US evacuates more diplomats from China over ‘abnormal sounds and symptoms’

US consulate in GuangzhouThe United States has evacuated at least two more diplomatic personnel from its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, after they experienced “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. The latest evacuations come two weeks after the US Department of State disclosed that a consulate worker in Guangzhou had been flown home for medical testing, in response to having experienced “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure”.

The evacuations from China have prompted comparisons to similar phenomena that were reported by US diplomatic personnel in Cuba in 2016. Last September, Washington recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana and issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island. These actions were taken in response to allegations by the US Department of State that at least 21 of its diplomatic and support staff stationed in Cuba suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing, causing them to be diagnosed with brain injuries. In April, the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in Havana over similar health concerns.

US State Department sources told The New York Times on Wednesday that the two latest evacuees were among approximately 179 American diplomats and consular personnel stationed in Guangzhou, one of China’s largest commercial hubs. The city of 14 million, located 70 miles north of Hong Kong, hosts one of Washington’s six consulates in China. The building that houses the US consulate was presented to the public in 2013 as a state-of-the-art construction, which, as The Times reports, is “designed to withstand electronic eavesdropping and other security and intelligence threats”. The paper said that one Guangzhou consular employee that was evacuated this week is Mark A. Lenzi, who works as a security engineering officer. He is reported to have left China along with his wife and two children. An unnamed senior US official told The Times that a State Department medical team arrived in Guangzhou on May 31, and is currently examining all diplomatic personnel and their families.

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

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US alerts its diplomatic staff in China over ‘abnormal sounds and symptoms’

US Department of StateThe United States Department of State has warned its personnel stationed in China of the danger of experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises”. The warning, issued on May 23, has prompted comparisons to similar phenomena that were reported by US diplomatic personnel in Cuba in 2016. Last September, Washington recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana and issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island. These actions were taken in response to allegations made by the United States that at least 21 of its diplomatic and support staff stationed in Cuba suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearings, causing them to be diagnosed with brain injuries. In April, the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in Havana, over similar health concerns.

Now a similar warning has been issued by the US Department of State for its staff stationed in China. In a statement, the Department said that a member of staff at its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou reported experiencing “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure”. The unnamed individual reportedly suffered these physical symptoms between late 2017 and April 2018, said the statement. At that time, the individual was flown back to the US where they eventually were diagnosed with “mild traumatic brain injury”. The statement went on to state that the cause of these symptoms remains unknown, and that the US government has no information about other such incidents affecting Americans in China.

Late on Wednesday, however, speaking before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the US House of Representatives, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the incident in China was “medically similar” to the 2016 incidents in Cuba. Some US government sources have blamed these medical symptoms on unspecified “sonic weapon attacks” from a foreign country, aimed at US diplomatic facilities.  But Washington has so far refrained from accusing China of having a role in such attacks, either in Cuba or in China itself. Pompeo said on Wednesday that Washington had dispatched a medical team to Guangzhou to inspect American diplomats stationed there. The Chinese government said yesterday that it was probing the incident “in a very responsible manner” and “would protect the lawful rights and interest of foreigners in China”. However, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, warned that the case in Guangzhou should not be “magnified, complicated or even politicized” by Washington.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 May 2018 | Research credit: Nikki P. | Permalink

CIA is running informal negotiation channels with North Korea, say sources

Mike PompeoThe Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly established back channels for negotiation between the United States and North Korea, which the Department of State is now using to communicate with Pyongyang. Rex Tillerson, who was summarily fired as US Secretary of State by President Donald Trump last week, was famously in favor of diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea. The White House had resisted and even publicly criticized Tillerson’s views. Ironically, Tillerson was fired just as his pro-diplomacy views on North Korea are being adopted by the White House.

It is now the task of the new US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo to help facilitate President’ Trump’s desire to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. On Sunday, US television network CBS reported that Pompeo had already established an informal negotiation channel with Pyongyang during his prior post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. According to CBS, the CIA used the back channel to communicate directly with the North Korean regime, bypassing the Department of State, which is the traditional instrument of US foreign policy. The network quoted “two current and one former” US officials, which it did not name.

Now that Pompeo has been placed in charge of the Department of State, said CBS, he has already tapped into the CIA’s direct line of communication with Pyongyang, and has begun utilizing it as Secretary of State. The CIA remains in charge of the channel, according to the television network. Meanwhile, German news media said on Sunday that North Korea’s missiles could now reach Germany and other areas of Western Europe. The reports quoted Dr. Ole Diehl, deputy director of the BND, Germany’s foreign-intelligence agency, who allegedly made the statement at a closed-door meeting of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 March 2018 | Permalink

US diplomats in Russia to be guarded by firm with ties to senior ex-KGB official

US embassy in RussiaSeveral American diplomatic facilities in Russia, including the United States embassy in Moscow, as well as consulates in other major Russian cities, will be guarded by a firm with ties to a former senior KGB official. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the company, Elite Security Holdings, is headquartered in Moscow but has offices throughout Europe and the former Soviet republics. The firm has its roots in an earlier venture co-founded by former KGB official Viktor G. Budanov. The 82-year-old Budanov served as director of the KGB’s K Directorate, also known as Second Chief Directorate, which was responsible for counterintelligence. Budanov no longer owns any part of Elite Security Holdings. But his son, Dimitri Budanov, is believed to be in charge of the firm’s headquarters in the Russian capital. The family is known to be politically close to Vladimir Putin, who served together in the KGB with Viktor Budanov in East Germany in the 1980s.

Elite Security Holdings was awarded a no-bid contract by the US Department of State’s Office of Acquisitions —meaning that no other company was solicited by the US government for the contract. The agreement was struck once US diplomatic facilities in Russia were forced by Moscow to cut their staff by 755 employees. That resulted in the firing of many staff members, most of them local Russians, whose job was to guard the perimeters of US diplomatic facilities, screen visitors, and patrol the embassy grounds. To make up for the loss of personnel, the Department of State hired Elite Security Holdings, which is authorized to operate in Russia as a private local company; its staff members are therefore not considered to be employees of Washington. But the private firm retains close links to Budanov, who spent 25 years outthinking the CIA as head of the KGB’s counterintelligence directorate.

The Times spoke to an anonymous US State Department official, who said that Elite Security Holdings personnel would not have access to the embassy’s secure areas. The official also told the paper that all Elite Security Holdings employees had been carefully screened by “relevant national and local agencies” and posed no threat to the security of US diplomatic facilities. The latter would still be primarily protected by US Marines, who are detailed to the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. According to The Times, Elite Security Holdings personnel will work at the US embassy in Moscow, and the consulates in Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 November 2017 | Permalink

Researcher seeks access to classified US document about Gandhi killing

Mahatma GandhiA researcher is seeking access to a potentially revealing classified telegram sent by a United States diplomat who witnessed the assassination of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Gandhi, the leader of the Indian movement for independence, and a towering civil rights figure of the 20th century, was assassinated on January 30, 1948, as he was about to hold a prayer meeting in downtown New Delhi. His assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, was a member of a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group, who blamed Gandhi for the bloody partition of India. He and a co-conspirator, Narayan Apte, were arrested for Gandhi’s murder and put to death in 1949.

But there are many who claim that Gandhi’s assassination resulted from a far larger conspiracy, involving many more people and groups, but was covered up. One such proponent is Mumbai-based researcher Dr Pankaj Phadnis, who has been pushing for a new official investigation into Gandhi’s assassination since 1996. Last week, Dr Phadnis petitioned India’s Supreme Court, arguing that an American intelligence officer was present during Gandhi’s assassination and filed a report that may point to a broader conspiracy to kill the Indian civil rights leader. Dr Phadnis also argues that American intelligence agencies may have been involved in a secret effort to protect Gandhi from physical danger.

The Mumbai-based researcher told the Indian Supreme Court that he was able to obtain access to American diplomatic documents during one of his recent visits to the US National Archives and Research Administration in Washington, DC. Among them were telegrams sent to the Department of State by the US embassy in New Delhi before and after Gandhi’s assassination. The two most telling telegrams, said Dr. Phadnis, were written shortly after the assassination by a longtime American diplomat, Herbert Tom Reiner. According to many eyewitness accounts, including Reiner’s own, Reiner was present during Gandhi’s assassination, and was standing no more than five feet from the Indian leader when he was shot by Godse. The American diplomat helped apprehend the assassin before he and others surrendered him to the authorities.

Reiner submitted two telegrams to Washington as soon as he returned to the US embassy following Gandhi’s assassination, which Dr Phadnis was able to access. But a third one, sent at 8:00 p.m. that same evening, remains classified and out of the reach of researchers. Dr Phadris said he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the US government and is expecting an answer. Now he is trying to get the Indian courts to agree that the existence of new evidence, including Reiner’s telegrams, justify the reopening of the probe into Gandhi’s assassination.

Reiner left India in the summer of 1949 and served briefly as assistant attaché in Budapest, Hungary, before being transferred again, this time to Seoul, South Korea. He then held posts in Sierra Leone, South Africa and Canberra. He died in 1999 in the US state of Massachusetts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 October 2017 | Permalink

FBI accuses US State Department official of contacts with Chinese spies

US Department of StateAn employee of the United States Department of State has been charged with lying to authorities about her contacts with Chinese intelligence operatives, who gave her money and gifts in return for information. Candace Claiborne, 60, joined the Department of State in 1999 as an office management specialist. She lives in Washington, DC, but has served overseas in American diplomatic facilities in Baghdad, Iraq, Khartoum, Sudan, and China, where she was stationed in Beijing and Shanghai. According to information provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Claiborne had a top security clearance, which required her to report contacts with foreign nationals.

However, federal prosecutors said earlier this week that Claiborne interacted on a regular basis with Chinese intelligence personnel without informing her employer. According to court documents, her contacts with the Chinese were extensive and occurred from 2011 until earlier this year. The Chinese gave Claiborne gifts, including computers and smartphones, tuition-free studies in a Chinese technical school, and an all-expenses-paid holiday to Thailand. They also gave her a regular stipend and provided her with a furnished apartment abroad, according to prosecutors. In return, Claiborne allegedly gave the Chinese information relating to American economic policy on China, among other topics.

It appears that the FBI monitored the State Department employee for a while, after securing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrant. When it confronted Claiborne, she apparently denied the accusations and lied to FBI agents. She is now charged with obstruction of justice and providing false statements to the FBI. Claiborne is currently under house arrest and will remain there until April 18, when she will appear at a preliminary hearing in Washington. She is reportedly facing a maximum of 25 years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 March 2017 | Permalink

US government to set up ‘anti-propaganda center’ after Obama signs new law

Barack ObamaUnited States President Barack Obama has signed a new law that designates $160 million to set up a government center for “countering foreign propaganda and disinformation”. The law authorizes the US departments of State and Defense to work with other federal agencies in establishing the new body. Its precise tasks are not yet known, nor is the role in it —if any— of intelligence agencies, though the Director of National Intelligence is mentioned in the body of the legislation.

The legislation is entitled “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act”, and it was introduced in both chambers of the US Congress last spring by Republican and Democrat legislators. It was initially entitled “Countering Information Warfare Act”, but was subsequently revised and included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017. It was approved by the House of Representatives on December 2, and by the Senate on December 8. President Obama signed it into law on December 23. Under the new law, the Department of Justice has to take initiative within 180 days, and collaborate with the Department of Defense, before reaching out to “other relevant departments and agencies”. Resulting from this process will be the establishment of a “Center for Information Analysis and Response”. The goal of the Center will be to collect and analyze “foreign government information warfare efforts”, and to “expose and counter foreign information operations” directed against “US national security interests”. The plan will be funded in the amount of $160 million over two years.

Rob Portman, a Republican US Senator from Ohio, who co-sponsored the bill, hailed it as “a critical step towards confronting the extensive, and destabilizing, foreign propaganda and disinformation operations being waged against us by our enemies overseas”. But the Russian government-owned broadcaster RT called the new law “ominous” and “controversial”, and said the US government was “itself pushing propaganda on its own domestic population”. In an article published on Tuesday, the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post said the new legislation was aimed at China, as well as at Russia. The newspaper cited Chinese experts who warned that Washington and Beijing “could head down the slippery slope toward ideological confrontation” as a result of the new law.

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