Intelligence / Agencies / Israel

Black, Ian and Morris, Benny. Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. 603 pages.

With its 4 million citizens, Israel seemingly flaunts a higher per capita rate of official covert activity than other sovereign countries. Meanwhile, obliging American readers are nostalgic for their own lost glory, presenting a consistent market for books on the much-vaunted efficiency of Israeli intelligence. Journalist Ian Black and historian Benny Morris both have strong sympathies for Israel and kept this book "legally correct" -- they submitted it to Israeli military censors, and many of their sources were required by law to keep their names out of print. It reads like a sober academic tome, perhaps designed as a counterweight to the sensational book by Israeli intelligence ex-patriot Victor Ostrovsky. The authors are strong on episodes of early historical interest, for which declassified primary sources are available, and extremely weak or absent on essential contemporary issues: Israel's role in Iran-contra and Panama, the extent to which Israeli intelligence is responsive to Israel's dependence on arms sales to Third World dictators, and the question of Israeli covert activity and surveillance in the U.S. through the use of Jewish community groups in America.

Ostrovsky, Victor and Hoy, Claire. By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer. New York: St.Martin's Press, 1990. 371 pages.

Steven, Stewart. The Spymasters of Israel. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982. 400 pages.

Raviv, Dan and Melman, Yossi. Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1990. 466 pages.

Several books in NameBase tell the history of Israel's Mossad, which is responsible for "foreign intelligence collection, political action and counterterrorism, ... [and which] conducts agent operations against the Arab nations and their official representatives and installations, particularly in Western Europe and the United States." This is from a CIA analysis that was discovered by Iranian students in Tehran in 1979, and reprinted in CounterSpy. Former Mossad chief Isser Harel called the CIA document "anti- Semitic" and a "nightmare" for him, and said that it was "shockingly irresponsible" for the CIA to keep a document like this "rolling around" in the U.S. Embassy. Mossad and Shin Beth have only 1,000 staff officers, but they manage to create more than their fair share of controversy.

Victor Ostrovsky was a Mossad case officer from 1984-1986, and was in Canada when two Mossad agents showed up to say that for his "own safety" he should try to stop publication. Israel obtained injunctions against the publisher, but in the U.S. it was lifted because 17,000 copies had already been shipped. This is the first book to offer some major dirty laundry. Among other things, it charges that Mossad had advance knowledge of the 1983 truck bombing in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. Marines, but refused to warn the American authorities for policy reasons.

Dan Raviv, a CBS news correspondent in London, and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, a 1989-90 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, present what might be termed the "academic establishment" history of Israeli intelligence. This makes it less "complete" than their subtitle pretends, but they do cover other agencies in addition to Mossad: Israeli military intelligence (Aman), domestic security (Shin Bet), and nuclear secrets (Lakam). The authors regret Israel's recent intelligence setbacks, and feel there's no conflict between democracy and covert activity, as long as the public is in charge!

Steven's "Spymasters of Israel" reads more like a mass-market thriller than a scholarly effort, but this British editor conducted over a hundred interviews and the book holds up fairly well. He is hampered, though, by his need to protect his sources and his tendency to glorify the exploits of Mossad agents as they protect "this small and beleaguered nation." In the end he manages to spin a good story, but fails to contribute to the international debate on the ethics of Israeli policy.


Ostrovsky, Victor. The Other Side of Deception: A Rogue Agent Exposes the Mossad's Secret Agenda. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1995. 399 pages.

Victor Ostrovsky, a Mossad officer from 1984-1986, first exposed Israel's intelligence operations with a 1990 bestseller titled "By Way of Deception." Israeli efforts to stop publication were too late, and Ostrovsky, who was born in Canada and raised in Israel, was legally back in Canada with his family by then, under the protection of the Mounties. Pushing his luck somewhat, "The Other Side of Deception" is volume two from Ostrovsky. This volume is more autobiographical: Ostrovsky reports his adventures through a rough chronology, diary-style, from 1986 to 1991, and includes much reconstructed dialogue.

According to Ostrovsky, most of his activities in 1986 were at the behest of a tiny cabal of Mossad insiders who were disgusted with their agency's wanton immorality, and were running some tricks of their own to discredit their leadership. This included passing intelligence to other countries, and could be considered treasonous -- were it not for the fact that business as usual at Mossad is a betrayal of all that's civil in the first place. Ostrovsky doesn't name many names, so we have to take him at his word. He does state that the following deaths were all Mossad hits, and includes new details: British publisher Robert Maxwell, Canadian scientist Gerald Bull, German official Uwe Barschel, and Iran-contra figure Ian Spiro.


Thomas, Gordon. Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad. New York: St.Martin's Press (Thomas Dunne Books), 2000. 382 pages.

Gordon Thomas, based in Dublin, is the author of 37 books. All but seven are nonfiction. Judging from the titles and the other book of his in NameBase (Journey Into Madness, 1990), Thomas is a popularizer with a flair for the dramatic, but not a scholar. This results in a book that is difficult to judge because of one additional fact -- Thomas is able to get interviews with people like William Casey or the heads of Mossad, as well as other insiders who know where the bodies are buried. As soon as we are tempted to dismiss Thomas on the grounds that those he interviewed are using him for spin control, he turns around and reveals something new and unflattering about that person, which throws us back to square one.

There are some statements that betray the author's preference for drama and conspiracy. Two are in the area of computers, where we have some expertise. He describes former MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson as someone who published MI6 names on his "specially created and very expensive website ... using a sophisticated Microsoft program he had installed on his state of the art computer." And when Thomas interviews Ari Ben-Menashe, he wallows in that old Promis pit all over again, with a section on the famous 1981 software that can "track a terrorist's every step" by hacking into every other computer on earth. Please, give it a rest.


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