CIA to return to traditional espionage against state actors, says new director

Gina HaspelThe United States Central Intelligence Agency will return to traditional espionage against foreign states and focus less on counterterrorism against non-state actors, said its new director in her first public appearance. Gina Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 as a reports officer and completed several undercover tours overseas before serving as chief of station. She rose through the ranks to become deputy director of the National Clandestine Service and was appointed deputy director of the CIA in 2017. In May of this year, she became the Agency’s first female director, despite some controversy that arose from her role as chief of a CIA undercover facility (so-called “black site”) in Thailand. Critics alleged that Agency personnel under her command practiced enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, on terrorism detainees.

On Monday, Haspel gave a talk at the University of Louisville, from where she graduated in 1978 with a degree in languages and journalism, having transferred there from the University of Kentucky. It was her first public appearance after being sworn in as CIA director. She told the audience that she intends to steer the Agency back to traditional intelligence collection against “current and potential […] nation-state adversaries” and away from counterterrorism operations against non-state actors. The latter took center stage after the events of September 11, 2001. Filling current “intelligence gaps” on countries like Russia and China will be “a strategic priority” for the CIA, said Haspel, adding that the Agency will seek to “sharpen its focus on nation-state adversaries”. She spoke at length about China, stating that Beijing was “working to diminish US influence” and expand its own authority “beyond their own region, in places like Africa, Latin America, the Pacific islands [and] South Asia”.

The CIA’s hiring priorities will reflect the Agency’s strategic shift, said Haspel. The Agency will seek to expand its foreign footprint by “increasing the number of [its] officers stationed overseas”. Priority for these assignments will be given to foreign-language speakers with skills in Chinese, Arabic and Farsi, among other target languages. Interestingly, the CIA director added Turkish, French and Spanish to the list. She also said that the Agency will “invest more heavily on […] counternarcotics efforts abroad”. Last but not least, Haspel spoke about the need for increased transparency, diversity and inclusion at the CIA, which last year marked its 70th anniversary.

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

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Germany drops espionage case against senior Swiss intelligence official

Paul ZinnikerGermany has dropped a criminal case against the second-in-command of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, who was accused by Berlin of authorizing an espionage operation against the German tax collection service. A year ago, Germany launched an unprecedented investigation into three senior officials of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). The probe was launched on suspicion that the Swiss officials masterminded a spy operation against German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. The German probe was launched three months after authorities in Germany arrested a Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil.

The German government believes that billions of euros have been 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.

The man identified as “Daniel M.” appears to be one of several Swiss spies who have been collecting information on the activities of German tax investigators. For a while it appeared that German counterintelligence officials were intent on targeting Paul Zinniker (pictured), Deputy Director of the NDB. They claimed that Zinniker was the main support officer of the operation that “Daniel M.” was participating in when he was arrested in Germany in 2017. According to the Germans, it was Zinniker’s who conceived the operation in 2011. But on Monday a spokesman for Germany’s federal prosecutor told the Swiss News Agency that Berlin dropped the case against Zinniker back in June. The revelation came less than 48 hours after a report in the Sunday edition of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung claimed that the charges against Zinniker would be dropped. According to the German federal prosecutor’s office, the case against the Swiss spy official was dropped because of the lack of cooperation by Swiss authorities, which made it impossible to prove that Zinniker was indeed the mastermind of the espionage operation against Berlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2018 | Permalink

CIA informants inside Russia are going silent, say US sources

Kremlin, RussiaSecret informants inside the Russian government, which the United States has relied on in recent years for tips about Moscow’s strategy and tactics, have gone silent in recent months, according to sources. Over many years, US intelligence agencies have built networks of Russian informants. These consist of officials placed in senior positions inside the Kremlin and other Russian government institutions, who can help shed light on Russia’s political maneuvers. These informants were crucial in enabling the US Intelligence Community to issue warnings of possible Russian meddling in the American presidential elections of November 2016. Since then, US spy agencies have largely relied on these informants to produce detailed assessments of Russian intelligence activities targeting the US, and propose measures against those involved.

But on Friday, The New York Times said in an article that these vital sources of information in Moscow have been going silent in recent months. Citing “current and former officials”, the paper said that US officials did not believe that the informants have been captured or killed. Instead, they have voluntarily “gone underground” because of “more aggressive counterintelligence” practiced by Russian security agencies. Moscow has stepped up attempts to detect spies operating inside Russia since the Sergei Skripal incident, when relations between it and most Western countries sank to their lowest point since the Cold War. In turn, Western informants operating in Russia have “decided it is too dangerous to pass information” and have gone “silent for their own protection”, said The Times.

This situation, however, has left the Central Intelligence Agency and other US spy agencies “in the dark” about the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, just as America is nearing its mid-term elections. The lack of information has been exacerbated by the expulsion of dozens of American diplomats from Russia in March of this year. Moscow announced the expulsions in response to Washington’s decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats in protest against the attempt —allegedly by Russia— to kill Sergei Skripal in England. Many of the diplomats who were expelled from Russia were in fact intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover. Few of those are now left on Russian soil and, according to The Times, “are under incredible surveillance” by Russian counterintelligence agencies. Washington is still collecting information from Russia through other channels, including communication intercepts, which, according to The Times, “remain strong”. But the paper cited anonymous American officials who “acknowledged the degradation in the [overall flow of] information collected from Russia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 August 2018 | Permalink

US announces arrest of two men charged with spying for Iran

Mujahedin-e KhalqAuthorities in the United States have announced the arrests of two men who have been charged with spying on American soil on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The men were reportedly arrested on August 9, but information about them was only released on Monday by the US Department of Justice. In a press statement published online, John Demers, US Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said the men were arrested because of concerns that they “acted on behalf of Iran”. They were identified as Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar, 38, and Majid Ghorbani, 59. Doostdar is reportedly a dual citizen of the US and Iran, while Ghorbani is an Iranian citizen who lives in the US state of California. The two men are not believed to be diplomats.

According to the US government, the men were observed “conducting surveillance of political opponents and engaging in other activities that could put Americans at risk”. The press statement alleges that Doostdar carried out surveillance of a Jewish center in Chicago, while Ghorbani attended meetings and rallies organized by Iranian opposition groups operating in the US. The press release identifies one such group as the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant faction that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Between 1970 and 1976, the group assassinated six American officials in Iran and in 1970 tried to kill the United States ambassador to the country. It initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations in exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups. Until 2009, the European Union and the US officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred against the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US.

On June 30 of this year, authorities in Belgium arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent, who were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria, while a fourth person was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests. All four individuals were charged with having planned a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the MEK-affiliated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris, France. It is not known whether the arrests in Europe are in any way connected with the cases of the two men held in the US.

Brussels will ‘not comment’ on reports Britain is spying on EU Brexit committee

Sabine WeyandRelations between the European Union and the United Kingdom hit a new low on Thursday, as the European Council refused to comment on claims that British spy agencies have spied on Brexit negotiators in Brussels. Consultations between the two sides have progressed at an alarmingly slow pace ever since June 23, 2016, when voters in the island nation elected to leave the EU during a nationwide referendum. In March of 2017, London officially invoked Article 50 of the EU Treaty, which requires that Britain’s withdrawal from the multinational body be completed within two calendar years. But there are many who think that a mutual agreement will not be reached between the two sides.

On Wednesday, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph alleged that a number of EU Brexit negotiators believe that their closed-door meetings are being spied upon by the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6. According to The Telegraph, fears of espionage were raised by Sabine Weyand, a German EU official who is currently serving as Deputy Chief of the European Council’s Article 50 Working Party. On July 13, during a meeting of the European Council, Weyand reportedly said “it could not be excluded” that British intelligence agencies had found ways to listen in to the closed-door meetings of EU Brexit negotiators. According to The Telegraph, Weyand and other EU officials became suspicious after London appeared to be privy to information discussed on July 5 at a closed-door meeting of the Article 50 Working Party. Weyand told the European Council that the information had reached London “within hours” of it having been presented in Brussels. Just hours following the secret presentation, senior British government officials were reportedly lobbying in public against the information contained in it.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the European Commission, which operates as the EU’s cabinet, did not deny that concerns about espionage were raised by EU Brexit negotiators. When asked by reporters in Brussels about The Telegraph’s allegations, the spokesperson responded: “The Commission’s position today is that we cannot comment on these press reports”. As the press conference was taking place, British negotiators were arriving in Brussels in order to resume the latest round of Brexit talks with the EU’s Article 50 Working Party.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2018 | Permalink

Germany arrests Jordanian intelligence operative who spied on mosque

Hildesheim mosqueAuthorities in Germany announced yesterday the arrest of a German national who is accused of spying on a central German mosque on behalf of Jordan, according to media reports. The man was reportedly arrested on Tuesday at an unknown location by officers of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). In a press statement, the agency said the man is a 33-year-old German national named “Alexander B.”. German privacy rules forbid the public identification of crime suspects prior to their conviction in a court of law.

According to the public statement issued by the BfV, the 33-year-old man is believed to have worked for “a Jordanian intelligence agency” —most likely the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, or GID, which is a branch of the Jordanian Armed Forces— since at least 2016. He is accused of having infiltrated a Sunni mosque in the central German city of Hildesheim, located 20 miles southeast of Hanover in Germany’s Lower Saxony region. His mission, according to the BfV, was to keep tabs on mosque goers who expressed support for the ideology of the Islamic State, and might even consider traveling to the Middle East to join the radical group. The alleged Jordanian intelligence operative was also tasked with reporting on news reaching the mosque from those of its members who had already gone to the Middle East and joined the Islamic State.

Last year, German authorities closed down the Hildesheim mosque, known in German as Deutschsprachiger Islamkreis Hildesheim e. V. (DIK), and arrested its imam, Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A., known as Abu Walaa. The Iraqi-born imam was charged with supporting a foreign terrorist organization by actively recruiting young Muslims on behalf of the Islamic State. The mosque has since remained closed, because authorities believe that it had become a beehive of fundamentalist activity. Jordan is one of the Middle East’s most liberal states and has been targeted repeatedly by the Islamic State, which views its leadership as pro-Western. However, it appears that Alexander B. was spying on the Hildesheim mosque —therefore on German soil— without having informed the host country of his activities. The government of Jordan has not commented on his arrest.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 09 August 2018 | Permalink

US fired Moscow embassy employee who may have spied for Russia

US embassy in RussiaA female Russian national who worked for the United States Secret Service in Moscow was quietly dismissed in 2017, amidst concerns that she was spying for Russia. British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story last week, did not name the Russian woman. But it said that she had worked at the US Embassy in Moscow “for more than a decade”, most recently for the Secret Service –a federal law enforcement agency that operates within the Department of Homeland Security. The Secret Service has several missions, the most important of which is to ensure the physical safety of America’s senior political leadership.

Throughout her Secret Service career, the Russian woman is thought to have had access to the agency’s email system and intranet network, said The Guardian, citing “an intelligence source”. She could also potentially have had access to “highly confidential material”, said the paper, including the daily schedules of America’s past and current presidents and vice presidents, as well as their family members’ schedules.

The unnamed Russian national first came under suspicion in 2016, said The Guardian, during a routine security review conducted by two counterintelligence staff members at one of the Department of State’s Regional Security Offices (RSO). These reviews usually take place every five years and scan the background and activities of employees at American embassies abroad. The review showed that the unnamed Russian national was holding regular meetings with officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence service. In January of 2017, the Department of State reportedly shared its findings with the Secret Service. But the latter waited until several months later to fire the Russian woman, having decided to do so quietly, said The Guardian.

According to the paper, instead of launching a major investigation into the State Department’s findings, the Secret Service simply dismissed the woman by revoking her security clearance. The paper said that the Russian national’s dismissal took place shortly before the US embassy in Moscow was forced to remove or fire over 750 employees as part of Russia’s retaliation against economic sanctions imposed on it by Washington. That coincidence helped the Secret Service “contain any potential embarrassment” arising from claims of espionage, said The Guardian. The paper contacted the Secret Service and was told that “all Foreign Service nationals” working for the agency “are managed accordingly to ensure that […US] government interests are protected at all times”. Their duties, therefore, are “limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support. This is of particular emphasis in Russia”, said a Secret Service spokesman, who refused to discuss specific cases.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink