The fact that more than two decades have passed since Gonen Segev was an Israeli cabinet member doesn’t mean he didn’t cause serious damage to the country due to the ties he later forged with Iran, Israeli security experts say.
Segev, a doctor by profession, was a Knesset member who served as energy and infrastructure minister from 1992 to 1995. He has been charged by a Jerusalem court with spying for the Iranians and aiding the enemy during wartime, based on information supplied by the Shin Bet security service.
Segev already served a five-year jail term after being convicted in 2005 of smuggling ecstasy tablets into Israel and forging a diplomatic passport. Until last month he lived in Nigeria. He has been arrested in Israel after being deported by the police in Equatorial Guinea, where he moved in May.
According to security experts, some of the material Segev is said to have passed on to the Iranians beginning in 2012 could have become irrelevant because of the many years since he held office in Israel. But the information he had on people with whom he had personal relationships in Nigeria is of extreme importance in his alleged spying and information-gathering work for Iran.
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In today’s cyber era, Segev's connections with and information about people in the Israeli defense, energy and foreign-policy arenas are worth a great deal more and have a much higher potential to harm Israeli national security, the experts say. Via malware, such information can be exploited in the Iranians’ huge databases for cyberattacks against defense companies and other strategic sites in Israel.
Segev was extremely well connected to numerous major players in the Nigerian capital, one Israeli businessman working in defense and security projects there told Haaretz. Segev set up a sophisticated medical clinic in the city that served many diplomats and leading businesspeople from all over the world, among them Israelis.
Segev apparently forged connections between Israelis, other foreigners and Nigerian government officials, bringing them together in joint ventures.
Segev allgedly first met with the Iranians in 2012 when two intelligence people working out of the Iranian Embassy in Nigeria approached him to discuss medical equipment, using Segev's medical center as a cover. This allegedly led to his role as an Iranian agent, according to the indictment.
According to one security expert, businessmen representing Israeli defense companies were probably exposed to the Iranians because of Segev after they paid him for medical services with a credit card, sent him emails, called him from their cellphones or even, perhaps, left a briefcase unattended in a waiting room.
According to this expert, the people with whom Segev had ties probably included both senior executives at defense companies and even people working undercover, this expert says. Under this theory, through Segev, the Iranians could access highly confidential databases and information on people without anyone knowing.
At this stage it is very difficult to know the extent of the damage that Segev may have caused, the experts say.
Every exposed spy presents a golden opportunity for security services and defense officials to obtain important intelligence about the enemy country that runs him, says one former Israeli security official. The Iranians knew, too, before they used Segev, that the information he amassed during his years in the Knesset and as a minister was no longer relevant.
The most important decision Israel must now make after receiving the information of Segev’s alleged spying activities is how to exploit the case for Israel’s benefit.
The first question in such cases is how much the alleged spy’s operations have harmed the country, the former security official says. If Segev is suspected of wreaking significant and immediate damage, he is arrested without delay. If it is deemed that his espionage activities for an enemy like Iran are not very dangerous in the short term, then the possibility of turning him into a double agent is considered.
The idea is to offer him the possibility of continuing to work as a spy, but for Israel, without his Iranian operators knowing. In such a case, the goal is to ensure that any further information the Iranians receive is false, but convincing.
Another possibility is to monitor the spy’s activities to expose the identity of the Iranian entities behind the operation, the former official says. Such information could be extremely useful in uncovering the Iranian intelligence system and even activities by other spies.
Careful observation of the operators could bring in a great deal of priceless information for Israel; for example, eavesdropping to discover who ran the operative and who else the Iranians have spying for them. In this way, one could very quickly discover what the other side knows, the former official adds.
“It’s possible using cyber capabilities to access the most sensitive computer systems of the enemy country,” he says.