US in 1990, but eventually left the agency to launch his own security firm. It is believed that at the time of the alleged coup plot, Assad’s firm was employed by Aron Shaviv, a political strategist connected with the Democratic Front, a vocal pro-Russian opposition party in Montenegro. Shaviv, who has joint British and Israeli citizenship, said he hired Assad’s firm to provide counter-surveillance against Montenegro’s security services. According to Shaviv, the Montenegrin authorities spied on him and harassed him because of his connections to a domestic political party that is seen as pro-Russian.

But prosecutors in the trial of the alleged coup plotters claim that Assad’s role was to organize and provide escape routes and methods for the coup plotters. In light of these allegations, a warrant has been issued for Assad, accusing him of “operating a criminal enterprise”, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Assad has rejected the charges as a “deception campaign”. In a statement issued on Saturday, he said he was “a loyal American who had no role in any crimes or coup in Montenegro”. Meanwhile, the Democratic Front and a number of other opposition parties in Montenegro denounced the government’s claims of a failed coup as “publicity stunts” aimed at distracting the country’s citizens from the state of the economy and other domestic concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2018 | Permalink

Judge rules that Trump’s tweet did not disclose top-secret CIA operation in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyA United States federal judge ruled on Monday that a tweet by President Donald Trump did not inadvertently disclose a top-secret program by the Central Intelligence Agency to aid rebel groups in Syria. The lawsuit, brought by The New York Times, centered on news reports published in 2017 by Reuters, The Washington Post, and others, claiming that the US president had terminated an extensive CIA program that provided assistance to rebel forces engaged in the Syrian Civil War. The program was reportedly initiated by US President Barack Obama, who in 2015 instructed the CIA to assist armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Aside from training, the CIA assistance reportedly included the provision of light and heavy ammunition, such as antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

But President Trump allegedly terminated $1 billion program soon after he took office. Last July, the president openly disputed an account by The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous, which claimed that Trump had ended the program as a concession to Russia. In a tweet, Trump said: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad”. Shortly afterwards, another newspaper, The New York Times, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, arguing that the president’s tweet had effectively disclosed the existence of the covert CIA program and seeking full details from the government. But the CIA rejected the The New York Times’ rationale, at which point the paper took the case to court.

But on Monday, US District Court Judge Andrew Carter Jr. dismissed the paper’s argument. In a 20-page decision, posted online by the US-based news website Politico, Judge Carter said that President Trump’s tweet had been too vague and ambiguous to be considered as effectively declassifying the secret CIA program. At no point did the US president “make an unequivocal statement, or any statement for that matter, indicating that he was declassifying information”, said the judge. Additionally, Trump’s tweet and other public statements on the matter did not undermine the legal authority of the US government to continue to keep details about the CIA program under wraps. According to Politico, which reported on Judge Carter’s decision, this development will make it difficult for other FOIA filers to use Trump’s tweets as justification for seeking information about secret government programs. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Monday that it would seek to appeal Judge Carter’s decision.

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

Chinese shipbuilding boss gave CIA aircraft carrier secrets, reports claim

Liaoning aircraft carrier ChinaOne of China’s most senior shipbuilding executives, who has not been seen in public for nearly two weeks, has been charged with giving secrets about China’s aircraft carriers to the United States. Sun Bo, 57, is general manager of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), China’s largest state-owned maritime manufacturer, which leads nearly every major shipbuilding project of the Chinese navy. Most notably, Sun headed the decade-long retrofitting of the Liaoning, a Soviet-built aircraft carrier that was commissioned to the Chinese Navy’s Surface Force after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The ship arrived at the CSIC’s Dalian shipyard in northeastern China in 2002. Work on the vessel was completed in 2012. Today CSIC heads the construction of so-called Type 001A, China’s first home-built aircraft carrier, which is said to be modeled largely on the Liaoning. The company is also spearheading the construction of numerous Chinese Navy frigates, latest-generation destroyers, and numerous other vessels. Earlier this year, it was announced the CSIC would build the Chinese Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

As the second most senior official of China’s largest and most important shipbuilder, Sun has supervised all of the company’s projects during the past two decades. But Sun effectively disappeared after June 11, when he made his last known public appearance at a CSIC event. On June 17, a brief notice posted on the company’s website stated that Sun had been placed under investigation for “gross violation of laws and [Communist] Party [of China] discipline”. The brief notice said that the probe of Sun’s activities was led by China’s National Supervision Commission and the Communist Party of China’s Central Commissariat for Discipline Inspection, but provided no further details.

It has now been reported by multiple Chinese news websites that Sun is under investigation not simply for graft, but for far more serious activities involving espionage. Specifically, it is claimed that Sun was recruited by the United States Central Intelligence Agency because of his supervisory role in China’s aircraft carrier building programs. He is believed to have provided the CIA with information about the decade-long retrofitting of the Liaoning. More importantly, there are reports that Sun gave the CIA blueprints and other technical specifications of the Type 001A, which is currently under construction at a top-secret facility. The Hong Kong-based English-language news website Asia Times said on Thursday that, given the sensitive nature of the charges against Sun, it is unlikely that the Chinese government would reveal the outcome of the investigation of the CSIC executive.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 June 2018 | Permalink

China gave ex-CIA officer “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” to spy on US

 Chinese Ministry of State SecurityChinese intelligence operatives gave a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” in exchange for carrying out espionage, according to court papers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, on January 15, accusing him of possessing classified information that included lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. Lee, 53, was reportedly arrested after a lengthy FBI sting operation, which included creating a fictional job in the US in order to entice Lee to travel to New York from Hong Kong, where he had been living after leaving the CIA in 2007.

Lee is now scheduled to appear before a US circuit court judge on Friday morning, in order to be officially charged with one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government and two counts of unlawfully retaining information pertaining to national defense. According to the indictment, in April of 2010 Lee met two officers of China’s Ministry of State Security. The meeting allegedly took place in Shenzhen, a city in southern China that borders Hong Kong. During that encounter, the indictment claims that Lee was offered “a gift of $100,000 in cash” in exchange of providing the Ministry of State Security with information about his career in the CIA. He was also told by the two Chinese intelligence officers that China would “take care of him for life” if he continued to cooperate with them.

In May of 2010, Lee deposited about $17,000 into one of his HSBC accounts in Hong Kong. Court documents allege that the deposit was the first of many that followed, and that they amounted to “hundreds of thousands of dollars”. These deposits continued to occurr until the end of 2013, when Lee made his last substantial cash deposit in Hong Kong. Throughout that time, Lee received regular written instructions from the Ministry of State Security, asking him to provide information about CIA operations. Lee did so at least 21 times, says the indictment. In one instance, he drew the floorplan of a CIA facility abroad and gave it to the Chinese, according to the indictment. Lee is expected to plead not guilty on Friday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 May 2018 | Permalink