Reputation and precedent in the construction of the “spy” story.

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 (“helpers” 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 “helper” facilitated the Australian-based sayanim’s procurement of a false NZ identity. It has a reputation for using “cloned” 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 victims’ 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 ID–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 Key’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  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.

6 thoughts on “Reputation and precedent in the construction of the “spy” story.

  1. It’s truly a pity that this played out in the media the way it did.

    Within hours major actors in this story and minor hacks who flak for them were attacking the credibility of the source. It was actually the case that as more parts of the story were factually verified, the small remaining parts were blown up as evidence that the entire edifice was weak or faulty, and that those who expressed deep interest in the facts were conspiratorialists or driven by anti-Israel sentiment rather than a concern for the integrity of New Zealand’s passport system and security.

    Rather than trying to establish facts or present clear cases, it became a field in which people retreated to reflexive positions that drew from the credibility of those they trusted.

    It does not help that neither the common man, or the average journalist, has an understanding of the workings of New Zealand’s security apparatus. While this is to be expected, you would hope that at least a few senior journalists would, and that these people would take control of the story and direct coverage for their respective outlets. Unfortunately, that did not happen (as far as I can tell, based on the nature of the stories published), ultimately the New Zealand media place a premium on excitement rather than factual enlightenment.

    I do think that the NZ Government came out of this one relatively well. They massaged their message softly after the initial mishandling, and managed to divert the story towards the Israeli individuals involved rather than the systematic nature of the responses. Once the Israelis had been established within a victim framing it was difficult for any media to push forward with the story – they had no characters to latch onto, and no motives to present.

  2. Tulett’s original story was filled with details that seemed exciting but were wrong or misconstrued. Perhaps one problem here is that the story broke via a provincial paper without the resources that a bigger paper would have brought to it.

    The fact that there was an investigation is interesting and newsworthy, but the speculation far outran the evidence presented. I certainly noted the way it was presented as fact and Paul’s comments as reported in the Herald made me quite angry — I happen to fit the “handler” profile myself.

    I await without any particular hope the big round-up article that contrasts the breathless claims of the original article with the bigger and much less suspicious picture that emerged as time went on.

    Key’s initial performance did him no credit. Dude never has coped well unbriefed and unchaperoned.

    The story of course is not over and I am personally most interested in the angle that an SIS employee has leaked. I’m not so interested in who as I am in why. Some people have suggested that the reason is a disgruntled person angry that an investigation has been stopped or abandoned. But Tulett claims an investigation is still underway according to his source. If I were a patriotic public minded SIS person, I’d not draw attention to an operation I believed in until it was over or killed. I can see an SIS person with a sense of duty of injured pride leaking over a finished job that went nowhere, but not jeopardising one in progress. I increasingly suspect his source claims to be SIS but is not, and is merely someone who picked up the gossip. This would explain the exaggerated aspects of the original story.

  3. I agree with Stephen Judd. Historically, the SIS have been utterly tight-lipped about everything and I have my doubts the leak came from them, especially as all power rests in the SIS Director. Other NZ intelligence agencies laughingly comment the SIS is here to protect democracy, not practice it!

    The other issue is that the Southland Times is located in a part of the country where the SIS do not even have an office and I can’t imagine some deep throat in Wellington traveling down to Invercargill to spill his guts to the Editor. The informant is more likely not an SIS agent, but someone with a little knowledge about the case, maybe a cop, or immigration or Customs official, and probably located in Christchurch.

  4. The issue of whether or not the passports were in multiple identities is key. Six passports in the same identity is unusual, but not evidence of criminality. Two passports in different identities is evidence of fraud, and a type of fraud the Israeli government has past form in.

    So that’s what I’m wondering. We know the source of the allegation that the Israeli chap in question had five passports, even if that allegation has later been denied. Where did the allegation that some of those passports were in different identities come from? I’ve seen it mentioned several times but have been unable to trace it – it didn’t come from the Southland Times story. Has Tulett’s source been leaking to somebody else?

    I can’t imagine some deep throat in Wellington traveling down to Invercargill to spill his guts to the Editor.

    There’s this new thing called the phone…

    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

    Hi Pablo! Just FYI, the things you have said in this forum about my intelligence, education, and upbringing pale in comparison to my assertion that you sometimes jump the gun.

  5. While it did not take long for some of our more speculative politicos to voice prejudged and unsubstantiated views regarding the backpackers and the dispatched Israeli search and rescue team, at least they did not sink into a cesspool of depravity as did the disgraced Liberal Democrat lawmaker in Britain, Baroness Jenny Tonge, in which she urged for a probe into claims that Israeli personnel who were sent to Haiti were there to harvest human organs following the devastating Haitian E/Q.

  6. 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.

    which is why we don’t want incomplete and misleading details of SIS investigations that have shown nothing plastered across the media, especially via anonymous sources with unknown motives.

    That source might have a grudge against Israelis, the next might have a grudge against Muslims.

    If the source is from within the SIS then that sets a very dangerous precedent of political interfence.

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