France’s ex-cyber spy chief speaks candidly about hacking operations

Bernard BarbierThe former director of France’s cyber spy agency has spoken candidly about the recent activities and current state of French cyber espionage, admitting for the first time that France engages in offensive cyber operations. Between 2006 and 2013, Bernard Barbier was director of the technical division of the General Directorate for External Security, France’s external intelligence agency, which is commonly known as DGSE. During his tenure at DGSE, the organization’s technical division witnessed unprecedented financial and administrative growth. Today it is said to employ over 2500 people, nearly half of DGSE’s total personnel.

Earlier this month, Barbier was interviewed on stage during a symposium held by the CentraleSupélec, a top French engineering university based in Paris. He spoke with surprising candor about France’s cyber espionage operations. In the first part of his interview, which can be watched on YouTube, he recounted the history of what he described as “France’s cyber army”. He said that France began to build “teams of hackers” in 1992. Around that time, the DGSE purchased an American-built Cray supercomputer, said Barbier, and soon discovered that it could use the machine’s immense computing power to break passwords. More recently, said the former cyber spy chief, the DGSE has been trying to “catch up” with its American and British counterparts, the National Security Agency and the Government Communications Headquarters, by increasing its annual budget to over half a billion and hiring hundreds of young hackers. Many of these new employees have little to no university education, said Barbier, and are instead self-taught, having started hacking in their teenage years.

Like most governments, France will not officially admit to conducting offensive cyber operations using computer hacking and other techniques. But Barbier said during his interview that France was behind an offensive cyber operation that targeted Iran in 2009. He added that the DGSE has also directed cyber operations against Canada, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Norway, as well as its European Union partners Spain and Greece. He also complained that French government executives do not understand the importance of cyber operations and are not aiming high enough when it comes to planning, direction and hiring. The DGSE’s technical division still needs between 200 and 300 more staff members, Barbier argued in his interview.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 September 2016 | Permalink

CIA tip led to Mandela’s fateful 1962 arrest, claims US ex-diplomat

MandelaThe arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1962, which led to his 28-year incarceration, came after a tip from the United States Central Intelligence Agency, according to an American diplomat who was in South Africa at the time. At the time of his arrest, Mandela was the head of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), an organization he founded in 1961 to operate as the armed wing of the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC). But the white minority government of South Africa accused Mandela of being a terrorist and an agent of the Soviet Union. The US-Soviet rivalry of that era meant that the ANC and its leader had few supporters in America during the early stages of the Cold War.

Mandela was arrested on August 5, 1962 in the KwaZulu-Natal town of Howick by members of the South African Police. He was pretending to be the chauffeur of Cecil Williams, a white member of the ANC who was riding in the back seat of the car that Mandela was driving that night. The details of what led to Mandela’s arrest have always been mysterious, and the ANC has long suspected that the MK leader was betrayed by informants placed within the organization by the apartheid government. But an article in the London-based Sunday Times has said that it was the CIA that tipped off the South Africans about Mandela’s whereabouts that night. The claim is based on an interview with Donald Rickard, an American diplomat —now dead— who was serving as Washington’s vice-consul in Durban at the time of Mandela’s arrest. Some believe that Rickard was actually a CIA officer posing as a diplomat until his retirement from the service in 1978, and he himself never denied it.

Two weeks before he died, Rickard gave an interview to British filmmaker John Irvin, who was filming for his latest documentary, entitled Mandela’s Gun, about Mandela’s role in the MK. According to The Times, the former US diplomat told Irvin that in the early 1960s Mandela was “the most dangerous communist anywhere outside the USSR”. This is despite Mandela’s repeated denials that he had ever been a member or sympathizer of the South African Communist Party, which at the time was actively supporting the ANC. Rickard allegedly told Irvin: “I found out when [Mandela] was coming down and how he was coming […]. That’s where I was involved and that’s’ where Mandela was caught”. In his interview, Rickard insisted that Mandela was “completely under the control of the Soviet Union [and effectively] a toy for the communists”. Moreover, he said the CIA believed that he was planning to organize the large Indian population of Natal Province and incite them into an uprising led by communists, which, according to Rickard, could have prompted an armed Soviet invasion of South Africa. The former diplomat is quoted as telling Irvin: “We were teetering on the brink here and it had to be stopped, which meant Mandela had to be stopped. And I put a stop to it”.

Following his arrest, Mandela served nearly 30 years in prison on terrorism charges, until his eventual release in 1990. In 1994, he was elected as South Africa’s first black president, a post he held until his retirement in 1999. The US, which officially designated Mandela a terrorist in the 1980s under the administration of US President Ronald Reagan, kept the ANC leader on its terrorism watch list until 2008.

The US government has refused comment on Rickard’s claims.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 May 2016 | Permalink

Interview with children of Russian deep-cover spies caught in the US

First Post HThe two sons of a Russian couple, who were among 10 deep-cover spies arrested in the United States, have given an interview about their experience for the first time. Tim and Alex Foley (now Vavilov) are the sons of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, a married couple arrested in 2010 under Operation GHOST STORIES, a counterintelligence program run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Following their arrest, their sons, who had grown up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that they were in fact Russian citizens and that their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Their English-sounding names and Canadian passports had been forged in the late 1980s by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary external intelligence agency.

The two boys were at the family’s home in suburban Cambridge, MA, on Sunday, June 27, 2010, when FBI agents conducted coordinated raids across New England, arresting their parents and eight more Russian ‘illegals’. That term is used to signify Russian non-official-cover operatives, namely intelligence officers who operate abroad without diplomatic cover and typically without connection to the country they spy for. It is now believed that Bezrukov and Vavilova were recruited as a couple in the 1980s by the KGB’s Department S, which operated the agency’s ‘illegals’ program. They were trained for several years before being sent to Canada, where their mission was to blend into the society and establish a ‘legend’, a background story of their lives that could be supported by forged documentation supplied by the KGB. In 1995, the family moved to Paris, France, where Bezrukov, using the name Donald Heathfield, earned Master in Business Administration from the École des Ponts. Both their children had been born by 1999, when the family moved to Massachusetts so that Bezrukov could study at Harvard University. He then joined a consultancy firm, which he apparently planned to use as a vehicle in order to get close to influential American lawmakers.

Their two sons, who are now living in unspecified countries in Europe and Singapore, told British newspaper The Guardian that their childhood was “absolutely normal” and that they never suspected their parents of being spies. They told The Guardian’s Shaun Walker that their parents never discussed Russia or the Soviet Union, never ate Russian food, and never met Russian people while in Massachusetts. The sons, whose Russian names are Alexander and Timofei Vavilov, said they remember meeting their grandparents “somewhere in Europe” when they were very young, but that they later disappeared from their lives. Their parents told them that they lived in rural Alberta, Canada, and that they found it difficult to travel.

The two brothers said that, shortly after their parents were arrested by the FBI, they were put on a plane to Moscow. When they arrived there, a group of people appeared on the plane door and introduced themselves to them as “colleagues of their parents”. They were then placed in a van and taken to a Moscow apartment, where they were given information about their parents’ true backgrounds, including photographs of them from their teenage lives and military service in the USSR. It was then, they told The Guardian, that they finally believed that their parents were indeed Russian spies.

The family reunited a few days later in Moscow, after Bezrukov, Vavilova, and the other Russian ‘illegals’ were exchanged with four men held in Russian jails for spying for the West. The two brothers now want to regain their Canadian citizenship, which was taken from them by the government of Canada after their parents were found to have been using forged Canadian citizenship papers. They argue that they feel Canadian, not Russian, and that they are not responsible for their parents’ actions, which were hidden from them until their arrest in 2010.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 May 2016 | Permalink

US, Russian spies often cooperate despite differences, says CIA director

John BrennanRussia is being “very aggressive” toward the United States, but cooperation on counter-terrorism between Moscow and Washington is “highly active” despite the differences between them, according to the director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. John Brennan, a longtime CIA career officer, who has led the Agency for nearly three years, spoke on National Public Radio on Wednesday about US-Russian relations, Syria and the Islamic State. He told the Washington-based radio station that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Russia as a superpower that has to assert its influence beyond its immediate region. Thus, said Brennan, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine could be understood in the context of Russia’s regional-power doctrine; but its “very assertive, very aggressive” support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is part of a wider strategy of geopolitical domination that includes the Middle East.

Brennan said that Russia is losing ground in Ukraine because its “hybrid war” is “not going as planned” and Putin “has found that he’s in a bit of a quandary” in the former Soviet republic. Not only is Putin “not realizing his objectives” in Ukraine, added the CIA director, but the widening geopolitical confrontation between Russian and the West is “causing a chill […] even in intelligence channels”. He added, however that the CIA continues to work closely with the Russian intelligence community in counter-terrorism operations directed against Islamist militants. Brennan described the CIA’s relationship with Russian intelligence operatives as a “very factual, informative exchange. If we get information about threats to Russian citizens or diplomats, we will share it with the Russians”, said the CIA director, adding: “they do the same with us”.

Brennan, a fluent Arabic speaker who spent many years in Saudi Arabia, used the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as an example of a collaborative project between the CIA and its Russian counterparts. “We worked very closely with them” during the Sochi games, said Brennan, in order to “try to prevent terrorist attacks”. “And we did so very successfully”, concluded the CIA director.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 February 2016 | Permalink

Israeli nuclear whistleblower recalls his 1986 capture by the Mossad

Mordechai VanunuIsraeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who spent 18 years in prison for revealing the existence of Israel’s nuclear program, has spoken for the first time about his 1986abduction by the Mossad in Rome. Vanunu was an employee at Israel’s top-secret Negev Nuclear Research Center, located in the desert city of Dimona, which was used to develop the country’s nuclear arsenal. But he became a fervent opponent of nuclear proliferation and in 1986 fled to the United Kingdom, where he revealed the existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the The Times of London. His action was in direct violation of the non-disclosure agreement he had signed with the government of Israel; moreover, it went against Israel’s official policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’, which means that the country refuses to confirm or deny that it maintains a nuclear weapons program.

Soon after Vanunu settled in London, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad began making plans to capture him. The spy agency sent one of its American-born female officers, Cheryl Bentov, to befriend Vanunu. The decision was taken after Mossad psychologists determined that Vanunu was lonely and longed for female companionship. Masquerading as an American tourist by the name of ‘Cindy’, Bentov convinced Vanunu to go with her on Vacation to Rome, Italy. Soon after the couple arrived in the Italian capital, Vanunu was abducted by a Mossad team who injected him with a paralyzing drug before taking him away in a van. Vanunu was then transferred onboard the INS Noga, an Israeli signals-intelligence ship masquerading as a merchant vessel, which transported him to Israel. He was convicted to 18 years in prison and was released in 2004, after having spent 11 years in solitary confinement.

On Wednesday, Israel’s Channel 2 television showed excerpts of Vanunu’s first-ever interview to an Israeli media outlet. The interview, which is to be aired in full on Friday, includes Vanunu’s personal account of his capture by the Mossad. He told the interviewer that ‘Cindy’ first spoke to him as she walked alongside him while the two of them were crossing a London street. But he said that it was he who “initiated the relationship” with the woman posing as an American tourist. That was a critical moment in the whole process, said Vanunu, because “if she initiates you’ll suspect her”. The nuclear whistleblower insisted, however, that he did not “fall in love with her”, as some accounts of the Mossad operation have suggested, though he was “definitely attracted” to her, he said.

Vanunu added that the thought of ‘Cindy’ being a Mossad officer had initially crossed his mind; but he disregarded it and did not realize he was being tricked “until the very last moment”. He told Channel 2 that even after several days after his capture, he still believed that ‘Cindy’ had also been abducted. It was only later that he “reached the conclusion that she was part of the plan”, he said. At another point in the interview, Vanunu said that ‘Cindy’ was not the only Mossad officer who had tried to befriend him while he was in London, but that he was able to detect every other attempt by Israeli intelligence operatives.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 September 2015 | Permalink

Excessive secrecy hurts intel agencies, says head of NZ spy review

Sir Michael CullenA former deputy prime minister of New Zealand, who is heading a major review of intelligence practices in the country, has said in an interview that spy agencies hurt their mission by practicing excessive secrecy. Sir Michael Cullen served as finance minister, education minister and attorney-General before serving as deputy prime minister of New Zealand, from 2002 to 2008. He was recently appointed by the government to co-chair a broad review of state intelligence agencies, with particular focus on updating the applicable legislative framework and evaluating the oversight exercised by lawmakers and the executive. The review is expected to affect the work of New Zealand’s two most visible intelligence agencies, the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications and Security Bureau.

Last Saturday, Sir Michael spoke to TVNZ, New Zealand’s national television broadcaster, about the progress of the review, and shared some of his preliminary thoughts on the subject of intelligence practice and reform. He said in the interview that much of the documentation about intelligence processes and operations was being kept secret without apparent reason. “I’ve seen documents [from] briefings, which it would be hard to justify in my view those briefings not being made public”, he said. He added that there was “a need for the agencies to be much more open about what they do”, noting that sources and methods could be adequately protected through a careful process of redacting. The former deputy prime minister said that, ironically, the intelligence agencies are “their worst enemy by being so secretive about almost everything that they do”. Their attitude, he told TVNZ, negatively affected the level trust between them and the citizens they protect; the latter, he added, “would get a better idea of the need for the [intelligence] agencies if some of these documents were made public”.

Sir Michael also commented on New Zealand’s membership in the so-called ‘Five-Eyes’ alliance, which is part of the UKUSA intelligence-sharing treaty between it and the nations of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. He told TVNZ that New Zealand had to share intelligence with allied nations, because it needed access to offshore information affecting its national security, which it cannot collect by itself. Some New Zealand politicians and pundits suggested that the country should exit the treaty after it was revealed last year that the US had been making use of New Zealand embassies around the world to collect electronic signals. In April of this year, The New Zealand Herald said that the country’s embassy in Bangladesh had been made available to British and American intelligence agencies to operate out of. Wellington’s relations with Dhaka have been strained as a result.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 July 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/07/21/01-1739/

Ex-spy chief says Pakistan probably knew bin Laden’s whereabouts

Osama bin LadenBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A former director of Pakistan’s all-powerful national intelligence agency has said that senior officials in Pakistan were probably aware that Osama bin Laden was living in the country prior to his assassination. Lieutenant General Asad Durrani led the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from 1990 to 1992. He was later appointed Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany, from 1994 to 1997, and then to Saudi Arabia until 2002.

Durrani was asked during an appearance on Al-Jazeera’s flagship interview program Head to Head, on Tuesday, whether he believed that the al-Qaeda founder could have been living in Pakistan for several years without the ISI knowing about it. The former spy chief said he had no specific information on the issue. He added, however, that although “it is quite possible that [the ISI] did not know”, his personal assessment was that “it was more probable that they did”.

The former ISI strongman was then asked why the ISI would have chosen to shelter bin Laden instead of delivering him to the Americans. He responded that “the idea was that at the right time his location would be revealed” to Washington. He added that “the right time” would have depended on when Islamabad could have received “the necessary quid pro quo”. Speaking with characteristic frankness, Durrani said that “if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States” without asking for something in return. In the case of Pakistan, the reward would possibly have been a bilateral agreement between the US and Pakistan to give the latter greater say over America’s dealings with neighboring Afghanistan.