US and Saudi Arabia ‘suffered intelligence blackout’ during Iran drone strikes: sources

Saudi AramcoSaudi Arabia and the United States suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the lead-up to the drone strikes that shut down half of the kingdom’s oil production last month, according to Israeli sources. In the early hours of September 14, missiles struck two refineries belonging to the world’s largest crude oil processing facility in eastern Saudi Arabia. The facilities, which belong to Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, were forced to cease operation so that repairs could be carried out. This drastically reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent drop in global oil production. By Monday morning, global oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

Soon after the attacks, Saudi and American officials accused Iran of having launched the missile strikes. But according to Breaking Defense, Riyadh and Washington suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the hours prior to and following the attacks. The US-based website cited a number of anonymous Israeli sources, who said that officials in Tel Aviv were surprised by the lack of intelligence in the US and Saudi Arabia about the missile strikes. The Israelis told Breaking Defense that Saudi intelligence agencies “had no idea Iran was planning to attack the kingdom’s oil facilities […]. It seems that the Americans were also in the dark [or that possibly] Washington […] did not share the data in time with the Saudis”, they added.

The above information was allegedly discussed at an emergency meeting of the Israeli defense cabinet on October 6, which included a briefing on the attacks by the Mossad, Israel’s main external intelligence agency. According to the Israeli sources, Mossad officials were quickly able state with high confidence that the missiles had been launched from military bases in southeast Iran or by Iranian militias in Iraq. It was only following an examination of missile fragments that Saudi and American intelligence officers were able to point the finger at Iran, according to Aahron Ze’evi Farkash, former director of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate.

Breaking Defense also said that Israeli intelligence analysts were impressed by the precision of the weapons systems used in the Iranian strikes. Additionally, the specific targets of the attacks were selected with the help of “very accurate intelligence”, said the Israeli sources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 October 2019 | Permalink

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Concerns about mass breakouts of jailed ISIS fighters if Turkey invades northern Syria

Turkey ISISOfficials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East have warned that thousands of jailed members of the Islamic State could escape from Kurdish-controlled prisons in northern Syria if Turkey invades the region. For more than two years, the area has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State —also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces has alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism in the region as a bigger threat than Salafi jihadism. Ankara has repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist.

The continuous presence of American troops in northern Syria has served to dissuade Turkey from invading. Yesterday, however, the White House surprised observers by announcing its sudden decision to pull its troops from northern Syria. Washington’s unexpected move drew criticism from Kurdish commanders who spoke of betrayal, as well as by members of both political parties in Congress. Security officials also expressed fears that Turkey’s focus on the Kurds could allow ISIS to regroup in northern Syria. A statement issued by the White House on Monday said that Turkey would assume control of over 10,000 captured ISIS fighters who are currently being held in Kurdish-administered prison camps in northern Syria. But experts said that the wider Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria, which Turkey intends to capture, is home to dozens of prisons with over 60,000 captured ISIS supporters in them. What will be the fate of these prisoners under Turkish control?

Security observers have repeatedly accused Turkey in the past of turning a blind eye to ISIS, whose members fought a prolonged and bloody war against Iraqi and Syrian Kurds from 2016 to 2018. There are no guarantees that the Turks will not utilize a resurgent ISIS to suppress Kurdish nationalism in the region. In fact, some experts, including retired American generals, warned on Monday that a Turkish invasion of northern Syria would give ISIS “a golden chance to regroup”. There are concerns of mass breakouts of ISIS members from Kurdish-controlled prisons in Syria, amidst the widespread chaos caused by a Turkish military onslaught. Such breakouts have been encouraged by ISIS leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. Escaped prisoners would most likely join the nearly 20,000 estimated ISIS fighters who are still at large in Iraq and Syria, thus contributing to a potentially catastrophic regeneration of the militant Sunni group, according to experts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 October 2019 | Permalink

FBI files espionage charges against California man who allegedly spied for China

Xuehua Edward PengThe United States has pressed espionage charges against a naturalized American citizen who operated as a courier for Chinese intelligence while working as a tour operator in California. On Monday federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed espionage charges against Xuehua “Edward” Peng, a 56-year-old Chinese-born American citizen. Peng, a trained mechanical engineer, reportedly entered the United States in June 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2012 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time he was working for US Tour and Travel, an independent tour operator in California.

On Friday, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Peng at his home in Hayward, California, and charged him with spying on behalf of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s primary external intelligence agency. At a press conference held on Monday, David Anderson, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, said that Peng began working for the MSS in June 2015 and continued to do so until June of 2018. Throughout that time, Peng participated in at least six dead drops on behalf of the MSS, said the FBI. But he was unaware that the agent on the other end of the dead drop was in fact an FBI informant, who had lured Peng and the MSS into an elaborate sting operation. The informant is referred to in the indictment as “the source”. The FBI said it paid the informant nearly $200,000 to facilitate the sting operation.

Most of the dead drops took place at a hotel in Newark, California. Peng would book a room in the hotel using a popular online booking service. He would check in and go to his hotel room, where he would hide envelopes containing as much as $20,000 in cash. He would then leave the room key at the front desk for his contact to pick up. The contact (the FBI informant) would pick up the key and the cash, and leave memory sticks with classified US government information for Peng to pick up. Peng would then travel to China to deliver the classified information to the MSS.

Unbeknownst to Peng, the FBI was monitoring him all along, and managed to secretly tape his alleged espionage activities. The surveillance footage is now part of the federal affidavit that was unsealed on Monday. Moreover, the FBI appears to have given Peng classified information that was approved for the purposes of the counterespionage operation against him. It is not known whether the classified information was real, deceptive, or a mixture of the two. It is worth noting that Peng is not a foreign diplomat and is therefore not subject to the rules of diplomatic immunity. He now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 October 2019 | Permalink

White House whistleblower is a CIA officer, report claims

Donald TrumpThe individual who filed a report claiming that United States President Donald Trump sought help from a foreign country to win the 2020 election is believed to be a male employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The man, who is legally classified as a whistleblower, filed the report on August 12. It was released for publication on Thursday and is now available [.pdf] online. It claims that Trump tried to “solicit interference from a foreign country” in the 2020 US presidential election. The basis of this claim refers to a telephone exchange between the US president and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, which took place on July 25.

The whistleblower’s report states that Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine. The implication of the whistleblower’s allegation is that Trump sought to subvert the election effort of one of his main rivals for the US presidency. The whistleblower report, along with transcripts and memoranda that describe the July 25 telephone conversation between the two heads of state, form the basis of an impeachment inquiry that has been launched by Trump’s political rivals in Congress.

On Thursday, The New York Times cited what it said were three people who knew the identity of the whistleblower. The paper said that the whistleblower is a male employee of the CIA. In the past, the man had been assigned to work in the White House, said The Times. The secondment of CIA personnel to the White House is a regular occurrence. CIA personnel are temporarily assigned to perform duties relating to National Security Council meetings, or manage the White House Situation Room. They also monitor and help manage the White House secure communications system. The paper said that the CIA officer’s White House secondment had ended and that he had returned to the CIA headquarters by the time the July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelensky took place. In his report [.pdf], the whistleblower states that he was “not a direct witness to most of the events described”. However, he cites accounts of these events by “multiple officials” who shared the information with him “in the course of official interagency business”.

Some have criticized The Times for leaking information about the whistleblower’s place of employment and past assignments. They argue that the information could allow the White House to identify the source of the complaint. By law, whistleblowers in the US have the right to remain anonymous, and thus be protected from possible retaliation from those whom they accuse of abusing their power. But the paper claims that the American public has a right to information about the whistleblower’s “place in government”, so as to assess his credibility and evaluate the significance of his allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 September 2019 | Permalink

Far-right terrorism a transnational threat backed by state actors, says US official

Slavic UnionThreats posed by white supremacist and other far-right groups are now global in nature and are increasingly backed by state actors, according to a Congressional testimony by an American former counterterrorism official. The testimony was delivered by Joshua Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism at the United States National Security Council. Geltzer, who now directs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, testified on Friday before two subcommittees of the US House of Representatives. The Subcommittee on National Security and the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a joint hearing entitled “Confronting Violent White Supremacy”.

Geltzer said in his testimony [.pdf] that the type of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups in America cannot any more be characterized as “domestic”, because it is quickly becoming transnational in character. White supremacist violence in America is part of a “global surge” that is “increasingly interlinked and internationalized”. In fact, the attackers themselves internationalize their role in this global movement by referencing white supremacist violence in other parts of the world to justify the use of violence in the US, said Geltzer. He added that the emerging center of this global surge of white supremacist violence appears to be located in Ukraine and Russia. It is there that funds provided by the Russian government are being used to train and educate white supremacist leaders in guerrilla warfare, social media propaganda and various forms of ideological training.

It is therefore imperative, said Geltzer, that the US Intelligence Community begins to examine white supremacist violence within this new transnational context. For instance, it would be helpful if the mission of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was changed to include a concentration in so-called “domestic terrorism”, including white supremacist violence, he argued.

Also on Friday, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled its new strategy report. The report views “domestic terrorism and mass attacks” as a growing threat to the United States that is equal in magnitude to the threat posed by Islamist terrorists. The report identifies what it describes as “a disturbing rise in attacks motivated by domestic terrorist ideologies”. One of the most powerful drivers of this new wave of domestic violence is “white supremacy”, according to the DHS.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 September 2019 | Permalink

Spanish court rejects US request to extradite Venezuelan ex-spy chief

Hugo CarvajalSpain has refused to extradite Venezuela’s former spy chief to the United States, where he is wanted for drug-running. The decision is also an intelligence setback for Washington, as the former spy, Hugo Carvajal, is reputed to possess a “treasure trove” of inside information on the Venezuelan government. Carvajal is a retired general, a former diplomat, and a member of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s inner circle. From 2004 to 2011, under Chávez’s tutelage, Carvajal headed the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). In 2008 the US named Carvajal as a major facilitator of international drugs trafficking and imposed financial sanctions on his assets around the world. Washington accused Carvajal of assisting the paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) transport drugs from Latin America to Mexico and from there to the US.

In 2014, the US government officially charged Carvajal with orchestrating a shipment of 1,200lbs of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico. Washington also charged Carvajal with supplying FARC drug traffickers with Venezuelan passports bearing fake names, which they used to travel internationally to avoid detection. In February of this year, Carvajal publicly unexpectedly denounced Maduro and sided with his arch-nemesis, Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela. Carvajal urged the Venezuelan armed forces to stop siding with Maduro and support the US-backed Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president. In April of this year, Carvajal was arrested in Spain. Soon afterwards, the US Department of Justice filed a formal request for the former spy chief’s extradition to the US. An anonymous US official hinted at the time that Carvajal may have willingly given himself up to Spanish police to express his desire to cooperate with the US.

On Monday, however, Spain’s National Court (the country’s top criminal court) announced that Carvajal would not be extradited to the US. The former spy chief was released minutes after the court made its decision known. A court spokesman told reporters that a formal ruling and justification would be released “later”, but an official document has yet to be published. Carvajal’s lawyers told the court that the US request to have him extradited was politically motivated by the administration of US President Donald Trump. It is possible that the court may have sided with that view. There are also rumors that Carvajal may have agreed to cooperate with Spanish intelligence in return for receiving political asylum in Spain. The US Department of Justice has not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2019 | Permalink

US considering drastic increase in intel-sharing with Saudi Arabia after drone attacks

AramcoUnited States officials are considering increasing substantially America’s intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia following last weekend’s drone attacks that halved the Kingdom’s oil production and shook global markets. The attacks occurred in the early hours of Saturday, September 14, at two refineries located in eastern Saudi Arabia. The refineries are owned by Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, and are part of the world’s largest crude oil processing facility. The massive fires caused by the attacks were contained within hours and no casualties were reported. But the facilities had to cease operation so that repairs could be completed. This cut Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent reduction in global oil production. The impact on the world’s financial markets was immediate: by Monday morning, oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

The Houthi movement, a collection of Yemeni Shiite militias supported by Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack. A Houthi movement spokesman said on Sunday that the attacks had been carried out with the use of modified commercially available drones. He also warned that Saudi Arabia would experience more attacks of this kind in the future. Iran has rejected accusations by American and some Saudi officials that it was responsible for the attacks.

On Monday the Reuters news agency reported that the US is considering the possibility of drastically increasing the volume and quality of intelligence it shares with Saudi Arabia. The move is allegedly intended as one in a series of measures to be taken by Washington in response to Saturday’s drone attacks. In the past, the US has been selective in how much intelligence it shares with the Saudis, who have been involved in an increasingly bloody civil war in Yemen since 2015. Washington is weary of being seen to have a decisive role in support of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, in light of the criticism that the latter has drawn from numerous international bodies and governments around the world.

The US Congress has also condemned the Saudi campaign in an unusually bipartisan fashion, and has tried to stop President Donald Trump from providing material support to it. In May of this year, the US president defied Congress and signed two dozen arms sales agreements worth over $8 billion with the oil kingdom. The move upset many critics of Saudi Arabia in the Republican Party, who sharply criticized the Saudi government for killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last year. A possible decision by Washington to increase its intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia is bound to prompt a critical response from Congress, especially if it relates to the ongoing war in Yemen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 September 2019 | Permalink