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Ruthless but ineffective

Jonathan Sumption on the new book by Gordon Thomas

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

Gideon’s Spies: The Inside Story of Israel’s Legendary Secret Service, The Mossad Gordon Thomas

JR Books, pp.698, 16.99

Gideon may or may not have overcome the Midianites by superior intelligence. The Book of Judges is a little obscure about that. But there is still something in the old adage that espionage is the second oldest profession. The rules of the game were set out more than six centuries ago in the advice given by one of his councillors to a king of France. Pay your spies well. Never let one of them know about the others. And don’t believe everything that they tell you. It is a good starting point, even today.

Yet the profession is dying, progressively bypassed by electronic eavesdropping and satellite photography, and super- seded by computerised analysis. The trend is very ancient. Intercepted communications, whether they were radio signals or coded letters sewn into a horseman’s jacket, have been the main source of intelligence for centuries. Spies played a colourful part in the wars of the 20th century, but an essentially insignificant one. It is difficult to think of a single notable event of modern times whose course has been changed by information derived from spies.

It is not just technical advance that has killed off HUMINT (human intelligence). With a handful of exceptions, old-fashioned spies are unreliable. It is largely a problem of motivation. Spies are usually natives of the country being spied on, who do what they do for money, grudges or self-importance, all instincts that tend to distort the message. They exaggerate to earn their pay. They make things up to forward their own agenda. They get caught and turned, becoming channels for deliberate misinformation.


Mossad (the word means ‘The Institute’ in Hebrew) was founded in 1949, shortly after the creation of the Israeli state. It was, and to some extent still is, the last great intelligence service to operate mainly on HUMINT. One reason for this has been its lack of technical resources and geographical reach until quite recently. But another, perhaps more important, factor has been the unique advantages enjoyed by a state such as Israel, which can call on the ideological loyalties of large numbers of people in the wider Jewish community beyond its own borders, ranging from well-placed employees of foreign governments down to observant switchboard operators, hotel receptionists or journalists. The only comparable case in recent times has been the ideological loyalty which the Soviet Union was able to command among sections of western society between the 1930s and the 1950s. Altruistic espionage may or may not be admirable, depending on one’s sympathy with the cause. But it has proved to be by far the most effective kind of human intelligence.

For all that, Mossad’s record as a source of high-grade military intelligence has been patchy, judging by the publicly available information. It was highly effective in the build-up to the Six-Day War of 1967, before the Arab states got their act together. But it produced very little, very late at the time of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which famously took the Israeli government by surprise. Like other Western intelligence agencies, Mossad spectacularly failed to detect the Iraqi build-up to the invasion of Kuwait.

So whence comes its remarkable reputation? The answer is that it comes not from intelligence at all, but from special operations. Mossad’s forte has been the kidnapping or murder of Israel’s enemies. And it is in this rather specialised field that its greatest successes and best publicised failures have occurred. No other country has shown the same ruthless disregard of international law in its willingness to engage in organised crime on other people’s territory. This includes not just the territory of Israel’s enemies, but that of her friends. The kidnapping of Mordechai Vanunu in Italy was a deeply discreditable episode. The murder of a harmless Moroccan waiter in the Norwegian town on Lillehammer in 1972 as he walked home from a cinema with his pregnant wife, would have been outrageous even if those responsible had been right in thinking that he was the head of the Palestinian Black September organisation. Some of these acts were not even done on behalf of Israel. The foiled kidnapping of the Nigerian politician Umaru Dikko in London in 1984, appears to have been organised by Mossad for the benefit of the military government of Nigeria.

These episodes have a certain 007-style panache, and they make interesting reading in a Boy’s Own kind of way. But it must be questionable whether the results of so much systematic amorality have been worth the hostility it has generated. Perhaps the most remarkable example of an intelligence organisation losing sight of the political objective is the Jonathan Pollard affair, which did serious damage to Israel’s relations with its principal western ally, the United States in the 1980s. Pollard was an intelligence analyst employed by the US Navy, who was recruited by Mossad and sold them thousands of exceptionally sensitive classified documents before he was exposed and sentenced to life imprisonment. There is some reason to believe that information derived from him may have been passed on by Israel in return for reciprocal favours to South Africa and the Soviet Union, where it compromised a number of CIA agents.

Gordon Thomas is an Irish-resident Welshman who has made a speciality of colourful narratives from the world of intelligence. This is in fact the third edition, expanded and updated, of a book which was originally published in 1999. Thomas follows a more or less neutral line through the middle eastern political minefield. He has combed the press. He has extracted such nuggets as can be found in official publications. He has read all the memoirs he could lay hands on. He has spoken to a number of Mossad insiders or ex-insiders, who have told him what they wanted him to know. And he has drawn on a mixed group of fantasists with claims to inside knowledge some of which hardly bear examination. From these sources, he has obtained a lot of tall stories, but little else that is not already in the public domain. All this has been crammed into a bulky tome, in more or less random order, with no regard for theme, logic or chronology. The result is a book which retells some famous stories very well, but is disfigured by molehills of gossip and mountains of tosh.

If Thomas is to be believed, Mossad has been involved in every murky happening anywhere in the world for decades. Henry Paul, for example, who drove Princess Diana into a column of the Alma underpass, turns out to have been a Mossad agent. The old story that Robert Maxwell stole from the Mirror Group pension fund to finance Mossad’s world-wide operations, and was then murdered by Mossad agents, is trotted out for another airing. When Nizar Hindawi was tried in England for planting explosives on his girlfriend to blow up an El Al airliner, his defence was that he was a Mossad agent taking part in an elaborate sting designed to discredit Syria. The jury did not believe him, but Gordon Thomas has swallowed it whole. A variety of Hezbollah coups, such as the murder of 240 US marines in the Lebanon in 1983, are said to have been detected by Mossad in advance, and then allowed to happen in order to stoke up American hostility to Hezbollah’s Arab patrons.

Many other examples could be cited. Basic mistakes about those cases whose facts are known do not encourage confidence in the author’s other revelations. And if Mossad was even half as skilful and all-knowing as Thomas suggests, Israel’s military and political problems in the Middle East would surely have been solved long ago.


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