Mystery death of Putin’s ex-adviser in DC was accident, say US authorities

Mikhail LesinThe mysterious death in Washington, DC, of a former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had fallen out with the Russian president, was the result of an accident, US authorities have concluded after a year-long investigation. The body of Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a well-known Russian media mogul, was found in the luxury Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015. According to reports, his body bore considerable injuries on his torso and limbs. Some unconfirmed updates suggested that Lesin had died from several “blunt force injuries to the head”. But United States authorities refused to speculate on the cause of Lesin’s death and opened an official investigation into the matter.

Lesin became famous in Russia soon after the collapse of the communist system, when he founded Video International, an advertising and public-relations agency that was hired by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1995 to run his reelection campaign. Yeltsin’s electoral success was partly attributed to the well-tailored media message projected by Lesin’s company. The media magnate was rewarded by Yeltsin, who offered him influential government posts, including that of director of Russia’s state-owned news agency Novosti. Meanwhile, Lesin became a media personality and frequently gave interviews espousing a free-enterprise model for the Russian media industry. But soon after Vladimir Putin’s ascendance to the presidency, Lesin saw the writing on the wall and began advocating for increased government regulation of media and telecommunications conglomerates. In 1999, Putin made him Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications, a post he held for nearly six years, until 2004. In 2006, Lesin was awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland, one of the most prestigious civilian decorations in Russia.

But in late 2009, Putin abruptly fired Lesin from his post in the Kremlin’s Media Advisory Commission, allegedly because the media mogul had developed close contacts with Russian organized crime. Lesin’s ties with Putin’s inner circle were further strained in 2014, when he resigned from his position as head of Gazprom Media, after he clashed with pro-Putin executives on the board. Last November, when Lesin’s body was found in his hotel room by a member of the staff, some suggested that he may have been killed by the Kremlin. But On Friday, the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC, in cooperation with the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, said that Lesin’s death had been the result of injuries “induced by falls”, which came after “days of excessive consumption of alcohol”. The two agencies said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had assisted in the investigation into Lesin’s death, concurred with the results. Consequently, the investigation is now closed, they said. The Kremlin, the Russian embassy in Washington, and the FBI, have not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2016 | Permalink

NSA contractor accused of spying stole real names of US undercover officers

NSAClassified information stolen by a United States federal contractor, who was charged with espionage last month, includes the true identities of American intelligence officers posted in undercover assignments abroad, according to court documents. In August of this year, Harold Thomas Martin III, was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges of stealing government property and illegally removing classified material. Martin, 51, served as a US Navy officer for over a decade, where he acquired a top secret clearance and specialized in cyber security. At the time of his arrest earlier this year, he was working for Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest federal contractors in the US. Some media reports said Martin was a member of the National Security Agency’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, described by observers as an elite “hacker army” tasked with conducting offensive cyber espionage against foreign targets.

Last week, after prosecutors alleged that the information Martin removed from the NSA was the equivalent of 500 million pages, a judge in the US state of Maryland ruled that the accused might flee if he is released on bail. Soon afterwards, Martin’s legal team filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider his decision to deny him bail. That prompted a new filing by the prosecution, which was delivered to the court on Thursday. The document alleges that the information found in Martin’s home and car includes “numerous names” of American intelligence officers who currently “operate under cover outside the US”. The court filing adds that Martin’s removal of the documents from secure government facilities constitutes “a security breach that risks exposure of American intelligence operations” and “could endanger the lives” of undercover intelligence officers and their agents abroad.

It is alleged that Martin told the FBI he never shared classified information with anyone, and that he removed it from his office at the NSA in order to deepen his expertise on his subject. His legal team argues that Martin suffers from a mental condition that compels him to be a hoarder. But prosecutors for the government argue in court documents that Martin appears to have communicated via the Internet with Russian speakers, and that he was learning Russian at the time of his arrest. The case is expected to be tried later this year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 October 2016 | Permalink

Members of far-right group arrested in Kansas face WMD terrorism charges

Federal arrestsFederal authorities in the United States have charged three men with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction with the intention of blowing up an apartment complex in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Kansas. The men, Patrick Eugene Stein, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright, who called themselves ‘the Crusaders’, allegedly wanted to spark a religious war between Christians and Muslims in the United States. They were arrested last week in simultaneous raids conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after they obtained guns and chemicals for making bombs. According to the US Department of Justice, the terrorism suspects planned to build a device similar to the ammonium nitrate-based bomb used by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Recordings of telephone conversations between members of the ‘Crusaders’ reveal their desire to use the attack to entice militia groups across America to take up arms against the government. They also expressed a desire to “wake people up” and turn Americans against Islam and Muslims. It appears that the three men began planning their attack in early 2016. By early summer, they had selected as their primary target an apartment complex housing many Muslim immigrants from Somalia, located in Garden City, Kansas. According to court documents, the group planned to detonate explosives hidden inside cars parked across from the two main entrances to the apartment building. Knowing that one of the apartments is used as a makeshift mosque by the residents of the complex, the ‘Crusaders’ allegedly planned to detonate the bombs during the traditional Muslim prayer time on a Friday. The goal, according to the indictment, was to kill as many people as possible.

But the FBI had been monitoring the group after receiving a tip-off by a man who said he had attended the ‘Crusaders’ planning meetings and was concerned about their violent intentions. The FBI promptly put together a sting operation, in which FBI agents posing as far-right militants offered to sell the group guns. Soon afterwards, the girlfriend of Curtis Allen, one of the ‘Crusaders’, contacted the authorities saying her boyfriend had physically abused her. She then showed police officers a room in her house where Allen had reportedly stored weapons and chemicals for manufacturing explosives. Realizing that the militant group was close to launching a strike, the FBI decided to move in and arrest its members last week. All of them are currently being held without bail and face life in prison if convicted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 October 2016 | Permalink

NSA contractor charged with spying removed both electronic and printed files

NSAA United States federal contractor, who was charged with espionage after he was found to have stolen classified documents, was able to remove both electronic and printed files from his office at the National Security Agency, according to a report. The man was identified by The New York Times last week as Harold Thomas Martin III, a 51-year-old employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest federal contractors in the US. Last August, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Martin’s house in Maryland and arrested him on charges of stealing government property and illegally removing classified material.

In reporting on the disclosure earlier this week, we noted that the FBI found classified information “on a variety of electronic devices that Martin had stored —though apparently not hidden— in his house and car”. It turns out, however, that at least some of the classified files in Martin’s possession were in printed format. According to The Washington Post, which revealed this information on Wednesday, this means that Martin extracted the information from his office at the NSA “the old-fashioned way, by walking out of the workplace with printed-out papers he had hidden”. The paper cites unnamed US government officials who claim that Martin was repeatedly able to walk out the front door of the NSA with what one anonymous congressional aide described as “a whole bunch of stuff”. The paper alleged that printed classified material found in Martin’s possession amounts to “thousands of pages”.

It appears that Martin extracted most of the documents before the fall of 2013, when the NSA and other US intelligence agencies imposed strict security controls on data access following the defection of Edward Snowden, another federal contractor who worked for the NSA and is today living in Russia. But the revelation will undoubtedly raise further questions about the ability of US intelligence agencies to scrutinize the activities of hundreds of thousands of employees who have access to classified information. The Post notes that the NSA and other US intelligence agencies do not employ universal searches of personnel that enter or exit government facilities. Instead they prefer random checks for reasons of convenience and to foster a sense of trust among employees. That, however, may change if more cases like those of Snowden and Martin become known.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 October 2016 | Permalink

US files espionage charges against military contractors with Turkish ties

PentagonIn a development that is expected to contribute to the downward spiral in Turkish-American relations, the United States government has reportedly filed espionage charges against three Department of Defense contractors with Turkish background. The three are believed to have been charged with transferring US military secrets abroad and are currently in prison.

A statement published by the US Pentagon said that the group consists of two men and a woman, all of whom are of Turkish background. Two of them are naturalized American citizens. They are listed as owners of a company that conducts research in military technology and has contracted for many years with the US Pentagon. All contracts were allegedly won following competitive bids and can only be awarded to bidders who are in possession of US citizenship and top security clearances. According to Turkey’s pro-government English-language newspaper, Daily Sabah, the three contractors have helped develop and manufacture parts for missile-launching systems used on American warplanes. They have also worked on several generations of grenade launchers used by the US military.

But on Sunday, the three contractors were arrested in simultaneous raids and charged with “funneling military secrets out of the country”, according to Sabah. The paper said the US government decided to arrest the three once it became known that some hardware parts related to the Pentagon bids handled by their company were being illegally manufactured in Turkey. There is no information in the Pentagon’s press release on whether the top-secret military components were also shared with the Turkish government. Relations between Washington and Ankara, two North Atlantic Treaty Organization member-states, have suffered since the failed July 15 military coup in Turkey. Many in the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blame Washington for the coup and for allegedly shielding the man behind it, the Islamic cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US state of Pennsylvania.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 October 2016 | Permalink

Arrested contractor may have worked for NSA’s elite cyber spy unit

NSAA United States federal contractor, who remains in detention following his arrest last summer for stealing classified documents, may have worked for an elite cyber espionage unit of the National Security Agency. The man was identified by The New York Times last week as Harold Thomas Martin III, a 51-year-old employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest federal contractors in the US. The paper said that, prior to joining Booz Allen Hamilton, Martin served as a US Navy officer for over a decade, where he specialized in cyber security and acquired a top secret clearance. But last August, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Martin’s house in Maryland and arrested him on charges of stealing government property and illegally removing classified material.

Media reports suggest that the FBI discovered significant quantities of classified information, some of it dating back to 2006, on a variety of electronic devices that Martin had stored —though apparently not hidden— in his house and car. Another interesting aspect of the case is that there is no proof at this point that Martin actually shared the classified information with a third party. There is some speculation that he may be behind a disclosure of a collection of NSA hacking tools, which were leaked in August of this year by a previously unknown group calling itself “the Shadow Brokers”. But some speculate that Martin may have taken the classified material home so he could write his dissertation for the PhD he is currently undertaking at the University of Maryland’s Information Systems program.

A few days ago, The Daily Beast quoted an unnamed former colleague of Martin who said that the NSA contractor was a member of one of the agency’s elite cyber spy units. The existence of the secretive unit, which is known as the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, was revealed in June 2013 by veteran NSA watcher Matthew M. Aid. Writing in Foreign Policy, Aid cited “a number of highly confidential sources” in alleging that the NSA maintained a substantial “hacker army” tasked with conducting offensive cyber espionage against foreign targets. More information on NSA’s TAO was provided in January 2014 by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. If The Daily Beast’s allegations about Martin are accurate, they would explain why anonymous government sources told The Washington Post last week that some of the documents Martin took home “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States”. The case also highlights the constant tension between security and the privatization of intelligence, which was also a major parameter in the case of Edward Snowden, another Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who defected to Russia in 2013.

Meanwhile, Martin remains in detention. If he is convicted, he will face up to 11 years behind bars.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 October 2016 | Permalink

FBI seeking former Syrian intelligence officer reportedly hiding in Florida

Moustafa Abed AyoubA Syrian former intelligence officer, who was given American citizenship several years ago, is being sought by authorities in the United States. The man was named by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week as Moustafa Abed Ayoub, a 75-year-old resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A statement by the FBI said the wanted man is believed to be hiding in southern Florida, possibly in the Miami area. A reward is now offered for information leading directly to Ayoub, according to the FBI press release. The release did not specify whether the former intelligence officer is wanted in connection with the ongoing civil war in Syria.

The FBI press release described Ayoub as a former brigadier general in Syria’s powerful Mukhabarat, the Military Intelligence Directorate, which operates under the auspices of the country’s Ministry of Defense. He is reported to have served in the Mukhabarat for nearly 20 years, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. According to the FBI release, Ayoub served initially in Hama and Homs before he was transferred to Damascus. It appears that Ayoub is accused by the FBI of procuring American citizenship unlawfully, after giving deliberately false testimony during his naturalization proceedings. To be eligible for American citizenship, an applicant must have lived in the US for at least 30 months during the period leading to his or her naturalization application. Ayoub is accused of not telling immigration authorities that he had spent over 1,000 days outside the US in the months leading to his application for citizenship.

The FBI said it issued a warrant for Ayoub’s arrest in Florida, where he is believed to be hiding. However, the FBI release noted that Ayoub may have returned to Syria, or may be currently residing in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Author: Ian Allen| Date: 30 September 2016 | Permalink