Taiwan admits for the first time that Chinese general Liu Liankun was one of its spies

Taiwan MIBThe government of Taiwan has acknowledged publicly for the first time that a Chinese major general, who was executed by Beijing in 1999 for espionage, was indeed one of its spies. The military officer was Liu Liankun, a logistician for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, who headed its Department of General Logistics. However, China arrested Liu for espionage in 1999, and accused him of having spied for Taiwan for five years, in exchange for money. At the time, Taiwan denied that Liu spied on its behalf and refused to acknowledge that it had any role in the major general’s alleged espionage activities.

According to his Chinese government accusers, Liu passed information to Taiwan during the so-called 1996 missile crisis —known in Taiwan as the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. The crisis was prompted by a series of missile tests conducted by Beijing in the waters around the island of Taiwan. The crisis lasted several months, from July of 1995 to March of 1996. Many in Taiwan were convinced that China’s missile tests were the precursors of a military advance by Beijing, aimed at conquering the island one and for all. However, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense eventually issued a press statement saying it was aware that the Chinese missiles were not equipped with armed warheads. The information was correct, but it made China realize that Taiwan was receiving information from a highly placed source inside its military. After an extensive counterintelligence investigation, the Chinese arrested Liu and accused him of having spied for Taiwan in exchange for nearly $2 million in bribes. Liu was eventually executed by lethal injection in a Beijing prison. He was 58. At the time of his conviction, Liu was the most senior Chinese military office to have ever been convicted of spying for Taiwan.

But Taiwan continued to deny any involvement in Liu’s case. That changed last week, however, when Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau unveiled its renovated memorial, which is housed at its headquarters in Taipei City. The memorial features plaques commemorating 75 individuals who have died while carrying out MIB intelligence operations. Those featured include both intelligence officers and their assets —foreign people recruited by intelligence officers to spy for Taiwan. Among the plaques, visitors to the memorial saw one dedicated to Liu for the first time. A note beneath the plaque acknowledges Liu’s contributions during the 1996 missile crisis. But it also states that the Chinese military official also provided assistance to Taiwan during earlier crises with China in the 1990s, as well as inside information about the death of Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping in 1997.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 6 April 2018 | Permalink

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Iranian military official says West used lizards to spy on Iran’s nuclear program

Hassan FiruzabadiThe former chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces has said that foreign governments used different species of lizards, including chameleons, to spy on the Iranian nuclear program. The claim was made by Hassan Firuzabadi, a veteran Iranian military official, who from 1989 to 2016 served as the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces —the most senior military post in the Islamic Republic. Since his retirement in 2016, Firuzabadi has served in a number of key consultancy roles and is currently a senior military advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s reform-minded supreme leader.

On Tuesday, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), a pro-reformist news and analysis outlet, published a lengthy interview with Firuzabadi. The former military strongman was speaking in response to reports earlier this week that a prominent Iranian-Canadian environmental campaigner had died in prison, allegedly of suicide. Kavous Seyed Emami, 63, was a professor of sociology, director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and political activist. He was arrested with seven of his colleagues on January 24 and charged with espionage. On February 9, Emami’s family said that they had been informed by authorities of his death in prison, reportedly as a result of suicide. The news was later confirmed by Iran’s chief prosecutor. Emami’s family, as well as numerous environmental campaigners and activists, dispute the government’s claims of suicide as a cause of his death.

But in his interview published on ILNA’s website, Firuzabadi claimed that environmental activists with links to foreign countries have in the past been found to engage in espionage against the Islamic Republic. He told the news outlet that some years ago Iranian authorities arrested a group of foreigners who were visiting Iran to raise funds for Palestinian political prisoners. He added that among the foreigners’ possessions authorities found “a species of desert reptile, like a chameleon”, which puzzled them. Firuzabadi then said that, “following studies” on the lizards, Iranian authorities concluded that their skin “attracts atomic waves”. They therefore concluded that the foreigners were in fact “nuclear spies” who had entered Iran in order to “find out where [in the country] are uranium mines and where the government is engaged in nuclear-related activities”. Firuzabadi also said that many foreigners who are engaged in environmental activism “are not even aware of the fact that they are actually spying” on Iran.

But Western scientists and science reporters dismissed Firuzabadi’s claims as fantastical. On Tuesday, John Timmer, science editor for the United States-based technology and science website Ars Technica, called the Iranian military official’s claims “insane” and added that there was “no scientific evidence that reptiles […] are effective as Geiger counters”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 February 2018 | Research credit: C.F. | Permalink

Swiss trying to change image as Europe’s spy hub, say officials

Federal Intelligence Service SwitzerlandOfficials in Switzerland say new laws enacted in recent months will help them change their country’s image as one of Europe’s most active spy venues. For decades, the small alpine country has been a destination of choice for intelligence officers from all over the world, who use it as a place to meet assets from third countries. For example, a case officer from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) will travel to Switzerland to meet her Algerian agent. She will exchange money and documents with him before she returns to Britain and he to Algeria, presumably after depositing his earnings into a Swiss bank account.

There are multiple reasons that explain Switzerland’s preferred status as a meeting place for spies and their handlers. The country is suitably located in the center of Europe and is a member of the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, which means that a passport is not required to enter it when arriving there from European Union member-states. Additionally, the country features an efficient transportation and telecommunication infrastructure, and its stable political system offers predictability and security, despite the limited size and strength of its law enforcement and security agencies. Perhaps most important of all, the Swiss have learned not to ask questions of visitors, many of whom flock to the country to entrust their cash to its privacy-conscious banking sector.

But, according to the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS), foreign spies and their handlers should find another venue to meet in secret. Speaking to the Sunday edition of Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper, FIS spokeswoman Isabelle Graber said she and her colleagues were aware that their country is a venue for meetings between intelligence operatives from third countries. Such meetings have “continued to rise in the last few years” and include “everyone from security agency employees to freelancers”, as “the market in trading secrets has exploded”, she said. That trend, added Graber, has led to a corresponding rise in meetings aimed at exchanging information for money. Many such meetings take place throughout Switzerland, she noted, and are “in violation of Swiss sovereignty and can lead to operations against the interests of the nation”.

In the past, said Graber, FIS was unable to prevent such activities on Swiss soil, due to pro-privacy legislation, which meant that the agency’s ability to combat foreign espionage in Switzerland was “far more limited than in other countries”. However, said the intelligence agency spokeswoman, the law recently changed to permit FIS to break into homes and hotels, hack into computers, wiretap phones, and implement surveillance on individuals believed to be spies or intelligence officers of foreign countries. Armed with the new legislation, the FIS is now “working hard to clear up third-country meetings [and] to prevent these from happening or at least disrupt them”, said Graber. Several times this year alone, FIS had forward information about “third-country meetings” to judicial authorities in Switzerland, she said.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 February 2018 | Permalink

Espionage threat is greater now than in Cold War, Australian agency warns

ASIO AustraliaForeign intelligence collection and espionage threats against Australia are greater today than at any time during the Cold War, according to a senior Australian intelligence official. The claim was made on Wednesday by Peter Vickery, deputy director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s primary counterintelligence agency. He was speaking before a parliamentary committee that is considering aspects of a proposed bill, which aims to combat foreign influence on Australian political and economic life. If enacted, the bill would require anyone who is professionally advocating or campaigning in favor of “foreign entities” to register with the government. Several opposition parties and groups, including the Catholic Church, have expressed concern, saying that the bill is too broad and could curtail the political and religious freedoms of Australians.

But ASIO has come out strongly in favor of the proposed bill. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Vickery warned that Australia is today facing more threats from espionage than during the Cold War. “Whilst [the Cold War] was obviously a very busy time” for ASIO, said Vickery, his agency’s assessment is that Cold War espionage was “not on the scale we are experiencing today” in Australia. During the Cold War, ASIO was cognizant and aware of the major adversaries, he added. But today, the espionage landscape features “a raft of unknown players”, many of whom operate on behalf of non-state actors, said Vickery. The phenomenon of globalization further-complicates counterintelligence efforts, he added, because foreign espionage can be conducted from afar with little effort. Vickery noted that espionage and foreign influence in Australia “is not something that we think might happen, or possibly could happen. It is happening now against Australian interests in Australia and Australian interests abroad”. He also warned that the public knows little about the extent of espionage and foreign-influence operations taking place “at a local, state and federal level” throughout the country.

Earlier this week, the Catholic Church of Australia came out in opposition to the proposed legislation, which it sees as too broad. The religious denomination, which represents approximately 20 percent of the country’s population, said that the bill was too broad and could force Australian Catholics to register as agents of a foreign power. Technically, the Catholic Church is headquartered at the Vatican, which would make the organization a foreign entity under the proposed bill, the Church said in a statement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part III

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Mohammed bin Salman04. Unprecedented security changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia. Analysts agree that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its most important political changes in generations. On November 4, 2017, nearly 50 senior Saudi officials, including at least 11 princes, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, were suddenly fired or arrested. A royal decree issued on that same evening said that the arrests were carried out by a new “anti-corruption committee” led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne. The king and his son appear to be in the process of removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the Kingdom’s security services, which they now control almost completely. Earlier in the year, the BBC alleged that Saudi security services were secretly abducting Saudi dissidents from abroad and jailing them in Saudi Arabia. Also in November, Saudi Arabia was seen to be behind a failed attempt by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri —a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen— to resign while on a trip to Saudi Arabia. There were allegations that Hariri was under arrest by the Saudis, who objected to the presence of Hezbollah members in his cabinet. But Hariri later returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.

03. Extraordinary transformation of the intelligence landscape in South Korea. Developments in North Korea have been at the forefront of security reporting in recent months. But reports from the Korean Peninsula have largely ignored the dramatic changes Moon Jae-intaking place in the intelligence infrastructure of South Korea, which are arguably as important as developments north of the 38th parallel. In June, the new center-left government of President Moon Jae-in banned the powerful National Intelligence Service (NIS) from engaging in domestic intelligence gathering. The move came after a lengthy investigation concluded that the NIS interfered in the 2012 presidential elections and tried to alter the outcome in favor of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, using 30 dedicated teams of officers for that purpose. In November, three former NIS directors were charged with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid Park, who has since been impeached and is now facing a lengthy prison sentence.

02. Turkey’s fallout with the West is affecting spy relations. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. However, rising tensions in the country’s domestic political scene are negatively affecting Ankara’s relations with its Western allies, particularly with Germany and the United States. Last month, Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old former analyst in the CIA, who Ankara says helped orchestrate the failed July 2016 military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Washington flatly denies these allegations. In May, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused “the secret services of [Western] countries” of “using journalists and also bloggers [as spies] in Turkey”. Earlier in the year, a German report claimed that the Turkish state had asked its diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in order t to identify those opposed to the government of President Erdoğan. In some cases, Turkish spies have asked their Western European counterparts to help them monitor the activities Turkish expatriates, but such requests have been turned down. Nevertheless, there is increasing unease in Western Europe as Turkey intensifies its unilateral intelligence activities aimed at monitoring political dissent among Turkish communities abroad.

01. With America divided, Russian spies make dramatic post-Cold War comeback. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for the once all-powerful Russian spy agencies. But, if CIA and FBI assessments are correct, the bitterly divisive state of American politics gave Russian spooks a chance for a dramatic comeback. Using a mixture of human and online intelligence operations, Russian spies helped drive a wedge between the White House and the US Intelligence Community. American intelligence agencies are tasked with providing information to Putin and Trumpassist policy-makers, including the president. So when the CIA and the FBI conclude that the Russian government launched an extensive and sophisticated campaign to undermine the 2016 US presidential election, one expects the president to take that advisement under serious consideration. However, the US leader has openly dismissed the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community and has publicly stated that he believes President Vladimir Putin’s assurances that his country did not meddle in the US election.

What we have here, therefore, is a US president who sees the Kremlin as more trustworthy than his own Intelligence Community. This is a remarkable, unprecedented state of affairs in Washington, so much so that some CIA officials have reportedly questioned whether it is safe for them to share information about Russia to President Trump. Throughout that time, the FBI has been conducting an extensive counterintelligence investigation into alleged ties between the president’s campaign team and the Kremlin. As intelNews has noted before, the FBI probe adds yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. The state of Russian politics may be uncertain, and the country’s economy in bad shape. But Russian spooks can look back to 2017 as the year in which they made an unexpected comeback, scoring a dramatic victory against their decades-old rival.

This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 03 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three will be posted tomorrow.

07. 2017 was marked by high-profile assassinations and suspicious deaths. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, and suspicious deaths in 2017. In January, Brazilian authorities launched an investigation into a suspicious plane crash that killed Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki, who died while leading the largest corruption probe in the nation’s history, involving government officials and two giant companies. In February, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading member of Open Russia, a think tank founded by Russian oligarchs opposed to Russian president Vladimir Putin, nearly died Kim Jong-namas a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Also in February, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in an audacious attack in Malaysia by two female assassins, who used a poisonous substance to murder him. Some alleged that Kim, who was a critic of his brother’s policies in the DPRK, had made contact with US intelligence prior to his assassination. In March, the Israeli military alleged that Amine Badreddine, 55, an explosives expert and senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah, was murdered by his own people while fighting in Syria. Allegedly the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Syrian Civil War. In October, Malta’s best known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose reporting about offshore tax evasion revealed in the Panama papers prompted a major political crisis in Malta, was killed when the rented Peugeot 108 car she was driving exploded near her home in central Malta. Eyewitnesses said that the explosion was so powerful that it tore apart the vehicle and was heard from several miles away. Finally, in November, Zhang Yang, one of the highest-profile generals in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, committed suicide according to Chinese state media. Zhang Yang had seen a meteoric rise to power, but unceremoniously fell from grace as a result of President Xi Jinping’s nationwide campaign against corruption.

06. CIA ends its support for opposition rebels in Syria. In February, the White House instructed the CIA to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The move ended a policy that begun under US President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Some analysts warned that the decision by the White House to terminate US Milo Dukanovicsupport for the rebels could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations. In August, there were reports that US troops exchanged fire with former FSA rebels in Manbij, a Syrian city located a few miles from the Turkish border.

05. Britain accused Russia of trying to kill Montenegro prime minister. In late 2016, authorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro alleged that “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s prime minister,  Milo Dukanović, and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. Remarkably, in March of 2017, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in an interview that Russian spies may have indeed orchestrated the failed attempt to kill Dukanović, as part of a broader plan to prevent the former Yugoslav republic from entering NATO. It is not every day that a senior cabinet official of a NATO member-state accuses the Kremlin of carrying out an assassination attempt against a European head of state.

This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 02 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series; parts two and three will be posted on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

khalifa haftar10. Saudis, Israelis, are illegally funding a CIA-backed warlord in Libya. The strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the eastern-based Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under CIA protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to launch his military campaign. American legal experts, including a former special counsel to the United States Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accuse Haftar of ordering his troops to commit war crimes. But there is much evidence to suggest that Israeli, Saudi and Emirati intelligence agencies are illegally breaking a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on Libya and arming Haftar with advanced weaponry.

09. Why are American, Canadian diplomats in Havana going deaf? In 2015, relations between Cuba and the United States experienced an unprecedented rekindling, which culminated with the reopening of the US embassy in Havana after more than half a century. But in the past year, US authorities became enraged with the Cuban government after American diplomats reportedly suffered hearing loss and brain trauma as a result of a mysterious so-called “covert sonic weapon” that was directed against the American embassy. The US State Department blamed Cuba for the incident, but some believe that US embassy Cubathe alleged device may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities. In October, the White House expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the US in response to the incident. But the question of what harmed the health of at least 20 employees at the US embassy in Havana remains largely unanswered.

08. Role of spies in German-Swiss economic war revealed. In the wake of the Panama and Paradise leaks, offshore tax havens have faced intensifying worldwide calls for the introduction of transparency and accountability safeguards. Predictably, they are resisting. In April of 2017, German authorities announced the arrest of an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) in Frankfurt. It appears that the Swiss man, identified only as Daniel M., was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to prevent German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. It is believed that he was arrested while monitoring German efforts to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. A few months after Daniel M.’s arrest, Germany announced an unprecedented investigation into three more officers of the NDB, on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks.

This is part one in a three-part series. Part two is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 01 January 2018 | Permalink