US arrests Mexican man for spying for Russia in mystery case involving informant

FBI MiamiThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrested a Mexican man, who is accused of spying in the city of Miami on behalf of the Russian government. Local media reports suggest that the target of the man’s spying was a Russian defector who gave American authorities information about Russian espionage activities on US soil.

In a news release issued on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice identified the man as Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, a Mexican citizen residing in Singapore. The statement said that Fuentes was arrested on Monday and was charged with “conspiracy” and “acting within the United States on behalf of a foreign government”.

According to the statement, Fuentes was recruited in April of 2019 by an unnamed Russian government official. His first assignment was to rent an apartment in Miami-Dade County using fake identification. One he carried out the assignment, Fuentes allegedly traveled to Russia, where he briefed his handler. He was then asked to return to Miami and drive to an apartment complex, where he was to observe a vehicle belonging to an individual that the Department of Justice statement describes as a “US government source”. Fuentes was tasked with providing his Russian handler with the vehicle’s license plate number.

Having been given a detailed physical description of the vehicle by his Russian handler, Fuentes drove to the apartment complex in Miami, but was stopped at the entrance to the complex by a security guard. While Fuentes was speaking with the security guard, Fuentes’ wife allegedly exited the car and took a photograph of the vehicle in question. According to the FBI, she later shared the photograph with Fuentes’ Russian handler on the mobile phone application WhatsApp. The photograph was discovered by US Customs and Border Protection agents on the smartphone of Fuentes’ wife on Sunday, as the pair tried to board a flight to Mexico City.

The US Department of Justice news release does not identify Fuentes’ alleged espionage target. But an article in The Miami Herald claims that the target is an FBI informant who has provided the Bureau’s counterintelligence division with critical information about Russian espionage operations in the Miami area. Fuentes is scheduled to appear in court for a pretrial detention hearing this coming Friday. His arraignment has been scheduled for March 3. The press release does not explain why Fuentes’ wife was not arrested.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2020 | Permalink

FBI examining FaceApp over potential counterintelligence concerns

FBIThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation says it is examining possible counterintelligence threats in connection with the popular online application FaceApp, which is headquartered in Russia. The application first made its appearance in January of 2017 and quickly became popular among smartphone users around the world. It allows users to upload a photograph of their face and then edit it with the help of artificial-intelligence software. The software can change the user’s photograph to make it look younger or older, or make it look as if it is from the opposite gender. The result can be impressively realistic and life-like.

The St. Petersburgh-based company behind FaceApp, Wireless Lab, claims that the photos of users are uploaded to cloud servers situated in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. They are then deleted within two days from the moment they are uploaded by users, without ever being transferred to servers located in the territory of Russia. But the FBI does not seem to believe these assurances. In a letter sent late last month to the Minority Leader of the US Senate, Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Bureau said it was examining FaceApp as part of its counterintelligence mission.

In the letter, which was published on Monday, Jill Tyson, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, said the fact that Wireless Lab is based in Russia raised a number of counterintelligence concerns. These relate to the types of data Wireless Lab collects on its customers and the privacy policies that apply to Russian Internet companies. According to Tyson, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has the right to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request” to network providers. He added that, if the FBI found that FaceApp was involved in activities meant to interfere with upcoming elections in the United States, the Bureau would investigate the matter further, and possibly involve the Foreign Influence Task Force, an FBI-led body that was established after the 2016 US presidential elections.

The FBI’s letter was written in response to an earlier letter sent to the Bureau by Senator Schumer in July, which expressed concerns about potential threats posed by FaceApp to the privacy of American Internet users and to the nations’ security as a whole.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 December 2019 | 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

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

Spain returns stolen material to North Korean embassy in Madrid, say sources

North Korea SpainAuthorities in Spain have returned material that was stolen from the embassy of North Korea in Madrid by a group of raiders in February, according to a source that spoke to the Reuters news agency. The unprecedented attack took place in the afternoon of February 22 in a quiet neighborhood of northern Madrid, where the North Korean embassy is located. Ten assailants, all Asian-looking men, entered the three-story building from the main gate, brandishing guns, which were later found to be fake. They tied up and gagged the embassy’s staff and some visitors to the embassy. After several hours spent inside the buildings, the assailants abandoned the building in two embassy vehicles that were later found abandoned.

A few weeks following the raid, a North Korean dissident group calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense —also known as Free Joseon— claimed responsibility for the attack. Cheollima Civil Defense is North Korea’s first known active resistance group. Its members call for the overthrow of the Kim dynasty. Subsequent reports said that some of those who took part in the embassy raided fled to the United States and approached the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with an offer to hand over computer hardware and telephones captured in the attack. On Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported that the FBI “returned the material [to Spanish authorities] two weeks ago”, and that Spanish police handed it over to the North Koreans. Citing “a Spanish judicial source”, Reuters said that American authorities returned the material directly to the Spanish court that is investigating the raid.

According to the news agency, Spanish authorities returned the material to the North Korean embassy without reviewing its contents, thus complying with the norms of diplomatic protocol. Data and items belonging to foreign embassies are usually off-limits to the authorities of host nations. The report did not clarify whether the FBI returned all the material that was stolen by the raiders in February, nor did it state whether the FBI reviewed its contents prior to handing it over to the Spanish court.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 April 2019 | Permalink

New book names ex-KGB defector who outed FBI agent Robert Hanssen as Russian spy

Robert HanssenA new book reveals for the first time the name of a former intelligence officer of the Soviet KGB who helped American authorities arrest Robert Hanssen, an American spy for the Soviet Union and Russia. The son of a Chicago police officer, Hanssen joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1976 and was eventually transferred to the Bureau’s Soviet analytical unit, where he held senior counterintelligence posts. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the FBI realized Hanssen had spied for Moscow since 1979. Following Hanssen’s arrest in 2001, it emerged that he had betrayed the names of 50 FBI and CIA assets or informants, many of whom perished in the hands of the Russian intelligence services.

In 2002, the US Department of Justice opined that Hanssen had caused “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history”. He is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. But despite numerous articles, reports and books on the Hanssen spy case, the story of the FBI investigation that led to his arrest remains at best fragmentary. A major question concerns the identity of the mysterious person that helped FBI counterintelligence investigators zero in on Hanssen after years of fruitless efforts to confirm suspicions of the existence of a Russian mole. It is known that the FBI paid the sum of $7 million to a former KGB officer, who delivered the contents of Hanssen’s Russian intelligence file. But the identity of that informant has not been revealed.

That may have changed as of last month, however, thanks to The Seven Million Dollar Spy, a book written by the late David Wise, a journalist and best-selling intelligence author who died on October 8, aged 88. Wise’s book, published posthumously on October 23 in audio book format, received little media attention. But Newsweek intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein said last week that the book might bring us a step closer to uncovering the identity of the individual who led to Hanssen’s capture. Stein explains that the mysterious informant had previously developed a business relationship with Jack Platt, a retired CIA case officer who after the end of the Cold War co-founded an international security consultancy with ex-KGB operative Gennady Vasilenko. The two men staffed their company with several American and Russian former spies. Among them was Anatoly Stepanov, a former case officer in the KGB. Stein reports that, according to Wise’s posthumous book, Stepanov is in fact the pseudonym of former KGB officer Aleksandr Shcherbakov. It was he who delivered Hanssen’s file to the FBI, thus facilitating his eventual capture. It is believed that Shcherbakov defected to the United States in 2010 where he continues to live today under an assumed identity.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2018 | Permalink

Envelopes containing deadly ricin poison intercepted at US Pentagon

PentagonAn investigation was opened in the United States on Tuesday, after two envelopes containing the deadly poison ricin were intercepted at the Pentagon. The envelopes were reportedly intercepted at a mail screening facility located in the vicinity of the headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Washington, DC. One of the envelopes was addressed to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while the other was addressed to Admiral John Richardson, who serves as Chief of Naval Operations. According to US news media, the envelopes were found to contain a powder-like substance. Upon discovery, the envelopes were secured by members of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the US Department of Defense’s law enforcement body that is responsible for safeguarding the Pentagon complex.

On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that the substance inside the envelopes had been examined by its technicians and had tested positive for the deadly poison ricin. Ricin is a naturally occurring toxin found inside the seeds of castor oil plants, known commonly as castor beans. Though mostly harmless in its natural state, the toxin can be processed and effectively weaponized in the form of pellets, liquid acid, mist or powder. If it finds its way into the human body, through ingestion, inhalation or injection, it can kill in fewer than 48 hours. Death usually occurs as a result of organ failure and internal bleeding, which lead to a collapse of the circulatory system. There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning.

On Tuesday afternoon, parts of the Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign office in Houston, Texas, were shut down, after two staff members came in contact with what was described as a “white powdery substance” inside an envelope. The staff members were rushed to the hospital, but tests carried out later that day showed that the substance was non-toxic.

The FBI said on Tuesday that its technicians would carry out further tests on the substances found at the Pentagon and at Senator Cruz’s office, in order to confirm the initial findings. It also said that there would be no further announcements until the tests are completed. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s mail screening facility remains under quarantine.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 October 2018 | Permalink