Panama: Spy vs. Spy Stuff

Panama: Spy vs. Spy stuff

Martinelli’s electronic skullduggery — the stuff of both madcap comedy and frightening drama

by Eric Jackson 

“Believe me, I do have the files and histories of all, everyone in this country. I know what everyone has done and has not done.” – Ricardo Martinelli to Cambio Democratico legislators-elect (May 12, 2014)

“I don’t have time to be listening to foolishness. In this country if you want to know something you don’t have to do anything more than go to a restaurant or read the newspaper gossip columns.” – Ricardo Martinelli in his newspaper El Panama America (December 9, 2014)

Separately, DEA chief met with new Consejo head Alfaro on September 16. Alfaro told DEA chief, “I know why you are here. I made some changes and I am not going to change them.” Alfaro said he had orders from the president to find out who “was sleeping with his wife.” At the same time, he wanted to make sure he and the president were “covered” and that someone else would be responsible if something bad happened. – Former US Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, September 18, 2009 cable to Washington
made public by WikiLeaks 

[Martinelli’s intelligence chief Olmedo] Alfaro is increasingly open about his agenda to replace US law enforcement and security support with Israelis.
US diplomat David Gilmour
February 9, 2010 cable to Washington 
made public by WikiLeaks 

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias proved insufferably subversive to Fidel Castro, who had him forced out as president of the Cuban Cartoonists Association, ordered his work censored and left him unemployed. Emigrating to New York, Prohias worked in a a garment factory by day and built a cartoon archive to show to potential employers by night. The result was the legendary Spy vs. Spy cartoon series in Mad magazine. The subversive effect of his work in the US culture began to manifest itself when much of a generation that laughed at the zany if often deadly maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of the otherwise indistinguishable black and white spies came out of the experience with jaded attitudes about the Cold War. That sensibility added fuel to fires of protest against the Vietnam War. The legendarily stingy management at Mad still jealously guards the residual rights to Spy vs. Spy and its characters. But might they be tempted to lease the rights for an animated silver screen feature based on the tale of Ricardo Martinelli’s electronic espionage operation? While people have every right to be incensed about the wholesale violation of the rights of many individuals and organizations inherent in this spying and while we don’t now and may never know the whole story, what is currently known and what is likely to be confirmed suggests madcap comedy.

How seriously can people take an administration whose spymaster informs the DEA station chief that a president with notorious mistresses on the side intends to use the apparatus of state to monitor the first lady’s suspected sexual affairs? How seriously can Panamanian voters take a spy operation that recorded an argument between a husband and wife and made a YouTube political attack video of it? (As it turned out, seriously enough to elect the wife to the legislature.)

However, over the course of Ricardo Martinelli’s administration some impressive capabilities were acquired, others were at least sought and we are only beginning to learn how these powers were abused. Martinelli first demanded that the DEA’s wiretap capability on loan to Panama’s National Security Council be lent for use in his personal political vendettas. When the Americans balked, Martinelli used that and a kidnapping plot hoax that he either created or trumped up into something it wasn’t as an excuse to dismiss his US security advisers and bring in an Israeli government-promoted mercenary company of former Shin Bet officers, MLM Protection to train and manage his bodyguards and run his electronic spy operation. In 2010, through MLM Protection, the Martinelli administration bought an array of surveillance equipment from an Israeli manufacturer. Later, just a few months before the May 2014 elections, the Martinelli administration bought an upgrade.

The name of the manufacturer is the secretive Israeli electronics company Nunvav, and at least part of the equipment sold was the PC Surveillance System. The company, whose name derives from a symbolic Hebrew contraction of “righteous one” and “faithful one,” denies ever having dealt with the Panamanian company, but then it does sell its products through third parties. In this case the one known intermediary was MLM Protection. There may have been others.

While Nunvav denies any direct dealings with the Panamanian government, it claims that it has the ability to locate the paraphernalia it makes wherever in the world it may be. The Varela administration says that the surveillance hardware is missing, and Nunvav says that it needs to see something akin to a search warrant before it helps the Panamanian government find it. The extent of any Israeli or corporate assistance, or that of other advanced foreign investigators, could be important if there is to be a thorough investigation of this matter. Electronic intrusions into databases, computers and telephone systems tend to leave behind tell-tale records of when they happened and any keystrokes involved in the intrusion. There are programs used to hide such electronic footprints but if the counter-intelligence is sophisticated enough — especially if the investigator possesses the suspect machine — those digital masks can identify the particular intrusive device. It would be expensive and it would require international cooperation, but Ricardo Martinelli’s electronic surveillance trail can probably be reconstructed with a fair amount of precision.

La Prensa, citing an unidentified source, claims that the Panamanian government paid more than six times the market value of the equipment. Given a pattern demonstrated in many other Martinelli administration contracts, it should be reasonably suspected that part of the overcharge was siphoned back to Ricardo Martinelli or some person or entity in his entourage in the form of a “consulting fee” or some other euphemism for a kickback. However, it is also reported that MLM trained at least five Panamanians — only four of whom have been identified — to use the equipment and this training may have contributed to the price.

The paper trail is fragmentary at the moment, but it is known that the first spy equipment purchase contract was made through the old Social Investment Fund (the predecessor of today, National Assistance Program or PAN) in 2010. The signers of the resolution approving that contract included then fund director Giacomo Tamburelli, Minister of the Presidency Jimmy Papadimitriu, Vice Minister of Education Mirna de Crespo and Vice Minister of Social Development Marta Susana de Varela.

This equipment was used against Panamanian political figures, including current President Juan Carlos Varela, who at the time it was first acquired was formally allied with Martinelli. La Estrella’s Adelita de Coriat further reports that this spy equipment was turned on other governments, including the embassies of Spain, Italy and the United States, and on the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks showed a strong American aversion to the Israeli presence on the Panamanian security scene. Are we to presume that the United States was later caught unaware of this eavesdropping? That’s unlikely. Are we to imagine that the United States was shocked by Israeli spying on US operations in Panama? Consider that in the Noriega era the Mossad organized the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, a dictatorship death squad that during the 1989 invasion abducted and killed two Americans who may or may not have been intelligence operatives. Consider that a key member of Martinelli’s inner circle, Tourism Minister Salomón Shamah, had already been denied a US visa based on DEA suspicions of his ties with Colombia’s drug cartels and paramilitary death squads. Consider the many cases of Israeli spies caught working against the United States over the years. Consider that not long after Martinelli left office, it was revealed in Der Spiegel that the Israelis had tapped into US Secretary of State John Kerry’s telephone calls. Surely the Americans knew that Martinelli was spying on them, had a dossier with a psychological profile of the man and had counter-intelligence operatives working to manage or counter the spying efforts. Consider that Papadimitriu is a dual US-Panamanian citizen with an American career as a Republican political operative to be destroyed were he covertly a part of a spy operation against the United States. Martinelli may have thought that he was pulling a fast one, but the Americans surely knew. It may be the stuff of spy thrillers, but whole scenario is probably far more conducive to comedy.

There is a partial code of silence of those involved — Tamburelli and Papadimitriu being notable exceptions — but some of the Panamanian security officials who might be presumed to have known all about the surveillance plead ignorance and they might not be lying. It appears that Martinelli organized the surveillance effort into a separate team personally loyal to himself and not showing in known Panamanian government documents. Nobody on this team has made any public declarations about it and some members are known to be unavailable to the government, even for the purpose of declining comment.

So what capabilities did Martinelli’s secret team, whose principal equipment could fit into a a backpack, possess? They could intercept land line and cellular telephones, including text messages. They could read people’s email and other Internet communications. They could not only use cell phones to locate the people carrying them, they could unbeknownst to their carriers turn the devices into live microphones that capture all nearby sounds, including private conversations. From the street they could aim directional microphones at walls or windows and listen to conversations within buildings. They could plant surveillance or destructive viruses in people’s computers. To the extent that Panamanians, whose culture prizes privacy, find out about specific tactics aimed against themselves we may see the emergence of real anger.

There is, however, an at least partially known context. Legally confidential Electoral Tribunal and Social Security Fund databases were mined and their contents used in a campaign database for Ricardo Martinelli’s proxy presidential re-election campaign. The bid specifications for Martinelli’s “free Internet for all” program — never fully implemented — included the president’s ability to block access to or manipulate the download speeds of specific websites and keep track of individuals’ and businesses’ Internet usage. The man went in front of international bodies and advocated various forms of Internet censorship.

There is also a prospective context. If President Varela keeps to his timetable and begins a process of convening a constitutional convention in the middle of 2015, that means that continuing revelations about Ricardo Martinelli’s surveillance operations will be part of the backdrop. Given Panama’s traditional values, it ought to inject the subject of privacy into the constitutional debate.

[Editor’s note: In the quotations at the top of this story there is a demeaning reference to former First Lady Marta Linares de Martinelli. It’s a creepy suggestion to make about any woman and its publication shatters the traditional deference given to first ladies in Panama. However, in the first place The Panama News in no way vouches for the underlying truth of the reported statements of Martinelli’s former spymaster Olmedo Alfaro — it’s just an illustration of the sort of thinking to which all Panamanians were subjected. Second, Marta Linares de Martinelli presented herself to the nation as a vice presidential candidate who would not only have prolonged those abuses but used abusive intrusions into confidential databases as part of her campaign. As far as The Panama News is concerned she by that course of action forfeited the customary deference for first ladies.]



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