Conflicting reports of Russian fighters killed by US forces in Syria

Kurdish SDF There are conflicting reports of Russian and Ukrainian fighters having been killed by American forces in northeastern Syria, with some sources claiming that up to 200 Russians and Ukrainians, most of them private contractors working for the Syrian government, were left dead in clashes last week. If such reports are accurate, they could point to the most lethal American-Russian confrontation since the end of World War II.

According to the United States Department of Defense, the armed confrontation took place on February 7. On that day, a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria. A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Thomas F. Veale, told reporters last week that the pro-government forces crossed the Euphrates near the town of Khursham, in Syria’s Deir al-Zour region. The town is firmly held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish armed faction that is supported by the US. Veale said that the Syrian government forces advanced in a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars”. The SDF force in the area, which includes embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimates that over 100 attackers were left dead, with another 200-300 injured. There were allegedly no SDF fatalities during the clash.

On February 8, CBS News cited an unnamed US Pentagon official, who claimed that Russians were among the dead in Deir al-Zour. The BBC said that “at least two Russians” were killed in the attack, while The New York Times raised the toll to “perhaps dozens”. But US news network Bloomberg claimed that over 200 Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainian mercenaries were among the dead. Citing anonymously “three Russians [and] one US official […] familiar with the matter”, the network said that most of the fatalities were Russian and Ukrainian private contractors who were fighting in Syria in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. These reports mark the first known instance of Russian citizens killed by American forces in Syria. If the Bloomberg account is accurate, the Deir al-Zour clash could be the most extensive armed confrontation between Americans and Russians since the end of World War II.

Bloomberg said that it spoke by phone to one Russian military contractor who said that “dozens of his wounded men” were still receiving treatment at military hospitals in Russia. On February 8, the Syrian government accused Washington of carrying out a “brutal massacre” in Deir al-Zour, but said nothing about foreign fighters. A statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense said that 25 Syrian troops were hurt in the attack, but denied that Russian soldiers had participated in the February 7 clashes. Speaking on behalf of the Kremlin, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow only tracked casualty data about its official military forces stationed in Syria. He added that no Russian forces were stationed in Deir al-Zour. At a press conference last week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2018 | Research credit: N.L. | Permalink

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US immigration and customs agency seeks to join Intelligence Community

Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICEThe United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is reportedly seeking to join the Intelligence Community, which includes the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other intelligence-focused arms of the federal government. Currently, ICE is a federal law enforcement that operates under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. It consists of two components: Homeland Security Investigations, which probes cross-border criminal activity, including drugs and weapons trafficking, money laundering and cybercrime; and Enforcement and Removal Operations, whose mission is to find and capture undocumented aliens.

But some senior ICE officials have been exploring the possibility of joining the US Intelligence Community. According to The Daily Beast, which reported the alleged plans, the officials believe that by joining the Intelligence Community, ICE will become privy to intelligence that will assist in its mission. They also claim that membership in the Intelligence Community would afford ICE “greater prestige, credibility and authority” within the federal government. The Daily Beast reports that ICE’s effort to join the Intelligence Community began during the administration of US President Barack Obama. However, it has picked up steam following the election of President Donald Trump. Some believe that President Trump would be willing to sign an executive order that would incorporate ICE in the Intelligence Community.

Some civil liberties watchdogs, however, are weary of such plans. They claim that ICE is a domestic law enforcement agency and should not have access to practices and techniques used by spy agencies like the CIA or the National Security Agency. The latter frequently break the laws of foreign countries in pursuit of their mission, which is to steal foreign intelligence. These agencies are characterized by a different culture, say critics, which is not respectful of legal constraints. But supporters of ICE’s proposed inclusion into the Intelligence Community argue that there are several law enforcement agencies that are already members of the Intelligence Community. Notably, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration —both law enforcement agencies— belong to the Intelligence Community.

The Daily Beast said it contacted ICE but a spokesperson refused to comment on the story. The Department of Homeland Security did not return emails and phone calls about the proposal to include ICE in the Intelligence Community.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 2018 | Permalink

Ex-spy chief claims Palestinian officials worked with CIA to wiretap opponents

Telephones PalestineThe former head of the Palestinian Authority’s spy agency claims that the Palestinian government in the West Bank worked with the United States Central Intelligence Agency to wiretap thousands without court authorization. Tawfiq Tirawi, who headed the Palestinian General Intelligence from its founding in 1994 to 2008, has filed an official complaint against the Palestinian Authority and is calling for a criminal investigation into the alleged wiretaps. The complaint has also been signed by Jawad Obeidat, who is the president of the West Bank’s Bar Association. It is based on a leaked 37-page document that surfaced last month on the social networking application WhatsApp. The document was leaked by an anonymous individual who claims to have worked for a surveillance unit in the Palestinian Preventive Security Service, the Palestinian Authority’s domestic security service.

The leaked document appears to show that the Palestinian Preventive Security Service reached out to the CIA in 2013 asking for assistance with installing a communications surveillance system in the West Bank. The CIA agreed to provide the system in exchange for access to the intercepted data. The two agencies installed the interception system in the summer of 2014 and initiated what appears to have been a large-scale operation that included thousands of telephone subscribers. Initial targets of the operation included members of Hamas —the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip— as well as members of the Iran-supported Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. But, according to the Associated Press, over time the targets of the program expanded to include “thousands of Palestinians, from senior figures in militant groups to judges, lawyers, civic leaders and political allies of Abbas”. The list of targets included Tirawi and Obeidat, who filed the official complaint on Tuesday.

The anonymous leaker of the document said he decided to quit his job and reveal the information about the intercepts after US President Donald Trump shifted Washington’s policy on Israel’s capital, by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. Earlier in February, the Palestinian Authority dismissed the leaked document as “nonsense” and said it was part of a large conspiracy that sought to harm Palestinian interests. The CIA refused to comment on the allegations.

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

Dutch spies identified Russian hackers who meddled in 2016 US election

Cozy BearDutch spies identified a notorious Russian hacker group that compromised computer servers belonging to the Democratic Party of the United States and notified American authorities of the attack, according to reports. In 2016, US intelligence agencies determined that a Russian hacker group known as Cozy Bear, or APT29, led a concerted effort to interfere in the US presidential election. The effort, which according to US intelligence agencies was sponsored by the Russian government, involved cyber-attacks against computer systems in the White House and the Department of State, among other targets. It also involved the theft of thousands of emails from computer servers belonging to the Democratic National Committee, which is the governing body of the Democratic Party. The stolen emails were eventually leaked to WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and other online outlets. Prior descriptions of the Russian hacking in the media have hinted that US intelligence agencies were notified of the Russian cyber-attacks by foreign spy agencies. But there was no mention of where the initial clues came from.

Last Thursday, the Dutch current affairs program Nieuwsuur, which airs daily on Holland’s NPO 2 television, said that the initial tipoff originated from the AIVD, Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service. On the same day, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published a detailed account of what it described as AIVD’s successful penetration of Cozy Bear. According to these reports, AIVD was able to penetrate Cozy Bear in mid-2014, before the hacker group intensified its campaign against political targets in the US. Citing “six American and Dutch sources who are familiar with the material, but wish to remain anonymous”, De Volkskrant said that the AIVD was able to detect the physical base of the Cozy Bear hackers. The latter appeared to be working out of an academic facility that was adjacent to Moscow’s Red Square. The AIVD team was then able to remotely take control of security camera networks located around the facility. Eventually, the Dutch team hacked into another security camera network located inside the buildings in which the hackers worked. They soon began to collect pictures and footage of Cozy Bear members, which they then compared with photos of “known Russian spies”, according to De Volkskrant.

The paper said that the AIVD team continued to monitor Cozy Bear’s activities until at least 2017, while sharing intelligence with the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency in the US. The intelligence was allegedly instrumental in alerting US spy agencies about Russian government-sponsored efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Several newspapers, including The Washington Post in the US and The Independent in Britain, contacted the AIVD and the MIVD —Holland’s military intelligence agency— over the weekend. But the two agencies said they would not comment on reports concerning Cozy Bear.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 January 2018 | Research credit: E.J. & E.K. | Permalink

Ex-CIA case officer was arrested after being lured back to US at least once

FBIA former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, who was arrested this week for violating the United States Espionage Act, was lured back to America from Hong Kong at least once by counterintelligence investigators, according to reports. Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007. He was arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation officers on Monday, as soon as he arrived in the US from Hong Kong. He is accused of carrying with him top-secret information about CIA agents and operations, which he was not authorized to possess. It now appears that the FBI had been investigating Lee since 2010, and that he was lured to the US in 2012 so that he could be investigated. It is also possible that he was lured back to the US from his home in Hong Kong on Monday, so that he could be arrested by the FBI.

The New York Times said on Wednesday that a consortium of FBI agents and CIA officers identified Lee as a suspect in a counterintelligence case involving the loss of over a dozen CIA assets in China between 2010 and 2012. By that time, Lee had left his job as a case officer —essentially a spy handler— in the CIA and was living in Hong Kong. According to NBC, the FBI decided to lure Lee back to American soil by creating a job for him in the nation’s capital. That was the reason why Lee traveled with his family back to the US in August of 2012. The family stopped in Hawaii, where, according to court documents, the FBI surreptitiously searched Lee’s possessions in a Honolulu hotel. FBI officers also searched Lee’s belongings in a hotel in Virginia a few days later. Lee was found to have with him two notebooks containing “operational notes from asset meetings”, “operational phone numbers” and even “the addresses of CIA covert facilities” —safe houses where CIA case officers meet their assets in privacy.

According to The Times, the FBI confronted Lee five times in subsequent months, but did not inform him that his belongings had been surreptitiously searched or that he had been found to possess classified information without authorization. But the FBI did not press charges against Lee, nor did it prevent him from returning to Hong Kong with his family in the summer of 2013. Instead, it focused on establishing a connection between Lee and the catastrophic loss of CIA assets in China. It was only this week, when Lee returned to the US, that authorities decided to arrest him. The reason why Lee decided to return to the US remains unknown. The possibility that he may have been lured back to the US by the FBI, just as he was in 2012, should not be excluded.

It appears that investigators have not at this point connected Lee with the more serious charge of conveying the classified information to foreign agents. Instead, the former CIA officer is charged simply with possessing top-secret information, but not with communicating it. The charge is believed to be “the same single charge that could have been brought years ago”, namely when Lee was found to be carrying classified information with him in Hawaii.

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

Ex-CIA case officer arrested in New York for violating Espionage Act

CIAA former operations officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency has been arrested on charges of illegally possessing top secret information, including lists of real names of foreign assets and addresses of CIA safe houses. The news emerged on Tuesday, as the US Department of Justice announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had filed a criminal complaint over the weekend. The complaint identifies the former case officer as Jerry Chun Shing Lee, also known as Zhen Cheng Li. Lee, a 53-year-old naturalized American, served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007 “in various overseas positions and locations”, according to court documents. Lee has reportedly been living in Hong Kong since his retirement from the CIA. He was arrested by FBI officers on Monday, as he arrived on a flight that landed at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The FBI criminal complaint alleges that Lee kept on his person a number of notebooks that contained classified details of his CIA work. These included the real names of covert CIA personnel and the real names of foreign assets —providers of intelligence information that are recruited by CIA case officers. The notebooks also contained “operational notes from asset meetings” (presumably meetings between Lee and the assets he handled during his CIA career), “operational phone numbers” and even “the addresses of CIA covert facilities” —safe houses where CIA case officers meet their assets in privacy. From the court documents it appears that the FBI has been investigating Lee since at least 2012. In August of that year, the FBI surreptitiously searched Lee’s possessions in a hotel in Hawaii, where he was staying while on holiday with his family. A few days later, FBI officers also searched Lee’s possessions in a hotel in Fairfax, Virginia, and photographed them.

According to The New York Times, Lee’s arrest is connected with reports last May that the Chinese intelligence services had arrested or killed over a dozen CIA assets in China between 2010 and 2012. There is intense speculation that the Chinese acted on information they received from a mole inside a US intelligence agency, possibly the CIA. But the court documents in Lee’s case do not mention any connection to foreign intelligence and do not accuse Lee of sharing classified information with unauthorized users. As of yesterday evening, the CIA was referring all media inquiries to the Department of Justice.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2018 | Research Credit: C.B. | Permalink

Syrian rebels visit Washington to request resumption of CIA assistance

Free Syrian Army delegationA delegation of Syrian rebels is currently in Washington to ask that that United States President Donald Trump authorizes the Central Intelligence Agency to resume giving them military assistance. In 2013, the then-US President Barack Obama instructed the CIA to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. The CIA promptly began to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose goal was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Under the project, which was codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, CIA personnel trained FSA fighters and gave them light weaponry. But in July of last year, President Trump abruptly terminated the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”.

Now the FSA has sent a delegation to Washington to argue that, if the CIA does not help them, Iranian-backed militias will dominate much of Syria. On Monday, the Reuters news agency quoted Mustafa Sejari, a senior representative of the FSA, who said that the Syrian delegation had met with US Congress members and White House officials. This week they were hoping to speak with representatives from the Departments of State and Defense, said Sejari. Members of the delegation, Sejari told Reuters, “asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support”. He added that, if the US “is serious about challenging growing Iranian influence in Syria” by Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, it should resume its support of the FSA. Sejari also described Mr. Trump’s decision to end TIMBER SYCAMORE as “damaging”. The FSA, he said “endorse[s] President Trump’s statements about the need to confront Iranian hegemony in the region. It is time to turn words into action”. We went on to claim that “until now on the ground it’s the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance”.

Shortly after President Trump announced his decision to terminate CIA support for the FSA, some experts warned that the move could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations, if only to secure sources of income. In late August, it was reported that US troops deployed in Syria had exchanged fire with former FSA rebels that were now led by Turkish-trained commanders. In a related development, the government of Turkey dismissed on Monday plans by the US military to train members of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as “terror army” tactics. The US-led coalition in Syria said that it planned to train a 30,000-strong SDF force as a professional army that could maintain control of the territories captured last year from the Islamic State.

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