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Sweden rats out Russia’s internet to US, now for Assange

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

As Sweden battles for the extradition of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks cables on the country’s close co-operation with the US are provoking a public backlash.

­The text revealed Washington’s push to influence Swedish wiretapping laws so communication passing through the Scandinavian country can be intercepted. Now Sweden is bugged and wiretapped – at the behest of the US.

The Swedish intelligence service, the FRA, has the power to monitor and intercept all internet traffic in the country. And thanks to leaked US State Department cables, we now know the controversial law was adopted after pressure from Washington. And the security services were deliberately kept out of the process to reassure Swedes there was no “funny business”.

“Forced to operate under strict data storage and protection laws for Swedish citizens, they [FRA] are concerned that the public may perceive their involvement as an attempt to work around these restrictions by using a foreign intermediary (the United States), thus poisoning any chance for success,” US State Department cable (UNCLAS Stockholm 000704) goes on.

The US interest is clear. Eighty per cent of all the internet traffic from Russia travels through Sweden. And from there, to America.

Swedish MP Christian Engstrom explained the set-up. “It was mentioned by the government representatives that ‘No, the purpose is not to spy on Swedes, it’s to monitor, among other things, Russian transit traffic.’”

But what kind of information are they after?

“I think the information that is made accessible to special services by this law is, of course, sensitive and there are ways it can harm Russia’s political interests,” head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev believes.

The law has been slammed by some as “the most far-reaching eavesdropping plan in Europe,” and prompted widespread protests ahead of its implementation. Cables also suggest the Swedish government was colluding with the US to avoid involving the public at all costs.

“The agreement may have to be presented to Parliament under a vague constitutional requirement for ‘matters of great importance’. If so, the process will take considerably longer and be subject to public scrutiny, something the Government of Sweden will want to avoid. As the Ministry of Justice continues to analyze the proposed text, it is also considering how to craft an arrangement that will avoid the need for parliamentary review,” says US State Department cable (UNCLAS Stockholm 000704).

“There is no parliamentary control of what the FRA does, and of course the public in Sweden has even less control,” Christian Engstrom says. “Much of the pressure comes from the US and the copyright industries, and the Swedish government is more than happy to do whatever these American corporations ask through the American government,” Swedish MP revealed.

Judging from the dates on the leaked cables, while Sweden was debating whether to pass the bill, the Americans were already negotiating with the Swedish authorities on what kind of information they wanted.

“They [the Swedish Ministry of Justice] see your October 23 meeting as an opportunity to seek precise details on the type of information the United States wants and overall aim of the agreement,” the same cable informed.

And it is clear that the US ended up getting what it was after – at least in terms of information on the 80 per cent of Russian internet traffic that passes through Sweden.

“Our intelligence co-operation with Sweden on Russia is excellent,” acknowledged another cable (Stockholm 00000266 002 of 003). “DIA Director Lieutenant-General Burgess will be here next week for exchanges with the Swedes on Russia and other topics.”

Now it is not just information on Russia that the US is after from Sweden. America is reportedly carrying out its own investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the source of all this information about the deal, to see if it can bring espionage charges. If it can, and applies to Sweden for Assange’s extradition, all this close co-operation we have seen may mean his feet will not touch the ground in Stockholm.

Sweden rats out Russia’s internet to US, now for Assange

Guardian Reporter Expelled from Russia in “Cold War” Echo

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Luke Harding, the accredited Moscow correspondent of the British Guardian newspaper, has been expelled from Russia in what appears to be the first incident of its kind since the end of the cold war.

Mr. Harding, who has reported on the full range of Russia issues since arriving in Moscow in 2007, was detained at Domodedovo airport last Saturday as he attempted to reenter the country after spending two months in London working on the paper’s WikiLeaks coverage.

According to Harding’s Twitter feed, he was kept in a cell for 45 minutes with a group of other detainees, then placed aboard a flight to London and told “Russia is closed to you.”

“Stopped at [passport] control, put in a locked cell and deported. No explanation given,” Harding tweeted. “Extremely sad to leave Russia under these circumstances.”

Rare even in Soviet times

According to the Guardian, two non-accredited British journalists have recently been blocked from entering Russia. One of them, Thomas de Waal, worked for many years in Moscow and is widely recognized expert on the North Caucasus but was refused entry in 2006. The last time an accredited British reporter was kicked out of the country, according to the Guardian, was when the Moscow correspondent for the Sunday Times was expelled in 1989. Nicholas Daniloff, US News & World Report correspondent arrested by the KGB in 1986, was held for two weeks before being forced out.

But even in Soviet times, this practice of kicking out journalists working on the staff of major international newspapers was quite rare and usually connected with some sort of diplomatic crisis. In some of those cases, it could be clearly seen that the journalist was being used as a pawn in a larger game.

It’s not at all clear what’s going on in Harding’s case.

An unnamed source in Russia’s security establishment told the official RIA-Novosti agency that Harding was blacklisted at the request of a particular security agency, which suggests he incurred the wrath of either the Federal Security Service (FSB), which deals with domestic matters, or the SVR external intelligence agency.

No official reason has been yet given for the expulsion of a foreign correspondent who was accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry and issued a visa to work as a journalist under international agreements signed by Russia.

In a statement, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger called the expulsion a “very troubling development with serious implications for press freedom … it is worrying that the Russian government should now kick out reporters of whom they disapprove.”

British Member of Parliament Chris Bryant proposed that the government rescind an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Britain next week in response.

Harding’s coverage of Russia included hard-hitting stories about terrorism and Russia’s long-running counterinsurgency war in the north Caucasus – where he interviewed the family of a Dagestani suicide bomber – as well as the increasingly authoritarian drift of Russia under presidents Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

The WikiLeaks connection

But Harding has suggested that his role as one of the Guardian’s team of analysts tasked with assessing the WikiLeaks cables may have been particularly riling for official Moscow. While in Moscow he wrote about several controversial US embassy cables, including one that quoted a Spanish prosecutor as saying that Russia is “a virtual mafia state,” and another that queried Mr. Putin’s possible foreknowledge about the 2006 murder-by-radiation of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

“The Russians have been unhappy with my reporting for a while. But it seems WikiLeaks may have been the final straw,” Harding tweeted Tuesday. He is coauthor of “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.”

But an unnamed official source quoted by the independent Interfax agency said Tuesday that Harding’s journalistic work couldn’t be the reason for his expulsion. “The reason for expelling him is not yet clear,” the official said. “But whatever the British journalist wrote cannot be the reason for invoking such measures.”

The chair of Russia’s Union of Journalists, Vsevolod Bogdanov, says the Kremlin has an obligation to explain its reasons for kicking out an accredited foreign journalist.

“Public opinion has a right to know what he did wrong, or what ethical rules he violated,” Mr. Bogdanov says. “The Guardian is a respectable and well-regarded newspaper. This is probably the decision of some official who has no idea of what a journalist’s job entails. If no explanation is forthcoming, then this is a violation of normal relations in a democratic society.”

The head of the Kremlin’s in-house human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, told journalists Tuesday that he will review Harding’s case.

“We do not know yet why his visa was canceled,” Mr. Fedotov said. “There must have been some very serious reasons for that …. The creation of favorable visa conditions for journalists is an obligation accepted by all member states of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and we should fulfill this obligation.

“Of course, there are issues of national security to take into account,” he added.

Veteran Russian human rights activist, Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, says Russian authorities appear to be reviving Soviet-era practices of blaming the messenger.

“Judging by this case, we might soon be left without any foreign correspondents,” she says. “Even in Soviet times, Moscow always had foreign journalists here,” even if they had to work under tough conditions, she says.

Foreign Ministry’s explanation

Late Tuesday the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Harding was expelled for “violating the rules of accreditation,” a process that Russian officials take seriously. “He violated a number of rules governing the work of foreign correspondents [that] were approved by the Russian government in 1994 and which all journalists are well familiar with,” the ministry statement said.

Normally, journalists receive an accreditation card from the Foreign Ministry after providing proof that they represent a legitimate news outlet. The document is treated as official ID in Russia, and the journalist receives his visa on the basis of it. Visas are always issued for exactly the same period – usually one year – for which the accreditation is valid.

The ministry statement suggested that Harding had failed to renew his accreditation before leaving for a London assignment last November, but failed to explain how Harding held a visa that was valid until May.

Other officials, anonymously quoted in the Russian media, have said that Harding may have failed to obtain special security permission required to travel to the “zone of counter-terrorist operations” in the north Caucasus.

The Guardian responds

In a response e-mailed to Moscow-based journalists Tuesday night – adding to the confusion surrounding Harding’s expulsion – the Guardian said: “We are baffled by the statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry today. We have still not received an adequate explanation of why Luke Harding was deported on arrival at Moscow airport on Saturday February 5th, despite having a valid visa. Failure to collect his press card before leaving urgently on a trip to London is manifestly not a plausible reason for detaining Luke at the airport and refusing him entry to Russia. This is part of a pattern of behavior by the Russian Foreign Ministry who first expelled Luke Harding in November 2010. That expulsion was partially delayed after intervention by the British government, but it was understood that Luke would have to leave by May 2011. We did not make this public at the time but it discredits attempts to portray this week’s expulsion as an administrative error.”

 

Guardian reporter expelled from Russia in cold war echo