10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2021
10. New book claims former Irish head of government was Provisional IRA informant. Controversy has always surrounded, Charlie Haughey—a towering figure in Irish politics. By 1992, when he retired after an illustrious 35-year career, he had served three times as Taoiseach (prime minister) and many more times as minister. Haughey’s critics have always suspected that he was sympathetic to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. If true, however, this latest revelation is nothing short of stunning: a new book by Kevin O’Connor, one of Ireland’s leading investigative reporters, claims that Haughey routinely shared classified information with the IRA, including warnings about British and Irish government spies that operated within the organization.
9. Unlike others, French spies anticipated the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. August found Western nations scrambling to evacuate their citizens and embassy workers from Afghanistan, amidst the chaotic takeover of the country by the Taliban. France, however, began its evacuations at least two months in advance. By late August the French government was being praised from all sides for its “anticipatory planning”. Why was their response so different from those of other Western nations—notably Britain and the United States? Some observers claim that, unlike other Westerners, French spies maintained a “relative distance” from United States intelligence agencies, and were thus not influenced by American projections of what would happen in the war-torn country.
8. Czechs expelled Russian spies, accusing them of blowing up a munitions depot. The Czech Republic unceremoniously expelled a number of Russian diplomats in April, accusing Kremlin spies of being behind a mysterious explosion that leveled a munitions depot in 2014. According to Prague, a team of Russian operatives, posing as Tajiks and Moldovans, blew up a facility belonging to the Military Technical Institute of the Czech Ministry of Defense, killing two security guards and prompting hundreds of evacuations. The Russian operatives allegedly belonged to Unit 29155, a Russian elite spy outfit, whose goal is to subvert European political and economic systems and processes. Several diplomatic tit-for-tat expulsions followed from a number of European nations.
7. Iranian intelligence networks in Europe were decimated following failed operation. Four Iranian spies were tried in Belgium in February, after unsuccessfully trying to bomb an annual conference of Iranian expatriate dissidents. Conference attendees included the then-US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who addressed the meeting. Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, also spoke at the conference. Even worse for Iran, a “green notebook” found in the car of one of the spies, allegedly contained “289 places across 11 European countries”, where Assadi is thought to have met with Iranian spies operating throughout Europe.
06. Russian spies allegedly funded one of Italy’s major political parties. An alleged employee of Russian intelligence was present at a secret meeting in Moscow, in which a plan was discussed to fund Lega Nord, Italy’s leading populist party. Established in 1991, the LN seeks greater autonomy for Italy’s northern regions, and opposes the country’s membership in the European Union. An Italian newspaper claimed in June that Andrey Yuryevich Kharchenko, an alleged employee of Russian intelligence, participated in a secret 2019 meeting in Moscow, in which Kremlin figures offered LN officials to enrich the their party’s election campaign coffers by nearly $70 million.
05. US Pentagon has an army of clandestine operatives that ‘dwarfs the CIA’. The US Department of Defense maintains a worldwide “secret army” of over 60,000 operatives, many of whom have fake identities and manufactured backgrounds, according to a report from Newsweek’s investigative journalist, William Arkin. Arkin claimed that the Pentagon force is “more than ten times the size” of the clandestine wing of the CIA, and is allegedly part of a wider US government effort known as “signature reduction”. The scheme provides undercover government operatives the ability to operate domestically and around the world without the fear of having their links to spy agencies or the military discovered by online sleuths.
04. FBI built a fake phone company in massive global wiretapping operation. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation built a fake telephone service provider for a secret worldwide operation that officials described as “a watershed moment” in law enforcement history. The operation, known as TROJAN SHIELD, involved over 9,000 law enforcement officers in 18 countries around the world. When the existence of TROJAN SHIELD was announced in a series of official news conferences in June, officials said the operation had “given law enforcement a window into a level of criminality [never] seen before on this scale”.
03. US spied on some of its closest European allies with the help of Denmark. The first claims of an alleged secret collaboration between the signals intelligence agencies of the United States and Denmark surfaced in November of 2020. By January of 2021, it was clear that the Danish government would, sooner or later, need to deal with the fallout of its controversial spy deal with Washington, under which Denmark enabled the US to spy on some of its closest European allies. Still, the news in June that Denmark helped the US spy on countries such as Germany, France, Sweden and Norway, was nothing short of remarkable, and has a huge symbolic significance that cannot be overlooked.
02. For the first time, Chinese and North Korean spies were tried in the US. For the first time, an alleged Chinese spy was tried—and convicted—in the United States. According to prosecutors Yanjun Xu, also known as Qu Hui or Zhang Hui, was a deputy division director in the Ministry of State Security (MSS)—China’s intelligence agency. His conviction was described by observers as a “seminal moment” for American counterintelligence. Also for the first time, an alleged intelligence officer of North Korea, Mun Chol-myong, was tried in a US court. A North Korean citizen based in Singapore, Mun had tried to defraud international banks and launder money though the US financial system, allegedly for the benefit of North Korean spy agencies.
01. At least 14 heads of state were targeted through controversial phone spyware. At least 14 current or former heads of state were among 50,000 individuals worldwide whose personal telephones were allegedly compromised through a controversial surveillance software, known as Pegasus. The spyware is marketed by NSO Group Technologies, an Israeli digital surveillance company based near Tel Aviv. Pegasus can install itself on targeted telephones without requiring their users to click a link, or download an application. The list of the spyware’s targets allegedly contains telephone devices belonging to three presidents, France’s Emmanuel Macron (pictured), South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, and Iraq’s Barham Salih. The devices of three current prime ministers, Morocco’s Saad-Eddine El Othmani, Egypt’s Mostafa Madboul, and Pakistan’s Imran Khan, are also on the list. There are countless others. As a result of these revelations, the US Department of Commerce placed the NSO Group Technologies on a sanctions list in November 3.