Russia accuses its top Arctic scientist of giving China submarine secrets

Valery MitkoRussian prosecutors have accused one of the country’s most respected hydroacoustics specialists, and globally recognized expert on the Arctic region, of spying for Chinese intelligence. This development highlights the competitive relationship between the two neighboring countries, who in recent years have tended to work together against what they perceive as a common threat coming from the United States.

The scientist in question is Dr. Valery Mitko, a St. Petersburgh-based hydroacoustics researcher, who is also president of Russia’s Arctic Academy of Sciences. Investigators with the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency, are accusing Dr. Mitko, 78, of having provided classified documents to Chinese intelligence.

The FSB first detained Dr. Mitko in February, when he returned from a stint as a visiting professor at Dalian Maritime University. Located in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, near the North Korean border, Dalian Maritime University is considered China’s foremost higher-education institution on maritime subjects, with many of its research projects funded directly by the Chinese Ministry of Transport. According to sources, Dr. Mitko gave a series of lectures at Dalian University in early 2018.

Upon arriving back to Russia from China, Dr. Mitko was detained and placed under house arrest. The FSB now claims that the Russian scientist gave the Chinese classified information relating to the underwater detection of submarines. The agency alleges that Dr. Mitko received payments in return for sharing this information with Chinese spies. However, Dr. Mitko’s lawyers argue that the information he shared with the Chinese “came from open sources”, and that he never knowingly came in contact with Chinese intelligence operatives.

There have been several arrests of Russian academics in recent years, who have been accused by the FSB of providing China with classified information. Last week saw the release from prison of Vladimir Lapygin, a 79-year-old avionics researchers, who was jailed in 2016 for allegedly giving China classified information on Russian hypersonic aircraft designs. In 2018, Russian authorities charged Viktor Kudryavtsev, a researcher at a Russian institute specializing in rocket- and spacecraft design, with passing secret information on spacecraft to researchers at the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Belgium. The FSB claimed that some of that information ended up in Chinese hands.

If convicted of the crime of espionage against the Russian state, Dr. Mitko faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years. He denies the charges against him.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 June 2020 | Permalink

Pentagon leaders see COVID-19 crisis lasting months, destabilizing regions

Mark Esper MilleyThe United States Department of Defense is working under the assumption that the COVID-19 epidemic will seriously affect the life of the country for “at least several months”, and might cause “political chaos” in parts of the world. This was stated during a virtual town hall for members of the US Armed Forces, which was hosted on Tuesday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley.

General Milley told participants that the Pentagon was planning “for this to be a few months at least”. He added that, according to all indications, the US was looking at “eight to 10, maybe 12 weeks —something like three months” of confronting serious disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It could be “as late as July”, said Milley, and assured the audience that the Department of Defense was “taking all precautionary measures to be in it for the long-haul”.

Both speakers speculated that the pandemic could destabilize a number of countries around the world, and that the ensuing lack of security could pose threats to US interests. Milley pointed out that acute shortages of critical medical equipment, such as respirators, gloves, masks and ventilators, could cause certain countries to spiral into instability that will “go well beyond the immediate medical issues” and “lead to political chaos”.

On Wednesday, Brigadier General Dr. Paul Friedrichs, who serves as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Staff Surgeon (the Pentagon’s most senior medical professional), said that COVID-19 was spreading too quickly for experts to determine how many troops would eventually end up contracting the disease. However, Dr. Friedrichs cautioned against lightening any restrictions on social distancing before sufficient time passes to “make a dent” on infection rates. Doing so “could be disastrous”, he warned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 March 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: No, the coronavirus was not bioengineered. The rumors are false

Coronavirus COVID-19Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, in December of last year, prominent public health scientists have consistently condemned rumors that it may have been bioengineered. The scientists are right to persist. The rumors that the novel coronavirus was deliberately weaponized are not supported by the available scientific evidence.

Coronaviruses are not new in nature or to humans. SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-associated coronavirus 2) is only the latest coronavirus we have identified that infects humans and causes disease (COVID-19). Because other corona viruses have also been isolated, it is possible to sequence the genome of these viruses. This provides detailed information about their origins. This is particularly important in light of the rumors that this virus has been manipulated by various governments.

Similar to the SARS-CoV strain, the one responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), this novel virus also binds to a protein, the receptor for angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is found on cells in humans, in the lungs, kidneys, GI tract, heart, and bladder. The virus uses a “spike protein” to attach to the receptor protein on cells in these regions, and then punctures the cell to inject the viral nucleic acids (genetic material). Once inside the cell, the virus nucleic acids are reproduced by the cell, and new viruses are manufactured.

When scientists analyzed the nucleic acids sequence responsible for attaching to cells, they found that the sequence was optimal, but not ideal. This means that the virus can recognize and bind tightly to the ACE2 receptor protein, but it is not perfect. This is analogous to having an old key (spike protein) that will fit into a lock (ARE2 receptor), but does not always work properly (open the door). In bioengineering, the goal is to have the perfect key so that all of the virus can enter cells and reproduce rapidly. This perfect fit is not found in SARS-CoV-2. This provides evidence of natural selection, and not of bioengineering.

Additionally, the SARS-CoV-2 genome has a unique amino acid in an important region of the spike protein. This amino acid, a proline, has an unusual structural characteristic that causes a protein to make a sharp change in direction (a turn). This is not seen in the SARS-CoV, the closest genetic relative to SARS-CoV-2. Furthermore, when the sequence for the SARS-CoV-2 is compared to other coronaviruses, the SARS-CoV-2 sequence does not appear to be derived from previously sequenced viruses. This fact also points to natural selection, since a bioengineered virus would be based on a known template that could be easily manufactured in a laboratory.

Rather it appears, from genetic and biochemical analysis, that SARS-CoV-2 started in bats, moved to pangolins, and then to humans. It is unclear whether the evolutionary changes that gave rise to the SARS-CoV-2 variant changed once it entered pangolins from bats, or whether it entered humans and continued evolving into the strain we see today. While the evidence indicates that it is highly unlikely that the virus was bioengineered, it is impossible to determine whether it entered humans in its present form, or evolved once it crossed the species barrier.

Author: Dr. A.T. | Date: 24 March 2020 | Permalink

Veil of secrecy may soon be lifted on Novichok nerve agent used to attack Skripal

Sergei SkripalThe chemical structure and action mechanism of a top-secret family of nerve agents known as novichoks may soon be available to a wider pool of researchers through its inclusion into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The term novichok (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a class of rarely used nerve agents that were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s.

The first public discussion about the existence of these agents took place in the early 1990s, when Vil Mirzayanov, a chemical warfare expert working for the Soviet military, revealed their existence. However, Western intelligence agencies have discouraged public scientific research on these nerve agents, fearing that such activities could reveal their chemical structure and mechanism of action. That could in turn facilitate the proliferation of novichok nerve agents worldwide.

But this attitude shifted drastically after March 2018, when —according to British intelligence— Russian spies used novichok in an attempt to kill Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector to Britain. The British government claims that Russians spies smuggled novichok into Britain by hiding it inside an imitation perfume bottle.

The attempt on Skripal’s life failed, but it prompted the United States, Canada and the Netherlands to propose that two categories of novichoks be chemically identified and added to the CWC list of Schedule 1 chemical weapons. If that were to happen, members of the OPCW —including Russia— would be required to declare and promptly destroy any stockpiles of novichoks in their possession.

Russia’s initial reaction was to oppose the proposal by the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The Russian OPCW delegation questioned the proposal’s scientific validity and dismissed it as politically motivated. However, according to a report published yesterday in the leading scientific journal Science, Moscow has now agreed with the proposal to list two classes of novichoks in the CWC list, and even proposed adding a third class of the obscure nerve agent to the list. Russia also proposed the inclusion into the CWC list of two families of carbamates —organic compounds with insecticide properties, which the United States is reputed to have included in its chemical weapons arsenal during the Cold War.

According to the Science report, the OPCW Executive Council has already approved Russia’s proposal, which means that the organization is now close to classifying novichoks as Schedule 1 nerve agents. If this happens, academic researchers in the West and elsewhere will be able for the first time to collaborate with defense laboratories in order to research the chemical structure, as well as the mechanism of action, of novichoks. This is likely to produce computer models that will shed unprecedented light on the symptoms of novichoks and the various methods of treating them. But they will also provide information about the chemical structure of the nerve agent, which may eventually lead to proliferation concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 October 2019 | Permalink

Industrial espionage damages a country’s long-term productivity, study finds

StasiState-sponsored industrial espionage aimed at stealing foreign technical secrets may boost a country’s technological sector in the short run, but ultimately stifles it, according to the first study on the subject. The study is based on over 150,000 declassified documents belonging to the East German Ministry for State Security, known as Stasi. The now-defunct intelligence agency of communist-era East Germany was known for its extensive networks of informants, which focused intensely on acquiring technical secrets from abroad.

The history of industrial and economic espionage by governments is indeed extensive. It includes lucrative efforts by the United States to steal industrial production methods from Europe in the 19th century, and successful attempts by the Soviet Union to steal atomic technology from the American-led Manhattan Project in the 1940s. But there have been no systematic attempts to evaluate the effect of state-sponsored industrial espionage on the entire economy of the sponsoring nation –until now.

This new study –the first of its kind– was carried out by two economists, Erik Meyersson, from the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden, and the Spain-based Albrecht Glitz of Pompeu Fabra Univeristy in Barcelona. The two researchers describe their preliminary findings in a working paper entitled: “Industrial Espionage and Productivity”, published by the Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany. Its findings are based on an analysis of nearly 152,000 declassified industrial-espionage-related communiqués sent by Stasi spies to their handlers between 1970 and 1988. The communiqués were examined with reference to their date of authorship and the content-descriptive keywords appended to them by the Stasi.

The report concludes that stealing industrial secrets can boost a nation’s economic activity in the short run. However, in the long run, a nation’s strategic focus on industrial espionage tends to impede homegrown research and development, and ultimately stifles technological productivity on a national scale. This is because “easy access to secrets” from abroad tends to “discourage both state and private investment in research and development”, according to Meyersson and Glitz. That is precisely what happened to East Germany, argues the report. The country’s total factor productivity (TFF –the growth of its output measured in relation to the growth in inputs of labor and capital) rose significantly as a result of its industrial espionage.That was especially noticeable in the digital electronics sector, where the output gap between East and West Germany was narrowed by a fourth. However, that trend was temporary, and East Germany was never able to develop an organic digital-electronics industry. Industrial espionage is like “research and development on cocaine”, professor Meyersson told Science, the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Maybe you can have a little bit of fun with it, but it’s not good for you in the long run”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 August 2017 | Permalink

Germany and Holland investigated Russian physicist for espionage

Eindhoven University of TechnologyThe German and Dutch governments allegedly joined forces to investigate a Russian supercomputer specialist, who studied in Germany and Holland, suspecting him of passing technical information to Russian intelligence. German weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which published the report in its current issue, identified the physicist only as “Ivan A.” and said that the 28-year-old man was a member of a physics laboratory affiliated with the Max Planck Institute in the western German city of Bonn. According to Spiegel, Ivan A. studied in Bonn between 2009 and 2011, conducting research on quantum physics and nanophotonics, an area of study that examines the behavior of light on the nanometer scale. Much of the research in this specialized field relates to supercomputers and cutting-edge quantum computing applications.

Citing unnamed government sources, Spiegel said that Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is the country’s top counterintelligence agency, started to monitor the scientist once he began meeting regularly with a Russian diplomat. The diplomat, who was stationed at the consulate of the Russian Federation in Bonn, had been identified by German intelligence as a member of the Russian secret services. German counterintelligence officials thus began suspecting Ivan A. of channeling restricted technical information to Moscow via the Russian diplomat.

However, in 2013 Ivan A. relocated to the Dutch city of Eindhoven to study at the Eindhoven University of Technology, at which point German counterintelligence officers reached out to their Dutch colleagues. During one of his trips from Germany to Holland, Ivan A. was detained for several hours along with this wife at the Düsseldorf International Airport. He was questioned and his personal electronic devices were confiscated. Upon his release Germany and Holland jointly launched against him a formal investigation for espionage. Eventually his European Union residence visa was cancelled and he was expelled by the Dutch government as a danger to national security. Der Spiegel said Ivan A. returned to Russia and today denies that he was a spy.

Espionage scandals frequently rock German-Russian relations. In 2013, a German court convicted a married couple, Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag, of having spied for the Soviet Union and Russia since at least 1990. The two had used forged Austrian passports to enter West Germany from Mexico in 1988 and 1990.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 July 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/07/28/01-1744/

Thatcher was warned about CIA activities in Britain, files show

Margaret ThatcherBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was warned in 1984 that American intelligence carried out operations in the United Kingdom without London’s consent. Although she dismissed the warnings, she authorized British counterintelligence to investigate the matter. A secret file from the British Foreign Office, which was declassified last month, shows that concerns about alleged American spy activity in the UK were communicated to the Tory Prime Minister by Paddy Ashdown —now Lord Ashdown— a Member of Parliament for Britain’s Liberal Party. In November of 1984, Ashdown notified Thatcher that he was concerned about a series of “clandestine activities” carried out by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) aimed at preventing communist countries from acquiring advanced computer technology developed by companies based in Britain. The written warning stated that CIA operatives had made “clandestine approaches” targetting individuals employed by leading British computer firms, inquiring about technology transfers to the Soviet Bloc. Ashdown added that the American intelligence agency had failed to provide the British government with advance notice of these activities, as was customary between the two allies. In his letter to Thatcher, the Liberal Party MP concluded that, based on his personal investigation into the matter, he was convinced the CIA operation was “still continuing”. The Prime Minister responded to Ashdown with an official letter explaining that there was “no evidence of improper activity by the CIA” or that British espionage laws had been violated by American intelligence personnel. She added that there was “close cooperation” between London and Washington on enforcing multilaterally agreed export controls, which included computer technology, and concluded that saw no need for an inquiry at that time. But London-based newspaper The Guardian, which accessed the declassified files on the case, said that Whitehall ordered the Foreign Office to investigate Ashdown’s allegations. The Foreign Office then tasked the Security Service (MI5) to find out whether the US had broken an agreement between the two countries to refrain from clandestine operations on each other’s territory unless the latter were authorized by both nations. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #828

Abdullah ÖcalanBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Chinese researcher charged with stealing US drug. Chinese cancer researcher Huajun Zhao, 42, who has been working in the United States since 2006, has been charged with stealing data and an experimental compound from the Medical College of Wisconsin. The federal complaint accuses Zhao of stealing the compound, C-25, which could potentially assist in killing cancer cells without damaging normal cells. An FBI investigation turned up evidence that Zhao hoped to claim credit in China for discovering C-25. He had already claimed on a research website that he had discovered an unnamed compound he hoped to take to China.
Turkish intelligence to ‘oversee PKK retreat’. Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, MİT, will oversee the withdrawal of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, according to Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç. Last month, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the armed Kurdish group that has battled Turkey for 30 years, proclaimed an immediate ceasefire in PKK’s conflict with the Turkish state, which has claimed about 35,000 lives. Speaking on Turkey’s state-run broadcaster, TRT, Arınç said no legislation would be introduced to facilitate the withdrawal, but “certainly MİT will oversee it; security forces will take part in it, too”, he added.
Analysis: Controversial Bush programs continue under Obama. During the George W. Bush years, two of the most controversial elements of what was then called the Global War on Terrorism were the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program and the creation of the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo Bay and the RDI program are both back in the news now, each for their own unsavory reasons. The Pentagon is requesting nearly $200 million for Guantanamo Bay infrastructure upgrades, including $49 million for a new unit for ‘special’ prisoners. Meanwhile, participation in the CIA’s controversial RDI program has resulted —for at least one person— not in prosecution or professional sanctions, but rather in a promotion.

Are Kremlin’s spies targeting Russian scientists with foreign links?

Igor SutyaginBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Back in November, we reported on the case of Valentin Danilov, a Russian physicist who spent nearly a decade in prison, allegedly for spying on his country on behalf of China. What is interesting about Danilov is that, even after his release from prison, following a pardon issued by the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he fervently maintains his innocence. He is not alone; many Russian scientists and human rights campaigners have argued for years that Danilov should never have been convicted. In some cases, activists accuse the Kremlin of persecuting Danilov for political reasons, namely to reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “attempts to intimidate academics with ties to other countries”. A well-written analysis by Time magazine’s Simon Shuster argues that Danilov’s story is not unique in Russia. There have been at least a handful of similar cases in the last decade, all involving Russian scientists with links to foreign countries or organizations. Shuster mentions the example of nuclear expert Igor Sutyagin, former division head in the Russian Academy of Sciences’ USA and Canada Institute, who served 11 years of a 15-year sentence for allegedly passing state secrets to a CIA front company. Sutyagin, who now lives in London, United Kingdom, was one of four jailed Russians expelled to the West in exchange for the repatriation of ten Russian illegals captured by the FBI in the summer of 2010. But he maintains he was never a spy, and claims that all of the information he gave to the two Americans who employed him, in return for money, came from open sources. Undoubtedly, observers are free to draw different conclusions about either Danilov or Sutyagin. But the question that Shuster poses is, at a time when virtually no field of scientific research can develop without international collaboration, is Moscow being overly suspicious of its academics, and is this hampering Russian science as a whole? Read more of this post

British spies considered giving Hitler female hormones

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Thanks to the tireless effort of intelligence historians, we now have a brand new revelation from spy archives that can proudly stand alongside the CIA’s acoustic kitty, and the plan to poison Cuban leader Fidel Castro with a chemical that would make his beard fall out. This latest disclosure, however, surely tops the list of lunatic covert-operation schemes. According to newly discovered documents, British intelligence planners seriously considered secretly administering small doses of estrogen into the food of Adolf Hitler, in order “to make his character less aggressive”. According to the documents, British intelligence had managed to recruit a number of agents who were close enough to the German Chancellor to have physical access to his daily meals. It would have been possible, therefore, to tamper with the Nazi leader’s food intake on a routine basis, in an effort to alter his brain chemistry, which, it was hoped, would “soften his character”. The obvious question to ask, of course, is: if British intelligence had access to the Führer’s food, and if his military policies were considered a clear and present strategic threat to Britain’s security, then why not lethally poison him altogether? According to Cardiff University Professor Brian Ford, who discovered the cunning estrogen plan, British intelligence planners knew that Hitler systematically employed food tasters; it would therefore have been close to impossible to employ food poisoning as a method of assassination. Estrogen, on the other hand, is tasteless, odorless, and —if properly dispensed— could have a subtle and gradual effect on Hitler’s brain chemistry and personality. Read more of this post

Iran admits some of its nuclear scientists spied for the West

Ali Akbar Salehi

Ali Akbar Salehi

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A top-level Iranian government official has admitted that some scientists and technicians in Iran’s nuclear energy program were successfully lured into spying for Israeli and Western intelligence agencies in the past. The disclosure, which was characterized as “stunning” by the Associated Press, marked the first-ever open admission by the Iranian government that the country’s nuclear energy program has been penetrated by foreign spies. It was made last weekend by Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s Vice President and Director of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization. According to the Iranian government-controlled Fars News Agency, Vice President Salehi told an audience that individual scientists and technicians working in Iran’s nuclear program had used their access to classified relevant information to benefit from “foreign purchases and commercial affairs”. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #345

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News you may have missed #341

  • Russian court rejects ‘spy’ scientist’s appeal. A Russian court has rejected an appeal for the release of academic Igor Sutyagin, former division head in the Russian Academy of Sciences’ USA and Canada Institute, who is serving a 15-year sentence for allegedly passing state secrets to foreign officials.
  • Ex-CIA agent’s arrest in VA was eventful, say sources. We reported earlier this week that Andrew M. Warren, the CIA’s Algiers station chief, who is accused of having drugged and raped two Algerian women at his official residence, was arrested at a Norfolk, Virginia motel, after he failed to show up for a court hearing. It now appears that Warren “had a gun in his waistband […] and officers used a taser to subdue him”.
  • Documents show CIA thought Gary Powers had defected. Declassified documents show the CIA did not believe that Gary Powers, who piloted the U2 spy plane shot down over Russia in 1960, causing the U2 incident, had been shot down. Instead, the agency spread the rumor that Powers “baled out and spent his first night as a defector in a Sverdlovsk nightclub”!

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News you may have missed #307

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Uproar as UK government classifies details of weapon expert’s death

Dr. David Kelly

Dr. David Kelly

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Public speculation over the alleged suicide of UK biological weapons expert Dr. David Kelly is bound to increase, after a senior state official secretly ordered that details of his death be kept secret for 70 years. Dr. Kelly, a British Ministry of Defense scientist, who had been employed by the United Nations as a weapons inspector, caused a major stir by becoming one of the sources of a 2003 BBC report disputing the British government’s claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons at 45 minutes’ notice. He was later called to appear before a Parliamentary committee investigating the government’s claims about Iraq’s purported ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But on July 18, 2003, four days after appearing before the committee, Dr. Kelly’s was found dead at a wooded area near his home. Read more of this post