Spies, Passports, and The Guardian

This is a cross post by Michael Weiss, the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media’s coverage of Israel and the Middle East. This article was first published in The Weekly Standard on July 17, 2010.

When Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in Dubai last January, and his cause of death later ascribed to foul play, it didn’t take long before the British press found itself the beneficiary of a troika of good copy. First, al-Mabhouh’s end had been delivered by the injection of a muscle relaxant and a suffocating pillow – so clearly the result of a “wet job” performed by well-trained agents of a foreign intelligence service. Second, that service was almost certainly the Israeli Mossad. Third, the movements of the dozen or so disguised suspects throughout the corridors of the murder scene – Dubai’s posh Al Bustan Rotana Hotel – were captured on closed circuit television, which inspires pride and paranoia in equal measure in Londoners who are typically invigilated on this form of technology whenever they venture outside their own homes.

International condemnation of Israel’s alleged action came swiftly, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the United Kingdom, especially after it was discovered that twelve of the assassins had used forged British passports to enter and leave Dubai. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said at the time, “The British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care. A British passport is an important part of being British.” Brown’s foreign secretary David Miliband went a step further on March 23, calling the forgery “intolerable” in an umbrageous speech before parliament. He chose not to blame Israel explicitly for al-Mabhouh’s murder, but he did state that Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency had concluded that the country must have been behind the passport forgeries. (Miliband’s strongest evidence being the fact that all of the identities counterfeited were of people who hold dual citizenship in the UK and Israel). Milliband then made the decision to expel the Mossad chief resident in London.

More telling than the British government’s muscular response was that of the correct-thinking British media, best exemplified by The Guardian. On March 24, the newspaper’s editorial on the affair carried the ominous title, “Israel and Britain: The rule of law,” and described Israel as “an arrogant nation that has overreached itself” — not just in terms of identity theft, but also land theft. Indeed, it actually devoted more than half of its column to arraigning Israel for rejecting Washington’s instructions on settlement build-up in East Jerusalem and refusing to even consider that territory as the site of a future Palestinian capital. If this seemed a non sequitur, then one clearly hadn’t grasped a fundamental principle of The Guardian’s moral outrage: So incensed was it by an allied nation’s covert toying with sensitive British documents that it felt obliged to bring up other instances of Israel’s misbehavior in recent months. “Mr Netanyahu has to face the consequences of an ideological stand over East Jerusalem which precludes any other. Here, as in the rest of the West Bank, where the number of Jewish settlers has more than doubled since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993, Israel is pre-empting the shape of the final agreement by creating facts on the ground. No deal with the Palestinians can be made in these conditions,” The Guardian editorialized.

So it was quite expected that The Guardian would be similarly categorical when late last month the FBI arrested a 11-person Russian spy-ring in the United States, and federal prosecutors in their brief disclosed that one paid agent of Moscow, Tracey Foley, had also “travelled on a fraudulent British passport prepared for her by the SVR [Russian foreign intelligence service].” No doubt the liberal broadsheet would mention the arrogant abuse of trust that now exists between two former Cold War antagonists and devote the rest of its column inches to reviewing the evidence of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian tendencies in general, such as his nationalization of Russian television, his silencing of domestic dissidents through murder, arrest, or army conscription, and his imperialist certification of the north Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of the Russian demesne. The KGB’s assistance in the “umbrella murder” of Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov on the Waterloo Bridge in 1978 may have been a mite old to merit recapitulation, but surely there’d be a passing reference to the polonium poisoning of British citizen and ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, which occurred in a Piccadilly sushi joint a mere four years ago?

Such was not the case.

Instead, The Guardian downplayed the whole affair as both silly and inconsequential to U.S.-Russian relations.  In a June 30 leader, “Russian espionage: Spies like us,” the paper argued that Moscow Center had demonstrated a “professional ineptitude worth of Inspector Clouseau” since “[t]he advice given to one agent to ‘build up, little by little, relations’ with a New York financier with powerful political connections is laughable.” It scarcely mattered that another alleged agent in the federal indictment, Donald Heathfield, was a Harvard Kennedy School graduate and, according to the less flippant New York Times, went to great lengths to keep up the old school ties as his classmates went on to attain positions of power and prominence such as Felipe Calderone, now the president of Mexico.  Also, unlike assassinations of known terrorists, everyone does espionage, Her Majesty’s Secret Service being in the worst possible position to carp after its own Get Smart tactics backfired in the 1990s. No big deal and nothing to see here: “The larger question is whether these attempts to penetrate political and military secrets are not, in the long run, self-defeating.”

Finally, the newspaper hurried readers past any concerns that this embarrassment for the Kremlin might hamper the Obama administration’s touted “reset” efforts. Human rights and democracy, themselves “laughable” in Putin’s Russia, ought to be of small concern thanks to a new START treaty and supposedly tougher sanctions on Iran, a country that The Guardian has elsewhere described as not necessarily seeking a nuclear weapon at all: “The atmosphere has warmed and it is in neither Obama’s nor Medvedev’s interests for it to freeze up again in a state of ‘cold peace.’” Instead of going to jail, the Russian spies have now been “swapped” for American counterparts on a tarmac in Vienna.

But not a word about stolen passports, no summons of the Russian ambassador in Britain, and not even a mild rebuke of a world leader much to the political right of Benjamin Netanyahu who has said publicly that the collapse of the Soviet Union constituted the greatest tragedy of his life and has acted in a manner according to that sentiment ever since. Especially odd in this application of double standards is that The Guardian’s news coverage of the Russian passport forgery, which preceded its editorial, went into great detail as to the SVR’s directions to Foley for using his counterfeit British identity:

After travelling from Paris to Vienna by train, Foley was to exchange her current travel document for the false British passport, according to instructions given to her and reproduced in the indictment.

The instructions added: “Very important: 1. Sign your passport on page 32. Train yourself to be able to reproduce your signature when it’s necessary.”

Inside the passport was a memo with extra information, to be destroyed after reading, the alleged instructions said, before ending: “Be well.”

There was no corresponding gotcha in the snuffing of al-Mabhouh when a British passport was still an important piece of being British.

It had been an admittedly dull news season in Albion, rife with VAT increases and electoral reform until a Cold War spy thriller came down the slipway, complete with its own stand-out femme fatale. The pouty and semi-nude Facebook photos of Anna Chapman, the Mati Hari-like “illegal” who’d married and divorced a lank-haired bourgeois from Bournemouth, are the stuff front pages dream of. So even leaving aside The Guardian’s penchant for viewing Israel as a pariah nation above all others, it should surprise no one that the Daily Mail has become the standard-bearer for investigative reporting.

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