The Jewish community in Wellington is "disgusted'' by reports today that Israeli spies tried to hack police computers, even though the Prime Minister says an investigation found no link between a group of Israelis caught up in the Christchurch quake and the Israeli intelligence service.
The Southland Times reported actions by several Israelis following the February earthquake raised Security Intelligence Service (SIS) suspicions and sparked an investigation into the possibility the police national computer may have been hacked.
An unnamed SIS officer told the newspaper there were fears a group of Israelis had accessed the police national computer database, which holds records of convictions and other information collected by police.
Prime Minister John Key said security agencies investigated and found no evidence of a spy connection. Police also said their systems had not been hacked.
Wellington Regional Jewish Council Chairman David Zwartz said the story was unhelpful.
"We are very pleased to hear the prime minister's statement and we are also disgusted... with how the story appeared from the very beginning to be a total beat-up and fabrication," he told NZPA.
"Really the whole thing, and all the people who commented, were just smearing."
Southland Times editor Fred Tulett told Radio New Zealand that he stood by his story and Mr Key had confirmed that the suspicions had been looked into.
He emphasised that his story focussed on the fact an investigation was done which was true, but his understanding was that it was ongoing and not completed.
"There is still an ongoing wider investigation into what went on in Christchurch."
He expected investigations had or would yet "find something".
Mr Key said details in Tulett's story that one of the group, Ofer Benyamin Mizrahi, who was killed in the quake, had five passports and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rang him four times after the quake were wrong.
Tulett said he understood that Mr Mizrahi did have five passports.
"I am confident that my information is correct."
Speaking to reporters in San Francisco this afternoon, Mr Key said there was a police and SIS investigation because of the rapid way in which the Israelis left the country after the February earthquake.
"In the view of the agencies there was no link between those individuals and the Israeli intelligence agencies."
He said he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only once and there was no request to facilitate the removal of the Israelis.
Mr Key said the Government took the security of New Zealand and New Zealanders "very seriously".
"That's why the relevant agencies conducted a thorough investigation.
"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.
"Security agencies conducted the investigation and found no evidence that the people were anything other than backpackers," Mr Key said.
While there have been reports that one of the Israeli men who was killed in the earthquake had five passports on him, Mr Key said this was incorrect.
Mr Key said his advice was that the man was found with only one passport, of European origin.
The other three people who had been in the van took their own passports with them when they left the country, and handed over the deceased man's Israeli passport to Israeli representatives before departing.
"None of the passports were New Zealand passports," Mr Key said.
Mr Key also confirmed he only spoke once with the Israeli prime minister in the days following the earthquake.
He said many other leaders also called to express their condolences and to offer assistance to New Zealand, and it took several attempts by Israeli representatives to set up the phone call, a common occurrence in the wake of a major natural disaster.
"The investigations that have been undertaken have been thorough and have found no evidence of a link between the group and Israeli intelligence," Mr Key said.
Computer system secure
The events sparked an investigation into a possible hacking of the police national computer, but police say their systems are secure.
Police systems are subject to regular security audits and intrusion checks, according to acting chief information officer Murray Mitchell,
"We also have a number of anti intrusion measures designed to stop unauthorised or malicious programmes from entering or being active on our systems," he said.
"These systems are regularly being updated and reviewed, and we are confident that our data and network were not compromised during the Christchurch Earthquake response or subsequently."
'Angry and upset'
The claims of suspicious behaviour by Israelis following the earthquake left the Israeli ambassador "angry and upset", according to Mr Tulett.
He is unshakable in his conviction that the facts are accurate.
Mr Tulett told Newstalk ZB the initial information given to him - including the fact that Ofer Mizrahi, who died in the quake when the van he was in was crushed by debris, was carrying extra passports - was checked with other sources, including an intelligence agency source.
Mr Tulett also put the allegations to Israeli Ambassador Shemi Tzur.
"He said he was angry and upset at the suggestions that these were Israeli spies or that any of them were Israeli spies, and that's not surprising of course," Mr Tulett said.
He says there were too many unusual things going on.
Reasons for concern
Meanwhile security expert Paul Buchanan believes the police and SIS have reason to be concerned about reports of possible Israeli spies in Christchurch during the February earthquake.
"One has to wonder what was going on," Mr Buchanan said.
"To have known the fact that the survivors left the country immediately and there were high powered Israeli overtures to the New Zealand Government to bring in a search and rescue team, and as it turns out an unauthorised search and rescue team was sent here and actually detained by the police when they were in the red zone."
Mr Buchanan says given the young age of the suspects - in their early 20s - it's highly likely they were involved in identity theft.
SIS suspicions arose when:
- Benyamin Mizrahi, who died in the quake, was found to have "at least" five passports on him.
- Three other Israelis who were in a van with Mizrahi at the time of the earthquake, fled the country within 12 hours.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called John Key four times after the quake.
- A private search and rescue team were sent from Israel to Christchurch, however was not allowed to enter the CBD as it was not United Nations accredited and was later escorted from the red zone by armed police.
- Israel's civil defence chief left Israel for Christchurch, as did the country's Canberra-based ambassador.
- Another Israeli, in NZ illegally, was reported missing in the quake but then weeks later reported to have left the country.
Key refuses to answer most spy claim questions
Earlier today Mr Key refused to answer most questions about the story.
Currently on tour in the US, he said it was "not in the national interest" to give details of any SIS inquiry.
Asked if he had any reason to believe that Mossad agents had been active in Christchurch at the time Mr Key said, "I'm just not in a position to comment on those matters and I'm not going to.
"I don't think it is in the national interest to do so.
"If I thought it was in the national interest to discuss those matters I would. The previous Government where these was misuse of New Zealand passports, it was deemed to be in the national interest. I'm just not in the position to do that."
Asked if Israeli had done anything wrong, he was not in a position to discuss it.
He had not met with the Israeli ambassador over the issue.
Asked if the Fairfax Media story was wrong, he said he was not going into detail on those issues.
Asked if he had been aware of an Israeli search and resuce team having been found in the red zone and being ordered out by armed police Mr Key said, "I'm aware of some of those details I can't confirm all of the details you presented are correct."
Unnamed SIS agent newspaper's secret source
The Southland Times claimed an unnamed SIS officer told the newspaper there were fears a group of Israelis had accessed the police national computer database, which holds records of convictions and other information collected by police.
The officer said the investigation failed to find any suspicious files indicating the computer system had been hacked in to but the file remained open.
Israeli Ambassador Shemi Tzur dismissed suspicions that a group from Israel's secret service, Mossad, were caught up in the quake as "science fiction".
"These were youngsters holidaying in your beautiful country ... we encourage our young people to visit New Zealand," Mr Tzur said.