The Wall Street Journal has an essay by Robert Baer, a former CIA official and the author of “See No Evil” and “The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.” Baer discusses how new surveillance technologies are changing the spy game. There are camera surveillance systems everywhere and massive databases filled with biometric and biographic data on individuals. In 1992, Baer says, a Palestine Liberation Organization official was killed on a Paris street by two assassins who still haven’t been found. “With no casings from the pistol found, no closed-circuit TV coverage in front of the Meridien [hotel], and no good description of the assassins,” there was not much the French police could do though they suspected it was an Israeli hit, Baer says.
Fast forward 18 years to the assassination of Hamas military leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on Jan. 20, and it is a graphic reminder of just how much the world has changed. Nearly the entire hit was recorded on closed-circuit TV cameras, from the time the team arrived at Dubai’s airport to the time the assassins entered Mr. Mabhouh’s room. The cameras even caught team members before and after they donned their disguises. The only thing the Dubai authorities have been unable to discover is the true names of the team. But having identified the assassins, or at least the borrowed identities they traveled on, Dubai felt confident enough to point a finger at Israel. […]
After Dubai released the tapes, the narrative quickly became that the assassination was an embarrassing blunder for Tel Aviv. […]
The truth is that Mr. Mabhouh’s assassination was conducted according to the book—a military operation in which the environment is completely controlled by the assassins. At least 25 people are needed to carry off something like this. You need “eyes on” the target 24 hours a day to ensure that when the time comes he is alone. You need coverage of the police—assassinations go very wrong when the police stumble into the middle of one. You need coverage of the hotel security staff, the maids, the outside of the hotel. […]
I can only speculate about where exactly the hit went wrong. But I would guess the assassins failed to account for the marked advance in technology. Not only were there closed-circuit TV cameras in the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated and at the airport, but Dubai has at its fingertips the best security consultants in the world. The consultants merely had to run advanced software through all of Dubai’s digital data before, during and after the assassination to connect the assassins in time and place. For instance, a search of all cellular phone calls made in and around the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated would show who had called the same number—reportedly a command post in Vienna. It would only be a matter then of tracking when and where calls were made from these phones, tying them to hotels where the team was operating or staying.