The recent conviction of former Israeli cabinet minister Gonen Segev on espionage charges demonstrates once again that the second oldest profession in the world is alive and well, and often involves unlikely bedfellows.
Officials in Equatorial Guinea detained Segev last May and extradited him to Israel at the request of Israeli officials, according to the BBC and other media outlets. The 63-year-old former Minister of Energy and Infrastructure admitted to Shin Bet officials that he had passed the Iranians “information related to the energy sector, security sites in Israel and officials in political and security institutions.” He further confessed to meeting with Iranian intelligence officials in Nigeria, and to traveling to Iran at least twice.
The Jerusalem Post says Iranians “lured” Segev, a medical doctor who lost his license in Israel, to the Iranian Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2012 to treat the children of the Embassy staff. The Iranians then recruited Segev and established a system for him to report information back to Iranian handlers.
Although Segev confessed to the meetings, he denied passing any classified information to the Iranians. Instead, he claims he was attempting to “fool” the Iranians and “return to Israel a hero.” Segev said he had no financial or ideological motivation for working with the Iranians.
Israel and Iran are ideological enemies, with Iran refusing to recognize the right of Israel to exist. Iran has consistently called for the elimination of the State of Israel, and supports radical groups opposed to the Jewish State. Israel strongly opposes the Iranian nuclear program, and has been blamed by Iran for the mysterious deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists and attacks on nuclear sites. The two sides regularly throw verbal barbs at each other, and have also threatened military attacks against each other.
For Iran, Segev was an obvious recruitment target. He fell from grace in Israel after spending five years in prison for attempting to smuggle 30,000 ecstasy pills from the Netherlands to Israel and using an expired diplomatic passport in 2005. His medical license was revoked in Israel as a result, and moved to Nigeria to practice medicine after he was released from jail. Segev reportedly openly talked about wanting to return to Israel and his desire to redeem himself.
And espionage is not limited to country v. country. Private companies also employ espionage to uncover competitor secrets.
Targeting officials – whether in government or private industry – search for these types of vulnerabilities when assessing potential intelligence sources. Vulnerabilities come in a variety of flavors, ranging from financial need to feelings of inadequacy to anger at higher-ups, jealousy, or a sense of entitlement. The organization seeking to obtain information identifies the “buttons” to push and starts a slow churn toward recruitment. The process usually starts by asking for information from the source that is not classified. Once the target agrees, the intelligence officer begins reeling in the target, asking for increasingly sensitive information. If Segev did not pass classified information to the Iranians, he likely was moving toward doing so, or the Iranians would have dropped him as a source.
Human intelligence is extremely damaging to a country or a company seeking to maintain secrets. Every organization maintains sensitive information, including the names of clients, sources and methods, plans and intentions, pricing, and bid information, to name a few. A well-placed source can not only provide information to adversaries, but can also undermine operations inside an organization.
The conviction of Segev is a reminder that the most important part of any organization is also its weakest link: the humans employed inside. You can’t talk an ATM into doling out cash if you forget your PIN, but a sympathetic teller may disperse cash to a “customer” without an ID, given the right set of circumstances. Make sure you have the right people in the right places, protect your information, and make sure your security is up to date.
If an Israeli will pass intelligence to its sworn enemy, Iran, is it really so outlandish that an employee will leak RFP data to a competing firm or to a foreign government?
Trust, but verify.