US intelligence reevaluates safety of Russian defectors in light of Skripal poisoning

CIAIntelligence officials in the United States are feverishly reassessing the physical safety of dozens of Russian defectors, in light of the case of Russian double spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in England last March. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Like MI6, the US Central Intelligence Agency also has a protection program for foreign nationals whose life may be at risk because they spied for the US. The CIA’s protection division, called the National Resettlement Operations Center, helps resettle and sometimes hide and protect dozens of foreign agents, or assets, as they are known in CIA lingo. But following the Skripal case, some CIA resettlement officials have expressed concern that protection levels for some foreign assets may need to be significantly raised. The New York Times, which published the story last week, said that it spoke to “current and former American intelligence officials”, which it did not name. In light of those concerns, US counterintelligence officials have been carrying out what The Times described as “a wide-reaching review” of every Russian asset who has been resettled in the US. The purpose of the review is to assess the ease with which these former assets can be traced through their digital footprint on social media and other publicly available information.

According to the paper, several Russians who defected to the US after working for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies were tracked down by the Kremlin in recent years. In the mid-1990s, says The Times, the CIA actually found an explosive device placed under the car of a Russian defector living in the US. More recently, US intelligence traced the movements of a suspected Russian assassin who visited the neighborhood of a resettled Russian defector in Florida. In the past, Russian CIA assets who have been resettled in the US have voluntarily revealed their whereabouts by reaching out to relatives back in Russia out of homesickness. In some cases, they have left the US in order to meet a lover who may have been planted by the Russian spy services —with sometimes fatal consequences.

In addition to the US, at least one more country has initiated a thorough review of the way it protects former Russian assets living in its territory in light of the Skripal case. As intelNews reported in March, the British secret services tightened the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain only a week after the attempted murder of Skripal. Britain’s security services reportedly viewed the attack on Skripal as an intelligence failure and launched a comprehensive review of the risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter included attacks with chemical and radiological weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 September 2018 | Permalink

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Group of 13 North Korean defectors say they were ‘forcibly kidnapped’ by South

Pyongyang Restaurant in Jakarta, IndonesiaA group of 12 female North Korean restaurant workers and their male manager claim that their widely advertised defections in 2016 were fake, and that they were in fact abducted by South Korea’s spy services. The North Korean government maintains a chain of North Korea-themed restaurants throughout Asia, which operate as popular tourist attractions across Southeast Asia. The state-owned restaurants help provide the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang with desperately needed foreign funds. The North Korean staff —almost all of them female— who work at these restaurants are carefully vetted and chosen to represent the reclusive regime abroad. Some observers claim that these restaurants serve “as a main front to conduct intelligence gathering and surveillance [against foreign] politicians, diplomats, top corporate figures and businessmen”.

In April of 2016, the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo defected. They disappeared all of a sudden, and reappeared a few days later in South Korean capital Seoul, where South Korean authorities held a press conference. The South Koreans told reporters that the 13 North Koreans had decided to defect after watching South Korean television dramas, which allegedly caused them to lose faith in the North Korean system of rule. But Pyongyang dismissed the defections as propaganda and claimed that its citizens had been abducted by South Korean intelligence.

Now in a shocking interview published by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, Ho Kang-il, the male manager of the North Korean restaurant in Ningbo said that he and his staff had been forcibly taken to South Korea. Ho told Yonhap that he had been approached by officers of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) who tried to entice him to defect to South Korea. They told him that he could open a restaurant if he chose to lead a new life in the south. Initially Ho said he was interested in the offer. But when he appeared to change his mind, the NIS officers threatened to inform the North Korean embassy in China that he had been speaking with them. Ho also said that the NIS officers blackmailed his staff at the restaurant using similar methods. Consequently, all 13 of them decided to cooperate with the NIS, as they “had no choice but to do what they told [us] to do”, said Ho.

On Sunday, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, Ojea Quintana, said during a press conference that the UN was concerned about the allegations made by Ho. He also said that some of the North Korean defectors had told UN personnel that they left China without knowledge of where they were being taken by South Korean intelligence. Quintana concluded his remarks by calling for a “thorough investigation” into the alleged abductions of the North Koreans.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2018 | Permalink

Emirati royal seeks asylum in rival Qatar in unprecedented move

Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad al-SharqiA member of one of the United Arab Emirates’ seven royal families has defected to Qatar and asked for political asylum, in what appears to be the first time that an Emirati royal has publicly turned against the oil-rich kingdom. In May of last year, the UAE joined an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which broke off all diplomatic relations with Qatar. The coalition accuses the tiny oil kingdom of clandestinely supporting Iran and funding Iranian-backed militant groups in the region. The UAE also participates in an ongoing large-scale commercial embargo against Qatar, which observers say is part of the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But on the morning of May 16, 2018, security officers in the Qatari capital Doha were stunned when an Emirati royal appeared before them and asked for political asylum and protection from the UAE. The royal was Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad al-Sharqi, the second son of the emir of Fujairah, one of the seven kingdoms that form the UAE. As a son of Fujairah’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sharqi, Sheikh Rashid, 31, had been placed in charge of the kingdom’s state-owned media arm. But in a stunning development, which appears to be a first in the 47-year history of the UAE, the prince has now defected to the UAE’s rival Qatar, and is publicly airing criticism of the UAE’s secretive rulers. In an interview with The New York Times last weekend, the prince provided what the paper described as “a rare glimpse into tensions among the rulers of the UAE” —especially between the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which dominates the UAE, and the other six kingdoms.

Sheikh Rashid told The Times that Emirati officials were displeased with the country’s military intervention in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is battling against Iranian-backed rebels. The increasingly bloody war is now in its third year without a clear end in sight. According to the prince, the rulers of Abu Dhabi have repeatedly failed to consult the country’s six remaining kingdoms before making major decisions about the war in Yemen. The sheikh also accused the leadership of the UAE of money laundering, and claimed that it was routine for UAE royals like himself to be asked by the country’s rulers to make secret payments “to people he did not know in other countries”, in direct violation of international money-laundering laws. Prince Rashid also alleged that the UAE government had tried to blackmail him by threatening to reveal audiovisual material that would discredit his reputation.

The Times said it reached out to the government of the Emirate of Fujairah, but its messages were not returned. The paper also contacted the UAE’s embassy in Washington, DC, but officials there declined to comment. For the time being, Sheikh Rashid remains at an unspecified location in Qatar, but the Qatari government will not comment as to his whereabouts.

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

Senior North Korean counterintelligence official believed to have defected

Chilbosan HotelOne of North Korea’s most senior intelligence officials, who played a major role in building Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, has disappeared and is believed to have defected to France or Britain, according to sources. South Korean media identified the missing official as “Mr. Kang”, and said he is a colonel in North Korea’s State Security Department (SSD), also known as Ministry of State Security. Mr. Kang, who is in his mid-50s, enjoyed a life of privilege in North Korea, because he is related to Kang Pan-sok (1892-1932), a leading North Korean communist activist and mother to the country’s late founder, Kim Il-sung.

According to South Korean reports, Kang was in charge of North Korea’s counter-espionage operations in Russia and Southeast Asia, including China. He is also believed to have facilitated secret visits to Pyongyang by foreign nuclear scientists, who helped build North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In recent years, Kang was reportedly based in Shenyang, the largest Chinese city near the North Korean border, which is home to a sizeable ethnic Korean population. According to reports, Kang led Unit 121, an elite North Korean hacker group based in Shenyang, with the aim of carrying out cyber-attacks without implicating North Korea. The South Korean-based DailyNK website said on Wednesday that Kang had been based at the Zhongpu International Hotel in Shenyang (until recently named Chilbosan Hotel), which has historically been operated through a joint Chinese-North Korean business venture and is known to host numerous North Korean government officials.

But according to DailyNK, Kang disappeared from Shenyang in February and is now believed to have defected, possibly “to France or Great Britain”. The Seoul-based website said Kang took “a lot of foreign currency with him” as well as “a machine capable of printing American dollars”. Following Kang’s disappearance, the government in Pyongyang launched a worldwide manhunt for him, sending at least 10 agents to assassinate him before he is given political asylum in the West, said DailyNK. Pang’s family, including his wife and children, are believed to still be in Pyongyang.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 3 May 2018 | Permalink

Britain looking to resettle poisoned Russian spy to the United States, says source

Sergei SkripalThe British government may relocate Sergei Skripal, the Russian double spy who appears to have survived an assassination attempt in England, to the United States, in an effort to protect him from further attacks. The BBC reported last week that Skripal, who had been in a critical condition for nearly a month, was “improving rapidly”. Skripal, 66, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, and has been living in England since 2010, was poisoned with what London claims was a military-grade nerve agent. Nearly every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and the United States, expelled Russian diplomats in response to the attack on the Russian former spy. His daughter, Yulia, who is 33, also came down with nerve-agent poisoning on the same day as her father, but appears to have survived.

The London-based newspaper The Sunday Times said yesterday that British government officials are exploring the possibility of resettling Skripal and his daughter in an allied country. The paper claimed that the countries being considered for possible relocation belong to the so-called “Five Eyes” agreement (also known as UKUSA), a decades-old pact between intelligence agencies from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the United States. The Times quoted “an intelligence source” familiar with the negotiations allegedly taking place between the British government and its UKUSA partners. The source reportedly told the paper that the Skripals “will be offered new identities”, but did not elaborate on how they would avoid attention after their images were published by every major media outlet in the world following last month’s incident in England.

The anonymous source told The Times that “the obvious place to resettle [the two Russians] is America because they are less likely to be killed there and it is easier to protect them there under a new identity”. The paper also reported that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, is holding discussions with its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, about resettling the Skripals on American soil. But an article published on Sunday in another British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, said that senior government officials in the United States are now worried that Russian defectors and former spies living there may not be safe. The paper quoted an unnamed “senior US administration official” as saying that Washington has “massive concerns” that US-based Russians who have spied for America, or have publicly criticized the Kremlin, could be targeted just like Skripal. The Times said it contacted the British Foreign Office seeking to confirm whether the Skripals would be relocated abroad, but did not get a response.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 9 April 2018 | Permalink

Russian double agent Sergei Skripal wrote to Putin seeking to return, says friend

Vladimir PutinSergei Skripal, the Russian double agent who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England earlier this month, wrote to the Kremlin asking to return to Russia, according to one of his old school friends. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition in hospital, three weeks after being poisoned with a nerve agent that British scientists say belongs to Russia’s Cold-War-era chemical stockpiles. Moscow has angrily rejected claims that Skripal, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, was on a Kremlin-approved hit-list of defectors. On March 17, the Kremlin expelled 23 British diplomats from Moscow in response to London’s earlier expulsion of 23 Russians, which the British government said were “undeclared intelligence officers”.

On Saturday, the BBC said it contacted one of Skripal’s friends from his school days, who said that he was contacted by the double spy in 2012. Vladimir Timoshkov told the BBC that he was a childhood friend of Skripal when the two were in school together, but lost contact later in life. In 2006, when he learned through the media that Skripal had been convicted of espionage, Timoshkov said he managed to contact Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, after finding her on a social media platform. He remained in contact with her, and in 2012 he received a telephone call from Skripal himself. By that time, the double spy was living in England, having relocated there after the Kremlin swapped him and three others for 10 Russian spies who had been caught in the United States.

Timoshkov said that he and Skripal spoke for half an hour, during which Skripal told him he was “not a traitor” to the Soviet Union, the country that he had initially promised to protect. According to Timoshkov, Skripal also said that he had “regretted being a double agent” because his life had “become all messed up”. He also said that he felt isolated from his old classmates and friends, who shunned him following his arrest and conviction for espionage. During the telephone conversation, Skripal allegedly told Timoshkov that he had written a personal letter to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking for a full pardon. He did so because he missed his mother, brother, and other relatives who were living in Russia, and he wanted to visit them. In the letter to President Putin, Skripal denied that he betrayed his country and asked for “complete forgiveness” from the Russian leader, said Timoshkov.

But on Sunday, the Russian government denied that a letter from Skripal had been received by the Kremlin. The BBC report was also denied by the Russian embassy in London. In a tweet quoting the Kremlin, the embassy said: “There was no letter from Sergei Skripal to President Putin to allow him to come back to Russia.”

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

British intelligence to tighten security protection for Russian defectors

MI6The British secret services have begun tightening the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain, a week after the attempted murder of former KGB Colonel Sergei Skripal in southern England. The 66-year-old double spy and his daughter, Yulia, were found in a catatonic state in the town of Salisbury on March 4. It was later determined that they had been attacked with a nerve agent. Russian officials have vehemently denied that the Kremlin had any involvement with the brazen attempt to kill Skripal. But, according to The Times, the British intelligence community has concluded that Skripal and his daughter were attacked on Moscow’s orders —most likely the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, where Skripal worked until his arrest for spying for Britain in 2004.

Citing an unnamed source from Whitehall, the administrative headquarters of the British government, The Times said that initial assessments of Skripal’s poisoning were damning for Britain’s intelligence community. They raised questions, said the source, about the ability of Britain’s two primary spy agencies, the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), to provide security to their assets. The source told The Times that it was “impossible to reduce […] to zero” the risk of serious physical harm against individuals like Skripal, and before him Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who was poisoned to death in London in 2006. But the attack on Skripal is being viewed as an intelligence failure, said the source, and part of the response to it involves a comprehensive review of risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter include attacks with chemical and radiological weapons, said The Times.

The report came as another British-based Russian defector, Boris Karpichkov, told The Daily Mirror newspaper that the Kremlin has tried to poison him three times since 2006. Karpichkov, 59, joined the KGB in 1984, but became a defector-in-place for Latvian intelligence in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He claims to have also spied on Russia for French and American intelligence. In 1998, carrying two suitcases filled with top-secret Russian government documents, and using forged passports, he arrived in Britain with his family. In 2006, while living in the UK, Karpichkov says he was warned by MI5 to leave the country because his life may be in danger. He temporarily relocated to New Zealand, where he says he was attacked with an unidentified nerve agent. He told The Mirror that he lost nearly half his weight during the following weeks, but survived due to good medical care. However, he was attacked again, he said, four months later, while still living in New Zealand.

Karpichkov told The Mirror he had been warned that his name was on a shortlist of eight individuals that the Kremlin wanted to kill. He also claimed that he was told by a source to watch out for people carrying electronic cigarettes, because Russian intelligence had developed nerve-agent weapons that were disguised as e-cigarette devices.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 March 2018 | Permalink