No James Bond glamour in espionage’s new ‘El Dorado’

The man’s behaviour was certainly odd. When driving, he would vary his car speed between 30km/h and 90km/h, pulling up occasionally by the side of the road for several minutes for no apparent reason. When he put his rubbish out, he would first cut the bottom of the bags so the contents would spill if anyone tried to rummage through them. Leaving his office, he would walk once around the block before heading off in the direction he wanted to go.

The man under surveillance by South African intelligence was one of scores of foreign intelligence officers who have flocked to the new “El Dorado” of global espionage in recent years.

The agent’s movements are chronicled in a 55-page secret document from 2009 that offers a portrait of modern-day “human intelligence” espionage. There may have been vast changes in surveillance technology, giving the United States National Security Agency and the British Government Communications Headquarters previously unimaginable powers. But the life of the spy on the ground appears to have changed very little in half a century. Although there is a high level of risk for some agents, the leaked cables show most of the work is bland and bureaucratic, based around routine meetings with other spies, far removed from the world portrayed in spy movies. In fact, one intelligence document warns that potential candidates should be ruled out for recruitment if their motive is glamour, adventure, money or status.

The agent, an officer for the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, is recorded meeting the heads of his agency’s Africa and Latin America divisions in Cape Town. He is then seen having “a possible ‘brush’ meeting with two persons in a public toilet, one of them of Muslim origin”.

Possible opportunities
The agent is found to have three sources in the South African police and several other contacts in government departments and police crime intelligence. The issue “should have been addressed on a higher level”, the intelligence report says, “as this situation could have led to possible espionage opportunities”.


The agent spent three weeks in a hotel, part of the time with his family, and asked for the bill to be split between the Israeli airline El Al and South Africa’s Tiger Wheel & Tyre company.

The South African report states it is a “known modus operandi of the Israeli intelligence services to utilise El Al as cover for intelligence members” and identifies an El Al employee as a Mossad courier. The use of the airline as a front for the Mossad and Israeli security service Shin Bet in South Africa led to the deportation of an airline official and the withdrawal of the right to carry weapons and diplomatic immunity from El Al staff soon afterwards.

Some of the information in the document about Mossad appears to have been lifted from open sources, such as books on the Israeli agency.

A section dealing with the operational practices of Israeli field intelligence officers says Mossad puts no pressure on female agents to use sex as a “weapon”, but that it is expected. It adds: “If sexual blackmail or entrapment is an integral part of the mission, however, Mossad often employs actual prostitutes.”

There is less hesitation among Mossad chiefs, however, about using male agents to become intimate with embassy secretaries, airline stewardesses and others who might provide valuable information. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Ewen Macaskill
Guest Author
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