Italian spy chief paid secret visit to Syria: news reports

Alberto ManentiThe head of Italian intelligence paid a secret visit to Syria earlier this month, a week after his Syrian counterpart visited Rome, according to reports from the Middle East. The Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News, which first reported the alleged behind-the-scenes exchange, said the visits focused on counter-terrorism cooperation between Syria and the European Union. The paper said that the initial contact was made in late June by Major General Deeb Zeitoun, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, who paid a secret visit to Rome. General Zeitoun’s visit was allegedly in response to an official invitation issued by the Italian government. The general is believed to have stayed in a secluded private villa, which was provided by the Italian External Intelligence and Security Agency, known as AISE. He subsequently met with several Italian intelligence officials, including AISE Director, General Alberto Manenti.

A week later, Manenti secretly traveled to Syrian capital Damascus, where he stayed for several days. According to Gulf News, General Manenti met with his Syrian counterpart and other senior intelligence officials, as well as with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The main purpose of the secret meetings was to explore the potential for enhanced collaboration between Syria and the European Union on counter-terrorism issues. It appears that the Syrian government is willing to share intelligence on citizens of the EU who have traveled to Syria and have joined the ranks of the Islamic State, as well as other al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the country. Damascus is even willing to give EU intelligence personnel access to captured Islamist fighters that are being held in Syrian government facilities.

In return, however, the Syrians are asking that the EU enters negotiations on possibly normalizing diplomatic relations with Damascus. Contacts between the EU and Syria were severely disrupted at the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and remain officially non-existent to this day. According to Gulf News, the Syrians told General Manenti that full intelligence cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism will ensue as soon as the EU normalizes diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus. The Italian intelligence official is believed to have told the Syrians that Rome will press the EU to move toward re-establishing relations with Damascus, in return for concrete steps taken in Syria toward “political transition” in the war-torn country.

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

Experts warn about Brexit’s effects on European, NATO cooperation

BrexitAfter Thursday’s Brexit vote, European and American security officials have tried to pacify concerns about major disruption of longstanding Western security cooperation arrangements. But experts stress that the international security landscape will be significantly impacted by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). As early as Thursday night, British defense, military and intelligence officials launched a marathon of phone calls in order to reassure their European and American counterparts that the United Kingdom was not going to retreat from its role in security pacts with Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

On Friday, the office of NATO Director General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement assuring the public that Britain’s decision to leave the EU would not impact on NATO’s security arrangements. On Sunday, however, a new statement by Stoltenberg appeared to revise his earlier comments. It argued that Britain was “the biggest provider of security in Europe” and that its eventual exit from the EU “matters”, adding that the West’s security situation post-Brexit was “more unpredictable […] than before”. Citing security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Stoltenberg, The Wall Street Journal opined on Sunday that Brexit “could have a profound effect on global security”, but stressed that its precise impact remains uncertain. Some officials warned that, in the long run, Britain’s exit from the EU would weaken its military, which is Europe’s most powerful. This could happen through a possible breakup of the country, with Scotland and Northern Ireland splitting from the United Kingdom in reaction to Brexit. Alternatively, Britain’s worsening economic situation could prove detrimental to its overall defense spending.

On Saturday, United States Navy Admiral (ret.) and former NATO commander James Stavridis, argued that NATO will benefit from Brexit, because it will allow the United Kingdom to devote “more resources and manpower to support” NATO’s mission. There will also be a “reduction in the […] battlefield competition between NATO and the EU”, said Adm. Stavridis, which “will likely produce a stronger NATO”. Others, however, disagreed. Citing several current and former officials, The Wall Street Journal warned that Britain’s exit from the EU would result in the loss of a quarter of the EU’s combat power. That could prompt Germany, France, and other EU nations to increase their military spending, in order to advance a more unified defense policy among EU nations. That could bring about a unified EU military headquarters, or even a joint European Army, which NATO has traditionally resisted, as it believes it would duplicate resources and undermine transatlantic cooperation. But with Britain leaving the EU, a staunch pro-NATO voice that strongly objected to the creation of a European Army ceases to exist. That could open the door to the creation of a European Army, say experts.

Last but not least, the UK was a strong player lobbying in favor of instituting EU-wide sanctions against Russia in the wake of the war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. With London now removed from the decision-making center in Brussels, the voices from EU member states like Spain, Italy and Greece, which argue for abandoning the sanctions against Moscow, are likely to grow louder, said The Wall Street Journal.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 June 2016 | Permalink

Portuguese, Russian spies arrested in Rome may have accomplices

Frederico Carvalhão,A Portuguese intelligence officer arrested a week ago in Rome, allegedly while passing classified documents to his Russian handler, may have accomplices with access to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) secrets. IntelNews reported last week on the capture of Frederico Carvalhão, a section chief for Portugal’s Security Information Service (SIS), which is tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence. Carvalhão was arrested on May 23 at a café in the Trastevere district of Rome while passing a folder with six classified documents to a Russian man. The man is believed to be an employee of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, though notably he does not have diplomatic status or immunity, and was therefore arrested. As we noted last week, this is atypical for an intelligence officer, as most of them operate as registered diplomats.

According to Portuguese media reports, the classified information that Carvalhão appears to have been sharing with the SVR since at least 2014 relate to NATO and the European Union (EU), of which Portugal is a member. However, the London-based newspaper Daily Telegraph reports that there are suspicions in Lisbon that Carvalhão was not working alone for the Russians. In other words, Portuguese investigators are looking into the possibility that the arrested spy was what is known as a ‘principal agent’. The latter signifies a mole that acts as a middle person between his foreign handlers and a cell of other agents working for him or her. The possibility that Carvalhão may not have been working alone was commented on by Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, who said last week that the judicial investigation into the spy case was “ongoing”.

It appears that Carvalhão somehow managed to access NATO- and EU-related documents from the SIS’ Ameixoeira Fort headquarters in the Portuguese capital, to which he had no need-to-know access. Moreover, SIS computers do not accept flash drives, while all printed documents contain a secret watermark that identifies them as having been printed on an SIS printer. But Carvalhão appears to have somehow managed to acquire non-watermarked documents without having extracted them from an SIS computer with the use of a flash drive. Does that mean that someone else from inside SIS provided him with the documents? The EU and NATO are eagerly waiting for an answer.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 May 2016 | Permalink

Russian, Portuguese intelligence officers arrested in Rome on espionage charges

Frederico CarvalhãoTwo intelligence officers, one Russian and one Portuguese, have been arrested by Italian authorities on charges of espionage. The arrests took place in Rome on Monday by Italian police, who were reportedly accompanied by Portuguese counterintelligence officers. It is suggested in Portuguese media that the two men were arrested in the act of exchanging classified documents and money. The Portuguese intelligence officer has been identified in news reports as Frederico Carvalhão, a section chief for Portugal’s Security Information Service, which is tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence. The Russian intelligence officer has not been identified, but is believed to be an employee of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR. Interestingly, the Russian officer does not have diplomatic status and was therefore arrested, since he holds no diplomatic immunity.

A press release by the Portuguese government prosecutor said that Carvalhão had been arrested “along with a foreign subject linked to an intelligence organization” after a lengthy investigation into “concerns that [classified] information was being exchanged for money”. It is believed that Portuguese authorities began investigating Carvalhão in 2015, and now believe that he frequently traveled abroad to meet his Russian handler. He is thought to have been recruited by the Russians in 2014. According to Portuguese media reports, the documents that Carvalhão appears to have been giving the SVR contain information about the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Portugal is a member.

Carvalhão is said to have flown from Lisbon to Rome on Friday of last week in order to meet his SVR handler. The two men were meeting in a café on Saturday when they were arrested. The Portuguese government prosecutor said that Saturday’s arrests resulted from “rigorous collaboration between Portuguese and Italian authorities”. He also thanked Eurojust, a European Union agency based in the Netherlands, which focuses on cross-national judicial cooperation between European Union member-states. Security officers also raided Carvalhão’s home in Portugal, where they allegedly seized “documents and cash”. Both he and his alleged Russian hander remain in detention in Rome, while Italy is preparing to extradite them to Portugal.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2016 | Permalink | News tip: C.W.

Concerns about Israeli spying prompt debate on EU security measures

EU headquartersA debate on information security measures in the European Union was prompted last week after some officials voiced concerns that the proceedings of a closed-door meeting were secretly monitored by Israel. The meeting took place on January 15 as part of regular proceedings by the EU’s Political and Security Committee (PSC). The main item on the agenda was the EU’s Middle Eastern policy. According to some meeting participants, Israeli diplomats appeared to be aware of a statement discussed during the PSC meeting “in real time”, which prompted a wider debate on EU information security policies.

According to the Brussels-based EU Observer, which reported on the story, EU member state ambassadors present at the meeting worded a statement that contained a sentence deemed critical to Israel’s policy on Palestine. The sentence allegedly stated: “The EU will continue to unequivocally and explicitly make the distinction between Israel and all territories occupied by Israel in 1967”. According to some ambassadors who were present at the PSC meeting, “Israeli contacts sent text messages to them with requests to alter wording shortly after each new draft [of the PSC statement] went around”. Further suspicions were raised when, at the conclusion of the meeting, the Greek delegate vetoed the contentious line, standing alone against the remaining 27 delegates who had earlier supported it.

Last week, sources told the EU Observer that Israel may have placed bugs in the room where the PSC meeting took place. They added that the committee was debating whether to begin holding meetings in a secure room located in the EU headquarters building in Brussels, where the use of cell phones by meeting participants is not possible. They also said that a stricter classification policy should apply to PSC documents. Others, however, said that the source of the leak may have been the Greek delegate —the sole participant at the meeting who assumed a seemingly pro-Israeli stance. The Greek ambassador may have shared the details of the proceedings with Israeli officials, thus effectively spying on the conference on behalf of Israel, speculated the EU Observer. Another PSC meeting delegate told the paper that “the spy theory” was effectively concocted “in order to avoid confrontation” with the Greek delegation.

The EU Observer contacted the Greek mission to the EU, but was told that the Greek ambassador would never spy on the EU “as a matter of principle”. The Israeli mission to the EU declined to comment.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 February 2016 | Permalink

Ex-NATO supreme commander warns of ‘Grexit security nightmare’

James StavridisAn American former supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has warned that a possible Greek exit from the Eurozone “could become a geopolitical nightmare” for the European Union and NATO. James Stavridis, a retired four-start US Navy admiral, who served as NATO’s 16th Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009 to 2013, said solving the Greek crisis should not be left to the central bankers. In an article published Wednesday in Foreign Policy, Stavridis said the financial administrators that are handling the Greek crisis were not sufficiently cognizant of the massive geostrategic implications of a possible “Grexit”.

The retired admiral said that if the Greek economy continues its downward spiral, the country may not be able to fulfil its defense obligations to NATO, in which Greece has held full membership since 1952. As a result, the country may leave not only the EU, but also NATO. Neither organization has ever lost a member-state, said Stavridis, adding that such a development would constitute terra incognita and would “shake both organizations in fundamental ways” by weakening their broader ideological cohesion.

However, said Stavridis, chances are that Greece will remain a member of EU and NATO despite possibly exiting the Eurozone. But it would be “an angry disaffected and battered nation”, he said, and could thus wreak havoc in both organizations. The latter are consensus-driven, meaning that their actions depend on the unanimous agreement of all member-states. If Greece adopted an “uncooperative” attitude, it would easily bring both organizations to a halt when it comes to pressing issues, such the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, the Iranian nuclear program, or even negotiations about transatlantic trade. Currently, Greece’s important geographic position means that its naval bases constitute the maritime flank of NATO during a critical time of tension in the eastern Mediterranean, said Stavridis.

And what if Greece, shunned by the West, started to look elsewhere for support? Russia, which shares strong historical and religious links with Greece, could be a “prospective partner” for Athens, argued Stavridis. If Moscow offered even marginal economic assistance to Athens, Greece could be tempted to further distance itself from its Western partners, both diplomatically and militarily.

Admiral Stavridis’ warning came a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Greece had played “an important role in southern Europe as a NATO member” and urged Athens not to make cuts in its defense spending due to the ongoing economic crisis.

Global finance fears grow as Greece faces economic meltdown

GreeceSeveral Western countries issued travel warnings for Greece on Sunday, as the Greek government shut down all banks and imposed capital controls following the breakdown of talks between Athens and the European Union. British and American citizens traveling or living in Greece were advised to have enough cash on hand, as ATMs were quickly running out of currency. In a late-night televised address to the nation, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said banks would remain closed until July 6 –the day after Greeks vote in a nationwide referendum on whether to accept the bailout terms proposed to Greece by its creditors. Police tightened security around ATM machines, as lines were reportedly formed in petrol stations in the capital.

The decision to shut down the banks was taken after finance ministers in the eurozone –the a monetary union of 19 European Union (EU) member states that have adopted the euro as their common currency– rejected Athens’ request to prolong a financial-assistance program. The decision could prompt Greece to default on a €1.5 billion payment to the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s main creditors. Additionally, the European Central Bank, which oversees Greece’s banking system, refused on Sunday to infuse cash to the Greek banks, in order to accommodate the mass withdrawal of cash by panicked citizens. On Saturday, Greece’s Minister of Finance, Yannis Varoufakis, was not allowed to attend a eurozone meeting in Brussels –a historic first that could mean Greece is close to being kicked out of the eurozone and maybe even the EU as a whole.

Finance ministers of the 18 countries that attended Saturday’s meeting issued a joint statement pledging “to do whatever it takes to stabilize the common currency area” and shield it from possible domino effects caused by the Greek financial meltdown. However, it is difficult to predict what will happen to the financial markets if Greece declares a default, as some of the world’s largest banking institutions share ownership of the country’s mammoth €300 billion debt. Financial analysts warned that the euro will become “increasingly vulnerable” to ripple effects from the Greek crisis, while the London-based Financial Times crisis meeeting the developments in Greece were “expected to trigger a sharp reaction” in the world’s markets this week. The big question, said The Times, is whether the economic fallout from the latest dramatic developments would be limited to Greece or become “a global event”. There was no question, said the paper, that the markets were “at a critical juncture” and that investors were “taking the possibility of contagion very seriously”.

Meanwhile, several European countries announced they will be holding emergency meetings on Monday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited German party leaders to a crisis meeting, while the office of French President Francois Hollande said he would be holding a “restricted emergency cabinet meeting” to discuss the developments in Greece. The British government said its ministers were “taking steps” to protect the country from possible economic turbulence in the eurozone –of which the United Kingdom is not a member. British newspaper The Observer said in a lengthy editorial published on Sunday that the Greek crisis, coupled with rising tensions over immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, heightened terrorism fears, as well as the impending British EU referendum, were causing a “perfect storm [of] tension and division at Europe’s core”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2015 | Permalink: