Did Turkey give Iran the names of Israeli Mossad agents allegedly operating in Turkey? David Ignatius of the Washington Post writes that “early last year the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to have disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their Mossad case officers.” In April 2012, Iran announced that it had uncovered an Israeli spy network and arrested 15 suspects. It is unclear if these arrests were connected to the alleged Turkish leak.
If true — and the public is unlikely to find out any time soon — then Turkey breached one of the fundamental unwritten rules of ethics in the lawless no-rules game of espionage: do not betray your fellow cooperating intelligence service, because it will haunt you and damage your own interests with all other intelligence services. Turkey’s alleged conduct can be condemned, but understood, because in the cesspool of the covert intelligence war, there are no long-term loyalties, only immediate interests — and Turkey probably had overriding interests strong enough to risk the price it will have to pay for their disloyalty.
Intelligence is traded between countries’ intelligence services just like commodities are traded in the world markets. They trade information for other information or take “a credit slip” for future exchanges.
Although it is common practice among intelligence services to trade information, steps are taken to protect sources and methods used to obtain the information. Rarely are actual secret documents shared for fear that hidden markers would reveal who had original access to the documents. For example: If there are 10 copies of the same intelligence report distributed within a country’s government — each copy has a minuscule change from the others, perhaps just a comma in a different location in the text. Therefore, that risk exists even when redacted documents are sent. Instead, the transferring organization usually prepares a synopsis of the document before it is released to the receiving intelligence organization.
The same elaborate security minded procedures are applied when intelligence agents meet their “assets.” That is particularly true when the meetings are held in countries with suspect loyalty towards the visiting agents’ country. That could have happened with the case at hand. What appears to have happened is that the Israeli Mossad case officers — probably no more than two or three at the time plus back up security — met near the Turkish-Iranian border with their “assets” who had crossed the mountains between the countries. In my fictional intelligence thriller The Chameleon Conspiracy there is a detailed description how a CIA/Mossad agent escaped from Iran to Turkey using the same route. It is not known whether the alleged meeting between the Mossad agents and the “assets” was held with the knowledge of the Turkish intelligence service, Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, or MIT, because Israel could share intelligence, but never operational activities. However, even without MIT’s nod, there’s no doubt that its agents are monitoring the towns nearby the Iranian border, and any strange face gets immediate attention.
Two conclusions can be drawn from the Washington Post’s report; first, whoever leaked them the information, probably a Western intelligence agency, used the credibility of the newspaper to shoot a salvo across the Turkish intelligence agency’s bow: Hey, MIT, you did something that is just not done. And our long organizational memory will teach us to be wary of you next time you want to exchange intelligence information.
Indeed, Turkey immediately protested the article describing it “as part of an attempt to discredit Turkey by foreign powers uncomfortable with its growing influence in the Middle East.”
The second conclusion is that Mossad Israeli case officers preferred not to enter Iran and held face-to-face debriefing rendezvous with their “assets” outside Iran, fearing that any other mode of communication, such as electronic, is less reliable. Who were these assets? Definitely not Israelis, perhaps members of an ethnic minority with an agenda — Kurds, Bahá’í, or Balochs — discriminated Sunni Muslims in Shiite Iran.
In the murky world of international espionage, multiple layers of secrecy, subterfuge and treachery are not the exception. They are the rule.