The North Korean embassy in Madrid where a group committed to overthrowing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claimed responsibility for an attack. Photo: AFP

The story of the February 22 break-in at the North Korean Embassy in Madrid gets more intriguing by the day. The brazen daytime attack, involving 10 men (some of whom escaped via Uber), is rather more shocking (and entertaining) than parsing the Talmudic texts of US Attorney General William Barr and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (Plus, Rachel Maddow doesn’t have a theory, Glenn Greenwald doesn’t have an opinion, John Brennan is mum. And Anderson Cooper isn’t on the scene, at least not yet.)

The North Korean Embassy attack is not another elite journo-spat but a real-life Hollywood thriller screenplay that is being written in media clichés in real time. As a historian of the US Central Intelligence Agency I’m all too familiar with its many cock-ups and crimes, and I have to ask myself, is this one of them?

El Pais, the most reliable newspaper in Spain, can bring you up to speed on the incident, which North Korea is now suddenly calling a “terror attack.”

What gives?

The perps

The cast of characters will be familiar to observers of secret intelligence operations.

The embassy burglars sought information, à la Watergate. Unlike Watergate, they came by day. They invaded the embassy in a quiet residential neighborhood, assaulted the staff, tied people up, and demanded computers and files.

A British Broadcasting Corporation report says they were especially interested in the former ambassador to Madrid, Kim Hyok Chol, a confidant of Kim Jong Un.

He was a natural target for those seeking intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear program. In February, Thae Yong-ho, “a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016,” told Bloomberg he was a nuclear expert. “At a very young age, Kim Hyok Chol was placed on the task force that wrote the drafts for North Korea’s nuclear strategy documents at its foreign ministry,” Thae said.

El Pais explains the possible motive for the brazen attack:

“Investigators believe that the intruders were looking for ‘sensitive information regarding North Korea’s nuclear and arms program’ just days ahead of the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, which ended abruptly without a deal.”

The self-confessed burglar-in-chief, Adrian Hong Chang, reportedly debriefed the US Federal Bureau of Investigation on February 27, the first day of the summit. Did he provide information of interest to the US negotiators?

Covert actions

There is other possible evidence of an intelligence operation. The perpetrators:

  • recorded their symbolic provocations for media distribution;
  • carried many passports;
  • absconded to the United States and debriefed US officials.

Then came this Watergate-style denial from State Department spokesman Robert Palladino on March 26: “the government of the United States had nothing to do” with the break-in.

Shades of Ron Ziegler, the Nixon White House spokesman who dismissed the Watergate break-in as a “third-rate burglary.”

Palladino, by the way, is a spokesman for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, formerly director of the CIA.

The CIA link

El Pais provides new details about how Spanish authorities came to suspect CIA involvement.

It turns out US officials waited three weeks to tell Spanish law-enforcement authorities that Adrian Hong Chang had shared the fruits of the raid with the FBI within five days of the attack.

(I speculate that a CIA representative sat in on the Chang debrief at some point. That would be standard operating procedure, but I have no evidence that it happened.)

After the Spanish cops absorbed the FBI’s report, they made inquiries with the Bureau. The CIA provided answers that are still undisclosed. The Spanish investigators came away dissatisfied.

El Pais explained why:

“According to the judge’s report, the group leader got in touch with the FBI on February 27, five days after the operation, to share information and hand over the material obtained in Madrid. Hong Chang was not arrested, and Spanish authorities were only informed after the story had made news headlines.

“Spanish authorities contacted the CIA, which offered an ‘unconvincing’ reply. Sources at the US Embassy in Madrid said they do not comment on intelligence matters being handled by Spanish authorities, and that even if there had been any kind of official or informal call, no comments would be provided either.”

Sounds like the CIA doesn’t want to answer perfectly legitimate questions about a politically motivated crime.

Here’s a question that the House and Senate intelligence committees might want to ask as part of their post-Mueller oversight duties: What did Mike Pompeo and his successor as CIA director, Gina Haspel, know about the North Korea Embassy break-in? And when did they know it?

This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

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