Revealing 'the Source'

Dr. Ashraf Marwan gave Israel priceless information before the Yom Kippur War.

ashraf marwan 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
ashraf marwan 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The phone call that woke Mossad chief Zvi Zamir at 2:30 a.m. was from a case officer in London passing on a message from the Mossad's most important agent in the Arab world. The agent, referred to by the post-Yom Kippur War Agranat Commission of Inquiry as "The Source," requested a meeting with Zamir in London that day. Urgently. Zamir told his man in London that he would fly out in the morning. It was October 3, 1973, two days before Yom Kippur. Zamir was still absorbing the implications of the call when the phone rang again. This time it was Maj.-Gen. Eli Zeira, head of military intelligence. He was calling to report an alarming development, the evacuation of the families of Soviet advisers in Egypt and Syria in an emergency airlift. For weeks Zeira had been dismissing reports of Arab war preparations despite the massing of the Egyptian and Syrian armies on Israel's borders. The reports came not only from IDF troops who could see enemy reinforcements, bridging equipment and tanks flowing to the fronts but also from normally reliable intelligence sources. One was Jordan's King Hussein, who had arrived secretly by helicopter the week before to warn prime minister Golda Meir of impending war. There were now 100,000 Egyptian troops opposite the Bar-Lev Line, which was manned by 450 soldiers. On the Golan Heights, the array of forces was 8-1 in Syria's favor. Israel's reserves, two-thirds of its army, had not yet been even partially mobilized. Zeira opposed mobilization because it was clear that Syria would not go to war without Egypt, and he was convinced from strong intelligence evidence that Egypt would not go to war until it received long-range bombers and Scud missiles from the Soviet Union. Eleven warnings of war received from a variety of intelligence sources in the month before Yom Kippur did not shake that conviction. The Arab armies, he maintained, were massing either as part of a routine military exercise or for fear of an Israeli attack. Israel could not mobilize every time the Arabs flexed their muscles, he said to aides who argued for mobilization. "It's intelligence's job to safeguard the nation's nerves, not to drive the public crazy, not to undermine the economy." There had been similar war warnings in the spring and Zeira had proven right when, almost alone in the military hierarchy, he had insisted that there would be no war. Now, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the report of the Soviet evacuation, which could not be explained by Arab mindset, for the first time jarred the intelligence chief's self-confidence. As Zamir readied himself for the trip to London, he mulled over an innocuous word The Source had let drop in his conversation with the station chief - "radish." The word was the code for imminent war. Late Friday night, Yom Kippur eve, Zamir met in a London apartment with The Source, who had flown in from Cairo. The latter's report was blunt. The Arabs would attack the next day, following a plan which he had already passed on to Israel. This meant that five Egyptian divisions would cross the Suez Canal just before dark, simultaneously with a Syrian attack on the Golan. Zamir faced two dilemmas when he parted from the agent close to midnight. The report, if passed on raw without any offsetting assessment, would almost certainly lead to general mobilization. Mobilization itself could trigger war. Zamir could mitigate his report by noting that there had twice been similar reports from The Source, once the previous December and again in the spring, that had proven false alarms. But the warning signs this time had been too intensive to be discounted and The Source's report too credible. Zamir decided to pass the report on without suggesting that The Source might be crying wolf. The second dilemma was how to transmit the message back to Israel. Because of Yom Kippur, the embassy was closed. The report would have to be transmitted, unencrypted, on an open phone line. Zamir formulated a message about a business deal that was to be consummated the coming day "before dark." The terms of the contract were those already known, he wrote. It would be clear to his aide on the other end that he was referring to the known Arab plan for a surprise attack. The message also indicated that the Soviets would not be involved in the attack, an assurance received from The Source. The long-distance telephone operator, who had a difficult time getting through to Tel Aviv, informed Zamir that it was a holiday in Israel. Finally, after numerous rings, the phone was answered by Zamir's sleepy aide, who wrote down the message slowly dictated to him. Before dawn, the phones rang in the homes of Meir, defense minister Moshe Dayan and chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar informing them that war would break out this day. THE EXISTENCE of a superspy who tipped Israel off about the war at the last moment was noted in the report of the Agranat Commission. It was Zeira himself, 20 years after the war, who gave the first public hint as to The Source's identity. In his book Myth Versus Reality, he referred to a book by British author Jeffrey Robinson, who described a meeting at which Anwar Sadat informed Saudi King Faisal of imminent war. Robinson wrote that the only other person present was Dr. Ashraf Marwan, president Gamal Abdel Nasser's son-in-law and a close aide to Sadat. Zeira noted that information about this meeting was not passed on to the Mossad and that this was an indication that Mossad's key informant was in fact a double agent. He did not name Marwan as The Source, but the implication was clear to anyone interested. Zeira's book was not published in English and his remark passed without any public notice. In Israel, the normally rambunctious press discreetly turned the page without seeking to reveal an agent's identity. The Source's identity did not become public knowledge until December 2002, when Ahron Bregman, an Israeli journalist who had moved to England, was interviewed by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. Bregman had just published a book, Israel's Wars, in which he gave broad hints as to the identity of The Source, including the fact that he was a close relative of Nasser and that he was referred to by Israeli insiders as "the son-in-law." The trail led clearly to Marwan, who was not only Nasser's son-in-law but fitted other highly specific details provided by Bregman. It was widely assumed he had obtained the information from Zeira. When Egyptian journalists called Marwan, he dismissed the report as "an absurd detective story." A reporter for the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram called Bregman and asked him pointedly if he had been referring to Marwan. He confirmed that he had. Bregman would say that he made the revelation to defend his reputation as a historian in view of Marwan's remark. He had not "outed" Marwan in Egyptian eyes, he said, because he had been a double agent who did great service to his country, a view held by Zeira. In a second edition of Zeira's book published in 2004, the former intelligence chief named Marwan as The Source. He contended that he had been the most important element in Egypt's prewar campaign of deception. By this time, Marwan had been mentioned in at least two other books and Zeira could claim it was no longer a secret. Marwan, who held a degree in chemical engineering, had married Nasser's favorite daughter and was tapped by him as a roving ambassador and adviser on intelligence and political matters. After Nasser's death, he continued in the same role with Sadat. In 1969, he walked into the Israeli Embassy in London and offered his services as an informant in return for substantial payments. Despite skepticism about his motives and reliability, he would provide priceless information and documents from the heart of the Egyptian political and military establishment. FORMER MOSSAD chief Zamir, the man to whom Marwan revealed the coming war, was furious at Zeira's public confirmation of The Source's identity. In a television interview in September 2004, he accused his one-time comrade-in-arms of being behind all the published revelations about Marwan which, he said, violated the first commandment of the intelligence community - never to reveal sources. He called for the former intelligence chief to be put on trial for harming the security of the state. Zeira promptly sued him for libel. The two agreed to put their dispute to an arbitrator, retired Supreme Court Justice Theodor Orr. In his ruling published last month, Orr dismissed the libel charge on the grounds that Zamir had spoken the truth - Zeira had indeed been responsible for revealing Marwan's identity. Zeira denied having given Marwan's name to anyone. Orr was pointedly skeptical about that denial, but said that in any case it was clear that Zeira had steered those who published Marwan's name to his identity. Bregman, who had interviewed Zeira, denied receiving Marwan's name from him, but told Orr that he had deduced Marwan's identity from Zeira's book. Asked why he had revealed Marwan's name to Al-Ahram, Bregman said there were several journalists working on books on the Yom Kippur War, all of whom wanted to reveal The Source's identity. "It was important for me that I be the first," he said. American journalist Howard Blum said that when he interviewed him in 2003 for a book he was writing about the Yom Kippur War, Zeira maintained that The Source was a double agent and referred him to a book - a war account by former Egyptian chief of staff Gen. Saad el-Shazly. Zeira even referred him to a specific page on which he would find The Source's name. An Israeli academic, Ephraim Kahana, told Orr that Zeira had revealed Marwan's identity to him in an interview in 1999 but that he had refrained from publishing it for obvious reasons. The double-agent school maintains that while Marwan indeed passed on a war warning, the Arabs believed it would take several days for Israel to form its reserves into fighting formations. A warning delivered so close to the outbreak of war, they say, was not believed to make any significant difference. If Marwan's motivation for serving as a spy, single or double, remains a mystery to all but a few, Zeira's motivation for his extraordinary revelation of Marwan's name is less so. THE YOM KIPPUR WAR was the worst trauma in Israel's history. Only six years after the euphoria of the Six Day War, it was caught with its reserves unmobilized by a surprise attack by two Arab armies using new weapons and tactics, displaying great vigor and supported by expeditionary forces from much of the Arab world. The IDF clawed its way back from the abyss to a bloody victory, but in the war's gloomy aftermath the nation castigated itself and its leaders for what had befallen it. It was clear that there had been a massive intelligence failure, and Zeira's head was one of the first to roll. Zeira had been a brilliant intelligence officer. He was said to be the member of the General Staff whom Dayan most respected and was an almost certain candidate for chief of General Staff. He was possessed, however, of a breathtaking self-confidence that in the end proved disastrous. In addition to discounting the flood of war warnings and cries of alarm from colleagues, he misled Dayan and Elazar in the days before the war when he said, in answer to their queries, that he had activated "special means," highly sensitive sources well placed to pick up signs of imminent war. These sources were vulnerable to exposure if used and were to be activated only if the country was facing an ultimate moment of truth. Despite all the evidence, however, Zeira continued to believe that that moment had not yet arrived. Friday afternoon, just before the onset of Yom Kippur, Elazar lingered at his desk in Tel Aviv, an ear cocked for what was happening across the borders. He had already lost patience with Zeira's assessment of "low probability" of war and was waiting for a significant sign that would permit him to order mobilization. At 5 p.m., a floor below him, a duty intelligence officer received an intercepted message stating that the Soviets were evacuating their personnel because a two-front war was about to begin. The duty officer called Zeira who told him not to distribute the message, which was certain to trigger mobilization. He wanted to wait until Zamir had called in from London with his report. Elazar would later say that had he received the 5 p.m. message, he would have ordered immediate mobilization. Zamir's message would not arrive until almost 12 hours later. It can be said that Zeira, with all the best intentions, singlehandedly blocked mobilization. What could anyone do with a guilt burden of this dimension? To Zamir, Zeira's answer is clear: "He wants to share the blame with me, with the Mossad, with Dayan and others." Uri Bar-Joseph, a former intelligence analyst and author of The Watchman Fell Asleep, a book on intelligence failures in the Yom Kippur War, has the same reading. "The 'double-agent' theory removes a large share of the responsibility for the intelligence fiasco from the shoulders of military intelligence and places it first and foremost with the Mossad which operated Marwan and allegedly fell victim to a sophisticated deception plan." While the journalists to whom Zeira leaked Marwan's identity all echoed his double-agent theory, says Bar-Joseph, no one in military intelligence believes it, including those who still hold Zeira in high esteem as an intelligence officer. Repeated examinations by intelligence bodies, before and after the war, into the possibility that Marwan was a double agent, "ruled out the possibility that he was operated by the Egyptians," he said. Orr, in his ruling, expressed "great doubts" about Zeira's denials about passing on information about Marwan's identity. "I found it difficult to believe portions of his testimony," he wrote. In finding for Zamir, Orr ordered Zeira to pay the former Mossad chief's legal fees. Marwan, after serving in senior intelligence positions and as head of the Egyptian government's military industrial complex, moved to London. Over the coming decades, he became a billionaire businessman, in good part from shady arms dealings. Last week he was found dead in the street beneath the balcony of his fifth-story apartment in one of London's plushest districts. Police termed the death "suspicious" and launched an investigation. There are indications that his death may have been connected to the resurfacing of the double-agent affair through the Zeira-Zamir arbitration. Reports of Orr's findings in Haaretz were sent to Marwan by Bregman in London. Bregman said that Marwan called him to acknowledge receipt. "I didn't sense any distress in his voice," he told Haaretz, "but he spoke about 'that headache,'" an apparent reference to the articles and the controversy they evoked. Perhaps the strongest argument for those supporting the double-agent theory is that Marwan continued to visit Egypt even after allegations about his spying activity were made public five years ago. He was buried Monday in Cairo in what was almost a state funeral attended by President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal. Mubarak himself issued a statement praising Marwan as "a loyal patriot" who had done things which it was not yet time to reveal. "He spied for no one," he said. Those opposing the double-agent theory say that official Egypt had no choice but to treat Marwan as a hero if it wished to avoid the embarrassment of acknowledging a pillar of its establishment to have been a spy for Israel. Bar-Joseph suggests that the Egyptians behaved toward Marwan as the British had behaved toward Kim Philby, a senior member of British intelligence who spied for the Soviets: "They let him escape." In the retirement home where he now lives, Zamir, far from the games that spies and spymasters play, expressed sorrow this week at Marwan's death. "He had a family. He was a human being. We're all human beings." The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.