Probe uncovers massive $3 billion secret bribe fund in Azerbaijan

Ilham AliyevAn investigation by a consortium of European newspapers has uncovered details of a massive slush fund worth nearly $3 billion, which was allegedly used by Azerbaijan’s governing elite to bribe officials, business leaders and journalists at home and abroad. The fund was operated out of Baku, the capital of the former Soviet state, which is routinely accused of human-rights abuses. Western countries, including the United States, censure the government of the oil-rich state for its role in systematic abuses. These involve high levels of public- and private-sector corruption, vote-rigging, politically motivated disappearances, and wide curtailment of basic civil liberties. This new information is bound to add to Azerbaijan’s image as a secretive oil-rich state ruled by corrupt elite connected to the country’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and his family.

The existence of the slush fund was revealed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international investigative consortium. The OCCRP’s report was published in Tuesday, following a lengthy investigation by members of 17 European news media, including publications in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium. The report states that the fund, which it nicknames “the Azerbaijani Laundromat”, was operational for over two years, from 2012 to 2014. During that time, it participated in “over 13,000 transactions”, many of which were carried out through companies based in the United Kingdom but registered in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and the Seychelles. Payments were processed by the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, a major European banking institution.

According to the OCCRP report, most of the fund’s recipients were politicians, business executives, reporters and other influential people in Western Europe, as well as Turkey and Central Asia. Other recipients included wealthy families in Azerbaijan, who used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle, according to the report. Some foreign recipients of the funds were politicians, journalists or lobbyists who have been vocal in supporting Azerbaijan’s government and its policies. Most of the funds are believed to have originated from Azerbaijani-based companies, primarily Baktelecom MMC. But Russian-based companies, including Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-operated exporter and importer of defense-related technologies, also contributed over $30 million to the slush fund.

Perhaps most controversially, the OCCRP report alleges that some of the secret slash funds originated from senior cabinet members in Azerbaijan, as well as some intelligence officials. It also states that investigators uncovered “ample evidence of [the fund’s] connection to the family of [Azerbaijan’s longtime] President Ilham Aliyev”. Late on Tuesday, a statement issued by President Aliyev’s office rejected the report as “baseless, malicious and […] provocative in nature”. More reactions to the OCCRP report are expected in the coming days.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 September 2017 | Permalink

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Germany investigates Swiss intelligence officers over espionage claims

Germany SwitzerlandGermany has launched an unprecedented investigation into three officers of Switzerland’s intelligence agency on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. News of the investigation comes three months after authorities in Germany arrested another Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil. German media report that the three unnamed men are officers of Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). They are suspected of engaging in the same type of activity as “Daniel M.”, namely monitoring German tax-fraud investigators.

The German government believes that billions of euros are deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. It is believed that the NDB has been instructed by the Swiss government to monitor efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector.

According to German media, the investigation against the three NDB officers was launched earlier this month. The news is likely to further complicate relations between Berlin and Bern. The two governments have been at loggerheads since the arrest of “Daniel M.”. Switzerland responded to the arrest by issuing arrest warrants for a number of German tax investigators. But Germany dismissed the move, saying it would refuse to comply with the warrants. On Monday, several European news media quoted German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who described the alleged activities of the NDB as “incredible” and warned that the ongoing dispute between Germany and Switzerland could “wreck” their bilateral relationship.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 August 2017 | Permalink

American spies use US Federal Reserve to monitor foreign banks

Federal Reserve Bank of New YorkAmerican intelligence services have made use of a little-known confidentiality exception to spy on the financial activities of foreign banks who have accounts with the United States Federal Reserve, according to Reuters. Established in 1913, the Federal Reserve System is the central banking structure of the US. It oversees and regulates the nation’s financial institutions, and is tasked with —among other things— maintaining the stability of the American financial system. Additionally, however, the Federal Reserve offers a host of financial services to official (government-owned or sanctioned) foreign institutions. Thus, over 250 foreign banks (typically central banks) from dozens of countries have deposited nearly $3.3 trillion in assets at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks in the US. Depositing assets at a US Federal Reserve Bank, allows these foreign ‘depository institutions’ to use the US Federal Reserve as a ‘custodial institution’. Through it, they get direct and immediate access to American debt markets, where they can trade directly in dollars — the reserve currency of the global economy.

As one would expect, the ‘custodial services’ provided to foreign state banks by the US Federal Reserve are subject to strict confidentiality rules. However, according to a report published yesterday by Reuters, US intelligence agencies have found ways to circumvent these rules and monitor the activities of foreign banks who use the US Federal Reserve’s services. The news agency said it interviewed “more than a dozen current and former senior [Federal Reserve] and [US] Treasury [Department] officials”, including executives and division heads. It concludes that the US Intelligence Community has “leveraged the [US Federal Reserve’s] position at the center of global finance” to gain insights into the financial activities of foreign governments.

Specifically, the report alleges that American spies have made regular use of a little-known “need to know” exception clause to the US Federal Reserve’s confidentiality rules, and have been able to monitor the financial activities of selected foreign governments. These include Libya, Yemen, Iraq, China, Russia and Turkey, among others, says Reuters. In its report, the news agency says that the exception clause has been used at least seven times in the past 15 years. In some of these instances, the intelligence gathered led to “specific US responses” in relation to the financing of terrorism, or large-scale money-laundering. In other cases, the intelligence gathered helped Washington closely monitor market activity in areas of interest around the world, says Reuters.

The news agency contacted the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and was told by a spokesperson that the exception to the Federal Reserve’s confidentiality rules “has been used on rare occasions and on a limited basis”. These instances related to “issues as compliance with sanctions requirements and anti-money laundering principles”, said the spokesperson. The US government did not respond to calls for comments.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2017 | Permalink

Swiss officials defend alleged spying on German tax-fraud investigators

SwitzerlandSenior Swiss government officials, including the defense minister and the director of the country’s intelligence agency, have defended Switzerland’s right to spy on European tax-fraud investigators who meddle in Swiss affairs. Earlier this week, German authorities announced the arrest of a Swiss national who was allegedly spying on the activities of German tax-fraud investigators in Frankfurt. According to German officials and media reports, the man, identified only as Daniel M., is an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service. The agency, known by its German-language initials, NDB, is Switzerland’s main intelligence organization.

As intelNews reported on Monday, Daniel M. was said to be monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to stop German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. In the past decade, German authorities have paid nearly $100 million to employees of Swiss banks in return for information about the identities of German bank account holders in the small alpine country. The Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information, a practice that goes against Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. On Tuesday, Germany’s Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, summoned Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, Christine Schraner Burgener, to the Foreign Ministry, in order discuss Daniel M.’s arrest. A press statement that the Foreign Ministry sent on Tuesday to the German media said that the meeting had been called “in the interest of German-Swiss friendship”.

But the Swiss do not appear to be interested in discussing. On Tuesday, Markus Seiler, Director of the NDB, defended his agency’s right to spy on anyone who “uses illegal methods in Switzerland to steal state or business secrets”. Seiler, who was speaking in Bern, classified all such practices as espionage targeting the the Swiss economy. Asked by reporters whether Daniel M. was an NDB employee, Seiler said he could not comment. But he defended the NDB’s right to “fight the theft of business secrets” and “uphold Swiss laws”. He also refused to specify whether the NDB is active in Germany, stating instead that the agency is “active at home and abroad”. Switzerland’s Minister of Defense, Guy Parmelin, who supervises the NDB’s activities, was equally general when asked to discuss the arrest of Daniel M. He said simply that he and other Swiss government officials had to “protect [the NDB’s] methods and sources”.

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

Germany arrests Swiss spy who was monitoring tax-fraud investigators

Frankfurt AirportAuthorities in Germany have announced the arrest of a Swiss national who was allegedly spying on the activities of German tax-fraud investigators in Frankfurt. According to prosecutors in the German state of Hesse, of which Frankfurt is the largest city, the Swiss man was arrested on Friday and is currently in custody. He has been identified only as Daniel M., and is believed to be in his mid-50s. According to news reports, German counterintelligence officers had been monitoring the suspect for over a year. They were issued a warrant for his arrest in December of last year, but waited until he was on German soil to arrest him. He was arrested at Frankfurt Airport.

German federal prosecutors said simply that Daniel M. was employed in the financial and banking sectors of Germany until early 2012. However after that time, he is believed to have been employed by “the intelligence service of a foreign power”. German officials refused to identify the “foreign power”. However, the Berlin-based German newspaper Die Welt said on Sunday that the Swiss man arrested on Friday is an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service. The agency, known by its German-language initials, NDB, is Switzerland’s main intelligence agency, tasked with safeguarding the security of the small alpine nation by collecting and analyzing information.

The question is, what was a Swiss spy doing in Germany, and why was he arrested? According to Die Welt, Daniel M. was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to stop German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. The German government believes that billions of euros are deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws.

It is believed that Daniel M. was arrested while monitoring efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. Soon after the Swiss man’s arrest, officers from Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) searched a hotel room, several apartments and a number of business premises in Frankfurt and nearby cities. It is worth noting that Frankfurt is a major global financial center, which also hosts the headquarters of the European Central Bank. If found guilty, Daniel M. could face up to 10 years in prison for espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 May 2017 | Permalink

Islamic State faces imminent financial collapse, claims new study

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is facing imminent financial collapse, according to a new study conducted by a London-based research group in association with one of the world’s leading international accounting firms. The recently launched report is entitled Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes. The analysis that forms the basis of the report was conducted by scholars at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a research center that operates out of the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London. The report’s authors were joined by financial analysts at Ernst & Young, a British-based company that is often referred to as one of the world’s ‘big four’ accounting firms.

The report challenges the widely accepted claim that the Islamic State is the wealthiest terrorist organization in history. Its authors argue that the organization’s wealth is connected to its function as “a quasi-state”, with a geographical territory under its control and a subject population that lives in it. Territorial control, say the report’s authors, allows the Islamic State to amass significant revenue from sources like direct and indirect taxation, extraction of natural resources, and confiscation of property from citizens, among others. Even though much of the Islamic State’s financial activity is hidden, the study uses open sources to make the claim that the group’s income in 2014 was close to $2 billion. Last year, however, the overall income amassed from all sources dropped to less than $900 million, an estimated reduction of 45 percent, say the researchers.

The reason for the drop is that the financial revenue model of the Islamic State is directly linked to its territorial control. In comparison to the peak of its power in the spring of 2014, the Islamic State has today lost control of over 60 percent of its territory in Iraq and nearly a third of its territory in neighboring Syria. As coalition forces are beginning to retake Mosul, the Islamic State is facing the potential loss of the caliphate’s commercial capital. These developments will continue to seriously erode the group’s tax base and severely limit its revenue streams. There are no signs, say the researchers, that the Islamic State has been able to devise new forms of revenue streams that are not connected to direct territorial control. However, the authors of the study warn that a potential financial collapse of the Islamic State will not prevent the organization from carrying out terrorist activities in the Middle East and beyond.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 March 2017 | Permalink

Russian deep-cover spy sentenced in New York court

VnesheconombankA Russian intelligence officer, who posed as a banker in the United States, has been handed a prison sentence by a court in New York. Evgeny Buryakov, 41, posed as an employee of the New York branch of Vnesheconombank, a Russian state-owned bank headquartered in Moscow. However, in January 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Buryakov along with Igor Sporyshev, 40, and Victor Podobnyy, 27, who were employees of the trade office of the Russian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York. According to their indictment, Sporyshev and Podobnyy were in fact employees of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, one of the direct institutional descendants of the Soviet-era KGB. The FBI said the two were employed by the SVR’s ‘ER’ Directorate, which focuses on economics and finance. Operating under diplomatic guise, they regularly met with Buryakov, who the FBI said was the third member of the alleged spy ring.

However, unlike Sporyshev and Podobnyy, Buryakov was operating under non-official cover, posing as a bank employee. Non-official-cover operatives, or NOCs, as they are typically referred to in the US Intelligence Community, are usually high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the diplomatic authorities of the country that employs them. They typically pose as business executives, students, academics, journalists, or non-profit agency workers, among other covers. Unlike official-cover officers, who are protected by diplomatic immunity, NOCs have no such protection. If arrested by authorities of their host country, they can be tried and convicted for conducting espionage.

The court documents also reveal that Sporyshev and Podobnyy broke basic rules of intelligence tradecraft by contacting Buryakov using an unencrypted telephone line and addressing him by his real name, rather than his cover name. These conversations, which occurred in April 2013, turned out to be monitored by the FBI’s counterintelligence division, which promptly recorded them. The three SVR officers were arrested following a successful FBI sting operation, which involved an undercover FBI agent posing as an American investor offering to provide Buryakov with classified documents from the US Treasury. In March of this year, Buryakov pleaded guilty to working in the US as unregistered agent of Russia’s SVR. He has been sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000. Sporyshev and Podobnyy, who held diplomatic immunity, were expelled from the US following their arrest.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 May 2016 | Permalink