When Computers Are the Agents, Lebanese and Syrian Intelligence Are Baffled
The Lebanese security services say they have broken up no fewer than 26 Israeli spy rings since November 2008. The arrest this week of four alleged spies raises the total number of suspected spies charged or sought by the Lebanese police, to 75 or more. However, only four appear to be in custody, charged with spying for Israel and betraying civilian and military secrets as well as information about the Hizballah.
One has confessed to being in contact with two others said to have made it safely to Israel. Most of the others were charged in absentia.
The real prize captured by Lebanese security is a rare assortment of fancy surveillance and communications equipment disguised in laptops, Thermos flasks, canisters of oil and battery charges.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported in past issues that Lebanese counter-intelligence was assisted in smashing Israeli spy rings by France and Russia since last year. Both provided instructions and gear – the former for Lebanese security agencies, the latter direct to Hizballah. The uncharacteristic collaboration for as long as two years between the two recipients, who are normally at daggers drawn, has reaped an expanding crop of undercover Israeli agents and contacts.
That is not the only unusual feature of the case.
On the face of it, two years should have been plenty of time for Israel's external secret services, be they Mossad or military intelligence, to warn agents still at large it was time to get out and destroy their clandestine equipment. However, aside from a certain number of key operatives known to have crossed into Israel, most have stayed in place and even hung onto their espionage equipment.
It is that equipment which has mystified the Lebanese spy-hunters – and not only them.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Col. Weesam Hassan, director of Lebanon's General Intelligence branch, paid a secret visit to Damascus this week for close consultation with Syrian military intelligence chiefs on an enigma which had defied all his efforts to unravel.
For years, the colonel made every effort never to set foot in the Syrian capital where he is intensely disliked for good reason. Hassan headed the Lebanese inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut and it was he who pointed the finger of guilt for the murder plot at president Bashar Assad's kinsmen and Syrian military intelligence.
But the Israel espionage case was important enough for the colonel and his Syrian hosts to overcome their mutual antipathy, because today, Hassan is Lebanon's chief Israeli spy catcher and the Syrians were intrigued enough by the puzzle he unearthed to forgive his past record.
Above all, they wanted to hear firsthand how so many clandestine networks came to be busted and what Lebanese and Syrian secrets they were transmitting to Israel.
But the Lebanese colonel could not satisfy their curiosity and the consultation left both sides baffled. The enigma of the Israel's undercover networks in Lebanon even stumped the French and Russian agents operating the imported surveillance devices.
Don't work the computers, just let them sit there
All Col. Hassan could tell the Syrians was that his men had found an unusually large number, running to scores of individuals in possession of extremely sophisticated devices which none of them knew how to operate. Neither were they asked to. They were paid through Lebanese go-betweens to simply position the devices at designated locations and, after a given number of hours or days, pick them up.
These middlemen make sure they are on the other side of the border when the balloon goes up, leaving behind uninformed ciphers, who had never seen their handlers, to be arrested as "Israeli spies"
Like, for example, the travelling used car parts salesman, who was issued a laptop configured by Israeli intelligence and looking like any other mobile computer.
All he had to do was wait for emailed instructions about the location and time for placing it behind his car's windshield or on the windowsill of his hotel room, leave it there – say, for a few hours in the afternoon – then, at the requisite time, shut the lid and remove it.
Another Lebanese agent was told through a circuitous chain of command to open a new restaurant in Massena, a town situated at the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing. His task was to put the open computer behind a window overlooking the border crossing. He was not to know that the device was programmed to count every consignment of smuggled arms crossing through from Syria to Hizballah, eavesdrop on the truck drivers' conversations and phone calls in the cab and when they alighted for a bite – and any other traffic passing between Syria and Lebanon. They may also have picked up sights and sounds from the Syrian army camps near the Lebanese border.
Wiped clean before discovery
Even when these computers were taken to pieces, no trace of their surveillance functions were found, the Lebanese spy chief told the Syrians.
However, secret services which have mad a study of the methods used by Israeli intelligence have deduced that the mysterious laptops, which may have been disguised as something else, were activated by satellites for the space of time needed to register images from different angles, listen in on telephone and cell phone conversations and pick up electronic signals. When their work was done, they were shut down by satellite signals. The computers acted as receivers for incoming data which they relayed to the satellites, after which another signal shut them down and wiped them clean of every last scrap of data.
Computer experts in Lebanon and Syria failed to recover any traces after trying every trick they knew and concluded that the computers' hard disks had been destroyed – either by a signal from space or by the agents themselves.
Col. Hassan could only advise Syrian intelligence that in all prudence, they must assume that, at the very least, Israel's secret services had managed to map every corner of Lebanon, using the open computers to scan the country region by region and transmitting the visual information to Israel satellites.
Syrian territory – and what else? – may have be given the same treatment.