French intelligence warn of Russian meddling in upcoming election

dgse franceFrance’s primary intelligence agency warned the country’s government this week that Russia has launched a secret operation to try to influence the outcome of the upcoming French presidential election in favor of the far right. According to the Paris-based weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) has notified the country’s leadership that a covert operation by the Kremlin is already underway, and is expected to intensify in the run-up to April’s election. The spy agency allegedly believes that Russian efforts aim to promote Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right National Front. Le Pen wants to curb immigration to France and remove the country from the European Union.

In an article published on Wednesday, Le Canard Enchaîné said the DGSE’s warning has alarmed the Élysée Palace. The paper also said that French President François Hollande, who chairs the country’s defense council, has decided to devote the entire agenda of the council’s next meeting to the subject of Russia’s alleged interference in the election. Anonymous sources told the paper that, according to a classified DGSE report, Russian spy agencies are using automated systems designed to “fill the Internet with tens of millions” of articles, images and memes that support the National Front candidate. Additionally, several news media that are controlled by Moscow will try to discredit Le Pen’s rivals for the presidency. At the same time, websites such as WikiLeaks —which some American commentators accuse of working with Moscow— will publish leaked information designed to damage Le Pen’s competitors.

The Le Canard Enchaîné allegations sound very similar to accusations leveled against the Kremlin by American intelligence agencies and by members of the United States Democratic Party. However, these allegations have not been supported by concrete evidence, and Russia denies that it had any involvement in last November’s presidential election in the US, which was won by Donald Trump.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 February | Permalink

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Prominent Putin critic poisoned with unknown substance, say doctors

Vladimir Kara-MurzaA prominent member of the Russian opposition and vocal critic of the Kremlin, is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital as a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, is a senior figure in the Open Russia Foundation, a political pressure group founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky, an ultra-wealthy Russian businessman who was once estimated to be worth over $15 billion, has been living in Switzerland since 2013. Immediately prior to that, he served a 10-year prison sentence in Russia for tax evasion. In 2013, Kara-Murza was a member of a network of Putin critics who helped organize opposition protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He also co-authored a number of reports accusing the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin of corruption.

For several years now, Kara-Murza, his wife and three young children have been living in the United States. But he frequently travels back to Russia to meet with opposition activists and other organizers. For the past few weeks, Kara-Murza had been traveling in his homeland to help launch a new documentary film about the life and death of scientist and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov served as Russia’s deputy prime minister for a few months in 1998, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin. After 2000, he became a vocal critic of the Putin administration. In late February 2015, Nemtsov was shot four times in the back and killed while walking with his girlfriend near Moscow’s Red Square. Opposition groups, including members of the Open Russia Foundation, claim that his murder was organized by the Kremlin.

Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgeniya, said yesterday that her husband woke up suddenly in the early hours of last Thursday, finding it difficult to breathe. He was rushed to a Moscow hospital where he has been under a medically induced coma since Tuesday. His family said that, while visiting Russia in 2015, Kara-Murza was hospitalized with similar symptoms, and was diagnosed with “kidney failure in connection with poisoning”. He later claimed that he survived an attempt on his life by people in power who wanted to silence him. This time, said Kara-Murza’s wife, the family has sent blood samples to specialists in Israel and France, hoping that the poison that is allegedly inside his body can be identified.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: Why the ‘Trump Dossier’ is no victory for Putin

Putin TrumpThere is no doubt whatsoever that Russia has compiled ‘information’ on United States President Donald Trump. Russian intelligence considers it a rightful duty to compile information on persons of relevance, especially when they are conducting significant business or maintain political relations with Russia. Trump qualified under that definition long before he even thought about running for president. Even I have been followed, during my numerous times in Russia, both openly and tacitly. I have had my computer hacked and hotel phone bugged. And my affairs in Russia have come nowhere near to the financial or political relevance of Donald Trump.

However, there has been a breakdown in America when it comes to understanding how Russia would use such information if it indeed had a dossier of this type. Americans may love exposing things through the media with a voyeuristic passion, bringing the high down low. That’s just the nature of the beast today in America’s Kardashian culture. But this dossier of alleged Russianq-quote intelligence on Trump has nothing to do with American celebrity culture. If it truly exists, this would have been done under the edict of ‘national security’ for Russian geopolitical interests. As such, the proper Russian intelligence behavior would be to deny its existence and hold on to anything it has until a time deemed strategically best. The least efficient usage of that compromising material would be to just embarrass him publicly before he is inaugurated, TMZ ‘gotcha’ style. Russians simply don’t work that way. Rather, keeping it secret and using it in a non-public but strategically effective manner for their national interests is the Russian way.

For example, the even more infamous Wikileaks affair against Clinton was an example of Russians trying to smudge the character and momentum of Hillary, assuming she was indeed going to win the election. Clinton’s positions have been decidedly anti-Russian (to the Russians at least) over the past half dozen years, vociferously and publicly. The email leaks were a rather limp attempt to just slow that political train down before it took office, to make her pause and understand that she should treat Russia with a bit less shrill judgment. Read more of this post

Russian official accuses US of trying to blackmail Russian diplomat

first-post-vA senior Russian official has accused the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation of trying to blackmail a Russian diplomat who was attempting to purchase anti-cancer drugs in an American pharmacy. The allegation was made Sunday on live Russian television by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was being interviewed on Sunday Night with Vladimir Solovey, a popular politics roundtable show on Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 1 television channel. Zakharova told Solovey that, a few years ago, the Russian government authorized one of its diplomats in the United States to purchase several thousand dollars’ worth of anti-cancer drugs. The drugs were to be used by Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s prime minister in the late 1990s, who was battling liver cancer.

According to Zakharova, the Russian diplomat was supplied with funds through an official money transfer from Moscow. Meanwhile, Primakov’s “health certificates and medical prescriptions” were supplied to a pharmacy in Washington, DC, where the Russian diplomat purchased the medicine. However, shortly after the Russia diplomat completed his purchase, he was accosted by American intelligence officers —presumably from the Federal Bureau of Investigation— who demanded to speak with him. The diplomat was then allegedly taken to the basement of the pharmacy, where, according to Zakharova, there was no cellular reception. The Russian diplomat was thus unable to contact his superiors at the Russian embassy. Zakharova claims that the two American officers kept the diplomat in the basement “for an hour” and attempted to turn him into a double agent, by accusing him of “illicit drug trafficking” and threatening to expel him from the country.

Zakharova said the Russian diplomat refused to cooperate and was allowed to return to the Russian embassy. However, the drugs were confiscated and the money paid by the diplomat to the pharmacy has not been “returned to this day”, she said. Eventually, according to Zakharova, the diplomat was deported from the United States, despite the intervention of Secretary of State John Kerry, who stepped in to try to resolve the episode. Primakov died in 2015 of liver cancer. The United States government and the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, did not comment on Zakharova’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2017 | Permalink

Israeli officials were advised not to share intelligence with Trump’s White House

Donald TrumpAmerican intelligence officials allegedly warned their Israeli counterparts not to share intelligence with Washington once Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. The reason was that, according to the US officials, there was no guarantee that the intelligence would not be leaked to Russia. There was also the danger, they claimed, that the compromised intelligence would end up in the hands of Russia’s ally Iran, a regional adversary of Israel. The claim was made on Thursday by Ronen Bergman, senior political and military analyst for Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

According to Bergman, the American intelligence officials spoke in depth with their Israeli counterparts during a recent meeting between the two sides. He did not give details about the time and location of the meeting, so as “to protect the sources of the report”, he said. During the meeting, the US officials allegedly “voiced despair” over Trump’s electoral victory and his apparently poor relationship with the US Intelligence Community. They also suggested that Israeli intelligence officials should “be careful” when sharing intelligence with the White House or the US National Security Council, which is chaired by the president. The reason was that the intelligence —including sources and methods— might end up in the hands of the Kremlin, they said, and from there to Israel’s regional adversaries, such as Iran —and presumably Syria, though Bergman does not mention that.

The American officials further recommended that the Israelis wait until a clearer picture emerges of the alleged connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. It was also implied during the meeting that Trump may be subject to blackmail by Moscow and forced to reveal sensitive information relating to America and its allies, including Israel. According to Bergman, the Israelis are concerned about the Trump-Russia controversy and there are even some in Tel Aviv who raise fears of exposure of information given to the US by the Israeli intelligence community “over the past 15 years”. There has been no comment on the subject from Israel or Trump’s transition team.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 January 2017 | Permalink

British intelligence ‘among the first’ to notify US about Russian hacking

MI6British intelligence agencies gave their United States counterparts an early warning about Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the American presidential election, according to The New York Times. The American newspaper cited “two people familiar with the conclusions” of a US intelligence report, who said that British spies helped “raise the alarm” in Washington about Russian hacking. The Times were referring to a classified US intelligence report that purports to prove that Moscow tried to skew the US election results in favor of Republican Party nominee Donald Trump. The report, parts of which have been released to the public, was shared with Trump in a secret meeting with US intelligence officials last week.

Interestingly, media reports suggest that US intelligence agencies were not aware of the severity of Russian hacking operations until they were notified by allied intelligence agencies. British spy agencies were “among the first” to tell their transatlantic partners that Moscow was engaged in an allegedly large-scale operation against American political parties and institutions. According to The Times, British intelligence reports mentioned Russian hacking operations against the Democratic National Committee in Washington, DC, as well as against senior officials in the Democratic Party. There is no mention in the report about how the British acquired the information. The London-based newspaper The Guardian speculates that British intelligence agencies picked up clues by monitoring Russian government communications (voice intercepts and computer traffic). However, the possibility that the information was acquired through an agent should not be ruled out.

According to the British newspaper, government officials in London were “alarmed” by the close contacts between Moscow and the inner circle of Donald Trump’s campaign. They even contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and passed information about what The Guardian describes as “the depth and nature of contacts” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. There is no information, however, about whether the FBI did anything with that information. Meanwhile, the British government is eager to cultivate good relations with the US president-elect, despite concerns in Whitehall about the close Russian connections of the incoming American administration. London needs Washington’s support as it is disengaging from the European Union, says The Guardian.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 9 January 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: US expulsion of Russian spies is mostly symbolic, aimed domestically

Russian embassy in WashingtonThere had been rumors for some time about a possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. The White House confirmed the rumors on Thursday morning, by announcing the expulsion of 35 accredited Russian diplomats from the US, and the reclamation of two “recreational facilities” used by Russian diplomats in New York and Maryland. Washington said the Russian diplomats are spies operating under diplomatic cover and that the recreational facilities were being “used for Russian intelligence activities”. Although the sanctions may seem significant at first, they are mostly symbolic, and their impact will be temporary and limited. They may even end up hurting the United States more than Russia.

As I told Newsweek‘s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein earlier today, the current size of Russia’s human-intelligence presence in the United States is estimated at more than 100 officers. Therefore, the expulsion of a third of those operatives will set back Russian human-intelligence activities on US soil —but only temporarily, since most of the expelled officers will be replaced in time. Moreover, Moscow will probably respond in kind, so Washington is likely to suffer a proportional reduction of its human-intelligence presence in Russia. That could hurt the US more than Russia, because the American human-intelligence presence in Russia is smaller and more needed in a relatively closed society as Russia’s. Thus, a proportional expulsion of Russian and American spies from each other’s territory may actually harm Washington more than Moscow.

In reality, the expulsions and sanctions pertain more to domestic American politics than foreign policy. They are designed to place the incoming president, Donald Trump, who is seen as a friend of Russia, in a difficult position, by further-complicating Russian-American relations in the last weeks of President Barack Obama’s Administration. These measures should arguably have been implemented much earlier this year, and certainly before November 8, when they may have had some impact. At this late stage, they can hardly be taken seriously, given the inconsistency in US national policy toward Russia, as shown in the differing viewpoints of the Obama and Trump teams.

Assuming that Russia was indeed behind a systematic effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election, it has already achieved one of its main goals. It was to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole and to divide America by intensifying the already growing mistrust between American —and by extension Western— civil society and its political institutions. Moscow will see the US response, such as it is, as a price worth paying, given the broader accomplishments of its covert operation against US democracy.

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