Archives for February 2010

Two Dubai murder suspects entered the US

A murder suspect, traveling as an Irishman Evan Dennings, entered the US on January 21, a day after Mahmoud al Mabhouh’s body was discovered in Dubai.

Roy Allan Cannon, entered the US on February 14.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

At least two of the 26 suspects sought by Dubai police for the alleged killing of a top Hamas leader appear to have entered the U.S. shortly after his death, according to people familiar with the situation.

Records shared between international investigators show that one of the suspects entered the U.S. on Feb. 14, carrying a British passport, according to a person familiar with the situation. The other suspect, carrying an Irish passport, entered the U.S. on Jan. 21, according to this person. Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh’s body was found in a Dubai hotel room on Jan. 20.

There aren’t records of either man leaving the U.S., though investigators can’t be sure the two are still in the country, according to this person. Since the two were traveling with what investigators believe to be fraudulently issued passports, they may have traveled back out of the U.S. with different, bogus travel documents.

The suspected U.S. travel broadens to American shores the international manhunt triggered by Dubai’s investigation into the death of Mr. Mabhouh. Dubai police have already identified two U.S. financial companies they believe issued and distributed several credit cards used by 14 of the suspects in the alleged killing.


Mossad returns to its ‘glory days’

The Times reports:

Would you be prepared to cross-dress? And kill a guest in an adjacent hotel room? If the answer to these questions is a resounding “yes”, and you can also act, enjoy luxury international travel with a twist and can carry off a convincing Irish or Australian accent, then the job could be yours.

The Israeli spy agency Mossad may be the target of international reproach since it allegedly killed the Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel this month, but at home emerging details of the operation have generated Mossad mania.

It has never been more popular in Israel, with stores selling out of Mossad memorabilia and its official website reporting a soaring number of visitors interested in applying to become agents. “Mossad has been restored to its glory days,” said Ilan Mizrahi, a former deputy director of the agency, which is located in the affluent beach town of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

One of the signature elements of cult psychology is that the more a group is vilified, the more self-righteous it becomes. The outsiders’ opprobrium, far from provoking shame or doubt, has the opposite effect: it is treated as a vindication of the cult’s sense of superiority.


Is Israel really prepared to go it alone?

Reuters reports:

Israel’s perspective on Iran’s nuclear program differs from that of the United States, and the two may part ways on what action to take, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Friday.

Washington’s clout over its Middle East ally is under scrutiny after Israel’s veiled threats to attack Iran preemptively if international diplomacy fails to rein in Tehran’s uranium enrichment, a process with bomb-making potential.

The United States this week said it did not want to hurt the Iranian people with “crippling” sanctions against Iran’s energy sector, measures Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described as the only viable diplomatic solution.

“There is of course a certain difference in perspective and a difference in judgment and a difference in the internal clock, a difference in capabilities,” Barak told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank, when asked about Israeli-U.S. discussions about Iran.

“I don’t think that there is a need to coordinate in this regard. There should be understanding on the exchange of views, but we do not need to coordinate everything,” said Barak, who was in Washington for strategic talks.

Yet again, we are supposed to believe that Israel is prepared to go it alone and take on Iran.

Israel can destroy a nuclear reactor in Iraq; it can destroy one under construction in Syria; it wipe out a weapons convoy in Sudan; it can kill a Hezbollah commander with a bomb in Damascus; it can smother a Hamas commander with a pillow in Dubai; and it can flatten Southern Lebanon and Gaza.

Therefore, Israel’s ready to go to war with Iran… or, it loves to show off its power when it perceives the risk of doing so is minimal. If that was the case with Iran, we wouldn’t be weighing the chances of an Israeli attack — we’d be looking at the results of such an action.


Moussavi says Iran is ruled by a dictatorial ‘cult’

The New York Times reports:

One of Iran’s opposition leaders, Mir Hussein Moussavi, said Saturday that a dictatorial “cult” was ruling Iran — one of his most critical statements against the country’s rulers since disputed elections last summer.

“This is the rule of a cult that has hijacked the concept of Iranianism and nationalism,” Mr. Moussavi said in the interview posted on his Web site, Kalameh. “Our people cannot tolerate such behavior under the name of religion.”

The statements appear to be part of a renewed campaign by the opposition’s leadership to prove that they are still vital, despite a brutal crackdown by the government and their inability to bring masses of people to the streets in a recent planned protest.

Last week, another opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi, called for a national referendum to gauge the popularity of the government. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, followed with a statement dismissing the possibility of any compromise with the opposition, saying those who refused to accept the results of the June 12 election had no right to participate in politics.


In Pakistan lack of opportunity fuels radicalism

The New York Times on how talent, stripped of opportunity, is feeding radicalism in Pakistan:

Umar Kundi was his parents’ pride, an ambitious young man from a small town who made it to medical school in the big city. It seemed like a story of working-class success, living proof in this unequal society that a telephone operator’s son could become a doctor.

But things went wrong along the way. On campus Mr. Kundi fell in with a hard-line Islamic group. His degree did not get him a job, and he drifted in the urban crush of young people looking for work. His early radicalization helped channel his ambitions in a grander, more sinister way.

Instead of healing the sick, Mr. Kundi went on to become one of Pakistan’s most accomplished militants. Working under a handler from Al Qaeda, he was part of a network that carried out some of the boldest attacks against the Pakistani state and its people last year, the police here say. Months of hunting him ended on Feb. 19, when he was killed in a shootout with the police at the age of 29.

Mr. Kundi and members of his circle — educated strivers who come from the lower middle class — are part of a new generation that has made militant networks in Pakistan more sophisticated and deadly. Al Qaeda has harnessed their aimless ambition and anger at Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, their generation’s most electrifying enemy.


Twenty-seven years of solitary confinement

In the United States it isn’t just suspected terrorists who are subject to cruel and unusual punishment. The case of Tommy Silverstein highlights the extremes that can be found inside the largest prison system in the world:

Tommy Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement for the past 27 years, longer than anyone else in the federal prison system, his lawyers say.

He is locked up at the high-security prison in Florence, Colorado, known as Supermax. The lights are always on. Guards who slip him food through a slot in his cell door usually ignore him. A few times a week, he is permitted to exercise in the recreation room — alone. Visits with his family and his lawyers are conducted through Plexiglas.

Silverstein’s isolation is the result of an unusual no-human-contact order issued by a judge in 1983, after he murdered a guard at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Marion was known at the time as the most rigorous confinement in the federal prison system.

Silverstein has referred to his solitary existence as “a slow, constant peeling of the skin.”

His attorneys, who are affiliated with the University of Denver, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in 2007, alleging that such prison conditions violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. The lawsuit, filed in the federal district court of Colorado, is awaiting trial.


Can the US afford not to help in the Dubai murder investigation?

On Thursday, the US State Department spokesmen P J Crowley was called on to break the US silence regarding the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh:

QUESTION: …has there been any comment on the apparent assassination in Dubai? Is that something the U.S. has weighed in on?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think we’ve weighed in on it. It is being investigated by Dubai authorities.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about what appears to have been the use of foreign passports, forged passports by foreign operatives?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think, as a – you probably – the best place to – well – I mean, we have taken steps in recent years to strengthen the security surrounding U.S. passports. Obviously, this has been an area where the United States has talked to other countries. We are very alert to attempts to use forged or stolen passports, and as a major effort to limit the travel of terrorists around the world. So it is something that we have spent a lot of time focused on.

As to – I mean, that obviously is an area that will be investigated and is being investigated by Dubai authorities.

QUESTION: Would you be – would you condemn the use by an intelligence agency of forging passports?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, there’s an assumption behind your question that I can’t address.

QUESTION: Have the Dubai authorities, or the European partners, allies, asked the United States for help in the investigation into —

MR. CROWLEY: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: And would you cooperate with Interpol on any of this?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – I mean, we have specific responsibilities to – law enforcement would be cooperative if there’s anything that we can do or if we come across any information that we think is useful to the investigation.

Maybe Dubai can set up an 800 number — a number US officials can call if they happen to stumble across any useful information. Crowley’s response did not suggest the US intends to stonewall the Dubai investigation, but the tone was one of calculated disinterest.

But wait. The Wall Street Journal now reports:

American and United Arab Emirates authorities are exchanging information on a handful of credit-card accounts, issued through two U.S. firms, that Dubai police say were used by suspects in the killing of a top Hamas official in Dubai, according to a person familiar with the situation.

For years, U.S. government officials have flown into the U.A.E. and other Persian Gulf states, asking for assistance in terror-financing probes. The investigation of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh’s death appears to be the highest-profile case in which the roles are reversed: The U.A.E. is turning to Washington in its efforts to track down suspected criminal financing through the U.S. banking system.

What the WSJ neglects to mention is that Dubai’s call for US assistance comes at particularly awkward moment.

As the US pushes for sanctions against Iran, the emirate of Dubai is in a pivotal position to tighten or ease the economic pressure — it functions as Iran’s most important commercial and financial connection with the rest of the world.

If Washington drags its feet in assisting Dubai now, why should the US expect help from Dubai on the larger issue of pressuring Iran — an issue that concerns Israel more than any other country?

At the same time, if the Associated Press is to be believed, Dubai is not getting much help from European governments in the investigation:

The spotlight is falling on those countries where police say the alleged assassins’ trails begin and end: Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Authorities there have either declined to say whether they are investigating, or told The Associated Press they have no reason to hunt down the 26 suspects implicated in the Jan. 19 killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

European countries’ reluctance to investigate may have something to do with the widely held belief that the killing of al-Mabhouh was carried out by a friendly country’s intelligence agency – Israel’s Mossad. The Jewish state has previously identified him as the point man for smuggling weapons to the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers.

Experts say arresting Israeli agents – or even digging up further evidence that Israel was involved – could be politically costly.

And what exactly would that political cost be? Israel might refuse to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest? Israel leaders might decline to visit European countries where they already face the risk of being arrested for war crimes?

Certainly, the arrest of Mossad agents by a European country might sour relations with the US, but what’s the US going to do? Kick NATO troops out of Afghanistan?

As far as I can see, we’re looking at a political balance sheet where all the loses are on Israel’s side.

But we scored a major victory against Hamas, Israelis say.

Let’s be honest. The future of the Palestinian national movement, of which Hamas is a part, did not depend on Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The Islamist organization and his family no doubt mourn his loss, but he is replaceable.

Meanwhile, the Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim made a move that will not sit well with dual national Israelis and non-Israeli Jews who conduct business in the region. He urged Arab countries to thoroughly check any Jew who carries a non-Israeli passport in order to “prevent Mossad’s infiltrations”.

You might call it profiling payback.


The attrition of bravery

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, as the Battle of Agincourt is about to commence, the king addresses his men — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” — heavily outnumbered by the French and facing the risk of imminent slaughter.

Henry — a king who fights with his men and doesn’t simply issue commands — declares:

… he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

To the extent that there is a noble dimension to warfare it is this: that those willing to kill are also willing to die. Those taking the lives of others do so knowing that just as easily they could lose their own.

The technological advance of war has broken this equation and broken it so thoroughly that not only do a new class of killers face no risk of being killed; they may not even lose any sleep.

A drone pilot can fire on an insurgent dug into the Afghan hills and be home in time for a backyard barbecue. In just an hour or two, the pilot can go from a heated argument with a spouse to a tense radio conversation with an amped-up soldier pinned down by weapons fire.

“On the drive out here, you get yourself ready to enter the compartment of your life that is flying combat,” said retired Col. Chris Chambliss, who until last summer commanded drone operations at Creech Air Force Base, the command center for seven Air Force bases in the continental U.S. where crews fly drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. “And on the drive home, you get ready for that part of your life that’s going to be the soccer game.”

Drone crews don’t put their lives at risk. Instead, they juggle vast streams of video and data. With briefings both before and after their missions, their workdays typically stretch to 10 or 11 hours. Many of the pilots are experienced military fliers, but the camera operators tend to be much younger — often only 19 or 20, and new to the stresses of combat.

Mirroring the remote warfare of the drone operator is an unspoken compact between civilians and soldiers: The threshold at which this nation offers its tacit consent to war now corresponds not with the degree to which we embrace its gravity but the degree to which it can be ignored.

Ours have become wars of indifference whose advance is commensurate with the attrition of bravery.


The rise of militainment

At Foreign Policy, P W Singer writes:

The country of Ghanzia is embroiled in a civil war. As a soldier in America’s Army, your job is to do everything from protect U.S. military convoys against AK-47-wielding attackers to sneak up on a mountain observatory where arms dealers are hiding out. It is a tough and dangerous tour of duty that requires dedication, focus, and a bit of luck. Fortunately, if you get hit by a bullet and bleed to death, you can reboot your computer and sign on under a new name.

America’s Army is a video game — a “tactical multiplayer first-person shooter” in gaming lingo — that was originally developed by the U.S. military to aid in its recruiting and training, but is now available for anyone to play. Among the most downloaded Internet games of all time, it is perhaps the best known of a vast array of video game-based military training programs and combat simulations whose scope and importance are rapidly changing not just the video-game marketplace, but also the way the U.S. military finds and trains its future warriors and even how the American public interfaces with the wars carried out in its name. For all the attention to the strategic debates of the post-9/11 era, a different sort of transformation has taken place over the last decade — largely escaping public scrutiny, at modest cost relative to the enormous sums spent elsewhere in the Pentagon budget, and with little planning but enormous consequences.


Marjah: Success for the military, hell for the residents

At GlobalPost, Jean MacKenzie and Mohammad Ilyas Dayee write:

The dusty squares of Marjah are empty; there is no life, the soul of the place seems to have disappeared. Those residents who are left cower in their homes, afraid of bullets or mines if they venture out, even for food.

“It is a small picture of Doomsday,” said Alishah Mazlumyar, the head of Helmand’s Department of Information and Culture, and a member of the Marjah shura, or council. “Dozens of civilians have been killed. Their families cannot bury the bodies, and for days they have been lying in their houses, beginning to decompose. There is a smell of death here.”

Twelve days into Operation Moshtarak — pitting 15,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops against a few hundred Taliban — the message from the military and diplomatic communities is resolutely upbeat.

Western diplomats term the operation a success, and the media office of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) points to a bright future.

“Signs of steady progress in development and governance are being seen in central Helmand province. Bridges, roads and culverts are being repaired, bazaars are re-opening and attracting customers, and a variety of initiatives are being planned or implemented,” read the IJC press release of Feb. 22.

But those in Marjah are telling a very different story.

Reporting for Christian Science Monitor, Anand Gopal says:

Pakistan has arrested nearly half of the Afghanistan Taliban’s leadership in recent days, Pakistani officials told the Monitor Wednesday, dealing what could be a crucial blow to the insurgent movement.

In total, seven of the insurgent group’s 15-member leadership council, thought to be based in Quetta, Pakistan, including the head of military operations, have been apprehended in the past week, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Western and Pakistani media had previously reported the arrest of three of the 15, but this is the first confirmation of the wider scale of the Pakistan crackdown on the Taliban leadership, something the US has sought.

“This really hurts the Taliban in the short run,” says Wahid Muzjda, a former Taliban official turned political analyst, based in Kabul. Whether it will have an effect in the long run will depend on what kind of new leaders take the reins, he says.

The New York Times reports:

Inside a secret detention center in an industrial pocket of the Pakistani capital called I/9, teams of Pakistani and American spies have kept a watchful eye on a senior Taliban leader captured last month. With the other eye, they watch each other.

The C.I.A. and its Pakistani counterpart, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, have a long and often tormented relationship. And even now, they are moving warily toward conflicting goals, with each maneuvering to protect its influence after the shooting stops in Afghanistan.

Yet interviews in recent days show how they are working together on tactical operations, and how far the C.I.A. has extended its extraordinary secret war beyond the mountainous tribal belt and deep into Pakistan’s sprawling cities.

Beyond the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, C.I.A. operatives working with the ISI have carried out dozens of raids throughout Pakistan over the past year, working from bases in the cities of Quetta, Peshawar and elsewhere, according to Pakistani security officials.

The Washington Post says:

A blizzard of bank notes is flying out of Afghanistan — often in full view of customs officers at the Kabul airport — as part of a cash exodus that is confounding U.S. officials and raising concerns about the money’s origin.

The cash, estimated to total well over $1 billion a year, flows mostly to the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, where many wealthy Afghans now park their families and funds, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. So long as departing cash is declared at the airport here, its transfer is legal.

But at a time when the United States and its allies are spending billions of dollars to prop up the fragile government of President Hamid Karzai, the volume of the outflow has stirred concerns that funds have been diverted from aid. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, for its part, is trying to figure out whether some of the money comes from Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade. And officials in neighboring Pakistan think that at least some of the cash leaving Kabul has been smuggled overland from Pakistan.

Finally, in Mother Jones, Daniel Schulman reports:

Blackwater improperly obtained hundreds of weapons intended for use by Afghanistan’s already underequipped police force—and then falsely claimed to a Senate committee that the firearms had been returned when many remained unaccounted for.

According to a months-long investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee that unearthed a range of misconduct by the company’s personnel, contractors working for a Blackwater subsidiary named Paravant operated recklessly and routinely violated military regulations. The inquiry also identified a series of major vetting lapses by the company, which employed at least one contractor it had previously fired for improper behavior in Iraq and others who abused alcohol and drugs, including steroids. The investigation paints a grim picture of the state of contracting oversight in Afghanistan, where, according to committee staffers, military officials missed multiple red flags calling Paravant’s conduct into question—and were even confused about who was ultimately responsible for overseeing the company’s work in the first place.


US can’t get no satisfaction from Syria and Iran

At his blog, Syria Comment, Joshua Landis writes:

President Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was in Damascus today, threw down the gauntlet. Only the day before Hilary Clinton warned Syria “to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran,” and stop supporting Hizbullah, Hamas, and ex-Baathists in Iraq. For several years, Syria has been told to “flip” and break from Iran if it expects to be allowed out of diplomatic and economic isolation. Israel has made Syria’s break with Iran a condition for peace with Damascus.

Today, Assad came out forcefully and defiantly to end any talk of separation.

“We must have understood Clinton wrong because of a bad translation or our limited understanding, so we signed the agreement to cancel the visas,” Assad said. “I find it strange that they (Americans) talk about Middle East stability and peace and the other beautiful principles and call for two countries to move away from each other,” he added.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, held up his hand with his thumb and index finger only a centimeter apart to indicate how little separated the positions of both countries.

The Washington Post reported:

The presidents of Iran and Syria on Thursday ridiculed U.S. policy in the region and pledged to create a Middle East “without Zionists,” combining a slap at recent U.S. overtures and a threat to Israel with an endorsement of one of the region’s defining alliances.

Ah, more threats to Israel… except Ahmadinejad’s threat was more nuanced than the Post report implies and it was made conditional on the possibility that Israel might launch another war. The Iranian president said:

I call on the Zionists to return to their senses and to recognize the legitimate rights of the people of the region and to respect them and to understand that if they continue to go down the wrong path, which they have traveled in the past, there will be no place for them in our region.

In other words, if Zionists insist on disregarding the rights of Palestinians and on making war with their neighbors, they are not welcome in the Middle East. What a reckless and unreasonable statement!


The attack on climate-change science

At TomDispatch, Bill McKibben writes:

Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote what many have called the first book for a general audience on global warming. One of the more interesting reviews came from the Wall Street Journal. It was a mixed and judicious appraisal. “The subject,” the reviewer said, “is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr. McKibben argues convincingly.” And that was not an outlier: around the same time, the first president Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”

I doubt that’s what the Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks, and I know that no GOP presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin is currently calling climate science “snake oil” and last week, the Utah legislature, in a move straight out of the King Canute playbook, passed a resolution condemning “a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome” on a nearly party-line vote.

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater, and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the U.S., never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, no less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.


What the new London embassy says about America

At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt writes:

Back in the fall of 2003, I was in London for an conference and I took a stroll around the neighborhood near my hotel. At one point I turned a corner and saw a massive, looming building, surrounded with various barriers and fences and looking for all the world like an updated version of a medieval castle. “What’s that?” I wondered, and wandered over to investigate. It was the U.S. Embassy, of course, and I was struck by how forbidding and unwelcoming it was. It seemed to me to be a vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay.

I thought of that moment today when I read the Times story on the winning design for a new U.S. embassy in London. Lord knows I’m no architecture critic, and I think my wife was too harsh when she said the winning design looked “like a big ice-cube,” but the sketches in the Times don’t show a building that invites the world in, or that conveys a sense of openness and confidence. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal security measures with adroit landscaping, the overall image is one where security concerns predominate: a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm’s length.

What troubles me is what this tells us about America’s place in the contemporary world, and the tensions between its global ambitions and its willingness to accept the consequences of them. On the one hand, the United States defines its own interests in global terms: there are no regions and few policy issues where we don’t want to have a significant voice, and there are many places and issues where we insist on having the loudest one. But on the other hand, we don’t think we should get our hair mussed while we tell the world what to do. It’s tolerable for the United States to fire drones virtually anywhere (provided the states in question can’t retaliate, of course), and Americans don’t seem to have much of a problem with our running covert programs to destabilize other regimes that we’ve decided to dislike. We also aid, comfort and diplomatic support to assorted other states whose governments often act in deeply objectionable ways. But then we face the obvious problem that some people are going to object to these policies, hold us responsible, and try to do what they can to hit back.


Mossad tries to restore its images

Even among Israelis who welcomed news of the assassination of the Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, there must have been growing disquiet that the faces of so many Mossad operatives would have since become so widely known. So much exposure for a clandestine operation has to be bad, doesn’t it?

It now appears that Mossad has enrolled the services of Haaretz in order to do some damage control.

The Israeli newspaper reports:

The passport photographs of the agents who assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai were doctored so the agents would not be identified, a Haaretz probe has discovered.

The discovery casts doubt on claims that the espionage agency that carried out last month’s hit on the senior Hamas operative committed grave errors.

Various features of the people in the photographs, such as eye color or the line of a lip, were changed – slightly enough so as not arouse suspicion at passport control, but still enough that the real agent could not be recognized.

According to the Dubai police, only a few of the agents were caught on security cameras without their disguises. However, it had been assumed until now that publication of the photos of the 26 agents had blown their cover. Now it appears that the Dubai police still do not have viable information about their real appearance.

In an era where investigative journalism has largely become a thing of the past, it’s hard not to scoff when one reads that a newspaper has conducted a “probe”. Some intrepid reporters dug deep and pulled out the truth and now they can proudly display their discovery.

In this case, I would counter that there is more to be discovered by reasoning than revelation.

I’ll start with this — a wild piece of conjecture in which I have absolute confidence: the “espionage agency” that Haaretz stuck its probe into was Mossad — no other spy shop would dole out sensitive information to Israeli reporters.

Secondly, the idea that Haaretz actually discovered that there were discrepancies between the appearances of the Mossad agents and the images on their passports is absurd. (I don’t care how careful an analysis of the CCTV images might be it ain’t going to pick up differences in eye color and the like.) Such discrepancies may exist in reality, but there seem to be only two ways Haaretz could know about them. Either, in a friendly meeting with a Mossad officer the newspaper was shown two sets of photographs: one being the ones used in the passports and the other showing the undoctored appearances of the operatives — but I have my doubts that Mossad would be that candid. Much more likely was a friendly phone call from a trusted source inside the agency, saying: you know those photos of all our guys plastered over all the newspapers? We doctored them. Our guys are safe. No one will be able to recognize them. The intrepid Haaretz reporters would not have been so impertinent as to ask for some proof.

In sum, what we can reliably infer from this report is that Mossad is busy working the media. Its cover may or may not have been blown but at the very least it wants to reassure concerned Israelis that the much praised and feared agency remains rock solid.

Meanwhile, while one thrust of Mossad’s PR drive is pushing the message that its operatives identities are well protected, another thrust is actually promoting their images — as “young, pretty and dangerous“. The message: assassination is sexy and it doesn’t have to interfere with an Israeli woman’s plans to start a family. “Rumors that women are used by the Mossad mostly as [sexual] bait are greatly exaggerated,” Ynet reassures its readers.


Do you have to be Jewish to report on Israel for the New York Times?

Jonathan Cook, writing at Mondoweiss, provides some fascinating insights into the reasons for the entrenched bias in Western reporting on Israel-Palestine conflict. He explains why the case of Eitan (“Ethan”) Bronner — the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief whose son’s enrollment in the Israeli army recently provoked a brief debate inside the newspaper about conflicts of interest — is far from unusual. Cook spoke to a Jerusalem-based bureau chief who anonymously shared these observations:

He calls Bronner’s situation “the rule, not the exception”, adding: “I can think of a dozen foreign bureau chiefs, responsible for covering both Israel and the Palestinians, who have served in the Israeli army, and another dozen who like Bronner have kids in the Israeli army.”

He added that it is very common to hear Western reporters boasting to one another about their “Zionist” credentials, their service in the Israeli army or the loyal service of their children. “Comments like that are very common at Foreign Press Association gatherings [in Israel] among the senior, agenda-setting, elite journalists.”

My informant is highly critical of what is going on among the Jerusalem press corps, even though he admits the same charges could be levelled against him. “I’m Jewish, married to an Israeli and like almost all Western journalists live in Jewish West Jerusalem. In my free time I hang out in cafes and bars with Jewish Israelis chatting in Hebrew. For the Jewish sabbath and Jewish holidays I often get together with a bunch of Western journalists. While it would be convenient to think otherwise, there is no question that this deep personal integration into Israeli society informs our overall understanding and coverage of the place in a way quite different from a journalist who lived in Ramallah or Gaza and whose personal life was more embedded in Palestinian society.”

And now he gets to the crunch: “The degree to which Bronner’s personal life, like that of most lead journalists here, is integrated into Israeli society, makes him an excellent candidate to cover Israeli political life, cultural shifts and intellectual life. The problem is that Bronner is also expected to be his paper’s lead voice on Palestinian political life, cultural shifts and intellectual life, all in a society he has almost no connection to, deep knowledge of or even the ability to directly communicate with … The presumption that this is possible is neither fair to Bronner nor to his readers, and it’s really a shame that Western media executives don’t see the value in an Arabic-speaking bureau chief living in Ramallah and setting the agenda for the news coming out of the Palestinian territories.”

All true. But I think there is a deeper lesson from the Bronner affair. Editors who prefer to appoint Jews and Israelis to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are probably making a rational choice in news terms — even if they would never dare admit their reasoning. The media assign someone to the Jerusalem bureau because they want as much access as possible to the inner sanctums of power in a self-declared Jewish state. They believe – and they are right – that doors open if their reporter is a Jew, or better still an Israeli Jew, who has proved his or her commitment to Israel by marrying an Israeli, by serving in the army or having a child in the army, and by speaking fluent Hebrew, a language all but useless outside this small state.

Yes, Ethan Bronner is “the rule”, as my informant notes, because any other kind of journalist — the goyim, as many Israelis dismiss non-Jews — will only ever be able to scratch at the surface of Israel’s military-political-industrial edifice. The Bronners have access to power, they can talk to the officials who matter, because those same officials trust that high-powered Jewish and Israeli reporters belong in the Israeli consensus. They may be critical of the occupation, but they can be trusted to pull their punches. If they ever failed to do so, they would be ejected from the inner sanctum and a paper like the NYT would be forced to replace them with someone more cooperative.

Read the whole piece.


The Dubai-Payoneer connection

As I noted below, the New York-based company Payoneer is linked to Israel in a number of ways, not least through it’s Israeli CEO, Yuval Tal, a former member of an elite combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces and former Vice President of Business Development for the Tel Aviv-based technology company, Radware. Tal describes how Payoneer operates in this video.

As Clayton Swisher notes:

Mr Tal did not exactly conceal his prior affiliations when he appeared on Fox News during the 2006 Lebanon war. He opined then that “this is a war that Israel cannot afford to lose”.

If Tal or his Payoneer firm are in any way involved in the conspiracy to help a foreign intelligence service (like, say providing Mossad operatives with credit cards), he may soon find himself in his own battle with little prospects of winning – in a US courtroom.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the lead agency with statutory authority and responsibilities for investigating foreign espionage activities on US soil. It’s a job they take seriously and with a proven record of not shying away from the numerous instances when America’s special ally played foul.

As an initial inquiry, I imagine case agents will subpoena all financial records associated with the fraudulently issued credit cards. This would include the original credit card applications, which requires such things as a delivery address (to mail the card to), social security numbers, dates of birth, and employment information.

If the applications were made on paper, then the documents may contain all manner of evidence, from handwriting samples to fingerprints. There will be a similar trail to pore over if the applications were made over the phone or electronically via computer.

I also smell money laundering, as the money was supposedly dumped into prepaid accounts to conceal its purpose and origination. So US investigators may even want to tap in on the US treasury department’s crack financial investigator, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN).

Beneath an article about Payoneer appearing at TechCrunch, a commenter suggests: “payoneer is definitely in the legal gray area when it comes to the patriot’s act, anti-money laundering, and a host of other laws around ‘know your customer'”
Tal answers:

Payoneer is meticulously compliant with all federal, state and MasterCard regulations, including AML, BSA, Patriot act, KYC etc. There is nothing grey about it. As a certified MasterCard Member Service Provider we undergo rigorous ongoing diligence related, among others, to our regulatory compliance level.

If Payoneer comes under investigation, the FBI and US government regulatory agencies will not simply take Tal at his word. They will want to know exactly how Payoneer cards could be used by individuals with false identification.


Dubai money trail leads back to Israel

Although the Israeli government has yet to confirm its role in the murder of Mahmoud al Mabhouh, the Dubai police have provided further evidence through financial records that connect the crime to Israel.

The company Payoneer Inc., based in New York, has been named in the case – a company that helps facilitate Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. Payoneer provides financial services for trip participants and as the Wall Street Journal reports, the company’s chief executive, Yuval Tal, is a former Israeli special-forces soldier.

Dubai police said Wednesday they had identified credit cards used by 14 of the suspects to book hotel rooms and pay for air travel. Police named the issuing bank as MetaBank, a unit of Meta Financial Group Inc., a financial company based in Storm Lake, Iowa.

The bank said it had no comment “because we are trying to confirm the accuracy of statements by the press.”

Dubai police identified cards issued by Britain’s Nationwide Building Society, IDT Finance of Gilbraltar, and Germany’s DZ Bank AG. A Nationwide spokesman told the Associated Press that bank officials were “investigating the reports and have no further comments.” The other European companies weren’t reachable late Wednesday.

Dubai also identified a company called Payoneer Inc., based in New York, though it wasn’t clear what precise role authorities believe that company played. In a chart released to reporters, authorities suggested the company distributed the cards on behalf of MetaBank.

According to its Web site, Payoneer offers online payment solutions, including arranging for employers to pay overseas workers through money transfers into prepaid MasterCard debit-card accounts. Payoneer is based in New York, but has offices in Tel Aviv.

The company’s chief executive, Yuval Tal, appeared as a commentator on the Lebanon war in 2006 on Fox News, identifying himself as a former Israeli special-forces soldier. Mr. Tal wasn’t available to comment.


Dubai police name new suspects in Hamas murder

Gulf News reports:

Police revealed 15 more suspects in the Al Mabhouh murder case on Wednesday. The extensive investigation has led to a total of 26 suspects so far involved in the murder of the Hamas official Mahmoud Al Mabhouh at a Dubai hotel. In addition to the previously released list of 11 suspects, Dubai Police has now identified another six suspects, who include a woman who used British passports, a man and three women travelling on Irish passports, two men who used French passports, and three people with Australian passports. The Australians included a woman.

Newly-released video of some of the murder suspects:

With the travel movements and photographs of 26 suspected Mossad operatives now appearing in the international media, how long will it be before one of the murder suspects is arrested? Moreover, since Mossad’s assassination unit apparently included around just 50 agents, one would imagine that with half of them now in hiding (or getting reconstructive plastic surgery to change their appearances) the unit has, for the time being, rendered itself inoperative.

Meanwhile, The Independent reports:

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday flatly rebuffed David Miliband’s request for cooperation with an investigation into the use of forged British passports in the assassination of a Hamas leader.

The request for assistance came as the total number of fake British passports believed to have been used in last month’s assassination rose from six to eight. But private discussions on the sidelines of an EU meeting in Brussels – and an identical request from Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin – yielded no concessions on the Israeli side.

A statement from Mr Lieberman’s office reiterated that there was “no proof” of Israeli involvement in the affair. “If someone would present information beyond articles in the media, we would relate to it,” he is said to have told Mr Miliband. “But since there is no such information, there is no need to deal with the matter.”

A report in the Los Angeles Times, recounting an interview that an Israeli journalist, Ronen Bergman, gave on Israeli Army Radio on Monday, indicates that Mossad has been amazingly slow in covering its tracks:

A man walked in to the interior ministry in Cologne, Germany on June 16, 2009, and claimed that he was Michael Bodenheimer, an Israeli citizen, descended of a German family that had been persecuted by the Nazis.

He applied for German citizenship, saying he wished to leave Israel and emigrate to Germany. He presented documents, including his parents’ German marriage certificate, said he lived in the community of Liman and also gave an address in Herzliya.

The documents must have been convincingly authentic, and two days later, in a model of bureaucratic efficiency that seems atypical (even for Germany), the passport had been issued.

The photograph on the passport is the one now in the papers as one of the assassins, but it is most definitely not that of the Michael Bodenheimer who does live somewhere else in Israel.

The Israeli one is a yeshiva master, an ultraorthodox Jew living in Bnei Brak. His parents were, in fact, born in Frankfurt, Germany, but that’s where the similarity ends. He has Israeli citizenship and evidently American too, but not German.

The new Bodenheimer gave an address in Herzliya. Bergman said the German authorities didn’t check it out. But had they done so, they would have found that he had an apparent shell company in his name with offices in Herzliya.

“Michael Bodenheimer Ltd.” belonged to a group of offices opened by a different company called “Top Office” located on the same floor.

Top Office, says Bergman, is apparently a company that provides individuals and small businesses with an office and secretary at a respectable location.

Bergman said he paid the business address a visit on Friday night, together with the Der Spiegel correspondent in Israel, he told the radio.

He took a picture of the sign saying “Michael Bodenheimer Ltd,” and called the number for Top Office. An American-accented woman answered, sounded very surprised and hung up after saying she didn’t work on the Sabbath.

By Sunday morning, says Bergman, both companies were gone. The signs had been removed.

And the guard — the same one from Friday night — was awfully jittery and tried to shoo them away.

Finally, The Guardian reports on a British man whose identity was stolen by Mossad decades ago:

The infamous 1979 assassination of the Palestinian who masterminded the Munich massacre was carried out using a forged British passport belonging to a 27-year-old council worker living in a small flat in south London, the Guardian can reveal.

Peter Derbyshire, who at the time was running leisure centres for Lambeth council, found himself being questioned by special branch over the assassination of Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of operations for Black September, the terrorist organisation behind the hostage attack at the 1972 Olympics that resulted in the death of 11 Israeli athletes.

Derbyshire, who now runs a travel company in the French Pyrenees, told the Guardian: “I received a call at work from someone who said: ‘I’m from ­special branch. I’m inside your apartment. Can you come home?'”

He returned to find his flat in Balham, south London, had been turned upside down by two special branch officers. He was interrogated for hours by the police, who asked detailed questions about his history and political affiliations.

Eventually they told him his passport number had been used by a man named Peter Scriver in the murder of Salameh in Beirut.