Britain warns its citizens following detention of alleged Russian spies in Switzerland

Davos SwitzerlandA Swiss newspaper has revealed a previously unreported detention of two Russian diplomats in the luxury Swiss Alpine resort of Davos, which is currently hosting the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The development prompted British authorities to warn some British citizens participating in the WEF meeting that they may be in physical danger.

The brief detention of the two Russians allegedly occurred in August of last year in Davos, a mountain resort in the canton of Graubünden, which is located in Switzerland’s eastern Alps region. According to the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, local police detained two Russians during the period between August 8 and 28 of last year. Citing anonymous sources from the police and security services, the paper said that the authorities were alerted about the two Russians by employees at a local resort. The employees reportedly found it strange that the Russians had booked hotel rooms for over three weeks, which is unusually long for Davos’ ultra-luxury resort setting.

When police officers approached the two men and inquired about their background, one of them said he worked as a plumber. However, when asked to provide identification papers, both men reportedly produced Russian diplomatic passports. However, none had received accreditation by the Swiss government, which means they had not been formally registered as diplomats in the Alpine nation. When Swiss police officials contacted the Russian embassy in Bern to inquire about the two men, Russian officials “threatened diplomatic consequences if the men were arrested” said Tages-Anzeiger.

The two Russians were eventually released, as Swiss police “could not ascertain any reason to detain them”, said the paper. However, Swiss officials said that the two Russians “obviously […] had their sights on the WEF” and were probably planning to install surveillance equipment around the Swiss resort town. Soon after the Tages-Anzeiger report was published, British counterterrorism police reportedly warned a number of British citizens attending the WEF meeting that they might be in physical danger.

But the Russian embassy in Switzerland dismissed the Tages-Anzeiger report as “one more attempt to undermine Swiss-Russian relations”. Russian officials at the embassy accused Western countries of trying to “whip out a scandal out of nothing”, adding that Russian authorities had not been officially notified of the incident and that there was “no evidence of espionage” by the two men.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2020 | Permalink

MI5 director plays down US threat to end intelligence sharing over Huawei

Sir Andrew ParkerThe director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency has dismissed warnings by the United States that intelligence sharing between the two allies will be impeded if London decides to use Chinese-made telecommunications hardware. The British government has come under relentless pressure by Washington to bar Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers, from competing for contracts to build the United Kingdom’s 5th generation cellular communications infrastructure.

In recent years, Huawei has come under scrutiny by some Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Washington has intensified an worldwide campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with some if its allies, notably Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies. Last year, Washington warned two of its main European allies, Britain and Germany, that it would stop sharing intelligence with them if they allowed Huawei to compete for 5G contracts.

But in an interview with The Financial Times, Sir Andrew Parker, head of the Security Service (MI5), said on Sunday that he didn’t believe Britain’s intelligence-sharing relationship with America would be impacted by the decision. When asked whether Washington would stop sharing intelligence with London if the British government allowed a bid by Huawei, Sir Andrew said he had “no reason today to think that”. He added that Britain’s intelligence relations with the US, and with other close allies, such as Canada and Australia, were “the strongest they’ve ever been”. Britain’s intelligence partnership with America “is, of course, of great importance to us”, said Sir Andrew, and went on: “I dare say, to the US too, though that’s for them to say. It is a two-way street”.

Meanwhile was reported over the weekend that a high-level delegation from the National Security Agency —America’s largest intelligence agency— and the US National Economic Council would be in London today, in what appears to be a final effort to persuade London not to cooperate with Huawei. Prior to her resignation last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May had reportedly decided to allow the Chinese firm to compete for 5G contracts. Her successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is reputed to be in agreement with that decision. Last April, German intelligence official also dismissed American warnings that intelligence sharing with Berlin would end if Huawei built any part of the German 5G network.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 January 2020 | Permalink

Floor plans of MI6 headquarters in London ‘temporarily lost’ by contractor

MI6The floor plans of the headquarters of MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence agency, were temporarily lost by a contractor, an incident that led to a temporary lockdown of the building and the termination of the contract, according to media reports. The alleged incident took place at 85 Albert Embankment, a distinctive-looking building that has served since 1994 as the headquarters of MI6 —known officially as the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS. The imposing structure is located on the bank of the River Thames alongside Vauxhall Bridge in downtown London.

Up until a few weeks ago, sections of the building were reportedly being refurbished by Balfour Beatty, a multinational construction services company based in London. Balfour Beatty employs over 25,000 workers worldwide and is known as a major British government contractor. According to reports, the company produced several floor plans of the sections of the MI6 headquarters that it had been hired to refurbish. The floor plans were kept in a secure location inside the MI6 building, and were accessible only to cleared Balfour Beatty employees.

A few weeks ago, however, over 100 pages of floor plans went missing, according to the British tabloid The Sun, which first reported the story. The alleged incident prompted a lockdown of the building, said the paper, even though the missing papers were not technically classified. They did, however, contain sensitive information about the layout of the MI6 headquarters, including information about entry and exit points, security features, and other potentially sensitive details.

After a while, “many” of the missing documents were found inside the building, said The Sun. The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera said later that “[m]ost, but not all, of the documents were recovered” inside the building. It was eventually determined that the papers had gone missing due to “carelessness, rather than any hostile activity”, said The Sun, and the Balfour Beatty workers were allowed to leave the building. However, the company has reportedly been removed from the project as a result of what The Sun described as a “shocking security gaffe”.

The Sun and the BBC reached out to Balfour Beatty for comment, but were told that the company could not comment on sensitive matters involving government projects. The British Foreign Office also said that it did not comment on matters involving intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 December 2019 | Permalink

Russian security services honor members of the Cambridge spy ring with plaque

Guy BurgessThe intelligence service of Russia has openly honored two British members of the so-called Cambridge Five spy ring, who caused great controversy during the Cold War by defecting to Moscow. The intelligence services of the Soviet Union recruited five Enlishmen, H.A.R. ‘Kim’ Philby, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, as well as an unnamed fifth person, to spy for them in the 1930s. All five were recruited while they were promising young students at Britain’s elite Cambridge University, and entered the diplomatic and security services in order to supply Moscow with classified information about Britain and its allies.

In 1951, shortly before they were detained by British authorities on suspicion of espionage, Burgess and Maclean defected to the Soviet Union. They both lived there under new identities and, according to official histories, as staunch supporters of Soviet communism. Some biographers, however, have suggested that the two Englishmen grew disillusioned with communism while living in the Soviet Union, and were never truly trusted by the authorities Moscow. When they died, however, in 1963 (Burgess) and 1983 (Maclean), the Soviet intelligence services celebrated them as heroes.

On Friday, the Soviet state recognized the two defectors in an official ceremony in the Siberian city of Samara, where they lived for a number of years, until the authorities relocated them to Moscow. Kuibyshev, as the city was known during Soviet times, was technically a vast classified facility where much of the research for the country’s space program took place. While in Kuibyshev, Burgess and Maclean stayed at a Soviet intelligence ‘safe house’, where they were debriefed and frequently interrogated, until their handlers were convinced that they were indeed genuine defectors.

At Friday’s ceremony, officials unveiled a memorial plaque at the entrance to the building where Burgess and Maclean lived. According to the Reuters news agency, the plaque reads: “In this building, from 1952-1955, lived Soviet intelligence officers, members of the ‘Cambridge Five’, Guy Francis Burgess and Donald Maclean”. On the same day, a letter written by Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the institutional descendants of the Soviet-era KGB, appeared online. In the letter, Naryshkin said that Burgess and Maclean had made “a significant contribution to the victory over fascism [during World War II], the protection of [the USSR’s] strategic interests, and ensuring the safety” of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Last year, Russian officials named a busy intersection in Moscow after Harold Adrian Russell Philby. Known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, Philby was a leading member of the Cambridge spies. He followed Burgess and Maclean to the USSR in 1963, where he defected after a long career with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 December 2019 | Permalink

London accused of hiding report about Russian meddling in Brexit referendum

BrexitThe British government has been accused by opposition parties, and by pro-remain conservative figures, of trying to conceal a report documenting Russian meddling in British politics. The report documents the results of an investigation into Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the outcome of the 2017 general election in the United Kingdom, as well as the result of the 2016 European Union referendum, which ended in victory for the pro-Brexit campaign.

The investigation was carried out by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and is largely based on closed-door testimony by senior officials from Britain’s intelligence community. It reportedly contains evidence from Russia experts in agencies such as the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

According to media reports the probe was completed in March of this year and underwent a redaction process to safeguard intelligence methods and sources. On October 15 it was submitted to Downing Street and on October 17 it reportedly landed on the desk of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. British opposition politicians allege that even sensitive reports are usually made public no later than 10 days after they are submitted to Downing Street, which means that the document should have been released prior to October 28.

Some fear that, with Parliament about to suspend operations on Tuesday, in anticipation for December’s general election, the report will effectively remain hidden from public view until the spring of 2020. On Friday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn publicly urged the government to release the report and claimed that the prime minster may have “something to hide”. But cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom argued that it is not unusual for parliamentary committee reports to remain in the government’s hands until they are properly evaluated. “The government has to respond properly, it cannot respond in haste”, said Leadsom.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 November 2019 | 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

Extracts from Kim Philby’s espionage confession published today for the first time

Kim PhilbyExtensive extracts from the confession of Kim Philby, one of the Cold War’s most prolific double spies, are scheduled to be released today for the first time by Britain’s National Archives. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet OGPU and NKVD, the intelligence services that later became known as the KGB. His espionage activities lasted from 1933 until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Philby’s defection sent ripples of shock across Western intelligence and is often seen as one of the most dramatic incidents of the Cold War. He was part of a spy ring of upper-class British communists who were known collectively as ‘the Cambridge spies’ because they were recruited by Soviet intelligence during their student days at the University of Cambridge in England.

Britain’s intelligence establishment has never released Philby’s confession, which he made to his friend Nicholas Elliott, an intelligence officer in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in January 1963. The MI6 had sent Elliott to Beirut, where Philby was working as a journalist, to inform him that his espionage role for the Soviets had been established beyond doubt. The MI6 officer had been authorized to offer Philby immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession. Philby accepted the offer and began his confession while in Beirut. But a few days later he vanished and reemerged in Moscow in July of that year. He died there in 1988.

The file that is scheduled to be released today by the National Archives is marked “Secret” and comes from the Security Service (MI5), Britain’s primary counterintelligence agency. It contains details about Philby’s first assignments for Soviet intelligence, which included identifying other communist students at Cambridge who would be susceptible to recruitment. Philby’s list included the names of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who later became members of the Cambridge spy ring. Philby states in his confession that he cautioned his Soviet handlers about recruiting Burgess due to “his unreliability and indiscretion”, but his objections were “overruled”, he says.

When asked by Elliott how he could have sided with Soviet intelligence at a time when the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, was slaughtering millions, Philby responds by comparing his service for the KGB to joining the armed forces. Following orders, he says, does not imply that a soldier unquestionably agrees to every action of the government he serves. He goes on to reveal that his Soviet handlers never attempted to win his “total acceptance on the technical level. In short”, Philby continues, “I joined [Soviet intelligence] as one joined the army [… I often] obeyed orders although convinced they were wrongly conceived”.

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