Spy vs. Spy
January 4, 2019

Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine and Michigan auto parts executive arrested in Moscow last week on espionage charges, is actually a dual U.S.-British citizen, The Guardian reported Thursday evening. "Our staff have requested consular access to a British man detained in Russia after receiving a request for assistance from him," the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement. Whelan's family said the 48-year-old was in Russia for the wedding of a fellow ex-Marine, but Russia accuses him of "carrying out an act of espionage," and he reportedly faces up to 20 years in prison.

Whelan's lawyer and U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman both visited Whelan at Lefortovo prison on Wednesday. The lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said Whelan has applied for release on bail and is in a "very hopeful" mood. Hunstman said he's complained to Russian officials about the delay in granting Whelan consular access. Russia's Rosbalt news agency said Whelan was arrested soon after taking possession of a USB drive containing a classified list of names. Peter Weber

December 31, 2018

Russia's FSB domestic security agency said Monday it has arrested a U.S. citizen caught "during an espionage operation" in Moscow on Friday, but did not provide further detail. Russia's Tass news agency identified the alleged spy as Paul Whelan, noting that espionage charges carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison. There has been no U.S. response to the arrest yet. Russia's spy announcement comes at a recent low point in U.S.-Russia relations; the U.S. has sanctioned Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its interference in the 2016 election, and both countries have expelled each other's suspected intelligence agents. Two weeks ago, Russian gun-rights activist Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring with Republican operatives as an agent of Moscow and agreed to cooperated with U.S. investigators. Peter Weber

March 13, 2018

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it's "highly likely that Russia was responsible" for a March 4 nerve gas attack on a 66-year-old former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, outside a shopping center in Salisbury. Skripal and his daughter, 33, are hospitalized in critical condition, and a British police officer who found them unconscious on a bench is in serious condition.

The pair "were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia," May said. "Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others." U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the nerve agent, Novichok, "came from Russia" and will "certainly trigger a response." He did not speculate if the Russian government ordered the attack, but said the Kremlin is increasingly "aggressive" and seems to be behind a "certain unleashing of activity that we don't fully understand."

Earlier Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had repeatedly declined to blame Russia for the nerve gas attack.

May gave Russian President Vladimir Putin until midnight Tuesday to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union ended up poisoning British citizens in broad daylight. The Russian Foreign Ministry said May is putting on "a circus show in the British Parliament" and posted a mocking tweet.

Novichok agents, which asphyxiate people by constricting airways and slowing the heart, are believed to be up to 10 times deadlier than better known nerve agents like Sarin and VX. Peter Weber

November 3, 2016

Ever since FBI Director James Comey sent his letter to Congress about potential new emails related to the Hillary Clinton email server investigation, and got bipartisan blowback from that unusual decision, the FBI and Justice Department have been leaking like a sieve.

Unidentified "federal officials familiar with the investigation" tell The Washington Post that Comey actually showed restraint by waiting until Oct. 28 to deliver his "circumspect" letter to Congress. Comey had been told about the emails before being formally "briefed" on Oct. 27, the officials said, and had ordered FBI investigators to find everything they could about the emails from Clinton aide Huma Abedin without reading them, since they did not have a warrant for Abedin's emails. The metadata was enough to seek a warrant, the officials say, and Comey was concerned that applying for a warrant would lead to a leak. "It could not be done in secret," one official said. "It's a volatile subject and a major topic in the presidential campaign."

At The Wall Street Journal, "officials at multiple agencies" who were "familiar with the matter" described a fight between FBI agents who wanted to aggressively pursue an investigation into the Clinton Foundation and public-corruption prosecutors who thought the agents' evidence was weak or worthless. The Clinton Foundation inquiry, as The New York Times reported Tuesday, was based on allegations from an anti-Clinton book, Clinton Cash, by conservative writer Peter Schweizer. Schweizer tells The Wall Street Journal that his book wasn't meant to be a legal document but instead describes "patterns of financial transactions that circled around decisions Hillary Clinton was making as secretary of state."

"Starting in February and continuing today, investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and public-corruption prosecutors became increasingly frustrated with each other, as often happens within and between departments," The Wall Street Journal reports. The FBI agents were frustrated because they had secretly recorded a suspect in another case "talking about alleged deals the Clintons made," and were angry prosecutors wouldn't let them aggressively follow up; the prosecutors viewed the recording as not-credible hearsay and Justice Department officials became frustrated that the FBI agents were disobeying orders to be discreet in such a high-profile investigation. You can read more about the infighting at The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

December 30, 2015

When President Obama's national security team signaled after his 2008 election that they wanted the NSA to keep giving the White House intelligence on foreign "leadership intentions," that included the fruits of electronic surveillance of Israeli leaders along with the heads of other U.S. allies. When Obama curtailed the use of eavesdropping on friendly leaders in 2013 after NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed this closely guarded program, Obama decided to keep on closely monitoring the communications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing "interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and administration officials."

With the assent of Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress' intelligence committees, Obama had ramped up eavesdropping on Netanyahu in 2011 and 2012, when Netanyahu drew up plans to bomb Iran and Obama launched secret nuclear talks with Tehran, The Journal says. In 2014, NSA intercepts convinced the White House that Israel was spying on the Iran deal negotiators, and when Netanyahu's office started actively lobbying U.S. lawmakers to oppose the deal in 2015 — reportedly using questions like "How can we get your vote? What's it going to take?" — the White House had what one official called an "oh-s—t moment" when they realized the NSA would be scooping up communications involving U.S. lawmakers.

The NSA kept the White House in the dark, and in the clear legally, by removing the names and personal information of any U.S. lawmaker communicating with Israel's leaders, The Wall Street Journal says, but even with the eavesdropping, Netanyahu's office had two surprises for Team Obama. First, the White House says it was caught off guard when congressional Republicans and Israel announced in January that Netanyahu would address a joint session of Congress — a plan hatched by John Boehner, then the House speaker, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, knowing it would infuriate the White House. And second, NSA intercepts showed, Netanyahu and some of his allies had misplaced confidence that they had enough votes to sink the Iran deal in Congress. You can read more on the spy vs. spy activities of the NSA and its Israeli signals-intelligence counterpart, Unit 8200, at The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

March 24, 2015

Israeli intelligence was eavesdropping on closed-door nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S. and other world powers, then passing the classified information along to the U.S. Congress to try and pre-emptively scuttle the deal, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing "interviews with more than a dozen current and former U.S. and Israeli diplomats, intelligence officials, policymakers, and lawmakers."

The White House, which learned of the espionage early on in the talks, was more upset about Israel using selected bits of purloined information to try and undermine the sensitive nuclear negotiations than the actual spying, explains the Journal's Adam Entous:

The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policymakers — a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned. The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said. [Wall Street Journal]

A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office denied that Israel spied directly on the U.S., but "U.S. officials said Israel has long topped the list of countries that aggressively spy on the U.S., along with China, Russia, and France," Entous reports. "The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally, U.S. officials said." Read the entire fascinating look at the Israel-U.S. spying game at The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

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