Russia says it foiled major foreign cyber attack on its financial system

FSB - IARussian authorities say they prevented a large-scale cyber attack by “a foreign intelligence service”, which had been designed to destabilize the country’s financial system and subvert its economy. In an official statement published on its website last week, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said the perpetrators of the foiled attack had planned to carry it out on December 5. The spy agency, which stems from the Soviet-era KGB, said that the cyber attack had been designed to bring down computer systems belonging to some of Russia’s largest banking institutions.

Text to the statement by the FSB, the planned attack consisted of several components. One component included the use of social media and text messages to be spread through the mobile phone system. The goal was to spread rumors claiming that Russia’s financial system was facing imminent collapse and create panic in the Russian stock exchange. The FSB alleged that several large cities throughout Russia were to be targeted under the foiled plan. The spy agency claimed that the attack originated from a “foreign intelligence service”, but did not identify any countries as culprits of the operation. However, it said that a Ukrainian web hosting company had been used as a base from which to launch the attack through servers located in the Netherlands. On Friday, the Ukrainian web host, BlazingFast, denied that its systems had been used to prepare an attack on the Russian financial sector. In a statement published on Facebook, the company said it had not been contacted by Russian authorities, and assumed that the FSB had “been able to handle the situation without the need of BlazingFast’s cooperation”. It added that it was willing “to cooperate with any legal entity” to investigate Russia’s accusations.

In August of this year, the FSB disclosed that “a meticulously coded and sophisticated virus” had been found on the computer networks of at least 20 major Russian agencies and organizations. As intelNews reported at the time, the targets appeared to have been carefully selected by the malware’s authors. They included government bodies, weapons laboratories and defense contractors located throughout Russia.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 December | Permalink

Senior US intelligence official tells Congress not to ‘micromanage’ spy efforts

James ClapperThe United States’ senior intelligence officer has told Congress that new legislation requiring spy agencies to act against alleged Russian covert operations constitutes “micromanagement” of the American Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Authorization bill, which includes a number of intelligence-related requirements and provisions, is debated and enacted each year by Congress. This year’s legislation has already been approved by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. Last week it was enacted by the House, while the Senate is preparing to debate it this week.

The legislation currently under debate includes instructions to the US Intelligence Community to set up an interagency committee to formulate responses to perceived Russian covert operations around the world. The term ‘covert operations’ refers to actions by intelligence agencies designed to influence foreign political, military or economic affairs or events. The topic received media attention during the 2016 US presidential election, when Washington repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to shape its outcome. This year’s Intelligence Authorization bill requires every US intelligence agency to appoint a representative to serve on a joint panel that will address alleged Russian covert operations in the US, Europe and elsewhere in the world.

But in September of this year, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, America’s most senior intelligence official, authored a letter to Congress arguing that the requirement for an interagency panel to look into Russian covert operations should be scrapped. According to the Reuters news agency, which said last week that it saw a copy of the letter, Clapper argues that his letter echoes the unanimous view of the US Intelligence Community. He goes on to claim that the requirement to set up a special committee with an operational focus exceeds Congress’ role of overseer of the Intelligence Community and enters the realm of prescribing intelligence tasks. That, says Clapper in his letter, amounts to “micromanagement” of the Intelligence Community by Congress. Furthermore, he argues, the Intelligence Community has already taken steps to address Russian covert operations, thus the suggested panel would “duplicate current work” on the issue. Finally, Clapper’s letter suggests that the required panel would “hinder cooperation” with some of America’s overseas allies, though the Reuters report did not explain the precise justification for that claim.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 December 2016 | Permalink

Hungarian media accuses Russia of working with far-right militia

Hungarian National FrontMedia in Hungary have accused the Russian government of funding and training one of Hungary’s most notorious far-right organizations. The Hungarian National Front (MNA) was founded in 1989 as the Hungarian National Socialist Action Group. After the end of communism in Hungary, the organization began to espouse an openly neo-Nazi ideology, led by its leader, István Győrkös, a self-styled unreconstructed fascist. Győrkös, who idolizes Hungary’s wartime anti-Semitic Arrow Cross movement, set up links with similar groups in Central and Southern Europe. He served several prison terms in the 1990s for illegally possessing weapons and explosives and openly espousing pro-Nazi ideas. On November 6, Győrkös was taken to custody after opening fire against officers from the National Bureau of Investigation, who tried to enter his house to search for weapons. One officer was killed in the shootout.

Following Győrkös’ arrest, Hungarian police have conducted several raids throughout the country, targeting MNA members’ homes and offices. According to a report in the London-based Financial Times newspaper, the raids have uncovered weapons stockpiles that are more sizeable and technologically advanced than expected. And, according to the paper, some Hungarian media now allege that the MNA has been armed, funded and trained by Moscow. Emails exchanged between MNA members, which were leaked to the Hungarian press, allegedly show that the party’s leadership consciously cultivated a pro-Russian strategy in recent years, including an outright support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Győrkös also allegedly used party funds to set up a Hungarian-language website with pro-Russian information about the war in eastern Ukraine. Some unnamed Hungarian officials have claimed in the press that the government has evidence of joint training exercises between members of the MNA and Russian intelligence officers in eastern Hungary.

The Financial Times article quotes Hungarian investigative reporter András Dezső, who has written extensively about the Hungarian far-right, as saying that the Kremlin will work with whichever Eastern European political groups can help destabilize local politics, regardless of ideology. It also quotes Hungary’s former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who argues that the current government in Budapest has turned the blind eye to Russian intelligence activities in the country, which has effectively “turned Budapest into a ‘Little Moscow’”. The country’s current Prime Minister, conservative Viktor Orbán, has kept a moderately friendly stance toward Russia, having argued repeatedly at European Union meetings that Brussels should not impose economic sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

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

Russian defectors claim US intelligence agencies failed to protect them

Janosh NeumannTwo Russian intelligence officers, who defected to the United States in 2008, claim that they had to fend for themselves after American spy agencies failed to protect them despite promises to the contrary. Janosh Neumann (born Alexey Yurievich Artamonov) and his wife Victorya were employees of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) specializing in investigations of money laundering and corruption. But in 2008 they traveled from Russia to Germany and from there to the Dominican Republic. Once in the Caribbean island, they entered the US embassy and offered to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The couple claim that they provided “a trove of secrets” to the CIA, including information on FSB officials who engaged in corrupt practices such as bribing, money-laundering and large-scale tax evasion. In return, the CIA transported the Neumanns to America, where they were granted permission to settle temporarily based on humanitarian grounds. The two Russian defectors claim that they were promised green cards and, eventually, American citizenship. For several months following their entry into the US, the Neumanns were kept in a government safe house, where they were debriefed, given polygraph tests, and met regularly with officials from the Departments of Justice and Treasury, as well as with employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the CIA. They say they gave information to the CIA about the methods used by Russian intelligence operatives to infiltrate American corporations. But when the CIA tried to convince them to move back to Russia and work there for the US government as agents-in-place, the Neumanns refused and chose instead to work for the FBI.

The two Russians say the worked for the Bureau for five years, during which time they were paid approximately $1 million. But in 2013 when their employment contracts expired, the FBI did not renew them. Later that year, the Neumanns’ temporary visa to remain in the US expired. Meanwhile, US immigration authorities denied Janosh’s application for a green card because he allegedly hinted that he tortured people for the FSB during his interview with a US immigration official. Eventually, the Russian defectors convinced the FBI to send immigration officials a letter stating that there was no reason to assume that Janosh had tortured or persecuted people in Russia. Earlier this year, the Newmanns, who recently had a baby here in the US, were allowed to stay and have now applied for green cards again. But they say they reserve the right to sue the US government for having previously denied them protection and citizenship.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 November 2016 | Permalink

Poland exhumes late leader’s body in probe of 2010 plane crash in Russia

Lech KaczyńskiAuthorities in Poland have exhumed the body of the country’s late prime minister and his wife as part of an investigation into the 2010 airplane disaster that killed them and nearly 100 others in Russia. The move has reignited persistent rumors that the crash that killed everyone onboard the plane, including Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, was not an accident. At the time of their death, the couple were leading a delegation of Polish officials and journalists traveling to Russia to participate in commemorations marking 70 years from the so-called ‘Katyn massacre’. The term refers to the extermination of approximately 22,000 Polish soldiers and civilians that was carried out by the Soviet military and secret services in 1940, following the Soviet invasion of Poland.

Investigations of the air disaster have been carried out by Russia and by the previous Polish administration, headed by the centrist Civic Platform party, which governed the country from 2010 until 2015. Both concluded that the crash was an accident. But the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late president, insists that previous investigations were incomplete and has initiated its own probe into the matter. Almost as soon as it formed a national government last year, the rightwing PiS reopened the investigation into the 2010 air crash. The exhumation of the victims’ bodies, which began on Monday, is the first step of the new probe.

Many supporters of the new investigation claim that bombs hidden onboard the plane caused it to crash. Others suggest that the Polish government at the time is to blame for the crash, because it neglected to properly service the plane. Some have even suggested that Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister at the time of the crash, who now heads the European Council, should be put on trial for the murder of President Kaczyński. Critics note that no credible evidence has been put forward to support the assassination theory or the deliberate neglect theory, barring some circumstantial discrepancies in the Russian-language documents. The current probe is expected to last several months.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2016 | Permalink

Montenegro says “nationalists from Russia” planned to kill prime minister

MontenegroAuthorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro say that “nationalists from Russia” and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s prime minister and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. As intelNews reported last week, the coup allegations surfaced on October 16, after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by authorities for allegedly planning a military coup against the government of Montenegro. The arrests took place on election day, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people.

On Sunday, at a press conference in Montenegro’s capital and largest city, Podgorica, the country’s Chief Special Prosecutor, Milivoje Katnić, reiterated claims that the failed coup aimed to prevent the reelection of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, whose push for Montenegro to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has prompted strong objections from Moscow. Katnić told journalists that the plotters had hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer”, for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters had planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in the former Yugoslav Republic, said the special prosecutor. He added that authorities had confiscated weapons, military uniforms and nearly $140,000 in cash that were found in the possession of the alleged coup plotters.

Asked about the fate of the 20 alleged coup plotters, Katnić said that 14 of them remained in custody in Podgorica, while six others had been extradited to Serbia. The Serbian government of Prime Minister Vučić has accepted Montenegro’s allegations that the coup was hatched in Serbia and has offered to help investigate alleged links between the plotters and the Russian state. However, said Katnić, his team of investigators had no evidence of direct involvement by Russia in the alleged coup plot. But, he said, “two nationalists from Russia”, whom he did not name, were among the leaders of the plot. In a press statement, Katnić’s office said that other coup plotters in addition to the 20 men arrested, remained at large, having escaped from Serbia. They could now be in Russia, he said. Moscow has not responded to the claims by the Montenegrin authorities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 November 2016 | Permalink

Political tension rises in Serbia amidst espionage allegations

Montenegro coupA weapons cache that was found buried last week near the apartment of Serbia’s prime minister has fuelled tensions in the Balkan country, amid rumors that a failed coup in neighboring Montenegro was planned in Serbia by Russian spies. Serbian authorities announced the discovery of the stockpile on October 29; it included ammunition, hand grenades and a portable missile launcher and was located near the residence of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. The government later said that the weapons find dated back to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and was not connected with  at Vučić’s administration. But politics in the country remain tense, following allegations made earlier in October that Russian intelligence agents used Serbia as a base to plan a military coup in Montenegro.

The coup allegations surfaced on October 16, after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by Montenegrin authorities for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, as Montenegrins were voting across the country of 650,000 people. According to media reports, the failed coup aimed to prevent the reelection of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, who is pushing for Montenegro to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Đukanović, who was eventually reelected, claimed that the coup plotters were supported by Russia. Moscow has raised strong objections to the possibility of Montenegro joining NATO. A few days later, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić appeared to substantiate Đukanović’s allegations. According to Vučić, the Serbs who were arrested in Montenegro had hatched their coup plot in Serbia, assisted by Russian intelligence. Vučić added that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow.

However, Serbian authorities made no arrests following the October 16 developments in Montenegro, despite much media attention in Belgrade. Shortly prior to the alleged failed coup in Montenegro, Nikolai Patrushev, former director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and current secretary of Russia’s Security Council, visited the Serbian capital. There were rumors that he returned to Moscow with three Russian intelligence officers who had been caught engaging in espionage by Serbian counterintelligence. Meanwhile, some Serbian newspapers alleged last week that an official in the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration had been arrested for selling classified information to the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Meanwhile, Russian and Byelorussian troops arrived in Serbia this week to hold joint military exercises with their Serbian counterparts, codenamed Slavic Brotherhood.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 November 2016 | Permalink