Secret documents passed to the KGB by Kim Philby displayed in Moscow

Kim PhilbyThe life of Kim Philby, one of the Cold War’s most recognizable espionage figures, is the subject of a new exhibition that opened last week in Moscow. Items displayed at the exhibition include secret documents stolen by Philby and passed to his Soviet handlers during his three decades in the service of Soviet intelligence. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB. His espionage lasted from about 1933 until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Philby’s defection sent ripples of shock across Western intelligence and is often seen as one of the most dramatic incidents of the Cold War.

Now a new exhibition in Moscow has put on display some of Philby’s personal belongings, as well as a fraction of the many classified documents he passed on to his Soviet handlers during his 30 years of espionage. Entitled “Kim Philby: His Intelligence Work and Personal Life”, the exhibition is organized by the Russian Historical Society. The majority of the new documents appear to date from 1944, by which time Philby had been working for the NKVD for over a decade. Some of the documents are cables sent by Italian, Japanese or German diplomats prior to and during World War II, which were intercepted by British intelligence. Copies of some of these intercepts, which Philby passed to Moscow, are displayed in the exhibition. One document clearly bears the English-language warning: “Top Secret. To be kept under lock and key: never to be removed from this office”. Another document appears to be part of a report that Philby produced after teaching a seminar for KGB intelligence officers about how to operate in the West. It is dated 1982, by which time Philby had been living in Russia for nearly two decades.

Philby died in the Soviet capital in 1988, aged 76, and was survived by his fourth wife, Rufina Ivanovna Pukhova, whom he met after he defected to the USSR. Pukhova attended the opening of the exhibition in Moscow last week, as did over a dozen of Philby’s students at the former KGB. Russian media reported that the director and several officials of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the KGB’s successor agencies, were also present during the official opening of the exhibition.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2017 | Permalink

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French-Swiss firm allegedly bribed Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria

LafargeHolcimThe world’s largest building materials manufacturer, LafargeHolcim, which is headquartered in France and Switzerland, allegedly bribed the Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria, according to court witnesses. The company specializes in the manufacture of building materials such as cement, concrete and various byproducts. It was formed in 2015 by a merger of France-based Lafarge and Swiss-based Holcim, and currently employs an estimated 120,000 employees in nearly 100 countries around the world.

In 2011, soon after the Syrian Civil War broke out, various militant groups began operating in the area around one of LafargeHolcim’s plants, located in in north-central Syria, 10 miles south of the Syrian-Turkish border. In June of 2016, French newspaper Le Monde published allegations that LafargeHolcim’s subsidiary, Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS), which owns the plant, bribed various militias to stay away from its factory. According to the paper, at least €20,000 (approximately $24,000) went to the Islamic State, which eventually conquered the area around the LafargeHolcim plant. The article further claimed that LCS managers in Syria sent detailed emails to LafargeHolcim executives in Europe about their dealings with various militias, including the Islamic State. LafargeHolcim approved the use of funds to bribe the militias, said Le Monde, in order to allow the factory to remain operational and to avoid having their employees taken hostage.

The newspaper’s allegations prompted the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Paris to launch a preliminary investigation in October of the same year. Eventually, an official complaint was filed by the French Ministry of Finance, which argued that the activities of LCS may have constituted illicit financial relations between a French-owned company and a terrorist group. An official investigation was opened in June of 2017 into whether LafargeHolcim illegally financed terrorist groups through its subsidiaries, Lafarge and LCS. Investigators are also examining claims that the company presented the French government with forged accounting documents in order to hide the bribes it gave to various Syrian armed groups.

Last week, investigators heard from the first time from witnesses, three of whom were LCS employees in 2014, when the company first made contact with Islamic State militants. They allegedly told prosecutors that the French-Swiss company paid approximately $20,000 a month to various armed groups, including al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Prosecutors did not discuss details about the witnesses’ testimonies, but Le Monde said it spoke to individuals with direct knowledge of the investigation, who said that the witnesses’ testimonies were particularly damning for LafargeHolcim. The probe continues.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2017 | Permalink

Facing skepticism by experts, NSA backs down in global encryption standards debate

NSARepresentatives from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) withdrew a proposal to introduce new global industry standards for data encryption, after encountering prolonged skepticism by experts representing other Western countries. Some observers have interpreted this development as indicative of the damaged relationship between the NSA and its Western counterparts following revelations by American defector Edward Snowden.

Deliberations for establishing new industry standards for data encryption have been taking place for over three years under the supervision of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO is a worldwide standard-setting body founded in 1947, which brings together representatives from national standards organizations. The US delegation, had proposed the adoption of two new data encryption techniques, known as ‘Simon’ and ‘Speck’. The techniques had the approval of the US national standards organization, which is known as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) . However, it also had the approval of the NSA, America’s signals intelligence agency, whose representatives were members of the US delegation to the ISO. According to the Reuters news agency, the presence of the NSA representatives in ANSI prompted skepticism among other national delegations.

Eventually, encryption experts from countries including Israel, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, rejected ‘Simon’ and ‘Speck’. The reason, according to Reuters, was that they were “worried that the [NSA] was pushing the new techniques not because they were good encryption tools, but because it knew how to break them”. Some commentators believe that this incident illustrates the suspicion with which the NSA is seen by American allies following headline-grabbing revelations made Edward Snowden, a former employee of the NSA who defected to Russia in 2013. Some of Snowden’s most sensational revelations involved alleged NSA operations targeting Germany, France, Israel, Japan, and other American allies. The revelations shocked public opinion in Europe and elsewhere, and resulted in the unprecedented expulsion of the CIA station chief in Berlin —the most senior US intelligence official in the country. ISO delegates are now thought to be working on a revised plan to keep some of ANSI’s proposed standards but enhance them with stronger layers of encryption, said Reuters.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 September 2017 | Permalink

Iranian state-backed cyber spies becoming increasingly skilled, says report

Computer hackingA group of cyber spies with close links to the Iranian government is becoming increasingly competent and adept, and could soon bring down entire computer networks, according to a leading cyber security firm. The California-based cyber security company FireEye said that it has been monitoring the operations of the mysterious group of cyber spies since 2013. The company, whose clients include Sony Pictures, JP Morgan Chase and Target, said that the Iranian group appears to be especially interested in gathering secrets from aviation, aerospace and petrochemical companies.

In a detailed report published on Wednesday, FireEye said that the Iranian group has a very narrow target focus. Moreover, it attacks its targets —which are typically companies— in highly customizable ways. The latter includes the use of cleverly designed phishing tools that are designed to attract the attention of the company’s unsuspecting employees. So far, companies that have been targeted include Saudi petrochemical conglomerates, American aviation firms, as well as South Korean and other Southeast Asian companies that have aviation or energy holdings, said FireEye. The security company said it had codenamed the group “APT33”, which stands for “Advanced Persistent Threat #33”. It also said that APT33 was clearly distinct from other known Iranian hacker groups, because of the sophistication of its operations and the quality of its cyber weapons. The cyber security firm said that APT33 was the first Iranian hacker group to be included on a select list of the most capable cyber spy groups from around the world.

Some experts believe that APT33 is run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, an irregular branch of the Iranian military, which is seen by many as a state within a state in post-1979 Iran. The FireEye report does not appear conclusive on this point. However, it notes that APT33 has built an offensive cyber arsenal “with potential destructive capabilities”, but that it currently appears to focus solely on intelligence collection, not sabotage or warfare.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 September 2017 | Permalink

Australia rejected CIA request to open embassy in North Korea

PyongyangAustralia rejected a secret request by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to open an embassy in North Korea, which the Americans hoped to use as a base from where to collect intelligence on the communist state. According to The Australian newspaper, Washington approached the Australian government because it is one of the few pro-Western governments that continue to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Up until 1975, Australia was a rare example of a country that hosted embassies of both South Korea and North Korea on its soil. But when Canberra took South Korea’s side in a United Nations vote, the North Koreans objected by shutting down their embassy in Australia. A quarter of a century later, in 2000, Pyongyang reopened its embassy in the Australian capital, only to close it down again in 2008, due to financial constraints.

Throughout that time, Australia has maintained relatively smooth diplomatic relations with North Korea, but has refrained from opening a residential mission in the communist country. Instead, employees of Australia’s embassy in South Korea occasionally travel to the North to perform diplomatic tasks. But in 2014, the US Department of State reached out to Canberra to request that the Australian government consider the possibility of establishing a permanent residential mission in Pyongyang. According to The Australian, the request came from the CIA, which hoped to use the Australian embassy as a base from where to collect intelligence on the isolated country. The US, which lacks an embassy in North Korea, has always found it difficult to collect intelligence there.

The American request was promptly communicated to the then-Prime Minister Tonny Abbott and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. Both appeared willing to consider Washington’s proposal. But the civil servants of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who were tasked with putting together a cost-benefit analysis of the request, came back with a negative response. They allegedly contacted their colleagues working in other countries who maintain permanent residential diplomatic missions in Pyongyang. They told them that their consular employees are kept in complete isolation from North Korean society and government. Additionally, they are subjected to constant surveillance by the North Koreans, who are extremely suspicious of all foreign diplomats. Moreover, Canberra was worried that opening an embassy in Pyongyang would inevitably be seen by the North Koreans as an invitation to reopen their embassy in Australia. It would require significant effort and resources to monitor the activities of North Korean diplomats, who are notorious for abusing their diplomatic status by engaging in illicit activities of all kinds.

Eventually, therefore, the US request was rejected by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The latter concluded that Canberra should not proceed with opening a new embassy in Pyongyang, despite the allegedly “strong suggestion” of the CIA. The matter, said The Australian, never reach the cabinet and Washington never brought it up again.

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

Germany’s celebrity spy Werner Mauss on trial for multi-million dollar tax evasion

Werner MaussGermany’s most famous living spy is on trial this week for hiding assets totaling $50 million in offshore bank accounts. He claims the money was given to him by unspecified “Western intelligence agencies” for his services. Werner Mauss became widely known in 1997, when he was arrested in Colombia for using a forged passport. He had traveled to the Latin American country to secure the release of a German woman who had been kidnapped by leftist guerrillas. The Colombian authorities eventually released him, following heavy diplomatic pressure from the German government. But the German media began investigating his background, and it soon became apparent that he was working for the German Federal Intelligence Service.

Following his unmasking in 1997, Mauss enjoyed celebrity status in Germany. Published accounts of his exploits claim that he was directly involved in neutralizing over 100 criminal gangs and that his work led to the capture of 2,000 criminals and spies. Mauss also claims to have helped prevent dangerous chemical substances from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, and that he stopped the Italian Mafia from killing Pope Benedict. Last year, however, Mauss saw his celebrity status diminish after the German government charged him with tax evasion. German prosecutors uncovered several overseas bank accounts belonging to him, which they said contained tens of millions of dollars in hidden income. They alleged that Mauss used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle centered on expensive overseas holidays, luxury cars, expensive gifts to women, as well as a private jet.

On Monday, the 77-year-old Mauss made his final plea in a lengthy court case concerning two of his off-shore accounts, located in UBS bank branches in the Bahamas and Luxembourg. The prosecution alleges that he failed to pay tax on assets totaling in excess of $50 million in the decade between 2002 and 2012 alone. Additionally, it is claimed that Mauss traveled from Germany to Luxembourg several times a year, to withdraw approximately $330,000 in cash per month from his secret accounts. But the accused former spy claims that the money was given to him by “Western intelligence agencies” in return for his services against international crime and terrorism, and that he should not have to pay taxes on it. In previous court appearances, he claimed that the money was not his, but belonged to various Western intelligence agencies and he simply used it to carry out intelligence operations.

The trial continues. If Mauss is convicted, he could spend nearly seven years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 September 2017 | Permalink

South African spy agency can’t account for over $100 million in expenses

National Treasury of South AfricaSouth Africa’s National Treasury threatened to terminate all funding for covert operations last year, after the country’s spy agency refused to account for tens of millions of dollars in expenses, saying the money had been put to “secret use”. An investigation by two leading South African news outlets, the Afrikaans-language weekly newspaper Rapport and the English-language online news portal News24, has revealed the existence of a major bureaucratic spat between the National Treasury and the State Security Agency (SSA), the country’s primary civilian intelligence organization.

The investigation cited “seven independent sources” with direct involvement and knowledge of the National Treasury and the South African intelligence services. According to the report, National Treasury officials contacted the SSA last year, demanding to know how it used 1.5 billion rand (approximately US $114 million) that it took from government coffers between 2012 and 2016. But the spy agency refused to provide a detailed answer, and said instead that most of the money had been used to fund unspecified “secret operations”, and that its use was therefore classified.

However, the SSA did not realize that National Treasury officials have the same level of security clearance as senior SSA officials, said sources. Consequently, a Treasury probe was launched by Treasury investigators with access to SSA’s activities. The probe uncovered several instances of irregular expenditures and serious mismanagement, said the report. There were repeated instances when funds assigned to non-covert operations were “inexplicably moved to the covert fund” and SSA officials were unable to explain why. There were also numerous cases of abuse of procurement procedures. One source told the News24/Rapport team that “Treasury officials kept asking [SSA officials] how they tender for goods and services, and they kept saying that they can’t tell us, because it is classified information”. At that point, the National Treasury threatened to terminate all funding for intelligence operations unless answers were provided by the SSA leadership. After a series of frantic and tense negotiations, the SSA agreed to change its procurement practices and “at least submit [to National Treasury] a list of suppliers so that there could be a degree of oversight”.

The SSA’s reputation has not emerged unscathed from the broader crisis that has been plaguing South African politics in recent years. In 2014, the Johannesburg-based newspaper City Press alleged that the SSA maintained a secret unit used to target domestic political opponents of South African President Jacob Zuma. The paper also said that senior SSA official Thulani Dhlomo, a close ally of President Zuma, had been placed at the head of the secret unit in 2012. Another leading Johannesburg-based newspaper, The Mail & Guardian, repeated these claims earlier this month.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 September 2017 | Permalink