Latest update: September 27th, 2012
The mystique of the Mossad. Few can resist it. Hardly any Jew bears anything but affection and admiration for the foreign intelligence agency that produced Eli Cohen, kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, and attacked Iran’s nuclear program with a computer virus in 2009.
But how did the Mossad become so effective? And from where does it get its information? These questions and others are addressed in a new book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Written by veteran journalists Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, the book traces the history of the Mossad from its inception to today. A Hebrew version of the work, Milchamot Hatzlalim, is a bestseller in Israel.
Raviv, who has served as a CBS News correspondent for over 30 years, recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: Your book relates many fascinating incidents, but a great deal of them have already appeared in other works. What exactly is new about this book?
Raviv: For one, we are the first to reveal the decision-making process behind the bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 and how Israel’s intelligence community discovered it.
How, indeed, did it discover it?
When Colonel Khaddafi in Libya gave up his weapons of mass destruction in a deal negotiated by the Americans and British, Israel was taken entirely by surprise. Israel didn’t know that Khaddafi had an active WMD program and didn’t know about the negotiations for him to give it up. And that was pretty embarrassing to the Mossad.
So Israeli intelligence decided to review every file they had that had anything to do with Arab countries and nuclear work. And they found that the Pakistani [nuclear scientist] A.Q. Khan, who was known to have sold nuclear equipment to many countries, had been in touch with Syria. More importantly, they discovered North Korea had been working closely with Syria.
So the Mossad turned its focus, and Israeli spy satellites, to that and found the secluded building in northeastern Syria which Israel’s air force eventually destroyed.
You write that Israel somehow managed to get photos of the inside of that building. How?
A Mossad team in Europe obtained them from the computer files of a Syrian official who was traveling.
What I think is so interesting is that Israel decided never to confirm the air raid that destroyed the reactor, hoping that, as a result, no war would break out. It didn’t want to humiliate Assad. It was a clever strategy, and it suggests that if Israel takes action inside Iran, it similarly won’t confirm it.
Israel has already started taking action on Iran as you document in your book.
Yes, and Yossi and I believe we are the first to establish that the assassinations of five nuclear scientists in Tehran from 2007 to 2011 were committed by members of a special Mossad squad called Kidon. We looked into the possibility that Israel hired mercenaries or local Iranian dissidents. But our sources told us that if an operation is extremely sensitive, they don’t trust others to do it.
What is the Kidon unit?
It’s an extremely well trained and talented group that can get to places that are almost unthinkable. In other words, they are super spies. Even within the Mossad, most staff members don’t know the real names of Kidon operatives.
How many Kidon operatives are there?
My impression is that there are just a few dozen. They’re handpicked for being especially talented, including skills at foreign languages. They’re trained in the use of all kinds of weapons and most of the assassination missions have been done by them.
Do you think assassinating Iranian scientists and planting sophisticated computer viruses can continue to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program? Or are we nearing the point where only an air attack would do the trick?
I think it’s possible to keep causing delays and problems. Recently retired Israeli intelligence people speak of a list of actions which still have not been done – including cutting off electricity and water, causing communications difficulties, planting more computer viruses, etc. They think a lot of sabotage can still be done, and that is one of their arguments against sending Israel’s air force to attack Iran.
Tons of people have heard of Israel’s legendary spy, Eli Cohen, who was caught and hanged in Syria in 1965. Does the Mossad still have undercover agents like Eli Cohen living in Arab countries?
Having studied the pattern of Israeli intelligence, I believe the Mossad still places people in enemy countries, even for long periods of time.
I don’t think the CIA placed spies in communist countries in the same way that Israel does in Arab countries. Frankly it is something that Russia did in various countries. In a way, the Mossad perhaps thinks the same way the KGB used to think.
Eli Cohen was born and raised in Egypt and therefore knew Arabic and Arabic culture intimately. Few young Israelis nowadays, however, have that type of background. Would that perhaps impact the Mossad’s ability to place undercover agents in Arab countries?
Eli Cohen was born in Egypt but he posed as a Syrian. So he knew Arabic, but he had to change his accent radically and also undergo a lot of training.
To answer your question, Israeli intelligence people have told us that they have no lack of volunteers. Many Israelis still speak a lot of foreign languages, often from their family connections, plus they receive the training that the Mossad is so good at. I think they have plenty of operatives.
Switching to more recent times: In 2010, the Mossad assassinated Palestinian terrorist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. A month later, Dubai’s police released the photos of 27 Israelis whom it claimed were involved in the operation. At the time, many expressed surprise that Mossad agents would let themselves get caught on camera. What is your take?
We believe there was really no choice – that in a modern city, you have to expect security cameras everywhere. Therefore, the Mossad operatives altered their appearance – at least slightly – so that police could not identify them. The head of the Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, is not embarrassed about the mission at all. He considers it a success.
I did hear from at least two senior people in Israeli intelligence, however, who thought it was terrible that the agents were photographed. So perhaps not everybody agrees with Dagan.
One would think that being caught on camera is a career-ender for a covert operative.
The phrase usually is that “you are burned.” But it’s our understanding that at least some of those operatives are still active. That’s all I can say.
Were you concerned in writing this book that you were perhaps revealing sensitive information and thus harming Israel?
There was concern, but my co-author, Yossi Melman, really knows how to carefully walk the line between analyzing what Israeli intelligence does and giving away dangerous information. We submitted our material to the Israeli military censor, and the censor did not ask for anything significant to be deleted.
In the book, you discuss the Mossad’s longstanding relationship with the CIA. How did that relationship begin?
In 1956, a Polish Jew in Warsaw got the text of a secret speech by Nikita Khrushchev [exposing the crimes of Joseph Stalin] that all the Western intelligence agencies had been looking for. This Jew’s girlfriend worked for the Polish communist party, and he noticed a copy of the speech that had just been sent from Moscow to the head of the Polish Communist Party.
He asked his girlfriend if he could borrow it for a few hours, and he brought it to the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw. It was subsequently sent to Israeli intelligence chiefs in Tel Aviv and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion immediately agreed to share it with the United States. The CIA was thrilled, and this really put Israeli intelligence on the world map at a time when Israel was barely eight years old.
It’s amazing that such a strong relationship could have started as the result of a fluke. This Polish Jew, after all, had nothing to do with the world of intelligence and basically stumbled upon this speech.
Good intelligence agencies take advantage of all sorts of flukes and coincidences. Israel has had a lot of good luck. In many cases, the Mossad created those situations, but picking up that speech in Warsaw was just a lucky find – a Jewish man with a well-placed girlfriend.
Who would you say benefits more from the Mossad-CIA relationship, Israel or the United States?
I would say Israel. While Israel seems like a regional superpower, it’s worth remembering that it’s a tiny country with only seven million people. It really needs the alliance with the U.S.
Wouldn’t the Mossad know more than the CIA, however, about what’s going on in Arab countries?
It depends. Israel is very focused on the military capabilities and intentions of neighboring countries, so the Mossad probably knows more than the CIA about the governments of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and possibly Saudi Arabia. But the Americans are focused on big-picture issues and those include Saudi Arabia, Iran and even the new leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Israel’s intelligence agencies don’t take as wide a view as America does.
This book bills itself as essentially a straight history of the Mossad, but a distinct left-wing bias seems to pop up at times. For instance, you write at one point that “hardly anyone with a scintilla of sensitivity enjoyed being an occupier” after Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967. And yet, there are plenty of very sensitive Israelis who feel absolutely no guilt living on, what they would call, the liberated lands of Judea and Samaria.
I think Yossi and I pretty much are in the middle of the mainstream. I personally don’t have a view as to whether Israel has to give up Judea and Samaria. It depends on what’s possible in the future….
But what about your harsh language: “anyone with a scintilla of sensitivity…”?
I don’t know which way you lean. My observation would be that people on the right often think they see left-leaning language and people on the left think they see hardline language. There are critics of Israel who think that our book is one huge effort to justify violent and selfish behavior by Israel. I think we are just reporting the reality of the innovative ways in which Israel defends itself.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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