Britain to set up intelligence unit to combat ‘fake news’ by foreign states

Theresa MayThe British government has announced that it will form a new intelligence unit tasked with preventing the spread of so-called “fake news” by foreign states, including Russia. The decision was revealed earlier this week in London by a government spokesman, who said that the new unit will be named “National Security Communications Unit”. The spokesman added that the unit will be responsible for “combating disinformation by state actors and others”. When asked by reporters whether the effort was meant as a response to the phenomenon often described as “fake news”, the spokesman said that it was.

According to The Times newspaper, the proposal for a National Security Communications Unit was presented during a scheduled meeting of the country’s National Security Council earlier this week. It was put forward by its strongest proponent, Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan and current national security adviser to the government. The unit will be directly accountable to the Cabinet Office, the government department that is responsible for providing support to the Prime Minister and her Cabinet. It will be staffed with professionals from Britain’s intelligence and security agencies, but will also rely on contributions from external experts in cybersecurity, communications and public relations. The unit will also include a “rapid response unit” that will be tasked with countering “fake news” in real time, according to The Times.

The move follows a similar development in the United States. In December of 2016, the then President Barack Obama signed a new law that designated $160 million to set up a government center for “countering foreign propaganda and disinformation”. The law, entitled “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act”, authorized the departments of State and Defense to work with other federal agencies in establishing the new body. According to a statement by the White House, the goal of the Center would be to collect and analyze “foreign government information warfare efforts” and to “expose and counter foreign information operations” directed against “US national security interests”.

On Wednesday it was announced in London that the British Secretary of Defense, Gavin Williamson, will be providing further details about the National Security Communications Unit in a speech to the House of Commons “within the next few days”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 January 2018 | Permalink

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Finnish reporter destroys computer with hammer to protect spy source

Helsingin SanomatAn investigative journalist in Finland, who recently co-authored an exposé of a Finnish intelligence program targeting Russia, destroyed her computer with a hammer, prompting police to enter her house on Sunday. The journalist, Laura Halminen, co-wrote the exposé with her colleague, Tuomo Pietiläinen. Titled “The Secret Behind the Cliff”, the article appeared in the Saturday edition of the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s highest-circulation newspaper. It reveals the existence of a sophisticated electronic interception station in the northern suburbs of Jyväskylä, a city of about 140,000 people that is located in central Finland. Based on classified documents dating as far back as 1999, the article claims that the Finnish intelligence services have operated the top-secret program in Jyväskylä for years. It focuses on monitoring the maneuvers of Russian military units stationed around the St. Petersburg area, allegedly by tracking electromagnetic radiation emissions.

Over the weekend, the Finnish government reacted angrily to the Helsingin Sanomat report, accusing the newspaper of “revealing the content of highly classified documents” that are “critical to the [country’s] security and may cause grave damage to it”. The government, however, argues that the newspaper revealed without proper authorization the contents of classified military documents that were marked TOP SECRET, which is a crime under Finnish law. But the newspaper’s editors argue that the public has a right to know about the surveillance project. The dispute between the newspaper and the government reached new heights on Sunday evening, when a team of police officers arrived at the home of Helsingin Sanomat journalist Laura Halminen. The newspaper claims that the police raided Halminen’s house in connection with the Jyväskylä revelations. According to the Helsingin Sanomat the reporter said she destroyed her computer in order to safeguard information relating to future articles. However, there are some who believe that she destroyed the computer in order to safeguard the identity of the source of the information that led to Saturday’s exposé. However, argues that they intervened only after Halminen destroyed her home computer with a hammer, creating a fire and prompting an emergency response by the fire brigade. Police officers who arrived with the fire brigade called for reinforcements after they began to suspect that Halminen may have been trying to destroy evidence connected with a criminal investigation.

Helsingin Sanomat editors claim that police left Halminen’s house after confiscating the remains of her damaged computer, several mobile phones, an iPad, and over a dozen USB flash drives. The newspaper’s editors said that the raid on the reporter’s home was “uniquely exceptional” in the history of journalism in Finland, and claimed that the police did not present Halminen with a search warrant prior to raiding the premises. But Police authorities argue that Finnish law allows them to conduct warrantless searches for national-security-related cases, and that their actions were observed by an appointed lawyer. The lawyer took possession of all evidence removed from Halminen’s house, to ensure compliance with Finnish law. The government has since said that it will launch a criminal probe to find out the source of the leak to the newspaper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 December 2017 | Permalink
IntelNews thanks AiT, N.H. and A.S. for their help in ensuring the factual accuracy of this report

Poland arrests military intelligence chiefs for ties to Russian spies

PytelAuthorities in Poland have charged three high-level military intelligence officials with acting in the interests of Russia. The three include two former directors of Polish military intelligence and are facing sentences of up to 10 years in prison. The news broke on December 6, when Polish authorities announced the arrest of Piotr Pytel, who was director of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (SKW) from 2014 to 2015. It soon emerged that two more arrests had taken place, that of Pytel’s predecessor, Janusz Nosek, and Krzysztof Dusza, Pytel’s chief of staff during his tenure as SKW director.

According to the newsmagazine Gazeta Polska, which provides extensive coverage of the arrests in its latest issue, the SKW officials are accused of having had unauthorized contacts with Russian intelligence personnel and of “operating on behalf of a foreign intelligence service”. The court indictment reportedly states that the Polish officials “cooperated, without seeking the necessary authorization, with members of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)”. The indictment also notes that “the mission of the FSB conflicts with that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”, of which Poland is a full member.

According to reports in the Polish media, the three men are accused of having held several undisclosed meetings with FSB officers in Poland. One such meeting allegedly took place in the village of Ułowo, in north-central Poland. The village is located just a few miles from Poland’s border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. During the meeting, which included dinner and “heavy consumption of alcohol”, the SKW officials allegedly met with the FSB’s senior representative in Poland, identified in court documents only as “W.J.”, as well as with several other Russian intelligence officers. Following that meeting, Pytel and Dusza allegedly helped falsify the application data of an unnamed representative of the FSB in Poland, who was stationed at Russia’s embassy in Warsaw. This allegedly allowed the Russian intelligence officer to evade diplomatic restrictions on travel and to gain access to information about Poland’s military that he otherwise would not have.

Speaking on Polish state-owned television, Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said last week that he was aware of the seriousness of the accusation against the three SKW officials. He told the Telewizja Polska station that the three officials face “very serious allegations” that point to “fully conscious and illegal cooperation with Russian spies”. That, said Macierewicz, was the “worst kind of betrayal that can be committed by a Pole”. The three defendants claim that they were not working in the interests of the FSB and that it was their job to meet regularly with Russian intelligence representatives in Poland.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 December 2017 | Permalink

MI5 releases new information about Soviet ‘Portland Spy Ring’

DocumentFiles released on Monday by the British government reveal new evidence about one of the most prolific Soviet spy rings that operated in the West after World War II, which became known as the Portland Spy Ring. Some of the members of the Portland Spy Ring were Soviet operatives who, at the time of their arrest, posed as citizens of third countries. All were non-official-cover intelligence officers, or NOCs, as they are known in Western intelligence parlance. Their Soviet —and nowadays Russian— equivalents are known as illegals. NOCs are high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the authorities of the country that employs them. During much of the Cold War, NOCs posed as business executives, students, academics, journalists, or non-profit agency workers. Unlike official-cover officers, who are protected by diplomatic immunity, NOCs have no such protection. If arrested by authorities of their host country, they can be tried and convicted for engaging in espionage.

The existence of the Portland Spy Ring has been known since 1961, when British authorities arrested five people throughout England. Two of them were British citizens, Harry Houghton, a clerk at the Royal Navy’s Underwater Detection Establishment facility in Dorset, England, and his mistress, Ethel Gee. Their Soviet handler was Konon Molody, a Soviet intelligence officer who was posing as a Canadian, under the name Gordon Lonsdale. Also arrested was a married couple from New Zealand, Peter and Helen Kroger. But in reality they were Americans, whose real names were Morris and Lona Cohen, and had worked for Soviet intelligence since the late 1930s. Collectively, the five were referred in media reports as members of the Portland Spy Ring.

The newly declassified files about the spy ring were released by the Security Service, known commonly as MI5, Britain’s primary counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency. They reveal how British authorities managed to bust the Portland Spy Ring. According to the files, the initial tip-off came from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The American agency had managed to recruit Michael Goleniewski, codename SNIPER, a Polish military counterintelligence officer, who led the technical office of Poland’s military intelligence. In the spring of 1960, Goleniewski told the CIA that Polish intelligence were running a British agent who was recruited while serving in the office of the naval attaché at the British embassy in Warsaw. The CIA shared the information with British intelligence, who soon identified the agent as Harry Houghton in Dorset. MI5 agents followed Houghton and his girlfriend, Ethel Gee, as they met with a successful Canadian businessman in London, Gordon Lonsdale (real name Konon Molody). Molody had grown up with a family member in California in the 1930s, and spoke fluent English. He had joined Soviet intelligence during World War II and sent to Britain posing as a Canadian. When he arrived there, in 1954, he established the KGB’s first known illegal residency in the British Isles.

In turn, Molody led MI5 to Peter and Helen Kroger from New Zealand (real names Morris and Lona Cohen), who were posing as antique book dealers. The couple acted as couriers, radio operators and technical support officers for Molody. They were born in the United States and had been recruited by Soviet intelligence in the 1930s. It is now known that they had contacts with several other Soviet illegals in America, including Rudolf Abel (real name William Fisher) who was captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1957. The couple had left the United States on orders of the KGB in 1952 and reappeared in the United Kingdom using New Zealand passports and new names.

The newly declassified documents show that MI5 decided to move against the five members of the Portland Spy Ring after Goleniewski became an open defector and was exfiltrated to the United States by officers in the CIA’s Berlin station. British authorities feared that Goleniewski’s open defection would prompt the Soviets to pull out Houghton, whose identity was known to Goleniewski. Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison. They were released in 1970, married the following year, and died in the 1980s. Molody was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 1964 and exchanged for Greville Wynne, a British spy captured in the USSR. The Cohens received 20 year sentences, but were released in 1969 and exchanged with Gerald Brooke, a British teacher who was arrested in the USSR for smuggling anti-communist literature and trying to organize dissidents inside the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2017 | Permalink

MI6 chiefs used secret slush fund to finance operations, document shows

Sir Stewart MenziesSuccessive directors of the Secret Intelligence Service used a secret slush fund to finance spy operations without British government oversight after World War II, according to a top-secret document unearthed in London. The document was found in a collection belonging to the personal archive of the secretary of the British cabinet, which was released by the United Kingdom’s National Archives. It was discovered earlier this year by Dr Rory Cormac, Associate Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Nottingham in England. It forms the basis of an episode of BBC Radio 4’s investigative history program, Document, which was aired last weekend. In the program, the BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera explains that the discovery of the secret slush fund reveals new information about the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service. It also raises questions about the underground activities of British spies in the Middle East following the British Empire’s postwar retreat.

Historically, the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service —known commonly as MI6— have been indirectly supervised by the British Parliament and its committees, which fund the agency through a secret vote. The use of the agency’s funds to carry out operations is also monitored by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who exercises political control over MI6. However, the document uncovered by Dr Cormac shows that, for many years, successive directors of the secretive spy agency financed operations using a sizeable personal fund, the existence of which was not disclosed to the government. The document describes a meeting held in 1952 between Sir Stewart Menzies, who was then the outgoing director of MI, and the permanent secretaries —essentially the top-ranking civil servants— to the Foreign Office and the Treasury. The meeting was held to prepare the ground for Sir Stewart’s retirement and to facilitate the smooth handover of power to his successor, Major-General Sir John Sinclair, who became director of MI6 in 1953. Read more of this post

Political tension grows in Zimbabwe as army chief threatens coup

General Constantine ChiwengaPolitical affairs in Zimbabwe took an unprecedented turn on Monday, as the chief of the armed forces warned the country’s President, Robert Mugabe, that the military would “not hesitate to step in” to stop infighting within the ruling party. General Constantino Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, took the extremely rare step of summoning reporters for a press conference at the military’s headquarters in Harare on Monday. A direct intervention of this kind is unprecedented in the politics of Zimbabwe, a country that is tightly ruled by its authoritarian President, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is also President and First Secretary of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the party that has dominated Zimbabwean politics since it assumed power in 1980.

General Chiwenga reportedly spoke in the presence of nearly 100 senior military officers, who were seated in the conference room and appeared to support his intervention. The press conference was called less than a week after President Mugabe fired his second-in-command in ZANU-PF, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The 75-year-old longtime confidante of Mugabe was dismissed from his post after speaking out against Mugabe and his wife, Grace, 52. It is thought that Mugabe, the world’s oldest president at 93, is preparing to appoint his wife in his place, something that has angered some in his party, including Mnangagwa. Addressing Mugabe directly, Mnangagwa said that ZANU-PF is “not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please”. He was removed soon afterwards, on November 6, and is currently believed to have fled in exile in China, but has vowed to return to Zimbabwe.

Political observers in southern Africa warned that Mnangagwa’s firing was a risky move for Mugabe. The 75-year-old former ZANU-PF guerrilla previously served as Zimbabwe’s Minister for Security and Defence, and has powerful connections in the country’s armed forces. General Chiwenga’s intervention on Monday appeared aimed at sending a message to Mnangagwa that the troops will not accept his dismissal. The general warned that “the current purging” within ZANU-PF was “clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background” —referring to the so-called Bush War between the leftist ZANU-PF and the Rhodesian military in the 1970s. The purge, said Chiwenga, “must stop forthwith”, because “when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in”. The general went further, commenting on Zimbabwe’s political instability and economic woes: “There is distress, trepidation and despondence within the nation”, he said, which is caused by “squabbling” within the ruling party. Because of that, “there has been no meaningful development in the country for the past five years”, resulting in “cash shortages and rising commodity prices”, added the general.

The next party congress of ZANU-PF is scheduled for December in Harare. Until last week, it was expected that Grace Mugabe would be appointed vice president at that time, replacing Mnangagwa. But with General Chiwenga’s unprecedented intervention on Monday, it remains to be seen whether President Mugabe’s strategy will unfold as planned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 November 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: Dozens of royals arrested in weekend raids throughout Saudi Arabia

King Salman with Crown Prince MohammedDozens of Saudi senior figures, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, have been fired or arrested, as the king and his son appeared to be removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the security services. The unprecedented arrests took place without warning less than two hours after state-run media announced the creation of a new “supreme committee to combat corruption”. A royal decree issued on the same day named the head of the committee as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne.

By Saturday night, nearly 50 senior officials, including at least 11 princes, had reportedly been fired or arrested. The substantial list features four current and at least 20 former ministers, most of them members of the Saudi royal family. Reports from Riyadh said that among those arrested were Saleh Abdullah Kamel, chairman of the General Council for Islamic Banks, Arab media baron Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family and one of the world’s wealthiest people. Prince Alwaleed is a major investor in technology companies such as Twitter and Apple, and is seen as a high-profile social reformer in the kingdom.

More importantly, Saturday saw the firing of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from the post of Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard Forces. He was replaced by Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, who until last week served as one of Prince Mutaib’s subordinates. The royal palace offered no precise explanation for the removal of Prince Mutaib and the three other government ministers. A statement released to the media said that the new effort against corruption was prompted by “the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds”. But there was no direct mention of Prince Mutaib in the statement, and no charges of corruption against him were made public. It is possible that the prince’s firing may not be directly related to the anticorruption drive.

However, few Saudi observers will believe that a genuine anticorruption crusade was behind last weekend’s arrests of senior officials. In a country were nepotism and corruption are not simply endemic, but serve as the driving engine of the economy, virtually nobody believes that the system can be reformed from within. Moreover, it cannot possibly be reformed by the royal family, which is the most prolific source of corruption in the oil-rich kingdom. So what exactly is going on?

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