One on One: Existential espionage

'The Secret War with Iran' reveals hitherto hushed details about the confrontation with Teheran.

Ronen Bergman 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ronen Bergman 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When asked how he not only has access to the kind of material most members of the media can only dream of getting their hands on, but how such sensitive stuff makes it past the military censor, Ronen Bergman grins. Spread out on a sprawling dining table - in his ultra-chic, duplex, rooftop apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Tzahala - are piles of papers, many of them stamped "classified." Some unnecessarily so, says Bergman, whose third book, Nekudat Ha'al Hazor (the point of no return) was just released in English, under the title The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle against the World's Most Dangerous Terrorist Power (Free Press, 2008; translated by Jerusalem Report chief copy editor Ronnie Hope, and recently reviewed in these pages by Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Horovitz). "You have to make a distinction between how I obtain certain documents, and whether the censor objects to their publication," he explains. "In most cases, individuals without the right or authority to do so give them to me. But this has no bearing on the censor's determining how harmful it is to national security. In fact, I'm often allowed to publish things that I received from someone who wasn't allowed to give them to me, and often forbidden from publishing things I received from someone who was." Still, adds the 36-year-old star investigative reporter and editorial board member of Yediot Aharonot, who three times a week hosts the daily Channel 1 news magazine Erev Hadash, "Though I'm used to dealing with the censor on a regular basis, this book involved an arduous negotiation process. When the first version of the Hebrew edition was submitted, it came back with 750 disqualifications - some small, some large - and we arrived at a mutual compromise regarding some of them. Regarding others, we didn't. And, in those instances where I felt the cuts were unfair, I took it to the High Court." This is not the first time that the non-practicing lawyer - with a master's degree in international relations and a doctorate in history from Cambridge - has taken a beef to the bench. In 1998, he sued the Education Ministry for breach of copyright, when an article he had written in high school (!) for the journal Politika - his impressions as a participant in a youth delegation to the United States - began being used as text for matriculation exams in the field of Hebrew composition. Bergman won the suit, though the law was amended in 2007. Nor is Bergman's interest in espionage newfound, though he insists that his love of John Le Carre novels "is not due to their involving espionage, but rather because espionage is the literary device used to depict relationships." In the IDF, Bergman served in the intelligence section of the Criminal Investigations Department of the Military Police. "But my passion for the subject," he says, "is really the result of the fact that not only is it fascinating, but because the Israeli intelligence community, in spite of having vast public resources at its disposal, is under almost no scrutiny of any kind." The media, he adds, "are the watchdogs of democracy. This doesn't mean that everything has to be published, of course. On the other hand, not everything that's called 'classified' need be secret." This, he asserts, is even true of Israel's dealings with Iran, using mistakes made vis-a-vis Iraq - and the Second War in Lebanon - that he believes could have been curbed, if not prevented. At the very least, some of the Keystone Koplike bumbling could have been minimized. One example he gives from the book, about which he says, "If it weren't sad, it would be funny," is the story of a piece of information emanating from Israeli security sources, "which arrives in the US, Germany and France, and then returns to Israel - as though it were a cross-reference of the information that originated here in the first place." According to Bergman, in the classified report on this, prepared by a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, it actually states that this episode is reminiscent of the famous Ephraim Kishon satirical essay about "regifting." And while on the practice of pawning off old presents, the question arises as to how much of Bergman's material constitutes new merchandise. The answer lies not in the details, however riveting, of the behind-the-scenes goings-on between what Bergman calls the "enlightened world" and the darkness that has characterized the Iranian regime since the fall of the shah, but rather in seeing them in sequence. Knowing where it has all led has spurred Bergman to warn about where it is all going, and to conclude that the "overall situation is not good." Why do you begin your account with the fall of the shah? Up until that point, Israel and the United States were engaged in a "hot romance" with the regime of the shah. When the Ayatollah Khomeini established his regime on February 1, 1979, Iran's attitude toward the US and Israel suddenly flipped. So, from a very intense - albeit clandestine - warm and friendly relationship, it turned into something completely different. Your book details mistakes made by the West, leading to a situation in which it was caught by surprise by the threat now emanating from Iran. What would you consider the first of these - supporting the shah? No, Israel's mistake was not in supporting the shah. Israel was acting according to the "periphery theory" - termed by [prime minister] David Ben-Gurion and [Mossad founder] Reuven Shiloah - which called for clandestine relations with movements or countries in the outer belt of Israel's proximity, basically to create alliances with movements and countries who shared enemies with Israel. You know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is thus that secret relations were created with the Iranians, the Turks, the Moroccans, the Ethiopians, the Christians in southern Sudan and in Lebanon. The major mistake Israel made - one that, in the end, didn't result in major damage, but caused a historical drama - was when, in 1977, it decided to supply the shah with surface-to-surface, long-range, ballistic Jericho missiles, capable of carrying nuclear weapons. With Khomeini's rise a mere two years later, Israel would find Iran capable of attacking it with the very missiles it itself supplied. Now, to be fair, no one could have anticipated what was going to happen in Iran. But there are two lessons to be learned from the missile incident. One is that Israel must not appear as a country on whose spears another government is built. One of the reasons that the Khomeini regime so hated Israel was its close relationship with the shah. The other is that Israel must not provide weapons to a country that could threaten it in the event that things overturn. Like the weapons Israel provided the Palestinian Authority, for example? Yes, well, Israel's relationship with the PA is a complex and problematic story. But I'm saying that if we were to supply weapons to Turkey, for example, anything could happen. Speaking of which, your book seems to imply that, in invading Iraq, the US was focusing on the wrong country - that it should have been worried more about Iran. That's not accurate. But it is clear that the US invaded Iraq without having reliable information on Saddam Hussein's possessing weapons of mass destruction. The question, then, arises: Did the Bush administration really believe that Saddam had WMD? Or did it use whatever information it had or didn't have from the CIA as an excuse to invade, for other reasons? I'm asking a different question, however - a wider one: Are the countries of the West under a shared umbrella of universal humanitarian values, obligating us to intervene on behalf of peoples and countries in distress? If not, there was nothing wrong with the fact that the world stood by during the Holocaust. If not, there was nothing wrong with the fact that others stood by and watched the massacre in Rwanda. Should we have intervened there? I think so. Which brings us to another question about Iraq, that had a horrible dictator who massacred his people on a daily basis and caused wars - one who, even if he wasn't trying to achieve nuclear capability when the US invaded had tried at other times - one who, without a trace of a doubt, was connected to international terrorism. Did the US, as the leader of the enlightened world, have to intervene? It's a tough question, because if you intervene here, why not elsewhere? What is certain, however, is that on the subject of WMD, there was a serious intelligence problem. An intelligence problem or a political one? Both. Western secret service agencies made the flip side of the same mistake twice in relation to Iraq - once on the eve of the first Gulf War, and once on the eve of the second. Prior to Operation Desert Storm on January 16, 1991, there had been a severe lack of information surrounding Saddam's nuclear weapons program. After the war, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, headed by Rolf Ekeus, sent inspectors into Iraq, where they discovered a huge arsenal of chemical, biological and even the makings of nuclear weapons. The world was in shock, as were the security agencies, because Saddam had managed to hide the fact that he was about six months away from obtaining a nuclear weapon. In this respect, Saddam did us a great favor by invading Kuwait. Because if he hadn't, we wouldn't have known about any of this. When I met with Ekeus at the UN, he showed me a room in which what they called the "chicken farm treasure" was kept. This was what was obtained after Saddam's son-in-law, Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamel - who had been in charge of Iraq's military industries - sought asylum in Jordan. And then [Saddam's deputy prime minister] Tariq Aziz phoned Ekeus and said, "We finally found the missing documents you were looking for. That traitor, Hussein Kamel, is the one who hid them from you." Ekeus then flew to Baghdad, where Tariq Aziz took him to a chicken coop, in which there were about half a million documents in the process of being deciphered. Anyway, as Ekeus was showing me around at the UN, we passed a door with a handle like that on a safe. I asked him about it, and he said, "You can't go in there." A little while later, I realized why. It turned out there were Israelis in there, one of whom I ran into in the bathroom and recognized, because he and I had been at school together. And he was embarrassed to encounter me there. As for the second intelligence mistake - in the opposite direction: In November 1998, Saddam kicked the UN inspectors, headed by Hans Blix, out of Iraq. This created a huge problem for the CIA and the Mossad, who had been using the inspectors to infiltrate massive amounts of surveillance equipment into Iraq. The moment Saddam kicked them out, no more information could be obtained. Couldn't this have given Saddam time to move any components of WMD into Syria or elsewhere in Iraq? Anything is possible. Still, the US didn't have the smoking gun it needed to invade. So, if during the first Gulf War, the Americans interpreted their lack of information to mean that Saddam did not have WMD, during the second, they interpreted their lack of information to mean that he did. This is all about the problem of intelligence. As for the political problem, I want to believe - and basically do - that this wasn't a case someone in the administration provided disinformation or anything like that. The fact is that [former director of central intelligence for the CIA] George Tenet - who told Bush that Iraq was a "slam dunk" - sat behind [former secretary of state] Colin Powell when he made his famous UN speech [in 2003, about Iraqi WMD], and backed him up. I do think, however, that the political echelon could have been conducting a much more in-depth examination of the material. And, regardless of whether there was or wasn't WMD in Saddam's possession, the US believed it had a moral obligation to put an end to the horrific regime of a madman who continued to threaten his own people and the rest of the world. Are you saying that if the US hadn't used WMD as the spur for toppling Saddam's regime, it would have been OK to do so? Absolutely! But I'm not sure that the American public would have been persuaded otherwise. How does this relate to the current climate among the American public regarding Iran? Everybody always asks me, "OK, given what happened with Iraq, not once, but twice, so how can we be sure that Iran really is engaged in a nuclear buildup?" The answer is that Iran not only admits to it, but boasts about it. Some argue that the Iranians are claiming that their nuclear power is for peaceful goals. Well, to quote [first chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission] Ernst David Bergman - no relation: "There is no distinction between nuclear energy for peaceful purposes or warlike ones." Take Japan, for example. In full compliance with the non-proliferation treaty, Japan doesn't even consider developing a nuclear weapon, though it could do so within four months if it wanted to, given how advanced its program is. Iran, too, signed the non-proliferation treaty [NPT], and claims that all it wants is to be able to do what is allowed according to the treaty, just as Japan does. And uranium enrichment, according to the treaty, is permitted. The US and Israel respond by saying that this isn't some kind of gentlemen's club, and that because Iran not only hid the existence of its nuclear program for a long time, it also claims it is close to having a bomb - which is why demands and restrictions on Iran are much more stringent than they are on other signatories of the NPT. Furthermore, Iran doesn't even need nuclear power for alternative energy. It has huge reservoirs of gas. And one of its leaders, [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, says he wants to destroy Israel, while denying the Holocaust and claiming he's got interface with God. Speaking of God, is there a lack of understanding on the part of Western security agencies about global jihad? Is the West truly in tune to the worldwide web of terrorism in the name of Allah? Is it true, for example, that the CIA didn't have an Arabic-speaking department? There is a serious problem with all the branches of the American intelligence system when it comes to knowing the relevant languages, such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and the like. This has been such a problem that American, Israeli and European security agencies have begun to outsource to a Tel Aviv-based civilian company called Terrogence, which is made up of former members of the intelligence community who do know the relevant languages and who also have the relevant intelligence experience. The company deals with information-gathering all over the world. And it has 150 phony identities on the Web, with which it has entered all kinds of closed forums with organizations like al-Qaida. Though they hate to admit it, the security agencies are not capable of doing the work by themselves. They simply don't have the manpower. Have these agencies learned nothing over the years about where they should be focusing their resources? I'm sure they have. For example, post-9/11, there is much greater cooperation between the CIA and the FBI, as I am sure there is greater cooperation between the CIA and Jordanian and Pakistani intelligence. Still, it takes a long time to change work methods and overcome party rivalries. And though seven years may seem like a long time, in this respect, it isn't really. Why start counting at 9/11? Weren't there many other terrorist incidents in the world, perpetrated by radical Islamic groups, prior to that date? Yes, but 9/11 was the incident that woke everybody up. And this is why I say - in the words of Zhou Enlai, Chinese prime minister under Mao Zedong, when asked his opinion of the outcome of the French Revolution - it's too early to tell about success vs failure. There have been welcome successes, such as when certain terrorist leaders were paid house calls by Tomahawk missiles, for example. On the other hand, the overall situation is not good. In most cases, the Western security agencies cannot cope with the deadliness, suddenness and scope of terrorist operations that rest on the dedication and motivation of their perpetrators. This is not to say that the West has failed, only that, so far, the intelligence war has. But let's not forget that the "clash of civilizations" is not something that can be solved solely through intelligence. And at the end of the day, the national-ethnic-religious problems out of which global jihad was born should be dealt with by social, political and economic means. What about things that can be solved through intelligence? Is it not ironic in this context - that Jonathan Pollard is still in prison for giving Israel information about Iraqi missiles? Pollard remains in prison to this day due to two people: Jonathan Pollard himself, and his wife, Esther Zeitz. If, instead of conducting their war the way they have been doing, they would keep their mouths shut, Pollard would have been released a long time ago. They and they alone are responsible for the longevity of his sentence. Anybody familiar with the way the American establishment works understands that Pollard is doing the opposite of what he should be doing. This is not to exempt Israel from its duty to do anything it can to release any agent it operated. But Pollard is a very problematic personality, who has an even more problematic personality at his side. Another problematic issue - which you discuss in your book - is the National Intelligence Estimate, released at the end of last year, indicating Iran had halted its nuclear weapons development in 2003. What was that about? The NIE was an intelligence putsch - a scandal I would have believed possible in Israel, but not the US. I thought that the US had a much healthier executive branch, with a distinct chain of command - not one in which information is manipulated to achieve political goals. I had a meeting with a senior official from British intelligence three days after the publication of the NIE, and he went ballistic. It was so odd to hear someone from Britain taking a far more extreme position on Iran than the US. He was especially furious over an article that appeared that morning in a British journal asserting that one of the bases for the footnotes of the NIE came from the GCHQ [UK Government Communications Headquarters], the British equivalent of the NSA [US National Security Agency]. He said that the GCHQ had no information corroborating the NIE whatsoever - and said that the report set back mutual US-UK intelligence efforts regarding Iran by years. What is your response to the view on the part of many experts and pundits who believe that a US invasion of Iran is not the answer, as it would cause the Iranian people to rally around the regime they currently oppose? In retrospect, Saddam's invasion of Iran in 1980 was the biggest favor he could have done the Khomeini regime. The war with Iraq did unify the Iranian people. Can Saddam's Iraq be compared to the US - a democracy liberating a people from tyranny? Are you saying the Iranians would rally around a regime they allegedly fear so badly, no matter who was behind toppling it militarily, or for what purpose? I don't know, but there is no doubt that an American and/or Israeli attack would have major repercussions - such as a possible Iranian retaliation or a unification of the Iranian public around the regime. Still, if and when America's next president or Israel's next prime minister needs to weigh these repercussions against a nuclear Iran, I would expect him or her to give much more importance to the nuclear issue. While on the subject of incoming leaders in Washington and Jerusalem, to what extent does your work affect your political views? Have your positions changed over the years as a result of the material you have researched - or has your access reinforced what you already thought? Churchill is often [mistakenly] quoted as saying, "If you're not a socialist when you're 20, you have no heart. If you're still a socialist when you're 30, you have no head." Not that I was ever a socialist. But seriously, it annoys me when I meet people who say ignorant things about Israel committing genocide and ethnic cleansing. Of course, the more you read and the more information you have, the better able you are to make educated judgments. If that were true, wouldn't all people of a certain age and intellect agree on politics? It all depends on what one does with the information he has. In any case, information has to be the basis for expressing an opinion. Does the information you have gathered on Iran, for example, influence the candidate for whom you will vote in the elections? Of course. And who will that be? I guess this whole line of questioning was leading up to finding out whom I support politically [he laughs]. Well, I'm not answering that. What I will tell you, though, is how deeply affected I was, due to my being a journalist, by the Second War in Lebanon. I have always been an optimist. I've always had that Israeli tendency to say, "Yihiye beseder" - everything will be OK in the end. We really are living a miracle in this country, in every respect. It really is an amazing, flourishing place, in spite of everything. We really are the chosen people. But during the war, something in my spirit broke. I was sitting with a commander, who had a central role in the war, at a military outpost called Parag. Listening to him talk about the utter confusion surrounding the orders from above, I felt like crying. Even talking about it now chokes me up. I grew up with the sense that no matter what, the IDF always wins. And here was a war the IDF couldn't win. And why is this relevant to my book? Because Iran is sitting on our northern border - through Hizbullah. And in Gaza as well, no? Yes, in Gaza, through Hamas, but more in the North. Iran considers Hizbullah its best friend - its main proxy. Iran is in favor of Hamas and helps it, but Iran and Hizbullah are brothers. What is your conclusion, then? What do you recommend? First of all, we have to stop viewing Hizbullah merely as a nuisance. It is not an existential threat, but it is a strategic one. Terrorism is a strategic threat. If people knew how few resources were invested in intelligence-gathering about Hizbullah prior to the war, they would be shocked. I hope that's changed. In other words, it has to be given the weight it deserves. Second - and this applies to a series of Israeli leaders' declarations about the Iranian nuclear project - to quote "the Ugly" in the film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: "If you want to shoot, shoot. Don't talk."