In the three years since Edward Snowden landed in Moscow, his relationship with his hosts has been a source of much speculation and controversy. The American IT contractor, who worked for the CIA and NSA until he fled Hawaii with more than a million purloined secret files, has not left Russia since he arrived at Sheremetyevo airport on 23 June 2013, on a flight from Hong Kong.
Snowden landed in Moscow with the permission of the Russian government, whose representatives he met during his sojourn in Hong Kong that lasted more than three weeks. He became so friendly with them that he actually celebrated his 30th birthday at the Russian consulate!
On the run from prosecution in the USA, Snowden received asylum from Vladimir Putin. Although Snowden recently indicated he would like a pardon from President Barack Obama before he leaves office in January, there’s no indication that will happen. The White House only a month ago explained that it considers Snowden to be a criminal, so any pardon seems like a fantasy.
Then there is the messy question of Snowden’s ties with the Kremlin. To anybody acquainted with the world of espionage, particularly when it involves Russians, Snowden is a defector and his collaboration with Moscow’s security agencies is a sure thing – as I explained recently.
Experts on the Kremlin’s powerful intelligence apparatus, what Russians call the “special services,” have no doubt that collaboration is a matter of simple quid pro quo. Any Western intelligence official who receives sanctuary in Russia will share what he knows with his hosts: there is no choice in the matter.
Snowden and his representatives have insisted that he is no collaborator. The official story is that Snowden arrived in Moscow with none of the classified documents he stole from NSA, and he refused to share secrets with Russian intelligence. According to Wikileaks, which told Snowden to flee to Moscow, the defector was approached by Russian spies after his arrival in their country, but refused to spill secrets.
Since Wikileaks itself is now more or less openly a front for the Kremlin, with its head Julian Assange mouthing pro-Putin propaganda with increasing frequency, there’s no reason to take its claims about Snowden seriously – particularly given Assange’s admitted role in getting the American to Moscow in the first place.
Nobody I know in Western intelligence circles believes any of these claims of Snowden’s innocence. If he has not collaborated with Russia’s special services, he would be the very first defector since 1917 not to do so. There are no indications that Vladimir Putin, who publicly called Snowden a “strange guy” and is not known for giving anything away for free, is that charitable.
Snowden’s relationship with Russian intelligence was in the public eye recently when the issue arose during the German parliament’s special investigative commission on NSA. Last month, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of German domestic intelligence, created a stir when he explained that, in reality, Snowden is very likely a Russian agent.
Gerhard Schindler, the head of German foreign intelligence, went further, explaining that Snowden is “a traitor” and “He has become a plaything of the FSB – which is anything but good” – the FSB being the Federal Security Service, Russia’s powerful and unsavory domestic intelligence agency.
Although these statements should not be controversial, since Snowden has been in Russia for three years and shows no signs of leaving Putin’s protection, his defenders objected to such commonsense pronouncements by Germany’s security leadership. However, Snowden did himself no favors by suddenly being able to tweet in fluent German – a language he seems to have learned overnight – which bolstered the case that he is the plaything of the FSB.
Now, the Kremlin has settled the issue once and for all by stating that Edward Snowden is indeed their man. In a remarkable interview this week, Franz Klintsevich, a senior Russian security official, explained the case matter-of-factly: “Let’s be frank. Snowden did share intelligence. This is what security services do. If there’s a possibility to get information, they will get it.”
With this, Klintsevich simply said what all intelligence professionals already knew – that Snowden is a collaborator with the FSB. That he really had no choice in the matter once he set foot in Russia does not change the facts.
Klintsevich is no idle speculator. He is a senator who has served in the State Duma for nearly a decade. More importantly, he is the deputy chair of the senate’s defense and security committee, which oversees the special services. The 59-year-old Klintsevich thus has access to many state secrets – for instance regarding the Snowden case.
He is also a retired Russian army colonel, having served 22 years in the elite Airborne Forces (VDV). Klintsevich saw action in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the VDV and, based on a careful reading of his biography, appears to have served with GRU, that is military intelligence (his work in “special propaganda” in Afghanistan and his 1991 graduation from the Lenin Military-Political Academy are indications of his GRU affiliation).
Klintsevich is not a well-known figure outside Russia – he appeared in the Western press briefly in 2012 with his short-lived idea to buy Hitler’s birth house in Braunau, in order to destroy it – but he is a well-connected member of the Kremlin’s ruling elite. Given his senate committee position and his GRU past, there is no doubt that Klintsevich is considered nash (“ours”) by Russia’s special services.
His statement outing Snowden’s relationship with the Kremlin therefore cannot be an accident or a slip of the tongue. For whatever reason, Putin has decided to out Snowden as the collaborator that he actually is – and has been for three years already.
One reason for this may be Snowden’s recent tepid criticism via Twitter of Russia’s draconian new laws on domestic surveillance – which vastly exceed any of the activities of the Western democracies that Snowden has so strongly criticized from his FSB hideaway. Indeed, his hosts finally allowing their American collaborator to tweet negatively about Russia – many had noted Snowden’s silence on FSB repression and worse – may be a sign that the defector has outlived his usefulness.
In truth, Snowden was never all that well informed about American intelligence. Contrary to the myths that he and his mouthpieces have propagated, he was no more than an IT systems administrator. Snowden was never any sort of bona fide spy. There are no indications he really understands most of what he stole from NSA.
The FSB therefore milked Snowden of any valuable information rather quickly. He likely had little light to shed on the million-plus secret files he stole. Instead, his value to Moscow has been as a key player in Kremlin propaganda designed to discredit the Western intelligence alliance.
In that role, Snowden has done a great deal of damage to the West. But he was never a “mole” for Moscow inside NSA. In reality, the Snowden Operation is probably a cover to deflect attention from the one or more actual Russian moles who have been lurking inside NSA for years, undetected.
Based on the cases of previous Western intelligence defectors to Moscow, Edward Snowden faces an unhappy future. Whatever happens to him is up to his hosts, who control all aspects of any defector’s life. There no longer can be any honest debate about his relationship with the Kremlin, which has settled the matter once and for all. Putin and his special services consider Snowden to be nash – there is no question about that now.
(This article originally appeared in BILD in German, you can read that here.)
As Russian spies play rough, ignoring Putin’s war against the West will only make it nastier.
Espionage is widely reputed to be mankind’s second-oldest profession. Spying on each other has been around as long as people have been aggregating in anything like societies. The Old Testament is replete with examples, including Moses sending spies out ahead of the Israelites to reconnoiter the Promised Land as they made their way out of bondage in Egypt
From the outset there have been rules about what’s permissible in espionage. Not everyone went so far as German spymasters of a hundred years ago, who insisted spying is gentleman’s work, but physical violence has generally been considered out of bounds. Stealing secrets is the point of the business, not roughing each other up unnecessarily.
Moscow was always at the rougher end of the espionage spectrum, and it gave the Cold War a famous ruleset that inspired a generation of spies. Although the Moscow Rules were never definitively codified, they explained how difficult it was to conduct intelligence operations inside the Soviet Union, where the KGB owned the turf and could cover any suspected Western spy non-stop with physical and technical surveillance. This made conducting any espionage operations difficult and dangerous.
Key to the Moscow Rules was an understanding that coincidences rarely are: “Once is accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action,” per hoary counterintelligence wisdom. In other words, if you think it’s the KGB, it probably is.
Read the rest at The Observer …
Britain’s leaving is a big deal for the European Union, but not for Britain’s security—or America’s
On June 23, British voters chose to leave the European Union. This important referendum, colloquially termed Brexit, has sent shockwaves across Europe and the world. The victory of the Leave side, with 52 percent of the vote, versus 48 percent for Remain, is a rare historical turning point that is understood at the time as the epic event that it actually is. Neither the EU nor the United Kingdom will ever be the same.
Why Leave triumphed, contrary to countless opinion polls before the vote, will be debated for decades. Yet the amazing failure of Britain’s political class to understand the majority of its citizenry is already apparent. Prime Minister David Cameron and his Labour opposition spoke with one voice—Remain—as did the strong majority of political pundits and commentators. It did no good.
Cameron has been exposed as the ineffectual trimmer he in fact always was. His announcement of his impending resignation only hours after the vote was deserved, given the debacle he engendered by calling the vote in the first place. Foolishly, Cameron made an EU referendum a campaign plank in his Conservative Party’s 2015 reelection campaign—which he won, thereby casting the die for Brexit.
Read the rest at The Observer…
This year’s UEFA European Championship has been rocked by violence. While football hooliganism is nothing new, what happened this year appears organized as well as political. Moreover, the worst hooligans involved are Russian. Given the difficult relations at present between Moscow and the European Union, questions have arisen about what’s really going on.
First, the facts. Although UEFA expected some violence this year, what has happened exceeded all expectations. The worst incident was the England-Russia match at Marseille on June 11, which featured pre-game combat between fans. Russian “ultras” charged at English fans, injuring several, some seriously. Bottles and bar chairs were among the improvised weapons employed. The Russians seemed well prepared, with some of the “ultras” wearing mouth-guards for protection while others sported England shirts – a case of deception to assist their attack.
Then, right at the end of the match, 150 determined Russians charged the England section of the stadium, sending hundreds of fans fleeing for their lives. Police were slow to restore order, and by the time the melée ended, 35 attendees were injured, four of them seriously, including two England fans left comatose.
As shocking as the conduct of Russian “ultras” was in Marseille, the comments that followed their brawling made matters even worse. Although Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, allowed that the “ultras” had behaved badly and had “shamed” their country, others were less willing to back down.
Some Kremlin officials greeted the Battle of Marseille with glee. A senior Russian MP tweeted his support for the rioters: “Don’t see anything wrong with the fight fans. On the contrary, well done our boys. Keep it up!”
Some Russians have found fault with allegedly effeminate French police, including this memorable jibe from a senior Kremlin police official: “A normal man, as a man should be, surprises them. They are used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades.”
Even Vladimir Putin got in the act. Several days after the Marseille riot, Russia’s president commented at the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, “Do you know when the football cup started there was a fight of Russian fans with the British ones, but I don’t know how 200 Russian fans could fight several thousand of the British.” Although Mr. Putin has criticized the actions of his fellow countrymen at Marseille, this statement was an unsubtle dig at England fans.
UEFA has reacted promptly to Russian misconduct. Two days after the Marseille riot, it fined Russia 150,000 Euros and issued a suspended disqualification for violence by “ultras,” adding that a repeat of such events would result in the team’s expulsion from the tournament.
However, the violence has continued, albeit not at the scale witnessed in Marseille. There have been numerous scuffles between Russian fans and others. Most seriously, Russian hooligans attacked and injured several tourists outside the famous Cologne Cathedral. Six Russians were arrested for the attack. The men were on their way to Cologne Airport to catch a flight back to Moscow. Although the attack appeared to be spontaneous, the hooligans had gloves and wore balaclavas – hardly normal attire in June.
In response to these assaults, French authorities have expelled 20 Russians on national security grounds. In addition, three Russians who participated in the Marseille riot received jail terms from a French court for their role in the violence: Aleksei Yerunov, the head of the fan club for Moscow’s Lokomotiv team, was handed two years, while Sergei Gorbachev received 1.5 years and Nikolai Morozov one year in prison.
Among the Russians deported from France is Aleksandr Shprygin, leader of the All-Russian Football Supporters Union, who is a notorious far-right thug with neo-Nazi views. Infamous for showing off in public, sometimes with a Hitler salute – on occasion brandishing it alongside topless women for the cameras – the 38-year-old Shprygin is no stranger to Russia’s political elite and he is popular among ultranationalists for his combative antics.
There are widespread suspicions that Russian football hooliganism exported to Western Europe may be no accident. In the first place, the “ultras” do not resemble the drunken Russians who usually show up at UEFA events, sometimes causing trouble. The younger generation is fitter, seemingly preferring weightlifting to vodka, and much better trained and organized for street combat. They are also markedly more aggressive than the previous generation of Russian football hooligans.
Several of the “ultras” have boasted of military service in Eastern Ukraine in Russia’s undeclared two-year-old war in the Donbas, leading Western security services to wonder if they are connected with the Kremlin, particularly the General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU, which was responsible for the appearance of “Little Green Men” in Crimea in March 2014.
British intelligence suspects that GRU is indeed behind the “ultras” and that they are part of what some call Kremlin “hybrid warfare,” which I have termed Special War. This is a new generation of intelligence-led attacks on Western countries, encompassing espionage, propaganda, subversion, and even terrorism, with the presence of Kremlin operatives being camouflaged. The intent of Special War is to clandestinely influence politics in Moscow’s favor – and to send a message that Russia is not to be trifled with.
Evidence for GRU involvement is circumstantial but important. Those in the know have noted that Mr. Shprygin got his start as a fan for Dynamo, the Moscow sports club that was founded by the KGB and continues to be run by its successors. Then there’s the fact that the Russian Football Union arranged for a special charter flight to get 230 hardcore fans to the June 11 game in Marseille.
Not to mention that several of the “ultras” who reached France sported large GRU tattoos. These are distinctive, featuring the black bat which is the GRU logo. Some of the tattoos, clearly obtained as a souvenir of service, included specific unit designations while others even include the letters GRU (ГРУ in Russian).
A French intelligence official told me that several of the “ultras” were “definitely GRU, whether past or present we don’t yet know.” A BfV official added that he had “little doubt that Marseille got a visit from GRU” and that it was no accident. “So a company of SPETSNAZ [Russian military special forces, controlled by GRU] ‘suddenly’ appears in France for a football match and we’re supposed to believe it’s all by chance?” he asked.
A former GRU officer who now lives in the West agreed with that assessment, pointing out that sport was controlled by the Kremlin during Soviet times, and this is just one more aspect of life in the USSR that Vladimir Putin has resurrected. “Putin seeks to cause fear in Western Europe, and what better way than to send hardened fighters to disrupt high-profile matches?” “I remember the look that these ‘ultras’ have – lean, mean, and eager to fight – from my own time with GRU. I have no doubt who these young men are,” he added.
The worst of the Russian troublemakers have been sent home now but it appears that this is just one more secret front that Mr. Putin has opened against the West under the rubric of Special War. European football hardly needs more hooligans, but Moscow seems eager to supply them. We have likely not seen the last of GRU’s “Little Green Men” masquerading as football fans.
(This article appeared in the German newspaper BILD, you can read that here.)
The Islamic State’s hacking army doesn’t actually work for ISIS—It’s part of the secret Russian online espionage effort against the West.
For two years the so-called Cyber Caliphate has been the online weapon brandished by the Islamic State against its enemies. Its hacking offensive, including aggressive use of social media, made front-page news around the world, heralding a new front in that murderous group’s worldwide jihad against “infidels.”
Pledging support to ISIS, the Cyber Caliphate hacked and defaced U.S. Government websites and social media feeds, including those of Central Command, the Pentagon’s Middle East headquarters. Numerous smaller cyber-attacks followed. They also hacked into Department of Defense databases and posted the personal information of 1,400 American military affiliates online.
The Cyber Caliphate has attacked targets in many countries, including allegedly accessing top secret emails belonging to senior British government officials. The most public of their attacks was the April 2015 hijacking of several feeds belonging to the French channel TV5Monde, which included defacing its website with the slogan “Je suis ISIS.” This assault, seen by millions of people worldwide, gave the group the notoriety it craved.
The American-led coalition against ISIS has taken the Cyber Caliphate threat seriously, devoting significant intelligence resources to tracking and studying the group. Western fears increased this April with the announcement that disparate ISIS hackers were merging, creating a new United Cyber Caliphate, designed to be a major expansion of the existing Cyber Caliphate. Drawing together jihadist hackers from many countries, this would constitute a major online threat.
Read the rest at The Observer …
Hillary Clinton insists her mishandling of State Department email is no big deal—but the real drama is just beginning
Suddenly things were aligning perfectly for Hillary Clinton in her quest for the presidency. After months of embarrassing inability to vanquish Senator Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old socialist who represents a state with just two-tenths of a percent of the American population, she wrapped up her party’s nomination for the White House. The Democratic convention in Philadelphia next month will be a formality, no matter how loudly Bernie Bros stomp their feet.
To cap that triumph last week, President Obama endorsed Hillary Clinton as their party’s nominee for 2016. While this, too, was a formality, since Mr. Obama was eventually going to endorse her—no matter how much bad blood lingers between them from the 2008 race—it was satisfying to her supporters, if perhaps overdue.
The president’s praising assessment of Clinton, including “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office,” should go a long way toward unifying their party as she faces her Republican opponent, presumably Donald Trump, this autumn.
Obama’s praise was salve on the wounds Clinton recently suffered at the hands of the State Department over EmailGate. The long-awaited report by the Office of the Inspector General at Foggy Bottom can be fairly termed scathing and, as I assessed in this column, it leaves no doubt that Hillary Clinton systematically dodged a raft of laws and regulations on the keeping of Federal records and the handling of classified information.
Worse, the IG report leaves no doubt that Clinton has lied profligately about EmailGate from the moment the scandal broke over a year ago. Since the State Department, which Clinton headed during President Obama’s first term, cannot plausibly be painted as part of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy that Team Clinton sees lurking behind every piece of bad press, this report caused real damage to Hillary’s presidential campaign.
Read the rest at The Observer…
At 2 a.m. last Sunday, the worst terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11 unfolded in Orlando, Florida. The target was a popular gay dance club packed with guests for Latin Night. By the time the horrific ordeal was over, three hours later, 49 party-goers plus the gunman were dead while 53 more were injured, many of them gravely.
The attack on Pulse nightclub has left America in shock, horrified by the reappearance of mass-casualty terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. President Obama had been lucky before last weekend. His two terms witnessed several Islamist terror attacks inside the USA, but nothing like Orlando. The Fort Hood, Texas shooting in 2009, by a U.S. Army major, killed 13 soldiers. The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 killed only three but injured more than 250 others. Most recently, the San Bernardino, California attack last December killed 14 Americans. While all these incidents were traumatic, they pale in comparison to the Orlando horror.
The killer, responsible for the bloodiest mass murder in American history, was himself killed by police. Armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, Omar Mateen embarked on the one-way jihadist mission he must have long fantasized about. Just before commencing his slaughter of the homosexuals he hated, Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Mateen was born in New York City in 1986 to parents who immigrated from Afghanistan. To all appearances, the 29 year-old had a normal American upbringing without excessive religiosity. He had a brief marriage that failed. His ex-wife noted he was not especially religious but he did beat her frequently. After they divorced, Mateen embraced a more fervent version of Islam, including attending a mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida, several times per week. That same mosque produced a young radical, Moner Abu Salha, who died as a suicide bomber in Syria in 2014.
There had been previous warning signs about Omer Mateen. He is reported to have greeted news of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon with unconcealed glee, something that disturbed fellow students at his high school.
Then there is the strange matter of his family. Seddique Mateen, his father, has pronounced that his son’s horrible crimes have nothing do with Islam, and he professes to have no idea what inspired his mass murder spree. However, the father has stated that homosexuals deserve divine punishment, and he has also praised the Taliban. The elder Mateen is active in Afghan diaspora politics, including hosting a satellite TV show aimed at his homeland. Bizarrely, he has sometimes claimed to be the real president of Afghanistan.
There is nothing amusing about his son, however, who developed a penchant for angry statements against gays, minorities, and others he didn’t like. He made repeated threats of violence and co-workers noticed. He was employed beginning in mid-2007 for G4S, a British multinational security company that does lots of work in the USA, including some for the U.S. Government. As a security guard, Mateen had reason to be armed and he stayed with that firm until his death, although his tenure was rocky. Complaints mounted about his troubling ways, but G4S did nothing about them.
One co-worker, who later became a police officer, repeatedly complained about violent anti-gay statements by Mateen, whom he considered “unhinged and unstable.” Mateen then began stalking that co-worker, yet G4S kept him on the job. In disgust, the co-worker resigned, believing that their employer did nothing about Mateen’s troubling behavior because it was afraid to take action due to Mateen’s religion.
It’s apparent that Mateen was able to get away with years of violent statements and threats due to a pervasive fear of Islamophobia. It even derailed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mateen’s bizarre statements to co-workers, including claims that he belonged to an international terrorist group, got the FBI’s attention, and in 2013 the Bureau opened a formal investigation into him.
That investigation lasted ten months and included the employment of confidential informants and wiretaps on Mateen, as well as two interviews with the security guard, but ultimately closed without adding Omar Mateen to any permanent list of suspected terrorists in the United States.
The FBI ultimately concluded that Mateen was a fantasist more than a terrorist. Although he claimed to have joined multiple terrorist groups, there was no evidence to back any of that up. To top it off, the FBI concluded that Mateen was engaging in bizarre behavior due to “co-workers discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim.” In 2014, the FBI opened a second investigation into Mateen and reached the same conclusion: he was a fantasist not a jihadist.
Since Mateen had no criminal record and was not under FBI investigation any longer, he had no trouble buying an AR-15 assault rifle just days before the Orlando attack. Florida has permissive gun laws even by American standards. That semi-automatic weapon did most of the killing last Sunday. Americans should be asking how anybody who had been twice investigated on terrorism suspicions was able to buy an assault rifle so easily.
But Americans must also ask why we tolerate such angry, violent behavior in the first place. A security firm where he carried a gun was hardly the place an unbalanced hater like Mateen should have been working. Fear of Islamophobia seems to have trumped fear of murder.
Although it appears unlikely that the Islamic State had anything directly to do with Mateen, they were happy to claim responsibility for his atrocity. After all, the group has encouraged followers worldwide to wage individual jihad against the “infidel” West. And they hate no one more than gays, whom they butcher at every opportunity.
The FBI has confirmed that Mateen was yet another case of online radicalization, which is commonplace in the West now. He watched ISIS videos that propagate the group’s violent, hate-filled ideology. In 2016, this is sufficient for some would-be jihadists: actual trips to the Middle East are optional.
Reports proliferate of more than one shooter at Pulse but they remain unconfirmed. Yet it is remarkable that Mateen, who had no combat experience, managed to kill 49 people all by himself, while the Islamic State attack on Paris last November that killed 130 involved nine terrorists, several of whom were veteran killers from the Syrian war.
Many questions remain unanswered. The FBI is now doing the investigation they should have done years before, including raids on Mateen’s friends and family, looking for any network that may have helped the killer. Although “lone wolves” exist they are rare in reality. Most terrorists have help from someone. We need to know the full story here.
In the meantime, President Obama has talked about hate and guns causing Orlando, omitting any discussion of Islamism or jihad. Hillary Clinton has done much the same, calling for a ban on assault weapons not jihadism (though Ms. Clinton is willing to admit radical Islam is a problem).
For his part, Donald Trump has stated he was right all along about the jihadist threat, reiterating his call for a ban on immigration from countries where terrorism is common. In effect, this means banning Muslims. This position, unpopular with American elites, may prove popular with average voters who are disgusted by what has just happened.
America’s presidential election is still almost five months away but the Orlando horror seems certain to feature prominently in the race. Although President Obama’s war on terrorism has taken place mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus drone strikes in several more countries, last weekend showed that there is a home front too in the fight against the Islamic State. That is a fight no president can afford to lose.
(This article appeared in the German newspaper BILD, you can read that here.)