Secrets of the Mossad

Two new books reveal some of the successes – and failures – of Israel’s espionage agency.

‘The Master of Operations‘ by Aaron Klein (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The Master of Operations‘ by Aaron Klein
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IN THE EVENING hours of July 21, 1973, the Mossad, Israel’s foreign espionage agency, suffered one of its worst failures. In the sleepy town of Lillehammer in northern Norway, Mossad assassins killed Ahmad Bouchiki.
They had made a terrible mistake. They mistook Bouchiki, an innocent Moroccan waiter married to a local woman, for Ali Hassan Salameh, a master terrorist within the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization and one of PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s close associates.
The two assassins managed to escape, but six other Mossad operatives who were part of the hit team’s external envelope were eventually arrested by local police. Two of them cracked under interrogation and revealed details which led to the indictment and sentencing of five of them to some years in prison. They were released and returned to Israel in 1975. The leader of the assassination team, the legendary Mike Harari, who was the head of the Mossad’s operational department Caesarea, managed to escape.
Two newly released books detail the tragic events at Lillehammer, each from a different perspective. One is a Hebrew biography of Harari written by Israeli journalist and former intelligence officer, Aaron Klein. In the other, by the American journalist and writer, and Pulitzer award winner, Kai Bird, Salameh plays only a peripheral role.
Ali Hassan Salameh was born in Britishcontrolled Palestine in 1940, the son of Sheikh Hassan Salameh, commander of a Palestinian militia who fought both the British and the Jews. The elder Salameh was killed in action in 1948 north of Jaffa by Jewish troops during Israel’s War of Independence.
The wealthy Salameh family emmigrated to Lebanon, where Ali was educated. After studying in Germany and receiving military training in Cairo and Moscow, the young Salameh exploited his family’s status to ascend the ranks of the PLO’s military hierarchy.
He was known for his flamboyant lifestyle and flair, as well as his penchant for pretty women – his second wife was Lebanon’s beauty queen – and driving sport cars, which added to his popular appeal among young Palestinians. His nickname underlined his popularity – “the Red Prince.”
In Israel, he was seen as a cruel and sophisticated enemy. He was chief of operations of the Black September terror group – a front organization for Arafat’s PLO. Israeli intelligence believed that Salameh was the mastermind who planned and executed terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in Europe including the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, in September 1972.
But Bird’s book, “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames,” doubts Salameh’s involvement in the Munich massacre and reveals his secret connections to the US Central Intelligence Agency. A similar claim was made in 1987 by journalist David Ignatius of The Washington Post in his novel “Agents of Innocence,” in which one of its characters resembles Salameh.
“The Good Spy” however is not fiction. It is a solid piece of research into the affair.
Bird’s book details the life story of Ames, a CIA case officer who was assigned to the agency’s station in Beirut in 1969. Ames died with 62 other people in April 1983 when a car bomb planted by Hezbollah exploded near the US Embassy in the Lebanese capital.
Ames’s mission was to cultivate, recruit and run Lebanese, Arab and Palestinian agents, among them Salameh. Contrary to Ames’s advice, the CIA tried to recruit Salameh and offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Salameh declined.
In the end, Ames and Salameh formed a friendship, both personal and professional.
Their secret contacts were held in CIA safe houses in the Lebanese capital, and even in New York, when Salameh accompanied Arafat to address the UN General Assembly in 1974.
Officially, the US viewed the PLO as a terrorist organization and refused to recognize it. So, the back channel approved by CIA director Richard Helms, and known to the White House, was deemed an “intelligence operation.”
On the Palestinian side, the contacts between Salameh and Ames were known and approved by Arafat, who hoped their friendship would lead to open relations with America. To the chagrin of Israel – and despite denials by the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations – the US was holding a clandestine dialogue with an outlawed terrorist group.
Ames warned Salameh that the Mossadwas after him, though it is unclear whether he was ordered to do so or acted at his own initiative. One of these warnings was delivered in July 1973, just days before Harari’s agents killed Bouchiki.
Five and a half years later, in January 1979, Israel finally got the Red Prince. A female Mossad operative called “Erika Chambers,” carrying a false British passport, detonated a car bomb parked along Salameh’s daily route from his home in Beirut. Bird argues in his book that the Mossad wanted Salameh dead not just because of involvement in terrorist operations, but mainly because of his role as emissary and liaison to the US administration.
One of the few people who might have been able to shed light on this chapter of the shadowy war between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Israeli motives behind the assassination, is of course Harari. But he has declined to do so.
In Aaron Klein’s “The Master of Operations: The Story of Mike Harari,” published in Hebrew by Keter, surprisingly few paragraphs are devoted to the Lillehammer fiasco, presenting it as a marginal episode rather than a formative event in the annals of the Mossad’s history and Harari’s career.
Harari, now 87, is described as a daring intelligence officer, a man of action who crafted Mossad’s doctrine of assassinations and created Kidon (Bayonet), the Mossad’s special operations unit. No wonder that a decade ago, when Harari was 77 years old, the head of Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, did not hesitate to appoint him as his special adviser for the agency’s priority project: the prevention of Iran’s nuclear program. Foreign reports claim that part of that mission were the assassinations of five Iranian nuclear scientists, attributed to the Mossad.
HARARI IS a typical product of the 1948 generation, whose members devoted their life to the creation of the Jewish state. At a very young age he joined the Hagana, the main Jewish underground in the preindependence years. He served as a secret agent in Europe, illegally purchasing weapons and bringing Holocaust survivors to the Land of Israel.
After Israel won its independence, he joined the intelligence community serving in various capacities including as a security officer at Lod (now Ben-Gurion) airport and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the mid-1950s he joined the Mossad, where he served for nearly 30 years, first as a case officer running Arab agents and later planting Jewish and Israeli spies in deep cover in Arab countries until he became the commander of the Kidon and Caesarea departments.
Klein does not hide his admiration of Harari. He describes him as a charismatic leader, who did not remain in his office at Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv, but led his agents in the field in dangerous missions in Europe and in Arab enemy states. In Klein’s eyes, his hero was flawless.
It is therefore disappointing to read that Harari has shaken off responsibility for the 1973 failure in Norway and has blamed his subordinates. He claims the misidentification occurred after the majority of the operatives who took part in the operation agreed without any doubt that the waiter Bouchiki was Salameh. Harari’s second explanation is that some of the operatives were not professional enough and lacked experience.
However, it was the daring commander who selected them. Harari and the head of Mossad at that time Zvi Zamir offered their resignations to prime minister Golda Meir after the Lillehammer mishap, but were relieved when she declined to accept them.
And there is another chapter in Harari’s career which is troubling. In 1976, after he retired from the Mossad, he went to work as a special consultant to Colonel Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator who was also one of the biggest drug dealers in South and Central America. Harari also served as Panama’s honorary consul in Israel. Harari had known Noriega from his days in the Mossad. Panama was and still is a very friendly nation that maintains close relations with Israel in many fields.
In 1989, Noriega was toppled after the US military invaded the country. Noriega was arrested and sentenced by American and French courts for drug trafficking and money laundering. He is still serving his sentence in a Panamanian prison.
Harari, who was also wanted by the US, is proud to tell how he managed to escape with a little help from some local friends.
He emphasizes that he did not know about the drug trafficking of his close friend and tries to give the impression that his stay and involvement in Panama was on behalf of his old employer, the Mossad. But this is not the case. Harari was by then a businessman and not a state official, even if he continued occasionally to provide Mossad with information which came his way – for example, Harari’s meetings with Fidel Castro of Cuba, which were facilitated by Noriega.
The meetings were, of course, very interesting but were of no benefit to Israel.
Castro refused to open a clandestine back channel with the Jewish state and continued to support the Palestinian cause.