My word: Spies and stories

Truth and fiction mix inside and outside the espionage world.

Israeli espionage (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli espionage
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I’m thinking of taking out a subscription to Newsweek, at least until Daniel Silva publishes his next spy novel. The hero of several of Silva’s books is Gabriel Allon, a never- quite-retired Mossad agent turned art restorer who is similar to an Israeli James Bond minus the gadgets. It wasn’t just the plot in which he (spoiler alert) single-handedly saves the pope which made me think of the fictional Allon around the time of the pontiff’s visit to the region. It was the Newsweek spy-in-the-vent story that created headlines around the world. Every claim it made raised another question (and my eyebrows could not have gone much higher).
In an article mid-May by Jeff Stein titled “Israel’s aggressive spying in the US mostly hushed up,” the writer quotes an unnamed source describing a previously unreported espionage situation that would better suit a bestseller by Silva than what claims to be a reputable news magazine.
“When White House national security adviser Susan Rice’s security detail cleared her Jerusalem hotel suite for bugs and intruders Tuesday night, they might’ve had in mind a surprise visitor to vice president Al Gore’s room 16 years ago this week: a spy in an air duct,” wrote Stein.
“According to a senior former US intelligence operative, a Secret Service agent who was enjoying a moment of solitude in Gore’s bathroom before the Veep arrived heard a metallic scraping sound. ‘The Secret Service had secured [Gore’s] room in advance and they all left except for one agent, who decided to take a long, slow time on the pot,’ the operative recalled for Newsweek. ‘So the room was all quiet, he was just meditating on his toes, and he hears a noise in the vent. And he sees the vent clips being moved from the inside.
And then he sees a guy starting to exit the vent into the room.
“Did the agent scramble for his gun? No, the former operative said with a chuckle. ‘He kind of coughed and the guy went back into the vents.’” That the unnamed US former operative found it a laughing matter – or at least a chuckling matter – is only one disturbing aspect of the story.
Talk about being caught with your pants down: Did an American Secret Service man entrusted with the security of the US vice president really decide that to avoid any embarrassment – either to himself or the intruder – the best course of action was to clear his throat loudly rather than check what was going on? How did he know the man in the vent was actually an Israeli agent coming to bug the room if he didn’t apprehend him? I’m no expert on espionage, but I know Israeli personality traits: I find it extremely doubtful that moments after an Israeli agent thought that all the American operatives had left the room he would have noisily struggled along the hotel’s metal ducts when all he needed to do was take the key from the hotel staff citing security concerns and let himself in.
Incidentally, from what I recall of the King David Hotel (where I once got stuck in the bathroom for an indecently long time) the air conditioning system offers barely enough room for a large rodent, let alone an adult human.
Last week, Stein was at it again. In Newsweek on May 30, his story had the catchy title “Israel Eavesdropped on President Clinton’s Diplomatic Phone Calls.” This time he quotes the unnamed private sources quoted in a book due to be published this week, Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories written by Ahron Bregman.
It’s beginning to sound more like a game of Chinese whispers than the spying game.
Bregman’s source, according to Stein (and now being passed on by me) claimed that Israeli intelligence listened in to conversations between president Bill Clinton and Syria’s president Hafez Assad “during sensitive Middle East peace negotiations 15 years ago.”
(Has any reader ever heard of “non-sensitive” Middle East peace negotiations?) Bregman, in case you’re wondering, was in touch with Stein by email from “London, where he settled in 1988 after refusing to serve in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza territories.” He later outed Egyptian Ashraf Marwan as an alleged spy for Israel, something he said he regretted after Marwan’s death in suspicious circumstances in 2007.
Not that I’m questioning his background, just his agenda.
Like Yediot Aharonot military and intelligence affairs reporter Ronen Bergman also quoted in the Newsweek story, I don’t know whether Israel did or did not overhear the Syrian peace talks, but if it did, I assume it was because we were monitoring the calls of Assad and his ministers rather than Clinton’s.
In view of recent revelations that President Barack Obama has been listening in to the conversations of leaders including former prime minister Ehud Barak and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is easy to imagine more than one interested party monitoring the talks at the same time.
The more interesting question becomes who is leaking the information and why.
Since it isn’t to derail talks with Syria, I suspect that someone out there is trying to turn the not-so-secret rift between Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu into something close to an (un)diplomatic war.
Anyway, whether it was fate, good fortune, or an alert analyst somewhere in Israel’s security system that helped torpedo the process that would have given Assad and his son control over an extremely strategic area, today, Israelis (and the rest of the Western world) have more reason than ever to be grateful.
I HAVE met a few real Israeli agents over the years (and possibly some non-Israeli agents; forget “James Bond, licensed to kill,” it’s not the sort of job you put on your business card).
Those I have spoken with say that most of their work is very boring. And the bit that isn’t boring? Well, they don’t talk about that.
Obviously it leaves a lot to the imagination, which they don’t mind at all. It’s good for their image and it’s good for the country’s deterrence capabilities, which never hurts.
Forget “in-ducted” spies in hotels, last week it was revealed that Iranians had created fake social networking accounts and a bogus news website to spy on military and political leaders in the US, Israel and elsewhere.
Immediately after the shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month, there was a great deal of speculation regarding the identities and work of the two Israeli victims. But it seems that Mira and Emmanuel Riva were genuinely accidental tourists, a vacationing couple who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were victims of that murky world where anti-Semitism meets Islamist terror. It is an environment increasingly apparent not only in Europe and provides fertile ground for a particular genre of Newsweek stories.
I almost lost the plot this week with news that US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years, had been released in return for five members of the Taliban.
Since it was not immediately clear whether Bergdahl was a POW or AWOL and, according to his father among others, he had completely forgotten how to speak English during those five years and could only communicate in the local Afghan dialect, it brought to mind the storyline of Homeland, the Israeli-conceived series that conquered television screens around the world.
When Gilad Schalit returned from five years’ Hamas captivity the whole country came to a halt. Nearly every Israeli can recall where they were when Schalit came back home to his family and people. And while Israelis continue to argue about the price (more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners), no one wondered whether he had moved over to the other side.
This week, 32 years ago, the First Lebanon War broke out. Since June 1982 the families of three IDF soldiers who disappeared during the Battle of Sultan Yakoub have struggled to discover the fate of their sons. If anyone reading this, or listening in on certain conversations, can shed light on the whereabouts of Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zachary Baumel, now would be a good time to share the information. It should be worth more than a story in Newsweek. It would be worth the world to their families.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.