Russia claims ‘misunderstanding’ led to arrests of four spies in Holland

Sergei LavrovRussia’s minister of foreign affairs has downplayed the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers in Holland last April, saying that the incident was caused by a “misunderstanding”. Last Thursday, the US government named and indicted seven officers of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, known as GRU. The seven are alleged to have participated in cyber-attacks on international agencies, private companies and government computer networks in at least half a dozen countries around the world since 2015. Four of the men named last week were reportedly detained in April of this year while trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, the OPCW oversees efforts by its 193 member states to detect and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In the past year, the OPCW has been probing the failed attempt to poison the Russian former double spy Sergei Skripal in England, which the British government has blamed on Moscow.

On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed Washington’s accusations against the GRU and said that the Dutch authorities had overreacted in detaining the four Russian officers in April. Following a meeting in Moscow with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Lavrov said that the visit of the four GRU officers in Holland had been “customary”, adding that “there was nothing clandestine in it”. The GRU specialists were in Holland in order to secure computer servers used at the Russian embassy there. “They were not trying to hide from anyone once they arrived at the airport”, said Lavrov. They then “checked into a hotel and paid a visit to our embassy”, he added. Had they been engaged in espionage, the men would have taken strict precautions, said the Russian foreign affairs minister. They were eventually “detained by Dutch police without any reason or explanations, and were not allowed to contact our embassy”, said Lavrov. Eventually they were “asked to leave the country”, but it was “all because of a misunderstanding”, he concluded.

The Russian official did not address the information provided a series of photographs released by Holland’s Ministry of Defense, which show a car used by the four Russians at the time of their arrest in April. The photographs show that the car was equipped with WiFi antennas and transformers. A wireless server and batteries can also be seen in the photographs. Lavrov said that the allegations against the GRU were meant to draw attention to Russia and distract Western citizens from “widening divisions that exist between Western nations”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

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Britain sees Russian government hackers behind Islamic State cyber group

Cyber CaliphateA new report by the British government alleges that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is one of several supposedly non-state groups that are in fact operated by the Russian state. The group calling itself Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which was later renamed Islamic State. Today the Cyber Caliphate boasts a virtual army of hackers from dozens of countries, who are ostensibly operating as the online arm of the Islamic State. Their known activities include a strong and often concentrated social media presence, as well as computer hacking, primarily in the form of cyber espionage and cyber sabotage.

But an increasing number of reports, primarily by Western government agencies, have claimed in recent years that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact part of a Russian state-sponsored operation, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. On Wednesday, a new report by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) described the Cyber Caliphate and other similar hacker groups as “flags of convenience” for the Kremlin. The report was authored by the NCSC in association with several British and European intelligence agencies. American spy agencies, including the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also helped compile the report, according to the NCSC. The report names several hacker groups that have been implicated in high-profile attacks in recent years, including Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, Cyber Berkut, Voodoo Bear, BlackEnergy Actors, Strontium, Tsar Team, and Sandworm. Each of these, claims the NCSC report, is “an alias of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces”, more commonly known as the GRU. The report concludes that Cyber Caliphate is the same hacker group as APT 28, Fancy Bear, and Pawn Storm, three cyber espionage outfits that are believed to be online arms of the GRU.

The NCSC report echoes the conclusion of a German government report that was leaked to the media in June of 2016, which argued that the Cyber Caliphate was a fictitious front group created by Russia. In 2015, a security report by the US State Department concluded that despite the Cyber Caliphate’s proclamations of connections to the Islamic State, there were “no indications —technical or otherwise— that the groups are tied”. In a statement issued alongside the NCSC report on Wednesday, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jeremy Hunt, described the GRU as Moscow’s “chosen clandestine weapon in pursuing its geopolitical goals”. The Russian government has denied these allegations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 October 2018 | Permalink

Swiss police saw Russian oligarch Abramovich as threat to security, files reveal

Roman AbramovichPolice in Switzerland cautioned that allowing the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to live there would threaten public security and damage the country’s reputation, according to files released this week. The Soviet-born Abramovich took advantage of Russia’s privatization laws in the early 1990s to gain considerable financial and political influence there. His friendship with Russia’s first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, was instrumental in his business career, and eventually placed him in close proximity to Russia’s current President, Vladimir Putin. Unlike many other oligarchs, Abramovich is believed to have remained close to Putin, despite living mostly in the United Kingdom in the past decade. The Russian oligarch has been staying in a mansion valued at close to $120 million in London’s exclusive suburb of Kensington. His lawyers have been renewing his British residence visa every six months.

However, the attempted assassination of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal earlier this year prompted the British government to intensify its scrutiny of Britain’s sizeable Russian expatriate community. London introduced tighter regulations that require Russian citizens applying to live in the UK to declare the source of their income in a far greater detail than previously. Soon after the new regulations were put in place, Abramovich’s lawyers withdrew his application to renew his British residency visa. Then, in May of this year, the Russian oligarch acquired Israeli citizenship. He has made it clear, however, that he does not intend to live in Israel. Instead, his legal team focused on an application for Swiss residency, which Abramovich first filed in the summer of 2016. In the application papers, Abramovich wrote that he intended to reside full time in Verbier, an Alpine village in the canton of Valais that is a popular holiday destination for celebrities and royalty.

A year later, following resistance and increasingly persistent questioning from the Swiss government, Abramovich’s legal team withdrew his residency application. Last February, when the Swiss press attempted to investigate the reasons behind the Swiss government’s reluctance, Abramovich’s lawyers secured an injunction forbidding the publication of information regarding his application to live in Switzerland. But the injunction was overturned late last week, and on Tuesday the Swiss media conglomerate Tamedia published some of the relevant documents. They include a letter from the Swiss Federal Police that strongly cautions against allowing the Russian-Israeli oligarch to resettle in Switzerland. The letter remarks that Abramovich has been repeatedly implicated in “suspicion of money laundering” and that the billionaire is “presumed [to have] contacts with criminal organizations”. Additionally, the letter states that Abramovich’s “assets are at least in part of illegal origin”. The letter concludes by strongly cautioning against allowing the oligarch to move to Switzerland, and argues that doing so would pose a “threat to public security” and be detrimental to the country’s international reputation.

The letter has raised eyebrows since its publication, because Switzerland is known for being highly welcoming of foreign billionaires while displaying minimal curiosity about the sources of their fortunes. Moreover, there are no known court rulings against Abramovich for money laundering or connections to organized crime. It is therefore presumed that the Swiss police report is based mostly on confidential informants and other informal sources. On Wednesday, Abramovich’s Swiss lawyer, Daniel Glasl, issued a statement saying that the Russian-Israeli magnate has never been charged with involvement in money laundering. He also reminded readers that his client has a blank criminal record.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 September 2018 | Permalink

Russia planned to smuggle Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy in London

Julian AssangeRussia and Ecuador canceled at the last minute a secret plan to smuggle WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorean embassy in London after it was deemed “too risky”, according to a report. The Australian-born founder of the whistleblower website was granted political asylum by the government of Ecuador in June of 2012, after Swedish authorities charged him with rape. He claims that the charges are part of a multinational plot to extradite him to the United States, where he is wanted for having leaked hundreds of thousands of secret government documents. He has thus refused to leave Ecuador’s embassy in the British capital since June 2012.

Last week, the British newspaper The Guardian said that Russian and Ecuadorean officials devised a complex operation to smuggle the WikiLeaks founder out of the Ecuadorean embassy, which is closely monitored by British security agencies. The London-based paper said it spoke to “four separate sources” who confirmed that a small team of Russians and Ecuadoreans met several times to plan the operation. The Ecuadorean side was allegedly represented by Fidel Narváez, a close friend and supporter of Assange, who previously served as Ecuador’s consul in London and continues to live there with his family. The Kremlin was reportedly represented by an unnamed “Russian businessman”, said The Guardian, who served as an intermediary between the Ecuadoreans and Moscow. The plan consisted of several steps, said the paper. The first step was for Assange to receive Ecuadoran citizenship and then be given diplomatic status by the government of Ecuador. That would give the WikiLeaks founder diplomatic immunity and shield him from British laws. A diplomatic vehicle would then secretly transport Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy to an unknown location. From there he would be transported to Ecuador via ship, or to Russia, where he would serve as a member of staff of the Ecuadorean embassy in Moscow. If British security services managed to intercept Assange during the operation, all they could do was expel him from the country. They would not be able to arrest him because of his diplomatic status.

The plan, said The Guardian, was scheduled for December 24, 2017. On December 15, Rommy Vallejo, the head of Ecuador’s national intelligence agency, Secretaría Nacional de Inteligencia (SENAIN), traveled secretly to London to supervise the operation. Two days later, on December 17, Assange was granted Ecuadorian citizenship as part of the plan. But the plan was aborted at the last moment after the British government refused to recognize Assange’s diplomatic status. According to British law, a foreign diplomat does not receive immunity from British law unless the British government officially accepts his or her diplomatic credentials. Although that is typically a formality, the British government reserves the right to refuse a diplomat’s credentials. That was seen by the Russians as a stumbling block and the operation was called off, said the paper.

Narváez spoke with The Guardian and strongly denied that he had any involvement with a joint Russian-Ecuadorean plan to smuggle Assange out of London. The Ecuadorean government did not return messages with questions about the paper’s allegations. The Russian embassy in the British capital tweeted late last week that The Guardian’s claims were “another example of disinformation and fake news from the British media”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 September 2018 | Permalink

Dead Russian oligarch’s links to UK spy agencies must stay secret, judge rules

Aleksandr PerepilichnyA judge has ruled that the British government has the right to withhold information relating to alleged links between British spy agencies and a Russian millionaire who died in mysterious circumstances in England. Aleksandr Perepilichny was a wealthy and influential investment banker living in Moscow. In 2009, however, he fled Russia saying that his life had been threatened following a business disagreement. He resettled in Surrey, south of London, and began cooperating with Swiss authorities who were investigating a multimillion dollar money-laundering scheme involving senior Russian government officials. Described by some as the biggest tax fraud in Russian history, the scheme is said to have defrauded the Russian Treasury of at least $240 million.

On November 10, 2012, having just returned to his luxury Surrey home from a three-day trip to France, Perepilichny went out to jog. He was found dead later that evening, having collapsed in the middle of a side street near his house. He was 44. A postmortem examination concluded that Perepilichny had died of natural causes and pointed to the strong possibility of a heart attack. However, lawyers representing the late businessman’s family told a pre-inquest hearing that Perepilichny stomach was found to have traces of gelsemium, a shrub-like plant that is a “known weapon of assassination [used] by Chinese and Russian contract killers”.

The case is now being revisited following the failed attempt last March, allegedly by the Kremlin, to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a Russian former spy who defected to England in 2010. For the past several months, submissions have been filed for an inquest into Perepilichny’s mysterious death. But the British government said that it would not reveal any information relating to possible contacts between the late Russian businessman and British intelligence. The question was raised in June by lawyers representing Legal and General, Perepilichny’s life insurance company. They argued that if Perepilichny had close dealings with British intelligence, it would have raised significantly the threat that his life was under. But British Home Secretary Sajid Javid argued that releasing documents implicating the intelligence services with the late Russian businessman would endanger national security.

On Monday the judge leading the inquest into Perepilichny’s death ruled in favor of the British government’s position. The judge, Nicholas Hilliard QC, has security clearance and was therefore able to review the relevant evidence behind closed doors, during a secret session. He then ruled that “publicly releasing intelligence information [relating to Perepilichny] would pose a real risk of serious harm to national security”. Critics argue that the Skripal case has heightened public interest in Russian covert activities on British soil and that the public has the right to know whether the death of Perepilichny was in any way connected to the intelligence realm. The inquest continues this week.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence reevaluates safety of Russian defectors in light of Skripal poisoning

CIAIntelligence officials in the United States are feverishly reassessing the physical safety of dozens of Russian defectors, in light of the case of Russian double spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in England last March. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Like MI6, the US Central Intelligence Agency also has a protection program for foreign nationals whose life may be at risk because they spied for the US. The CIA’s protection division, called the National Resettlement Operations Center, helps resettle and sometimes hide and protect dozens of foreign agents, or assets, as they are known in CIA lingo. But following the Skripal case, some CIA resettlement officials have expressed concern that protection levels for some foreign assets may need to be significantly raised. The New York Times, which published the story last week, said that it spoke to “current and former American intelligence officials”, which it did not name. In light of those concerns, US counterintelligence officials have been carrying out what The Times described as “a wide-reaching review” of every Russian asset who has been resettled in the US. The purpose of the review is to assess the ease with which these former assets can be traced through their digital footprint on social media and other publicly available information.

According to the paper, several Russians who defected to the US after working for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies were tracked down by the Kremlin in recent years. In the mid-1990s, says The Times, the CIA actually found an explosive device placed under the car of a Russian defector living in the US. More recently, US intelligence traced the movements of a suspected Russian assassin who visited the neighborhood of a resettled Russian defector in Florida. In the past, Russian CIA assets who have been resettled in the US have voluntarily revealed their whereabouts by reaching out to relatives back in Russia out of homesickness. In some cases, they have left the US in order to meet a lover who may have been planted by the Russian spy services —with sometimes fatal consequences.

In addition to the US, at least one more country has initiated a thorough review of the way it protects former Russian assets living in its territory in light of the Skripal case. As intelNews reported in March, the British secret services tightened the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain only a week after the attempted murder of Skripal. Britain’s security services reportedly viewed the attack on Skripal as an intelligence failure and launched a comprehensive review of the risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter included attacks with chemical and radiological weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 September 2018 | Permalink

US sees Russian weapon behind US diplomats’ mystery ailments, say officials

Kirtland Air Force BaseA Russian-made device caused the mystery ailments that affected more than two dozen American diplomats in Cuba and China, according to United States government officials who have been briefed on the matter. Since September of last year, Washington has recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana and at least two more diplomats from its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that they suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing as well as from various forms of brain injuries. In April of this year the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in the Cuban capital over similar health concerns. More recently, the US issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island and accused Cuba of neglecting to ensure the safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed there.

In early September, Douglas H. Smith, who heads the team of scientists tasked by the US government to examine the matter, said that microwave radiation was almost certainly responsible for the diplomats’ ailments. He added that microwaves were considered “a main suspect” and that his team of scientists was now “increasingly sure” that the diplomats had suffered brain injuries caused by microwave radiation. Now the US news network NBC reports that Russia is viewed as the primary culprit behind the mystery ailments that plagued US diplomats. Reporting on Tuesday the news network cited three unnamed officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump, as well as “congressional aides and others briefed on the investigation”. Specifically, NBC reported that the Russian connection was supported by “evidence from communications intercepts” (signals intelligence or SIGINT), though it did not elaborate on their precise nature. It also said that the ongoing investigation into the purported weapon involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency among other US intelligence and security agencies. Another leading actor in the investigation is the US Air Force, said NBC, stating that experts in its directed energy research program at the Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico, are trying to reverse-engineer the alleged weapons based on the symptoms that they cause.

But NBC noted that the evidence remains relatively inconclusive and is not yet sufficient to allow Washington to openly accuse Moscow of having masterminded the alleged microwave attacks on the US diplomats. The news network said it reached out to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence but received no response. A spokeswoman from the US Department of State said that the investigation into the diplomats’ ailments was ongoing and that the Department had made “no determination of who or what is responsible for the health attacks” on its personnel.

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