The unsolved mystery of Soviet spy Marcus Klinberg

Klinberg, who died in Paris this week, took with him to his grave his motives for betraying Israel.

Marcus Klingberg (photo credit: REUTERS)
Marcus Klingberg
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Marcus Klingberg, who called himself the Last Spy, died this past Monday morning in Paris at the age of 97. His funeral will be held Friday at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where he will be buried next to his wife and his heroes, the Communist combatants of the Paris Commune.
He left behind a life that remains an unsolved mystery. The details of Klingberg’s life, including espionage for the Soviet Union, have become public knowledge, but the enigma behind his motives for handing over some of Israel’s most important and sensitive secrets has never been solved.
Klingberg was born in 1918 in Warsaw to an ultra-Orthodox family. He made aliya with his family in 1948, served as a colonel in the IDF Medical Corps, joined the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona, climbed up the ranks in the Israeli scientific and political establishments, and became a top-level spy for the Soviets.
“He was one of the top Soviet spies in Israel – if not the greatest one ever – and he caused severe damage,” says MK Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), a former Shin Bet chief.
The KGB tried, and sometimes succeeded, through threatening or blackmailing, to recruit a number of agents among Soviet Jews who made aliya.
Soviet intelligence was based on the assumption that quantity would make up for a lack quality. In other words, they hoped that if they recruited a large number of agents, they would have at least a few top agents who could bring them important confidential information.
Klingberg was one such agent.
When Soviet Jews arrived in Israel, they would be questioned by Shin Bet agents, who would ask them whether the KGB had tried to recruit them. The new citizens were promised that if they told the truth, no harm would befall them. Most Soviet immigrants admitted to having been propositioned by the KGB. A few who refused to come clean and continued to pass on secrets to their Soviet handlers were found out sooner or later and were brought to trial. Surely there are some who have never been caught.
A small number of immigrants who admitted to having been approached by the KGB were offered by the Israelis to function as double agents.
A double agent is one of the most important and sensitive roles in human intelligence. It enables a country to feed another country false information and to learn which parts most interested the second body. Double agents can lead to incredible strategic achievements and valuable intelligence. Some of the biggest feats in world affairs have been made possible due to deception created by a double agent. However, running a double agent can be a double- edged sword, since there’s always the risk that the agent is actually loyal to his first recruiters.
In 1972 one of the Soviet Jews who made aliya was a KGB agent. Upon arriving in Israel he confessed, and the Shin Bet offered him to become a double agent, and he agreed. In 1983 he was then instructed by the KGB to make contact with another Soviet agent with whom contact had been severed. The new target who was to be contacted was, of course, Klingberg, who was living at the time on Hame’asfim Street (today Laskov Street) in central Tel Aviv. The double agent reported back to the Shin Bet about the KGB’s request, and the Shin Bet quickly acted on this intel and began keeping tabs on Klingberg.
The double agent who brought the intel about Klingberg acted for the most part as a messenger, and shouldn’t be credited for being the brains behind the exposure of Klingberg.
That would be tantamount to saying that a delivery boy should take all the credit for the tasty pizza he just delivered on his scooter. In the same way, the double agent functioned solely as a KGB errand boy.
The Shin Bet decided that this time they would not let Klingberg slip through their fingers. At the time, he was a professor at the Tel Aviv University Medical School, having retired seven years previously from the Biological Institute, where he’d risen to the rank of deputy director-general.
Since the 1960s, the Shin Bet had been amassing intel that led to suspicion that Klingberg was a spy for a foreign country.
This information was passed on by the secretary of the World Health Organization headquarters, in Geneva, helping Israeli intelligence. Klingberg, who had acquired a reputation as a leading international epidemiology expert – the study of diseases – came to the city since he was a board member of a number of WHO committees.
When he was summoned for questioning, Klingberg – an active member of Mapai (the ruling party) who was a secret partner in some of the most sensitive military ventures and a friend of government ministers and members of Knesset – denied any and all allegations made against him. After passing a lie detector test, he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
In retrospect, it appears that the Shin Bet investigators had not asked Klingberg the correct questions. Because he was originally from Poland, the Shin Bet had assumed that Klingberg was working for OB, the Polish Intelligence Agency. When asked if he was working for OB, Klingberg answered truthfully in the negative and was found to be telling the truth. But in fact he was working for the KGB and not OB. On another occasion, when warning bells once again rang, a Mossad surveillance team followed Klingberg abroad, in the hope that he might be caught red-handed interacting with his Soviet handler; but he never was.
Then, in 1983, the Shin Bet decided to carry out a more sophisticated operation in order to find a pretext to arrest and interrogate Klingberg more thoroughly than he had been in the past. The code name for this operation was “Reef.”
Led by the head of the Shin Bet investigation department, Haim Ben-Ami, the investigators drew a psychological portrait of Klingberg and found that he was arrogant, proud and cynical, and that it was highly important for him to receive honors, compliments and praise for his professional abilities.
A Shin Bet investigator called Klingberg and told him that an ecological disaster had taken place in Southeast Asia and that his help as an Israeli expert was needed urgently.
“You’re the only person who has the necessary knowledge to help us,” he said, massaging his ego. He was told that he would be involved in a secret operation, for which he would be away from home for an extended period of time, and that he was forbidden from telling anyone about it, except for his wife.
Feeling extremely flattered, Klingberg agreed to leave for the foreign country.
On the morning of December 1, 1983, Shin Bet agents arrived to take Klingberg to Ben-Gurion Airport. He came downstairs with his suitcase after saying good-bye to his wife, Wanda, who was a microbiologist by profession and who also worked at the Biological Institute.
As they began driving, the Shin Bet agents told Klingberg that they had to stop by an apartment in north Tel Aviv to pick up his plane tickets and fake passport with his new identity.
When he entered the apartment, the investigators told him that they were arresting him.
For a month, Klingberg was interrogated by Ben-Ami, who played the “bad cop” and another Shin Bet agent who played the “good cop,” but to no avail. Klingberg did not divulge any information and refused to admit to being a Soviet spy.
The investigators knew that without evidence that would stand up in court – the contact with the double agent was insufficient, since Klingberg hadn’t talked with him and didn’t know him – and without a confession, Klingberg would once again slip through their net.
Time was running out. The court, where deliberations regarding his arrest had been taking place behind closed doors, announced that it would not grant another extension.
Then, on the last day, Ben-Ami noticed that Klingberg had a photograph of his parents in his wallet. Usually people keep pictures of their spouse or children in their wallets, and yet Klingberg, who was 65 years old, had only a picture of his parents. This seemed strange to Ben- Ami.
Ben-Ami knew that Klingberg’s parents, who came from a family of rabbis, were murdered in the Holocaust.
In 1939, when World War II broke out, Klingberg said good-bye to them at the Warsaw railway station and never saw them again. He fled to the Soviet Union, where he continued his medical studies.
Two years later, in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Klingberg joined the Red Army and climbed the ranks until he became a major. Later, he began his professional career as an epidemiologist.
On a brilliant whim, Ben-Ami angrily threw the picture of Klingberg’s parents to the floor and screamed in a booming voice: You are a traitor! You’ve betrayed your parents and abandoned them to suffocate alone in the gas chambers during the Holocaust in order to save yourself. You’ve betrayed the State of Israel by handing over sensitive secrets in the fields of biological and chemical warfare to our enemies. By doing so, you’ve also betrayed your parents’ memory.
Tears began to form in Klingberg’s eyes. He finally broke down. So as not to give the satisfaction to Ben-Ami, whom he hated so intensely, Klingberg asked that the “good cop” be the one to hear his confession. He did not, however, divulge everything.
Only after serving his time – he was given 20 years, five of which he served on house arrest with restrictions, and in 2003 was released – did he write a book with his lawyer Michael Sfard in which he revealed further details that had previously been unknown and boasted that he had tricked the Shin Bet investigators.
Klingberg told how Wanda had been his helpmate and had cooperated with him. In fact, Klingberg was so proud of his wife that he claimed she had been the better spy between the two of them, having succeeded in smuggling out a violent strain of bacteria from the Biological Institute. According to foreign reports, the Biological Institute in Israel is working on creating biological and chemical weapons. These same reports say that this institution also prepared poisons that the Mossad used in several assassinations.
The mystery that surrounded his life and has not yet dissipated mainly revolves around the question of why the Klingbergs betrayed the State of Israel.
We have no clear answer to this question.
One thing is known: They never received payment for their espionage activity. His Soviet handlers offered him money, but Klingberg refused. He saw himself as someone who operated for ideological motives.
Klingberg had been a Communist in his youth. He felt tremendous gratitude toward the Soviet Union for saving his life, offering him refuge, enabling him to continue his studies, advancing his career and bestowing on him the rank of officer. He also believed, according to his own testimony, that during the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s, he should help the Soviet Union scientifically and technologically, so that the relationship between the USSR and the United States would be more balanced.
In his memoirs, Klingberg wrote that he took pride in the fact that he contributed to a number of secret projects that were important for Israel’s national security. Even if this is true, these actions were dwarfed by the damage he caused.
MK Yaakov Peri was one of the people who supported releasing Klingberg to house arrest, due to his serious health condition, before his sentence had been completed.
“He was honest with his Soviet handlers but also with his Israeli employers, and because of his expertise, he did contribute to the State of Israel,” says Peri who to this day does not regret that he supported Klingberg’s early release. “I supported this move because I thought that his release would not cause any further damage, and that the State of Israel was strong enough to make this small gesture,” Peri said.
The Shin Bet operatives who interrogated Klingberg believe that his motives were far less lofty. Some of them claim that KGB operators were blackmailing Klingberg since he hadn’t finished his medical studies due to the war. Klingberg, on the other hand, claimed that he had indeed graduated and received his medical degree.
And maybe, as is often the case, when we pry deep into the human psyche in an effort to understand how humans operate and to discover why someone would betray his people and his country, it becomes clear that the motives are too complex to be categorized. In this case, it appears that a number of versions will exist forever.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.