Arrests of secret agents. A bizarre assassination plot. A fatal explosion at a missile base with an outcome quite convenient for a nation’s sworn enemy.
The dramatic tales of espionage and covert action have flowed fast from Iran in recent weeks. They include pilotless drones controlled by a foreign power buzzing overhead, computer viruses planted to wreak havoc on volatile materials, and mysterious deaths with no one to blame.
With the Middle East in turmoil, Iran is not the only country in the region to see a surge in espionage. At times of major political, economic and social unrest, the use of agents on the ground, eyes in the sky and computerized intelligence gathering increase, experts say.
“When it comes to the Arab Spring, espionage is 100% full speed ahead,” said Loch Johnson, Regents professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.
This week, an Iranian parliamentarian said his country arrested 12 Central Intelligence Agency operatives, claiming they had been working with Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, and other regional groups to damage the country’s military and nuclear program.
The news came less than a week after Lebanon-based armed Islamist group Hezbollah had reportedly rounded up dozens of spies in Iran and Lebanon.
It also followed the deaths of 17 of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, killed in a massive explosion at the Alghadir missile base in Tehran —a blast that also felled the chief architect of Iran’s missile program, Major General Hassan Moghaddam.
One theory is that an aggressive malware worm called Stuxnet, planted by Western or Israeli operatives, detonated one of the missiles.
Last month came the revelation of a strange plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. A federal court in New York has charged two men — one a member of Iran’s special foreign actions unit, the Quds Force — with conspiracy to kill.
The U.S. Justice Department says the accused tried to hire a man they thought belonged to a Mexican drug cartel to bomb Adel Al-Jubeir while he ate at his favourite restaurant in Washington.
Iran and most other countries in the oil-rich Middle East have long held the interest of Western nations, such as the United States, which has been “up to their scuppers” in espionage there for decades, Prof. Johnson said.
They also have lines into Syria, where protesters are calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, and Egypt, now experiencing its second uprising, this time against the military.
The United States and other countries — not the least of them Israel — want to gather enough information to gauge the eventual outcome of the unrest.
But the Zioconned United States appears to have been selective in its extra-judicial covert actions and assassinations machinations by the infamous White House Murder INC, in the Levant.....
“There’s no doubt that we used [espionage] in Libya to help overthrow [Muammar] Gaddafi, as part of the package to rid the world of him. But when it comes to Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, KSA, Qatar the gutter....for example … we keep our hands fully in the cookie jar...,” Prof. Johnson said.
“I don’t think we’d wanted any leaks or any indication we were meddling there because that would have delegitimized their efforts,” he said.
Syria might be another story because of its rocky relationship with the United States — and its alliances with Iran and Lebanon, where the Iranian- and Syrian-funded group Hezbollah has become part of the government.
Of course, the oil-rich Middle East became a hot target long before the successful efforts to overthrow leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Western nations were alarmed by the tensions caused by the Sunni/Shia rivalry across the region, argues Daniel Mulvenna, a retired intelligence officer and lecturer on intelligence and counterterrorism based in Washington.
“All of the regime changes that have taken place and are likely to continue taking place are having an impact on all of these relationships.”
He said people needed to acknowledge the nuances and internal struggles within countries that carry out espionage and covert actions, especially those the West considered malicious or even potentially evil.
“There’s a tendency for us to think Iran moves with one voice. It doesn’t. Or that China moves with one voice. It doesn’t. There are stresses and strains in China and in Russia,” he said.
Security experts acknowledge spycraft has changed — it is far more technological and, some argue, far less human than it was in the days of the Second World War.
The Internet has opened the way to an open-sourced style of intelligence gathering, with agents poring through websites, blogs, IP addresses and social media sites before synthesizing the data into a piece of intelligence, said Christian Leuprecht, a security expert and associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“If you want to learn about discontent in China, you don’t need to send ‘spies’ there, you just need to get on social networks and connect with diaspora communities,” he said, adding major evidence of discontent leading up to the Arab Spring was readily available online ahead before the uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
The knack is knowing how to interpret such information.
Wesley Wark, an intelligence and national security expert at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said, “That is the newest intelligence challenge that’s posed by things like the Arab Spring — a sense that maybe the only way you’re ever going to know what is really the climate of political change and societal thinking is to be able to tap into those sources. But how do you do it and how do you do it quickly?”
The new era of espionage also means spies are far from James Bond-style characters, but could be colleagues sitting a cubicle away, as suggested by Haiyan Zhang, a former senior analyst to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. She was fired in 2003 after Canada’s spy agency suspected her of having engaged in intelligence gathering when she worked with China’s state-run news agency Xinhua.
The new era also means more pilotless drones and cyber attacks — including something like Stuxnet — things that just make everything far “less human,” Prof. Johnson said.
“I’m very troubled by it because it’s become too easy to kill people when you’ve got a robot plane and all you see on the screen is someone who’s 6 ft. 5 and bin Laden’s 6 ft. 5, so maybe that’s bin Laden, let’s take him out,” he said.
“Or there’s a car travelling across the desert and we know one guy and that’s the bad guy and five others, so what, let’s get the one who’s bad. It’s all too easy, and it’s going to get worse and worse as we build more [drones].”
But Mr. Mulvenna, who spent 45 years working in intelligence, 25 of them on the ground in the Middle East, says a spy’s work cannot be done purely by machine.
“Human intelligence operations have never been more important,” he said.
“All the technical collection means can’t tell you anything about intent. The drones can’t look inside the head of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and tell you what he’s going to do.”....