New Zealand spy agency warns of persistent foreign espionage threats

NZSIS New ZealandThe intelligence agency of New Zealand has issued a report warning that the country is being targeted by foreign spies who operate using fake covers. Many of them aim to infiltrate some of the highest levels of the government, according to the agency. The warning appeared in the annual report of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), the country’s main national intelligence organization, which is responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence and counter- terrorism. The NZSIS’ latest report covers the 12 months leading up to June 30, 2016. The unclassified version of the report was presented last week to the New Zealand House of Representatives, which must by law be kept informed about the activities of the NZSIS.

The report warns that “[f]oreign powers continue to conduct espionage activity and other hostile state-sponsored activities, including foreign interference, against New Zealand”. To illustrate this point, the report mentions the case of an alleged “foreign intelligence officer” who entered New Zealand under a “cover identity”, presumably in 2016. The officer approached and met senior New Zealand government officials, including some “with high level security clearances”, claims the report. The undercover officer also came in contact with individuals who worked in “key New Zealand business facilities” and sensitive industries, according to the document. However, NZSIS was able to identify the officer and subsequently contacted all New Zealand government officials that came in contact with the officer. The officials were debriefed and advised to be “cautious in their conversations” with foreign nationals, said the report.

The case study may point to efforts by foreign intelligence agencies to gain insights or manipulate the operations of New Zealand’s government and business community, said NZSIS. However, when asked by reporters, the agency refused to provide further details of the case of the foreign undercover officer. An agency spokesman said simply that the case highlights “some of the security threats that New Zealand currently faces”. The NZSIS is currently in the middle of a hiring spree, after its budget was raised last year. It is estimated that the agency’s staff has increased by nearly a fifth since late 2015.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 January 2017 | Permalink

Accused Chinese nuclear spy ‘to plead guilty’ in US court this week

China General Nuclear PowerA man at the center of the first case of Chinese nuclear espionage in United States history will be pleading guilty on Friday, according to court documents. This could mean that the alleged spy has decided to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) details of Chinese nuclear espionage in the US. The accused man is Szuhsiung ‘Allen’ Ho, a Taiwanese-born engineer and naturalized American citizen. Ho was arrested by the FBI in April on charges of sharing American nuclear secrets with the government of China.

The investigation began when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) contacted the FBI with concerns about Ching Huey, a TVA senior manager. When the FBI questioned the TVA executive, he admitted that Allen Ho had paid him in exchange for information about nuclear power production. He also said that he had traveled to China for that purpose, and that the Chinese government had covered his travel expenses. A few months later, the FBI arrested Ho in Atlanta, Georgia, and charged him with espionage. The FBI also claims that Ho’s US business firm, Energy Technology International, gave secrets to China General Nuclear Power, a Chinese company that supplies nuclear energy technology to the Chinese government. According to Ho’s indictment, he used his technical expertise and business acumen to give Beijing US government information that could help China’s civilian and military nuclear program.

Government prosecutors argued successfully that Ho, who has close family in China, including a son from a former marriage, could flee there if freed. Prosecutors also claim that Ho has access to several million US dollars abroad. For the past months, Ho’s defense denied the espionage accusations against him. But on Tuesday, a newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Ho has been charged, said that the jailed engineer is preparing to plead guilty in court on Friday. Observers believe that this move by Ho’s legal team means that he has decided to cooperate with the FBI. He could therefore provide US authorities with information about Chinese nuclear espionage in the US, and secrets on “the inner workings of China’s nuclear program”, said the newspaper.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 4 January 2017 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part one here.

5. Turkey’s intelligence agency wins the 2016 ‘clueless’ award. It seems everyone predicted the July 15 coup in Turkey, except its spy agency. Unlike countless political analysts in Turkey and abroad, who have been warning about a possible coup as early as October 2015, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was caught in the dark. So unprepared was the agency, that it was unable to defend its headquarters in Ankara from an attack on the morning of July 16 by military helicopters. Meanwhile, dozens of Turkish nationals with diplomatic passports have been applying for political asylum in Germany and elsewhere since the coup. How many of those are MİT personnel, one wonders?

4. Panama papers leak shows immense extent of global financial crime. This year saw the unauthorized release of the Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked documents that represent history’s largest leak. The documents were leaked form the vaults of the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, and reveal secret information relating to over 200,000 offshore entities. This website opined at the time that the Panama Papers reveal the enormous extent of tax evasion and money laundering on a worldwide scale, which now directly threatens the very survival of the postwar welfare state. National intelligence agencies must begin to view offshore tax evasion as an existential threat to the security of organized government and need to augment their economic role as part of their overall mission to protect and secure law-abiding citizens.

3. Nuclear power plant computers found to be infected with viruses. In April, the computers of Gundremmingen, a nuclear power plant in southern Germany, were found to be infected with computer viruses that are designed to steal files and provide attackers with remote control of the system. The power plant is located in Germany’s southern district of Günzburg, about 75 miles northwest of the city of Munich. It is owned and operated by RWE AG, Germany’s second-largest electricity producer. RWE AG insisted that the malware did not pose a threat to the nuclear power plant’s computer systems, because the facility is not connected to the Internet. But there was no explanation of how the viruses found their way into the nuclear power plant’s systems in the first place.

2. German intelligence accuses Russia of pretending to be ISIS online. In June, a German intelligence report alleged that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is in fact a Russian front, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. The Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of ISIS. Now, however, a German intelligence report claims that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact a project of APT28 (also known as ‘Pawn Storm’), a notorious Russian hacking collective with close ties to Russian intelligence. The findings of the German intelligence report echo previous assessments by French and American authorities.

1. Intelligence features heavily in domestic US politics. Many, including this website, saw last week’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by US President Barack Obama as a move directed “more towoard domestic American politics than foreign policy”. The expulsion aimed to expose Moscow’s alleged campaign of interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. But another of its goals was to force president-elect Donald Trump, seen widely as a Russo-file, to take sides. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying Moscow “reserves the right” to retaliate, but would not do so at this point. The Russian response was unexpected and highly uncharacteristic, an important reminder of the uncharted waters that US politics –and US-Russian relations– have entered in 2016. Still, it is remarkable to see the president-elect of the US effectively side with the Kremlin and not with his own country’s Intelligence Community. If nothing more, 2017 promises to be exceedingly interesting from an intelligence point of view.

This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part I here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2016 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

10. Kim Philby videotaped lecture surfaces in Germany. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB from the early 1930s until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Lebanon. Philby’s defection shocked Western intelligence and is seen as one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War. In April of this year, the BBC found a videotaped lecture by Philby in the archives of the BStU, the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records in Germany. During the one-hour lecture, filmed in 1981, Philby addresses a select audience of operations officers from the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security of the former East Germany. Excerpts were aired publicly for the first time.

9. Britain’s MI6 to increase in size by 40% by 2020. It was revealed in July that, according to satellite images, the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, has doubled, and possibly tripled, in size in the past nine years. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British government plans to implement a 40 percent increase in personnel numbers for MI6 over the next four years. The agency, which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, currently employs about 2,500 people. But that number will rise to approximately 3,500 by 2020. Experts agree that we are witnessing the most significant growth in the size of state intelligence agencies since the end of the Cold War.

8. Israel’s Mossad has a successful year, allegedly. It has been quite a year for Israel’s primary external intelligence agency, the Mossad. In 2015, the secretive organization got a new director, Yossi Cohen. Since that time, it has emerged that Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, a senior member of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, has defected to Israel. Mossad is also believed to be behind the killing of Mohamed Zaouari, a senior aviation engineer who headed Hamas’ unmanned aerial vehicle program. Zaouari was shot dead outside his home in Tunisia earlier this month, by a group of assailants using gun silencers.

7. Information points to previously unknown ISIS spy agency. According to The New York Times, the Islamic State has set up a secretive intelligence agency whose task is to set up sleeper cells abroad and has already sent “hundreds of operatives” to Europe and Asia. The ISIS intelligence agency goes by the name Emni and appears to be a multilevel organization that includes domestic and external operational components. Emni’s external unit is tasked with conducting terrorist operations abroad. These are the responsibility of several lieutenants, who are permitted to recruit the most capable members of ISIS from around the world.

6. South Korea announces most high-profile defection from North since Korean War. An announcement issued by the South Korean government in April said it had given political asylum to a colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who worked for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division. The unnamed man is the most high profile defector to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to authorities in Seoul. Meanwhile, Thae Yong-Ho, the second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, also defected with his wife and children in August, and was given political asylum in South Korea.

This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Greece jails member of alleged network of German retirees spying for Turkey

Kos GreeceA German retiree living in Greece, who admitted in court that he was part of a network of German and other Western European residents of Greece recruited as spies by Turkish intelligence, has been jailed for 14 years. The 65-year-old man, who has not been named, was arrested two years ago in the southeastern Aegean island of Kos. He was born in Cold-War-era East Germany and worked as a locksmith before serving for 15 years in the East German National People’s Army. From 2009 to 2012, he lived in Turkey before moving permanently to Greece.

On the morning of October 15, 2014, the German national was arrested by Greek police, who said they spotted him taking pictures of a Greek military outpost while sitting in his parked car. The police officers confiscated his camera and searched his vehicle, finding a pair of binoculars, various camera lenses and several memory sticks. His camera contained photographs of Greek military installations and government buildings on the island, which is located less than 3 miles off the Turkish coast. More photographs of Greek defense installations, military vehicles and communications facilities were found in the man’s house on the island. Police also found there documents in the Turkish language and notepads bearing coordinates of Greek military bases, public buildings and bridges located on Kos. The prosecution claimed that the German man was also monitoring the activities of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency that maintains a base on the Greek island.

During the trial, the accused said he was recruited by Turkey’s intelligence service, known as MİT, in 2011, when he was living in Turkey. He also told the court that he was one of many German and other Western European retirees living in Greece, who have been recruited by Turkish intelligence to spy on Greek military and civilian government facilities. He added that, in return for his services, his Turkish handlers deposited €2,000 every month to his bank account in Germany. He had also been instructed to meet his handlers in Germany, not in Greece or Turkey. A court in the Greek island of Rhodes convicted the German man to 14 years in prison, one year less than the 15-year sentence requested by the prosecution.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 Dec 2016 | Research credit: Strategy Reports | Permalink

Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia breaks silence to warn of spies

Chen YonglinA Chinese diplomat, who made international news headlines in 2005 when he defected to Australia, has ended a decade of silence to warn about an alleged increase in Chinese espionage operations against his adopted country. Chen Yonglin was a seasoned member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2001, when he was posted as a political affairs consul at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia. His job was to keep tabs on the Chinese expatriate community in Australia, with an emphasis on individuals and organizations deemed subversive by Beijing. He later revealed that his main preoccupation was targeting members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is illegal in China. He also targeted supporters of Taiwanese independence, as well as Tibetan and East Turkestan nationalists who were active on Australian soil.

But in 2005, Chen contacted the Australian government and said that he wanted to defect, along with his spouse and six-year-old daughter. He was eventually granted political asylum by Canberra, making his the highest-profile defection of a Chinese government employee to Australia in over half a century. During a subsequent testimony given to the Parliament of Australia, Chen said that he was in contact with Australian intelligence and was giving them information about alleged Chinese espionage activities. He said at the time that China operated a network of over 1,000 “secret agents and informants” in Australia. Chen distinguished agents and informants from Chinese intelligence officers, most of whom were stationed in Chinese diplomatic facilities.

Chen, who now works as a businessman, disappeared from the public limelight after his defection. But last weekend, he reappeared after a decade of obscurity and gave an interview to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. The ABC journalist reminded Chen that in 2005 he had estimated the number of Chinese agents and informants operating in Australia at 1,000, and asked him how many he thought were active today. Chen responded that an increase in the number is certain, given that “China is now the wealthiest government in the world”. That meant, said Chen, that Beijing has the funds that are necessary to maintain “a huge number of spies” in Australia. However, the former diplomat said that most Chinese agents are “casual informants”, not trained spies, and that they are dormant for long periods of time in between operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2016 | Permalink

Iran arrests 12 nuclear negotiators on espionage charges

Iran nuclear negotiationsIranian authorities have reportedly arrested at least 12 members of the country’s team of nuclear negotiators on charges of espionage. The 12 are believed to have represented Iran in international talks about its nuclear program between the Islamic Republic and a group of nations known as P5+1, representing the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

The arrests were revealed by Iranian opposition parliamentarian Hussein Ali Haji Degana, who told reporters on Thursday that those detained held significant posts in the Iranian team that negotiated with representatives of the P5+1 group. Mr. Degana added that some of the 12 held dual citizenships, but did not specify the names of those arrested or their countries of citizenship. Iranian media, which is heavily controlled by the government in Tehran, did not report Degana’s comments. But they were widely publicized by Arab media, including Saudi and Iraqi news agencies.

In March of 2015, Amir Hossein Motaghi, a media advisor to the Iranian president, who covered the international negotiations on the country’s nuclear program, defected to the West. Last August, the office of the Iranian prosecutor said that a dual national with Iranian citizenship had been arrested for spying on Tehran for an unspecified foreign intelligence service. The individual was later identified as Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, a dual Iranian and Canadian citizen, who was allegedly recruited by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6. Esfahani was said to be an accountant with some involvement in the financial aspects of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and foreign powers.

It is not known whether the alleged arrests of 12 more members of the Iranian negotiating team are connected with the espionage charges against Esfahani. Mr. Degana said he hopped that the names of the 12 detainees will be released to the media by the authorities and that their trials will be transparent and open to public scrutiny.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 November 2016 | Permalink