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

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Sons of exposed Russian deep-cover spies want their Canadian citizenship back

FoleyThe sons of a Russian couple, who fraudulently acquired Canadian citizenship before being arrested for espionage in the United States, are seeking to reinstate their Canadian citizenship, which was annulled when their parents were found to be Russian spies. Tim and Alex 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 (FBI). Following their arrest, their sons, who allegedly grew up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that their parents 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’. The 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.

But the two brothers, who were born in Canada, are currently involved in a prolonged legal battle to have their Canadian citizenship reinstated. The latter was rescinded when it became clear that their parents’ Canadian passports were fraudulent. According to the Canadian Citizenship Act, children born in Canada to “employees of a foreign government” are not entitled to Canadian nationality. But the brothers argue that they were 20 and 16 when their parents were arrested and were unaware of their double identities. It follows, they told Canada’s newsmagazine Maclean’s in August, that they cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes.

This past June, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal overturned the decision of a lower court and ordered the government to reinstate Alex Vavilov’s Canadian citizenship. Now the government has until September 20 to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court. If it does not, or if it upholds the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal, it is thought that Alex’s brother, Tim, will also have his Canadian citizenship reinstated.

But the case may be further-complicated by allegations made by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that Tim was aware of his parents’ espionage activities when they were arrested by the FBI. The CSIS claims that the two Russian spies had groomed Tim to enter the intelligence profession, and that the then-20-year-old had given an oath of allegiance to the SVR —the KGB’s post-Cold-War successor agency. But Tim Vavilov denies he was groomed or “sworn-in” by the Russians, and argues that he has never been presented with evidence of this allegation, even though his parents’ home in Massachusetts was bugged by the FBI for nearly a decade.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 September 2017 | Permalink

Headstone for unmarked grave of Nazi spy who died undetected in wartime Britain

Jan Willem Ter BraakThe unmarked grave of a Dutch-born Nazi spy, who killed himself after spending several months working undercover in wartime Britain, will be marked with a headstone, 76 years after his death by suicide. Born in 1914 in The Hague, Holland, Englebertus Fukken joined the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands, the Dutch affiliate of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party led by Adolf Hitler, in 1933. In 1940, shortly after the German invasion of Holland, Fukken, who had been trained as a journalist, was recruited by the Abwehr, Nazi Germany’s military intelligence. Abwehr’s leadership decided to include Fukken in the ranks of undercover agents sent to Britain in preparation for Operation SEA LION, Germany’s plan to invade Britain.

Between October 31 and November 2, 1940, the 26-year-old Fukken was secretly parachuted over the Buckinghamshire village of Haversham in central England. British authorities found his discarded parachute a few days later, but by that time Fukken had made his way on foot to the city of Cambridge. Fukken’s precise mission remains unknown. Speculation that he was sent to Britain to assassinate the country’s wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, is dismissed as fantastical by most historians. What is known is that Fukken carried with him false Dutch papers identifying him as Jan Willem Ter Braak, and a suitcase that contained a radio transmitter supplied to him by the Abwehr.

In Cambridge, Fukken took lodgings with a local family, posing as a member of the Free Dutch Forces, anti-Nazi Dutch officials who had fled to London after the German invasion of Holland and formed a government in exile. Fukken spent the next four months living undercover in Cambridge, and did not register with the authorities, as required. He traveled on most days to locations in England bombed by the Luftwaffe, inspecting the damage and reporting back to his Abwehr handlers in Hamburg by radio or by mail, using secret writing techniques. But his failure to register with the authorities meant that he had no access to ration cards, which were required to purchase food in wartime Britain. He then attracted the attention of the local authorities, after presenting them with a forged ration card that was detected during inspection by a police officer. Fearing arrest, he quickly moved lodgings, but was unable to solve the problem of access to food. Repeated attempts to get the Abwehr to exfiltrate him failed, and his calls for money and usable ration cards were not facilitated, as the Nazi leadership in Berlin had begun to shelve Operation SEA LION. Read more of this post

Yuri Drozdov, handler of Soviet undercover spies during Cold War, dies at 91

Yuri DrozdovGeneral Yuri Ivanovich Drozdov, who held senior positions in the Soviet KGB for 35 years, and handled a global network of Soviet undercover officers from 1979 until 1991, has died at the age of 91. Drozdov was born in Minsk, Soviet Belarus, in 1925. His father, Ivan Dmitrievich Drozdov, was an officer in the tsarist army who sided with the communists in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. After serving in World War II, Yuri Drozdov joined the KGB in 1956. Following his training, he was appointed liaison officer between the KGB and East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, commonly known as the Stasi.

His knowledge of East German intelligence affairs prompted his involvement in the famous 1962 spy-swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets surrendered the American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been captured in May 1960, when the U-2 spy plane he was piloting was shot down over Soviet airspace. In return, they received Rudolf Abel (real name Vilyam Fisher) a Soviet undercover spy who was captured in New York in 1957, posing as an American citizen. From 1964 until 1968, Drozdov was stationed in Beijing, China, where he served as the KGB rezident, effectively the agency’s chief of station. He returned to Moscow and in 1975 was posted under diplomatic cover in the United States, where he commanded the KGB’s station in New York until 1979.

Upon his return to the USSR, Drozdov was promoted to chief of the KGB’s Directorate S, which handled the agency’s worldwide network of so-called illegals —intelligence officers serving abroad without official cover or formal connection to the Soviet Union. Shortly after his return to Moscow, Drozdov also headed Operation STORM-333, a daring attack on the presidential palace in Afghanistan, during which Soviet special forces killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and essentially fired the opening shots of the decade-long Soviet-Afghan war. The experience prompted Drozdov to recommend to his superiors the establishment of a new KGB special-forces unit. It was created in 1981 under the name Vympel (Pennant) and headed by Drozdov himself. He commanded several Vympel missions in and out of the USSR before resigning from the KGB in 1991.

Little is known about the specifics of Drozdov’s death. It is believed that he died on June 21, surrounded by his family. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), a successor agency of the KGB, issued a brief statement commemorating Drozdov’s service. It was followed by a statement issued by the office of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, which praised Drozdov as “a legendary spy, outstanding professional […], incredible person and true patriot”.

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

Indonesia to investigate North Korean restaurant reportedly used as spy base

Pyongyang Restaurant in Jakarta, IndonesiaIndonesian authorities said on Sunday that they will investigate a North Korean restaurant in the country, after a Singaporean news agency claimed it was being used as a center for espionage. The announcement comes amidst heightened tensions between North Korean and its neighbors, following the murder last week in Malaysia of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Kim, the grandson of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung, died after two women approached him at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and splashed his face with liquid poison. Sources in South Korea and the United States have pointed at Pyongyang as the culprit of the assassination.

On Friday of last week, the Singapore-based news agency Asia One published a lengthy report into alleged North Korean espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The report claimed that North Korean intelligence agencies have operated extensive networks of operatives in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and that these networks have operated unimpeded for over two decades. The news agency cited an unnamed “intelligence source” as saying that the spy networks are operated by North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB). The RGB is in charge of special activities abroad, which include covert operations and intelligence collection involving espionage. It operates under the Ministry of State Security and answers directly to North Korea’s supreme leader.

According to Asia One, the RGB maintains some of its largest spy networks abroad in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, where Kim Jong-nam met a gruesome death last week. RGB personnel operating in these countries are North Korean citizens who are employed in the construction sector, as well as the tourism industry. Some operate North Korean restaurants, which are popular tourist attractions across Southeast Asia. The unnamed intelligence source told Asia One that North Korean restaurants serve “as a main front to conduct intelligence gathering and surveillance [against] Japanese and South Korean politicians, diplomats, top corporate figures and businessmen”. The RGB’s network in Indonesia is based in textile factories located in several Indonesian cities, said Asia One. There is also “an apartment located above a North Korean restaurant in [the Indonesian capital] Jakarta that is part of the RGB Indonesia office”, according to the report.

Following the news agency’s allegations, Argo Yuwono, senior commander for the Indonesian National Police, said that an investigation would take place into Asia One’s allegations. He said that his detectives would coordinate their activities with the Indonesian Foreign Ministry before moving ahead with the probe.

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

NSA contractor accused of spying stole real names of US undercover officers

NSAClassified information stolen by a United States federal contractor, who was charged with espionage last month, includes the true identities of American intelligence officers posted in undercover assignments abroad, according to court documents. In August of this year, Harold Thomas Martin III, was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges of stealing government property and illegally removing classified material. Martin, 51, served as a US Navy officer for over a decade, where he acquired a top secret clearance and specialized in cyber security. At the time of his arrest earlier this year, he was working for Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest federal contractors in the US. Some media reports said Martin was a member of the National Security Agency’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, described by observers as an elite “hacker army” tasked with conducting offensive cyber espionage against foreign targets.

Last week, after prosecutors alleged that the information Martin removed from the NSA was the equivalent of 500 million pages, a judge in the US state of Maryland ruled that the accused might flee if he is released on bail. Soon afterwards, Martin’s legal team filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider his decision to deny him bail. That prompted a new filing by the prosecution, which was delivered to the court on Thursday. The document alleges that the information found in Martin’s home and car includes “numerous names” of American intelligence officers who currently “operate under cover outside the US”. The court filing adds that Martin’s removal of the documents from secure government facilities constitutes “a security breach that risks exposure of American intelligence operations” and “could endanger the lives” of undercover intelligence officers and their agents abroad.

It is alleged that Martin told the FBI he never shared classified information with anyone, and that he removed it from his office at the NSA in order to deepen his expertise on his subject. His legal team argues that Martin suffers from a mental condition that compels him to be a hoarder. But prosecutors for the government argue in court documents that Martin appears to have communicated via the Internet with Russian speakers, and that he was learning Russian at the time of his arrest. The case is expected to be tried later this year.

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

Portuguese, Russian spies arrested in Rome may have accomplices

Frederico Carvalhão,A Portuguese intelligence officer arrested a week ago in Rome, allegedly while passing classified documents to his Russian handler, may have accomplices with access to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) secrets. IntelNews reported last week on the capture of Frederico Carvalhão, a section chief for Portugal’s Security Information Service (SIS), which is tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence. Carvalhão was arrested on May 23 at a café in the Trastevere district of Rome while passing a folder with six classified documents to a Russian man. The man is believed to be an employee of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, though notably he does not have diplomatic status or immunity, and was therefore arrested. As we noted last week, this is atypical for an intelligence officer, as most of them operate as registered diplomats.

According to Portuguese media reports, the classified information that Carvalhão appears to have been sharing with the SVR since at least 2014 relate to NATO and the European Union (EU), of which Portugal is a member. However, the London-based newspaper Daily Telegraph reports that there are suspicions in Lisbon that Carvalhão was not working alone for the Russians. In other words, Portuguese investigators are looking into the possibility that the arrested spy was what is known as a ‘principal agent’. The latter signifies a mole that acts as a middle person between his foreign handlers and a cell of other agents working for him or her. The possibility that Carvalhão may not have been working alone was commented on by Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, who said last week that the judicial investigation into the spy case was “ongoing”.

It appears that Carvalhão somehow managed to access NATO- and EU-related documents from the SIS’ Ameixoeira Fort headquarters in the Portuguese capital, to which he had no need-to-know access. Moreover, SIS computers do not accept flash drives, while all printed documents contain a secret watermark that identifies them as having been printed on an SIS printer. But Carvalhão appears to have somehow managed to acquire non-watermarked documents without having extracted them from an SIS computer with the use of a flash drive. Does that mean that someone else from inside SIS provided him with the documents? The EU and NATO are eagerly waiting for an answer.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 May 2016 | Permalink