Sunday, February 17, 2013

Zygier publicity presents common interest for Israel and Australia

Warren Reed was an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) for 10 years.  He was trained by MI6 in London and served in Asia and the Middle East. 
Close and long-lasting intelligence cooperation between Australia and countries like the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and also Israel have been successful in confronting international scourges like terrorism.
Yet it should never be forgotten that no matter how successful these alliances, nation states will do whatever they have to in order to protect their own interests.
On such occasions, they go about it with great stealth, and if necessary refrain from letting even a "friendly" spy service and the government it represents, in on the secret.
The case of Prisoner X, identified this week as Ben Zygier, a dual Australian/Israeli national, appears to be a case in point.

This process of protecting national interest by whatever means deemed necessary is bubbling away in the shadows, 24/7.  It is significantly facilitated in today's increasingly multicultural society.
On top of that huge numbers of people migrate from one place to another, whether officially or as refugees and "boat people".
Submerged in this rich brew are issues like dual nationality which raise questions about where one's ultimate loyalty lies.
The case of Ben Zygier, who allegedly travelled on Australian passports issued in up to four different names while working as a spy for Mossad, again raises questions over Israel's willingness to take advantage of Australia in pursuit of its national security goals.
It's dead easy to pay someone to "lose" their passport or other official documentation, or to simply steal it.  A spy service needs only one person in a migrant community of 10,000 to acquiesce, or one Australian in 100,000 to consent to giving up their passport and an instant "identity" is readily available for intelligence use.
Until some decades ago, most major spy services prided themselves on being able to forge whatever they needed.  In today's hi-tech world it is much easier to simply nick it.
The advent of electronic passports was one development that helped kill off the ancient intelligence art of meticulous forgery.  In saying this, one is mindful of one particular spy service that had huge supplies of quality paper that could be used for forging a passport from virtually any other country, including watermarks and all sorts of other embedded or special features.  And, of course, there's also the new art of hacking if that can make some contribution.
A lot has changed in the past 20 years.  Hence the need to target a real person and encourage them to "lose" their passport, or apply for a new one, after which the old one would be handed over to the intelligence operative involved.
We know that Ben Zygier, formerly Prisoner X, applied for a new Australian passport under the name of Ben Allen.  Other identities allegedly included Ben Alon and Ben Burrows.
It seems that a number of Australians in Israel at the time and working for Mossad, all with dual nationality, did the same thing, each requesting a more Anglo-Saxon name.  No doubt DFAT alerted ASIO and that agency started investigating.
Here in Australia, DFAT does what it can to guard against these threats, but its stringent budgetary position often leaves it hamstrung.
Complicating matters for that department include the fact that myriad Australians travelling overseas for work or pleasure genuinely lose their passports. In many ways DFAT's limited resources preclude it from focusing on every suspicious case, but it does what it can.
Alerting ASIO to Ben Zygier's case is a typical example. In brief, the integrity of your passport doesn't count for much unless it's in your pocket or safely locked up at home.
As technology evolves in coming decades this problem will worsen significantly, but intelligence agencies certainly won't be left flatfooted.
Governments always ensure that they have the funding and manpower required to do just this.  They roll with the times and ensure they're always some distance out in front.
That's not a 21st century phenomenon.  It's been going on for thousands of years.  It's just that the pace of change today is exponentially and frighteningly faster.  Keep your seatbelt fastened and your passport in an inside pocket!
That said, governments have to be ready for cases like Prisoner X, which beg so many questions.
In trying to grapple with these we often overlook the fundamental human factor involved - not just that Ben Zygier lost his life but that his family and friends in Melbourne and his widow and children in Israel have been devastated by what has happened.
In this regard, Foreign Minister Bob Carr's weak initial excuse, since clarified, that he might need something from the family to trigger off an investigation was not only feeble but cruel and insulting to the family.
Surely, they have suffered enough.
It is difficult to imagine that Bob Carr was not better briefed when he sat down for the initial interview with the ABC.   In DFAT, there is a vast corporate memory of experience of such matters and how they are best handled, especially in diplomatically and politically sensitive cases like this.
Another dimension of this is that journalists with good forensic noses have been sniffing around this story for some time, both here and in Israel. It is again hard to imagine that the two governments involved were not already liaising on what might happen if the story was to go public.
While the Israeli government would almost certainly have been averse to providing details of the essence of what happened, a dialogue could easily have been entered into on the implications and how things should be handled in the public domain.
The case also raises questions about possible dissatisfaction within Mossad.
An overwhelming majority of men and women who work in spy services like Mossad are just like people in the street.  They're paying off mortgages, educating their kids and they all have their own ethical and moral standards like we do.
The fact that someone seemingly in the heart of the agency was moved to leak details of  such a hyper-sensitive case like Prisoner X is highly significant.
Almost certainly that person's act (which was very dangerous for him or her) would be fairly reflective of a broader sentiment inside the agency: that corners may have been cut and things haven't been handled the way they should have been.
When two governments find themselves lumbered with something like this it is clearly in the interests of both to work out how to minimise the fall-out.

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