MESS Report / Has the Enemy's Technology Become Hard for Israeli Spies to Surmount?

Recent reports indicate that a large-scale espionage ring, one of whose members was a senior Lebanese telephone company official, has been exposed.

Israel has not commented on recent reports about the alleged discovery of Israeli spies operating in Lebanon. Israel, as usual, will not say whether it had spies in Lebanon or whether their arrest damaged its intelligence-gathering activities targeting Hezbollah.

Since the Lebanese security forces' crackdown on alleged agents in the spring of 2009, there have been occasional reports of the arrest of a single agent. Recent reports, however, indicate that a large-scale espionage ring, one of whose members was a senior Lebanese telephone company official, has been exposed.

Whether due to the silence of Israeli officials or the questionable reliability of at least some of the numerous reports, a clear picture of the situation has not emerged. The reports do not say whether the agents were operated by Mossad or by Military Intelligence.

About a year ago there were several reports in the German weekly Der Spiegel as well as the Al Jazeera Al-Manar television stations attributed Lebanon's sucesss in uncovering the Israeli spy rings to technology. According to the reports, after the Second Lebanon War in 2006 the United States provided Lebanon with sophisticated "cybersleuthing" equipment that enables the reverse tracking of mobile phone numbers by means of their electronic signature. That allegedly enabled the Lebanese to monitor communications among individuals and widen the number of espionage suspects it exposed.

This is reminiscent of another affair in which Israel was implicated, the assassination in January of Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh, in Dubai. In both cases, the agents were aware of the surveillance capabilities of the state in which they were operating.

An image grab from a video released by Dubai police in February allegedly showing two suspects

Dubai operated an advanced photographic system that enables back-scanning and the cross-checking of information. But the agents decide to go ahead with an operation it viewed as vital, either because they underestimated the enemy or erroneously assumed they were insufficiently motivated to investigate the affair thoroughly.

Dubai, for example, was not keen about Mabhouh's activity in the emirate. Lebanon's intelligence services are subordinate to the government, while Israel's alleged espionage was aimed mainly against Hezbollah.

Both states surprised the agents with their efforts and with their abilities to solve the cases, and managed to cause some damage.

Israel apparently has good intelligence coverage in Lebanon, as this week's reports about Hezbollah's military preparations proved. Senior Israel Defense Forces officers have recently stated as much, explicitly and publicly.

It remains unclear whether the recent arrests in Lebanon have anything to do with last year's spy roundup. Did they provoke a storm in a certain, unnamed state? Were there mutual recriminations or disputes? Were inquiries initiated or measures taken against officials who were involved?

What are we to learn from the affair, that that the lessons of 2009 have not been learned, or simply that the enemy's technology has become an obstacle difficult to surmount?