Operative branches of intelligence agencies are, by the nature of their mission, often involved in operations of questionable legality, including targeted killings in foreign countries. That’s certainly not news, and surprises nobody. Even if we put legality issues aside, and skirt the question of legitimacy, those killings also raise questions of ethics, when performed in an amateurish way that puts innocent bystanders in harm’s way.

The recent liquidation of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas operative, in a hotel room in Dubai is a perfect illustration of such an operation. Whoever ordered the killing remains unclear, but the UK suspects Israel’s Mossad to have been part of it.

Among the hit team,

there are up to 29 suspects, 12 of whom carried British passports, 6 Irish, 4 French, 1 German and 4 Australian, and another two Palestinians who were arrested.

In other words, whoever provided fake identities to the members of that team, used foreign passports. That too, isn’t unethical yet: it happens all the time, and governments who express outrage about it now are hypocritical at best, because they certainly do the same for their special ops units. After all, creating fake identities is the bread and butter of HumInt and special operations.

What’s really unethical in this case, is that the forged passports represented identities of real people who are still alive. As innocent bystanders, they are put in mortal danger, every time they travel abroad… especially in some countries that take a dim view on this particular special operation.

Traditionally, responsible special ops services would have used as a legend names of imaginary people, of people who died recently, or of people who are locked away for their whole remaining life in asylums or jails… in other words, of people who are guaranteed not to be adversely hit by the theft of their identity.

That wasn’t the case here.

This makes one feel really queasy when traveling abroad and showing one’s passport at the border, or leaving it to some official for inspection. Even not visiting certain countries is no absolute protection: any government that can forge foreign passports can also easily obtain full ID details of people who never visited their country.

I’m usually quite confident about the ethical behavior of the Intel Community and special operation branches not to put innocent people in harm’s way and to focus exclusively on their targets, but my confidence has been shaken a bit by this latest case of absolute amateurish hubris. Whoever decided to use IDs of real living people, was incredibly irresponsible, or astonishingly incompetent, or both.

This operation was a success from a military point of view, because the target, and only the intended target, was competently neutralized… without losses to the hit team and without blatant exposure of the responsible agency. But the collateral damage w.r.t. lost trust is substantial and not to be neglected.

Let’s hope that in the future, special ops branches would refrain from using identities of living people and remind themselves of their professional and ethical code of conduct. Remember: you’re there to protect innocent people from the Bad Guys(tm), not to put them at risk they haven’t previously agreed to.