In Depth: The KGB's long history of running agents in Israel

The depth of the penetration by the Soviet Union's KGB has been testified to by a long line of agents who were convicted in Israel.

A light installation is seen in the reception room of the former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) headquarters. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A light installation is seen in the reception room of the former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) headquarters.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Researchers, historians, Shin Bet counter-espionage operatives and even the broader public did not need Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot's exposé this week about Israeli Soviet spies in order to know that Soviet intelligence tried and succeeded in penetrating into the heart of Israel's diplomatic-security-intelligence establishment.
The depth of the penetration by the Soviet Union's KGB and GRU (military intelligence), or of the intelligence services of communist satellite states, has been testified to by a long line of agents who were convicted in Israel from the 1950s through to the 1990s. It is a long and impressive list of "moles," quality agents that penetrated every important department in Israel.
Zeev Avni, who worked in the Foreign Ministry and carried out special missions for the Mossad, was caught, convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term in 1956. Levi (Lucian) Levi worked for the Operations Unit (today the Operations Branch), of the Shin Bet, which as part of its mission, according to foreign reports from Poland, broke into the embassies of the communist countries, in order to photograph documents and install listening devices. He was arrested and sentenced to prison in 1957.
Professor Kurt Sita, a Czech physicist who was hired to teach at the Technion in 1954, linked up with important Israeli physicists in the critical years in the late 1950s when Israel established and began operating the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Among those he got close to were Professor Ernst Bergmann, who was head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission. Sita was arrested in 1960 for being a Czech intelligence agent and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Lt.-Col. Israel Bar, a respected historian and military analyst, had access to prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, and had valuable information on NATO facilities which the Solel Boneh construction company built in Turkey. He was arrested on charges he spied for the Soviet Union and was sent to prison for 15 years in 1961.
Abraham Marcus Klingberg and his wife Wanda spied for decades for Soviet military intelligence. He was the deputy director of the Biological Institute in Nes Ziona, where, according to foreign Polish reports, Israel produces chemical and biological weapons, including the poison that the Mossad used, according to these reports, in the assassination attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan and senior Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai. Klingberg, who is considered one of the biggest spies that the Soviet Union had in Israel, was arrested in 1983 and sentenced to 20 years. His wife Wanda, who was a microbiologist at the Institute, was also a suspect, but no evidence was found against her and she did not stand trial.
In his autobiography, (which he wrote with his attorney Michael Sfard), Klingberg boasted of how he made fools of counter-espionage agents and Shin Bet investigators for years, and pointed out with pride that his wife had surpassed him as a spy, passing to her handlers test tubes containing cultures of secret strains of bacteria and viruses that were developed at the Institute.
Col. Shimon Levinson served in the IDF's Military Intelligence division, was a Mossad representative in Ethiopia, and served as the senior security officer (under the Shin Bet) in the Prime Minister's Office. In 1983 he volunteered to spy for the KGB and did so until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. He was arrested in 1991 on the basis of information provided by a Soviet defector to the CIA, which was then passed on to Israel. Levinson was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Describing the severity of his actions, the Shin Bet wrote on its website, "due to his varied background, his familiarity with and access to top secret information, he was considered one of the highest-ranking KGB agents in Israel, causing Israel the gravest intelligence injury."
These are the serious and important spies that caused the most damage to the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment. Of course, there were many additional spies, at varying levels of importance, who were discovered and arrested, including Shabtai Kalmanovich, Gregory Londin and Efraim Samuel (who spied for Romania).
There were those who were discovered, but who did not have their identities published or stand trial due to a lack of evidence or out of other considerations. One such person was an employee of Israel Aerospace Industries who was acquainted with the Lavi fighter jet program in the 1980s and was fired because of the suspicions against him, but was not put on trial.
It is very likely that there were those who penetrated, spied and were never caught. The Soviet intelligence method was "quantity that becomes quality." They recruited and ran hundreds, if not thousands, of agents in the hope that a few of them, or at least one of them, would ascend to the elite and become a quality agent. In this way the KGB tried to infiltrate agents into Israel during the waves of aliya from the Soviet Union, which began with a trickle in the 1960s and 1970s and became a heavy flow in the 1980s.
And there is another species of agent, "double agents," those that were recruited by the KGB or its satellites, were sent to Israel, but were caught and confessed to the Shin Bet, who in turn recruited them. One of the most well-known double agents was Viktor Grayevsky, a Polish-Jewish journalist who made aliya to Israel after he passed to the Shin Bet the full text of the secret speech by Nikita Kruschev, the head of the Soviet Communist Party, who condemned the crimes perpetrated by his predecessor Joseph Stalin in 1956. Another double agent who helped the Shin Bet a great deal is a well-known Israeli businessman whose identity cannot legally be revealed.
Another characteristic of the recruiting, operating and intelligence gathering method of the Soviet Union and its satellites was that they attempted to enlist into their ranks those who identified with them ideologically (for example Klingberg), but avoided recruiting Communist Party activists, knowing that they would already be suspected. Communist Party members in Israel, or in other countries, were recruited only as a last resort.
There is no doubt that the report by Yediot Aharonot's Ronen Bergman, who was given access to documents housed at Cambridge University that were smuggled to Britain by the KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, is an important journalistic achievement.
However, it must be kept in mind that these documents were smuggled in 1991, and they deal with the period from the 1950s to the 1980s. The Mitrokhin documents were published in 1999 by the British historian Christopher Andrew and were made open to the public some two years ago. The publication of the documents revealed thousands of Soviet spies who worked in the United States and other Western nations.
Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was mentioned in the documents, as was reported recently by Israeli journalist Oren Nahari.
Indeed, Soviet intelligence was professional and had many achievements in recruitment, operations and penetrating target states. However, not everything in these documents can be taken as God's honest truth or at face value. Historians know that historical documents that sat or were stored in archives are not necessarily precise. They were written by people who had their own motives. It has emerged in the past that KGB handlers embellished the importance of their agents on more than one occasion in order to make themselves look better. The Soviet Union was after all a dictatorship in which the culture of lies was the standard. There were also some intelligence officers who prepared reports based on information that was available to everyone and was even published in newspapers, falsely giving it a classification of "secret information." This even happened in Israel. For example, in the affair of Yehuda Gil, the Mossad intelligence officer who fabricated information.
In the past it has also been reported that Israeli left-wing politicians, for example MK Moshe Sneh, were suspected of conducting meetings with Soviet diplomats who served in Israel, and there were those who rushed to label them spies because of it. Yediot Aharonot reported this week that Eliezer Granot, the former leader of the Mapam Party and an Israeli ambassador to South Africa, held meetings in the 1960s with a Soviet diplomat who was actually an intelligence officer. If indeed it is true, it is important to say that in the 60s Granot was a junior party member who did not hold any serious title nor did he have access to secret information.
But not every meeting with a diplomat - even if he is an intelligence officer disguised as a diplomat - constitutes espionage. Politicians, journalists, businessmen and public officials meet with their colleagues from various countries, even those that are hostile or enemy states, who could potentially be intelligence agents, or with diplomats from the same countries. At such meetings information and situation assessments are exchanged.
In the field of running agents there are more than a few questions that must be asked before you determine someone's guilt. Did he receive payment or gifts in exchange for meetings or information? Did he pass classified information that he was made privy to through his position? Did he know that the person he was speaking to was an intelligence agent? What were his motives for attending this meeting? Naiveté? ideology? Money?
Some of the names that Yediot Aharonot suggests or reveals are no longer alive and cannot defend themselves against the claims being made against them. And it must be remembered that they were never convicted in a court of law.
And here we come back to the beginning. The Soviet Union and its satellites - and it can be assumed that Russia of today as well - ran agents in Israel that penetrated and operated in its most secret departments and passed classified and sensitive information of the utmost importance.
But it must not be forgotten that Israeli intelligence also noted major achievements in its espionage efforts against the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc.