Archive for November, 2010

26
Nov
10

How Wikileaks’ release might harm US-Russia relations

Wikileaks is to release 3 million confidential diplomatic communiques. Some of these cables had to stay confidential… Especially those depicting in an “unflattering” manner some Russian officials.

Frantic behind the scenes wrangling was under way last night as US officials tried to stem the fallout from the expected release of up to three million confidential diplomatic communiques by the Wikileaks website.  Over the past 48 hours, American ambassadors have had the unenviable task of informing some of the country’s strongest allies that a series of potentially embarrassing cables are likely to be released in the coming days.

The latest tranche of documents, described by Wikileaks as being seven times as large as its last exposé – the 400,000 secret war logs from Iraq that were published last month – are thought to be cables taken from SIPRNet, the Pentagon’s global secret-level computer network which is accessible online for those with clearance.

US officials say the publication of such reports, which often contain candid assessments from embassy staff and ambassadors about foreign governments and leaders, has the potential to harm relations between Washington and its allies.

Downing Street yesterday confirmed that the US ambassador in London had already briefed the Government on what might be contained in the files. Similar meetings were also reported in Turkey, Israel, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Australia.

Wikileaks has made no official confirmation other than through brief messages posted on its Twitter page claiming that the Pentagon was “hyperventilating again over fears of being held to account”. It is not clear whether the whistle-blowing website will black-out the names of people who might face persecution if they were known to be co-operating with American embassies abroad.

A source at Wikileaks said that the website was “proceeding with caution, as always” with regard to the details it would put into the public domain, suggesting that some form of redaction would be used. But US officials have nonetheless reacted angrily, arguing that any publication of the cables would make diplomacy in sensitive parts of the world much more difficult.

“WikiLeaks are an absolutely awful impediment to my business, which is to be able to have discussions in confidence with people,” said James Jeffrey, US ambassador to Baghdad. “I do not understand the motivation for releasing these documents. They will not help, they will simply hurt our ability to do our work here.”

Early indications suggest the communiqués – thought to be from the last five years – could be a major source of embarrassment both for Washington and its allies, shining a light on the kind of candid opinions and policies that governments like to keep secret. Quoting a Wikileaks “administrator”, the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat said some of the cables suggested that Turkey had been turning a blind eye to fighters from the group Al-Qa’ida in Iraq slipping across into Turkey from the south.

According to the same report, separate cables also reveal that Washington has been allowing fighters from the Kurdish separatist group the PKK safe havens in northern Iraq to stage attacks on Turkey. Sources familiar with the US State Department reports told Reuters that some of the missives are thought to contain allegations against politicians in Russia, Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations.

The Russian daily business newspaper Kommersant said that the cables will contain general assessments of the political situation in Russia and “unflattering characteristics” of Russian leaders. Italy’s Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, also admitted yesterday during a Cabinet meeting in Rome that the Wikileaks documents could have “negative repercussions” on the country’s embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

That Wikileaks is in possession of the secret communications has been suspected by US officials ever since Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was arrested six months ago on charges of leaking confidential information to the whistleblowing website. In an online chat with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who eventually turned Manning in to the authorities, the Iraq-based analyst boasted how he had handed over a cache of secret foreign policy documents that revealed “almost-criminal political back dealings” by US officials.

In the online chat made available by Lamo, Manning added: “Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public.” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has always denied receiving any information from Manning, although the website has campaigned for his release from detention.

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18
Nov
10

Russian spies’ traitor identified, living in the States

The group of ten Russian spies arrested last June in the US by the FBI and later deported to Russia in a spy exchange was revealed by Moscow last week to have been betrayed by a high-ranking double agent in the Foreign Security Service (SVR)– the successor of the First Main Directorate of the KGB, known as PGU.

Last week, the alleged SVR traitor was exposed as “Colonel Shcherbakov”– no first name was given (Kommersant, November 11). This week, unidentified intelligence sources told Russian journalists that “Colonel Shcherbakov” was indeed a double agent who fled to the US “several years ago.” It was not Shcherbakov, however, who betrayed the ten spies but another SVR colonel, Aleksandr Poteev, who allegedly fled to the US with his family several days before the arrests began. Poteev was reportedly a deputy chief of the SVR “S” Directorate, which prepares deep cover agents for work abroad (Interfax, November 17; www.regnum.ru, November 17).

The leak that led to the publication concerning the betrayal of the “illegals” apparently originated from the Federal Security Service (FSB) (Kommersant, November 17). After the collapse of Communist rule in Russia, then President Boris Yeltsin split the all-powerful KGB into five independent entities. Under President Vladimir Putin (a former KGB colonel), the Border Guard Troops and the government communications agency returned under the FSB mantle. Today, only the SVR and the Federalnaya Sluzba Okhrani (FSO) –Federal Guarding Service (formerly the KGB’s Ninth Main Directorate and the Russian equivalent of the US Secret Service)– retain organizational independence. The core of the FSB is Obshaya Kontrrazvedka (General Counterintelligence), the former Second Main Directorate of the KGB and a traditional rival of the PGU. Today the FSB is investigating the alleged betrayal in the SVR headquarters that led to the mass spy exposure. The case may lead to serious changes in personnel and possibly in the organization of the intelligence community in Moscow, namely the subordination of the SVR to the FSB, to root out negligence and corruption (Kommersant, November 17).

Western intelligence services do not plant “sleeper” spies in Russia and the essence of “illegal” spying seems to be little understood. Anna Chapman (28), the redheaded beauty who previously lived in Britain and held both UK and Russian passports due to her 2002 marriage to a British man, Alex Chapman, became an instant tabloid sensation and a trademark of the busted spy ring. In fact, there was no “spy ring”– the “illegals” did not know each other or Chapman, who was in fact not an “illegal.” Chapman and Mikhail Semenko (30) resided in the US under their true identities.

Retired military intelligence (GRU) Colonel Vitaly Shlykov told Jamestown that “illegal” spies are a Russian (Soviet) trademark. Their main task is to activate in the event of war or a prewar crisis when diplomatic ties are severed and the “legal” Russian resident spies from diplomatic missions are forced to leave. The “illegals” must then step in and handle local agents that are normally handled by the “legal” resident spies. During the Cold War, caches of arms and radio communications equipment were buried on the territories of Western and other foreign nations to allow the “sleeper” spies to communicate and organize “diversions” (terrorist attacks). The essence of being a Russian-style sleeper spy is to lead an ordinary, moral and uneventful life; to blend as much as possible into the background of middle class society until an order is given to begin operations. “Illegals” tend to have stable marriages and children, and typically both spouses act together as a spy team. Some “illegal” spies live undercover abroad for decades while maintaining loyalty to their home country, like the eldest of the deported ten, Mikhail Vasenkov (66). Known in the US as “Juan Lazaro,” Vasenkov was married to Vicky Pelaez (55), a journalist born in Peru. Such missions, according to Shlykov, require immense dedication and self-sacrifice.

Sleeper spies in deep hibernation were specifically ordered to refrain from recruiting agents or any other spying activities that could blow their cover, though they could report back to Moscow on potential agents that might later be approached by “legal” recruiting officers using diplomatic cover. The FBI, which shadowed the Russian agents after their true identities were betrayed, apparently recorded no sinister activity and the sleepers did not seem to have much to reveal. A former Russian “legal” spy who was posted in the West under diplomatic cover and who asked not to reveal his identity told Jamestown that in most cases the exact locations of the arms and explosive caches that were secretly planted by “legal” spies were not revealed to the sleepers. Instead, the sleepers would receive the locations and the list of targets to attack simultaneously with their activation orders from Moscow. Unlike the true “illegals,” Chapman in New York and Semenko in Washington seem to have been in regular contact with the “legal” Russian spy residencies in both cities.

The possible exposure of any one of the sleeper spies could not have led the FBI to the others. Only a betrayal in Moscow in the SVR headquarters by a double agent could have revealed the list of Russian “illegals” without diplomatic cover in the US. Death threats have been publicly issued in Moscow, alleging an assassin has been sent to kill the traitor, just as Leon Trotsky was slain in 1940 in Mexico City by Ramon Mercader, a Spanish communist sent from Moscow by Josef Stalin (Kommersant, November 11). The threat seems to be empty, however, intended only to undermine the morale of the alleged double agent, according to intelligence sources in Moscow. The damage has already been done, therefore making an assassination a senseless and high-risk endeavor (www.regnum.ru, November 17).

Today, unlike during the Cold War era, the prospect of all-out war or a severing of diplomatic relations between Russia and major Western nations appear remote. Keeping an “illegal” spy network seems increasingly senseless. In any case, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace the deported spies with men and women of equal ideological dedication in today’s lawless and corrupt Russia. According to State Duma deputy and former FSB colonel Gennady Gudkov, the apparent serial betrayals of colonel after colonel within the SVR is the result of the “total moral degradation in Russia, where everything is up for sale” (Interfax, November 11).

09
Nov
10

For Nato, Russia is not a threat anymore

Is it the end of the cold war? Or another sign of a diplomatic meltdown between Russia and the United States. Anihow, NATO’s top military and political officials assured Russia the alliance saw no threat from the country for the West, Russia’s envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said on Monday.

Rogozin’s comment followed a statement by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who said that “in terms of politics” NATO has finished its preparation of its plan of the Baltic states’ defense.

European Voice weekly earlier said NATO’s defense plans implicitly singled Russia out as a military threat.

Despite the NATO officials’ pro-Russian statements, several alliance members continue to criticize NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s policy of establishing a strategic relationship with Russia, the envoy said.

Rogozin said he was very pleased “for the residents of the ex-Soviet Baltic states who could at last sleep peacefully facing the somewhat lurid menace threatening the young sickly democracies of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.”

02
Nov
10

Medvedev angers Japanese government

Japanese officials have reacted angrily to a visit monday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to a group of disputed, mineral-rich islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Japan’s parliament that Medvedev’s trip to Kunashir — the second largest of the four islands known in Russia as the Southern Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories — was “very regrettable,” as the “northern islands are part of our country’s territory,” the BBC reported. Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russia’s ambassador to Tokyo and warned that any visit to the islands would “hurt the feelings of the Japanese people.”

The archipelago, which sits just north of Japan’s main island of Hokkaido, is seen by Japan as part of its historical territory, unjustly grabbed by the Soviets in 1945. Russia, however, regards the island chain as a symbol of its victory during World War II, and sees no reason why it should give up possession of a legitimately acquired prize. That island dispute has prevented the two countries from ever signing a formal peace treaty in the 65 years since the end of World War II.

Russian ambassador Mikhail Bely has shaken off criticism of the visit, telling reporters after the meeting in Tokyo that he “told him [Maehara] that it is Russia’s domestic issue. I requested Japan to deal with it cool-headedly and in a balanced manner,” Agence France-Presse reported. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Japan’s reaction as “unacceptable,” noted the BBC, stating that the Russian president could visit “Russian land” whenever he wanted.

During his visit to the island chain, the first ever by a Russian or Soviet leader, Medvedev promised to pump money into the impoverished territory, which is home to just 18,000 people but offers access to rich fisheries and promising oil and gas fields. “We want people to remain here,” he said, according to Russia Today. “Development here is important. We will definitely be investing money here.”

The three and a half hour visit to Kunashir provided an opportunity for Medvedev to toughen up his image at home, where he is traditionally seen as more liberal than his mentor and predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It is thought that the more popular of the two leaders will stand as the candidate for the ruling United Russia party in the 2012 presidential elections. A recent poll by Russia’s Levada Center suggests that Medvedev is catching up with his macho mentor: His approval ratings have grown 3 percent since September to 76, while Putin’s remain at 77 percent.

The trip also reflects the growing importance of the Far East for Russia, which is keen to exploit the vast reserves of hydrocarbons under the ocean floor and expand trade links with Asia’s booming economies.

This dispute is expected to add yet another source of territorial tension to the upcoming summit of Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation nations, due to be held in Japan’s eastern port city of Yokohama later this month. Ties between China and Japan have been frosty since a Chinese fishing boat captain was detained last month for allegedly ramming Japanese coast guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Although the captain has since been sent back to China without charge, ongoing frictions over the archipelago — known in China as the Diaoyu Islands — led to Beijing scrapping a planned meeting Oct. 29 between Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Hanoi, Vietnam, during a regional summit.