Israeli officials announce arrest of alleged deep-cover spy for Iran

Thaer Sha'afutIsraeli authorities announced on Thursday the arrest of a deep-cover intelligence operative who allegedly attempted to establish a base for Iranian intelligence in Israel and the West Bank, according to news reports from Israel. Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency, said it arrested Thaer Sha’afut (pictured), a Jordanian national, on espionage charges. The arrest reportedly occurred in April, but was only announced this week. According to Shin Bet officials, Sha’afut was an accredited deep-cover intelligence operative for the Iranian spy services. He was allegedly was commissioned “to carry out missions that were meant to establish a network in Israel and the West Bank, which would be used for covert operations by the Iranians”.

Israeli officials said Sha’afut received instructions from his Iranian handlers to enter Israeli territory between July and August of 2018. After entering Israel, his goal was “to form business ties” in the West Bank and in Israel proper. He planned to do that, said the Shin Bet, by hiring Shiite Muslims to staff a new factory in Jordan and then use the new venture “as an anchor for future Iranian activities in Israel and the West Bank”. These activities included the eventual recruitment of “spies who would help collect intelligence for Iranian interests”, according to court documents. The Shin Bet said that Sha’afut’s handlers were two Arabic-speaking Iranian intelligence officers based in Lebanon and Syria, who went by the names Abu Sadek and Abu Jaffar. They allegedly provided Shafut with “an encrypted communication device”, which he used to arrange clandestine meetings with them throughout 2018 and 2019.

Sha’afut’s Iranian handlers allegedly planned to use him as a conduit for transferring funds to spies in the West Bank and Israel. They had told Sha’afut that Iranian intelligence would make an initial investment of $500,000 in his factory venture in Jordan and to an import-export business, in order to sustain his base of operations, with more funds to follow. Once the factory was set up, Sha’afut was expected to travel clandestinely to Iran in order to complete his training as a deep-cover case officer. Israeli daily Haaretz said on Thursday that Sha’afut was indicted earlier this month by military prosecutors in Jerusalem for “contact with an enemy country, contact with a hostile organization, and conspiracy to funnel money from an enemy entity”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 June 2019 | Permalink

FBI releases new information on alleged Iranian deep-cover spies

MEK supporters CaliforniaThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has charged two men of Iranian descent, who were arrested in California, of operating as deep-cover spies for Iran. Documents filed in a federal court in Washington, DC, name the men as Majid Ghorbani, 59, and Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar, 38. Both have American citizenship and were arrested by the FBI in August, following a year-long counterintelligence investigation. The Los Angeles Times reports that Ghorbani is believed to have immigrated to the US from Iran in 1995. For the past two decades he has worked as a waiter at an upscale Persian restaurant in Santa Ana. Doostdar was born in the southern Californian city of Long Beach, but eventually moved with his family to Canada, and later to Iran, where he grew up. But he kept his US citizenship and made regular trips to America. It is believed that he planned to eventually move with his family to California.

According to the FBI, the two men were tasked by Iranian intelligence with carrying out surveillance on Jewish religious, cultural and political facilities in the US. They were also tasked with conducting surveillance and compiling reports of diplomatic and other facilities connected to the state of Israel. Another part of their mission, said the FBI, was collecting information on the activities and individual members of Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations in exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups. Until 2009, the European Union and the US officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred against the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US.

Documents filed in court by the FBI state that the two men were secretly recorded during a year-long counterintelligence operation, as they traveled throughout the US to observe MEK rallies and gather intelligence or Israeli diplomatic facilities. Locations visited by the two men allegedly include Chicago, New York and Washington, as well as several cities in the American West Coast. During those visits, they would compile reports that, according to the FBI, were meant to “enable an intelligence or military unit find [and] neutralize a threat”. The men also traveled back to Iran through third countries, bringing back written operational instructions from their Iranian intelligence handlers, according to the FBI documents. IntelNews wrote about the arrest of the two men in August. However, this is the first concrete information released by the FBI about their identities and activities. They are both accused of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government —a technical term for deep-cover espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 January 2019 | Permalink

Canada seeks to take away passports from children of Russian spies

Vavilov FoleyTwo Canadian brothers, whose Russian-born parents fraudulently acquired Canadian citizenship before being arrested for spying on the United States for Moscow, are not entitled to Canadian citizenship, according to the government of Canada. 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 the couple’s 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.

But the two brothers, who had never been to Russia prior to their parents’ arrest in 2010, are currently involved in a prolonged legal battle to keep their Canadian citizenship, after the government of Canada refused to recognize their Canadian passports. The latter were annulled when it became clear that the Canadian passports of the brothers’ parents 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 say, that they cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes, and insist that Canada is the only home they know.

Last year, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeals overturned the decision of a lower court and ordered the government to reinstate Alex Vavilov’s Canadian citizenship. According to the Appeals Court, the Vavilov could not be considered as having been born to employees of a foreign government, since his parents were not accredited diplomats, nor did they enjoy diplomatic privileges while living in Canada. Since that time, the two brothers have had their Canadian passports renewed and say they hope to be able to settle and work in Canada. But the Canadian government was given until September 20 of this year to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision, and take the case to the Supreme Court.

Now the Canadian government has filed a new court submission, effectively challenging the Federal Court of Appeals’ decision. It its submission, the government claims that the Vavilov brothers should be denied Canadian citizenship because their parents were, effectively, secret employees of a foreign government. The two Russian spies may not have been accredited by the Canadian state as foreign employees, it says, but they were in reality “dedicated to serving their home country, except in their case, the employment was carried out clandestinely”. Canada’s Supreme Court has said that it plans to hear the case before the end of the year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 August 2018 | 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

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