Mid-term Report

Tamir Pardo has reached half-way in his tenure as head of Mossad amid tough times for the agency.

At home: Tamir Pardo (left)   – concentrating on Iran (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
At home: Tamir Pardo (left) – concentrating on Iran
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Y, ONCE a senior Mossad case officer in charge of running agents, was recently promoted to the No. 3 spot at the intelligence agency. Due to security considerations (and censorship), he can only be identified by the initial of his first name. He is now in charge of all the non-operational units of the Mossad such as technology, computers, logistics and human resources. Though it is somewhat premature, Y surely sees himself as a potential candidate to be the next head of the Mossad. His promotion, part of a recent round of appointments at the top echelon of the organization, coincides with marking three years since Tamir Pardo assumed the helm of the Mossad (January 2011). The names and identities of the others who were promoted also cannot be revealed for the above reasons. The reshuffle is considered routine and certainly doesn’t signal a major shift in the Mossad’s policy. Three years in office means that Pardo has probably passed half his term (the length of service of the director of the Mossad is not defined by law and is determined at the prerogative of the prime minister). This might be an appropriate time to assess Pardo’s successes and failures. Pardo, 61, a chain smoker, who, two years ago, began jogging and lost weight, walks more or less in the footsteps of his predecessor, Meir Dagan, who headed the agency for eight years. If there is a difference between the two it’s a matter of style and personality. Unlike the charismatic, smiling and controversial Dagan, Pardo is much more reserved. He has the appearance of a gray bureaucrat, with little time for small talk. But appearances can be misleading. He is a professional intelligence officer and skillful operative, who served nearly 30 years in the operational departments of the Mossad.
However, Mossad, the lethal, respected and feared mythological intelligence agency, is going through tough times, even as the Middle East is in turmoil, posing an unprecedented set of challenges to Israel.
2013 was not a brilliant year for the Mossad. During the year, foreign media revealed that two Mossad men had been held in Israeli prisons on charges of espionage and treason. One was Ben Zygier-Alon, whose case became public a year ago.
Known only as “Prisoner X,” Ben Zygier hanged himself in a high-security isolation cell in Ayalon Prison (near the city of Ramle) in December 2010. Zygier, a Melbourne-born Jew, who moved to Israel and became an Israeli citizen, was recruited by the Mossad in 2005. Zygier, according to a newly published book in Australia, “Prisoner X” by Rafael Epstein, was part of an Israeli espionage team, based in Europe, working for an Italian electronics company, from where it penetrated Iran.
In retrospect, security officials admit that it was a mistake to hire Zygier, because the Australian did not have the stability and discretion needed to be a spy. According to Epstein, Zygier, while working for the Mossad, passed secrets about the agency to an Iranian businessman, probably working for his country’s security services. Zygier and the Iranian were both studying at Monash University in Melbourne, in 2009.
Now, based on additional foreign reports, more light is being shed on the second case, dubbed as “Prisoner X2.” It has been reported that this Mossad man was convicted by an Israeli court and has been secretly imprisoned for about 10 years – with the authorities censoring any details from being published. He was charged with treason, because he transmitted secrets to a “foreign power.” Hundreds of people were questioned during the investigation of X2’s alleged treason. The investigator of the case reportedly considered it the toughest investigation of his career. It was also reported that the man “traveled the world” and his actions endangered his Mossad colleagues. While the precise sentence is still a secret, it has been intimated that the term could be reduced by one-third because of the inmate’s “good behavior” in captivity.
The phrase “Prisoner X” has been used for decades in Israel, mainly referring to security agencies’ (including the Mossad) operatives who broke the rules, and were arrested and imprisoned. Publicizing those cases was banned, with officials claiming that censors and court-issued gag orders were protecting secrets that might damage state security. Critics say these bans were designed to protect the reputations of government and security agency officials.
While Pardo unsuccessfully tried to contain the damage caused by the leaked Prisoner X affairs he showed poor judgment and understanding of modern media and information highways. Nevertheless, one can assume that he has absorbed the lessons on how to deal with journalists and will not repeat the same mistakes.
However, the most important development on Pardo’s Mossad agenda was Iran. The Islamic Republic with its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon and Syria remain at the top of the Mossad’s operational options. These options were sharply reduced in 2013, after Hezbollah amassed a massive arsenal of 100,000 rockets and missiles capable of targeting every Israeli strategic site and urban center. In February, Hezbollah threatened to retaliate if the Israel Air Force continued to attack the Shi’ite movement. Hezbollah claimed that the IAF bombed one of its facilities, either an arms convoy or a depot where sophisticated missiles smuggled from Syria were stored. But, above all, 2013 witnessed the end of the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists attributed to the Mossad. The four-year campaign of assassinations ended in 2012, after the killings of five nuclear scientists in Iran. Four were assassinated during Dagan’s tenure and one under Pardo. It had become too dangerous. Iran’s counterintelligence units were conducting an intensive manhunt, and the Mossad could not risk seeing its most talented and experienced spies and assassins arrested and hanged. In addition, the US Administration signaled to Israel that it did not want acts of violence to continue inside Iran, when negotiations with Islamic Republic on its nuclear program were underway.
For the time being, the Pardo boys (and girls) are turning their information gathering and operational capabilities to unveil Iran’s deceptions and provide evidence about its true intentions. To show that Iran, now ruled by the seemingly moderate President Hassan Rohani, is indeed in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” tirelessly trying to deceive the international community about the true nature of its nuclear program.
But, if circumstances and reality require it, Pardo will not hesitate to resort to the old violent ways. Like his predecessors, he is a true protector of Israel’s national interests.