Outgoing CIA director says scrapping Iran nuclear deal would be ‘disastrous’

John BrennanThe outgoing director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency has warned in an interview that it would be “disastrous” for Washington to abandon a nuclear treaty with Iran, which was agreed in 2015. John Brennan is a career intelligence officer and fluent Arabic speaker, who has served in the CIA for 25 years. He was appointed director of the agency in March of 2013 by President Barack Obama and is scheduled to leave the position in January of 2017, after nearly four years at the helm of the CIA.

Earlier this week, in the first interview given by a serving CIA director to a British media agency, Brennan told the BBC that he hoped the incoming administration in Washington would show “prudence and discipline” in security matters. He was referring to the administration of US president-elect Donald Trump, which is currently taking shape in preparation for January. The business tycoon said during his election campaign that he would scrap the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international agreement reached in 2015 between Iran and a group of nations known as the P5+1, namely the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. As part of the deal, Iran has agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.

The man chosen by Trump to replace Brennan at the helm of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, is a member of the so-called Tea Party Movement within the Republican Party and a fierce critic of the Iran deal. But Brennan told the BBC that “it would be the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that agreement”. The outgoing CIA director said it would be “unprecedented” for an American administration to scrap an international agreement struck by its predecessor. Additionally, said Brennan, if Washington abandons the treaty it will strengthen hardliners in the Islamic Republic and would cause neighboring states to pursue their own nuclear programs in response to Tehran’s. During his interview, Brennan also cautioned the Trump administration to “be wary of Russian promises” and not to trust the advances of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2016 | Permalink

Hungarian media accuses Russia of working with far-right militia

Hungarian National FrontMedia in Hungary have accused the Russian government of funding and training one of Hungary’s most notorious far-right organizations. The Hungarian National Front (MNA) was founded in 1989 as the Hungarian National Socialist Action Group. After the end of communism in Hungary, the organization began to espouse an openly neo-Nazi ideology, led by its leader, István Győrkös, a self-styled unreconstructed fascist. Győrkös, who idolizes Hungary’s wartime anti-Semitic Arrow Cross movement, set up links with similar groups in Central and Southern Europe. He served several prison terms in the 1990s for illegally possessing weapons and explosives and openly espousing pro-Nazi ideas. On November 6, Győrkös was taken to custody after opening fire against officers from the National Bureau of Investigation, who tried to enter his house to search for weapons. One officer was killed in the shootout.

Following Győrkös’ arrest, Hungarian police have conducted several raids throughout the country, targeting MNA members’ homes and offices. According to a report in the London-based Financial Times newspaper, the raids have uncovered weapons stockpiles that are more sizeable and technologically advanced than expected. And, according to the paper, some Hungarian media now allege that the MNA has been armed, funded and trained by Moscow. Emails exchanged between MNA members, which were leaked to the Hungarian press, allegedly show that the party’s leadership consciously cultivated a pro-Russian strategy in recent years, including an outright support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Győrkös also allegedly used party funds to set up a Hungarian-language website with pro-Russian information about the war in eastern Ukraine. Some unnamed Hungarian officials have claimed in the press that the government has evidence of joint training exercises between members of the MNA and Russian intelligence officers in eastern Hungary.

The Financial Times article quotes Hungarian investigative reporter András Dezső, who has written extensively about the Hungarian far-right, as saying that the Kremlin will work with whichever Eastern European political groups can help destabilize local politics, regardless of ideology. It also quotes Hungary’s former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who argues that the current government in Budapest has turned the blind eye to Russian intelligence activities in the country, which has effectively “turned Budapest into a ‘Little Moscow’”. The country’s current Prime Minister, conservative Viktor Orbán, has kept a moderately friendly stance toward Russia, having argued repeatedly at European Union meetings that Brussels should not impose economic sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2016 | Permalink

Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

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

Court rules against German spy who was fired for dating foreign woman

BND GermanyA former employee of Germany’s spy agency, who was recalled from his post abroad after dating a foreign woman, has lost his legal battle to be compensated for lost earnings. The former intelligence officer, who has not been identified by name, worked for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known by its initials, BND. From 2006 to 2008, he served as the BND’s station chief in Riga, Latvia. The post implies that he the highest-ranking German intelligence officer in the small Baltic state. According to court documents, the BND station chief had explicit directions from his employer, in writing, not to fraternize with locals while serving in the Latvian capital. The instructions expressly forbade romantic affiliations with locals.

But, according to documents from the legal case, the intelligence officer failed to comply with agency policy and began dating a Latvian national. Soon he fell in love with her and invited her to move in with him. It was allegedly after the local woman moved in with him that he notified the BND about their relationship. The intelligence agency promptly recalled him from his post and demoted him —a move that, he claims, effectively ended his career. He therefore sued the BND, asking for reinstatement of his job and €400,000 ($420,000) in lost earnings. The plaintiff’s lawyers argued that, prior to inviting the woman to move in with him, he asked Latvian intelligence to run a background investigation on her, which came out clean. They also argued that Latvia is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and that the BND cooperates with its Latvian counterpart.

However, according to German news reports, the court rejected the plaintiff’s claims and threw out the case. The former BND officer has also been ordered to pay the legal costs associated with the court case. Intelligence officers posted abroad are typically warned to avoid entering in sexual or romantic relationships with non-vetted foreign nationals. Intelligence agencies fear that these situations could give rise to infiltration by rival agencies, or even enable extortion and blackmail to be carried out by adversary intelligence operatives.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 2016 | Permalink

Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia breaks silence to warn of spies

Chen YonglinA Chinese diplomat, who made international news headlines in 2005 when he defected to Australia, has ended a decade of silence to warn about an alleged increase in Chinese espionage operations against his adopted country. Chen Yonglin was a seasoned member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2001, when he was posted as a political affairs consul at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia. His job was to keep tabs on the Chinese expatriate community in Australia, with an emphasis on individuals and organizations deemed subversive by Beijing. He later revealed that his main preoccupation was targeting members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is illegal in China. He also targeted supporters of Taiwanese independence, as well as Tibetan and East Turkestan nationalists who were active on Australian soil.

But in 2005, Chen contacted the Australian government and said that he wanted to defect, along with his spouse and six-year-old daughter. He was eventually granted political asylum by Canberra, making his the highest-profile defection of a Chinese government employee to Australia in over half a century. During a subsequent testimony given to the Parliament of Australia, Chen said that he was in contact with Australian intelligence and was giving them information about alleged Chinese espionage activities. He said at the time that China operated a network of over 1,000 “secret agents and informants” in Australia. Chen distinguished agents and informants from Chinese intelligence officers, most of whom were stationed in Chinese diplomatic facilities.

Chen, who now works as a businessman, disappeared from the public limelight after his defection. But last weekend, he reappeared after a decade of obscurity and gave an interview to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. The ABC journalist reminded Chen that in 2005 he had estimated the number of Chinese agents and informants operating in Australia at 1,000, and asked him how many he thought were active today. Chen responded that an increase in the number is certain, given that “China is now the wealthiest government in the world”. That meant, said Chen, that Beijing has the funds that are necessary to maintain “a huge number of spies” in Australia. However, the former diplomat said that most Chinese agents are “casual informants”, not trained spies, and that they are dormant for long periods of time in between operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2016 | Permalink

Macedonian ex-spy chief is among officers indicted for wiretap scandal

Zoran ZaevSeveral former and current intelligence officers, including a former director of the national spy service, have appeared in court in Macedonia, accused of illegally wiretapping thousands of people on orders of the government. The wiretap scandal has sparked the deepest political crisis in the impoverished Balkan country, which has existed since declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The scandal was revealed last year by Zoran Zaev leader of the leftwing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which is the main political opposition in the country of 2 million people. According to information that has since surfaced in the national media, the wiretapping scheme targeted nearly 6,000 telephone numbers between 2008 and 2015. The wiretaps allegedly resulted in the recording of private conversations of 20,000 people, including members of the media, the judiciary, law enforcement, politicians, and church officials. Zaev claims that the wiretaps were orchestrated by the country’s prime minister at the time, Nikola Gruevski, and his cousin, Saso Mijalkov, who led the country’s main spy agency, the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (UBK), from 2006 until 2015. Zaev’s revelations led to the resignation of Prime Minister Gruevski, which resulted in early elections that have been scheduled for December of this year.

The names of 10 former and current intelligence officers who were charged last Friday have not been made public. But the office of the special prosecutor said that the individuals include a former director of the UBK. Prosecutors also said they have evidence that proves that some of the wiretaps continued even 2015, when Zaev revealed their existence. The recently resigned Gruevski, who is running again for prime minister with the rightwing VMRO-DPMNE party, has dismissed Zaev’s allegations as lies. He also accuses the special prosecutor of being a secret supporter of the opposition and of helping Zaev implement a constitutional coup against his administration. Next month’s elections have been already postponed twice, which leads some in the media to speculate that they may not take place until 2017.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 November 2016 | Permalink

South Korean cabinet approves closer intelligence cooperation with Japan

South KoreaIn a move that highlights the thaw in relations between South Korea and Japan, the two nations appear to be closer than ever to entering an intelligence agreement with each other. In 2014, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo signed a trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement on regional security issues, with the United States acting as an intermediary. But a proposed new agreement between South Korea and Japan would remove the US from the equation and would facilitate direct intelligence-sharing between the two East Asian nations for the first time in history.

The proposed treaty is known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Its centerpiece is a proposal to streamline the rapid exchange of intelligence between South Korean and Japanese spy agencies, especially in times of regional crisis involving North Korea. Last week, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense publicly gave GSOMIA its blessing by stating that Seoul’s security would benefit from access to intelligence from Japanese satellite reconnaissance as well as from submarine activity in the South Sea. On Monday, South Korea’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Yoo Il-ho, announced after a cabinet meeting that GSOMIA had been officially approved by the government.

The agreement is surprising, given the extremely tense history of Korean-Japanese relations. Japan conquered the Korean Peninsula for most of the first half of the 20th century, facing stiff resistance from local guerrilla groups. After the end of World War II and Japan’s capitulation, South Korea has sought reparations from Tokyo. In 2014, after many decades of pressure, Japan struck a formal agreement with South Korea over the plight of the so-called “comfort women”, thousands of South Korean women and girls who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese imperial forces during World War II. Relations between the two regional rivals have improved steadily since that time.

The GSOMIA agreement will now be forwarded to officials in the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. The country’s defense minister is expected to sign it during a meeting with the Japanese ambassador to South Korea in Seoul on Wednesday, local news media reported.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 November 2016 | Permalink