Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Top 10 Spy News Stories of 2011

The Killing of Osama Bin Laden
The top spy news story of 2011 was the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden. Ten years of intelligence provided tantalizing clues that finally led to the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden had apparently been living there for years, probably with the knowledge of some elements within Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

Several high-value terrorists had been waterboarded in the years after 9/11, resulting in the discovery of the name of a bin Laden courier. Later, the National Security Agency was made aware of a SIM card from a cell phone associated with the courier, which allowed it to monitor a conversation between the courier & an associate. His location was pinpointed and he was eventually tracked to bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

But more evidence was needed that bin Laden was actually living there, so the CIA concocted a phony vaccination program for locals in that area. The DNA of bin Laden’s children was thereby collected, and that provided enough evidence that the CIA had finally discovered bin Laden’s whereabouts. A Navy SEAL team swept in and ended bin Laden’s reign of terror on May 2.

Cyberespionage Rising

Cyberspying is the fastest growing type of espionage. Hackers are targeting military, government, business, educational, and personal computer systems. Often, they are acting on behalf of a foreign government. The Pentagon has taken notice and formulated policies for the first time in dealing with the threat. “Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace” is the first ever reports by the Pentagon to protect from potentially devastating attacks. The “Department of Defense Cyberspace Policy Report” includes guidelines for a military response to a cyberattack.

The Secret War on Iran’s Nuclear Program
In Iran, things fall apart—by way of unexplained explosions. Gas pipelines, oil installations, and military facilities have all suffered from this mysterious illness. Nuclear physicists have been assassinated and nuclear facilities sabotaged. Who knows why? Many speculate the Mossad, CIA, and other western intelligence services are engaged in a secret campaign to inhibit Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions, and all this chaos is the result.

The Raymond Davis Affair
Relations between Pakistan and the US became exceptionally strained during the Raymond Davis Affair. Davis was a CIA contractor working at the US consulate in Lahore, Pakistan. On January 27, he shot and killed two Pakistani men who had approached his vehicle while in traffic. Davis said they were trying to rob him. The Pakistani public was outraged, feeling that CIA agents were running around their country killing people with no accountability or respect for innocent lives. After two months of diplomatic negotiations, it was decided that the Islamic practice of accepting “blood money” by the victims’ relatives would solve the matter in a way acceptable to all parties, and Davis was released from jail and flown out of the country.

China is Crowned King of Cyberespionage
China has become “the bad guy” in terms of cyberespionage. Fair? All countries spy, all countries try to discover military and governmental secrets from both enemies and friends. But critics assert that China’s espionage has gone far beyond stealing those kinds of secrets, and it is waging a massive trade war by targeting private American companies. Most countries steal what they need, while China steals everything it can get its hands on, they say. The US doesn’t steal on behalf of private industry, but that isn’t a problem for China or other countries. We are playing by different rules. “Foreign Spies Stealing US Economic Secrets in Cyberspace” was issued by the National Counterintelligence Executive accusing China of being the most active perpetrator of economic espionage.

Iran Captures US Spy Drone
In early December, Iran somehow came into possession of an unmanned US spy plane, an RQ-170 Sentinel drone. It was apparently spying on Iran’s nuclear facilities. What caused the plane to fall out of the sky is disputed. The US believes it suffered a technical malfunction and crashed; Iran collected the pieces, then reassembled and painted them before placing the vehicle on display for the public. Iranian authorities, on the other hand, claim they jammed the plane’s navigation technology, allowing them to gain control and force it to land. This particular drone is considered highly advanced, but has no self-destruct mechanism. Prominent figures on the political right berated President Obama for not ordering a strike team to fly in and destroy the vehicle before it could be captured. Obama was left in the humiliating position of begging an adversarial foreign power to give it back, which Iran rejected. How much Iran can learn from the plane is debated as well, but it is feared Iran will allow China or Russia to see the drone and learn what they can from it.

The Lebanon Espionage War
In early December, the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon revealed the names of the CIA station chief in Beirut as well as other CIA staffers, which seriously compromised the ability of the US to conduct intelligence operations. Hezbollah also announced it had arrested several Lebanese spies working for the CIA. The spy network was discovered with telephone data mining equipment originally provided to Lebanon by the US. Sloppy CIA tradecraft made the exposure easier. Alleged spies for Israel continue to be arrested. Hezbollah discovered an Israeli tapping device attached to a private fiber-optic communication network, which Lebanon then complained about to the UN. The Pentagon said Hezbollah receives millions in aid from Iran yearly.

Crackdown on Spies in Iran
Throughout the year, Iran claimed to have arrested dozens of CIA spies engaged in espionage and sabotage of their nuclear facilities. The spies were apparently Iranians persuaded to work for the US. Otherwise, Iran has provided few details on those arrested. But it is clear than an ongoing intelligence war is underway in Iran and the major players are Israel and the US. The point of all the espionage activity seems to be to avoid, if possible, airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, except as a last resort. In the absence of any successful diplomatic initiatives, the shadow war will continue unless it no longer shows results.

Zatuliveter Exonerated of Espionage Charge
Katia Zatuliveter, a Russian national who was also a researcher for UK MP Mike Hancock, was accused of spying for Russia, but in November was finally cleared of the accusations of espionage and is permitted to stay in the UK. MI5 and the British Home Office believed the young Russian woman had targeted the middle-aged Hancock due to his place on the Defence committee. There were “grounds for suspicion” but nothing concrete against her in terms of spying. She plans to write a book about the entire affair.

Looming Budget Cuts
The US intelligence and defense budgets are facing dramatic cuts of a magnitude not seen since the early 1990s, in the days after the fall of the Soviet Union. For the first time since 9/11, spending for non-military intelligence will decrease. Will our spying capabilities suffer, as they did 20 years ago, when many feel the deep cutbacks eventually resulted in 9/11, which no one foresaw. Any deep cuts are likely to increase security risks, making another 9/11 a greater possibility. The Pentagon and DNI are already issuing warnings that the risk of attacks will increase.

Didn’t Quite Make the Top 10

India’s Chewing Gum Spy Scandal
Wads of chewing gum were found placed strategically under the desks of the Prime Minister of India’s top staff members. The implication, in terms of espionage, was that the innocent-looking gum was used as an adhesive to hold electronic surveillance bugs in place and out of sight. The intelligence bureau decided nothing sinister was involved in Bubblegumgate, although nothing could be ruled out.

Top UK Minister Dumps Secret Papers in the Trash
Oliver Letwin, policy adviser to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, was observed and photographed dumping private government papers in trash cans in a public park where anyone could have retrieved them. A damage-control spokesman claimed none of the documents were of a sensitive nature.

German Spy HQ Blueprints Stolen
A new headquarters for Germany’s spy agency is being built in Berlin. The blueprints were stolen, which included sensitive information about the security of the building.

Saudis Arrest Israeli Spy Vulture

Saudi Arabian security services detained a vulture that had flown into their territory. Suspiciously, the bird carried a GPS transmitter from Tel Aviv University, prompting accusations of a Zionist plot. Israeli officials said the tracking device stored data about the bird’s travels, altitude, and speed to better understand its behavior.

See Also: The Best Spy Nonfiction of 2011

See Also: The Best Spy Fiction of 2011