Mossad's split personality

The task of Nazi hunting did not always sit well with the agency’s other missions.

holocaust 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
holocaust 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Commentators and intelligence experts have long speculated that the Mossad intelligence service was responsible for an assassination attempt on Adolf Eichmann’s private secretary and right-hand man. Now, former Mossad director Yitzhak Hofi has confirmed that Israel was indeed behind the July 1980 attempt to kill Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner.
Hofi’s admission comes during a part of a documentary by filmmaker Yarin Kimor, which aired in November on Channel 1 TV and is the first official Israeli confirmation of the Mossad role in the affair.
According to Hofi, then-prime minister Menachem Begin authorized the attempt.
In the documentary, Hofi describes the comprehensive intelligence-gathering operation that preceded the attempt, in which the details of Brunner’s habits, daily routine and even worldview were subjected to intense scrutiny.
Mossad agents learned that Brunner, who had made his way to Damascus after the Nazi defeat in World War II, was an ardent believer in the efficacy of herbal medicine, and was regularly sent books on the subject by an Austrian firm. This, relates Hofi, is how Brunner came to receive a package rigged with explosives from “The Austrian Society for Natural Medicine.”
The explosion mangled Brunner’s hands, and he lost several fingers. He was rushed to hospital, where doctors managed to save his life. “We took care of him,” said Hofi, “but we weren’t able to kill him.”
Brunner, who was born in Austria in 1912, joined the German Schutzstaffel, or SS, in 1931 at the age of 19 and later served as Eichmann’s personal assistant and right-hand man. He was the commander of the Drancy internment camp in France and was directly involved in sending some 130,000 Jews from Austria, Slovakia, Greece and France to their deaths in concentration camps.
Holocaust survivors who had been in camps he administered describe him as a brutal sadist. For example, he once forced Jews to run for hours in one of the camps, and then roll in mud. When they collapsed from exhaustion, they were beaten unconscious. In another instance, he ordered his SS underlings to murder four Jews in cold blood, in front of everyone. One eyewitness describes how he ordered nine Jews to stand at attention naked for 12 consecutive hours on a cold November night, while being beaten constantly by SS guards.
After the war, Brunner’s name was on the Allies’ list of most-wanted war criminals.
He was arrested and spent time in an Allied prison camp, but managed to keep his true identity concealed. He was eventually released and returned to Austria, where, with the help of one Georg Fischer, a friend who greatly resembled him, he assumed a new identity, obtained travel documents and fled to Egypt.
It was there that he encountered Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had met with Adolf Hitler during the war. Husseini convinced “Fischer” to relocate somewhere safer – Syria. Brunner took his advice and went to Damascus, where he posed as a German businessman. As part of his cover, he cultivated acquaintances among the members of the German Embassy in Syria; it is speculated that they knew his true identity and helped him to conceal it.
In 1960, shortly after the Mossad had kidnapped Brunner’s former commander Eichmann in Argentina, Brunner was arrested by Syrian police on suspicion of narcotics trafficking. In order to establish his innocence, he had to reveal his true identity.
The Syrian authorities not only released him, but were persuaded to assist with his plan, which was never implemented, to rescue Eichmann from captivity in Israel.
According to Israeli and German intelligence services, Brunner became a consultant to the Syrian police and security services, instructing them in interrogation and torture techniques. In exchange, the Syrian authorities offered him protection, supplying him with bodyguards. Despite this protection, there were at least two attempts made on his life. The first attempt, also a letter bomb, took place in September 1961.
The powerful blast killed two postal clerks in Damascus, while wounding Brunner, who was blinded in one eye. No group took responsibility for the bomb, but it would appear the Mossad was behind this as well.
In the years that followed, several nations, including Israel, issued international arrest warrants for Brunner. But Syria, which never publicly acknowledged his presence in the country, ignored them. He was tried in absentia in France on two occasions, and was sentenced to life in prison.
In the 1980s, Brunner emerged sporadically from the shadows to grant interviews to German and American media.
It was apparent from the interviews that he still clung to the Nazi ideology and his hatred for the Jewish race, who he termed “sons of the devil.”
There is no official confirmation of Brunner’s fate, but Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, believes he died about four years ago. A former officer in the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), the foreign intelligence agency of Germany and the counterpart to the Mossad, told Wiesenthal researchers that Brunner had died in Syria.
Reports surfaced in Germany about a year ago that the BND had destroyed evidence connected to Brunner in the 1990s. The reports aroused suspicion that the shredding of the documents was meant to cover up the fact that Brunner had apparently served as an agent of the German intelligence and had even enjoyed the protection of senior officials in various post-war German governments.
Hofi’s confirmation of the assassination attempt came as a double surprise: Firstly, that the Mossad was prepared to admit that it had attempted an assassination that had failed, and secondly, that the hunt for Nazis had continued at least until the 80s. It was believed that the issue had been dropped from the Mossad agenda in the 1960s, during the tenure of Meir Amit as head of the organization.
The truth is somewhat more complex.
On the one hand, in contrast to the myth that emerged following the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 – the pursuit of Nazi war criminals was not that important to Isser Harel, the Mossad director at the time, nor to his successor Amit. “They felt no compulsion,” Zvi Aharoni, who headed the Caesarea operations unit in the Mossad until 1970 and was a member of the team that kidnapped Eichmann, once told me.
Aharoni died in May this year, aged 91. Harel reaped the glory surrounding the Eichmann capture, but he could have pursued the matter more forcefully as early as 1958.
Harel also never really went out of his way to allocate resources to effect the capture of Dr. Josef Mengele – the “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz.
Amit, who replaced Harel in 1963, continued to authorize Nazi-hunting operations, but relegated them to the back burner. Despite this, during Amit’s time, Caesarea operatives led by Yosef Yariv, killed Herbert Cukurs, known as the “Butcher of Riga,” in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1965. Cukurs was involved in murders of Latvian Jews during the Holocaust.
Two years later in April 1967, two Mossad agents of the Keshet unit were caught attempting to break into the Munich apartment of the wife of Heinrich Müller, who had been the head of the Gestapo. The agents, who had been looking for clues to Müller’s whereabouts, were arrested. After three months they were released following the intervention of then-prime minister Levi Eshkol.
On the other hand, alongside the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, the Mossad did not hesitate to utilize the services of SS officers as “leverage” to recruit agents for espionage in the Arab world. This was brazen expediency, immoral and lacking historical memory.
The most blatant example of this was the case of Waffen SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny (who rescued Benito Mussolini from captivity). Rafi Eitan, a senior operative in the Shin Bet security service (now the Israel Security Agency) and later the Mossad, met Skorzeny in Madrid, in 1962, along with Avraham Ahituv, who later headed the Shin Bet. Skorzeny provided the two Israelis with intelligence on former Nazi scientists working for the Egyptian government. The Mossad attempted to kill some of the scientists on Skorzeny’s list and threatened the families of others.
This dichotomy between the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, on the one hand, and turning a blind eye in other cases is symptomatic of the Mossad’s split personality disorder, brought on by bearing both the burden of history and the need to deal with urgent national security priorities. It began in the 50s under Harel, continued in the 60s with Amit and in the 70s and the beginning of the 80s with Hofi and Zvi Zamir. Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who also appears in Yarin Kimor’s movie, credits former prime minister Menachem Begin with renewing the search for Nazi war criminals: “Begin ordered Haka [Hofi] to continue chasing Nazis.”
The problem was that most of them, the most important ones, were no longer alive.
Yossi Melman is a commentator on security and intelligence matters for Walla, a Hebrew news website, and co-author of the recently published ‘Spies against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret wars’ Levant Books, NY.