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

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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

Revealed: British prime minister was not told about fourth Cambridge spy ring member

Anthony BluntThe Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was kept in the dark by his own home secretary about the discovery of a fourth member of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring in 1964, according to newly released files. The Cambridge Spies were a group of British diplomats and intelligence officials who worked secretly for the Soviet Union from their student days in the 1930s until the 1960s. They included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and H.A.R. “Kim” Philby, all of whom eventually defected to the Soviet Union. In 1964, Sir Anthony Blunt, an art history professor who in 1945 became Surveyor of the King’s Pictures and was knighted in 1954, admitted under interrogation by the British Security Service (MI5) that he had operated as the fourth member of the spy ring.

Despite his allegedly full confession, Blunt was never seriously disciplined for his espionage activities against Britain. In return for revealing his spy activities and naming others who had assisted him, he was granted immunity from prosecution. He was also allowed to remain in his academic post and retained his title of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures –effectively the curator of Queen Elizabeth II’s art collection. It wasn’t until 1979 when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed in a statement to the British House of Commons that Blunt had been the fourth member of the Cambridge Spy Ring. Minutes after the prime minister’s statement entered the public record, Buckingham Palace (which had been made aware of Blunt’s espionage role back in 1964, but had been asked by Britain’s Interior Ministry to not draw attention to the scandal) stripped him of his 1954 knighthood.

It has now been revealed known that, in the days following her House of Commons statement about Blunt, Prime Minister Thatcher received several letters by Henry Brooke, who was serving as home secretary in 1964, when Blunt’s treachery was discovered. In his letters, Brooke (by then Lord Brooke of Cumnoor) expressed his support for the prime minister’s revelation. But the letters, which were previously classified but were published on Tuesday by Britain’s National Archives, also reveal that Brooke kept Blunt’s 1964 confession hidden from the then Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In his 1979 letter to Thatcher, Brooke states that he did not inform the prime minister in 1964 in his “well-meant effort not to add to [Douglas-Home’s] burdens”. But he adds that “I may, with hindsight, have expressed my discretion wrongly”. By that time, Blunt had voluntarily withdrawn from public life and was rarely heard of. Upon his death in 1984, his unfinished memoir was given to the British Library by the executor of his will, under the stipulation that it be kept sealed for 25 years. It was released to the public in 2009.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 July 2018 | Permalink

More spies now in Brussels than Vienna, Austrian intelligence chief says

Peter GridlingThe head of Austria’s counterintelligence agency has said that Brussels has now replaced Vienna as Europe’s spy capital. For nearly a decade, this blog has published expert commentary that points to the Austrian capital being the world’s busiest spy den. In 2009, German broadsheet Die Welt explained that Vienna had “the highest density of [foreign intelligence] agents in the world”. The reasons for this are partly historic: during the Cold War, the center of Vienna was located less than an hour’s drive from the Iron Curtain, making it a central location for East-West spy intrigue. Additionally, Austria boasted then, and boasts today, an efficient transportation network that connects it to both Western and Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, Vienna hosts the headquarters of several important international agencies, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This gives dozens of countries the opportunity to station in Vienna large numbers of diplomats, in addition to those who staff their embassies there. Consequently, it is estimated that the Austrian capital today hosts nearly 20,000 foreign diplomats, which is a substantial number for such a small country with a permanent population of less than 9 million. Experts believe that around half of these foreign diplomats are in fact connected to a foreign intelligence agency.

But in a rare public appearance on Thursday, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said that Vienna no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. Gridling heads the Vienna-based Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He was speaking during the official presentation of the BVT’s annual Constitutional Protection Report for 2017, which was held at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. Gridling told reporters that the number of foreign intelligence operatives pretending to be diplomats posted in the Austrian capital remained significant, and that Austria as a whole was still “a favored area of operations” by the world’s intelligence agencies. However, he added that Vienna had now been overtaken by the Belgian capital Brussels as the spy capital of Europe. Gridling said that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was now a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital.

Gridling thus appears to concur with numerous intelligence experts and practitioners, among them Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), who have claimed since 2009 that Brussels is home to more spies than any other city in the world. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. The Austrian counterintelligence chief declined calls to provide further elaboration on the mater.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2018 | Permalink

Ukraine, Russia, spied on Dutch investigators of MH17 plane disaster, TV report claims

MH17 crashDozens of Dutch security officers, legal experts, diplomats and other civil servants were systematically spied on by Ukrainian and Russian intelligence services while probing the aftermath of the MH17 disaster, according to a report on Dutch television. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a scheduled passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, 196 of them Dutch citizens, were killed. In the aftermath of the disaster, the Dutch Safety Board spearheaded the establishment of the multinational Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which is still engaged in a criminal probe aimed at identifying, arresting and convicting the culprits behind the unprovoked attack on Flight MH17. As part of the JIT, dozens of Dutch officials traveled to Ukraine to initiate the investigation into the plane crash and repatriate victims’ bodies and belongings. Their activities were conducted with the support of the Ukrainian government, which is party to the JIT.

But on Tuesday, Holland’s RTL Niews broadcaster said that members of the Dutch JIT delegation were subjected to systematic and persistent spying by both Ukrainian and Russian government operatives. According to RTL, Dutch investigators found sophisticated eavesdropping devices in their hotel rooms in Ukraine, and believed that their electronic devices had been compromised. Citing “inside sources” from the Dutch government, the broadcaster said that, during their stay in Ukraine, members of the Dutch JIT delegation noticed that the microphones and cameras on their wireless electronic devices would turn on without being prompted. They also noticed that the devices would constantly try to connect to public WiFi networks without being prompted. Upon their return to Holland, Dutch officials had their wireless devices examined by Dutch government security experts. They were told that numerous malware were discovered on the devices.

RTL Niews said that the question of whether valuable information relating to the MH17 investigation was stolen by foreign spies remains unanswered. But it noted that the members of the Dutch JIT delegation were warned about possible espionage by foreign powers prior to traveling to Ukraine. During their stay there, they were not allowed to send messages in unencrypted format and were only permitted to hold sensitive conversations in especially designated rooms inside the Dutch embassy in Kiev. The Dutch government did not respond to questions submitted to it by RTL Niews. But it issued a statement saying that its security experts had briefed and trained the Dutch JIT delegation prior to its trip to Ukraine. Members of the delegation were told that foreign parties would seek to collect intelligence, because the MH17 investigation was taking place in a “conflict area with significant geopolitical interest” for many parties. They were therefore advised to “assume that they were being spied on [and] adjust [their] behavior accordingly” while in Ukraine, the Dutch government’s statement said.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 28 June 2018 | Permalink

Singapore officials reject rumors of spy devices used at Trump-Kim summit

USB fan espionageSingaporean officials have dismissed reports that a promotional item given away for free during the June 12 summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea contained an espionage device. Over 2500 reporters from nearly every country covered the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Upon arriving in Singapore’s Sentosa Island, where the summit took place, journalists were given a free promotional packet that included novelty items such as pens, notepads, a water bottle, and a USB fan. The USB fan consisted of blades connected to a miniature electric motor, which was in turn connected to a USB cable. The cable allowed the device to be powered by a computer or other electronic device with a built-in USB port.

But rumors soon emerged in the media that the free USB fans, which were made in China, contained malware. As soon as the fans were plugged into an electronic device, the malware penetrated its operating system, allowing hackers to access its contents remotely, said the reports. The allegations were first aired on Radio France Internationale, the French government’s international broadcaster. They were then picked up by the BBC, which said that many reporters covering the historic summit had been warned “not to plug [the USB fans] in to their laptops”. According to the reports, the malware installed on the USB fans was able to steal computer files and turn a laptop’s built-in camera and microphone into remotely-controlled eavesdropping devices.

But the government of Singapore has strongly rejected these reports. In a statement issued in English, Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information said that the USB fans had been a gift of the Sentosa Development Corporation, a Singapore government body tasked with promoting tourism in Sentosa Island, where the Trump-Kim summit took place. The ministry added that the USB fans had been produced long before Trump and Kim decided to meet in Singapore and that they had been originally manufactured as gifts for tourists visiting the island. The statement issued by the ministry also said that reporters appreciated the fans, given the tropical climate on Sentosa Island, where the temperature reached 33C (91F) on the day of the summit.

Author: Ian Allen | Date:  25 June 2018 | Permalink