More spies today in Australia than at the height of the Cold War, says intel chief

ASIO AustraliaThere are more foreign spies and their proxies operating today in Australia than during the height of the Cold War, according to the director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). This claim was made on Monday by Mike Burgess, who in 2019 was appointed director of the ASIO —Australia’s primary domestic security agency. Burgess added that the level of threat Australia faces from foreign espionage and other foreign interference activities is “currently unprecedented”.

Burgess made these comments during the AFIO’s Annual Threat Assessment, a new project that aims to inform Australians about counterintelligence activities against their country and highlight AFIO’s response. The agency’s director said that Australia is being targeted by “sophisticated and persistent espionage and foreign interference activities” from “a range of nations”, which “are affecting parts of the community that they did not touch during the Cold War”.

Additionally, the instigators of espionage operations against Australia have “the requisite level of capability, the intent and the persistence to cause significant harm” to Australia’s national security, said Burgess. The country is being targeted due to its strategic position and its close alliances with the leading Western countries, he said, and added that Australia’s advanced science and technology posture also attracts foreign espionage.

Burgess illustrated his presentation using the example of an unnamed “foreign intelligence service” that allegedly sent what he described as “a sleeper agent” to Australia. The agent, said Burgess, remained dormant for a number of years, quietly building links with the business community. During that time, the agent remained in contact with his foreign handlers and provided “on-the-ground logistical support” for foreign spies who visited Australia to carry out espionage.

The ASIO director did not identify the alleged “sleeper agent”, or the foreign countries that he alleged are spying against Australia. When asked about Burgess’ claims, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the government would not name the countries behind the alleged espionage activities. Doing so, said Morrison, would not be in Australia’s national interest. Instead, “we’ll deal with this in Australia’s national interest, in the way we believe that’s best done”, he added.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 February 2020 | Permalink

US arrests Mexican man for spying for Russia in mystery case involving informant

FBI MiamiThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrested a Mexican man, who is accused of spying in the city of Miami on behalf of the Russian government. Local media reports suggest that the target of the man’s spying was a Russian defector who gave American authorities information about Russian espionage activities on US soil.

In a news release issued on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice identified the man as Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, a Mexican citizen residing in Singapore. The statement said that Fuentes was arrested on Monday and was charged with “conspiracy” and “acting within the United States on behalf of a foreign government”.

According to the statement, Fuentes was recruited in April of 2019 by an unnamed Russian government official. His first assignment was to rent an apartment in Miami-Dade County using fake identification. One he carried out the assignment, Fuentes allegedly traveled to Russia, where he briefed his handler. He was then asked to return to Miami and drive to an apartment complex, where he was to observe a vehicle belonging to an individual that the Department of Justice statement describes as a “US government source”. Fuentes was tasked with providing his Russian handler with the vehicle’s license plate number.

Having been given a detailed physical description of the vehicle by his Russian handler, Fuentes drove to the apartment complex in Miami, but was stopped at the entrance to the complex by a security guard. While Fuentes was speaking with the security guard, Fuentes’ wife allegedly exited the car and took a photograph of the vehicle in question. According to the FBI, she later shared the photograph with Fuentes’ Russian handler on the mobile phone application WhatsApp. The photograph was discovered by US Customs and Border Protection agents on the smartphone of Fuentes’ wife on Sunday, as the pair tried to board a flight to Mexico City.

The US Department of Justice news release does not identify Fuentes’ alleged espionage target. But an article in The Miami Herald claims that the target is an FBI informant who has provided the Bureau’s counterintelligence division with critical information about Russian espionage operations in the Miami area. Fuentes is scheduled to appear in court for a pretrial detention hearing this coming Friday. His arraignment has been scheduled for March 3. The press release does not explain why Fuentes’ wife was not arrested.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2020 | Permalink

FBI examining FaceApp over potential counterintelligence concerns

FBIThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation says it is examining possible counterintelligence threats in connection with the popular online application FaceApp, which is headquartered in Russia. The application first made its appearance in January of 2017 and quickly became popular among smartphone users around the world. It allows users to upload a photograph of their face and then edit it with the help of artificial-intelligence software. The software can change the user’s photograph to make it look younger or older, or make it look as if it is from the opposite gender. The result can be impressively realistic and life-like.

The St. Petersburgh-based company behind FaceApp, Wireless Lab, claims that the photos of users are uploaded to cloud servers situated in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. They are then deleted within two days from the moment they are uploaded by users, without ever being transferred to servers located in the territory of Russia. But the FBI does not seem to believe these assurances. In a letter sent late last month to the Minority Leader of the US Senate, Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Bureau said it was examining FaceApp as part of its counterintelligence mission.

In the letter, which was published on Monday, Jill Tyson, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, said the fact that Wireless Lab is based in Russia raised a number of counterintelligence concerns. These relate to the types of data Wireless Lab collects on its customers and the privacy policies that apply to Russian Internet companies. According to Tyson, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has the right to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request” to network providers. He added that, if the FBI found that FaceApp was involved in activities meant to interfere with upcoming elections in the United States, the Bureau would investigate the matter further, and possibly involve the Foreign Influence Task Force, an FBI-led body that was established after the 2016 US presidential elections.

The FBI’s letter was written in response to an earlier letter sent to the Bureau by Senator Schumer in July, which expressed concerns about potential threats posed by FaceApp to the privacy of American Internet users and to the nations’ security as a whole.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 December 2019 | Permalink

FBI files espionage charges against California man who allegedly spied for China

Xuehua Edward PengThe United States has pressed espionage charges against a naturalized American citizen who operated as a courier for Chinese intelligence while working as a tour operator in California. On Monday federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed espionage charges against Xuehua “Edward” Peng, a 56-year-old Chinese-born American citizen. Peng, a trained mechanical engineer, reportedly entered the United States in June 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2012 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time he was working for US Tour and Travel, an independent tour operator in California.

On Friday, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Peng at his home in Hayward, California, and charged him with spying on behalf of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s primary external intelligence agency. At a press conference held on Monday, David Anderson, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, said that Peng began working for the MSS in June 2015 and continued to do so until June of 2018. Throughout that time, Peng participated in at least six dead drops on behalf of the MSS, said the FBI. But he was unaware that the agent on the other end of the dead drop was in fact an FBI informant, who had lured Peng and the MSS into an elaborate sting operation. The informant is referred to in the indictment as “the source”. The FBI said it paid the informant nearly $200,000 to facilitate the sting operation.

Most of the dead drops took place at a hotel in Newark, California. Peng would book a room in the hotel using a popular online booking service. He would check in and go to his hotel room, where he would hide envelopes containing as much as $20,000 in cash. He would then leave the room key at the front desk for his contact to pick up. The contact (the FBI informant) would pick up the key and the cash, and leave memory sticks with classified US government information for Peng to pick up. Peng would then travel to China to deliver the classified information to the MSS.

Unbeknownst to Peng, the FBI was monitoring him all along, and managed to secretly tape his alleged espionage activities. The surveillance footage is now part of the federal affidavit that was unsealed on Monday. Moreover, the FBI appears to have given Peng classified information that was approved for the purposes of the counterespionage operation against him. It is not known whether the classified information was real, deceptive, or a mixture of the two. It is worth noting that Peng is not a foreign diplomat and is therefore not subject to the rules of diplomatic immunity. He now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 October 2019 | Permalink

Extracts from Kim Philby’s espionage confession published today for the first time

Kim PhilbyExtensive extracts from the confession of Kim Philby, one of the Cold War’s most prolific double spies, are scheduled to be released today for the first time by Britain’s National Archives. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet OGPU and NKVD, the intelligence services that later became known as the KGB. His espionage activities lasted from 1933 until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Philby’s defection sent ripples of shock across Western intelligence and is often seen as one of the most dramatic incidents of the Cold War. He was part of a spy ring of upper-class British communists who were known collectively as ‘the Cambridge spies’ because they were recruited by Soviet intelligence during their student days at the University of Cambridge in England.

Britain’s intelligence establishment has never released Philby’s confession, which he made to his friend Nicholas Elliott, an intelligence officer in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in January 1963. The MI6 had sent Elliott to Beirut, where Philby was working as a journalist, to inform him that his espionage role for the Soviets had been established beyond doubt. The MI6 officer had been authorized to offer Philby immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession. Philby accepted the offer and began his confession while in Beirut. But a few days later he vanished and reemerged in Moscow in July of that year. He died there in 1988.

The file that is scheduled to be released today by the National Archives is marked “Secret” and comes from the Security Service (MI5), Britain’s primary counterintelligence agency. It contains details about Philby’s first assignments for Soviet intelligence, which included identifying other communist students at Cambridge who would be susceptible to recruitment. Philby’s list included the names of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who later became members of the Cambridge spy ring. Philby states in his confession that he cautioned his Soviet handlers about recruiting Burgess due to “his unreliability and indiscretion”, but his objections were “overruled”, he says.

When asked by Elliott how he could have sided with Soviet intelligence at a time when the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, was slaughtering millions, Philby responds by comparing his service for the KGB to joining the armed forces. Following orders, he says, does not imply that a soldier unquestionably agrees to every action of the government he serves. He goes on to reveal that his Soviet handlers never attempted to win his “total acceptance on the technical level. In short”, Philby continues, “I joined [Soviet intelligence] as one joined the army [… I often] obeyed orders although convinced they were wrongly conceived”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 September 2019 | Permalink

Threat from espionage is bigger than terrorism, says Australia’s spy chief

Duncan LewisThe director of Australia’s main national security agency has warned in a public speech that the threat from espionage —including cyber espionage— is greater than terrorism, and poses an “existential” danger to established states. Duncan Lewis was appointed director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in 2014, having already served for more than four decades in the Australian military and civilian government sectors. On Wednesday, Lewis gave a rare public address at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, ahead of his retirement from government service later this month.

The ASIO director said in his speech that terrorism poses “a terrible risk” and should be seen as “a very serious matter”. On the other hand, “terrorism has never been an existential threat to established states”, said Lewis. Additionally the risk from the current wave of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism has “plateaued” and should not be expected to increase drastically, he noted. On the other hand, the threat of foreign espionage “is ultimately an existential threat to the state, or it can be an existential threat to the state”, added Lewis. The ASIO director described espionage and foreign-influence activities as “typically quiet, insidious and with a long tail”. Thus, “unlike the immediacy of terrorism incidents”, the harmful effects of espionage may not appear for many years or even decades after the initial activity has been carried out, he said.

Additionally, said Lewis, Australia’s “middle power status” and close alliances with Western countries make it a major target for state-sponsored human and cyber espionage attacks. Adversary nations see Australia as “a rich target”, he said, and launched espionage operations against it daily. As a result, foreign intelligence operations against Australia are “on a growth path” and are taking place on an “unprecedented” scale and scope, according to Lewis. Such operations include “covert attempts to influence and shape the views of the [Australian] public, media, government and diaspora communities, both within Australia and overseas”, said Lewis, adding that they take place “every day”.

The espionage threat to Australia does not come from “one particular nation”, said the AFIO director, although some nations tend to display more “intent, sophistication and commitment” than others. Australia is obligated to resist against these threats by continuing to develop its counter-espionage capabilities and finding innovative and effective ways to detect and defend against foreign interference, Lewis said at the conclusion of his talk.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 September 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Did the US Central Intelligence Agency lose 17 spies in Iran?

US embassy IranIf the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown.

Officials in Tehran said on Sunday that all of the purported spies are Iranian nationals and were lured by the CIA with promises of receiving visas to enter America. Others were already in possession of visas and were “blackmailed” to spy for the US in order to have them renewed by the US Department of State, according to Iranian media reports. Visa applicants were allegedly carefully selected based on their work in critical areas such as Iran’s nuclear program or defense procurement.

A government-sanctioned documentary, which aired on Iran’s state owned television on Monday, claimed that the 17 spies did not know each other, but all had been trained independently in clandestine tradecraft. This allegedly included setting up and using secret communications systems, as well as carrying out dead drops without being detected. Dead drops utilized containersQ Quote made to look like rocks, which were located “in parks and other mountainous areas” in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to Iranian officials. Some of the assets communicated with their handlers while attending science conferences through- out Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Iranian television documentary claimed that the 17 arrests had “dealt a lethal blow to US foreign intelligence”. But US President Donald Trump said in a tweet that Tehran’s allegations were “totally false” and contained “zero truth”, just “more lies and propaganda” from Tehran.

Who is right? To begin with, there is no question that the CIA recruits heavily in Iran, given that the Islamic Republic is one of America’s —indeed the world’s— primary intelligence targets. What is more, since 1979, when Washington lost its embassy in Iran, the CIA have found it more difficult to collect accurate information from inside the energy-rich country. Therefore, the need for dependable assets inside Iran has increased exponentially, and has become even more pressing now, given the importance placed on Iran by Donald Trump. Additionally, Read more of this post