Israel has kept mum for three weeks as Lebanon arrested a flock of alleged Israeli spies – twenty in all so far. Jerusalem has declined to claim or repudiate those spy rings, or comment on reports that some of the suspected spies and their families had fled south through the winding electronic border fence dividing the two countries.
Some Lebanese media describe hair-raising escapes by air and sea, reporting that the absconding spies use private jets and yachts to evade the long arm of the Lebanese security service.
A Lebanese ex-general, a deputy mayor with Hizballah ties and a flock of Shiite businessmen are said to be among the detainees.
Lebanese accounts of how the Israeli spy rings operated are as detailed as they are lurid.
The Mossad, Israel's external espionage service, is said to have supplied the ringleaders with loads of cash and top-of-the-line surveillance equipment. The funds were spent on purchasing three to five homes and apartments each in different parts of Lebanon for setting up centers of espionage. This made them hard to track.
The agents were not asked to perform classic espionage missions like collecting information, but told to plant the sophisticated surveillance, monitoring and eavesdropping devices at locations of special interest to Israeli intelligence.
The extremist Iran-backed Hizballah terror organization was an obvious target.
Since the spy ring was smashed, therefore, Hizballah security forces have been sweeping addresses in its political, religious and military stronghold, the Dahya borough of southern Beirut. Entrances to houses, shops, mosques and public institutions are checked for miniature cameras.
Lebanon will soon share its findings with Syria and Iran
Some of these cameras turned up in other parts of Beirut and Lebanon. They were described as able to provide panoramic video footage day and night for direct transfer to satellites, offering their secret viewers a constantly updated picture of the goings-on in Hizballah-controlled areas in and outside Beirut.
Bugs were discovered in some military vehicles used by Hizballah's top commanders, picking up every word uttered in or near the cars and beaming their input up to satellites as well.
The alleged spies' function was limited to planting surveillance devices and bugs whose product was outside their control. When a controller decided on the strength of this product to conduct a covert operation for liquidating a target or bombing a command center, he would warn his agents to make themselves scarce in good time to evade capture should the operation fail.
Under interrogation, the alleged heads of the networks and its members caught in the Lebanese security net denied any knowledge of the consequences of their clandestine activities. They had the impression that the Mossad sent in hit teams from outside Lebanon when operations were scheduled.
The silence maintained by Israel and it security services in the face of these charges is understandable. No government volunteers to admit to spying on another country – especially on the scale alleged. It is worth noting that Israel and Lebanon have never signed peace since the 1948 conflict and are technically at war.
But this total hush may also denote embarrassment.
The Mossad appears to have suffered a major fiasco, which Jerusalem would naturally be loath to admit. Lebanese security services are about to pass their findings together with the captured electronic paraphernalia to Syrian and Iranian intelligence, giving them a clear picture of Israel's clandestine capabilities and data for preparing their own defenses.
On Friday, May 22, while hosting US Vice President Joseph Biden, Lebanese president Gen. Michel Suleiman raised the subject and asked Washington to curb Mossad activity and that of other Israeli agencies in Lebanon. Biden said he would pass the request to President Barack Obama and the heads of US intelligence services, who are in regular contact with their Israeli counterparts.
The West can trust no-one in Lebanon
Arab and Western intelligence experts operating in the Middle East are deeply puzzled by the sudden collapse of Israel's important spy networks in Lebanon, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report. They refuse to attribute the failure to blind luck or a successful brainstorm in Lebanon's General Security Service.
The solution came from a single sentence heard from the security service director Gen. Ashraf Rifi this week.
“New technologies have helped catch them,” said Rifi of the suspected Israeli spies. “But we have also had better cooperation with the army than we had before.” He did not elaborate.
He was referring, our sources reveal, to the ultra-sophisticated surveillance equipment recently consigned to Lebanon by the French intelligence services on orders from French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The equipment was delivered to help Lebanon safely weather its general election on June 7 against a personal pledge by Lebanese president Michel Suleiman that it would only be used against subversive Syrian and Hizballah targets.
General Suleiman had no intention of honoring this pledge.
As soon as the surveillance devices were delivered and the French technical crews had instructed Lebanese agents in their use, Gen. Rifi ordered them to be pointed away from Syrian and Hizballah targets and focused solely on suspected Israeli agents.
The General Security Service chief would not have acted on his own initiative. It may be safely assumed he received his instructions from President Suleiman.
Urgent inquiries are now flying between Washington, Paris and Tel Aviv to find out why the Western spy agencies operating in Lebanon relaxed their surveillance on its undercover activities and failed to discover Suleiman's breach of promise. Clearly, French president had never meant his gesture to Lebanese democracy be used for harming Israel.
Either way, both Washington and Paris acknowledge that in the final reckoning no Lebanese office-holder can be trusted to keep his word.