NOTE FROM THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
A book that came out in late January dropped a startling bombshell. Craig Ungar’s American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery claimed the KGB had nurtured Donald Trump as a Russian asset since the 1980s.
“This is an example where people were recruited when they were just students and then they rose to important positions; something like that was happening with Trump,” Yuri Shvets, a former KGB agent who was posted at the time in the United States and served as a source for the book, said in an interview with The Guardian.
While the idea that a former president would have been recruited by the KGB sounds far-fetched, the story you are about to read shows that this was not an isolated incident. Ron Ben Yishai, probably Israel’s most famed war correspondent, shares with us the story of how the KGB tried to recruit him as an agent back in the late 1970s when he was serving as Yediot Aharonot’s correspondent in Washington. In both the alleged attempt to recruit Trump and in Ben Yishai’s account, the KGB agents chosen for the job were reporters.
Ben Yishai is not just any other Israeli journalist. In 1973, while covering the Yom Kippur War, a unit he was embedded with came under heavy fire. Ben Yishai bravely attended to the wounded and later was awarded the IDF chief of staff’s citation of valor. He went on to cover all of Israel’s conflicts as well as other wars across the globe while working for Israel Radio, Army Radio, Israel Television, Yediot Aharonot, Time magazine, Channel 2 News and Davar. Ben Yishai, who now works for Ynet, won the Israel Prize in 2018.
The story of Russia’s attempted recruitment of Ben Yishai is adapted from his book Frontline Reporter, published in Hebrew by Yediot Books in 2018. An excerpt is below.
– Yaakov Katz
Washington – Russian Roulette – October 1978
“Excuse me, but can I use your phone for a second?”
I spun around. The heavy Russian accent didn’t seem to match the elegantly clad gentleman smiling as he leaned against the wall of the Israeli reporters’ cubicle in the State Department press room. He looked like a model who’d just stepped down from a fashion billboard: pale blue cotton shirt, double breasted blue blazer, light khaki pants, the striped tie of a college graduate.
“Boris Ivanov,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m the TASS delegate in Washington. I started here not long ago.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, mumbling my name and making room for the representative of the USSR’s official news agency to access our land line. I was very surprised.
Every American or foreign reporter working out of Washington in the late 1970s and early 1980s knew that TASS foreign reporters worked fulltime in the Soviet intelligence system. Countless jokes and anecdotes related to that. They looked and dressed like “muzhiks,” Russian for peasants, were sour-faced, and usually distanced from other reporters.
Most of us knew, more or less, who worked for which intelligence agency: TASS reporters worked for the KGB, generally collecting political intelligence; Novosti reporters, by contrast, working for the GRU Soviet military intelligence and were chiefly interested in the Pentagon, the armed services commission of both Houses of Congress, and the American military industry, especially commanders, clerks and lobbyists who might be recruited ‘to the cause’ and provide more information. Often, they also served as propagandists, taking advantage of the chance to rub shoulders with other reporters after the State Department’s daily briefings. We Israeli reporters tended to be ignored by them, even blatantly.
And that’s why I was so surprised when my guest didn’t hurry to scram once his call, made in Russian, was done. Instead, he thanked me profusely and even suggested we go down for coffee together in the basement cafeteria. I paused, knowing that TASS reporters were KGB foreign directorate staff, parallel to Israel’s Mossad, and I’d already started wondering if his request to use the phone, which served Israeli reporters, wasn’t a way of bypassing some wiretap which the FBI likely installed where Soviet reporters were stationed. But he was insistent, sparking the allure of curiosity.
As we made our way through the maze of corridors and elevators in the American Foreign Office, Ivanov told me he arrived in Washington with his wife some months previously and no, he has no children, he’s so invested in his work, up to his eyeballs. Tania, his wife, was employed in the USSR embassy, he said, without detailing her job there.
“We haven’t got time for a family the way we should have,” he added, with a sorrowful smile when we sat down with our cups of coffee. “And you?”
Briefly I said that Liora, my wife, teaches Hebrew in an American Foreign Services school where CIA members also studied, and that our three girls were in a Jewish school in Maryland. Then he started to ask about my work and said, as though sincere, that he was very interested in affairs in the Mediterranean, partly because he took a course on the subject in Moscow University, and primarily because the Israeli – Egyptian – Palestinian narrative is a central topic in American foreign policy, which is what he was sent to report on.
I admit it: I felt flattered. The fact that a Soviet reporter slash hostile intelligence agent had chosen to hobnob with me was a kind of indirect compliment to my journalistic activities. Had I been asked at the time, I would likely have denied it, but today I know that I was also attracted to being involved in a situation which, until then, I’d only known of from John Le Carre’s novels. It never entered my mind that I could find myself in serious trouble.
One or two weeks later, on the weekend, Ivanov called me at home and suggested that we do lunch together on the upcoming Monday.
“Do you like Asian food?” he asked. “I know a great Thai restaurant. It’s on me.”
The restaurant was gloomy, anything I ordered was far too spicy for me, and Ivanov was also having a bit of a hard time with the chili. He ordered beer, and drank glass after glass, trying to persuade me that it was the best way to enjoy spicy food. I refused at first, saying I don’t like beer.
“So have wine or vodka,” he said.
I explained that my work day was still ahead of me, but Ivanov insisted.
“You’ve got to drink, otherwise you won’t enjoy the food.”
He was nice enough, although pushy. Not wanting to insult him, I let him order me a beer of a lower alcoholic content than wine or vodka. Some minutes later he ordered us both another, and on it went. After the second or third glass, Ivanov began to talk about the difficulties over the wording of documents relating to the peace talks between Israel and Egypt. He claimed that he didn’t understand several of the issues relating to military negotiations which he’d read about in the Washington Post and asked for an explanation.
I felt that no harm could be done by telling him what I’d already written for my article in Yedioth Acharonot, Israel’s largest daily. I was surprised to see him looking very pleased to have heard information that he could easily have read among the translations of world news prepared daily by the American Foreign Office. He urged me to have another drink, pushed another full glass towards me, and continued asking questions. At this point, the game was clear: the spicy menu was meant to make me take aboard a ton of alcohol and loosen my tongue. He never wrote down a word, which led me to conclude he was recording me. It was so transparent and primitive that I wondered whether the world of espionage was worthy of the aura of uniqueness it claimed.
A while later, Ivanov dropped his pose of innocent interest, switching to increasingly focused questions. I remember him wanting to know, for example, whether Begin’s government found the demolition arrangements in Sinai acceptable, and which issues Israel wouldn’t be willing to compromise on. I had the impression that he’d come to this lunch with a list of vital bullet points to cover.
Feeling the alcohol making me foggy, I reminded myself to stay alert. I assumed that Ivanov was being surveilled and that in addition to the Moscow desk staffer, there’d be several additional senior staffers in American intelligence agencies who’d read the report about our meeting. I didn’t want to be called in for a talk with the FBI or the Israeli embassy on suspicion of cooperating with Soviet intelligence.
After this meeting, Boris and I saw each other in the daily briefings. Occasionally we’d exchange a few words, always at his initiative. He was very interested in the intense lobbying by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Israeli embassy in Congress which emphasized promoting freedom of expression and the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate. I was careful never to say anything that hadn’t already been publicized.
About a month later he invited my wife and me to dinner at his home.
“Who else is invited?” I asked.
“It’s a formal event,” he said casually. He and Tania would be happy to host us.
It was a pleasant evening. The Ivanov’s small apartment, modestly furnished, was in a large complex in a middle class neighborhood on the border between Washington DC and the state of Virginia. Later I learned that not only in their specific building but in the neighborhood in general, hundreds of members of the Soviet embassy’s middle and lower level staffers were housed. As we sat down to eat, Ivanov smilingly stated that he had no clue about cooking, and that his young bride was just starting out in the kitchen.
Tania, pretty, mid-20s, with less than basic English, nodded, a bit embarrassed. She, like her husband, was tall, slender, with pale blue eyes, her long blond hair held in a bun at her nape. Most of the time her face was expressionless, her gaze distant; the opposite of Boris, who went out of his way to be sociable and entertaining.
Vodka there was, aplenty: icy cold and of high quality. Shot glass followed shot glass, Red Army Choir songs playing in the background.
After several glasses of alcohol, I sang two verses of “The Volga Cossacks’ Song” along with the record in Russian, in the most authentic accent I could muster. In response, Boris, by now red in the cheeks, rushed to the adjacent room excitedly and returned with a bottle of vodka and a Red Army Choir record. He handed them to me gallantly, announcing that it was a most worthy gift for a “true friend of Russian culture.”
I hesitated. From my military service and journalistic experience, I was fairly familiar with the field of espionage and knew that gifts were the slippery slope into trouble: a cheap banal gift would lead to a more expensive one and so forth, until it becomes addictive and gets you in trouble and worse yet, makes it possible to pressure you against your will. On the other hand, I didn’t want to insult Ivanov. I took the record and vodka and thanked our hosts warmly, indicating to Liora that it was time to go.
The turning point in this story, from my perspective at least, came when Ivanov asked if I’d introduce him to Doug Bloomfield, a senior AIPAC activist with whom I was on good terms and who specialized in briefing Congress members and senators on issues relating to Jews in the USSR. I knew that the FBI and perhaps other internal security agencies were watching me as a matter of course, along with all the other diplomats and delegates from the Eastern Bloc, and concluded that Ivanov must be a bigger shark than I’d thought, which meant that contact with him could be a very dangerous game. My fear was that the Americans might view me as a cooperator with Russian intelligence and warn members of government and Congress not to provide me with information.
That’s all I needed! It would not only harm my ability to work as a reporter in Washington but could get me in big trouble with my own embassy’s staff in the city and other Israeli security services. I decided to consult with the Israeli embassy’s security commander, who handed the matter over to A’, at the time a senior Mossad man and Israeli intelligence contact with the CIA and FBI.
A’ listened closely and jotted down some notes. He smiled every so often and nodded as though identifying a common situation. “I think your suspicion is justified. But don’t change anything in your behavior,” he said. “Meanwhile, continue the relationship with him and you can certainly strengthen the friendship. If he asks you again about meeting Doug, ask Doug if he too is interested after filling him in on what you know of Ivanov. If Bloomfield’s not against it, there’s no reason not to introduce them. Meanwhile I’ll run some checks of my own and I’ll contact you soon. Of course no one needs to know I’m involved.”
I had no idea that in A’s vastly experienced mind, a creative plan of action was taking shape.
That week, Yedioth Acharonot’s managing editor and my employer, Noah Mozes, visited Washington with his wife Paula. On the weekend Liora and I held a large reception for them. For me it was a chance to repay the Ivanovs for their hospitality, and get Boris and Doug Bloomfield together.
I told Noah and Paula of the developing affair with the Soviet reporter/spy and asked them if they have any objection to a reception in their honor. As I expected, they loved the idea. Paula, a partisan in Poland during the Holocaust, was glad of a chance to dust off her Russian, learned in the forests! As for Bloomfield, I told him about the diligent reporter, my suspicions, and said that I wouldn’t be at all insulted if he preferred to absent himself to avoid the encounter. Doug just laughed. “I’m a big boy,” he said, and assured me there was nothing to worry about. Nonetheless, I decided to play it safe with American authorities and not be the one to initiate an introduction between the two men. If they were to chat at the reception, it would be perfectly legitimate.
A cozy easy-going atmosphere marked the reception, as we’d anticipated. I presented the Ivanovs to Noah and Paula: a lively chat, partly in Russian, ensued. Paula and Noah were charmed by the young couple, and even Tania’s eyes seemed to sparkle. Later I learned that Boris had reported in detail and with a sense of achievement on that conversation with the editor and wife of Israel’s most popular newspaper. At some point, I saw Ivanov deep in conversation with Bloomfield in a corner of our lounge room.
The next morning Bloomfield called me, chuckling. “Ivanov didn’t disappoint,” he said. As expected from a Soviet espionage agent, he tried to get detailed information from Bloomfield on Congress’ likely reaction if peace talks between Israel and Egypt failed. “He looks pretty dangerous,” Doug added, saying that he’d inform the security higher-ups in Congress.
A few days later, A’ invited me to a meeting with “a few friends.” Arriving, I found two crew-cut Americans in their late thirties whom A’ introduced as FBI agents. “They know your client well,” he said in English and smiled. The older of the two, presenting himself as Mr. Brooks, told me that they’ve known for a while of Ivanov’s contact with me.
“He sends long reports of your conversations and the Moscow HQ keeps asking for more,” he explained.
That made me feel pressured. “I haven’t said anything that I haven’t already written in the newspaper,” I said defensively.
“That’s what I told them,” said A’ when he saw how uncomfortable I was feeling. “They showed me what Ivanov reported and everything’s fine,” he added. I breathed with relief.
I was also told that the KGB tends to listen in on married couples working abroad which gives them better input, and that Tania works in the embassy’s communications department, a highly sensitive section whose employees were carefully selected. To my surprise, I was asked to stay in contact with Ivanov. “Don’t bother reporting. They’ll contact you if they need to,” A’ added.
“Just act as you normally would,” Brooks smiled. “There’s a phone number on my business card. If you need anything, ring and ask for me. If it’s an emergency, tell the receptionist it’s urgent.”
That was the first of three or four meetings with the two American agents. They updated me on how Ivanov perceives our relationship when reporting to his superiors and tossed in a bit of gossip: for example, that Tania was cheating on her husband with a security officer in the embassy, that Boris knows but is basically doing nothing, probably fearing they’d both get sent back to Russia. This snippet possibly explained Tania’s standoffishness towards us: the dinner invite had been a work event for Boris but not for her, hence her lack of any motivation to be especially nice.
At the end of the third or fourth meeting, the plan A’ had cooked up and suggested to the Americans was finally aired. Without much of a preface, the FBI agents asked me to help them recruit Ivanov: in other words, to “double” him. It took me a few moments to digest the concept. I glanced at A’ who nodded.
The adventurer in me was rubbing his hands in glee… until the ethical and professional dilemma broke the spell: at the time I still believed, as did many of my reporter colleagues, at least the serious ones among them, that we should report rather than play games which influence the scenarios we’re covering. But I quickly reassured my conscience by telling myself that the Soviet regime was scheming against the free world in general, and my fellow Jews in particular, and anything that could be done to undermine the KGB’s work was worth doing. In fact, it morally justified bending the laws of ethics.
Against all odds, in a series of heroic leaps between Jerusalem and Cairo, Carter succeeded in unraveling the knots. Even though the peanut farmer from the south was not my favorite person, being an Evangelist priest nonetheless, I couldn’t but admire his determination and devotion, void of all ego, in the peace brokering mission he’d taken on.
A day after I returned, two phone calls came through: one from Ivanov, eager to meet “tonight, or tomorrow!” The second was from one of the FBI agents who invited me to a meeting.
The following day I joined Ivanov for dinner. He did his best to get me drinking alcohol, becoming so aggressive as to be almost rude. He asked direct questions, wanted details, and especially whether I’d heard anything right from Carter’s mouth. A half hour later I decided to halt the blatant interrogation. Telling him I was exhausted, I stood and left.
The following day I met with the FBI agent in a neighborhood adjacent to the Pentagon, probably in the counterespionage wing. The plan for recruiting Ivanov was explained: after the daily briefing I’d ask him to join me for lunch at a certain Italian restaurant near the American Foreign Office. The bulk of diners at that hour were generally reporters, diplomats and government staff. It’s a place where I’d commonly meet contacts, including Ivanov, making the choice an expectable one. Nor did they forget to mention that Ivanov couldn’t resist quality Italian food.
“We’ll book the table in your name, and at some point someone will come over and introduce himself as your old friend,” I was told. “This will be one of our men, whose profession is maritime engineering. He’ll be thrilled at this pseudo-chance encounter, ask how you’re doing, how your family’s doing, and you’ll also be very warm towards him. Then you’ll introduce Ivanov to him, and invite him to join you. While you’re chatting, your ‘acquaintance’ will say that he’s working at the Norfolk Shipyards which are building most of the vessels for the US Navy.”
“That should be the bait. We know,” the American agents said, “that Ivanov was given the job of finding out what’s happening in the US Naval shipyards, and whether someone there can be recruited as an agent working with the Soviets. It’s almost certain he’ll try to make friends with our guy, draw information from him, and maybe try to recruit him, and then we’ll trip him by ‘doubling’ him.”
And it all went according to plan: as expected, Boris gladly accepted my invitation to lunch. The table was booked, the atmosphere was pleasant, and the restaurant buzzed with people. I had nothing to do but wait for my “friend,” who’d have a typically Jewish name, to approach us.
Not far from us sat four men who looked like midlevel State Department employees. We were digging into our first course when the waiter came over, presented a bottle of wine with a broad smile, and said that the man from the table nearby had sent it. I was sure it meant plans had gone wrong: the FBI agents had never said anything about that, and I noticed that the wine was mind-bogglingly expensive, which didn’t seem true to the scope of salaries of government employees like those nearby, or even for really well paid Americans. So far, no one had come over and identified himself as having sent the wine to start the agreed procedure.
Ivanov was curious about such a fine wine’s source. I said that I had no clue, and possibly it was a friend known for being a real prankster, and I’d probably get into some tricky spot with my wife. Ivanov broke into laughter. Just then one of the men from the adjacent table came over, greeting me very warmly!
“Ron? Ron, where’ve you been all this time? Didn’t we say we’d get together, Liora, you, me and my wife?” I can’t remember how I reacted but I saw the surprise on Ivanov’s face. Then my “friend” turned to face Ivanov. “Who’s the lucky gentleman sharing lunch with you before I’ve had a chance to?”
I explained that he was a Soviet colleague, a reporter from TASS.
“Wonderful!” the friend said. “I’ve always admired those Russian experts who built ships from the time of Peter the Great. Can I join you guys?”
“Sure!” I said with good cheer.
When the agent presented himself as an engineer working at the Norfolk Shipyard, I noticed a spark of understanding and anger in Ivanov’s eyes. The experienced Russian agent wasn’t buying it. To this day I flush with embarrassment thinking about the clumsy, transparent, unprofessional approach. At some level, I felt proud that my Soviet colleague hadn’t fallen for a gambit that was almost an insult to intelligence.
After that incident my contact with Ivanov gradually declined, nor did I hear from the Americans again. Some months later A’ laconically told me that the efforts “with your friend hadn’t succeeded.” But in July 1981 when I notified the press room attendees that I’d be returning home, Ivanov surprised my wife and me by inviting us to a farewell dinner at his home.
“You’re true friends of Tania and myself,” he said.
Ten years after returning from Washington, Yedioth Acharonot’s editor at the time, Dov Yudkovsky, was invited to a conference of the World Association of News Publishers in Moscow. These were the times of Perestroika and Glasnost led by Gorbachev. The USSR had begun imploding while simultaneously opening up to the outside world. On his return to Israel, Yudkovsky told me that he’d met someone at the conference, a certain Boris Ivanov, asking about me. Ivanov presented himself as a senior reporter at Izvestia, one of the largest dailies in the Soviet regime, and said he’d be happy to get together with me again.
I admit I was touched. “Here’s his phone number,” Yudkovsky handed me a card. “He said something that sounded like an invitation to visit Russia as his paper’s guest. He wants to prove that stories being publicized in international and Israeli press on Soviet anti-Semitism are all lies.”
I called Ivanov and was warmly and sincerely greeted. He said that he’s still with Tania and they have no children. I updated him a little on events in my life since we parted ways. When our conversation shifted to professional matters, Ivanov claimed that world media was exaggerating as usual about anti-Semitism in Russia. “Why don’t you come and see for yourself?” he asked.
Two weeks later, in February 1990, I was already on a plane for Moscow as an official guest of Izvestia, but in actuality, a guest of the KGB.
“I’ll accompany you and you’ll see there’s no anti-Semitism. Meet whoever you want and we’ll go wherever you want,” Ivanov promised. I asked to visit the home of my stepfather’s family in Riga. “Bring the address,” he said.
At the time, it was obligatory to report in advance on trips behind the Iron Curtain. The newspaper handled that for me. I was invited to meet with one of the counterespionage teams in the Israeli Secret Services, who confirmed that Ivanov was known to them as a KGB representative working within Izvestia. His role was to ensure that nothing published in the paper contravened the official government platform; he also collected information on his colleagues.
There was no problem with me flying there, I was told, even though it was pretty clear that there’d be wiretaps and cameras in my hotel room. I must not accept gifts or offers from anyone. Diplomatic ties between the USSR and Israel still hadn’t been reinstated, nor was there an Israeli embassy in Moscow, but the idea of being the KGB’s guest fired me up. Despite a certain amount of risk to the venture, no money in the world would make me forego this adventure!