E is for espionage /5

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E is for espionage /4

On September 7, 2023 the Government of Canada established the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions (Foreign Interference Commission). Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal, was appointed Commissioner. The Commission will undertake its work in two phases.

Unmasking of elderly U.S. spies shows there’s no age limit on getting busted
Detecting hostile spies can be a long process, but U.S. has no statute of limitations on espionage
The United States has busted some spies lately who are old enough to qualify for retirement benefits.
U.S. prosecutors recently announced a guilty plea from Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, a septuagenarian former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who admitted to passing defence information to China.
That came a few months after Victor Manuel Rocha — a 73-year-old former U.S. ambassador — admitted to having acted as a long-term secret agent for Cuba.
Both cases involved elder baby boomers revealed to have done covert work for foreign powers years earlier.
Just three per cent of America’s federal prison population is 65 or older, according to U.S. Federal Bureau of Prison statistics.
These include some caught-and-convicted spies, now among them being Rocha, who is starting a 15-year sentence.
Walter Kendall Myers, 87, is serving a life sentence for offences relating to spying for Cuba. The former U.S. State Department official has spent the majority of his retirement years behind bars, after being arrested in 2009.
See more Cuban spies have a particular talent for getting people to spill secrets. That’s a problem for WashingtonCuban spies have a particular talent for getting people to spill secrets. That’s a problem for Washington

15 May
China’s spy threat is growing, but the West has struggled to keep up
(BBC) For years, Western spy agencies have talked of a need to pivot to focus on China. This week, the head of the UK’s GCHQ intelligence agency described it as an “epoch-defining challenge”.
It follows a series of arrests across the West of people accused of spying and hacking for China. And on Monday, China’s ambassador was summoned by the UK Foreign Office, after three people were accused of assisting Hong Kong’s intelligence services.
These are a sign of a normally hidden contest for power and influence between the West and China bursting out into the open.
The West – the US and its allies – are determined to push back. But senior officials worry the West has not taken the challenge from China seriously enough and has fallen behind in intelligence terms, leaving the West more vulnerable to Beijing’s spying, and both sides at risk of a potentially catastrophic miscalculation.
What concerns Western officials is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination that Beijing will shape a new international order. “Ultimately it aspires to displace the United States as the foremost power,” the chief of MI6, Sir Richard Moore, told me in a rare interview in his office for a new BBC series on China and the West.
But despite years of issuing warnings, Western intelligence services have struggled until recently to concentrate their focus on Chinese activity.

9 May
Andrew Kirsch: I am a former CSIS intelligence officer. It would be nice if the PM took our security advice seriously
The government’s attitude toward its spy agency poses problems for the future security of Canada
(The Hub) … after watching Prime Minister Trudeau and senior officials at the foreign interference inquiry hearings say under oath, repeatedly, that they don’t often read CSIS briefs. That they take our intelligence with a huge grain of salt. That they don’t think our findings are worth following up on.
“There is a certain degree of—I would not say skepticism—but of critical thought that must be applied to any information collected by our security and intelligence services,” explained Prime Minister Trudeau.
The reason this is a major problem is not the hurt feelings of former spies, but what it reveals about the government’s attitude towards its spy agency and perhaps the wider public’s views on security. It’s an attitude that poses problems for the future security of Canada.
… The threats CSIS is being asked to monitor today are far more nuanced and less visible. My colleagues and I used to worry about bombs going off in capital cities, but now an act of terrorism could be someone hacking into a water treatment plant to change chemical levels. In my day, foreign interference was honey traps and the attempted blackmail of elected officials. Now, we are uncovering potential state-sponsored misinformation campaigns during elections. Espionage and sabotage are rampant in the theft of IP and the hacking of companies. These threats are far less tangible and often difficult to attribute to a single source. Often we’re left with no easy answers to mitigate the risk.
Meanwhile, during this period when threats are evolving, our security apparatus is left to contend with a political leadership that is hesitant to listen to our warnings and seemingly content with avoiding having to deal with them.

29 April
CSIS director says China’s concerted effort to steal Canadian technology is ‘mind-boggling’
Robert Fife
(Globe & Mail) Canada’s top spy says China’s concerted efforts to steal cutting-edge Canadian technology is mind-boggling, and is designed to build the People’s Liberation Army as a formidable force against Western interests.
David Vigneault, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told MPs on the Canada-China committee Monday that Chinese hacking and other espionage activities have become a serious threat since Xi Jinping became president in 2012.
Canada and other wealthy Western countries have been targeted by People’s Republic of China actors to obtain high-end technology, he said.
“The statistics is mind-boggling in terms of the amount of attempts against government institutions every day. But more and more we see that those entities like PRC hacking groups are not just going after government institutions but are going after the private sector and academia to be able to acquire information and data that they need to pursue their objective,” Mr. Vigneault said.
He was testifying before the committee that is investigating why it took nearly 2½ years for the government to fire two Canadian scientists from the country’s high-security infectious-disease laboratory in Winnipeg.
The [Special Committee on the Canada–People’s Republic of China Relationship] Canada-China committee is investigating the weak security measures at National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg that enabled Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, to pass on confidential scientific information to China and allowed military scientists and students from China into the Level 4 lab.

23 April
Montreal UN aviation workers busted in China-Libya drone sale conspiracy
A Chinese national and senior diplomat employed by the ICAO Secretariat in Montreal was also identified in court documents as a member of the alleged conspiracy. He was not charged. The RCMP won’t explain why.
Conspiracy charges have been laid against Fathi Ben Ahmed Mhaouek, 61, of Sainte-Catherine, a Montreal suburb, and Mahmud Mohamed Elsuwaye Sayeh, 37, for whom no address was given. Nobody answered the door at the Mhaouek residence this afternoon.
A third alleged member of the conspiracy was named in court records, James Kuang Chi Wan. A police source confirmed Wan is a Chinese national and senior ICAO diplomat and that he was not charged.
The RCMP declined to explain why Wan wasn’t charged, would not discuss if it was because he enjoyed diplomatic immunity in Canada, and would not even say whether he was still in this country.
The RCMP alleges the two men, while employed by the ICAO, a UN agency in Montreal, were using foreign front companies to circumvent existing international sanctions to facilitate their illegal activities.
A spokesman for ICAO said the UN agency is fully cooperating with the RCMP investigation into Sayeh and Mhaouek, who it said “left the organization a number of years ago.”
… The RCMP suggested that its investigation and the arrests were made under its foreign interference prevention program, which aims to detect and disrupt foreign interference attempts or activities taking place in Canada by or on behalf of foreign actors.

12 April
House finally passes surveillance bill after three stumbles
Friday’s passage came only after Speaker Mike Johnson and GOP leaders shortened the length of the program’s extension amid resistance from former President Donald Trump.
The House on Friday passed legislation reauthorizing a controversial government surveillance power — capping off a months-long debate marked by acrimonious GOP infighting.
The bill still needs to get through the Senate and to President Joe Biden’s desk by the April 19 deadline for reauthorizing the spy power.
Friday’s vote comes just two days after 19 Republicans prevented Johnson from even bringing a bill to the floor to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the intelligence community to collect the communications of foreign targets without a warrant.

10-11 April
Wife of Julian Assange says Biden’s comments mean case could be moving in the right direction
(Globe & Mail) Officials have not provided more details, but Stella Assange said the comments are “a good sign.”
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the comment was encouraging.
“Mr. Assange has already paid a significant price and enough is enough,” Albanese told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Assange has been indicted on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors allege that Assange, 52, encouraged and helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published, putting lives at risk.
Australia argues there is a disconnect between the U.S. treatment of Assange and Manning. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence to seven years, which allowed her release in 2017.
… Assange was too ill to attend his most recent hearings. Stella Assange has said her husband’s health continues to deteriorate in prison and she fears he’ll die behind bars.
Biden Says U.S. Is Considering Dropping Its Case Against Assange
(NYT) Mr. Biden made the comment on the case of the embattled publisher, who is being detained in a high-security prison, in response to a question about a request from Mr. Assange’s home country of Australia that he be allowed to return there.
“We’re considering it,” Mr. Biden said at the White House, where he was hosting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan.

8 April
An espionage scandal rocks Austria, laying bare alleged Russian spying operations across Europe
(AP) — Austria faces its biggest espionage scandal in decades as the arrest of a former intelligence officer brings to light evidence of extensive Russian infiltration, lax official oversight and behavior worthy of a spy novel.
Egisto Ott was arrested March 29. The 86-page arrest warrant, obtained by The Associated Press, alleges among other things that he handed over cellphone data of former high-ranking Austrian officials to Russian intelligence, helped plot a burglary at a prominent journalist’s apartment, and wrote up “suggestions for improvement” after a Russian-ordered killing in Germany.
Ott is suspected of having provided sensitive information to Jan Marsalek, a fugitive fellow Austrian wanted on suspicion of fraud since the collapse in 2020 of German payment company Wirecard, where he was the chief operating officer. The warrant says chat messages provided by British authorities link Marsalek directly to the Russian intelligence agency FSB.

29 February – 12 April
Ex-US ambassador sentenced to 15 years in prison for serving as secret agent for Cuba
Manuel Rocha, 73, will also pay a $500,000 fine after pleading guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government
(The Guardian) Prosecutors said those details remain classified and would not even tell Bloom when the government determined Rocha was spying for Cuba.
Federal authorities have been conducting a confidential damage assessment that could take years to complete. The state department said Friday it would continue working with the intelligence community “to fully assess the foreign policy and national security implications of these charges”
The case underscored the sophistication of Cuba’s intelligence services, which have managed other damaging penetrations into high levels of US government. Rocha’s double-crossing went undetected for years, prosecutors said, as the Ivy League-educated diplomat secretly met with Cuban operatives and provided false information to US officials about his contacts.
But a recent Associated Press investigation found red flags overlooked along the way, including a warning that one longtime CIA operative received nearly two decades ago that Rocha was working as a double agent.
29 February
Former US ambassador to plead guilty for spying for Cuba over decades
(Reuters) – A former U.S. ambassador will plead guilty to charges as one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent.
Victor Manuel Rocha, who served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002, was charged in December with committing multiple federal crimes, including acting as an illegal foreign agent and using a fraudulently obtained passport.
The U.S. had accused Rocha of having secretly supported Cuba and its clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against Washington since 1981.
He pleaded not guilty in mid-February and the parties in the case announced on Thursday he “will be changing his plea,” according to an entry in the U.S. online court records system. It added that a sentencing was set for April 12.
10 December 2023
‘Ego and resentment’: what led former US diplomat to spy for Cuba?
Beneath the surface, however, deep-seated feelings of resentment coalesced with a carefully concealed sympathy for the underdog to allegedly drive Rocha to spy for communist Cuba for more than four decades.
… The allegations have stunned the US intelligence community, which has instigated an urgent damage assessment to discover what secrets might have been passed by a man who held a series of sensitive posts. These included ambassador to Bolivia, charge d’affaires to Buenos Aires and – embarrassingly – deputy head of the US interest section in Havana, Washington’s de facto embassy in Cuba.

28 February
Censored documents about Winnipeg scientists reveal threat to Canada’s security
(Globe & Mail) Two scientists at Canada’s high-security infectious disease laboratory – Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng – provided confidential scientific information to China and were fired after a probe concluded she posed “a realistic and credible threat to Canada’s economic security” and it was discovered they engaged in clandestine meetings with Chinese officials, documents tabled in the House of Commons reveal.

25 February
Cuban spies have a particular talent for getting people to spill secrets. That’s a problem for Washington
Cuba’s repeated wins in the spy game a testament to intelligence-gathering prowess, analysts say
(CBC) Cuba lies more than 100 kilometres from the nearest slice of the continental United States, but it has managed to keep a close eye on what Uncle Sam is up to for a very long time.
That’s because it has repeatedly been able to find high-flying American sources who are willing to spill U.S. secrets to Havana — for years, or even decades.
They include Ana Belén Montes, the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency analyst who passed secret information on to her Cuban handlers from the mid-1980s through to the start of this century. Her spying days ended with an arrest days after the 9/11 attacks.
Then there’s Walter Kendall Myers, the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell and former State Department employee, who spied for Cuba nearly twice that long and was arrested in his retirement years. Now 86 years old, he is serving a life sentence at a Colorado prison.

The Spy War: How the C.I.A. Secretly Helps Ukraine Fight Putin
For more than a decade, the United States has nurtured a secret intelligence partnership with Ukraine that is now critical for both countries in countering Russia.
(NYT) A C.I.A.-supported network of spy bases has been constructed in the past eight years that includes 12 secret locations along the Russian border.
Nestled in a dense forest, the Ukrainian military base appears abandoned and destroyed, its command center a burned-out husk, a casualty of a Russian missile barrage early in the war.
But that is above ground.
Not far away, a discreet passageway descends to a subterranean bunker where teams of Ukrainian soldiers track Russian spy satellites and eavesdrop on conversations between Russian commanders. On one screen, a red line followed the route of an explosive drone threading through Russian air defenses from a point in central Ukraine to a target in the Russian city of Rostov.

22 February
One opinion
The trials of Julian Assange: A death sentence for democracy
America’s ‘full assault on media freedom, access to information, and the truth’ is once again on full display.
Belén Fernández, Al Jazeera columnist

20 February
Ex-Informant Accused of Lying About Bidens Said He Had Russian Contacts
Federal prosecutors portrayed the former informant, Alexander Smirnov, 43, as a serial liar incapable of telling the truth about even the most basic details of his own life.
(NYT) Prosecutors did not specify which story Russian intelligence is said to have been fed to Mr. Smirnov, an Israeli citizen. But they suggested they could not believe anything he said.
The memo describes Mr. Smirnov as a human hall of mirrors: He fed the F.B.I. bogus information about the Bidens and misled prosecutors about his wealth, estimated at $6 million, while telling them he worked in the security business, even though the government could find no proof that was true.
“The misinformation he is spreading is not confined” to his false claims about the Bidens, wrote prosecutors working for David C. Weiss, the special counsel investigating Hunter Biden on tax and gun charges.
“He is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November,” they added.

Russian spies are back—and more dangerous than ever
The Kremlin’s intelligence agencies have learned from their mistakes over the past two years
(The Economist) IT IS UNUSUAL for spymasters to taunt their rivals openly. But last month Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, could not resist observing that the war in Ukraine had been a boon for his agency. “The undercurrent of disaffection [among Russians] is creating a once-in-a-generation recruiting opportunity for the CIA,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “We’re not letting it go to waste.” The remark might well have touched a nerve in Russia’s “special services”, as the country describes its intelligence agencies. Russian spies botched preparations for the war and were then expelled from Europe en masse. But evidence gathered by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think-tank in London, and published exclusively by The Economist today, shows that they are learning from their errors, adjusting their tradecraft and embarking on a new phase of political warfare against the West.
The past few years were torrid for Russian spies. In 2020 operatives from the FSB, Russia’s security service, botched the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the recently deceased opposition activist. He mocked them for spreading Novichok on his underwear. Then the FSB gave the Kremlin a rosy view of how the war would go, exaggerating Ukraine’s internal weaknesses. It failed to prevent Western agencies from stealing and publicising Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine. And it was unwilling or unable to halt a brief mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, last year. The SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, saw its presence in Europe eviscerated, with some 600 officers expelled from embassies across the continent. At least eight “illegals”—intelligence officers operating without diplomatic cover, often posing as non-Russians—were exposed.

19 February
WikiLeaks founder Assange may be near the end of his long fight to stay out of the US
(AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s fight to avoid facing spying charges in the United States may be nearing an end following a protracted legal saga in the U.K. that included seven years of self-exile inside a foreign embassy and five years in prison.
Assange faces what could be his final court hearing in London starting Tuesday as he tries to stop his extradition to the U.S. The High Court has scheduled two days of arguments over whether Assange can ask an appeals court to block his transfer. If the court doesn’t allow the appeal to go forward, he could be sent across the Atlantic.
His wife says the decision is a matter of life and death for Assange, whose health has deteriorated during his time in custody.
“His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison,” Stella Assange said Thursday. “If he’s extradited, he will die.”
[Stella Assange (née Sara González Devant; born 1983) is a lawyer and human rights defender. She was known as Sara Devant before changing her name: first to Stella Moris in 2012, later to Stella Moris-Smith Robertson, and to Stella Assange on marrying Julian Assange in 2022. She was born in South Africa, but holds dual Swedish and Spanish citizenship. Throughout her career, she has been an international advocate for human rights, most prominently in the case of her husband.]
30 June 2023
Pope meets with wife and family of Julian Assange, who says pontiff ‘concerned’ by his suffering
(AP) — Pope Francis met Friday with imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s wife Stella, who said the pope’s gesture in receiving her was evidence of his “ongoing show of support for our family’s plight” and concern over her husband’s suffering.
The Vatican didn’t release any details of the private audience, other than to confirm that it happened. The Argentine Jesuit pope has long expressed solidarity with prisoners, frequently visiting detainees on his foreign visits and prioritizing prison ministry when he was archbishop in Buenos Aires.

4 January
Public hearings in foreign interference inquiry to start later this month
The first set of hearings will start on Jan. 29 in downtown Ottawa. They will run over five days.
(iPolitics) Public hearings in the inquiry into foreign interference are set to start later this month in Ottawa.
The commission managing the public inquiry made the announcement on Thursday. The first set of hearings will start on Jan. 29 in downtown Ottawa. They will run over five days, and the rules and procedure for the hearings will be released soon.

Federal Court expands definition of espionage in decision to bar Chinese student from Canada
A Federal Court judge has concluded that a Chinese engineering student is a potential spy and cannot enter Canada in a ruling that broadens the definition of espionage and has potentially wide consequences for foreign researchers.
The student, Yuekang Li, proposed to study under a leading researcher at the University of Waterloo and take what he learns back to China to improve its public-health system.
But Federal Court Chief Justice Paul Crampton said Mr. Li’s plan fits the definition of “non-traditional” espionage – even without evidence he ever engaged in or had been trained in spying, or that his research has military uses.
University research programs have figured prominently among the concerns of Canadian intelligence officials over intellectual property theft.

Exclusive: Russian hackers were inside Ukraine telecoms giant for months – cyber spy chief
By Tom Balmforth
Illia Vitiuk is cyber chief in Ukraine’s SBU spy agency
Kyivstar hack destroyed telecoms giant’s “core”, he says
Russian military spy unit Sandworm seen behind hack
SBU caught Sandworm in earlier telecoms breach – Vitiuk
(Reuters) – Russian hackers were inside Ukrainian telecoms giant Kyivstar’s system from at least May last year in a cyberattack that should serve as a “big warning” to the West, Ukraine’s cyber spy chief told Reuters.
The hack, one of the most dramatic since Russia’s full-scale invasion nearly two years ago, knocked out services provided by Ukraine’s biggest telecoms operator for some 24 million users for days from Dec. 12.
In an interview, Illia Vitiuk, head of the Security Service of Ukraine’s (SBU) cybersecurity department, disclosed exclusive details about the hack, which he said caused “disastrous” destruction and aimed to land a psychological blow and gather intelligence.
“This attack is a big message, a big warning, not only to Ukraine, but for the whole Western world to understand that no one is actually untouchable,” he said. He noted Kyivstar was a wealthy, private company that invested a lot in cybersecurity.
The attack wiped “almost everything”, including thousands of virtual servers and PCs, he said, describing it as probably the first example of a destructive cyberattack that “completely destroyed the core of a telecoms operator.”
During its investigation, the SBU found the hackers probably attempted to penetrate Kyivstar in March or earlier, he said in a Zoom interview on Dec. 27.
“For now, we can say securely, that they were in the system at least since May 2023,” he said. “I cannot say right now, since what time they had … full access: probably at least since November.”
Kyivstar is the biggest of Ukraine’s three main telecoms operators and there are some 1.1 million Ukrainians who live in small towns and villages where there are no other providers, Vitiuk said.
A year ago, Sandworm penetrated a Ukrainian telecoms operator, but was detected by Kyiv because the SBU had itself been inside Russian systems, Vitiuk said, declining to identify the company. The earlier hack has not been previously reported.

2 January
Turkey detains 33 people suspected of spying for Israel
(AP) Turkish authorities have detained 33 people suspected of spying for Israel, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported on Tuesday.
Authorities were still searching for 13 others believed to have links to Israel’s Mossad security service, the Anadolu Agency reported.
… The suspects were allegedly recruited to spy on Palestinians residing in Turkey as well as Israeli activists opposed to their government, Anadolu said. Israeli officials allegedly contacted the suspects via social media, it said.


27 December
The Rebirth of Russian Spycraft
How the Ukraine War Has Changed the Game for the Kremlin’s Operatives—and Their Western Rivals
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
(Foreign Affairs) In April 2023, a prominent Russian national with suspected ties to Russian intelligence pulled off an impressive escape from Italian authorities. Artem Uss, a Russian businessman and the son of a former Russian governor, had been detained in Milan a few months earlier on charges of smuggling sensitive U.S. military technology to Russia. According to an indictment issued by a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, in October 2022, Uss had illegally trafficked in the semiconductors needed to build ballistic missiles and a variety of other weapons, some of which were being used in the war in Ukraine. But while Uss was awaiting extradition to the United States, he was exfiltrated from Italy with the help of a Serbian criminal gang and returned to Russia.
The escape, which was reported in The Wall Street Journal last spring, was only one of a series of recent incidents suggesting how much Russia’s intelligence forces have regrouped since the start of the war in Ukraine.

14 December
Conservative MP Michael Chong cleared to question witnesses at upcoming foreign interference inquiry
Conservatives protested after the party was denied standing.

7 December
With Wagner In Disarray, A Russian Diplomat With Spy Links Surfaces In The Central African Republic
(RadioFreeEurope) A former Kremlin envoy to the EU whom European diplomats link to Russian intelligence has been dispatched to the Central African Republic (CAR) to oversee coordination between the Wagner mercenary group and local security forces, a new RFE/RL investigation has found.
Denis Pavlov is a secretive Russian diplomat who left his post in Brussels in early 2023. His arrival in CAR’s capital, Bangui, comes as Moscow seeks to maintain its influence in Africa following the death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in August.
Prigozhin’s forces, which the Russian state has been reining in and effectively absorbing, had close Kremlin-approved security ties with the CAR government and backed juntas elsewhere in Africa, where Russia has been expanding its footprint over the past decade.

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