SpyTalk: Behind the Lines
DHS's Creeping Steps on Extremist Violence and Other Intelligence Items of Interest
Note to readers: Last week we launched a column of news items under the title of “Live Drop,” only to be informed later that the name had been trademarked by very low profile news entity. But we persist.
DHS Creeps Forward on Extremist Violence and Mass Shootings
The senior leaders of every major DHS component were due to hand in their recommendations yesterday on how the sprawling department could better deter acts of domestic terrorism and targeted shootings. Whatever they come up with is likely to stir dissent, given previous federal efforts to single out extremist violence, the vast majority of which has been carried out by individuals on the right wing neo-Nazi and racist spectrum. Early iterations of the program after the 9/11 attacks focused on American Muslims.
Federal efforts to counter violent extremism “aim to educate and prevent radicalization before a crime or terrorist act transpires, and differ from counterterrorism efforts such as collecting evidence and making arrests before an event has occurred,” according to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO. In 2017 GAO noted the programs had suffered from a lack of “a cohesive strategy or process for assessing the overall CVE effort.” Little has changed since then. Meanwhile, the tempo of attacks has increased.
Before the year 2000, there were about three mass shootings a year in the United States, Arie Kruglanski, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland who has spent decades studying mass violence and extremism, told USA Today’s Josh Meyer. “In the first six months of 2022, he said, there have been more than 240. And while U.S. school shootings soared to about one a month in recent years, they have escalated to the point where one is occurring about once a week, he said.”
“Just a decade or two ago, most mass shooters in the United States were disgruntled employees who shot up their workplace or killed acquaintances or family members after they snapped from anger or stress,” Meyer added Thursday. “Today, a relatively new body of research is showing that one of the most pressing threats comes from angry young males who live with family and spend hours online with a community of others with shared grievances and an admiration for bloodshed.”
DHS programs to deter violent attacks “have existed for years, yet were reportedly targeting specific racial and religious groups,” noted the nonpartisan watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) last February. “The first of these programs, Countering Violent Extremism (“CVE”), was found to be focusing almost exclusively on American Muslims, and, in a 2017 audit, the Government Accountability Office concluded that CVE had failed to establish a cohesive strategy to reach its goals. A second iteration of this program, Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Program (“TVTP”), faced similar criticism about its discriminatory approach and lack of comprehensive strategy.”
According to a dispatch last month by Yahoo News’ Jana Winter, the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde provoked DHS to conduct an “urgent review” of current programs with an apparent eye toward “restructructuring” the department to deal with the persistent threats. The July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Ill. by an evident Trump supporter can only add to the urgency.
“One of the things this review is looking at is how DHS can amp up and scale its community prevention program, Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership, known as CP3,” Winter reported. “This is the revamped, twice-rebranded office formerly known as Countering Violent Extremism, which was heavily criticized for unfairly targeting Muslim communities in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
CREW said DHS has resisted releasing documents on the CP3 program. Last August it filed suit for “all records and communications from January 1, 2021 to the present regarding CP3, its creation, collaborations with law enforcement agencies, and its impact on any racial or religious communities.” It’s still waiting for them.
“The requested records and communications are vital to see if DHS has followed through with their commitment to improve programs regarding violent extremism and limit discriminatory practices that unfairly target specific racial and religious groups. To be held accountable, DHS must be transparent and release these records.”
The Spies Putin Forgot
In a speech at the headquarters of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the men and women of Division S, the department that manages “illegal” spies—men and women dispatched abroad without diplomatic cover—on the 100th anniversary of the founding of their organization.
The most recent spy he singled out for praise was Konon Molody, a Soviet intelligence officer better known in the West as Gordon Arnold Lonsdale, who, posing as a Canadian businessman, operated a spy ring in Britain in the 1960s.
Odd, it would seem, that Putin neglected to mention Anna Chapman (born Anna Vasilyevna Kushchenko), one of ten illegals who operated undercover for years in the U.S. until they were rolled up by the FBI in 2010. The voluptuous agent was celebrated by Putin upon her return home in a spy swap and went on to become a famous runway model in Russian fashion shows and host of a television series. The undercover lives of the illegals later inspired the award-winning television drama The Americans.
But court records cited by Walter Pincus in Cipher Brief explain Putin’s omission: The CIA had a high level spy in Division S who had unmasked them years earlier.
“By mid-2006, [FBI] investigators had already searched the homes of four of the [illegal Russian] couples, planted microphones in at least three of their residences, regularly reviewed their encrypted computer messages, and videotaped meetings where money and equipment were exchanged,” the government said.
After the 2010 arrests, the FBI put out a cover story saying it moved when one of the illegals was about to flee. In fact, wrote Pincus, it moved because the CIA’s man in Division S had come under suspicion as a mole and the agency was busy exfiltrating him from Russia. The day after he reached the U.S. the FBI rolled up the ring before Moscow knew what had happened. No wonder Putin didn’t want to talk about them.
U.S. ‘Trap’ on Bolsonaro with Spy Case?
Why did Dutch authorities put a suspected Russian spy who allegedly tried to infiltrate the International Criminal Court on a plane back to Brazil rather than arrest him, or track him to his handlers or fellow spies? That was the question mulled by former deputy CIA director John McLaughlin on the SpyTalk podcast last month.
The spy, Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, was posing as a Brazilian who was applying for an internship with the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which is investigating Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Thus the return to Brazil.
But an independent Brazilian news site, Brazil Posts, provided an intriguing explanation for the move.
Aides to Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, it said on July 2, decided the arrest was “was a hidden move by the American government—the CIA, in particular—to create a diplomatic crisis between Brazil and Russia.” Brazilian intelligence officers concluded that Cherkasov, a Russian citizen arrested for using a fake Brazilian identification card, was indeed a Russian spy but chose not to pursue an espionage investigation.
The matter was sensitive because Brazil has cultivated its ties to Russia by remaining neutral in the Ukraine war.
“Admitting the arrest of a Russian spy, in the view of the same government officials who chose to put a lid on the matter, would automatically immediately create discomfort in the relationship with Russia,” said Brazil Posts.
U.S. and Dutch officials “actually expected Brazil to announce the arrest of a Russian spy, which would make noise and could generate a crisis with Putin,” an unnamed source told Brazil Posts. “We just didn’t fall [for it]. And since we didn’t announce anything, then they leaked [the story] themselves.”
Brazil charged Cherkasov with forging documents, a criminal offense without diplomatic implications. Two weeks later, Putin announced he had spoken to Bolsonaro on the phone and assured him that Russia will continue to sell fertilizer to Brazil’s vast agribusiness sector.
It’s no surprise that Bolsonaro, the right-wing populist, prioritizes his relationship with Putin over his relationship with the United States. Now we know how.
Ballooning Budget in DoD’s Secretive Catch or Kill Program with Foriegn Partners
An obscure funding authority allows U.S. commandos to conduct counterterrorism and intelligence operations on the fringes of war with little or no accountability, reports Nick Turse in The Intercept.
Through so-called “127-echo” programs, “the U.S. arms, trains, and provides intelligence to foreign forces. But unlike traditional foreign assistance programs, which are primarily intended to build local capacity, 127e partners are then “dispatched on U.S.-directed missions, targeting U.S. enemies to achieve U.S. aims,” Turse writes.
One of the documents obtained by The Intercept puts the cost of 127e operations from 2017 to 2020 at $310 million, “a significant increase from the $25 million budget allocated to the program when it was first authorized, under a different name, in 2005.”
A SOCOM spokesperson told Turse the command does not have figures on those captured or killed during 127e missions.
Joseph Votel, a retired four-star Army general who headed both Special Operations Command, confirmed the existence of codenamed 127e programs in Lebanon (Lion Hunter), Yemen (Yukon Hunter) and Egypt (Enigma Hunter), where U.S. Special Operations forces partnered with the Egyptian military to target ISIS militants in the Sinai Peninsula. Votel said the chief of the Egyptian military intelligence service provided “strong support” for Enigma Hunter and that American troops did not accompany their local partners into combat.
MBS’s Secret Prisons
Critics have been blasting President Biden for his upcoming trip to a regional summit meeting in Saudi Arabia, which may include a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). U.S. intelligence has fingered MBS as the mastermind of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. But Khashoggi’s murder is only one manifestation of MBS’s tyrannical rule.
The kingdom’s General Intelligence Presidency, or GIP, “runs nearly twenty prisons and detention centers across Saudi Arabia,” the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights reported last month. “Torture and ill-treatment are practiced in Saudi Arabia during all the stages the detainee goes through, from arrest to the investigation stage, and continues even after the issuance of the verdict.” At least two human rights activists had died in detention, according to the report.
So assassination is not the only blot of MBS’s record. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported July 6 on how the crown prince has used a travel ban to punish Saudis involved in a financial dispute with him.
Western Blacklist Sets Back Huawei
T-Mobile Netherlands has dropped Huawei as a vendor for its 4G and 5G networks, according to industry sources, another sign that the campaign of Western intelligence agencies against the Chinese telecom giant is having effect.
“Ever since Donald Trump began leaning on US allies to ditch Chinese vendors, Huawei's position has looked shaky,” reports LightReading, a telecom trade publication. “Australia, Canada and the UK—members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the US (the other being New Zealand)— have issued formal bans or restrictions. Sweden forbade its 5G license winners from using Chinese vendors.”
China says the Five Eyes targeted Huawei because Western firms can’t compete with its innovative technologies. (In 2021, Huawei registered more U.S. patents than any U.S. firm except for IBM.) Western intelligence agencies have countered that Huawei is effectively controlled by Beijing and could use its embedded technologies to obtain backdoor access to classified Western intelligence networks.
The State Department is offering rewards of up to $10 million for information on foreign interference in U.S. elections.
The FBI Inspector General has found that a now-retired Special Agent in Charge of an unspecified Bureau office engaged in favoritism in the workplace by “using non-merit factors, including physical attractiveness, to make a promotion decision.”
How a young ambitious KGB officer named Vladmir Putin recruited neo-Nazis in Dresden. Long, but worth reading.
Chinese students were lured into espionage by a company that the FBI alleges has served as a cover for the Chinese hacking group APT40.
At the height of the Cold War, a group of American musicians visiting a dissident Russian musical group, evaded KGB surveillance with a unique encryption scheme: sheet music.