Intrigue and Espionage: The Tense Relationship between Spy Agencies and Journalists


Back in 1978, I was sitting at the bar of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, the storied safe haven for journalists and diplomats during the Lebanese civil war,  when a low-level Palestinian official named Anis sidled up to me and asked if I was “from Israel.”

At the time, I was the Middle East correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Jerusalem.  

“I’m not ‘from’ Israel,” I told Anis. “I’m an American reporter based there, but I cover the entire Middle East.”

Anis lifted his chin and clucked his tongue in the Levantine gesture of disbelief.

“That’s what you say,” he replied. “I think you are Mossad, pretending to be a journalist.” A cold chill washed over me. In war-battered, trigger-happy Beirut, even a suspicion, not to mention an accusation, of being an Israeli spy could get me killed. So I immediately went to the front desk and called Mahmoud Labadi, the spokesman for Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. I had a decent working relationship with Labadi, who knew I was based in Jerusalem but didn’t confuse that with being an Israeli. I told him that Anis had just labeled me a Mossad spy and urged him to get Anis on the line right away and vouch for me. 

“If you don’t, this could end very badly,” I said.

Labadi agreed. A few minutes later, the hotel operator summoned Anis to a phone call at the front desk. I could hear Labadi shouting at him through the phone. A chastened Anis hung up the receiver and turned to me. 

Ana asif,” he said in Arabic, touching his heart. “I apologize.” But he quickly added plaintively: “How can you  know who is Mossad, who is CIA, and who is a real journalist?”

Good question. The truth is, thanks to the world’s spy agencies, one can’t. And the result can be bone-chilling moments like my run-in with Anis, or far worse. Because when spy agencies use journalism as a cover for their clandestine officers, it casts a cloud of suspicion on all journalists, no matter who their employer is or where they’re from.  

I’m recounting this story because of a recent piece in The New York Times about a former Mossad agent named Sylvia Rafael, who carried out spy missions across the Arab world in the 1960s and 1970s while posing as a news photographer for a French photo agency.

Rafael used a reporting assignment in Lebanon to mail letter bombs to Beirut-based Palestinian leaders. In Jordan, PLO officials allowed her to photograph a secret military training camp, whose location Rafael passed on to her Israeli handlers. As a spy in journalist’s clothing , Rafael also gathered intelligence for the Mossad on social conditions in Yemen, Djibouti and Egypt. Her journalist cover even enabled her to shoot close-up portraits of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, his successor Anwar Sadat, and Algerian leader Houari Boumediene.

Although she was unmasked in a Mossad-authorized biography nine years ago, Israel’s spymasters are so proud of her feats that they’ve just released her long classified photos for a show in Tel Aviv.

The Times story angered me and several colleagues because it focused on Rafael’s apparent talent as a photographer but never mentioned the suspicion and danger that real foreign correspondents face overseas as a result of intelligence agencies’ using journalism as a cover identity for their clandestine operatives.

“The story says, without comment, that Mossad concealed its agent’s identity as a press photographer—something that, then or now,  potentially endangers all other press photographers,”  former Time magazine foreign correspondent Adam Zagorin commented in an email. “Yet the NYT never mentions that as an issue, or looks at whether this Mossad policy remains in force, raising the possibility that other photographers and even reporters have been, or still are, Mossad plants or agents. This is a significant issue for the press in general, which the NYT has previously recognised and addressed. But not this time.”

The Price of Suspicion

Over the past decade, numerous journalists around the world have been arrested and imprisoned on charges of espionage. As of Dec. 1 last year, a total of 363 journalists were imprisoned around the world, according data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, but the organization does not break down how many of those have been charged with espionage.

Last March, Polish authorities arrested and imprisoned Spanish freelance reporter Pablo Gonzales near the border with Ukraine, accusing him of spying for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.  

Since then, Polish officials have not publicly disclosed any evidence to support their accusation. Meanwhile, Gonzales, who denies the charge, has remained in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. He has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, seeking release alleging the terms of his imprisonment violate his constitutional rights. In letters from prison, Gonzalez has said Polish security agents advised him to “eat flies or insects” if he wanted to maintain his protein levels.

It’s no surprise that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would put journalists in jeopardy. On March 10, Moscow’s FSB security service in Russian-occupied Crimea arrested Vladislav Yesypenko, a journalist for the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Eight days later, according to Reporters Without Borders, Yesypenko, “visibly pale” and speaking with “difficulty,” confessed on a local Russian television station to spying for Ukraine’s Security Services. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which promotes press freedom, said Yesypenko’s confession was “almost certainly obtained under duress.”

“Forcing an imprisoned journalist to declare himself guilty and broadcasting his ‘confession’ in a serious violation of journalistic ethics,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, who called for his immediate release. “Such practices are also prohibited by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by Russia and Ukraine.”

Last October, Iranian intelligence officials arrested and imprisoned journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, labeling them CIA agents after they broke the news of the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing her hijab head scarf properly. The news sparked nationwide protests that have rocked the country’s clerical leadership.

“More than 40 [Iranian] journalists have been detained since the protests erupted on streets across the country,” many accused of acting as American or Israeli agents, according to The Guardian newspaper.

In July 2014, Iranian officials arrested Washington Post foreign correspondent Jason Rezaian in Tehran on charges of espionage and “collaborating with hostile governments.” Held at Iran’s infamous Evin Prison, he was convicted after a closed-door trial in October 2015 and sentenced a month later to a term of undisclosed duration. After 544 days behind bars, he was released along with three other Americans in exchange for seven Iranian prisoners being held in the United States plus Washington’s release of $1.7 billion in frozen Iranian funds. 

Asked if the Mossad continues to use journalism as a cover for its operatives, a former high-ranking Israeli official told me the spy agency doesn’t discuss its sources and methods. 

The Mossad is not alone in having used journalism as cover for intelligence collection.

Cold War Collusion

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union employed journalists or used their respective news organizations as cover for their intelligence gathering. In 1976, a Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA abuses during the 1950s and 1960s found that 50 U.S. journalists had secret official relationships with the CIA during that period. 

The committee report didn’t mention any names, but a year later, legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein published a lengthy exposé in Rolling Stone that said the Church committee had bowed to White House pressure and minimized the number of journalists working with the spy agency . 

Bernstein alleged that more than 400 American journalists had secretly performed assignments for the CIA over the preceding 25 years. Citing documents on file at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and interviews with CIA officials, Bernstein outed some of the biggest names in American journalism as willing assets who either carried out tasks for the CIA or enabled their editors and reports to do so. They included Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop, New York Times Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and his columnist C.L. Sulzberger, Time magazine founder Henry Luce and CBS President William Paley, among many others.

“Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries,” Bernstein wrote. “Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad.” 

Bernstein explained why foreign correspondents proved so valuable to the agency’s clandestine operations.

“The peculiar nature of the job of the foreign correspondent is ideal for such work,” he wrote. “He is accorded unusual access by his host country, permitted to travel in areas often off‑limits to other Americans, spends much of his time cultivating sources in governments, academic institutions, the military establishment and the scientific communities. He has the opportunity to form long‑term personal relationships with sources and—perhaps more than any other category of American operative—is in a position to make correct judgments about the susceptibility and availability of foreign nationals for recruitment as spies.” 

Limited Impact of Revelations

The CIA’s secret deployment of its agents as spies did not go down well with Loch Johnson, who was staff director of the Senate select subcommittee headed by Idaho Sen. Frank Church that was created in 1976 to look into CIA abuses. 

“It’s outrageous,” said Johnson, a leading authority on intelligence issues and Regents Professor Emeritus of Public and International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. “In a democracy, one should not have spies pretending to be journalists,” Johnson told SpyTalk. “After all, one of the backbones of a democracy is a free press, and this practice corrupts that whole relationship.”

After the Church committee’s reports on the CIA, the agency adopted regulations that barred the use of American journalists or the names of U.S. news organizations as cover for the CIA’s clandestine officers, according to Johnson. The agency is still permitted to recruit foreign journalists.

Johnson said that the regulations included a waiver that had allowed two exceptions to the prohibition, one under CIA director Stansfield Turner (1977-1981) and the other during the agency’s directorship of John Deutsch (1995-1996). Deutch later said he reserved the right to make exceptions under “genuinely extraordinary” circumstances, according to The Washington Post. But he added that during his tenure, “I have not encountered any set of circumstances that would lead me to consider such a possibility.”

In both cases in which the waiver was used, however, Johnson told SpyTalk, Turner and Deutsch failed to inform the Senate and House intelligence committees, as required by the agency’s own regulations.

The CIA didn’t respond to SpyTalk queries asking if the 1976 prohibition remained in force, and whether there had been additional exceptions since 1996.

But Johnson added that the regulations apply only to accredited full-time American journalists, leaving the CIA free to employ or impersonate American stringers for U.S. news organizations and freelancers, as well as foreign reporters.

Today, I wonder if other American journalists are having close calls with hostile forces who accuse them of being spies, as I was back in Beirut decades ago. I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

My story, thankfully, had a happy ending.

The Beirut incident became something of a private joke between me and Anis, my erstwhile Palestinian accuser.  Whenever I returned to Lebanon and ran into him at the Commodore, Anis would greet me with a broad smile and say, “How’s my Mossad friend today?” And we’d have a laugh—but to me, it was no joking matter.

Source: SpyTalk

US Accused of Plotting with Islamists to Kidnap Russian and Iranian Military in Syria


The United States plans to form groups of radical Islamists in Syria to destabilize the situation in the country and kidnap Russian and Iranian military, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said in a press communiqué on Monday.

“[Terrorists] were instructed to incite hostilities in the Syrian south-west, in the central part of the country and east of the Euphrates River. For this, it is planned to form several detachments of radicals totaling about 300 people. After special training, they will be involved in attacks on military facilities in Syria and Iran. Part of the terrorists … are planned to be used in the capital region, including for the abduction of Russian and Iranian military personnel,” the SVR added.

The United States continues to use Islamist groups under its control in Syria to undermine the positions of the legitimate government of this country, headed by President Bashar Assad, the SVR said in a statement. Coordination is carried out from the US Al-Tanf military. The most important operations against government forces are planned by intelligence officers and representatives of the US Central Command.

The United States is planning to hand over dozens of four-wheel drive pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, as well as Igla man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), TOW and NLAW anti-tank missiles, to Islamist groups in Syria, SVR said.

“At the Al-Tanf [military base], the issues of arming the Daesh* are being resolved. In the near future, the groups being formed should be given several dozen all-wheel drive pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, as well as Igla MANPADS, TOW and NLAW anti-tank missiles,” the SVR said in a statement.

Washington’s close engagement with Islamic terrorists is a manifestation of state terrorism, the statement read.

“The United States continues to use Islamist groups under its control in Syria to undermine the positions of the legitimate government of this country, headed by [President] Bashar Assad,” the SVR said.

Pyongyang’s Power Elites: Security and Intelligence Services in North Korea


Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game of Kim Jong Un, published by Macmillan

During Kim Jong Il’s reign, North Korea’s primary aim was gangseong daeguk, or a powerful and prosperous country; it became the goal of Kim’s military-first policy. The policy was first promulgated in 1998, and throughout the early 2000s the propaganda machinery churned out numerous studies attributed to Kim Jong Il, such as Military-First Policy (2000), The Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il’s Unique Thoughts on Military-First Revolution (2002), and The Glorious Military-First Era (2005), among many others. Of course, Kim didn’t pen a single word himself, but these works were written to justify why the bulk of the country’s already dwindling resources had to be shifted into the military sector. The responsibility for carrying out this policy fell to the National Defense Commission (NDC), the most powerful organ in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea; Kim served as the commission’s First Chairman.

When Kim Jong Il died in 2011, he was posthumously elevated to the position of Eternal Chairman of the NDC. Kim Jong Un assumed the title of First Chairman of the NDC. However, in June 2016 Kim Jong Un opted to create a new highest decision-making body, the State Affairs Commission (SAC). The establishment of the SAC was Kim Jong Un’s way of differentiating his rule from his father’s. He has consolidated power and put into place his own cadre of loyalists throughout the party, the KPA, the security apparatus, and the cabinet. Unsurprisingly, Kim has opted for a divide-and-rule strategy. For example, Kim initially appointed General Kim Won Hong as head of the Ministry of the Protection of State (still widely referred to in the West by its former name, the Ministry of State Security [MSS]), a post that had been vacant for twenty-five years. In January 2017, the general was demoted to major general and his core lieutenants were executed for high crimes. And while under Kim the SAC replaced the NDC as the most powerful decision-making body in North Korea, and the Presidium of the Politburo is the highest-ranking office in the party, it’s difficult to imagine any real give-and-take between Kim Jong Un and members of the Politburo. Still, the party is a unique organization, since it is so pervasive; key party departments, such as organization and guidance, propaganda and agitation, cadres, and general affairs, have much more influence than their titles suggest.

As noted in previous chapters, Office 39, in charge of all hard-currency operations and holdings, is the most important unit in the secretariat, or Kim Jong Un’s main office. Here one can see a contrast to China: although China’s Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than any other leader since Deng Xiaoping, collective leadership has been merely weakened, not completely discarded. No such collective leadership ever existed in North Korea except during its earliest days (1948–1950), and even then Kim Il Sung was always the most powerful figure.

“All of the critical personnel changes made by Kim Jong Un have been based on absolute loyalty, preservation of Juche ideology and Kim Il Sung / Kim Jong Il Thought, and the strengthening and consolidation of his power,” according to an assessment made by the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under South Korea’s NIS.  During Kim Jong Il’s era, the military-first policy meant that the KPA received greater attention than the KWP, much to the consternation of party leaders. The National Defense Commission was the highest decision-making body under Kim Jong Il, but, as noted earlier, Kim Jong Un abolished it and replaced it with the SAC. Even before he eliminated the NDC, its power was reduced: during his first year in power, 2011–2012, the NDC had sixteen members, but by 2016, the number had been reduced to eleven.

North Korea’s dictatorship is unique both in its longevity and in the absolute concentration of power in the top leader. This doesn’t mean that Kim decides everything himself; that would be impossible. Still, no policy or directive can be implemented without his approval. Under Kim, the party has gained the upper hand, and political commissars throughout the KPA relay the party’s orders.


Pyongyang’s highest elites are those that are in charge or have important roles in the party, security apparatuses, the KPA, government, and state-run import-export companies or those charged with specific hard-currency earnings (see figures 1,2,3). They include the top 5 percent of the core class, ministers or officeholders with ministerial rank, and Kim’s inner circle: members of the SAC, the Central Military Commission of the KWP, and the Main Department of Intelligence.

In April 2019, Kim Jong Un undertook the most extensive leadership change since he assumed power. Longtime confidant Choe Ryong Hae was named the nominal head of state, or president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), replacing Kim Yong Nam, who had held that post for over twenty years. Kim also named Kim Jae Ryong as the new prime minister, replacing Pak Pong Ju, who was moved to vice chairman in charge of economics at the central committee of the KWP. Pak Pong Ju is also a member of the standing committee of the Politburo and vice chairman of the SAC. These moves suggest that Pak will continue to have a major voice on economic affairs, while Choe will be able to steer the SPA to bolster Kim’s position and support Kim as first vice chairman of the SAC.

Also notable were the promotions of several others to the SAC: Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui; Kim Yong Chol, head of the united front of the KWP (in charge of South-North issues); Ri Su Yong, head of international affairs of the KWP; and Ri Yong Ho, foreign minister. Many of the old guard were replaced and key economic policy elites were promoted to the central committee. At the same time, Kim was referred to as the Supreme Commander of the DPRK, Supreme Leader of Our Party and State, and Supreme Leader of the Armed Forces. Previously, Kim was usually referred to as the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, rather than supreme leader of all of North Korea’s armed forces. This change signals even greater control over all military and paramilitary forces.

Fig -2

Mindful of the ongoing pressure from international sanctions, Kim reaffirmed the importance of a self-reliant economy and the need for North Korea to continue to pursue a “my way” economic policy. He made a special point on “decisively enhancing the role of the Party organizations in the struggle to vigorously speed up the socialist construction under the banner of self-reliance.” Kim today is in full control of the party, the KPA, and the intelligence services and has begun to move loyalists into key positions. The real litmus test, however, lies in whether Kim is going to turn around the economy under onerous international sanctions while continuing to devote resources to WMD development.

Fig 3

The Power Beside the Throne

The one person who remains outside of any power flow chart is Kim Yo Jong. Her formal title is alternate member of the Politburo and deputy director of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the KWP. Because she is of the Paektu bloodline, Yo Jong carries much more weight than even Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju. By planting Yo Jong in one of the most important party departments, Jong Un is making sure that anyone else who wields significant power, such as Choe Ryong Hae, who heads the SPA and is also vice chairman of the party, can be checked.

As Kim Jong Il’s daughter, Yo Jong played a critical behind-the-scenes role in ensuring Jong Un’s succession. And, as described elsewhere in this book, she was the star of the opening ceremony of the February 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, and she never left her brother’s side during the April and May 2018 inter-Korean summits. The South Korean and world media made her into an instant global sensation. Her political influence is second only to her brother’s, although Kim might pull her back from the limelight if she gets too much attention. While Kim Yo Jong was next to her brother during meetings with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in 2018, and was in Singapore and Hanoi when Kim met with Trump, she was noticeably absent when Kim met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in April 2019. Although the South Korean press speculated that this was a sign that Yo Jong’s influence was ebbing, it was more likely a deliberate move either by Yo Jong herself or by Kim Jong Un to control her much-reported public appearances.

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Why Nepal Denied Entry to CIA Chief?


In a rare move, the Nepal government last week withheld permission for a visit to the country by CIA Director William J Burns, ostensibly on the grounds that the timing of the trip was “not so conducive”.

It is learnt Burns returned home from Sri Lanka, the first leg of his South Asia trip, after the Nepal government conveyed to the US Embassy in Kathmandu that given the political developments, including the impending Presidential election, permission for the visit was being withheld.

The decision was conveyed after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda informally consulted some senior Cabinet colleagues including Deputy Prime Ministers and senior bureaucrats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to information provided to the Nepal government, Burns was to fly from Sri Lanka in a special C-17 Globemaster III along with several officials on February 15 for an 18-hour stay in Kathmandu.

Another two aircraft with some vehicles and “unspecified equipment” meant for the US Embassy were also being brought – this, it is learnt, was notified to the host government.

Visits by top officials of external intelligence agencies, mainly from neighbours India and China, formally or informally, are not very uncommon.

In October 2020, Samant Goel, chief of India’s R&AW, met K P Oli, the then Prime Minister. Details of the discussion were never made public. Oli’s opponents still use that meeting as a political stick to target him.

A senior minister, among those consulted by Prachanda on the proposed trip by the CIA chief, said a visit at such short notice would create a dangerous precedent, and the Prime Minister decided to go “along with our view”.

But some like Keshav Prasad Bhattarai, an expert on security matters and international affairs, think that blocking Burns may prove to be a “blunder”.

High-level visits from the US are now routine but have caused heartburns in China which fears that enhanced US activities in Nepal are part of a destabilisation strategy targeting Beijing.

China openly opposed Nepal Parliament’s ratification of the Millenium Challenge Corporation Compact, a $500-million grant from the US, in February last year. The US also wants Nepal to play a larger role in Indo-Pacific strategy.

Last week, Prime Minister Prachanda said Nepal ratified the MCC since it was a developmental project, and “we did not allow them to come with weapons”.

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

Sri Lanka: Was CIA Top Man in Colombo to Play the Great Game Against China?


by Our Diplomatic Affairs Editor

“All things are ready, if our mind be so.” – William Shakespeare, from Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3 (inspired by a saying attributed to the ancient Greek general Themistocles)

One of the highest officials of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), made a secret visit to Sri Lanka, according to reliable sources in diplomatic missions in Colombo with knowledge of the issue. He was accompanied by a “delegation” led by US Principal Duty Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Jedidiah P. Royal. Furthermore, there are rumours circulating that the United States and India are planning to establish a joint military base in Trincomalee. While there has been no official confirmation on this matter, it is clear that Sri Lanka has become a battleground for a great power competition against China. Before assuming his current role as Director of the CIA, William (Will) Burns served as a diplomat and played a crucial role in American diplomacy. He is also the author of the memoir “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal,” in which he highlights the importance of strategic diplomacy and the use of backdoor channels. It is a really useful read to understand the true colours of diplomacy.

To understand the severity of the current geopolitical crisis in Sri Lanka, let’s examine an incident that occurred recently. Three universities in China, Sri Lanka, and an African country had planned to sign a tri-party Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). However, the Indian consul general office in Jaffna intervened and compelled Jaffna University to cancel the initiative, raising serious questions over “academic freedom.” Furthermore, reliable sources have revealed that India is funding several students’ unions in both the North and East provinces to take actions against Chinese development programs. In a recent interview, a young politician in Jaffna expressed concerns that former LTTE cadres may be receiving arms training in a neighbouring country, raising the possibility of a repeat of the tragic history. All of these developments suggest that a great game is being played to undermine the relationship between China and Sri Lanka. Key players in Sri Lanka must be very cautious in their analysis of this geopolitical situation, as there is a risk that Sri Lanka may become a vassal state controlled by the India-USA alliance against China. If Sri Lanka fails in its diplomatic strategy, it could face an unprecedented crisis, worse than prevailing economic meltdown.

China and Sri Lanka have a long and interesting history of diplomatic relations that dates back to the early 15th century, when the Chinese Great Admiral Zheng He made a visit to the Kotte Kingdom on the island. Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, was a Chinese explorer and admiral who is credited with exploring and mapping many parts of the Indian Ocean, including Sri Lanka. During his visit to Sri Lanka, Zheng He established friendly relations with the local rulers and introduced Chinese culture and traditions to the island. This visit marked the beginning of a long and enduring relationship between China and Sri Lanka, which continued for several centuries.

The Kotte Kingdom was a powerful Sinhalese kingdom that emerged in the 15th century in Sri Lanka. It was founded by a regional leader named Alagakkonara, who managed to establish his dominance over the region. However, by the mid-16th century, the Kotte Kingdom began to decline due to internal conflicts and external pressures from foreign invaders. The kingdom was weakened by a series of wars with the Portuguese, who eventually succeeded in capturing the capital city of Kotte in 1565. This marked the end of the Kotte Kingdom and the beginning of Portuguese colonial rule in Sri Lanka. After the fall of the Kotte Kingdom, the Sinhalese people migrated to the central hills of Sri Lanka and established a new kingdom in the city of Kandy. The Kandy Kingdom was established in 1590 and became the last independent kingdom in Sri Lanka. The kingdom was able to resist foreign invasion for many years due to its strategic location in the central hills, which made it difficult for invaders to reach. The Kandy Kingdom also maintained strong diplomatic relations with other neighbouring kingdoms, such as the Mughal Empire in India.

Indian influence in Sri Lanka can be traced back to ancient times when Buddhist teachings were brought to Sri Lanka from India. In the 3rd century BCE, the Indian emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. From then on, Sri Lanka became a hub of Buddhist learning, and Indian scholars and pilgrims regularly travelled to the island to study and worship at the Buddhist sites. In the 11th century, the Chola Empire of South India invaded Sri Lanka and established a short-lived empire on the island. However, Indian influence in Sri Lanka reached its peak during the Kandy Kingdom, when the kingdom maintained close relations with the Mughal Empire. The Mughals were interested in Sri Lanka’s strategic location and trade opportunities, and they established diplomatic and commercial ties with the Kandy Kingdom. The Mughals also helped the Kandy Kingdom to resist the Portuguese, providing military aid and training to the Sinhalese army. Simultaneously, Chinese diplomatic relationship was diluted. Due to Indian influence and other factors, the relationship between China and Sri Lanka declined for many decades, and this history was even wiped out from local history books.  However, after the 1949 Communist Revolution, China again started to focus on building its relationships with other countries, including Sri Lanka. In recent years, China has been a key economic partner for Sri Lanka, investing in major infrastructure projects such as the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City.

While the relationship between China and Sri Lanka has had its ups and downs, the two countries continue to share a strong bond that is rooted in their shared history and culture. Today, China is one of Sri Lanka’s most important economic and strategic partners, and the two countries continue to work closely together to promote mutual growth and development. It is true that there are some competitors who are seeking to reduce China’s influence in Sri Lanka. Some countries, such as the United States and India, have expressed concern about China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka and other parts of the region. In recent years, there have been reports of efforts to limit or curtail Chinese investment and influence in Sri Lanka.

However, it is worth noting that China’s involvement in Sri Lanka has brought significant benefits to the country. Chinese investment has helped to fund major infrastructure projects, such as highways, ports, and airports, which have helped to boost economic growth and create jobs. China has also provided support in areas such as education, healthcare, and disaster relief. While there are certainly concerns about China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka, it is important to remember that the relationship between the two countries is based on a long and complex history that goes back many centuries. Despite the challenges and competition from other countries, China and Sri Lanka should continue to work together to promote economic development and mutual growth in the years ahead. Sri Lanka is passing its moment of “know thyself” through its historical roots.

World Insights: U.S. is world’s biggest spy power


Living up to the epithet of “surveillance empire,” the United State has, for decades, conducted indiscriminate mass surveillance of foreign governments, companies and individuals as well as its own citizens.

[Xinhua]An utterly harmless, unmanned civilian airship has been in the cross-hairs in the latest anti-China stunt pulled by some U.S. politicians and media.

However, the ploy of accusing China of flying surveillance balloon has only made their smear attack look quite clumsy and ludicrous as it’s no secret the United States itself is the world’s biggest spy power with the world’s widest intelligence network.

Living up to the epithet of “surveillance empire,” the United State has, for decades, conducted indiscriminate mass surveillance of foreign governments, companies and individuals as well as its own citizens.


When it comes to surveillance, it’s necessary to point out the United States is the world’s No. 1 surveillance state, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has said in a recent press briefing.

According to Politico, the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars developing high-altitude reconnaissance balloons since 1997 and quietly transitioned the balloon projects to the military services in 2022. The balloons may be used to track hypersonic strategic cruise missiles being developed by China and Russia.

Permeating through every part of the world, the U.S. surveillance network also targets the country’s allies.

In May 2021, Denmark’s national broadcaster DR News reported that the Danish Defense Intelligence Service had given the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) open Internet access to spy on senior politicians of countries, including then German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The NSA purposefully obtained data and thus was able to spy on targeted heads of state, as well as Scandinavian leaders, top politicians, and high-ranking officials in Germany, Sweden, Norway and France, the report said, which caused global shock and fury.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in May 2021 that this “is unacceptable between allies, even less between allies and European partners,” and Merkel said she “could only agree” with Macron’s comments.

But that was not unfamiliar to European leaders. In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that Washington had been spying on the email and cell phone communications of as many as 35 world leaders.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald exposed in his book No Place to Hide that a single unit of the NSA had collected more than 97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls from around the world in just 30 days in 2013.

The powerful mass surveillance system has helped the United States make profits.

For example, in 2013, reports of the U.S. magazine WIRED surfaced that Brazil’s state oil and gas giant Petrobras was a prime target of U.S. government spying activity.

“Washington is losing its moral ground,” the German magazine Focus quoted an expert on foreign policy as saying.

With its global surveillance network, “the United States itself is the true eavesdropper,” Focus said, though the country prefers to frame itself as a victim of spying.


According to a recent report by Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Privacy and Technology, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has expanded far beyond its role as an immigration agency to become a “domestic surveillance agency.”

The ICE has developed a dragnet surveillance system that allows it to collect detailed dossiers on nearly every person in America at any time, without any judicial, legislative, or public oversight, said the report titled “American Dragnet: Data-driven Deportation in the 21st Century.”

From 2008 to 2021, the ICE has spent approximately 2.8 billion U.S. dollars on surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives, the report said, noting the agency has been able to access utility record information of over 218 million customers across all 50 states.

The ICE is not the only agency in the United States that has overreached its authority and abused citizens’ private personal data.

In fact, mass surveillance in the United States has become institutionalized. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States enacted numerous laws to expand the government’s surveillance powers for national security reasons.

The U.S. Congress greenlighted the Patriot Act in 2001, which covers Section 215, one of the most controversial programs for domestic and international surveillance.

In 2008, Congress approved Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to collect communications concerning foreign intelligence targets without a warrant.

Following the disclosure by Snowden and Wikileaks of the U.S. government’s abuse of power to collect millions of Americans’ private data, the ensuing public outcry prompted Congress to prohibit the notorious bugging project PRISM.

However, the government actually never stops abusing its power to carry out indiscriminate surveillance on its citizens.

In 2021 alone, the FBI has conducted up to 3.4 million warrantless searches of Americans’ phone calls, emails and text messages, the Hill reported, citing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Ana Montes: Perfect Cuban Agent


Ana Belen Montes, the most effective and damaging Cuban spy known to have penetrated U.S. intelligence, was a major warrior in the long nasty war between the United States and its communist neighbor. On Jan. 6, after serving 20 years of a 25 year sentence for espionage, she was released from a maximum security prison, perhaps drawing the curtain on the deadly clandestine conflict involving efforts by Cuban exiles and their U.S. allies to reverse the revolution led by Fidel Castro.

By the time of her arrest in 2001, Montes had been a mole inside the Defense Intelligence Agency for 17 years, feeding U.S. secrets to Cuba during the civil wars in Central America, where Cuba and the U.S. military backed opposite sides in conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Even as the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its lifeline of economic and military support for Castro’s regime,  Montes rose in rank and importance in the DIA. She became the agency’s chief analyst in charge of processing U.S. intelligence about the island, earning the sobriquet, “Queen of Cuba,” both for her unrivaled expertise and her imperious manner.

There have been worse breaches of U.S. national security, notably Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, whose spying for the Soviets inside the CIA and FBI led to the deaths and imprisonment of a good number of the CIA’s Russian sources. But Montes’ spying unquestionably dealt devastating blows to U.S. human intelligence and surveillance operations inside Cuba, especially during the 1990s, when Cuban exiles based in Miami were launching what may have been their last concerted effort to overthrow Castro. At least four U.S. agents operating inside Cuba were arrested as a result of information provided by Montes, according to damage assessments conducted after her arrest. 

Jim Popkin, an investigative journalist and former senior editor for NBC News,  tells the story of Ana Montes and the counterintelligence agents at the National Security Agency, DIA and FBI who finally caught her in his engaging and solidly reported book, Code Name Blue Wren, released only a few days before Montes was freed this month. Spy cases are notoriously difficult to write about, especially those involving the spies working for U.S. adversaries. The existence of a mole inside a major intelligence agency is by definition an egregious failure, and such institutions rarely are eager to share the details of a debacle on the scale of Montes’s penetration of the DIA. 

As a lead Cuba analyst in her everyday work at the agency, Montes drafted reports arguing for a softer U.S. policy toward the regime. Popkin, citing his sources, calls her recommendations “disinformation”, but—perhaps ironically—her analysis of Cuba’s deteriorated military capability and conclusion that Cuba no longer posed a significant threat to U.S. national security in the 1990s put her in respectable company. Similar conclusions would become mainstream in policy circles and lead to the eventual rapprochement with Cuba and resumption of diplomatic relations by the Obama administration in 2015.

Popkin seems to have interviewed all the major actors involved in the multiyear counterintelligence operation that —finally—led to her arrest in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attack. (The decision to move against her was accelerated when FBI investigators learned Montes had been promoted and given a major role in the  DIA team planning and selecting targets for the U.S. war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

Montes was a “true believer,” to borrow the term used by one of the counterintelligence agents who caught her—which differentiates her from better known U.S. moles who turned coat mostly for money. Her parents were from modest families in Puerto Rico, and Ana began the process of radicalization in 1977 during a trip to Spain where her boyfriend was a young leftist who had experienced the worst years of the dirty war in Argentina, Popkin writes.

A gifted academic studying at the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University School in Washington, she opposed the Reagan administration’s sponsorship of the Contra fighters seeking to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. A Puerto Rican friend—who also happened to be a Cuban agent—encouraged her to go to Havana, where she was recruited by the regime’s intelligence service, originally with the sole idea of supporting the Nicaraguan cause. Popkin mentions that, according to evidence gathered after her arrest, Cuba helped Montes pay off student loans and buy a laptop, but otherwise did not pay her to spy.

One of the most fascinating stories in the book is that of a Cuban-American woman at the secretive National Security Agency who gathered details about the unidentified mole (who turned out to be Montes) by decrypting Cuban radio messages. For example, the messages revealed that the suspected spy had visited the U.S. Guantanamo military base at a certain date, had bought a Toshiba laptop computer, and that Cuba had paid off the agent’s college loan.

The NSA official, given the pseudonym Elena Valdes, doggedly pursued the spy chase for three years, leading to the identification of the DIA as the penetrated agency and the arrest of Montes on Sept. 21, 2001. She first briefed the FBI, which is the primary U.S. agency in charge of counterintelligence. After two years, convinced the FBI was getting nowhere, Elena stepped outside established procedure and, in essence, went behind the FBI’s back. She wrangled an invitation to visit DIA headquarters, and there presented  her packet of decrypted messages to a secure meeting with DIA counterintelligence official Chris Simmons, who showed the kind of investigative enthusiasm she felt was missing at the FBI.

Simmons quickly spotted a clue that would upend the investigation. One of the messages said the unidentified spy had access to something called “safe” as part of his or her work in the unidentified U.S. agency. “Holy shit,” Simmons said. “SAFE” was the acronym for the DIA’s classified database of analyst reports and other investigative materials shared with the CIA and other agencies. The clue meant the spy had to be working at the DIA itself. 

“You’ve been looking in the wrong place,” he exclaimed. “That person has got to be in this building.”

The breakthrough reinvigorated the official FBI investigation. The search now narrowed to the DIA staff, Ana Montes was identified from the other clues, put under surveillance, and taken into custody. 

Inexplicably, Popkin omits a key player in this spy vs spy drama. While Montes was spying inside the DIA for Cuba, the CIA also had a mole inside Cuba’s own intelligence apparatus.  Rolando Sarraff Trujillo was a cryptology specialist in Cuba’s DGI, the intelligence directorate, and he knew the codes Cuba used to communicate with its spies in the United States. He had been recruited to work for the CIA sometime in the 1990s and remained in place, providing the encryption information that allowed the CIA and NSA to crack the code on intercepted shortwave messages. It was his codes that allowed Elena at NSA to read Ana Montes communications with her Cuban handlers. Sarraff was caught by Cuba’s DGI counterspies and imprisoned in 1995.

The omission in Popkin’s book is curious, because it points to the larger context of how the decades of hostility between Cuba and the United States gave way finally in 2014 to what amounted to a ceasefire. The Obama administration negotiated a renewal of diplomatic relations, allowed Cuban exiles to send money to relatives on the island and relaxed travel  restrictions. The truce after a half century of hostility left in place the economic embargo, but introduced an interlude (albeit brief) of almost friendly relations, during which hundreds of thousands of American academics and curious tourists flocked to Cuba, before Donald Trump canceled the detente.

As part of the warming of relations, President Obama negotiated a spy swap.  A U.S. government contractor, Alan Gross, who had been arrested in Cuba in 2009 for smuggling military-grade communications equipment into the country, was languishing in prison in poor health. Washington had always denied Cuba’s charges that Gross was a spy, but saw an opening to spring Sarraff.  The United States was holding three men who had been arrested in 1998 as part of the so-called Wasp network, a group of Cubans spying on militant anti-Castro groups in Florida.

To break the impasse, Cuba agreed to release Gross on “humanitarian grounds” and to exchange Sarraff for the three Wasp spies held by the United States. In announcing the swap, President Obama, referring obliquely to Sarraff, said the unnamed spy was “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba.” More relevant to the odd lapse in Popkin’s story, U.S. intelligence officials issued a statement saying the exchanged spy’s information had led to the detection and conviction of Cuban spies working in the United States, not just the members of the Wasp network but also Ana Montes. Spytalk editor Jeff Stein, writing for Newsweek at the time,  was one of several reporters to confirm Sarraff’s identity and the link between his cryptography work for the CIA and Ana Montes’ arrest.)

Other than that, Popkin has produced a fine piece of reporting and writing on an intricate, and largely overlooked, spy-vs-spy case. My only other quibble is that he gives barely a nod to the sordid history of the conflict between the United States and Cuba, marked by the U.S. sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the Soviet Union’s secret deployment of nuclear missiles in 1962, which brought the world to the brink of war, and dozens of U.S. plots to assassinate Castro in the 1960s. Perhaps reflecting the attitudes of his hardline sources, Popkin expresses disgust not only for  Montes’s betrayal of her country but also for her leftist friends, notably a prominent SAIS professor whom he ungraciously dismisses as an apologist for Cuba.

Neglecting that history, he is unable to do justice to the remarkable evolution of U.S. relations with Cuba, during and after the time Ana Montes was active, culminating in Obama’s peacemaking with the post-Fidel Castro regime. (He turned over power to his brother Raul in 2006.)  Popkin’s portrayal remains stuck in the anticommunist tropes of many decades ago, when Cuba and its Soviet ally did indeed present a clear and present danger, certainly from the point of view of the United States.

I admit: Mine is perhaps the complaint of a Latin Americanist, grasping for the wider framework of the spy story, rather than the book Popkin actually wrote.  That said, Popkin’s Code Name Blue Wren is unquestionably the most complete telling of this fascinating spy saga and the story of a occasionally brilliant and always morally complicated  woman who decided to spy against her country. 

Source: SpyTalks

CIA Role in Afghan Evacuation


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


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

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.