Russia preparing to swap imprisoned spies with NATO members, sources claim

LithuaniaThe Russian government is preparing to swap a number of imprisoned spies with at least two member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to reports. The Estonia-based news agency BNS, which is the largest news agency in the Baltics, said on Wednesday that negotiations between Russian and Lithuanian, as well as probably Norwegian, officials were nearing completion.

The alleged spies at the center of the reputed spy swap are said to include Nikolai Filipchenko, who is reportedly an intelligence officer with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Filipchenko was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015, allegedly while trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania. He was charged with using forged identity documents to travel to Lithuania on several occasions between 2011 and 2014. His mission was allegedly to recruit officers in Lithuania’s Department of State Security in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. In 2017, a district court in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius sentenced Filipchenko to 10 years in prison. The alleged Russian spy refused to testify during his trial and reportedly did not reveal any information about himself or his employer. He is believed to be the first FSB intelligence officer to have been convicted of espionage in Lithuania.

BNS reported that the Russians have agreed to exchange Filipchenko for two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis is serving a 12-year prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. In the following year, a Russian court sentenced Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, to 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government. Lithuanian authorities have refused to comment publicly about Filipchenko and Mataitis, saying that details on the two men are classified. According to BNS, the spy swap may involve two more people, an unnamed Russian national and a Norwegian citizen, who is believed to be Frode Berg, a Norwegian retiree who is serving a 16-year jail sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

BNS said on Wednesday that the Lithuanian State Defense Council, which is chaired by the country’s president, had approved the spy exchange, and that Moscow had also agreed to it. On Thursday, however, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said she had “no information on this issue” that she could share with reporters.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 October 2019 | Permalink

Norwegian spy service seeks right to break law during espionage operations

Royal Norwegian Ministry of DefenseNorway’s supreme legislature body is considering a bill that would offer immunity from prosecution to intelligence officers and informants who are authorized by the country’s spy service to conduct espionage. The bill has been proposed on behalf of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Defense, which supervises the operations of the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS), Norway’s primary intelligence agency. The NIS operates primarily abroad and is the only institution of the Norwegian state that can be authorized by the government to break laws in foreign countries. However, supporters of the new bill point out that NIS overseas operations can also break Norwegian law. That is something that the proposed bill addresses, they argue.

The proposed bill offers immunity from prosecution to NIS case officers and their assets —either informants or foreign spies— who may commit offenses under Norwegian law, as part of authorized espionage operations. In its consultation note that accompanies the proposed bill, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense admits that a number of NIS operations “already violate existing Norwegian laws”. That is inevitable, argues the Ministry, because officers and informants who engage in espionage operations will often “act contrary to the stipulations of criminal law […] as part of their assignments”. They may, in other words, “do certain things that would be illegal if they were done not on behalf of the intelligence service”, states the consultation note.

The document does not provide details of the types of offenses that are committed in pursuit of intelligence operations, arguing that “the offenses that the NIS commits, as well as its methods, must remain secret”. It does, however, suggest that intelligence officers may make use of “false or misleading identities, documents and information”. They may also “smuggle large amounts of cash from the country”, which they will use to pay foreign assets. Given that these assets receive Norwegian taxpayers’ funds, and that some of them end up settling in Norway, it is important that their proceeds not be considered taxable income under Norwegian law, according to the Defense Ministry. By reporting their revenue to the Norwegian Tax Administration, these assets would make their NIS connection known, and thus blow their cover, the document states.

The Defense Ministry notes that the new bill “will have little legal significance”, as NIS espionage operations are generally shielded from prosecution under Norway’s existing legal codes. It will, however, formalize the NIS’ legal scope and allow the agency to assure its case officers that they can perform their missions without fearing arrest or prosecution, so long as they act within the parameters of their authorized missions. The spy agency will also be able to recruit more “informants, sources and contractors”, says the document.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 November 2018 | Permalink

Police investigate mysterious disappearance of close WikiLeaks associate

Arjen KamphuisPolice in Norway and Holland have opened formal investigations into the whereabouts of a Dutch cybersecurity expert and senior associate of WikiLeaks, who disappeared without trace on August 20. Arjen Kamphuis, a 47-year-old online privacy specialist, is known for his book Information Security for Journalists, which offers advice on investigative reporters working on national security and intelligence matters. Additionally, Kamphuis, who has Dutch citizenship, is a close associate of Julian Assange, founder of the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

According to reports, Kamphuis was last seen in Bodo, a town of 50,000 people located in Norway’s arctic region. Witnesses say that on August 20, Kamphuis checked out of his hotel in the center of Bodo and headed on foot to the town’s main railway station, where he planned to catch a train to Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city. From there he was scheduled to fly to the Dutch capital Amsterdam on August 22. However, it is not known whether Kamphuis ever boarded the 10-hour, 500-mile train ride to Trondheim. He certainly did not board his flight to Amsterdam and has not been heard from since he left his Bodo hotel on August 20. The French news agency Agence France Presse cited Norwegian police spokesman Tommy Bech, who said that Norwegian authorities were unaware of Kamphuis’s current whereabouts. He refused to speculate about what may have happened to Kamphuis after he left his hotel in Bodo, but said that the Norwegian police had opened a formal investigation into his disappearance, in association with police in Holland.

The Dutch cybersecurity expert’s disappearance comes as the fate of his close associate and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears increasingly uncertain. The Australian-born Assange has been living in self-confinement inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London for six years. During that time, the Ecuadorian government has offered Assange protection against charges of rape and sexual assault that have been filed against him in Sweden, which the WikiLeaks founder dismisses as a political conspiracy against him. This past summer, however, Ecuador’s new President, Lenin Moreno, said that Assange would need to leave his embassy quarters soon. Assange is also wanted in the United States for leaking classified government documents through the WikiLeaks platform.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 September 2018 | Permalink

Norway spy agency urges IT firms to be cautious when outsourcing operations abroad

Broadnet NorwayThe Norwegian National Security Authority (NSM) has warned the country’s information technology firms to prioritize national security over cutting costs when outsourcing their operations abroad. The warning follows what has come to be known as the “Broadnet affair”, which, according to the Norwegian government, highlighted the dangers of extreme cost-cutting measures by Norway’s heavily privatized IT industry. The incident is named after Broadnet, Norway’s leading supplier of fiber-optic communications to the country’s industry and state sectors. Among Broadnet’s customers is Nødnett, an extensive digital network used by agencies and organizations that engage in rescue and emergency operations, including police and fire departments, as well as medical response agencies. Although 60% of the Nødnett network is owned by the Norwegian government, Broadnet is a member of the Nødnett consortium, and is thus supervised by Norway’s Ministry of Transport and Communications.

In September of 2015, Broadnet fired 120 of its Norway-based employees and outsourced their jobs to India, in search of cost-cutting measures. The company signed a multimillion dollar contract with Tech Mahindra, an outsourcing firm based in Mumbai. But an audit by the Norwegian government soon discovered several instances of security breaches by Tech Mahindra staff. The latter were reportedly able to access Nødnett without authorization through Broadnet’s core IT network, which was supposed to be off-limits to outsourced staff without Norwegian security clearances. Soon after the breaches were discovered, Broadnet began to bring its outsourced operations back to Norway. By the end of 2017, all security-related IT tasks had been returned to Norway. In the meantime, however, Broadnet had come under heavy criticism from the Norwegian government, opposition politicians, and the NSM —the government agency responsible for protecting Norway’s IT infrastructure from cyber threats, including espionage and sabotage.

The NSM warning —published earlier this month in the form of a 20-page report— makes extensive mention of the Broadnet affair. It recognizes the right of Norwegian IT firms to outsource some or all of their operational tasks as a cost-cutting measure. But it also stresses that the country’s IT firms are required by law to abide to national security protocols when outsourcing part of their IT portfolios to foreign companies. There have been numerous instances in recent years, where “risk management obligations relative to outsourcing decisions by Norwegian [IT] companies have fallen short”, the NSM report states. It adds that IT firms must abide to strict protocols of risk management when making outsourcing decisions. It also states that the firms’ Norway-based senior managers must regain complete overview of outsourced projects at every step of the way.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2018 | Permalink

Norwegian retiree jailed in Russia says he was ‘misused’ by Norway spy agency

Frode BergA Norwegian retiree, who was arrested in northern Russia late last year on charges of spying, acted as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS), according to his lawyer. Last December, intelNews reported on the arrest of Frode Berg, 62, from Kirkenes, a small town in Norway’s far north, located near the Russian border. Berg retired in 2014 after nearly 25 years of service in the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner, a government agency that operates under Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security. Following his retirement, Berg traveled regularly to Russia and helped organize a number of joint Norwegian-Russian community events, including athletic competitions and art festivals. But he is currently in a Russian jail and faces a long prison sentence if convicted on espionage charges.

On Tuesday, however, The Washington Post said it spoke to Berg’s lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes. On a telephone line from Oslo, Risnes told the paper that his client had come to believe that he had been “misused” by the NIS, and that he said so during a court session in Moscow earlier this year. “We are quite convinced”, said Risnes, “that this is a real Norwegian spy story”. The lawyer told The Post’s Anton Troianovski that his client had met a man named “Jorgen”, who worked for the NIS. He asked Berg to carry some envelopes during his frequent trips to Russia. Berg eventually came to realize that the envelopes contained operational instructions for Norwegian intelligence assets inside Russia, and sometimes money —up to €3,000 at times. He did as he was told “between two and five times”, said Risnes, in full knowledge that he was operating as a courier for the NIS.

However, when Berg began to have second thoughts about his activities, fearing arrest, “Jorgen” pressured him to continue, according to Risnes. At one point, the NIS representative asked Berg: “Don’t you want to be a good Norwegian?”. In doing so, the NIS effectively pressured Berg to continue acting as a courier by dismissing his hesitations as groundless and failed to inform him about the real risks involved in acting as an intelligence courier inside Russia. Risnes told The Post that no charges have yet been filed against Berg by Moscow, and that the 62-year-old retiree’s supporters back in Kirkenes hope that he could be exchanged for Russian spies held in Norway. But such persons are not known to exist at the moment and, according to Torbjorn Brox Webber, a Kirkenes resident and supporter of Berg, a spy swap is unlikely to “happen for a lot of time — for many years”.

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

Russia announces detention of Norwegian citizen on espionage charges

Frode BergAuthorities in Russia have announced the arrest of a Norwegian citizen, whom they accuse of receiving classified information relating to Russia’s Armed Forces. The detainee has been named as Frode Berg, 62, from Kirkenes, a small town in Norway’s far north, located 100 miles from the Russian city of Murmansk. According to articles in the Russian press, Berg is a 24-year veteran of the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner, an obscure government agency that operates under Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security. Among other tasks, the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner is responsible for enforcing and monitoring bilateral compliance with the Soviet (now Russian)-Norwegian Border Agreement of 1949. Berg, who worked closely with Norway’s National Police Directorate as part of his job, retired from the Office in 2014.

According to reports in the Russian media, Berg was arrested two weeks ago by officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the agency responsible for domestic security and counterintelligence. He is now in detention and is accused of receiving classified information relating to the Russian Navy. It is believed that Berg received the classified documents from an unnamed Russian national, who was arrested by the FSB in early December and now faces charges of high treason. No further information has been made public about Berg’s arrest. Relations between Norway and Russia have been tense in recent years, partly due to attempts by the two nations to assert control over undersea territories in the arctic region, which are becoming accessible due to global warming. In 2015, Norway’s state broadcaster accused the FSB of pressuring a Norwegian newspaper, The Barents Observer, to fire one of its journalists who covered fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Ocean. But the Russian government denied that it has played any role in the journalist’s firing.

Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that it had established contact with a Norwegian national who was behind bars in Russia, but did not give the person’s name or further details. Berg’s family in Norway said the last time they had news from him was two weeks ago, when he was holidaying in Moscow. The Russian state prosecutor’s office said that Berg’s lawyers had filed an appeal against his detention, but that the Norwegian would remain in jail until his appeal is heard in court.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 December 2017 | Permalink

Norway invites Israeli nuclear whistleblower who is barred from leaving Israel

Mordechai VanunuThe controversial Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who was jailed for 18 years for revealing the existence of Israel’s nuclear program, has been invited to go to Norway to be reunited with his new wife. Vanunu was employed at Israel’s top-secret Negev Nuclear Research Center, located in the desert city of Dimona, which was used to develop the country’s nuclear arsenal. But he became a fervent supporter of nuclear disarmament and in 1986 fled to the United Kingdom, where he revealed the existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the London-based newspaper The Times. His action was in direct violation of the non-disclosure agreement he had signed with the government of Israel; moreover, it directly challenged Israel’s official policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’, which means that the country refuses to confirm or deny that it maintains a nuclear weapons program.

Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, managed to lure Vanunu to Italy with the help of a female intelligence officer who befriended him. Vanunu was abducted by a Mossad team in Rome and secretly transferred to Israel, where he was tried and convicted to 18 years in prison. He was released in 2004, after having spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement. His release is conditional on a number of restrictions, which means that Vanunu is barred from speaking to foreigners and barred from leaving the country. However, in May 2015, Vanunu married a Norwegian theologian, Kristin Joachimsen. Last Friday, Joachimsen spoke on Norway’s TV2 channel about her marriage with the Israeli nuclear whistleblower. During her interview, she revealed that she had successfully filed a request for family reunification with her husband with the Norwegian government. According to Norwegian law, a family member living abroad is entitled to apply for reunification with a family member who is legally living in Norway. Reporters from TV2 contacted the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, which confirmed that Joachimsen’s family reunification request had been granted by the government. Consequently, Norway had officially contacted Israel stating its willingness to host Vanunu so that he could be reunited with his wife.

However, there is no guarantee that Vanunu will be permitted to leave Israel. In her interview, the nuclear whistleblower’s wife said that his application was scheduled for review in Israel sometime in November. But she added that she had no idea whether Vanunu would be allowed to leave the Middle Eastern country. On Sunday, a spokesman from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that the restrictions on Vanunu’s freedom of movement following his release from prison were imposed “due to the danger that he posed” to the security of Israel. In a subsequent written statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Israel would “continue to review updates of the situation in order to determine appropriate restrictions in accordance with security dangers” posed by Vanunu.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2017 | Permalink