Some excellent investigative reporting from Associated Press (pub 11 February). Seven AP reporters based in seven different countries, working in conjunction with internet watchdog Citizen’s Lab of Toronto, have exposed an Israeli entrapment scheme. You can read the full report here: http://apnews.com/9bdbbfe0c8a2407aac14a1e995659de4.
As well as being a fascinating and detailed espionage story in itself, the case also illustrates a truth about modern day secret service operations. As you will see, the well-known Israeli private investigations company, Black Cube, is mentioned as a possible culprit. However, Spying Today sources believe that the case is most likely to be a Mossad operation. This is for several reasons:
First, the resources used across so many different countries would be beyond most private organisations. That is not to say that the techniques were complex (essentially the setting up of false internet entities), but to do so across so many different jurisdictions brings down a lot of unwelcome attention for a private company unless it is assured of state backing. (Incidentally, the fact that the methods used were simplistic does not mean a state organisation was not involved – you use what works, the simpler the better, as it points away from a state intervention).
Second, the case concerns cryptographic assets that are valuable to the Israeli state and would therefore merit government intervention. If this operation wasn’t run by Mossad, then they have been asleep at the wheel. This is exactly the sort of thing they ought to be doing.
And third, because one of the great changes in secret service operations in the past thirty years has been the use of private organisations as a screen for national services. National services will either contract the private service to carry out the work or sit behind it and direct operations. The advantage of this approach is deniability, that most precious of factors in a secret operation. This is one reason why there is such a tremendous crossover these days between the two types of intelligence operation with personnel of national services leaving and joining (or sometimes even founding) private intelligence/investigation services. The most notable recent example would be former SIS officer Chris Steele who left to establish Orbis and who subsequently produced the Trump dossier. Another example of this sort of crossover is Hakluyt, famously staffed by former SIS officers such as Mike Reynolds and Chris James. Questions have been asked several times in the House of Commons about its rather too cosy relationship with the British government. It now has Sir Iain Lobban , former director of GCHQ on its board of directors.
The case that AP have exposed would seem to be an example of where the state is hiding behind private operators – whether Black Cube (who categorically deny involvement) or someone else. The report is well worth a read if you wish to learn about the modern realities of espionage.