This post started as a comment over at DPF’s place.
Reputation and precedent are important referents in the international security business. Israel has a reputation for using sayanim (â€œhelpersâ€ who are Jewish citizens of other states or Israeli travelers who provide information and do tasks for the Mossad in foreign countries out of loyalty to Israel), and are known to send young intelligence officers, often posing as male/female couples, on foreign training missions where they act like travelers. Israel also has a precedent for engaging in covert operations in NZ in the form of the 2004 attempted passport fraud in which there was at least one local â€œhelperâ€ facilitated the Australian-based sayanim’s procurement of a false NZ identity. It has a reputation for using â€œclonedâ€ foreign passports when undertaking foreign intelligence missions (to include assassinations), and the NZ passport is known to be very valuable on the black market and intelligence circles because of its perceived neutrality. Thus, when 3 surviving Israelis left the country with unusual speed after the Feb 22 Christchurch earthquake, facilitated by the Israeli embassy, warning flags went up at the SIS.
The issue of multiple passports for one victim hinges on the number and the identities and nationalities on them. If there were just two (as the government maintains) for the deceased driver that would be understandable given that Israeli passports are refused in many places and dual citizens routinely use more than one travel document. Even a third passport in the same name is not unusual for someone who has been raised and lived in several countries. But if there was indeed five or six passports as has been alleged in the original Southland Times story, and these had multiple identities as well as nationalities, then things get suspicious. We may never learn the truth of the matter in this regard, but if there were in fact different names and the same photo on more than two passports, then their counter-intelligence value is significant.
The issue of the unauthorised USAR team has to do with the victimsâ€™ families desperate attempts to get a focused search going for their loved ones at a time when local SAR was stretched thin and things were chaotic in the quake zone. The families hired a private Israeli USAR team that had the last known locations of the victims as their search target, and this team did not obey diplomatic niceties in securing permission because they were on a very time sensitive private mission. The fact that at least one of the Israeli USAR crew had past military and intelligence ties is no surprise given Israeli conscription and its network of helpers, but means little in this context. As for the Israeli forensic team helping with victim IDâ€“they would have had access to police and other public records as part of their assigned duties with regard to identifying the dead and wounded. If Netenyahu and Key spoke more than once about the quake that would be unusual, but more likely that was due to genuine Israeli concerns with quickly recovering the 3 deceased compatriots for proper burial (since Jews bury their dead quickly).
In any event, given precedent and reputation, the SIS launched an investigation triggered by the hasty exit of the three survivors while the cops did a forensic accounting of their data banks given the access of the Israeli forensic team. The unauthorised USAR team was made to leave, Israeli cultural sensitivities regarding their dead compatriots notwithstanding. The govt says nothing untoward was found by both investigations, and we have to take its word for it unless further revelations come out that contradict the official story. If the Israelis are innocent of any wrong-doing as the survivors claim, then they are just another reminder of how innocents can get caught up in international disputes due to the actions of their governments. They are, in other words, victims of reputation and precedent, not prejudice.
It was unfortunate that PM Keyâ€™s original statement on the matter was defensive and obfuscatory, since as Minister of Security and Intelligence he signed off on the SIS investigation and would/should have known the results prior to the story breaking. Had he just fronted on the facts as outlined above rather than clumsily dissemble, the story would have died quickly. But his comments just fueled the speculative fires for several hours until a crafted press release was issued, but by that time the conspiracy theorists and Israel-haters were in full flight.
I think that on this matter, the SIS is to be commended for flagging the hasty exit and moving to investigate the activities of the 6 Israelis leading up to their being in Christchurch on Feb 22, as well as coordinating with he Police with regards to the SAR and forensic teams. That is simply good counter-intelligence tradescraft. But let it also be clear that if the Israelis were on any sort of intelligence mission they would not have left evidence of such on their personal laptops and cell phones. Moreover, since they were unfamiliar with Christchruch, they would have had a local handler to facilitate their mission Â much as was the case with the Auckland passport fraudsters. So even if the official response has put the story to rest, there remains enough in the way of reputation and precedent to keep alive in some circles the idea that perhaps there was more to the Israeli’s NZ visit than has been revealed.
On a tangental note, I was bemused by how the media treated my remarks on the story. In every interview I did on the day the story broke (about a dozen), I began by qualifying my remarks with the caveat “IF the story is true, then…”. Several reporters asked me to speculate on what the Israelis would be doing IF they were indeed on an intelligence mission, which is where I brought up the identify theft angle as the most likely possibility. At no time did I assert that I had concluded that they were spies, given that I could only go on the published news reports on the matter. Yet when I reviewed the coverage of the story in the following days, I saw that I had been repeatedly quoted as saying that the israelis “were probably on an identity theft mission” without any qualifiers or caveats attached to the statement. That is simply dishonest or lazy reporting, and led to some commentators claiming that I had jumped the gun with my remarks (including one regular KP commentator who made some silly remark elsewhere that I have a tendency to talk first before thinking. That says more about him then me). So, for the record, let it be clear that all of my comments on the matter were prefaced with the qualifier rather than made as bald assertions of fact.