After dropping charges, US prosecutors broaden indictment against Saudi spies

TwitterTwo days after dropping charges against three Saudi men for spying on American soil, United States prosecutors submitted a new indictment that restates the two original charges and adds five more. The original complaint was filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in November of last year in San Francisco, California. It accused three men of “acting as unregistered agents” of Saudi Arabia since 2015. The phrase is used in legal settings to refer to espionage.

According to the FBI, the Saudi government allegedly contacted Ali Alzabarah, a 35-year-old San Francisco-based network engineer working for Twitter. Ahmed Almutairi (also known as Ahmed Aljbreen), a “social media advisor” for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, arranged for Alzabarah to be flown to Washington to meet an unidentified member of the Saudi dynasty. He and another Twitter employee, 41-year-old Ahmad Abouammo, were allegedly given money and gifts by the Saudi government. These were given in return for the email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of up to 6,000 Twitter users who had posted negative comments about the Saudi royal family on social media.

Earlier this week, however, US government prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges against the three men. The two-page filing did not offer a reason behind this sudden decision by the US government. Interestingly, however, it included a request to have the charges against the three men dismissed “without prejudice”, meaning that the US government could decide to file new charges against them in the future.

This has now happened, as the US government has filed fresh charges against the three men. In addition to the two original charges, the men have now been charged with acting as agents for a foreign government without notifying the US attorney general. They have also been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, committing wire fraud and money laundering, aiding and abetting, and destroying, altering or falsifying records in a federal investigation. The indictment also specifies the financial rewards Abouammo allegedly received from the Saudi government in return for his services. These included a wire transfer for $200,000 to a shell company and associated bank account in Lebanon, as well as a luxury watch valued at $20,000.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 July 2020 | Permalink

Without explanation, US dismisses charges against Saudis caught spying on US soil

Twitter IAIn a surprising move, the United States government is seeking to dismiss espionage charges it filed last year against three men, including a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, who were caught spying on American soil. Last November, the Federal Bureau of Investigation filed a complaint in San Francisco, accusing the three men of “acting as unregistered agents” of Saudi Arabia. The phrase is used in legal settings to refer to espionage.

According to the FBI, the charges stemmed from an investigation that lasted several years and centered on efforts by the oil kingdom to identify and silence its critics on social media. In 2015, the Saudi government allegedly reached out to Ali Alzabarah, a 35-year-old network engineer working for Twitter, who lived in San Francisco. The complaint alleges that Ahmed Almutairi (also known as Ahmed Aljbreen), who worked as a “social media advisor” for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, arranged for Alzabarah to be flown from San Francisco to Washington to meet with an unidentified member of the Saudi dynasty.

Alzabarah, along with another Twitter employee, 41-year-old Ahmad Abouammo, were allegedly given money and gifts by the Saudi government in return for supplying it with private information about specific Twitter users, according to the FBI complaint. The information provided by the two Twitter employees to the Saudi authorities allegedly included the email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of up to 6,000 Twitter users, who had posted negative comments about the Saudi royal family on social media. Special Agents from the FBI’s Settle field office arrested Abouammo at his Seattle home. However, Alzabarah managed to flee the United States along with his family before the FBI was able to arrest him, and is believed to be in Saudi Arabia. The FBI issued a warrant for his arrest.

In a surprising move, however, US government prosecutors have now filed a motion to drop the charges against the three men. The motion, filed on Tuesday in San Francisco, is asking for permission from the judge in the case to have all charges against the three men dismissed “without prejudice”, meaning that the US government could decide to file new charges against them in the future. The two-page filing does not offer a reason behind this sudden decision by the US government. The Bloomberg news service, which reported the news on Tuesday, said it inquired about this case by calling and emailing the Saudi Embassy in Washington, the San Francisco US Attorney’s office, and Twitter. It received no responses.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 July 2020 | Permalink

Turkish spy agency hid Islamist views of candidates for CIA-funded Syrian rebel group

Free Syrian ArmyTurkey’s spy agency systematically downplayed the Islamist views of men seeking to join a Syrian rebel group, which was supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency on account of its moderate leanings. The United States began to fund and train the Free Syrian Army (FSA) soon after it was established in 2011. The group said its mission was to depose the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and institute a Western-style multiparty democracy in Syria.

By 2015, much of the recruitment and vetting for the FSA was taking place in Turkish regions bordering northern Syria, where thousands of opponents of al-Assad’s regime had fled with their families. The CIA relied on its Turkish counterpart, the National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT, to recruit and conduct initial vetting of FSA volunteers from Syrian refugee camps. The MİT was desperately short of personnel for such a large-scale operation, and reached out to the Turkish Special Forces Command for assistance. Eventually, Special Forces Command officers were put in charge of reaching out to potential FSA volunteers and vetting them. Successful candidates would then be forwarded to the CIA.

One such officer was Lt. Murat Aletirik, who vetted dozens of FSA volunteers in 2015 and 2016. However, he was arrested following the failed coup of July 15, 2016, and was tried for alleged participation in armed insurrection against the Turkish government. During his testimony in 2018, which was leaked this week, Lt. Aletirik told the court that he and his fellow officers were issued guidelines by the MİT on how to select fighters for the CIA-funded program.

According to Lt. Aletirik, the MİT guidelines centered on whether FSA candidates were “sympathetic towards the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as] PKK, the [Democratic Union Party, or] PYD, or offshoots of the PKK”. These groups support autonomy for the Kurds, a non-Turkish and non-Arab ethnic group in the Middle East. Turkey, along with the European Union and the United States, classify the Turkish-based PKK as a terrorist organization. Turkey claims that the PYD, which operates in Syria, is also a terrorist group. However, Washington supports and funds the PYD, and even worked with its militias in the war against the Islamic State.

According to Lt. Aletirik, the MİT guidelines had little to say about how to filter out potential FSA volunteers who were found to harbor sympathies for Salafi-Jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or al-Nusra. In fact, said Lt. Aletirik, he and his fellow officers had instructions to downplay such findings and forward candidates to the CIA, so long as they did not have pro-Kurdish sympathies. It is believed that, eventually, the CIA caught on to this, and began turning down hundreds of FSA candidates that had been vetted by the Turkish military. This slowed down the vetting process tremendously, with only a fraction —possibly fewer than 10 percent— of all candidates joining the CIA-run program.

In 2017, the United States shut down the program, reportedly after a direct order was issued by President Donald Trump. Today the FSA is almost completely supported and funded by the Turkish state. Locals often refer to it tongue-in-cheek as the “Free Syrian Turkish Army”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 July 2020 | Permalink

In major victory over Pentagon, CIA is authorized to expand offensive cyber operations

Trump CIA - JFThe United States Central Intelligence Agency was secretly authorized by the White House in 2018 to drastically expand its offensive cyber operation program —a development that some experts describe as a significant development for the secretive spy agency. However, the move has reportedly not pleased the Department of Defense, which sees itself as the primary conduit of American offensive operations in cyberspace.

The two-year-old authorization was disclosed by Yahoo News, which cited “former US officials with direct knowledge of the matter” in its report. The website said the authorization came in the form of a presidential finding. A presidential finding, also known as a Memorandum of Notification, refers to a directive, which is authored by the president of the US and is given to the intelligence committees of Congress. Its purpose is to explain the reasoning behind a covert operation that is to be carried out abroad. Following that disclosure by the president, government funds can be appropriated for use in that operation or series of operations.

According to Yahoo News, the 2018 presidential finding provides the CIA with “more freedom in both the kinds of operations it conducts and who it targets”, when it comes to covert action carried out online. The goal of the White House was to enable the CIA to unleash a series of offensive measures against “a handful of adversarial countries”, which include North Korea, Iran, China and Russia, according to the report. Such offensive operations differ substantially from those typically carried out by CIA personnel on cyberspace, which focus on clandestine information collection. In contrast, offensive operations aim to disrupt, sabotage or even destroy targeted systems.

In addition to enhancing the scope of the CIA’s cyber operations, the presidential directive is also believed to make it easier for the agency to target non-state actors and agencies, including financial intuitions, charities, news media, or businesses. Such targets may be attacked when they are found to be operating on behalf of adversarial intelligence agencies. Moreover, it makes it easier for the spy agency to leak secret information about targeted adversaries to media organizations, a tactic that Russian spy services are believed to have utilized in the past.

The Yahoo News report notes that the presidential directive is seen as a major victory for the CIA in its long bureaucratic battle with the Department of Defense. The latter has traditionally been entrusted by the US government with carrying out offensive cyber operations. There are also questions about potential operational overlap between the CIA and the Pentagon, as the two actors may at times be attacking the same targets. This brings up the issue of inter-agency coordination between two bodies, which has not always been smooth in the past.

Yahoo News said it submitted “an extensive list of questions” to the CIA, but the agency declined to comment. The National Security Council, which oversaw the drafting of the alleged presidential finding, did not respond to questions stemming from the news report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 July 2020 | Permalink

As debate centers on Afghanistan, Russian forces challenge US troops in Syria

Deir al-Zour SyriaAs an intense debate rages in the United States about Moscow’s alleged subversion of American military goals in Afghanistan, sources warn that Russia is increasingly challenging Washington’s troops in Syria. Recent reports have alleged that the Kremlin has been offering financial rewards to Taliban fighters encouraging them to kill US troops in Afghanistan. The Russian government has denied these allegations, while the White House claims it was never briefed about this by the Intelligence Community.

Some experts suggest, however, that Russia’s growing involvement in Afghanistan may be part of a wider effort by Moscow to test the limits of American military presence in Asia. This can be seen as a predictable response by the Russians, given that US President Donald Trump has repeatedly indicated he is not a fan of substantial American military involvement abroad. According to a new report by Politico, Russia’s challenge can be observed, not only in Afghanistan, but also in Syria, where American and Russian troops have been present in the same battlespace for over five years now.

In the past, the two militaries have kept open lines of communication to ensure that they stay clear from each other, thus avoiding a major escalation between the two nuclear-armed nations. Consequently, despite supporting opposing sides in the war, Russian and American troops have not directly challenged each other, with very few exceptions. Presently Russian forces continue to support of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, while several hundred US forces are working closely with Kurdish fighters, who control territory in eastern Syria.

Despite the pullout of most American troops from the region in the past two years, the US maintains a force of nearly 1,000 soldiers in the Deir al-Zour region of eastern Syria. These are closely coordinating with Kurdish peshmerga, whose primary tasks include guarding the region’s lucrative oil fields, thus starving the government of President al-Assad of a major source of revenue. In the past, Russian troops have rarely ventured in the Kurdish-controlled region, in full knowledge of the US military presence there. Lately, however, brushes between American and Russian troops in Deir al-Zour have been “increasingly frequent”, according to Politico, which cited “two current US officials and one former US official” in its report. Read more of this post

Chinese state-linked operatives funded Trump campaign to gain access, says report

Trump and Xi JinpingA report in The Wall Street Journal claims that individuals and groups with ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army donated substantial funds to the re-election campaign of United States President Donald Trump, in return for access to the White House.

The paper claims that nearly half a million dollars were donated to Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign on behalf of Chinese-linked interests soon after he was sworn in as president in January of 2017. Some of these donations were allegedly among the biggest made to the campaign. The list of donors is headed by four men, according to The Journal, some of whom are naturalized Americans of Chinese background, and at least one is a Chinese citizen and American permanent resident, which means he does not get to vote in the United States. He is believed to have donated $150,000 to the Trump re-election campaign.

Many of these donations are gathered through an organization that was created in the United States in 2017 to help the president get re-elected in 2020, says the paper. Funds raised by the group are funneled to Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee. However, according to The Journal, the people behind the organization have ties to Chinese diplomats in the United States, as well as to the Chinese state.

The paper claims that the money given to the Trump re-election campaign earned some of these donors physical access to the White House and the president in at least one occasion, in May of 2017. Among those who were invited to visit the White House was a personal adviser to Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Others have ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, said the paper. It added that some of these donors have also attended Trump re-election campaign strategy meetings and meetings of the Republican National Committee.

The Wall Street Journal allegations came just days after Mr. Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, claimed in a new book that the president solicited his Chinese counterpart for help in securing his re-election. In his new book, The Room Where it Happened, Mr. Bolton claims that the American president asked Mr. Xi to have China purchase billions of dollars of American soybeans, so that farming communities in the Midwest would continue to support the Trump ticket come 2020.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 June 2020 | Permalink

News you may have missed #909 – Insurgency edition

Al-Hawl refugee campSouth African intelligence concerned about spread of insurgency in Mozambique. This is the first public expression of concern from the South African government that the violence in neighboring Mozambique could spread. Previously, the South African Parliament was informed the matter was only to be discussed behind closed doors. Earlier in June, the South African military reportedly participated in Operation COPPER, in support of the Mozambican Defense Force.

US intelligence says Russia offered Afghans Bounties to kill US troops. American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter. The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said.

Analysis: The security risk posed by ISIS women smuggling their way out of camp Hol. While a debate rages in Europe over whether or not ISIS women and their children can be repatriated to their European home countries, some women have been taking things into their own hands and returning via illegal smuggling networks, creating new and serious security issues with which European officials must now grapple.

US soldier arrested for helping plan a neo-Nazi attack on his own unit

BoogalooAuthorities in the United States have formally charged an American soldier for helping a secretive neo-Nazi organization plan a terrorist attack on his own unit. Meanwhile, a government fusion center has warned law enforcement agencies that extremists may be planning violent acts in the Washington DC area.

On Monday the US Department of Justice charged Ethan Melzer of Louisville, Kentucky, with crimes including providing material support to terrorist groups. Melzer, 22, was reportedly arrested on June 10. He enlisted in the US Army in December 2018, and began his active service the following year. A few months later, he was assigned to a US military base in Europe.

It was there, according to the indictment, that Melzer was recruited by the Order of Nine Angels. This secretive group, known as O9A, ONA, or simply as The Order, is based mostly in the United Kingdom and is believed to have been around since the 1960s. Its ideology combines two themes, namely the occult and Nazism. US authorities describe The Order as “an occult-based neo-Nazi and racially motivated violent extremist group”, whose members espouse “neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Satanic beliefs”. It is widely known in neo-Nazi circles.

Members of The Order call for the overthrow of the Western way of life, which they dismiss as failed because it is associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. They view the Third Reich as a solution to the ills of Western society and are tactical supporters of Sunni Salafi Jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Order calls on its members to keep a small circle of friends and family, and support violent groups whose actions that can help spark a global race war.

In 2019 and the first half of 2020, Melzer allegedly gave secret US Army information to The Order, which included deployment information about his unit and technical data about its weaponry and personnel strength. According to the US government, he gave the information to The Order with the expectation that it would be used by Salafi Jihadists to carry out attacks against US Army personnel. The US government says Melzer confessed to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that he helped plot a terrorist attack with the aim of killing American military personnel. He has been charged with providing support to terrorist groups and conspiring to murder American military service members, among other crimes.

Meanwhile, a federal fusion center in Washington DC has warned that the national capital could become a target for homegrown violent extremists, whose goal is to provoke racial tension in the country. In an assessment published on Monday, the National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium warned that Washington is “likely an active target for violent adherents of the boogaloo ideology due to the significant presence of US law enforcement entities, and the wide range of First Amendment-Protected events hosted here”. Boogaloo is a term used to describe loosely affiliated groups of subscribers to the view that the US is heading toward inevitable collapse, which should be accelerated through acts of violence aimed at government targets.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 June 2020 | Permalink

Close American ally UAE is secretly training Syrian intelligence units, report claims

KBZACThe United Arab Emirates, one of the United States’ closest Arab allies, is training Syrian intelligence and military officers and is giving financial aid to government-owned civilian facilities in Damascus, a report claims. The UAE broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. But relations between the two countries were restored in 2018, when the oil kingdom reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital.

According to an investigation by the French-language Arab-affairs publication Orient XXI, which was reported on by the Middle East Monitor, Abu Dhabi began providing logistical, technical and financial assistance to the Syrian government soon after the embassy of the Emirates was reopened in Damascus. Orient XXI said that Emirati instructors are currently training around 40 Syrian military intelligence officers. Of these, 31 are non-commissioned officers, while at least 8 more are information technology and communication systems engineers.

Another group of Emirati instructors are allegedly training members of the Syrian Arab Army’s general staff, including at least five Syrian fighter pilots. The pilots are currently attending an all-expenses paid course at the UAE Air Force’s Khalifa bin Zayed Air College (KBZAC) in Al Ain. Orient XXI reports that the duration of the courses range from 60 days to a year, and are supervised by the intelligence services of the Syrian government. The Syrian supervisory mission at the Khalifa bin Zayed Air College is reportedly headed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Jihad Barakat, who previously commanded Syrian paramilitary units. Washington has tried several times to kill Barakat.

The report by Orient XXI also alleges that the Emiratis have been providing substantial financial aid, medical provisions and food supplies to Syrian government-owned hospitals and welfare centers in Damascus and other regions of the country, which are controlled by al-Assad’s forces. The UAE has already helped rebuilt several public buildings, electric power stations and water plants in Damascus, which were damaged during the war, says Orient XXI. Read more of this post

NSA director claims Bolton’s book would cause ‘irreparable damage’ to US secrets

Paul NakasoneThe director of America’s largest spy agency claims in a signed affidavit that a forthcoming book by John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, would critically compromise intelligence secrets if published. Bolton served in that capacity from April 2018 until September 2019. His memoir of his time as President Trump’s national security advisor, titled The Room Where It Happened, is scheduled for publication on Tuesday.

But the White House has sued Bolton, claiming that he did not follow the requirements of his pre-publication screening process by government officials. President Trump’s legal team also claims that, if published, the book would damage critical areas of United States national security.

On Wednesday, the White House’s stance on the book was affirmed by the director of the National Security Agency, General Paul M. Nakasone. In a signed affidavit filed in US District Court in Washington, Gen. Nakasone said he had been asked by the legal adviser of the National Security Council to review “a limited portion” of the draft manuscript of Bolton’s book. He added that he had identified “classified information” in that portion of the manuscript, some of which was classified at the Top Secret/Sensitive and Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) level.

According to Gen. Nakasone’s affidavit, “compromise of this information could result in the permanent loss of a valuable SIGINT source and cause irreparable damage to the US SIGINT system”. SIGINT refers to the gathering of intelligence by intercepting communications signals in the form of information exchanged orally between people or mediated via electronic means.

Gen. Nakasone goes on to state that the unauthorized disclosure of the information contained in Bolton’s book could “reasonably […] be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage” to US national security. This includes causing “considerable difficulties in US and allied relations with specific nations”. The NSA director does not detail the precise damage that Bolton’s revelations could cause to US national security, stating only that the information would compromise an intelligence-collection “capability” that “significant manpower and monetary investments have been and continue to be made to enable and maintain”.

Alongside Gen. Nakasone’s affidavit, the Department of Justice submitted an emergency filing on Wednesday, seeking to block the publication of Bolton’s book on national security grounds. Another affidavit was filed on Wednesday by John Ratcliffe, President Trump’s newly appointed Director of National Intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 June 2020 | Permalink

Lax security behind greatest data loss in CIA’s history, internal report concludes

WikiLeaksComplacency and substandard security by the United States Central Intelligence Agency were behind the Vault 7 leak of 2017, which ranks as the greatest data loss in the agency’s history, according to an internal report. The Vault 7 data loss was particularly shocking, given that the CIA should have taken precautions following numerous leaks of classified government information in years prior to 2017, according to the report.

The Vault 7 data leak occurred in the first half of 2017, when the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks began publishing a series of technical documents belonging to the CIA. Once all documents had been uploaded to the WikiLeaks website, they amounted to 34 terabytes of information, which is equivalent to 2.2 billion pages of text. The information contained in the Vault 7 leak is believed to constitute the biggest leak of classified data in the history of the CIA.

The Vault 7 documents reveal the capabilities and operational details of some of the CIA’s cyber espionage arsenal. They detail nearly 100 different software tools that the agency developed and used between 2013 and 2016, in order to compromise targeted computers, computer servers, smartphones, cars, televisions, internet browsers, operating systems, etc. In 2017 the US government accused Joshua Adam Schulte, a former CIA software engineer, of giving the Vault 7 data to WikiLeaks. Schulte’s trial by jury was inconclusive, and a re-trial is believed to be in the works.

Now an internal report into the Vault 7 disclosure has been made public. The report was compiled by the CIA WikiLeaks Task Force, which the agency set up with the two-fold mission of assessing the damage from the leak and recommending security procedures designed to prevent similar leaks from occurring in the future. A heavily redacted copy of the report has been made available [.pdf] by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) who is a member of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. An analysis of the report was published on Tuesday by The Washington Post.

The report recognizes that insider threats —a data leak perpetrated on purpose by a conscious and determined employee, or a group of employees— are especially difficult to stop. It adds, however, that the Vault 7 leak was made easier by “a culture of shadow IT” in which the CIA’s various units developed distinct IT security practices and their own widely different systems of safeguarding data. Many cyber units prioritized creative, out-of-the-box thinking, in order to develop cutting-edge cyber-tools. But they spent hardly any time thinking of ways to safeguard the secrecy of their projects, and failed to develop even basic counterintelligence standards —for instance keeping a log of which of their members had access to specific parts of the data— according to the report.

Such standards should have been prioritized, the report adds, given the numerous high-profile leaks that rocked the Intelligence Community in the years prior to the Vault 7 disclosure. It mentions the examples of Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, who defected to Russia, as well as Chelsea Manning, an intelligence analyst for the US Army, who gave government secrets to WikiLeaks. Manning spent time in prison before being pardoned by President Barack Obama. Snowden remains in hiding in Russia.

The CIA has not commented on the release of the internal Vault 7 report. An agency spokesman, Timothy Barrett, told The New York Times that the CIA was committed to incorporating “best-in-class technologies to keep ahead of and defend against ever-evolving threats”. In a letter accompanying the release of the report, Senator Wyden warned that “the lax cybersecurity practices documented in the CIA’s WikiLeaks task force report do not appear limited to just one part of the intelligence community”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 June 2020 | Permalink

US embassy in UAE declined free COVID-19 tests due to Chinese spying concerns

Abu DhabiThe embassy of the United States in the United Arab Emirates declined free COVID-19 testing kits for its staff, because of concerns that the private labs offering the kits had ties to China, according to a new report. The testing kits were offered by a testing facility that was set up in March in Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the oil-rich UAE —a close American ally in the Middle East.

The facility was built in record time, through a collaboration between two private companies. The main partner in the scheme is Group42, a privately owned artificial intelligence firm, which is based in the UAE and is believed to be partly owned by members of the kingdom’s royal family. Its partner in the venture is BGI Group, a Chinese company —formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Group— that specializes in genomics research. Since its establishment, the facility has reportedly delivered over 2 million COVID-19 testing kits —complete with reagents— for the population of the UAE, which numbers just over 9 million. Given these numbers, local officials have hailed the initiative as a success and credit it with having produced “one of the largest per capita testing rates in the world”. The oil-rich kingdom has so far reported about 36,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, which have resulted in 270 deaths —about 2.5 deaths per 100,000 UAE residents.

But, according to The Financial Times, the United States embassy in Abu Dhabi turned down an offer for free COVID-19 testing kits for its employees by Group42. The paper quoted an anonymous United States government official, who said that the offer was “politely declined” last month by the embassy leadership. American State Department officials were allegedly concerned that the DNA information of tested embassy employees could be compromised and “find its way to Beijing”, said the source. “Concerns were raised about patient privacy and the way that the tests could be used”, added the official, and described the involvement of BGI in the venture as “a red flag” for Washington.

BGI Group told the paper that it had no links to the government of China and no access to the data of patients, which were stored in Group42 facilities in the Emirates. The UAE-based company said that it followed “strict information security and data privacy protocols are in place” to protect sensitive information. The firm refused to divulge information about its owners, citing strict laws that are in place in the kingdom.

But the incident illustrates the growing suspicion in relations between the US and China. This poses difficult dilemmas for third countries, like the UAE. The oil-rich state is among several monarchies in the Gulf that have deepened their relations with China in recent years, in both the political and economic domains. Since 2000, the value of bilateral trade between Abu Dhabi and Beijing has grown from $2 billion to nearly $70 billion per year. At the same time, the UAE is one of the largest purchasers of US military technology in the world. The oil-rich monarchy spends on average $3 billion annually to acquire American weapons. Recently, however, Abu Dhabi has shown an increasing interest in Chinese-made weapons. Its armed forces and police departments now use several Chinese weapons and surveillance systems. At the same time, Huawei, a Chinese-owned telecommunications hardware producer, is scheduled to build the nation’s 5G cellular network. Washington has expressed serious concerns about that decision.

Speaking to The Financial Times, the anonymous US government official said that these steps by the UAE leadership, which are bringing it closer to China, “risk rupturing the long-term strategic relationship [the country has] with the US”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 June 2020 | Permalink

Palestinians announce end of intelligence cooperation with US and Israel

Palestinian National Security ForcesThe Palestinian Authority has announced an immediate cessation to all intelligence and security ties with Israel and the United States. The announcement, made on Thursday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, marks the strongest response so far by the Fatah-dominated administration to the Israeli government’s plan to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, runs two intelligence agencies, the Palestinian Preventive Security (also known as the Preventive Security Service) and the General Intelligence Service. Both agencies are largely trained and funded by the United States and Israel. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has long assisted the two agencies, and has often benefited by intelligence-sharing aimed at a common adversary, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. In the past decade, American and Israeli intelligence agencies have worked closely with their Palestinian Authority counterparts to neutralize Hamas’ support in the West Bank.

But the Palestinian Authority has been threatening to terminate that longstanding security and intelligence cooperation, in response to an American-backed plan by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to annex large parts of the occupied territories in the West Bank. The annexed land contains illegal Israeli settlements, which the United States has condemned in the past. But the administration of President Donald Trump has reversed course and in May of 2018 even transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing the divided city as the capital of Israel. That move prompted the Palestinian Authority to cut all relations with Washington.

However, despite the political rift between the two sides, President Abbas had instructed the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence and security services to continue their cooperation with their Israeli and American counterparts. That ended on Thursday, as President Abbas announced that his administration would cease all intelligence and security cooperation with Israeli and American government agencies, effective immediately. Following Abbas’ announcement, the veteran Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat told reporters that direct cooperation with Israeli and American intelligence agencies had “stopped at the end of the president’s speech”. Erekat, who serves as secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and is the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator with Israel, did not explain the extent of the cessation in cooperation. When asked, he responded that “the whole system is about to shut down […] in its entirety”.

In February it was reported that CIA director Gina Haspel had secretly visited Majed Faraj, director of the Preventive Security Organization, with the aim of convincing him not to terminate ties with her agency and other American intelligence bodies. The meeting reportedly took place in Ramallah, which is considered the seat of the Palestinian government in the West Bank. It appears, however, that Haspel’s efforts did not bear fruit, as all intelligence contacts between the two former partners have now been severed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 May 2020 | Permalink

INTERPOL issues red notice for alleged ex-CIA officer wanted in Britain

Harry DunnA so-called ‘red notice’ has been issued by INTERPOL for Anne Sacoolas, an alleged former employee of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who is accused of causing an accident that killed a man in the United Kingdom last year. The accident victim is Harry Dunn, 19, who died on August 27, 2019, after a collision with a automobile that was being driven by Sacoolas. British police have said that Sacoolas’ car was being driven on the wrong side of the street at the time of the accident.

The accident took place a few yards from the entrance to the Royal Air Force base in Croughton, where Sacoolas’ husband was stationed at the time. He is thought to have been working at the US Air Force listening station, which is located inside the base. The American family had been in the United Kingdom for less than a month when the accident happened. British police charged Sacoolas with dangerous driving that led to the death of Dunn. However, the Sacoolas family left the country two weeks later, allegedly with the consent of the British Foreign Office. The Foreign Office reportedly agreed with the US government’s argument that Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity due to her husband’s work, and could not be tried for the accident.

Later, however, the diplomatic immunity claim was strongly disputed by Dunn’s family. Eventually British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab requested Sacoolas’ extradition to the United Kingdom. But the White House refused to grant the request and suggested instead that financial compensation be paid to the family. The White House also proposed a meeting between US President Donald Trump and the parents of Harry Dunn, which they refused to participate in. In the meantime there were allegations in British and American media that Sacoolas used to work for the CIA and that her husband is an intelligence officer.

Now INTERPOL, the International Police Organization, has issued a red notice for Sacoolas, which theoretically means she could be arrested if she were to leave American territory. Speaking on Monday, Radd Seiger, a lawyer for Dunn’s parents, argued the INTERPOL move means that Sacoolas did not have diplomatic immunity at the time of the accident, since red notices “are not served on valid diplomats”, he said. He also called for the British parliament to launch an inquiry into the accident and into Sacoolas’ subsequent departure from the United Kingdom.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 May 2020 | Permalink

US could withdraw intelligence assets from the UK due to Huawei’s role in 5G

HuaweiThe United States could end all sensitive intelligence operations and withdraw its intelligence assets from the United Kingdom if a leading Chinese company is hired to upgrade the country’s telecommunications network. The British government has come under relentless pressure by Washington to not hire Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers, to build the United Kingdom’s 5th generation cellular communications infrastructure.

Many Western intelligence agencies view Huawei as being uncomfortably close to the Communist Party of China. Washington has been leading a worldwide campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with some if its allies, notably Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies. Last year, Washington warned two of its main European allies, Britain and Germany, that it would stop sharing intelligence with them if they allowed Huawei to compete for 5G contracts.

Now the White House appears to be considering a more drastic step. According to the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the Trump administration has ordered a review of whether it should curtail its intelligence assets and operations on British soil if the Chinese firm were hired to build the UK’s 5G network. Citing “half a dozen” current and former British and American officials, the paper said that the review is still in the works. It is being conducted under the auspices of the National Security Council, America’s highest decision-making body, which is chaired by the president himself.

The Daily Telegraph reports that, among the topics being looked at in the review is whether US intelligence operations and hardware —both civilian and military— would be compromised by Huawei’s involvement in the telecommunications infrastructure. The hardware includes military installations and surveillance platforms, such as a number of RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, which operate out of the Royal Air Force Mildenhall in Sussex, near England’s southern coast. The paper notes that the report and its recommendations could result in drastic chances for the so-called “special relationship” between the US and the UK.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 May 2020 | Permalink