Alleged Saudi murder scheme shows how state-backed spy mishaps can go public
The alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador to the United States may have revealed the biggest secret of all - intelligence agencies mess up and do not always live up to the James Bond ideal.
Skeptics have questioned whether the operation was really backed by high-level Iran officials because of its sloppiness.
A Texas used-car salesman allegedly tried to hire a hitman in Mexico to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington - all while talking about having ties to Iranian authorities. He got nabbed because the hitman turned out to be a confidential informant of the US government.
The Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards, is considered a force to be reckoned with - which left Iran experts scratching their heads over how such a messy endeavor could possibly have been the work of usually sophisticated operators.
Intelligence experts point out that even the most competent intelligence services, which most of the time operate successfully in the shadows, have had their share of very public blunders.
In 2010, the Israeli Mossad, no slouch in the spy world, was accused of sending a hit squad to assassinate a Hamas militant in a Dubai hotel. The suspected operatives were caught on videotape following Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in the hotel, and photos of them were distributed to the media by the Dubai police department.
In 2004, two Russian intelligence officers were convicted in Qatar in the assassination of Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. The Washington Post reported that police were able to trace a van near the attack back to a car-rental agency where the renters were caught on video camera.
In 2005, an Italian court ordered the arrest of CIA agents suspected of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, in Milan and flying him to Egypt for interrogation in 2003. Court documents showed the agents left plenty of documentation of their stay in Italy, including frequent-client cards when they registered at hotels.
In 1999, the only target the CIA picked for NATO's 11-week bombing campaign on Yugoslavia led to the US attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. U.S. officials said it was a huge mistake and were embarrassed that they did not have the correct location of the embassy in their databases.
In 1997, two Mossad officers posing as Canadian tourists attempted to spray poison into the ear of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan. They were caught and the botched incident led to the Mossad director's resignation.
Some intelligence experts say the alleged Texas plot could very well have been a bumbled Quds force operation.
"This is the Quds force, this is not the MOIS," a former intelligence official said, referring to Iran's foreign intelligence service, considered more skilled in delicate spy tradecraft.
"Sometimes intelligence operations do really dumb things."
In 1997, two Mossad officers posing as Canadian tourists attempted to spray poison into the ear of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan.
The late King Hussein demanded from Israel that the antidote of the poison to be delivered to the Jordanian authorities within hours of the failed attempt. King Hussein threatened to completely cut off relationships with Israel if that did not happen. Israel did comply. The plot did succeed however, Israel underestimated the Jordanian reaction. That is the only reason why Khalid Mushaal is still alive today.