21 Jul 2011

PM says Israeli spy allegations wrong

5:40 am on 21 July 2011

The Prime Minister has dismissed any link between a group of Israeli nationals caught up in the Christchurch earthquakes and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, but the newspaper that published the claim is standing by it.

John Key confirmed inquiries were made into the activities of a group of Israelis who were in Christchurch at the time of the 22 February quake, after earlier refusing to comment on speculation they were spies.

At a news conference in California on Wednesday, Mr Key confirmed security agencies had fully investigated the unusually rapid departure of two young women and a man.

He said no evidence was found that the people involved were anything other than backpackers.

The Southland Times is standing by its report the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) is auditing the police national computer because of concerns that Israeli forensic scientists in the city after the quake could have embedded malicious software to get security intelligence information.

The newspaper also said one of three Israelis who died in the quake was found with five passports.

The Prime Minister says his advice is the man was found with two passports, one of European origin, and reports that he was found with five are incorrect.

Mr Key says the man's companions took his Israeli passport and handed it to Israeli authorities.

Earlier, Mr Key said he received a number of phone calls from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the day of the quake.

He says part of the discussion consisted of condolences and an offer of support in trying to locate Israeli citizens who had died.

The initial story

Southland Times editor Fred Tulett said he had information the SIS had an audit underway into the police national computer, because of fears Israeli agents could have got into it.

He told Morning Report his source told him five passports were found on the body of Ofer Binyamin Mizrahi, 23.

Mr Tulett says three others who had been in the same van as Mr Mizrahi left New Zealand within 12 hours, despite widespread travel chaos at the time, although they stopped to take photographs of the crushed van.

Mr Tulett says the SIS became suspicious that a group of forensic scientists from Israel who were in Christchurch immediately after the earthquake could have had the opportunity to embed malware into the police national computer.

The story was published in the Southland Times and other Fairfax media on Wednesday.

Editor stands by story

Fred Tulett, who spent two months researching the story, is confident his sources provided solid information, and believes investigations are continuing.

He says the Prime Minister's statement on Wednesday afternoon confirms there have been thorough investigations, and urgent audits of the police computer.

Mr Tulett says he understands there is an ongoing wider inquiry into the activities of various Israeli groups that were in Christchurch - including several Urban Search and Rescue teams which came over from Israel. He believes this will eventually uncover something.

Mr Tulett says he still believes that one of the Israeli men killed in the quake was carrying five passports.

Police say network safe

The police responded to the spying claims saying they are confident their computer systems have not been compromised.

In a statement, they said their computer systems were not compromised during the Christchurch earthquake response, nor subsequently.

Acting chief information officer Murray Mitchell says police systems are subject to regular security audits and intrusion checks, and have measures designed to stop malicious programmes from entering the system.

A police spokesperson would not confirm whether the SIS audited the system.

Israel must front up - Goff

Labour Party leader Phil Goff, who is on the committee that oversees the SIS, says he hasn't been briefed on any investigations in Christchurch.

"If the SIS is indeed still investigating, that suggests that there is still suspicion around the activities and then less weight can be put on the fact that the Prime Minister has said there is no evidence of any connection with intelligence agencies, or illicit activity."

Mr Goff was also Foreign Minister in 2004 when two Mossad agents were caught stealing New Zealander's identities in order to acquire passports and jailed. New Zealand suspended high-level contacts with Israel, which eventually apologised.

Mr Goff says he was assured this would never happen again, and wants to know that this promise has been upheld.

He says the latest allegations are serious, and if there is any evidence of illegal activity, Israel needs to front up.

Greens want reports released

The Green Party is calling on police and the SIS to make public their reports on the allegations.

Greens police spokesperson Keith Locke says, as in any public report, the police and SIS are entitled to withhold operational details but the public needs to know what conclusions they have reached.

Global security analyst Paul Buchanan says that if the claims are true, it is possible spies could have been involved in identity theft.

Mr Buchanan says if one Israeli man who died in the quake was carrying five passports, then he may have been attempting to create a clone passport from a New Zealand citizen.