Israel’s government is trying to downplay the results of Iran’s presidential election, but the fact is that Hassan Rouhani is immensely different from the departing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This change — and the unforeseen nature of Rouhani’s victory — represent a political earthquake. A bombshell in domestic and international politics.
Here is a Tweet sent out by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday evening:
PM Netanyahu: The international community must not be tempted to relax the pressure on #Iran to stop its nuclear program. http://dld.bz/cEBK6
Yet it certainly looks like Iranians have elected a reformist. Rouhani was clearly — among the six officially approved candidates — the one least liked by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Rouhani promised change.
Although Israeli intelligence devotes huge energy and resources to monitoring Iran — Iran’s secret nuclear project, its military, its politics, and its society — the Israeli espionage agencies did not see Rouhani’s victory on the horizon.
They certainly did not expect that Rouhani could win an outright majority in the first round of voting, with no runoff required.
Mossad (the foreign espionage and operations agency, which our sources say has continued to run assets in and out of Iran) and Aman(the military intelligence agency that considers the capabilities and intentions of Israel’s regional enemies) both assumed that Khamenei would stop at nothing to install one of his reliable loyalists as Ahmadinejad’s successor. The Supreme Leader had many disagreements with Ahmadinejad, partly over the talkative president’s bombastic style and inflated ego, and Khamenei was expected to avoid further headaches. If necessary, it was thought, he would rig the election — just as hard-liners were believed to have done in 2009.
Hello, Hassan Rouhani
A landslide for a candidate who told voters he would work for peace and security? The only candidate who mentioned the sanctions that are adding to the suffering of many Iranians? A Muslim cleric, but one who spoke in favor of press freedoms and negotiating with the West?
Experts don’t understand Iran: This win by Rouhani was wholly unexpected, and it shows that trusted and prestigious Western experts don’t understand Iran — and the complex undercurrents of an ancient culture that’s struggling with a blend of modernity and religious extremism.
Remember Rouhani’s nuclear restraint: In 2003, as an official in “reformist” President Mohammad Khatami’s administration, it was Rouhani who directed the decision to freeze uranium enrichment.
(Israeli and U.S. officials firmly believe that Iran’s Supreme Leader feared that the U.S. might attack Iran at that time, just after the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel’s defense minister said this week that Iran’s uranium enrichment re-started in 2005 and is getting close to the amounts of enriched uranium needed to “break out” and build nuclear bombs.)
Might Rouhani freeze or reverse Iran’s nuclear work again, as part of a deal with the West to cancel sanctions? Would the Supreme Leader and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) let him do that? They may block any and all “reformist” ideas voiced by Rouhani.
Iran already has the materials, hardware, software, and knowledge necessary to build its first nuclear bomb — though not yet the ability to put one in a warhead atop a missile.
Rouhani’s election win signals a growing possiblity that Iran will decide to slow down its nuclear project. That would be part of a policy of engaging with the United States (as everyone assumes that President Barack Obama would dearly like to avoid waging war against Iran).
So here is another unexpected result: that Israel will be further isolated in its severe concern over Iran’s nuclear capabilities (and continued support for Syria’s regime, for Hezbollah, and for terrorism around the world). The gap between Israel and America, on these issues, may well be further widened.
In Washington on Friday, the Israeli defense minister Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon — a former director of the Aman agency — was asked about an interview, last year, in which he pointed out that Israel’s “red line” toward Iran was different from Obama’s “red line.” Has that changed?
Yaalon: “In the past twelve months, we have clarified the differences between our red lines.” That was merely a hint of disagreement, and below that tip of the iceberg there’s plenty more.
[Note: Yossi Melman is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, which gives a lot more intelligence-based information on and analysis of Iran's nuclear program and the country's politics. For more about the book: http://amzn.to/13Ru4Ou .]
June 16, 2013
The Mossad isn’t officially confirming a story leaked by someone in Turkey, but it seems that Tamir Pardo — head of Israel’s foreign espionage and special operations agency — made a secret visit to Turkey this past Monday.
The Mossad chief was bringing information that could help Prime Minister Erdogan. So says the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. Of course, the files Pardo reportedly carried would also feed into Israel’s interests in the region.
For many months now, and certainly since President Obama’s visit to Israel in March — when he got Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the phone with each other — there have been efforts by senior Turkish and Israeli officials to restore the friendship that was shattered years ago. If the goal isn’t quite friendship, it certainly is a restoration of cooperation.
The “peripheral strategy” that goes back to the origins of the Mossad in the early 1950s stresses the benefits of Israeli cooperation — and alliances — with non-Arab Muslims, as well as non-Muslim minorities in Arab countries. Friendship with Turkey, sometimes secretive and sometimes less so, was very important.
Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, is quoted today as saying – when asked about the report that Pardo went to Turkey to confer with that country’s intelligence chief, at such a tense time for the Turks: ”The meeting signifies the strong will of the countries to open a new chapter in their special relations in the fields of defense and security.”
Hurriyet reports that Pardo and his Turkish counterpart talked about possible involvement by other countries — referring, it seems to Iran and Syria — in stirring up the current protests inside Turkey. The Mossad director is also said to have brought evidence of deep Iranian involvement in Syria’s civil war, on behalf of President Assad’s regime.
When Iran flexes its muscle and influence in the Middle East, especially in Turkey’s backyard, the Turks are interested in flexing back.
June 13, 2013
Twenty-eight months after the civil war in Syria began, Israel still doesn’t know who it wants to win. In any event, senior officials say they don’t believe they can do much to influence the outcome.
CIA map of Syria
It’s Israeli intelligence that is tasked with carefully watching every development in Syria – with a definite focus on any attempt to move missiles, high-tech systems, and chemical weapons to terrorists including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
At least three times this year, when Aman — Israel’s military intelligence agency — picked up signs that significant types and quantities of weapons were about to be transferred by Syria’s regime to Hezbollah, Israel’s air force has struck targets inside Syria.
These were dramatic decisions, of course, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top national security advisors. Israeli government spokespeople — while refusing to confirm publicly that their country had attacked Syrian targets — hastened to re-state the official policy that has dominated since the civil war began in January 2011: that Israel has no reason to choose sides.
Israel doesn’t call for the downfall of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, although he and his predecessor and father Hafez al-Assad have helped terrorists, have been implacable enemies of Israel, and formed a firm alliance with Iran.
But does Israel like any of the rebel groups? Certainly the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant groups are not Israeli favorites. The more moderate rebels, including those who wear suits and ties and attend meetings in Western Europe with American envoys, also seem to hold little allure for the Israelis — although some of them, if they were to take over and try to build a democratic, free Syria, could conceivably live in peace and quiet alongside Israel.
The traditional Israeli view of divisions within the Arab world is that it’s good for Israel if “our enemies are busy killing each other.”
A source close to the leadership of the Mossad said, this month, that strategically Israel would still see things that way. “The best situation is for things to continue the way they are now,” this Israeli said. Yet within minutes the source added: “It’s true, however, that as human beings it’s very difficult for us Israelis — to know that people, including children, are being killed every day just a few kilometers away in Syria.”
At the start of the civil war, Israeli officials generally preferred that Assad be overthrown. But lately, seeing the rise of radical Islamist elements among the rebel fighters, some Israelis have said that things would be “not all that bad if Assad continues as president, assuming he is weakened.”
All in all, the source said, “it still would be better for Israel if Assad falls — because of his alliance with Iran and with Hezbollah.” Israel wants Iran and its proxies to lose.
May 24, 2013
The following article was written by Yossi Melman (co-author of Spies Against Armageddon) for The Jerusalem Report — a twice-a-month magazine published by The Jerusalem Post.
The international and Israeli media’s unflagging interest in the case of Ben Zygier – the Australian-born Jew turned Mossad operative, who committed suicide in his Israeli prison cell in December 2010 – has brought to light the intriguing question of how Israel’s espionage agency searches for, approaches and recruits its manpower.
But first an update on the unfolding story: The German magazine, Der Spiegel, first reported in March that Zygier, who wanted to impress his superiors, betrayed a few Lebanese agents who worked for the Mossad. And then in May, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which earlier in February exposed Zygier’s identity (known until then as Prisoner X), went an extra mile, claiming that the Australian-Israeli, 34 at his death, compromised an operation to discover the remains of three Israeli MIAs who died in a battle in Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon during the 1982 war.
The ABC report was based on an interview with one of the “betrayed” Lebanese. Ziad el Homsi, a former Palestine Liberation Organization officer turned local politician, claimed that he was asked to dig up the graves of the Israeli MIAs, but actually he was a double agent working for Lebanese military intelligence.
Israeli sources dismissed both the German and Australian stories and described them as “nonsense.”
Yet they do admit that it was wrong to recruit Zygier in the first place. “He slipped through our usually rigorous recruiting net,” said an intelligence source.
Zygier was born in 1976 in Melbourne to a family very active in the Jewish community. He went to a Jewish school, joined a Zionist youth movement (Hashomer Hatza’ir) and in 1994 moved to Israel, aged 18. He adopted a Hebrew surname, Alon, and served in the Israel Defense Forces. Soon he was spotted as a potential recruit for intelligence work. Among other attributes, he had a genuine foreign passport that could help a covert operative establish a cover story.
Ben Zygier (from Australia’s ABC)
The sources say Zygier/Alon was approached by the Mossad, went through the standard laborious psychological and aptitude tests, and joined the secret agency in 2003. After more than a year of training, he was assigned to one of the Mossad’s top operational and clandestine units. His assignments tended to involve efforts to penetrate Iran.
Noticing flaws in his personality that made him unsuitable for intelligence field work, the Mossad sent him to study for an MBA at a university in Melbourne before the termination of his contract. There, sources say, he became depressed and edgy and was excessively talkative. Rubbing shoulders with fellow students from many nations, including Lebanese and Iranians, he openly spoke of his Mossad career. At a certain point, he befriended a local contact who had ties with Iran. He was so talkative that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization heard about him and opened its own investigation.
The Mossad also became aware of his loose tongue. Examining who was having conversations with Zygier, the Mossad concluded that some of its operations and operatives were put at risk by his revelations. On his next visit to Israel, he was arrested and indicted on charges of espionage, bordering on treason.
On its website, the Mossad refers to itself as the Israel Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS). It defines its mission as “collecting information, analyzing intelligence and performing special covert operations beyond Israel’s borders.” The website encourages members of the public, locally and internationally, to apply for a job in a range of professions such as graphic design, logistics, computers and programming. Multi-language skills are desired, with an emphasis on Farsi and Arabic. An excellent job candidate would excel at “special” assignments, intelligence and security – areas that are at the core of the agency.
Mossad’s official logo
It is clear from the Zygier affair, as well as previous known and unknown cases, that the number-one priority of the recruiting process is to properly screen potential candidates. The screening is aimed at finding out whether they are suitable for their designated missions — above all, so that they will neither bungle their work nor cause embarrassing damage to Israel’s national interests. The ultimate goal is to make sure that the select few will be loyal to the organization and avoid actions that might eventually lead to divulging sensitive information and exposing operations, thus causing the arrest and death of agents.
The jobs are described in superlatives. “The job which will change your life,” and “Your job dream.” Despite lack of precise descriptions of the jobs required, from the skills needed, one can reach the conclusion what it is all about. Here is one example for a job in the field of “special assignments.” The candidate, it says, “has an opportunity to create a reality in which he/she plays the central role.” It sounds like a sentence from The Little Drummer Girl, one of John Le Carre’s novels in which he likens intelligence to the art of the theater, though intelligence is “theater of the real.”
In reality, what the Mossad is talking about is the job description of a katsa, a Hebrew acronym for a “collection officer.” In other intelligence services, such a person and role is referred to as a “case officer” or “handler of agents.”
Despite its worldwide image and reputation as an organization that is mainly involved in liquidating its enemies, the Mossad is not “Murder Inc.” In its more than 60 years of existence, the Mossad has been involved in no more than 40 assassination cases in which terrorists, nuclear scientists and Nazi war criminals were killed. The Mossad is basically an intelligence agency specializing in collecting and analyzing information, which is then provided to the Prime Minister and his cabinet to aid in making decisions.
The katsa plays an essential role in the Mossad. He or she is indispensable. This officer is the spearhead of the agency in the field. With the help of specialists at headquarters level, the katsa is responsible for spotting, approaching, recruiting, running, defending and babysitting the agent who is supposed to provide the information. These officers belong to a department known as Tsomet (Junction).
A second operational department is Keshet (Bow), which is in charge of the surveillance of targets as well as break-ins into places of interest to the agency. And a third department is Caesarea, which encompasses the Mossad’s most cherished persons: the field agents. These are the operatives who infiltrate enemy countries such as Syria, Lebanon and, the most dangerous one, Iran. One of the units within the department is Kidon (Bayonet), whose agents carry out the very select operations in which violence is necessary.
One of the main functions of the Mossad’s website is to broaden the net of potential candidates for the Mossad. Before the website was launched 15 years ago, the main recruiting method was based on the “old-boys network” – searching for candidates in the military and the other branches of the intelligence community based on personal recommendations.
Since then, searching, screening and recruiting have tremendously improved and are more systematic and scientific. Yet, today, as then, the number-one problem of the Human Resources department remains how to make sure that the recruit does not have a hidden personality disorder and latent suicidal tendencies.
The objective is to screen out problematic candidates — without rejecting the suitable, potentially great ones. In the annals of the Mossad and other intelligence agencies, there have been hundreds of cases of rejecting good candidates. But, luckily enough for the Mossad, very few cases of recruits with personality disorders have been discovered.
There are at least four famous cases. One was Avri Elad, a major in the IDF. In 1954, he was sent to Egypt under the identity of a Nazi SS officer to run a network of Jewish students trained to destabilize the regime. Eventually, he betrayed them. Elad denied the charges yet was imprisoned for 10 years for espionage.
Another one involved Mordechai Kedar, a bank robber suspected of murder. He was recruited in 1956, trained and sent to establish his cover in Argentina before being sent to Egypt. While in Buenos Aires, he murdered his local Jewish helper and stole his money. Kedar was found guilty by a military tribunal court and was imprisoned for 20 years.
Three decades later, the case of Mossad cadet Victor Ostrovsky came to light. Possessing a Canadian passport and the traits of a professional charmer, he was recruited as a candidate despite what Mossad sources call personality flaws. They say Ostrovsky became involved in financial frauds. Eventually, after 18 months of training, his handlers discovered that he was cheating his classmates.
After being fired, Ostrovsky took his revenge by writing a book about Mossad operations, and named many of its operatives. Prior to the publication of his book, which contains a lot of lies, the Mossad tried to dissuade him from publishing, but he refused. It turned out that the Mossad’s efforts, which included failed appeals to Canadian and American courts, served as Ostrovsky’s best marketing vehicle. His book became a lucrative bestseller.
And then there was the case of Yehuda Gil. A legendary katsa who posed as an Italian businessman, in the mid-1970s Gil befriended a Syrian general and tried to recruit him. The general refused to betray his country. Fearing he would be seen as a failure, Gil kept up a 20-year charade in which the general was supposedly feeding him valid information. Meanwhile, Gil hid the money he was supposed to pay the source under mattresses at his home in Tel Aviv and fabricated reports.
In the mid-1990s, one of the reports Gil submitted nearly triggered a war between Israel and Syria. Eventually, Gil was put under the surveillance of his Keshet buddies and was caught red-handed. He was sentenced to five years in jail.
Psychologists who worked for the Mossad have told me that individuals with borderline personalities are characterized by sudden and dramatic changes in their behavior and unstable relations with other people. “In many cases,” one psychologist said, “these people tend to see their close colleagues in a dichotomy – either as an enemy or a loved one.”
“People with borderline personalities are the greatest risk to any intelligence organization,” another psychologist noted, “because it is an elusive trait that is difficult to be noticed and screened.”
Maximum efforts of any clandestine service are devoted to block entry to such personalities. However, a built-in contradiction threatens the process. Often such people are gifted and blessed with traits that the organization is seeking: creativity, the ability to change identities, to lie without blinking, to be daring, and to deal with changing and challenging circumstances. No wonder that sometimes the agency does not resist the temptation and hires these characters.
Indeed the cases mentioned above, as well as the Zygier affair, prove this point. Nevertheless, a few dozen failed cases out of the thousands of people who have been recruited to work in the Mossad and for the Mossad over the six decades of its existence are not a bad ratio at all.
The recruiting process cannot be perfect. As of now, no one has invented a vaccine that can neutralize the flaws in human nature.
[This Jerusalem Report article by Yossi Melman was slightly edited for IsraelSpy.com.]
May 22, 2013
The steady drone of medium-level alarm bells about Iran continues, but the latest report by United Nations nuclear inspectors contains nothing that requires urgent action.
Israel has been alarmed for over a decade, now, by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s march toward nuclear capability — and our book chronicles the historic shift of priorities by Israeli intelligence: devoting less attention to Palestinian politics so as to be focused with laser-beam attention on Iran.
The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency has several troubling aspects, including Iran’s rapid progress on a few paths that could lead to nuclear weapons.
Julian Borger of Britain’s The Guardian notes, however, that Iran has apparently continued to take great care to stay below the “red line” set by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech at the U.N. in New York last September.
Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, is monitoring all this very carefully, and Netanyahu is surely interested in every detail that can be plucked out of Iran.
Yet his new coalition government is distracted by many subjects — and notably has failed to reach agreement on its posture toward a possible “two-state solution” with the Palestinians, even as America’s Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Jerusalem and Ramallah for another attempt at mediating a return to negotiations.
Even though Barack Obama, on his first trip to Israel as President in March, said he respects Israel’s right to make its own decisions on how best to defend itself, it is crystal clear that the United States still wants Israel to act with restraint: to give negotiations and sanctions more time to be effective.
American analysts feel the IAEA’s latest report still points to the likelihood that it would take Iran one year at a minimum — and perhaps two years — before it could produce a deliverable nuclear weapon.
May 22, 2013
The authors of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars (available now as a trade paperback and e-book) have written several books together, and they all include Israeli and American intelligence operatives. In their book, Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance, 1948-1994, they illustrate that cooperative and competitive covert activities were a significant part of the story.
Levant Books has now seen to it that Friends In Deed
is available (for the first time) for the Nook: http://bit.ly/KInNdv
It can also be purchased for Kindle readers and the Kindle app for iPad and many smartphones: http://amzn.to/144oBIM
The list price is only $2.99.
– - - -
Like other books by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Friends In Deed has the true-life stories of dozens and dozens of people whose collective efforts form a coherent, significant history.
From Library Journal
This is one of the most readable accounts of U.S.-Israeli relations in recent years. Both authors have impeccable credentials in the field of journalism and Israeli politics and successfully coauthored Every Spy a Prince, which detailed the activities of the Israeli intelligence community. As they chronicle the political give-and-take between the two countries from Harry Truman’s presidency onward, fascinating pieces of the hardball reality that is international politics float to the surface. Thus, we learn that it was the Israelis who suggested focused bombing raids to eliminate Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm; during the 1980s, Israel was so well received in Washington that Secretary of State George Shultz and others would solicit Israeli help in getting certain pieces of legislation passed by Congress. Eminently readable, Friends in Deed is highly recommended for all libraries with collections in this field. (1994)
April 24, 2013
This is from Balkanalysis.com — a website that takes those Balkan countries very seriously, as a hotbed of nationalism, power struggles, espionage, and potential terrorism.
An…Israeli expert, Yossi Melman, recently provided some significant commentary for Balkanalysis.com. A veteran journalist specializing in intelligence matters, Melman is the co-author (with CBS News’ Dan Raviv) of several critically-acclaimed contemporary studies, the most recent being Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israeli’s Secret Wars.
“Israeli agencies know that Iran’s MOIS and the al Qods force have established sleeper cells of agents and helpers in various key countries in regions all over the world, from South America and Central America to Southeast Asia and East and West Africa, and they try to locate weak links in the European chain… one such a weak link is the Balkans,” notes the Israel journalist. “They operated there during the wars of the 1990′s (mainly, in Bosnia and Kosovo) and they are trying to establish some sort of presence in Macedonia.”
The same local conditions that make the Balkans an attractive target for Hezbollah and Iran are also obliging Israeli security services to increase their focus. According to Melman, “the decision to expand the Israeli diplomatic presence [in the Balkans] is a byproduct of budgetary reasons, economic potential and yes, also the desire to challenge and stand up to Iran and Hezbollah terrorism.”
A key question emerges: what would Iran do if, as has been speculated for years, Israel and/or the US decide to attack it?
“Iran will respond and retaliate where it will have the operational capabilities, as we have seen in Bulgaria,” attests Melman. “Iran’s operations are based on, and are a result of, the following considerations: its capabilities, targets (whether there are easy and soft to attack) and above all not to leave its fingerprint, where they believe they would get away with murder- even if their agents are caught red-handed.”
“Having said that, this does not mean necessarily that the Mossad will open ‘stations,’” Melman continues. “Embassies provide a good logistic cover for intelligence operations but you can also have ‘jumpers’- liaison intelligence officers and officials who operate from HQ and ‘jump’ to countries were they are needed.”
However, he adds that while Israel enjoys “excellent cooperation” with local Balkan services, the latter in some cases “lack technological capacities and are weak in analysis, and certainly in monitoring outside elements like Iran- here enter the CIA and the Mossad to help them. The Burgas inquiry is a good example of such an international cooperation, combining local and international knowledge and understanding.”
For the rest of the analysis by Chris DeLiso — an American now based in Skopje, Macedonia — see: http://www.balkanalysis.com/bulgaria/2013/03/31/israeli-security-concerns-and-the-balkans/
April 7, 2013
By YOSSI MELMAN in Tel Aviv
On a sunny, humid afternoon in June 2010, I sat on the plaintiff’s bench in Judge Hila Gerstel’s court in Petach Tikva, a town about eight miles east of this bustling city.
Opposite my lawyer and me were representatives and legal advisors of Israel’s security establishment. My goal, on behalf of the newspaper I then worked for, Haaretz, was to persuade Judge Gerstel to lift a gag order.
We lost the case. Judge Gerstel refused to consider even a compromise – to allow us to reprint news items published abroad about a mysterious Prisoner X. Because of the judicial gag, the episode was not included in the book which I later co-authored.
Twenty months later, I wonder what would have happened had the judge given her consent? Would that have prevented Ben Zygier from committing suicide? He was the Australian who moved to Israel and, as Ben Alon, reportedly worked for the Mossad until he did something that enraged the Israeli foreign espionage agency. Perhaps a glimmer of media attention would have offered some hope to a man in solitary confinement whose very existence was a state secret.
The 6 Former Shin Bet Chiefs (from Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated film “The Gatekeepers”)
He was arrested in February 2010, almost certainly by officers of Shin Bet – the domestic security agency spotlighted now in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers.” Zygier/Alon was interrogated, was represented by four lawyers, appeared before judges, was visited by his wife and other family members, and was eventually indicted. In December 2010 he was found dead in his high-security cell, originally constructed to house Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Authorities decreed that the prisoner somehow hanged himself. Every move and stage of this case was conducted in secrecy.
We still don’t know the nature of his alleged crime. Did he betray fellow Mossad operatives – known as “combatants” — and compromise ongoing operations? Was he recruited by a foreign agency, perhaps an Arab entity or other enemy of Israel? Or, as Australian media now suggest, did he spill the beans to a basically friendly security service such as ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization?
Senior Israeli government officials, including current and former heads of the intelligence community, are saying: “Trust us. We don’t make any of our citizens simply disappear. The civil rights of suspects and prisoners are respected. But telling you anything about them would do severe harm to the security of the Jewish State.”
Yet the secrecy culture is clearly exaggerated and habitual, tarnishing my country’s image as a society based on freedom – boasting proudly that it is the only true democracy in the Middle East.
The deafening silence of the authorities about Zygier and his death for nearly two years, until they were forced by an Australian TV documentary to open the information portal slightly, made Israel look like a dark nation whose citizens can simply vanish from the face of the earth, as happens under tyrannical regimes. And we are not one of those.
In 2006, Amos Manor, who headed Shin Bet for 11 years beginning in 1953, told me that since the War of Independence in 1948, no Israeli prisoner suspected of security offenses had been executed in Israel. None, he said, had even been detained for long without trial.
Yet since the 1950′s Israel did operate an X Files system. When members of the Mossad or other security agencies and institutions were suspected of betraying Israel, they were typically held in solitary confinement under assumed names and isolated from the outside world. The media were banned from reporting about the arrests, word of which generally leaked to journalists in this small and intimately talkative land.
The prisoners’ interrogators threatened them that if they failed to follow these guidelines, they would be deprived of various rights, such as family visits.
The last known case of this disturbing practice was that of Professor Marcus Klingberg, the deputy scientific director of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research. He was arrested in 1983 and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. He had to play along with using a false name in prison and was known to his jailers as Greenberg.
Gossip about some of these cases naturally reached foreign correspondents, and the result was that readers around the world knew about some occurrences in Israel – often drawn in harshly negative tones – even while gag orders prevented Israelis from reading or hearing reports that were freely available abroad.
The age of the internet has made a mockery of the practice, as Israelis can click and read foreign websites. Yet judges and security agencies here cling to the old days when they thought they could control everything.
The ties that bind the intelligence community, the defense establishment, and law-enforcement authorities including the courts are too tight and too cozy. Espionage agencies that are rated among the world’s finest show only a Neanderthal knowledge of how information reaches the public in a high-tech era.
The Mossad and its sophisticated combatants display daring and courage behind enemy lines, and they know how to gather information. In the pre- and post-internet age, they have been very good at waging psychological warfare involving the dissemination of disinformation and rumors.
Yet the Mossad is less capable of handling crises involving the mass media. Attempting to conceal facts only serves to stimulate interest and draw even more attention. By treating every bit of information as a national secret, the Mossad and the other state security institutions have caused the number of secrets to multiply. And trying to protect all of these secrets has made it difficult for any secret to remain intact, including ones that really deserve to be.
Here is one example to prove the point. Victor Ostrovsky, a Mossad cadet who was ousted, wrote a book aggrandizing his own role and supposedly revealing Mossad secrets. He should never have been recruited by the secretive agency in the first place, since he had been a known swindler who was caught in a fraud scam. The Israeli government foolishly tried to block publication of Ostrovsky’s book in the United States, which naturally resulted in its becoming a global best seller in 1990.
The Mossad’s handling of the Zygier/Alon affair is reminiscent of what was said about French royalists more than two centuries ago: They forget nothing, yet they learn nothing.
As effective as Israel’s covert combatants have been, their chiefs repeatedly display a we-know-best attitude that crosses the border into harmful arrogance. The Mossad’s shiny image has been tarnished by this episode – with the agency seen to be desperately scurrying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted, perhaps because there are other embarrassing steeds and stories still tightly held.
Damage may also have been to ongoing operations. Iran and other enemies of Israel surely now are double- and triple-checking any contacts they had with Australian-accented men who resemble the published photographs of Zygier/Alon.
February 24, 2013
The story of the Australian-born “Prisoner X” found dead in an Israeli prison — apparently having crossed his bosses at the Mossad — is starting to fade. But more revelations would surely re-ignite interest. Mossad chiefs probably feel angry that some of their methodology has been revealed to Israel’s enemies, because of this incident’s exposure.
But in the modern world of information flow, secrets are very hard to keep.
Here’s most of an Agence France Presse item on February 19 that quoted Yossi Melman:
The mysterious arrest and suicide of an Australian-Israeli with Mossad ties in a top-secret prison cell near Tel Aviv has raised questions about how Israel’s shadowy spy outfit chooses its agents.
While some reports suggested the man now identified as Ben Zygier may have been a loose-lipped braggart with psychological problems, a veteran Israeli defence analyst dismissed the claims, saying it would have shown up clearly in the agency’s exhaustive vetting procedures. …
Intelligence and defence expert Yossi Melman told AFP that any flaws in Zygier’s character would almost certainly have been known to his employers. “The vetting is very, very, very rigorous,” he said.
“It can take a year before someone is recruited, just to begin as a cadet. You undergo psychological screening and psychometric exams and you talk to psychologists, you are interviewed, then you are given some sort of tests in the field,” he said.
“If (Zygier) had any past problems … I am sure that Mossad knew about it,” said Melman, whose book Spies Against Armageddon looks at Mossad operations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.
According to the latest report by ABC published on Monday, Zygier was arrested by his Mossad handlers after leaking detailed information about his work to the Australian intelligence services.
It said Zygier had given the Australians a comprehensive account of a number of Mossad operations, including plans for a top-secret mission in Italy that had been years in the making.
Zygier, who also went by several other surnames — Alon, Allen and Burrowes — was reportedly one of three Australian Jews working for Mossad who changed their names several times to take out new passports, enabling them to travel to Middle Eastern countries where Israelis cannot enter.
It said he was involved in setting up a Europe-based communications company for Mossad that exported electronic components to Iran and to other Arab countries, working alongside two other Australian-Israelis also employed by the spy agency. …
“Whatever he did, he did something that compromised the organisation and compromised maybe some field operation, maybe he even compromised some field agents, I don’t know,” Melman said, basing his assessment on information published abroad.
To his understanding, Zygier would only have been a relatively minor cog in the Israeli intelligence machine. “He didn’t have a serious job, that’s clear for me,” Melman said. “I think he served for a couple of years.”
February 24, 2013
Although Israel’s government has released portions of the official report on the death of Ben Zygier — and that is the only name being used for the Australian-born Israeli who was found hanged in a high-security prison cell in December 2010 — there is no confirmed information on what Zygier was doing for Israel’s foreign espionage agency, the Mossad. And no official word as to what was his alleged crime.
part of the ASIO agency website
In fact, considering that he was facing a prison sentence of greater than 10 years — based on one of his lawyer’s statement that a plea bargain would have included “a double-digit sentence” — it is difficult to believe that the “grave offense” was spilling information to a friendly intelligence service, specifically Australia’s ASIO.
Yes, identifying secret operatives or methods would be damaging — and Israel’s security agencies would punish any employee who did that.
But Zygier’s case glows with the sense of greater importance. A grave crime, in this field, would be unauthorized and intense contacts with hostile foreign agents, perhaps compromising an ongoing Israeli operation, or worst of all causing the death of Mossad personnel or their hired agents.
As for the fact that releasing almost any information on the Mossad’s work can be damaging, the revelations in the past week since Zygier’s identity was revealed by Australia’s ABC television include circumstantial evidence that he — and two other ex-Australians believed to have been working for the Mossad — were running a secret operation based in Italy.
a screen grab from Australian ABC’s documentary Feb. 12
The assumption is that the target country was Iran, and it seems only reasonable that a company in Europe serving as cover for the Mossad might be selling goods to Iran. We have reported that Israel managed, over the years, to see to it that faulty equipment was shipped to Iran’s nuclear program.
We can note also that Italy historically has been cooperative with Mossad efforts. Israel’s secret agency feels that its counterparts in Italy are quite friendly.
February 21, 2013
The Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar has published its own investigation into how Israel’s Mossad was able to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh, the highly elusive “defense minister” of Lebanon’s Shi’ite Muslim militia Hezbollah. The killing took place in February 2008, after a decades-long manhunt by Israel, the United States, and other Western countries which had felt the sting of Hezbollah skyjackings and other terrorism.
The newspaper confirms the notion that Mughniyeh and other Hezbollah men lowered their guard and were relaxed while in Damascus, believing that they were beyond Israel’s reach. The report suggests that Mughniyeh was walking alone, when a car bomb exploded:
On the evening of 12 February 2008, Mughniyeh had just finished a meeting with some of the most senior Palestinian leaders in the Syrian capital of Damascus. They had discussed ways to develop the capacities of the Palestinian resistance inside Palestine, and Gaza in particular.
Around 10:15 pm, Mughniyeh left his apartment building in the Kfar Sousa neighborhood of Damascus. He came down alone and started to walk toward his car, which was parked in an area of about 800m2 that was used as a parking lot outside a cluster of buildings.
The explosion was heard around 10:20 pm. Some people rushed to the location, including those Mughniyeh was seeing in the apartment. It turned out that when Mughniyeh had stepped out of the building’s main gate, a 2006 silver Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4 parked nine meters away exploded, killing him alone, on the spot.
The Lebanese newspaper continued with new details of a Syrian employed by the Israelis:
The Mossad recruited a Syrian expat who visited his country often, and asked him to move to Damascus to provide logistics for the operation. The agent provided a villa to hide the vehicle and affix it with explosives, in addition to accommodations for the group that carried out the operation.
He rented the villa in an upscale suburb of Damascus (“Assad Villages”), located to the northwest of Kfar Sousa, and asked an ironsmith to separate the car entrance from the pedestrian entrance with an iron net on three sides, making it look like a cage and blocking the entry to the villa from that location.
A while later, the agent went back to Syria and bought a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4, after knowing that several similar makes visited the targeted location often. In addition, Mughniyeh sometimes drove the same make. The execution team used a different model, Mitsubishi Lancer, due to its popularity in Syria in general.
The Pajero, now parked in the villa, was equipped with explosives in its trunk door. It was later discovered that, in addition to the explosives, the bomb contained metal pellets that can cause extensive damage to the target instantaneously. The device was similar to several bombs used by Israel to assassinate resistance leaders in Lebanon and abroad.
The investigators and people close to the file are very secretive about the implementation team. But there are indicators that show that they were not Syrian citizens and that they had travelled in and out of the country to implement the operation.
In the early afternoon of 12 February 2008, one of the implementers drove the Pajero, equipped with explosives in its trunk door, and parked it outside the building frequented by Mughniyeh.
At dusk, the team of four individuals took the getaway Lancer and, after making sure that the construction workers had left the building under construction next to Mughniyeh’s building, three of them went upstairs to observe the parking lot, the target, and the vehicle with the explosives.
They chose an apartment on the sixth floor. One of them surveyed the area with binoculars, another was charged with detonating the explosives, and the third was for protection. The fourth waited in the getaway car parked at the back of the building close to the fence.
Right before 10:20 pm, Mughniyeh exited the building and, as soon as he reached the well-lit lot nine meters away from the Pajero, the bomb was detonated and he was killed instantly. The implementing team left the building and headed toward their getaway car.
They immediately drove toward the Mazzeh highway where they parked the car on the side of the road and left behind some items for distraction. The investigations showed that the implementing team faced a problem while escaping, which led them to leave the car and use another to escape to an unknown location.
Imad Mughniyeh’s funeral in Beirut, 2008
Here is what the book Spies Against Armageddon says about the Mossad finding and killing Imad Mughniyeh — on pages 301-302:
For Israeli intelligence, the most important target in Hezbollah was not Nasrallah. It was his “defense minister,” Imad Mughniyeh. He had been the Mossad’s most wanted man—and also on the FBI’s official list—for many years. Israel tried to kill Mughniyeh numerous times…
He was very elusive. Knowing he was a target, he changed his face, he changed his safe houses often, he changed his vehicles, and he barely traveled: only to Damascus, Syria, and to his masters in Iran. Until Dagan became the Mossad chief, those locales were out of bounds for Israeli assassination operations.
In the end, the Mossad showed that it could be patient as a hawk waiting for its prey. Waiting and watching, for one mistake. One opportunity.
That came in February 2008 in Damascus.
Syria was a dangerous place for Mossad operatives. The government had a large security apparatus, unusually adept at spying on its own people. Foreigners, too, were under constant watch. When the Mossad wanted to operate in Damascus, it would be highly unlikely that Israelis would pose as citizens of a Western country—the usual technique in most places. It would be wiser to melt into Syrian crowds on the streets. And a Kidon team managed to do that.
The Mossad had done it, in fact, four years earlier in Damascus. Izzedin el-Khalil, a senior operative in the military wing of Hamas—the Palestinian Islamic movement—was killed by a bomb planted under his car in September 2004. That was an important operational landmark. For the first time, the Mossad proved that it could execute a lethal mission in a front-line enemy capital other than Beirut, even in such a tightly controlled police state as Syria.
That mission gave the Kidon unit a great deal of confidence that it could carry out such strikes under the most challenging conditions imaginable. That was fully in accord with the undeclared motto of the Mossad, that everything is do-able.
Piecing together humint and telephone intercepts, Israeli intelligence managed to learn a great deal about Mughniyeh’s private life and tracked his movements, finally aware of his post-plastic surgery appearance. They took advantage of two human weaknesses, quite uncharacteristic for a master terrorist on the run.
First, hosted by Syrian intelligence in one of its guest apartments, and in constant contact with Iranian “diplomats,” Mughniyeh felt totally comfortable in Damascus. Living for decades with the assumption that he was an assassination target, he must have craved a place to feel safe. He let down his guard when in Syria, moving around with full self-confidence and no fear.
He also permitted himself to do, in Damascus, what he did not do at home in Lebanon: fool around with women. That, too, meant that he was literally a man about town, in moving cars more than a cautious man would be. Spies for the Mossad took note of routes that he repeatedly took.
A Kidon team, acting with great care in an enemy capital, managed to plant a bomb in or on Mughniyeh’s Japanese four-wheel-drive vehicle on February 12, 2008. The terrorist’s career ended with a blast. His body parts were scattered, but no one else was killed.
This was a triumph for the men and women of Israeli intelligence. They had accomplished the nearly impossible. Their feeling was similar to the satisfaction Americans would enjoy, three years later, when Navy Seals found and killed Osama bin Laden.
February 21, 2013
The constant tug of war between protecting the nation’s security and satisfying the people’s right to know — an important facet of Israeli life — is on display, as authorities gradually release details of Ben Zygier’s death: though not yet his life.
Ben Zygier (from Australia’s ABC “Foreign Correspondent”)
A judge approved the release of parts (though not all) of the investigators’ conclusion that Zygier — an Australian-born Israeli, reliably reported to have been a covert operative in the Mossad — hanged himself in his high-security prison cell on December 15, 2010. He tied a wet bedsheet to the bars of the window in the toilet-and-shower part of the cell, where cameras apparently were absent. The sheet was twisted tight around his neck.
The report also said that there was a small amount of a tranquilizer drug in his bloodstream, but the investigators stated that the drug had nothing to do with Zygier’s suicide.
The judge, however, declared that she is keeping the case open, because there is evidence of “culpability” by prison authorities. They should have known that preventing the possibility of suicide was a vital part of their job. But instead, according to The Jerusalem Post, they made their first priority isolating Zygier so that he could have no communication with other people.
The report might be considered surprising when it reveals that Zygier’s family was actively involved and kept informed during the death investigation. There is no indication, however, that the family was told anything at all about their loved one’s covert career — or what he might have done to anger the Mossad and Shin Bet (the domestic security agency).
Prime Minister Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obviously sought to discredit media reports that Zygier’s violation was revealing information to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) by issuing an unexpected statement: “between the government of Israel and all its agencies, and the government of Australia and the Australian security agencies, there is excellent cooperation, full coordination, and complete transparency in dealing with current issues.”
The situation seems to suggest again that Australian officials were not disturbed by Israel’s arrest of Zygier. Officials revealed last week that they were informed through intelligence channels when Zygier was locked up in February 2010. It is, at the least, a remarkable coincidence that around the same time the Australian government was criticizing the Mossad publicly for using Australian passports in its covert operations — including the murder, the previous month, of a Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel (the assassination mission in which up to 26 Israeli secret operatives were seen by security cameras).
Another reasonable conclusion, though admittedly not based on full facts, would be that Ben Zygier’s alleged crimes against Israel were considered very serious. One of the lawyers on his defense team has revealed that when Zygier was considering a plea bargain — a day or two before his death — the state prosecutors’ offer was a “double-digit sentence”: at least 10 years in prison.
February 20, 2013
By DAN RAVIV in Washington
A follow-up by Trevor Bormann suggests that Ben Zygier’s alleged crime stemmed from his contacts with the Australian security and intelligence agency, ASIO. Bormann is the reporter who scored a scoop on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by revealing that a so-called Prisoner X held by Israel, who was found dead in his prison cell in late 2010, was an Australian-born Mossad operative.
a screen grab from Australian ABC’s documentary Feb. 12
Bormann’s original report made waves worldwide, but last week on TV he was unable to establish what Zygier — who renamed himself Ben Alon after moving to Israel but also is said to have used other names — may have done to anger his bosses at the Mossad.
Would Israel’s security authorities — both in the Mossad and in the domestic security agency Shin Bet — lock up one of their own covert operatives, on suspicion of revealing secrets to a basically friendly country such as Australia? Would such an arrest be kept totally secret, with a judge issuing a gag order to ensure that the Israeli news media would never mention the case?
The answer is yes. If, as the new report from the Australian ABC suggests, the Mossad had an ongoing operation against Iran, then silencing any leaks would be a high priority. Based on precedents, one may speculate that Israel would not kill or imprison forever such a person. Keeping him out of the picture for a few years would suffice from an operational point of view, and Israeli prosecutors and judges might add more prison time for punishment and to deter other Mossad people from spilling secrets.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is calling on “everyone” to stop revealing information about the case. As translated by Joel Greenberg of the Washington Post:
“The security and intelligence forces of Israel act under the full supervision of the legal authorities… In this combination of maintaining security and abiding by the law, freedom of speech is also maintained — but overexposure of security and intelligence activity can damage, sometimes even seriously damage, national security.”
Netanyahu added — and referenced what makes Israeli intelligence and its challenges so unique: “We are not like other countries. We are more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we must maintain proper activity of our security agencies. So I ask everyone: Let the security forces carry on their work quietly, so we can continue living in security and tranquility in the State of Israel.”
February 18, 2013
There were a lot of moving parts, behind the scenes, when a ceasefire was hammered out between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist faction, Hamas. As is standard with covert, or “alternative,” diplomacy, the Israelis handled it through their foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad.
The director of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, was in Cairo to be part of the negotiations. We have learned that he had meetings with the chief of Turkey’s national intelligence organization (known as MIT), Hakan Fidan.
Fidan has been a close confidant of Prime Minister Recip Erdogan for many years and took over as MIT director two years ago. Fidan seems to be intimately linked with a Turkish decision to cool — and even irritate — relations with Israel, while emphasizing Turkey’s Muslim identity in order to gain more prestige in the Middle East.
Still, many Israeli officials — and Western officials who hope this is not merely wishful thinking — see possibilities for restoring cooperative relations with Turkey. There used to be joint military exercises and frequent exchanges of security-related intelligence. The first steps toward cooperation could be covert, rather than open, but still that would be seen as very useful to Israel.
Israel and Turkey both are concerned about what may happen next in Syria, which is literally sandwiched between them. Neither the Israelis nor the Turks want Islamic radicals to be in charge of Syria, nor do they want chaotic civil war to continue forever.
They also could find common cause against Iran, which is trying to establish hegemony over the Middle East — while Jerusalem and Ankara could seen as rival power centers.
This past week in Cairo provided another example of how intelligence agencies can maintain productive relationships — even when diplomatic relations are severely frayed or even non-existent.
The entire effort, under the inexperienced Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, was coordinated by Egypt’s generally secretive intelligence agency. It had a lot of contact and joint projects with Israel’s Mossad during Hosni Mubarak’s decades in the presidency. The connection was not severed.
As our book reports in detail, the Mossad department known as Tevel (“Universe”) often acts as an alternative foreign ministry. It has had contacts, since the birth of the State of Israel 64 years ago, with Arab and Muslim leaders who would never admit having anything to do with the Jewish state. Tevel diplomacy in Morocco laid the groundwork for the historic trip to Jerusalem by Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat in 1977, and the Mossad has an unacknowledged presence in some of the Arabian Gulf nations.
Wikileaks revealed a diplomatic cable that included the ruler of Bahrain confiding to U.S. officials that the Mossad has a station in his country. We can also report with confidence that Meir Dagan, director of the Mossad from 2002 to 2010, met with officials of Saudi Arabia. It is noteworthy that the head of Saudi intelligence is Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the former ambassador to Washington who made a point of being in cordial contact with American Jewish leaders. In Jordan in 2008, Prince Bandar met with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and discussed Iran and the chances for peace with the Palestinians.
The Mossad’s general take on clandestine contacts can be summed up with the phrase, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
November 24, 2012
by Yossi Melman
TEL AVIV—For the first time in the 61 years of the history of the Mossad, one of the directors of Israel’s foreign espionage and operations agency is claiming responsibility for an assassination attempt. General Yitzhak Hofi, who was head of the Mossad from 1974 to 1982, revealed that his agents tried to kill a Nazi war criminal who was hiding out in Syria’s capital, Damascus.
unconfirmed photo, said to be Nazi officer Alois Brunner
The target was Alois Brunner, an Austrian-born SS officer who served as Adolf Eichmann’s assistant and practically was his deputy during the Holocaust. Eiohmann was located and kidnapped in Argentina in 1960 by a combined team from the Mossad and Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet. Considered the architect of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” which murdered six million Jews, Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem, convicted, and hanged.
Brunner was infamous for being particularly cruel. He was a sadist who was directly responsible for the deportation and murder of at least 130,000 Jews from Austria, Greece, Slovakia, and France during the Second World War. He was condemned to death in absentia after the war by a French court, but he had managed to escape from Europe and found shelter in Damascus, Syria.
The strongly anti-Israel Arab government in Syria appeared to have welcomed Brunner, and he was employed as a security consultant for the Syrians, specializing in interrogations.
Consecutive Syrian regimes denied that Brunner — whose credentials as a Nazi war criminal were widely publicized by Israel and by Jewish organizations — was residing in Damascus.
But the Israeli spy agency located him. There may have been great temptation to kidnap him, perhaps in the hope that Eichmann and Brunner — the boss and his henchman — could stand trial together in the modern, free Jewish state of Israel.
Organizing a snatch operation in the capital of an enemy country would be much more difficult, however, than mounting a kidnapping in Argentina — with a team of dozens of Israelis involved in the Eichmann mission.
Instead, the Mossad twice sent parcel bombs to Brunner in Syria. The first time was in 1961, the same year Eichmann was found guilty of crime against humanity by the Israeli court and executed.
Brunner opened the letter, and it exploded. The notorious German lost his left eye, but he survived. He was 49 years old at the time.
In 1980, once again an exploding parcel was sent to him. Brunner, with obviously imperfect security or ignoring precautions, also opened this one. This time, at age 68, he lost a few fingers.
The two assassination attempts were attributed by the international media to the Mossad. But, as is standard practice in Israel, neither the espionage agency nor the government commented on the published stories.
Official Mossad photo of Yitzhak Hofi
Now, at the age of 85, Hofi chatted with an Israeli film crew preparing a documentary on his life and career. The former Mossad chief told the interviewers that “we dealt” with Brunner, “trying to kill him, but we failed.”
While Wikipedia has a birth date for Brunner in 1912 and does not say he has passed away, we have learned otherwise. An Israeli intelligence source told us that Brunner died of natural causes in 2008 in Damascus at the age of 96.
Spies against Armageddon, in chronicling the history of all the Israeli espionage and security agencies from 1948 until today, tells the stories of Mossad manhunts for Nazi war criminals from the early 1950′s to the 80′s.
November 1, 2012
[On Friday September 21st, The Jerusalem Post newspaper published its review of SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman. The review was written by the newspaper's Berlin-based European correspondent, Benjamin Weinthal. Here is Weinthal's review of the book.]
But without sources, human sources within the enemy centers, you will never discover the kinds of plots that unfolded on September 11.” With these words, Markus Wolf, the former head of the now-defunct German Democratic Republic foreign intelligence service, explained to me 10 years ago in an eastern Berlin cafe the categorical imperative of perfecting human intelligence.
Wolf (1923-2006), son of the famous German Jewish playwright Dr. Friedrich Wolf, very likely knew that the Palestinian Black September group planned to take Israelis hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Famously known as “the man without a face,” he garnered the reputation as one of the great spymasters of the last century because of his enormous ability to engage in the granular intelligence work of infiltrating the highest levels of the Federal Republic’s chancellery and NATO with human resources.
Wolf’s departure point was human resource penetration – a straightforward albeit frequently neglected tactic by advanced Western services – which has been the overriding espionage method of the various Israeli intelligence services.
With their new book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, Israeli intelligence journalist Yossi Melman and American CBS national political correspondent Dan Raviv travel deep into the weeds of Israel’s intelligence agencies and the people-intensive work of the men and women responsible for Israel’s security.
Melman and Raviv meticulously document “the Mossad’s reliance on human intelligence expertise – humint” over the span of the birth of Israel’s espionage work in the late 1940s to the reported Mossadengineered targeted killings of Iranian scientists working on the clerical regime’s illicit nuclear weapons program. It should be noted that the authors stress the plural over the singular when writing about Israel’s intelligence apparatus and its diverse divisions.
The book has garnered intense attention in the Islamic Republic of Iran and in the United States for its chapter entitled “Assassins” … A July New York Times article headlined “Tehran Abuzz as Book Says Israel Killed 5 Scientists” explored the reception in Iran.
Melman – widely considered to be the gold standard of Israeli news gathering and analysis on the opaque world of Israeli intelligence – and his co-author, Raviv, demystify the preconceived notions about the all-consuming mastery of the Jewish state’s espionage work. The blunders associated with the Lavon affair – an Inspector Jacques Clouseau-like operation – resulted in the capture of Egyptian Jews aiding Israel in 1954 within its most populous Arab neighbor, Egypt. As a result of the severe incompetence of the Israeli mission, the authorities hanged two Egyptian Jewish students and meted out long incarceration sentences to others.
Despite the setback of what Israelis would later call “esek bish” (a rotten affair) in Egypt, Israel’s intelligence services scored a series of impressive achievements in the decades ahead, catapulting its reputation into espionage stardom.
Melman and and Raviv bring to the fore the agents behind the capture in Argentina of Adolf Eichmann – the Nazi official largely responsible for overseeing the elimination of the vast majority of European Jewry. The joint Mossad-Shin Bet operation sent 67 agents to apprehend Eichmann and transport him back to Jerusalem for a trial. Israel’s judiciary sentenced Eichmann to death in 1962. The role of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in the capture of Eichmann is part and parcel of the book’s analytical breakdown of special operations. There is no shortage of descriptions of colorful and lively intelligence agents and agency heads in the book. and anecdotes of their escapades abound.
What sets Spies Against Armageddon apart, however, is the attention to ordinary Israeli intelligence personnel who employ a revolutionary discipline to preserve their “country’s existence in a hostile world.”
The goal of Israeli covert action and intelligence gathering is, after all, to avoid military conflicts, to punish the murderers of Israelis and blunt Islamic-animated terrorism for its tiny population.
Take the example of Yehudit Nessyahu, the top female agent on the Eichmann team, who did not seek fame with a book about the mission. She was born in 1925 in the Netherlands, mastered several languages and, “as a religious woman… prepared only kosher food during the Argentina mission – even for the notorious Nazi.”
The peculiarity of Israel’s nascent intelligence services was underscored in the famous “revolt of the spies,” in which personnel from the Foreign Ministry engaged in labor defiance in the formative stage of reorganization, refusing to be transferred to the freshly minted Mossad division operated by Reuven Shiloah. Only in Israel could a group of covert agents exercise their right to strike! Israel’s interplay with American intelligence officers provides a window onto the court of US-Israeli intelligence cooperation and a relationship that would transform both countries into long-term allies. The authors excel at showing the ebb and flow of the US-Israel covert relationship.
John Hadden, the CIA’s station chief in Tel Aviv, neatly summed up the mix of admiration for Israel’s top leader coupled with his professional job to extract information.
In 1965, while visiting his wife, who happened to share a semi-private hospital room with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, Hadden described his chats with “the old man” Ben-Gurion.
“Imagine two weeks with Churchill,” he exclaimed. Hadden, however, did not secure any information from Ben-Gurion on Israel’s developing nuclear program.
James Jesus Angleton, a top CIA official who served as director of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1975, arguably made the greatest contribution to solidifying ties between US and Israeli intelligence. His bond with Amos Manor, then head of counterespionage within the Shin Bet and later its director, paved the way for the staying power of Israeli-American intelligence cooperation during the rocky period of US president Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. After Angleton’s death in 1987, Israel built a memorial honoring Angleton.
Spies Against Armageddon is packed full of information on key phases of Israeli covert operations, from the destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 to the reported assassination of Hamas weapons smuggler Mahmoud Abdel Rauf al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room in 2010 to the Stuxnet computer worm that infected Iran’s nuclear computer technology the same year.
Though Markus Wolf did not dismiss the use of technology to enhance human intelligence, he consistently relegated sophisticated gadgets to an inferior status in the gathering of foreign intelligence information. Melman and Raviv write in their concluding chapter, “Into the Future,” that “The one thing that the opponents cannot match – at least, not so far – are Israel’s humint assets.”
In short, the world of Israeli covert operations is not governed by a situation like chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov’s defeat in 1997 to the computer Deep Blue. Israel’s intelligence services will have to both develop the Deep Blue technology of the future and at the same time have operatives in place in their neighbor’s back yards in order to stop new dangers.
October 12, 2012
Today, Thursday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost mockingly disputed the contention — he means the U.S. claim — that intelligence agencies will surely notice when Iran starts using its enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb.
That missive, apparently aimed at President Barack Obama, was part of Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
He had declared in dramatic terms — before leaving Jerusalem on Wednesday night — that the speech would be very important, setting out the need for the “red lines” that the Obama Administration refuses to set.
Washington officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said that setting “red lines” or “deadlines” for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment would not be helpful.
Holding up what to some seemed like a silly, oversimplistic graphic – or cartoon – of a bomb with a lit fuse to represent Iran’s alleged drive to build a nuclear bomb, Netanyahu used a red magic marker to draw a horizontal “red line.” He said that Iran needs to be stopped before reaching that stage: before Iran has enriched enough weapons-grade uranium.
The graphic might seem risible, but it got Netanyahu the worldwide attention he wanted for his argument.
Click here to hear the 1-minute portion dealing with intelligence (meaning the CIA and Mossad) not being “foolproof” : Netanyahu 27sept12 some claim intel
Click here to hear the entire 12-minute Iran-nuclear section of Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly: INetanyahu 27sept12 Iran nuke part of speech
And click here to hear his entire 31-minute speech: Netanyahu 27sept12 whole UN speech
Here’s the official text of the “intelligence” portion of Netanyahu’s speech:
Now there are some who claim that even if Iran completes the enrichment process — even if it crosses that red line that I just drew — our intelligence agencies will know when and where Iran will make the fuse, assemble the bomb, and prepare the warhead.
Look, no one appreciates our intelligence agencies more than the Prime Minister of Israel. All these leading intelligence agencies are superb, including ours. They’ve foiled many attacks. They’ve saved many lives.
But they are not foolproof.
For over two years, our intelligence agencies didn’t know that Iran was building a huge nuclear enrichment plant under a mountain.
Do we want to risk the security of the world on the assumption that we would find in time a small workshop in a country half the size of Europe?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb.
The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target.
I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.
This will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether.
Two days ago, from this podium, President Obama reiterated that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran cannot be contained.
I very much appreciate the President’s position as does everyone in my country. We share the goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This goal unites the people of Israel. It unites Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike and it is shared by important leaders throughout the world.
What I have said today will help ensure that this common goal is achieved.
Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together.
September 27, 2012
by Dan Raviv in Washington
Because of the tragic deaths of four Americans, including the courageous and popular Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Libya on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, media interest in the Middle East is high. In many large Arab cities, protests aimed at U.S. embassies continue to flare. The 14-minute “movie” that the crowds may think they are protesting was ridiculous, immaturely done, mean, and — until this furor — barely noticed by anyone. Yet that video, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, has done its damage.
On CBS TV on Sunday evening (Sept. 16) ”60 Minutes” re-aired Lesley Stahl’s interview with Meir Dagan, the director of the Mossad spy agency who recently retired. He made headlines by speaking out against the notion of Israel’s military attacking Iran at this time. <That interview: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7401688n >
Our book seeks to explain what Dagan may have in mind. We believe that he was advocating a lot more sabotage — including covert action inside Iran and more use of sophisticated cyberwarfare. As we wrote in Chapter 1, “Stopping Iran”:
The Mossad – and Dagan himself – devoted a lot of energy to learning everything possible about Iran’s domestic public opinion and pressures within Iranian society. While half of Iran’s population was Persian, the country was a multiethnic tapestry with Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and Turkmen. The minorities were all oppressed, to one degree or another, and could be seen as weak links in the Iranian chain.
Such tensions could be exploited by psychological warfare, to stir up discontent inside Iran. Identifying deeply unhappy citizens also provided a pool of potential paid informants for the Mossad.
Covert action could take many forms: recruiting high-quality agents in Iran’s leadership and inside the nuclear program, sabotaging nuclear facilities, and assassinating key figures in the program. The overall philosophy of this comprehensive action plan – in Dagan’s analysis, voiced by him and others in the Mossad – was “to define and use tools to change the mind of a country.”
Top-level Iranians would have to be persuaded, by actions and not just words, that pursuing nuclear weapons would backfire. They would have to be convinced that it would make their regime less likely to survive, not more. In the mentality of the Mossad, pressure and persuasion – by no means always gentle – would be a far better strategy than a massive air raid on nuclear facilities.
(end of excerpt from our book)
(The radio magazine show I anchor, CBS News Weekend Roundup, led with news and analysis of how foreign affairs issues invaded the presidential election campaign this past week. To listen to the 40-minute radio program: bit.ly/O5AdE8 .)
September 18, 2012
Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, is cited as an expert and then quoted directly in coverage of the U.S.-Israel dispute in this piece in The New York Times. A new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency was the catalyst for the coverage.
The Times wrote: “Though Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are crucial to making the final call, attention has turned to a group of 14 ministers known as the inner cabinet, or security cabinet. Yossi Melman, an author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon,’ a history of Israeli intelligence, said military actions typically required “a solid majority” of 12 or 13 members of this group, which is currently divided.
“Remember, it’s whether to attack now or attack later; it’s not between peaceniks and warmongers,” Melman told The Times. “The argument against is don’t hurt the U.S. relationship, don’t risk relations with the president just for the satisfaction of conducting an attack before the election.”
August 28, 2012
[Adapted from Chapter 22, "Assassins," in Spies Against Armageddon by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman]
Whether it is a mini-Mossad within the agency, or even a planet of its own, the fact is that operatives in Kidon (Hebrew for “Bayonet”) are obscured by strict secrecy and further protected by military censorship of the Israeli media. Yet, an accurate window into the structure of Kidon, its modes of operation, and the moods and psyches of its members can be found in the pages of a novel.
- [official emblem of the Mossad]
The author is Mishka Ben-David, and a thorough dossier describing the Kidon unit is nestled in a seemingly innocent book of fiction he wrote, Duet in Beirut, published in Hebrew in 2002. Ben-David, though, is not just a novelist. He was an intelligence officer. He was in the Mossad. And if that is not real enough, then consider that he was the chief intelligence officer of Caesarea, the agency’s operations department that runs combatants – Jewish and non-Jewish – who penetrate such enemy countries as Syria, Egypt, and Iran.
Caesarea also has, at its service for special occasions, Kidon. This “Bayonet” unit is kept small but sharp, and it recruits men and women who already have proven themselves in their military service or in other intelligence work. They are judged, through a process that includes copious psychological profiling, to have excellent self-discipline. Even more importantly, they have the skills needed for operations that are on the edge. Many of them come from special forces units, such as Sayeret Matkal and Flotilla 13.
They are trained by highly motivated instructors and work in small teams of two or four – each of them known as a khuliya (a Hebrew word for “team” or “connected link”). Although Kidon’s overall size has never been published, there are several dozen khuliyot, and the entire secretive organization is referred to as “The Team.”
They are so compartmentalized that their office is not inside the Mossad headquarters at the Glilot junction north of Tel Aviv. They hardly ever go there, and even with the very few Mossad operatives with whom they interact, they use assumed names – so as to be anonymous even to them.
In the field, they use a third name, and sometimes even fourth and fifth identities.
Their training includes almost anything one might imagine is needed for a thorough intelligence operation: surveillance, shaking off surveillance, and how to study an object – things, buildings, or even people – and memorize everything about it.
They become proficient at remembering codes and securely communicating during missions without raising suspicion. On top of conventional communication gear, this can include an agent touching her nose or pulling her earlobe, or some other form of sanitized signal to colleagues.
One of the skills is to remain cool as a cucumber in all circumstances, and not to be shaken by any unexpected interruption, question, or approach by people – never hinting that you are involved in anything unusual.
In Ben-David’s adventure novel, a female Kidon combatant and the senior man who trained her are sent to penetrate a factory in a foreign country that manufactures parts for Iran’s nonconventional weapons. They are interrupted when another Kidon team, serving as their perimeter guard, informs them with urgency that unexpected guests are arriving. The guards disperse, according to plan, and the duo know precisely where to go to meet a car that is waiting there for such an eventuality. Everyone keeps their cool. Panic is not in their lexicon.
Kidon personnel excel at the manual skills that are often required in the field: picking or breaking a lock, surreptitiously taking photographs, and planting electronic devices. They also learn to master a variety of vehicles: not only cars and vans, but also motorcycles, which have become Kidon’s vehicle of choice – almost a trademark of a team that leaves few traces.
The Team’s members are constantly practicing the use of weapons, and as wide a variety of weapons as has ever been invented. They are very good at firing pistols, often with silencers, whether while standing, running, driving, or riding a motorcycle. They know how to shape, plant, and detonate explosives, including innovatively designed bombs. They are well practiced at stabbing enemies with knives, injecting them with hypodermic needles, or administering poison by way of newly minted delivery methods. In addition, well trained in martial arts, Kidon operatives are adept at using their own hands and feet as weapons.
The description of their skills may seem torn from a James Bond novel or movie, but they are not figments of a writer’s imagination. Kidon men and women are authentic intelligence officers who are taught a wide range of crafts. It is a barely concealed fact, within the Mossad, that they are Israel’s assassins. Moreover, they are considered to be supreme intelligence officers for all seasons – not simply a death squad.
August 24, 2012