By Paul Chapman in Wellington
20 Jul 2011
The Telegraph UK
The Israeli secret service Mossad has been accused of conducting an intelligence-gathering operation in New Zealand which was unearthed because of the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
The operation was interrupted when a van used by a spy cell was crushed by masonry falling from a damaged building, killing one man, it is claimed.
Benyamin Mizrahi, 23, the Israeli man who died in the damaged van, was found to have five passports on his person, the Southland Times newspaper reported.
Three surviving Israelis who were in the van with Mr Mizrahi fled New Zealand within 12 hours, making their way back to Israel.
They reportedly paused only to take photographs of the crushed van and return the dead man’s Israeli passport to officials from their embassy.
The Southland Times also said the police national computer was being audited because of concerns it had been hacked into.
There were fears that other Israeli operatives, in the city after the February 22 quake which killed 181 people, could have embedded malicious software to access intelligence information.
John Key, the New Zealand prime minister, on Thursday confirmed that the government’s Security Intelligence Service had carried out an investigation but he dismissed the concerns.
Speaking during a visit to the United States, Mr Key said the unusual circumstances of the incident were fully investigated and no evidence was found that the people involved were anything other than backpackers.
He said his advice was that the man had only two passports, one of European origin which was found on his body, and the other which his friends had handed in to Israeli officials.
Mr Key said the government took the security of New Zealand and New Zealanders “very seriously”.
“The unusual circumstances which triggered the investigation was the rapid departure from the country of the three surviving members of the group of Israelis in question,” he said.
“Security agencies conducted the investigation and found no evidence that the people were anything other than backpackers,” Mr Key said.
In all, three Israelis died in the magnitude 6.3 earthquake.
Security experts suggested agents for Mossad may have been on an identity theft “trawling” mission for information, so that the passports of unwitting citizens could be cloned.
The false passports would then be used as cover during espionage activities in other parts of the world by Israeli secret agents.
Fred Tulett, editor of the Southland Times, said an “extraordinary” reaction by the Israeli government in the hours after the earthquake had heightened the suspicions of New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service.
They included the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, made four calls to John Key, his New Zealand counterpart, on the day of the earthquake.
Shemi Tzur, Israel’s ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, travelled from his base in Australia to Christchurch, where he visited the temporary morgue set up to cope with earthquake victims.
Meanwhile, Israel’s defence chief also flew to the earthquake-ravaged city.
In a further move, a search and rescue team arrived in Christchurch from Israel, but the squad’s offer of help was rejected by New Zealand authorities because it did not have the necessary United Nations accreditation.
Despite that rejection, members of the Israeli team were confronted by armed New Zealand officers after being discovered in the badly damaged sealed off “red zone” of the city centre, the Southland Times said.
The Israeli government later sent a forensic team to help authorities identify the dead.
The paper said New Zealand officials became alarmed when intelligence information was collated and it was realised that the Israeli forensic team had been given access to the police national database to help with identification work.
The paper quoted an unnamed intelligence officer as saying it would take only moments for a USB drive to be inserted into a police computer terminal and loaded with a program allowing remote backdoor access to the database.
A police spokesman later said: “We are confident that our data and network were not compromised during the Christchurch Earthquake response or subsequently.”
Mr Tzur, the Israeli ambassador, said it was “science fiction” to believe that any Mossad agents had been involved.