A former top-level spy says the Rudd government’s ousting of a Mossad agent from the Israeli Embassy in Canberra won’t do anything to harm Australia’s close intelligence relationship with Israel.

Warren Reed, a senior security analyst who was trained by MI6 and served for 10 years as a spook with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in the Middle East and Asia, told Crikey that yesterday’s decision to send an Israeli attache packing was a “surface politics response” that would have almost certainly been brokered behind the scenes by senior officials.

“Nothing will change,” he said. “The Israeli government will jump up and down but this was almost certainly pre-arranged. While this was a valid, and material, step there will be almost no impact at all on the relationship between Australia and Israel.”

“The two countries’ intelligence services have and always will be extremely close.”

Reed said the “85% of countries” that have no reason to be antagonistic to one another are in close cooperation at a subterranean level, but that the foreign minister Stephen Smith was forced to act publicly in the wake of a 2004 scandal involving Israeli diplomat Amir Laty. Laty was expelled by the Howard government after Israeli citizens attempted to obtain “clean” New Zealand passports in Sydney. Reed said that, at the time, intelligence agencies had asked for a “firm commitment” from Israel to avoid a repeat of the fracas and that further instances of theivery would be met with a concrete, but far from fatal, response.

Another reason for Smith’s actions was so the government could be seen to be taking action to match Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s rhetoric after the latest scandal first emerged in February. That path was laid out in advance by the UK government, who expelled an Israeli diplomat over the stoush in March.

But Reed said all of this would do nothing to harm the “very friendly” relationship between Mossad, ASIS and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation. Crikey understands the two countries’ spy agencies are in daily contact on issues of terrorism, money laundering, illegal immigration and, ironically, identity theft.

While the latest action would have “no impact” on diplomatic relations, Smith was effectively forced to act to maintain face, Reed said.

Yesterday, Smith fronted a news conference and appeared on The 7:30 Report to express his “sorrow” and “regret” over the incident. He confirmed the close relationship, but claimed the countries’ agencies would be subject to a “cooling off period”.

“Time will tell how long that may or may not be,” he said cryptically.

Leading conservative commentators, including The Australian‘s Greg Sheridan and Alan Gold, rushed into print this morning in an attempt to turn the Mossad expulsion into a partisan political issue. The Opposition is expected to grill Smith in Question Time today after Julie Bishop accused the government in a TV interview of trying to “curry favour within the Arab community”.

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer, while disagreeing with Smith’s response, suggested on PM last night: “Intelligence services around the world do this sort of thing the whole time.

“Israel is not the only country that engages in this sort of behaviour, frankly … That’s just what happens in the world of intelligence … Be realistic about it and be wide-eyed about it, not naive.”

Intelligence sources told Crikey that every country in the world, including Australia, has the capacity to fake almost any official document on a whim, but that Mossad takes a special interest in pilfering passports because of travel bans levied on Israeli spies by the Arab world. Forgery technology is routinely shared between allied countries’ intelligence agencies, with most information freely available if the situation demands it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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