Cyber spies accessed thousands of European Union diplomatic cables

European Commission buildingA group of hackers, allegedly working for the Chinese military, accessed thousands of classified diplomatic cables from the European Union during a protracted cyber-espionage operation, a report has revealed. Over 100 organizations are believed to have been targeted in the multi-year cyber-espionage campaign, including the United Nations, international labor groups, as well as government ministries from dozens of countries. The operation was revealed on Tuesday by Area 1, a cyber-security company founded by former officials of the United States National Security Agency, and reported by The New York Times.

The compromised cables come primarily from the European Union’s COREU communication network, a Telex-based network that uses teleprinters to exchange text-based messages. The European Union uses the COREU network to transmit information that is classified “limited” or “restricted” between officials representing the executive governments of the European Union’s member states, members of the European Commission, foreign-ministry officials, and other approved parties. Top-secret information (“tres secret” in European Union parlance) is typically not shared on the COREU network. Consequently, the hacked cables contain mostly low-level information. That does not mean, however, that their access by at least one adversary power does not represent a serious security breach. Area 1 said that its forensic examination of the method used by the hackers reveals a set of cyber-espionage techniques that are closely associated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These clues, in association with the PLA’s long history of attacking Western diplomatic targets, point to Beijing as a very likely culprit behind the attacks, according to Area 1.

The American cyber-security firm said it was able to access the compromised European Union cables and made over 1,100 of them available to The New York Times. The paper reported on Tuesday that the cables reflect increasing tension between Brussels and Washington, as European Union diplomats attempt to get a handle on the unpredictability of United States President Donald Trump. A series of diplomatic cables discusses the whether the European Union should bypass the White House and work directly with the Republican-controlled US Congress, which is viewed as more reliable and responsible. Another set of diplomatic exchanges describes the frustration of the Beijing’s leadership with Trump, which Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have described to European Union officials as “a bully [engaged in a] no-rules freestyle boxing match”.

The Times said that it notified the European Union of the breach of its diplomatic cables and was told that officials were “aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and [were] actively investigating the issue”. The paper also contacted the White House National Security Council but did not get a response.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 December 2018 | Permalink

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European Union agrees to establish joint intelligence training school

PESCO EUTwenty-five members of the European Union have agreed to establish a joint intelligence training academy, a move interpreted by some as a concrete effort to deepen inter-European security cooperation following Brexit. The announcement came just hours after leading EU heads of state spoke in favor of establishing a joint EU defense force. Calls for tighter cooperation between EU members in the areas of defense and security have been issued for decades. But the upcoming departure of Britain from the EU —popularly known as Brexit— has prompted Germany and France to propose deeper integration as a response to the rise of anti-EU sentiment across the continent.

The decision to establish a joint intelligence training school was approved on Monday by the ministers of defense and foreign affairs of 25 EU members. It was part of a wider agreement involving 16 other joint defense and security projects under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) pact. The pact was first agreed on in September of 2017, and has since been functioning under the supervision of the European Defense Agency and the External Action Service —the diplomatic service of the EU. Nearly 20 projects of a military or security nature have since been signed under PESCO. Monday’s agreement virtually doubled the PESCO projects in existence. The new EU intelligence academy initiative will be led by Greece —an EU member since 1981— and will be headquartered in Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004. When it becomes operational, the academy will provide “education and training in intelligence disciplines and other specific fields to EU member states’ intelligence personnel”, according to a joint PESCO communique issued on Monday.

The new intelligence school will work in cooperation with the individual intelligence agencies of the 25 co-signatory states, along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and with other regional security bodies, said PESCO. However, three EU states, namely Denmark, Malta and the United Kingdom, refused to support the project. Denmark and Malta are not participants in PESCO, while the United Kingdom is expected to leave the EU in March of next year. However, even before Brexit, London had vetoed the idea of closer EU intelligence cooperation, which it saw as a potential competitor to the so-called Five Eyes alliance, a postwar intelligence pact between the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Additionally, despite the overwhelming support for the intelligence academy by EU officials, it remains to be seen whether it will be realized. Observers told Politico on Monday that many other PESCO projects have “yet to get much beyond the drawing board” since their announcement last year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 November 2018 | Research credit: K.A. | Permalink

 

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

Belgium to probe alleged Spanish espionage against separatist Catalan leader

Carles PuigdemontBelgium will investigate whether Spanish intelligence spied on Carles Puigdemont, the separatist Catalan leader who escaped to Brussels after launching an unsuccessful independence bid last year. Puigdemont, 56, served as president of the Spanish region of Catalonia from January 2016 until October 2017. He was forcibly removed from office by the Spanish government, after he led the government of Catalonia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. As soon as the Catalan Parliament declared that the region was independent, Madrid dissolved it, imposed direct rule on the country’s easternmost province, and declared fresh elections.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, Puigdemont, along with several other leading Catalan separatists, fled to Belgium where he requested political asylum. When it emerged that Puigdemont had fled abroad, Spanish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant against him, on charges of sedition, rebellion against the state and misusing public funds. Fearing that the Belgian authorities might extradite him to Madrid, Puigdemont soon left for Germany, where he was detained by local police on March 25, 2018. He currently remains in Germany, while German authorities are deciding whether to grant Madrid’s request for his extradition.

Now authorities in Belgium are preparing to launch an investigation into whether Spain’s intelligence services carried out espionage against Puigdemont while he remained on Belgian soil. The investigation will most likely be carried out by the country’s Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. Known broadly as Comité permanent R, the committee is an independent body that oversees the activities of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus. The investigation is to be launched as a result of an official parliamentary request submitted by the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest separatist party, which represents the country’s Dutch-speaking minority. The party has come out in support of Catalan independence and of Puigdemont in particular, and has urged Brussels to grant political asylum to the Catalan separatist leader.

Peter Buysrogge, a leading member of the New Flemish Alliance, said that his party wanted to know whether Spanish intelligence operated in Belgium with or without the knowledge of the Belgian government and intelligence services. He added that his party was especially interested in investigating allegations made in Catalan media that Spanish intelligence operatives followed Puigdemont and even installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device under his car.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 June 2018 | Permalink

EU recalls envoy to Moscow over Skripal poisoning, more expulsions may follow

Theresa MayThe European Union has recalled its ambassador to Moscow in an apparent response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, who was attacked with a nerve agent in England earlier this month. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition in hospital, nearly three weeks after being poisoned with a nerve agent that British scientists say belongs to Russia’s Cold-War-era chemical stockpiles. Moscow has angrily rejected claims that Skripal, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, was on a Kremlin-approved hit-list of defectors. But British Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Brussels on Thursday to brief European Union heads of state about the attack on Skripal.

The summit concluded in the early hours of Friday with the publication of a joint statement, signed by every participating head of state, backing the British claims and expressing outrage at Moscow’s alleged use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil. The statement said that EU leaders “agree with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible” for the attack on the Skripals. “There is no plausible alternative explanation”, said the statement, and described the attack on the two Russians as a “grave challenge to our shared security”. The statement will be seen as a foreign-policy triumph by London, as Britain has been contacting EU governments seeking from them a direct condemnation of Russia and possible diplomatic actions in response to the alleged attack.

The jointly authored statement also said that the EU would recall its ambassador to Moscow, effective immediately. Markus Ederer, a German diplomat who represents the EU in the Russian capital, will be leaving Russia “for a month of consultations”, in what appears to be a symbolic act of protest by the Europeans. However, some EU members threatened further action and said that they would “coordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of” future Russian actions on the matter of the Skripals. In statements made to reporters early on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that there may be “further punitive measures” against Russia, adding that they would be coordinated among EU states.

Some media reported that at least five EU member states were considering expelling undeclared Russian intelligence officers from their soil in response to the alleged Russian attack in England. They are said to include France, Lithuania and Poland. The London-based newspaper Daily Telegraph reported that Russia was in danger of having its Western European spy network dismantled in response to the attack on the Skripals. Some EU countries, however, including Italy and Greece, appeared less interested in taking action against Russia. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, said on Thursday that his government expressed its “solidarity with the United Kingdom”, but that the EU had to investigate what happened in England on March 4.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 March 2018 | Permalink

Luxembourg to further-probe Jean-Claude Juncker’s role in spy scandal

Jean-Claude JunckerA judge in Luxembourg has launched a criminal investigation into whether officials working for the country’s former Prime Minister and current European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, tried to conceal his role in a spy scandal. Until he stepped down from his post in 2013, Juncker, a member of Luxembourg’s Christian Social People’s Party, was Europe’s longest-serving elected leader, having served as Prime Minister since 1995. His resignation from his post came after a parliamentary inquiry found that the country’s State Intelligence Service (SREL) had engaged in serious criminal activity.

The investigation was launched in 2012, after a local newspaper alleged that SREL’s Director, Marco Mille, employed a surreptitious recording device disguised as a watch to record a private conversation with Juncker. This led to revelations that the SREL had carried out countless illegal wiretaps around the country and that it maintained extensive secret files on over 13,000 citizens and residents of Luxembourg. The report also alleged that SREL set up a front company in order to facilitate the transfer of $10 million from a corrupt Russian businessman to a Spanish intelligence operative, as a personal favor to the Russian. The probe also examined, but did not confirm, allegations that the Grand Duke of Luxembourg had been a trusted informant of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The release of the report prompted calls for Juncker to resign, because, according to Luxembourg law, the Prime Minister is directly responsible for the conduct of the country’s intelligence services, including SREL.

Now Judge Eric Schammo has launched a new criminal investigation into whether government officials working for Mr. Juncker deliberately falsified crucial evidence during the 2012 parliamentary investigation and the subsequent judicial investigation. Government prosecutors believe that a small group of officials falsified evidence in order to protect Mr. Juncker and shield him from any political fallout caused by the scandal. According to reports, former SREL Director Mille, who is currently on trial over his role in the spy affair, has in its possession a recording of a private conversation with Juncker. It is said that the recorded conversation shows that Juncker was aware of and approved the wiretap operation. This evidence was allegedly shared with members of the parliamentary inquiry in 2012. However, according to reports, pro-Juncker officials deleted it from the committee’s files. Juncker denies having had any knowledge of, or having authorized, SREL’s illegal activities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2017 | Permalink

German spy officials dismiss calls to create European intelligence agency

European UnionGermany’s two most senior intelligence officials have dismissed suggestions by European officials and leaders, including the president of France, to create a Europe-wide intelligence agency. The numerous deadly attacks carried out by Islamic State supporters across Europe in recent years have given rise to calls from various quarters for the establishment of a new intelligence service that would combine resources from every member-state of the European Union. Last month, the European Union’s Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said that the time had come for Europe to be “ambitious and bold, to overcome the security taboos of the past and finally work in order to build a European intelligence system”. He went on to say that, had there been sufficient “cooperation, information sharing and exchanging” between the various European intelligence services, “maybe some of these tragic events could have been predicted and prevented”. Avramopoulos’ remarks were echoed last week by France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron. Speaking at Sorbonne University in Paris, France’s head of state said that the creation of a European Intelligence Agency would “strengthen links between our countries” and prevent emerging security threats.

But these calls were rebuffed this week in Berlin, where Germany’s two most senior intelligence officials rejected any and all calls for the creation of a European intelligence service. The officials are Bruno Kahl, director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, and Hans-Georg Maaßen, who heads the country’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, known as the BfV. The two men spoke before a special session of the Intelligence Oversight Committee of the German Federal Parliament, known as the Bundestag. The BND’s Kahl said Europe already had an intelligence-based early-warning center, known as the European Union Intelligence and Situation Center (EU INTCEN). He argued that there was “no need for a European intelligence agency or any other supplemental Europe-wide intelligence organization” and added that “intelligence is better organized on the national level”. He was backed by BfV’s Maaßen, who warned that the creation of a European intelligence service would “create additional bureaucratic structures, both on the European and domestic levels”, which would “profoundly lower our efficiency”.

The two German intelligence officials said that cooperation between European Union member-states had improved substantially in the past few years, and that the current model of bilateral exchange was “the most efficient […] and quickest way to share information”. The current system of inter-agency coordination would be weakened if a European intelligence service was created, according to the two men.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 October | Permalink