Wave of bomb threats prompts hundreds of evacuations in four countries

Toronto subway evacuationAn unprecedented “flood of bomb threats” prompted hundreds of evacuations and closures of private buildings, transport hubs and offices in four countries on Thursday, causing confusion and in some cases panic. The threats —which numbered in the hundreds— were issued throughout the day Thursday against businesses, schools, hospitals and media companies in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is the first time in history that such a large wave of bomb threats was issued against so many targets internationally.

Police agencies in the United States and Canada said that most of the threats were emailed, but some were phoned in by unknown individuals. They warned that devices containing explosive compounds such as tetryl or trinitrotoluene would be detonated unless funds were deposited into an international account using the virtual currency bitcoin. The messages also warned that the alleged devices would be detonated if “any police activity or unusual behavior” were detected. A deadline of one business day was given to deposit the funds. Throughout the day, police agencies across three continents issued notices cautioning people to remain aware of their surroundings and report suspicious messages or behavior. It was eventually determined that virtually all bomb threats were not credible.

However, it was the sheer number and geographical extent of the threats that shocked law enforcement agencies across four countries. In the United States, threats were reported in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Oklahoma City, where over dozens of specific addresses were targeted. Nearly 30 schools were placed on lockout in the state of Colorado, while numerous buildings were evacuated in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Cincinnati and Seattle. Smaller cities were also affected, including South Bend, Indiana, Grand Rapids, Iowa, Charlotte, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia, and Park City, Utah. In Canada dozens of bomb threats were issued in Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Toronto, where five of the city’s subway stations were shut down for several hours. Media reports late on Thursday said it was unclear how many —if any— of those targeted paid the bitcoin ransoms demanded by the hoaxers.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 December 2018 | Permalink

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CIA names first woman to lead Directorate of Operations

CIAIn a surprising departure from established practice, the United States Central Intelligence Agency has publicized the name of its incoming head of operations. Beth Kimber, a 34-year veteran of the Agency, will become the first woman in the CIA’s 70-year history to lead the Directorate of Operations. Officers in the Directorate of Operations, formerly known as the National Clandestine Service, spend their careers recruiting foreign agents to spy for the United States, while also carrying out covert operations around the world. This is also the first time that the CIA has chosen to publicly identify its Deputy Director for Operations —Kimber’s official title, abbreviated as DDO. Previous DDO have been undercover officers whose namse have remained undisclosed. Kimber’s promotion was announced on December 7 by Brittany Bramell, the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs.

Little is known about Kimber, who spent much of her career as a case officer before joining the CIA’s senior intelligence staff. She is a graduate of Hamilton College, a private, liberal arts college situated in upstate New York, and spent much of her early career with the CIA as a case officer in Western Europe. She is also believed to have led the “Russia Group”, a network of intelligence planners in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations that manage a broad spectrum of espionage operations targeting the Russian spy services. She has also served as deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, before it was renamed to Directorate of Operations. Newsweek intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein wrote about Kimber in 2014, but did not name her, as she was still serving in an undercover capacity.

For a few months this year, Kimber served as the CIA’s acting deputy director while Congress considered President Donald Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel’s for the Agency’s director position. Kimber’s most recent prior post in the CIA was head of the Agency’s Europe and Eurasia Mission Center. Kimber is the third woman to assume a central role in the CIA in the past six months. In May of this year, Gina Haspel, a 33-year veteran of the CIA, became the Agency’s first female director. In August, Haspel picked Sonya Holt, a 34-year CIA veteran, to serve as the Agency’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. On Friday, the American news network CBS cited “people familiar with the shift”, who said that the outgoing DDO “will take another role within the agency” and is expected to remain undercover.

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

Jailed Russian who spied for CIA writes letter to Trump, asking to be freed

Russian Ministry of Internal AffairsA Russian former police officer, who is serving a prison sentence in Russia for having spied for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, has written an open letter to President Donald Trump, asking to be freed. Yevgeny A. Chistov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2014 on charges of spying for Washington. During his trial, he admitted having been recruited by the CIA when he worked as an officer in the police, Russia’s federal law-enforcement agency, which operates under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Russian state prosecutors accused him of having established contact with the CIA in 2011. In 2015, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, which he is currently serving at a labor camp in the Nizhny Novgorod town of Bor, located in central European Russia.

On Saturday, British newspaper The Guardian published a letter that was allegedly written by Chistov. In the letter, the jailed spy admits that he passed Russian state secrets to the CIA for three years, after deciding “to help the US as a friend”. He claims that he did it out of love for his country, and in order to help “overthrow […] the regime” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chistov goes on to accuse “Putin and his cronies” of having plundered Russia and of oppressing its people through “corruption and extortion”. He blames the Kremlin for Russia’s current economic state: “we have a resource-rich country yet our people are poor”, he says. The jailed spy adds that he told the CIA about the “secret plans” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, that he provided “names of some people from the FSB”, and that he “revealed some objectives of Russia’s Ministry of Defense”. He does not provide details. He then claims that, even though he was paid by the CIA for his services, he did not act out of self-interest.

Chistov says that the conditions of his imprisonment are inhumane and that he and his family “are in great danger in Russia”. He also claims that his wife visited the US embassy in Ukraine in an attempt to secure a travel visa, but that her application was rejected and she was forced to return to Russia. The jailed spy adds that he “wrote two letters to the CIA asking them to help and received no response”. He then pleads with President Trump to help him, in two ways. First, by granting asylum in the US to his wife and mother. Second, by swapping him with someone “who worked for Russia” and is serving time in a US prison. “I want to appeal to the president to conduct the exchange”, he concludes.

The United States has participated in very few spy swaps in the post-Cold War era. In 2010, Washington and Moscow conducted one of history’s largest spy exchanges, as ten deep-cover Russian agents captured in the US earlier that year were swapped for four Russian citizens imprisoned by Moscow for spying for the US and Britain. Four years later, a Cuban intelligence officer who spied for the CIA was released as part of a wider exchange between Washington and Havana of persons held in each other’s prisons on espionage charges. The White House has not commented on Chistov’s letter.

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

ISIS evolving into ‘effective clandestine organization’ US Pentagon warns

ISIS forces in RamadiA report from the United States Department of Defense warns that the Islamic State is swiftly returning to its insurgent roots, as observers in Iraq and Syria caution that the group is witnessing a revival. It has been four years since the Islamic State —known then as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— conquered much of eastern Syria and more than a third of Iraq’s territory. But by the end of 2017, virtually the entirety of ISIS’ self-styled ‘caliphate’ had been obliterated by an ‘unholy alliance’ of US-backed Iraqi government forces, Iranian-supported Shiite militias, Kurdish guerillas and Western airpower.

However, experts warn that, despite its loss of territorial control, the Islamic State maintains an active force of as many as 30,000 armed fighters in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, a recent US government report argues that, having been driven out of nearly all of the territory that it once held, the Islamic State is promptly “returning to its insurgent roots”. The report, authored by analysts at the US Department of Defense, claims that the militant Sunni group is “re-emerging as a guerrilla force”. In the place of what used to be a de-facto state, an “effective clandestine ISIS organization appears to be taking hold”, it states. The Pentagon document, summarized in a Financial Times article on Thursday, appears to be backed by information from the ground in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi military sources told The Times that ISIS appears to have more fighters in its ranks than initially thought, and that the group’s organizational structure that helped it grow in the first place “has not been eliminated”.

Moreover, the group is “still well-funded” and its operations remain lethal, said the paper, especially in Iraq, where it continues to undermine the government’s efforts to improve the country’s security. Islamic State fighters are systematically targeting regional leaders, said The Times, in an effort to prevent the government from delivering economic development in Iraq’s Sunni-majority western regions. A similar pattern of activities is being observed in Syria, where a resurgence of ISIS activity has prolonged the deployment of around 2,000 US military personnel there. What is more, ISIS fighters frequently cross the Iraq-Syria border and spend much of their time in safe houses and other hideouts. The paper quotes Yahya Rasool, spokesperson for the Iraqi Army’s Joint Operations Command, who says that “our war on ISIS today is an intelligence war, not a military war. We are searching and raiding their hide-outs”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 December 2018 | Permalink

Canada arrests daughter of Chinese telecom giant’s founder at US request

Meng WanzhouThe daughter of the founder of Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers, has been arrested in Canada, reportedly at the request of the United States. Meng Wanzhou (pictured, also known as Sabrina Meng) serves as Huawei’s deputy chair and chief financial officer. She is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei a former officer in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, who established the company in 1988 and has since amassed a personal fortune estimated at $3.5 billion. By virtue of her family background and position in Huawei, Meng is often referred to as “a member of China’s corporate royalty”.

Few details of Meng’s arrest have been publicized. On Wednesday, Canada’s Department of Justice confirmed that the Huawei CFO was detained on December 1 in Vancouver as she was transferring between flights. The Justice Department also confirmed that the arrest occurred at the request of American law enforcement officials. In a carefully worded statement, the Canadian government said Meng is “sought for extradition by the United States” and that her bail hearing will be taking place this coming Friday. On Wednesday, the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail cited an unnamed “Canadian law enforcement source with knowledge of the arrest”, who said that US authorities had evidence that Meng “tried to evade the American embargo against Iran”. This statement appears to refer to reports in Western media in April of this year, according to which the US Departments of Commerce and Treasury were probing suspected violations of Washington’s sanctions against Iran and North Korea by Huawei.

The embassy of China in Canada immediately protested news of Meng’s arrest, saying that the Huawei CFO had been detained despite “not violating any American or Canadian law”. In a statement issued on Wednesday, the embassy added that it had “lodged stern representations” to the Canadian government and “urged them to immediately […] restore the personal freedom of Ms. Meng Wanzhou”. Meanwhile, a representative at Huawei’s corporate headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen told the BBC that the company is certain “the Canadian and US legal systems will ultimately reach a just conclusion” in the case.

Several officials in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other Western countries, have repeatedly flagged Huawei as a company that is uncomfortably close to the Chinese government and its intelligence agencies. In 2011, the US Open Source Center, which acts as the open-source intelligence arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, became the first US government agency to openly link Huawei with the Chinese intelligence establishment. In 2013, the British government launched an official review of Huawei’s involvement in the UK Cyber Security Evaluations Centre in Oxfordshire, England, following a British Parliament report that raised strong concerns about the Chinese company’s links with the government in Beijing. And in 2017 the Australian government expressed concern about Huawei’s plan to provide high-speed Internet to the Solomon Islands, a small Pacific island nation with which Australia shares Internet resources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 December 2018 | Permalink

US government plans background checks on Chinese students over espionage fears

Chinese students in USAThe United States government plan to impose tighter visa restrictions and wider background checks on Chinese nationals studying at American universities, over espionage concerns. The news follows reports earlier this year that the administration of US President Donald Trump considered banning all Chinese nationals from studying at American universities. In October of this year, The Financial Times reported that the White House came close to imposing the ban, after it was allegedly proposed by Stephen Miller, speechwriter and senior advisor to Trump. Miller became known as the main architect of Executive Order 13769 —the travel ban imposed on citizens of several countries, most of them predominantly Muslim. According to The Financial Times, Trump was eventually dissuaded from imposing the Chinese student ban by Terry Branstad, US ambassador to China.

Now, however, the Trump administration is reportedly considering the possibility of imposing deeper background checks and additional vetting on all Chinese nationals wishing to study in the US. Citing “a US official and three congressional and university sources”, Reuters said on Thursday that the measures would apply to all Chinese students wishing to register in undergraduate and graduate academic programs in the US. The news agency quoted a “senior US official” as saying that “no Chinese student who’s coming [to the US] is untethered from the state […. They all have] to go through a party and government approval process”. Reuters reported that the proposed plan includes a comprehensive examination of the applicants’ phone records and their presence on social media platforms. The goal would be to verify that the applicants are not connected with Chinese government agencies. As part of the proposed plan, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies would provide counterintelligence training to university officials.

However, the plan has many American universities —including elite Ivy League schools— worried that they may be losing up to $14 billion in tuition and other fees spent annually by more than 350,000 Chinese nationals studying in the US. The fear is that the latter may be looking to study elsewhere, in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Reuters said that many of America’s top universities are “regularly sharing strategies to thwart” plans by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for Chinese nationals to study in the US. The news agency said it contacted the Chinese ambassador to Washington, who called the White House’s fears of espionage by Chinese students “groundless” and “very indecent”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2018 | Permalink

Head of CIA’s Korean mission center to resign, say sources

Andrew KimA senior North Korea expert in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who has been instrumental in the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, has tendered his resignation, according to sources. The official was identified last may by US media as Andrew Kim, a former South Korean citizen who moved to the US with his parents when he was 13 years old. According to sources, Kim joined the CIA after graduating from college and rose through the Agency’s ranks to serve its stations in Moscow, Beijing and Bangkok. His most recent overseas post was reportedly in Seoul, where he served as the CIA’s station chief —the most senior American intelligence official in the country.

Following his return to the US from Seoul, Kim reportedly retired, but returned last year to head the CIA’s new Korea Mission Center (KMC). The purpose of the specialized unit is to analyze Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, which the administration of US President Donald Trump considers as matters of priority for the White House. It was as head of the KMC that Kim reportedly met Mike Pompeo once he became Director of the CIA in January 2017. The two men worked closely together and it is believed that Kim’s role was instrumental in organizing the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang that led to last summer’s historic high-level meeting between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. According to American and South Korean media, Kim accompanied the then-CIA director on his secret trip to North Korea. He also accompanied Pompeo on his trips to North Korea once the Kansas Republican became Secretary of State.

The Yonhap News Agency said on Tuesday that Kim initially intended to leave his CIA post in the summer, but was persuaded by Secretary Pompeo to continue. However, he has now tendered his resignation, which will take effect on December 20. Citing “multiple sources”, including “a senior official at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service”, the Seoul-based news agency said that Kim plans to take up an academic post at Stanford University, adding that he intends to continue serving as an adviser to the secretary of state. Prior media reports have stated that “Kim is widely viewed as a hawk on North Korea”, so there are suspicions that his departure from the CIA stems from his disagreement with the policy of negotiation signaled by President Trump. However, the CIA has not commented on the Yonhap report. The South Korean agency said that the CIA is already reviewing candidates to succeed Kim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2018 | Permalink