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

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Montenegro seeks arrest of ex-CIA officer accused of role in pro-Russian coup

Montenegro coupGovernment prosecutors in Montenegro, the youngest member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, claim that a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency helped pro-Russian plotters organize a coup in 2016. In October of that year, authorities in Montenegro accused “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” of staging a failed plot. Their goal was allegedly to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović, spark a pro-Russian coup in the country, and prevent its entry into NATO. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested in Montenegro for allegedly planning an armed coup. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, 2016, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had even hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović, according to Montenegrin police. After killing the prime minister, the plotters allegedly planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup.

Russia has vehemently denied the allegations. But in March of last year, the then British foreign secretary Boris Johnson appeared to validate the Montenegrin government’s allegations. Since then, a sensational trial has been taking place in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica of the 20 men who were arrested in October 2016, in addition to two Russians who are being tried in absentia. During the trial, prosecutors fingered Joseph Assad, a former CIA officer, as a co-conspirator in the coup plot. The Egyptian-born Assad served as a counter-terrorism expert in the CIA after arriving in the US in 1990, but eventually left the agency to launch his own security firm. It is believed that at the time of the alleged coup plot, Assad’s firm was employed by Aron Shaviv, a political strategist connected with the Democratic Front, a vocal pro-Russian opposition party in Montenegro. Shaviv, who has joint British and Israeli citizenship, said he hired Assad’s firm to provide counter-surveillance against Montenegro’s security services. According to Shaviv, the Montenegrin authorities spied on him and harassed him because of his connections to a domestic political party that is seen as pro-Russian.

But prosecutors in the trial of the alleged coup plotters claim that Assad’s role was to organize and provide escape routes and methods for the coup plotters. In light of these allegations, a warrant has been issued for Assad, accusing him of “operating a criminal enterprise”, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Assad has rejected the charges as a “deception campaign”. In a statement issued on Saturday, he said he was “a loyal American who had no role in any crimes or coup in Montenegro”. Meanwhile, the Democratic Front and a number of other opposition parties in Montenegro denounced the government’s claims of a failed coup as “publicity stunts” aimed at distracting the country’s citizens from the state of the economy and other domestic concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2018 | Permalink

US fired Moscow embassy employee who may have spied for Russia

US embassy in RussiaA female Russian national who worked for the United States Secret Service in Moscow was quietly dismissed in 2017, amidst concerns that she was spying for Russia. British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story last week, did not name the Russian woman. But it said that she had worked at the US Embassy in Moscow “for more than a decade”, most recently for the Secret Service –a federal law enforcement agency that operates within the Department of Homeland Security. The Secret Service has several missions, the most important of which is to ensure the physical safety of America’s senior political leadership.

Throughout her Secret Service career, the Russian woman is thought to have had access to the agency’s email system and intranet network, said The Guardian, citing “an intelligence source”. She could also potentially have had access to “highly confidential material”, said the paper, including the daily schedules of America’s past and current presidents and vice presidents, as well as their family members’ schedules.

The unnamed Russian national first came under suspicion in 2016, said The Guardian, during a routine security review conducted by two counterintelligence staff members at one of the Department of State’s Regional Security Offices (RSO). These reviews usually take place every five years and scan the background and activities of employees at American embassies abroad. The review showed that the unnamed Russian national was holding regular meetings with officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence service. In January of 2017, the Department of State reportedly shared its findings with the Secret Service. But the latter waited until several months later to fire the Russian woman, having decided to do so quietly, said The Guardian.

According to the paper, instead of launching a major investigation into the State Department’s findings, the Secret Service simply dismissed the woman by revoking her security clearance. The paper said that the Russian national’s dismissal took place shortly before the US embassy in Moscow was forced to remove or fire over 750 employees as part of Russia’s retaliation against economic sanctions imposed on it by Washington. That coincidence helped the Secret Service “contain any potential embarrassment” arising from claims of espionage, said The Guardian. The paper contacted the Secret Service and was told that “all Foreign Service nationals” working for the agency “are managed accordingly to ensure that […US] government interests are protected at all times”. Their duties, therefore, are “limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support. This is of particular emphasis in Russia”, said a Secret Service spokesman, who refused to discuss specific cases.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

US intelligence officials called to resign despite Trump’s Russia retraction

Putin and TrumpSeveral American former intelligence officials have called on their active colleagues to resign despite President Donald Trump’s retraction of his remarks about Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. On Tuesday, the US president issued an unusual retraction and correction of his public statement on Monday in Helsinki, Finland, in which he appeared to side with the Kremlin over his own Intelligence Community’s views. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which is the coordinating body of the US Intelligence Community, has said that Russia tried to systematically interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections. According to the ODNI, the Kremlin’s goal was to augment the already heightened discord in American political life and deepen the mistrust between the electorate and state institutions, including Congress and the White House.

But President Trump dismissed those conclusions on Monday, while speaking alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin following the US-Russia summit in the Finish capital. During the joint press conference of the two leaders, the US president was asked to publicly adopt the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. But instead of doing so, Trump said his Russian counterpart had strongly denied the American accusations. “My people came to me”, said Trump, referring by name to his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats, and “said they think it’s Russia”. However, Trump continued, “President Putin […] just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be”. Following strong criticism of that comment, much of it from his own supporters, the US president retracted it on Tuesday in Washington, saying he misspoke in Helsinki. According to Trump, he said “would” when he meant to say “wouldn’t”.

The US president’s odd retraction came just hours after DNI Coats –a Trump appointee– issued a rare public statement rejecting Trump’s comments in Helsinki. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy”, said Coats, adding that his office’s conclusion had been based on “unvarnished and objective intelligence”. Coats’ predecessor, former ODNI James Clapper, said during an interview with CNN on Tuesday that, if he still led the ODNI and had been “publicly thrown under the bus” by the president in that manner, he “would have stepped down in a heartbeat”. Read more of this post

Greece expels Russian diplomats who ‘tried to bribe Greek officials’

Greece RussiaIn a rare moment of downturn in relations between Athens and Moscow, Greece has expelled two Russian diplomats and refused to accredit two more, reportedly for “undermining Greek national security”. Greece was not among nearly 30 countries that expelled or refused to accredit over 150 Russian diplomats in March, in an act of solidarity with the United Kingdom. The expulsions came in response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former intelligence officer who had been living in England since 2010. Britain accused the Kremlin of having sponsored the attack on Skripal. But the Greek government, which has enjoyed warm relations with Moscow for decades, warned against unduly aggressive measures against the Kremlin.

Things changed swiftly on Wednesday, however, when Athens announced the surprise expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the Greek capital. One of the two diplomats has been named as Victor Yakovlev, third secretary of the Russian embassy in Athens, who some say is in fact an intelligence officer. Two more Russian diplomats, who have not been publicly named, were barred from entering Greece —a move that effectively amounts to a refusal by the Greek government to accredit them. According to an official statement from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the expulsions were meant to prevent the “undermining of [Greek] national security”. However, a report in the Greek daily Kathimerini said that the move was taken in response to attempts by Russian spies to bribe Greek state officials. Other reports claim that the Russians were caught trying to blackmail Greek lawmakers over the possible expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Greece is a member.

Some of the allegations in the Greek press refer to the country’s three-decade long dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which Athens accuses of harboring territorial ambitions against its neighbors. Greece —the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Balkans— has barred the entry of its northern neighbor into the European Union and NATO until it complies with a list of Greek demands. Chief among those is the drawing of a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia —once an ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great— and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which encompasses a small portion of Alexander’s former empire. Last month, the decades-long dispute between the two neighboring countries appeared to draw to a close with the proposed adoption of “Northern Macedonia” as the official name of the former Yugoslav republic. The agreement would open the way for the tiny landlocked country to enter into negotiations for eventual entry into NATO. However, nationalists in both countries have staged public rallies to protest against the proposed agreement.

It appears that Russian diplomats may have tried to convince Greek lawmakers —through extortion, bribing or both— to vote against the proposed agreement. There are also reports that Russian diplomats assisted in the organization of nationwide rallies against the proposed agreement in Greece, possibly by funding them or by spreading information about them on social media. The Russian government said on Wednesday that it would protest the expulsion of its diplomats from Athens. It also said that it reserved the right to respond to Greece’s move in kind, possibly by expelling an equal number of Greek diplomats from Moscow.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2018 | Research credit: SF | Permalink

Ukraine, Russia, spied on Dutch investigators of MH17 plane disaster, TV report claims

MH17 crashDozens of Dutch security officers, legal experts, diplomats and other civil servants were systematically spied on by Ukrainian and Russian intelligence services while probing the aftermath of the MH17 disaster, according to a report on Dutch television. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a scheduled passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, 196 of them Dutch citizens, were killed. In the aftermath of the disaster, the Dutch Safety Board spearheaded the establishment of the multinational Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which is still engaged in a criminal probe aimed at identifying, arresting and convicting the culprits behind the unprovoked attack on Flight MH17. As part of the JIT, dozens of Dutch officials traveled to Ukraine to initiate the investigation into the plane crash and repatriate victims’ bodies and belongings. Their activities were conducted with the support of the Ukrainian government, which is party to the JIT.

But on Tuesday, Holland’s RTL Niews broadcaster said that members of the Dutch JIT delegation were subjected to systematic and persistent spying by both Ukrainian and Russian government operatives. According to RTL, Dutch investigators found sophisticated eavesdropping devices in their hotel rooms in Ukraine, and believed that their electronic devices had been compromised. Citing “inside sources” from the Dutch government, the broadcaster said that, during their stay in Ukraine, members of the Dutch JIT delegation noticed that the microphones and cameras on their wireless electronic devices would turn on without being prompted. They also noticed that the devices would constantly try to connect to public WiFi networks without being prompted. Upon their return to Holland, Dutch officials had their wireless devices examined by Dutch government security experts. They were told that numerous malware were discovered on the devices.

RTL Niews said that the question of whether valuable information relating to the MH17 investigation was stolen by foreign spies remains unanswered. But it noted that the members of the Dutch JIT delegation were warned about possible espionage by foreign powers prior to traveling to Ukraine. During their stay there, they were not allowed to send messages in unencrypted format and were only permitted to hold sensitive conversations in especially designated rooms inside the Dutch embassy in Kiev. The Dutch government did not respond to questions submitted to it by RTL Niews. But it issued a statement saying that its security experts had briefed and trained the Dutch JIT delegation prior to its trip to Ukraine. Members of the delegation were told that foreign parties would seek to collect intelligence, because the MH17 investigation was taking place in a “conflict area with significant geopolitical interest” for many parties. They were therefore advised to “assume that they were being spied on [and] adjust [their] behavior accordingly” while in Ukraine, the Dutch government’s statement said.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 28 June 2018 | Permalink

German intelligence chief says Russia tried to hack energy grid

BfV GermanyThe head of Germany’s domestic security agency has publicly blamed the Russian government for a large-scale cyberattack that has targeted German energy providers. The comments follow a June 13 announcement on the subject by Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), which is charged with securing the German government’s electronic communications. According to the BSI, a widespread and systematic attack against Germany’s energy networks has been taking place for at least a year now. The attack, which the BSI codenamed BERSERK BEAR, consists of various efforts by hackers to compromise computer networks used by German companies that provide electricity and natural gas to consumers around the country.

The attacks have been mostly unsuccessful, said BSI, having managed to breach just a few office computer networks. Energy grids have remained largely unaffected by BERSERK BEAR, said BSI. But the agency has refused to disclose information about the extent of the alleged cyberattacks and the companies that were targeted. It claims, however, that the situation is now “under control”. On Wednesday, Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said in an interview that the Russian government was most likely behind the attacks. There were “numerous clues pointing to Russia”, said Maassen, including the method with which the attack was carried out. The “modus operandi” of the attackers “is a major indicator that points to Russian control of the offensive campaign”, said Maassen.

Earlier this month, the United States imposed for the first time economic sanctions on Russian companies that allegedly helped the Kremlin tap undersea communications cables used by Western countries. One of the companies was identified by the US Department of the Treasury as Digital Security, which Washington said has helped Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. But the Kremlin fervently denies these accusations. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the office of the Russian presidency said that Moscow had “no idea what [Maassen] was talking about”. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters in the Russian capital that Germany and other countries “should provide facts” to justify their accusations against Moscow.

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