Estonian court to release defense official who spied for Russia for 13 years

Herman SimmA court in Estonia has ordered the release of a former senior defense official who spied on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for Russia, causing what experts described at the time as “the most serious case of espionage against NATO since the end of the Cold War”. Herman Simm was a high-level official at the Estonian Ministry of Defense, who once led the country’s National Security Authority. This meant that he was in charge of Estonia’s national cyber defense systems and supervised the issuing of security clearances.

He was arrested in 2008 along with his wife and charged with spying for Russia for over a decade. At the time of his arrest Simm was responsible for handling all of Estonia’s classified and top secret material regarding NATO. This prompted European and American security officials to describe Simm as the most damaging spy against NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In February of 2009 Simm was sentenced to 12½ years in prison.

On Thursday, a county court in Estonia’s southeastern city of Tartu ruled that Simm is eligible for parole, because he has served the majority of his prison sentence without committing any disciplinary infractions. Officials from the Tartu County Prison and the prosecutor’s office agreed that early release would provide Simm with an incentive to abide with Estonian law. The court also stated in its decision that Simm had no more access to classified information and that he was of no further interest to foreign countries and intelligence organizations.

Simm is expected to be released within days, and will remain under probation until March of 2021. The court’s decision can be appealed by December 20.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 December 2019 | Permalink

Elite Russian spy unit used French Alps region as logistical base

Chamonix FranceAn elite group Russian military intelligence officers, who have participated in assassinations across Europe, have been using resorts in the French Alps as logistical and supply bases, according to a new report. The report concerns Unit 29155 of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, commonly known as GRU. According to The New York Times, which revealed its existence of 29155 in October, the unit has been operating for at least 10 years. However, Western intelligence agencies only began to focus on it in 2016, after it was alleged that an elite group of Russian spies tried to stage a coup in the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro.

Unit 29155 is believed to consist of a tightly knit group of intelligence officers led by Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, a hardened veteran of Russia’s Chechen wars. The existence of the unit is reportedly so secret that even other GRU operatives are unlikely to have heard of it. Members of the unit frequently travel to Europe to carry out sabotage and disinformation campaigns, kill targets, or conduct other forms of what some experts describe as the Kremlin’s hybrid war. They are believed to be responsible for the attempt on the life of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU intelligence officer who defected to Britain. He almost died in March 2018, when two Russian members of Unit 29155 poisoned him in the English town of Salisbury.

On Wednesday, a new report in the French newspaper Le Monde claimed that Unit 29155 used the French Alps as a “rear base” to carry out operations throughout Europe. According to the paper, the information about the unit’s activities in France emerged following forensic investigations of the activities of its members by British, Swiss, French and American intelligence agencies. In the same article, Le Monde published the names of 15 members of Unit 29155, which allegedly stayed in various French alpine towns and cities between 2014 and 2018. The paper said that they traveled to France from various countries in Europe, such as Spain, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, or directly for Russia.

The alleged Russian spies stayed in France’s Haute-Savoie, which borders Switzerland, and is among Europe’s most popular wintertime tourist destinations. The area includes the world-famous Mont Blanc mountain range and the picturesque alpine towns of Annemasse, Evian and Chamonix. Several members of the unit visited the region repeatedly, said Le Monde, while others entered France once or twice, in connection with specific spy missions. It is believed that the reasoning behind their trips to the French Alps was to blend in with the large numbers of international tourists that travel to the region throughout the year. However, the unit also utilized several other areas in Eastern Europe as rear bases, including cities and towns in Moldova, Montenegro and Bulgaria, said Le Monde.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 December 2019 | Permalink

Switzerland claims embassy worker was abducted by Sri Lankan security officers

Swiss embassy Sri LankaSwitzerland has filed a formal complaint after an employee of the Swiss embassy in Sri Lanka was allegedly abducted by men who forced her to divulge sensitive information about the embassy and its activities. The Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that the embassy employee was kidnapped by four men while walking in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, on November 25. The men took her to what appeared to be a safe house and interrogated her for several hours.

The men eventually forced the Swiss embassy employee, who is a Sri Lankan national, to unlock her personal cell phone. According to Swiss government officials, they appeared to be looking for information about a senior Sri Lankan police detective who recently fled to Switzerland with his family and was granted political asylum. Some Sri Lankan media identified the man as Nishantha Silva, a police detective who until recently headed the Sri Lankan Criminal Intelligence Division’s Organized Crime Investigation Unit.

Silva is one of hundreds of members of Sri Lanka’s public sector who have fled abroad following the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last month. The Rajapaksa family is one of the most powerful in the country, and has a long history of influencing Sri Lankan politics. Hours after assuming power, the ultra-nationalist Rajapaksa pledged to “hunt down” the leadership of the police and security services who investigated his family after 2015, when the Rajapaksas were ousted from the government. Hundreds of police and security officers have since been arrested or summarily fired.

On Tuesday, a Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman told The New York Times that the Swiss government had verified the details of the abduction of its embassy worker. The spokesman added that the employee was forced to disclose “embassy-related information” after she was “threatened at length” by the men. The latter released her after warning her that she would be killed if she spoke to anyone about her ordeal.

On Monday, a spokesman for President Rajapaksa told reporters in Colombo that the Sri Lankan government questioned the accuracy of the Swiss embassy worker’s account of her abduction. Later, however, the Sri Lankan government announced that it had launched an investigation into the allegations. It now appears that the Sri Lankan government is preventing the embassy worker from leaving the country while the investigation into her claims is underway.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 December 2019 | 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

Airbus fires employees for accessing classified German military documents

AirbusThe European multinational aerospace corporation Airbus has fired 16 of its employees for illegally possessing classified documents belonging to the German military. The Netherlands-registered aviation company, one of the world’s largest, has been cooperating with an investigation into the incident. The probe has been led by German authorities since September of 2018.

The incident, which German authorities have termed as industrial espionage, concerns two Airbus cybersecurity projects for weapons systems used by the German military. The projects are led by Airbus scientists at the company’s Communications, Intelligence and Security (CIS) program line, which is based in the German city of Munich. In September of last year, German media reported that a number of Airbus employees at the CIS facility had been found to possess classified files belonging to the German military, which they should not have been able to access.

An Airbus official said at the time that the classified documents related “to two future German [military] procurement projects”, and that the company had “self-reported […] potential wrongdoings by several employees […] to German authorities”. The official added that “[s]ome of our employees had documents that they shouldn’t have had”. It later emerged that the documents related to plans by the German Armed Forces to acquire a communication system from one of Airbus’ rival companies.

Following the September 2018 announcement, Airbus said that it had suspended 20 of its employees while it conducted an “ongoing internal review with the support of an external law firm”. At the same time it said that it was “fully cooperating with relevant authorities [in Germany] to resolve the matter”. It was also reported at the time that the German military had taken disciplinary action against one of its employees, but no further information was disclosed.

It has now emerged that Airbus has fired 16 of its CIS employees who were suspended last year. The news was first announced on Sunday by Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA), Germany’s largest news agency. Airbus subsequently confirmed the DPA’s report, but provided no further details about the case. It is not currently known whether the case has been closed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2019 | Permalink

Extradition fight over Russian man held in Greece may point to spies’ use of bitcoin

Aleksandr VinnikAn intense fight between the United States and Russia over the extradition of a Russian cryptocurrency tycoon being held in Greece, is raising questions about the possible use of cryptocurrencies by spies. The tycoon in question is Aleksandr Vinnik, 39, who in 2011 co-founded BTC-e, an international cryptocurrency-trading platform. BTC-e allowed users to buy or sell several popular cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and litecoin, using Russian rubles, United States dollars, or European Union euro currencies. Although headquartered in Russia, BTC-e’s servers were located in Bulgaria, while its operations were conducted through its offshore components in Cyprus and the Seychelles.

By 2015, BTC-e was reportedly facilitating just over 3 percent of the worldwide daily volume of cryptocurrency trading. But, according to some sources, the company was also facilitating up to 70 percent of worldwide criminal activity involving cryptocurrencies. Washington alleges that the company was built on a model that relied heavily on the activities of criminal entities, as the latter sought the ability to conduct online monetary transactions without being tracked by governments.

In 2017, American authorities seized BTC-e’s website —a move that terminated the company’s operations. Washington also prompted authorities in Greece to arrest Vinnik, while he was vacationing at a Greek resort with his family. The Russian co-founder of BTC-e is today in a Greek prison, awaiting a decision by the Greek authorities to extradite him to the United States. If this happens, he will be tried on 21 counts of international money laundering and a host of other criminal charges.

Interestingly, however, shortly after Vinnik’s arrest, the Russian government filed a court order to have Greece extradite him to Russia, where he is reportedly wanted for relatively minor fraud-related charges. What is more, the Greek government was directly lobbied by no other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin —an unusually high-level approach, when one considers Vinnik’s trivial charges in Russia. France has also sought to have Vinnik extradited there, instead of the United States.

What lies behind these moves? There are many who believe that American authorities moved against BTC-e after realizing that Russian spies used the company to hide their traces while trying to meddle with the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. A recent report by the State Department’s RFE/RL news website claims that a number of London-based observers from groups such as Global Witness and Elliptic Enterprises believe there are strong links between Russian spy agencies and BTC-e. American authorities have managed to access information about the inner workings of BTC-e’s website. They are probably viewing Vinnik as an intelligence asset, who can potentially shed light on the company’s alleged role as a money laundering mechanism for Russian spies —and probably others as well.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2019 | Permalink

As Australia launches probe, skeptics cast doubts on Chinese defector’s spy claims

Wang LiqiangAs the Australian government has launched an official investigation into the claims made by a self-styled Chinese intelligence defector, some skeptics have begun to cast doubts about his revelations. The claims of Wang “William” Liqiang have dominated news headlines in Australia for over a week. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Australian spy agency confirmed last week that Mr. Wang had provided a 17-page sworn statement, in which he detailed his work as an undercover intelligence officer for Chinese military intelligence. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they plan to carry out espionage operations on behalf of Bejing. Some media reports claimed that Mr. Wang had shared details about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia. The Australian government said on Tuesday that an official investigation had been launched into Mr. Wang’s claims.

But some skeptics in Australia and elsewhere have begun to raise doubts about the Chinese defector’s claims, suggesting that he has given little —if any information— that is genuinely new. Some argue that Mr. Wang is much too young to have been entrusted with senior-level responsibilities in the intelligence agency of a country that rarely promotes twenty-somethings in high-ranking positions. Additionally, Mr. Wang appears to have no military background —he claims to have been recruited while studying fine art— which is not typical of a Chinese military intelligence operative.

Furthermore, Mr. Wang episode interviewers from Australian television’s 60 Minutes program that he began feeling tormented by moral dilemmas when his staff officers supplied him with a fake passport bearing a different name, in preparation for an operation in Taiwan. However, by his own admission, Mr. Wang had been supplied with fake passports for previous operations, so it is not clear why he lost his nerve at the time he did. In fact, case officers usually covet the opportunity to go undercover and feel a sense of exhilaration when they receive fake identification documents for an undercover mission.

Is Mr. Wang not sharing the entire background to his decision to defect to Australia? Or could he be deliberately amplifying his role in Chinese intelligence, in an effort to appear useful to the Australian government and thus secure political protection by Canberra? In the words of Alex Joske, an analyst at the  International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the details in some of Mr. Wang’s claims mean that “government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink