Revealed: China arrested US diplomat believing him to be CIA officer

US Consulate ChengduAn American diplomat stationed in China was abducted and interrogated for several hours by Chinese authorities, who believed him to be an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency working under official cover. The alleged abduction took place in early 2016 but was revealed this week by the online news outlet Politico. The website said that the diplomat, who has not been named, was stationed at the United States consulate general in Chengdu, a city of 14 million that is the administrative capital of western China’s Sichuan province. Founded in 1985, the US consulate in Chengdu is one of Washington’s seven diplomatic and consular posts in China. It is staffed by 130 people, approximately 30 of whom are Americans and 100 are locally hired Chinese citizens. The facility’s consular district includes several Chinese provinces, including the politically sensitive Tibet Autonomous Region.

On Wednesday, Politico said it spoke with “more than half a dozen current and former national security officials” in the US, who confirmed that an American diplomat stationed at the Chengdu consulate was abducted and detained for several hours. The website said that the abduction took place in January 2016. The diplomat was reportedly “grabbed off the street” in the middle of the day by plainclothes Chinese officers and driven to a detention facility in an unmarked van. He was allegedly kept there for several hours despite his diplomatic status with full immunity, which protects diplomats from being subjected to arrest and detention in the host country. American officials claim that the Chinese authorities did not notify the US consulate of the diplomat’s whereabouts until several hours later. By that time, the diplomat had been aggressively interrogated and his responses had been filmed by his captors, who claimed that he was an officer of the CIA. He was later released but left the country soon afterwards, according to Politico.

American officials told the website that the diplomat’s abduction was “an unusually bold act” that illustrates an ongoing and increasingly tense confrontation between Chinese and American intelligence services. Several American diplomats told Politico that Chinese authorities followed them around and in some cases broke into their apartments and “searched their rooms and belongings”. According to the news website, Washington responded to the American diplomat’s abduction by issuing a formal protest and threatening to expel Chinese intelligence officers operating in the US with diplomatic cover. However, it is not believed that the threat materialized.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 October 2017 | Permalink

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Israel reportedly behind discovery of Russian antivirus company’s spy links

Computer hackingIsraeli spy services were reportedly behind the United States government’s recent decision to purge Kaspersky Lab antivirus software from its computers, citing possible collusion with Russian intelligence. Last month, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a directive ordering that all government computers should be free of software products designed by Kaspersky Lab. Formed in the late 1990s by Russian cybersecurity expert Eugene Kaspersky, the multinational antivirus software provider operates out of Moscow but is technically based in the United Kingdom. Its antivirus and cybersecurity products are installed on tens of millions of computers around the world, including computers belonging to government agencies in the US and elsewhere. But last month’s memorandum by the US government’s domestic security arm alarmed the cybersecurity community by alleging direct operational links between the antivirus company and the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the initial piece of intelligence that alerted the US government to the alleged links between Kaspersky Lab and Moscow was provided by Israel. The American paper said that Israeli cyber spies managed to hack into Kaspersky’s systems and confirm the heavy presence of Russian government operatives there. The Times’ report stated that the Israelis documented real-time cyber espionage operations by the Russians, which targeted the government computer systems of foreign governments, including the United States’. The Israeli spies then reportedly approached their American counterparts and told them that Kaspersky Lab software was being used by Russian intelligence services as a backdoor to millions of computers worldwide. The Israelis also concluded that Kaspersky’s antivirus software was used to illegally steal files from these computers, which were essentially infected by spy software operated by the Russian government.

It was following the tip by the Israelis that he Department of Homeland Security issued its memorandum saying that it was “concerned about the ties between certain Kaspersky [Lab] officials and Russian intelligence and other government agencies”. The memorandum resulted in a decision by the US government —overwhelmingly supported by Congress— to scrap all Kaspersky software from its computer systems. Kaspersky Lab has rejected allegations that it works with Russian intelligence. In a statement issued in May of this year, the company said it had “never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 October 2017 | Pemalink

Trump chief of staff’s phone was breached for nearly a year, say sources

John KellyThe personal cell phone of the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (photo) was compromised by persons unknown and may have been bugged for nearly a year, according to United States government officials. General Kelly retired from the US Marine Corps in 2016, after serving as chief of the US Pentagon’s Southern Command, where he supervised American military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Soon afterwards, he was appointed by US President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Homeland Security, which he joined in January of 2017. Six months later, however, he replaced Reince Priebus, who resigned abruptly from the post of White House Chief of Staff, citing differences over management style with the Trump administration.

According to the online news outlet Politico, the breach of Kelly’s personal phone was discovered last summer, after the retired general sought the advice of the White House’s technical support staff. Kelly told the technical experts that his phone’s operating system had been malfunctioning for several months and that software updates seemed to make the problem worse. Once the breach was discovered, White House staff summarized the findings of the probe into Kelly’s phone in a one-page memorandum. Three people who read the document spoke anonymously to Politico. The news outlet said that, according to the White House memorandum, it is unclear how and when Kelly’s phone was breached. There is also no information in the document about how much and what kind of information was compromised throughout the duration of the breach. Politico cited a White House spokesman who claimed that the chief of staff used his personal phone sparsely and never for government business.

However, depending on the level of the breach, hackers could have used the compromised phone to listen in to Kelly’s private conversations —in and out of the White House— even when the phone was not in use but simply turned on. It follows that if the breach of Kelly’s phone was orchestrated by a foreign government, the magnitude of the compromise may be substantial. Politico reports that digital forensics experts are now reviewing Kelly’s travels in the past year, as part of a widening investigation into the breach. Meanwhile, the general has been issued a new phone for his personal use.

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

Trump’s CIA director outlines plans to make agency more aggressive, cut red tape

Mike PompeoThe man appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the United States Central Intelligence Agency has outlined his plans to promote more aggressive intelligence operations and combat what he described as “red tape” in the agency’s culture. Mike Pompeo, a former aerospace and oil executive, who is a member of the conservative Tea Party movement, assumed the directorship of the CIA in January of this year. He succeeded John Brennan, a career CIA officer, who has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s attitude to intelligence since he left office in January.

On Wednesday, Pompeo was the keynote speaker at a one-day conference on intelligence, hosted at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Entitled Ethos and Profession of Intelligence, the conference was co-sponsored by George Washington University and the CIA. In his speech, Pompeo outlined his plans to make CIA operations more aggressive and cut back what he repeatedly described as “red tape” at the agency. He based his observations on his opinion that the CIA is slow, not agile enough, and excessively centralized in its decision making. He added that, to better protect American national security, the Agency should engage in more offensive methods of intelligence collection. He went on to state that the most effective way to make the CIA more agile as an organization was to decentralize its decision-making processes. To do so, he said, decisions had to be pushed “to the lowest level possible”, thus allowing CIA station chiefs around the world to “call the shots” on operations. That was especially applicable to “tactical issues”, where the person with the most direct knowledge of the situation “is rarely me or anyone in my senior leadership team”, said Pompeo.

The CIA director went on to say that his plan is to “cut red tape” through various ways. One such way is reducing the numbers of CIA personnel that are required to review and approve intelligence operations, he said. Another way is increasing the number of CIA operations officers stationed abroad, thus placing CIA personnel closer to the agency’s intelligence targets. The goal is to “deploy our people, tools and resources into the heart of the fight”, said Pompeo. The CIA director concluded his remarks by saying he wants to instill a new culture at the Agency, based on the motto: “If you are in a process and you’re not adding value, get out of the way”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 October 2017 | Permalink

Facing skepticism by experts, NSA backs down in global encryption standards debate

NSARepresentatives from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) withdrew a proposal to introduce new global industry standards for data encryption, after encountering prolonged skepticism by experts representing other Western countries. Some observers have interpreted this development as indicative of the damaged relationship between the NSA and its Western counterparts following revelations by American defector Edward Snowden.

Deliberations for establishing new industry standards for data encryption have been taking place for over three years under the supervision of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO is a worldwide standard-setting body founded in 1947, which brings together representatives from national standards organizations. The US delegation, had proposed the adoption of two new data encryption techniques, known as ‘Simon’ and ‘Speck’. The techniques had the approval of the US national standards organization, which is known as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) . However, it also had the approval of the NSA, America’s signals intelligence agency, whose representatives were members of the US delegation to the ISO. According to the Reuters news agency, the presence of the NSA representatives in ANSI prompted skepticism among other national delegations.

Eventually, encryption experts from countries including Israel, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, rejected ‘Simon’ and ‘Speck’. The reason, according to Reuters, was that they were “worried that the [NSA] was pushing the new techniques not because they were good encryption tools, but because it knew how to break them”. Some commentators believe that this incident illustrates the suspicion with which the NSA is seen by American allies following headline-grabbing revelations made Edward Snowden, a former employee of the NSA who defected to Russia in 2013. Some of Snowden’s most sensational revelations involved alleged NSA operations targeting Germany, France, Israel, Japan, and other American allies. The revelations shocked public opinion in Europe and elsewhere, and resulted in the unprecedented expulsion of the CIA station chief in Berlin —the most senior US intelligence official in the country. ISO delegates are now thought to be working on a revised plan to keep some of ANSI’s proposed standards but enhance them with stronger layers of encryption, said Reuters.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 September 2017 | Permalink

Australia rejected CIA request to open embassy in North Korea

PyongyangAustralia rejected a secret request by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to open an embassy in North Korea, which the Americans hoped to use as a base from where to collect intelligence on the communist state. According to The Australian newspaper, Washington approached the Australian government because it is one of the few pro-Western governments that continue to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Up until 1975, Australia was a rare example of a country that hosted embassies of both South Korea and North Korea on its soil. But when Canberra took South Korea’s side in a United Nations vote, the North Koreans objected by shutting down their embassy in Australia. A quarter of a century later, in 2000, Pyongyang reopened its embassy in the Australian capital, only to close it down again in 2008, due to financial constraints.

Throughout that time, Australia has maintained relatively smooth diplomatic relations with North Korea, but has refrained from opening a residential mission in the communist country. Instead, employees of Australia’s embassy in South Korea occasionally travel to the North to perform diplomatic tasks. But in 2014, the US Department of State reached out to Canberra to request that the Australian government consider the possibility of establishing a permanent residential mission in Pyongyang. According to The Australian, the request came from the CIA, which hoped to use the Australian embassy as a base from where to collect intelligence on the isolated country. The US, which lacks an embassy in North Korea, has always found it difficult to collect intelligence there.

The American request was promptly communicated to the then-Prime Minister Tonny Abbott and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. Both appeared willing to consider Washington’s proposal. But the civil servants of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who were tasked with putting together a cost-benefit analysis of the request, came back with a negative response. They allegedly contacted their colleagues working in other countries who maintain permanent residential diplomatic missions in Pyongyang. They told them that their consular employees are kept in complete isolation from North Korean society and government. Additionally, they are subjected to constant surveillance by the North Koreans, who are extremely suspicious of all foreign diplomats. Moreover, Canberra was worried that opening an embassy in Pyongyang would inevitably be seen by the North Koreans as an invitation to reopen their embassy in Australia. It would require significant effort and resources to monitor the activities of North Korean diplomats, who are notorious for abusing their diplomatic status by engaging in illicit activities of all kinds.

Eventually, therefore, the US request was rejected by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The latter concluded that Canberra should not proceed with opening a new embassy in Pyongyang, despite the allegedly “strong suggestion” of the CIA. The matter, said The Australian, never reach the cabinet and Washington never brought it up again.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2017 | Permalink

More facts revealed about mystery sonic attacks on US embassy in Cuba

US embassy in CubaAmerican officials have revealed more information about a mysterious sonic device that is believed to have caused numerous diplomats to suffer hearing loss and other serious ailments. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the first hearing-loss symptoms were reported by personnel at the US embassy in Havana in the fall of 2016. The news agency said that at least five embassy personnel reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. The symptoms were so serious that caused some American diplomats “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”, according to the Associated Press.

Now new information has been disclosed by the United States Department of State. It suggests that, although diplomats began reporting hearing-loss symptoms in as early as fall 2016, the incidents continued until mid-August of this year. In a report published on Saturday, the BBC said that the bizarre incidents had not ended “several months ago” as was initially believed. Instead, they continued even after the last week of May, when the US deported two Cuban diplomats from Washington, DC. The move was in response to what Washington believes was a deliberate attempt to sabotage its diplomatic mission in Havana. The American embassy in the Cuban capital reopened in 2015, 54 years after it was closed down following a series of diplomatic rifts between Cuba and the US during the height of the Cold War.

Additionally, the Department of State said on Friday that the number of American diplomats and other US embassy personnel who have reported sonic-related symptoms has increased to 19. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington that doctors were still evaluating the health of those serving at the US embassy in Havana. She added that new cases of people suffering from sonic-related medical symptoms could not be ruled out. A report from the American Foreign Service Association, which represents members of the United States Foreign Service, said on Friday that its representatives had spoken to 10 people who had received various treatments for ailments related to the alleged sonic attacks in Cuba. It said that many had suffered “permanent hearing loss”, while others were diagnosed with mild brain injuries.

According to media reports, Washington has concluded that the American diplomats were exposed to “an advanced device that was deployed either inside or outside their residences”. But the Cuban government denied that it had anything to do with the American diplomats’ symptoms, and some believe that the alleged “covert sonic device” may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of Cuban authorities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2017 | Permalink