Trial witness claims ‘El Chapo’ gave Mexico’s ex-president $100 million bribe

Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ GuzmánA high-profile witness has told the trial of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán in New York that the accused bribed the then President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, with $100 million in order to stay out of prison. Guzmán, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, was arrested in February 2014 in Mexico. In January 2017, he was extradited to the United States, where he faces a litany charges ranging from conspiracy to import and distribute drugs to money-laundering and homicide. His trial began at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York, last November.

All of last Tuesday was taken up by the testimony of Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian former drug lord from Medellin who, until his arrest in 2012, was one of Guzmán’s closest collaborators. Villa told the court that Peña Nieto employed mediators to reach out to the Sinaloa cartel soon after he was elected president in 2012. He alleged that the mediators offered to strike a bargain with Guzmán, according to which he would stay out of prison in return for a $250 million bribe. The bribe would be shared between Peña Nieto and his closest government aides and advisors, said Villa. In return, the Mexican president would call off a national manhunt to capture the Sinaloa cartel leader. Following prolonged negotiations, Guzmán agreed to pay Peña Nieto $100 million, said Villa, in order to secure his freedom.

This is not the first time that a witness in the trial of Guzmán has alleged that the Sinaloa cartel leader bribed senior Mexican government officials, including police and military leaders. However, it is the most sensational allegation to have emerged the trial so far, and —if true— points out that even the highest echelons of the Mexican state have succumbed to the moneyed power of the drug cartels. Last November, when Guzmán’s trial began, his lawyers hinted that claims of corruption would be aired against the highest levels of the Mexican government, including two of its recent presidents, which they called “completely corrupt”. At the time, Peña Nieto’s office issued a statement condemning the allegations and saying that the former president had never received bribes from anyone.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2019 | Permalink

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FBI releases new information on alleged Iranian deep-cover spies

MEK supporters CaliforniaThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has charged two men of Iranian descent, who were arrested in California, of operating as deep-cover spies for Iran. Documents filed in a federal court in Washington, DC, name the men as Majid Ghorbani, 59, and Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar, 38. Both have American citizenship and were arrested by the FBI in August, following a year-long counterintelligence investigation. The Los Angeles Times reports that Ghorbani is believed to have immigrated to the US from Iran in 1995. For the past two decades he has worked as a waiter at an upscale Persian restaurant in Santa Ana. Doostdar was born in the southern Californian city of Long Beach, but eventually moved with his family to Canada, and later to Iran, where he grew up. But he kept his US citizenship and made regular trips to America. It is believed that he planned to eventually move with his family to California.

According to the FBI, the two men were tasked by Iranian intelligence with carrying out surveillance on Jewish religious, cultural and political facilities in the US. They were also tasked with conducting surveillance and compiling reports of diplomatic and other facilities connected to the state of Israel. Another part of their mission, said the FBI, was collecting information on the activities and individual members of Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations in exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups. Until 2009, the European Union and the US officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred against the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US.

Documents filed in court by the FBI state that the two men were secretly recorded during a year-long counterintelligence operation, as they traveled throughout the US to observe MEK rallies and gather intelligence or Israeli diplomatic facilities. Locations visited by the two men allegedly include Chicago, New York and Washington, as well as several cities in the American West Coast. During those visits, they would compile reports that, according to the FBI, were meant to “enable an intelligence or military unit find [and] neutralize a threat”. The men also traveled back to Iran through third countries, bringing back written operational instructions from their Iranian intelligence handlers, according to the FBI documents. IntelNews wrote about the arrest of the two men in August. However, this is the first concrete information released by the FBI about their identities and activities. They are both accused of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government —a technical term for deep-cover espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 January 2019 | Permalink

US sent troops to OPEC member Gabon just days before military coup

Libreville, GabonThe United States deployed troops to the Central African nation of Gabon just days before a group of military officers staged tried to take over power in the oil-rich nation on Monday. Situated on the Atlantic coastline of Central Africa, Gabon is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, despite producing of 176,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of Africa’s most significant oil producers, over a third of its 2 million inhabitants live below the official poverty line. The country has been ruled by the Bongo family for over a century with its current President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, having led the country since his father’s death a decade ago. In October of last year, however, Bongo went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after suffering a stroke, and has yet to return. In a televised message aired on New Year’s Day, Bongo told the citizens of Gabon that he was recovering and would soon be returning to his duties.

But in the early hours of Monday gun shots were reported in the vicinity of the studios of Radio Télévision Gabonaise (RTG), the country’s state-owned national broadcaster in the capital city, Libreville. A few hours later, regular broadcasting was suspended. A message was transmitted on the national radio station frequency by troops claiming to be members of a group calling itself the Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon. Its leader, a man identifying himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, said that the armed forces had “doubts” about President Bongo’s “ability to perform the responsibilities of his office”. He also announced the formation of a “Council of National Restoration” that would “ensure the smooth operation of the state and guarantee a transition to democracy”. However, a few hours later a government spokesman told international media that the coup had been defeated and that Lieutenant Obiang was under arrest. Two of his co-conspirators had been killed, said the spokesman.

Interestingly, the US deployed 80 American soldiers to Gabon on January 2, less than a week before the coup unfolded. In a letter sent to Congress on January 4, US President Donald Trump said that the troops would be stationed in Libreville and would carry with them “appropriate combat equipment”. Their purpose, said President Trump, would be to provide security protection for US “citizens, personnel and diplomatic facilities” in Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Security analysts fear that the pending announcement of the delayed election results in the DRC may spark widespread riots in the country of 81 million people. On Monday, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) told reporters that there was “no change in the status of our forces in Gabon” and that they would not be involved in the domestic political situation. The US troops were “not currently tasked with securing [US] diplomatic assets [in Gabon]”, added the AFRICOM spokesman. However, AFRICOM said that additional US troops may deploy to Gabon, the DRC or the Republic of the Congo, should the need arise.

It is not known whether the coup plotters were aware of the presence of the 80 US troops in Libreville when they tried to take over power on Monday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 January 2019 | Permalink

American held on espionage charges in Russia has three other citizenships

Paul WhelanAn American former Marine, who faces espionage charges in Russia, is a citizen of at least three other countries, namely Canada, Britain and the Republic of Ireland, according to reports. Paul Whelan, 48, was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on December 28 at the Metropol, a five-star hotel in downtown Moscow. News of Whelan’s arrest first emerged on January 3 in a report from Rosbalt, a Moscow-based news agency that known to be close to the Russian security services. He was reportedly indicted on Thursday and is now facing between 10 to 20 years in prison for espionage. His trial is not expected to take place until March.

According to Rosbalt, the FSB arrested Whelan in his hotel room while he was meeting with a Russian citizen who allegedly handed him a USB drive containing a list that included “the names of all employees of a [Russian] security agency”. However, Whelan’s family claim that the former Marine arrived in Moscow on December 22 to attend the wedding of an American friend who married a Russian woman. Whelan served two tours in Iraq with the United States Marines and was reportedly discharged for bad conduct. At the time of his arrest last month, he was the director of global security for BorgWarner, a Michigan-based manufacturer of spare parts for cars. He is believed to have visited Russia regularly since 2006, and is thought to have a basic command of the Russian language. He is currently being held in solitary confinement in Moscow’s Lefortovo detention center.

At the time of his arrest, Whelan was identified as an American citizen. On Friday, however, the Associated Press reported that he also has United Kingdom citizenship because he was born to British parents. Additionally, he is now believed to hold Canadian citizenship as well, because he was born in Canada. He then acquired American citizenship after arriving in the US with his parents as a child. It is not known how he acquired Irish citizenship, but the Irish government confirmed it on Friday. Also on Friday, the Washington-based National Public Radio said that embassies of at least four Western countries —the US, Britain, Ireland and Canada— were working to gain consular access to Whelan. On Thursday, the former Marine was visited in prison by Jon Huntsman, America’s ambassador to Russia. Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said London was “extremely worried” about Whelan’s fate and warned Moscow “not to try to use [him] as a diplomatic pawn”, possibly by exchanging him with Russians arrested for espionage in the West.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 January 2019 | Permalink

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

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