Diplomatic Security Sit-Rep 02/21/2019
Diplomatic Security Sit-Rep 02/21/2019
By The Associated Press
Diplomatic Security Sit-Rep 01/02/2019
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia is investigating a possible plot to assassinate President Ivan Duque that may involve Venezuelan nationals arrested while carrying “weapons of war,” according to a top official.
Without providing evidence or any further details, Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes posted a 90-second video on Twitter Saturday night that said Colombia’s intelligence services had been hearing chatter about alleged plans to kill Mr. Duque, a conservative.
He said the recent arrests of three Venezuelans who had assault weapons in their possession had heightened the authorities’ concern.
“With immense concern and the utmost condemnation, I want to inform the international community that, in effect, for the past several months intelligence investigations have been taking place about possible attacks on the president’s life,” Mr. Holmes said in the video.
The video did not say whether the authorities had verified the existence of a conspiracy.
Blu Radio reported that the Venezuelans, who were arrested in the cities of Valledupar and Barranquilla this month, had in their possession an assault rifle with a telescopic scope, as well as an Uzi, ammunition and stun grenade.
Blu, citing unidentified sources, said any plot would have likely had the support of armed Colombian leftist rebels or drug-trafficking organizations, and would have been timed to coincide next month with the start of the second term of President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.
There was no immediate reaction from Venezuela’s government.
In his video, Mr. Holmes appealed to Colombians to share any information that could affect the president’s safety. He expressed appreciation for the cooperation of unidentified foreign intelligence agencies for helping to protect the Colombian president.
Mr. Duque, 42, who took office in August, has been leading a diplomatic effort in Latin America to isolate Venezuela’s socialist government as Mr. Maduro looks set to cement his hold on power amid a devastating economic crisis that has spurred millions of Venezuelans to flee to neighboring countries to escape widespread food and medicine shortages and hyperinflation.
The Colombian leader has been a strong critic of the socialist government of Mr. Maduro, whom he has called a “dictator.”
The two neighboring countries have had tense relations for years, with soldiers and helicopters from the Bolivarian National Guard of Venezuela regularly crossing the porous border into Colombia.
Colombia, the United States and other governments have said that Mr. Maduro’s election victory in May, amid an opposition boycott and allegations of vote-rigging, was illegitimate.
They have urged the embattled leader to call new elections in which all of his opponents, several of whom have been exiled or banned from holding office, be allowed to run.
Mr. Maduro has been ratcheting up his rhetoric against Colombia in recent weeks, accusing his neighbor of plotting with the United States to violently oust him from power. He accused Colombia of helping “terrorists” after an attempted armed drone attack in August. Colombia has denied the accusations.
In a notable rebuke in September, five Latin American countries and Canada urged the International Criminal Court to consider prosecuting senior officials in Venezuela for extensive human rights abuses, the first time that member nations had referred another member to the tribunal.
Diplomatic Security Sit-Rep 12/20/2018
The government of Albania has ejected Iranian agents alleged to have plotted terrorist attacks in the country, including targeting Israelis.
“I commend PM Edi Rama’s expulsion of two Iranian agents who plotted terrorist attacks in Albania,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted. “European nations have thwarted three Iranian plots this year alone. The world must stand together to sanction Iran’s regime until it changes its destructive behavior.”
The foiled plot is related to Iranians, who planned to attack a World Cup soccer match between Albania and Israel in 2016.
One of the two Iranian agents expelled was the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to Albania.
“Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania just expelled the Iranian ambassador, signaling to Iran’s leaders that their support for terrorism will not be tolerated,” National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote on his Twitter feed. “We stand with PM Rama and the Albanian people as they stand up to Iran’s reckless behavior in Europe and across the globe.”
The expulsion of the two Iranian agents on Wednesday follows the arrest of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat in the Vienna embassy who is believed to have launched a plot to blow up a meeting of Iranian dissidents in Paris in June. The German government arrested Assadi in Bavaria.
In October, France’s government said Iran’s ministry of intelligence was behind the plot to bomb the rally of Iranian opposition groups in Paris.
The rally in Paris was attended by US President Donald Trump’s attorney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Former US House speaker Newt Gingrich was also present.
In November, Denmark accused Iran’s intelligence agency of planning to murder an exiled leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), groups fighting for a separate territory in Iran. “We are dealing with an Iranian intelligence agency planning an attack on Danish soil. Obviously, we can’t and won’t accept that,” said Finn Borch Andersen, the head of Danish intelligence.
Sweden extradited a Norwegian national of Iranian background to Denmark in connection with the foiled plot against the ASMLA leader.
The Danes pulled their ambassador out of Iran but he returned in November.
The Danish government pushed the EU for sanctions against Iran, but the EU has refused to take action.
The Netherlands expelled two Iranian diplomats, according to a Reuters report in July. “We can confirm that the Netherlands has expelled two persons accredited to the Iranian embassy,” a spokesperson for Dutch intelligence said. “We will not provide any further information.”
10/19/2018 Diplomatic Security Sit-Rep| ANKARA: An individual who claimed to have links to Daesh (ISIS) extremist group threatened to attack the Iranian Embassy in Ankara, Tehran’s envoy in Turkey said Monday, denying Turkish media reports that he had been evacuated.
“The suicide attack against the embassy was only a threat,” Ambassador Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian Fard said. “Nothing significant has happened and things are under control.”
“The threat was made by someone who introduced himself as linked to Daesh,” Fard said, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
Turkish media said Fard had been evacuated but the ambassador and Tehran flatly denied the report as a complete fabrication.
“Such a claim is a sheer lie, and the personnel at our embassy are present at their workplace in full health and security,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
Earlier Monday, DHA news agency said Iran’s mission in the Turkish capital had been given an intelligence warning about a possible suicide bomb attack. The road by the embassy was shut off and police could be seen searching cars in the area, an AFP photographer said.
Ambassador Fard also said Turkish police “intensified security measures” around Tehran’s mission in Ankara in response to the threat.
In 2015 and 2016, Turkey was hit by a series of terror attacks which were blamed on both Kurdish militants and Daesh.
The last attack blamed on Daesh was in January 2017 when a gunman killed 39 people at an elite Istanbul nightclub on New Year.
Diplomatic Security Sit-Rep 10/12/2018
(ISTANBUL) — Turkish media close to the president published images Wednesday of what it described as a 15-member “assassination squad” allegedly sent to target Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and of a black van later traveling from the Saudi consulate, where he went missing, to the consul’s home.
The release of the photographs and video raises pressure on Saudi Arabia a week after Khashoggi disappeared during a visit to the consulate. Turkish officials fear that the team killed the writer, who was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The kingdom has called the allegations “baseless,” but has not provided any evidence that Khashoggi left the consulate and did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
News channel 24 aired the video, suggesting that Khashoggi was inside of the black Mercedes Vito, which resembled one parked outside of the consulate when the writer walked in on Oct. 2. The channel said the van then drove some 1.2 miles to the consul’s home, where it parked inside a garage.
The Sabah newspaper, which is similarly close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published images of what it referred to as the “assassination squad” apparently taken at passport control. It said they checked into two hotels in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and left later that day.
Khashoggi had written a series of columns for the Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Arabia’s assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has led a widely publicized drive to reform the Sunni monarchy but has also presided over the arrests of activists and businessmen.
On Wednesday, the Post published a column by Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. She acknowledged the writer first visited the consulate on Sept. 28 “despite being somewhat concerned that he could be in danger.” He later returned Oct. 2 after being promised needed paperwork so the two could be married.
A surveillance video image surfaced Tuesday showing Khashoggi walking into the consulate in Istanbul’s upscale 4th Levent neighborhood. No evidence of him leaving the consulate has been made public, but Turkish officials also have yet to provide evidence he was kidnapped or killed.
“At this time, I implore President Trump and first lady Melania Trump to help shed light on Jamal’s disappearance,” Cengiz wrote. “I also urge Saudi Arabia, especially King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to show the same level of sensitivity and release CCTV footage from the consulate.”
She added: “Although this incident could potentially fuel a political crisis between the two nations, let us not lose sight of the human aspect of what happened.”
Khashoggi had sought to become a U.S. citizen after living in self-imposed exile since last year, fearing repercussions for his criticism of the prince, Cengiz wrote.
Trump, who took his first overseas trip as U.S. president to the kingdom and whose son-in-law Jared Kushner has close ties to Prince Mohammed, said Tuesday he had not yet talked to the Saudis about Khashoggi, “but I will be at some point,” without elaborating.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said Tuesday that Saudi authorities have notified Ankara that they were “open to cooperation” and would allow the consulate building to be searched. It’s unclear when such a search would take place.
Embassies and consulates under the Vienna Convention are technically foreign soil and must be protected by host nations. Saudi Arabia may have agreed to the search in order to reassure its Western allies and the international community.
The U.S. has officially blamed Iran for recent attacks near Washington’s diplomatic presence in Iraq, where the two powers have competed for influence in the latest venue of a decades-long feud sparked by an embassy hostage crisis.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Wednesday that “Iran is the origin of the current threat to Americans in Iraq” and was “to blame for the attacks against our mission in Basra and our embassy in Baghdad,” adding that his department’s “intelligence in this regard is solid.” Iran has the support of a number of semi-official Shiite Muslim militias across Iraq, and Pompeo cited “repeated incidents of indirect fire from elements of those militias” against the two U.S. sites in a Friday statement announcing the closure of the consulate general in the southern city of Basra.
Iran, whose own consulate general in Basra was burned down last month, has rejected these charges. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said Saturday that “the ridiculous justification [provided by Americans] for the closure of the U.S. Consulate General in Basra, which came after weeks of propaganda and false allegations against Iran and the Iraqi forces, is a suspicious move aimed at evading responsibility and pinning the blame on others responsibility and pinning the blame on others”
As unrest once again grips Iraq, the ripples of a long-standing dispute between the U.S. and Iran has again highlighted a history of both countries targeting one another’s diplomats.
Poisoned relations between the U.S. and Iran began in 1979. Prior to that, Iran was under the rule of the pro-West Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the U.S. stepped in to protect British oil interests when Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh challenged the monarch’s absolute power and tried to nationalize the energy sector. With Mossadegh deposed and imprisoned in a 1953 CIA-sponsored coup, Pahlavi went on to rule for another quarter of a century before he himself was forced to flee the Islamic Revolution, which brought the current revolutionary Shiite Muslim government into power.
Upset over Western meddling in Iranian affairs and demanding that an ill Pahlavi be extradited to face justice at home, supporters of the new clerical administration overran the U.S. Embassy and held 52 U.S. diplomats and citizens hostage. A U.S. Army attempt to rescue the detainees by force ended in failure when a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft, killing eight soldiers. An Iranian civilian was also killed when U.S. forces bombed the truck he was riding in.
The hostages were ultimately released on the day of President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 following extensive negotiations. Although the U.S. would go on to secretly sell arms to Iran while also supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, relations between Washington and Tehran were effectively squashed. Their relationship further deteriorated with growing Iranian support for foreign Shiite Muslim movements such as the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of whom have been blamed for the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut—an attack that killed up to 63 people, including 17 U.S. officials and soldiers.
The U.S. officially embargoed Iranian trade in 1995 and these sanctions expanded as Iran embarked on a nuclear program, which Tehran always maintained was solely for peaceful purposes. Though Iran was a bitter opponent of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, it also backed Shiite Muslim insurgents targeting U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion that toppled him as it expanded ties with the new majority-Shiite Muslim administration in Baghdad. In January 2007, the U.S. raided the Iranian Liaison Office in Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, accusing five staff members of being agents of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and detaining them.
The local Kurdish government, which had ties to both the U.S. and Iran, vouched for the individuals and prevented the U.S. from detaining other individuals at Erbil’s airport. The five liaison office employees were ultimately released two and a half years later in 2009 as part of the U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, which sought to establish a framework for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran remained largely frozen until President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani began negotiations to lift international sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to considerably restrict its nuclear activities. A multinational accord endorsed by both parties, along with China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K., was announced in June 2015.
President Donald Trump, however, has accused Iran of using unfrozen funds to further destabilize the region via support for paramilitary movements and the development of ballistic missiles. Capitalizing on conservative outrage toward the nuclear deal, he demanded that the terms be renegotiated, something that Iran has refused to consider. Even as both the U.S. and Iran devoted assets toward battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), relations again declined rapidly and Trump announced that he would leave the nuclear agreement in May.
The Trump administration has continued to press the international community to isolate Iran, even without the support of European allies and major powers China and Russia. The U.S. has increasingly aligned its position with that of longtime Iranian foes Israel and Saudi Arabia, which itself severed ties with the Islamic Republic after protestors responded to the kingdom’s execution of an influential Shiite Muslim cleric by torching Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran in early 2016.
This Story was originally Reported onSept. 29
(UPI) — The U.S. government has closed a U.S. consulate in Iraq temporarily and evacuated diplomats over security risks from Iran, administration officials said.
The U.S. consulate in the southern Iraq city of Basra was shut down Friday hours after a rocket attack in the area blamed on Iranian-backed militias.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo ordered the evacuation of diplomats from the consulate, the U.S. U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Iraq announced in a statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will continue providing consular service in the area, the statement said.
“We remain strongly committed to supporting Iraqis in the southern provinces and throughout the country,” U.S. Department of State Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Hours before Pompeo’s decision to close the consulate, rockets or mortars landed near the building, an official said.
The U.S. consulate has faced credible threats from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, a senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal.
On Friday, a senior Iran military leader warned the United States against crossing Iran’s “red lines.”
Brigadier General Hossein Salami said the perpetrators of a terrorist attack on a military parade Saturday in southwest Iran that killed at least 29 people were backed by regional elements including the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo denies that the United States had anything to do with the military parade attack.
It’s time for Western policymakers to develop a playbook for countermeasures against potential ‘directed energy’ attacks, Robert Bunker writes.
A recent health alert posted on the US Department of State website related to an incident in Guangzhou, China, in which an employee of the US embassy suffered certain ‘bio-effects’. The event can be viewed in the context of earlier incidents, such as that in which US – as well as one or more Canadian – diplomatic staff members serving in Havana, Cuba were similarly affected.
These traumatic brain and bodily injuries to diplomatic personnel have raised concerns over the possibility that an ongoing series of clandestine directed energy attacks have been taking place, and are increasingly drawing news and social media attention.
Three primary reasons exist why a clandestine state entity may intentionally project directed energy at US and allied embassies.
First, such energies can be utilized for sensing and spying activities in an attempt to obtain restricted and secret information either being discussed or transmitted. For instance, listening devices exist that can bounce energy frequencies off the window glass of an office, thus allowing the hearing of a private conversation inside.
Second, directed energy can be deployed in a jamming and harassment role to degrade embassy and staff functioning. This would be akin to disrupting cell phone reception, local area networks (for example from a computer to a printer), or even other more secure forms of communication.
Third, certain electromagnetic frequencies may be utilised in order to injure personnel and destroy specific forms of military equipment. As national militaries increasingly weaponise the electromagnetic spectrum, the use of infra- and ultra-sonic devices, high-powered microwaves (HPM), and lasers are becoming more common
Such advanced technologies are well suited for clandestine use because some of them – particularly certain sonic and HPM technologies – can bypass physical walls and structures. They directly injure targeted individuals with virtually none of the conventional forensic evidence a firearm or explosive would leave behind. China is well aware of these advanced weaponry capabilities and is actively pursuing them developmentally and in field-testing.
Various narratives and counter-narratives, however, have been proposed about these incidents in attempts to dismiss them as non-events. They have been portrayed as a figment of employee imagination, the product of mass hysteria, and more recently – given the preponderance of medical evidence that diplomatic personnel have suffered actual physical damage – as the malfunctioning of electronic eavesdropping equipment.
Within the context of these narratives, disinformation campaigns are actively being waged by Chinese, Russian, and allied authoritarian regimes as a component of their foreign policies, which are directly at odds with liberal democratic governance and individual human rights.
Diplomatic Security Situation Report 05/26/2018
On May 23, the U.S. embassy in China released a health alert, claiming that a U.S. government employee in China “recently reported subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure.”
Although the statement clarified that the United States did not know “what caused the reported symptoms” nor was aware of “any similar situations in China, either inside or outside of the diplomatic community,” the U.S. government sent a warning message to all its citizens in China in the health alert:
[I]f you experience any unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises, do not attempt to locate their source. Instead, move to a location where the sounds are not present.
An embassy spokeswoman also told CNN that this U.S. employee was diagnosed with a “mild traumatic brain injury.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later claimed that this incident in China was “very similar” to and “entirely consistent” with those experienced by American diplomats posted in Havana, Cuba. Last year U.S. State Department sent most of its diplomats in Cuba home after accusing the Cuban government of conducting “sonic attacks” on employees of the American embassy.
Unsurprisingly, after Pompeo’s remarks the U.S. media then widely referred to this incident as a Chinese “sonic attack.”
However, many researchers believe that the symptoms these U.S. diplomats suffered are unlikely to be caused by “sonic attacks.”
Jürgen Altmann, a physics professor at Technischen Universität Dortmund in Berlin, told CNN, “I know of no acoustic effect that would produce concussion-like symptoms; according to my research, strong effects on humans require loudness levels that would be perceived as very loud noise while exposed.”
In line with Altmann, Wang Ning, chief physician of the Department of Neurosurgery in Beijing Xuanwu Hospital, who has specialized in the field of neurosurgery for many years, also told Chinese media that “To cause a ‘traumatic brain injury,’ the intensity of sound waves should be as strong as an explosive level.”
As for the earlier Cuba incident, many U.S. experts also ruled out the possibility of “sonic attacks.” For example, after examining the 21 embassy workers in Havana, a team of doctors at the University of Pennsylvania published a report on February 15 in the journal JAMA, suggesting that none of the proposed causes for these mass brain symptoms (including sonic weapons) really make sense, according to Live Science.
In fact, even the FBI made it clear that “there has been no evidence to support the theory of sonic waves being used to harm Americans in Havana.”
Instead, a group of scientists published an academic article, arguing that the Cuba incident was more likely the “accidental side effect of attempted eavesdropping.”
Kevin Fu, a researcher at the University of Michigan, together with Wenyuan Xu, a professor at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, China, and her Ph.D. student Chen Yan, published a report, titled “On Cuba, Diplomats, Ultrasound, and Intermodulation Distortion,” giving a more plausible explanation.
Through experiments, this team showed that ultrasonic signals from eavesdropping devices can “combine to produce audible and potentially dangerous tones similar to the undulating, high-pitched chirping that the diplomats described,” as Michigan News put it.
“We’ve demonstrated a scenario in which the harm might have been unintentional, a byproduct of a poorly engineered ultrasonic transmitter that was meant to be covert,” Fu told Michigan News. “A malfunctioning device that was supposed to inaudibly steal information or eavesdrop on conversation with ultrasonic transmission seems more plausible than a sonic weapon.”
IEEE Spectrum, a magazine edited by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, believes that Fu’s report is “finally a likely explanation.” While Fu was quick to point out this is still just a theory, he suggested the harmful sound could be the unintentional result of an ultrasonic transmitter — an eavesdropping device — reacting with an ultrasonic jammer meant to safeguard against such bugs.
“Each device might have been placed there by a different party, completely unaware of the other,” Fu said.
Notably, this report was published in March, before the latest China incident.
So far, China’s attitude toward this incident has been quite calm.
On May 24, China’s Foreign Ministry responded:
China has always protected the safety of foreign diplomatic missions in China, including that of the U.S. diplomatic staff, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Regarding what was said in those reports, China has carried out an investigation seriously and given an initial feedback to the U.S. By far, we have found no reason or clue for what was reported by the U.S.
In Fu’s mind, “bad engineering just seems much more likely than a sonic weapon.” If the China incident was “entirely consistent” with the Cuba “sonic attacks,” then it may be that a “poorly engineered ultrasonic transmitter” — or jammer, or both — was being used in both cases.
A French employee of France’s Consulate in Jerusalem is under arrest for allegedly smuggling dozens of weapons from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, Israel’s domestic security agency said Monday.
The Shin Bet said the man, identified as Romain Franck, 23, was part of a broader Palestinian smuggling ring. It said he used his consular vehicle, which is subjected to more lenient security checks, to transport the weapons through Israel’s tightly secured border with the Gaza Strip. It said he took part in the ring for financial gain and that his employer was unaware of his actions.
The French Embassy in Israel issued a statement confirming that a consulate employee had been arrested, saying it was treating the incident with “great importance,” but wouldn’t discuss the case itself. The embassy said it was in contact with Israeli authorities and the suspect’s family, and was opening an internal investigation into the matter.
The Shin Bet said Franck, who was arrested in February, confessed to the charges. A previous gag order on the case was lifted Monday, when Israel charged Franck with conspiracy to commit a crime and multiple weapons offenses, among other counts.
“This is a very serious incident in which the privileges and immunity granted to foreign missions in Israel were cynically exploited to smuggle dozens of weapons that could be used in terror attacks,” the Shin Bet statement said.
The Shin Bet said Franck transferred a total of 70 handguns and two assault rifles on five occasions over recent months. It said he received the arms from a Gaza man employed at the French cultural center in Gaza and brought them to someone in the West Bank, where they were then sold to arms dealers.
The French Foreign Ministry said the arrested employee, a member of the consulate’s “technical staff,” was detained by Israeli authorities “under serious charges related to alleged trafficking in arms.”
The ongoing internal investigation is aimed at “drawing all the conclusions to allow our Consulate General’s members to pursue in the best conditions their important mission in a difficult context,” ministry spokeswoman Agnes Von Der Muhll said.
The French ambassador and other embassy officials have visited the consular employee and “we’re making sure that all the rights of our compatriot are well respected,” she said.
According to the indictment, Franck was a driver for the consulate and would ferry diplomatic staff between Gaza and Jerusalem. He would transport the arms in packages or suitcases in the trunk of the consular car and lie to Israeli security guards at the Gaza border crossing when asked if he was carrying any weapons. The indictment said Franck earned thousands of dollars for moving the guns.
Israeli officials believe that consular immunity would not apply in this case.
The Shin Bet sent reporters a picture of what it said was the consular vehicle, a silver SUV. It was not clear from the photo whether the vehicle carried the white license plates of the consular corps.
Nine people, including Franck, were arrested, the Shin Bet said. Among the suspects is a Palestinian security guard at the French Consulate in Jerusalem.
The Shin Bet said French authorities were kept aware of developments on the case during the investigation.
Israel has previously accused Palestinians employed by the U.N. or non-governmental organizations of participating in hostile activities, including collaborating with Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers. But allegations against international staffers are rare.
JERUSALEM — A French national working for his country’s consulate in Jerusalem appeared in an Israeli court on Monday on charges that he smuggled weapons from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in a diplomatic vehicle.
The consulate employee, identified by Israeli authorities as Romain Franck, is accused of smuggling the weapons out of Gaza on at least five occasions and transferring them to a criminal Palestinian ring. The gang is alleged to have sold the weapons for thousands of dollars to arms dealers in the occupied West Bank.
Franck, who French media said is 23 or 24 years old, is suspected of having transferred about 70 pistols and two assault rifles in return for roughly $7,500.
The indictment describes in detail the five times that he was allegedly involved in transferring “nylon-wrapped” packages of guns from Gaza to the West Bank cell. It said he was a driver with the French Consulate and took advantage of his access to consular vehicles — which are subject to less stringent security checks — to carry as many as 20 guns at a time through the Erez crossing into Israel and on to Jerusalem.
The indictment says he would then head to the West Bank city of Ramallah, passing through an Israeli checkpoint along the way, to meet members of the Palestinian cell and hand over the weapons.
Franck also allegedly involved another French Consulate employee, who worked as a security guard, in the criminal enterprise. That individual, an Israeli Arab resident of East Jerusalem, was indicted Monday on similar charges.
“The investigation clearly shows that the employee of the French Consulate acted for financial gain, on his own initiative and without the knowledge of his superiors,” Israel’s internal security agency said in a statement, referring to Franck.
“This is a very grave incident in which the immunity and privileges granted to foreign missions in Israel were cynically exploited to smuggle dozens of weapons that may be used for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces,” said the agency, known as Shin Bet.
A spokesman for the French Embassy in Tel Aviv said, “We take this case very seriously and are in very close contact with the Israeli authorities on this case.” The spokesman’s name could not be published under ground rules for briefing news media.
Franck has been held by Israeli authorities since Feb. 15, the indictment says. Seven other people, including his colleague from the consulate, also were arrested in relation to the smuggling ring.
The crossing between Israel and Gaza is permanently on high alert, and Gaza has been subject to tight restrictions on movement and trade since the militant Islamist group Hamas took control of the enclave in 2007. Since then, Israel and Hamas — which has been designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union — have fought three wars.
Tensions have increased along the border in recent weeks, with Israel accusing Hamas of sending civilians to protest along its border fence. Gaza residents have held regular protests near the barrier since President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December. Several protesters have been fatally shot by Israeli security forces.
Rocket fire from Gaza also increased in the wake of Trump’s announcement, although it has since died down.
On Sunday, the Israeli military said it destroyed a Hamas tunnel built to enable the group’s fighters to infiltrate Israeli territory. On Thursday, the military said two explosive devices were detonated near troops on a routine patrol. Last month, four Israeli soldiers were injured when a bomb went off next to the border fence.
“We are seeing Hamas instigate riots, calling on its civilians to march toward the fence and engage with our troops,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an army spokesman, said Thursday in a news briefing. “We are seeing a pattern here, and we will not allow it to become standard operating procedure.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly characterized Israel’s Shin Bet security service as alleging that Romain Franck was acting on behalf of Hamas.
Street names, apparently, are not immune to the diplomatic tit-for-tat between Moscow and Washington.
Moscow’s city government announced Monday that it will consider a request from a Russian parliament member to change the postal address of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to 1 North American Dead-end.
The name change request seems to be retaliation for Washington’s announcement last month that it would name part of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian Embassy Nemtsov Plaza after slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Nemtsov was shot and killed in 2015 just steps from the Kremlin. He was a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s tight grip on political dissent.
The street renaming comes after months of an intense diplomatic standoff between Russia and the U.S. Putin this summer demanded that the U.S. Mission in Russia reduce its staff from about 1,200 employees across one embassy and three consulates to 445. In the U.S., Russia was ousted from its consulate building in San Francisco, as well as two diplomatic retreat centers in New York in Maryland.
Nemtsov’s assassins were convicted and sentenced for his murder, but the opposition leaders’ supporters blame the Kremlin for not investigating who gave the order for the killing, which they believe came from a higher level.
Moscow complained that Washington’s decision to dedicate a street area to a Putin’s political opponent came at a time when “bilateral relations between the two countries still leave much to be desired, mildly speaking,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last month.
Russian parliament member Mikhail Degtyaryov suggested the name change for the street in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow a day after the Washington city government approved the Nemtsov Plaza request. Degtyaryov represents the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia in Russia’s lower house of parliament, known as the Duma.
Moscow’s city administration said the name change will be discussed in this month’s meeting of an interdepartmental commission dedicated to the city’s street and facilities’ names. The U.S. Embassy’s current postal address is 8 Bolshaya Devyatinsky Lane, a side street leading from Moscow’s central Garden Ring road.
Editors Note: We refrain from posting negative stories on both Russia and Israel. Mostly to avoid an unexpected visit from the “Tip of the Spear” or digesting a radioactive pellet.
(We made a new Category for this story “Diplo-Tit4Tat/Posturing” The way things are going, this Category might become one of mainstays)
Diplomatic Security SitRep:02/23/2018
A police officer and a former Russian diplomatic official are among those arrested after authorities seized a large cocaine shipment at the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said that 860 pounds (389 kilograms) of the drug were hidden inside diplomatic luggage.
The investigation began after Victor Koronelli, the Russian ambassador to the South American country, and three members of the Russian federal security service, reported to Bullrich that they had suspicions about the luggage found at a school annex of the embassy.
Once authorities confirmed that there were drugs inside the 16 pieces of luggage, they devised a plan to catch the criminals.
They swapped cocaine for flour and placed a GPS to track the luggage and the luggage was flown to Russia in 2017.
Bullrich said three Argentine customs officials traveled to Russia to monitor the delivery, and that Ishtimir Khudzhmov and Vladimir Kalmykov, were arrested when they went to pick up the cargo.
A suspect, who Bullrich only referred to as ‘K,’ was in charge of buying the drug, and introducing it to the embassy in Argentina. He is still at large in Germany and is wanted under an international arrest warrant.
The logistics were also coordinated by former embassy official Ali Abyanov, who was arrested in his Moscow apartment.
Russian-Argentine citizens Alexander Chikalo, suspected of being in charge of the logistics, and police officer Ivan Blizniouk, who is accused of providing contacts to jump through customs controls, were seized in Argentina.
Bullrich said the drugs were discovered had a street value of around $50 million (£35 million).
‘A gang of narco-criminals was trying to use the diplomatic courier service of the Russian embassy’ to ship the drugs to Europe, she said.
‘The cocaine was replaced by flour and monitoring devices were placed to monitor delivery’ of the 16 bags of the drug, Bullrich said.
The drug, of ‘very high purity,’ was destined for Russia and probably also Germany, where the suspected mastermind lives.
‘We believe the German police will arrest this fugitive,’ Bullrich said.
‘This has been one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations that Argentina has faced’, Bullrich said at a press conference.
‘At 3 a.m. we had to send people from the border police to buy the 389 kilograms of wheat to the central market because no one had 389 kilograms in a warehouse. The drugs never traveled to Russia. Only the flour traveled.’
The minister said Russian security service agents ‘came to Argentina on three occasions to assist in the investigation’ that took more than a year.
One of the two people arrested in Argentina is a naturalized Russian who was a member of the police force in Buenos Aires, said Bullrich.
Investigators believe the cocaine likely originated in Colombia or Peru.
The nuclear football is the black briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes for the president. The aide carrying it is required to remain close to the president at all times.
The interaction reportedly took place during President Trump’s trip to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The aide carrying the briefcase was blocked from entering the hall, and another official quickly told Kelly, five sources told Axios.
Kelly then came over and told the officials to continue walking in, after which a Chinese security official grabbed at Kelly, and the chief of staff pushed him off, according to Axios. A Secret Service agent then tackled the Chinese security official, the publication reported.
U.S. officials were asked to not discuss the interaction, according to Axios. Chinese officials were never in possession of the bag containing the launch codes, and a top Chinese security official apologized to the Trump team afterward.
The interaction took place during Trump’s trip to China in November as part of his Asian tour.
The Trump administration’s handling of the launch codes came under scrutiny last year after a visitor to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida posted a photo on Facebook with the person he said was responsible for carrying the football.
Note: On 02/19/2018 The Secret Service has tweeted that these reports are false.
More Info on the Nuclear Football:
02/07/2018 Diplomatic Security Situation Report
A suspicious package was sent to Ecuador’s embassy in London on Tuesday, local authorities in the UK said. The embassy is home to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is living there as he evades a warrant for his arrest on breach of bail charges.
“Police are in attendance at the Ecuadorian Embassy in SW1 following reports of a small suspicious package,” officials said in a tweet. “There are no reported injuries. The item is being assessed by specialist officers.”
Several reporters at the scene noted the sequence of events and posted video footage of police inspecting the package.
The incident occured on the same day that a UK judge upheld an arrest warrant against Assange, who is wanted by London police for breaching his bail conditions after surrendering to authorities, and then absconding, in 2012.
Assange’s lawyers had requested that police drop its warrant for the Wikileaks founder’s arrest.
But the judge, Emma Arbuthnot, said she was “not persuaded that the warrant should be withdrawn,” without elaborating why, The New York Times reported.
After Arbuthnot’s rejection, Assange’s lawyers asked her to drop the arrest warrant, arguing that it was no longer in the public interest. She said she would make that ruling on February 13, according to The Times.
Assange has been at the embassy for six years. He has refrained from leaving, he said, because he fears that if he does, the British government will extradite him to the US, where he is facing multiple charges for leaking classified information.
Assange initially sought refuge in Ecuador’s embassy to prevent British authorities from extraditing him to Sweden over an allegation of rape, which he has denied. But last year, Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation into the matter, bringing an end to the seven-year legal stand-off.
Last month, Ecuador granted Assange citizenship, but he says he still fears he will be arrested if he leaves. Assange also requested diplomatic status, which would allow him to leave the Ecuadorian embassy without being arrested.
The UK’s Foreign Office rejected that request.
Kabul: A bomb hidden in an ambulance killed at least 95 people and wounded almost 160 more in the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday when it blew up at a police checkpoint that was crowded with pedestrians at the time of the attack.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide blast, a week after they claimed an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in which more than 20 people were killed.
An interior ministry spokesman blamed the Haqqani network, a militant group affiliated with the Taliban that Afghan and Western officials say is behind many of the largest attacks on urban targets in Afghanistan.
As medical teams struggled to handle the casualties pouring in, some of the wounded were laid out in the open, with intravenous drips set up next to them in hospital gardens.
Diplomatic Security Situation Report 1/25/2018
It seems as though it is an undisputed truth that U.S. soldiers are the bravest members of society. After all, they risk their own lives to defend the nation from foreign threats. There is also another group of people who do this work, but with the intention of avoiding violence: diplomats.
It is nearly impossible to estimate the number of lives that diplomats have saved by doing their jobs. Without their tireless efforts, landmark peace agreements would never have been reached and tense conflicts could have ended with violence. It is their duty to find a non-violent solution to conflicts, and though they get little credit, as demonstrated by criticism of agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty, it is reasonable to assume that their work has prevented a great deal of bloodshed.
Unfortunately, for all they do to try to avoid violence, there comes a certain amount of danger. The State Department published a report in 2017 of notable attacks on U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities from 2007 to 2016. In 2016 alone, there were 30 reported attacks, ranging from spray-painting anti-U.S. graffiti outside the consulate in France to two U.S. consulate personnel being killed by an explosion in Pakistan. Currently, the State Department is investigating sonic attacks on the U.S. embassy in Havana.
Perhaps the most widely known attack on U.S. diplomats is the raid of the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi. Two U.S. diplomats were killed, including the ambassador to Libya, as well as two military personnel. While this attack has become incredibly politicized due to the ridiculous number of committees that were formed to investigate if the U.S. government had been at all negligent, it is worth mentioning that this was not the first attack on the U.S. Special Mission that year. In June of 2012, the mission was hit with an explosion, putting a hole in the outer wall. The year before, there had been two other attacks on the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. Despite the obvious danger, diplomats representing the U.S. believed peace negotiations to be worth risking their lives for.
“Seasoned diplomats are leaving the State Department in droves, with dire warnings about the future of American diplomacy.”
Now, it appears as though times have changed. Seasoned diplomats are leaving the State Department in droves, with dire warnings about the future of American diplomacy. The Trump administration seems intent on undermining any attempts at using peaceful negotiations to solve conflicts. In 2017, the White House proposed a budget for the State Department that would cut into its ability to function as usual, with a decrease in funding by over 30 percent.
President Trump and his associates have described this as an “America First” budget, but domestic programs are being cut in favor of increased military spending. Even fellow Republicans expressed dismay over the proposal, with Sen. Bob Corker not even reading the entirety of the plan and Sen. Lindsey Graham saying, “It’s going to put lives at risk.”
The Trump administration does not seem to value the important work done by the State Department, and this may prove to be disastrous. President Trump has constantly expressed his support for the work that the military does in defending the country, but he has remained relatively silent on the important work that it does to avoid resorting to military force. For somebody who has said that he loves the troops, one would think that the president would do anything within his power to protect said, troops.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said:
“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
To make this even worse, it seems as though the current Secretary of State has little regard for maintaining his department. Since Rex Tillerson took the reins at the State Department, there has been a mass exodus of seasoned diplomats, with Tillerson seeking advice from a closed group of advisers with little to no practical experience.
There could not be a worse time for this sort of debacle, as the U.S. and North Korea inch closer to war and the Trump administration has made the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. To make matters even worse, some critical positions have not been filled, such as ambassador to South Korea, and the State Department is operating under a partial hiring freeze.
Also, the State Department must have a reliable Secretary of State to perform its duties. Secretary Tillerson’s role is to act as an intermediary between foreign leaders and President Trump, but his credibility has taken a beating recently as rumors of his possibly imminent firing continue to persist months after it was reported that he called the president a “f—ing moron.” Without a functional working relationship, countries will not be able to rely on the Secretary of State, as he may not truly represent the current positions or beliefs of the administration, rendering the Secretary useless in any sort of negotiations.
It is clear that this president and his administration have little respect for the courageous and hardworking diplomats who sometimes even put their lives at risk for the sake of their country. The Trump administration, however inept its actions may be, does reflect the common lack of understanding of the important duties of the State Department that society holds. If there is to be any change in how the State Department and its workers are treated, then society must finally give diplomats not only the credit, but also the respect that they are due.
Sally Dukes, opinions columnist
LONDON | President Donald Trump has cancelled a trip to London to open the new $1 billion U.S. Embassy in the British capital, a move that avoided protests promised by political opponents.
Some U.K. lawmakers had said Trump was not welcome in Britain after he re-tweeted videos from a far-right British group and criticized London Mayor Sadiq Khan following a terror attack last year.
But Trump said his decision, announced in a late-night tweet, was due to concerns about the embassy’s move from the elite Mayfair district to a far less fashionable area of London south of the Thames River.
“Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!” Trump tweeted.
The State Department, however, announced plans for relocating the London embassy in 2008, while George W. Bush was still president, because of concerns about security following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
At the time, U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle said the decision to move to the five-acre site came after a “long and careful process.”
While the former embassy was on Grosvenor Square, in a tony area of designer boutiques and expensive restaurants, the new building is in a former industrial area south of the Thames that is being redeveloped into a new commercial and residential district.
The current ambassador, Robert “Woody” Johnson, said the change was necessary even though the U.S. had been linked to Grosvenor Square for more than 200 years.
“Security concerns after September 11 meant we had to move to a location that could better protect American citizens and our British neighbors,” he wrote in an article for London’s Evening Standard newspaper.
Johnson, a Trump appointee, also said the new embassy was entirely paid for by the sale of other London properties and “did not cost the U.S. taxpayer a cent.”
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two men pleaded guilty on Thursday to felony assault in a street brawl in May near the Turkish embassy in Washington during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Sinan Narin, 45, of McLean, Virginia, and Eyup Yildirim, 50, of Manchester, New Jersey each pleaded guilty to one count of assault in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
Sentencing for the two is scheduled for March 15, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
The May 16 clash between Turkish security personnel and demonstrators protesting against Erdogan’s government strained relations between Turkey and the United States. Eleven people were hurt. In June U.S. prosecutors charged a dozen Turkish security and police officers with assault.
Turkey blamed the brawl outside its ambassador’s residence on demonstrators linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, while Washington’s police chief referred to it as a “brutal attack” on peaceful protesters.
According to the plea deals released by the Justice Department on Thursday, a pro-Erdogan crowd that day “outnumbered the protesters by at least two to one.”
Prosecutors said Narin, who was employed as a limousine driver and was not associated with Turkish security personnel, was captured on video kicking a protester who then suffered a concussion.
Yildirim was also captured on video kicking another protester, prosecutors said. That protester also suffered a concussion and needed five stitches. He is also not associated with Turkish security personnel, the Justice Department said.
Overflights, mapping fiber-optic networks, “strange activities.” Moscow’s West Coast spies were busy.
The first thing you need to understand about the building that, until very recently, housed the Russian Consulate in San Francisco — a city where topography is destiny, where wealth and power concentrate, quite literally, at the top — is its sense of elevation. Brick-fronted, sentinel-like, and six stories high, it sits on a hill in Pacific Heights, within one of the city’s toniest zip codes. This is a neighborhood that radiates a type of wealth, power, and prestige that long predates the current wave of nouveau riche tech millionaires, or the wave before that, or the one before that. It is old and solid and comfortable with its privilege; its denizens know they have a right to rule. Indeed, from Pacific Heights, one can simultaneously gaze out on the city, the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge — and, beyond, the vast, frigid Pacific.
The second thing you need to understand about the closure of Russia’s San Francisco consulate is that, after the Trump administration summarily announced on Aug. 31 that it would shutter the building 48 hours later, the news coverage that followed almost uniformly focused on two things: the dumbfounding heat (this city, cool and grey, is in California but not of it) and the black smoke wheezing from the consulate’s chimney, as employees rushed to burn up, one assumes, anything confidential or inculpatory.
People were right to look upward, toward the building’s roof, but their focus was misplaced: It was, in reality, the motley array of antennas and satellites and electronic transmittal devices dotting the rooftop — objects viewed with deep suspicion and consternation by U.S. intelligence community officials for decades — that tells the story of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, not the ash drifting listlessly over the neighboring mansions.
I rushed to the consulate the day the closure announcement was made and watched the building sit impassively in the heat, while the media crews cooled off in the shade. A suspiciously large number of delivery vans were circling, and there was an unusual concentration of loiterers (in their cars, on computers; in biking gear, across the street) on an otherwise very quiet block. Pedestrians walked by, snapping photos on their iPhones.
San Francisco, it was clear, was now embroiled in the increasingly feverish diplomatic confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced, in an interview on state-run television, that he was decreasing by 755 the total number of personnel working at U.S. diplomatic facilities in his country. Closing the San Francisco consulate (and two smaller diplomatic annexes) was the Trump administration’s retaliation for this move.
Putin, for his part, claimed that he was merely responding to the Barack Obama administration’s December 2016 shuttering of two Russian recreational compounds on the East Coast; the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, identified as spies, from the country (this list included four employees of the San Francisco consulate, including the building’s “chef”); and a new round of congressional sanctions. The Obama administration, of course, made these moves in retaliation for the unprecedented Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But why the focus on San Francisco? Why not close one of Russia’s other three consulates, in New York, Seattle, or Houston? And why now?
The answer, I discovered, appears to revolve around an intensive, sustained, and mystifying pattern of espionage emanating from the San Francisco consulate. According to multiple former intelligence officials, while these “strange activities” were not limited to San Francisco or its environs, they originated far more frequently from the San Francisco consulate than any other Russian diplomatic facility in the United States, including the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. As one former intelligence source put it, suspected Russian spies were “doing peculiar things in places they shouldn’t be.” Russian officials in Washington failed to respond to multiple attempts via email and phone for comment.
In the course of reporting this story, I spoke to over half a dozen former high-level U.S. intelligence officials about the closure of the consulate. Some of these individuals, almost all of whom worked on counterintelligence in San Francisco, spoke on the record generally about Russian espionage in Northern California; extensive conversations with other former intelligence officials occurred on background, in order to discuss sensitive matters related to recent Russian activities in the Bay Area and beyond. These sources confirmed that the San Francisco consulate served a unique role in Russian intelligence-gathering operations in the United States, as an important, and perhaps unrivaled, hub for its technical collection efforts here. But, as I discovered, it was what these efforts entailed that is key to understanding why San Francisco — the oldest and most established Russian Consulate in the United States — was singled out for closure.
For many decades, U.S. officials have been keenly aware that, because of the consulate’s proximity to Silicon Valley, educational institutions such as Stanford and Berkeley, and the large number of nearby defense contractors and researchers — including two Energy Department-affiliated nuclear weapons laboratories — Russia has used San Francisco as a focal point for espionage activity. The modalities of Russian espionage in the Bay Area have historically been well known to U.S. counterintelligence personnel, who understand (at least generally) what the Russians will target and how they will try to achieve their objectives.
One former senior counterintelligence executive, for example, recalled the “disproportionate number” of science- and technology-focused Russian intelligence officers based in San Francisco, some of whom were experts in encryption and were tasked with identifying new developments in such technologies in Silicon Valley. A second former intelligence official noted the long-standing interest of Russian intelligence operatives in San Francisco in building relationships with local tech experts and venture capital firms. What has evolved, noted multiple former officials, is the intensity of Russian efforts. According to Kathleen Puckett, who spent two decades working on counterintelligence in the Bay Area, “there was more aggressiveness by the Russians in the 2000s than back in the 1980s.”
Starting roughly 10 years ago — and perhaps going even longer back, according to multiple former U.S. intelligence officials — something changed. Suspected Russian intelligence officers, often fully aware they were being surveilled by the FBI, began showcasing inexplicable and bizarre behaviors in remote, forlorn, or just seemingly random places.
It is highly likely, sources told me, that the consulate’s closure was linked to U.S. intelligence officials definitively proving long-held suspicions about the objectives of these Russian activities — or that officials could simply no longer countenance these extraordinarily aggressive intelligence-collection efforts and seized on the opportunity to disrupt them after Putin’s latest diplomatic salvo.
What seems clear is that when it came to Russian spying, San Francisco was at the very forefront of innovation.
Imagine driving up and over Mount Tamalpais, the iconic 2,500-foot peak located just north of San Francisco, then switch-backing precipitously through a redwood-studded ravine until, over the horizon, you spot a giant, shimmering, curvilinear beachfront. This is Stinson Beach, a 45-minute drive from the city. Now imagine that, standing out at the water’s edge, is a man in a suit — a man known to U.S. intelligence as a Russian intelligence officer. He has a small device in his hand. He stares out at the ocean for a few minutes, turns around, walks to his car, and leaves.
This account, confirmed to me by multiple former U.S. counterintelligence officials, is one example of a spate of such odd behaviors. Suspected Russian intelligence operatives — under diplomatic cover as well as travelers visiting the country — were also found idling in wheat fields and in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, among other places. Russia has a “long and successful record of using legal travelers” for intelligence-gathering purposes, Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russia operations, told me. “This ranges, for example, from someone who gets a visa to do a scholarly presentation to someone who says they want to visit Napa Valley on their vacation,” he said.
Some suspected Russian intelligence officers were found engaging in weird, repetitive behaviors in gas stations in dusky, arid burgs off Interstate 5, California’s main north-south artery. In one remarkably strange case, said one former intelligence official, two suspected Russian spies were surveilled pulling into a gas station. The driver stood next to his car, not purchasing any fuel. The passenger approached a tree, circling it a few times. Then they both got back into the car and drove away. Suspected Russian intelligence operatives would perform the same strange rituals multiple times at the same gas stations.
Multiple theories about these activities emerged. One was that the Russians were trying to confuse and overwhelm their FBI surveillance teams, in order to gauge just how extensive their coverage really was — in other words, to test the capacity of their counterspies. Another theory revolved around a long-standing communications technique among Russian spies, known as “burst transmissions,” wherein intelligence operatives transmit data to one another via short-wave radio communications. But for these, said another former intelligence official, you need a line of sight, and such transmissions are only effective at relatively short distances.
Many of these behaviors, however, didn’t seem to fit a mold. For one, the FBI couldn’t establish that these suspected Russian intelligence operatives — some of whom were spotted with little devices in their hands, others without — were engaging in any communications. But according to multiple sources, one recurrent and worrying feature of these activities was that they often happened to correspond to places where underground nodes connected the country’s fiber-optic cable network. (In a June article, Politico’s Ali Watkins reported a few instances of these strange behaviors, tracing them back to the summer of 2016, as well as their potential connection to the fiber-optic network.)
Over time, multiple former intelligence officials told me, the FBI concluded that Russia was engaged in a massive, long-running, and continuous data-collection operation: a mission to comprehensively locate all of America’s underground communications nodes, and to map out and catalogue the points in the fiber-optic network where data were being transferred. They were “obviously trying to determine how sophisticated our intelligence network is,” said one former official, and these activities “helped them put the dots together.”
Sometimes, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me, Russian operatives appeared to be actively attempting to penetrate communications infrastructure — especially where undersea cables came ashore on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They were “pretty sure” said a former intelligence official that, on at least one occasion on land, a Russian operative successfully broke into a data closet (a telecommunications and hardware storage center) as part of an attempt to penetrate one of these systems.
But what was “really unnerving,” said the former senior counterintelligence executive, was the Russians’ focus on communication nodes near military bases. According to multiple sources, U.S. officials eventually concluded that Moscow’s ultimate goal was to have the capacity to sever communications, paralyzing the U.S. military’s command and control systems, in case of a confrontation between the two powers. “If they can shut down our grid, and we go blind,” noted a former intelligence official, “they are closer to leveling the playing field,” because the United States is widely considered to possess superior command and control capabilities. When I described this purported effort to map out the fiber-optic network to Hall, the former senior CIA official, he seemed unfazed. “In the context of the Russians trying to conduct hybrid warfare in the United States, using cyber-types of tools,” he said, “none of what you described would surprise me.”
Multiple former intelligence officials also told me that U.S. officials were concerned that Russian intelligence operatives would provide these coordinates to deep-cover “illegals” — that is, Russian spies in the country under non-diplomatic cover (think of the Anna Chapman network) — or travelers, who might then carry out a sabotage campaign. There were also concerns that Russia could share these coordinates with other hostile foreign-intelligence services, such as a potential illegal Iranian network operating within the country.
As these strange activities persisted over the last decade, former intelligence officials told me, the FBI began to collate and compare surveillance reports from across the country, overlaying them with Russian flight paths occurring as part of the overt Treaty on Open Skies collection program.
The treaty, which entered into force in 2002, allows both the United States and Russia (and 32 other signatories) to conduct a limited number of unarmed surveillance and reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory per year. (According to the State Department, as of 2016 the United States had flown a total of 196 such flights over Russia, while Russia had flown 71 flights over the United States.) The methods of collection — video, photographic, infrared, and radar — are highly regulated and circumscribed, and the country whose territory is being flown over must approve the requested flight path. Flights are monitored in person by representatives of the host government. Afterward, upon request, the collected data must be shared with all treaty signatories. Open Skies was conceived, essentially, as an arms-control agreement: an attempt to decrease, through greater transparency, the uncertainties surrounding each great power’s array of military forces, which could lead to an erroneous nuclear exchange.
But U.S. intelligence officials began to notice a disturbing pattern vis-à-vis these “strange activities” and Open Skies: Suspected Russian operatives were appearing in places that had recently been, or were later, part of Russian flyovers. If these operatives were on the ground prior to the flight, U.S. officials suspected that they were likely helping shape coordinates for subsequent Open Skies missions, multiple former intelligence officials told me. If they appeared afterward, U.S. officials believed that the Russians had identified a potential object of interest (such as a fiber-optic node) and wanted in-person confirmation on what previously been identified during a flyover. There is simply “no substitute for someone literally going to locations and recording GPS coordinates,” said the former senior counterintelligence executive. “From 30,000 feet, you’re not necessarily going to have accuracy if you’re pinpointing a portal.”
Eventually, U.S intelligence officials hit on another series of correlations: Not only were suspected spies visiting the same places that Russian surveillance planes were flying over as part of their Open Skies missions, but they were also appearing directly beneath these planes, in real time, while these flights were ongoing. “The idea was that some kind of communication could have been taking place between the plane and guy on the ground,” one former intelligence official told me. “The hard part was to confirm exactly what they were doing.” (Foreign Policycould not verify whether U.S. officials were able to definitively establish if, or how, such communications indeed occurred.)
One theory, relayed to me by multiple sources, was that the Russians might have been using the flights as a communication platform — airplanes can act as a kind of cell tower, the former officials noted, receiving and transmitting data. If Moscow was concerned that U.S. counterintelligence was able to intercept encrypted data from secure communications facilities based in their diplomatic compounds, the Russians might have been seeking to bypass this possibility by secretly routing data through the passing airplanes. “If a U.S. monitor is watching three functions aboard an Open Skies flight,” worried one former intelligence official, “maybe the fourth function is covert — out of sight and out of mind of observers — and while the monitor is looking at these other functions, the transmission and receipt of data is occurring under their nose.”
If true, these actions by Russia would appear to violate the spirit of the Treaty on Open Skies, if not the letter itself. The treaty has strict restrictions on the types of collection that is permitted, and any covert ground-to-air communication or data transfer occurring between an aircraft and a suspected intelligence officer located below would seem to clearly contravene the agreement. This entire data-collection operation for the western United States, said one former senior counterintelligence executive, was being managed out of the San Francisco consulate.
Russia has aggressively exploited its diplomatic presence in San Francisco for decades, and the United States has historically responded in kind. In 1983, for instance, the State Department issued new guidelines forbidding Soviet diplomats and journalists from visiting Silicon Valley. In the Ronald Reagan era, the consulate figured prominently in a number of sordid cases featuring American turncoats — including those of Allen John Davies, a former Air Force sergeant who offered the Soviets information on a secret U.S. reconnaissance program, and Richard Miller, the first FBI agent ever to be convicted of espionage, who was sleeping with — and passing information to — a Soviet agent being run out of San Francisco. In 1986, 13 San Francisco-based Soviet diplomats, accused of spying, were expelled by the Reagan administration; soon after, the Soviets publicly accused the FBI of operating a sophisticated bugging system in San Francisco via a tunnel it had secretly bored under the consulate. (“Obviously” the building was bugged around this time, said Rick Smith, who worked on Russian counterintelligence for the FBI in San Francisco from 1972 to 1992.)
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets’ interest in San Francisco “was primarily about economic, and not really political, intelligence,” said Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB major general who served as the deputy (and later acting) chief of the KGB station at the Soviet Embassy in Washington from 1975 to 1980. “The main priority of Russian intelligence at that point was industrial development, technological development, to get equal to the United States,” said Kalugin.
Quietly but unquestionably, San Francisco had become a locus of Russian spying. “In recent years,” states a 1984 UPI article, “there have been frequent reports that 50 or more spies report to the San Francisco consulate general.” In fact, wrote the San Jose Mercuryin 1985, “FBI officials believe Soviet spying on the West Coast is controlled” from this location. “Agents say the Soviets eavesdrop on the Silicon Valley from the roof of the consulate using sophisticated electronics made in the United States.”
The giveaway, even then, was the roof: covered with satellite dishes, antennae, and makeshift shacks, these devices pointed to a robust Russian signals-intelligence presence. (The shacks, which persisted until recently, one former intelligence official told me, were erected to conceal the shape of the transmission devices from U.S. intelligence agencies, which would occasionally conduct reconnaissance overhead.)
During that time, “there was nothing but antennas and signals” on the top of the building, recalled former FBI agent LaRae Quy, who spent nearly two decades working counterintelligence in San Francisco. “It was embarrassing that we would allow that to happen. But I guess that’s what the Russians did for us as well.” Quy, who retired in 2006, also told me that at least 50 percent of all San Francisco consulate personnel in the 1980s were full- or part-time spies.
This focus on signals and technical intelligence persisted until much more recently, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me. “It was almost like everyone they had there was a technical guy, as opposed to a human-intelligence guy,” one former official recalled. “The way they protected those people — they were rarely out in the community. It was work, home, work, home. When they’d go out and about, to play hockey or to drink, they’d be in a group. It was hard to penetrate.” The same official also noted that San Francisco was integral to the discovery by U.S. intelligence of a new class of Russian “technical-type” intelligence officer, working for the rough Russian equivalent of the National Security Agency, before this organization was eventually folded by Putin back into the FSB. This group, which was not based at the consulate itself, was identified via its members’ travel patterns — they would visit the Bay Area frequently — and the types of individuals, all in high-tech development, with whom they sought contact. According to this former U.S. official, these Russian intelligence officers were particularly interested in discussing cryptology and the Next Generation Internet program.
But it was the consulate’s location — perched high atop that hill in Pacific Heights, with a direct line of sight out to the ocean — that likely determined the concentration of signals activity. Certain types of highly encrypted communications cannot be transmitted over long distances, and multiple sources told me that U.S. officials believed that Russian intelligence potentially took advantage of the consulate’s location to communicate with submarines, trawlers, or listening posts located in international waters off the Northern California coast. (Russian intelligence officers may also have been remotely transmitting data to spy stations offshore, multiple former intelligence officials told me, explaining the odd behaviors on Stinson Beach.) It is also “very possible,” said one former intelligence official, that the Russians were using the San Francisco consulate to monitor the movements, and perhaps communications, of the dozen or so U.S. nuclear-armed submarines that routinely patrol the Pacific from their base in Washington state.
All in all, said this same official, it was “very likely” that the consulate functioned for Russia as a classified communications hub for the entire western United States — and, perhaps, the entire western part of the hemisphere.
The closure of the San Francisco consulate cannot, of course, be decoupled from the political circumstances surrounding it. Because of the unique, and uniquely unsettling, history and attitude of U.S. President Donald Trump toward Russia — the one country treated with forbearance by a president who blithely aggrieves adversaries and allies alike — the administration’s actions in San Francisco were viewed with perplexity and suspicion by a number of the former intelligence officials with whom I spoke.
First, some note, there is the issue of retaliatory balance: In these kinds of diplomatic conflicts, there is an expectation of parity in terms of the damage you inflict on your antagonist. Putin’s move — to order a 755-person staff decrease among U.S. diplomatic mission employees in Russia — appeared far more aggressive than it actually was. The U.S. government employs hundreds of Russians (knowing full well that some may be spies) to help staff its diplomatic facilities in that country, and almost all the affected individuals under these cuts were Russian nationals, not U.S. diplomats or intelligence officials in Russia under diplomatic cover. The sting of this decision was further lessened by the fact that, as one source told me, U.S. intelligence officials have been pushing the State Department for years to decrease local staff in its diplomatic facilities in Russia because of ubiquitous concerns about espionage. Putin’s decision, then, was not without risks for Russian intelligence-gathering operations themselves. “The downside for the Russians is that [by ordering the staffing decrease] you’re the cutting number of potential informants,” noted Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russia operations.
The outright shuttering of the San Francisco consulate by the Trump administration, then, seems to be a more severe countermeasure than the Russian actions that immediately precipitated it. The closure announcement, Hall said, was “great news, and long overdue.” Stephanie Douglas, who served as the FBI special agent in charge of the San Francisco Division from 2009 to 2012, characterized the administration’s decision as “incredibly aggressive and pretty stunning, honestly.” It was “a blow to the Russians to have this consulate close, in particular,” the former senior counterintelligence executive said. Another former intelligence official called it “unprecedented.” Compounding the mystery further has been Russia’s relatively muted response; a sign, this last former official speculated, that Putin may still be holding out hope for some kind of grand bargain with the Trump administration. “If they don’t react to closing of the San Francisco consulate,” wondered the former official, “what’s the payback they’re waiting for?”
The incongruities here are unsettling. On the one hand, Trump’s decision to shut down the San Francisco consulate was far more consequential and assertive than most realized at the time; on the other hand, there is no evidence — nor any good reason to believe, given his past proclivities — that Trump himself understood the gravity of his own move. “Based on my other interactions with West Wing officials, and the depth of their understanding on the issues in general, I would be very surprised personally if President Trump had any … comprehension of that at all,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, who served as the National Security Council’s director for Russia until April 2017.
Edmonds suggested the locus of the closure decision was likely the National Security Council’s Principals Committee — particularly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis — and that the move was thereafter delivered to Trump as a fait accompli. “I’ve heard that, generally, when Tillerson and Mattis come to an agreement and present something to the president, he’s usually pretty on board with that,” Edmonds said.
This National Security Council-centered account was the most benign theory I heard. One former intelligence official offered that the consulate’s closure may be a signal from Trump to Robert Mueller, a way for the president to show the special counsel appointed to investigate election-year collusion with Moscow that his administration is not in thrall to Russian interests, financially or personally. A second former official speculated that the closure will be temporary and that after, say, a future terrorist attack in the United States, Moscow might ostentatiously offer to provide intelligence on the perpetrators, and the Trump administration — grateful for Russia’s cooperation and assistance — might then return the building to its erstwhile tenants.
These former U.S. officials were as united in their opinion about Russia’s long-term objectives as they were divided about Trump’s short-term intentions. Every former intelligence officer I spoke with for this story was confident that Russia will continue aggressive human-intelligence-gathering operations in the Bay Area, likely through individuals under non-official cover — say, via engineers or data scientists. “Silicon Valley loves Russian programmers,” remarked one former intelligence official.
The dynamics and methods they employ will necessarily change, these officials said, but San Francisco and Silicon Valley are simply too target-rich, too valuable, and too soft for them to cease activities here. The spy war will endure; the Russians will, over time, rebuild their networks, adjusting their activities to account for their lack of local diplomatic cover. Ultimately, the circumstances surrounding the closure of the San Francisco consulate are just one piece in a much larger, and far more shadowy, antagonism between the two nuclear superpowers. “The great game is upon us again,” one former intelligence official said to me. “San Francisco has always been a focal point for Russian interests. The work won’t stop.”
LONDON — At $1 billion, it is the most expensive embassy ever constructed. But its designers say the new American chancery on the Thames River marks a paradigm shift: The U.S. Embassy here will exude openness while hiding all the clever ways it defends itself from attack.
After decades of building American embassies that look brutalist or bland, like obvious fortresses, the soon-to-be-opened chancery in London is a crystalline cube, plopped down in the middle of a public park, without visible walls.
The building does not shout, “Spies work here!” or “Stand back!” even though this city has been subjected to terrorist attacks. Instead, the vibe is modernist museum, which also happens to issue visas and might have a few hidden bunkers somewhere.
Instead of blast walls, there is a perimeter pond, with recycled-water waterfalls and deep trenches — and on the roof, arrays of solar panels that will produce enough juice to run the building and give extra watts back to the grid.
The building sports frosted- glass walkways, inspirational quotes from the Constitution, neon sculptures, reclaimed teak benches, Cornwall granite, its own subterranean wastewater treatment plant and a dozen gardens in the sky, one representing the flora of the American Midwest.
There’s also a pub, a gym, a post office and a posh Marine barracks, with millionaire views all the way to Westminster for the hard-working 19-year-old lance corporals.
One assumes there is a CIA station, but that was not on the tour.
The media were given a first look inside Wednesday — the embassy will open its doors Jan. 16 — and the early word from the British press was mostly positive.
The Evening Standard called the interiors “stunning,” and the Daily Mail said that rather than a slick and hard-edged high rise, the embassy exterior had a “soft and pillowy” feel — because of the plastic polymer veils that drape three sides of the building, enhancing its energy efficiency.
This is a far cry from earlier critiques.
Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, said in 2010 that the city expected “something a little bit more exciting.”
A critic at the Guardian newspaper that year called the pond “a moat” and reported that the two British members of the design jury tried to block the design because it was too boring.
Johnson confessed that he was a little wistful, though, because there is so much history at the old embassy and its location in Grosvenor Square.
The old embassy, a 1960 modernist gem by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen, was sold to the real estate division of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, which has gobbled up high-profile London properties, including the Harrods department store. The plan is to turn it into a luxury hotel. The money from its sale, and of other U.S. properties in London, entirely funded the billion-dollar embassy.
The building was designed by the firm KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia.
James Timberlake said that the job specs for the building were 1,000 pages long.
His vision, complex and simple, was to create an embassy at once “welcoming and secure,” measuring a desire to express “transparency, openness, equality” against the need to “filter all and everything and everyone who enter.”
Timberlake envisioned a “crystalline cube” because a cube is “efficient and provocative.” He wanted “a radiant beacon,” iconic architecture with interiors “light-filled, airy, with great views,” that was also environmentally outstanding — the 518,000-square-foot, 12-story building will produce more energy than it uses, even after it cares for 800 staff and 1,000 daily visitors.
Londoners love to give nicknames to the city’s cutting-edge architecture. Here, the newest skyscrapers are known to all, for better or worse, as the Gherkin, Can of Ham, Cheese Grater and the Pringle — or what armchair critic and architectural traditionalist Prince Charles has dismissed as an “absurdist picnic table.”
After the design was announced years ago, Martin Linton, a then-member of Parliament for Battersea borough, said that it “looks a bit too much like a sugar cube.”
Too much? Sugar Cube ain’t bad.
Karla Adam contributed to this report.