US imposes sanctions on companies for helping Russian spy agencies

YantarThe United States has for the first time imposed economic sanctions on a number of Russian companies, which it says helped the Kremlin spy on targets in North America and Western Europe. On Monday, the US Department of the Treasury said it would apply severe economic restrictions on a number of Russian firms that work closely with the Kremlin. One of the companies was identified as Digital Security, which Washington says has been helping Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. Monday’s statement by the Treasury Department named another Russian firm, the Kvant Scientific Research Institute, which it described as a front company operated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

But the Russian firm that features most prominently in Monday’s announcement is Divetechnoservices, an underwater equipment manufacturer. The US alleges that the FSB paid the company $15 million in 2011 to design equipment for use in tapping underwater communications cables. According to Washington, equipment designed by Divetechnoservices is today used by a fleet of Russian ships that sail on the world’s oceans searching for underwater communications cables to tap. One such ship, according to reports, is the Yantar (pictured), ostensibly an oceanic research vessel, which Washington says is used to detect and tap into underwater communications cables.

In addition to Divetechnoservices, the US Treasury has named three individuals who will face economic sanctions due to what Washington says is their personal involvement with the underwater hardware manufacturer. They are: Vladimir Yakovlevich Kaganskiy, the company’s owner and former director; Aleksandr Lvovich Tribun, who serves as Divetechnoservices’ general director; and Oleg Sergeyevich Chirikov, identified as the manager of Divetechnoservices’ underwater surveillance program. These men —all Russian citizens— will not be able to enter into business relationships with American companies or citizens. On Tuesday, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the latest round of US sanctions as an act of desperation. The White House would fail in its effort to “force the Russian Federation to change its independent course of action in the international arena”, said the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2018 | Permalink

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China gave ex-CIA officer “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” to spy on US

 Chinese Ministry of State SecurityChinese intelligence operatives gave a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” in exchange for carrying out espionage, according to court papers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, on January 15, accusing him of possessing classified information that included lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. Lee, 53, was reportedly arrested after a lengthy FBI sting operation, which included creating a fictional job in the US in order to entice Lee to travel to New York from Hong Kong, where he had been living after leaving the CIA in 2007.

Lee is now scheduled to appear before a US circuit court judge on Friday morning, in order to be officially charged with one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government and two counts of unlawfully retaining information pertaining to national defense. According to the indictment, in April of 2010 Lee met two officers of China’s Ministry of State Security. The meeting allegedly took place in Shenzhen, a city in southern China that borders Hong Kong. During that encounter, the indictment claims that Lee was offered “a gift of $100,000 in cash” in exchange of providing the Ministry of State Security with information about his career in the CIA. He was also told by the two Chinese intelligence officers that China would “take care of him for life” if he continued to cooperate with them.

In May of 2010, Lee deposited about $17,000 into one of his HSBC accounts in Hong Kong. Court documents allege that the deposit was the first of many that followed, and that they amounted to “hundreds of thousands of dollars”. These deposits continued to occurr until the end of 2013, when Lee made his last substantial cash deposit in Hong Kong. Throughout that time, Lee received regular written instructions from the Ministry of State Security, asking him to provide information about CIA operations. Lee did so at least 21 times, says the indictment. In one instance, he drew the floorplan of a CIA facility abroad and gave it to the Chinese, according to the indictment. Lee is expected to plead not guilty on Friday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 May 2018 | Permalink

Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink

US government prosecutors confirm CIA officer passed information to China

CIAA case officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was arrested in January of this year for violating the Espionage Act, shared classified information with China, according to an official indictment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, on January 15, accusing him of possessing classified information that included lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. Lee, 53, was reportedly arrested after a lengthy FBI sting operation, which included creating a fictional job in the US in order to entice Lee to travel to New York from Hong Kong, where he had been living after leaving the CIA in 2007. However, the initial FBI complaint did not indict Lee for passing the top-secret information to anyone. There was speculation at the time that this was because the FBI had not been able to conclusively prove that Lee carried out espionage.

On Tuesday, however, Lee was formally indicted on conspiracy to gather and deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government. That charge came in addition to a previously stated charge of unlawfully retaining material related to American national defense. The indictment repeats earlier allegations that Lee was found to be in possession of classified documents that included the real names of CIA assets (foreign citizens who are recruited by CIA case officers to spy for the United States abroad) and the locations of “covert facilities” –safe houses that are typically used by CIA personnel to meet with assets in privacy. In what can be described as the most descriptive allegations that have surfaced against Lee, the indictment proceeds to claim that he was approached by two Chinese intelligence officers in 2010, three years after he left the CIA. The officers allegedly offered to give Lee a substantial amount of money in exchange for access to classified information. Additionally, according to the court documents, Lee was provided by his Chinese handlers with email addresses that he could use to communicate with them covertly, and did as instructed “until at least 2011”.

The documents further state that Lee made “numerous […] cash deposits”, which he struggled to explain when questioned by American counterintelligence officials. On several instances, Lee lied during questioning in order to cover up his financial activities, according to the indictment. Lee’s defense lawyer, Edward MacMahon, told the court on Tuesday that his client was “not a Chinese spy”, but “a loyal American who loves his country”. He also pointed out that Lee served in the US military and the CIA. The Chinese government has made no comment about the case.

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

Pakistan denies it plans to release doctor who helped CIA find bin Laden

Dr Shakil AfridiAuthorities in Pakistan have dismissed rumors that a medical doctor who helped the United States Central Intelligence Agency find and kill al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 is to be released from prison. Dr. Shakil Afridi was arrested in 2011, soon after bin Laden was killed in a CIA operation in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. In the weeks following the CIA raid, it emerged that a team of local doctors and nurses had helped the American spy agency confirm bin Laden’s presence in the compound. The team of nearly 20 healthcare workers participated in a fake vaccination scheme carried out in Abbottabad, whose true purpose was to collect DNA samples from the residents of the compound where the CIA believed bin Laden was hiding.

Pakistani authorities fired 17 healthcare workers who participated in the CIA scheme and arrested its head, Dr. Afridi. Bizarrely, Dr. Afridi was arrested for having alleged links with an Islamist group that operates in the region, known as Lashkar-e-Islam. He then faced charges for alleged medical malpractice, which, according to the prosecution, resulted in the death of one of his patients. He is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence in Pakistan’s northwestern border city of Peshawar. Ever since his arrest, the US has pressured Pakistan to release Dr. Afridi, and Pakistani media often publish sensational reports about alleged covert attempts by the CIA to free the imprisoned medical doctor. Last week, Dr. Afridi was transported by helicopter from Peshawar to a jail near the village of Adiala, located near Pakistan’s border with the Indian region of Kashmir. Dr. Afridi’s move, which took place amid heavy security, sparked rumors in the media that the alleged CIA agent was about to be released and transported to America.

But on Thursday, Muhammad Faisal, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dismissed intense media speculation that Dr. Afridi was about to be released. He also denied that Islamabad was attempting to swap Afridi with Pakistani nationals living in the US, including Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year prison term in the US for killing an American soldier in Afghanistan. Additionally, Faisal described as “nonsense” media reports of an alleged failed CIA attempt to organize a jailbreak in Peshawar, in order to free Dr. Afridi.

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

Another US diplomat detained in Pakistan over traffic accident that injured two

US embassy Islamabad PakistanAnother American diplomat was detained in Pakistan last week, following the second serious traffic accident involving United States diplomatic personnel in Islamabad in less than a month. The incidents are said to be contributing to ongoing diplomatic tensions between the United States and Pakistan. Many in the South Asian country remain angry about a controversial episode in 2011, when a Central Intelligence Agency officer serving at the US consulate in Lahore killed two men by shooting them in the head with a Glock pistol. The CIA officer, Raymond A. Davis, told Pakistani police that the two men had tried to rob him. He was eventually released from detention due to his diplomatic immunity, but only after the personal intervention of the then Secretary of State John Kerry, and after Washington offered monetary compensation to the two dead men’s families.

In the latest incident, Pakistani authorities detained an American diplomat on Sunday, after his Toyota SUV ran over two men riding on a motorcycle in Islamabad. The diplomat, identified in Pakistani media as the US embassy’s Second Secretary Chad Rex Ausburn, was accused by police of having been involved in a hit-and-run incident in the Pakistani capital. According to local reports, Ausburn refused to emerge from his vehicle immediately following the accident, but eventually stepped out and identified himself to police officers. They then took him into custody and impounded his vehicle, which is believed to belong to the US embassy. Ausburn was released once the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed his diplomatic status, which grants him immunity from prosecution. The two men injured in the accident are said to be in stable condition at a nearby hospital. Police have reportedly charged the driver of the motorcycle with reckless driving.

However, Pakistani authorities have also charged Taimur Iqbal Pirzada, a security adviser for the US embassy in Islamabad, with seeking to obstruct the police investigation into Sunday’s incident. Pirzada stands accused of trying to stop police officers from detaining Ausburn and impounding his vehicle. He was released on bail on Monday and is currently awaiting trial. US State Department spokesman Nolen Johnson told The New York Times on Monday that the issue involving Ausburn had been “resolved” and that the US government had been “in close contact with Government of Pakistan officials on this matter”. This past April, Pakistani authorities barred another American diplomat from leaving the country, after the car he was driving was involved in an accident in Islamabad, which left a motorcyclist dead. The US embassy’s military attaché, Colonel Joseph E. Hall, remains in Pakistan. Authorities there have demanded that the US Department of State rescinds his diplomatic immunity, so he can face a criminal trial. But the US government has so far refused to grant Islamabad’s request.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 May 2018 | Permalink | Research credit: C.F.

Report reveals deeper CIA role in 1963 Vietnam coup and Diem’s assassination

Ngo Dinh DiemA newly declassified report by the Inspector General of the United States Central Intelligence Agency reveals that the South Vietnamese generals who overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 used CIA money “to reward opposition military who joined the coup”. Acknowledging that “the passing of these funds is obviously a very sensitive matter”, the CIA Inspector General’s report contradicts the sworn testimony of Lucien E. Conein, the CIA liaison with the South Vietnamese generals. In 1975, Conein told a United States Senate committee that the agency funds, approximately $70,000 or 3 million piasters, were used for food, medical supplies, and “death benefits” for the families of South Vietnamese soldiers killed in the coup.

The report (.pdf), one of the 19,000 JFK assassination documents released by the US National Archives on Thursday, also contains new details about the South Vietnamese generals’ decision to assassinate Diem that contradict a conclusion of the coup’s history written by the CIA station in Saigon. The majority of the generals, said the CIA at the time, “desired President Diem to have honorable retirement from the political scene in South Vietnam and exile”. According to a newly declassified portion of the 49-page document written by the CIA’s Inspector General, an unidentified field-grade South Vietnamese officer who provided the CIA station with pictures of the bloodied bodies of Diem and his brother and advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, said that “most of the generals” favored their immediate execution: “The ultimate decision was to kill them. A Captain Nhung was designated as executioner”.

A redacted version of the Inspector General’s report, dated May 31, 1967, was released by the National Archives in November 2017. In that version of the report, the paragraphs related to the use of CIA funds and the generals’ decision to murder Diem were excised.

* William J. Rust is the author of four books about US relations with Southeast Asia countries during the cold war, including Kennedy in Vietnam. He is currently completing a book about US relations with Indonesia.