FBI seeking former Syrian intelligence officer reportedly hiding in Florida

Moustafa Abed AyoubA Syrian former intelligence officer, who was given American citizenship several years ago, is being sought by authorities in the United States. The man was named by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week as Moustafa Abed Ayoub, a 75-year-old resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A statement by the FBI said the wanted man is believed to be hiding in southern Florida, possibly in the Miami area. A reward is now offered for information leading directly to Ayoub, according to the FBI press release. The release did not specify whether the former intelligence officer is wanted in connection with the ongoing civil war in Syria.

The FBI press release described Ayoub as a former brigadier general in Syria’s powerful Mukhabarat, the Military Intelligence Directorate, which operates under the auspices of the country’s Ministry of Defense. He is reported to have served in the Mukhabarat for nearly 20 years, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. According to the FBI release, Ayoub served initially in Hama and Homs before he was transferred to Damascus. It appears that Ayoub is accused by the FBI of procuring American citizenship unlawfully, after giving deliberately false testimony during his naturalization proceedings. To be eligible for American citizenship, an applicant must have lived in the US for at least 30 months during the period leading to his or her naturalization application. Ayoub is accused of not telling immigration authorities that he had spent over 1,000 days outside the US in the months leading to his application for citizenship.

The FBI said it issued a warrant for Ayoub’s arrest in Florida, where he is believed to be hiding. However, the FBI release noted that Ayoub may have returned to Syria, or may be currently residing in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Author: Ian Allen| Date: 30 September 2016 | Permalink

Public event held in Cuba for the first time to demand release of US spy

Ana Belen MontesA public event has been held for the first time in Havana to demand the release Ana Belen Montes, an American former intelligence analyst who is serving a 25-year prison term for spying on the United States for Cuba. The event appeared to be sanctioned by the Cuban government and is bound to reignite rumors that a deal between Washington and Havana to release Montes may be in the works.

Montes grew up in Kansas. In 1985 she joined the US Defense Intelligence Agency, which collects and analyzes military-related information from abroad. Montes quickly distinguished herself in the DIA, and by the mid-1990s she was seen as one of the US government’s most knowledgeable and capable Cuba experts. She was the main author of nearly every major assessment on Cuba that was produced by the US Intelligence Community in the 1990s. But on September 21, 2001, Montes was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with having committed espionage for Cuba. During her trial, US government prosecutors argued that Montes had been recruited by Cuban intelligence before she joined the DIA, and that she eventually compromised every US intelligence collection program targeting the Caribbean island. The former DIA analyst was also accused of having given Havana the identities of US intelligence officers who had secretly operated in Cuba. In 2002, Montes was sentenced to 25 years in prison, after pleading guilty to having committed espionage throughout her 16-year career in the DIA.

In recent months, there has been speculation that Montes could be released and allowed to relocate to Cuba. In return, Havana would reportedly extradite to the US Assata Shakur, a former member of militant black nationalist groups in the United States, who is accused of the 1973 murder of a state trooper in New Jersey. These rumors were denied by the US Department of State in August. Last week, however, the first public event took place in Havana to demand Montes’ release. The event featured performances by artists, as well as a keynote speech by Manuel David Orrio, a retired officer in the Cuban General Intelligence Directorate (DGI). Orio told those present at the event in downtown Havana that committees to demand Montes’ release had been formed in several Cuban provinces, as well as in Sweden, France, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. He added that formally requesting Montes’ release would be an “extremely complex” and delicate affair for the Cuban government, but that social pressure groups were free to press US officials.

In the past, the Cuban government has been silent about Montes’ case, and very few Cubans are aware of her existence. The fact that the government is now mobilizing popular committees and other pressure groups may point to a change of policy in Havana.

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

Cease-fire near collapse after US airstrike kills 62 and injures 100 Syrian troops

Deir al-Zour SyriaA cease-fire that was launched with much fanfare by the United States and Russia last week appeared in tatters on Sunday night, after Washington acknowledged it mistakenly killed over 60 Syrian troops on Saturday. American officials expressed regret for the alleged error, but Syrian and Russian officials accused Washington of deliberately sabotaging the cease-fire agreement. Russian sources said the US air strike killed 62 and injured over 100 Syrian government troops who were engaged in a battle against Islamic State forces in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zour. American military officials insisted that the pilots, who flew into Syria from bases in Iraq, believed they were targeting Islamic State forces. The operation was allegedly aborted as soon as US forces were notified by the Russian military that Syrian government troops were being targeted.

According to media reports, the US government has apologized to Damascus though Russian intermediaries for the “unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces”. But the incident has incensed Moscow, as it marks the first known engagement between US and Syrian forces since American military forces began fighting the Islamic State in 2014. The incident was described by The Washington Post late on Saturday as having sparked “one of the most hostile diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Moscow in recent years”. Soon after the US airstrike, Russia called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, during which the Russian delegation accused the United States of deliberately trying to derail the cease-fire. According to reports, the American delegation stormed out of the closed-door meeting and denounced it as a “stunt” after the Russians openly accused Washington of aiding the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria.

American officials have launched an investigation into Saturday’s incident and are so far refusing to speculate whether it was caused by human error or an intelligence failure. In Washington, a State Department spokesman insisted that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known a Syrian military unit”. But in a statement issued on Saturday, Russian Major General Igor Konashenkov said that, if the US air strike was in error, it was a “direct outcome of the US side’s stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its activities  in Syria with Russia”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2016 | Permalink

US spy agencies are significantly expanding operations against Russia

CIAAmerican intelligence agencies are diverting counterterrorist resources to Russian accounts, prompting some commentators to describe the move as the greatest expansion of spy operations against Russia since the Cold War. In a leading article published on Wednesday, The Washington Post’s Greg Miller cites unnamed United States officials in describing “a shift in resources across spy services”. The shift allegedly reflects an increasing emphasis on Russia, with many of the resources coming from accounts focusing on terrorism threats and war zones in the Middle East and Central Asia, which were created in the aftermath of 9/11.

In contrast to the Cold War, when US intelligence agencies devoted most of their resources to the Soviet Union and its allies around the world, today the US Intelligence Community designates “at most 10 percent” of its budget on espionage targeting Russia, according to Miller. But this is now beginning to change, he says, as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has now “moved Russia up the list of intelligence priorities for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse” in 1991. This move, which reflects current national-security priorities in the White House, will have a spiraling effect on the resources devoted to Russia by every American intelligence agency. There will be more human intelligence collection conducted by the CIA against Russian targets, more attention paid by the National Security Agency to Russian communications, and more reconnaissance activity over Russia by satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, among other changes.

This change in direction comes after a prolonged period of tension between Washington and Moscow, which has been marked by America’s intervention in North Africa during the Arab Spring, which Moscow strongly objected to, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Syrian Civil War, and numerous instances of cyber espionage. As a result, says Miller, “surging tensions now cut across nearly every aspect of the US-Russia relationship”. He adds that some voices in Washington have raised concerns about the slow response by the US Intelligence Community to Russia’s resurgence as a world actor, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He quotes one unnamed senior US intelligence official as saying that American spy agencies are now “playing catch-up big time with Russia”. However, some US officials stress that, given the level of reduction in US intelligence capabilities targeting Russia since 1991, it will take years to rebuild them. Regardless, they say, there is no desire in Washington to return to Cold War levels of intelligence activity any time soon.

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

FBI arrests two more members of hacker group that targeted CIA director

Computer hackingTwo more members of a computer hacker group that targeted senior United States intelligence officials, including the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, have been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The arrests of Justin Liverman, 24, and Andrew Boggs, 22, took place on Thursday in Morehead City and North Wilkesboro, in the US state of North Carolina. They are accused by the FBI of being members of Crackas With Attitude (CWA) an international group of computer hackers that specialized in targeting American intelligence and law enforcement officials.

Last October, the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks published personal emails and documents belonging to CIA Director John Brennan. The documents included a 47-page application for security clearance that Brennan had submitted to the US government a few years earlier. It was apparently found on his personal America Online (AOL) email account, which had been hacked by the CWA hacker group. Members of the group, who are all in their late teens or early 20s, routinely employed a method known as ‘social engineering’ to gain access to their victims’ information. The method refers to impersonating technicians or other service provider company personnel to gain access to private email or telephone accounts.

CWA members used these techniques to target dozens of senior US government officials from October 2015 until February 2016. Their targets included the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the Deputy Director of the FBI, Mark Giuliano. The hackers also gained access to electronic databases belonging to the US Department of Justice, from where they obtained the names, personal telephone numbers and home addresses of nearly 30,000 employees of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. That information was eventually published online by the hacker group.

In February, a 16-year-old hacker known as ‘Cracka’, who is the purported ringleader of CWA, and whose name cannot be released due to his young age, was arrested in the East Midlands region of Britain. It is believed that information on the teenager’s electronic devices eventually led the FBI to the capture of Liverman and Boggs. The two men have been charged with computer crime and are expected to appear in court in the US state of Virginia next week.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 2016 | Permalink

FBI warns against alleged Russian campaign to destabilize US elections

Putin and ObamaThe Federal Bureau of Investigation is among several intelligence agencies in the United States that have expressed concerns about an alleged Russian campaign to destabilize November’s presidential elections. The Washington Post, which revealed the FBI’s concerns on Monday, claimed that Moscow recently launched an “active measures” operation aimed at covertly sabotaging the integrity of the US election process. Russia’s goal, said the paper, was to “counter US leadership and influence in international affairs”, thus subverting America’s image, especially in countries of the former Eastern Bloc or former Soviet republics.

According to The Post, the FBI and other US intelligence agencies have “no definitive proof” that Moscow is attempting to promote public distrust in American political institutions. But there are strong indications that have made this topic “a priority” for intelligence officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, said the paper. These indications include the hack of the computer systems at the Democratic National Committee, the official governing body of the US Democratic Party, which was revealed in June. The hack resulted in the disclosure of over 20,000 internal emails and led to the resignation of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the DNC’s Chairwoman. According to The Post, the hack is “not yet officially ascribed by the US government to Russia”, but US intelligence officials are convinced that Moscow was behind it.

The DNC hack prompted the FBI to send a so-called “flash alert” to US election officials in July, urging them to remain vigilant against “attempts to penetrate election systems”, which have been detected in several states, according to the report. The unprecedented FBI alert did not expressly name Russia as a national-security threat, nor did it give details of electoral sabotage. But it urged state election officials to “be on the lookout for intrusions into their election systems”. Citing unnamed intelligence officials, The Post said that the investigation into alleged Russian operations against the US Presidential election is being coordinated by James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2016 | Permalink

US denies it plans to free top intelligence analyst who spied for Cuba

Ana Belen MontesThe White House has no plans to release an American former military analyst who spied for the government of Cuba, according to an official letter sent to a member of the United States Congress. The denial came weeks after some media reports in Miami and Cuba suggested that Washington was examining a request by Havana to release Ana Belen Montes, an American intelligence analyst and expert on Cuba, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for spying on the United States on behalf of Cuba.

Montes, who is the daughter of an American military doctor, grew up in Kansas. In 1985 she joined the Defense Intelligence Agency, a US Department of Defense body that collects and analyzes military-related information abroad. Montes quickly distinguished herself in the DIA, and by the mid-1990s she was seen as one of the US government’s most knowledgeable and capable Cuba experts. She was the main author of nearly every major assessment on Cuba that was produced by the US Intelligence Community in the 1990s. But on September 21, 2001, Montes was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with having committed espionage for Cuba. During her trial, US government prosecutors argued that Montes had been recruited by Cuban intelligence before she joined the DIA, and that she eventually compromised every US intelligence collection program targeting the Caribbean island. The former DIA analyst was also accused of having given Havana the identities of US intelligence officers who had secretly operated in Cuba. In 2002, Montes was sentenced to 25 years in prison, after pleading guilty to having committed espionage throughout her 16-year career at the DIA.

But in recent months, there has been speculation that Montes could be released and allowed to relocate to Cuba. In return, Havana would reportedly extradite to the US Assata Shakur, a former member of militant black nationalist groups in the United States, who is wanted for the 1973 murder of a state trooper in the state of New Jersey. Shakur, whose birth name is JoAnne Deborah Byron, escaped from an American prison in 1979 and resurfaced in Cuba in 1984. The island’s socialist government gave Shakur political asylum, but the FBI has designated her a terrorist.

The rumors about a possible exchange between Montes and Shakur prompted US Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to voice concern. In a letter to US President Barack Obama, Nunes urged against Montes’ release. The Congressman described the imprisoned former intelligence analyst as “one of the most brazen traitors in US history” and remarked that she “richly deserved her 25-year prison sentence, and must serve every day of it”. According to El Nuevo Herald, Nunes received a written response from the US Department of State, which said that “the United States government has no intention of releasing or exchanging Montes”. According to the Florida-based, Spanish-language newspaper, the State Department letter “assured” Nunes that it was “responding on the president’s behalf”, suggesting that the Obama administration has no plans to release Montes.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2016 | Permalink