US sees Russian weapon behind US diplomats’ mystery ailments, say officials

Kirtland Air Force BaseA Russian-made device caused the mystery ailments that affected more than two dozen American diplomats in Cuba and China, according to United States government officials who have been briefed on the matter. Since September of last year, Washington has recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana and at least two more diplomats from its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that they suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing as well as from various forms of brain injuries. In April of this year the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in the Cuban capital over similar health concerns. More recently, the US issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island and accused Cuba of neglecting to ensure the safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed there.

In early September, Douglas H. Smith, who heads the team of scientists tasked by the US government to examine the matter, said that microwave radiation was almost certainly responsible for the diplomats’ ailments. He added that microwaves were considered “a main suspect” and that his team of scientists was now “increasingly sure” that the diplomats had suffered brain injuries caused by microwave radiation. Now the US news network NBC reports that Russia is viewed as the primary culprit behind the mystery ailments that plagued US diplomats. Reporting on Tuesday the news network cited three unnamed officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump, as well as “congressional aides and others briefed on the investigation”. Specifically, NBC reported that the Russian connection was supported by “evidence from communications intercepts” (signals intelligence or SIGINT), though it did not elaborate on their precise nature. It also said that the ongoing investigation into the purported weapon involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency among other US intelligence and security agencies. Another leading actor in the investigation is the US Air Force, said NBC, stating that experts in its directed energy research program at the Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico, are trying to reverse-engineer the alleged weapons based on the symptoms that they cause.

But NBC noted that the evidence remains relatively inconclusive and is not yet sufficient to allow Washington to openly accuse Moscow of having masterminded the alleged microwave attacks on the US diplomats. The news network said it reached out to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence but received no response. A spokeswoman from the US Department of State said that the investigation into the diplomats’ ailments was ongoing and that the Department had made “no determination of who or what is responsible for the health attacks” on its personnel.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2018 | Permalink

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US fired Moscow embassy employee who may have spied for Russia

US embassy in RussiaA female Russian national who worked for the United States Secret Service in Moscow was quietly dismissed in 2017, amidst concerns that she was spying for Russia. British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story last week, did not name the Russian woman. But it said that she had worked at the US Embassy in Moscow “for more than a decade”, most recently for the Secret Service –a federal law enforcement agency that operates within the Department of Homeland Security. The Secret Service has several missions, the most important of which is to ensure the physical safety of America’s senior political leadership.

Throughout her Secret Service career, the Russian woman is thought to have had access to the agency’s email system and intranet network, said The Guardian, citing “an intelligence source”. She could also potentially have had access to “highly confidential material”, said the paper, including the daily schedules of America’s past and current presidents and vice presidents, as well as their family members’ schedules.

The unnamed Russian national first came under suspicion in 2016, said The Guardian, during a routine security review conducted by two counterintelligence staff members at one of the Department of State’s Regional Security Offices (RSO). These reviews usually take place every five years and scan the background and activities of employees at American embassies abroad. The review showed that the unnamed Russian national was holding regular meetings with officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence service. In January of 2017, the Department of State reportedly shared its findings with the Secret Service. But the latter waited until several months later to fire the Russian woman, having decided to do so quietly, said The Guardian.

According to the paper, instead of launching a major investigation into the State Department’s findings, the Secret Service simply dismissed the woman by revoking her security clearance. The paper said that the Russian national’s dismissal took place shortly before the US embassy in Moscow was forced to remove or fire over 750 employees as part of Russia’s retaliation against economic sanctions imposed on it by Washington. That coincidence helped the Secret Service “contain any potential embarrassment” arising from claims of espionage, said The Guardian. The paper contacted the Secret Service and was told that “all Foreign Service nationals” working for the agency “are managed accordingly to ensure that […US] government interests are protected at all times”. Their duties, therefore, are “limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support. This is of particular emphasis in Russia”, said a Secret Service spokesman, who refused to discuss specific cases.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

US diplomats secretly met with Taliban without Afghan government

TalibanIn a dramatic change to longstanding policy, senior United States diplomats have reportedly held secret meetings with Taliban leaders without the presence –and presumably knowledge– of the Afghan government. For over a decade, the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they view as a puppet regime controlled by Washington. They have instead sought to speak directly with the United States, without Kabul’s mediation. In 2015, the United States sought to initiate peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha, but the effort collapsed after the Afghan government denounced it and demanded a seat at the table. The negotiation process has remained dormant since then.

Last week, however, The Wall Street Journal reported that a series of unannounced meetings have been taking place between a delegation of senior Taliban officials and an American team led by Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. On Saturday, The New York Times confirmed the story, saying that meetings between the two sides were being held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an informal diplomatic mission. Citing “two senior Taliban officials”, The Times said that the American diplomats have been meeting with members of the Taliban’s political commissariat. But the paper said it had no information about the substance or progress of the talks. If The Times’ claims are accurate, they would mark a dramatic reversal of longstanding US policy on the Taliban. Since 2001, Washington has consistently argued that any negotiation process involving the Taliban would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. Therefore, direct talks between Washington and the Taliban without Kabul’s mediation would mark a major shift in America’s security strategy in Afghanistan and beyond.

The New York Times said it contacted the US Department of State in Washington, seeking clarification about the alleged talks. But a spokesman refused to discuss the claims and insisted that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government”. However, The Times noted that the spokesman did not expressly deny the existence of the talks with the Taliban.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2018 | Permalink

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

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