New in SpyWeek
Moscow's latest KGB-style disinfo campaign, Reagan’s classified diary, Bill Casey’s legacy, CIA diplomats and a new NSA chief's moves against election interference
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KGB Disinformation 2.0: Russia has launched a disinformation campaign in Africa that is straight out of the 1980s KGB Cold War playbook. The Wall Street Journal broke the story about a Russian media campaign (dis)informing Africans that they were unwitting test subjects of a Pentagon biological research program. The campaign reportedly centers on “African Initiative,” an online news service that U.S. officials say receives material support and guidance from Russian intelligence services. SpyWeek found one example on African Initiative’s English-language Telegram channel. In a report on the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases’ (AMRID) activities, African Initiative wrote, “According to Russian experts, under the guise of research and humanitarian projects, the African continent is becoming a testing ground for the Pentagon.” It’s not only a lie, it’s a 40-year-old lie.
The KGB’s “Active Measures” division in 1983 created an AIDS disinformation operation that falsely claimed that the auto-immune disease had been created in the AMRID lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin floated evidence-free conspiracies about U.S. bioweapons labs in Ukraine. (That line was picked up by then Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who, perhaps not coincidentally, scored an exclusive interview this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.) Russia’s new disinformation campaign in Africa is only getting started, the Journal reported, and Washington wants to disrupt its plans by exposing them before they gain traction. African Initiative “has plans to spread disinformation in coming months in the hope that it will be seen as the product of independent reporting and not the result of a Moscow-directed informational campaign,” the Journal reported.
Casey At Bat: A newly declassified chapter of an internal 2017 CIA history of Director William J. Casey’s performance makes the case that his impact on history has been overlooked.
Over his six years at the agency in the 1980s, Casey ushered in what historians termed a second “Golden Age” by expanding funding and personnel and revitalizing the agency’s operational capabilities and sense of mission, it says. The author of the previously unreported chapter (whose name is redacted) saw Casey as more than an effective leader (albeit an inattentive manager). “More than any other single individual, WiIlliam Casey was the originator and driver of U.S. on-the-ground actions that slowed and finally arrested the expansion of Soviet presence and influence abroad,” the unnamed author wrote. Casey was the “de facto father” of the Reagan Doctrine of containing and reversing Soviet expansionism that became official U.S. policy in 1983.
In Afghanistan, he led “the most historically consequential covert action in the history of the CIA,” which ended with the Soviets’ humiliating withdrawal in 1988 and 1989. (The author ignores the Islamic militancy the CIA nurtured in Afghanistan that gave rise to Al Qaeda.) The covert action in Afghanistan began under the Carter administration, but the CIA’s “controversial” effort to back the Contra rebels in Nicaragua was all Bill Casey.
“Unlike Afghanistan, there was at the outset no established insurgency in Nicaragua; no reliable foreign provider of arms, training and sanctuary; no funding sources beyond the United States; and no reservoir of support in the U.S. Congress, press and public,” the author writes. Casey persisted, won President Reagan’s support—and plunged much of Central America into civil war. But the CIA director’s penchant for keeping secrets, cutting corners, and his utter contempt for Congress (all of which the author elides) ended in disgrace with the Iran-Contra scandal. Among the revelations was the fact that Casey lent CIA support to the “Israeli-inspired, NSC-controlled” effort to free American hostages in Lebanon by selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the rightwing rebels trying to overthrow the Russia-friendly Nicaraguan government. Casey, who had foolishly tried to disavow agency responsibility, resigned due to ill health in 1987 and died a few months later, thus avoiding accountability for the affair, unlike the four CIA officers who were indicted for trying to keep Congress in the dark. If the chapter addressed a notable CIA success—about $20 million in covert aid to Poland’s Solidarity movement—it remains redacted in the document.
Backdoor Diplomats: CIA Director Bill Burns’ peregrinations from Russia to the Middle East are hardly the first time one of the spy agency chiefs or their deputies have been tasked with quiet diplomacy, SpyTalk’s Jonathan Broder wrote last week. “Sometimes the CIA chief is a more trusted interlocutor when the agency’s relationship with a foreign country’s intelligence service remains robust even if diplomatic ties are frayed,” Larry Pfeiffer who served variously as chief of staff, top policy coordinator and primary advisor to four CIA directors, said in an interview. Broder cited several such missions—by Vernon Walters, Michael Hayden, George Tenet, Mike Pompeo and Robert Ames (who was not a director but famously conducted back-channel negotiations with the PLO until he was killed in the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing).
Dear Diary, [Redacted]: There was an interesting side discussion in Thursday’s report of the DOJ investigation into the classified documents found in President Biden’s home and office. We’ll leave the political grist about Biden and his age to others, but we were fascinated by the dilemma officials faced when dealing with Ronald Reagan’s classified presidential diary entries decades ago. Reagan kept a daily diary during his eight years in the White House and occasionally jotted down information he described as "very hush-hush" or "top secret.” The Justice Department, Congress, and the courts learned the diaries contained sensitive information when the president provided excerpts to investigators during the Iran-Contra affair. Yet no one said anything when Reagan took all five volumes of his diary home with him at the end of his second term. For several years after their return to California, Ron and Nancy Reagan would often sit together in their den after dinner, reading aloud from their diaries and reminiscing about their White House years.
“It is unlikely that, after leaving office, Reagan's den was approved for the storage of Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information,” the report by Special Counsel Robert Hur wryly observed.
Hur’s team reviewed some of the “hush-hush” entries and found they “contain national security information that appears to be sensitive to this day.” After Reagan’s death in 2004, Nancy Reagan provided the diaries to the Reagan Library, which is run by the National Archives. Archivists worked with the National Security Council to identify and remove all pages containing sensitive information (classified as high as Top Secret/SCI) from the diaries so they could be publicly displayed. The unclassified pages of the diaries were first published in 2007 and became a No. 1 best-seller.
Buying Spying: Google is shining a bright light on the shadowy world of the commercial surveillance industry. The Internet search giant named vendors of spyware that allowed governments around the world to tap the phones of journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians. The best-known of the bunch is Israel’s NSO Group, maker of the Pegasus spyware, which was blacklisted by the Biden administration, but many smaller companies offer similar services. In a report titled “Buying Spying,” Google’s Threat Analysis Group named Cy4Gate and Negg Group, both based in Italy; Variston of Barcelona, Spain; and the Itellexa Alliance of Greece as some of the firms enabling the proliferation of dangerous hacking tools. These firms exploit the “zero days” we’ve written about before. These previously unknown vulnerabilities allowed secret infiltrations of Google’s Android phone operating system without the owner even realizing it. Once seen as the exclusive province of elite government hackers, zero days are now found in the wild. In 2023, Google says it discovered 25 zero days; all but five were being exploited by commercial surveillance vendors. “If governments ever had a monopoly on the most sophisticated capabilities, that era is certainly over,” Google’s Threat Analysis Group wrote. “The private sector is now responsible for a significant portion of the most sophisticated tools we detect.” Pandora’s Box is open.
New NSA Director: One item at the top of the agenda for Timothy Haugh, the new head of both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, is securing the 2024 U.S. presidential election from foreign interference. An Air Force four-star general, Haugh brings a lot of experience to the task, having been at the forefront of Cyber Command’s efforts to secure the last three U.S. election cycles. Haugh was deputy commander of Cyber Command in 2022 when it declared that it had the tools and expertise to identify Russian troll farms posing as Americans and the ability to block them. Haugh also previously headed the 16th Air Force, which conducts “defensive and offensive” operations in cyberspace against adversarial disinformation campaigns and influence operations. In 2018, Haugh’s predecessor as NSA director, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, named Haugh as co-head of the Russia Small Group, tasked with thwarting Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2018 U.S. Midterm elections. In the runup to Election Day, U.S. operatives sent direct messages to workers at the Internet Research Agency, the “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, Russia, that informed them that their real names and online handles were known and that they should not interfere in other nations’ affairs, according to The Washington Post. With U.S. support for Ukraine hanging in the balance, Russia won’t be sitting on the sidelines this election year.
While in Moscow, Tucker Carlson met for several hours with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. To talk about what, exactly? (Semafor)
Prosecutors in the bribery case of Sen. Robert Menendez revealed that a confidential informant secretly recorded conversations and shared details about the case with investigators. The New Jersey Democrat has been charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of Egypt. (NYTimes)
A retired FBI agent who scammed a Texas woman out of $700,000 by telling her she was on “secret probation” is headed to prison. A serial liar, William Roy Stone Jr., told another woman he was a “colonel in the CIA,” according to prosecutors. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Government's Notice of 404b Evidence)
The CIA and FBI are lending Trinidad & Tobago a hand in its fight against criminals threatening the Caribbean island nation. (T&T Guardian)
David Kahn, the best-selling author, amateur cryptologist, and historian, that the NSA learned to love, has died. (The Washington Post)
Dude, where’s my car? Last Tuesday an FBI contractor stole a car from the bureau’s downtown headquarters, found an agent’s badge in it, and tried to use the stolen credentials to drive onto the grounds of an FBI facility in Northern Virginia. (The Washington Post). In November, an FBI agent was carjacked, pushed to the ground and threatened with a gun on Capitol Hill.
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