What’s In a Name?

The public has become so accustomed to extrajudicial killings and kidnappings by the United States and Israel that such activities most often receive little media coverage and are hardly noticed.  The recent massive assassination operation carried out by Israel’s Mossad in Dubai has been an exception, however.  It has attracted considerable media attention in Europe though relatively little in the United States, possibly because any American outcry would be the pot calling the kettle black.  Europeans have mostly been outraged by the Israeli cloning of genuine European passports to carry out their dirty work, less so by the killing itself. 

To be sure, all intelligence services use fake identity documents to disguise the true names of their officers.  It is most often done to conceal the identities of those involved in a specific operation, but sometimes in can involve the creation of an actual alternate persona.  I can recall an Egyptian intelligence officer who had been stationed in several capitals in Europe who would be issued new passports by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry each time he moved with a new name, date, and place of birth to obscure who he was and where he had been.  We became great friends but to this day I am not sure what his real name was. 

Fake identity documents from a country other than one’s own are called “false flag.” The CIA’s office of technical services produces its own bogus foreign passports and other documents.  As most Americans normally can only pass as citizens of a handful of foreign countries, mostly in Europe, the false documents traditionally have reflected that reality.  The Russians also produce their own documents as do the more sophisticated smaller services like the British, Israelis, and French.  For most second and third world intelligence services it has always been much easier to steal or buy whatever foreign document is needed and alter the information to suit.

At one time it was possible to produce false identity documents with little or no regard for what is referred to as backstopping as data bases at national points of entry were unsophisticated and were generally unlinked to any central sources of information.  That has all changed in the past eight years.  European and American passports in particular can all be verified from central data bases that include information that is also drawn from other public record sources.  In Europe, due to the Schengen agreement’s elimination of many border controls, it is easy to travel from country to country but a lot harder to gain entry in the first place due to the screening of documents that routinely occurs.  In the US, numerous data bases are linked at border entry points.  It is nowadays not unusual for an immigration officer to see a department of motor vehicles entry pop up and to ask “What kind of car do you drive?” to verify someone’s identify. 

This has meant that the intelligence service business-as-usual of using completely phony foreign passports has largely been shut down.  The CIA continues to use fake foreign docs in countries where the means of verifying their authenticity is considered to be weak, but it has more generally gone over to using genuine American passports issued by the State Department for intelligence purposes in false names.  When these passports are swiped through a scanner reader or compared with a data base, they come up as genuine. The twenty-five CIA officers who blundered their way through the kidnapping of Muslim cleric Abu Omar off a Milan street in February 2003 were all using real American passports in false names.  Not very conscious of the paper and data trail they were leaving behind them, as well as completely careless in mixing their true and fake personas, all of the Agency officers were subsequently identified by the Italian investigators.  A number were identified in both real and false names because they compromised their aliases by calling home to Virginia and claiming frequent flier and hotel miles in their true identities.  They also indulged themselves by staying in expensive hotels in Venice, four hours away from Milan, on the taxpayer’s dime to make their cover stories as tourists appear more legitimate.  That’s called your tax dollars at work.

The improved border control screening process linked to data bases can tell if the number and name are authentic, which explains why the Israelis cloned actual identities from genuine passports for their Dubai assassination operation.  The Israelis revealed in this operation that they are able to reproduce British passports that will pass muster at both European and Middle Eastern border control points, but they are not able to alter the data base that the passport is stored on, so they had to use real identities and passport numbers together with substituted photos.  But, like the Americans in Milan, the Israelis should have thought a lot harder about what they were doing and what the unintended consequences might be.  They should have known that in the wake of the assassination the Dubai authorities would be able to piece together their involvement from CCTV footage and also from the immigration and customs records, eventually compiling a film showing the amateurish antics of the assassination team.  The Israelis should also have realized that the true names and numbers on the passports would inevitably lead to identification of the source of most of the documents, in this case British subjects living in Israel, which would inevitably involve the UK government, legally and morally bound to protect the integrity of its passports.

The Mossad operation, which appears to have involved eighteen officers, was not exactly picture perfect and one suspects that it might have been orchestrated by the Marx brothers or Monty Python.  It follows on a number of other bungled Mossad operations, including an attempted assassination in 1997, so if it was intended to burnish the Israeli intelligence service’s reputation for efficiency it might have had the opposite effect.  It might also produce considerable blowback.  The Dubai operation resulted in a paper and data trail that could not be concealed and it will possibly end a friendly though low-keyed relationship between Dubai and Tel Aviv. 

The Mossad assassination could also result in real consequences from the European governments whose passports were cloned or stolen, though the French and Germans are unlikely to make waves and the British are already backpedalling to make sure they do not offend Israel.  A European Union resolution was so spineless as to not even name Israel in a statement condemning passport fraud and extrajudicial killing.  The UK’s reticence to engage Israel is particularly surprising as Tel Aviv has been especially wanton in stealing British and Commonwealth identifies and documents to carry out assassinations.  One might argue that British passports have long been favored because of the tepid response from London to deter the practice.  Phony British docs featured in the hunt for the Munich conspirators and were used by Mossad operatives as recently as 1987. The Dubai operation reveals that Israel is able and willing to both steal and clone British passports, which should seriously concern Whitehall.

Mossad clearly has a top operational priority to obtain genuine foreign documents to support its activities.  The German passport used in Dubai was obtained fraudulently in the name of an Israeli rabbi who actually carries an American passport.  Two Canadian passports featured in a botched assassination attempt in Amman Jordan in 1997.  An investigation carried out by the Canadian authorities revealed that Canadian Jews emigrating to Israel were routinely required to turn over their passports for Mossad use. In 2004, four suspected Mossad operatives were engaged in obtaining genuine New Zealand passports by applying in the names of local people who were either invalids or dead. 

Now, every visitor to Israel from Europe or America should assume that his or her identity is susceptible to cloning by the Mossad for the carrying out of intelligence operations that could well include assassination.  And what was the gain?  The killing of a mid-level Hamas official who may or may not have been in Dubai to arrange to buy weapons from Iran.  Hardly a big fish and hardly worth it, even from the Israeli point of view.

Recent CIA and Mossad operations reveal that much of what goes on in the shady world of spy vs. spy is self-generated with little to do with the national interest of either country.  The bungled operations in both Milan and Dubai demonstrate that the two intelligence services are prepared to commit enormous resources against targets that really don’t matter for much.  Muslim cleric Abu Omar snatched in Milan was dutifully tortured by the Egyptians after he was rendered home and later released because he wasn’t a terrorist even by the very elastic definition applied by Cairo and Washington.  He also didn’t know anything useful.  The killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai was meaningless as he will presumably soon be replaced.  That ill-conceived and poorly executed operations to kill and kidnap even when the target is not worth pursuing are mounted reveals above all that the intelligence services in Israel and the US are out of control.  Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that either President Barack Obama or Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu will do anything about it.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.