Update: Merkel’s “real” cellphone is secure

As Germany’s “Handygate” has become a mass phenomenon bordering on hysteria, one of the strangest aspects has been the fact, which I’ve noted previously, that Chancellor Angela Merkel was using a quite insecure cellphone to conduct government business. According to numerous media reports, the cellphone in question, said to have been intercepted by NSA for years, was used by Merkel for political party affairs, and was supposed to be used only to the classification level of VS-NfD, which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. category of For Official Use Only (FOUO), in other words, not actually classified at all.

Except the actual story is coming into focus now and it’s a rather different one than what Berlin’s been complaining so loudly about. While Merkel has indeed had a quite vulnerable cellphone, her “real” Chancellor-Phone, as the Germans call it, is quite secure from interception.

As reported in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the manufacturer of Merkel’s “real” phone, a Düsseldorf firm called Secusmart, is the provider of choice to the German government as well as some private firms who worry about data security (at a cost of 2,500 Euros per handset, there aren’t many private buyers). Secusmart supplied Merkel  with a voice encryption solution four years ago, based on software and a cryptographic chip, which was updated this year and works on all new BlackBerry handsets. Secusmart’s CEO, Hans-Christoph Quelle, maintains that Merkel’s calls using his firm’s phone are quite secure, even against NSA.

As explained by Secusmart, their phone’s AES encryption with 128 bits makes it possible to generate 340 sextillion different keys, that is to say 340 followed by 36 zeros.  “Even with supercomputers, according to today’s technical standards it would theoretically take 149 billion years to crack this code” — in other words, 10,000 times longer than the age of the universe.  As CEO Quelle put it, “that should keep even the United States going for a while.”

And indeed it would. So what, again, is all this fuss about … ?

NSA, Germany and Handygate: A Reality Check

Right now Germany is in the midst of a full-fledged political storm, dubbed Handygate in the media, over alleged espionage by the National Security Agency against the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cellphone is said to have been intercepted by NSA for years. Given German sensitivities about privacy that linger from both the Nazi and Communist periods, as well as the well known national proclivity towards introspection – Nabelschau (navel-gazing) being a core German competency – the resulting scandal is verging on the obsessional among some Germans.

All this is of course being fanned by the media, especially the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which has a long-standing reputation for sensationalism about espionage, particularly American; it has also been a regular conduit for stolen NSA materials from the defector Edward Snowden. What makes this interesting is that one need not be a seasoned counterintelligence hand to note that some of the newest materials could not have come from Snowden; a bigger game is now afoot, and it’s centered on Germany (where, let it be noted, key members of the Wikileaks apparat Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras reside).

There are oddities abounding in this case. In the first place, due to the laws drawn up by the Federal Republic of Germany at its late 1940s founding, the alleged NSA activities that have caused this firestorm may actually be legal. Moreover, a great deal of what’s going on now is political theater which Chancellor Merkel has to be witting of at some level. If she’s not, one must question her basic fitness for dealing with any international affairs, though her longtime use of a fundamentally insecure cellphone to conduct government business boggles the mind of any intelligence veteran.

The heads of Germany’s intelligence services are now headed to Washington, DC, for meetings with the White House and NSA to smooth over the scandal. At bottom, Germany (like France), seeks not to shut down NSA espionage, rather to get closer to it. Berlin has long been jealous of London and the other Anglosphere members of the so-called Five Eyes community, the SIGINT alliance born in the Second World War which, to this day, constitutes the most successful international intelligence partnership in world history. Perhaps because they were on the wrong side when that alliance was created in the days of the ULTRA secret, German intelligence agencies have always wanted into the club and its privileged inner circle. Although Germany enjoys a tight spy relationship with the United States (and Britain too), Berlin knows its place, and it would like an upgrade.

Abandoning the US-German intelligence partnership is simply not an option, no matter what politicians may say, and regardless of how much hysteria is created by the media. The reasons for this are well known to intelligence insiders, and are elaborated in a new report in the Berlin daily Die Welt. Its title, “Technically Backward and Helpless,” is painfully accurate. There can be no doubt that Germany’s intelligence and security services, preeminently the Federal Intelligence Service (BND, Germany’s CIA plus NSA equivalent) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, equivalent to Britain’s Security Service), are indeed deeply dependent on American partners, and have been since the day of their creation.

The depths of that dependency are laid bare in Die Welt‘s account. Germany’s “helpless dependence” on the U.S. Intelligence Community is not new but it entered a complicated phase after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States which, lest we forget, were staged mostly out of Hamburg, a fact which the Die Welt piece notes: “The Americans did not want to rely exclusively on us after September 11th. That is understandable,” explained a German intelligence official.  Thus was born increased attention to Germany among U.S. spy agencies.

Additionally, Germany’s intelligence agencies are underfunded and lack the technical capabilities of other leading Western countries; in espionage, Germany has chosen to punch below its economic and political weight, and now bears the consequences, namely deep dependency on foreign partners such as NSA and CIA. As I recently reported, the BND head Gerhard Schindler recently called for more reliance on foreign partners, not less, and here he was simply reflecting budgetary and political realities in Germany, where there is scant appetite for more investment in security.

Even in domestic intelligence matters Germany is heavily dependent on American help, especially from NSA, whose SIGINT has been provided to the Germans in many cases, leading to the disruption of a number of planned terrorist attacks in Germany since 2001.  “Without information from the Americans, there would have been successful terrorist attacks in Germany in the past years,” explained a BfV official, truthfully.

For these reasons it’s unlikely that any big changes to German intelligence or its relationship to NSA and CIA will happen soon. Although the current political brouhaha is serious, even though some of the hand-wringing is obviously staged by politicos who know better, this, too, shall pass, unless Germany wants to spend significantly more money on its own security and intelligence. And, as yet, there is no sign of that.

Germany’s condition reflects the reality that too many European countries have underinvested in their own defense and security since the end of the Cold War, and are therefore deeply dependent on the United States for assistance. I would like the Germans and other European countries to take more responsibility for their own security and fund their militaries and intelligence agencies at higher levels.  They would be better partners then too. But I’m not optimistic on that front. Protesting, after all, is easier than reforming bureaucracies or finding more money in lean budgetary times.

It’s called the Second Oldest Profession for a reason

We’ve started the new week with more “shocking” revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency, a foreign intelligence agency, is actually conducting foreign intelligence operations.  And pretty effectively at that. Thanks to Edward Snowden and his motley ring of collaborators, the world is getting an idea of what NSA does as its main job. Which is seeing and listening to foreign communications.

Last week Snowden’s stolen information revealed that NSA spies on Mexico. This week it’s France. Which is “shocking” only to those who know nothing about the real world of intelligence, or those who have a preexisting hatred for the United States and its close allies (there is considerable overlap between those categories, as we’ve learned in recent months). Since France is famed in spy circles worldwide for its aggressive HUMINT and SIGINT operations against even close allies, the latest Snowden revelations have been met with the biggest of all Gallic shrugs behind closed doors, no matter what Paris may say publicly.

Countries spy on each other. Everybody with the mental functioning of an adult knows this. Or at least used to. Thanks to Snowden, the global media has grown accustomed to a drumbeat of vague assertions about what NSA is said to be doing abroad. Seasoned spy-watchers will notice that what’s appearing in the media is long on sensation and rather short on technological details, and derive their own conclusions.

There’s an old wag in SpookWorld about there being no friendly intelligence services, but that’s not entirely true. I get asked regularly by neophytes to explain how this works in the real world, but I’m not about to divulge secrets, so what I’ll say is this. Outside the Anglosphere SIGINT “Five Eyes” alliance, which dates to the Second World War, everybody really does spy on everybody, at least to some degree. Which is why counterintelligence is so important. On Planet Five Eyes, it’s different, and has been for a long time.

But even this most enduring of intelligence partnerships has not been around forever, and until its establishment in the dark days of 1940-41, when Britain was on the ropes and a German invasion seemed possible, even the Anglosphere spied on each other. It needs to be said that the British spied a lot more on the Americans than vice versa, since British capabilities in HUMINT and SIGINT were superior to what Washington, DC, then had in its espionage arsenal.

As during World War I, British intelligence in the early 1940s was spying on the United States and running covert action programs to get America into the war on Britain’s side, sensibly enough from London’s viewpoint. Indeed, British intelligence had a pretty significant role in securing U.S. entry into the Great War in April 1917, though the real story is even more cunning than Washington, DC, knew or even suspected at the time. It’s a great spy yarn with world-historical impacts.

Anyone even passingly familiar with intelligence history has heard of the Zimmermann Telegram, the infamous German own-goal that played a big role in pushing a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson into the war on the Allied side. Knowing that Germany was at serious and rising risk of losing the war, Berlin’s top diplomat, Arthur Zimmermann, wanted to try to get Mexico into the war on the side of the Central Powers; as Berlin at the beginning of 1917 had decided to recommence unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany’s military and political leadership accepted that the U.S. was eventually going to enter the war anyway, so why not make it as painful for the Americans as possible?

The secret, encrypted telegram from Berlin, with its explosive offer of giving Mexico large chunks of the United States – basically what the Mexicans lost in 1848 –  in exchange for entering the war on Germany’s side, pretty much guaranteed that America would enter the war, as it went to more than its intended recipients.

The course of the war shifted dramatically in Britain’s favor on January 17, 1917, when British codebreakers intercepted the soon-to-be-infamous telegram. From the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy’s SIGINT operation in London, known as Room 40, had done an excellent job, first breaking German naval codes and then moving into diplomatic decryption; by the midpoint of the war, Room 40 was able to read a high percentage of Berlin’s encrypted communications.

It soon became apparent to Admiral Reginald “Blinker” Hall, director of Naval intelligence, that he had a true bombshell on his hands. But what to do with it? He immediately ordered the decrypted and translated telegram compartmented and shared on a very limited, need-to-know basis only; few even in Room 40 knew of its existence. The few officials in London who were briefed about the telegram realized that the message had to be shared with the Americans, who were wavering on joining the Allied cause.

But there was a problem. A big problem. At the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy literally cut all the undersea telegraph cables that allowed Germany to communicate with the outside world. Berlin complained that this made it impossible for Germany to take part in any peace discussions that might end the war. President Woodrow Wilson – remember, he was a college professor by trade – kindly offered to let Berlin send its diplomatic messages via U.S. State Department’s encrypted systems.

In other words, Room 40 got a hold of the Zimmermann Telegram because the British were reading U.S. diplomatic traffic. This was something that London sensibly had no interest in letting the Americans in on. So Admiral Hall devised a cunning deception plan that included sending an intelligence agent in Mexico City to steal a copy of the Zimmermann message from the telegraph office. It worked perfectly as the operation was clever and tightly compartmented, and while Washington, DC, including President Wilson, reacted to the German offer to Mexico with appropriate outrage, the Americans never suspected the message’s true origins. (For the full story check out this NSA version of the saga.)

Indeed, the British kept on intercepting and decrypting U.S. diplomatic traffic for many years thereafter. It wasn’t until the eve of the Second World War that William Friedman, the father of modern American SIGINT, realized what the British had pulled off with the Zimmermann Telegram. By then, it was about two decades too late to matter.

The Coming Age of Special War

The last couple weeks have witnessed one of the most significant periods in decades in the annals of diplomatic history. Having deeply mishandled the domestic side of the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration proceeded to worsen matters by, in effect, outsourcing the problem to Vladimir Putin. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m pessimistic about any Moscow-brokered WMD deal having the effects that the West desires. That said, much remains to be seen, as this issue is really only in the first chapter of diplomatic resolution.

However, I’m confident in stating that the United States backing off from overt military intervention in Syria’s civil war has important implications, already visible, for the U.S. military. That diplomats, not generals and admirals, were walking point in the White House on this issue has been widely noted, as has a budding civil-military conundrum that will very likely get worse in the years ahead.

Looming over all this, though, is the reality that the U.S. military may have simply priced itself out of the market. After the thrashing of Saddam’s forces in early 1991 by a U.S.-led coalition in Operation DESERT STORM, it was evident to nearly everyone that facing America’s military in a stand-up fight was a losing proposition. Our technological lead, coupled with superb command-and-control (C2), gave the United States a remarkable competitive edge in the tactical-to-operational realm of warfare. Strategy, however, would prove a much tougher nut for the Pentagon to crack. Even Saddam, in the years after his 1991 defeat, never seriously planned for conventional resistance against any future U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which even the man from Tikrit realized was a fool’s errand.

In the heady time of Blitzkrieg triumphs early in World War II, Hitler famously proclaimed “nothing is impossible for the German soldier” (dem deutschen Soldaten ist nichts unmöglich) and in the salad days of U.S. hegemony after 1991 that Nazi mirage seemed to have been realized, at last, by the Americans. Yet tactical awesomeness does not equal strategic competence, and any serious analysis of U.S. military performance since 9/11, in the era of the Global War on Terror, must conclude that Americans arms failed to deliver promised political outcomes in either Iraq or Afghanistan. While there is much blame for this to be laid at the feet of barmy politicos, U.S. top military leadership is equally culpable for the strategic setbacks. History will not be kind to the likes of Generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, to cite only two particularly egregious examples, and any attempt to dodge this truth can fester into a kind of “stab in the back legend” (to allow a second Germanism in one paragraph), a fate to be avoided at all costs.

Above all, the U.S. is broke. This week, while addressing the baleful impact of sequestration on the Pentagon, three of our four service chiefs bluntly informed Congress, in open session, that they could not execute even one Major Theater War under current financial conditions. Since the end of the Cold War, the MTW has been the military’s gold standard. Down to 9/11, the Pentagon’s positions was that it could fight two MTWs simultaneously; now, with readiness in trouble due to wars and empty coffers, the reality has set in that the Pentagon is facing a crisis. The post-modern American war of warfare, which very few if any countries could hope to match in complexity and cost, is now so expensive that even Americans can no longer afford it. The strategic impact of this realization promises to be vast and far-reaching.

Conflict, though, shows no signs of evaporating. We can expect a gradual move away from the high-intensity warfare that the U.S. has perfected in the tactical-operational realm. Which may be just as well, given the current state of the U.S. military, particularly our ground forces, which are tired after 12 years of counterinsurgency in CENTCOM. Although the possibility of force-on-force conflict with China seems plausible, particularly given rising tensions in East Asian waters, the rest of the world appears uninterested in fighting the United States the way the U.S. likes to fight.

This, paradoxically, may not actually be good news in the long run, as the United States is seriously unready for other forms of conflict. Worse, the U.S. Government has persuaded itself that it is more ready for lower-intensity forms of conflict than it actually is. To be fair, in recent years the Pentagon, in collaboration with the Intelligence Community, has made UAVs a serious threat to terrorists around the world, while DoD’s Special Operations Forces – as large as the entire militaries of many Western countries – are the envy of the world in terms of their size, budgets, and capabilities. Yet all these are really just somewhat more subtle forms of traditional military applications of force.

What is needed instead is a serious capability in what some Eastern intelligence services term “special war,” an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims. I’m afraid the U.S. Government falls quite short in those two departments.

The apparently total inability of the U.S. Government to keep secrets these days indicates a basic unreadiness for special war. Just as serious an obstacle is the mindset of most U.S. warfighters, which remains vividly conventional and unimaginative. No less, the risk aversion that characterizes too many American military and intelligence operations, caused by having lawyers oversee everything the Pentagon and the IC do, will have to be dispensed with if America wants to develop any real capabilities in special war.

There are templates to follow. Britain and France are more proficient in aspects of special war than we are, in part due to a legacy of colonial-era operations that lingers in London and Paris. Israel in particular is comfortable with the nuts and bolts of special war – aggressive espionage, subversion of hostile foreign factions, and even assassinations  – but the Israeli model has its limits. In the first place, it’s questionable how much a system developed for a small state with a defined set of foes can be expanded to meet the needs of a huge global power. Moreover, Israeli political culture is tolerant of special war, including the mistakes that inevitably accompany it, showing a degree of public maturity about such messy matters that seems seriously lacking in the United States.

Unfortunately there is one country that excels at special war, and that’s Russia. Moscow’s proficiency in these dark arts goes back to the late Tsarist period, when the regime’s solution to a rising terrorism problem was to penetrate terrorist groups while creating some of their own: a politically tricky strategy that worked nearly perfectly, as long as one is willing to close one’s eyes at key moments. Proficiency in espionage, subversion, and terrorism was perfected under the Soviets, yet the skills of Russian intelligence in this domain have, if anything, increased under the rule of President Putin who, by virtue of being a onetime KGB counterintelligence officer, fully comprehends the power of special war.

Putin’s years in power have witnessed a blossoming of special war in Chechnya, where intelligence-led counterinsurgency has worked where blunter military methods failed to subdue the rebellion; in the Baltic states, where Russian intelligence successfully influences and intimdates these small NATO countries; and especially in Georgia, where the full range of Russian secret tricks has been employed intensely. The August 2008 Russian military intervention got the world’s attention, while the day-in, day-out activities waged by Moscow against Tbilisi, encompassing a rough form of spywar, get little press outside the region. The lead-up to the Obama administration’s agreement to a Russian offer to settle the Syrian WMD issue is a classic case of Moscow’s active measures – a key aspect of special war – setting the field for a big Russian diplomatic win.

Special war works when competently handled. It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting. The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war. But getting proficient in special war will soon not be a choice, but a necessity. We’re already losing at it, whether we realize it or not, and the current trajectory is worrying. Over 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu, an early advocate of special war, argued that the acme of skill is not winning battles, rather subduing your enemy without actually fighting. It’s about time the Pentagon caught on.

Snowden, NSA, and Counterintelligence

Ever since the remarkable case of Edward Snowden broke into the limelight at the beginning of the summer that’s now winding down, I’ve had a great deal to say about it here, on Twitter, and on radio and television. As one of the very few former NSA officers who’s in the public eye and willing to talk about Snowden, I’ve had an audience. As a former NSA counterintelligence officer with experience dealing with the Russians, I’ve been pretty much a solo act.

From nearly the outset I’ve stated that Snowden is very likely an agent of Russian intelligence; this was met with howls of indignation which have died down in recent weeks as it’s become apparent that Ed’s staying in Russia for some time, along with whatever classified materials he had on his person. (Since Glenn Greenwald’s partner when stopped by British authorities at Heathrow had 58,000 highly classified documents on him, thanks to Ed, one can only wonder how big the initial haul actually was.) That Snowden was in contact with the Russian consulate in Hong Kong during his pre-Moscow visit there, including spending his 30th birthday with his new friends, is now admitted. Even President Vladimir Putin has conceded that Ed’s contacts with Russian officials did not commence when he landed at Sheremtyevo airport, rather before.

But when? That of course is the key question that NSA counterintelligence surely wants – needs – to know. All roads here lead to Wikileaks. We know that Snowden in late 2012 reached out to Glenn Greenwald and other members of the spy-ring – all of whom can be considered cut-outs for Wikileaks when not paid-up members – that stands behind the massive leaks. After making this contact, Ed took a contractor job with Booz Allen Hamilton to increase his access to NSA secrets. I’ve been stating for a while now that Wikileaks is functionally an extension of Russian intelligence; it’s become a minor meme as a few journalists have decided that such a scandalous viewpoint is worth considering.

Of course, for anyone versed in the ways of Russian intelligence, the notion that Wikileaks is a Moscow front that’s involved in anti-US espionage is about as controversial as, say, the notion that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Running false flags, creating fake activist groups, using Western journalists and activists for deception purposes – this sort of thing is in the DNA of Russian intelligence going back to the 19th century and is second nature to them. They call espionage tradecraft konspiratsiya (conspiracy) for a reason.

While there can be little doubt that the damage Snowden has wrought to the US and Allied SIGINT system is nothing less than immense, it will be some time before NSA and the US Government make any public pronouncements on such a touchy matter – not to mention that it will likely be several months yet before the Intelligence Community completes what will surely rank as the Mother of All Damage Assessments.

Without in any way diminishing the espionage losses that young Mr Snowden has caused, I want to suggest that the political damage in this case may loom larger, particularly as Putin savors his big win in this round, having humiliated American intelligence as it’s never quite been publicly humiliated before. The onetime Chekist in Putin surely is going to bed at night with a smile these days. “There are no ‘former’ intelligence officers,” Russia’s president once famously said, and he was also talking about himself.

But what of the actual espionage losses caused by Ed Snowden? Context matters here, and although the U.S. media hardly covered it, readers of this blog are aware that last year saw the unfolding of a spy scandal in Canada that was simply vast in its implications. Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle for nearly five years before his detection was regularly passing huge amounts of classified information to Russian military intelligence (GRU). Every month or so, Delisle would leave his desk in the intelligence fusion center in Halifax with a memory stick filled with top secret information to sell to the Russians.

Moreover, Delisle is a trained intelligence officer – unlike Snowden, who is no more than an IT guy with little if any operational intelligence experience – and it’s apparent that much of what he gave away to GRU was SIGINT from NSA and its Five Eyes partners (British GCHQ, Canadian CSEC, Australian DSD, New Zealand GCSB). The Russians seemed to have really cleaned up with this one, and despite efforts from ministers in Ottawa to downplay what Delisle did, Canadian senior intelligence officials have made clear that the case is without precedent in its damage and implications, far beyond Canada.

Simply put, one must wonder, after nearly five years of Delisle selling the Russians all the Five Eyes TOP SECRET/ SCI data he could get his hands on, how much there really was about NSA, GCHQ, et al, that Moscow didn’t already know. Perhaps Snowden is, if not exactly a patsy, a none-too-clever fellow – Putin today called Ed “a strange guy” – whose main purpose is causing pain and suffering to Washington, DC. Which, let it be said,  he has done rather well, thanks to the propaganda offensive waged by Greenwald, Poitras, and their helpers in several countries, with Ed’s purloined information, and who have masked their radical activism under the (thin) guise of post-modern journalism.

Part of a counterintelligence officer’s job is detecting patterns, linkages between cases, that normal people don’t see. When the large Illegals network run by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in the United States was rolled up by the FBI in mid-2010, with the arrest and expulsion of ten deep-cover SVR agents, Moscow was humiliated, a pain that Putin seems to have absorbed personally. Illegals, after all, are the jewel in the crown of Russian HUMINT, an elite cadre of spies. Although the U.S. media mainly focused on the redheaded vixen Anna Chapman, ignoring what she and her spy-partners were actually doing in their secret lives, counterintelligence professionals were left with awkward questions, not least because, in Russian practice, Illegals are useful for undertaking highly sensitive tasks, including handling truly deep-cover agents working for Moscow.

To the surprise of absolutely zero veteran counterspies, it soon emerged that the roll-up of the SVR Illegals network in 2010 set off a molehunt inside U.S intelligence, including at NSA. There were actually several Russian moles said to be embedded inside the Intelligence Community, including at least one at NSA. Since there have no public announcements of the detection or arrest of any Russian moles in the IC, it appears that those individuals have not been caught.

Thus we are left with the discomforting realization that, between undetected moles, Delisle, and Snowden, NSA and its sister agencies have been deeply penetrated by Russian intelligence in recent years. What, then, is the exact role being played by Ed and his motley crew of “anti-secrecy activists” who seem hellbent on exposing as many NSA (and GCHQ) programs as they can?

It is possible that Snowden’s appearance on the radar of Russian intelligence – presumably late in 2012, almost certainly through Wikileaks – actually represents a cover mechanism of sorts for Moscow. Tasked now with an enormous damage assessment and trying to uncover if Snowden had any helpers inside NSA, it seems unlikely that IC counterintelligence experts will have the resources or manpower anytime soon to find the Russian moles who may be deeply embedded inside NSA and related U.S. intelligence agencies.

If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t, because Moscow has done exactly this sort of thing before, with considerable success. Very little can be said with certainty at this point, though a clearer picture will emerge with time. Suffice to say that experienced counterintelligence hands, accustomed to living with the vaunted “wilderness of mirrors” that comes with playing spygames with Moscow, are asking the right questions.

In the meantime it would be a step in the right direction for the U.S. and Allied governments to start treating Wikileaks like the front for hostile intelligence that it actually is. Right now, President Obama is contemplating bombing Syria and possibly starting a new war in the Middle East. Surely he can find the strength to call Wikileaks what it actually is, a far easier thing to achieve.

Wikileaks, Snowden, and the Belarus Connection

After having his first round of asylum applications turned down across the board, NSA leaker/defector Edward Snowden may at last have found a home. It’s been reported that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said his country will offer asylum to America’s most wanted IT guy, whom no one else seems to want. This may settle the matter, and Snowden will be able to leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport at last, but the more than minor issue of how Ed will actually get to Venezuela remains unresolved.

It’s worth noting that Maduro, who earlier this week was in Moscow, went home via Belarus, where he celebrated independence festivities in Minsk with President – or as Maduro called him, “Comrade President” – Aleksandr Lukashenka. Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, visited Belarus five times, which really stood out because virtually no heads of state visit Minsk these days, thanks to Belarus’s awful record as Europe’s only repressive dictatorship. There the secret police, still termed the KGB (it would have cost a fortune to change the letterhead), keeps a lid on dissent in a way that dismays virtually everyone in Europe. In recent years, Vladimir Putin, once a strong supporter of the weird Lukashenka neo-Soviet cult, has put some distance between Moscow and Minsk because nobody outside quasi-Stalinist circles wants to be publicly associated with Belarus.

Wikileaks, however, is one of the few organizations with kind words about Lukashenka – which, given the awful record of the Belarusian KGB against the press and dissidents is an odd position for an “anti-secrecy” group to take – and here’s where things get interesting. The key figure in all this is Israel Shamir, who is one of the oddest and shadiest characters you’d ever want to meet. Importantly, he’s been telling everyone for years that he’s the Wikileaks representative for Russia and Belarus. He has gone to bat for the latter country and has been involved in discrediting Belarusian dissidents – which, given how badly Minsk treats such people, is no trivial matter.

So who is Israel Shamir? That’s not an easy question to answer with much certainty. His official biography states that he was born in the Soviet Union in 1947 and emigrated to Israel in 1969, but little of his curriculum vitae stands up to detailed scrutiny. He admits to having something like a half-dozen different identities, complete with aliases. Of greatest interest here is that, before he became famous for his Wikileaks links, he was best known as a neo-Nazi holocaust denier in European circles. Which is a pretty rare thing for a Jew and Israeli citizen to get mixed up in. Shamir, operating under several names, is noted for his anti-Semitic vitriol and is fond of extolling the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and hanging out with Nordic neo-Nazis. His views are so strange and vehement that many have wondered if Shamir’s is actually an agent provocateur on behalf of some intelligence service. Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein, known for his own pro-Palestinian views, who crossed paths with Shamir more than once, called him a “maniac,” adding, “He has invented his entire personal history. Nothing he says about himself is true.” In all, Shamir’s a pretty odd choice as Wikileaks’ go-to guy for Russia.

The role of Shamir in Wikileaks, as well as his bizarre views, began to get noticed in late 2010, with an expose in Reason that asked just what was going on here, quoting Shamir as calling Jews “a virus in human form” and boasting of his Holocaust denial. Importantly, that piece had an admission by Kristinn Hrafnsson, Wikileaks spokesman, when asked directly about the group’s links with Shamir:  “Yes. Yes, he is associated with us.”

Not surprisingly, awkward questions followed including in The Guardian, not exactly a right-wing rag. Reports followed – all links here are to The Guardian, which given that newspaper’s current involvement with the Snowden case should indicate something – that Shamir, is indeed deeply involved in the Wikileaks operation: As “Adam,” Shamir (along with his Swedish son, a well-known anti-Semitic activist), has a key role in Wikileaks decisionshe was the editor of the group’s Russian-related US diplomatic cables that were leaked by PFC Bradley Manning, and perhaps most distastefully, he was involved in a smear campaign against the Swedish women who accused Julian Assange of rape (the reason he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London).

Sensing it had a PR problem on its hands, Wikileaks made a few public statements on its employee-friend-whatever Shamir. A Wikileaks press release on 3 February 2011 fudged the issue, observing that it was “almost certainly false” that Shamir is actually an “employee” of the group, while noting that he was being paid by several (unnamed) Russian press outfits; in all, this raised more questions than answers about who Shamir is really working for. Wikileaks followed up with another press release on 1 March 2011, stating, “Israel Shamir has never worked or volunteered for WikiLeaks, in any manner, whatsoever.” This statement seems patently untrue, given what is known about Shamir’s activities, but this remains the official Wikileaks line on this very strange man.

I discovered this again last night, when I was pinged by Jacob Applebaum, the American hacktivist and Wikileaks inner circle member. A Twitter spat followed, in which I repeatedly asked Applebaum to clarify the group’s relationship with Shamir, and he refused to do so beyond citing the 1 March 2011 press release.

Unfortunately, Shamir never seems to have gotten the memo that he and Wikileaks have nothing to do with each other. He divides his time between Israel, Sweden, and Russia – who’s paying for all this, by the way? Wikileaks seems to have limited funds – and pops up in the media in those countries (in the first two countries not normally in a flattering manner). He is prominent in the country of his birth, and he is easy to find in the Russian media, denouncing US neo-imperialism and praising Wikileaks and, most recently, extolling the virtues of Edward Snowden. Of critical importance is the fact that Shamir regularly is identified in the Russian media as a “Wikileaks representative” and speaks as if he has the group’s imprimatur.

Most recently, on 4 July 2013 – exactly two days ago – Shamir was interviewed in the Russian newspaper Zavrta (which has a left-wing nationalist orientation; it’s not a supermarket gossip sheet), in an article titled “The Edward Snowden Phenomenon,” where he was identified as “a Wikileaks representative.” Let me be perfectly clear here. Shamir’s interview portion of the article is sub-headed “Israel Shamir, Wikileaks Representative (Исраэль Шамир, представитель WikiLeaks) – the Russian meaning is unambiguous. The content of the interview is classic Shamir, including fawning praise of Snowden, whom he compares favorably with Kim Philby. I don’t think he was being ironic there.

The bottom line is Israel Shamir continues to represent himself as a member of Wikileaks, indeed he usually implies he’s in the group’s inner circle. More than a few people have questioned Shamir’s mental stability, so it is possible that Wikileaks has indeed cut ties with him and Shamir is simply lying. But given Wikileaks’ less than transparent track record on this matter, more than Applebaum’s obfuscations is required. Someone is clearly lying here, it’s important to know who.

It’s especially important given the fact that Wikileaks is playing a leading role in the Snowden case, to the dismay of some of Ed’s admirers and even members of his family. Not to mention that Snowden, as of this writing, is still in Moscow. One need not be a counterintelligence guru to have serious questions about Shamir and Wikileaks here. It may be a much bigger part of the story than it appears to the naked eye.

What if everything you know is wrong?

One of the nice things about working in counterintelligence is the acceptance of the notion that some things are not quite what they seem to be. (One of the bad things is that it can make you weird, even slightly crazy, if you stick to it too long; see: James Angleton.) Working in CI, every day you encounter people, even whole organizations, acting out secret agendas that are carefully hidden from public view … but you get to know the hidden truth.

It is fashionable to deride anything like what I’m suggesting as a “conspiracy theory” which conveniently cuts off discussion amidst images of people living in basements wearing tinfoil hats. Yet conspiracies do exist – pretty much every revolution starts as one – and such thinking forms the basis of all espionage. There is a good reason the Russian word for espionage activities, what Americans term “tradecraft,” is konspiratsiya. Those who have labored in counterintelligence know that agents provocateurs, fronts, and even false flags happen all the time, indeed they are unexceptional, bread-and-butter things on Planet CI.  Just don’t expect civilians, normal people – especially academics, mainstream journalists, and nearly all “deep thinkers” – to believe you. Yet every once in a while the secret world jumps into open view, and the reaction to the revelation can be anything from outright denial to speechless confusion.

Back in the spring of 1967, West Germany was enjoying a wave of student protests of the sort then causing annoyance across much of the Western world as the baby boomers came of age, crankily, and acted out in public. On the evening of June 2, a big demo in West Berlin protesting the visit of the Shah of Iran, who was in town that night seeing an opera, got out of hand. Police were jumpy and soon the demo was verging on something ugly. Then a twenty-six year old student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the back of the head by a policeman – for no reason, according to his friends. Ohnesorg died at this, his first demo, leaving behind a pregnant young wife.

Benno Ohnesorg: the innocent victim

Outrage ensued, not least because the protestors claimed that the unarmed Ohnesorg had been murdered by the police without cause; no one under thirty believed the policeman when he said that he had seen a knife and had to defend himself. For a generation, the murder became “the shot that changed Germany.” It didn’t help matters that the killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was a middle-aged cop of thuggish inclinations who had served in Hitler’s army in the Second World War, and was almost a caricature of the “fascist mentality” that West German baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s so detested about their parents. Kurras was an ideal stand-in for the so-called “Auschwitz generation” that younger leftists reviled and wanted to junk on the ash heap of history as soon as possible.

For the hard Left, Ohnesorg was a welcome martyr, since his death confirmed all their dark fears about West Germany, which they asserted was objectively a fascist state, despite actually being a high-functioning democracy, not to mention a quite prosperous one, with exceptionally stringent protection of civil liberties and dissent. There soon arose the June 2 Movement, a terrorist group dedicated to Ohnesorg’s martyrdom. Next came the far more dangerous Red Army Faction, popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, a terrorist movement dedicated to Ohnesorg’s memory that claimed to be fighting fascism, but whose leaders seemed mostly into fast cars, turgid ideological dissertations, and murder-as-self-actualization. It took the West German intelligence and police agencies over a decade to stamp out the RAF, even though the gang was small and not very adept, a longevity that, it turned out, had a lot to do with the RAF’s close relationship with the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious Ministry for State Security (MfS). The Stasi offered RAF fighters sanctuary, logistical support, training, even weaponry. (The support by East Bloc intelligence services for terrorist groups in the West was another issue dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by mainstream thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s, but with the collapse of the Soviet empire and access to secret files – whoops – turned out to be quite true.)

Plenty of West Germans to the right of the Baader Meinhof thugs were troubled by the conduct of the German police. Kurras was never seriously punished for the Ohnesorg killing. Twice he was acquitted of major charges and was suspended from the force for four years, working in private security, but after that suspension he was back with the Berlin police and was actually promoted. Kurras continued a normal career, retiring to a pension at age sixty, remaining defiant and unrepentant: “Anyone who attacks me is destroyed,” he explained to a reporter who asked him about the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg.

Karl-Heinz Kurras: fascist cop, killer, secret Stasi star

By 2009, Karl-Heinz Kurras was an elderly pensioner and a mostly forgotten minor hate figure, yet that May he returned to the front pages in a sensational fashion when it was revealed that he had been for years a highly valued agent of the Stasi. Information from the files of the MfS, which German authorities have combed through carefully for over twenty years, revealed that Kurras had volunteered to work for East German intelligence in 1955. He wanted to move to the DDR, but Stasi handlers convinced him to stay where he was and to serve as an agent-in-place inside the West Berlin police. Files indicate that Kurras was a loyal and effective Stasi source, handing over reams of documents and all the information he could find to the MfS. He was decorated several times and was allowed to secretly join the SED, the East German ruling Communist Party, in 1964, a rare honor for a foreign agent. He helped the Stasi and the KGB expose double agents, reported regularly on U.S. and NATO military developments, and during the 1961 Berlin Crisis was informing the Stasi about critical events at Checkpoint Charlie, the heart of the East-West confrontation.

The revelation that Kurras was a long-term and highly valued agent of East German intelligence exploded like a bombshell, turning a generation’s worldview on its head. The man that Germany’s baby boomers loathed as the archetype of fascism, a living symbol of the evil Nazi-ish past, actually was a Stasi hero, a loyal servant of Communism. Many had no idea what to make of it, as the implications of the news were so stunning.The important question arose at once: Did Kurras kill Ohnesorg on the orders of the MfS, to bolster the radical Left movement in West Germany? It is impossible to answer this question with certainty, though it seems to be the obvious explanation for the crime, since the files are incomplete (and Kurras is keeping his mouth shut about any details, though he has admitted in recent years that he did serve the Stasi). Fearing that he was now toxic, the MfS put Kurras on ice after the Ohnesorg killing, as he was the recipient of much media attention. A recent reexamination of the Ohnesorg case has revealed that the killing was indeed premeditated, no one had threatened Kurras – he simply shot the young protestor in the back of the head without provocation, a crime which the Berlin police actively covered up the facts about. Why Kurras did this may never be known, but it seems unlikely to this former counterintelligence hand that an agent of such value to the Stasi would do something so certain to cause scandal and uproar out of literally nowhere, for no reason.

This sensational case is destined to leave behind as many questions as answers. It has caused a more-than-minor reassessment of the 1960s in German life, and the path of the Left in Germany in the decades since. Not to mention the irony noted by many that both Kurras and the radicals his criminal act gave birth to in the form of terrorism, were under the control of the Stasi. A brilliant op, clearly. And a good reminder that some things are not quite what they seem to be.

The Wilderness of Mirrors

Greg Treverton, a brainy wonk who has worked on the high margins of the U.S. Intelligence Community, famously explained that puzzles and mysteries are fundamentally different: the former, with their pieces, can be solved, while the latter, with inexact pieces and no firm map, defy easy solution. And some mysteries will defy solution indefinitely.

One of the best things about working in counterintelligence, if you’re comfy with imprecision, is that it’s all about mysteries (one of the worst things is that it can make you crazy), some so vexing and intellectually challenging that they elude agreed-upon solutions for decades, in some cases in perpetuity. James Angleton, the poet-turned-counterspy who became CIA’s genius/flake chief of CI for much of the Cold War, referred to this experience as “the wilderness of mirrors,” which captures the enduring mystery of never quite grasping up from down in a case, or knowing who’s really running the show, no matter how closely you look at it (the memorable phrase also happens to be the title of the best book about the CIA’s Angleton experience).

A brilliant but erratic man, Angleton ventured so far into that wilderness that he never fully emerged from the hall of mirrors, and some of the cases that drove him to the edge of his sanity and his position – mostly regarding how deeply the KGB had penetrated U.S. intelligence – inspire polemics even today, a full half-century after the apogee of the spywars which consumed careers, minds, and in a few cases lives.

One of the alluring aspects of counterintelligence is that very complex cases can turn on very small, sometimes minute, pieces of information. And years of getting to the bottom of an operation can be swiftly overturned when one tiny – and possibly very inconvenient – fact comes to light. This is particularly a possibility when what exactly happened in a case proves hard to pin down. As most cases involving the Russians are.

Back in 2007, the Belarusian security service, still called the KGB (it would have cost a fortune to change the letterhead), gloated about rolling up five spies who, it said, were working for Poland. Minsk alleged that the men – one Russian and four Belarusians – had been gathering critical information for NATO about air defenses, which the Polish intelligence service was eager to get its hands on. The men were quickly convicted in a perfunctory fashion and sent to a presumably quite unpleasant prison cell, and there the case went silent, with no official comment from Warsaw or Brussels.

Recently the Polish newsmagazine Wprost has added critical details about the case, based on interviews with several Polish officials involved in the affair, which proves to be fascinating and just as vexing as great counterintelligence operations so often are. Not to mention it seems to have been a genuine debacle for NATO in the end.

The Wprost expose reveals that the key man in Poland’s spy network, Vladimir Ruskin, a major in Belarus’s air defense forces, was recruited by back in 2000 when he, like so many Belarusians, was smuggling. Caught by the Polish border police with five times the legal allowance of alcohol in his car, Ruskin was threatened with arrest and humiliation unless he cooperated – which he did promptly.

Ruskin began recruiting fellow officers in the Belarusian military, and he soon had three agents working for him, all unwitting as to who was behind the operation. Only Ruskin knew the Poles were running the show, and only he actually met with case officers, usually when he visited Poland as a shopper, which he often did. There he safely exchanged documents for cash. Although some intel higher-ups in Warsaw were initially unimpressed by the operation, which they dismissed as “bazaar intelligence,” minds changed when Ruskin began to deliver reams of classified documents all at a modest price, a few hundred dollars per hand-off: nothing to Warsaw but a respectable sum in poor and decrepit Belarus.

So it went for several years, and Ruskin’s circus was able to deliver the Poles detailed information, at low risk and cost, about relatively modern air defense systems like the S-300 (SA-10 to NATO), which the Russians had delivered to Belarus. Warsaw, and NATO, were especially interested in the new S-400 missile (SA-21 to NATO), a cutting-edge system which is considered a potential game-changer in air defense, reportedly more capable even than the U.S. Patriot missile. This NATO wanted to know about, and Ruskin seemed to get dream access when he recruited into his network Sergei Yurenia, a Russian major who had been assigned to work with S-400s.

Polish intelligence officials and top politicians, unable to conceal their ebullience, boasted among themselves about this coup, and word spread about the existence of the Ruskin network. Worse, Polish intelligence was in turmoil around 2005, with nasty politics tearing apart operations. Polish military intelligence (WSI), which handled Ruskin, was dissolved in 2006 amid scandal and broken into two new agencies; in the ensuing chaos many operations were disrupted and bad decisions were handed down.

Among the worst hit the Ruskin network. New case officers demanded that their star agent come to Poland as soon as possible to receive new instructions – which Ruskin, who believed he was being watched by the KGB, refused to do immediately; his relations with his handlers took a downturn. Then Major Yurenia, who was going to be assigned to Russia’s first operational S-400 unit, mentioned that he had the possibility of joining the Federal Security Service, the powerful FSB. Although Polish military intelligence maintained that information about the S-400 wonder-weapon was of great interest to NATO, and was certainly of more value than anything Yurenia might learn as a newly minted FSB officer, higher-ups in Warsaw overruled, and Yurenia was ordered to infiltrate the FSB.

But Polish dreams of penetrating Putin’s own intelligence service quickly fell apart when Yurenia did not pass the FSB’s vetting. In particular, he blew the polygraph and quickly broke under FSB interrogation, exposing Ruskin. Before long, the Russians and Belarusians had rolled up the entire network and had the five Polish spies in custody; quickly they admitted their treachery.

During the Cold War, the Soviets pooh-poohed American intelligence’s reliance on the polygraph, which Moscow derided as a bunch of pseudo-science, as do some in the West still today, yet after the Soviet Union ended, Russian intelligence began using the polygraph as an investigative and interrogation tool, just as many Western services do. Inexplicably, the Poles gave Yurenia no training in countermeasures (i.e. how to beat the polygraph), and a disaster resulted.

In September 2007, the men were convicted of espionage and Ruskin was sentenced to ten years in prison, while his three Belarusian accomplices got between nine and seven years each; Yurenia, who cooperated with the FSB, got seven years in a Russian prison. Poland denied anything to do with the operation, abandoning the men to their fate – something which outraged the case officers who had run the network. A particularly sore point was that Warsaw never approached Minsk or Moscow about a deal for the men; no secret trade was considered. Complaints were silenced by politicians who wanted to distance Poland from the bad visuals emanating from the debacle. Although Belarus publicly maintained the men had given NATO nothing of significance, that claim was belied by the fact that the head of the KGB was fired just one day after news of the rollup hit the state-controlled Belarusian media.

Six years later, doubts linger about many aspects of the Ruskin network. From the outset there had been questions about the operation, and some suspected that the whole thing was one big dangle, under Russian control, which would be a typical trick from the KGB/FSB playbook. But those doubts seemed to lift when NATO and the Americans confirmed that the information from the network, particularly about sensitive air defense technology, seemed to check out. It all looked legit and, to some, too good to be true.

“It’s a mess and a wreck,” admitted a top Polish security official close to the case, who explained that key documents had been lost in the 2006 bureaucratic shuffle, and getting to the bottom of it all may be impossible now. ”The matter is not clear-cut.  Six years have passed and we still do not know who was who, who worked for whom, and who was steered by whom in this story,” he stated, adding that a recent relook at the case by veteran counterintelligence analysts didn’t answer the mail since “the case becomes more muddled each time we look into it.”

So Poland’s successful spy network delivered great stuff for NATO until it got blown through sloppiness, the sort of sloppy tradecraft no first-rate service goes against the Russians with and expects to win. Or the network was a mirage from the start, a brilliant act of maskirovka by Moscow to deceive NATO and play the Poles for fools. Or it was bona fide at the beginning and somewhere along the way got flipped by the FSB, who staged one of their usual spy-shows to thoroughly confuse Warsaw, Brussels, and Washington, DC. All answers are plausible to anyone acquainted with konspiratsiya, which is what the Russians call espionage tradecraft. And no one outside FSB headquarters in Moscow knows the full story, or possibly ever will. Sounds just like the wilderness of mirrors every CI officer knows well.

Friends from the Institute

Just in time for Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel – where he is reported to be focused mainly on not making a fool of himself before the media, London-style – the AP dropped a bombshell disguised as an article on the taboo subject of Israeli espionage against the United States. The detailed piece, which was sourced from several places in the Intelligence Community, has been met with shock and horror in the usual places; Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a denial as vociferous as it was quick. Aggressive Israeli spying on the U.S. is something polite people are never, ever supposed to discuss; mentioning it will not get you invited to the right Georgetown parties.

But there was nothing in the piece which was exactly news to anyone who knows how the global intelligence game is actually played. That CIA considers Israel to be the number-one spy threat in the Middle East is a revelation only to neophytes. Counterintelligence officers for decades have been aware of the extent of Israeli espionage against the U.S., at home and abroad, though politicos are customarily wise enough to never mention it. Indeed, CI experts for years have spoken of the Big Four threats to the USG: Russia, China, Cuba, and Israel.  

I prefer my spies to look like this …

Russia remains as big a spy threat to the West and the U.S. as it was at the height of the Cold War. Their operations are as aggressive as ever, and their playbook is the same. Although the round-up of a big Russian illegal network in the U.S. two years ago was treated as a comic-opera affair in the media, with emphasis on hot redheads (and, let me say, who doesn’t like hot redheaded spy-vixens?), that story justifiably caused deep concern in CI circles and indicated big problems, including possible penetrations of U.S. intelligence.

The Chinese spy threat is less popularly understood, and there is a lot less written about it, with some happy exceptions, but Beijing’s espionage against the USG has risen in recent years and shows no signs of abating, rather the contrary. That said, Chinese HUMINT operations are seldom successful outside their ethnic millieu – though that may be cold comfort given the size of the overseas Chinese community in the West today.

The inclusion of Cuba on the Big Four list may surprise, given the comically pathetic condition of that country, but Havana’s intelligence agencies have long punched above their weight in the global spy game. Cuban operations against the USG are widespread and pernicious, including long-term penetrations of our intelligence agencies. Castro’s case officers for decades have had no trouble recruiting spies among Cuban exiles – usually they have more volunteers than they can handle – and Cuban-American groups are deeply penetrated (usually the crazier and more right-wing an exile pontificates, the more likely s/he is a mole for Havana). Not surprisingly, Florida is a hotspot for Cuban espionage. Neverthless, like the Chinese, the Cubans operate best among ethnic kin, save the occasional oddball lefty Anglos who actually lose money spying for Cuba.

The Israeli espionage threat to the United States, however, is different, because DC and Tel Aviv are such close partners, and Israel is the world’s biggest recipient of American aid dollars.  In the real world, allies do spy on each other. Per the counterspy’s mantra: There are no friendly intelligence agencies. Yet America’s closest intelligence partners, the Five Eyes of the Anglosphere (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and usually New Zealand), have preserved a remarkable amount of the sincere spy-friendship borne of shared hardship in World War II, and come pretty close to being friends who don’t spy on each other.

Not like this.

Israel emphatically is not that sort of spy-buddy. The AP article included glimpses of just how aggressive and duplicitous Israeli HUMINT operations against American interests actually are, and have been for decades. Anyone who has looked closely at the infamous Pollard case, including Israel’s continuing lobbying to get their boy out of his jail cell, gets some sense of how the Israelis play the game.

It’s no secret inside the Beltway that Israel spies on everybody, America included, and uses its close partnership with the USG to further its espionage against it. None of this is new, and as far back as 1954 Israeli dirty tricks targeted the U.S., including the false-flag bombing of the U.S. Information Agency office in Egypt, the so-called Lavon affair. Espionage is a messy business, to be sure, but what sets the Israelis apart is that they act so aggressively even towards their closest friends.

Israel’s intelligence agencies are small – certainly compared to America’s multi-headed espionage leviathan – and professional. Foreign HUMINT and dirty tricks are handled by the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (the legendary MOSSAD), while domestic intelligence is conducted by the impressive Security Agency (SHABAK), yet the biggest piece of the puzzle is Military Intelligence (AMAN), which includes Israel’s substantial and effective SIGINT effort.

The “MOSSAD myth” is a real force-multiplier, even though it’s only partly true. Israeli spies are far from super-human, as a long string of missteps and own-goals will attest, yet they are undeniably super-aggressive, including against America. Their small numbers are boosted abroad by sayanim (“helpers”), mainly diaspora Jews who provide material support to Israeli intelligence. From a CI perspective this makes Israeli operations a tough nut to crack, not to mention that MOSSAD relies on an array of fronts and cut-outs in many countries to assist its espionage. It was no surprise to CI hands that DoD’s Larry Franklin was convicted in 2006 of passing classified information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, since although AIPAC is widely known to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, the counterspies understand that it has an, ahem, exceptionally close relationship with Israeli intelligence. CI professionals were likewise less than shocked when it turned out that Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House’s intelligence committee, was reported to be having spooky conversations with AIPAC too.

There is a long history of Israeli espionage against America and its interests, and an equally long history of the American MSM showing little interest in delving deeply into some of the more intriguing Israeli ops in the United States (see: Israeli art students). In this sense, the weekend’s AP story was a surprise, and a welcome one. As a former CI officer I have nothing but professional admiration for what Israeli spooks manage to pull off, and in their shoes I’d do exactly the same stuff. Yet as an American I have questions about what our ally is doing, and why we tolerate the worst of it.

For a long time, American journalists and politicians have denied there is an issue here. The AP has blown the lid on that one, and good on them. Henceforth, those who deny that Israel spies mightily on the USA are either playing politics or they don’t know what they are talking about.