Same hacker group is targeting French and German elections, says report

Konrad Adenauer FoundationThe same group cyber-spies that attacked the campaign of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is now attacking German institutions that are connected to the country’s ruling coalition parties, according to a report by a leading cyber-security firm. The Tokyo-based security software company Trend Micro published a 41-page report on Tuesday, in which it tracks and traces the attacks against French and German political targets over the past two years. The report, entitled From Espionage to Cyber Propaganda: Pawn Storm’s Activities over the Past Two Years, concludes that the hackers are seeking to influence the results of the national elections in the European Union’s two most powerful nations, France and Germany.

The Trend Micro report focuses on a mysterious group that cyber-security experts have dubbed Pawn Storm —otherwise known as Sednit, Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy, and STRONTIUM. It says that the group has launched an aggressive phishing campaign against German political institutions, which has intensified in the past two months. The group allegedly set up fake computer servers in Germany and the Ukraine, and used them to try to infiltrate the computer networks of two elite German think-tanks, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FEF). The KAF is connected with the Christian Democratic Union party, which is led by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The FEF has strong ties with the centrist Social Democratic Party, which is part of Germany’s governing alliance.

The report’s leading author, cyber-security expert Feike Hacquebord, told the Reuters news agency that the hackers were possibly seeking to infiltrate the two think-tanks as a means of gaining access to the two political parties that are connected with them. Some cyber-security experts in Europe and the United States have said that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, the country’s military intelligence agency, known as GRU, is behind the cyber-attacks on France, Germany and the United States. But the Trend Micro report did not attempt to place blame on Moscow or any other country for the cyber-attacks. The Kremlin has denied involvement with the alleged hacking operations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 April 2017 | Permalink

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EU Council president grilled in closed-door probe of Polish-Russian spy deal

Donald TuskSenior European Union official Donald Tusk was grilled for several hours on Wednesday, in the context of a Polish government probe into an intelligence agreement between Warsaw and Moscow. But Tusk, who is the current president of the European Council, and served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, dismissed the probe as politicized and said it was deliberately designed to harm his political career. The investigation was launched by the government of Poland earlier this year. Its stated goal is to investigate an agreement that was struck in late 2013 between Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MCS) and the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation. The agreement allegedly took place in secret, but was never implemented. The government of Poland canceled it in 2014, after accusing Moscow of illegally annexing the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

On Wednesday, Tusk spent nearly three hours at the office of the prosecutor in Warsaw, in a question-and-answer session that was held entirely behind closed doors. As he was leaving the building, the former Polish prime minister said he could not comment on the content of his testimony. But he used strong words to dismiss the entire investigation as “extremely political”, while accusing those behind it as holding a vendetta against him. Tusk and his supporters believe that the probe was primarily initiated by Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the conservative Law and Justice party. They also claim that Kaczyński, who is Tusk’s political arch-foe in Poland, is spearheading a campaign of personal vindictiveness against him.

The rivalry between the two men began in 2010, when an airplane carrying a Polish government delegation to a World War II commemoration event in Russia crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing everyone onboard. Among the dead was Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław Kaczyński’s brother. Since the air disaster, the leader of the Law and Justice party has maintained that the Russian government deliberately brought down the plane. He also accuses Tusk, who was Poland’s prime minister at the time, of colluding with Moscow to eliminate his brother. These allegations remain unsubstantiated, but they have contributed to the emergence of a venomous political climate in Poland that has dominated national politics for years.

On Wednesday, during Tusk’s three-hour testimony, several thousands of his supporters demonstrated outside the office of the prosecutor, urging Tusk to run for president in a few years. It is a common expectation in Poland that Tusk will soon turn his attention to domestic Polish politics and run for the highest office in the land in 2020.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 April 2017 | Permalink

Mystery compound in Nicaragua shows Russia’s resurgence in Americas, say experts

GLONASS ManaguaA Russian facility built on a hillside facing the United States embassy in the Nicaraguan capital Managua is seen by some experts as symptomatic of Russia’s renewed presence in the Americas. The official Russian explanation for the heavily protected facility, which is surrounded by high walls, is that it is meant to operate as a tracking station for GLONASS, Russia’s version of the global positioning system (GPS). The Russians do not use GPS, because it is owned by the US government and operated by the US Air Force. But some believe that only part of the compound is dedicated to GLONASS activities, and that a major portion is a Russian listening base that sweeps US communications from throughout the region.

Nicaragua has a long Cold War legacy that culminated in the 1980s. In 1979, a leftist insurgency toppled the country’s longtime dictator, Anastazio Somoza. The rebels, who called themselves the Sandinista National Liberation Front (known widely as the Sandinistas), alarmed the government of US President Ronald Reagan. Consequently, the White House authorized a series of covert operations against Nicaragua’s leftist government. They centered on the Contras, an anti-communist counter-insurgency that was largely funded by Washington throughout the so-called Contra war that dominated the country’s politics in the 1980s. But the war also affected politics in the US, and almost toppled the Reagan administration when the Iran-Contra affair (illegal arms sales to Iran by the US government, which then used the proceeds to secretly fund the Contras) was revealed in the media.

In an article published last week, The Washington Post reported that, under the Presidency of Vladimir Putin, Russia has reemerged as a force in Latin American politics. Moscow now regularly supplies weapons to several countries in the hemisphere, including Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Venezuela. It has also expanded its influence through the banking sector and via government loans in countries such as Brazil and Mexico. But Nicaragua, says The Post, has emerged as Russia’s closest ally in the region. For over a decade, the country’s political landscape has been dominated by the Sandinistas, who returned to power in 2006 and continue to govern the country today. The party was supported by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and thus retains strong historical links with Moscow. The Post reports that, according to some analysts, Russia seeks to cement its presence in America’s traditional backyard as a form of response to the eastward expansion of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 April 2017 | Permalink

US politics in uncharted waters as FBI announces probe into Russian activities

James ComeyMonday’s official announcement that an investigation is underway into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election was an important moment in American political history. It exposed the chaotic state of American politics and added yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come. This is regardless of the outcome of the investigation, which is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even if it fails to produce a ‘smoking gun’, the very fact that the country’s chief counterintelligence agency is examining the possibility that a US president was elected with help from Russia, is an astonishing development without parallel in modern American history.

It is important to recognize that the FBI would never have initiated such a controversial and politically charged investigation without having concrete proof of Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election. No agency of the US federal government would choose to dedicate enormous resources and personnel, and risk the political fallout that such a probe inevitably entails, without first having amassed indisputable evidence that necessitates it. Moreover, the FBI is not acting alone; its investigation almost certainly encompasses and incorporates similar probes carried out by other American security agencies, and possibly by agencies in allied countries, including the United Kingdom. It follows that the FBI investigation will undoubtedly confirm the existence of a systematic Russian intelligence operation that was aimed at influencing the outcome of last year’s American election.

As the present author has previously stated, it would be “extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election […]. Indeed, the opposite would have been strange”. The central question, of course, is: what types of activities were part of the Kremlin’s covert campaign? Did it mostly involve the methodical production and dissemination of so-called ‘fake news’? Did it involve substantial funding of individual candidates or political parties? Or were there perhaps instances of extortion and blackmail of targeted individuals? These questions must be answered in full, and their inherent complexity explains fully why the FBI Director James Comey would not discuss details of the investigation on Monday.

Crucially, the FBI probe will have to answer conclusively the question of whether members of the administration of US President Donald Trump, or indeed the president himself, were implicated in the Kremlin’s actions. Did the president and his senior campaign team know that the Kremlin was —allegedly—assisting their efforts? If so, how did they know? And if not, did they deliberately ignore concrete warnings pointing to the contrary?

Every American, regardless of political persuasion, who genuinely cares about his or her nation’s political stability, hopes that the FBI probe finds no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. However, there is an important sense in which, no matter the outcome of the investigation, serious damage has already been done. The reputation of American political institutions as a whole has been severely shaken, and mistrust between American civil society and its political institutions continues to rise exponentially. Meanwhile, it is safe to say that it will take months for the FBI’s probe to conclude. By then, the current chaotic state of American politics could be the a new permanently reality in Washington, a city that has witnessed much tumult in its history, though perhaps never as perplexing as the current crisis.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 March 2017 | Permalink

Russian special forces troops seen in Egypt and Libya, say reports

Khalifa HaftarRussia may have become the latest country to deploy special forces soldiers in Libya, according to news reports citing anonymous United States officials. Late on Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported that Russian special forces troops had been seen on the border between Libya and Egypt. The news agency said that the information came from “two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity”. The same article cited unnamed “Egyptian security forces”, who said that a 22-member Russian paramilitary team had set up an operations base in the Egyptian town of Sidi Barrani, which is located 60 miles from Libyan territory.

Libya has descended into a state of complete anarchy since the demise of the country’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan strongman was killed in 2011, as a result of a popular uprising backed by Western powers and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Arguably the strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the so-called Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army. The commander of the Libyan National Army is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the US under Washington’s protection for many decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to participate in the war. The Tobruk-led Government is ostensibly supported by the US. However, its military wing, led by Haftar, operates semi-autonomously, and some believe that Haftar has aspirations to lead his own armed faction in Libya. Last November, Haftar visited Moscow, where he met with senior government officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There are reports that the Russian special forces troops alleged seen in Egypt are operating in support of Haftar.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Tobruk-led government told Russian media that Moscow had promised to provide it with funding and military aid. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that a number of Russian private security contractors were in Libya and were providing services to Haftar’s militias. But there are no confirmed reports of the presence of Russian government troops on the ground in Libya. On Tuesday, Moscow denied the Reuters report and accused “certain Western mass media” of “spreading false information from anonymous sources” in order to “smear Russia”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 March 2017 | Permalink

Russia possibly tried to kill Montenegro PM, says British foreign secretary

Boris JohsonBoris Johnson, the British foreign secretary has said in an interview that Russian spies may have orchestrated last year’s failed attempt to kill the then-prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Dukanović. Mr. Johnson, a senior figure in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, was a major contender for the prime minister’s position in 2016, after the administration of David Cameron collapsed under the weight of the Brexit vote result. Speaking on Sunday morning to reporter Robert Peston, of Britain’s ITV television network, Mr. Johnson said that the West should “engage” with Russia, but warned that it should also “beware” of Moscow’s “dirty tricks” in Europe and the United States.

The British foreign secretary spoke following reports that British intelligence services called an emergency meeting with representatives of the country’s major political parties, in order to warn them that Russia planned to use cyber-attacks to disrupt regional and national elections in the country. Mr. Johnson said that the government had “no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment”. But he added that there was “plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that. And there is no doubt”, he went on, “that they’ve been up to all sorts of dirty tricks”. Some of those “dirty tricks”, said Mr. Johnson, targeted the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, where last year there was “an attempted coup and possibly an attempted assassination”.

The British politician was referring to allegations made last October by authorities in Montenegro that “nationalists from Russia” and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had allegedly hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in Montenegro, according to authorities. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia vehemently denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is preparing to visit Moscow in a few days to meet with his Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. He told ITV that he planned to deliver his “personal feeling” to Mr. Lavrov, which “is one of deep, deep sadness” about Russia’s foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 March 2017 | Permalink

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