A little too focused?

Despite high praise for outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan, it's questioned whether his obsession with Iran has left Israel vulnerable elsewhere

flotilia (photo credit: AFP)
(photo credit: AFP)
IT IS THE SUMMER OF 2007 and the Syrians are going ahead full steam building a clandestine nuclear reactor in far-flung Dir a-Zur near the border with Turkey. Israel has only a sketchy picture of what is going on, certainly not enough evidence or intelligence to launch an attack. Meir Dagan’s Mossad has been charged with filling in the blanks. According to foreign sources, its first big break comes in late July, in London, when two agents track a Syrian official involved in the project to a Kensington hotel. As soon as he leaves his room, they slip in and make a quick search. They find a laptop with blueprints of the North Korean-supplied reactor, correspondence between Syrian and North Korean scientists and officials, as well as onsite photographs of North Korean visitors with a Syrian official identified as Ibrahim Othman, head of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission. Before leaving, the agents insert a Trojan horse-type virus into the computer to enable continued remote monitoring of its contents from Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The Mossad also manages to turn one of the workers on the reactor site. He supplies highquality stills and videos of the reactor and two adjacent buildings. Israel’s spy satellite Ofeq-7 provides aerial photography. Just to make sure, Israeli commandos bring back earth samples from around the site, which are found to be highly radio-active. Then, a day before Israel strikes, an Israel Air Force commando unit marks the targets with laser beams to ensure precision hits. On the night between September 5 and 6, seven Israeli fighter-bombers destroy the facility.
Eleven months later, according to foreign sources, the Mossad follows up its work on the Dir a-Zur nuclear case with the assassination of Brig. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, Syrian President Bashar Asad’s trusted go-between on military matters involving Iran and North Korea. The general’s brief includes the transfer of rockets from Iran via Syria to Hizballah in Lebanon, and, as a member of the “Syrian Research Commission,” he is also responsible for the development of weapons of mass destruction, including the Dir a-Zur nuclear project and possibly another in its wake. On the night of August 2, 2008, Suleiman is shot dead at his holiday chalet in Rimal al-Zahabieh on the Mediterranean coast by snipers who approach from the sea.
Sabotaging the Syrian nuclear program was perhaps the outgoing Mossad chief’s greatest single achievement during his eight years at the helm. It reflects the daring, ruthlessness and sophisticated operational capabilities of the agency he built. But it also shows up one of its glaring weaknesses. Because of Dagan’s single-minded focus on Iran and Arab terror to the detriment of everything else, it was only by chance that the Mossad got to know anything at all about the Syrian program. For five years, it was completely in the dark about a nuclear project going on virtually in its own backyard. It was only in February 2007, with the defection to the West of Ali-Reza Asgari, a former Iranian deputy defense minister, that Israel and the US first heard about Dir a-Zur. True, Gen. Asgari’s defection was reportedly arranged by the Mossad and the CIA, but his sensational debriefing revelation came as a complete surprise to both.
Dagan’s departure at the end of the year as Mossad chief comes after an unprecedented three renewals of his initial five-year term. Widely regarded as one of the agency’s most successful bosses, Dagan can boast a string of major achievements in the wars against Iran’s nuclear program and Arab terror. None of his predecessors can match, nor is it likely that any of his successors will equal, the daring and sheer volume of the covert operations he launched against his chosen targets.
Still, some question whether his obsession with Iran has left Israel vulnerable to developments in other parts of the region. Others argue that under Dagan the agency grew arrogant and careless, for example in the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai last January, an operation largely caught on camera and which embroiled a vulnerable Israel in an unnecessary diplomatic tangle. And there is a larger question: Do the targeted assassinations favored by Dagan serve any purpose in the longer run? Dagan has also come under criticism for his acerbic style and bitter turf war with military intelligence.
Given Dagan’s strengths and weaknesses, Mossad watchers are asking two key questions: Will Tamir Pardo, his more reflective and less flamboyant successor, make significant organizational or policy changes? And will he be able to mend some of the fences the roughriding Dagan has broken?
THE ACTIVIST MOSSAD THAT Dagan built owes its origins to former prime minister Ariel Sharon. When Sharon took over as national leader in 2001, he found a hesitant spy agency, reluctant to take operational risks after the resounding failure in 1997 of a plan to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Amman. Under the professorial Ephraim Halevy the focus was on more academic pursuits, such as intelligence gathering and analysis, and the cultivation of ties with other espionage agencies. Sharon, a former commando, wanted a more daring approach. In August 2002 he appointed Dagan, whom he knew from the early 1970s as an outstanding street-fighter against Palestinian terror in Gaza while an IDF commander, and reportedly told him he wanted a Mossad “with a knife between its teeth.”
Standing on a table in the Mossad canteen on the day he took over, the short, stocky Dagan left no doubt that under his tenure the organization would focus far more on special operations on enemy soil. He also made it clear that he intended to drastically limit the organization’s priorities. “The list must be short. If we continue pretending we can do everything, in the end we don’t do anything,” he declared. Indeed, for Dagan there were just two issues: Delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons program and curbing Arab terror.
He immediately set about remaking the agency to suit his goals. Some departments were trimmed, others closed altogether, and budgets were transferred to special ops. In the first few months, hundreds of agents left, some of them top people. Part of this had to do with the reorientation and part with Dagan’s short temper and demanding style. “What have you done for me lately?” he would go round the building yelling at agents he thought were not pulling their weight.
The new people he brought in were trained in the more field-oriented organizational culture. Sharon, who now had the daring, gung-ho agency he wanted, approved dozens of covert operations, most of which remain highly classified.
From the outset the focus on the Iranian front started paying dividends. In late 2002, the Mossad was reportedly among the first to pick up information that rogue Pakistani nuclear expert Abdel Qadir Khan was helping the Iranians build a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. According to one version, the information first came from an Iranian opposition group; according to another it was the Mossad that fed the National Council of Resistance, which then went public with the revelation. Much the same thing happened nearly seven years later with the discovery, in September 2009, of a hidden enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom, a find that finally convinced the most skeptical of international observers that, despite Western pressure, Iran was indeed conducting a clandestine nuclear weapons’ program.
Throughout Dagan’s tenure, the Iranian nuclear program has been afflicted by a string of unexplained accidents and setbacks attributed by foreign sources and the Iranians themselves to the Mossad. Laboratories burned down, planes crashed and whole batches of equipment proved faulty. Over the past year, a virus called Stuxnet infected around 30,000 Iranian institutional computers, causing a significant slowdown at the Natanz enrichment facility. In mid- November, the Iranians stopped feeding hot uranium gas into the Natanz centrifuges, shutting down the facility completely for about a week.
Worse for the Iranian project: Leading nuclear scientists connected with it have been systematically targeted. In the last 18 months alone, four top scientists were killed, injured or kidnapped. Most recently, Majid Shahriari, the program’s highest scientific authority, was killed, and Fereydoun Abbasi, a laser technology expert, was wounded when passing motorcyclists attached explosive devices to their cars in late November, in Teheran.
Although the Mossad has not claimed credit for any of this, regional players have little doubt as to who has been behind the killings, the accidents and the pinpoint intelligence. In rare praise for anything Israeli in the Egyptian press, the Al- Ahram daily ran a mid-January article dubbing Dagan Israel’s “Superman,” claiming that he, almost single-handedly, had delayed the Iranian bomb. “Every Iranian official understands the magic word – Dagan. Without this man the Iranian nuclear program would have taken off years ago,” the newspaper’s former Gaza correspondent Ashraf Abu al-Haul wrote.
Dagan has also pulled off major coups in the fight against Arab terror, including assassinations of senior Hizballah and Hamas operatives on Arab soil attributed to the Mossad. By far the most significant of these was the assassination in Damascus on February 12, 2008, of Imad Mugniyeh, the Hizballah commander at the top of the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, with a prize of $5 million on his head. Mugniyeh was believed to have been behind a string of car-bombings and kidnappings in which hundreds of people, mainly Israelis, Americans, Frenchmen and Argentinean Jews, were killed – including the bombings in 1983 of the American embassy, the US Marines and French paratroop barracks in Beirut, as well as an IDF barracks in Tyre; the bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish Community Center in 1994; and the kidnapping in July 2006 of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, which led to the Second Lebanon War.
Knowing he was on several wanted lists, Mugniyeh regularly changed his identity, undergoing plastic surgery first in Libya and then in East Berlin. Shortly after the 2006 war in Lebanon, according to foreign sources, Mossad agents received a tip-off on a Berlin clinic, from which they obtained the up-to-date photographs of Mugniyeh used to trace and identify him. When, during a visit to Damascus coinciding with the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Mugniyeh arrived for a tryst with his Syrian lover, Mossad agents lurking outside reportedly used the photographs to confirm that he was the man driving a silver Mitsubishi Pajero to which a GPS device had been attached. Soon afterwards, Mugniyeh was killed by a car bomb detonated as he made his way towards a safe house for a meeting with visiting Iranian officials.
The Mossad under Dagan also achieved intelligence successes that enabled Israeli forces to intercept large weapons consignments long before they reached their terrorist destinations. In mid-January 2009, a convoy carrying weapons for Hamas during Operation Cast Lead was bombed presumably by Israel Air Force planes in Sudan, and in November that year, the Francop, an Antigua-flagged vessel carrying over 100 tons of rockets, mortars and anti-tank weapons for Hizballah, was captured by the Israel Navy off the coast of Cyprus.
BUT THERE WERE ALSO MAJOR failures under Dagan, with farreaching diplomatic consequences. A small taste of things to come occurred in 2004, when two Mossad operatives were jailed in Auckland for trying to obtain New Zealand passports under false pretenses, and then-prime minister Helen Clark imposed diplomatic sanctions on Israel. Five and a half years later, the use of fraudulent foreign passports in the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai sparked a much wider diplomatic row involving the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, France and Germany, the countries whose passports had been exploited.
Mabhouh, who was in charge of arms smuggling from Iran and Sudan to Gaza for Hamas, had also been directly involved in the kidnap and murder of two Israeli soldiers, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa’adon in 1988. But the assassination plan involving an estimated 27 agents, all caught on camera during various stages of the operation, made the Mossad look cumbersome and ridiculous. Critics asked four cardinal questions: Why was the assassination necessary? Why the need for so many agents? Why the use of names that could be traced to dual citizens living in Israel? And why choose Dubai, with its dense deployment of security cameras? Basking in a long run of success, Dagan, the critics said, had grown overconfident and reckless. Some began to talk about the need for a change at the top.
Afew months later, Dagan again found himself under fire, this time over a failure to provide intelligence that could have enabled Israel to avoid the ignominy of a botched naval operation against “peace activists” on the high seas. Naval commandos rappelling onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, one of a flotilla of seven vessels trying to run Israel’s blockade of Gaza, had no idea that dozens of men armed with knives, iron bars and other blunt instruments were waiting to attack them as they landed. Eight Turkish peace activists and an American of Turkish descent were killed when the hopelessly outnumbered commandos opened fire to extricate themselves from a life-threatening situation. Bewildered critics asked why the Mossad had no one in place to provide real time intelligence about what was going on aboard the vessel. Again the diplomatic fallout was extensive. The deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara put further strains on relations with Turkey and added fuel to the international campaign to delegitimize Israel.
There was some speculation that one of the reasons for the lack of intelligence on the vessel may have been the ongoing turf war between Military Intelligence and the Mossad. In focusing almost exclusively on Iran, Dagan had ignored priorities as set by IDF intelligence, and relations between the two agencies reached rock bottom. This bad blood added another dimension to calls not to renew Dagan’s tenure for a ninth year, calls Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eventually heeded.
THE SON OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS, Meir Dagan (Huberman) was born in the winter of 1945 on a freight train carrying refugees from Siberia to Poland. Five years later, he reached Israel, wearing a life vest on a ship listing badly in a violent storm. A high school dropout, Dagan was rejected by the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit and began a 30-year army career in the armored corps. The career-shaping event that eventually led him to the Mossad came in 1970, when Sharon, then commander of the southern front, tapped him to lead a special forces unit to combat the terror then raging in the streets of Gaza. Known as Sayeret Rimon, Dagan’s men sowed fear throughout the Gaza Strip.
As commander, Dagan, reminiscent of the young Sharon in his commando days of the 1950s, exhibited a ruthless daring and inventiveness that helped tip the scales in Israel’s favor. Unlike the Israeli-born Sharon, though, Dagan’s uncompromising attitude to Israel’s enemies stems at least partly from his family’s Holocaust past. On the wall in his office, there is a fading photograph of an SS officer pointing a rifle at an old man he says was his grandfather.
Summing up Dagan’s eight-year tenure in late November, Defense Minister Ehud Barak praised the outgoing Mossad chief’s performance, which, he intimated, went well beyond what was in the public domain: “Israelis,” he declared, “owe Meir Dagan a great debt of gratitude even though we cannot tell them all the reasons why.”
Tamir Pardo, 57, who takes over from Dagan in February, is a very different man. A soft-spoken team player, he rose from the ranks of the Mossad, where he served from 1980, and, unlike Dagan, was not parachuted in as leader from the outside.
The new Mossad chief has close ties to the Netanyahu family that go back to the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue operation. Serving as a radio officer in Sayeret Matkal, he was standing only meters away when the unit’s commander, Yoni Netanyahu, the prime minister’s older brother, was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Pardo subsequently became a family friend and named his son Yonatan.
Few, however, suggest that this had anything to do with his appointment. An outstanding Mossad officer with unique technical gifts, Pardo won three special Israel security prizes for reasons that remain classified and twice served as the organization’s deputy commander, fully expecting to get the top job.
After the botched assassination of Khaled Mashal in 1997, Pardo was appointed to head an internal inquiry and produced a no-holdsbarred report that shook the organization and led to a number of high-level resignations. When he took over in 2002, Dagan immediately appointed Pardo his deputy, responsible for the key operational units. Pardo left in 2006 to help reorganize special ops in the IDF, and again in 2009, despairing of ever taking over the organization after Dagan’s term was extended for a third time.
As Mossad chief, Pardo says he does not intend to change things very much. But there are some things he may be able to fix: for example, relations with Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet General Security Service; heightened collaboration with foreign intelligence agencies; a more critical choice of special ops; and on the Syrian front, a review of both Israel’s intelligence needs, which Dagan did not prioritize, and the chances for peacemaking, which he summarily dismissed.
One of the biggest challenges Pardo and Israel’s security services as a whole are likely to face in 2011 is the fact that all of them – the IDF, Military Intelligence, the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the Israel Police – are about to get new bosses at around the same time. As the Iranian nuclear clock counts down, and as moves towards peace or war in the Middle East accelerate, 2011 is likely to be a test of the wisdom of making all the changes at the top at once.