Putin’s Killer Spies Have Finally Gone Too Far

Ever since the near-fatal poisoning in March of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the bucolic English city of Salisbury, suspicion has focused on the Kremlin for the brazen crime. Employing Novichok, a weapons-grade nerve agent, to strike down the Skripals was astonishingly aggressive even for Moscow, which in recent years has been on a global killing spree of an audacity and lethality not witnessed since the days of Joseph Stalin.

The British government has consistently pointed the finger at the regime of President Vladimir Putin. Armed with intelligence as well as forensic evidence that established Moscow’s likely culpability, little more than a week after the failed hit, Prime Minister Theresa May denounced Moscow’s efforts to dodge responsibility and expelled 23 Russian diplomats—in reality, spies—from Britain. The gravity of the Skripal case has only grown since, not least because almost four months after the attack, poison left behind by the assassins struck down two innocent Britons, one of whom, Dawn Sturgess, died from exposure to Novichok.

This week, the May government put the case back on the front pages by publicly outing Kremlin agents as the Salisbury assassins. The prime minister named two Russian spies, Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as the “officers of the Russian military intelligence service” wanted for the crime, adding, “This was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”

Read the rest at The Observer

Donald Trump’s Nightmare Isn’t Robert Mueller

Judging from the unhinged tone of his tweets—which is nothing new, but still perhaps the best barometer of our 45th president’s mood on any given day—Donald Trump is worried about his future. He should be, as the Special Counsel investigation of his Russia ties inches ever-closer to the president’s inner circle. Since his first day in the Oval Office 19 months ago, our commander-in-chief has employed Twitter as his bullhorn to the public and, in an irony which Trump won’t appreciate until it’s too late, tweeting may prove to be his undoing.

Take President Trump’s recent tweet regarding the infamous June 9, 2016 meeting in Manhattan’s Trump Tower between representatives of the then-Republican presidential candidate, led by Trump’s oldest son, Don Jr., and several Russians, led by Natalya Veselnitskaya, a Moscow attorney who was there due to her Kremlin connections. That meeting has been the focus of attention by the media as well as Robert Mueller and his Special Counsel investigators. From the moment word of the secret encounter went public, Team Trump has stuck to the storyline that the meeting was innocuous, about nothing more than adoptions. The president insisted this was the case, as has Don Jr., who sold that story to the Senate Judiciary Committee last September.

This was the sort of absurd lie that the president and his entourage excel in, and it was only a matter of time before the mendacious cover exploded. Few, however, expected President Trump to set off the fuse, yet that was exactly what he did last Sunday with this: “Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!”

One flick of the thumbs blew apart more than a year’s worth of increasingly threadbare lies about the June 9, 2016 meeting which, as the president has now admitted, was an effort to obtain derogatory information on Hillary Clinton from the Kremlin. Trump’s panicked advisers have reportedly urged him to tweet no more about that meeting, but it’s too late, the grievous damage to the president has already been done—by his own feed.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Why Is Trump Trying to Start a War He Cannot Win?

I’ve been a hardliner regarding Iran my whole professional life. During my time in the Intelligence Community, I favored aggressive approaches to countering Tehran’s misdeeds abroad. What I witnessed in the Balkans in the 1990s convinced me that revolutionary Iran is a bad actor on the international stage which needs containment, not an olive branch or any good-faith deal which the clerico-fascist mullah regime in Tehran will inevitably breach.

The ugly foreign operations of Iranian intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the notorious Pasdaran, including espionage, terrorism, assassinations, and subversion in Europe, formed the basis of the detailed exposé I published after I left the spy business. That book remains the definitive work on Iran’s secret war, including alliances with jihadist terrorists, waged against the West.

Nevertheless, what the Trump administration is doing now is more dangerous than anything Tehran has done in recent decades to destabilize the Middle East. Although the Trump White House’s aggressive posture toward Iran has been prominent from its first day in office, 18 months ago, the president has recently upped the ante, with results that may prove catastrophic.

It wasn’t enough to trash his predecessor’s Iran Deal (an agreement which I opposed), pulling the United States out of that multilateral agreement. Shredding Barack Obama’s grand bargain with Tehran now is worse than the deal itself, and it means that diplomacy with Iran is off the table, since Tehran has no reason to trust any “deal” Trump proffers.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Spy Brief: Dead Drop: 30 June 2018

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Here are some recent intelligence and security stories that you might have missed but which are informative and even fun. Truth is not infrequently stranger than fiction, especially in espionage. Enjoy!

Vienna wants Berlin to comment on reports that German intelligence (BND) was spying on Austria with a far-reaching SIGINT program. Good luck with that.

NSA is moving all its TS/SCI to the new IC Gov Cloud – which sounds to any counterintelligence person like an effort to just make it easier for the next Snowden to steal everything.

Trump’s State Department is missing the boat on cyber stuff. I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

“Which is the greatest threat? Russia, of course!” explains the former GCHQ director in a presentation on cyber threats.

FSB claims to have unmasked another foreign spy acting against Russia, this time for Romania. Count me skeptical.

Far-right attacks on Roma in Ukraine by a shadowy gang calling itself (I’m not kidding) the Misanthropic Division are actually an SVR-orchestrated provocation. Well, yeah.

Turkish MFA claims the FBI is investigating Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) presence in 20 U.S. states. This is one of those weird stories you’d think the MSM might dig into a bit.

MOSSAD director says his service has secret ties to countries which don’t diplomatically recognize the state of Israel. Can confirm.

Israel has always had serious leak problems in its spy agencies – and according to SHABAK it’s getting worse.

The Kremlin’s secret influence campaign in Egypt is having some important successes, according to this detailed assessment.

Revealed: CENTCOM has been bombing Yemen an awful lot – 44 air strikes in 2016, then 131 in 2017, big jump.

WANTED: Gen Jamil Hassan, head of Syrian AF Intelligence, a top Assad lieutenant and senior human-rights-abuser in Damascus.

Assessing the PRC’s comprehensive espionage-propaganda-subversion political warfare campaign against Australia. Important stuff.

Afghan Interior Ministry admits the Taliban are operating in all areas of the country. 17 years into our war there. #WINNING

Another crafty spy pigeon captured, this time in India. Couldn’t cats fix this problem and lower the espionage threat?

Europe is broadly way ahead of the USA in fighting Kremlin disinformation, and in protecting elections from Kremlin interference.

Islamist terrorism plus Russian spying and subversion remain the top threats to British security, explains the Security Service (MI5) director.

29 yo Tunisian arrested in Germany on terrorism charges, specifically producing ricin (!) for an attack, was in touch with ISIS multiple times, but was not an official member of the terror gang.

Admit it, who wouldn’t prefer to conduct counterterrorism ops in the sun-drenched Caribbean rather than some dump in Central Asia or in deepest, darkest Africa?

UN human rights office concludes rule of law is “virtually absent” in Venezuela as government thugs murder opponents with impunity.

Whoops: “The current threat environment no longer met the threshold of a CSIS investigation.” Not great timing there, guys.

US IC’s counterintelligence czar tells Kaspersky to try harder – setting up a “Transparency Center” in Switzerland is just cosmetics.

Remember the US laptop ban on airplanes? Here’s the interesting UK spy backgrounder on how and why that happened.

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Ukraine’s Ploy to Save a Russian Journalist by Faking His Death Is Already Backfiring

Two days ago, Kremlin-watchers worldwide were stunned and saddened to hear of the assassination of Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist and war correspondent who fled his homeland in early 2017, fearing for his life. As a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, Babchenko’s fears were wholly warranted, given how many Russian journalists and activists who got on the wrong side of Putin’s regime have wound up murdered, usually by never-identified hitmen, over the last couple decades.

Babchenko’s sad end, shot in the back outside his apartment in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital where he had taken refuge with his family, seemed like a death foretold. Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s prime minister, promptly blamed Moscow for the murder, a claim that was widely believed. Aleksandr Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), dismissed Kyiv’s accusation as “bullshit,” but few outside the Kremlin’s walls believed him. After all, the Babchenko hit came less than three months after the near-murder of the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, an outrageously brazen act of state terrorism. After Skripal’s near-death, and the Western pushback it engendered, Western media was finally on the lookout for more assassinations of the sort the Kremlin calls wetwork.

Journalists from all over the world eulogized the martyred Babchenko, hailing his bitter opposition to Putin and his sordid regime, while recalling that Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian journalist and Kremlin critic, had been blown up by a bomb placed in his car in downtown Kyiv just two years before. Who else but the FSB could be responsible for Babchenko’s murder? Harsh reactions from Western media to the Babchenko assassination felt like an effort to make up for their relative inattention to so many previous Kremlin hits on people whom Moscow disliked. Now, just a few days after Western governments publicly fingered the Kremlin as the culprit behind the murder of 298 innocents in the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014, it was time to call Putin and his murderers out.

Read the rest at The Observer …

New Evidence Shows Russia Played a Role in Plane Crash That Killed Poland’s Top Brass

The crash of a Polish Air Force Tu-154 airliner near the Russian city of Smolensk on April 10, 2010 stands as the most momentous air disaster in modern times. Although other crashes have claimed more victims—the death toll at Smolensk came to 96, all those aboard the doomed ship plus seven crew—those lost were the elite of Poland’s government. Among the dead were President Lech Kaczyński and his wife, much of the president’s staff, 18 parliamentarians, 10 generals and admirals representing Poland’s top military leadership, and many other political notables. The disaster decapitated Warsaw.

To make matters even more painful, President Kaczyński and his entourage died en route to a commemoration at Katyń, the forest in western Russia where, in the spring of 1940, Stalin’s secret police murdered 22,000 Polish military officers captured by the Soviets when they carved up Poland with Adolf Hitler the previous September. Here Moscow murdered Poland’s elite. Covered up by the Kremlin until after the Cold War (with help from the incurious West), Katyń lingers as an unhealed wound in the Polish psyche; the sudden death of so much of the country’s leadership on the way to that site of national martyrdom was too much for some Poles to bear.

From the outset, right-wing allies of the fallen president smelled a rat—a Russian rat, that is. Poles know their neighbor well, and Kaczyński had no illusions about Vladimir Putin’s thuggish regime. It seemed beyond suspicious that Poland’s government died in a disaster on Russian soil—particularly when the Kremlin is led by a man who came of age in the KGB, the very same people who executed and covered up the Katyń massacre.

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 …

Putin Gang Stunned by Theresa May’s Resolve

For the past dozen years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has employed his spies as assassins in the West, beginning with the murder of the defector Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in late 2006. Kremlin killers have left a trail of bodies in several Western countries, but above all the United Kingdom. Although Russian spies have made only modest efforts to cover their tracks in these crimes, the consequences for Moscow have been distinctly limited. No Western country has been willing to stand up to Putin and his increasingly gangster regime—until now.

In response to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian military intelligence colonel, who, along with his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, received a near-lethal dose of a nerve agent on March 4 in Salisbury, England, the British government is finally showing resolve in confronting outrageous Russian crimes perpetrated on their soil. As I explained a week ago, there is no serious doubt that the Kremlin stands behind the would-be hit on the Skripals:

Vladimir Putin has resumed wetwork in a fashion not witnessed in the Kremlin since the days of Joseph Stalin. Putin’s assassinations abroad over the last 15 years have been more aggressive than anything done during the Russian president’s KGB career. Moreover, his views on turncoats are well known: “Traitors always end badly,” he famously explained. In 2010, the year Skripal was swapped to Britain, Putin chillingly stated, “Traitors will kick the bucket. Trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers-in-arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

The British government apparently agrees with my assessment, since Prime Minister Theresa May this week made two major announcements relating to the Skripal case. First, on Monday, May announced that, based on forensic tests, the agent used to poison the Skripals was a nerve agent called Novichok, which is indisputably of Russian origin. The prime minister added it was therefore “highly likely” that Moscow stood behind this “unlawful use of force.” May gave the Kremlin until last night to provide a “credible response” to this accusation.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Putin Sends the West Another Deadly Message

It’s happened again. Another Russian spy who’s taken up residence in the West has been poisoned under mysterious circumstances. At this hour, he is in intensive care, his fate undetermined. Worse, his daughter was poisoned with him and likewise is in dire condition. To anyone acquainted with what the Kremlin terms wetwork, this all looks depressingly familiar.

His name is Sergei Skripal, and he is a 66-year-old pensioner who once was a career officer in Russian military intelligence, known as GRU. In the mid-1990s, he became a mole for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6. Until he retired from GRU in 1999 as a colonel, Skripal passed SIS classified information in exchange for money. The secrets he shared with British spies included the true identities of Russian intelligence operatives in Europe.

Arrested in 2004, Skripal was branded a traitor, and he received a 13-year prison sentence for his betrayal—a relatively light sentence in Russia, an indication that Skripal had cooperated with the Federal Security Service (FSB) after his arrest. His fate was grim until he was suddenly released in the summer of 2010 and sent to Britain, a free man. This was part of the exchange of 10 Illegals, deep-cover Russian spies who were arrested by the FBI as part of Operation Ghost Stories. Pardoned before he departed Russia, Skripal started a new life in the United Kindgom.

That all came crashing down last Sunday, when Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in a shopping area of the provincial city of Salisbury in southern England, 100 miles southwest of London. The pair were whisked off to intensive care, and what agent was used to poison them remains undetermined at this hour. Theories that they were sprayed in the face with a lethal heavy metal remain speculation. Given the Kremlin’s longstanding acumen in weaponizing poisons, some of them obscure and difficult to trace, it may be some time before solid answers appear in this mysterious case.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Mysterious Balkan Assassination Threatens Regional Peace

The always narrow and winding path to peace in Southeastern Europe hit a major obstruction this morning with the murder of Oliver Ivanović, the leader of the Serbs of Kosovo, who was gunned down in a drive-by killing in Kosovska Mitrovica. That city is precariously divided between Kosovo’s Albanian majority and Serbian minority, and Ivanović had been the latter’s political boss since the 1999 war that dragged NATO into that messy ethnic conflict.

The 64-year-old Ivanović was murdered in front of his political party’s office by a gunman in a moving car. Local media in Kosovo claim the car has been found, burned out, but as of this hour no suspects have been officially named, much less located. Shot five times with a pistol, Ivanović was dead on arrival at a local hospital.

His murder fell on the exact day that representatives of Serbia and Kosovo were set to meet in Brussels to normalize relations between them. Since the 1999 war, Belgrade has remained unreconciled to the loss of its former province—keeping Kosovo in Serbia was the issue that led to the rise of Slobodan Milošević, while its loss at the hands of NATO caused his downfall—and finally there seemed to be some hope for progress, after years of cajoling by the European Union. Ivanović’s murder has undone any forward movement on the Kosovo issue.

Already, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has denounced the assassination as an “act of terror” while convening an emergency national security meeting in Belgrade to discuss the killing and its aftermath. Predictably, today Serbian representatives in Brussels walked out of the long-awaited meeting with Kosovo Albanian counterparts in protest over Ivanović’s murder.

Read the rest at The Observer …