Ukraine, Belarus expel diplomats following espionage claims

Ukrainian embassy in BelarusUkraine fired its deputy-head of foreign intelligence and expelled a Belarussian diplomat a day after the government of Belarus claimed that it busted a Ukrainian spy ring that recruited local agents. The chain of events began on October 25, when the Belarussian Committee for State Security (KGB) arrested a Ukrainian journalist. The journalist, Pavlo Sharoyko, is based in the Belarussian capital Minsk and works as the Belarus correspondent for the National Radio Company of Ukraine —the country’s public broadcaster. Even though Sharoyko was arrested in October, his imprisonment was not publicly announced by Belarus until last Saturday. On Tuesday, November 21, at a press conference held at the KGB headquarters in Minsk, KGB spokesman Dmitry Pobyarzhin told reporters that Sharoyko was arrested for engaging in espionage on behalf of the Ukrainian government.

According to Pobyarzhin, Sharoyko is an undercover intelligence officer masquerading as a journalist. His real employer, said Pobyarzhin, is the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. While based in Minsk, the Ukrainian radio correspondent allegedly built an extensive network of spies, consisting of Belarussian citizens who carried out espionage tasks in exchange for financial compensation, said Pobyarzhin. The KGB spokesman also claimed that Sharoyko was not officially associated with the Ukrainian embassy in Minsk, but he had a spy handler there. The alleged handler, a Ukrainian diplomat by the name of Ihor Skvortsov, had been confronted by the KGB and expelled from the country for engaging in espionage, said Pobyarzhin.

Late on Tuesday, The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said that Sharoyko had worked there as a spokesman before 2009, but rejected the charges against him. However, on Monday, a day after Sharoyko’s arrest was announced, Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, dismissed the deputy director of the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service, V. Sinkevich, from his post. It is not known whether the surprise dismissal is connected to the announcement by the Belarussian KGB. On Tuesday, Kiev announced that it had expelled a Belarussian diplomat from the embassy of Belarus in the Ukrainian capital, in response to the expulsion of Skvortsov the day before. The Ukrainian government did not name the expelled Belarussian diplomat.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2017 | Permalink

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Revealed: China arrested US diplomat believing him to be CIA officer

US Consulate ChengduAn American diplomat stationed in China was abducted and interrogated for several hours by Chinese authorities, who believed him to be an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency working under official cover. The alleged abduction took place in early 2016 but was revealed this week by the online news outlet Politico. The website said that the diplomat, who has not been named, was stationed at the United States consulate general in Chengdu, a city of 14 million that is the administrative capital of western China’s Sichuan province. Founded in 1985, the US consulate in Chengdu is one of Washington’s seven diplomatic and consular posts in China. It is staffed by 130 people, approximately 30 of whom are Americans and 100 are locally hired Chinese citizens. The facility’s consular district includes several Chinese provinces, including the politically sensitive Tibet Autonomous Region.

On Wednesday, Politico said it spoke with “more than half a dozen current and former national security officials” in the US, who confirmed that an American diplomat stationed at the Chengdu consulate was abducted and detained for several hours. The website said that the abduction took place in January 2016. The diplomat was reportedly “grabbed off the street” in the middle of the day by plainclothes Chinese officers and driven to a detention facility in an unmarked van. He was allegedly kept there for several hours despite his diplomatic status with full immunity, which protects diplomats from being subjected to arrest and detention in the host country. American officials claim that the Chinese authorities did not notify the US consulate of the diplomat’s whereabouts until several hours later. By that time, the diplomat had been aggressively interrogated and his responses had been filmed by his captors, who claimed that he was an officer of the CIA. He was later released but left the country soon afterwards, according to Politico.

American officials told the website that the diplomat’s abduction was “an unusually bold act” that illustrates an ongoing and increasingly tense confrontation between Chinese and American intelligence services. Several American diplomats told Politico that Chinese authorities followed them around and in some cases broke into their apartments and “searched their rooms and belongings”. According to the news website, Washington responded to the American diplomat’s abduction by issuing a formal protest and threatening to expel Chinese intelligence officers operating in the US with diplomatic cover. However, it is not believed that the threat materialized.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 October 2017 | Permalink

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

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

Analysis: US expulsion of Russian spies is mostly symbolic, aimed domestically

Russian embassy in WashingtonThere had been rumors for some time about a possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. The White House confirmed the rumors on Thursday morning, by announcing the expulsion of 35 accredited Russian diplomats from the US, and the reclamation of two “recreational facilities” used by Russian diplomats in New York and Maryland. Washington said the Russian diplomats are spies operating under diplomatic cover and that the recreational facilities were being “used for Russian intelligence activities”. Although the sanctions may seem significant at first, they are mostly symbolic, and their impact will be temporary and limited. They may even end up hurting the United States more than Russia.

As I told Newsweek‘s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein earlier today, the current size of Russia’s human-intelligence presence in the United States is estimated at more than 100 officers. Therefore, the expulsion of a third of those operatives will set back Russian human-intelligence activities on US soil —but only temporarily, since most of the expelled officers will be replaced in time. Moreover, Moscow will probably respond in kind, so Washington is likely to suffer a proportional reduction of its human-intelligence presence in Russia. That could hurt the US more than Russia, because the American human-intelligence presence in Russia is smaller and more needed in a relatively closed society as Russia’s. Thus, a proportional expulsion of Russian and American spies from each other’s territory may actually harm Washington more than Moscow.

In reality, the expulsions and sanctions pertain more to domestic American politics than foreign policy. They are designed to place the incoming president, Donald Trump, who is seen as a friend of Russia, in a difficult position, by further-complicating Russian-American relations in the last weeks of President Barack Obama’s Administration. These measures should arguably have been implemented much earlier this year, and certainly before November 8, when they may have had some impact. At this late stage, they can hardly be taken seriously, given the inconsistency in US national policy toward Russia, as shown in the differing viewpoints of the Obama and Trump teams.

Assuming that Russia was indeed behind a systematic effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election, it has already achieved one of its main goals. It was to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole and to divide America by intensifying the already growing mistrust between American —and by extension Western— civil society and its political institutions. Moscow will see the US response, such as it is, as a price worth paying, given the broader accomplishments of its covert operation against US democracy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

India expels high-profile Chinese journalists, allegedly for spying

Wu XiangFor the first time in history, India has refused to extend temporary residency visas for three senior Chinese media correspondents, effectively expelling them from the country, allegedly for espionage activities. All three reporters are employees of China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. They include Xinhua’s bureau chief in the Indian capital, New Delhi, Wu Xiang, and the agency’s Mumbai bureau chief, Lu Tang. A third journalist, She Yonggang, also based in Mumbai, has been asked to leave India by no later than July 31.

According to several Indian news media, the decision to refuse visa renewals for the Chinese journalists was taken after Indian intelligence agencies confirmed that the three were engaging in activities that “were incompatible with their journalistic capacity”. The phrase typically refers to espionage and related activities. According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the Chinese reporters have been officially asked to leave the country by the end of this month. All three are reportedly reputable experts in Indian affairs. Xinhua’s Mumbai bureau chief, Lu Tang, is typical: a fluent Hindi speaker and Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate, she specializes in Indo-Chinese relations and has written for some of Asia’s most best known publications.

Indian sources have not confirmed that the decision to expel the journalists relates to espionage activities. Government officials insist that the three had let their visas expire four months ago and were staying in India based on temporary fortnightly extensions. The Indian government simply made the decision not to renew the journalists’ already expired visas, they said. When asked about his impending expulsion, Xinhua’s New Delhi bureau chief, Wu Xiang, said he and his two colleagues had not been given a reason for the Indian government’s refusal to extend their visas. Indian officials told reporters that Xinhua would be allowed to replace the three reporters’ posts. The Chinese government has not yet responded to the news of the expulsions. There are reportedly five Indian journalists working in China for Indian news agencies.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 July 2016 | Permalink