Russian lawmakers vote to expand definition of treason, espionage

The upper house of Russia’s parliament voted to broaden the definition of espionage and high treason, continuing what many activists view as a crackdown on dissent in the countryMOSCOW -- The upper house of Russia's parliament voted Wednesday to broaden the definition of espionage and high treason, continuing what many activists view as a crackdown on dissent in the country.

The legislation, which will become law if signed by President Vladimir Putin, expands the definition of espionage and high treason to encompass "the rendering of financial, material-technical or other assistance to a foreign state, international or other organization or their representatives in the activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation."

The bill was approved by 138 of the 139 lawmakers present in the Federal Council, the parliament's upper house.

The legislation, which was submitted by the Federal Security Service, the successor of the Soviet KGB, offers officials wide room for interpretation and could undercut the development of democracy in Russia, warned Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council of Civic Society and Human Rights.

"If approached literally, the bill creates totally unlimited possibilities of finding high treason in any action," Fedotov said in an interview Wednesday. "If a passerby asks me in a Moscow street for directions to the Kremlin and duly gets them from me and later turns out to be a member of an organization working against our national security, I will automatically become a person guilty of high treason."

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Taiwan unnerved by arrests over alleged spying for China

Taiwan has arrested three retired military officers on suspicion of spying for China, allegations that have unsettled lawmakers fearful that state secrets could be leaked to Beijing.

The accused include the former chief of political warfare at the Taiwanese naval meteorology and oceanography office, according a Ministry of National Defense statement sent Monday to local media. The ministry said Chang Chih-hsin had initiated contacts with Chinese officials during his service and was suspected of luring fellow officers and “making illegal gains.”

The office is seen as especially sensitive because it holds information about Taiwanese submarines and hidden ambush zones. "This has gravely endangered Taiwan's security," ruling party lawmaker Lin Yu-fang was quoted by the Taipei Times. "It's a shame for the military."

As the news spread, the ministry downplayed the risks, saying that no “confidential information” had been leaked to Beijing. The Chinese office for Taiwan affairs told the Global Times, a paper linked to the Communist Party, that it knew nothing about the alleged spying.

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Speculation continues about drone intercepted in Israel

 

JERUSALEM -- The day after an unidentified drone penetrated Israeli airspace and was shot down by the Israeli air force Saturday, speculation continued about the origin of the small craft or its assignment.

According to statements from the Israeli military, the drone was spotted before entering Israeli airspace and remained under surveillance of both ground and air forces until being downed in the northern Negev, a relatively remote area chosen to avoid damage to civilian areas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the military's response and stressed Israel would continue to protect its "land, sea and air borders" on behalf of its citizens.

The drone entered Israeli airspace Saturday along the country's southern Mediterranean coast. Despite emerging from the direction of the Gaza Strip, the army does not believe it was launched from the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. Theories abound as to the make and mission of the drone -- described by Israeli media as sophisticated. 

"The immediate suspect is Hezbollah," according to one theory published in Haaretz. The Lebanese-based, Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militia is believed to have used drones against Israel before, although coming from the south presents a twist. Another commentator on the website ynetnews.com raised the possibility it was headed toward Dimona, site of Israel's nuclear reactor, to photograph the area, and that this was a message from Iran, testing Israel's capabilities.

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General warns of dramatic increase in cyber-attacks on U.S. firms

Cyber forum
ASPEN, Colo.  -- Computer  intrusions by hackers, criminals and nations against U.S. infrastructure increased seventeenfold from 2009 to 2011, the nation’s chief cyber defender says, and it’s only a matter of time before such an attack causes physical damage.

Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads  the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, revealed the statistics in a rare public interview Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum, a gathering of national security officials. He called for passage of legislation being debated by the Senate that would set up a voluntary system for companies to shore up their computer defenses.

The NSA eavesdrops on communications around the world, and it also monitors cyber-attacks. U.S. Cyber Command is responsible for offensive cyber operations.

Alexander did not say how many attacks happen each year against critical infrastructure, such as electrical, water, chemical and nuclear plants. Such intrusions are typically designed  to probe defenses and lay the groundwork for a destructive attack.  Many plants and factories are run by networked industrial control systems, so an attacker who seizes control of such a system could wreak havoc.

Echoing remarks he has made before, Alexander said the U.S. lacks sufficient defenses against cyber-attacks. On a scale of 1 to 10, he said, American preparedness for a large-scale cyber-attack is “around a 3.”

He said he was particularly worried about attacks that could shut down parts of the electrical grid or compromise public water systems.

“Destructive cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure are coming,” Alexander said.

Alexander said the military had yet to work out rules of engagement for responding to cyber-attacks, and he pointed out that neither of his agencies have the authority to defend against a cyber-attack on a private company, even if that company owns crucial infrastructure.  The pending bill would fix that, he said.

Some business groups oppose the bill as intrusive, and some civil liberties groups say it compromises privacy.

Alexander pointedly refused to comment on Stuxnet, a cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities that has been reported to have been the work of the U.S. and Israeli intelligence.  He also pushed back against the notion that the uptick in attacks on the U.S. is related to Stuxnet, which was first discovered in June 2010.

Alexander repeated his view that computer-based espionage against the industrialized world amounted to “the biggest transfer of wealth in history” because “adversaries have gone into our companies and taken intellectual property.”

He cited one estimate by the security firm McAfee that the losses from such spying add up to a trillion dollars. But, he said, "we don’t know. And which is more alarming:  that it’s really large, or we don’t even know how large it is? … What other countries are doing are stealing the next generation of [our] capabilities.”

Alexander didn’t name the countries, but China and Russia have  been cited by government officials as the biggest culprits, a charge they deny.

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Photo: NBC correspondent Pete Williams, left, interviews Gen. Keith Alexander  on  on cyber-security. Credit: Aspen Daily News 


British police arrest 6 terror suspects in London

Police arrested six people who are suspected of preparing terrorist strikes against targets in Britain
This post has been updated and corrected. See the notes below for details.

LONDON -- Police on Thursday arrested six people who are suspected of preparing terrorist strikes against targets in Britain. 

In a brief statement, Scotland Yard announced that five men and one woman between the ages of 18 and 30 had been taken into custody in London. The suspects were taken as "part of a pre-planned intelligence-led operation" that was "not linked" to the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games set to begin in the British capital late this month, police said.

One 24-year-old man arrested at a home was tasered but not hospitalized, police said. Another suspect was arrested in the street in West London, officials said.

The police statement said authorities were also searching "eight residential premises in east, west and north London and one business premises in east London."

[Updated, 7:58 a.m. July 5: The BBC and other media outlets reported that the arrests were part of a possible plot involving Islamic extremists. According to the Guardian, three of those arrested were brothers from the east London area of Stratford, the main site of the Olympic Games.]

Although the government security service MI5 said there is no immediate terror threat to Britain, the present official risk level is graded as substantial. That means a threat is not imminent but a strong possibility, and security services across the country are on heightened alert in the run-up to the Olympics.

In a separate incident, armed police and military personnel closed a major toll road between Birmingham and London on Thursday morning after the driver of a bus en route to London from northwest England stopped the vehicle and reported a passenger handling a smoking liquid.

Authorities reopened the road after a search of the bus and its 48 passengers. Police said an investigation was ongoing but that they were not treating the event as a "counter-terrorism incident."

[Updated, 7:58 a.m. July 5: A Staffordshire police spokeswoman later said by telephone that the smoke came from "an electronic cigarette which produces a smoke-like vapor." A police statement said: "Whilst this was a genuine security alert, the significant concerns reported to us were unfounded."]

For the record, 12:38 p.m. July 5: A previous version of this story attributed the final quote to the  Staffordshire police spokeswoman. It was provided by a separate police statement.

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Photo: Police shut down a section of a roadway in central England on Thursday while they search a bus and its occupants after the driver reported that one passenger was handling a smoking liquid. Credit: STR / EPA


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange defies British police

Assange
LONDON -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has defied a British police request to report to a London police station to begin extradition proceedings to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on sexual assault allegations.

Assange, who has won wide public support for revealing diplomatic and international business secrets on the WikiLeaks website, took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy this month, seeking political asylum.

Susan Benn, a member of the Julian Assange Defense Fund, read a statement outside the embassy Friday saying that Assange "has been advised that he should decline to comply with the police request."

It was no sign of disrespect, she insisted, but "under both international and domestic U.K. law, asylum assessments take priority over extradition claims."

"The issues faced by Mr. Assange are serious," she went on.  At stake was "the life and liberty" of Assange and those associated with WikiLeaks.

Before his move to the embassy, Assange, who denies wrongdoing, had been living under house arrest in Britain since December 2010, most of it spent in the country mansion of one of his supporters.

He has lost several appeals against his extradition; he reportedly fears that he could later be extradited to the United States, where he could face charges of espionage.

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Julian Assange of WikiLeaks gets extradition letter from British police

Assange-protest

This post has been corrected. See note below.

LONDON -- Julian Assange, whose WikiLeaks website angered American officials by releasing official U.S. documents, on Thursday received a letter demanding his presence at a London police station the following day to begin the process of extradition.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London last week, seeking political asylum in a last-ditch attempt to evade extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on allegations of rape and sexual assault. 

The 40-year-old Australian was first arrested in London in December 2010 at the request of Swedish prosecutors asking to question him on allegations of sexual abuse committed in Sweden the previous August.

He denies the accusations but has lost a string of appeals in British courts to avoid being handed over to Sweden’s judiciary for questioning. Assange says his chief fear is that this would lead to further extradition to the United States, where he could face trial for Wikileaks’ actions.

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Israeli president's Medal of Freedom may revive Pollard spy case

Pollard
REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM — President Obama's decision to award Israeli President Shimon Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom is being viewed here as the latest opportunity to ask Washington for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from prison in the U.S.

Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy found guilty in the 1980s of passing classified information to Israel and sentenced to life in prison. For several years, Israel did not acknowledge that Pollard had spied, but in 1995, he was granted Israeli citizenship during Benjamin Netanyahu's first stint as prime minister.

Peres, receiving the medal this week, is expected to renew the request for Pollard's release. Israel has asked several times before, most recently in a personal letter from Peres. The White House rejected the request.

Netanyahu — whose request two years ago was also rejected — had almost secured Pollard's release from President Clinton in 1998. But Clinton reportedly changed his mind after CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign.

Last year, Vice President Joe Biden told a group of American rabbis that Pollard would be released "over his dead body."

Some in Israel have questioned why objections to Pollard's release remain so fierce after nearly three decades, particularly because he spied for a friendly government. In a radio interview Monday, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.Itamar Rabinowitz said that Israeli pressure has always met with a "tremendous counter-pressure" coming from senior legal and intelligence circles in America, who say that Pollard caused extensive intelligence damage. 

The Americans also hold a "suspicion that Pollard was not alone, and there were others and that despite its promise, Israel did not reveal all its cards to the U.S. on this and similar issues," Rabinowitz said.

According to Rabinowitz, who served as ambassador to the U.S. in the 1990s, Israeli officials were made to understand this remained a suspicion, although it was never formally alleged.

Rabinowitz said releasing Pollard would take strength on the part of an American president to overcome the pressure of the two lobbies.

In April, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon publicly claimed that high-level CIA officials believe Pollard had an accomplice. But Ayalon, himself a former ambassador to the U.S., called the suspicions "baseless" and said there was "not a shred of evidence" to support them.

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Photo: Photo of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in 1998.  Credit:  Karl DeBlaker / Associated Press


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