Russia claims ‘misunderstanding’ led to arrests of four spies in Holland

Sergei LavrovRussia’s minister of foreign affairs has downplayed the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers in Holland last April, saying that the incident was caused by a “misunderstanding”. Last Thursday, the US government named and indicted seven officers of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, known as GRU. The seven are alleged to have participated in cyber-attacks on international agencies, private companies and government computer networks in at least half a dozen countries around the world since 2015. Four of the men named last week were reportedly detained in April of this year while trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, the OPCW oversees efforts by its 193 member states to detect and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In the past year, the OPCW has been probing the failed attempt to poison the Russian former double spy Sergei Skripal in England, which the British government has blamed on Moscow.

On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed Washington’s accusations against the GRU and said that the Dutch authorities had overreacted in detaining the four Russian officers in April. Following a meeting in Moscow with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Lavrov said that the visit of the four GRU officers in Holland had been “customary”, adding that “there was nothing clandestine in it”. The GRU specialists were in Holland in order to secure computer servers used at the Russian embassy there. “They were not trying to hide from anyone once they arrived at the airport”, said Lavrov. They then “checked into a hotel and paid a visit to our embassy”, he added. Had they been engaged in espionage, the men would have taken strict precautions, said the Russian foreign affairs minister. They were eventually “detained by Dutch police without any reason or explanations, and were not allowed to contact our embassy”, said Lavrov. Eventually they were “asked to leave the country”, but it was “all because of a misunderstanding”, he concluded.

The Russian official did not address the information provided a series of photographs released by Holland’s Ministry of Defense, which show a car used by the four Russians at the time of their arrest in April. The photographs show that the car was equipped with WiFi antennas and transformers. A wireless server and batteries can also be seen in the photographs. Lavrov said that the allegations against the GRU were meant to draw attention to Russia and distract Western citizens from “widening divisions that exist between Western nations”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

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Envelopes containing deadly ricin poison intercepted at US Pentagon

PentagonAn investigation was opened in the United States on Tuesday, after two envelopes containing the deadly poison ricin were intercepted at the Pentagon. The envelopes were reportedly intercepted at a mail screening facility located in the vicinity of the headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Washington, DC. One of the envelopes was addressed to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while the other was addressed to Admiral John Richardson, who serves as Chief of Naval Operations. According to US news media, the envelopes were found to contain a powder-like substance. Upon discovery, the envelopes were secured by members of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the US Department of Defense’s law enforcement body that is responsible for safeguarding the Pentagon complex.

On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that the substance inside the envelopes had been examined by its technicians and had tested positive for the deadly poison ricin. Ricin is a naturally occurring toxin found inside the seeds of castor oil plants, known commonly as castor beans. Though mostly harmless in its natural state, the toxin can be processed and effectively weaponized in the form of pellets, liquid acid, mist or powder. If it finds its way into the human body, through ingestion, inhalation or injection, it can kill in fewer than 48 hours. Death usually occurs as a result of organ failure and internal bleeding, which lead to a collapse of the circulatory system. There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning.

On Tuesday afternoon, parts of the Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign office in Houston, Texas, were shut down, after two staff members came in contact with what was described as a “white powdery substance” inside an envelope. The staff members were rushed to the hospital, but tests carried out later that day showed that the substance was non-toxic.

The FBI said on Tuesday that its technicians would carry out further tests on the substances found at the Pentagon and at Senator Cruz’s office, in order to confirm the initial findings. It also said that there would be no further announcements until the tests are completed. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s mail screening facility remains under quarantine.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 October 2018 | Permalink

CIA to return to traditional espionage against state actors, says new director

Gina HaspelThe United States Central Intelligence Agency will return to traditional espionage against foreign states and focus less on counterterrorism against non-state actors, said its new director in her first public appearance. Gina Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 as a reports officer and completed several undercover tours overseas before serving as chief of station. She rose through the ranks to become deputy director of the National Clandestine Service and was appointed deputy director of the CIA in 2017. In May of this year, she became the Agency’s first female director, despite some controversy that arose from her role as chief of a CIA undercover facility (so-called “black site”) in Thailand. Critics alleged that Agency personnel under her command practiced enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, on terrorism detainees.

On Monday, Haspel gave a talk at the University of Louisville, from where she graduated in 1978 with a degree in languages and journalism, having transferred there from the University of Kentucky. It was her first public appearance after being sworn in as CIA director. She told the audience that she intends to steer the Agency back to traditional intelligence collection against “current and potential […] nation-state adversaries” and away from counterterrorism operations against non-state actors. The latter took center stage after the events of September 11, 2001. Filling current “intelligence gaps” on countries like Russia and China will be “a strategic priority” for the CIA, said Haspel, adding that the Agency will seek to “sharpen its focus on nation-state adversaries”. She spoke at length about China, stating that Beijing was “working to diminish US influence” and expand its own authority “beyond their own region, in places like Africa, Latin America, the Pacific islands [and] South Asia”.

The CIA’s hiring priorities will reflect the Agency’s strategic shift, said Haspel. The Agency will seek to expand its foreign footprint by “increasing the number of [its] officers stationed overseas”. Priority for these assignments will be given to foreign-language speakers with skills in Chinese, Arabic and Farsi, among other target languages. Interestingly, the CIA director added Turkish, French and Spanish to the list. She also said that the Agency will “invest more heavily on […] counternarcotics efforts abroad”. Last but not least, Haspel spoke about the need for increased transparency, diversity and inclusion at the CIA, which last year marked its 70th anniversary.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence reevaluates safety of Russian defectors in light of Skripal poisoning

CIAIntelligence officials in the United States are feverishly reassessing the physical safety of dozens of Russian defectors, in light of the case of Russian double spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in England last March. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Like MI6, the US Central Intelligence Agency also has a protection program for foreign nationals whose life may be at risk because they spied for the US. The CIA’s protection division, called the National Resettlement Operations Center, helps resettle and sometimes hide and protect dozens of foreign agents, or assets, as they are known in CIA lingo. But following the Skripal case, some CIA resettlement officials have expressed concern that protection levels for some foreign assets may need to be significantly raised. The New York Times, which published the story last week, said that it spoke to “current and former American intelligence officials”, which it did not name. In light of those concerns, US counterintelligence officials have been carrying out what The Times described as “a wide-reaching review” of every Russian asset who has been resettled in the US. The purpose of the review is to assess the ease with which these former assets can be traced through their digital footprint on social media and other publicly available information.

According to the paper, several Russians who defected to the US after working for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies were tracked down by the Kremlin in recent years. In the mid-1990s, says The Times, the CIA actually found an explosive device placed under the car of a Russian defector living in the US. More recently, US intelligence traced the movements of a suspected Russian assassin who visited the neighborhood of a resettled Russian defector in Florida. In the past, Russian CIA assets who have been resettled in the US have voluntarily revealed their whereabouts by reaching out to relatives back in Russia out of homesickness. In some cases, they have left the US in order to meet a lover who may have been planted by the Russian spy services —with sometimes fatal consequences.

In addition to the US, at least one more country has initiated a thorough review of the way it protects former Russian assets living in its territory in light of the Skripal case. As intelNews reported in March, the British secret services tightened the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain only a week after the attempted murder of Skripal. Britain’s security services reportedly viewed the attack on Skripal as an intelligence failure and launched a comprehensive review of the risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter included attacks with chemical and radiological weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 September 2018 | Permalink

US sees Russian weapon behind US diplomats’ mystery ailments, say officials

Kirtland Air Force BaseA Russian-made device caused the mystery ailments that affected more than two dozen American diplomats in Cuba and China, according to United States government officials who have been briefed on the matter. Since September of last year, Washington has recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana and at least two more diplomats from its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that they suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing as well as from various forms of brain injuries. In April of this year the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in the Cuban capital over similar health concerns. More recently, the US issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island and accused Cuba of neglecting to ensure the safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed there.

In early September, Douglas H. Smith, who heads the team of scientists tasked by the US government to examine the matter, said that microwave radiation was almost certainly responsible for the diplomats’ ailments. He added that microwaves were considered “a main suspect” and that his team of scientists was now “increasingly sure” that the diplomats had suffered brain injuries caused by microwave radiation. Now the US news network NBC reports that Russia is viewed as the primary culprit behind the mystery ailments that plagued US diplomats. Reporting on Tuesday the news network cited three unnamed officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump, as well as “congressional aides and others briefed on the investigation”. Specifically, NBC reported that the Russian connection was supported by “evidence from communications intercepts” (signals intelligence or SIGINT), though it did not elaborate on their precise nature. It also said that the ongoing investigation into the purported weapon involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency among other US intelligence and security agencies. Another leading actor in the investigation is the US Air Force, said NBC, stating that experts in its directed energy research program at the Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico, are trying to reverse-engineer the alleged weapons based on the symptoms that they cause.

But NBC noted that the evidence remains relatively inconclusive and is not yet sufficient to allow Washington to openly accuse Moscow of having masterminded the alleged microwave attacks on the US diplomats. The news network said it reached out to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence but received no response. A spokeswoman from the US Department of State said that the investigation into the diplomats’ ailments was ongoing and that the Department had made “no determination of who or what is responsible for the health attacks” on its personnel.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2018 | Permalink

Trump officials ‘discussed secret coup plans’ with Venezuelan army officers

Nicolas MaduroUnited States President Donald Trump authorized American officials to attend secret meetings held by Venezuelan military officers who conspired to launch a military coup against President Nicolás Maduro. The claim was made on Saturday by The New York Times, which cited “interviews with 11 current and former American officials” and information from an unnamed Venezuelan former military commander. The former commander claims to have attended the secret talks, which allegedly were held over several meetings during the past year.

According to The Times, the meetings were sparked by a comment made by President Trump in August of 2017, that he did not rule out a “military option” to “restore calm” in Venezuela. That comment reportedly prompted at least three groups of Venezuelan military officers opposed to the rule of President Maduro to reach out to the White House. One of these groups, said The Times, had one of its representatives contact American diplomats in an unnamed European country. That outreach led to “a series of covert meetings abroad”, according to The Times, the first of which took place in the fall of 2017. The meetings continued until recently, and were held with a number of Venezuelan military officers who claimed to represent the views of several hundred members of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces. The rebellious officers allegedly told the US government’s representative that they planned to launch a military coup aimed at deposing President Maduro and installing a transitional government that would guarantee peaceful elections. They reportedly asked the White House representative to supply them with secure communications equipment, which they could use to coordinate their operations.

However, the White House eventually decided that backing a military coup in Venezuela would be too risky due to the potential for spiraling bloodshed. It thus distanced itself from the plan. Additionally, some US government officials were alarmed by the composition of the rebel officers: at least one of them was a serious violator of human rights who had previously been accused by the US of involvement of participating in drugs smuggling and having close links with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which is on Washington’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Eventually the plotters canceled their plans for a coup, having assessed it would be met by fierce resistance by pro-Maduro forces.

The Times reached out to the White House, which rejected the paper’s report, saying it was important to “dialogue with all Venezuelans who demonstrate a desire for democracy”. But it refused to respond to specific questions about the allegations of a possible coup in Venezueal with Washington’s backing. President Maduro has already blamed the US for two attempts to assassinate him in the past 18 months, with the most recent one involving the use of an exploding drone. In 2002, Maduro’s predecessor, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was briefly deposed by a military putsch. Chávez was able to beat back the rebels with the help of his civilian and military supporters, and then accused Washington of having had direct involvement with the attempt to remove him from power. The US has strongly denied Chávez’s charges.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 September 2018 | Permalink

US delegation met secretly with Syrian intelligence chiefs, newspaper claims

Ali MamloukA delegation of senior American government officials met secretly with Syria’s spy chiefs in an effort to lay out the terms of a possible deal between Washington and Damascus, according to a Lebanese newspaper. Relations between the United States and Syria have been strained since the late 1950s, when Damascus blamed Washington for a failed coup and expelled America’s ambassador there. In 2012, the US shut down its embassy in the Syrian capital in response to the government’s violent suppression of protests. Since then, Washington has carried out missile strikes on Syrian soil at least twice, while openly supporting armed groups that are opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a group of senior American officials held a secret meeting in Damascus with Syrian spy chiefs. If true, the move could signify a major shift in US-Syrian relations. The paper, which supports the pro-Assad Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah, and is close to the Syrian government, published news of the alleged meeting on Tuesday. It said that the meeting took place in complete secrecy during the last week of June and that it was facilitated by intermediaries from Russia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter used a UAE government airplane to fly the US delegation —whose names Al-Akhbar did not reveal— to the Syrian capital. The visiting delegation, which according to the paper “included [senior] officers from many US intelligence and security agencies”, was transported to a secret Syrian government facility in the dead of night by “a huge procession of black SUVs”, said the paper. The Syrian delegation at the meeting was reportedly headed by Ali Mamlouk, special security adviser to President al-Assad and head of the National Security Bureau of the governing Ba’ath Party. Other participants from the Syrian side included Mohammed Dib Zeitoun, director of the General Security Directorate, and Muwaffaq Asaad, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Armed Forces, said Al-Akhbar.

During the meeting, the two sides allegedly attempted to lay out the foundations of a possible post-civil war deal between Washington and Damascus. According to the Lebanese paper, the US delegation offered to withdraw American Special Forces from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. In return, they allegedly asked for the removal of Iranian troops from Syrian regions that are adjacent to the Israeli border. The two sides also discussed the resumption of intelligence sharing on matters relating to Sunni radicals operating in Syria. No decisions were taken during the meeting, said Al-Akhbar, but the two sides decided to continue to share proposals and ideas about a possible bilateral agreement.

The French news agency Agence France Presse said on Tuesday that it could not independently confirm Al-Akhbar’s claims, as its attempts to contact the US departments of State and Defense were not fruitful. It noted, however, that both Mamlk and Zeitoun feature on the US government’s list of sanctions against Syrian government officials that are believed to have directly participated in human-rights abuses against political opponents since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2018 | Permalink