American spies use US Federal Reserve to monitor foreign banks

Federal Reserve Bank of New YorkAmerican intelligence services have made use of a little-known confidentiality exception to spy on the financial activities of foreign banks who have accounts with the United States Federal Reserve, according to Reuters. Established in 1913, the Federal Reserve System is the central banking structure of the US. It oversees and regulates the nation’s financial institutions, and is tasked with —among other things— maintaining the stability of the American financial system. Additionally, however, the Federal Reserve offers a host of financial services to official (government-owned or sanctioned) foreign institutions. Thus, over 250 foreign banks (typically central banks) from dozens of countries have deposited nearly $3.3 trillion in assets at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks in the US. Depositing assets at a US Federal Reserve Bank, allows these foreign ‘depository institutions’ to use the US Federal Reserve as a ‘custodial institution’. Through it, they get direct and immediate access to American debt markets, where they can trade directly in dollars — the reserve currency of the global economy.

As one would expect, the ‘custodial services’ provided to foreign state banks by the US Federal Reserve are subject to strict confidentiality rules. However, according to a report published yesterday by Reuters, US intelligence agencies have found ways to circumvent these rules and monitor the activities of foreign banks who use the US Federal Reserve’s services. The news agency said it interviewed “more than a dozen current and former senior [Federal Reserve] and [US] Treasury [Department] officials”, including executives and division heads. It concludes that the US Intelligence Community has “leveraged the [US Federal Reserve’s] position at the center of global finance” to gain insights into the financial activities of foreign governments.

Specifically, the report alleges that American spies have made regular use of a little-known “need to know” exception clause to the US Federal Reserve’s confidentiality rules, and have been able to monitor the financial activities of selected foreign governments. These include Libya, Yemen, Iraq, China, Russia and Turkey, among others, says Reuters. In its report, the news agency says that the exception clause has been used at least seven times in the past 15 years. In some of these instances, the intelligence gathered led to “specific US responses” in relation to the financing of terrorism, or large-scale money-laundering. In other cases, the intelligence gathered helped Washington closely monitor market activity in areas of interest around the world, says Reuters.

The news agency contacted the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and was told by a spokesperson that the exception to the Federal Reserve’s confidentiality rules “has been used on rare occasions and on a limited basis”. These instances related to “issues as compliance with sanctions requirements and anti-money laundering principles”, said the spokesperson. The US government did not respond to calls for comments.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2017 | Permalink

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German intelligence agency spied on thousands of targets in the United States

BND GermanyThe foreign intelligence service of Germany spied on at least 4,000 targets in the United States from 1998 until 2006, according to a leaked document published yesterday by leading German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. The German investigative weekly said that the surveillance was carried out by the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The Hamburg-based magazine claimed to have in its possession a list of approximately 4,000 “selector keywords”, unique distinguishing terms, addresses or numbers that identify individual targets for surveillance. The list allegedly includes names, telephone or fax numbers, and email addresses of people that the BND had identified as worthy of individual attention between 1998 and 2006.

According to Der Spiegel, the list of targets in the United States includes officials in the White House, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of State. Their work and private phone numbers, and often emails, are listed in the BND document. The latter also focuses on the American military sector, paying particular attention to the US Air Force and the Marine Coprs. Other targets include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the US Pentagon’s intelligence organization. In addition to US government targets, the BND exercised surveillance on American companies with ties to the state, such as Lockheed Martin, as well as state-owned universities. The leaked list also includes targets in international organizations that have an institutional presence in the US, such as the International Monetary Fund and the Arab League, which has an office in Washington. Hundreds of foreign embassies and consulates in the US were also targeted, said Der Spiegel.

German-American relations suffered a major setback in 2013, when it was revealed that Washington had spied on the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In response to the revelations, Germany expelled the Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Berlin —the most senior American intelligence officer in the country. It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s revelations will affect the current relations between the two transatlantic allies. Neither the BND nor the US embassy in Berlin responded to questions about Der Spiegel‘s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 June 2017 | Permalink

Islamic State’s cyber army still ‘largely intact’ despite America’s efforts

US Cyber CommandThe global reach of the Islamic State through the use of the internet remains “largely intact” despite relentless efforts by some of America’s most advanced cyber warfare experts to neutralize the group’s online presence. It is now over a year since the United States Department of Defense announced that it had launched a cyber war against the Islamic State —the militant Sunni Muslim group that today controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

At that time, the Pentagon’s Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), put in motion plans that included the deployment of computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks and other cyber weapons against computers, internet servers and cell phone networks belonging to the Islamic State. As intelNews wrote at the time, the idea behind the plan was that an all-out online war against the Sunni militant group would hurt its public image and prevent it from launching armed attacks against targets abroad. Additionally, the Pentagon aimed to disrupt the Islamic State’s ability to recruit new members online, to spread its propaganda and to coordinate operations through the use of encrypted communications.

However, according to The New York Times, American military commanders are disappointed with the Cyber Command’s efforts. The Pentagon is quickly discovering, says the paper, that its cyber warfare methods, which were designed for fixed targets in countries like North Korea and Iran, are ineffective against the mobile and polymorphic cyber army of the Islamic State. In many instances, US Pentagon hackers wipe out online information found on Islamic State servers, only to see it reappear elsewhere online within hours. In other cases, US Cyber Command experts uncover Islamic State information stored on the cloud, but are unable to access it because it is strongly encrypted.

According to The Times, the lack of progress in the cyber war against the Islamic State was one of the reasons why the administration of President Barack Obama sought to replace Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, who also led the US Cyber Command —and continues to do so under the Donald Trump administration.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 June 2017 | Permalink

Miami police arrest Panama’s ex-president on charges of wiretapping

Ricardo MartinelliPolice in the United States have arrested Panama’s former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is wanted in the Central American country on charges of using state resources to spy on his political opponents and business rivals. The center-right US-educated businessman won the 2009 presidential election in the country with a landslide, receiving over 60 percent of the national vote. His election prompted positive comments from Washington, because it marked a rare ascent to power of a conservative Latin American leader in a sea of socialist heads of state. But the euphoria did not last long. In 2014, Martinelli was succeeded in the presidency by his Vice President, Juan Carlos Varela. Varela promptly launched nearly 200 criminal investigations against his former political partner on issues ranging from embezzlement of state funds to political espionage.

Martinelli is now accused of embezzling $45 million in funds that should have been allocated to a government-run school lunch program for children of disadvantaged families. According to Panamanian prosecutors, Martinelli diverted $13 million of these funds to launch a secret wiretapping program that targeted some of his main political opponents and business rivals. Some of the individuals allegedly targeted in the secret surveillance program were senior members of Martinelli’s own Party of Democratic Change, Supreme Court judges, lawyers, journalists and union activists. The government of Panama also claims that Martinelli wiretapped the telephones of his business rivals, as well as their family members and mistresses.

It appears that Martinelli’s allies within the Panamanian government notified him early on that corruption investigations would be launched against him. This would explain why the former political strongman was able to flee the country days before these investigations were officially launched. Since January 2015, Martinelli has lived in Florida. In 2016, the government of Panama issued an arrest warrant against Martinelli. It also notified the international police agency, Interpol. Last month, Interpol circulated a ‘red notice’, an official alert notifying its counterparts around the world of a wanted individual. On Tuesday, US Marshals arrested Martinelli at his home in the city of Coral Gables in Florida, in response to the red notice issued by Interpol.

Speaking to reporters in Miami on Tuesday, Martinelli’s legal team questioned the timing of the Panamanian government’s arrest warrant, claiming that it came soon after the former president announced he would be running again for office. But the office of Adam S. Fels, the assistant US attorney who ordered Martinelli’s arrest, said that the US intended to fulfill its treaty obligations with the government of Panama. Martinelli is currently in prison in Miami and is expected to remain there until his preliminary court date on June 20.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 June 2017 | Permalink

New clues emerge about targeted efforts by Russia to hack US elections

GRUNew information about carefully targeted attempts by Russian operatives to compromise the November 2016 presidential elections in the United States have emerged in a newly published intelligence document. The document, which dates from May of this year, was produced by the US National Security Agency and published on June 5 by The Intercept. The web-based outlet published the leaked document on the same day that Reality Leigh Winner, a US federal contractor with a top-security clearance, was charged with espionage for leaking classified documents to the media. This has led to speculation that Winner may be the source of the leak.

The NSA document details attempts by hackers to compromise the online accounts of over 100 election officials, as well as employees of private contractors involved in administering the election process. The attempts reportedly took place during the period leading up to November 8, 2016. To do that, hackers resorted to a technique commonly known as ‘spear-fishing’. They sent carefully crafted emails, claiming to be from Google, to specifically targeted individuals. The goal was to trick the email recipients into downloading and opening Microsoft Word attachments, which were infected with malware. The infected software would then allow the hackers to remotely access the compromised computers. The NSA document states that at least one targeted person had his or her computer compromised though the ‘spear-fishing’ technique. Importantly, the leaked document appears unequivocal in its assessment that the hackers behind the ‘spear-fishing’ attacks worked for the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian armed forces. The document also states that the main goal of the attacks was to compromise the software used to manage voter registration lists, and that the attackers were operating under a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at US and foreign elections”.

American intelligence officials have previously said that Russian spies launched in a complex and prolonged campaign to undermine public faith in the US electoral process. It is also known that the Russian campaign targeted election officials in the months leading up to the November 2016 elections. But the NSA report is the first publicly available description of some of the specific techniques employed by the alleged Russian hackers as part of their campaign. The leaked document does not provide technical details about the ‘spear-phishing’ campaign. Nor does it discuss whether the attacks were successful, whether vote tallies were actually compromised, or whether the election process itself was sabotaged by the hackers. The Intercept said it contacted the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who refused to publicly comment on the content of the NSA report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 June 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: Trump’s silence over Tehran attacks exposes US policy conundrums

IranThe security map of the Middle East changed within a few hours on Wednesday, when the Islamic State managed to strike Iran for the first time. Six assailants —five men and a woman— stormed the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which serves as the parliament of Iran, and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. By the time they killed themselves, or were killed by security forces, the six had murdered 12 people and injured over 60. The Islamic State, which carried out the attack, had warned for several months that it would launch a direct assault at the heart of the world’s largest Shiite state. It tried to do so before, several times, and failed. But Wednesday’s attack was the first time it managed to do so successfully.

It is certainly ironic that Iran, one of the world’s most prolific sponsors of terrorism, boasts of being one of the most terrorism-free countries in the Middle East. Indeed, Wednesday’s bloody strike was the largest terrorist attack in Tehran’s history after the early years of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is a remarkable record that many of Iran’s neighbors, such as Iraq or Syria, can only dream of. Moreover, Iran’s claim that its regional rival Saudi Arabia is responsible for Wednesday’s attack is both outlandish and absurd. It is true that militant Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s state religion, is at the root of the Islamic State’s doctrine. But the fanatics of the Islamic State direct as much ire against Saudi Arabia as they do against Iran. They accuse the former of being apostates —Muslim traitors who side with infidels— and the latter of being heretics that must be annihilated. Read more of this post

Analysis: Contractor charged with espionage presents political minefield for Trump

NSAAt first sight, the case of Reality Leigh Winner, a United States federal contractor who has been charged with leaking classified information to a news outlet, is an open-and-shut case. Winner, an expert linguist with a top-secret clearance, who provided services to the National Security Agency through a private contractor, appears to have admitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that she deliberately leaked classified information without permission. She is believed to have told the FBI that she printed and mailed a single document containing classified information to a news outlet on or around May 9 of this year.

WINNER’S MOTIVES

Although it is too early to tell with certainty, Winner does not appear to have acted in search of money or other material benefits, nor does she appear to have operated as an agent of a foreign government. She told her interrogators that she acted solely out of a sense of duty to the American people. However, US law does not typically distinguish between leakers based on their motives. It does, however, distinguish between simple leakers and whistleblowers. If a US government employee uncovers evidence of abuse of power, or becomes aware of a specific and critical threat to the security of Americans, he or she is required to notify his or her superiors. If the latter refuse to take action, then the employee is justified under the law in taking all necessary actions to warn the public of impending peril. That is precisely the function of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, which affords protection to insiders who expose abuses of authority, or a concrete and critical threat to public safety. Read more of this post