More spies now in Brussels than Vienna, Austrian intelligence chief says

Peter GridlingThe head of Austria’s counterintelligence agency has said that Brussels has now replaced Vienna as Europe’s spy capital. For nearly a decade, this blog has published expert commentary that points to the Austrian capital being the world’s busiest spy den. In 2009, German broadsheet Die Welt explained that Vienna had “the highest density of [foreign intelligence] agents in the world”. The reasons for this are partly historic: during the Cold War, the center of Vienna was located less than an hour’s drive from the Iron Curtain, making it a central location for East-West spy intrigue. Additionally, Austria boasted then, and boasts today, an efficient transportation network that connects it to both Western and Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, Vienna hosts the headquarters of several important international agencies, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This gives dozens of countries the opportunity to station in Vienna large numbers of diplomats, in addition to those who staff their embassies there. Consequently, it is estimated that the Austrian capital today hosts nearly 20,000 foreign diplomats, which is a substantial number for such a small country with a permanent population of less than 9 million. Experts believe that around half of these foreign diplomats are in fact connected to a foreign intelligence agency.

But in a rare public appearance on Thursday, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said that Vienna no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. Gridling heads the Vienna-based Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He was speaking during the official presentation of the BVT’s annual Constitutional Protection Report for 2017, which was held at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. Gridling told reporters that the number of foreign intelligence operatives pretending to be diplomats posted in the Austrian capital remained significant, and that Austria as a whole was still “a favored area of operations” by the world’s intelligence agencies. However, he added that Vienna had now been overtaken by the Belgian capital Brussels as the spy capital of Europe. Gridling said that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was now a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital.

Gridling thus appears to concur with numerous intelligence experts and practitioners, among them Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), who have claimed since 2009 that Brussels is home to more spies than any other city in the world. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. The Austrian counterintelligence chief declined calls to provide further elaboration on the mater.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Europe’s ‘spy capital’ struggles to police espionage, terrorism

Vienna, AustriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Throughout the Cold War, Vienna was Europe’s busiest ‘spy hub’ linking East and West. Little has changed today, as the Austrian capital is still believed to feature “the highest density of [foreign spies] in the world”. A recently published book estimated that there are 7,000 spies among the 17,000 accredited diplomats who live and work in Vienna, a city of fewer than 2 million inhabitants. International spies have taken advantage of Austria’s relatively liberal espionage laws and have operated with near-unparalleled ease in the central European country for over 200 years. But now the country’s Ministry of Interior is seeking to terminate Austria’s liberal espionage regime and has initiated a plan to give local authorities more counterintelligence powers. Supporters of the proposal argue that Austria has “the most permissive spying laws in Europe”, which allow foreign agents to operate on Austrian soil with a high degree of impunity. This is because, under Austrian law, intelligence activities are not considered criminal unless they target the host country. For this reason, American, Russian, German, French, and other intelligence agencies have for years used Vienna as a base for recruiting agents and collecting intelligence. Supporters of the Interior Ministry’s proposal argue that the current legal regime has been used to harm the national interests of Austria and the security of the European Union —a reference to recent claims in the Austrian media that the United States National Security Agency has been spying on the United Nations headquarters in Vienna. Additionally, Austrian authorities say they are now worried about local Muslims who have been radicalized and have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. The government estimates that at least 140 Austrian Muslims have made the trip to the Middle East to join the militant organization. Austria’s counterterrorist agency, the BVT, said in its annual report for 2014 that another 60 radical Muslims had returned to Austria from the Middle East since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Interior Ministry spokesman Alexander Marakovits told Bloomberg that Austrian security services are “having a hard time doing their job the way they are expected to do”. Read more of this post

Austrian reporter alleges NSA spies on Vienna, including UN complex

Roof of the IZD Tower in ViennaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A reporter for Austria’s state broadcaster claims to have uncovered a United States National Security Agency listening post in Austrian capital Vienna, which he claims spies on the United Nations facility, among other targets. In September 2013, Austrian media alleged that a villa in Vienna’s Pötzleinsdorf district belonging to the US embassy there was part of a sophisticated communications interception network operated by Washington. At the time, both the US and Austrian governments denied the claims, with the US embassy claiming that the building served as an open-source center that processed and evaluated information that was openly available in Austrian media outlets and the Internet. Now, however, Austrian reporter Erich Möchel, who works for the country’s state-owned ORF broadcaster, says he believes he has identified another part of an alleged extensive NSA-run listening network in the nation’s capital. The reporter published a series of photographs from the roof of the so-called IZD Tower, a commercial 41-story skyscraper located in Vienna’s 22nd district, which is within walking distance from the UN facility there. Möchel said the photographs show the roof of the building, which is one of the tallest in Vienna, and were leaked to him by an anonymous source. They show what appears to be a grey-colored boxy structure, which resembles a maintenance hut on the roof of the tower. The hut is enclosed by rows of solid steel bars resembling a fence, and surrounded by approximately 10 surveillance cameras. Interestingly, the hut, which overlooks the UN building complex, cannot be seen from the street, or from nearby buildings. Möchel speculates that the hut is made of fiberglass, which would allow it to absorb radio signals and commercial mobile telecommunications messages, with the help of antennas located in its interior. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #851

EuropolBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Allegations that NSA has a listening post in Vienna. Both the US and Austrian governments have denied reports claiming to expose a major surveillance operation by the National Security Agency from within a villa in the Austrian capital Vienna. Austrian media reported last week that the US government had decided to end operations at the site because its cover was blown. Meanwhile, the allegations have turned into an Austrian affair of state.
►►Europol fighting unprecedented crime levels. Europe is dealing with an unprecedented surge in organized crime as sophisticated multinational groups, including child sex abusers and counterfeit gangs, expand their networks, according to Rob Wainwright, the British head of the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency, Europol. Wainwright says that thousands of gangs are capitalizing on the rise of smartphone and internet technology.
►►Are NSA revelations helping US tech industry? Edward Snowden’s unprecedented exposure of US technology companies’ close collaboration with national intelligence agencies, widely expected to damage the industry’s financial performance abroad, may actually end up helping. Despite emphatic predictions of waning business prospects, some of the big Internet companies that the former National Security Agency contractor showed to be closely involved in gathering data on people overseas –such as Google and Facebook– say privately that they have felt little if any impact on their businesses.

News you may have missed #722

Jose RodriguezBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Vienna police say Libyan defector’s death probably an accident. Former Libyan oil minister Shukri Ghanem, whose body was found floating Sunday in the Danube river, died from drowning, Austrian police said. Autopsy results on Ghanem’s corpse showed no signs of violence, a police spokesman said, adding that Ghanem, 69, had complained to his daughter late Saturday that he was not feeling well. No suicide note has been found and there is no evidence Ghanem was under threat, according to police. The results of toxicological tests are expected later this week.
►►Canadian spymaster’s card found in Gaddafi’s intel complex. It appears that William “Jack” Hooper, former Deputy Director for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), was among the Western intelligence officials who had cultivated ties with Libyan security services under the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Hooper’s business card was recovered last year in a trove of intelligence documents in Libya, providing a physical link between Canadian security agencies and Libyan spy services. Following his retirement in 2007, Hooper told The Toronto Star that Canada’s spy service has no choice but to team up with some unsavory foreign counterparts to protect Canada from terrorism.
►►Ex-CIA official defends torture of terrorism detainees. In an interview Sunday, Jose Rodriguez, who headed the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center until his retirement in 2008, said waterboarding and other interrogation methods now banned by the Obama Administration were essential to fighting terrorism after September 11, 2001. He also said that he ordered the 92 videotapes showing his CIA colleagues torturing al Qaeda detainees in order “to protect them from possible retaliation by al-Qaeda”. He said he was afraid the material would be leaked: “you really doubt that those tapes would not be out in the open now, that they would not be on YouTube?”. After the tapes were destroyed in an “industrial-sized disintegrator”, he said, “I felt good”.

Former Libyan oil minister found dead in Vienna [updated]

Shukri GhanemBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The former Prime Minister of Libya, who defected from the government of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi last summer during the peak of the Libyan civil war, has been found dead in Vienna, Austria. Shukri Ghanem, a former member of the General People’s Committee of Libya, had for years been a close friend and trusted aide of Colonel Gaddafi. Having previously served as a Director of Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation, he was appointed Prime Minister of the country in 2003. In 2006, he assumed the post of undersecretary at the Ministry of Petroleum —arguably Libya’s most powerful government ministry— from which he resigned in 2009. In May of 2011, he made international headlines when he abruptly appeared in Tunisia, saying he had defected from Libya. Soon afterwards, on June 1, he reappeared in Rome, Italy, where he held a press conference and announced that he was joining the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council. His public defection delivered a heavy blow to the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, which was eventually brought down a few months later. Ghanem was one of Libya’s most internationally recognizable government officials. He held advanced degrees in international law and economics from American universities and had lived and worked in Vienna, Austria, for years, as Director of Research for the international secretariat of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries. Following his defection, he ended up back in Vienna, where he owned an apartment from his days working for OPEC. He was employed as a consultant for energy companies. But on Sunday, the high-profile Libyan defector was found dead in the Austrian capital. Vienna police spokesman Roman Hahslinger told Austrian media that Ghanem’s body was found “floating in the river Danube” in the early morning hours of Sunday. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #706

Akhmed ZakayevBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►UK government accuses Chechen of assassination plot. The British government and intelligence services have accused an alleged henchman of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov of seeking to assassinate Akhmed Zakayev, a prominent exiled Chechen politician in London, who was granted asylum there in 2003. According to court documents, British government lawyers asking to deport a 45-year-old, Chechen-born, former elite soldier, referred to only as E1. They told judges that E1 was a threat to national security and had been implicated in a 2009 assassination on behalf of Mr Kadyrov in Vienna. Mr Zakayev, a former actor and self-described separatist leader, said in a recent interview that he believed “there are more Russian spies in Britain today than there were during the Cold War”.
►►Israeli ex-soldiers arrested in Colombia on drugs charges. Eight Israelis have been arrested in Colombia on suspicion of drug trafficking, money laundering and exploitation of minors, the country’s chief prosecutor has told local media outlets. The suspects, who were described in the reports as “former military men”, include former Israeli army Lt. Col. Yair Klein, who was convicted by a Colombian court and sentenced in absentia to nearly 11 years in prison for training drug traffickers’ assassins in the late 1980s. US and British investigations determined two decades ago that Klein was also involved in smuggling 400 Galil assault rifles and 100 Uzi sub-machine guns bought from Israeli into Colombia in 1989 when his plans to create a mercenary-ran training camp on the Caribbean island of Antigua unraveled.
►►Lawyer alleges MI6 agent was killed by ‘secret services’. A coroner has been told that Gareth Williams, an MI6 spy found dead inside a locked duffle bag in his London apartment could have been killed by someone who specialized in “the dark arts of the secret services”. The allegation was made by Anthony O’Toole, who represented the Williams family at an interim hearing ahead of the full inquest into Gareth Williams’ death. O’Toole said that there was “a high probability that there was a third party present in the flat” at the time. He added that “the unknown third party was a member of some agency specializing in the dark arts of the secret services, and perhaps evidence was removed from the scene post mortem by an expert in those dark arts”.

US government wants to use secret witnesses in CIA leak trial

James Risen

James Risen

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Prosecutors in the case of an ex-CIA officer accused of disclosing classified information to a journalist have asked the court for permission to introduce evidence in secret and to use privacy screens to shield the identities of witnesses. Jeffrey Sterling, who worked for the CIA’s Iran Task Force,  faces 10 felony counts and up to 120 years in prison for sharing information about the CIA’s operations in Iran. Court documents do not name the recipient of Sterling’s information, but it is common knowledge that Sterling spoke to James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times. In chapter 9 of his 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Risen details a botched operation by the Iran Task Force, which tried to pass to the Iranians a series of faulty nuclear bomb design documents. To do this, the CIA apparently recruited a Russian former nuclear scientist, who had defected to the United States. The unnamed scientist was told to travel to Vienna, Austria, in early 2000, and offer to sell the documents to the Iranians. But the documents contained a deliberate technical flaw, which, Risen alleges, the Russian CIA operative thought was so obvious that it could make him look untrustworthy in the eyes of the Iranians, thus endangering the entire mission. The Russian scientist ended up letting the Iranians know about the flaw, reveals Risen. He further alleges that the CIA operation may have actually helped the Iranian nuclear weapons program, as Iranian scientists would have been able to “extract valuable information from the blueprints while ignoring the flaws”. Read more of this post

Russia, US, in largest spy swap since World War II

Igor Sutyagin

Igor Sutyagin

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
The Russian and American governments have agreed to conduct one of history’s largest spy exchanges, as ten Russian agents captured in the US last month have been swapped for four Russian citizens imprisoned by Moscow for spying for the US and Britain. The ten Russians arrested by the FBI in June were non-official-cover (NOC) operatives, otherwise known as ‘illegals’, a term used to identify deep-cover intelligence operatives not associated with a country’s diplomatic representation. According to reports, they were all instructed by the SVR, Russia’s equivalent of MI6, which is responsible for all foreign intelligence operations abroad, to plead guilty to “acting as unregistered foreign agents” a charge not equivalent to espionage in either seriousness or repercussions. They were then legally forbidden from ever returning to the United States and summarily expelled. They were taken from the courtroom directly to the airport, where they boarded a plane to Vienna, Austria. In return, Russian government sources have confirmed that four Russian citizens, arrested in recent years for spying on behalf of the US or Britain, will be released from prison and delivered to US authorities. Read more of this post

Austrian probe finds Chechen president behind Vienna killing

Ramzan Kadyrov

Ramzan Kadyrov

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
A report by Austrian government officials has found that the Moscow-appointed President of Chechnya ordered the 2009 assassination in Vienna of a Chechen dissident, who had been given political asylum by Austrian authorities. In 2009, Umar Israilov, who was once a bodyguard of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, alleged in Vienna and in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that Kadyrov had “personally participated in the torture of detainees”. But on January 13, 2009, Israilov was shot dead by two men in broad daylight outside a grocery store located less than two miles from Vienna’s historic city center. Now the Vienna Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism has said in a detailed report that Israilov’s murder was a political assassination ordered personally by Chechen President Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Read more of this post

Author gets subpoenaed to reveal CIA sources

James Risen

James Risen

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The US government has issued a subpoena against a journalist who authored a book on the CIA’s operations during the years of the Bush administration. The move has surprised many, because the book in question, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, by New York Times journalist James Risen, has been out since 2006. The subpoena, which Risen received last Monday, requests him to testify before a grand jury about his confidential sources for chapter 9 of his book (pages 193-218), entitled “A Rogue Operation”, in which he describes in relative detail an attempt by the CIA to sabotage the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In the chapter, Risen writes of a thwarted CIA operation to pass to the Iranians a series of faulty nuclear bomb design documents. To do this, the Agency apparently recruited a Russian former nuclear scientist, who had defected to the United States. The unnamed scientist was told to travel to Vienna, Austria, in early 2000, and offer to sell the documents to the Iranians. Read more of this post

North Korean defector emerges in Austria after 15 years

Kim Jong Ryul

Kim Jong Ryul

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A defector, who was once a member of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s political protection team, has suddenly emerged in Austria, 15 years after faking his own death. Kim Jong Ryul is an East German-trained engineer who returned to North Korea in 1970 to work for Kim Il Sung, whose government tasked him with translating nuclear documents and making secret trips to the West. However, on October 18, 1994, while on a government-sponsored trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, he disappeared without trace. The North Korean government presumed he had been killed. But Kim had actually entered Austria, where he lived for 15 years as a defector. On Thursday, he gave a press conference in Vienna to promote a book about his life, written by journalists Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi, who based it on over 80 hours of interviews with Kim. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0220

  • More on sudden death of Jordan’s ex-spy chief. The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius is one of a handful of US columnists who are paying attention to the sudden death in Vienna, Austria, of Saad Kheir, 56, former director of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department.
  • Deposed Thai leader back in Cambodia, as accused spy is pardoned. Cambodian authorities have decided to free Siwarak Chothipong, whom they accused last month of spying on the flight itinerary of visiting former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Meanwhile, Thaksin is back in Cambodia, a sign that the country will continue to back pro-Thaksin political forces in Thailand.

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Silence over sudden death of Jordan’s ex-spy chief in Vienna

Imperial Hotel, Vienna

Imperial Hotel

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
There is widespread silence in Jordan about the sudden death of the country’s former intelligence chief, at his luxury Vienna hotel room, on Wednesday. The country’s tightly controlled press barely mentioned the news of the death of Field Marshal Said Bashir Saad Kheir, 56, whose body was reportedly discovered in bed by a maid in Vienna’s Imperial Hotel. Austrian police representatives have ruled out foul play in Kheir’s death, which they attributed to heart failure. But there is conflicting information about the purpose of the former spy chief’s visit to the Austrian capital, which is considered the world’s largest espionage hub, with the highest density of foreign intelligence agents on Earth. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0161

  • No new clues in released Cheney FBI interview. Early in October, a US federal judge ordered the FBI to release the transcript of an interview with former US vice-president Dick Cheney, conducted during an investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. There were rumors that the classified transcript pointed to George W. Bush as the source of the incriminating leak. But the released interview transcript contains nothing of the kind.
  • Sir Hollis not a Soviet agent, says MI5 historian. “Sir Roger Hollis was not merely not a Soviet agent, he was one of the people who would least likely to have been a Soviet agent in the whole of MI5″, according to Professor Christopher Andrew, author of the recently published In Defense of the Realm. Dr. Andrew’s comments were in response to the book Spycatcher, by former MI5 officer Peter Wright, which alleges that Sir Hollis, former head of MI5, had been a KGB agent.
  • New report says nuclear expert’s death was not suicide. A new autopsy into the death of British nuclear scientist Timothy Hampton has concluded that “he did not die by his own hands”, as previously suggested. The post-mortem examiner said Hampton “was carried to the 17th floor from his workplace on the sixth floor” of a United Nations building in Vienna, Austria, “and thrown to his death”.

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