US Embassy London Local Employee Charged With Cyberstalking, Computer Hacking and Wire Fraud

Posted: 5:50 pm EDT
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We posted about this case last May (see State Dept Employee Posted at US Embassy London Faces ‘Sextortion’ Charges in Georgia). On August 19, the Justice Department announced that a locally employed staff member of US Embassy London,  Michael C. Ford, 36, was charged by indictment on Aug. 18, 2015, with nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.  During the Daily Press Briefing of May 21st, the deputy spokesperson for the State Department informed the press that as of May 18th, this individual is no longer an embassy employee.

Via USDOJ | August 19, 2015:

WASHINGTON—A former locally-employed staff member of the U.S. Embassy in London was charged with engaging in a hacking and cyberstalking scheme in which, using stolen passwords, he obtained sexually explicit photographs and other personal information from victims’ e-mail and social media accounts, and threatened to share the photographs and personal information unless the victims ceded to certain demands.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia, Director Bill A. Miller of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and Special Agent in Charge J. Britt Johnson of the FBI’s Atlanta Division made the announcement.

Michael C. Ford, 36, was charged by indictment on Aug. 18, 2015, with nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.

“According to the indictment, Ford hacked into e-mail accounts and extorted sexually explicit images from scores of victims,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “As these allegations highlight, predators use the Internet to target innocent victims. With the help of victims and our law enforcement partners, we will find those predators and hold them accountable.”

“Ford is alleged to have hacked into hundreds of e-mail accounts and tormented women across the country, by threatening to humiliate them unless they provided him with sexually explicit photos and videos,” said U.S. Attorney John Horn. “This sadistic conduct is all the more disturbing as Ford is alleged to have used the U.S. Embassy in London as a base for his cyberstalking campaign.”

“The Diplomatic Security Service is firmly committed to working with the Department of Justice and our other law enforcement partners to investigate allegations of crime and to bring those who commit these crimes to justice,” said Director Miller. “When a public servant in a position of trust is alleged to have committed a federal felony such as cybercrime, we vigorously investigate such claims.”

“While the allegations in this case are disturbing, it does illustrate the willingness and commitment of the FBI and its federal partners to aggressively follow those allegations wherever they take us,” said Special Agent in Charge Johnson. “The FBI will continue to provide significant resources and assets as we address complex cyber based investigations as seen here.”

According to allegations in the indictment, from January 2013 through May 2015, Ford, using various aliases that included “David Anderson” and “John Parsons,” engaged in a computer hacking and “sextortion” campaign to force numerous women to provide him with personal information and sexually explicit photographs and videos. To do so, Ford allegedly posed as a member of the fictitious “account deletion team” for a well-known e-mail service provider and sent notices to thousands of potential victims, including members of college sororities, warning them that their accounts would be deleted if they did not provide their passwords.

Using the passwords collected from this phishing scheme, Ford allegedly hacked into hundreds of e-mail and social media accounts, stole sexually explicit photographs and personal identifying information (PII), and saved both the photographs and PII to his personal repository.

Ford then allegedly e-mailed the victims and threatened to release the photographs, which were attached to the e-mails, unless they obtained videos of “sexy girls” undressing in changing rooms at pools, gyms and clothing stores, and then sent the videos to him.

The indictment alleges that, when the victims either refused to comply or begged Ford to leave them alone, Ford responded with additional threats, including by reminding the victims that he knew where they lived. On several occasions, Ford allegedly followed through with his threats by sending sexually explicit photographs to victims’ family members and friends.

During the pendency of the alleged scheme, Ford was a civilian employee at the U.S. Embassy in London, England. He allegedly used his government-issued computer at the U.S. Embassy to conduct the phishing, hacking and cyberstalking activities.

The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are merely accusations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and the FBI. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs and the U.S. Embassy in London provided assistance. The case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Mona Sedky of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, Trial Attorney Jamie Perry of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kamal Ghali of the Northern District of Georgia.

Anyone who believes that they are the victim of hacking, cyberstalking, or “sextortion” should contact law enforcement. Resources regarding hacking and other cybercrimes can be found at: https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/cyber.

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US Embassy Cairo: Local Guard Arrested on Terrorism Charges Without Prior USG Alert

Posted: 12:10 am EDT
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The Daily Beast:

“An embassy official confirmed to The Daily Beast that 42-year-old Ahmed Ali, accused by the Egyptians of helping to plan or taking part in more than a dozen attacks on security forces, was an employee in the security service at the mission in downtown Cairo. Egyptian authorities are claiming he is a commander in the militant Helwan Brigades.

Both the lack of any forewarning by the Egyptian authorities and the apparent security failure by the U.S. State Department, which failed to unearth Ali’s membership in the brigades, is likely to prompt outrage on Capitol Hill.”

 Additional details from Daily New Egypt:

The reports claim that State Security prosecution accuse Ali of being a commander with a militant group, the Helwan Brigades, and participating in 13 attacks, including the bombing and burning of a Helwan court.

However, activists who have been documenting a wave of forced disappearances by the Egyptian security authorities in the past two weeks shared an account of a man named ‘Ahmed Amin Suleyman’, 44, who is claimed to be a staff member at the embassy. Suleyman reportedly had his house raided on 25 May, but he was not at home. The following day, Suleyman fell out of contact – 12 days before the reported arrest of ‘Ahmed Ali’.

Following his disappearance, his wife received a phone call informing her that her husband had been arrested. Family members went to the local Helwan police station, but were informed that Suleyman was not there. The family submitted a 1 June telegram to report his disappearance and request support, a copy of which was seen by Daily News Egypt.

VOA reported on June 10 that Egyptian security forces have arrested dozens of activists ahead of a general strike planned for June 11, part of what the activists describe as an unrelenting crackdown on dissent. There are also reports of forced disappearance cases believed to be abductions by security forces.

Local nationals working for our embassies overseas are often targets, especially in repressive countries.  We can’t know this early if these are real charges or if this is a case of a targeted arrest for some other reason.  There’s a lot we don’t know here.  We just hope our congressional reps would refrain from running around with their hair on fire when they read this news.  We should give our government a chance to verify the basis of these Egyptian charges before we hold one more outrage hearing on security failure.

What should be most concerning is the fact that the Government of Egypt apparently had enough evidence to arrest this individual on terrorism charges, but did not provide prior warning to the U.S. government. Why?

Let’s see — we give Egypt  $1.3bn in annual military funding, and no one bothered to pick up the phone to alert the embassy about this alleged terrorist working at the mission? That’s some kind of partnership we have there.

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US Embassy Cairo FSN Ahmed Alaiba Detained Since 1/25–State Dept Still Seeking “Clarity”

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Cairo Post reported on February 11 that Egyptian National Security arrested a local employee on Jan. 25 who works for the U.S. embassy in Cairo.  On February 12, NYT’s David Kirkpatrick has additional details:

Security forces have detained an Egyptian employee of the United States Embassy who worked as a liaison to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian news reports said Wednesday, stirring fears of pressure on Western diplomats who communicate with the Islamist opposition.

Embassy officials said the employee, Ahmed Alaiba, was detained on Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising here, and he has been held without charges since then.
[…]
An Egyptian government official briefed on the case said Mr. Alaiba was under investigation for both participating in an illegal demonstration and “communicating with an outlawed group.”
[…]
Mr. Alaiba, an Egyptian citizen, has no diplomatic immunities. But some Western diplomats said that the leaks to the Egyptian news media about his arrest appeared to convey a message to them as well. Many diplomats were already wrestling with fears of possible retribution from the military-backed government if they continued meeting with Brotherhood officials as they did before the takeover.

Questions about Mr. Alaiba’s arrest made it to the State Department’s Daily Press Briefing with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf. This FSN has been detained since January 25. Besides repeating what has already been reported in the news media, Ms. Harf could only promise to “see if we have more clarity on this.” Eighteen days after the embassy employee was detained, Ms. Harf could not even say what was this employee’s job at the embassy?!

Typically, the local employees who do work overseas like Mr. Alaiba’s are political assistants or political specialists. These are fairly common jobs in diplomatic missions.  We do want to know what the former DCM, now  Chargé d’Affaires Markc Sievers is doing about the detention of a member of his embassy’s staff?  Yes, he’s Egyptian, and a local employee, and he’s one of ours.  If uncorrected, this could become a dangerous precedent. Anyone who works for the U.S. government in Egypt who talks to MB officials or supporters or other opposition figures could just be thrown into jail without charges or some spurious ones.

In some dark corners of the net, the conspiracy theorists are already busy. This is apparently proof of President Obama’s secret support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Which just shows how little people know about what our official representatives do overseas.  Our diplomats and local employees talk to host country governments and opposition parties/figures around the globe.  What they learn help inform the decisions that our government makes.  This happens whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. Some of the folks our officials talk to are not very nice, some are corrupt, some would not even think twice about stabbing us in the back. But that’s the world we lived in.  To expect that our government officials should only talk to the government in power is idiotic, that gives us only half the story. It also makes it impossible for our people to do substantial work when the levers of power change hands.  So, do think about that when you hear about these nutty stuff.

Now, can we please have somebody at the podium who wears a hat or sash that says, “Clarity is my name” whether it snows or not?

Excerpt below from the greatest mid-day show in town:

QUESTION: I wanted to start by asking about the Embassy employee in Cairo who was arrested for his liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood. First off, what is the reaction of the State Department? What’s being done, I assume, to have him released, if he hasn’t been released already? And then if you could talk a little more broadly about whether or not the State Department or the Administration believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, and what this says about dealing with a government in Cairo that is refusing to recognize such a significant part of the population in Egypt.

MS. HARF: Absolutely. So we can confirm that a locally employed staff member of the U.S. Embassy was detained on January 25th and that, as far as we understand, he has been held without charges since then. We have been in touch with the Government of Egypt and have requested additional information about his case. The locally employed staff member was detained, I think, over a weekend on January 25th while off-duty, as I think maybe you mentioned.

The United States does not – has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. We have been very clear in Egypt that we will work with all sides and all parties to help move an inclusive process forward. We’ve also repeatedly, both publicly and privately, called on the interim government to move forward in an inclusive manner. That means talking to all parties, bringing them into the process. We’re not saying what the future government should look like specifically other than that it should be inclusive. That, of course, includes the Muslim Brotherhood. We will continue talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as part of our broad outreach to the different parties and groups there.

QUESTION: So if he was arrested or detained anyways off-duty, is it your understanding he was – he is being detained because of his liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood, or was there another reason to your understanding?

MS. HARF: Let me see if we have more clarity on this. I’m not sure we have entire clarity about the reasons for his continued detention. Let me check with our folks and see. Again, I’m not sure if we know exactly why he’s being detained.

QUESTION: Because otherwise, I mean I’m sure other employees at the Embassy are – would be reluctant to liaise with the Muslim Brotherhood or any opposition groups that the current government in Cairo seems to not look upon favorably. And —

MS. HARF: Let me see – oh, sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. No, and so I just wonder, as you say, how the Obama Administration and the State Department is going to continue reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood. How will they do that if employees are being arrested and there’s certain penalties that people have to face in doing so.

MS. HARF: Well – yeah. No, it’s – to be clear, I’m not saying that that was the reason for his detention. I would need to confirm that with folks.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: I actually haven’t heard that, so let me check and see that.

Again, he was a locally employed staff member. Our folks that are on the ground there have been talking to the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups as well. So let me see two things if I can get a little more clarity about the reason for his detention and also what his job was at the Embassy. I just don’t have all that clarity.

QUESTION: Okay. So would an American official at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo be able to liaise with the Muslim Brotherhood? I assume they have been.

MS. HARF: Well, they certainly have been. Absolutely.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. HARF: And again, I’m not sure that was the reason for his detention. So before we sort of take this – I’m happy to check and see if we just have some more clarity on that.

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