Belgian university shuts down Chinese-funded institute due to espionage claims

Xinning SongOne of Belgium’s leading universities has decided to shut down a research institute funded by the Chinese government, after the Belgian intelligence service accused its director of spying on behalf of Beijing. The news was announced on Wednesday by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), one of Belgium’s leading higher-education institutions. The Confucius Institute has been operated at VUB since 2006. But the university’s board of directors now says that it will not be renewing its contact with the Institute in 2020.

The Confucius Institute at VUB is one of more than 500 such research bodies that the government of China has funded around the world since 2004. Their mission is to promote the language and culture of China to the world. However, numerous academic institutions in Japan, Canada, and a number of European countries, have recently shut down Confucius Institute branches, following allegations that their staff members carried out espionage tasks, or tried to stifle academic research critical of China. In Europe alone, the University of Lyon in France, Stockholm University in Sweden, and Holland’s University of Leiden have all recently terminated their cooperation with the Confucius Institute.

In October of this year, Belgium’s State Security Service (VSSE) concluded that the VUB Confucius Institute director, Dr. Song Xinning, carried out espionage tasks on behalf of the Chinese government. As a result, the Belgian government refused to renew the work visa of Dr. Song, who had lived in Belgium for over a decade. Additionally, the Chinese academic was barred from entering the European Union’s Schengen Area —which comprises 26 European countries— for eight years.

Dr. Song alleges that his work visa was revoked after he refused to cooperate with an American diplomat stationed in Brussels. He also denies that he was ever in the service of Chinese intelligence or the Chinese state. But the VUB appears to have sided with the Belgian government in this dispute. The university annulled its contract with Dr. Song and, as of January, will be terminating its relationship with the Confucius Institute. In a press statement published online, VUB Rector Caroline Pauwels said that the work of the Confucius Institute did not meet the “current policy objectives” of the university.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 December 2019 | Permalink

Estonian court to release defense official who spied for Russia for 13 years

Herman SimmA court in Estonia has ordered the release of a former senior defense official who spied on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for Russia, causing what experts described at the time as “the most serious case of espionage against NATO since the end of the Cold War”. Herman Simm was a high-level official at the Estonian Ministry of Defense, who once led the country’s National Security Authority. This meant that he was in charge of Estonia’s national cyber defense systems and supervised the issuing of security clearances.

He was arrested in 2008 along with his wife and charged with spying for Russia for over a decade. At the time of his arrest Simm was responsible for handling all of Estonia’s classified and top secret material regarding NATO. This prompted European and American security officials to describe Simm as the most damaging spy against NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In February of 2009 Simm was sentenced to 12½ years in prison.

On Thursday, a county court in Estonia’s southeastern city of Tartu ruled that Simm is eligible for parole, because he has served the majority of his prison sentence without committing any disciplinary infractions. Officials from the Tartu County Prison and the prosecutor’s office agreed that early release would provide Simm with an incentive to abide with Estonian law. The court also stated in its decision that Simm had no more access to classified information and that he was of no further interest to foreign countries and intelligence organizations.

Simm is expected to be released within days, and will remain under probation until March of 2021. The court’s decision can be appealed by December 20.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 December 2019 | Permalink

Elite Russian spy unit used French Alps region as logistical base

Chamonix FranceAn elite group Russian military intelligence officers, who have participated in assassinations across Europe, have been using resorts in the French Alps as logistical and supply bases, according to a new report. The report concerns Unit 29155 of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, commonly known as GRU. According to The New York Times, which revealed its existence of 29155 in October, the unit has been operating for at least 10 years. However, Western intelligence agencies only began to focus on it in 2016, after it was alleged that an elite group of Russian spies tried to stage a coup in the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro.

Unit 29155 is believed to consist of a tightly knit group of intelligence officers led by Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, a hardened veteran of Russia’s Chechen wars. The existence of the unit is reportedly so secret that even other GRU operatives are unlikely to have heard of it. Members of the unit frequently travel to Europe to carry out sabotage and disinformation campaigns, kill targets, or conduct other forms of what some experts describe as the Kremlin’s hybrid war. They are believed to be responsible for the attempt on the life of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU intelligence officer who defected to Britain. He almost died in March 2018, when two Russian members of Unit 29155 poisoned him in the English town of Salisbury.

On Wednesday, a new report in the French newspaper Le Monde claimed that Unit 29155 used the French Alps as a “rear base” to carry out operations throughout Europe. According to the paper, the information about the unit’s activities in France emerged following forensic investigations of the activities of its members by British, Swiss, French and American intelligence agencies. In the same article, Le Monde published the names of 15 members of Unit 29155, which allegedly stayed in various French alpine towns and cities between 2014 and 2018. The paper said that they traveled to France from various countries in Europe, such as Spain, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, or directly for Russia.

The alleged Russian spies stayed in France’s Haute-Savoie, which borders Switzerland, and is among Europe’s most popular wintertime tourist destinations. The area includes the world-famous Mont Blanc mountain range and the picturesque alpine towns of Annemasse, Evian and Chamonix. Several members of the unit visited the region repeatedly, said Le Monde, while others entered France once or twice, in connection with specific spy missions. It is believed that the reasoning behind their trips to the French Alps was to blend in with the large numbers of international tourists that travel to the region throughout the year. However, the unit also utilized several other areas in Eastern Europe as rear bases, including cities and towns in Moldova, Montenegro and Bulgaria, said Le Monde.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 December 2019 | Permalink

As Australia launches probe, skeptics cast doubts on Chinese defector’s spy claims

Wang LiqiangAs the Australian government has launched an official investigation into the claims made by a self-styled Chinese intelligence defector, some skeptics have begun to cast doubts about his revelations. The claims of Wang “William” Liqiang have dominated news headlines in Australia for over a week. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Australian spy agency confirmed last week that Mr. Wang had provided a 17-page sworn statement, in which he detailed his work as an undercover intelligence officer for Chinese military intelligence. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they plan to carry out espionage operations on behalf of Bejing. Some media reports claimed that Mr. Wang had shared details about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia. The Australian government said on Tuesday that an official investigation had been launched into Mr. Wang’s claims.

But some skeptics in Australia and elsewhere have begun to raise doubts about the Chinese defector’s claims, suggesting that he has given little —if any information— that is genuinely new. Some argue that Mr. Wang is much too young to have been entrusted with senior-level responsibilities in the intelligence agency of a country that rarely promotes twenty-somethings in high-ranking positions. Additionally, Mr. Wang appears to have no military background —he claims to have been recruited while studying fine art— which is not typical of a Chinese military intelligence operative.

Furthermore, Mr. Wang episode interviewers from Australian television’s 60 Minutes program that he began feeling tormented by moral dilemmas when his staff officers supplied him with a fake passport bearing a different name, in preparation for an operation in Taiwan. However, by his own admission, Mr. Wang had been supplied with fake passports for previous operations, so it is not clear why he lost his nerve at the time he did. In fact, case officers usually covet the opportunity to go undercover and feel a sense of exhilaration when they receive fake identification documents for an undercover mission.

Is Mr. Wang not sharing the entire background to his decision to defect to Australia? Or could he be deliberately amplifying his role in Chinese intelligence, in an effort to appear useful to the Australian government and thus secure political protection by Canberra? In the words of Alex Joske, an analyst at the  International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the details in some of Mr. Wang’s claims mean that “government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Chinese defector reveals identities of Chinese undercover spies in Asia and Australia

Wang LiqiangA Chinese intelligence defector has reportedly given the Australian government information about entire networks of Chinese undercover spies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, according to reports. The story of Wang “William” Liqiang, made headlines all over Australia during the weekend, culminating in an entire episode of 60 Minutes Australia about him airing on Sunday. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son, who live in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

Police in the Chinese city of Shanghai claim that Mr. Wang is a small-time criminal who has been found guilty of using fraudulent documents and has a 15-month suspended prison sentence on his record. In a statement issued on Sunday, China’s embassy in Canberra described Mr. Wang as a “convicted fraudster” who was “wanted by police after fleeing [China] on a fake passport”. But according to reports in the Australian media, Mr. Wang has provided the ASIO with a 17-page sworn statement, in which he details his work as an undercover intelligence officer. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they organize and implement espionage operations on behalf of Bejing.

In a leading article published on Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald referred to Mr. Wang as “the first Chinese operative to ever blow his cover” and claimed that he had given the ASIO “a trove of unprecedented inside intelligence” about Chinese espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The newspaper said that the defector had revealed details about entire networks of Chinese intelligence operatives in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He also reportedly provided identifying information about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, Australian media said yesterday that the ASIO was examining allegations that a Chinese espionage ring tried to recruit an Australian businessman of Chinese background and convince him to run for parliament. According to reports, the spy ring approached Nick Zhao, a successful luxury car dealer, and offered to fund his political campaign with nearly $700,000 (AUS$1 million) if he run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Australia. Zhao reportedly told the ASIO about the incident last year, shortly before he was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. His death remains under investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 2019 | Permalink

Turkey arrests German embassy lawyer on espionage charges

Germany Embassy TurkeyTurkish authorities have charged a lawyer working for the German embassy in Ankara with espionage, further-straining the already tense relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which reported on the arrest, did not name the lawyer, but said he is a Turkish citizen and was arrested in September.

The newsmagazine said the lawyer had been hired by the German embassy to obtain information about Turkish citizens who had applied for political asylum in Germany. German authorities would regularly give the lawyer identifying information about asylum applicants. The lawyer would then verify with Turkish police that the applicants had a blank criminal record and were not wanted for participation in criminal activity. The German embassy would then forward the information collected by the lawyer to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (known in Germany as BAMF), which would subsequently approve or reject the asylum applications.

Following the lawyer’s arrest by the Turkish National Intelligence Service (MİT), German authorities are concerned that the Turkish government has seized identifying information on at least 50 Turkish applicants for political asylum in Germany. Some of these applicants are reportedly members of Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority. Others are alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen a United States-based former political ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Turkey accuses of having orchestrated the failed 2016 military coup against Erdoğan.

The German Foreign Office has described the lawyer’s arrest as “incomprehensible” and has reportedly warned those asylum seekers affected by it that their safety may be endangered. Meanwhile, German diplomats are engaged in high-level talks with the Turkish government to secure the lawyer’s release, according to Spiegel. The effort is being led by no other than Martin Erdmann, a veteran diplomat who is serving as Germany’s ambassador to Turkey.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 November 2019 | Permalink

Russia, Lithuania and Norway exchange prisoners in rare three-way spy-swap

Frode BergA rare three-way spy-swap has reportedly taken place between Russia and two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, Lithuania and Norway. Rumors of a possible exchange of imprisoned spies between the three countries first emerged in mid-October. However, all three governments had either denied the rumors or refused to comment at the time. It now turns out that the spy-swap, which international news agencies described as “carefully coordinated” was the result of painstaking negotiations between the three countries, which lasted several months.

A major part of the process that led to last week’s spy swap was the decision of the Lithuanian parliament to approve altering the country’s criminal code. The new code allows the president of Lithuania to pardon foreign nationals who have been convicted of espionage, if doing so promotes Lithuania’s national interest. The new amendment also outlines the process by which the government can swap pardoned foreign spies with its own spies —or alleged spies— who may have been convicted of espionage abroad. On Friday, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda announced he had pardoned two Russian nationals who had been convicted of espionage against Lithuania, in accordance with the new criminal code. The president’s move was approved by the country’s multi-agency State Defense Council during a secret meeting.

Shortly after President Nausėda’s announcement, Sergei Naryshkin, Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said that Moscow would immediately proceed with “reciprocal steps”. The Kremlin soon released from prison two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis was serving a 12-year prison sentence, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, was serving 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government.

The two Lithuanians were exchanged for two Russians, Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko. Filipchenko is believed to be an officer in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), who was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015. He had been given a 10-year prison sentence for trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania, allegedly in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. Moisejenko was serving a 10½ year sentence for conducting espionage and for illegally possessing firearms. Lithuania alleges that Moisejenko had been tasked by Moscow with spying on the armed forces of Lithuania and NATO. Along with the two Lithuanians, Russia freed Frode Berg (pictured), a Norwegian citizen who was serving a prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

On Saturday, Darius Jauniškis, Director of Lithuania’s State Security Department, told reporters in Vilnius that the spy swap had taken place in a remote part of the Russian-Lithuanian border. He gave no further information about the details exchange, or about who was present at the site during the spy-swap.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 November 2019 | Research credit: E.G. | Permalink

FBI charges Twitter employees with working as spies for Saudi Arabia

TwitterUnited States authorities have charged two employees of the social media firm Twitter and a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family with spying for Riyadh. The Federal Bureau of Investigation filed a complaint on Wednesday in San Francisco, accusing the three men of “acting as unregistered agents” for Saudi Arabia. The phrase is used in legal settings to refer to espionage.

According to the FBI, the charges stem from an investigation that lasted several years and centered on efforts by the oil kingdom to identify and silence its critics on social media. In 2015, the Saudi government allegedly reached out to Ali Alzabarah, a 35-year-old network engineer working for Twitter, who lived in San Francisco. The complaint alleges that Ahmed Almutairi (also known as Ahmed Aljbreen), who worked as a “social media advisor” for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, arranged for Alzabarah to be flown from San Francisco to Washington to meet with an unidentified member of the Saudi dynasty.

Alzabarah, along with another Twitter employee, 41-year-old Ahmad Abouammo, were given money and gifts by the Saudi government in return for supplying it with private information about specific Twitter users, according to the complaint. The information provided by the two Twitter employees to the Saudi authorities allegedly included the email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of up to 6,000 Twitter users, who had posted negative comments about the Saudi royal family on social media.

Special Agents from the FBI’s Settle field office arrested Abouammo at his Seattle home on Tuesday. However, Alzabarah is believed to have fled the United States along with his family before the FBI was able to arrest him. He is currently believed to be in Saudi Arabia and is wanted by the FBI, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. The Saudi government has not commented on the case. Twitter issued a statement on Wednesday, saying it planned to continue to cooperate with the FBI on this investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 November 2019 | Permalink

Russia preparing to swap imprisoned spies with NATO members, sources claim

LithuaniaThe Russian government is preparing to swap a number of imprisoned spies with at least two member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to reports. The Estonia-based news agency BNS, which is the largest news agency in the Baltics, said on Wednesday that negotiations between Russian and Lithuanian, as well as probably Norwegian, officials were nearing completion.

The alleged spies at the center of the reputed spy swap are said to include Nikolai Filipchenko, who is reportedly an intelligence officer with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Filipchenko was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015, allegedly while trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania. He was charged with using forged identity documents to travel to Lithuania on several occasions between 2011 and 2014. His mission was allegedly to recruit officers in Lithuania’s Department of State Security in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. In 2017, a district court in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius sentenced Filipchenko to 10 years in prison. The alleged Russian spy refused to testify during his trial and reportedly did not reveal any information about himself or his employer. He is believed to be the first FSB intelligence officer to have been convicted of espionage in Lithuania.

BNS reported that the Russians have agreed to exchange Filipchenko for two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis is serving a 12-year prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. In the following year, a Russian court sentenced Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, to 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government. Lithuanian authorities have refused to comment publicly about Filipchenko and Mataitis, saying that details on the two men are classified. According to BNS, the spy swap may involve two more people, an unnamed Russian national and a Norwegian citizen, who is believed to be Frode Berg, a Norwegian retiree who is serving a 16-year jail sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

BNS said on Wednesday that the Lithuanian State Defense Council, which is chaired by the country’s president, had approved the spy exchange, and that Moscow had also agreed to it. On Thursday, however, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said she had “no information on this issue” that she could share with reporters.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 October 2019 | Research credit: E.G. | Permalink

Russia has a dedicated spy unit to destabilize Europe, Western officials claim

GRURussian intelligence maintains an elite spy unit whose sole goal is to run operations that have the potential to subvert European political and economic systems, according to a new report by The New York Times. The unit is behind a string of intelligence operations in recent years, which range from espionage to disinformation campaigns and even assassinations.

The Times cited “four Western officials” who said that the group is known as Unit 29155 and operates within the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, commonly known as GRU. It has allegedly been in existence for at least 10 years, but it only recently appeared on the radar of Western intelligence agencies. The latter began to take note of Unit 29155 in 2016, after it was alleged that an elite unit of Russian spies tried to stage a coup in the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro. The former Yugoslav Republic was seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the time. It was claimed that the Russian intelligence operatives carried out a failed attempt to kill its prime minister and instigate a pro-Russian coup.

According to the paper, Western intelligence officials do not have a clear picture of the structure of Unit 29155, nor are they able to predict where it will strike next. But they believe that it consists of a very tightly knit group of intelligence officers led by Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, a hardened veteran of Russia’s Chechen wars. The existence of the unit is so secret that even other GRU operatives are unlikely to have heard of it, said The Times. Members of the unit frequently travel to Europe to carry out sabotage and disinformation campaigns, kill targets, or conduct other forms of what some experts describe as the Kremlin’s hybrid war. They tend to travel on the cheap, in order to economize and avoid attention, said the paper.

The Times said it reached out to the Kremlin with a number of questions about Unit 29155. It received a response from Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov, who suggested that the questions be directed instead to Russia’s Defense Ministry. But the ministry did not return any messages.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran arrests Russian journalist for espionage in rare spat with key ally Moscow

Yulia YuzikIn a surprising move last week, Iranian authorities arrested a Russian journalist and expert on the Caucasus region, whom they accused of spying for Israel. They later agreed to release her following significant diplomatic pressure from Russia. But the move surprised observers, because Iran rarely acts in ways that have the potential to damage its close relations with Moscow.

The journalist in question is Yulia Yuzik, a 38-year-old reporter with considerable expertise on Russia’s Caucasus region. Her articles on the security situation in the Caucasus have been published in several Russian and Western outlets, including Foreign Policy and GQ. She has also authored a number of books on Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, which have been translated into several foreign languages, such as German, Italian and French.

In 2017, Yuzik spent several months in Iran while working on a number of stories. She returned to Russia before returning to Iran on September 29 of this year, reportedly “on a private trip”. Media reports stated that Yuzik intending to meet a number of Iranian journalists that she worked with back in 2017. However, upon landing at Iran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Yuzik had her passport confiscated without explanation, and was forced to enter the country without identity and travel documents. Then, last Thursday she was arrested at her hotel in downtown Tehran by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who apparently broke down the door of her hotel room before arresting her.

There were no news of Yuzik’s whereabouts until the following day, when staff at the Russian embassy in the Iranian capital were contacted by her family. Yuzik’s family said that the IRGC had charged her with collecting intelligence for the Mossad, Israel’s spy service. Russian media reports said that the accusations against Yuzik took Russian diplomats by the surprise, given that Yuzik has no apparent connection to Israel, nor does she have a travel visa to enter that country. She reportedly spent a few days there in 2004 while writing a story about the Israel Defense Forces for Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Yuzik’s family told the Russian embassy that she had been scheduled to appear in a Tehran court on Saturday. The Russian embassy gave a press briefing to reporters on Friday, saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Iranian ambassador to Moscow to complain about Yuzik’s arrest. Then early on Saturday, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, announced that Yuzik would be released soon and would be allowed to return home to Russia.

The incident has surprised observers, because Russia is one of Iran’s closest international allies. It is therefore highly unusual for Tehran to take any action that might potentially provoke Moscow or otherwise damage its diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 October 2019 | Permalink

FBI files espionage charges against California man who allegedly spied for China

Xuehua Edward PengThe United States has pressed espionage charges against a naturalized American citizen who operated as a courier for Chinese intelligence while working as a tour operator in California. On Monday federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed espionage charges against Xuehua “Edward” Peng, a 56-year-old Chinese-born American citizen. Peng, a trained mechanical engineer, reportedly entered the United States in June 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2012 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time he was working for US Tour and Travel, an independent tour operator in California.

On Friday, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Peng at his home in Hayward, California, and charged him with spying on behalf of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s primary external intelligence agency. At a press conference held on Monday, David Anderson, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, said that Peng began working for the MSS in June 2015 and continued to do so until June of 2018. Throughout that time, Peng participated in at least six dead drops on behalf of the MSS, said the FBI. But he was unaware that the agent on the other end of the dead drop was in fact an FBI informant, who had lured Peng and the MSS into an elaborate sting operation. The informant is referred to in the indictment as “the source”. The FBI said it paid the informant nearly $200,000 to facilitate the sting operation.

Most of the dead drops took place at a hotel in Newark, California. Peng would book a room in the hotel using a popular online booking service. He would check in and go to his hotel room, where he would hide envelopes containing as much as $20,000 in cash. He would then leave the room key at the front desk for his contact to pick up. The contact (the FBI informant) would pick up the key and the cash, and leave memory sticks with classified US government information for Peng to pick up. Peng would then travel to China to deliver the classified information to the MSS.

Unbeknownst to Peng, the FBI was monitoring him all along, and managed to secretly tape his alleged espionage activities. The surveillance footage is now part of the federal affidavit that was unsealed on Monday. Moreover, the FBI appears to have given Peng classified information that was approved for the purposes of the counterespionage operation against him. It is not known whether the classified information was real, deceptive, or a mixture of the two. It is worth noting that Peng is not a foreign diplomat and is therefore not subject to the rules of diplomatic immunity. He now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 October 2019 | Permalink

Russia fired officials over Smolenkov defection, filed INTERPOL search request

INTERPOLThe Russian government reportedly fired a number of officials over the defection of a senior Kremlin aide, who alleged worked as an American spy. Meanwhile, Moscow has filed a search request with INTERPOL about the alleged defector’s whereabouts. News of the defection was reported on September 9 by the American news network CNN. The network alleged that the man —which it did not name— was exfiltrated from Russia in 2017 by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, over fears about his life. A subsequent report in the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant identified the alleged defector as Oleg Smolenkov, 50, and said that he disappeared along with his wife and three children in the summer of 2017 while on holiday in Montenegro.

On September 11, the Reuters news agency revealed that Smolenkov was a career diplomat who served as senior aide to Yuri Ushakov, Russia’s former ambassador to the United States and senior international affairs advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the Kremlin disputes claims that Smolenkov was a highly placed official or that he could have been in possession of damaging classified intelligence.

According to a new report from Russia’s InterFax news agency, the Kremlin disciplined a number of Russian officials for permitting Smolenkov and his family to travel to Montenegro. The disciplinary action was taken soon after Smolenkov’s disappearance and led to a number of firings, said InterFax, citing anonymous government sources. In the summer of 2016, the Kremlin had issued a travel ban for Montenegro, which barred government employees from traveling there, due to the deteriorating relations between Moscow and the former Yugoslav Republic. Montenegrin authorities had previously claimed that Russia tried to stage a coup and planned to kill the country’s prime minister. According to InterFax, an investigation by “the relevant law enforcement agencies” concluded that those officials who had allowed the Smolenkovs to travel to Montenegro had “violated the ban”. They were therefore “disciplined and [some] were fired”, said the anonymous source.

Meanwhile it was reported on Friday that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed a search request for Smolenkov and his family with INTERPOL, the international agency that facilitates worldwide cooperation between national police organizations. When asked about it by Western news media, a Russian government spokeswoman said that Russia did what any other country would do in this situation: it contacted INTERPOL with “questions regarding the disappearance of […] a citizen of Russia on the territory of a foreign state along with his family […] and his presence on the territory of the United States”, said the spokeswoman.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 September 2019 | Permalink

CIA denies Trump’s mishandling led to alleged exfiltration of senior Russian asset

Trump CIA - JFThe United States Central Intelligence Agency has questioned the accuracy of a media report, which claimed that “repeated mishandling” of intelligence by President Donald Trump resulted in the exfiltration of a high-level source from Russia. According to the American news network CNN, the CIA carried out the exfiltration operation in 2017. Despite the success of the operation, the removal of the asset has left the US without this high-level source at a time when it is most needed, said CNN. The network cited “a person directly involved in the discussions” to exfiltrate the asset, but said it was withholding key details about the case in order to “reduce the risk of the person’s identification”.

According to CNN, the CIA asset was so highly placed inside the Kremlin that the US had “no equal alternative” inside the Russian government. The asset was in a position to provide “both insight and information” on Russia’s secretive President, Vladimir Putin. But by 2016, the sheer length of the asset’s cooperation with the CIA had caused some intelligence officials at Langley to consider exfiltrating him from Russia. Typically agents-in-place have short careers; they are either captured by their adversaries or are exfiltrated once their handlers start to believe that they are burned out or that their life may be in danger. But exfiltration operations in so-called “denied areas” —regions or countries with formidable counterintelligence resources that make it difficult for the CIA to operate there— are rare.

The CNN report claims that the decision to exfiltrate the high-level source was taken after a May 2017 meeting between Trump and Putin, with the participation of senior American and Russian officials. The latter included Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak. Citing an American “former senior intelligence official”, CNN alleges that Trump “repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence” at that meeting, which could have led to the exposure of the CIA’s asset. At that time, the CIA decided that it was time to exfiltrate the asset and proceeded to do so successfully.

But the CIA disputed the accuracy of CNN’s story. The agency’s Director of Public Affairs, Brittany Bramell, dismissed what she called “CNN’s narrative” as “inaccurate”. She added that the agency’s judgements about exfiltrations of agents are “life-or-death decisions” that are based solely on “objective analysis and sound collection”, not on “misguided speculation that the President [mishandled] our nation’s most sensitive intelligence —which he has access to each and every day”. CNN said on Monday that Trump and “a small number of senior officials” were told about the exfiltration in advance. The news network also said that it was not privy to details about the extraction operation or about the current whereabouts of the exfiltrated asset.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 September 2019 | Permalink

Threat from espionage is bigger than terrorism, says Australia’s spy chief

Duncan LewisThe director of Australia’s main national security agency has warned in a public speech that the threat from espionage —including cyber espionage— is greater than terrorism, and poses an “existential” danger to established states. Duncan Lewis was appointed director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in 2014, having already served for more than four decades in the Australian military and civilian government sectors. On Wednesday, Lewis gave a rare public address at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, ahead of his retirement from government service later this month.

The ASIO director said in his speech that terrorism poses “a terrible risk” and should be seen as “a very serious matter”. On the other hand, “terrorism has never been an existential threat to established states”, said Lewis. Additionally the risk from the current wave of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism has “plateaued” and should not be expected to increase drastically, he noted. On the other hand, the threat of foreign espionage “is ultimately an existential threat to the state, or it can be an existential threat to the state”, added Lewis. The ASIO director described espionage and foreign-influence activities as “typically quiet, insidious and with a long tail”. Thus, “unlike the immediacy of terrorism incidents”, the harmful effects of espionage may not appear for many years or even decades after the initial activity has been carried out, he said.

Additionally, said Lewis, Australia’s “middle power status” and close alliances with Western countries make it a major target for state-sponsored human and cyber espionage attacks. Adversary nations see Australia as “a rich target”, he said, and launched espionage operations against it daily. As a result, foreign intelligence operations against Australia are “on a growth path” and are taking place on an “unprecedented” scale and scope, according to Lewis. Such operations include “covert attempts to influence and shape the views of the [Australian] public, media, government and diaspora communities, both within Australia and overseas”, said Lewis, adding that they take place “every day”.

The espionage threat to Australia does not come from “one particular nation”, said the AFIO director, although some nations tend to display more “intent, sophistication and commitment” than others. Australia is obligated to resist against these threats by continuing to develop its counter-espionage capabilities and finding innovative and effective ways to detect and defend against foreign interference, Lewis said at the conclusion of his talk.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 September 2019 | Permalink