Saturday, July 7, 2012

Inside Israel's super-secret intelligence agency

This article is adapted from "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars" (Levant Books), a new book detailing the history of the Israeli intelligence community by CBS News national correspondent Dan Raviv and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman. 

As tensions continue to mount between Iran and Israel, Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman offer detailed reporting on how Israel's intelligence agency operates inside Iran.   

There've been more than a few reports suggesting that Israel's foreign intelligence agency - the Mossad - hires Iranian dissidents to carry out sabotage and assassinations inside Iran.

But a study of fifty years of assassinations by the Mossad - including conversations with current and former operatives and those who work with them in countries friendly to Israel - yields the conclusion that the assassins inside Iran are Israelis. 

The Mossad has a special operations unit - a kind of Mossad within the Mossad - called Kidon (the Hebrew word for bayonet), which has over the years developed unique methods for infiltrating enemy countries, and for murdering Israel's enemies without leaving a trace.

The Mossad benefits from unmatched linguistic capabilities, in part because Israel has many citizens whose families moved from Arabic- or Persian-speaking countries. Israeli operatives have traveled into Iran using the passports of other countries, including bogus documents produced by skilled Mossad forgers, and genuine passports where the photographs might be altered slightly.

Insight into the psyches and behavior of members of the super-secret Kidon squad can be found - perhaps surprisingly - in the pages of a novel called "Duet in Beirut," published only in Hebrew (in 2002), by Mishka Ben-David, a former intelligence officer in the Mossad's operations department, which runs and coordinates Kidon. 

From the book and other sources it is understood that Kidon is so compartmentalized that its office is not inside the Mossad headquarters. Kidon combatants - who dubbed themselves "The Team" - hardly ever go there. Even when interacting with Mossad operatives from other units, Kidon men use assumed names. In the field, members use a third name - and sometimes even fourth and fifth identities.

Their training includes almost anything one might imagine is needed for an intelligence operation: surveillance, shaking off surveillance, studying objects and memorizing everything about them. They become proficient at remembering codes and securely communicating during missions without raising suspicion. 

Because they are the cream of the crop, Kidon men and women are the ones the Mossad director selects for very dangerous missions - including complex operations of an information-gathering nature - that require top professionals.

Despite tactical successes in Iran in recent years, the Mossad and its top political master, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, know that the entire Iranian nuclear weapons program will not be demolished by assassinations of nuclear scientists and military officers. 

Yet, any delay in Iran's nuclear work represents an achievement. Israeli strategic thinking (exercised in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere) holds that temporary disruptions to an enemy's dangerous projects are sufficient cause for taking significant risks.

Meir Dagan, Mossad director from 2002 to 2010, was pleased by past missions in Iran and the "cleanliness" of their execution: no clues, no fingerprints, not even motorcycles left behind. Iranian authorities could only guess who was attacking, in broad daylight, in their capital. 

But the intimidating impact that Dagan aimed to create in Iran seems to be exhausted. This is reportedly apparent to Tamir Pardo, the new head of the Mossad, who has a reputation for knowing that one should not push one's luck. Iran is becoming more dangerous for Mossad and other foreign intelligence operatives. One can expect a halt, at least temporarily, of the assassination campaign.

Dagan, in retirement, has become outspoken in his opposition to a military strike by Israel against Iran. When he spoke to Lesley Stahl on CBS's "60 Minutes" in March, Dagan warned that retaliation by Iran and its proxies could be highly damaging to normal life in the Jewish state. Dagan also believes that an attack by Israel would unite most Iranians around their regime and would give Iran's scientists and engineers a major reason to speed up their underground nuclear work.

His private advice boils down to pointing out that there is still plenty of disruption to be accomplished within Iran by sabotage, assassinations, and a truly innovative weapon - cyberwarfare. The worm called Stuxnet that took over Iranian nuclear lab computers was a product of Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies working together; and it was not the only computer virus created by the highly skilled programmers in both nations.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem skeptical that international economic sanctions will persuade Iran to cancel its nuclear bomb program, Dagan and other former and current intelligence officials believe that sanctions are biting and could be a major factor in the ayatollahs' thinking. 

Only last week, most of Europe stopped purchasing Iranian oil. Tension in the Middle East is likely to rise, and predicting when - or how - the crisis over Iran may be resolved is truly impossible. There is a high likelihood, however, that the Mossad - and its even more secretive Kidon unit - will somehow be involved.


Conspiracy or not, there are rights violations

When questions are raised about possible hidden motives behind the works of international organisations such as Human Rights Watch, they should certainly not be dismissed off. Many such organisations in the global arena, particularly when it comes to the issue of various races and nations, have often displayed a bias, or a tendency to selective interpretation, or downright service to some propaganda. So, as New Age reported on Saturday, when the government rejects the US-based organisation’s report on war crimes and BDR rebellion trials as ‘false, baseless and concocted’ and ‘a part of international conspiracy and false propaganda against it’, there is certainly no reason to think that the government, under normal circumstances, is completely wrong. 

However, the trouble for the government this time around is, what they – Human Rights Watch - are saying is not very different from what ordinary people and rights groups in the country have been saying for long.

Take the example of the BDR Mutiny Trial. A persistent concern, among many other things, has been the mysterious death of more than 50 soldiers of the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles, also suspects in the trial, while in the custody of the investigating authorities. Despite much protest from the families of the victims and concerns raised by local rights groups, the government has so far failed to investigate the deaths. Or for that matter, take the case of the Rapid Action Battalion. From March 2004, when it was formed, till March 2012, 711 people have died at the hands of the Rapid Action Battalion and 70 more in joint operations of police and RAB. Even after the incumbents came to power on the back of an electoral pledge to stop extrajudicial killings, more than a 100 have died in the hands of the RAB, while there has been an alarming rise in enforced disappearances. And yet, the law minister on Thursday claimed ‘law enforcement agencies took action in a given situation’.

Unfortunately for the government, most of the allegations leveled by the Human Rights Watch, this time around, ring true. Extrajudicial killings carried out by law enforcers have been going on rampantly for a number of years, while concerns and apprehensions about the BDR Mutiny Trial or the War Crimes Trial, are concerns shared by many people in the country. Going beyond that, as most local rights groups concur, the government has been directly and indirectly responsible for a number of other forms of rights violations, including repression of opposition groups.

So, if the government feels that Human Rights Watch, or for that matter any such similar organization, is taking part in a conspiracy, than it falls upon the government disprove the allegations leveled by them, rather than just ‘crying foul’. Unfortunately, when 50 BDR soldiers die of mysterious heart attacks while in custody, while over 700 die at the hands of just one law enforcement agency in eight years, than the government has literally handed over the ‘recipe’ for a conspiracy. Rather than cry out with counter-allegations, the government must ensure that rights violations are brought to an end, so that in the future no organisation, as part of a conspiracy or out of genuine concern, can accuse the government of such misdeeds. 

A call for urgent intervention for the protection of Human Rights Defenders in Bangladesh

The Government of Bangladesh plans to immediately arrest members of human rights organisations and activists suspected of providing information for the Human Rights Watch Report “Bangladesh: Torture, Deaths of Jailed Mutiny Suspects”.The Asian Human Rights Commission has learned from reliable sources that there are discussions among some quarters in the Bangladesh government of arresting human rights activists and members of human rights organizations who are suspected to have supplied information for the Human Rights Watch Asia report on Bangladesh, and to charge them with treason, sedition and other criminal charges.

For further details of the Human Rights Watch Report, please see the following link:

Earlier, the Ministry of Home Affairs accused Human Rights Watch of conspiring against Bangladesh for publishing this report.

Reporting on human rights matters is the mandate of human rights organisations, as recognized by the United Nations, and this role has been repeatedly affirmed by all the authoritative organs of the United Nations. Human rights organisations are merely carrying out the duties of observers of the human rights covenants to which states have become parties. The protection of the rights of all persons requires respect of the rights guaranteed under these conventions. Under article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), states are required to take legislative, judicial and administrative measures to ensure that people enjoy the rights guaranteed by these conventions.

We urge the government of Bangladesh not to take any action against anyone, any human rights organisation or human rights activists, for whatever contribution they may have made in pursuit of the above conventions.

We urge the United Nations and all governments to intervene on behalf of human rights defenders for their protection, and to take all measures to prevent arrest, detention, torture and fabrication of charges against human rights defenders. We urge human rights organizations throughout the world to make representations to the government of Bangladesh on behalf of all human rights organisations and activists, and request the government not to take any action against them.