Archive for April, 2013

Is Ana Montes ‘the most important spy you’ve never heard of’?

April 20, 2013

Ana Belen Montes
An extensive article published today in The Washington Post Magazine revisits the largely forgotten case of Ana Belen Montes, a senior United States military intelligence analyst who was convicted in 2002 of spying for Cuba. Montes, who was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, DC, on September 20, 2001, underwent trial and sentencing in the shadow of 9/11, which might help explain the relative obscurity of her case. Still, as The Post article by Jim Popkin states, many intelligence observers view her as one of the most damaging double spies in recent American history. She entered government work as a clerk typist at the Department of Justice, and quickly received top-security clearance. It was from there that she moved to the Defense Intelligence Agency, America’s premier military intelligence organization, in September 1985. She rose meteorically through the ranks of the DIA, eventually becoming the Agency’s top Cuba analyst. Montes’ former colleagues report that she was known as “the Queen of Cuba”, a witty label that rested on her indisputable reputation as one of America’s most capable intelligence analysts on Cuba. She also came from a family with strong conservative credentials and strong connections with the US counterintelligence community. Her brother and sister were both FBI agents, and her former long-term boyfriend was a Cuban intelligence specialist for the Department of Defense. Montes herself had been honored in 1997 with a distinction presented to her by then-CIA Director George Tenet. Behind this carefully constructed façade, however, Montes was a committed and active supporter of Cuba’s leftwing government, which had recruited her as an agent in 1984. By the time she joined the DIA, Montes had already developed a close operational relationship with her Cuban handlers. During her 16-year espionage career —which she later said she entered for strictly moral reasons— she passed significant amounts of information to the Cubans, including the names of at least four American spies. Soon after her September 20, 2001, arrest, Montes was charged with conspiracy to commit espionage for the government of Cuba. She pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in October of 2002. Now 56 years old, she remains incarcerated in a Fort Worth, Texas, prison. Her tentative release date is set for July 2023.

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French spy agency forced Wikipedia volunteer to delete entry

April 9, 2013

Wikipedia welcoming screen
A French intelligence agency forced a volunteer for online open-source reference site Wikipedia to delete n entry that allegedly contained classified information about French nuclear defense systems. According to the Wikimedia Foundation, which publishes Wikipedia, the entry describes a radio relay system located at Pierre-sur-Haute military radio station in south-central France. Operated by the French Air Force, the station is said to have a central role in transmitting the order to launch France’s nuclear missiles in case of a full-scale thermonuclear war. The French-language Wikipedia webpage —which has since been fully restored— mentions, among other things, that the radio masts at Pierre-sur-Haute are designed to withstand the type of shockwave experienced in a thermonuclear attack. According to the Wikimedia Foundation, it was approached in early March, 2013, by the Direction Central du Renseignement Interieur (DCRI), which is tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence. The agency asked the Wikimedia Foundation to delete the entire webpage referring to the Pierre-sur-Haute military radio station, because it said it contravened French national security law. The Wikimedia Foundation, however, refused to comply with the request unless it was accompanied with either a court order or concrete information explaining why the Pierre-sur-Haute revelations were a threat to French national security. The DCRI reportedly backed down, promising to return with a formal justification for its request. However, instead of doing so, it contacted a French-based Wikipedia volunteer, who was summoned to the DCRI’s office under threat of legal action. The volunteer, who had no connection to the relay radio station entry, was allegedly told that he would be detained and prosecuted if he refused to use his administrator rights to delete the Wikipedia entry. The volunteer eventually chose to comply with the DCRI’s directives and promptly deleted the webpage. However, he reported his action to an online forum consulted by Wikipedia’s French-language editors, warning that restoring the webpage would risk contravening French national secrets legislation. As the case became more widely discussed, however, it backfired on the DCRI and the French government alike. A Swiss Wikipedia volunteer chose to reinstate the webpage, while the media interest in it prompted the appearance of an English-language translation, which drastically increased its international visibility. On Monday it was reported that the page on Pierre-sur-Haute scored the highest number of visitors than any other French-language webpage anywhere in the world. Wikipedia told United Press International that it “always operated within the law and ha[d] no desire to pose a threat to individuals or nations”. Meanwhile the French government has refused comment on the story.

CIA officer who purged torture evidence is rewarded with promotion

April 2, 2013

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John Brennan
A United States Central Intelligence Agency officer who was personally involved in the illegal controversial destruction of videotapes showing CIA personnel torturing detainees, is now leading the Agency’s operations division. At the center of the affair are nearly 100 recordings of interrogation sessions of al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The videotapes were made in 2002 at a CIA black site in Thailand and kept inside a safe at the Agency’s station in the Asian country. The CIA decided to destroy the videotapes soon after May of 2005, when the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate demanded access to them. In 2007, after The New York Times revealed the destruction of the videotapes, the US Department of Justice ordered two separate investigations into the incident. However, under pressure from the administration of President Barack Obama, no criminal charges were ever pressed. The videotape affair is bound to resurface in the headlines, however, after The Washington Post revealed on Wednesday that a female CIA officer, who personally ordered the destruction of the videotapes, even though she knew that Congress had asked for them, was recently promoted to one of the CIA’s most senior posts. The officer, whose name cannot legally be revealed, because she remains undercover within the Agency, is currently in charge of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS), which is responsible for conducting covert action and espionage around the world. Many consider the NCS as the ‘heart and soul’ of the CIA, and it is the first time in the history of the CIA that a woman has led that secretive division. Citing “current and former intelligence officials”, The Post alleged that the officer entered the position in an acting capacity a few weeks ago, following the retirement of her boss. It added that the officer, who previously served as the CIA’s station chief in New York and London, United Kingdom, is among a small group of CIA insiders who are seen as viable candidates to permanently fill the NCS director’s post. The revelation inevitably draws attention to the position on torture of the CIA’s recently appointed Director, John Brennan. He said during his confirmation hearings earlier this year that he was opposed to interrogation as a matter of principle. He also told a Senate committee that he was “firmly opposed” to the use of enhanced interrogation on enemy detainees. The paper quoted CIA spokesperson Preston Golson as saying that Brennan is still making up his mind on who to appoint for permanent director of NCS and has “asked a few highly respected former senior agency officers to review the candidates he’s considering for the job”

MI5 chief credited with ‘transforming the agency’ to step down

April 2, 2013

Jonathan Evans
The head of MI5, Britain’s primary domestic intelligence agency, is to step down at the end of this month, it has been announced. Sir Jonathan Evans is widely credited with transforming MI5, also known as the Security Service, in one of the agency’s most turbulent periods following 9/11/2001. A career MI5 officer, Sir Jonathan entered MI5 in 1980 and eventually joined the agency’s G-Branch, which focuses on international counter-terrorism. He rose to lead G-Branch just 10 days before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent launch of America’s ‘war on terrorism’. In 2005, Evans was faced with another major crisis as chief of G-Branch, when Britain suffered the bloody July 7 suicide attacks —also known as the 7/7 attacks— which killed 56 and injured nearly 1,000 people. Two years later, in 2007, he rose to the post of Director General at MI5, replacing Eliza Manningham-Buller (now Baroness Manningham-Buller), who had been only the second female intelligence officer to head the organization. Perhaps inevitably, considering world events, Evans helped steer MI5’s operational focus away from Irish republican groups and toward Islamist-inspired militancy in the United Kingdom and beyond. In early 2009, in a move that stunned some intelligence insiders, Evans gave the first public interview by a serving MI5 Director General in the organization’s 100-year history. He answered questions in a face-to-face interview with a carefully selected group of security correspondents representing a handful of British media outlets. The event was seen as reflecting a sea of change in the culture of MI5 —an agency that had never revealed the identities of its Director Generals until 1990. Later in the same year, however, Sir Jonathan caused controversy by suggesting during a public lecture that the intelligence extracted by torturing suspects after 9/11 had stopped “many attacks” on Western and other targets. He told an audience at the University of Bristol in England that MI5 had been right to cooperate with US and other intelligence agencies after 9/11, even if those agencies were known to routinely extract information from detainees through torture. Evans leaves behind an MI5 consisting of nearly 4,000 employees, a number far bigger than a decade-and-a-half ago, when the organization employed fewer than 2,000 people. There is considerable interest about who will succeed Sir Jonathan, as during the last 20 years MI5 Director Generals have been chosen from within the ranks of the agency. A spokesman for the British government said that Evans’ successor would be announced “in the near future”, following input by a specially appointed committee, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.

Spy equipment discovered near Russian military base in Syria

April 2, 2013

One of the fake rocks on Al-Nami island
Sophisticated intelligence-collection devices hidden inside faux boulders have been discovered on an island situated across from a Russian naval base in Syria. The devices were found on Al-Naml, an uninhabited islet of only 150 square meters, which overlooks the Syrian port of Tartus, site of a major Russian naval military facility. According to Al-Manar, a satellite television station affiliated with the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the fake boulders were carefully placed on Al-Naml by Israeli commandos during a nighttime operation. Television images showed a system of satellite dishes and cameras, which appear to be connected to custom-made batteries via a series of cables. The imitation boulders, which conceal the electronic surveillance devices, seem to have been carefully designed in order to blend in with the surrounding rocks and brushes on Al-Nami. Al-Manar said on its website that at least three such devices were “discovered by local fishermen”. It added that the camouflaged contraptions appear to be aimed at tracking the movements of Russian vessels sailing to and from Tartus. Moreover, the devices appear to be capable of transmitting pictures of vessels to Israel in real time, via satellite. The naval base at Tartus was first leased to the Soviet Navy by the Syrian government in 1971. In response, the Kremlin forgave a multi-billion dollar debt owed by Damascus. Today, Tartus constitutes Russia’s sole military facility situated outside the regions of the former Soviet Union. It is also Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean, and many strategic analysts consider it as the primary geopolitical justification behind Moscow’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. No information has been released about how long the espionage devices were present on Al-Nami before their discovery last week. In early March, media affiliated with the government of Syria accused Israel of planting a number of spy devices disguised as rocks, which were found near “sensitive sites” in the country. The government-owned Syrian Arab News Agency, which published photographs of the alleged spy devices, said they were discovered at an unspecified region on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Video footage and photographs showed what appeared to be large-sized faux rocks. Nestled in their hollow interior were cameras, microphones, transmission devices, as well as large batteries, which seem similar to those discovered on Al-Nami last week.

Did MI6, not CIA, kill Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba?

April 2, 2013

Patrice Lumumba
The 1961 abduction and murder of iconic Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was organized by British, not American, intelligence, according to a claim made this week by a British Labour politician and Life peer. Lord Lea of Crondall said in a letter published in the current edition of The London Review of Books that he was told so by Baroness Park of Monmouth, who at the time headed the Leopoldville station of MI6, Britain’s primary external intelligence service. Lumumba was a pan-Africanist activist who in 1958 helped found the Mouvement National Congolais, later becoming the organization’s leader. In 1960, he became Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. However, his government soon became embroiled in the Cold-War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many believe that Washington, fearing that Lumumba would attach uranium-rich Congo to the Soviet sphere of influence, tasked the Central Intelligence Agency with organize a coup d’état against him. It was carried out by Congolese Colonel Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko, who then ruled Congo with an iron fist until his death in 1997. In January 1961, pro-Mobutu soldiers, assisted by Belgian troops, abducted Lumumba and executed him following several days of beatings and torture. But according to Lord Lea, Baroness Park told him shortly before she died, in 2010, that she had orchestrated Lumumba’s killing on behalf of MI6. Known as Daphne Park until she entered the peerage, Park was often referred to as “the queen of spies” due to her four decades in the service of MI6. As one of the top female British intelligence officers, Park served as Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow between 1954 and 1956, before being transferred to Congo in 1959. While there, she served as Consul and First Secretary at the British embassy in Leopoldville —renamed Kinshasa following Congo’s independence. According to Lord Lea, Park confided to him that, as chief of the MI6 station in Leopoldville, she arranged Lumumba’s execution because of fears that the Congolese leader “would have handed over the whole lot to the Russians: the high-value […] uranium deposits as well as the diamonds and other important minerals”. It is worth noting that some historians have expressed skepticism over Lea’s claim, and one unnamed “senior British intelligence official”, who knew Park, told The London Times that the allegation “doesn’t sound like the sort of remark Daphne Park would make [because] she was never indiscreet”. He added that “MI6 never had a license to kill” in a manner as that which was employed in Lumumba’s assassination.