The service's secrets

Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv demystify the preconceived notions about the all-consuming mastery of the Jewish state's espionage work.

Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: JOHN MILLI / GPO)
Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: JOHN MILLI / GPO)
‘But without sources, human sources within the enemy centers, you will never discover the kinds of plots that unfolded on September 11.” With these words, Markus Wolf, the former head of the now-defunct German Democratic Republic foreign intelligence service, explained to me 10 years ago in an eastern Berlin cafe the categorical imperative of perfecting human intelligence.
Wolf (1923-2006), son of the famous German Jewish playwright Dr. Friedrich Wolf, very likely knew that the Palestinian Black September group planned to take Israelis hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Famously known as “the man without a face,” he garnered the reputation as one of the great spymasters of the last century because of his enormous ability to engage in the granular intelligence work of infiltrating the highest levels of the Federal Republic’s chancellery and NATO with human resources.
Wolf’s departure point was human resource penetration – a straightforward albeit frequently neglected tactic by advanced Western services – which has been the overriding espionage method of the various Israeli intelligence services.
With their new book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, Israeli intelligence journalist Yossi Melman and American CBS national political correspondent Dan Raviv travel deep into the weeds of Israel’s intelligence agencies and the people-intensive work of the men and women responsible for Israel’s security.
Melman and Raviv meticulously document “the Mossad’s reliance on human intelligence expertise – humint” over the span of the birth of Israel’s espionage work in the late 1940s to the reported Mossad-engineered targeted killings of Iranian scientists working on the clerical regime’s illicit nuclear weapons program. It should be noted that the authors stress the plural over the singular when writing about Israel’s intelligence apparatus and its diverse divisions.
The book has garnered intense attention in the Islamic Republic of Iran and in the United States for its chapter entitled “Assassins,” which lays out the missions involving Iranian and Israeli citizens seeking to sabotage the mullah regime’s drive to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.
A July New York Times article headlined “Tehran Abuzz as Book Says Israel Killed 5 Scientists” explored the reception in Iran.
Melman – widely considered to be the gold standard of Israeli news gathering and analysis on the opaque world of Israeli intelligence – and his co-author, Raviv, demystify the preconceived notions about the all-consuming mastery of the Jewish state’s espionage work. The blunders associated with the Lavon affair – an Inspector Jacques Clouseau-like operation – resulted in the capture of Egyptian Jews aiding Israel in 1954 within its most populous Arab neighbor, Egypt. As a result of the severe incompetence of the Israeli mission, the authorities hanged two Egyptian Jewish students and meted out long incarceration sentences to others.
Despite the setback of what Israelis would later call “esek bish” (a rotten affair) in Egypt, Israel’s intelligence services scored a series of impressive achievements in the decades ahead, catapulting its reputation into espionage stardom.
Melman and and Raviv bring to the fore the agents behind the capture in Argentina of Adolf Eichmann – the Nazi official largely responsible for overseeing the elimination of the vast majority of European Jewry. The joint Mossad-Shin Bet operation sent 67 agents to apprehend Eichmann and transport him back to Jerusalem for a trial. Israel’s judiciary sentenced Eichmann to death in 1962. The role of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in the capture of Eichmann is part and parcel of the book’s analytical breakdown of special operations. There is no shortage of descriptions of colorful and lively intelligence agents and agency heads in the book. and anecdotes of their escapades abound.
What sets Spies Against Armageddon apart, however, is the attention to ordinary Israeli intelligence personnel who employ a revolutionary discipline to preserve their “country’s existence in a hostile world.”
The goal of Israeli covert action and intelligence gathering is, after all, to avoid military conflicts, to punish the murderers of Israelis and blunt Islamic-animated terrorism for its tiny population.
Take the example of Yehudit Nessyahu, the top female agent on the Eichmann team, who did not seek fame with a book about the mission. She was born in 1925 in the Netherlands, mastered several languages and, “as a religious woman… prepared only kosher food during the Argentina mission – even for the notorious Nazi.”
The peculiarity of Israel’s nascent intelligence services was underscored in the famous “revolt of the spies,” in which personnel from the Foreign Ministry engaged in labor defiance in the formative stage of reorganization, refusing to be transferred to the freshly minted Mossad division operated by Reuven Shiloah. Only in Israel could a group of covert agents exercise their right to strike! Israel’s interplay with American intelligence officers provides a window onto the court of US-Israeli intelligence cooperation and a relationship that would transform both countries into long-term allies. The authors excel at showing the ebb and flow of the US-Israel covert relationship.
John Hadden, the CIA’s station chief in Tel Aviv, neatly summed up the mix of admiration for Israel’s top leader coupled with his professional job to extract information.
In 1965, while visiting his wife, who happened to share a semi-private hospital room with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, Hadden described his chats with “the old man” Ben-Gurion.
“Imagine two weeks with Churchill,” he exclaimed. Hadden, however, did not secure any information from Ben-Gurion on Israel’s developing nuclear program.
James Jesus Angleton, a top CIA official who served as director of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1975, arguably made the greatest contribution to solidifying ties between US and Israeli intelligence. His bond with Amos Manor, then head of counterespionage within the Shin Bet and later its director, paved the way for the staying power of Israeli-American intelligence cooperation during the rocky period of US president Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. After Angleton’s death in 1987, Israel built a memorial honoring Angleton.
Spies Against Armageddon is packed full of information on key phases of Israeli covert operations, from the destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 to the reported assassination of Hamas weapons smuggler Mahmoud Abdel Rauf al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room in 2010 to the Stuxnet computer worm that infected Iran’s nuclear computer technology the same year.
Though Markus Wolf did not dismiss the use of technology to enhance human intelligence, he consistently relegated sophisticated gadgets to an inferior status in the gathering of foreign intelligence information. Melman and Raviv write in their concluding chapter, “Into the Future,” that “The one thing that the opponents cannot match – at least, not so far – are Israel’s humint assets.”
In short, the world of Israeli covert operations is not governed by a situation like chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov’s defeat in 1997 to the computer Deep Blue. Israel’s intelligence services will have to both develop the Deep Blue technology of the future and at the same time have operatives in place in their neighbor’s back yards in order to stop new dangers.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a European affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.