Meet the people behind the scenes of Israeli spycraft

A razor-focused center makes waves – from the Gaza border crisis, to the Arab Bank terrorism lawsuit to Shin Bet and Mossad tour guides

By
June 29, 2018 15:19
Elite intelligence

ELITE INTELLIGENCE: The center’s staff includes (left to right) – Top row: Col. Reuven Ehrlich; IICC CEO Brig.-Gen. David Tzur; and Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, all retired from IDF Intelligence. Bottom row: Dalia Koren, Sarit De Castro, Brig.-Gen. Amos Gilboa and Nina Patael, ex-government officia. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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How many research centers are filled with former top officials from Israel’s three elite intelligence agencies: IDF Intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency)?

How many centers for analysis have a direct line to current officials within those same agencies?

While there are a few centers with top former Israeli intelligence officials, most are focused on a range of issues, whereas the Israeli Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center (IICC) is razor-focused on intelligence and is the home of by far the largest contingent of former officials, chaired by Brig-Gen. Dr. Zvi Shtauber. Memorializing intelligence officials was IICC's original purpose and remain's primary.

In a recent rare insider visit to the center and meetings with a range of the center’s top officials, the Magazine learned just how influential the center is, getting routine visits from senior foreign diplomats and lawmakers, including recently during the Gaza border crisis.

The center has at least three major branches.

The oldest and original branch runs a cutting-edge intelligence museum and special tours. It currently features a brand-new fire-kite terrorism exhibit, including a fire kite taken from the recent Gaza border crisis. There are also remembrance events and a memorial for fallen agents and spies.

A second branch, according to IICC CEO IDF intelligence Brig.-Gen. David Tzur, is focused on “getting to the decision-makers” in the US, the EU and other countries with important information to influence their views and policies regarding Israel.

That branch is the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) headed by retired IDF intelligence Col. Reuven Ehrlich.

Ehrlich explained to the Magazine that what is “unique is that we are built on the basis of a very talented and skilled group of people with rich experience in the intelligence community.”

“Many of them also have learned additional disciplines and we add academic experts to fully cover the Middle East, Islam and philosophy,” said Ehrlich. A large number also are counterterrorism experts.

He explained, “Our mix is a little bit different from what would be expected in academia,” since “we also have a strong and deep connection to all of the arms of the intelligence and defense establishment.”

However, both Tzur and Ehrlich strongly emphasized that the center is not an Israeli public relations shop. They said they do not work on any bullet points from the government and they do go with what is most accurate – wherever the facts take them.

At the same time, Ehrlich said, “we know these results often happen to turn out to be very good material for public relations for Israel, but our approach is to stick to the facts.”


WHAT IS the Meir Amit Center’s impact? There are different ways to measure this.

Ehrlich told the Magazine that there are 180 nations reading information from its website with around 280,000 visitors a month, and that is continually going up, more recently to 327,000. The readership is broken down to about 30% from the US, 30% from the EU, 15% from Israel and then divided among a range of other countries, including Arab nations. During periods of escalated conflict, the site reached as high as 700,000 visitors.

The center has produced material from clever analysis of open-source material in multiple languages as well as from leaked material directly from the intelligence community. Some of this information has had specific impact on major events.

On April 11, The Jerusalem Post was the first to break a story from the ITIC that around 80% of Palestinians who had been killed by the IDF to date during the Gaza border crisis were associated with Hamas.

While this did not completely change the narrative of how the world is viewing the ongoing crisis from a public relations perspective, it did have some impact. It will also very likely have long-term legal implications in how the International Criminal Court and other foreign courts view the situation.

Also, more than a month after the report came out, a senior Hamas official admitted in a television interview that around 80% of the Palestinians killed by the IDF on the most explosive day of the crisis, May 14, were associated with Hamas. This effectively confirmed what the center had revealed in the report by the Post on April 11.

This was not the first time that the Meir Amit center was ahead of the game on identifying which casualties were civilians and which fighters from Hamas or other terrorist groups.

During the 2014 Gaza War, the center reviewed the cases of around 1,500 of the around 2,100 Palestinians who were killed.

Its in-depth study, which shared significant back-up for its conclusions, identified around 50% of those on the list as fighters, whereas Hamas and the UN had, without presenting much back-up, originally claimed around 70% to 80% were civilians.

Ehrlich said that the main reason they did not check all of the cases was that once Hamas realized that the center was using information it handed out to check backgrounds of the casualties, it ordered its Health Ministry to cease publicizing details.

He explained that the center got into the business of checking the background of Palestinian casualties when it noticed a clear media ideological and political slant to the issue that betrayed a readiness to accept what Gaza and the UN fed them without checking.

Pressed why Hamas had started to take credit again for the background of Palestinian casualties, first in social media picked up by the center and later in the May media interview, retired IDF intelligence Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser said, “the families want to get the honor of the martyrdom. Also, to get compensation from Hamas, information is needed about the casualties’ backgrounds.”

In the past, the center helped distribute tons of relevant information, including IDF aerial photos, which clarified the context of controversial incidents where Palestinians were hurt or killed during the 2009 Gaza War. Tzur and Ehrlich said that the UN Human Rights Council investigator Richard Goldstone and other UN officials found the information they provided convincing.

They also said that they correctly predicted the mess that occurred with the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla with 10 ship passenger-fighters killed by the IDF and around 10 IDF soldiers injured.


ALL OF this started with IICC, and simply the idea of having some central set place for memorials for the intelligence community. The first memorial was set up in 1980 and the organization was focused solely on families who had lost loved ones from the intelligence community, said Tzur.

In 1983, the head of IDF intelligence broadened it to include all intelligence agents who had served a certain number of years (at one point the minimum was 15 years – now it is down to 10 years) with famed Mossad and IDF intelligence chief Meir Amit (for whom the branch that sends out regular reports is named) running the institution.

Next, Tzur said that the memorial and heritage role was expanded to include year-round events. A focus became providing funding and transportation to bring youth from around the country, especially from the less well-off periphery, to the memorial, which evolved into a full-fledged museum.

The IICC makes an extra effort to bring in students from places such as Dimona, Netivot, Kiryat Shmona and Lod. It hosts students from all backgrounds.

The museum has now grown to include 746 exhibits, including the new fire-terror kites exhibit, and it has a special memorial for all agents lost in the field. That memorial periodically adds Mossad agents whose deaths and names were long known internally, but whose identities as Mossad agents could not be revealed until a much later date for national security reasons. Meanwhile, the IICC is up to 2,400 members formerly connected with the intelligence community.

Tzur said that the museum tour gives students “an intelligence day experience.”

“They come in first and watch a video that explains what the intelligence community is. They see the memorials. They hear some of the major intelligence legends,” said Tzur.

One unique aspect of the museum tours, he said, is that tours are often led by volunteer ex-Mossad, Shin Bet and other intelligence officials. These are no normal tour guides. Besides the ex-intelligence officials, the institution only has six full-time employees.

Some of the exhibits are highly unusual. During the tour, one hears clandestinely recorded conversations from 1967 between then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and then Jordanian King Hussein misleadingly accusing the US of a variety of actions as part of a plan of manipulation.

There is also a recording of Israeli intelligence listening in on Russian defense figures, part of Unit 8200’s eavesdropping on Russian-Egyptian-Syrian communications.

Tzur said that the tours explore “how the intelligence community stops terrorist attacks.” It puts participants into a simulation and “explains certain Shin Bet tactics.”


HOW DID it expand into adding the Meir Amit Center branch, which regularly distributes updates and reports?

In 2002, around the time of the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, the IDF captured a treasure trove of hundreds of Palestinian terrorism-related documents and wanted to get them out for the world to see.

Ehrlich and a group of other intelligence-reserve officers were asked to analyze and vet the documents. The hope was to better understand what had been captured and how it could be presented globally, especially to the US government. Critically, some of the documents directly incriminated Yasser Arafat in promoting terrorism.

“We came to a giant hangar bay. Nothing was set up for us and we just started going through boxes and boxes of documents. Eventually tremendous advantages came out of this,” in convincing the US and others about the PA and Arafat’s terrorism ties, he said.

The team Ehrlich gathered for this was the start of his Meir Amit Center team.

Ehrlich also discussed the impact his team had on the landmark US anti-terrorism-financing Arab Bank case, which reportedly led to the bank paying out approximately $1 billion to terrorist victims.

He said that a large volume of the evidence that the Jewish terror-victim plaintiffs used in the case came from documents provided by his team. For example, in July 2004, the center published data from documents that the IDF had captured during an earlier raid in the West Bank.

The center’s report said that some terrorist operatives were also involved in Hamas’s civilian activities. It said that Jamal Tawil, who founded the Al-Islah Charitable Society Association in Ramallah, which openly identified with Hamas and did business with Arab Bank, was involved in the suicide bombing attack at the Ben-Yehuda mall in Jerusalem in December 2001 in which 11 Israelis were killed and 170 wounded. The report noted that under interrogation, Tawil admitted to opening a branch of Al-Islah in Ramallah to provide legal cover for Hamas activities.

Currently, the Meir Amit Center sends out regular updates on Palestinian terrorism, Iran and global terrorism trends – especially those with an impact on the Middle East. It also occasionally sends out special reports, such as an exclusive that the Post reported covering all ISIS chapters globally.

Using academic-level standards of not writing anything that cannot be confirmed, usually by multiple credible sources, Ehrlich said that the team still works more like an intelligence staff and employs a wide use of all kinds of media. This includes extensive review of pictures and videos from Palestinian, Iranian and other sources.

The center’s reports are translated into English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Arabic.

Though the Meir Amit Center started as almost an outgrowth of IDF intelligence needing more manpower and dipping into its retired officials for help, it has moved away from that model.

Now, the center is more separate from the current intelligence community, though Ehrlich acknowledged that without the connection of the IICC to the Israeli intelligence community, it would not have all of the unique help and resources it can bring to the table.

“We are part of the same DNA and body along with the intelligence community,” said Tzur.

IICC officials consistently emphasize the dual message that they have incredible and rare access to top current intelligence officials, but also are strongly independent regarding the material they produce.


THE THIRD branch of IICC, which is separate from Ehrlich and Ehrlich's senior analyst retired former IDF Intelligence officer Dalia Koren, is run by Kuperwasser  (Kuperwasser is also part of Ehrlich’s core team, along with retired former IDF Intelligence officer Dalia Koren) and emphasizes journal-level exploration of intelligence issues.

Unlike any other competing center, the journals produced by IICC regularly have current intelligence officials from the Shin Bet and IDF intelligence contributing – though that usually means that their names are abbreviated, using a single letter from their name on the author line.

The exception is the head of IDF intelligence, who often contributes an article by name.

That means their journals are a rare opportunity to hear directly from currently serving intelligence officials about a broad range of topics that Israeli intelligence is confronting.

Kuperwasser added that the journals “provide a chance for dialogue about issues of current interest to intelligence officials. Many are aching to write. We give them a platform to provoke discussion.”

He said that he presents the journals to current intelligence officials and that, “from my experience, they pick a certain issue and say ‘oh, this is interesting’ and afterward it leads to an internal debate where they say ‘maybe we should take this idea in this direction.’ This is because they are always looking for ways to improve.”

Recent issues have addressed the impact on intelligence of big data; the increased need for coordination between different agencies; coping with rapid change; and the role of intelligence in the public-relations arena of battling for hearts and minds.

Each issue tends to have about an 80% focus on the main theme, while also addressing side issues, said Kuperwasser.

Asked how he thinks Israeli intelligence is doing with inter-agency coordination compared to other countries, Kuperwasser gave Israel a very high grade.

He said it was extremely complex for Europe to coordinate between so many disparate countries and agendas. Even the US was hampered by trying to coordinate between 17 different intelligence agencies, he said.

With only three main intelligence agencies, he said Israel had a major advantage – particularly since many officials in the Shin Bet and the Mossad originally served in IDF intelligence and feel more of a connection among each other from that common history. This is all despite the fact that the US was the first to start thinking systematically about inter-agency intelligence cooperation, he said.

Kuperwasser said they even have intelligence agents involved in operations writing articles from them, with the big data issue having had more operations personnel as authors.

IICC chairman Brig-Gen. Dr. Zvi Shtauber summed up some of the essence of the institution saying, “In the age of fake news, it is of dramatic importance to get intelligence that is unbiased and objective. We do.”

“We do not wake up in the morning to do Israeli hasbara [public diplomacy]. Our intelligence heritage center performs research and tours. It brings kids from the periphery to the museum and we have had major successes. We are a highly trustworthy source,” said Shtauber.

He added, “We have an intelligence center board of professors and intelligence professionals who raise lots of issues about things that no one is covering. We are living people who are veterans of the intelligence community, important spies, Shin Bet officials and others who are almost all volunteers.”

Despite a tiny paid staff, it is the IICC’s unique volunteer personnel that enables it to punch way above its weight class and have both substantial national and global impact.

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