Entries in Espionage (20)


US Consulate Guard Fails at Spying for China, Pleads Guilty

Getty/George Doyle/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A former Marine who was working at a U.S. consulate office in China has pleaded guilty after trying -- and failing -- to spy for China, the Department of Justice said Thursday.

Bryan Underwood, 32, pleaded guilty to one charge for attempting to pass photographs and access to the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China to China's Ministry of State Security.

After losing over $150,000 in the stock market in March 2011, Underwood, who was working at the time as a contract security guard, wrote a letter to China's Ministry of State Security in which he expressed his, "interest in initiating a business arrangement with your office," according to court documents.

"I know I have information and skills that would be beneficial to your offices," he wrote.

The Justice Department said that Underwood took over 30 pictures of sensitive areas of the consulate and made a document which listed recent security upgrades and the locations of surveillance cameras inside the consulate building.

But Underwood failed to deliver the letter to the Ministry of State Security. He got as far as taking a taxi to the Chinese MSS, but he was turned away by a guard, the DOJ said. Instead, Underwood, believing that his apartment was searched at times by Chinese security officials when he was not present, left the letter and other documents out in the open for them to take. Underwood had "Top Secret" clearance, according to court documents.

Prior to his attempts to establish contact with Chinese intelligence officials, Underwood had been approached by a U.S. counterintelligence official and was asked to participate in a counter-surveillance project designed to alert U.S. officials to attempts by Chinese spies to recruit Americans.

Once Underwood's efforts were detected, he was interviewed by U.S. law enforcement officials about his scheme and he allegedly told them that he hoped to obtain between $3 million and $5 million from the Chinese for his spying.

"His attempted betrayal was detected before our nation's secrets fell into the wrong hands," said FBI Assistant Director in Charge James McJunkin, who leads the FBI's Washington Field Office.

According to the court documents, a review of the photographs by a Diplomatic Security official determined that 15 of the 30 photographs Underwood had taken were classified at the "Secret" level.

"Disclosure of this material could cause serious damage to the United States by, among other things, assisting a foreign government in planting listening devices (or other surveillance devices) in sensitive areas," a DOJ statement of fact in the case said.

"Bryan Underwood was determined to make millions by selling secret photos of restricted areas inside a U.S. Consulate in China," U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said in a statement.

Underwood was arrested and indicted last year on charges of attempting to provide the information to the Chinese and for making false statements to the FBI about his intentions. Underwood allegedly told FBI agents that he was hoping to help the FBI by sharing information with them.

Following his arrest on September 1, 2011, Underwood was released from custody under his own personal recognizance by a federal magistrate but he failed to appear at his next court hearing on September 21, 2011. The FBI subsequently located him in a Los Angeles hotel and arrested him 3 days later.

Normally, those found guilty of espionage-related crimes can face up to life in prison, but in a plea agreement, Underwood may not face more than 19 years.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


British Spy Chief: 'Astonishing' Cyber Espionage Threat

MARK WAUGH/AFP/Getty Images(LONDON) -- In a rare public speech, the head of Britain's domestic spy service said Monday that the West now faces an "astonishing" cyber espionage threat on an "industrial scale" from specific nation states.

"The extent of what is going on is astonishing," said Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, "with industrial-scale processes involving many thousands of people lying behind both state-sponsored cyber espionage and organized cyber crime."

Though Evans did not name any countries, ABC News has separately learned from sources that the U.K., the U.S. and several European allies have a robust discussion underway on how to counter cyber espionage by perhaps the most significant state operator -- China.

Evans' speech on potential security threats to the West, delivered to English financial executives, came just one month before the 2012 Summer Olympics begin in London.

"The Games present an attractive target for our enemies and they will be at the centre of the world's attention in a month or so," said Evans. "No doubt some terrorist networks have thought about whether they could pull off an attack."

While Osama Bin Laden may be dead, he said, "in back rooms and cars on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terror attacks here."

The U.K. has had 43 terror plots or incidents since 2001, authorities said, numbers that are similar to those in the U.S. All since 2005 have been thwarted and several had also been aimed at the U.S., including the recent "printer bomb plot."

Evans said preparation for the Olympics had gone well, and that the Olympics, even if an "attractive" target, would not be an "easy target."

"There is no such thing as guaranteed security," he said. "But I think that we shall see a successful and memorable Games this summer in London."

However, said Evans, "as the government said after the Brighton bombing in 1984 [an IRA attack that narrowly missed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher], the terrorist only has to get lucky once."

Though U.K. retains the Pound as its national currency, Evans singled out the likely rise of political extremism as a result of the "Euro" crisis as a potential threat to the financial community in The City of London -- a mile-square independent jurisdiction within London.

He also pointed out three past national security risks to the financial sector-- all from the U.S. -- the World Trade Center attack in 2001, the almost forgotten bombing of the same towers in 1993, and the anarchist bomb attack on J.P. Morgan's bank in 1920.

"If I may be allowed a Rumsfeld moment," he said, "there are of course the uncertainties we can be certain about -- like terrorism, cyber security challenges and hostile intelligence activities by states. But there are also things we remain uncertain about." During a 2002 press conference, then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a famous distinction between "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Israel Behind Largest Cyber Spy Weapon Ever?

iStockPhoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A top Israeli official hinted Tuesday that his country could be behind the most sophisticated cyber espionage program ever developed, known as Flame, which infiltrated and spied on computer systems throughout the Middle East, including those in Iran, for the past two years.

"Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a serious threat would be likely to take different steps, including these, in order to hurt them," Israel's vice prime minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel's Army Radio on Tuesday, referring to the cyber attack. "Israel is blessed to be a nation possessing superior technology. These achievements of ours open up all kinds of possibilities for us."

Flame, also known as sKyWIper, is a veritable "toolkit" of cyber spying programs that is capable of remotely taking screenshots while the computer user works, recording audio conversations through the computer's own microphone, intercepting keyboard inputs and wiping data, among other sophisticated capabilities, according to cyber security experts. The code has been active for two years and has infected dozens of computers throughout the Middle East, mostly in Iran.

Three cyber security firms, both in the U.S. and abroad, that have begun to analyze Flame said the code is unprecedented in complexity and, due to its sheer sophistication, was most likely developed by a hacking team working under the direction of a nation-state.

"We can't pinpoint who is actually behind it, but we can narrow the list of potential actors," Vikram Thakur, a manager at Symantec, told ABC News Monday. "It's a project that's been out for years, and flown under the radar. It is extremely well funded."

One of the cyber security companies that has analyzed Flame, the Russia-based Kaspersky Labs, said that the malware was discovered only after sensitive information began suddenly disappearing from computer networks in the Middle East. The wiping program turned out to be just one arm of Flame.

Iran's government cyber security response team acknowledged the breech in an online posting Monday, which described the malware's capabilities and said that its methods and functionality made Iranian experts believe it had a "close relation" to Stuxnet, another highly sophisticated cyber weapon discovered in 2010 that appeared to target and damage an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. Israel was suspected of being behind that attack and the Israeli government has repeatedly declined to comment on those allegations.

Analysis from Kaspersky and the Hungary-based cryptology lab Crysys shows that the code used in Flame is so much bigger and so different from that used in Stuxnet that it is unlikely the two were developed by the same group of hackers, but their reports did not discount the possibility that the same nation could have funded and directed both attacks, considering the common target.

So far, researchers in the U.S. and abroad have said Flame appears to only be used for spying purposes, rather than being used to cause physical damage to systems, like Stuxnet. Still, Kaspersky Labs said in a blog post, "such highly flexible malware can be used to deploy specific attack modules" that could target a country's critical infrastructure and there could also be variations of the code that have yet to be discovered.

Further analysis of the complex Flame code by several cyber security firms is ongoing.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Iran Hangs ‘Israeli Spy’ for Nuclear Scientist Assassination: Reports

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The man convicted of assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist on behalf of the Israeli spy agency Mossad has been executed by hanging in an Iranian prison, Iranian state media reported Tuesday.

The Iranian government claims Majid Jamali Fashi, 24, was recruited and trained by Mossad to be a spy and was paid $120,000 to kill Iranian nuclear physicist Massoud Ali-Mohammadi in January 2010. Mohammadi died after a motorcycle packed with explosives was detonated by remote control as he walked past. Fashi also confessed to receiving forged travel documents in Azerbaijan to travel to Israel, Iran’s Press TV reported.

In January 2011, Iranian media broadcast Fashi’s confession in which he said he “received different training courses, including chasing, running, counter-chasing and techniques for planting bombs in a car” while in Tel Aviv, according to Iran’s Fars News.

The Iranian government has in the past claimed that Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. intelligence agencies are to blame for the recent assassinations of as many as five Iranian scientists involved in the country’s controversial nuclear or missile programs since 2007. American and British officials have strongly denied the accusations — a White House spokesperson called them “absurd” in the wake of Mohammadi’s death. Also, the Israeli government has offered no official public comment.

Iranian media previously reported the government had arrested a number of individuals in connection with the deaths of the nuclear scientists.

In November 2011, the Iranian government accused the head of the United Nation’s nuclear regulatory agency of endangering Iranian nuclear scientists by publishing their names in open reports.

“The release of the names of the Iranian scientists by the agency has made them targets for assassination by terrorist groups as well as the Israeli regime and the U.S. intelligence services,” said Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh in a letter to Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Following the deaths of the Iranian scientists, Israeli officials suspected Iran to be behind a series of bombings and attempted bombings on Israeli targets from the nation of Georgia to Thailand. In the case of an explosion that wounded five people in Bangkok, Thailand, three Iranians were arrested.

At the time, an Iranian official condemned the Bangkok blast and told Iran’s Press TV that Israeli agents are often behind such attacks.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Parents of American 'Spy' Held by Iran Issue Tearful Plea

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- For the first time, the parents of an American who could face the death penalty in Iran for alleged espionage, have gone before a camera in a stirring video to speak about their young son and the suffering they've endured since the arrest of the "typical American boy."

"Everywhere I go I see him.  His face is in front of me everywhere," Behnaz Hekmati, mother of arrested Amir Hekmati, says as tears stream down her face in the new video posted on  "I miss him so much.  I miss him so much… [But] I keep myself strong because I know my boy needs me.  I need to help him."

Amir Hekmati, an Arizona-born ex-U.S. Marine, was arrested in August 2011 while his family said he was on his first trip ever to Iran to see his grandmother.  Iran accused Amir of being a spy, and in December an Iranian television station broadcast a "confession" from the 28-year-old in which he says he was sent into Iran by the CIA to become a double agent.

A day after the broadcast, Amir's father, Ali, told ABC News in an exclusive interview that the Iranian claims were "lies."

"My son is no spy.  He is innocent.  He's a good fellow, a good citizen, a good man," the elder Hekmati said then.  "These are all unfounded allegations and a bunch of lies."

The next month, an Iranian court found Amir guilty and sentenced him to death.  However, Iranian media reported in March that the death sentence had been annulled and Amir would be retried.

In the new video, neither Amir's father or mother mention Iran or the allegations against their son, but talk about Amir when he was a charming boy and describe the effect his arrest has had on the family.

"I am in very bad shape.  I am just deteriorating every day.  Every day I get worse and worse," Hekmati's mother says.  "I try to be strong because maybe it's only me and his family... we are his voice.  He doesn't have a voice."

Hekmati's father says he thinks about his son "all the time" and says he sometimes prays to dream about him, if only to see his face.

"Maybe I will share a dream of him," Ali Hekmati says.  "I sure miss him." 

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Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Chinese Espionage Alleged to Have Targeted DuPont

Courtesy of DuPont(WASHINGTON) -- The Justice Department Wednesday charged that Chinese-controlled companies conspired to steal production secrets potentially worth billions of dollars from U.S. chemical giant DuPont.

The long-running, multi-billion-dollar economic espionage plot was revealed as five people and five companies were indicted for allegedly stealing trade secrets to benefit companies controlled by the People’s Republic of China.

The conspiracy reportedly centered on DuPont because it produces one of the world’s most valuable and ubiquitous pigments -- titanium dioxide.  Titanium dioxide infuses a bright, white, reflective glow in coloring paint, plastics, paper and other commercial products.  The worldwide titanium dioxide market has been valued at about $12 billion, and DuPont controls the largest share of the market.  

The Justice Department indictment charges that the Chinese tried to steal unique, titanium dioxide production technology from DuPont and use it to open a new, 100,000-ton titanium dioxide plant at Chongqing, China.

To achieve that goal, the Justice Department charges, “companies controlled by the PRC government, specifically the Pangang Group companies …conspired and attempted to illegally obtain titanium dioxide (TiO2) technology that had been developed over many years of research and development…by DuPont.”  The Pangang Group is the Chinese company that was to have built the titanium dioxide plant in Chongqing, according to the Justice Department.

Pangang and four other corporate defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets and attempted economic espionage. The Justice Department said the Pangang Group companies paid “significant sums of money” to at least five insiders for DuPont’s trade secrets.

"The theft of America’s trade secrets for the benefit of China and other nations poses a substantial and continuing threat to our economic and national security,” Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco said. “We are committed to holding accountable anyone who robs American businesses of their hard-earned research. I thank the agents and prosecutors who helped bring about this important case.”  

The case is being prosecuted by the Special Prosecutions and National Security Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco, and the Counterespionage Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. The investigation, which is ongoing, is being conducted by the FBI.

DuPont spokesman Dan Turner issued this statement late Wednesday:

“DuPont has taken, and will continue to take, aggressive measures to protect its proprietary, unique and confidential technologies for the benefit of our shareholders, employees and customers. We are disappointed that former DuPont employees working together with certain companies allegedly stole our proprietary technology.  Upon learning of the apparent breach, we took prompt action and filed a civil suit.  We also referred the theft of our technology to law enforcement.” Because this matter is pending both criminally and civilly, we cannot comment further.”

The Chinese embassy did not immediately return calls for comment.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


FBI Raises Concerns About Cyber Attacks from China and Russia

Hemera/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Threats from cyber-espionage, computer crime, and attacks on critical infrastructure will surpass terrorism as the number-one threat facing the United States, FBI Director Robert Mueller testified Tuesday.

Mueller and National Intelligence Director James Clapper, addressing the annual Worldwide Threat hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, cited their concerns about cyber-security and noted that China and Russia run robust intrusion operations against key U.S. industries and the government.

“I do not think today it is necessarily [the] number-one threat, but it will be tomorrow,” Mueller said. “Counterterrorism — stopping terrorist attacks — with the FBI is the present number-one priority. But down the road, the cyberthreat, which cuts across all [FBI] programs, will be the number-one threat to the country.”

A report released in November by the National Counterintelligence Executive singled out Russia and China for their aggressive efforts to steal American intellectual property, trade secrets and national security information.

“The cyberthreat is one of the most challenging ones we face,” Clapper said. “Among state actors, we’re particularly concerned about entities within China and Russia conducting intrusions into U.S. computer networks and stealing U.S. data.  And the growing role that non-state actors are playing in cyberspace is a great example of the easy access to potentially disruptive and even lethal technology and know-how by such groups.”

“We foresee a cyber-environment in which emerging technologies are developed and implemented before security responses can be put in place,” Clapper said. U.S. officials estimate that there are 60,000 new malicious computer programs identified each day.

Last week the computer security firm Symantec released a report on a Trojan horse program dubbed “Sykipot,” which researchers say was traced to computer servers in China and was allegedly targeting firms in the defense industry.

“The Sykipot attackers have a long running history of attacks against multiple industries. Based on these insights, the attackers are familiar with the Chinese language and are using computer resources in China. They are clearly a group of attackers who are constantly modifying their creation to utilize new vulnerabilities and to evade security products and we expect that they will continue their attacks in the future,” Symantec noted in a blog posting.

In the next month, Congress is expected to take up debate about pending cyber-security legislation that could possibly give the Department of Homeland Security new authorities to protect critical computer networks. Senators on the Hill Tuesday questioned the panel about why they have not done more to move forward on the issue.

“I can tell you that we are exceptionally concerned about that threat,” Mueller said, citing the establishment of the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force that brings together the 18 intelligence agencies to work on various cyber threats.

“In the same way we changed to address terrorism, we have to change to address cybercrime.” Mueller said. “And so we have to build up the collective addressing of that threat in the same way that we did so and broke down the walls in the wake of September 11th .”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Brits Use Fake 'Spy Rock' in Moscow Espionage Gambit: Official

This undated image from Russian television shows electronic equipment concealed in a rock, which was claimed to be used by four British embassy staff members to receive intelligence information provided by Russian agents in a park outside Moscow. HO/AFP/Getty Images(LONDON) -- To the untrained eye, it may have just looked like a rock sitting next to a Moscow sidewalk, but to British spies prowling the Russian capital, it was actually an invaluable tool of spycraft, a fake stone with a hidden compartment for electronic equipment, according to a former British official.

It has been five years since the Russian security service, the FSB, claimed it had discovered a British espionage ring on Russian soil using the fake rock, but until now no British officials admitted the blown operation.

In a BBC documentary airing Thursday night, Jonathan Powell, then-chief of staff for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said "the spy rock was embarrassing" for the Brits, according to a BBC report.

"They had us bang to rights," Powell said. "Clearly they had known about it for some time."

In 2006, Russian television showed footage of the alleged spies using the rock to apparently transmit files to and from electronic equipment hidden in the rock. In one instance, a man walked by the rock, slows down as he passes it, and then picks up the pace, according to the BBC. In the next shot, another man walks by and picks up the rock.

Powell told the BBC he believed the Russian government had held off making their discovery public for some time "for a political purpose." At the time, the Russian government had accused British intelligence of secretly funding pro-democracy and human rights non-governmental organizations in Russia.

Around the time the Russian report was shown in 2006, then-President Vladimir Putin introduced a new law that restricted NGOs from receiving funding from foreign governments.

At that time, Britain's ambassador to Russia, Tony Brenton, reportedly said all interactions between the British government and Russian organizations was "above board."

According to the Russian news outlet RT, the FSB denies the "spy rock scandal" was linked to the NGO funding controversy, but chose to leak the story to the press in 2006 only after the spy agency failed to discreetly settle the matter with the British government.

When asked for comment on this report, a spokesperson for the British Foreign Ministry told ABC News the office does not comment on "intelligence matters."

Mark Stout, a historian for the International Spy Museum and former intelligence analyst in the U.S. government, said such a method of "cover communications" is not uncommon for most major intelligence services.

"All the major services have technical staffs... in a lot of ways analogous to Q in James Bond, who are really good at this sort of thing and always looking for the latest, greatest ways to hide something in a place that no one would've ever imagined in a million years," Stout said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Lawyer Hired to Work for American 'Spy' Sentenced to Death in Iran

ABC News(TEHRAN, Iran) -- Amir Mirzaei Hekmati's family has retained Los Angeles attorney Pierre-Richard Prosper to see what he can do to free 28-year-old Hekmati, who was sentenced to death by a court in Iran for allegedly spying for the CIA.

The White House has denied that Hekmati, a former Marine Arabic translator, was secretly spying while visiting his grandmother.  However, the State Department's options are limited since Washington and Tehran have had no formal diplomatic relations since the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979.

Prosper has an extensive background in international affairs, having served as an ambassador at large for war crimes under the Bush administration.  He also acted as prosecutor for the Rwanda war crimes tribunal at the Hague.

But what drew Hekmati's family, who live in Michigan, to Prosper was that he was able to free American businessman Reza Taghavi from an Iranian prison after he was accused of having ties to an Iranian opposition group.

Gaining Hekmati's release could prove more daunting since he has already been charged, convicted and sentenced, becoming the first American to receive the death penalty in the long and contentious relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Iran Sentences American 'Spy' to Death

ABC News(TEHRAN, Iran) -- Iran has sentenced a former U.S. Marine to death on charges of spying for the CIA, Iranian state media reported Monday.

Iran's Revolutionary Court found 28-year-old Amir Hekmati "Corrupt on Earth," according to the Fars news agency, and sentenced him to death "for cooperating with the hostile country...and spying for the CIA." Under Iranian law, Hekmati has 20 days to appeal.  

His trial and death sentence came as Iran announced that it had enriched uranium at an underground facility and as the U.S. imposed harsher economic sanctions on Iran to stop its nuclear program.

Hekmati's mother Behnaz Hekmati released a statement saying that she and her husband Ali were, "shocked and terrified by the news that our son, Amir, has been sentenced to death. We believe that this verdict is a result of a process that was neither transparent nor fair."

"Amir did not engage in any acts of spying, or 'fighting against God,'" as the convicting judge has claimed in his sentence," said the statement.  "Amir is not a criminal.  His life is being exploited for political gain."

The U.S. State Department has asked the Iranian government repeatedly to allow Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, to meet with Hekmati.  Iran has refused, according to the State Department. Hekmati's family also said they had been rebuffed in all attempts to speak with the Iranian government.

"A grave error has been committed," said Hekmati's parents on Monday.  "We pray that Iran will show compassion and not murder our son, Amir, a natural born American citizen, who was visiting Iran and his relatives for the first time."

Hekmati, an Arizona-born Iranian-American who served in the U.S. Marines as a rifleman from 2001 to 2005, was arrested while visiting his extended family, including two elderly grandmothers, in Tehran on Aug. 29, 2011, according to the family. The family said they were urged by the Iranian government to keep quiet about his arrest with the promise of later release, but then in December, Hekmati was shown on Iranian television allegedly confessing to being an undercover agent of the Central Intelligence Agency on a mission to infiltrate the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.

"It was their [the CIA's] plan to first burn some useful information, give it to them [the Iranians] and let Iran's Intelligence Ministry think that this is good material," Hekmati says calmly in the video.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News shortly after the broadcast, Hekmati's father strongly denied his son was a spy and said the confession was forced.

"My son is no spy.  He is innocent. He's a good fellow, a good citizen, a good man," Hekmati said.  "These are all unfounded allegations and a bunch of lies."

In the Iranian broadcast, Hekmati was described as having been trained in military intelligence for 10 years by the U.S. Army before being sent in country on his secret mission to become a double agent for the CIA.  But military service records provided to ABC News showed Hekmati is a former Marine, was never in the Army and never had any military intelligence training. He spoke Arabic and may have helped translate for his Marine unit, but left service in 2005 as a rifleman.

The elder Hekmati said his son worked for a security contractor after his Marine service, but insisted he never had intelligence training there either.

"We've seen this story before with the Iranian regime falsely accusing people of being spies and then holding the innocent foreigners for political reasons," State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said in December.  In September, the Iranian government released the last two of three American hikers detained there for two years on accusations of espionage.

Hekmati's mother, father, two sisters and brother all live in the U.S.

"Every waking moment, our family is agonizing over Amir's fate," the family's statement says.  "We continue to hope, struggling to reach out to Iran and abroad for Amir's freedom... to the ones who have hearts, and the ones who can hear.  We will not stop hoping and praying for justice, for peaceful dialogue with Iran, and for Amir's safe return home."

A representative at the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., declined to comment for this report and referred ABC News to his colleagues in New York.  Representatives at the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately return requests for comment.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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