Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2012

Happy New YearBy J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | |
Ever since we launched this website in 2008, we have been monitoring daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence and espionage, striving to provide an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. In the past year, we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories, some of which made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media industry. In anticipation of what 2013 may bring, we decided to take a look back to the year that just ended by compiling a list of what we think are the ten most important security- and intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. The stories below are listed in reverse order of importance. Do you agree with our choices? Have we missed something important? Share your thoughts.

10. South African spy officials faked threats to increase budget. The historical tendency of spy agencies to overstate security threats in order to secure governmental funds is hardly novel. But officials in the South African Secret Service appear to have gone a step further: they allegedly paid some of their informants to make bogus threats against the government, in order to prompt an increase in counterterrorist funding. The bogus threats were allegedly aimed at creating “a false impression of imminent, unprecedented attacks on black people and African National Congress (ANC) members”. Incredibly, or perhaps predictably, nobody from the Secret Service has been fired in connection with this scandal.

09. Was there a plot to kill the Greek Prime Minister? The assassination of a senior cabinet official inside the European Union is an almost unfathomable thought. In Greece, however, government prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into an alleged plot to kill the Prime Minister in 2008, which was reportedly uncovered by Russian intelligence. According to the Russians, the plot, codenamed PYTHIA, was hatched by the intelligence agency of “a country allied to Greece”, and was targeted at conservative Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who governed Greece from 2004 to 2009. Could this be true? Lips in Athens remain sealed while the investigation is ongoing.

08. Spies increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, to gather data. The frequency with which spy agencies of various countries are turning to social networking media as sources of tactical intelligence is increasing. It is clear that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a host of other social networking platforms, are increasingly viewed by intelligence agencies as invaluable channels of information acquisition. In fact, recent case studies point to social networking as the new cutting edge in open-source tactical intelligence collection.

07. Western spy agencies still in the dark about Syria. The ongoing civil war has turned the impoverished and volatile country of Syria into a major source of wider geopolitical instability. One of the few certainties of this bloody conflict is that Western intelligence agencies are still struggling to make sense of it. In December, Washington formally designated the Al-Nusra Front, a group within the Western-supported Syrian anti-government coalition, a foreign terrorist organization. Senior US officials admit that Western intelligence-gathering in Syria is “fragmentary [and] out of focus”. Evidently.

06. CIA Director Petraeus bites the dust over love affair. An affair between the (now former) Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, caused more damage to the morale of the CIA than any rival spy agency could have hoped to. And yet there are indications that many of those close to Petraeus either knew or strongly suspected he had a mistress on the side. What is it about the womanizing culture in the CIA that refuses to die?

05. Canadian spy for Russia caused “massive” intelligence leak. In January of 2012, Royal Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Paul Delisle became the first person to be charged under Canada’s post-9/11 Security of Information Act, for allegedly passing protected government information to an unspecified foreign body believed to be Russia. Because of Canada’s intelligence alliance with the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, Delisle’s spying caused what Canadian media described as a “massive leak” of classified information.

04. UK admits businessman murdered in China was MI6 operative. Almost from the moment when British businessman Neil Heywood was found dead in Chongqing, China, intelNews publicly supported the view that he had dealings with MI6. British Foreign Secretary William Hague claimed that Heywood, who was a fluent Chinese speaker and had lived in China for a decade prior to his death, “was not an employee of the British government in any capacity”. But on November 7, 2012, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, which was based on several interviews with unnamed “current and former British officials”, concluded that the murdered businessman was an active informant for MI6 at the time of his death. The case is important because of its political ramifications inside China, as it led to the dramatic demise of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, a husband-and-wife team of political celebrities who were found guilty of killing Heywood. Some argue that the case altered for ever the political map of the Communist Party of China.

03. Did Yasser Arafat die of poisoning? In July, a nine-month forensic toxicological investigation by the Institut de Radiophysique (IRA) in Switzerland into the death of Yasser Arafat, raised the possibility that the Palestinian leader may have been poisoned with a radioactive substance. Some remain skeptical about this claim, but the French government has opened a murder inquiry into Arafat’s death, which occurred in a hospital in Paris, while Russian authorities have offered to join the international investigation. Could this case rewrite the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

02. Massive expansion of US covert operations in Africa. Middle East? What Middle East? There is evidence that the fastest growing geopolitical target of Washington’s covert-action program is Africa. According to well-informed sources, the administration of US President Barack Obama is implementing a near-unprecedented expansion of covert operations by American military forces throughout Africa, aimed at a host of armed groups deemed extremist.

01. Split in US-Israel relations over Iran. That the hawks in the Israeli government do not see eye-to-eye on Iran with American officials in the Obama administration is not exactly a secret. But if we are to believe the account of US Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), the Iranian nuclear program has succeeded in dividing American and Israeli views on Middle East policy almost to the point of no return. The Republican politician said that a meeting he attended at the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office was supposed to be a “discussion on intelligence and technical issues”. But it quickly “spun out of control”, he said, when the Israeli leader allegedly criticized the US Ambassador to the country, Dan Shapiro, over the US government’s perceived unwillingness to go beyond imposing diplomatic sanctions on Iran. Shapiro was livid and let Netanyahu know. Rogers said he had never witnessed “such a high-level confrontation” between a representative of the American government and a foreign official.

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

8 Responses to Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2012

  1. I expect the Africa story is more interesting than the more predictable story on Israel. The petulant child Bibi Netanyahu will get his war with Iran and wreck Israel in the process, come what may, so there is nothing surprising here. Israel has been ‘it’s all about me’ for a very long time, almost certainly this is the motivation (attention getting) behind the most recent Gaza operation and Israel is where you see the press focused 24/7. Infantile tantrums are effective.

    In Africa, on the other hand, one must do a bit of digging to pull together a focus on what is happening and the potential consequences. That Mali is the fallout of Libya is not a widely informed subject in the press although the evidence is clearly there. As a micro-cosm snapshot of the potential undermining Assad’s Syria will have brought, one can assume the press is clearly uninterested pointing a finger in any timely way at policy failures with a wide potential for wrecking entire region’s stability.

    Insofar as western intelligence agencies still in the dark over Syria, I don’t buy it. Or if it is the case western intelligence agencies cannot get good intelligence on Syria via their friends in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia et al, it is a case of ‘with friends like this, who needs enemies.’ I expect the truth in the case of Syria is closer to deliberately not wanting to the more salacious facts for political reasons, for instance how do you explain to national (re)building bosses who fire people telling what they don’t want to hear, our ‘Syria policy imposing western democracy is a gift to Al Qaida’ ?

    A few thoughts, thank you for maintaining this site and all the best wished to intelnews for the new year-

  2. tigerasia says:

    Reblogged this on Tiger Asia.

  3. jack podolski says:

    Thank you for your website. It is greatly valued.
    I agree with the with much of Mr Ronald Thomas West comments but dont get something- If someone fired hundreds of missles into
    los angeles or NYC or chicago and kept accelarating as they did out of gaza unto israel what other country would not have gone in and blased them out.. We in the US responded to afganastan for 911 and rightly so. . These guys in gaza get money when ever they do this. and they celebrated on 911. If we loved our fellow citizen being safe more then the political and money issues we would have more money, be stronger nation and our deplomats would be safer.and the horrible event in Libya could have been avoided.

    again thank you for your insites and look forward to appreciating your site in 2013

    Most respectfully


  4. S says:

    @Ronald Thomas West: In my (uninformed) opinion, the CIA lacks any espionage capability in Syria (HUMINT is too dangerous), and is thus forced to rely on “friendly” intelligence services from countries like Turkey and Jordan, who have their own agendas and thus might give intelligence in an attempt to create a narrative to influence US foreign policy. It is possible that the CIA and western intelligence agencies don’t want to hear about terror outfits joining the FSA, but it is more likely that other intelligence services who have actual presence in Syria and thus are gathering actual HUMINT don’t wish to inform the Americans about this, as it could jeopardize support. When a “center of intelligence”, as the Agency calls itself, is forced to rely on not-so-friendly intelligence with no method of establishing bona fides, it is a CI nightmare, as proven by the Khost incident (the triple agent’s defection wasn’t arranged by CIA, it was arranged by Jordanian intelligence). Thus, second-hand product is near useless without any useful way for Agency evaluators to check veracity of the intelligence and without trust between the FIS’s.

  5. intelNews says:

    @Ronald Thomas West: I see your point, though I don’t think many will share your view that the Israel/Iran story is predictable. It may be so in terms of the animosity between Israel and Iran, but a shouting match between Netanyahu and the US ambassador? This is not exactly a regular occurrence. None of this suggests that Washington’s traditional stance on Israel has shifted in any significant way, of course. On Africa, I couldn’t agree more. This is a subject that the news media industry is showing tremendous resistance in covering. On the subject of Syria, my view coincides completely with that of ‘S’, above.

    @jack podolski: Thanks for your kind words. The Gaza/West Bank situation is quite another story. The apparent split of opinion between Washington and Tel Aviv concerns the Iranian nuclear program. [JF]

  6. @JF. My perception of Netanyahu is he is arrogant and a bully. Yes, you are correct, a shouting match at that level is uncommon but in the same moment it occurs to me eventually someone is going to lose it, having to deal with this guy. That’s human nature.

    @JF & S, a former operative of the South African spy service, Anthony Turton, states in his book ‘Shaking Hands With Billy’ (an excellent read if you can lay your hands on a copy) the CIA’s method of dealing with an intractable problem is to throw money at it. I could not agree more. My sense is the HUMINT is not so much the problem, throw enough money at it and there’ll be a result. The problem is telling bosses news they don’t want to hear. Let’s imagine for a moment, one possibility, the Pentagon strategists decide to model Assad’s Syria out of the picture as a necessary geopolitical step in a projected conflict with Iran. JOC is tasked with providing cover for the CIA and the feedback is Salafists will be strengthened and transition to western style democracy failed. How do you sell that to the people over at State, when they’ve already embarked on the project? (presuming western paramilitary intelligence operations have been active in Syria for two years already)

    Again, thank you for this excellent site and the opportunity to draw on the good information provided and diverse point of view in very much not black & white world

  7. intelNews says:

    @Ronald: I hear you re: the CIA throwing money at intractable problems. There is in fact a great paper by Kristie Macracis called “Technophilic Hubris and Espionage Styles during the Cold War” [Isis 101(2), June 2010], in which she argues that the US won the political/economic conflict during the Cold War, but lost the intelligence war against the Soviets, because of the IC’s over-reliance on technological/financial means in addressing intractable problems. I’ll check Turton’s book. [JF]

  8. As well as the death of Neil Heywood, 2012 saw several developments in the case of the death of MI6 employee Gareth Williams. The inquest verdict was embarrassing to both the London police and MI6, so much so that they are now busy spinning other possible verdicts in the UK press…

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