What do the leaks tell us about spy communications and what effect will these leaks have on international relations?
Secret cables obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit confirm that South Africa’s spy agencies concurred with allegations that Israel uses its flag-carrier, El Al Airlines, as cover for its intelligence agencies.
Leaked documents from South Africa’s intelligence agency support claims made on a 2009 South African television programme by a former El Al employee-turned-whistleblower.
Despite official Israeli denials, the whistleblower’s claims prompted an emergency meeting between senior officials from both sides, as well as a separate note of enquiry from Canada’s intelligence agency.
‘All access unrestricted’
The allegations first emerged in 2009 when a South African El Al employee, Jonathan Garb appeared on Carte Blanche, an investigative TV programme, and alleged that the airline was engaged in illegal conduct at Johannesburg International Airport.
Garb claimed to have been recruited by Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service while working for the airline, and claimed that the organisation was conducting security operations at the airport that were illegal under South African law.
The leaked secret document from South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency, since incorporated into the State Security Agency, says Israeli intelligence agents posed as El Al employees.
“They did carry firearms and had according to them diplomatic protection if they would have to use it,” the author of the document wrote. “They even had all access unrestricted at the airport.”
“This gave them the advantage to gather information with regards to arrivals and departures to and from South Africa.”
Garb revealed that El Al security personnel recruited by Shin Bet were made to profile passengers “racially, ethnically, and even on religious grounds”.
The programme reported that the spies conducted clandestine searches on the belongings of people they deemed suspect, in violation of South African law which only authorises police, armed forces or personnel hired by the transport ministry to carry out such searches.
El Al employees also smuggled weapons licensed by the local Israeli embassy for use by the spies, the TV report alleged.
Israeli officials publicly denied the allegations at the time. Shortly after the programme aired, however, South Africa deported an El Al official.
‘Covert Israeli activity’
Garb’s allegations also prompted an emergency meeting between Israeli and South African spies and diplomats, as well as El Al and airport managers on November 23 of 2009, according to the leaked document.
South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation withdrew the diplomatic accreditation from the meeting, according to the document’s account, denying the Israeli delegation’s requested for it to be reinstated and instead telling the Israelis to follow procedure in acquiring work permits and gun licences.
The incident also sparked an internal row between South Africa’s intelligence agencies, with the National Intelligence Agency writing that it was “of great concern” that neither the South African Security Service nor the Foreign Ministry had informed them of the meeting with Israeli officials.
Two years later, in 2011, five South African intelligence agencies were merged into the State Security Agency, to overcome inter-agency confusion and rivalry.
In another leaked document, South African spies concluded that Israeli intelligence could use El Al to sneak into the country undetected.
“The possibility exists that an Israeli intelligence officer can enter South Africa and under the disguise as an El Al member, go through all the checkpoints at the airport without presenting any documentation,” adding that at least one El Al employee had been identified as a courier for Mossad.
The Spy Cables also reveal that Canada’s intelligence agency had written to the SSA and asked for “any findings or information” on Israel using the airline as “a front for clandestine operations”, promising to treat such information “in strict confidence”.
The Canadian communication noted that a private security company has also investigated the claims, and that its findings had been “in support” of the revelations made by Garb on TV.
They asked the South Africans to confirm in detail allegations over the airport operatives illegally acquiring weapons, the evidence that led to the deportation of the El Al official and for any other relevant information.