A man whose talents the military relied on for eavesdropping and more

How much they leaned on his information, and how much it contributed to their efforts, we’ll probably never know.

Mickey Gurdus in his Tel Aviv studio in 1990 (photo credit: GPO)
Mickey Gurdus in his Tel Aviv studio in 1990
(photo credit: GPO)
The otherwise nondescript apartment block on Tel Aviv’s Chen Boulevard was distinguished from the rest only by the forest of antennas on its roof. Entering Mickey Gurdus’s inner sanctum, one was transported into a movie set of a World War II signal-intelligence bunker, only this one was real. “Our Monitor” – kashavenu, perhaps better translated “our eavesdropper” – seemed to have earphones as part of his anatomy.
I, at least, never saw Mickey without them, except when we both reported for reserve duty at the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit’s headquarters upon the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. And I suspect that even then he soon had them back on, since Kol Yisrael Radio was most likely not the only customer for his unique product.
Many of us radio newsmen envied Mickey for the singular privileges that management wheedled out of the sound engineers’ union for him. He was granted not merely a dispensation to record and edit his tapes by himself – which in those days required physical cutting and splicing, and if any of us were caught doing it without a technician, we would get blackballed for weeks.
Even more enviably, there was even a cable laid from his home to the studio so that he could broadcast live without coming in to file every report, as we mortals had to do. Mickey more than earned this perquisite. He was available around the clock on the shortest notice, and more often than not it was he who alerted the newsroom with breaking stories: the news agencies were then “wire services,” and their “clackers” – teletype machines, stowed in a soundproof alcove – took time to transmit even the most urgent flashes and reading the reams of paper they spewed took more.
In those high and far-off times, foreign newspapers arrived in Israel a day or two late, at best. Unless you had a short-wave receiver or were a “ham” amateur radio operator, access to foreign broadcasts was limited – to say the least. Capturing the latest updates and sound bites from, say, a US network – never mind some remote station in Africa or Latin America – was by way of a marvel. And Mickey did it all the time.
For this, he had several competitors. But he had the added advantage of languages and expertise, which he built upon from upbringing in a journalistic home par excellence. So even if Middle Eastern stations were relatively easy to monitor, he could select and filter them instantly with evaluation and analysis. A single-handed news bureau and think tank rolled into one.
In time, technology overtook some of these advantages. The teletypes were replaced by computer screens with immediate reception. Satellite television and cable news made viewing foreign broadcasts and repeating their content unremarkable. Direct-dialing international telephone links made newsmakers directly accessible (if one tried hard enough) for original and custom Israeli-oriented comment. And then the Internet put final paid to the occult art of monitoring, as far as regular news outlets were concerned. It took Mickey a while to grapple with the new reality that being first to echo the BBC or CBS or Radio Beijing was no longer a big deal.
But it was the eavesdropping part of his specialty that remained unrivaled. Not only Kol Yisrael, but through us, the global media still depended on him for listening in on the gunmen on a hijacked airliner, the signals of some invading army, or the conversations between unlikely couples of international actors.
When this had to do with Israeli security, Mickey would intimate, sagely, “I can tell you only that...,” indicating consultation or more with the military, intelligence or state authorities. How much they leaned on his information, and how much it contributed to their efforts, we’ll probably never know. But how essential this capability was for our media became all the clearer with his untimely departure. He died of a heart attack on November 28, 2017 in Yehud at the age of 73.
So, if at the Elysian Fields Press Club you spot a guy wearing earphones and fiddling with a radio dial, say hi for me. Tell him that for his colleagues, he retired unsurpassed and his niche has never been refilled. Over, Mickey, but never out!