Spy stories: Former Mossad chief talks Iran, nukes and the life of a spy

Shabtai Shavit reveals details of secret meetings, his view on a range of nuclear and defense issues and how he was almost swept up in the Pollard saga.

Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran (photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS)
Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran
It was the 1990s and Shabtai Shavit was the chief of the Mossad.
He was sitting across from the head of the CIA’s analysis department in a Tel Aviv restaurant as they exchanged views and intelligence information on a range of subjects in a meeting that has only recently been disclosed.
Toward the end, Shavit made an off-the-cuff remark about an area that he would have admitted was not his expertise – India-Pakistan issues.
His comment was that if the human race confronted another use of a nuclear weapon, he would not be surprised if it would be as part of a conflict between those two nuclear powers.
The senior CIA official acted bent out of shape and desperately interrogated Shavit for what secret information he had that had led him to this explosive conclusion.
Shavit downplayed his comment and said he was not basing it on anything in particular beyond his own general knowledge of power and state conflict, and the general lower philosophical concern that some of those nations’ leaders placed on the value of the human life of common people.
Shabtai Shavit (Credit: Reuters)Shabtai Shavit (Credit: Reuters)
The CIA expert did not buy it.
Upon returning to Washington, he sent an emergency team to Pakistan to learn if a major conflict was imminent and what secret information Israel might have that Shavit had hinted at, but was refusing to share.
In an interview earlier this month with the Magazine at his home in Ramat Hasharon and in his book Head of the Mossad, which came out recently, Shavit clarified his views on a number of issues – with his bottom line on this story being that after the incident, he never again spoke off-the-cuff about serious issues with foreign intelligence agents.
The story is striking in terms of the vantage point that it gives the public into the normally hidden-from-view interactions between the Mossad and the CIA.
It also shows the seriousness with which Shavit’s views are taken globally on major geopolitical issues – especially regarding weapons of mass destruction.
This is one of the reasons that he is currently chairman of the board of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya.
FAST-FORWARD to the present nuclear standoff with Iran.
Shavit, who ran the Mossad from 1989 to 1996, was a critic of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, but has also been a critic of the idea of pulling out of the deal without an alternative.
Trump quits Iran nuclear deal, reimposes sanctions on Tehran (Reuters)
Part of the reason why he is pro fixing the Iran deal and not nixing it, as US President Donald Trump has done in the end, is Shavit’s firsthand experience with how difficult Iran can be as an adversary.
Another part of it is because he views an escalating conflict and an Israeli preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities in any situation, other than as a last resort, as prohibitively costly for Israel.
Shavit looks into the past as he explains that he was stationed by the Mossad in Iran in 1966.
In a tour of his house, there are around 10 carefully crafted and ornate metallic large and small Iranian pitchers. There are also miniature Iranian drawings of famous battles.
The former Mossad chief is a man who carefully studies an adversary like Iran and takes the Islamic Republic and its arsenal of weapons seriously.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (3rd L) and Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan (2nd L) stand in front of the new air defense missile system Bavar-373, in Tehran, Iran August 21, 2016. (Credit: Reuters)Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (3rd L) and Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan (2nd L) stand in front of the new air defense missile system Bavar-373, in Tehran, Iran August 21, 2016. (Credit: Reuters)
Discussing Israeli limitations, he says, “we like to think when we look in the mirror that we are a superpower,” but he says Israel is no superpower and “we cannot be the second country” in the world to use a nuclear weapon [following the US during World War II].
He says it is imperative to define a variety of aggressive responses to adversaries like Tehran, which are short of a major escalation that could set off a nuclear conflict.
A lifelong Mossad operations man who is no stranger to the use of force, Shavit opposes the idea of a preemptive strike on Iranian facilities other than where “we are with our back to the wall. It is the moment when there is complete consensus in the intelligence community that they [Iran] are ready to attack us.”
Asked to clarify if that meant he is opposed to a preemptive strike if the Mossad learned that Iran was about to finish assembling a nuclear weapon, but was not yet planning to use it, he replies affirmatively with a thoughtful and determined look.
He discusses the idea that Israel’s main defense doctrine is deterrence.
“If they [Iran] get to it [a nuclear weapon], and they wield it in the context of deterrence” but without trying to use it, “so, okay,” he says with a dose of hard-nosed realism. “We live in a dangerous area in a posture of mutually assured destruction,” deterring either side from releasing their nightmare weapons, “and we live. We have no choice.”
UN warns of more Gaza violence, condemns Israel"s use of force, May 15, 2018 (Reuters)
He adds that often “Israel is alone. See what happens: what the world does to us when we shoot at some Palestinians trying to break through the Gaza border.”
In the event that military action against Iran would be required, he recommends, “We do what we can to have partners. Maybe the US can act itself or be a partner to take action with us or some combination” of US and Israeli military action.
Part of Shavit’s reluctance to endorse a preemptive strike on Iran before it has developed a nuclear weapon and is getting ready to use it is that “this is not like the Syria or Iraq preemptive strikes. Iran is a different story.”
“Iran is a state that is bigger than all of Western Europe. It is a giant nation of around 80 million people which will eventually be up to 100 million people. It has a very rich history, including an imperial history,” he says, getting animated in his description.
Moreover, he notes that portions of Iran’s nuclear program are deep underground and cannot be reached by available Israeli weaponry.
ASKED ABOUT the IDF being credited in recent weeks with destroying 200 Iranian rockets hidden underground in Syria, Shavit said that while he was not an expert in underground attacks, he understood that Israel would need the US’s bunker buster bombs – which it has declined to give Israel for years – in order to hit all Iranian nuclear facilities.
Then his cold non-political analytical side sets in again. He says that maybe his most important concern is that Israel must “take into account the worst-case scenario and not just the easy scenarios. We cannot discount that Iran might use all of their military abilities” in response to a preemptive strike.
In other words, even without a nuclear weapon, Iran for years has already had the ability to fire ballistic missiles at Israel and could even arm these missiles with biological or chemical weapons.
This could even happen prior to an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Shavit notes, “We need to have a response for this.” But his point was that Iran is more likely to unleash such weapons if Israel goes after its crown-jewel nuclear program.
He adds that observers “should not be so naïve as to think that a few dozen missiles Trump, England and France shot at Syria” in mid-April over its use of chemical weapons “will stop the Iranians from using their chemical weapons.”
Like many observers, Shavit is also wary of how Iran might use proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas to respond to an Israeli preemptive strike.
Israel claims proof Iran "lied" about past nuclear program, April 30, 2018 (Reuters
NEXT, SHAVIT discussed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent public presentation of the Mossad’s incredible and historic haul of secret Iranian nuclear files on April 30.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. (Credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen)Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. (Credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen)
Not known for pulling punches, while Shavit admires the Mossad itself, in terms of Netanyahu’s presentation, he gets intense and categorizes Netanyahu’s use of intelligence as “a vulgar use for political purposes.”
Bordering on a calm but firm anger, he says, “Since I was in intelligence and the Mossad, I do not remember a single case where one of them used intelligence for political purposes.”
“Even more, [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin always said to us: Don’t you dare consider political factors when you use intelligence. Intelligence needs to be sterile and completely clean,” he explains.
Mind you, Shavit was not against sharing the Mossad’s intelligence coup, but he says it should have been limited for use through the proper intelligence channels between the Mossad and its counterparts in the CIA, MI6 and other relevant foreign intelligence allies – not for public consumption.
“Between the US and Israel, there are ways to share intelligence. All intelligence bodies share” sometimes and then bring “the conclusions from that intelligence sharing to their decision-makers with a combination of recommendations and alternatives.”
It was even pointed out that the Mossad had shared aspects of the April 30 intelligence with the CIA prior to Netanyahu’s press conference.
He says that in the past, this more scientific approach to intelligence divorced from politics differentiated Israel from the US.
“Top officials in the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have always been appointed solely based on their professional skill – period. There has been no blending in of politics,” he states with pride.
In contrast, he notes that US intelligence appointments are often political, such as with the most recent CIA director Mike Pompeo, who came straight in from Congress.
He adds, “The head of the CIA is political, so the US system lets people use intelligence to advance political interests. There it’s acceptable.”
This has sometimes caused “controversies with them, as sometimes they do not ask us before they use” intelligence Israel shared with the US in confidence.
This means sometimes the influence of politics leads the US to violate “an iron rule of intelligence sharing that if I give you intelligence, you can only use it if I give permission.”
A SEPARATE issue that Shavit is passionate about both in the book and in his talk with the Magazine is the primacy of human intelligence and spying (HUMINT) over the other forms of intelligence collection, though he believes all are important.
His main justification for why human spying, where it can be used, is still superior to the increasingly powerful and seemingly limitless abilities of cyber intelligence, is that it allows a conversation.
With all other intelligence collection, including cyber, while you can review a target’s emails and listen to certain telephone calls, he says you cannot ask for clarification about what they meant when an issue was ambiguous or ask a question about issues which were not mentioned.
You are limited in a one-way conversation as a fly on the wall to observing solely what they happen to share at that moment, he states.
This is the truest with satellite photos which many people fawn over.
“A satellite photo is a stagnant picture. It is correct for that one moment, but one moment later, you do not know.
“When you are sitting with a human being, you can do questions and answers. You can look at the white of his [the informant’s] eyes and his body language… You can assign him questions to find out for the next time you meet. It is a completely different story,” he says, seemingly reflecting on some of his interactions with spies.
Asked for a concrete example where human spying was superior to electronic and other intelligence collection, he gives the example of when “the Mossad brought IDF intelligence information that there would be a war [in 1973] and IDF intelligence did not accept it.”
“Who brought the warning? HUMINT! On that Thursday… the head of the Mossad met with an agent in London and got all of the details.”
He adds, “Many cyber operations are based on and start from human intelligence” that was already provided.
ANOTHER FASCINATING piece of color that comes out of Shavit’s book and in discussions with him is his view of the different pros and cons of the Mossad versus IDF intelligence in predicting future trends.
Shavit makes it clear that he has tremendous respect for IDF intelligence and that its analysis division is far more vast and multidisciplinary, including their own contacts with other state’s militaries, than the Mossad’s – even as the Mossad’s has grown since the 1970s.
Within the framework of his respect for IDF intelligence, he says that his perception is that it is institutionally overly focused on threats and trends that will occur within the next 12 months and on a single largest threat.
In contrast, he says that he thinks that IDF intelligence invests less time and resources in issues that are beyond 12 months and in security issues that may seem secondary – all of which can lead to blind spots.
When he was chief of the Mossad in the 1990s, though it was many years after the 1973 war, he says that IDF intelligence was still overly fixated on being on top of any security threat from Syria. However, it was less on top of trends in Iran, Iraq and Egypt – though again, he expressed broad respect for the work done by IDF intelligence.
His opinion is that the institutional trauma of the Yom Kippur War surprise attacks has made IDF intelligence overly concerned with the present to make sure they do not miss any imminent threat.
On the other hand, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo has said that both IDF intelligence and the Mossad missed Syria’s hidden nuclear reactor for years. So no intelligence agency is perfect and the main function of the two agencies may be to try to supplement each other and provide multiple perspectives of events.
ONE THING that is unique about Shavit, even in comparison to other former Mossad chiefs, is the degree to which he prefers to operate out of the limelight and avoids sharing about himself.
It was surprising to learn that he had even written a book. Multiple former Mossad chiefs who served years after him wrote books long ago and it took him 22 years to decide to put ink to paper.
Why did he do it then? He explains that part of the book corrects the historical record, where he feels the media and the general public’s narrative are wrong regarding the role of the Mossad surrounding the 1973 war and other major events.
But that is only a partial explanation, as a large part of his book is about himself and current issues.
Pressed about why he included other issues, he typically downplays its significance. “Once I was already writing so then it just came to me” – as if much of the rest of the fascinating book of secret meetings he details is an afterthought.
Two stories show that Shavit also did well in keeping a low profile as a Mossad agent.
Back when he was stationed by the Mossad in Iran in 1966, US intelligence noted the presence of a new young couple – Shavit and his wife.
But US intelligence never tied him to the Mossad or figured out that he was anything unusual – a fact he learned when a US intelligence document was leaked to him around 1980.
There is a similar story about Shavit staying anonymous that indirectly connects him to the Jonathan Pollard saga.
Jonathan Pollard with Esther Zeitz-Pollard. (Credit: Reuters)Jonathan Pollard with Esther Zeitz-Pollard. (Credit: Reuters)
In fall 1985, Shavit and his family moved to Boston for a year of study with mid-management officials at the Harvard Kennedy School. After that year off, he would return to the Mossad and become its deputy chief.
Soon after they had their telephone landline installed at their new Boston apartment, Shavit got a special emergency call on that line from Israel.
A longtime Israeli intelligence colleague signaled to him, in a series of hints from the common language of spies that the two had, that the US had arrested Pollard.
Shavit says he had no idea who Pollard was, but his colleague was calling him because Shavit had arrived in the US in close juxtaposition to when Pollard, a US intelligence agent who was in fact a double Israeli agent, had been arrested.
Due to the close timing between Pollard’s arrest and Shavit’s arrival, it was possible that he would be visited by the US authorities.
Shavit elaborates that he was “off” from the Mossad during his year of study in the US and that he was not given any instructions to alter his status or mission.
Rather, he says his colleague merely called to emphasize that he keep a low profile, so that he would be more prepared to go with the flow and convince any potential arresting officers that he was not worth their time.
Asked if he was afraid during that period, Shavit waves his hand dismissively.
He reiterates that not only was he off from the Mossad, but that Pollard was not even a Mossad agent.
He adds that the US was not and is not a place where someone could arrest him and simply make him disappear.
True to character, Shavit does not reveal new operational details to the Magazine or in his book. Yet with his piercing eyes and mind, the details of many secret meetings he does share and his clear-headed perspective on current issues is sure to provoke the same discussion that this former spy chief always does.