British intelligence ‘among the first’ to notify US about Russian hacking

MI6British intelligence agencies gave their United States counterparts an early warning about Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the American presidential election, according to The New York Times. The American newspaper cited “two people familiar with the conclusions” of a US intelligence report, who said that British spies helped “raise the alarm” in Washington about Russian hacking. The Times were referring to a classified US intelligence report that purports to prove that Moscow tried to skew the US election results in favor of Republican Party nominee Donald Trump. The report, parts of which have been released to the public, was shared with Trump in a secret meeting with US intelligence officials last week.

Interestingly, media reports suggest that US intelligence agencies were not aware of the severity of Russian hacking operations until they were notified by allied intelligence agencies. British spy agencies were “among the first” to tell their transatlantic partners that Moscow was engaged in an allegedly large-scale operation against American political parties and institutions. According to The Times, British intelligence reports mentioned Russian hacking operations against the Democratic National Committee in Washington, DC, as well as against senior officials in the Democratic Party. There is no mention in the report about how the British acquired the information. The London-based newspaper The Guardian speculates that British intelligence agencies picked up clues by monitoring Russian government communications (voice intercepts and computer traffic). However, the possibility that the information was acquired through an agent should not be ruled out.

According to the British newspaper, government officials in London were “alarmed” by the close contacts between Moscow and the inner circle of Donald Trump’s campaign. They even contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and passed information about what The Guardian describes as “the depth and nature of contacts” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. There is no information, however, about whether the FBI did anything with that information. Meanwhile, the British government is eager to cultivate good relations with the US president-elect, despite concerns in Whitehall about the close Russian connections of the incoming American administration. London needs Washington’s support as it is disengaging from the European Union, says The Guardian.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 9 January 2017 | Permalink

German and British spy services in ‘biggest rift’ since World War II, claim sources

Theresa May Angela MerkelA reported discord between British and German intelligence services, which began in 2014, allegedly persists and now constitutes the “biggest rift between [the] secret services” of the two countries “since World War II”. According to British newspaper The Daily Mail, the Germans accuse Britain of working with the United States to spy on Berlin, while the British government says German intelligence agencies cannot be trusted to safeguard classified information. In an article published on Thursday, The Daily Mail said British and American intelligence agencies have stopped sharing non-critical intelligence with their German counterparts. The lack of cooperation “has now reached the point where there is virtual radio silence” between German and Anglo-American intelligence agencies, said the newspaper, citing “a source familiar” with the ongoing negotiations between the two sides.

In 2014, Germany expelled the most senior American intelligence officer stationed in the country after it confirmed that the United States National Security Agency had spied on German citizens, and had even targeted the personal communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Berlin also caught a German intelligence officer who was spying for the Central Intelligence Agency. It was later alleged that Washington threatened to end all intelligence cooperation with Berlin if the German government offered protection to American defector Edward Snowden. Some German lawmakers had suggested that Berlin should reach out to Snowden, in return for information about US intelligence operations against Germany. In March of last year, the German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung said that officials in Berlin had accused Britain of participating in American spy operations against Germany. The resulting dispute betweem Britain and Germany, said the paper, had turned into a “burgeoning crisis” that threatened intelligence-sharing between London and Berlin.

According to The Daily Mail, British intelligence agencies are now accusing their German counterparts of not properly safeguarding classified information that is shared with them by British security services. Consequently, claim the British, some of that information has found its way to WikiLeaks, the international whistleblower website founded by Australian former computer hacker Julian Assange. The London-based newspaper claims that British and German intelligence officials have met twice since 2014 to discuss ways of resolving the differences between their respective intelligence agencies. But the meetings have failed to mend the division between the parties and the crisis persists, claims The Daily Mail.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 December 2016 | Permalink

Spy agencies deploy extra staff to analyze ‘treasure trove’ of ISIS computer data

Iraqi forces in MosulWestern military and intelligence agencies are deploying extra analysts to comb through unprecedented amounts of digital data collected from Iraqi regions that have recently been recaptured from the Islamic State. The information is contained in thousands of laptops, hard drives, flash drives and cell phones left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In an article published this week, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defense, Sir Michael Fallon, said he had authorized a significant increase in numbers of military intelligence analysts deployed to the Middle East, in response to “a trove of data” captured from the Islamic State. He added that the amount of digital data was expected to increase even further “when Mosul falls”. The British intelligence analysts will join hundreds of American specialists —including analysts, linguists and computer technicians— who are stationed in neighboring Jordan and have for over a year been analyzing digital and printed data captured from the Islamic State. Much of that information is eventually disseminated to allied intelligence agencies.

The largest collection of digital data and documents captured from the Islamic State dates from last summer, when Kurdish Peshmerga forces seized nearly 1,000 electronic devices belonging to the militant group. The material was found in and around the city of Manbij, near Aleppo in northwestern Syria. By late August, the Kurds had collected 20 terabytes of computer data and more than 120,000 documents stored on 1,200 devices that once belonged to ISIS officials or operatives. According to Western officials, the data led to intelligence operations against the Islamic State in 15 countries in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. In November of this year, Iraqi forces operating south of Mosul captured the digital archives of the Islamic State’s Agricultural and Animal Resources Authority. In addition to an extensive notary archive, the collection included information on the Islamic State’s commercial transactions with entities in neighboring countries, and was described by Iraqi government sources as “a real treasure”.

According to the British government, digital data and printed documents currently being gathered from Islamic State strongholds in and around Mosul are expected to provide critical intelligence on the group’s structure and chain of command. They are also likely to give insights on the existence of Islamic State cells abroad, and will most likely help international prosecutors build legal cases against Islamic State commanders in the near future.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 December 2016 | Permalink

Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2016 | Permalink

Russia accuses UK of deliberately delaying visas for its diplomats in London

Russian embassy LondonRussia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom has accused the British Foreign Office of deliberately delaying the issuance of visas for its diplomatic officials who have been assigned to join the Russian embassy in London. Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been heading the Russian embassy in London since 2011, said last week that the size of his staff was “shrinking” to unprecedented numbers. The reason, said Yakovenko, was that the government in London appeared to be following a systematic policy of delaying visa requests for Russian diplomats assigned to serve in London.

“As our people return home or go on to other postings, visas for their replacements are not being issued”, said Yakovenko. Consequently, the Russian embassy’s personnel numbers were shrinking, and would shrink even further unless the issue was resolved by Whitehall, he said. The Russian ambassador added that his embassy did not understand “the strategy of this country on visa issues”, implying that London was following a deliberate plan to prevent Russian diplomats from staffing the embassy. But the British Foreign Office responded on Saturday that it was not following a deliberate policy of delaying the issuance of visas for Russian diplomats. The BBC quoted a Foreign Office spokesman who said that the British government had “made it clear to the Russians that the queues [for visa issuances] need to be cleared on both sides”. The comment implies that London’s stance may be a response to efforts by Moscow to reduce the size of the British diplomatic core stationed in the Russian capital.

Bilateral relations between Britain and Russia have suffered since 2006, when the murder of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London prompted Whitehall to expel four Russian diplomats stationed there. The Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria has further strained relations between Moscow and London in recent years. In August of 2015, the Russian Embassy accused the British government of “effectively expelling” four of its diplomats from London by refusing to grant them visas for more than three months.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 24 October 2016 | Permalink

Britain’s MI6 to increase its size by 40% in four years

MI6Britain’s primary external intelligence agency, MI6, will see a 40 percent increase in personnel numbers in the next four years, according to a new report. The agency, which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, currently employs about 2,500 people. But the BBC said on Wednesday that the number of MI6 employees will rise to approximately 3,500 by 2020. The broadcaster said that no public announcement had been made about the planned increase, but that it had verified the information “via Whitehall sources”, referring to the official seat of the British government.

If the BBC’s report is accurate, the planned increase will be the biggest personnel boost for MI6 since the Cold War. It reflects a renewed emphasis in foreign intelligence collection using human sources, which is the primary task of the spy agency. The broadcaster said that the increase in personnel has been “made necessary by the development of the Internet and technology” in recent years. Earlier this week, the director of MI6, Alex Younger, said during a panel presentation in Washington, DC, that the operating environment of MI6 had fundamentally changed due to “the information revolution”. The latter, he said, presented the agency with “an existential threat” and a “golden opportunity” at the same time.

The reported increase is consistent with an announcement made by the then British Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2015, that London would boost significantly the size of its intelligence services. Cameron made the announcement shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed over 130 people and injured 700. In a subsequent report, called the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the British government said it would incorporate 1,900 additional staff to its intelligence and security services. It now appears that over half of these new recruits will join MI6, while the Security Service (MI5), the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorist Command will hire the remaining 900 people.

A similar rise in personnel numbers occurred after the July 7 London bus bombings in 2005. Following those attacks, the MI5, which focuses on domestic security and counterterrorism, saw its personnel size increase by approximately 35 percent.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 September 2016 | Permalink

Informer accuses Sinn Féin leader of ordering British spy’s murder

Denis DonaldsonA former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, who was an agent for the British security services, has alleged that Gerry Adams, leader of the second-largest political party in Northern Ireland, ordered the killing of a British spy in 2006. The former agent was referring to the killing of Denis Donaldson, a senior member of the Provisional IRA, who was found dead months after it was revealed that he had been secretly spying on the republican organization on behalf of British intelligence.

In December 2005, Adams announced at a press conference in Dublin, Ireland, that Donaldson had been a spy for the British government inside the Provisional IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin. Soon after Adams’ revelation, Donaldson read a prepared statement on Ireland’s RTÉ television station, admitting that he had been recruited as a spy by the British Security Service (MI5) and the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (known today as the Police Service of Northern Ireland). Following his public admission, Donaldson was nowhere to be found. However, in March 2006, a reporter for a British tabloid newspaper found Donaldson living in a remote farmhouse in Northern Ireland’s County Donegal. Weeks later, Donaldson was shot dead in his cottage by persons unknown. In 2009, the Real IRA, a Provisional IRA splinter group that disagreed with the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent cessation of hostilities, took responsibility for Donaldson’s killing.

On Tuesday, a man who claims he was an informant for British intelligence inside Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA alleged that Donaldson’s killing was ordered by Adams himself. The man, who spoke on the BBC’s Spotlight program, could not be identified due to concerns about his personal safety. He said during a televised interview that he knew from his “experience in the IRA that murders have to be approved by […] the leadership of the IRA and the military leadership of the IRA”. When asked by the report who he was “specifically referring to”, the former informant answered: “Gerry Adams. He gives the final say”. On Wednesday, Adams denied any involvement in the killing, saying he wished to “specifically and categorically refute these unsubstantiated allegations”. The leader of Sinn Féin went on to claim that the accusations against him were “part of the British security agencies’ ongoing attempts to smear republicans and cover-up their own actions”. Adams’ lawyer said late on Wednesday that his client was considering launching a lawsuit against the BBC for defamation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 September 2016 | Permalink