Trump administration considering mass expulsions of alleged Chinese spies

United States ChinaThe administration of United States President Donald Trump is considering the possibility of expelling from the country dozens of Chinese diplomats, journalists, and others, who are believed to be undercover spies. The expulsions relate to a spiraling information war between Washington and Beijing, which has erupted in recent weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced that it would expel 13 American journalists from three major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Beijing also stipulated that all American news organizations operating in China had to provide its government with detailed information about their financial assets, employee structure and other organizational information. The journalists claimed that they were expelled for trying to report about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic inside China.

Around the same time, President Trump and senior members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, began referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, known as novel coronavirus) as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus”. The term refers to the Chinese province where the virus is believed to have originated. President Trump claims that he decided to use the term “Chinese virus” in response to unsubstantiated claims by government officials in Beijing that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by members of the US military.

On Thursday The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering expelling from the US a large number of Chinese citizens who work as diplomats or journalists. In some cases, the White House is reportedly considering shutting down the bureaus of some Chinese media outlets in the US. According to a number of administration officials, many Chinese journalists based in the US are in reality undercover intelligence officers, who regularly report to the Ministry of State Security —China’s primary external intelligence agency. Some of these alleged undercover intelligence officers —known in the world of intelligence as ‘non-official cover’— are allegedly embedded with China Global Television Network, the foreign-language arm of the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), according to some American officials.

On March 2, the Trump administration abruptly imposed quotas on the number of foreign citizens who are permitted to work for Chinese media organizations in the US. The Chinese media groups complied with the new directive in a timely manner, by recalling over 60 of their staff members to China. However, the White House now believes that a significant number of the 100 Chinese journalists who continue to operate in the US are undercover intelligence officers.

Meanwhile, on March 25, China’s English-language government-owned newspaper The Global Times raised eyebrows by repeating allegations that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by an American cyclist, who visited Wuhan in October of last year to compete in the Military World Games. Such allegations, which propagate the view that the novel coronavirus originated in the US, are quickly growing in popularity in Chinese social media platforms.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 March 2020 | Permalink

Czech intelligence foiled North Korean plan to smuggle arms through Africa

Czech Security Information ServiceThe Czech intelligence services foiled a secret plan by North Korea to smuggle weapons parts and surveillance drones, leading to the expulsion of a North Korean diplomat from the country, according to a report. The report, published this week by the Czech daily Deník N, claims that the alleged plot was foiled by the Czech Security Information Service, known as BIS.

According to Deník N, the alleged plot took place in 2012 and 2013. It was initiated by a North Korean diplomat who was serving at the DPRK’s embassy in Berlin as an economic attaché. However, claims Deník N, the diplomat was in fact operating on behalf of the North Korean intelligence services. The unnamed diplomat allegedly traveled to Prague and contacted a local businessman, seeking to purchase spare parts for use in Soviet-built T-54 and T-55 tanks, as well as spare parts for armored vehicles and jet airplanes. The diplomat also sought to purchase surveillance drones, according to the newspaper.

The buyers reportedly planned to smuggle the acquired weapons parts and drones to North Korea through ports in Africa and China, said Deník N. Such an act would have violated the international embargo that has been in place against the DPRK since 2006. However, the plot was foiled by the BIS, which informed the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Czech government eventually detained the diplomat and expelled him from the country, said Deník N.

Following the newspaper article, BIS spokesperson Ladislav Šticha said that he “could not comment on the details” of the case, but could confirm that “in the past BIS has indeed managed to prevent trade in weapons from the Czech Republic to the DPRK”. Hours later, the BIS posted on its Twitter account that it could not comment “on the details of this case”, but added that “its outcome was very successful”.

IntelNews regulars will remember a similar report in the German media in 2018, according to which North Korea used its embassy in Berlin to acquire technologies that were almost certainly used to advance its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2020 | Permalink

US expels Chinese diplomats for the first time since 1987

Chinese embassy in the United StatesThe United States quietly expelled two Chinese diplomats in October of this year, a move that neither Washington nor Beijing chose to make public, according to a report published on Sunday. If true, the incident would signify the first known expulsions of Chinese diplomatic personnel from the US since 1987.

The incident was reported by The New York Times, which cited “six people with knowledge of the expulsions”. It said that the expulsions were triggered by an incident that took place in September in the US state of Virginia. It involved at least two Chinese diplomats stationed in Washington, who allegedly attempted to enter “a sensitive installation” near the city of Norfolk. The paper did not name the installation, but said that it belongs to the US Armed Forces and is also used by members of Special Operations forces.

According to the American side, a car carrying the Chinese diplomats and their spouses drove up to one of the checkpoints of the military installation. Upon realizing that the car’s passengers did not have permission to enter the base, the guard at the checkpoint asked the driver to proceed through the gated entry and immediately turn around, thus exiting the base. But the car allegedly drove straight into the base and did not slow down after military personnel pursued it. It came to a stop only after several fire trucks blocked its way.

Once apprehended, the car’s passengers claimed that their knowledge of English was limited and had thus misunderstood the instructions given to them by the guard at the entrance to the base. The New York Times reported that this explanation was echoed by associates of the Chinese diplomats, who said that they were on “a sightseeing tour when they accidentally drove onto the base”.

But US officials told The Times they are skeptical of that explanation, and suspect the Chinese diplomats were trying to assess the physical security of the installation. Moreover, at least one of the Chinese diplomats was allegedly an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover —a clue that heightened the skepticism of American officials.

Interestingly, although it complained about the expulsions of its diplomats following the incident in Virginia, Beijing did not retaliate, as is customary in such cases. Therefore, no American diplomats or intelligence officers have been expelled from China in response to Washington’s move. The last time the US expelled Chinese diplomats from its soil was in 1987, when two employees of the Chinese embassy in Washington —almost certainly intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover— were declared personae non gratae.

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

Russian diplomat involved in espionage leaves Sweden after ‘unusual’ delay

Russian Embassy SwedenRussia has recalled one of its diplomats from Sweden after he was caught receiving classified information from a computer expert at a nightclub in Stockholm. The computer expert was later identified as Kristian Dmitrievski, a 45-year-old naturalized Swede who was born in Russia. The Swedish government accuses him of having been recruited by Russian intelligence in 2017 or earlier. He allegedly met with his Russian handlers on a regular basis since his recruitment, passing them classified information of a technical nature.

Dmitrievski was reportedly arrested on the evening of February 26, while meeting his alleged Russian handler in a downtown area of the Swedish capital. Both Dmitrievski and his alleged handler were detained by officers of the Swedish Security Service, known as SÄPO. Swedish authorities later said that Dmitrievski’s alleged handler was a member of staff of the Russian embassy in Stockholm and had diplomatic immunity. SÄPO added that the Russian diplomat was believed to be a Russian intelligence officer who worked under diplomatic cover. The Russian man’s diplomatic status granted him immunity, so Swedish authorities were unable to file espionage charges against him. However, the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to file a protest, while the alleged intelligence officer was told to leave the country.

Surprisingly, however, Moscow did not recall the diplomat, as expected, and no further reports were issued about the incident. Then on March 28, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter named the Russian diplomat as Yevgeny Umerenko. Later that day, the Associated Press news agency said that it had seen “an intelligence report from a European service” that identified Dmitrievski’s Russian handler as Yevgeny Umerenko. The Associated Press described Umerenko as a “Line X officer” —a Soviet-era classification referring to case officers specializing in technological espionage. Western intelligence agencies had apparently been monitoring Umerenko’s activities ever since he had a similar role at the Russian embassy in Berlin, immediately before being transferred to Stockholm.

In its report, the Associated Press said that Moscow had finally recalled Umerenko from its embassy in Sweden, and that he was back in Russia. The news agency added it spoke to Anna Lundbladh, a spokeswoman for Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, who confirmed that Umerenko had left Sweden, but went on to say that the Swedish government would “not discuss this matter in further detail”.

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

Holland recalls Iran ambassador after Tehran expels Dutch diplomats

Holland embassy IranHolland said on Monday that it had recalled its ambassador from Tehran after Iran expelled two Dutch diplomats, in a deepening dispute involving the assassination of two Dutch citizens by alleged Iranian agents. In July of last year, Holland announced its decision to expel two Iranian diplomats from The Hague, but did not explain the reason for the expulsions. In January of this year, the Dutch Foreign Ministry confirmed that the diplomatic expulsions were in retaliation to the assassination of two Dutch nationals of Iranian background. One of the victims, Mohammad-Reza Kolahi, was shot dead in the head at point-blank range by two assailants in December 2015 in Almere, a coastal town 25 miles east of Amsterdam. Nearly two years later, in November 2017, another man, Ahmad Mola Nissi, was shot in the head in broad daylight in The Hague. Both men were members of Iranian militant anti-government groups that the Iranian state accuses of terrorism and crimes against the state.

On Monday, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok informed the Dutch House of Representatives in The Hague that Tehran had informed his Ministry on February 20 that two Dutch diplomats would be expelled from Holland’s embassy in the Iranian capital. The two diplomats, who have not been named, were ordered to leave the country by Monday, March 4. Later on Monday, Bahram Ghasemi, spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that “two of the diplomats of the Netherlands embassy in Tehran were considered undesirable elements in the framework of a retaliatory measure and were asked to leave the country”. The Iranian move was not made public until last Monday. Blok wrote to the House of Representatives that, in response to Tehran’s move, the Dutch government had decided to recall its ambassador to Iran “for consultations” on how to proceed. Blok noted in his letter that Iran’s decision to expel the Dutch diplomats was “unacceptable and damaging to the bilateral relations between the two countries”.

Late on Monday, the Dutch government also summoned the Iranian ambassador in order to protest the expulsions of its diplomats from Tehran. It was also reported in the Dutch media that a series of financial sanctions imposed on Iran by Holland and its European Union partners in June —presumably over the alleged assassinations that took place on Dutch soil— would remain in place. The sanctions are against two individuals associated with Iranian military intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 March 2019 | Permalink

Russia claims ‘misunderstanding’ led to arrests of four spies in Holland

Sergei LavrovRussia’s minister of foreign affairs has downplayed the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers in Holland last April, saying that the incident was caused by a “misunderstanding”. Last Thursday, the US government named and indicted seven officers of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, known as GRU. The seven are alleged to have participated in cyber-attacks on international agencies, private companies and government computer networks in at least half a dozen countries around the world since 2015. Four of the men named last week were reportedly detained in April of this year while trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, the OPCW oversees efforts by its 193 member states to detect and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In the past year, the OPCW has been probing the failed attempt to poison the Russian former double spy Sergei Skripal in England, which the British government has blamed on Moscow.

On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed Washington’s accusations against the GRU and said that the Dutch authorities had overreacted in detaining the four Russian officers in April. Following a meeting in Moscow with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Lavrov said that the visit of the four GRU officers in Holland had been “customary”, adding that “there was nothing clandestine in it”. The GRU specialists were in Holland in order to secure computer servers used at the Russian embassy there. “They were not trying to hide from anyone once they arrived at the airport”, said Lavrov. They then “checked into a hotel and paid a visit to our embassy”, he added. Had they been engaged in espionage, the men would have taken strict precautions, said the Russian foreign affairs minister. They were eventually “detained by Dutch police without any reason or explanations, and were not allowed to contact our embassy”, said Lavrov. Eventually they were “asked to leave the country”, but it was “all because of a misunderstanding”, he concluded.

The Russian official did not address the information provided a series of photographs released by Holland’s Ministry of Defense, which show a car used by the four Russians at the time of their arrest in April. The photographs show that the car was equipped with WiFi antennas and transformers. A wireless server and batteries can also be seen in the photographs. Lavrov said that the allegations against the GRU were meant to draw attention to Russia and distract Western citizens from “widening divisions that exist between Western nations”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

Western spy agencies thwarted alleged Russian plot to hack Swiss chemical lab

OPCW HagueWestern intelligence agencies thwarted a plot involving two Russians intending to travel to a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and hack its computer systems. According to two separate reports by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, the two were apprehended in The Hague in early 2018. The reports also said that the Russians were found in possession of equipment that could be used to compromise computer networks. They are believed to work for the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, Russia’s foremost military intelligence agency. The apprehension was the result of cooperation between various European intelligence services, reportedly including the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Organization (MIVD).

The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, has been commissioned by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the case of the Skripals, the laboratory said it was able to duplicate findings made earlier by a British laboratory.

Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) reportedly confirmed the arrest and subsequent expulsion of the two Russians. The Swiss agency said it “cooperated actively with Dutch and British partners” and thus “contributed to preventing illegal actions against a sensitive Swiss infrastructure”. The office of the Public Prosecutor in the Swiss capital Bern said that the two Russians had been the subject of a criminal investigation that began as early as March 2017. They were allegedly suspected of hacking the computer network of the regional office of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Lausanne. The Spiez laboratory was a target of hacking attempts earlier this year, according to a laboratory spokesperson. “We defended ourselves against that. No data was lost”, the spokesperson stated.

On April 14, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stated that he had obtained the confidential Spiez lab report about the Skripal case “from a confidential source”. That report confirmed earlier findings made by a British laboratory. But the OPCW, of which Russia is a member, states that its protocols do not involve dissemination of scientific reports to OPCW member states. Hence, the question is how Foreign Minister Lavrov got hold of the document.

As intelNews reported in March, in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning the Dutch government expelled two employees of the Russian embassy in The Hague. In a letter [.pdf] sent to the Dutch parliament on March 26 —the day when a large number of countries announced punitive measures against Russia— Holland’s foreign and internal affairs ministers stated that they had decided to expel the two Russian diplomats “in close consultation with allies and partners”. The Russians were ordered to leave the Netherlands within two weeks. It is unknown whether the two expelled Russian diplomats are the same two who were apprehended in The Hague, since none have been publicly named.

A November 2017 parliamentary letter from Dutch minister of internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren, states[4] that Russian intelligence officers are “structurally present” in the Netherlands in various sectors of society to covertly collect intelligence. The letter added that, in addition to traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) methods, Russia deploys digital means to influence decision-making processes and public opinion in Holland.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 17 September 2018 | Permalink