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[liberationtech] NEWS: How spy technologies foil old-school political killings
companys at stanford.edu
Sat Feb 20 12:46:31 PST 2010
Do you guys think this is true?
One can certainly think of ways in which technologies such as geo-location
make the work of political assassins easier. Also, the fact that "spy
technologies foil old-school political killings" did not seem to serve as a
deterrent in the cases listed below.
I guess the question is whether the balance is tilting against or in favor
of the assassins?
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*How spy technologies foil old-school political killings*
By R. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010; A13
The practice of secretly assassinating purported enemies of the state -- an
age-old tool of foreign policy -- has run up against steadily improving
international police collaboration and the global proliferation of
surveillance technologies that make it harder for anyone anywhere to
surreptitiously conduct a high-profile killing on foreign soil.
In Doha, London and now Dubai, political killers have been caught on film
and tracked, provoking unexpected attention and controversy for the
organizers. Because of new biometric technologies, the proliferation of
cheap video, and sophisticated monitoring of customs points and airports,
the skills of those who specialize in the creation of fictional identities
have been tested, and sometimes defeated.
The apparent political killing of Hamas operative Mahmoud
ricocheted around the world in recent days after his alleged attackers were
spotted by a camera above an elevator at the Dubai Al-Bustan Rotana hotel,
in the United Arab Emirates. Four suspects, all obvious weight-lifters, were
filmed exiting in pairs and heading for Mabhouh's room.
Shortly after the killing, they were again filmed, this time more nervously
boarding the same elevator, wearing the same baseball caps. Then they were
filmed again, leaving the airport on flights to Europe, Africa and Asia. On
Thursday, Interpol issued warrants for 11 suspects after the Dubai police
conducted a careful study of their videotaped movements at nearly a dozen
locales. Their mug shots had already been flashed on television screens
around the world.
Dubai's police chief<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/18/AR2010021804022.html?nav=emailpage>
as well as commentators in
have laid blame on Israel's Mossad spy agency. Israel has not addressed the
issue of responsibility, in keeping with its policy of neither denying nor
admitting involvement in assassination missions.
The episode, which has become the talk of intelligence specialists on at
least three continents, recalled the extensive use of closed-circuit
television images and lab work during the British government's probe into
the agonizingly slow death of former Russian security agent Alexander
After Litvinenko fell suspiciously ill, British investigators used
surveillance images from the ubiquitous cameras in central London to trace
his movements, and then used specialized equipment to test his urine, only
to discover that he had consumed a microscopic quantity of radioactive
polonium-210 -- the vast majority of which comes from a
government-controlled nuclear complex in central
The British government has unsuccessfully sought the extradition from Moscow
of an alleged assailant, a former KGB agent who is now a member of the
Russian parliament and who denies involvement.
Sophisticated monitoring also helped investigators in 2004 pinpoint
responsibility for a car bomb that killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen
separatist living in Qatar. The assassins -- Anatoly Bilashkov and Vassily
Pokchov, both Russian military officers -- were caught on an airport camera
renting the van they used in the murder in Doha; the Qataris also listened
to their cellphone calls at a villa that had just been rented by a Russian
Both assassins were given life sentences, and a Qatari judge accused the
"Russian leadership" of ordering Zelimkhan's killing. But a spokesman for
SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency and one of the successor services
of the KGB, indignantly told the ITAR-Tass news agency that it "has not
taken part in such actions since 1959," when a Ukrainian nationalist was
assassinated in Munich.
Although the Dubai police say those involved in Mabhouh's killing were
careful to use encrypted communications and to avoid leaving traces of their
real identities behind, the global use of advanced investigative
technologies -- familiar to anyone who has seen a Jason Bourne movie or,
indeed, watched "CSI" on television -- is enough to gravely complicate the
creation of "covers" meant to allow assassins to slip unnoticed past
national authorities, according to several former U.S. covert operations
"It is getting harder and harder in a pervasive surveillance society,"
partly because of biometric technologies that include computer-driven
matching and comparisons of facial structures, said one former official.
But, he added, "for every technical barrier, there is going to be some
technical solution. There might be a lag time" before new countermeasures
are adopted, but even now "there are other ways to go about it . . . without
sending in 11 to do a job like this."
One cleaner method, he said, is to recruit local experts in such killings;
another is to use modern pharmaceuticals that leave no trace, or to organize
fatal public "accidents" -- a method that has long been a specialty of
intelligence officials in the former Yugoslavia.
Mabhouh's killing has provoked debate in Israel, which had blamed him for
the 1989 abduction of two soldiers, over the assassins' sloppy efforts to
conceal their work. Many Israelis assume Mossad was involved, and the blow
to national pride has been palpable, expressed in critical editorials and
A similarly embarrassing episode for Israel occurred in 1997. A group of
Israeli agents pretending to be Canadian tourists in Amman, Jordan,
attempted to use a modified camera to spray an exotic poison into the ear of
Khaled Meshaal, a rising figure in Hamas's exiled political leadership.
The untraceable poison was supposed to lead to paralysis and rapid death.
But two of the assassins were chased down on the street and ended up in a
Jordanian police cell, where a Canadian diplomat quickly figured out they
weren't his countrymen because they couldn't sing "O Canada." Other members
of the team raced to the Israeli Embassy. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime
minister then, as he is now, was forced not only to turn over the antidote
to the Jordanians but to release Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed
The CIA itself has a long record of planning and sometimes bungling the
killings of high-profile foreign officials, including then-Cuban President
Fidel Castro, Indonesian President Sukarno, and Congolese dictator Patrice
Lumumba. President Ronald Reagan -- acting in the wake of embarrassing
disclosures by Congress and the media about such plans in the mid-1970s --
wrote an executive order <http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/RS21037.pdf> that says:
"No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government
shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."
Reagan's 1981 order is still in effect, but the CIA has interpreted other
laws and presidential covert action findings since the attacks of Sept. 11,
2001, as allowing targeted killings of individuals. Pakistani tribal leader
Hakimullah Mehsud, for example, was killed in a U.S. unmanned aerial strike
last month, just weeks after he appeared in a video seated next to the
suicide bomber who murdered seven CIA employees in Khost,
on Dec. 31.
Officials say that the U.S. standard for authorizing such killings, whether
carried out by remotely controlled planes or by special operations military
teams, is whether someone has recently planned or participated in terrorist
actions that threaten national security and interests. That decision is made
by military or CIA analysts and lawyers, not by juries or judges.
Those added to such lists are technically subject to capture as well as
killing. But the CIA's proficiency at capturing targets has also been tested
by modern surveillance technologies.
After a Muslim cleric was abducted from a Milan street in 2003, Italian
prosecutors used incriminating cellphone and luxury hotel accounts to convict
in absentia 22 CIA officers and a U.S. Air Force colonel for
The CIA's "covers" for planes used to transfer suspected terrorists in
Europe were also compromised by plane-spotting hobbyists, journalists and
investigators for the Council of Europe with access to detailed corporate,
airport and flight records.
*Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.*
© 2010 The Washington Post Company
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