New in SpyWeek
CIA boss Burns goes diplomatic, a US terror warning to Iran, a UAE death squad, a US spying flap in Spain, Qatar’s targeting Ted Cruz lead this week's roundup
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Diplo-Spook: As pressure mounts on President Biden to stop the carnage in Gaza, he is increasingly turning to CIA Director William Burns. The first career diplomat to ever run the spy agency, Burns is headed to Europe in coming days with a Middle East agenda. He’s expected to meet the head of Israel's Mossad, Egypt’s intelligence chief, and the Qatari prime minister to help broker a ceasefire in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, The Washington Post reported. (The head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service will also participate, Axios reported.) The upcoming summit in Europe will be, by our count, Burns’ fourth meeting overseas with Mossad chief David Barnea since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and killed 1,200 people.
The White House hopes Burns can repeat his earlier breakthrough when he helped bring about the first (and only) cessation of hostilities in November. A weeklong truce Burns helped facilitate saw the release of 105 hostages and 240 Palestinians from Israeli jails. But there’s been no letup since hostilities resumed on Dec. 1, and the two sides are at an impasse over Israel’s latest proposal. Israel has offered a 60-day pause in fighting in exchange for the phased release of the more than 100 captives, the Post reported. Hamas wanted a permanent cease-fire before it would release the hostages; an Israeli official told Axios that was a non-starter. At a meeting in Warsaw last month, Barnea proposed to Burns that senior Hamas leaders leave the Gaza Strip as part of a broader ceasefire, CNN reported. It’s yet another offer that Hamas rejected.
Burns’s discussions in Europe are expected to build on his phone conversations with intelligence counterparts, the Post reported. The CIA director earned the trust of the Middle East’s leaders over his 32-year diplomatic career, much of it focused on the region. An Arabic speaker, Burns began his State Department career in Amman and returned years later as U.S. ambassador to Jordan. We paged through Burns’ 2019 memoir, The Back Channel, to see how his career prepared him for this moment. A cable Burns wrote on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000 jumped out at us:
“As seen from Cairo and Amman, U.S. policy in the peace process and our overall posture in the region are still heading in exactly the wrong direction. With our interests under increasing scrutiny and attack, we are acting passively, reactively, and defensively. There is no guarantee that a bolder, more activist American approach will stop the hemorrhaging—but it seems clear to us that things could get a lot worse unless we regain the initiative.”
Netanyahu Must Go: Things have gotten worse in Gaza. A lot worse. Israel’s pursuit of Hamas was initially righteous, but it’s turned into the senseless slaughter of Palestinian men, women, and children. “By its egregious actions, Israel has now ceded any moral high ground it possessed when its campaign in Gaza began,” writes SpyTalk’s Editor-in-Chief Jeff Stein. And for that, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is almost solely to blame.” Recalling his own experiences in Vietnam, Stein said he was moved to write “because of where the leading opposition to Netanyahu is centered: His own intelligence and security agencies.” Read Stein’s damning piece here.
Back Channel: During his State Department days, CIA Director Burns was witness to the Iranian back channel developed through Oman that led to the 2013 Iranian nuclear deal that he personally helped negotiate. Meanwhile, U.S. officials aren’t talking about the back channel they reportedly used to secretly warn Iran that the Islamic State was preparing to carry out a terrorist attack earlier this month. U.S. officials told the the Wall Street Journal that the administration followed the “duty to warn policy” when it gave Iran “actionable intelligence” about the Jan. 3 attack in Kerman, Iran, that killed more than 80 people. But that duty to warn policy, which we’ve written about before, can be waived when the target is a terrorist or a direct sponsor of terrorism. Iran has been a U.S.-designated state sponor of terrorism for 40 years. The fact that U.S. officials warned Iran regardless suggests they were doing them a big favor. What does the administration want in return? Does the emergence of a new back channel mean that negotiations about a new nuclear deal with Iran are underway or may soon be? All the pieces are in place: Jake Sullivan, who Burns called his “alter ego” during the secret nuclear talks with Iran, is now Biden’s White House national security advisor.
The UAE’s Death Squad: The United Arab Emirates recruited nearly a dozen former members of al Qaeda to carry out assassinations in Yemen, according to a blockbuster BBC investigation. The BBC also found that former U.S. special operators helped the UAE train the Yemeni assassins. The assassination campaign in southern Yemen began in 2015 when American mercenaries tried and failed to kill Ansaf Mayo, a Yemeni member of parliament who led the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. (The operation was first reported by Buzzfeed.) The mercenaries, which included an ex-Navy SEAL and a former Army Delta Force soldier, were hired by Spear Operations Group, a company founded by an Israeli-Hungarian businessman and incorporated in Delaware. The failed hit on Mayo was the first of a wave of more than 100 assassinations between 2015 and 2018 in southern Yemen, according to human rights investigators. The killings follow the same pattern as Spear’s attempt on Mayo—an IED blast on a door or a car followed by a shooting amid the confusion. Sources told the BBC that Spear taught these techniques to the Emiratis, who then trained the Yemenis to do the killings. One of the Yemenis recruited to the UAE-funded and armed counterterrorism force was Nasser al-Shibh, an alleged suspect in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors. It’s a story we’ve heard before, especially in the years since the 9/11 attacks: Governments using terror to fight terror.
Spying on Spain: We missed this fascinating report last month in El Pais about a blown U.S. espionage operation in Spain that got two American spies kicked out of the country. The Spanish daily reported last month that a routine security audit last summer at Spain’s intelligence agency, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia, revealed that two of its employees had been bribed to provide classified information. Pressed for an explanation, U.S. Ambassador Julissa Reynoso reportedly claimed the U.S. intelligence officers who had recruited the Spanish spies were “working independently of her,” under a program launched before Biden arrived at the White House. The Spanish agents were identified as a veteran, mid-level area chief who was allegedly paid a “large sum of money,” and his assistant. Both are now facing six to 12 years in prison for revealing secrets in an affair that rocked the CNI. We must be missing something because the story doesn’t add up. Why would a veteran Spanish intelligence officer show such terrible tradecraft, such as leaving tell-tale traces in his own agency’s computer system? And what is this program that predates Biden doing spying on Spain? The CNI has questions, too. “What do Americans have to pay for if we give them everything they ask for?” a CNI source told El Pais. According to these sources, the number of times Spain has refused to share information with Washington is “between one and zero.” Then again, the CIA may have been after something else—Russian, Chinese, or Islamist sympathizers, say, in the CNI. “There is no such thing as friendly intelligence agencies,” goes an adage attributed to Henry Kissinger, “there are only the intelligence agencies of friendly powers.”
Project Endgame: Global Risk Advisors, founded by a former CIA officer who ran Qatar’s U.S. influence operations, continues to have its reputation shredded in the press. Fox News obtained a 2017 plan of action drafted by GRA titled “Project ENDGAME,” which posited that Qatar’s enemies in the U.S. were seeking to inject the Gulf monarchy into a proxy fight over Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organization supported by Qatar, and needed to be neutralized. "High Alert: An attack on Hamas is an attack on Qatar. An attack on the Muslim Brotherhood is an attack on Qatar,” the GRA document states. Project ENDGAME names Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., who introduced legislation in the Senate to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated a terrorist organization, as a target. (An earlier version of Cruz’s bill noted that Hamas described itself in its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.”) Internal Global Risk documents obtained earlier by The Associated Press stated that the company had “developed an approach to a close contact” of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., another sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood legislation. “Developed an approach,” the AP says, is intelligence jargon for a clandestine recruitment plan.
The CIA renewed its effort to recruit Russian spies with a nearly three-minute video posted Monday on YouTube, Telegram, Facebook, and X (Twitter). The Kremlin mocked the CIA for posting to X, which is banned in Russia. But that ban doesn’t apply to Russian spies, diplomats, and citizens living abroad. The CIA previously launched a video pitch to disaffected Russians in May 2023.
Microsoft says “Midnight Blizzard,” a Kremlin-based group of hackers, accessed the company’s internal corporate emails. The hackers were able to guess the password to a weakly-protected device inside Microsoft’s network. (Ars Technica)
Harrison Ford’s Airplane Flew for the CIA’s Covert Airline, Air America. (Motor Biscuit)
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