Britain to set up intelligence unit to combat ‘fake news’ by foreign states

Theresa MayThe British government has announced that it will form a new intelligence unit tasked with preventing the spread of so-called “fake news” by foreign states, including Russia. The decision was revealed earlier this week in London by a government spokesman, who said that the new unit will be named “National Security Communications Unit”. The spokesman added that the unit will be responsible for “combating disinformation by state actors and others”. When asked by reporters whether the effort was meant as a response to the phenomenon often described as “fake news”, the spokesman said that it was.

According to The Times newspaper, the proposal for a National Security Communications Unit was presented during a scheduled meeting of the country’s National Security Council earlier this week. It was put forward by its strongest proponent, Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan and current national security adviser to the government. The unit will be directly accountable to the Cabinet Office, the government department that is responsible for providing support to the Prime Minister and her Cabinet. It will be staffed with professionals from Britain’s intelligence and security agencies, but will also rely on contributions from external experts in cybersecurity, communications and public relations. The unit will also include a “rapid response unit” that will be tasked with countering “fake news” in real time, according to The Times.

The move follows a similar development in the United States. In December of 2016, the then President Barack Obama signed a new law that designated $160 million to set up a government center for “countering foreign propaganda and disinformation”. The law, entitled “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act”, authorized the departments of State and Defense to work with other federal agencies in establishing the new body. According to a statement by the White House, the goal of the Center would be to collect and analyze “foreign government information warfare efforts” and to “expose and counter foreign information operations” directed against “US national security interests”.

On Wednesday it was announced in London that the British Secretary of Defense, Gavin Williamson, will be providing further details about the National Security Communications Unit in a speech to the House of Commons “within the next few days”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 January 2018 | Permalink

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Tony Blair denies he warned Donald Trump British spies were after him

Tony BlairA spokesman for Tony Blair has dismissed as “categorically absurd” allegations that the former British Prime Minister warned the White House that President Donald Trump was targeted by British spy agencies. The claims are made in the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which is due to be published next week. Its author, Michael Wolf, says he based the information in the book on more than 200 interviews that he held with President Trump and members of his inner circle during the past year.

Wolf alleges that Blair, who was Britain’s prime minister from 1997 to 2007, visited the White House in secret in February of 2017. He allegedly did so as a private citizen, as he has held no public position since 2015, when he stepped down from his post as a Middle East envoy for the United Nations. While at the White House, Blair reportedly met with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide. During that meeting, says Wolf, Blair told Kushner that Trump could have been under surveillance by British intelligence during his presidential election campaign. The former British prime minister allegedly said that any surveillance on Trump would have been carried out by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s signals intelligence agency. Wolf further alleges that the administration of US President Barack Obama never asked London to spy on Trump. Instead, the White House “hinted” that intelligence collection about Trump would be “helpful”, says Wolf. The reason why Blair volunteered this information to Kushner, claims Wolf, was that he was hoping to gain the US president’s trust and be appointed as Washington’s envoy to the Middle East.

Blair’s revelation, which Wolf describes in his book as a “juicy nugget or information”, allegedly “churned and festered” in Trump’s mind. It was the basis for claims made on March 14, 2017, by a Fox News commentator that the GCHQ had spied on Trump on behalf of the White House. The claim was repeated on March 17 at the White House by Sean Spicer, Trump’s then-press secretary, who said that Obama had used the GCHQ to spy on Trump so as to evade American privacy laws. Spicer’s claim prompted an angry response from the British government in London and from the British spy agency itself. In a rare public comment, GCHQ called the allegations “utterly ridiculous”.

Late on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the office of Tony Blair said in an email that Wolf’s claims in Fire and Fury were “a complete fabrication […], have no basis in reality and are simply untrue”. Last year, another spokesman for Blair dismissed claims that the former British prime minister had lobbied to be appointed Trump’s Middle East envoy. This claim was so “completely overblown” and “so far beyond speculation there isn’t a word for it”, said the spokesman. President Trump has not commented on Wolf’s claim about Blair’s alleged visit and subsequent meeting with Kushner.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 January 2018 | Permalink

British spy agency speeds up hiring process to compete with private firms

GCHQThe Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), one of Britain’s most powerful intelligence agencies, says it plans to accelerate its vetting process because it is losing top recruits to the private sector. Founded in 1919 and headquartered in Cheltenham, England, the GCHQ is tasked with communications interception. It also provides information assurance to both civilian and military components of the British state. It primarily hires people with technical expertise in communications hardware and software. But in the past fiscal year, the agency fell notably short of its recruitment target, according to a new government report published this week.

The information is included in the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of the British Parliament. According to the document, GCHQ’s recruitment shortfall during the past fiscal year exceeded 22 percent, as the agency hired 500 new staff, 140 short of its initial goal of 640. Because of its mission, the agency must have the “ability to recruit and retain cyber specialists”, says the report. However, GCHQ officials told the parliamentary committee that they “struggle to attract and retain a suitable and sufficient cadre of in-house technical specialists”. The latter are lured away by large hi-tech companies, for two reasons: first, because the salaries are higher; and second, because the hiring process is faster. Due to its security requirements, GCHQ has a lengthy vetting process for all potential employees, which sometimes takes more than a year. In recent times, the process has suffered backlogs, a phenomenon that has negatively impacted on the agency’s ability to recruit top talent.

In response to its recruitment shortfall, GCHQ told the parliamentary committee that it plans to speed up its vetting process by addressing its “lack of security vetting capacity”. In July of 2016, the agency had 51 vetting officers in its ranks. It hopes to raise this number to 110 by the summer of 2018, according to the parliamentary report. This will allow it to clear hiring backlogs by December of next year and thus be able to bettercompete with hi-tech firms in the private sector. Other British intelligence agencies have faced recruitment challenges in recent years. In 2010, the then Director-General of MI5, Jonathan Evans, told the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee that “some [MI5] staff perhaps aren’t quite the ones that we will want for the future”. He added that the lack of even basic computer skills among MI5’s aging officer ranks have sparked the introduction of a program of “both voluntary and compulsory redundancies”. And in 2016, MI6 said that it would increase its staff size by 40 percent by 2020, reflecting a renewed emphasis in foreign intelligence collection using human sources, which is the primary task of the agency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 December 2017 | Permalink

MI5 releases new information about Soviet ‘Portland Spy Ring’

DocumentFiles released on Monday by the British government reveal new evidence about one of the most prolific Soviet spy rings that operated in the West after World War II, which became known as the Portland Spy Ring. Some of the members of the Portland Spy Ring were Soviet operatives who, at the time of their arrest, posed as citizens of third countries. All were non-official-cover intelligence officers, or NOCs, as they are known in Western intelligence parlance. Their Soviet —and nowadays Russian— equivalents are known as illegals. NOCs are high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the authorities of the country that employs them. During much of the Cold War, NOCs posed as business executives, students, academics, journalists, or non-profit agency workers. Unlike official-cover officers, who are protected by diplomatic immunity, NOCs have no such protection. If arrested by authorities of their host country, they can be tried and convicted for engaging in espionage.

The existence of the Portland Spy Ring has been known since 1961, when British authorities arrested five people throughout England. Two of them were British citizens, Harry Houghton, a clerk at the Royal Navy’s Underwater Detection Establishment facility in Dorset, England, and his mistress, Ethel Gee. Their Soviet handler was Konon Molody, a Soviet intelligence officer who was posing as a Canadian, under the name Gordon Lonsdale. Also arrested was a married couple from New Zealand, Peter and Helen Kroger. But in reality they were Americans, whose real names were Morris and Lona Cohen, and had worked for Soviet intelligence since the late 1930s. Collectively, the five were referred in media reports as members of the Portland Spy Ring.

The newly declassified files about the spy ring were released by the Security Service, known commonly as MI5, Britain’s primary counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency. They reveal how British authorities managed to bust the Portland Spy Ring. According to the files, the initial tip-off came from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The American agency had managed to recruit Michael Goleniewski, codename SNIPER, a Polish military counterintelligence officer, who led the technical office of Poland’s military intelligence. In the spring of 1960, Goleniewski told the CIA that Polish intelligence were running a British agent who was recruited while serving in the office of the naval attaché at the British embassy in Warsaw. The CIA shared the information with British intelligence, who soon identified the agent as Harry Houghton in Dorset. MI5 agents followed Houghton and his girlfriend, Ethel Gee, as they met with a successful Canadian businessman in London, Gordon Lonsdale (real name Konon Molody). Molody had grown up with a family member in California in the 1930s, and spoke fluent English. He had joined Soviet intelligence during World War II and sent to Britain posing as a Canadian. When he arrived there, in 1954, he established the KGB’s first known illegal residency in the British Isles.

In turn, Molody led MI5 to Peter and Helen Kroger from New Zealand (real names Morris and Lona Cohen), who were posing as antique book dealers. The couple acted as couriers, radio operators and technical support officers for Molody. They were born in the United States and had been recruited by Soviet intelligence in the 1930s. It is now known that they had contacts with several other Soviet illegals in America, including Rudolf Abel (real name William Fisher) who was captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1957. The couple had left the United States on orders of the KGB in 1952 and reappeared in the United Kingdom using New Zealand passports and new names.

The newly declassified documents show that MI5 decided to move against the five members of the Portland Spy Ring after Goleniewski became an open defector and was exfiltrated to the United States by officers in the CIA’s Berlin station. British authorities feared that Goleniewski’s open defection would prompt the Soviets to pull out Houghton, whose identity was known to Goleniewski. Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison. They were released in 1970, married the following year, and died in the 1980s. Molody was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 1964 and exchanged for Greville Wynne, a British spy captured in the USSR. The Cohens received 20 year sentences, but were released in 1969 and exchanged with Gerald Brooke, a British teacher who was arrested in the USSR for smuggling anti-communist literature and trying to organize dissidents inside the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2017 | Permalink

MI6 chiefs used secret slush fund to finance operations, document shows

Sir Stewart MenziesSuccessive directors of the Secret Intelligence Service used a secret slush fund to finance spy operations without British government oversight after World War II, according to a top-secret document unearthed in London. The document was found in a collection belonging to the personal archive of the secretary of the British cabinet, which was released by the United Kingdom’s National Archives. It was discovered earlier this year by Dr Rory Cormac, Associate Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Nottingham in England. It forms the basis of an episode of BBC Radio 4’s investigative history program, Document, which was aired last weekend. In the program, the BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera explains that the discovery of the secret slush fund reveals new information about the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service. It also raises questions about the underground activities of British spies in the Middle East following the British Empire’s postwar retreat.

Historically, the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service —known commonly as MI6— have been indirectly supervised by the British Parliament and its committees, which fund the agency through a secret vote. The use of the agency’s funds to carry out operations is also monitored by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who exercises political control over MI6. However, the document uncovered by Dr Cormac shows that, for many years, successive directors of the secretive spy agency financed operations using a sizeable personal fund, the existence of which was not disclosed to the government. The document describes a meeting held in 1952 between Sir Stewart Menzies, who was then the outgoing director of MI, and the permanent secretaries —essentially the top-ranking civil servants— to the Foreign Office and the Treasury. The meeting was held to prepare the ground for Sir Stewart’s retirement and to facilitate the smooth handover of power to his successor, Major-General Sir John Sinclair, who became director of MI6 in 1953. Read more of this post

Secret documents passed to the KGB by Kim Philby displayed in Moscow

Kim PhilbyThe life of Kim Philby, one of the Cold War’s most recognizable espionage figures, is the subject of a new exhibition that opened last week in Moscow. Items displayed at the exhibition include secret documents stolen by Philby and passed to his Soviet handlers during his three decades in the service of Soviet intelligence. 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 NKVD and KGB. His espionage lasted from about 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.

Now a new exhibition in Moscow has put on display some of Philby’s personal belongings, as well as a fraction of the many classified documents he passed on to his Soviet handlers during his 30 years of espionage. Entitled “Kim Philby: His Intelligence Work and Personal Life”, the exhibition is organized by the Russian Historical Society. The majority of the new documents appear to date from 1944, by which time Philby had been working for the NKVD for over a decade. Some of the documents are cables sent by Italian, Japanese or German diplomats prior to and during World War II, which were intercepted by British intelligence. Copies of some of these intercepts, which Philby passed to Moscow, are displayed in the exhibition. One document clearly bears the English-language warning: “Top Secret. To be kept under lock and key: never to be removed from this office”. Another document appears to be part of a report that Philby produced after teaching a seminar for KGB intelligence officers about how to operate in the West. It is dated 1982, by which time Philby had been living in Russia for nearly two decades.

Philby died in the Soviet capital in 1988, aged 76, and was survived by his fourth wife, Rufina Ivanovna Pukhova, whom he met after he defected to the USSR. Pukhova attended the opening of the exhibition in Moscow last week, as did over a dozen of Philby’s students at the former KGB. Russian media reported that the director and several officials of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the KGB’s successor agencies, were also present during the official opening of the exhibition.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2017 | Permalink

Rare case of female lone-wolf dissident republican ends in conviction in N. Ireland

Christine ConnorA British court has convicted a lone-wolf female dissident Irish republican, who plotted attacks against police officers after using Facebook to lure two men into joining a fictitious militant organization. Her two male accomplices took their own lives in recent months. The rare case centers on Christine Connor, a 31-year-old resident of Northern Ireland and self-described dissident republican.

The term ‘dissident republican’ refers to secessionist militants who campaign for the union between Northern Ireland —which currently belongs to the United Kingdom— and the Republic of Ireland, which gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. In 1998, after a decades-long armed campaign, the majority of Irish republicans surrendered their weapons and accepted the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which outlines a peaceful resolution to the problem of Northern Ireland’s status. But some republican activists rejected the agreement and vowed to continue to use violence to achieve the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. These are known as dissident republicans and typically support a number of paramilitary secessionist groups, such as the Continuity Irish Republican Army and the Real Irish Republican Army.

But Christine Connor did not belong to any of these groups. Instead, she used Facebook to create a fictitious dissident republican organization called ‘United Struggle’, and declared war on the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She then created another fictitious social media account using the image of Sanne Alexandra Andersson, a Swedish model and fashion personality. Connor then used her fake online persona to lure two men into joining the militant organization that she claimed to lead. One of them was Stuart Downes, an Englishman from the town of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh-English border. She convinced him to build explosive devices, which the police described as “sophisticated, fully functioning bombs”. In May of 2003, Connor used the devices in an unsuccessful attempt to kill two police officers in north Belfast.

The lone-wolf militant used her fake social media accounts to lure another man, an American called Zachary Gelvinger, into joining ‘United Struggle’. Gelvinger, who sent hundreds of dollars to Connor’s organization, had his home searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and was arrested in the United Kingdom while attempting to visit Connor in prison, in July of 2013. Downes, the Englishman, was arrested by police in Shrewsbury shortly after making a phone call from a public phone box to claim responsibility on behalf of ‘United Struggle’ for Connor’s failed attempt to kill the police officers in Belfast. Tragically, Downes killed himself in June of 2016. Gelvinger, the American member of ‘United Struggle’, killed himself in May of this year.

Remarkably, neither of the two men had any connection to Northern Ireland or any previous involvement in republican politics in or out of the United Kingdom. Last month, Connor pleaded guilty to a score of offenses, including terrorism. Last Tuesday, she was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 June 2017 | Permalink