US government plans background checks on Chinese students over espionage fears

Chinese students in USAThe United States government plan to impose tighter visa restrictions and wider background checks on Chinese nationals studying at American universities, over espionage concerns. The news follows reports earlier this year that the administration of US President Donald Trump considered banning all Chinese nationals from studying at American universities. In October of this year, The Financial Times reported that the White House came close to imposing the ban, after it was allegedly proposed by Stephen Miller, speechwriter and senior advisor to Trump. Miller became known as the main architect of Executive Order 13769 —the travel ban imposed on citizens of several countries, most of them predominantly Muslim. According to The Financial Times, Trump was eventually dissuaded from imposing the Chinese student ban by Terry Branstad, US ambassador to China.

Now, however, the Trump administration is reportedly considering the possibility of imposing deeper background checks and additional vetting on all Chinese nationals wishing to study in the US. Citing “a US official and three congressional and university sources”, Reuters said on Thursday that the measures would apply to all Chinese students wishing to register in undergraduate and graduate academic programs in the US. The news agency quoted a “senior US official” as saying that “no Chinese student who’s coming [to the US] is untethered from the state […. They all have] to go through a party and government approval process”. Reuters reported that the proposed plan includes a comprehensive examination of the applicants’ phone records and their presence on social media platforms. The goal would be to verify that the applicants are not connected with Chinese government agencies. As part of the proposed plan, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies would provide counterintelligence training to university officials.

However, the plan has many American universities —including elite Ivy League schools— worried that they may be losing up to $14 billion in tuition and other fees spent annually by more than 350,000 Chinese nationals studying in the US. The fear is that the latter may be looking to study elsewhere, in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Reuters said that many of America’s top universities are “regularly sharing strategies to thwart” plans by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for Chinese nationals to study in the US. The news agency said it contacted the Chinese ambassador to Washington, who called the White House’s fears of espionage by Chinese students “groundless” and “very indecent”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2018 | Permalink

Advertisements

French police officer charged in complex spy case involving Morocco, Algeria

Paris Orly AirportA French police officer has been charged with illegally sharing secret government documents in an espionage case involving France’s border police and diplomats from Morocco and Algeria. According to information published by the French daily Libération, the police officer supplied Moroccan intelligence with classified information about France’s border-control policies and procedures. He also gave the Moroccans information about the movements in France of Moroccan nationals and senior Algerian government officials.

According to the report by Libération, the police officer, identified only as “Charles D.”, was charged on May 31 of this year with corruption and violating secrecy rules. Court documents state that Charles D. gave away classified documents belonging to the Direction centrale de la police aux frontières (DCPAF), a directorate of the French National Police that is in charge of immigration control and border protection across France. He reportedly gave the documents to another man, identified in court documents as “Driss A.”, who worked at Paris’ Orly Airport. It is believed that Driss A. worked as director of the Orly branch of ICTS International, a Dutch-based company that provides security services in several European airports. It is also believed that Driss A. —a Moroccan-born French citizen— was secretly employed by the Deuxième Bureau, Morocco’s military intelligence service. It appears that the Moroccans compensated Charles D with free holidays in Morocco in exchange for his services.

Interestingly, when French counterintelligence officers raided Driss A.’s home in Paris, they found documents detailing the activities of senior Algerian government ministers during their official trips to France. The officials are identified in the documents as Algeria’s former Deputy Prime Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, Higher Education Minister Tahar Hadjar, and Telecommunications Minister Hamid Grine. The documents appear to have been produced by Algerian intelligence and given initially to the embassy of Algeria in France. No explanation has been given about how these documents fell in Driss A.’s possession. Some observers assume that Driss A., acting as a Moroccan intelligence operative, must have acquired them from a source inside the Algerian embassy in Paris.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: Unease in Europe as Turkey intensifies espionage abroad

BND GermanyEarlier this week, it was revealed that the German government rejected a request by the head of Turkish intelligence to spy on Turks living in Germany. The rejection was an important moment in German-Turkish relations and highlights the growing unease in high-level exchanges between Turkey and the European Union.

On Monday, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper alleged that the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), gave his German counterpart a list containing the names hundreds of Turks living in Germany, and asked him to spy on them. According to the newspaper, the list was given by MİT chief Hakan Fidan to Bruno Kahl, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The two men reportedly met at a security conference held in Munich last February. The Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that the list given to Kahl included 300 individuals and approximately 200 groups and organizations that the MİT wanted the BND to monitor.

It is extremely uncommon for information of this kind to be communicated informally between directors of intelligence organizations. Typically the exchange of information between cooperating intelligence agencies happens in a very formal and prescribed environment, not circumstantially during a conference. The episode described by the Süddeutsche Zeitung demonstrates a degree of amateurism on behalf of Turkey’s MİT. It is also symptomatic of the pressure that the agency is under by the Turkish government, following last July’s failed military coup in Ankara and Istanbul.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the failed 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. In responding to the post-coup security pressures, MİT has been stretched to its limit. Asking the BND for assistance illustrates the Turkish agency’s limitations, especially when it comes to spying abroad. Read more of this post

Germany publicly rejects Turkish spies’ request to monitor dissidents

KurdsGerman intelligence and security agencies have publicly rejected a direct request made by Turkey’s intelligence chief to gather information on Turks who are living in Germany and are critical of the Turkish government. The request reportedly relates to attempts by the Turkish government to round up its critics, following a failed military coup in July of last year. 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.

Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown against alleged supporters of the coup. Over 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 41,000 are believed to be in prison, charged with supporting the failed coup or being members of the Gülen network. But many observers in Europe view the coup as a catalyst that was exploited by the government in Ankara neutralize its political opponents.

On Monday, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT, gave its German counterpart a list containing the names hundreds of Turks living in Germany, and asked him to spy on them. According to the newspaper, the list was given by MİT chief Hakan Fidan to Bruno Kahl, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The two men allegedly met at a security conference held in Munich last February. The Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that the list given to Kahl included 300 individuals and approximately 200 groups and organizations that the MİT wanted the BND to monitor.

But instead of spying on these targets, the BND wrote to them and warned them that the Turkish state was after them. The German spy agency also warned them to stay away from any contact with Turkish authorities in Germany and to refrain from traveling to Turkey. On Tuesday, Germany’s Interior Minister, Thomas De Maiziere, confirmed the Süddeutsche Zeitung article and warned Turkey to respect Germany’s territorial sovereignty. “Here German jurisdiction applies”, said De Maiziere, “and citizens will not be spied on by foreign countries”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 March 2017 | Permalink

Turkish diplomats stepping up espionage in Europe, claims German report

Turkish embassy in GermanyTurkish state agencies have asked the country’s diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in an effort to identify those opposed to the government, according to a German report. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating a military coup in July of last year, which resulted in 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.

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the Erdoğan government has now tasked its diplomats stationed abroad to engage in intelligence collection targeting alleged Gülen sympathizers. The report cited “a confidential analysis by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution” (BfV), Germany’s counterintelligence agency. The analysis allegedly states that Turkish diplomats are now conducting systematic espionage activities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and other Western European countries. The BfV report allegedly claims that much of the espionage conducted by Turkish diplomats is directed by the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, known as Diyanet. The agency is seen as the institutional guardian of Turkey’s Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. It provides schools with religious education that is carefully tailored to be compatible with the country’s secular constitution, and trains the country’s imams, who are employed by the state. Der Spiegel claimed on Monday that Diyanet has asked its religious representatives stationed in Europe to look for Gülen sympathizers. According to the German newsmagazine, information is now pouring in from Turkey’s embassies and consulates. It includes names of individuals, as well as student groups, cultural organizations, schools and day-care centers that are seen as not sufficiently critical of the Gülen movement. Der Spiegel said it had seen a report sent to Diyanet by the Turkish embassy in Berne, Switzerland, which warned that many Gülenists had left Turkey and were now operating in Switzerland.

Late last summer, Der Spiegel claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (known by its Turkish initials, MİT) secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and asked for assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens. The BND reportedly refused to cooperate with the request. Another German news outlet, Die Welt, cited an unnamed German security official who said that the MİT employed more operatives in Germany than the East German spy agency did at the height of the Cold War.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2017 | Permalink

US spies fear Trump travel ban will hurt recruitment of Muslim assets

US Customs and Border Protection officers at JFK International AirportIntelligence veterans have raised concerns that the temporary ban on immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations, which has been imposed by the White House, will significantly hinder American efforts to recruit intelligence assets and sources in Muslim countries. United States President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday, banning entry into the United States of citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya. According to the White House, the goal of the temporary ban is to help increase domestic security in the US. But according to Jeff Stein, a former intelligence officer and veteran intelligence correspondent, many in the US Intelligence Community view the travel ban as counterproductive and potentially fatal for their ability to operate.

In an article for Newsweek, Stein explains that, ever since the Cold War, American intelligence agencies have guaranteed to their assets —foreigners who agree to spy for the US— that they and their families will be exfiltrated to America if their lives are in danger. In other cases, assets or their family members are given costly medical treatment or educational opportunities in the US. The promise of eventual resettlement in America is a core recruiting tool used by case officers working in agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency or the Defense Intelligence Agency. It is especially valuable in Muslim countries, where American spy agencies have traditionally found it difficult to operate, and where asset recruitment is arduous and dangerous. If current and potential assets are in any way concerned that they may not be able to enter the US, or not respected once they enter, their willingness to cooperate with their American spy handlers can quickly evaporate. Stein quotes Cindy Storer, who served 20 years as an analyst in the CIA, mostly on counterterrorism, and was in the agency team that led the successful hunt for al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Storer exclaimed that the travel ban “hurts, capital H-U-R-T-S” the CIA’s ability to collect intelligence. Another CIA veteran, Phillip Lohaus, who also served in the US Special Operations Command, lamented the “reduced likelihood that those in countries targeted by the ban will work with us in the future”.

Henry Miller-Jones, who worked for many years as a CIA operations officer in the Middle East, warned that the travel ban was likely to damage the flow of useful intelligence collected by US agencies from “students, professors, visiting businessmen and others” from Muslim countries. The latter are often recruited by US intelligence agencies when visiting America. Additionally, said Miller-Jones, Americans who travel or live in the Muslim world would now “get the cold shoulder” from potentially valuable contacts in those regions. He told Stein that CIA case officers often struggle to convince potential assets that America respects their religion and culture. The travel ban, no matter how geographically limited or temporary, will make it even more difficult to convince these potential assets to work for US intelligence now, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 January 2017 | Permalink

Swiss court reopens probe of alleged espionage by Kazakh agents

Viktor KhrapunovA Swiss court has reopened an investigation of alleged espionage activities by agents of the government of Kazakhstan against a high-profile political exile living in Switzerland. The case, which dates to 2014, centers on Viktor Khrapunov, a former senior Kazakh government official, who has been living in Geneva since 2008. In the years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Khrapunov served as Kazakhstan’s Minister for Energy and Coal, a post that was later renamed to Minister of Energy and Natural Resources. After 1997, he was appointed mayor of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, which is inhabited by 10 percent of the country’s population. But by 2006, Khrapunov had fallen out with the government of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The government claimed that Khrapunov was embroiled in a series of fraudulent real-estate schemes and that he laundered large sums of money for his own personal use.

In 2008, a chartered airplane carrying Khrapunov and his wife landed in Switzerland, reportedly with a millions of dollars in cash, fine jewelry and antiques onboard. The Khrapunovs were granted asylum in the small alpine country and have since lived in the Lake Geneva area. In 2012, the government of Kazakhstan requested that Khrapunov be placed on Interpol’s list of wanted persons. Khrapunov himself dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated and blasted Nazarbayev as “a third-world dictator”.

In early 2014, the Swiss Attorney General’s office opened an investigation into allegations by Khrapunov that he had been followed around by Kazakh intelligence officers, had an electronic tracker covertly installed in his car, and had his computers hacked by Kazakh spies. The case was closed in March of this year, after Swiss authorities said they did not have enough evidence to confirm the precise identity of the perpetrators, two of whom were reportedly holders of British passports. On Monday, however, the Federal Criminal Court in the Swiss city of Bellinzona ordered that the case be reopened, after allegations by Khrapunov that the espionage against him continues.

Kazakh authorities have been regularly accused by European governments of conducting aggressive espionage and intimidation operations targeting exiled adversaries of President Nazarbayev. Last year, Kazakhstan’s former spy chief and a former presidential bodyguard were acquitted after a lengthy trial in Austria after a co-defendant in their double-murder trial, who was also the Kazakh president’s former son-in-law, was found dead in his Vienna cell.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 November 2016 | Permalink