Australia rejected CIA request to open embassy in North Korea

PyongyangAustralia rejected a secret request by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to open an embassy in North Korea, which the Americans hoped to use as a base from where to collect intelligence on the communist state. According to The Australian newspaper, Washington approached the Australian government because it is one of the few pro-Western governments that continue to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Up until 1975, Australia was a rare example of a country that hosted embassies of both South Korea and North Korea on its soil. But when Canberra took South Korea’s side in a United Nations vote, the North Koreans objected by shutting down their embassy in Australia. A quarter of a century later, in 2000, Pyongyang reopened its embassy in the Australian capital, only to close it down again in 2008, due to financial constraints.

Throughout that time, Australia has maintained relatively smooth diplomatic relations with North Korea, but has refrained from opening a residential mission in the communist country. Instead, employees of Australia’s embassy in South Korea occasionally travel to the North to perform diplomatic tasks. But in 2014, the US Department of State reached out to Canberra to request that the Australian government consider the possibility of establishing a permanent residential mission in Pyongyang. According to The Australian, the request came from the CIA, which hoped to use the Australian embassy as a base from where to collect intelligence on the isolated country. The US, which lacks an embassy in North Korea, has always found it difficult to collect intelligence there.

The American request was promptly communicated to the then-Prime Minister Tonny Abbott and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. Both appeared willing to consider Washington’s proposal. But the civil servants of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who were tasked with putting together a cost-benefit analysis of the request, came back with a negative response. They allegedly contacted their colleagues working in other countries who maintain permanent residential diplomatic missions in Pyongyang. They told them that their consular employees are kept in complete isolation from North Korean society and government. Additionally, they are subjected to constant surveillance by the North Koreans, who are extremely suspicious of all foreign diplomats. Moreover, Canberra was worried that opening an embassy in Pyongyang would inevitably be seen by the North Koreans as an invitation to reopen their embassy in Australia. It would require significant effort and resources to monitor the activities of North Korean diplomats, who are notorious for abusing their diplomatic status by engaging in illicit activities of all kinds.

Eventually, therefore, the US request was rejected by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The latter concluded that Canberra should not proceed with opening a new embassy in Pyongyang, despite the allegedly “strong suggestion” of the CIA. The matter, said The Australian, never reach the cabinet and Washington never brought it up again.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2017 | Permalink

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More facts revealed about mystery sonic attacks on US embassy in Cuba

US embassy in CubaAmerican officials have revealed more information about a mysterious sonic device that is believed to have caused numerous diplomats to suffer hearing loss and other serious ailments. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the first hearing-loss symptoms were reported by personnel at the US embassy in Havana in the fall of 2016. The news agency said that at least five embassy personnel reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. The symptoms were so serious that caused some American diplomats “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”, according to the Associated Press.

Now new information has been disclosed by the United States Department of State. It suggests that, although diplomats began reporting hearing-loss symptoms in as early as fall 2016, the incidents continued until mid-August of this year. In a report published on Saturday, the BBC said that the bizarre incidents had not ended “several months ago” as was initially believed. Instead, they continued even after the last week of May, when the US deported two Cuban diplomats from Washington, DC. The move was in response to what Washington believes was a deliberate attempt to sabotage its diplomatic mission in Havana. The American embassy in the Cuban capital reopened in 2015, 54 years after it was closed down following a series of diplomatic rifts between Cuba and the US during the height of the Cold War.

Additionally, the Department of State said on Friday that the number of American diplomats and other US embassy personnel who have reported sonic-related symptoms has increased to 19. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington that doctors were still evaluating the health of those serving at the US embassy in Havana. She added that new cases of people suffering from sonic-related medical symptoms could not be ruled out. A report from the American Foreign Service Association, which represents members of the United States Foreign Service, said on Friday that its representatives had spoken to 10 people who had received various treatments for ailments related to the alleged sonic attacks in Cuba. It said that many had suffered “permanent hearing loss”, while others were diagnosed with mild brain injuries.

According to media reports, Washington has concluded that the American diplomats were exposed to “an advanced device that was deployed either inside or outside their residences”. But the Cuban government denied that it had anything to do with the American diplomats’ symptoms, and some believe that the alleged “covert sonic device” may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of Cuban authorities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2017 | Permalink

Mystery sonic device blamed for foreign diplomats’ hearing loss in Cuba

US embassy in CubaAuthorities in Cuba, the United States and Canada are investigating reports that several foreign diplomats stationed in Havana have been experiencing severe hearing loss in recent months. Some are blaming the deployment of a mystery “covert sonic device” for the diplomats’ symptoms. The allegations originate from diplomatic personnel stationed at the US embassy in Havana. The embassy reopened in 2015, 54 years after it was closed down following a series of diplomatic rifts between Cuba and the US during the height of the Cold War.

Last week, citing anonymous “officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case”, the Associated Press said that the first hearing loss symptoms were reported by personnel at the US embassy in Havana in the fall of 2016. Several of them —five, according to the Associated Press, though the Department of State will not give a precise number— reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. The news agency reported that, in a few cases, the symptoms were so serious that caused some American diplomats “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”. Following those bizarre incidents, authorities in Washington proceeded to conduct an investigation. They concluded that the American diplomats had suffered loss of hearing after being repeatedly “exposed to an advanced device that had been deployed either inside or outside their residences”.

In response to the outcome of the investigation, the White House secretly ordered on May 23 of this year the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats from the embassy of Cuba in DC. But the Cuban government denied that it had anything to do with the American diplomats’ symptoms, and some believe that the alleged “covert sonic device” may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of Cuban authorities. Meanwhile, the plot thickened on Friday of last week, after the Canadian government claimed that at least one of its diplomats stationed in Havana had also suffered from sudden loss of hearing. Canada has now joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Diplomatic Security Service in the US in investigating the incidents. The Cubans have also launched their own investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2017 | Permalink

US spies confirm Qatar’s claims that its media were hacked by Emirates to spark crisis

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-ThaniAmerican officials appear to confirm Qatar’s allegations that its news media were hacked by its Gulf adversaries, who then used the fake news posted by hackers to launch a massive campaign against it. Tensions between Qatar and other Muslim countries have risen since late May, when the country’s state-controlled news agency appeared to publish an incendiary interview with Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. In the interview, which appeared on May 24, the sheikh appeared to praise Saudi regional rival Iran as a “great Islamic power” and to express support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas. On the following day, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain immediately banned all Qatari media —primarily Al Jazeera— from broadcasting in their territories and broke diplomatic relations with Doha. Later on, they declared a large-scale commercial embargo against the small oil kingdom. They have since threatened war unless Qatar changes its alleged support for Iran and for a number of militant groups in the region.

The Qatari government has dismissed the embargo as unjust and has claimed that Sheikh al-Thani’s controversial interview was fake, and was placed on the country’s state-owned news agency and social media as a result of a computer hack. It has also claimed to have evidence of a number of iPhones that were used from locations in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to launch the hacks on its networks. Qatari officials have also said that an investigation into the incident is underway, but their claims have been criticized as outlandish by Qatar’s regional rivals.

Now, however, a report by The Washington Post claims that American officials have uncovered evidence that Qatar’s allegations of a computer hack are true. The paper cited “US intelligence and other officials” who spoke “on the condition of anonymity”. The officials said that US intelligence agencies recently became aware of a meeting of senior UAE state administrators that took place on May 23 in Abu Dhabi. At the meeting, the officials discussed a plan to hack Qatari news websites and social media, in order to post incendiary messages that could be used to spark a row between Qatar, the Saudi government and its allies. The alleged computer hacks is reported to have taken place on the following day. According to The Post, the only thing that US intelligence is unsure about is “whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done” by a third party.

The Post said that several US intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, refused to comment on its report. The paper received a response from the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, which said that the Emirates had “no role whatsoever in the alleged hacking described in the article”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2017 | Permalink

Russia allegedly planning to expel 30 American diplomats in a few weeks

US embassy in MoscowRussia is planning to expel approximately 30 American diplomats from its territory, and seize buildings and property belonging to the United States Department of State, according to Russian media reports. The expulsions will be in response to the expulsion last December of 35 Russian diplomats stationed in the US by the administration of President Barack Obama. In addition to expelling the diplomats, Washington also reclaimed two “recreational facilities” (in reality intelligence outposts) that were used by the Russians in New York and Maryland. The White House said that the expulsions were ordered in response to alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.

Observers, including the present author, were confident at the time that the Kremlin would respond in kind. In a surprising move, however, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not respond to Mr. Obama’s move, in the hope that US-Russian relations would improve with the arrival of the new president in the White House. He added that Russia reserved the right to retaliate at a later time. Moscow’s response was met with praise by the then-president-elect Donald Trump and his transition team.

But Russia’s hopes for warmer relations with the US under Mr. Trump’s leadership do not seem to be materializing. A recent article in the daily Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the Kremlin thought it was “outrageous” that the Trump White House had not yet returned the two seized compounds to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not rescinded the expulsions of the 35 diplomats and their families. It also claimed that President Putin raised the issue with his US counterpart during their July 7 meeting in the German city of Hamburg. The Moscow-based newspaper quoted unnamed senior Russian officials, who said that Russia was preparing to expel dozens of American diplomats and seize US diplomatic facilities soon.

It appears that Russia will wait until the upcoming meeting between the US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which has been scheduled for later this month in St. Petersburg. If no US assurances for the return of the compounds and diplomats are made at that time, Moscow will proceed with its tit-for-tat plan. When asked about Izvestia’s article, the Russian Minster of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, replied that the Kremlin was “weighing specific measures” in response to last December’s expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US. However, Mr. Lavrov said he did not want to elaborate at the present time, while also refusing to deny the newspaper’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2017 | Permalink

Ex-CIA contractor says Pakistan’s leaders helped him escape murder charges

Raymond Allen DavisA former contractor for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was released from a Pakistani prison in 2011 despite being implicated in a double murder there, says he was freed with the help of senior Pakistani officials. Raymond Allen Davis was a CIA contractor posted in the US consulate in Pakistan’s Punjabi capital, Lahore, which is also the country’s second-largest city. It has been suggested that, for a while, Davis was the CIA’s acting station chief in Lahore, thus technically the most senior American intelligence officer in Punjab.

On January 27, 2011, while driving in downtown Lahore, Davis opened fire against two men riding on a motorcycle, killing them instantly. Soon after the incident, Davis appears to have contacted the US consulate in Lahore, which rapidly dispatched a consular vehicle to remove him from the scene of the shooting. However, the vehicle was unable to reach Davis, who was surrounded by an angry crowd. Unable to pick up Davis, the car then returned to the consulate after running down and killing a motorcyclist who was unconnected with the earlier incident. Eventually Davis was arrested and charged with double murder and illegal possession of a firearm. The Pakistani government dismissed Washington’s assertion that Davis was an accredited diplomat, and was thus not subject to Pakistan’s legal system because of his diplomatic immunity. With public opinion in Pakistan heavily against Davis, the case sparked a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Islamabad. Unexpectedly, however, Davis was released in March of the same year, after the families of the two men he killed appeared in court and said they forgave him and wanted him to be pardoned. It later emerged that the families of the murdered men had been given a total of $2.4 million as compensation for their deaths.

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German intelligence agency spied on thousands of targets in the United States

BND GermanyThe foreign intelligence service of Germany spied on at least 4,000 targets in the United States from 1998 until 2006, according to a leaked document published yesterday by leading German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. The German investigative weekly said that the surveillance was carried out by the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The Hamburg-based magazine claimed to have in its possession a list of approximately 4,000 “selector keywords”, unique distinguishing terms, addresses or numbers that identify individual targets for surveillance. The list allegedly includes names, telephone or fax numbers, and email addresses of people that the BND had identified as worthy of individual attention between 1998 and 2006.

According to Der Spiegel, the list of targets in the United States includes officials in the White House, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of State. Their work and private phone numbers, and often emails, are listed in the BND document. The latter also focuses on the American military sector, paying particular attention to the US Air Force and the Marine Coprs. Other targets include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the US Pentagon’s intelligence organization. In addition to US government targets, the BND exercised surveillance on American companies with ties to the state, such as Lockheed Martin, as well as state-owned universities. The leaked list also includes targets in international organizations that have an institutional presence in the US, such as the International Monetary Fund and the Arab League, which has an office in Washington. Hundreds of foreign embassies and consulates in the US were also targeted, said Der Spiegel.

German-American relations suffered a major setback in 2013, when it was revealed that Washington had spied on the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In response to the revelations, Germany expelled the Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Berlin —the most senior American intelligence officer in the country. It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s revelations will affect the current relations between the two transatlantic allies. Neither the BND nor the US embassy in Berlin responded to questions about Der Spiegel‘s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 June 2017 | Permalink