With an annual budget of about $3bn and 7,000 staff, Mossad is the second-largest espionage agency in the Western world after the CIA. That makes the person chosen to be the head of Mossad very, very powerful.
David 'Dadi' Barnea took over from Yossi Cohen in June 2021. The selection of new Mossad’s chief is a closely held secret known to a select few in the Israeli prime minister’s office, the agency and the Civil Service Advisory Committee whose members approve the PM’s appointment - even the cabinet and parliament aren’t involved.
Traditionally, the identity of Mossad's head was not made public, but that changed in 1996 with the appointment of Major General Danny Yatom, former deputy commander of the Israel Defence Forces. Mossad now tends to release the new head’s name after their confirmation or at the start of the five-year term.
While all 13 of Mossad’s spymasters have been men, the agency has modernized in recent decades. It has a relatively welcoming website and maintains a Facebook page to help with recruiting. Mossad's profile has received a huge boost with the huge success of several Israeli thrillers on streaming services including the acclaimed Fauda, The Spy, Tehran, and False Flag.
So how is Mossad’s chief selected and how does the agency operate?
Spymasters generally come from one of two backgrounds. Of the 12 directors who served before Barnea, seven were career officers in the secret service and five were ex-Army - not surprisingly a few mixed both careers.
Barnea enlisted in the IDF in 1983 and served as a combat soldier in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He also studied at the New York Institute of Technology and obtained an MBA from Pace University before working at an Israeli investment bank.
Barnea's predecessor, Yosef ‘Yossi’ Cohen, was drafted into the IDF in 1979, volunteered as a paratrooper, served as a squad leader, then rose through the secret service ranks where he was in charge of case officers. He also worked as the deputy head of Mossad, and as Israel’s national security advisor, before taking over Mossad in January 2016.
The head of Mossad is expected to serve for five years, but that isn’t always the case. Meir Dagan, Mossad’s 10th director, served from 2002–2011 and Israel’s prime minister extended Cohen’s term by six months.
Previous chiefs have been in the post for fewer years. Danny Yatom headed Mossad from 1996 to 1998 but resigned after a bungled attack on a Palestinian militant in Jordan in 1997. Mossad agents allegedly tried to assassinate Khaled Mash'al by injecting poison into his ear. They'd used forged Canadian passports as their cover, triggering a diplomatic crisis.
Mossad’s chiefs don’t give much away but clues to their personality types can be gleaned from their missions.
Cohen, suspected of being behind the daylight assassination of Iran’s nuclear weapons chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020, has been described as a risk-taker by the Jerusalem Post. Under his influence, Mossad increased its budget and staff, and all but replaced the Foreign Ministry in strategic relations with the Sunni Arab world, the Times of Israel said.
Cohen’s predecessor, Tamir Pardo (2011-2016), is often painted as more conservative, focusing on intelligence-gathering and staying out of the limelight. But German news outlet Spiegel Online’s sources linked him to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Darioush Rezaei, who was shot in the throat by two attackers on a motorbike.
Dagan (2002-2011), a decorated general, spymaster and critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was described as a 'daring commander'. President Reuven Rivlin hailed Dagan as a 'man of counsel, a man of wisdom, a loving man and a man beloved in his roughness, a leader and a man of the people'.
The retired military general, who died in 2016, served in the Six Day War, Yom Kippur War and First Lebanon War. He also reportedly carried out operations abroad including the assassination of Hamas and Hezbollah operatives in Dubai and Damascus.
Established by Israel’s founder and first prime minister David Ben Gurion, the agency’s foundation in the 1940s was with a remit that included rescuing Jews and attacking Arab rioters, according to Mossad’s website.
It was initially subordinate to the Defense Ministry and operated under the Foreign Ministry as part of the State Department with two arms: collection, mostly in Europe, and analysis, which operated in the Foreign Ministry HQ in Tel Aviv.
Mossad in the movies
Since its inception, Mossad has conducted special operations, many depicted in film and television including the pursuit of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann in Operation Finale.
Operation Wrath of God was a covert operation to assassinate individuals involved in the 1972 Munich massacre that killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. Steven Spielberg examined the operation in his film Munich (2005).
Mossad has also exfiltrated persecuted Jews from Ethiopia, depicted in the spy thriller The Red Sea Diving Resort. You can hear Gad Shimron, the key Mossad operative from this operation, describe it in his own words in True Spies: Operation Brothers.