Canada evacuates diplomats’ families from Cuba, citing mysterious brain injuries

Embassy of Canada in Havana, CubaThe government of Canada has announced plans to evacuate family members of its diplomats serving in Cuba, because of medical issues caused by an alleged espionage-related technological device. These concerns have persisted among United States and Canadian diplomatic staff since the fall of 2016, when several members of staff at the US embassy in Havana reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. Eventually, their symptoms became so serious that some American diplomats decided “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”, according to the Associated Press, which published this story in August of 2016.

Since that time, the US Department of State has said that 21 of its diplomatic and support staff have been diagnosed with brain injuries. In response to these concerns, Washington recalled the majority of its diplomats from Havana last September and issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island. Now the Canadian embassy has said it will evacuate all family members of its personnel stationed in Havana, according to the BBC. The government of Canada is believed to have made the decision to evacuate its citizens after it confirmed that at least 10 members of diplomatic families living on the island had been found to suffer from “unexplained brain symptoms”, according to Canadian government officials. These include regular spells of dizziness and nausea, as well as difficulty in concentrating on tasks.

Interestingly, Canadian experts have dismissed theories, emanating mostly from the US, that the mysterious brain symptoms come from a mysterious covert weapon that emits sonic waves. But some Canadian experts have said that the symptoms suffered by the diplomats and their families may point to a new illness, whose cause remains unknown. Cuba has dismissed repeated allegations by Washington that it allowed a third party —possibly Russia—to conduct sonic attacks against Western diplomats on the island. Cuban officials have described the allegations as tricks in a game of “political manipulation” that has been concocted by the White House to damage the bilateral relationship between the US and the government of the Caribbean island.

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

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Outgoing CIA director acknowledges US killed ‘couple of hundred’ Russians in Syria

Mike PompeoThe outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, appeared on Thursday to confirm reports from last February that United States troops killed more than 200 Russian soldiers in Syria. According to sources from the US Pentagon, the armed confrontation took place on February 7, when a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. US-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimated at the time that over 100 attackers had been left dead, with another 200-300 injured. The toll later rose to several hundred dead.

At a press conference held soon after the armed clash, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said at the time that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”. On Thursday, however, Pompeo appeared to acknowledge that US troops killed hundreds of Russians in Deir al-Zour. The outgoing CIA director was speaking before a committee of the US Senate, during a hearing pertaining to his nomination to serve as the next US secretary of state. He was making the point that the administration of US President Donald Trump had maintained a hardline policy on Russia. After referring to the recent expulsions of 60 Russian diplomats from the US, Pompeo said: “in Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russians met their match. A couple of hundred Russians were killed”.

Pompeo’s comments were seen by the media as an acknowledgement by a senior US government official of the incident in Deir al-Zour, which has remained shrouded in mystery since it happened. Later in his speech, Pompeo said that the Kremlin had “not yet gotten the full message about US determination to block aggression from Moscow. We need to continue to work at that”, he said.

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

Britain looking to resettle poisoned Russian spy to the United States, says source

Sergei SkripalThe British government may relocate Sergei Skripal, the Russian double spy who appears to have survived an assassination attempt in England, to the United States, in an effort to protect him from further attacks. The BBC reported last week that Skripal, who had been in a critical condition for nearly a month, was “improving rapidly”. Skripal, 66, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, and has been living in England since 2010, was poisoned with what London claims was a military-grade nerve agent. Nearly every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and the United States, expelled Russian diplomats in response to the attack on the Russian former spy. His daughter, Yulia, who is 33, also came down with nerve-agent poisoning on the same day as her father, but appears to have survived.

The London-based newspaper The Sunday Times said yesterday that British government officials are exploring the possibility of resettling Skripal and his daughter in an allied country. The paper claimed that the countries being considered for possible relocation belong to the so-called “Five Eyes” agreement (also known as UKUSA), a decades-old pact between intelligence agencies from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the United States. The Times quoted “an intelligence source” familiar with the negotiations allegedly taking place between the British government and its UKUSA partners. The source reportedly told the paper that the Skripals “will be offered new identities”, but did not elaborate on how they would avoid attention after their images were published by every major media outlet in the world following last month’s incident in England.

The anonymous source told The Times that “the obvious place to resettle [the two Russians] is America because they are less likely to be killed there and it is easier to protect them there under a new identity”. The paper also reported that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, is holding discussions with its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, about resettling the Skripals on American soil. But an article published on Sunday in another British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, said that senior government officials in the United States are now worried that Russian defectors and former spies living there may not be safe. The paper quoted an unnamed “senior US administration official” as saying that Washington has “massive concerns” that US-based Russians who have spied for America, or have publicly criticized the Kremlin, could be targeted just like Skripal. The Times said it contacted the British Foreign Office seeking to confirm whether the Skripals would be relocated abroad, but did not get a response.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 9 April 2018 | Permalink

US government publicly admits existence of rogue phone-tapping devices in DC

Embassy RowThe United States government has for the first time admitted publicly that it has detected devices known to be used by foreign intelligence services to spy on cellular communications in the nation’s capital. Known commonly as Stingrays, after a leading hardware brand, these devices are primarily used by government agencies, including law enforcement. But they can be purchased by anyone with anywhere from $1,000 to $200,000 to spare. They work by simulating the activity of legitimate cell towers and tricking cell phones into communicating with them. That allows the users of these cellphone-site simulators to monitor the physical whereabouts of targeted cell phones. Some of the more expensive Stingray models can intercept the actual content of telephone conversations and can even plant Trojans on the compromised phones of unsuspecting users.

Many governments have expressed concerns about the use of these devices, which are known to be used by intelligence agencies to monitor cellular communications on foreign soil. Major cities around the world, including Washington, are major targets of cellphone-site simulators, which are frequently located inside foreign embassies. However, the US government has never publicly commented on this issue, despite intense rumors that government agencies headquartered in Washington are major targets of Stingray devices. This changed recently, however, after Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security seeking information about the use of such devices in Washington. Wyden received a written response from Christopher Krebs, who heads the DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate. In the letter, dated March 26, Krebs confirmed that the DHS detected a number of active Stingrays in the DC area in 2017, which he referred to as “anomalous activity consistent with Stingrays”. But he added that the DHS lacks both funding and equipment needed to detect the full number of the devices and the full spectrum of Stingrays that are active in the nation’s capital.

The Associated Press, which published Krebs’ letter, said it acquired it from Wyden’s office in the US Senate. The news agency noted that the letter from DHS did not provide the technical specifications of the cellphone-site simulators, and did not enter into speculation about who might be employing them. Additionally the letter did not provide the exact number of Stingrays detected in DC in 2017, nor did it provide the exact locations in DC where Stingray activity was traced. In response to Krebs’ letter, Senator Wyden’s office released a statement blaming the US Federal Communications Commission for having failed to hold the cellular telecommunications industry accountable for the lack of security against Stingrays. “Leaving security to the phone companies has proven to be disastrous”, Senator Wyden’s statement concluded.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 4 April 2018 | Permalink

Surge in Russian spy activity prompts US agencies to bring back retired officers

FBIA surge in the activity of Russian intelligence personnel on United States soil has caused American spy agencies to rehire retired Russia specialists, according to Newsweek. Additionally, Russian defectors living in the US are reevaluating their personal safety in light of the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England last month, said Newsweek’s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein in an article published on Sunday. Writing from Washington, Stein said that US counterintelligence agencies —notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation— are “on edge” over the attack on Skripal, which the British government said was carried out with a military-grade nerve agent on orders of the Kremlin.

Soviet spy agencies have a long history of assassinating defectors, called ‘wet operations’ in Russian spy parlance. But such activities were considerably scaled back after the 1970s. However, many claim that the rise of Vladimir Putin to power brought back these tactics, and that Moscow may now be investing more time and money in ‘wet operations’ training. Stein quoted one anonymous Russian defector living in the US as saying that it would be “easy [for Russian spy services] to find us if they are really determined”. It usually takes an email, text or phone call to friends or relatives back in Russia for Moscow to start tracking the physical whereabouts of defectors. In other cases, family members of defectors may be followed by Russian intelligence personnel while visiting the US to reunite with relatives, said the US-based defector.

The same source told Stein that suspected Russian intelligence personnel had been spotted by US counterintelligence teams surveilling the neighborhoods where Russian defectors reside. To address what they see as an “uptick in Russian activity […] over the past two years”, the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency “have been bringing people out of retirement” with expertise on Russian intelligence operations, Stein reports. The veteran intelligence correspondent also spoke to retired CIA officers, who did not rule out an attempt by Russian intelligence to carry out a ‘wet operation’ on American soil. Stein contacted the CIA and the FBI, asking them to respond to these concerns. He said the CIA declined to comment, while the FBI did not return his messages.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 April 2018 | Permalink

CIA is running informal negotiation channels with North Korea, say sources

Mike PompeoThe Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly established back channels for negotiation between the United States and North Korea, which the Department of State is now using to communicate with Pyongyang. Rex Tillerson, who was summarily fired as US Secretary of State by President Donald Trump last week, was famously in favor of diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea. The White House had resisted and even publicly criticized Tillerson’s views. Ironically, Tillerson was fired just as his pro-diplomacy views on North Korea are being adopted by the White House.

It is now the task of the new US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo to help facilitate President’ Trump’s desire to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. On Sunday, US television network CBS reported that Pompeo had already established an informal negotiation channel with Pyongyang during his prior post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. According to CBS, the CIA used the back channel to communicate directly with the North Korean regime, bypassing the Department of State, which is the traditional instrument of US foreign policy. The network quoted “two current and one former” US officials, which it did not name.

Now that Pompeo has been placed in charge of the Department of State, said CBS, he has already tapped into the CIA’s direct line of communication with Pyongyang, and has begun utilizing it as Secretary of State. The CIA remains in charge of the channel, according to the television network. Meanwhile, German news media said on Sunday that North Korea’s missiles could now reach Germany and other areas of Western Europe. The reports quoted Dr. Ole Diehl, deputy director of the BND, Germany’s foreign-intelligence agency, who allegedly made the statement at a closed-door meeting of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 March 2018 | Permalink

Philippines summons US ambassador to protest negative intelligence report

Sung KimThe United States ambassador to the Philippines has been summoned by Manila in response to the publication of an American intelligence report that described President Rodrigo Duterte as a threat to democracy. The report, published on February 13, represents a joint assessment of worldwide challenges to the interests of the United States. It is compiled annually by all 16 member agencies that make up the US Intelligence Community. This year’s report focused on the administration of President Duterte, who has led a self-styled “war on drugs, corruption and crime” in the Philippines since he assumed office in June 2016.

By the government’s own account, Duterte’s war has left more than 4,000 people dead in the past 18 months. But some human rights groups estimate the number of deaths at 11,000 or even higher. The US intelligence report notes that Duterte declared martial law in the Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao, which is expected to remain in place for most of 2018. It expresses concerns about rumors that the government may continue to impose martial law indefinitely and that it may extend it nationwide. It also expresses concern about Duterte’s prior statements that he intends to turn his government into a “revolutionary regime”.

At a press conference in Manila, President Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said that the US ambassador to the Philippines capital, Sung Kim, met with Salvador Medialdea on Tuesday. Medialdea is the president’s executive secretary, who is the highest-ranking official in Duterte’s office. According to Roque, Medialdea told the US ambassador that the Philippine embassy in Washington was prepared to “give US intelligence accurate information about the reality” of the political situation in the Philippines. He also informed Ambassador Kim that the Philippines president had respect for the rule of law. A statement issued by the US embassy in Manila said that Ambassador Kim informed Medialdea about “the nature of the […] report, which is based on widely available information”.

The meeting ended with the two officials reaffirming “the strength of the broad and deep bilateral relationship” between Washington and Manila. They also said that the US would continue to cooperate with the Philippines on political, economic and security issues. However, tensions between the two countries have been high all week. On Thursday, President Duterte accused the Central Intelligence Agency of funding Rappler.com, a very popular news and information website based in the Philippines and Indonesia, which he said was engaged in a systematic effort to undermine his administration.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 February 2018 | Permalink