Russia, Lithuania and Norway exchange prisoners in rare three-way spy-swap

Frode BergA rare three-way spy-swap has reportedly taken place between Russia and two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, Lithuania and Norway. Rumors of a possible exchange of imprisoned spies between the three countries first emerged in mid-October. However, all three governments had either denied the rumors or refused to comment at the time. It now turns out that the spy-swap, which international news agencies described as “carefully coordinated” was the result of painstaking negotiations between the three countries, which lasted several months.

A major part of the process that led to last week’s spy swap was the decision of the Lithuanian parliament to approve altering the country’s criminal code. The new code allows the president of Lithuania to pardon foreign nationals who have been convicted of espionage, if doing so promotes Lithuania’s national interest. The new amendment also outlines the process by which the government can swap pardoned foreign spies with its own spies —or alleged spies— who may have been convicted of espionage abroad. On Friday, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda announced he had pardoned two Russian nationals who had been convicted of espionage against Lithuania, in accordance with the new criminal code. The president’s move was approved by the country’s multi-agency State Defense Council during a secret meeting.

Shortly after President Nausėda’s announcement, Sergei Naryshkin, Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said that Moscow would immediately proceed with “reciprocal steps”. The Kremlin soon released from prison two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis was serving a 12-year prison sentence, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, was serving 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government.

The two Lithuanians were exchanged for two Russians, Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko. Filipchenko is believed to be an officer in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), who was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015. He had been given a 10-year prison sentence for trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania, allegedly in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. Moisejenko was serving a 10½ year sentence for conducting espionage and for illegally possessing firearms. Lithuania alleges that Moisejenko had been tasked by Moscow with spying on the armed forces of Lithuania and NATO. Along with the two Lithuanians, Russia freed Frode Berg (pictured), a Norwegian citizen who was serving a prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

On Saturday, Darius Jauniškis, Director of Lithuania’s State Security Department, told reporters in Vilnius that the spy swap had taken place in a remote part of the Russian-Lithuanian border. He gave no further information about the details exchange, or about who was present at the site during the spy-swap.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 November 2019 | Research credit: E.G. | Permalink

Iranians may have used female spy to ‘honey-trap’ dissident living in France

Ruhollah ZamThe Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure a leading Iranian dissident from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. Iranian authorities announced the arrest of Ruhollah Zam on October 15. On that day, Iranian state television aired a video showing a blindfolded Zam surrounded by officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Zam, 46, was a prominent online voice of dissent during the 2009 Green Movement, an Iranian youth-based reform campaign whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. He joined other young Iranians in launching AmadNews, a website whose stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran. Soon after its emergence, AmadNews became the online voice of the Green Movement. Following a brief period of detention in 2009, Zam fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People).

Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured in a “complicated intelligence operation” that used “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. But it did not provide further information about the method that was used to convince Zam to travel to Iraq, whose government is closely aligned with Iran’s. A few days ago, however, the London-based newspaper The Times claimed that the IRGC used a woman to gain Zam’s trust and lure him to Iraq.

Citing exiled Iranian activists that work closely with Zam, the British newspaper said that the woman entered his life nearly two years ago, thus pointing to a lengthy intelligence operation by the IRGC. Over time, she won his trust and eventually convinced him to travel to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. The reason for his trip was that, allegedly, the woman convinced him that Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq, had agreed to fund Zam’s online activities. However, the cleric needed to confer with the exiled dissident in person before agreeing to fund his work, according to the woman. It is not known whether Zam and the unnamed woman were romantically involved.

The Times also alleged that Zam’s abduction and arrest was met with “at least tacit approval” by the French intelligence services. The latter now expect that two French academics, who have remained imprisoned in Iran for alleged espionage activities for over a year, will be released as part of a swap with Zam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 October 2019 | Permalink

Russia preparing to swap imprisoned spies with NATO members, sources claim

LithuaniaThe Russian government is preparing to swap a number of imprisoned spies with at least two member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to reports. The Estonia-based news agency BNS, which is the largest news agency in the Baltics, said on Wednesday that negotiations between Russian and Lithuanian, as well as probably Norwegian, officials were nearing completion.

The alleged spies at the center of the reputed spy swap are said to include Nikolai Filipchenko, who is reportedly an intelligence officer with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Filipchenko was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015, allegedly while trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania. He was charged with using forged identity documents to travel to Lithuania on several occasions between 2011 and 2014. His mission was allegedly to recruit officers in Lithuania’s Department of State Security in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. In 2017, a district court in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius sentenced Filipchenko to 10 years in prison. The alleged Russian spy refused to testify during his trial and reportedly did not reveal any information about himself or his employer. He is believed to be the first FSB intelligence officer to have been convicted of espionage in Lithuania.

BNS reported that the Russians have agreed to exchange Filipchenko for two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis is serving a 12-year prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. In the following year, a Russian court sentenced Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, to 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government. Lithuanian authorities have refused to comment publicly about Filipchenko and Mataitis, saying that details on the two men are classified. According to BNS, the spy swap may involve two more people, an unnamed Russian national and a Norwegian citizen, who is believed to be Frode Berg, a Norwegian retiree who is serving a 16-year jail sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

BNS said on Wednesday that the Lithuanian State Defense Council, which is chaired by the country’s president, had approved the spy exchange, and that Moscow had also agreed to it. On Thursday, however, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said she had “no information on this issue” that she could share with reporters.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 October 2019 | Research credit: E.G. | Permalink

Jailed Russian who spied for CIA writes letter to Trump, asking to be freed

Russian Ministry of Internal AffairsA Russian former police officer, who is serving a prison sentence in Russia for having spied for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, has written an open letter to President Donald Trump, asking to be freed. Yevgeny A. Chistov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2014 on charges of spying for Washington. During his trial, he admitted having been recruited by the CIA when he worked as an officer in the police, Russia’s federal law-enforcement agency, which operates under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Russian state prosecutors accused him of having established contact with the CIA in 2011. In 2015, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, which he is currently serving at a labor camp in the Nizhny Novgorod town of Bor, located in central European Russia.

On Saturday, British newspaper The Guardian published a letter that was allegedly written by Chistov. In the letter, the jailed spy admits that he passed Russian state secrets to the CIA for three years, after deciding “to help the US as a friend”. He claims that he did it out of love for his country, and in order to help “overthrow […] the regime” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chistov goes on to accuse “Putin and his cronies” of having plundered Russia and of oppressing its people through “corruption and extortion”. He blames the Kremlin for Russia’s current economic state: “we have a resource-rich country yet our people are poor”, he says. The jailed spy adds that he told the CIA about the “secret plans” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, that he provided “names of some people from the FSB”, and that he “revealed some objectives of Russia’s Ministry of Defense”. He does not provide details. He then claims that, even though he was paid by the CIA for his services, he did not act out of self-interest.

Chistov says that the conditions of his imprisonment are inhumane and that he and his family “are in great danger in Russia”. He also claims that his wife visited the US embassy in Ukraine in an attempt to secure a travel visa, but that her application was rejected and she was forced to return to Russia. The jailed spy adds that he “wrote two letters to the CIA asking them to help and received no response”. He then pleads with President Trump to help him, in two ways. First, by granting asylum in the US to his wife and mother. Second, by swapping him with someone “who worked for Russia” and is serving time in a US prison. “I want to appeal to the president to conduct the exchange”, he concludes.

The United States has participated in very few spy swaps in the post-Cold War era. In 2010, Washington and Moscow conducted one of history’s largest spy exchanges, as ten deep-cover Russian agents captured in the US earlier that year were swapped for four Russian citizens imprisoned by Moscow for spying for the US and Britain. Four years later, a Cuban intelligence officer who spied for the CIA was released as part of a wider exchange between Washington and Havana of persons held in each other’s prisons on espionage charges. The White House has not commented on Chistov’s letter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2018 | Permalink

Russia tried to kill ex-double spy because he trained Eastern European agencies

Sergei SkripalRussia may have made the decision to kill former double spy Sergei Skripal because he continued to provide counterintelligence assistance to Eastern European governments, according to media reports from Prague. Skripal, 66, a veteran military intelligence operative who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, has been living in England since 2010. He was recently released from hospital after he was poisoned with what London claims was a military-grade nerve agent. As soon as Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, fell critically ill in March of this year, some observers expressed skepticism at the suggestion that Moscow may have tried to assassinate the former double spy. Their argument was that Skripal was pardoned by the Kremlin in a spy-swap deal, in which ten Russian intelligence operatives were handed over to Moscow in exchange for four agents of United States and British intelligence organizations.

Typically a spy who has been pardoned as part of an authorized spy-swap will not need to worry about being targeted by the agency that he betrayed. If it indeed tried to kill Skripal, Russia may therefore have broken the unwritten rules of the espionage game, some argued. But according to the reputable Czech investigative newsmagazine Respekt, the Kremlin tried to kill Skripal because he broke the rules of his release, namely that he would not participate in any intelligence-related activities against Russia. Specifically, Respekt claimed on Sunday that Skripal traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, where he advised local intelligence agencies on how to defend against Russian espionage. According to the Prague-based newsmagazine, Skripal’s travels to countries like the Czech Republic and Estonia were facilitated by the British Secret Intelligence Service (known commonly as MI6). The British agency thus killed two birds with one stone, said Respect: on the one hand it cultivated friendly relations with Eastern European spy agencies, while at the same time it provided the out-of-work Russian defector with a steady income.

Skripal’s information was at times dated, said Respekt, but it was deemed valuable enough to entice intelligence officers from Estonia, the Czech Republic, and possibly other European intelligence agencies, to regularly travel to the United Kingdom and further-consult with Skripal. Skripal’s contacts with Eastern European intelligence personnel were kept strictly secret in order to protect him from the ire of the Kremlin. But Moscow found out about Skripal’s activities somehow, and decided to kill the former double spy, said Respekt. The Russian government has vehemently denied all allegations that it was behind an attempt to kill Skripal and his daughter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 May 2018 | Permalink

British intelligence already sees Kremlin behind ex-spy’s poisoning, say sources

Sergei SkripalBritain’s counterintelligence service is nearing the conclusion that a foreign government, most likely Russia, tried to kill a Russian double spy and his daughter, who are now fighting for their lives in a British hospital. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, are said to remain in critical condition, after falling violently ill on Sunday afternoon while walking in downtown Salisbury, a picturesque cathedral city in south-central England. Skripal arrived in England in 2010 as part of a large-scale spy-swap between the United States, Britain and Russia. He was among four Russian citizens that Moscow released from prison and allowed to resettle in the West, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover intelligence officers, who had been arrested earlier that year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.

Since Skripal’s poisoning made headlines on Monday morning, the basic details of his story have been reported extensively. He is believed to have served in Soviet and Russian military intelligence for several decades, rising to the rank of colonel. But in 2004 he was arrested and eventually convicted by Russian authorities for spying on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). He had served nearly 7 years of a 13-year sentence in 2010, when he was pardoned by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and allowed to resettle in England with his immediate family. He did so in Salisbury, where he was found in a near-fatal state last Sunday, slumped on a street bench next to his equally catatonic daughter. Inevitably, the story brought back memories of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the Soviet and Russian intelligence services, who defected to Britain but was poisoned to death with a radioactive substance in 2006. His murder prompted London to expel four Russian diplomats from Britain, a move that was countered by Moscow, which also expelled four British diplomats from the country.

Despite the close parallels between Litvinenko and Skripal, the British government has not publicly blamed Russia for Sunday’s attempted killing. But according to The Times newspaper, officials at the Security Service (MI5), Britain’s counterintelligence agency, are already pointing to Russia as the culprit of the attempt on Skripal’s life. The London-based paper cited anonymous sources in Whitehall, the administrative headquarters of the British government, who said that MI5 experts were already briefing government officials about the details of the assassination attempt by Russian government agents.

Actions taken by the British government in the past 24 hours also point to Whitehall viewing the attempt on Skripal’s life as an operation sponsored by a state, most likely by Russia. The investigation of the incident is now being led by the counterterrorism branch of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Additionally, samples of the victims’ tissue, as well as blood and other bodily fluids, have been sent for examination by toxicologists at the Ministry of Defence’s top-secret Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down. It also emerged last night that British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called an emergency meeting of the British government’s Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR, also known as Cobra) group, which she chairs. The group consists of cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, and the leadership of the Metropolitan Police and the intelligence services, who meet to respond to developing emergencies of a national scale.

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

Public event held in Cuba for the first time to demand release of US spy

Ana Belen MontesA public event has been held for the first time in Havana to demand the release Ana Belen Montes, an American former intelligence analyst who is serving a 25-year prison term for spying on the United States for Cuba. The event appeared to be sanctioned by the Cuban government and is bound to reignite rumors that a deal between Washington and Havana to release Montes may be in the works.

Montes grew up in Kansas. In 1985 she joined the US Defense Intelligence Agency, which collects and analyzes military-related information from abroad. Montes quickly distinguished herself in the DIA, and by the mid-1990s she was seen as one of the US government’s most knowledgeable and capable Cuba experts. She was the main author of nearly every major assessment on Cuba that was produced by the US Intelligence Community in the 1990s. But on September 21, 2001, Montes was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with having committed espionage for Cuba. During her trial, US government prosecutors argued that Montes had been recruited by Cuban intelligence before she joined the DIA, and that she eventually compromised every US intelligence collection program targeting the Caribbean island. The former DIA analyst was also accused of having given Havana the identities of US intelligence officers who had secretly operated in Cuba. In 2002, Montes was sentenced to 25 years in prison, after pleading guilty to having committed espionage throughout her 16-year career in the DIA.

In recent months, there has been speculation that Montes could be released and allowed to relocate to Cuba. In return, Havana would reportedly extradite to the US Assata Shakur, a former member of militant black nationalist groups in the United States, who is accused of the 1973 murder of a state trooper in New Jersey. These rumors were denied by the US Department of State in August. Last week, however, the first public event took place in Havana to demand Montes’ release. The event featured performances by artists, as well as a keynote speech by Manuel David Orrio, a retired officer in the Cuban General Intelligence Directorate (DGI). Orio told those present at the event in downtown Havana that committees to demand Montes’ release had been formed in several Cuban provinces, as well as in Sweden, France, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. He added that formally requesting Montes’ release would be an “extremely complex” and delicate affair for the Cuban government, but that social pressure groups were free to press US officials.

In the past, the Cuban government has been silent about Montes’ case, and very few Cubans are aware of her existence. The fact that the government is now mobilizing popular committees and other pressure groups may point to a change of policy in Havana.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 September 2016 | Permalink