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 But Hariri later returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.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

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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

Ukraine arrests prime minister’s interpreter, accuses him of spying for Russia

Stanislav YezhovUkraine’s counterintelligence agency has arrested the principal translator of the country’s prime minister, accusing him of spying for Russia. The translator has been identified as Stanislav Yezhov, who has served as a translator for two consecutive Ukrainian prime ministers. As part of his job, Yezhov has been present at nearly all high-level meetings between Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and foreign leaders since 2016, when Groysman assumed his executive post. In the last year alone, Yezhov accompanied the Ukrainian prime minister during official trips to Washington, London and Berlin. Before translating for Groysman, Yezhov is thought to have served as an interpreter for Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former President. Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician, occupied that office from 2010 until his ousting from power in 2014, as a result of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.

On Wednesday, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the country’s main counterintelligence agency, released a statement announcing that “an official” in the Ukrainian state had been arrested in the capital Kiev on Saturday, December 16. The SBU statement said that the official had “access to sensitive government information” and that he had operated in the service “of an adversary state for a long period”. The statement then identified the “adversary state” as Russia. Yezhov’s name and profession were not included in the SBU statement. But Ukrainian government officials later revealed it. According to subsequent local media reports, Yezhov was recruited by Russian intelligence in 2014, when he was posted at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, DC. Prior to that post, Yezhov is believed to have served at the Ukrainian embassy in Slovenia.

The Russians allegedly trained him and provided him with specially designed collection technology, which he then used to gather intelligence and communicate it to his Russian handlers. Speaking on Ukrainian television, Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to Arsen Avakov, the country’s Minister of Internal Affairs, said that Yezhov had worked for Russian intelligence “for at least two years, possibly longer”. Yezhov is now reportedly facing charges of treason. The government of Russia has not issued any statements about Yezhov’s arrest.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 December 2017 | Permalink

Russia announces detention of Norwegian citizen on espionage charges

Frode BergAuthorities in Russia have announced the arrest of a Norwegian citizen, whom they accuse of receiving classified information relating to Russia’s Armed Forces. The detainee has been named as Frode Berg, 62, from Kirkenes, a small town in Norway’s far north, located 100 miles from the Russian city of Murmansk. According to articles in the Russian press, Berg is a 24-year veteran of the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner, an obscure government agency that operates under Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security. Among other tasks, the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner is responsible for enforcing and monitoring bilateral compliance with the Soviet (now Russian)-Norwegian Border Agreement of 1949. Berg, who worked closely with Norway’s National Police Directorate as part of his job, retired from the Office in 2014.

According to reports in the Russian media, Berg was arrested two weeks ago by officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the agency responsible for domestic security and counterintelligence. He is now in detention and is accused of receiving classified information relating to the Russian Navy. It is believed that Berg received the classified documents from an unnamed Russian national, who was arrested by the FSB in early December and now faces charges of high treason. No further information has been made public about Berg’s arrest. Relations between Norway and Russia have been tense in recent years, partly due to attempts by the two nations to assert control over undersea territories in the arctic region, which are becoming accessible due to global warming. In 2015, Norway’s state broadcaster accused the FSB of pressuring a Norwegian newspaper, The Barents Observer, to fire one of its journalists who covered fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Ocean. But the Russian government denied that it has played any role in the journalist’s firing.

Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that it had established contact with a Norwegian national who was behind bars in Russia, but did not give the person’s name or further details. Berg’s family in Norway said the last time they had news from him was two weeks ago, when he was holidaying in Moscow. The Russian state prosecutor’s office said that Berg’s lawyers had filed an appeal against his detention, but that the Norwegian would remain in jail until his appeal is heard in court.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 December 2017 | Permalink

Russian court sentences Estonian aircraft executive to 12 years for espionage

Raivo SusiA Russian court has sentenced an Estonian aircraft business executive to 12 years at a maximum security prison, allegedly for having spied on Russia a decade ago. Little is known about the case of Raivo Susi, who co-owns two companies that are involved in the sale and maintenance of non-commercial aircraft. The Estonian businessman’s activities include the partial ownership of Aerohooldus OU, which provides training jet aircraft for use by the Air Force of Estonia –a member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Russian media have stated that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) began investigating Susi in January of 2016. By that time, the Estonian businessman was not actively engaging in espionage against Russia, but he was still in touch with his spy handlers, according to the Russians. A group of FSB officers arrested Susi at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February of 2016, as the Estonian businessman was preparing to board a flight from Moscow to the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Since that time, Susi has been held in prison awaiting trial. According to his Russian lawyer, Aleksei Toplygin, Susi faced charges of engaging in espionage against the Russian state from 2004 until 2007. No further information was released about Susi’s activities. His trial, which concluded on Monday in Moscow, was held behind closed doors. It is believed that Susi consistently denied having spied on Russia throughout his trial.

Susi’s espionage case is the latest in a string of spy affairs that have rocked Russian-Estonian relations during the past decade. In 2008, Estonian authorities arrested Herman Simm, a high-level official at the Estonian defense ministry, on charges of spying on behalf of Russian intelligence for nearly 30 years. In 2014, Eston Kohver, a counterintelligence officer in the Estonian Internal Security Service, was allegedly abducted by Russian troops near the Estonian-Russian border. Later that year, the Estonians arrested two Russian citizens, said to be former employees of the Soviet-era KGB, who allegedly crossed into Estonian territory without a permit. In 2015, the Russians exchanged Kohver for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian intelligence officer who was jailed in 2012 along with his wife, Viktoria Dressen, for allegedly spying for Russia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 December 2017 | Permalink

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