The spy master (1941-2016)

Meir Dagan, the man and the myth.

Meir Dagan (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Meir Dagan
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A few months ago at his Tel Aviv apartment when I asked him about his health, Meir Dagan replied, “I live from day to day.” He looked thinner and he had difficulty walking, but he was optimistic as usual, sharp, cynical and full of charm.
“I am determined to fight for my life, but I am not afraid to die,” he flashed a characteristically broad smile.
OVER THE course of his long and storied security career, Dagan underwent a great change. He understood that only with the help of a peace agreement with the Palestinians could Israel continue to exist and ensure a better society.
This was on display in his last public speech. “I have a dream – to leave my three children and seven grandchildren a different society. I dream that they can dedicate their lives to growth, development, to fulfilling dreams, and not to wars for their homeland. I would like to ensure them a better life than I lived. I would like to promise them a society that eliminates its discrimination and violence, that gets back to its roots and takes responsibility for its destiny, a society that will ensure a real opportunity for all of its citizens to strive for real equality.”
However, more than anything, Dagan will be remembered as a brave man who did not hesitate to express his opinion, his truth and his worldview, even if it meant that he butted heads with his superiors, especially Netanyahu, whom he did not hold in very high esteem, saying, “I do not believe in his leadership.”
This was true especially in his staunch opposition to what was perceived as Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak’s attempts to order a military strike against Iran.
Dagan, together with then-IDF chief of staff Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi and then-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, were against the move. They said as much in face-to-face discussions with Netanyahu, Barak and the cabinet ministers, and continued to say so publicly after they finished their tenures.
Dagan’s stance was clear, and this is perhaps his legacy: “Israel must go to war only when the sword is up against its throat.”
MEIR HUBERMAN was born in 1941 in the Soviet Union, the son of Holocaust survivors who made aliya in 1950. He hebraicized his name to Dagan and was a man of contradictions and controversy.
There was not one Meir Dagan. There were many.
There was the tough and even cruel Dagan. But there was also the sensitive Dagan with the soul of an artist who drew and sculpted and loved classical music.
There was the Dagan who was the man of action, the warrior and the brave officer, who plotted in wartime against Israel’s enemies and gained the reputation among the public as being a “devourer of Arabs.” But this was not a complete portrait of the man. At one point he understood that Israel must make peace with the Palestinians and not rely only on military strength.
There was the Dagan who was the Likud member. He was head of former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s headquarters on election day and he expressed an aggressive worldview. In the late 1990s he was opposed to the idea of a retreat from the Golan, even in exchange for peace. And yet another Dagan moderated his views and appeared just one year ago at a demonstration in Tel Aviv against the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud policy.
There was the Dagan who “barged” into the Mossad and thought that he understood what intelligence was, better than everyone else, even senior personnel.
And there was the Dagan who matured into his role and understood that covert and violent operations need more complex intelligence work than they appear to require.
The person who groomed Dagan’s image as a fearless officer and a man of action with a “knife between his teeth” was Sharon. The two met when Sharon was head of Southern Command at the height of his fight against the Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza. He appointed Dagan, then a captain in the artillery, as a commander of an elite jeep unit that, at its outset, was coined the Balloon Reconnaissance Unit because of the jeeps’ large tires which allowed the vehicles to pass through sand. Later its name was changed to the Rimon Reconnaissance Unit.
RIMON WAS a unit of infiltrators, soldiers who were disguised as Gazans and who used guerrilla warfare tactics. The unit soon gained the reputation as a killer unit that killed terrorists in cold blood. In conversations with me, Dagan expressed regret over what he said was the faulty image that the unit garnered.
Rimon, Dagan said, “did use sophisticated schemes and unconventional methods, but it was a Reconnaissance Unit, not Murder Inc.”
The acquaintance with Sharon turned into a real friendship that lasted their whole lives. It blossomed especially in the sands of Sinai and the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.
Dagan, already a major at that point, joined the jeep unit formed by the deputy commander of the Shaked Reconnaissance Unit, Chen, as a simple signal operator. Chen and Dagan’s unit joined Sharon’s division as a patrol unit.
Dagan brought his operational experience gained in Gaza and in the Yom Kippur War when he was appointed commander of the southern Lebanon region in the 1970s. With great ambition, he formed a small and semi-independent intelligence unit which was not looked upon kindly by Military Intelligence’s Unit 504 which was responsible for running agents.
The unit’s covert operations, which purportedly included the assassination of PLO terrorists, some of whom were agents that betrayed Israel, further cemented Dagan’s image. This image was especially evident in a quote attributed to Sharon, in which he reportedly said that Dagan was an expert in separating Arabs’ heads from their bodies.
In large part because of this image, Sharon, as prime minister, decided to appoint Dagan head of the Mossad in 2002. The appointment raised a good deal of opposition among senior officials, both in and outside the Mossad.
For 20 years, since 1982, with the exception of Danny Yatom’s short tenure of a year-and-a-half, three homegrown directors headed the Mossad – Nahum Admoni, Shabtai Shavit and Efraim Halevy. Senior Mossad officials did not want to see a general parachuted in from the outside to run the organization.
An additional argument against the appointment was that Dagan’s membership in the Likud and the fact that he was a political person ruled him out for the job.
But Sharon waved off the detractors.
Sharon believed that the Mossad had been treading water for a few years, and he wanted Israel’s external intelligence agency to be “operations-based” and more effective. It was a legitimate request, even though it was a slight to Efraim Halevy, whom Dagan replaced. A good deal of the covert operations, which included recruiting agents and infiltrating Iran, and the structural changes (the founding of the intelligence department), which came to fruition during Dagan’s tenure and he was given credit for, actually began as initiatives of Halevy.
WHEN DAGAN first entered his office as Mossad chief, he brought with him a picture of his grandfather on his knees before the Nazis, the moment before he was executed during the Second World War. The Holocaust was the GPS that guided Dagan throughout his long career in the service of Israel’s security.
The picture was an expression of his motto that Israel must be strong in order to preserve its security.
One of Dagan’s important first steps upon entering his new role was to reorganize the Mossad. He borrowed his organizational concept from the Air Force and split the Mossad into two administrations – one of which was operational and supervised all the operational units, and the second of which was the manpower administration.
Because of this, but also because of what was perceived as Dagan’s stubbornness and arrogance, he butted heads with a few senior Mossad officials, some of whom stormed out in a flurry of slammed doors. In his eight-plus years in the role, Dagan had three deputies, all of whom he fought with – Hagai Hadas, Naftali Granot and Tamir Pardo, who replaced him and finished his term four months ago when he was succeeded by Yossi Cohen.
Dagan appointed Cohen head of the Tsomet (intersection) division, which is responsible for running field agents, and “project manager” for special operations to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.
In my conversation with Dagan, he expressed his support for Cohen’s appointment to Mossad chief and told Netanyahu the same thing.
Some of the senior officials who left claimed that Dagan was trying to reinvent the intelligence wheel, and he was accused of an attitude and remarks that displayed a superficiality summed up by sayings such as “So, who are we going to assassinate this morning?” and “An agent can be recruited within a week.”
He was not terribly bothered by these claims and remained focused on his goals. To his credit, he had unprecedented access to his superior – the prime minister, who trusted him almost blindly.
BUT DAGAN’S influence and importance in the defense establishment in those years did not stem solely from his chemistry with the prime minister, but from the unprecedented authority he was given by Sharon, and to an even greater extent by Sharon’s replacement as prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
They tasked him with total responsibility for thwarting Iran’s nuclear program and in doing so turned him into the “Caesar” of the project. This meant that the Foreign Ministry and Military Intelligence were the de facto subordinates of the Mossad in everything connected to Iran’s nuclear program. This was an unprecedented decision. For the first time in the history of the state, the Mossad took the lead on a strategic matter of existential proportions. It had been the organization’s wet dream for years. The Mossad was granted almost unlimited resources and means to carry out the mandate. The organization’s manpower was doubled.
Its budget was tripled and technology was obtained that threatened the supremacy of Military Intelligence as a whole, and specifically that of Unit 8200.
The relation of cost to benefit, of expectations to achievements, as Dagan himself admitted in his conversation with me, was not perfect.
A great deal of money and energy were wasted because of Dagan’s insistence that the Mossad try to defeat the al-Qaida terrorist cells in the Horn of Africa that were behind the November 2002 attempt to shoot down an Arkia airplane taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, and the attack on the Paradise Hotel in the city in which a number of Israeli tourists and Kenyan citizens were killed.
The Mossad did not then have the knowledge, experience and intelligence abilities to penetrate and grapple with al-Qaida terrorism, certainly not so far from the Middle East. The CIA was the one to eventually eliminate the terrorist network, including its commander, Ali Nabhan. It took Dagan almost two years to change his mind and “recalculate.”
He learned to improve his relationships with his subordinates, working his charms on them and consulting with them more. He understood that the main task of the Mossad was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
However, even here he set himself a goal that, in hindsight, was too ambitious in his eyes. A few Mossad officials suggested that he not define his goal as “thwarting,” which has an absolute meaning, and instead focus on more modest goals of “sabotage” or “delay.”
FOREIGN REPORTS suggest that in order to reach the goal, Dagan employed a number of methods and means. He reportedly ordered the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and set in motion operations to intercept, sabotage and “poison” equipment intended to service Iran’s nuclear program. Together with Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 and the United States’ NSA, the Mossad was involved in implanting viruses in the computers that operated uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz. Some of the missions proved their worth, some less so. Up to this day, it is difficult to say that Iran’s nuclear program was thwarted because of the Mossad’s activities. It is more likely that what contributed to the thwarting is mainly the Iranian leadership’s decision not to create a nuclear weapon and the international pressure and economic sanctions Iran was subjected to.
In his sincerity and fairness, Dagan later admitted that he had no illusions about the matter. He understood that only a combination of measures, some of which came from the international community, would be needed to stop Tehran. And this was part of the change he underwent over the years as Mossad chief. He understood that Israel needs allies in the West, with the US being chief among them, and allies in the Middle East. During his tenure, cooperation with the CIA was increased, as was cooperation with the intelligence communities in Britain, Germany, France, Azerbaijan and Eastern Europe. Dagan was considered creative and original by his colleagues and was particularly well liked by US President George W. Bush, whom he met with on several occasions.
According to foreign reports, Dagan also met with the heads of intelligence agencies of some Middle East states, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Their common cause was opposition to Iran’s attempts to exercise hegemony in the region.
This cooperation with intelligence community colleagues was behind one of the greatest successes of Dagan’s Mossad: the assassination of Hezbollah “defense minister” Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008. According to foreign reports, it was an Israeli operation aided by the CIA, which transferred the explosives used in the car bomb that killed Mughniyeh.
ANOTHER IMPORTANT strategic achievement during Dagan’s tenure was carried out by Mossad agents in the “Keshet” division under the supervision of Ram Ben-Barak. They managed to extract pictures and intelligence from the computer of the head of Syria’s Atomic Energy Agency while he was visiting Vienna. This information served as the “smoking gun” which proved that Syria was building a nuclear reactor. A short time after this, in September 2007, prime minister Olmert ordered the air force to bomb and destroy the reactor.
However, there is an operation that remains controversial in Israel and abroad up to this day. At the beginning of 2010, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in his hotel in Dubai. Mabhouh was a senior logistics official responsible for obtaining weapons and equipment from Iran and smuggling it to Gaza.
Dubai authorities discovered and revealed dozens of names, pictures and passports, claiming they belonged to Mossad operatives who they said were behind the operation. It can be said in Dagan’s defense that the operation was a success because Mabhouh was killed and all of the agents returned home safely.
In addition, the fake names and pictures did not bring about the exposure of their real identities, and relations with the countries represented in the passports were not ultimately damaged.
At many times, in daring missions against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and in Brig.-Gen. Amatzia (Patzi) Chen’s jeep during the Yom Kippur War and in Lebanon, Dagan had stood face-to-face with death. After he announced in 2012 that he had advanced cancer of the liver, he said he had prepared for the worst and began to “summarize his life and meet with people.”
Even as he remained optimistic and never lost hope, he really knew – since his secret liver transplant in Belarus in October 2012 – that he was living on borrowed time. He decided to make his opinions known. He spoke with friends and was interviewed at length by an Israeli film director, in the knowledge that the documentary being made about him would be shown only after his death. 
Translated by Daniel Rosehill.