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

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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

Leaked EU intelligence report says Islamists were not behind Turkey coup

Turkey coupA leaked report by a European Union intelligence body states that Islamist forces were not behind last July’s failed coup in Turkey, and that the ruling party used the coup to neutralize its few remaining political rivals. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the coup, which included an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims that its members have stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s.

But a report compiled by the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre, known as IntCen, states that Gülenists had nothing to do with the coup, and that the current crackdown against them by the government was planned years in advance. Founded in 2012, IntCen is the intelligence-sharing body of the EU. Its reports are the results of collaborative efforts of intelligence officers from all EU states. They are distributed on a confidential basis to senior EU officials and to the ambassadors of EU states in Brussels, Belgium. The report on the coup in Turkey is entitled “Turkey: The Impact of the Gülenist Movement”. It was issued on August 24 and is marked “confidential”. But it was accessed by British newspaper The Times, which published extracts on Tuesday.

According to the leaked document, it is “unlikely” that the Gülen movement had the “capabilities and capacities” to launch a coup against Erdoğan. It is even more unlikely, it suggests, “that Gülen himself played a role” in the operation. A far more plausible explanation is that the coup was launched by a relatively small group of Kemalists (secular Turks who oppose President Erdoğan’s religiously-based politics), some Gülenists, and various opportunists within the ranks of the military. Once the coup began to unfold, a few low-level military officers with Gülenist sympathies may have “felt under pressure” to participate in order to ensure its success. That was mostly because they knew that, if the coup failed, the Erdoğan government would go after them and accuse them of staging it, states the report.

Indeed, once the coup failed, the Erdoğan administration launched a coordinated campaign designed to dismantle the Gülen movement, which was its “one and only real rival” in Turkey. Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown against alleged supporters of the coup. An estimated 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 35,000 are believed to be in prison, charged with supporting the failed coup or with being members of the Gülen network. But the IntCen report suggests that the crackdown against Erdoğan’s opponents had been conceived and designed years in advance. Last July’s coup acted as a catalyst and was “exploited” by the government to neutralize all its political opponents, says IntCen. The lists used to arrest individuals across the country had been complied by the Turkish intelligence services many years ahead of the failed coup, according to the IntCen report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 January 2017 | Permalink

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