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

Pakistan sentences two, including senior military officer, to death for espionage

Inter-Services Public Relations PakistanA military court in Pakistan has sentenced two men to death and one to 14 years in prison for espionage. The alleged spies, who have been named, include a lieutenant general and civilian employee of a security agency. In February, several Pakistani news outlets reported that “an international spying network” had been dismantled in the country following the arrests of at least five intelligence and security officials who were working for foreign interests. Soon afterwards, the online reports were taken down and nothing more was said about the arrests. But on Thursday, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the country’s Armed Forces, said in a statement that three men had been sentenced for “espionage/leakage of sensitive information to foreign agencies” which “prejudiced national security”.

The three men were identified as Lieutenant General Javed Iqbal, Brigadier (ret.) Raja Rizwan, and Dr. Wasim Akram, who was reportedly “employed at [an unidentified] sensitive organization”. Iqbal and Akram were sentenced to death, while Rizwan was sentenced to 14 years of “vigorous imprisonment”, according to ISPR. Reports in local media said that General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistani Army’s Chief of Staff, had approved the sentences handed to the men by the military judges. This means that the sentences will be carried out unless Pakistan’s President, Arif Alvi, pardons them. Interestingly, the ISPR statement noted that the three men were tried in separate military courts for separate cases. No further information was provided. As intelNews reported in February, Pakistani media claimed at the time that those arrested included a Pakistani official with diplomatic credentials who was serving in a Pakistani embassy “in a European capital”.

No information has emerged about the country or countries to which the alleged spies gave sensitive information. Back in February, Pakistan’s leading conservative daily, The News International, claimed that the spies’ handlers belonged to an intelligence agency of one of “the world’s most powerful countries”. The paper also hinted that the alleged spy network may have been working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, but provided no information to support this claim. It added that the network had been “completely dismantled” following a counterintelligence operation that an unnamed source described to the paper as “remarkable”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 May | Permalink

Family of alleged UAE spy who died in Turkish prison call for investigation

Zaki Mubarak Hassan and Samer ShabanThe family of a man who died in a Turkish prison on Sunday while awaiting trial for allegedly spying for the United Arab Emirates has called for an international investigation into this death. Zaki Mubarak Hassan and Samer Shaban —both Palestinians— were reportedly arrested by Turkish police on April 21 and charged with espionage. Turkish counterintelligence officials suspect that at least one of the suspects may have been involved in a spy operation that relates to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed last October inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by a 15-member team of Saudi intelligence officers.

Shortly after the two men were arrested, the Reuters news agency cited an anonymous “senior Turkish official” who said that one of two men arrived in Turkey just days after Khashoggi’s murder. He was allegedly monitored by Turkish counterintelligence for a period of six months and his activities led investigators to the second man. The latter is believed to have traveled to Turkey in order “to help his colleague with the workload”, said Reuters. The source added that the two UAE nationals had undergone several hours of interrogation, during which they had confessed that they were employees of the UAE intelligence service. They had also admitted to recruiting local residents as informants. Their activities and targets were consistent with intelligence operations aimed at exiled Arab nationals and students living in Turkey, said the source. The unnamed Turkish official told Reuters that authorities had amassed “extensive evidence” on “covert activities on Turkish soil” by the two men, and described the case against them as “airtight”.

Yesterday, however, the Turkish government announced that one of the men, Zaki Mubarak Hassan, had been found dead in his prison cell in Istanbul. Press reports said that Hassan was found “Sunday morning hanging from a bathroom door” in his cell, and that prosecutors were investigating the formal cause of his death. Late on Monday, his family told the Saudi Arabian Arab News channel that they did not believe Hassan had killed himself. Speaking to Arab News from his home in Bulgaria, Hassan’s brother, Zakeria, said that agents of the Turkish government killed his brother because they realized he was not a spy for the UAE and “they didn’t want to show that they made a mistake”. He added that he had notified the Palestinian ambassador in Ankara of his brother’s arrest, but the ambassador did not seem interested in assisting the family. Meanwhile, the uncle of the second man, Samer Shaban, told another Saudi news channel, Al Arabiya, that his nephew had left the Gaza Strip in 2007 for Egypt. Zaki Mubarak said that Shaban, a Palestinian police officer, was a Fatah supporter and eventually moved from the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip to the UAE, where he began working as an employee of the Palestinian Authority’s consulate in Dubai. His goal, said Mubarak, was to immigrate with his family to Turkey and from there to Europe.

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

Turkey announces arrests of two alleged UAE intelligence officers in Istanbul

UAE nationals arrested in Turkey on espionage charges

Covert surveillance photograph of two UAE nationals arrested in Turkey on espionage charges (TRT Haber)

Turkish authorities have announced the arrest of two men believed to be intelligence officers for the United Arab Emirates; the two have already confessed to recruiting local informants, according to Reuters. The news agency said Turkish counterintelligence officials suspect that at least one of the suspects may be involved in a spy operation that relates to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed last October inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by a 15-member team of Saudi intelligence officers.

Last Friday, Reuters cited an anonymous “senior Turkish official” who said that both men are Emirati nationals and that one of them arrived in Turkey just days after Khashoggi’s murder. He was allegedly monitored by Turkish counterintelligence for a period of six months and his activities led investigators to the second man. The latter is believed to have traveled to Turkey in order “to help his colleague with the workload”, said Reuters. Turkey’s state-owned news agency, TRT Haber, published Turkish police photographs of the two men in custody, but did not name them. It also published covert surveillance photographs of the two men, presumably taken by Turkish counterintelligence. A source told Reuters that Turkish counterintelligence officials had entered an Istanbul apartment used by the two men as a safe house, where they found an encrypted computer “in a hidden compartment”. The source added that the two UAE nationals had undergone several hours of interrogation, during which they had confessed that they were employees of the UAE intelligence service. They had also admitted to recruiting local residents as informants. Their activities and targets were consistent with intelligence operations aimed at exiled Arab nationals and students living in Turkey, said the source.

The unnamed Turkish official told Reuters that authorities had amassed “extensive evidence” on “covert activities on Turkish soil” by the two men, and described the case against them as “airtight”. However, when contacted by Reuters, Turkey’s Ministry of Interior declined to comment on the arrests. A spokesman for Istanbul’s Police Department confirmed that a police operation against the two Emirati nationals was ongoing. Turkish media reports on Saturday said that the two men had appeared before a court in Istanbul and that they were being kept in custody on charges of espionage against the Turkish state.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 April 2019 | Permalink