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

Russian security services honor members of the Cambridge spy ring with plaque

Guy BurgessThe intelligence service of Russia has openly honored two British members of the so-called Cambridge Five spy ring, who caused great controversy during the Cold War by defecting to Moscow. The intelligence services of the Soviet Union recruited five Enlishmen, H.A.R. ‘Kim’ Philby, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, as well as an unnamed fifth person, to spy for them in the 1930s. All five were recruited while they were promising young students at Britain’s elite Cambridge University, and entered the diplomatic and security services in order to supply Moscow with classified information about Britain and its allies.

In 1951, shortly before they were detained by British authorities on suspicion of espionage, Burgess and Maclean defected to the Soviet Union. They both lived there under new identities and, according to official histories, as staunch supporters of Soviet communism. Some biographers, however, have suggested that the two Englishmen grew disillusioned with communism while living in the Soviet Union, and were never truly trusted by the authorities Moscow. When they died, however, in 1963 (Burgess) and 1983 (Maclean), the Soviet intelligence services celebrated them as heroes.

On Friday, the Soviet state recognized the two defectors in an official ceremony in the Siberian city of Samara, where they lived for a number of years, until the authorities relocated them to Moscow. Kuibyshev, as the city was known during Soviet times, was technically a vast classified facility where much of the research for the country’s space program took place. While in Kuibyshev, Burgess and Maclean stayed at a Soviet intelligence ‘safe house’, where they were debriefed and frequently interrogated, until their handlers were convinced that they were indeed genuine defectors.

At Friday’s ceremony, officials unveiled a memorial plaque at the entrance to the building where Burgess and Maclean lived. According to the Reuters news agency, the plaque reads: “In this building, from 1952-1955, lived Soviet intelligence officers, members of the ‘Cambridge Five’, Guy Francis Burgess and Donald Maclean”. On the same day, a letter written by Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the institutional descendants of the Soviet-era KGB, appeared online. In the letter, Naryshkin said that Burgess and Maclean had made “a significant contribution to the victory over fascism [during World War II], the protection of [the USSR’s] strategic interests, and ensuring the safety” of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Last year, Russian officials named a busy intersection in Moscow after Harold Adrian Russell Philby. Known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, Philby was a leading member of the Cambridge spies. He followed Burgess and Maclean to the USSR in 1963, where he defected after a long career with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

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

Victor Sheymov, among Cold War’s most important KGB defectors, dies at 73

Victor SheymovVictor Ivanovich Sheymov, who is often referred to as one of the most important intelligence defectors of the Cold War, has reportedly died in the American state of Virginia. He was one of the most senior officials in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (KGB) to ever defect to the West, and revealed important KGB secrets to the United States.

Sheymov was born in 1946 to a family of elite Soviet scientists. His father was an engineer and his mother a doctor specializing in cardiology. A gifted mathematician and student-athlete, Sheymov was recruited into the KGB almost as soon as he graduated from the elite Bauman Moscow State Technical University, where he majored in engineering. By his early 30s, Sheymov had risen to the rank of major under the KGB’s Eighth Chief Directorate, which handled secret communications systems. He oversaw a large unit that monitored the flow of information between the KGB’s headquarters and the agency’s operatives around the world. In later years, Sheymov was assigned code-breaking and counter-espionage tasks, and oversaw the preparation of daily classified briefings for the Politburo —the Communist Party’s highest policy-making body.

But in the 1970s Sheymov grew disillusioned with Soviet politics, and began to feel slighted by the infighting and incompetence inside the KGB. While visiting Poland on KGB business, he volunteered his services to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by walking into the US embassy in Warsaw. The CIA eventually gave him the cryptonym CKUTOPIA and, after verifying his senior status inside the KGB, exfiltrated him to the United States along with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. His was the first known instance of a successful CIA exfiltration of a defector from Soviet territory.

After spending several months being debriefed and polygraphed at a CIA safe house, Sheymov and his family were given new identities and US citizenship. But the defector decided to emerge from hiding in 1990, as the USSR was dissolving. In his book about his espionage work and defection, titled Tower of Secrets, Sheymov said he informed the CIA about the KGB’s unsuccessful plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and about the successful operation to assassinate Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in 1979. His insights were also instrumental in the decision of the US State Department to demolish the US embassy in Moscow, due to fears about the presence of listening devices planted inside the building’s walls by Soviet builders. The building was eventually replaced with another structure built by vetted American workers.

Sheymov was awarded the US Intelligence Medal and lived the rest of his life in America, where he headed a computer security company. He died on October 18 in Vienna, Virginia, but his death was not publicly reported until this week. Sheymov’s wife told reporters that he died from health complications arising from chronic pulmonary disease.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2019 | Permalink

As Australia launches probe, skeptics cast doubts on Chinese defector’s spy claims

Wang LiqiangAs the Australian government has launched an official investigation into the claims made by a self-styled Chinese intelligence defector, some skeptics have begun to cast doubts about his revelations. The claims of Wang “William” Liqiang have dominated news headlines in Australia for over a week. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Australian spy agency confirmed last week that Mr. Wang had provided a 17-page sworn statement, in which he detailed his work as an undercover intelligence officer for Chinese military intelligence. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they plan to carry out espionage operations on behalf of Bejing. Some media reports claimed that Mr. Wang had shared details about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia. The Australian government said on Tuesday that an official investigation had been launched into Mr. Wang’s claims.

But some skeptics in Australia and elsewhere have begun to raise doubts about the Chinese defector’s claims, suggesting that he has given little —if any information— that is genuinely new. Some argue that Mr. Wang is much too young to have been entrusted with senior-level responsibilities in the intelligence agency of a country that rarely promotes twenty-somethings in high-ranking positions. Additionally, Mr. Wang appears to have no military background —he claims to have been recruited while studying fine art— which is not typical of a Chinese military intelligence operative.

Furthermore, Mr. Wang episode interviewers from Australian television’s 60 Minutes program that he began feeling tormented by moral dilemmas when his staff officers supplied him with a fake passport bearing a different name, in preparation for an operation in Taiwan. However, by his own admission, Mr. Wang had been supplied with fake passports for previous operations, so it is not clear why he lost his nerve at the time he did. In fact, case officers usually covet the opportunity to go undercover and feel a sense of exhilaration when they receive fake identification documents for an undercover mission.

Is Mr. Wang not sharing the entire background to his decision to defect to Australia? Or could he be deliberately amplifying his role in Chinese intelligence, in an effort to appear useful to the Australian government and thus secure political protection by Canberra? In the words of Alex Joske, an analyst at the  International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the details in some of Mr. Wang’s claims mean that “government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Chinese defector reveals identities of Chinese undercover spies in Asia and Australia

Wang LiqiangA Chinese intelligence defector has reportedly given the Australian government information about entire networks of Chinese undercover spies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, according to reports. The story of Wang “William” Liqiang, made headlines all over Australia during the weekend, culminating in an entire episode of 60 Minutes Australia about him airing on Sunday. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son, who live in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

Police in the Chinese city of Shanghai claim that Mr. Wang is a small-time criminal who has been found guilty of using fraudulent documents and has a 15-month suspended prison sentence on his record. In a statement issued on Sunday, China’s embassy in Canberra described Mr. Wang as a “convicted fraudster” who was “wanted by police after fleeing [China] on a fake passport”. But according to reports in the Australian media, Mr. Wang has provided the ASIO with a 17-page sworn statement, in which he details his work as an undercover intelligence officer. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they organize and implement espionage operations on behalf of Bejing.

In a leading article published on Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald referred to Mr. Wang as “the first Chinese operative to ever blow his cover” and claimed that he had given the ASIO “a trove of unprecedented inside intelligence” about Chinese espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The newspaper said that the defector had revealed details about entire networks of Chinese intelligence operatives in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He also reportedly provided identifying information about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, Australian media said yesterday that the ASIO was examining allegations that a Chinese espionage ring tried to recruit an Australian businessman of Chinese background and convince him to run for parliament. According to reports, the spy ring approached Nick Zhao, a successful luxury car dealer, and offered to fund his political campaign with nearly $700,000 (AUS$1 million) if he run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Australia. Zhao reportedly told the ASIO about the incident last year, shortly before he was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. His death remains under investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 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

Russia fired officials over Smolenkov defection, filed INTERPOL search request

INTERPOLThe Russian government reportedly fired a number of officials over the defection of a senior Kremlin aide, who alleged worked as an American spy. Meanwhile, Moscow has filed a search request with INTERPOL about the alleged defector’s whereabouts. News of the defection was reported on September 9 by the American news network CNN. The network alleged that the man —which it did not name— was exfiltrated from Russia in 2017 by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, over fears about his life. A subsequent report in the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant identified the alleged defector as Oleg Smolenkov, 50, and said that he disappeared along with his wife and three children in the summer of 2017 while on holiday in Montenegro.

On September 11, the Reuters news agency revealed that Smolenkov was a career diplomat who served as senior aide to Yuri Ushakov, Russia’s former ambassador to the United States and senior international affairs advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the Kremlin disputes claims that Smolenkov was a highly placed official or that he could have been in possession of damaging classified intelligence.

According to a new report from Russia’s InterFax news agency, the Kremlin disciplined a number of Russian officials for permitting Smolenkov and his family to travel to Montenegro. The disciplinary action was taken soon after Smolenkov’s disappearance and led to a number of firings, said InterFax, citing anonymous government sources. In the summer of 2016, the Kremlin had issued a travel ban for Montenegro, which barred government employees from traveling there, due to the deteriorating relations between Moscow and the former Yugoslav Republic. Montenegrin authorities had previously claimed that Russia tried to stage a coup and planned to kill the country’s prime minister. According to InterFax, an investigation by “the relevant law enforcement agencies” concluded that those officials who had allowed the Smolenkovs to travel to Montenegro had “violated the ban”. They were therefore “disciplined and [some] were fired”, said the anonymous source.

Meanwhile it was reported on Friday that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed a search request for Smolenkov and his family with INTERPOL, the international agency that facilitates worldwide cooperation between national police organizations. When asked about it by Western news media, a Russian government spokeswoman said that Russia did what any other country would do in this situation: it contacted INTERPOL with “questions regarding the disappearance of […] a citizen of Russia on the territory of a foreign state along with his family […] and his presence on the territory of the United States”, said the spokeswoman.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 September 2019 | Permalink