Espionage

CIA Role in Afghan Evacuation

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America’s longest war, Afghanistan, has been called “the forgotten war,” which, for those who fought in it and are still suffering from it, is an insult added to its horrible end only a little over a year ago. Many questions, meanwhile, remain about its open-ended mission, such as why we stayed on a decade after killing the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks and dismantling his lethal networks. But it’s the chaotic ending of the  conflict last year that’s about to get renewed attention at the hands of House Republicans, who, having won a narrow majority in the midterms, have declared their intent to launch a new investigation of President Biden’s botched evacuation and raise it to a boil by the 2024 election season. They will have plenty to work with.

Such an inquiry will be sticky for the GOP, however, since President Trump’s 2020 Doha Agreement with the Taliban to end the U.S.-led war, which excluded the democratic government in Kabul from all negotiations and teed up the disaster of August 2021. Republicans will also struggle to escape the fact that Trump’s anti-immigrant policies the previous year also meant that less than 2,000 Special Immigrant Visas—a quarter of the annual allotment—were approved for Afghans, leaving a backlog of 18,000 applications of interpreters and other contractors by the time the Taliban took Kabul, thus creating the urgent need for the “largest U.S. military airlift in history.”

If they desire a credible inquiry, House investigators should also consider scrutinizing the role the U.S. intelligence community played in the final outcome of the war—the good, the bad and the ugly—when their efforts cost some lives while saving others. 

They might begin with the untold story behind the defining image of the ignominious ending, the sight of that behemoth U.S. Air Force cargo plane taking off from Hamid Karzai International Airport with desperate Afghans plummeting from its massive fuselage and wheel coverings onto the runway and through Kabul rooftops.  (Human remains were found in the wheel wells when the C-17 landed in Qatar.)  The world watched, aghast, as the viral video spread across Twitter and TV. 

Secrets of the C-17

Why the C-17 Globemaster III took off with so many civilians clinging to it remains officially unanswered. An Air Force spokesperson at the time said an investigation had been initiated but also offered spin: “Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible.” 

But the real reason, according to  a new book on the chaotic August 2021 evacuation, was that the plane held an MH-47G Special Operations helicopter stocked with sensitive and classified systems for flying clandestine, low-altitude night sorties for special mission units like the Army’s Delta Force. According to accounts gathered together by retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann for his book Operation Pineapple Express,  the top U.S. military commander at the airport, a Navy SEAL admiral, feared the twin-rotary chopper, a modified version of the venerable Chinook and flown by the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, would fall into the hands of the marauding Taliban. So off they went.

The horrifying sight of bodies falling from the C-17 was just one of several incidents in which U.S. clandestine services’ priorities during the hasty Noncombatant Evacuation Operation, or NEO, were often placed above all else—particularly human life. President Joe Biden had promised Americans that the Kabul evacuation would not have a “Saigon moment,” like the one captured in the indelible photograph of Americans scrambling aboard a helicopter from a rooftop as communist troops descended on the South Vietnamese capital in 1975.

There was “zero” comparison between Afghanistan teetering on the edge, Biden assured nervous Americans, and Saigon’s shocking collapse, in which thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with U.S. forces, including the CIA, were abandoned. 

“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a [sic] embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable,” Biden told a press conference on July 7, 2021. 

But it was. 

In mid-August the entire U.S. diplomatic and security contingent at the embassy in the Kabul Green Zone was hastily evacuated by helicopters—not from the embassy’s rooftop, to be sure, but from an adjacent soccer field. Some 1,800 Americans were flown two miles away to HKIA by the morning of August 16. Diplomatic Security agents involved in the embassy evacuation and NEO were recently decorated for heroism.

How similar was it to Saigon? The answer is a “walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,” as Kris Kristofferson might say. Whatever, the end was a rout, recorded in countless hours of deeply shocking and saddening photos and videos that are certain to be resurrected come the 2024 presidential election season, shredding Biden’s boasts about evacuating an astonishing 124,000 people the last two weeks of August. 

Fact: The C-17 Globemaster III was on an intelligence mission to ferry a highly advanced special operations chopper for use in last-minute clandestine rescue missions in Afghanistan. But it landed on a concrete sea of chaos. The huge runway was being overrun by 10,000 or more civilians who soon forced all air ops to halt. Rather than unload the sensitive cargo, the crisis forced the top commander at the airfield, U.S. Navy SEAL Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, to order the C-17 back in the air, even as other planes remained parked. Why? It was to protect the chopper in its belly from capture or its classified systems from being pilfered by the Taliban or the crowds, according to author Scott Mann. 

The decision was confirmed in the transcript of an interview Vasely later gave to U.S. Central Command investigators:  “Late morning [August] 16th, the mass of civilians on HKIA slowly began moving north across the runway, overwhelming the U.S. security forces aligned to attempt to contain the crowd. I ordered the one C-17 and two C-130s to leave.” 

Unsaid was whether Vasely knew that civilians had piled onto the retractable wheel covers (called humps) of the massive cargo plane as it taxied to take off on the single runway.  Apache AH-64 attack helicopters were hovering low over the asphalt using their rotor wash to blow civilians out of the plane’s path. He likely did not know about the civilians until the plane was long gone.

And yet the killing of innocent civilians around the airfield didn’t stop there. It was more deliberate and committed more often by “friendlies” than Taliban, who were busy outside  beating those clustered around the airport with rubber batons and rifle butts. 

During the mad scramble by the U.S. to exit Afghanistan after the stunningly rapid  collapse of the U.S.-supported government, U.S. military senior commanders and diplomats made deals with numerous devils  to exit without further calamities. The airport was the only place left to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan green card holders, legal permanent residents and “special interest” persons after the  controversial decision to close Bagram Airfield north of the capital and desert it overnight on July 2. 

Another consequential decision by American commanders inside HKIA was to accept a CIA offer on August 16, as revealed in Operation Pineapple Express, to clear up to 10,000 civilians from the runway and ramps by using the spy agency’s large Afghan paramilitary “surrogate” force, hardline fighters who had  carried out the Agency’s capture/kill ops. The airport crowds had forced air ops to cease after the infamous C-17 was wheels up that sunny Monday morning.

That group of seasoned Afghan militiamen were known as National Strike Units (NSU), a notorious outfit that had to change its name from “Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams” after years of human rights abuses came to light. The price demanded for clearing HKIA of the civilian crowds was a guarantee that  the U.S. military would airlift the CIA’s surrogate forces and their families out of Kabul.

Almost immediately it became clear that the price paid was much higher.

Bridge Too Far

The 82nd Airborne Division failed at its fundamental mission of securing the airfield, insiders note, because they could not get enough paratroopers on the ground when the crowds flooding the runway forced a stop to air operations the day after Kabul fell. But the CIA’s NSU paramilitaries—ironically, all clad in retro Vietnam tiger stripe camouflage fatigues—quickly cleared the airfield of the civilians with help from the Army’s Delta Force, a smattering of 82nd Airborne paratroopers, and Taliban teams, with U.S. Marines creating a buffer between the once warring parties. “Within two hours, [they] had 400 [Afghan paramilitary] guards protecting the south side,” one U.S. official told CENTCOM’s investigators. 

How they achieved this was ghastly, as several U.S. Marine Corps officers on the airfield explained in a terrific recent HBO documentary, Escape From Kabul.

“The Afghan unit that was there, the way they got people off [the airfield], to the point, was just running everyone over and shooting them,” Marine Lt. Col. Chris Richardella, a battalion commander, said in the film. 

“They killed them,” another Marine officer bluntly told the filmmakers. A third Marine officer in the documentary said he witnessed “people being executed on the airfield.” 

Richardella said it was after dark and he observed civilians dying in the headlights of the NSU paramilitaries’ trucks as they plowed into the crowds—but, he added, the brutal tactics succeeded. By 10:30 that night, the airfield was once again secured and planes were landing and taking off again just after midnight.

The brutality of the four NSU teams, known as units 01, 02, 03 and 04, didn’t end there. Their violence was often directed at Afghan Special Operations soldiers on the run from the Taliban. Call it a violent twist on the “crabs-in-a-barrel” cultural phenomenon—the CIA surrogate forces were now inside HKIA and a nearby CIA base, and the Afghan government forces simply were not.

The NSU teams pulled security at several gates where Afghans and foreign nationals were allowed to enter HKIA in an unorganized trickle. No one in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Kabul or at the White House had adequately planned for a NEO of that size despite months of warning signs that Ghani’s government would fall after the U.S. withdrew from the country in July 2021. (More on that below.) 

At North, East and Abbey Gates, CIA’s tiger-striped paramilitaries were often more violent toward their countrymen than the Taliban outside the coils of concertina wire, who were trying to control the teeming masses of civilians and partner forces, such as Commandos, Special Forces and others, attempting to flee the country. This is evidenced in photos, video and by eyewitnesses beaten by the surrogate forces or who witnessed them kill fellow Afghans in cold blood.

“When I stood outside North Gate, one CIA paramilitary came and beat me on my back with his AK-47 stock, striking on my shoulder. He hurt me really badly,” Zahir, a former interpreter for U.S. special operations who remains in hiding in Kabul, told SpyTalk. 

Others I’ve spoken to witnessed NSU men firing into the crowds or suffered themselves from Kalashnikov butt strokes, like Zahir. This brutality by NSU fighters is on display in the opening scenes of another forthcoming documentary, NatGeo’s Retrograde.

Once Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, a former Delta operator and the 82nd Airborne’s commanding general, arrived at HKIA on August 18, he began to have daily face-to-face meetings in the South Terminal with the commander of the Taliban’s Red Unit to discuss securing HKIA from ISIS attacks and facilitate the exodus of Americans and Afghan allies, according to soldiers from his paratroop division and the CENTCOM report.  

To that end, Biden even did something extraordinary, as CENTCOM’s report explained. “POTUS directed … the sharing of intelligence for force protection threats with the Taliban (en extremis),” which were on paper handed to the Red Unit commander. “This intelligence sharing built trust and opened critical lines of communication with the Taliban commander,” the CENTCOM report added.

Few trusted the Taliban to allow evacuees to pass unharmed.

CIA operatives did many good things, too. They acted swiftly to help secure the airfield, even bribing individual Taliban commanders securing the enormous perimeter as the race was on to evacuate at-risk Afghans and Americans, according to one officer there at the time. CIA officers also helped some Afghan special operators gain access to the base and guided American citizens and “special-interest Afghans” into HKIA using a secret entrance named Liberty Gate on the north side of the airfield.

Top military and Biden administration officials have boasted of evacuating 124,000 people during the NEO airlift, but have skillfully avoided questions about how those evacuees navigated the world’s most dangerous airport commute in order to get on a plane, or who helped get them safely to the entry control points.

In reality, it was not the United States government. Most got inside HKIA with their own perseverance and luck or with the help of ad hoc veterans groups located in the U.S. who used encrypted app group chats, such as Operation DunkirkTask Force PineappleAllied Airlift and others, to communicate with their Afghan brothers.

When an AP story revealed that special operations forces had choppered 169 Americans to HKIA from the Baron Hotel on August 21—a compound that overlooks the airport’s Abbey Gate—CNN quoted Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby as confirming that the mission was approved by the ground commander. “He executed a mission that he believed was in the best interest of helping these Americans, and he did,” Kirby said. 

But, few if any among those 169 people were Americans. They were British, and the mission was flown by the 82nd Airborne’s pilots, not special ops, at the request of Her Majesty’s armed forces, senior military sources have told me. 

That incident and other rumors of SAS “rescue missions” of British nationals perpetuated a myth during the evacuation that American special operators were also rounding up U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghan allies throughout Kabul or even outside the capital. 

Nothing could have been further from the truth. 

On Their Own

Those wishing to leave had to get to the last U.S. outpost on their own, with the exception of 3,000 U.S. embassy Afghan staff and their families who were brought into HKIA aboard chartered buses.

Delta Force operators were only permitted by senior U.S. military and political leaders to execute a few rescue missions outside the wire of HKIA or from the CIA’s nearby Eagle Base, retrieving only a few dozen at-risk people—a statistical drop in the bucket, as thousands of frightened U.S. citizens and partner forces in Afghanistan desperately tried to find a way out. The SAS rumors, incidentally, were also untrue.

Why weren’t special mission units allowed to rescue more people? It was Washington’s chronic aversion to risk, senior officers have told me, citing fears of a disastrous “Blackhawk Down”-style urban street fight with the Taliban.

As a result, planeloads of U.S. citizens were left behind in Kabul, along with tens of thousands of Afghan Special Operations soldiers, while the CIA evacuated almost all of its surrogate forces. At least 600 Americans made it out months later on Qatar-organized flights with the aid of volunteer groups such as Project Dynamo.

But in the utter chaos of August 2021, Americans waving blue passports were beaten by Taliban outside HKIA— even while Pentagon spokesman John Kirby was shrugging off such reports in his daily televised briefings. 

America and all its military might could not help its own citizens.

Abandoned en masse among Afghan forces were two groups most at risk of Taliban retribution after America had cut its losses and retreated from the war. Most of the 18,000 Afghans—mostly former interpreters—who were awaiting processing of their special immigrant visas were not evacuated, as well as most of the 18,000 Afghan Special Operations soldiers who had fought side-by-side with American Green Berets, SEALs, Marine Raiders and Rangers for two decades. 

(NatGeo’s Retrograde takes you inside a 10th Special Forces Group team room at Fort Carson, Colorado, where Green Berets discuss the Taliban’s sudden victory over Kabul and how to leverage the volunteer groups to get their Afghan brothers stateside. The active-duty soldiers used those non-government resources successfully, and avoided the Afghans’ capture and Taliban interrogation about those Germany-based Green Berets who had been training Ukrainians for years ahead of the Russian invasion.)

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the likely new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee come January, issued his own report in August deploring the abandonment of partner forces.

“As the Taliban’s advance on Kabul progressed, there was no organized effort to prioritize the evacuation of critical Afghan military personnel who possessed unique knowledge of the U.S. military’s tactics, techniques, and procedures and could thereby pose a security risk to America if they could be forced to divulge their knowledge to a U.S. adversary,” he said. 

Their American friends, mostly active-duty and retired Green Berets, have received countless photos and videos in the 15 months since the U.S. exit of Afghan commandos, Special Forces and National Mine Removal Group operatives murdered by the Talibs now in power, who had publicly promised all was forgiven.

Amid the chaos, thousands of NSU surrogate fighters with their families were transported from Eagle Base (which CIA operatives burned to the ground on August 26) to HKIA for evacuation from Kabul. That effort contributed to the over-crowding of the airport that day and was among the reasons U.S. commanders stopped most entries of Afghans into the airport in the hours leading up to the ISIS suicide blast at Abbey Gate that night, according to sources who were there. The other reason for the long gate closure was ISIS threat reporting, which was constant for several days. 

Approximately 200 civilians and 13 American service members were killed in the ISIS suicide bombing just after 5:30 PM local time, which effectively ended the NEO.

Some have called what happened an intelligence failure, but that’s not quite right. No intelligence assessments anticipated the fall of Ghani’s government would come within six weeks of the U.S. withdrawal from Bagram Airfield. But sources also say there were no classified assessments that gave Afghanistan’s elected, albeit corrupt, government any chance of survival once the U.S completely left, sources told SpyTalk. Various assessments predicted that the collapse would occur in October or December 2021, or, most optimistically, by February of this year. 

And yet throughout 2021, senior leaders receiving these intelligence assessments had publicly denied the collapse of Afghanistan’s democracy was a foregone conclusion. The CIA, of course, knew differently: It was already planning how to evacuate its  people and assets. One Saigon was enough for the spies. For the rest left behind, only suffering and tragedy awaited.

This article was originally published in SpyTalks. Click here to read more content similar to this.

The Forsaken Spies: View from Pakistan

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Safeguarding the secrecy of matters relevant to national interest and concealment of facts are altogether two different things; the first one is no doubt very sacred and very sublime but the second one is something which must be taken to task very rigidly and mercilessly. Recently the Qatari Government has arrested 8 so-called ‘retired’ Indian Navy Officers under charges of spying for the interest of Israel and India. These arrested spies were working in Qatar with a private firm and were providing training and other services to the Qatari Emiri Navy commonly known as QEN. The Qatari Emiri Naval Force is considered the strongest naval force of the region in terms of the size of its naval fleet. The said Indian officers were caught in the month of August 2022 for their involvement in spying, espionage and for planning, supporting and promoting international terrorist activities. One of these arrested officers was Commander Purnendu Tiwari who had been honoured with the ‘Pravasi Samman Award’ by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind in 2019. The Pravasi Samman is the Highest honored award usually bestowed upon the Overseas Indians for their services to the country. Tiwari played a key role in the whole story of espionage. The Qatri investigation agencies found him actively involved in transferring data of leading Gulf Muslim countries to Israel and India.

Reports say that while working with Qatar Defense, Security and other Government agencies; the arrested officers had access to classified data and taking benefit of it they started sharing the sensitive information to Qatar’s adversaries; Tiwari was their leader. The most interesting fact of the whole story is that the government of India remained in a state of denial throughout with reference to the arrest of the eight Indian navy officers; just as it remained silent in case of Kalbushan Yadav, the Indian spy arrested by the security forces of Pakistan on 3rd March, 2016. Reports say that the arrested ones are not retired officers; they are still in service and the government of India had sent them to Qatar under cover. The arrest of these eight officers might remain in dark but the wife of one of these officers shared the news of her husband’s arrest in Qatar on social media on 25th October 2022. The purpose of that sharing was to request the Indian authorities to get the arrested ones released.

The same pathetic condition of the Indian spies sent across the borders by the Indian intelligence agencies was highlighted by Anand Katakam in an article published on April 18, 2017 in the Hindustan Times. The writer said specifically with reference to the Indian spy Kalbushan arrested in Pakistan, “The Punjab border districts of Gurdaspur and Ferozepur are replete with examples of men who crossed the Indo-Pakistan border for tidbits of intelligence for their handlers. Most of these men are captured by Pakistani security forces and end up languishing in jail for years because most are disavowed by their government. Many are impoverished men who are recruited as low-level informants for multiple Indian intelligence agencies including the R&AW.” Same complaint of helplessness was lodged in 2005 by a former Indian spy Kishori Lal who said talking to the Tribune, “Even if you escape death and are sent back, in your country you die a slow death as nobody is there to own you.”

Shihani and Ibrahim also have the same story to tell as they are also among those countless who serve for the Indian Intelligence Agencies in foreign lands but are left unattended after their arrest. These two were arrested and convicted by the UAE government on charges of spying for India somewhere in 2014-2015. The Abu Dhabi court judgment against Ibrahim said that he was proven of handing over confidential defense information of the State to Ajay Kumar and Rudranath Juha, the two intelligence officers of the Indian embassy. Currently Ibrahim and Shihani are serving a 10-year jail term at Al-Wathba prison. They two belong to Kerala. Their families have been raising their voices since after their arrest that they were used by Indian embassy officials to supply sensitive information. On being arrested, they were denied legal, diplomatic support despite laws mandating assistance from the government of India. According to the Hindustan Times, the relatives of the jailed Indians say they have been made scapegoats. A relative of Ibrahim said talking to media, “There was a lot of pressure from the two embassy officials on Ibrahim to divulge details about the movement of ships at the port. Initially the embassy put pressure on him by delaying the renewal of his and his son’s passports. Later these officials befriended him to obtain details.”

Indian citizen Daniel is also one of the worst examples of those who worked for the Indian Intelligence Agencies but by end of day were discarded like a used tissue-paper and thrown into a dustbin. According to an Indian news channel Pro Punjab, Daniel claimed that he worked for his country’s spy agency RAW, on lucrative promises of money and a government job, and was smuggled into Pakistan in 1992 to carry out the dirty work. He was arrested in Pakistan and had to serve there a four-year sentence. On his release from Pakistani jail and after his return to India, he found no one to take care of him. Life simply became horribly miserable for him. Now he drives a rickshaw to earn some livelihood while his wife works as a maid washing dishes. Moreover, like others belonging to the minority strata of the Indian society, he also has to face a lot of humiliation on daily basis. Maltreatment with the spies who put their lives in danger for their country is something highly pathetic and at the same time India’s efforts of creating problems for the Muslim countries like UAE and Pakistan by interfering in their internal matters is also condemnable.

Views expressed are personal

Mossad Web in Malaysia Exposed

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A Mossad network in the country, whose runners are believed to be locals, is understood to be headed by a local woman in her mid-30s, a Kuala Lumpur-based daily newspaper, New Straits Times, has reported.

According to the report, it is understood that the woman was trained as a private investigator before she was believed to have been recruited by a Mossad agent, just before 2018.

This was the same year Mossad agents gunned down Fadi Mohamed al-Batsh, 35, a Palestinian professor and member of Hamas, the report added.

“The Malaysian woman was subsequently sent for training abroad, including in Europe, to master the art of espionage. It is learnt that for this, the woman was given some RM120,000,” the report further added.

In last month’s snatch-and-grab in Kuala Lumpur, the woman was believed to have set up a surveillance team to trail two Palestinians. It is also believed that she was on the Israelis’ retainer for €2,000 a month. She is said to have several local men working for her, the report concluded.

Meanwhile, Caretaker Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin said the ministry would take action if the claim was true. “We should look into matters (allegations) like this, then we will announce (further action),” he said, referring to a New Straits Times (NST) report that revealed Mossad agents had used Malaysians to carry out a covert operation to abduct two Palestinians they believed to be Hamas members.

However, the Malaysian operatives only managed to snatch one of the targets. The other one escaped and lodged a police report.

Yu Enguang: A Man behind China’s Global Spy Game

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The following excerpts are adapted from the author’s new book, Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World published by Hardie Grant Books

Yu Enguang’s story has never previously been told. Before his death in 2013, he rose into the highest ranks of China’s intelligence community. He was instrumental in creating the organisations, practices and culture that make influence operations by today’s Ministry of State Security so successful. The MSS continues to emulate the boldness Yu showed as he engaged directly with an international power player, turning Soros’s dream of an open society in China into a source of funds, legitimacy and cover for influence operations.

The China International Culture Exchange Center that Yu led was an MSS-run front organisation, custom-built for engaging with foreigners like Soros. Nearly forty years later, it’s still in active operational use.

To foreigners who met him, Yu seemed like a man deeply interested in and acquainted with the capitalist world, not some paranoid Stalinist. He was a witty and memorable character, skilled at interacting with targets and adept at English – something that stands out in all accounts. While posted to America undercover as a Xinhua journalist, he charmed a Washington Post reporter with his commentary on the Cantonese meal they were sharing. He’d been trained well – the ability to introduce Chinese cuisine to foreigners was specifically drilled into Chinese spies during their English-language courses.

Yu made a mark on Soros representative Liang Heng too, who was persuaded to accept MSS control over the China Fund: ‘The impression Yu gave me was quite good. He was about fifty, tall, with strong eyebrows, big eyes and a sophisticated manner and he talked pragmatically … he’d been to many countries, seen and experienced much, and spoke fluent English.’3 Soros likewise bonded with him, despite some apprehension about his special background. Both of them had lived in London and Soros liked the British accent of Yu’s English.

Yu was not just any MSS officer. At the time he was a vice minister of the agency and among the Communist Party’s top foreign intelligence officers. Few within the agency could rival the depth of his overseas experience. Most of all, his operations in hostile capitalist nations taught him that loyalty to the Party came before all else. Only a politically secure officer would feel comfortable ‘dropping cover’ by revealing his MSS affiliation to Liang and Soros. This is also reflected in the fact that he was trusted to represent the MSS abroad, where he built partnerships with foreign intelligence agencies such as in Afghanistan.

But who was he, really? The first two decades of his spy career were spent embedded in the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, giving him rare opportunities to travel the world. In the 1970s he worked in Xinhua’s London bureau for eight years. One Thai woman living in London who met him at a Chinese embassy function noted that ‘he often worked at home late at night writing dispatches’. Clearly, he had more on his plate than journalism.

From London he was reassigned to the United States, which had only recently opened diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the Carter and Reagan years he headed the newly established Xinhua bureau in Washington, DC, overseeing coverage of the White House. ‘While I tirelessly reported on the activities and speeches of Carter, Mondale, Reagan and Bush and other key White House figures, I also observed many phenomena and gathered many materials,’ he reflected years later in a compilation of his US reportage, which doesn’t reveal his MSS affiliation. Hinting at his dual life as a spy and a journalist, he wrote that it was a job where most achievements were ‘fragile goods, and hard to attach to my name’. By 1985, while he was officially deputy director of the Xinhua department responsible for foreign correspondents, he was in fact probably leading an entire bureau of MSS officers.

Dual identities

Yet ‘Yu Enguang’ may not have existed at all. MSS officers use pseudonyms throughout their careers, even as vice ministers. These aliases often read like puns on their true names, with characters dissected and jumbled into new ones, or surnames replaced with homophones.

Yu is no exception. Though one writer on Chinese espionage assumed they were different people, little-known MSS vice minister Yu Fang looks identical to Yu Enguang. In the only published photo of Yu Fang, taken after his retirement, he stands with the same slouch, wears the same belt and dons the same pair of shaded glasses as Yu Enguang. Both reportedly studied at Renmin University and grew up in Liaoning province in China’s northeast. Yu Enguang was just a pseudonym for Yu Fang.

Among his comrades in the MSS, Yu Fang was just as respected as ‘Yu Enguang’ was by the targets he cultivated. At some point in his career he headed the agency’s important central administrative office, and in the early nineties helped secure the passage of China’s first National Security Law, which expanded and codified MSS powers. The authors of several MSS publications, marked for internal distribution only, thank him for advising on and improving their drafts. He also oversaw MSS production and censorship of histories, TV dramas and movies about spies, which were designed to build public awareness and support for the MSS’s mission.

Ironically for a man who helped bring Chinese intelligence history into the public sphere, Yu’s true legacy is an official secret. Official references to his achievements are brief and elliptical. The authoritative People’s Daily eulogised him in 2013, an honour only a handful of intelligence officers receive: ‘In his sixty years of life in the revolution, Comrade Yu Fang was loyal to the Party, scrupulously carried out his duties and selflessly offered himself to the Party’s endeavours, making important contributions to the Party’s state security endeavour.’ The article also noted that he’d been a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislature, but lists of delegates include only his pseudonym.

The MSS seizure of the China Fund was an impressive display of the agency’s confidence in engaging with one of America’s best-connected and wealthiest men. What it learnt could be applied to future operations as the agency grew more aggressive and internationally focused over the following decade. But it was far from a flawless effort: exposing Yu Enguang and CICEC as arms of the MSS leads to a string of covert operations against the United States, continuing right to the present day.

Soros had at first accepted the management change at his China Fund as a necessary cost of operating in China. Liang Heng claims he told Soros the truth about Yu’s identity in 1988. The MSS and Ministry of Public Security ‘were co-equal and they couldn’t interfere in each other’s affairs’, Soros argued in 2019, but partnering with the MSS offered quite the opposite of protection in the end. He may have thought he could handle the situation, that his ties to Party leaders could override the conservative proclivities of their spies. After all, his political philanthropy was thriving in Hungary and the Soviet Union despite their security agencies having been formed in the same ideological mould as the MSS.

Views expressed are personal

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CIA Assassin in Castro Plots Dies

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Rolando Cubela, a Cuban revolutionary who plotted with the CIA to kill Fidel Castro, died in Miami in August, his passing unnoticed in the English-language U.S. press. While the U.K. Telegraph ran a (paywalled) obituary, neither the New York Times or the Washington Post has reported the death of a man whose rise and fall once convulsed the governments of Cuba and the United States and generated headlines worldwide. Rolando Cubela Secades was 89 years old.

I heard about Cubela’s death independently from three friends in Miami who heard the news from his family. He was living in a Miami nursing home until he passed, they said. Cubacute, a Spanish language news site in Miami, quoted Cubela’s sister saying he had died of a respiratory infection.

The son of a tailor from the provincial city of Cardenas, Cubela enrolled as a medical student at the University of Havana where he emerged as a leader of the rebellion against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. In October 1956 he gained notoriety for assassinating Col. Antonio Blanco Rico, a top military officer, in a Havana nightclub. Cubela won glory in December 1958 when his Revolutionary Directorate forces joined with Fidel Castro’s July 26 movement to win the decisive battle of Santa Clara, which toppled the Batista regime and brought Castro to power.

Amid a struggle for control of the University of Havana campus, Cubela was elected president of the student federation, a politically powerful position. At first he was a revolutionary firebrand, celebrating the closing of a pro-American newspaper and the defeat of the CIA-trained brigade at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. But as Cubela became disenchanted with Castro’s hard left turn to one-party socialism, he turned on his former comrades.

In August 1962, he met with two CIA men in a Helsinki nightclub. “He said he was not interested in risking his life for any small undertaking,” the CIA reported “but if that he could be given a really large part to play, he would use himself and several others whom he could rely upon.” Known by the code name AMLASH, Cubela subsequently underwent secret training at a CIA safe house in France.

In a series of meetings in Paris in the fall of 1963, Cubela said he was ready to act against Castro himself. “If you can’t get rid of the rabies,” he told one of his CIA handlers, “just get rid of the dog.” He only needed a weapon. Deputy director Richard Helms approved sending a pen, fitted with a poisoning mechanism, to Cubela. On November 22, 1963, an undercover officer was showing the pen to Cubela about the same time President John F. Kennedy was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.
When Cubela learned of JFK’s death, his CIA handler reported that “Cubela was visibly moved and asked ‘Why do such things happen to good people?”

Cubela continued to plot with CIA agents through 1965. Although Helms would always deny the AMLASH operation was an assassination plot, Carl Jenkins, a CIA military trainer, said in a 2021 interview that he supplied the rifle that was sent to Cubela in Cuba.

Thanks to an undercover agent in Miami, Cuba’s intelligence service got wind of Cubela’s intentions and Cubela and a co-conspirator were arrested in February 1966, and charged with plotting with the CIA. Cubela’s trial attracted reporters from all over the world, drawn by a story rife with betrayal and intrigue.
On the stand, Cubela was contrite, admitted that he had planned the “physical elimination” of Castro while personally falling apart.

“I was carrying around a series of preoccupations and contradictions, the product of long struggle after the triumph of the Revolution,” he said, perhaps referring to his recurring nightmares about Col.Blanco Rico, the man he assassinated in 1956. Cubela said he fell into “a disorderly life, a life of parties, cabarets, a completely insane life. I was decomposing and deteriorating.”

Sentenced to death, Cubela was spared when Castro let it be known he didn’t favor the death penalty for his former comrade. “Among revolutionary men,” Castro said, “nothing can replace the bond of the beginning. Cubela’s sentence was commuted to 25 years, which he served in La Cabana, the fortress overlooking Havana Bay while serving as a doctor for his fellow inmates.

Double Agent?

Cubela was still in jail a decade later, when U.S. congressional investigators first learned about CIA plots to kill foreign leaders. The disclosure of the AMLASH conspiracy roiled Capitol Hill and the CIA, leading to the creation of a Senate select committee, led by Sen. Frank Church, which investigated the CIA for the first time.

Cubela’s revolutionary background and Castro’s leniency bred suspicion that Cubela had been a double agent informing the Cuba leader of the CIA’s plans to kill him. “Was AMLASH actually a conscious double agent for Castro?” asked a Washington Post report in 1976, “or was he perhaps so transparent and emotionally exploitable that he unwittingly provided an equivalent service?”

Castro denied that Cubela was a double agent and CIA director Helms said the same thing, about the only subject the Latin revolutionary and the urbane spy chief ever agreed on.

Freedom

Cubela didn’t like to talk about his past, according to Santiago Morales, a fellow prisoner. When Morales came down with tonsillitis, Cubela arranged for an operation and the two men became friends.
“Everybody liked him,” Morales, who now lives in Miami, recalled in an interview. “He had no special privileges. We talked a lot but, as a rule never got into details of our reasons for being there. … He told me …. about being interviewed by Raul Castro in prison.”

Morales says he got the impression that Cubela believed Raul Castro had intervened with his brother to spare his life.

Cubela and Morales were released in August 1979 along with several thousand political prisoners as part of an agreement between the Carter administration and the Castro government. Cubela moved to Madrid where he married and worked as a cardiologist. In 2005, he participated in two demonstrations organized by the Democracia Ya Platform, one of them in front of the Cuban Embassy in Madrid.

He later moved to Miami to be closer to his children.

“He was done with politics. He didn’t want to go back,” Morales said. “He had a good life. He was a great guy. But he never got rid of his past. Cubela spoke only in passing about his execution of Colonel Rico, Morales said, but it remained painful.

“It’s one thing to kill not knowing who you’re killing, but when there’s a name and a family and a pleasant human being—and they say he [Colonel Rico] was a pleasant human being—it hurts. And it didn’t lead to a happy ending,” Castro, not Cubela, prevailed in the struggle for power.

“In the end, I think he had been beaten by the events,” Morales said. “It was a miracle he was alive.”

This article was first published on Spy Talks, click here to read the original

Bad Spy, Bad – An American Narrative

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Karel Koecher was a horrible choice to become an intelligence officer for any self-respecting spy service. Born in 1934, he grew up in Czechoslovakia and was always in some kind of minor trouble with the authorities.

Disgruntled at the shackles placed on him by a repressive one-party state, he reasoned that he would have the greatest amount of personal freedom if he wormed his way into the Czechoslovak security service, the StB. Koecher did in fact land a job there. Then, in spite of the StB’s psychologists assessment of him as being “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile toward people, money driven, showing a strong inclination toward instability, emotionally volatile, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, [and] intolerant of authoritarianism,” the service sent him and his wife Hana, who would support him in his operations, to the United States as illegals, deep cover officers meant to blend into society.

They departed Czechoslovakia in 1965, arriving in America pretending to be anticommunist political refugees. Karel snagged a job at Radio Free Europe, but unsurprisingly, his work was indifferent and his StB superiors began to grow disgruntled with their ill-chosen officer. That changed in 1973, when he got a job with the CIA as a translator/analyst, giving him access to sensitive foreign espionage operations.
This is just the surface of the remarkable story told by Benjamin Cunningham in his new book, The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man. Cunningham, a correspondent for The Economist, interviewed the Koechers and other major participants and exploited records from the Czech Republic’s State Security Archives. The book, while not without its flaws, is a useful contribution to the history of Cold War espionage and tells us much that we never knew about the Koechers and their work.

Sputtering Start

When Karel worked for the New York office of Radio Free Europe in the late 1960s, it was a CIA front organization. Of course, the StB pushed him to report on his coworkers at RFE. Karel resisted these demands, however. Years later, he claimed that he had some sympathy for the anti-Communist “dissent and opposition” RFE was supporting in his home country. “Because of the [Soviet] invasion, I was furious and hated the scum that took over,” he told Cunningham. He even made a tentative approach to the FBI with a view toward perhaps arranging a defection but after two inconsequential contacts circling around the issue, neither party moved to close the deal.

Whatever his sentiments, Koecher soon quit his job without having another one lined up—not ideal spy behavior. He also entered a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Columbia University. There he tried to develop relationships with people who had or might in the future have access to secrets. Indeed, he met Zbigniew Brzezinski, though the future White House national security adviser remained merely an acquaintance. After receiving his Ph.D., Koecher’s academic career never took off and, for a time, the family lived entirely on Hana’s salary from a retail job selling diamonds.

In 1971, Karel became a U.S. citizen and a year later applied for a job with the CIA. Perhaps because he had been trained on how to defeat the polygraph, he beat the machine, received a security clearance and began working as a contract translator processing recordings from audio surveillance of Soviet facilities.
Cunningham reports that among the things Karel worked on was the take from four phone lines into the Soviet Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. Karel was able to tell the StB that the CIA was preparing to recruit a Soviet diplomat and provided a description of the CIA officer in charge of the operation. Later, he reported that the CIA seemed particularly interested in two Soviet officials at the embassy, one of them a diplomat named Aleksandr Ogorodnik. This man had, indeed, been recruited in 1973 by the CIA, which code-named him TRIGON. The KGB would arrest Ogorodnik in 1977 and he would commit suicide with a poison pill provided by the CIA.

Despite having provided this remarkable information, in September, 1976 Karel was called back to Czechoslovakia over suspicions about his loyalty. In a safe house, he was subjected to interrogation by the StB and then by a KGB General. This was Oleg Kalugin, now a well-known figure who left Russia for the United States in 1995 and wrote critically of the Soviet Union but who does not consider himself a defector. At the time of Karel’s interrogation, he was the head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB. (Full disclosure: I know Kalugin and am on friendly terms with him though we are not close.)

Remarkably, Cunningham found an audio recording of this encounter in the Czech State Security Archives and so is able to exactly reproduce portions of that confrontation. It unfolded politely, with no explicit accusations, but nevertheless Kalugin (incorrectly) assessed that Koecher had switched sides. Perhaps the StB didn’t fully agree with Kalugin: It allowed Koecher to return to the United States but demanded that he cut his ties with the CIA. Thus, their agent was sidelined during the entire Carter Administration. The timing was exquisitely bad because Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom Karel knew from Columbia, had become President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.

Koecher was reactivated early in the Reagan Administration amid fears in Moscow, radiated throughout the Warsaw Pact, about Reagan’s bellicosity and even the possibility of a U.S. first strike. This time the KGB hoped he could pass along informed rumors about Reagan’s intentions.

At some point after his reactivation, Koecher and his wife realized they were under FBI surveillance. It is not clear how the FBI came to focus on them, though Cunningham plausibly speculates that the couple’s StB case officer was reporting to the bureau. In any event, in 1984, the FBI tried to double them back against the StB. When that failed, the Koechers were arrested.

Early Giuliani

The Justice Department, however, had a problem. It knew that the Koechers were spies but the U.S. attorney in charge of the case, Rudy Giuliani, realized he would not be able to prove it in court. As the affair played out, Koecher spent an extended time in prison, fearing all the while that U.S. authorities would have him killed. Eventually, he had the idea to ask his lawyer to float the idea of a swap for Soviet refusenik Anatoly Shcharansky (later Natan Sharansky). The Soviets agreed and after a swap at the Glienicke Bridge, the Koechers returned to Czechoslovakia, where they retired.

Cunningham tells this story in a sprightly way, giving the reader a good sense of the lives of Karel and to a lesser extent Hana. Mercifully, he discusses but does not dwell on the fact that Karel and Hana were swingers and he makes it clear that though this aspect of their lives is often the first thing to pop up in discussion of the pair—with insinuations that they gained valuable material swapping sex with Washington officials—swinging played little if any role in their espionage. Perhaps the most telling thing to emerge from this portion of the book is that Karel apparently was a selfish lover.

Despite its many positive points, however, the book is sometimes dissatisfying. Cunningham has a tendency to digress. He describes, for instance, the arts scene in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia, the growth of the Republican Party’s right wing in the late 1970s, and George Carlin’s monologue comparing football to baseball on the debut of Saturday Night Live. Such digressions seem intended to put the Koechers’ lives in the context of the times but seldom connect satisfactorily to the story. He also makes explicit his distaste for Kalugin and to a lesser extent a few other minor characters in the story, notably Rudy Giuliani and the FBI agents who worked on the Koecher case.

In one lengthy section of the book, Cunningham festoons the Ogorodnik case with “wilderness of mirrors” intrigues that don’t seem warranted by the evidence. Perhaps, Cunningham speculates, Oleg Kalugin, as head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB, was merely incompetant when he seemingly failed to uncover the Soviet diplomat’s treachery. Or, as Karel Koecher believes, maybe Kalugin actually worked for the CIA and may have “used Ogorodnik to interface with the CIA” and then brought about his death “for fear that Ogorodnik would tell others about their collaboration.” Cunningham also explores the idea that Ogorodnik was a channel for CIA-produced disinformation. He hints at his guess as to which of these theories is true by referring to Kalugin as an “apparent double agent.” The problem is that none of these theories are supported by any evidence and, furthermore, they have nothing really to do with Karel Koecher.

Cunningham’s epilogue is a fascinating, if somewhat confusing, first-person narrative of his final interview with Koecher. The retired spy, now 88, spouts Russian talking points: “[I]t’s the Russians who are defending the basic Western values…family values. Possibly you could even say it about fighting terrorism and so forth, too.” He denounces political correctness, saying “the whole transgender thing is a bit too much,” and blithely refers to “no-go zones” in Western cities. Koecher also argues that the Soviet Union never had aggressive intentions toward the United States and he blames the Pentagon for the Cold War. When Cunningham challenges him with the fact that the Soviets supported leftist guerrilla movements, overthrew unfriendly governments, and even invaded his own country to squash a nascent democracy movement, Koecher dismisses all of these as defensive moves by Moscow.

While Cunningham seems unconvinced by these arguments, the two do share the idea that the Cold War was pointless and that intelligence services are useless or worse. From Cunningham, the assessment is surprising: It comes largely without context in a book that has focused on the day-to-day aspects of espionage and the psychology of a particular spy. It would make more sense coming from Koecher, a man who seems to believe in little except himself.

“I don’t give a fuck about belonging,” he says in the book’s final lines. “Sure I would like to belong, but there is nothing to belong to.”

Does that make him “the Cold War’s Last Honest Man”? How so?

One is left with the conclusion that the StB psychologists were right in their intitial, damning assessment of Karel Koecher. He is a fascinating, complicated and contradictory figure. But “honest,” as Cunningham dubs him in the book title? You be the judge.

This article was originally published in Spy Talk. Click here to read the original

A Preface to Biden’s National Security Strategy

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The Biden administration will soon release its National Security Strategy, which is being revised in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The document will no doubt trigger a renewed debate about how the United States should gear up for a new Cold War against Russia and China. But before we plunge into a global great-power competition, it’s worth recalling President Biden’s promise to create a “foreign policy for the middle class” and take a look at what most concerns Americans.

Congress is about to add tens of billions of dollars to the military budget. Unrepentant hawks scorn this as inadequate, urging a 50 percent increase, or an additional $400 billion or more a year. Aid to Ukraine totals more than $40 billion this year, and counting. A new buildup is underway in the Pacific. Biden summons Americans to the global battle between democracy and autocracy, implying that U.S. security depends on spreading democracy—and, implicitly, regime change—worldwide.

Americans, it is safe to say, have different—one might suggest more practical—concerns, as revealed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Asked about the most urgent issue facing the country today, 27 percent of respondents—the highest number—ranked inflation as No. 1, while only 2 percent ranked Ukraine at the top. In a range of Economist-YouGov polls over the past month, the top foreign-policy concerns included immigration and climate change.

The foreign policy “blob” may be gearing up for a global Cold War, but Americans are focused on security at home. According to a survey by the nonpartisan Eurasia Group Foundation, nearly half of Americans think the United States should decrease its involvement in other countries’ affairs; only 21.6 percent would increase it. Nearly 45 percent would decrease U.S. troop deployments abroad; only 32.2 percent would increase them.

Polls, of course, are merely snapshots—and war fever can transform opinion. However, a 2021 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported many of the same priorities. Far more Americans (81 percent) said they were concerned about threats from within the country than from outside the country (19 percent). Among foreign policy goals, more than 75 percent of respondents ranked protecting American workers’ jobs and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, respectively, as very important. Ranked lowest were “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” (18 percent) and “protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression” (32 percent).

What would a sensible strategy for the middle class look like? A recent paper from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—“Managed Competition: A U.S. Grand Strategy for a Multipolar World”—offers a good start. The author is George Beebe, a former head of the CIA’s Russia analysis unit who is currently director of grand strategy at the institute.

Beebe argues that over the past three decades, “yawning gaps” have emerged not only between “America’s ambitions in the world and its capacity for achieving those goals,” but also between a “Washington foreign policy elite too focused on promoting U.S. primacy” and “ordinary Americans yearning for greater stability and prosperity at home.”

He echoes the priorities of most Americans, arguing that “the chief strategic challenge Washington faces today is not to win a decisive battle between freedom and tyranny but to gain a breathing spell abroad that will allow the country to focus on desperately needed internal recovery.”

He then outlines the core of a strategy for this time: a “managed competition” with Russia and China. Recognizing that our economic health is intertwined with China’s, and that Russia’s nuclear arsenal demands prudence, he would “avoid promoting regime change” or otherwise “undermining political and economic stability in Russia and China.” Instead, in a managed competition, our rivals would be countered not only by American power and alliances, but also by rebuilding “agreed rules of the game,” beginning presumably with efforts to revive nuclear arms agreements and create cyber agreements to limit these growing security challenges.

For this to occur, he notes elsewhere, there must be an agreed end to the war in Ukraine. Beebe concedes that Vladimir Putin’s attack required a strong American-led response. But as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Beebe would distinguish between repelling Putin’s aggression and efforts to foster regime change in Moscow or to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit.

In the current euphoria over Russian reversals in Ukraine, this caution is likely to fall upon deaf ears. But a foreign policy for the middle class must find a way to curb our adventures abroad so that we can rebuild our democracy and strength at home. A Cold War against Russia and China might empower the foreign policy elite, enrich the military-industrial-congressional complex and excite our bellicose media, but it ignores the American people’s common sense.

This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.

The CIA is not your friend

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6 mins read

“Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.” ― Baruch Spinoza

It hasn’t been a month since President Biden mounted the steps of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, declaring it his duty to ensure each of us understands the central faction of his political opposition are extremists that “threaten the very foundations of our Republic.” Flanked by the uniformed icons of his military and standing atop a Leni Riefenstahl stage, the leader clenched his fists to illustrate seizing the future from the forces of “fear, division, and darkness.” The words falling from the teleprompter ran rich with the language of violence, a “dagger at the throat” emerging from the “shadow of lies.”

“What’s happening in our country,” the President said, “is not normal.”

Is he wrong to think that? The question the speech intended to raise—the one lost in the unintentionally villainous pageantry—is whether and how we are to continue as a democracy and a nation of laws. For all the Twitter arguments over Biden’s propositions, there has been little consideration of his premises.

Democracy and the rule of law have been so frequently invoked as a part of the American political brand that we simply take it for granted that we enjoy both.

Are we right to think that?

Our glittering nation of laws observes this year two birthdays: the 70th anniversary of the National Security Agency, on which my thoughts have been recorded, and the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA was founded in the wake of the 1947 National Security Act. The Act foresaw no need for the Courts and Congress to oversee a simple information-aggregation facility, and therefore subordinated it exclusively to the President, through the National Security Council he controls.

Within a year, the young agency had already slipped the leash of its intended role of intelligence collection and analysis to establish a covert operations division. Within a decade, the CIA was directing the coverage of American news organizations, overthrowing democratically elected governments (at times merely to benefit a favored corporation), establishing propaganda outfits to manipulate public sentiment, launching a long-running series of mind-control experiments on unwitting human subjects (purportedly contributing to the creation of the Unabomber), and—gaspinterfering with foreign elections. From there, it was a short hop to wiretapping journalists and compiling files on Americans who opposed its wars.

In 1963, no less than former President Harry Truman confessed that the very agency he personally signed into law had transformed into something altogether different than he intended, writing:

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble…”

Many today comfort themselves by imagining that the Agency has been reformed, and that such abuses are relics of the distant past, but what few reforms our democracy has won have been watered-down or compromised. The limited “Intelligence Oversight” role that was eventually conceded to Congress in order to placate the public has never been taken seriously by either the committee’s majority—which prefers cheerleading over investigating—or by the Agency itself, which continues to conceal politically-sensitive operations from the very group most likely to defend them.

“Congress should have been told,” said [Senator] Dianne Feinstein. “We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program. Director Panetta… was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to Congress.”

How can we judge the ultimate effectiveness of oversight and reforms? Well, the CIA plotted to assassinate my friend, American whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, in 1972, yet nearly fifty years of “reforms” did little to inhibit them from recently sketching out another political murder targeting Julian Assange. Putting that in perspective, you probably own shoes older than the CIA’s most recent plot to murder a dissident… or rather the most recent plot that we know of.

If you believe the Assange case to be a historical anomaly, some aberration unique to Trump White House, recall that the CIA’s killings have continued in series across administrations. Obama ordered the killing of an American far from any battlefield, and killed his 16 year-old American son a few weeks later, but the man’s American daughter was still alive by the time Obama left.

Within a month of entering the White House, Trump killed her.

She was 8 years old.

It goes beyond assassinations. Within recent memory, the CIA captured Gul Rahman, who we know was not Al-Qaeda, but it seems did save the life of Afghanistan’s future (pro-US) President. Rahman was placed in what the Agency described as a “dungeon” and tortured until he died.

They stripped him naked, save a diaper he couldn’t change, in a cold so wicked that his guards, in their warm clothes, ran heaters for themselves. In absolute darkness, they bolted his hands and feet to a single point on the floor with a very short chain so that it was impossible to stand or lie down – a practice called “short shackling” – and after he died, claimed that it was for his own safety. They admit to beating him, even describing the “forceful punches.” They describe the blood that ran from his nose and mouth as he died.

Just pages later, in their formal conclusion, declare that there was no evidence of beating. There was no evidence torture. The CIA ascribes responsibility for his death to hypothermia, which they blamed on him for the crime of refusing, on his final night, a meal from the men that killed him.

In the aftermath, the Agency concealed the death of Gul Rahman from his family. To this day, they refuse to reveal what happened to his remains, denying those who survive him a burial, or even some locus of mourning.

Ten years after the torture program investigated, exposed, and ended, no one was charged for their role in these crimes. The man responsible for Rahman’s death was recommended for a $2,500 card award — for “consistently superior work”.

A different torturer was elevated to the Director’s seat.

This summer, in a speech marking the occasion of the CIA’s 75th birthday, President Biden struck a quite different note than he did in Philadelphia, reciting what the CIA instructs all presidents: that the soul of the institution really lies in speaking truth to power.

“We turn to you with the big questions,” Biden said, “the hardest questions. And we count on you to give your best, unvarnished assessment of where we are.  And I emphasize “‘unvarnished.’”

But this itself is a variety of varnishing — a whitewash.

For what reason do we aspire to maintain — or achieve — a nation of laws, if not to establish justice?

Let us say we have a democracy, shining and pure. The people, or in our case some subset of people, institute reasonable laws to which government and citizen alike must answer. The sense of justice that arises within such a society is not produced as a result of the mere presence of law, which can be tyrannical and capricious, or even elections, which face their own troubles, but is rather derived from the reason and fairness of the system that results.

What would happen if we were to insert into this beautiful nation of laws an extralegal entity that is not directed by the people, but a person: the President? Have we protected the nation’s security, or have we placed it at risk?

This is the unvarnished truth: the establishment of an institution charged with breaking the law within a nation of laws has mortally wounded its founding precept. 

From the year it was established, Presidents and their cadres have regularly directed the CIA to go beyond the law for reasons that cannot be justified, and therefore must be concealed — classified. The primary result of the classification system is not an increase in national security, but a decrease in transparency. Without meaningful transparency, there is no accountability, and without accountability, there is no learning.

The consequences have been deadly, for both Americans and our victims. When the CIA armed the Mujaheddin to wage war on Soviet Afghanistan, we created al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, the CIA is arming, according to then-Vice President Joe Biden, “al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” After the CIA runs a disinformation operation to make life hard for the Soviet Union by fueling a little proxy war, the war rages for twenty-six years — far beyond the Union’s collapse.

Do you believe that the CIA today — a CIA free from all consequence and accountability — is uninvolved in similar activities? Can you find no presence of their fingerprints in the events of the world, as described in the headlines, that provide cause for concern? Yet it is those who question the wisdom of placing a paramilitary organization beyond the reach of our courts that are dismissed as “naive.”

For 75 years, the American people have been unable to bend the CIA to fit the law, and so the law has been bent to fit the CIA. As Biden stood on the crimson stage, at the site where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted, his words rang out like the cry of a cracked-to-hell Liberty Bell: “What’s happening in our country is not normal.”

If only that were true. 

How Russia See CIA on its Diamond Jubilee

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5 mins read

In the Russian journal Natsionalnaya Oborona (National Defence), the chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence Sergey Naryshkin has written a riveting essay on the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency, which falls on Sunday. It is an unusual gesture, especially in the middle of the hybrid war in Ukraine.
Probably, it serves a purpose? Most certainly, it serves to remind the Russian people and foreigners alike that nothing has been forgotten, nothing forgiven.

The title of the essay — 75 candles on the CIA Cake — is somewhat misleading, as Naryshkin’s concluding remark is that

In the Russian journal Natsionalnaya Oborona (National Defence), the chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence Sergey Naryshkin has written a riveting essay on the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency, which falls on Sunday. It is an unusual gesture, especially in the middle of the hybrid war in Ukraine.
Probably, it serves a purpose? Most certainly, it serves to remind the Russian people and foreigners alike that nothing has been forgotten, nothing forgiven.

The title of the essay — 75 candles on the CIA Cake — is somewhat misleading, as Naryshkin’s concluding remark is that “Anniversary congratulations and wishes there will not be. As there can be no compromise in assessing its (CIA’s) role in history and ‘merits’ to humanity.”

Naryshkin’s essay will be closely studied by the western intelligence for any “clues.” Indeed, what is he messaging? Naryshkin and President Vladimir Putin go back some 40 years. Naryshkin had just graduated from one of Moscow’s most prestigious institutions, the Felix Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB and Putin was already working in the foreign intelligence department of the Leningrad KGB when they bumped into each other in the corridors of the Big House (as KGB’s regional headquarters in Leningrad was known).

Unsurprisingly, Naryshkin writes about the CIA with an easy familiarity. As he put it, “The CIA was created at the beginning of the Cold War era in order to conduct intelligence activities around the world as a tool to counteract the existence and strengthening role of the USSR in the world, the formation of a bloc of socialist states, and the rise of the national liberation movement in Africa, Asia, and South America.”
Funnily enough, nonetheless, the CIA began with a colossal intelligence failure when it predicted on 20th September 1949 that the first Soviet atomic bomb would appear in mid-1953, when, actually, 22 days before the publication of that forecast, the Soviet Union had already conducted its first test of a nuclear device.

The CIA was once again clueless when Putin announced in March 2018 in an address to the Russian Parliament that Russia had developed a new hypersonic missile system, which “will be practically invulnerable.” US officials and analysts were taken aback. The CIA has a history of getting Russia all wrong, including about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Oct. 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. [Photo: AFP]

But the CIA had its successes too — for example, the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1951 after his move to nationalise Iranian oil fields. By the 1950s, CIA already turned into a “multi-disciplinary monster” when besides traditional intelligence activities, it was also “tasked with tracking and suppressing any political, economic, military processes in all parts of the planet that could threaten the world hegemony of the United States and its allies.” Naryshkin gives credit to Allen Dulles for this metamorphosis. Dulles introduced “aggressiveness and lack of morality into the activities” of the CIA. He was just the man to do so, having been station chief of the OSS (CIA’s predecessor) in Bern in 1942-1945, who had clandestine dealings with the Nazis behind the back of the US’ Soviet ally.

Naryshkin takes us through the chronicle of CIA’s “coups d’etat, direct military interventions, provocations of all kinds, assassinations of objectionable politicians, terror, sabotage, bribery” and all that cloak and dagger stuff, which prompted President Lyndon Johnson’s famous condemnation of the agency as the “damn murder corporation.” Like in Banquo’s ghost scene at Macbeth’s banquet table in Shakespeare’s play, the victims appear — Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende.

There are chilling references to the CIA’s practice of using cancer spreading technology to eliminate “objectionable” Latin American leaders — Argentina’s Kirchner (thyroid cancer), Paraguay’s Lugo (lymphoma), Brazil’s Lula da Silva (laryngeal cancer) and D. Dilma Rousseff (lymphoma) — and, of course, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (tracheal cancer). According to Naryshkin, “In 1955, the CIA attempted to eliminate Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who was perceived by the Americans as “a maniacal fanatic seeking to take over the world,” but failed miserably. Agents blew up the plane on which Zhou was supposed to fly to a conference of Asian and African leaders in Indonesia.” Thereupon, Dulles developed a plan to poison Zhou but gave up fearing that CIA’s involvement might get exposed!

A US Senate commission in 1975 uncovered and confirmed CIA involvement in contract killings and coup d’état. It counted 8 cases of assassination attempts by CIA agents and mercenaries on Fidel Castro during 1960-1965 alone. Havana later revealed the full tally — from 1959 through 1990, CIA planned 634 assassination attempts on Fidel. To quote Naryshkin, “With maniacal persistence, the CIA officers developed simply exotic ways to eliminate the Comandante. They tried to kill him with the help of suicide pilots, paratrooper agents, recruited agents from the inner circle, shelling cars and yachts from ships, boats and subversive saboteurs, with the help of scuba gear with a tubercle bacillus brought there, poisoned cigars, poisonous pills for food and much more.”

“The CIA used every opportunity to inflict maximum damage on the Soviet Union, including economic damage. CIA director W. Casey personally addressed the king of Saudi Arabia and persuaded him to sharply increase oil production, which caused world prices for the most important export resources for the USSR to fall by almost three times. For the budget of the Soviet Union, this was a huge loss, which seriously influenced further political events in the USSR.”

Naryshkin throws some riveting insights into the saga of Ukraine in the 1948-1949 period when the CIA “actively used the experience of Hitler’s special services for launching subversive work against the USSR with recruits in the camps of displaced East Europeans who included quarter of a million Ukrainians. “Almost all the leaders and top functionaries of the Ukrainian nationalists were in one way or another bound by cooperation with the Nazis and therefore were completely controlled” by the CIA and British intelligence. In November 1950, the head of the CIA’s Policy Coordination Office, Frank Wisner bragged that CIA was capable of deploying up to 100,000 Ukrainian nationalists in case of a war with the Soviet Union.

The U2 incident — shooting down the CIA spy plane — in the Urals on May 1, 1960 was a dramatic incident when Washington accused the USSR of destroying a scientific aircraft and a pilot-scientist, but was profoundly embarrassed when Moscow presented not only the wreckage of the aircraft and spy equipment to the media, “but also the living pilot Francis Gary Powers, who frankly told what he was doing in the sky over the USSR and on whose instructions.”

On the other hand, the masterstroke of a South Korean Boeing entering Soviet airspace and getting shot down in 1983 provided just the “propaganda basis” for President Reagan “to announce another ‘crusade against communism.’ The policy of detente was thrown aside, and a new round of the arms race began.”
Naryshkin’s final reflection is calm and collected with no trace of hyperbole: “Evaluation of the effectiveness of any special service is always relative. The US Central Intelligence Agency, entering its 76th year of existence, has been and remains a zealous executor of the will of the ruling circles of its country. Despite the significant changes taking place, they continue to imagine themselves as the only hegemon in the unipolar world. The organisation is intelligence, based on its name, but with a sensitive focus on conducting subversive actions against sovereign states.”

To Indians, CIA has become a benign creature, no longer feared. Having links with the CIA carries no stigma among Indian elites. They regard “CIA phobia” as a legacy of the Indira Gandhi era. And they can be thriving as mainstream columnists and think tankers — and opinion makers. Naryshkin’s essay is a sobering reminder that history has not ended — and it never will.

The essay (in Russian) is here.

Reflections on this essay were originally published on the author’s website, indianpunchline.com. Click here to read the original

Brussels: Hideaway of Espionage

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Conjure up a list of cities considered world capitals of espionage. Those featured in movies and television, with their romantic atmosphere and scenery, include Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, London, Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, and Saigon.

Not to ignore the less romantic but important cities of Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, DC.
By comparison, Brussels seems overlooked by spy novelists and film directors, but its unusual concentration of diplomatic missions to the European Union, NATO, and to Belgium itself brings a high ratio per square kilometer of diplomats and lobbyists—as well as spies. “Washington and Brussels compete for the largest number of embassies and other representations on earth” remarked an ICT (information and communications technology) executive close to the Belgian authorities. He added that the spy agencies of numerous countries, including America, Russia, and China “do whatever they want here; there are so many [espionage] issues going on that Belgian authorities don’t know where to start.”
His view was not contradicted by other Belgians in the private sector and in government, including the police, who requested anonymity when interviewed in July, commenting only on background. Another frustrated business person asked, in relation to China’s efforts, “When will we wake up?”

The observation that Brussels is teeming with foreign agents is not new: several stories appeared during 2018 and 2019, with Politico calling the city a “prime target for spooks,” and Bloomberg, calling it a “gateway for China.” A September, 2019 article in the German daily Die Welt quoted EU sources saying that the streets of Brussels were swarmed by at least 250 Chinese and 200 Russian operatives. According to Die Welt, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union intelligence arm, warned EU officials to avoid certain restaurants and bars in the “EU District.” Supposedly the lunchtime crowds include Chinese agents trying to listen in on conversations at adjoining tables.

“The Belgians are frankly overwhelmed,” said Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), now the senior advisor for Cyber Security and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They have neither the resources nor the political backing they need to deal with a challenge on this scale.”

Though this problem has been under discussion for years, it seems to be getting worse because there is little action by Belgian policy makers.

One problem, said the ICT executive, is political inertia in Belgium, a country long mired in existential crisis between its Flemish- and French-speaking halves. Due in part to this fragmented political scene, it can take months to assemble a government in Belgium’s parliamentary system after the votes are counted: the most recent example is a 400-day lag between the May, 2019 election and the seating of a government in September the following year. “During this sort of standstill security is not a topic (and) we lack a security mindset in general,” the executive added. “There is insufficient organization and fragmented decision making.”

China Rising

“The power of China is much more than those who are running around here” said another ICT executive. He pointed out that equipment from Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE is still being used in all three major Belgian mobile telephone networks. From an engineering perspective, he opined that the software in telecom switches and other equipment is almost certainly updated remotely with new releases from China. “That means the network could be shut down at will,” disabling communications for the EU, NATO, SHAPE, and Belgian authorities during an emergency. And with frequent software updates being a normal part of operations, “it is virtually impossible to monitor each of them up to the last feature.” [SHAPE, which stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, is a NATO command with its own building in Brussels.]

The effect of unreliable communications was painfully demonstrated during the March 2016 terrorist bombings in Brussels, when mobile networks became basically unusable for several hours—including the national emergency network—leaving first responders virtually in the dark. “Belgian policy is merely declarative,” added this ICT executive, “based on all the more studies and promises, but no implementation.” This begs the question, how real is the risk that EU and NATO will be unable to communicate during a crisis if telecommunications are crippled or lost.

The specter of foreign interference with Belgium’s infrastructure was underlined this week when a foreign hack against the prime minister’s office was exposed. The affected equipment housed there serves not only the PM’s chancellery, but also the federal and local police forces, whose officers lost access to their data either briefly or for extended periods.

Belgian cybersecurity officials were uncertain of the origin. Though the sophistication of the hack suggested a major power, “the truth is we don’t know. The investigation has just begun,” said Michel Rignanese of Belgium’s Center for Cybersecurity.

A Belgian executive, speaking confidentially, expressed the similiar uncertainty about about solar modules imported from China—which make up an increasing share of the Belgian power grid that supplies Brussels. He opined that embedded semiconductors could in theory be used from afar to shut off or significantly reduce power to Brussels if desired by the manufacturer during a dispute between NATO and a hostile power.

Ralph Ahlgren, the President and CTO of the Silicon Valley solar company Soleeva, confirmed manipulation of solar technology is a technically feasible. “Megawatt-scale solar installations should always be carefully examined” to measure the risk that “backdoor channels could be used to disable or disrupt” a power network, Ahlgren said, adding that a large percentage of solar inverters used in utilities could be vulnerable in this way, with semiconductors that have a secret purpose. “For that reason, we don’t use products sourced entirely from China.”

“In Belgium there is no safety and security culture,” stated Dr. Kenneth Lasoen, a Belgian Research Fellow specializing in intelligence and defense at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “The Americans do urge the Belgians to rectify the security situation from time to time,” in particular after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which were planned and executed from Belgium. “But then, nothing happens.”

Unfortunately, American counterintelligence training for its personnel in Brussels may not be as robust as one would expect in this target-rich environment: besides the EU and NATO, there is also SHAPE. One experienced American service member commented that they had received no security training since arrival months before, and was surprised to hear that EEAS warned of spies listening in at certain eateries. “It does seem like the Americans may need additional OPSEC training for this environment,” observed Dr. Lasoen.

The Belgian National Security Strategy of 2021 signaled the intent to make the nation a “hostile environment for espionage,” added Lasoen, “but if we also came down hard on the Americans, they might retaliate.”

Another ICT executive also wondered if Washington itself might be behind the lack of action in Brussels. “Why do the Americans let this continue? Are they part of it? Do they actually benefit from it?”

By contrast, in neighboring Holland the Americans “don’t do anything …without notifying Dutch authorities,” said Lasoen, whose work has brought him into regular contact with both Dutch and Belgian intelligence. “Dutch counterintelligence is sufficiently performative to catch operations on their soil.”

Low-Key Response

For its own reasons, Washington may not have chosen to cultivate such a close relationship with Brussels—perhaps because of the plethora of agencies on the Belgian side and the difficult political culture of a small divided country.

Belgium has had it successes, such as the 2016 arrest of militants linked to the 2015 Paris attacks and more recent operations against European drug traffickers. But perhaps its most revealing success was, in retrospect, a stress test for its government: the April 2018 arrest and instantaneous extradition to the U.S. of Xu Yanjun.

Xu is the Chinese Ministry of State Security officer arrested in Brussels during his hitherto successful operation to steal jet engine technology from various sources including General Electric. Xu took one operational risk too many and was nabbed in Brussels, noted an experienced expert on the MSS, based in the U.S.

In spite of Xu’s unprecedented arrest in a Western capital, Beijing made little fuss over his case, with a few statements in English but seemingly none in its state-approved Chinese language media. A web search on the Chinese characters for Xu Yanjun, the Ministry of State Security, and Belgium (徐延军, 国安, 比利时) reveals zero coverage in mainland China’s media of Xu’s extradition to America, presumably to avoid a loss of face amongst the Chinese populace. By contrast, at the time there was wall-to-wall coverage, mug shots and all, from non-communist Chinese language sources outside of the PRC.

The low-key response contrasted sharply with Beijing’s apoplectic reaction in December that same year to the detention in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei, which led the Chinese Communist Party to arrest two Canadians living in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. They were only released when Meng was allowed to return to China almost three years later. Given that hostage-taking is a longstanding Chinese practice, this was an alarming but unsurprising development.

It may seem odd that Beijing chose not to punish Belgium over Xu’s arrest as they did with Canada over Ms. Meng’s detention. But with an apparently robust and valuable Chinese espionage network on Belgian soil–that may have attracted the Xu operation in the first place–Beijing might logically have decided that squeezing Brussels too hard might blow back, instigate counterintelligence action spoiling the favorable, laisse faire espionage environment there.

More than one Belgian wondered if Washington has made the same calculation: that intelligence collection in Belgium is more important than helping improve the counterintelligence capabilities of an ally. Whether or not this is true, without a significant change of minds in several capitals, including Washington, it seems that Brussels, packed with assets vital to the West, will continue to be a city “pwned” by hostile spies for the foreseeable future.

This article is a part of our syndication and republished with the permission of Spy Talks, where this piece first appeared. Click here to read the original