A Kremlin Spy Mystery in Vienna Shakes the World Capital of Espionage

For a century, Vienna has been the world capital of espionage. It’s a city of world-class mystery and intrigue, as depicted in countless spy novels and films. Vienna has it all: lovely vistas, great food and wine, affordable prices, and an extraordinarily permissive environment for espionage.

In Austria, you’re free to spy on nearly whomever you want, and there are plenty of targets. Everybody has an embassy in Vienna, plus it’s the second city of the United Nations. When it comes to espionage, the only way to get in trouble in Vienna is by spying on your hosts—and that’s just what the Russians got caught doing.

The recent arrest of a retired Austrian army colonel on charges of spying for Moscow has shed light on something nobody in Vienna or the Kremlin wanted discussed openly. The suspect, identified only as Martin M. due to stringent privacy laws, is facing a raft of charges. He stands accused of passing Austrian secrets to Russian military intelligence, that is GRU, for a generation.

The 70-year-old Colonel M., now retired in bucolic Salzburg, began spying for GRU in 1992 and his treachery continued until September of this year, well after his retirement from the military. He had been assigned to the headquarters of the defense ministry in Vienna, where co-workers described him as being “a U-Boat,” utterly nondescript, barely visible.

Read the rest at The Observer …

British Intelligence: Yes, Russian Spy Was Poisoned by Kremlin

When the histories of Cold War 2.0 are written, the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal on March 4 of this year will appear as a turning point. With that act of madcap aggression, unleashing a military-grade nerve agent in a provincial English city, the Kremlin made its lawlessness plain to see. No longer was President Vladimir Putin making any effort to hide his regime’s gangster nature. With the failed hit on Skripal and his daughter, both of whom nearly died, Moscow signaled to the world that it could do whatever it liked.

There is a happy ending of sorts. Today, after five weeks in the hospital, much of it in intensive care, 33-year-old Yulia Skripal was released to continue her recovery at an undisclosed location. Better yet, reports indicate that her father, who was not expected to recover, in fact is doing so at a faster rate than anticipated. Word in intelligence circles is that the Skripals will be sent to the United States under assumed identities to live out the rest of their lives where the Kremlin can’t find them. One hopes they are luckier than Mikhail Lesin.

It remains mysterious why the Kremlin decided to murder a 66-year-old former Russian military intelligence officer (and mole for British intelligence) who had been traded to Britain in 2010, giving no appearance of having much to do with espionage anymore. Skripal eschewed the lights of London for the quieter—and, he thought, safer—English countryside. Rumors that Skripal became a target by getting involved in an investigation of Cambridge Analytica, the seedy big-data firm that has gotten itself in hot water over our 2016 election, remain tantalizingly unconfirmed.

It’s even more mysterious why the Kremlin chose such an unsubtle killing method as Novichok, a nerve agent invented by the Soviet Union in the 1980s—to say nothing of the assassins placing the lethal poison in a public place (reportedly on Skripal’s door handle) in the middle of Salisbury. Even for the Putin regime, which has previously used obscure poisons and radioactive agents to assassinate its exiled opponents in Britain, the Skripal hit was extraordinary in its murderous cheek.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Spies Suspect Kremlin Is Pushing Dozens of Fake Trump Sex Tapes


Attempting to get to the bottom of a complex espionage case, untangling multiple strands of secret agentry, is the most challenging exercise in all intelligence work. It taxes the minds of the most gifted counterspies, particularly when the operation extends over years, even decades, and it involves a complex cast of players, some of them Russian.

A half-century ago, when our Intelligence Community was assessing if there were Kremlin moles inside our spy agencies (spoiler: there were), a nasty bureaucratic fight ensued that dragged on for years. The protagonist was James Angleton, the CIA’s top counterspy for two decades, who coined the term “wilderness of mirrors” to describe the impenetrable mystery of certain espionage operations. In typical Angletonian flourish, he borrowed the phrase from a T. S. Eliot poem to capture the enduring mystery of never quite grasping up from down in a case, or knowing who’s really running the show—and looking at it too closely only leads to more confusion.

I’ve previously written about Angleton’s “wilderness of mirrors,” since it remains a fascinating saga still, and I noted how tricky the counterspy game can be:

One of the alluring aspects of counterintelligence is that very complex cases can turn on very small, sometimes minute, pieces of information. And years of getting to the bottom of an operation can be swiftly overturned when one tiny—and possibly very inconvenient—fact comes to light. This is particularly a possibility when what exactly happened in a case proves hard to pin down. As most cases involving the Russians are.

This is relevant today, since between Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and the efforts of our Intelligence Community, the secret side of Washington, D.C., is currently engaged in the biggest counterintelligence investigation since the days of VENONA in the early Cold War, when the FBI and NSA unraveled a vast Kremlin spy apparatus in our country, centered in our nation’s capital.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The West Must Prevent Cold War 2.0

If we don’t resist Russian political warfare, very soon, Putin will win

It was a year of profound, indeed systemic crisis. Across the West, friends of the Kremlin were surging in democratic elections, playing on legitimate fears of voters about economic anxiety and societal erosion. Moscow’s agents infiltrated Western politics at all levels, corrupting media and public discourse, while several European countries were poised to fall to parties overtly under Kremlin control—via the ballot box, not a coup. For Westerners who treasured freedom, it was all a nightmare coming true.

The year was 1947.

It’s important to note that while 2016, the year ending today, has been a dreadful one for Westerners who treasure freedom, with Vladimir Putin’s minions clandestinely subverting our politics, even in the United States, we’ve been here before. Indeed, we’ve been through much worse not all that long ago.

Moreover, the political threat currently emanating from Moscow is nothing new. Indeed, the parallels with the conditions the West faced at the dawn of the last Cold War are astonishing and ought to be recalled as Westerners ponder how to get it right in 2017—which may be the last chance to prevent the complete collapse of the American-led global order which, for all its faults, has worked well at preventing all-out global war for more than 70 years.

To start, we must not seek to downplay how grave the current crisis really is. Since the end of the first Cold War in 1991, a generation of neoliberal economics has raised Western prosperity, albeit not very evenly—rising tides turn out to lift some boats much more than others—while the angry legions of those who cannot compete in the 21st century economy grow daily. Many of them seek refuge in empty lives of online escapism, drink and drugs to numb their sense of displacement. Their frustrations also include a nagging sense that, between declining native demographics and uncontrolled migration, they are literally losing their countries—in too many cases, to foreigners who plainly hate the locals and sometimes seek to kill them.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Who Murdered Olof Palme?

Over 30 years after Sweden’s prime minister was gunned down on the streets of Stockholm, the mystery may finally be solved

It was a shocking crime by any standards, but in placid Sweden it was unthinkable. On the cold and wintry evening of February 28, 1986, Olof Palme, the country’s longtime prime minister, was walking home from the cinema, through downtown Stockholm, with his wife. The couple had gone out for the evening, on short notice, without a bodyguard.

Forty minutes before midnight, Palme was killed by a shot to the back, at very close range. His wife, Lisbet, was wounded by a second shot. There were several witnesses to the assassination, but none of them got a good look at the gunman. The prime minister was rushed to the hospital, only to be declared dead on arrival.

A massive manhunt ensued but didn’t make much progress since the description of the killer offered by witnesses was vague: white, between 30 and 50 years of age, of average height and build. This was clearly no random act, and Sweden went into a kind of shock. The country was unaccustomed to political violence, and Palme for decades had been an international icon, a lion of the democratic socialist left.

More than 10,000 people were questioned by the police during the course of the murder investigation, while 134 came forward to confess to the crime—all falsely. The inquiry soon stalled for lack of solid leads and appeared dead in the water until 1988, when the police arrested 42-year-old Christer Pettersson, a habitual criminal and addict who had previously been jailed for manslaughter.

The case seemed to be closed when Lisbet Palme identified Pettersson in a police lineup, but doubts lingered since the police never found the murder weapon, a .357 Magnum pistol, neither could they detect a motive for why a petty criminal—a fellow socialist like Pettersson—killed the prime minister. Nevertheless, Sweden wanted closure, and Pettersson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Edward Snowden is a Russian Agent

Three years after Edward Snowden, the American IT contractor turned global celebrity, made his media debut in Hong Kong, the truth of what really happened in this sensational affair remains elusive. The outline is clear. Snowden left his job in Hawaii with the National Security Agency in May 2013 and appeared at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel on June 1, having made off with more than a million classified intelligence documents belonging to the American government. A few days later, Snowden appeared on camera to announce that he was lifting the top secret mask off NSA, America’s biggest and most secretive intelligence service.

Yet significant questions remain. Where was Snowden from 21 to 31 May 2013? His whereabouts in that period are unknown. Why did he choose to repeatedly visit the Russian consulate in Hong Kong, even celebrating his 30th birthday there? What did those visits have to do with his departure for Moscow on June 23rd? Last, why has Snowden never left Russia, three years after his arrival?

These issues have taken center stage in the German parliament’s special committee of inquiry into NSA activities. Is Snowden really the whistleblower he claims to be? It is odd that anyone who claims to support press freedom and personal liberty would take extended refuge in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the population is much more tightly watched by the intelligence services than in any Western country, and where journalists who oppose the regime are harassed and even murdered.

Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s domestic intelligence service (the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution or BfV), has waded into this controversy by stating that Snowden is likely not who he pretends to be. “This would be an espionage operation joined with an operation for disinformation and influence,” he stated: “In order to drive a wedge between the USA and its closest allies, especially Germany.” That Snowden is in fact a Russian agent “has a high degree of plausibility,” Maassen added.

Predictably, Snowden’s defenders have pretended outrage at the BfV director’s statements, although he has made them before. Two months ago, in an interview alongside Gerhard Schindler, director of Germany’s Foreign Intelligence Service or BND, Maassen explained that it was likely that the American “whistleblower” was  in reality a Kremlin agent whose actual agenda was harming his own country’s worldwide security partnerships – including with Germany — for Putin’s benefit. That the Snowden Operation has been very effective as disinformation against Western democracies goes without saying.

Such statements, taken as heresy by Snowden’s ardent fans, are uncontroversial among anyone who understands the secret world of espionage. To anybody acquainted with how Russia’s powerful intelligence services actually operate, the idea that Snowden is their collaborator is no more controversial than stating that the sun rises in the east every morning.

The proper espionage term for Edward Snowden is defector, meaning an employee of an intelligence service who takes up residence in another country whose spies are not friends. Since 1917, every single Western intelligence defector to Moscow has cooperated with the Kremlin, on grounds of quid pro quo. There is no known case of a defector not collaborating with the KGB or its successors. If you want sanctuary, you will tell the Russians everything you know. That is how the spy game works.

Any Russian intelligence officer who wants sanctuary in the United States will be required to collaborate with American spy services, including extended debriefings by multiple intelligence agencies. Are we really supposed to believe that Vladimir Putin, former KGB colonel, is more charitable?

“Of course” Snowden is collaborating with Russian intelligence, explained Oleg Kalugin more than two years ago. A legend in global spy circles, Major General Kalugin is the former head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate. In the Cold War, Kalugin recruited moles inside American intelligence just like Edward Snowden. He is an expert witness here. Kalugin made clear that Snowden’s new life revolves around the Federal Security Service, Putin’s powerful FSB. “The FSB are now his hosts, and they are taking care of him,” he explained: “Whatever he had access to in his former days at NSA, I believe he shared all of it with the Russians, and they are very grateful.”

To anybody familiar with how Russia works, there can be no doubt that Snowden has been an agent of the Kremlin at least beginning with his arrival in Moscow three years ago. Whether he was recruited by the Russian intelligence before that is likely – as I’ve explained before, it would be highly abnormal for the FSB to grant sanctuary to an American defector they have never met – yet it remains an open question, and a very important one. Whether Snowden has collaborated with the Kremlin since June 2013, however, is not an open question.

Since joining Twitter last year, Snowden has pontificated from Moscow on a wide range of issues. In rare form, he entered the debate regarding the NSA special committee, sending out this remarkable tweet yesterday. (It says: “Whether Maassen is an agent of the SVR or FSB” – that is, Russian intelligence – “cannot currently be verified.”) Challenging the BfV director head-on with a mocking tweet is a strange turn of events in the Snowden saga. Moreover, when did Snowden learn such good German? He’s never spoken it before, much less flawlessly.

All of this leads to obvious questions among anybody familiar with Putin’s Kremlin. Western security experts have suspected that Snowden’s tweets, at least on intelligence matters, are tightly vetted by the FSB. Which would be normal for any high-priority defector. Living under what Russians call a protective “roof” (krysha) provided by the FSB means a loss of personal freedom of the kind Snowden claims he cherishes above all else.

Either Edward Snowden suddenly learned excellent German or someone in Moscow is writing “his” tweets for him. Vladimir Putin himself speaks excellent German from his time with the KGB in Dresden in the 1980s and perhaps he does not wish to see the language mangled in public.

(This article appeared in the newspaper BILD in German, you can read that version here.)

Hillary Has an NSA Problem

The FBI has been investigating Clinton for months—but an even more secretive Federal agency has its own important beef with her

For a year now, Hillary Clinton’s misuse of email during her tenure as Secretary of State has hung like a dark cloud over her presidential campaign. As I told you months ago, EmailGate isn’t going away, despite the best efforts of Team Clinton to make it disappear. Instead, the scandal has gotten worse, with never-ending revelations of apparent misconduct by Ms. Clinton and her staff. At this point, EmailGate may be the only thing standing between Hillary and the White House this November.

Specifically, the Federal Bureau of Investigation examination of EmailGate, pursuant to provisions of the Espionage Act, poses a major threat to Ms. Clinton’s presidential aspirations. However, even if the FBI recommends prosecution of her or members of her inner circle for mishandling of classified information—which is something the politically unconnected routinely do face prosecution for—it’s by no means certain that the Department of Justice will follow the FBI’s lead.

What DoJ decides to do with EmailGate is ultimately a question of politics as much as justice. Ms. Clinton’s recent statement on her potential prosecution, “it’s not going to happen,” then refusing to address the question at all in a recent debate, led to speculation about a backroom deal with the White House to shield Hillary from prosecution as long as Mr. Obama is in the Oval Office. After mid-January, however, all bets would be off. In that case, winning the White House herself could be an urgent matter of avoiding prosecution for Ms. Clinton.

Read the rest at the New York Observer

Another Defector Dead in Washington

A former member of Putin’s inner circle has died violently and mysteriously in our nation’s capital.

The story has all the makings of a sleek Hollywood spy thriller. A defector from the Kremlin, a man close to the top echelons of power in Russia. A man who knew too much. And who lived the global jet-set lifestyle. Fear, international intrigue and rumors of stolen fortunes end in a fashionable hotel—with a brutal death.

For years, Mikhail Lesin had it all. He went into the mass entertainment business as the Soviet Union went into terminal decline and, unlike most Russians, he profited from the Communist collapse. In the years after the fall of the USSR in 1991, Mr. Lesin built a media and advertising empire that made him a wealthy and powerful man. By the end of that decade he entered politics, as the wealthy often do, not just in Russia.

Mr. Lesin’s star took off with the arrival of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in 1999. He entered the halls of power alongside the former KGB man, serving as his media minister from 1999 until 2004. Mr. Lesin oversaw the consolidation of most of Russia’s media under Kremlin control. To his detractors, this amounted to the slow strangulation of the independent media that appeared in the Soviet wake.

Nicknamed “the Bulldozer” for his forceful ways, Mr. Lesin brought Russia’s media to heel and kept it on-message with what Mr. Putin wanted. As Russia became an increasingly authoritarian country after 1999, media control was a vital part of the formula to keep Russians happy and politically quiet. Most members of the media were willing to be bought off by Mr. Lesin, while hold-outs who valued press freedom were dealt with harshly. The lucky ones, intimidated, fled into exile while less the fortunate became martyrs—most infamously the muckraking reporter Anna Politovskaya, a harsh regime critic who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building on Mr. Putin’s birthday.

Read the rest at the New York Observer