The Spying Game, Episode 6: Double Agents in the Middle East
JODHI MAY: Double Agents in the Middle East.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: We are all spies. When somebody goes to the office and leaves his wife or his husband and his family at home and goes to work, he puts on a mask. He becomes somebody else. He's not the same person that he is at home.
GAD SHIMRON: I had a permit from the government, from a sovereign government, to be a criminal.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: They sit him down in the chair and I start the interview and he starts crying. They never laughed at me again after that.
GAD SHIMRON: Forget James Bond. James Bond has nothing to do with the real world. In 90 minutes, he solves everything. Spying is mostly waiting. I've been interrogated. I've been shot at. There were shaky moments in this. But it's all gone. They say, “Yesterday's history, tomorrow is a mystery.” That's why today's called the ‘present’. So let's enjoy the present.
RORY BREMNER: Now, if you think of exfiltration missions, you're likely to think of clandestine meetings, false passports, smuggling agents, or captives over the border at night. But today, I'm joined by a man who decided to do things on a much grander scale. Gad Shimron. You had, on the face of it, a relatively simple mission. All you had to do was smuggle thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of refugee camps in Sudan and take them hundreds of miles across a hostile Arab country to the Red Sea coast, where Israeli ships would take them to safety. What could possibly go wrong?
GAD SHIMRON: Everything. Murphy’s Law - in the ‘80s - was Sudan’s law. If anything had to go wrong, it would, as Sudan at the time was the biggest country in Africa. It was a hostile enemy country for Israel. Of course, we couldn't go in with Israeli passports. The reason we went down to Sudan was that the Ethiopian Jews were separated from Judaism for thousands of years. They couldn't do it from Ethiopia because of the civil war that was going on there at the time. And therefore, they crossed the border to Sudan and from there they asked to be rescued. The problem was that they ran to an enemy country and we had to find some kind of a cover story to operate in a hostile country and smuggle thousands of people to a safe haven.
RORY BREMNER: So nearly 50 years ago, you were recruited. Did you have any ambition to be an agent? Were you interested in a spying game?
GAD SHIMRON: I'm a great believer in chances in life. I was a student in Jerusalem. One day somebody knocked on the door of my student apartment. It was somebody I knew very vaguely. His wife was from the same neighborhood where I grew up and he started asking questions. And very soon I understood who he was working for. And actually, I was willing to do it because at the same time it was after the Yom Kippur War, which my generation went through and suffered a lot. We had many friends killed. We were a little bit disillusioned. I was a student. I was working at Israeli radio and I was looking for any option. And one of the options was going into the Foreign Office. So I went to ask a friend of my late father, who was one of the chiefs of the Foreign Office, and he said: "Don't come here. Snakes are walking here in the corridors. If you want to do something for the country, go to the Army. Go to the Mossad. Go to Shin Bet - which is the Israeli MI5.” And so, after a very long process of starting with 1,500 candidates - which were taken down to 100 candidates - in the end, there were 15 in the course. And, after more than a year of very hard training, at the end of the course, there were more instructors around the table than graduates. There were only six who graduated from this course, and that's how I found myself in the Mossad by chance.
RORY BREMNER: Also joining us on this edition of The Spying Game, I'm delighted to welcome a producer, writer, and director whose films have earned him two Israeli Academy Awards and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. He's made documentaries for the likes of Netflix and the BBC with luminaries including Simon Sheen and Leonardo DiCaprio. Welcome to Nadav Schirman. Are you feeling left out? Did you want to be a spy, really?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: No, I think as a kid, I was fascinated by James Bond, by the lifestyle more than anything. And I grew up all over the world, basically, because my father was a diplomat so he schlepped us around. There was always an international crowd around. So I guess I was fascinated. And the first film that I made was about a Mossad agent called Wolfgang Lotz, who started a horse farm in Cairo and pretended to be a millionaire, a horse breeder. He was spying on the German scientists who were developing missiles but he got addicted to his covert identity as a millionaire. And the most fascinating aspect of that story, for me, was that on the surface, he was a real-life James Bond. He lived a high life and had an unlimited expense account. And I wanted to see what it was really like because he had written a book about his life, as many Mossad agents do afterward, and he portrayed himself as a real-life James Bond. And I started digging around. I met his son, actually. And through his son, I started getting intrigued. What is it really like? How much do you tell your family? How much do you tell your wife? How much did you tell your friends? How difficult it is to go back to a normal life? Because you're not always James Bond. You go for a few years back then and come back. And that fascinated me, coming back to real life.
RORY BREMNER: He never really did, did he? So he went back to Israel. But the family that he left, he never went back to the family.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: While on his mission, he married another woman without revealing who he was. And he lived a real double life. So he had his family, his Israeli wife, and son waiting for him in Paris and worrying about him, while he would go back to his second wife that he had married. Now, Mossad knew about it and they had to keep it secret. So it became a whole personal drama and the approach to that film was through the eyes of the son because what was extraordinary was they moved to Paris and the son didn't know what his father was doing exactly. And he would go on for an extended period of time to Egypt. And then one day the father told the son, “Listen, I'm a Mossad agent, but you cannot talk about it to anyone because my life depends on it.” He wanted his son to be proud of him and he gave his son a camera, actually - an 8-millimeter camera - and the son recorded his father's visits to Paris. So the father would come to Paris from Cairo every six or eight months to report because that's how you would report back then. And so the son recorded his father's visits and he showed me the footage, this 8-millimeter footage. And for me, what was extraordinary is that you could see in the footage how the father was succumbing to his covert identity. The first visit was in the park and the father was walking together with the mother. On the second visit, the father is wearing sunglasses and a hat, and he's walking a few steps away. On the next visit, the father always had his back turned. And you feel, you see in the footage, that he's not part of that family anymore. That became fascinating. That became: What is the personal cost of being a spy?
RORY BREMNER: You spent extensive time working with spies in your career. You must encounter them a lot in your research. What's that relationship like? I mean, do they welcome you or do they run a mile?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: In your introduction, you said that you were a professional liar. And what's interesting about the spies that I met - spies and terrorists actually, and handlers and agents and so on - is that they're all professional liars, but they want to talk. They want to tell their story because they do extraordinary things which are not known. I guess, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ You want to be heard. You want to be heard of.
So they agreed to participate in my films. And because they are professional liars, my job is to help them get to - and I'm not interested in the facts, I'm interested in the emotional truth, in the emotional core of their story. So, for example, in the Green Prince, I had to interview a handler and his source, both of them, their lives and livelihoods depended on them being able to lie at the highest level, the most convincing level. And yet, I have to get them to tell a real story, a true story and truth resonates. So, I'm always going for the emotional core of the story and I think what was interesting is that Gonen Ben Itzhak was the handler of the Green Prince, he told me after the first day of interviews. He says, “Nadav, this is the first time in my life where I feel like I've been handled.” And then you realize that a film director is not so much different than the handler, because our role is to get people, actors, or protagonists to connect to the emotional core, to the emotional truth, and to handle them to do things that they would normally not want to do.
GAD SHIMRON: They say Israel is a very small country. And Nadav, funny enough, Oded - the son of the spy from Cairo - and I went to the same school. We are from the same neighborhood and Gonen, the handler of the Green Prince, I also know.
RORY BREMNER: Heavens. So this is Oded, his father, Wolfgang Lotz. He's The Champagne Spy who opposes a German working in Cairo looking into the…
GAD SHIMRON: The missiles, the missile program of the ‘60s.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: He was born Wolfgang Lodz, and he emigrated to Israel and changed his name to Ze'ev Gur-Arie. But he wasn't circumcised because his father was not Jewish. His mother was an actress, a Jewish actress in Berlin. His father was a theater director. The Nazis came to power. His father hangs himself. His mother takes him to Palestine, at the time, and puts him in a boarding school. Everybody's laughing at him because it's the mid-40s and he's blond, blue-eyed, not circumcised. And they call him ‘Kraut’, they called him ‘German’, and he was miserable. Nobody trusted him. And, lo and behold, like, the only way that he could really serve his country was to become that German.
RORY BREMNER: Extraordinary. Okay. So, Ze'ev Gur-Arie, Wolfgang Lotz, he was taken over by the character. He fancied himself as a James Bond. How do you train somebody to be a spy?
GAD SHIMRON: You take somebody with two basic characteristics. One, you have to be a very honest and truthful man. I mean, this is number one in spying, honesty, because very often you work alone. And if you do something and you come back and you report something you haven't done, the whole operation is gone, you know? So this is one thing, reliability point one. Then if you are a reliable person, then they look for other things, like the way you improvise, the way you handle pressure. The way you are able to make contact with somebody. Things that actually can be taught. It's not that difficult.
I'll give you a very simple example of what training was about. We would go to the central square of Tel Aviv within the structure and he would point to a veranda in one of the buildings surrounding the square. And he would tell me: “Okay, you have now 15 minutes to prepare a cover story. I want to see you in 15 minutes, standing on this veranda with the owner of the apartment and a glass of water in your hand.” Now, when you think of it, for a normal person, it sounds impossible. What are we talking about? Once you are trained, once you understand how people react, it's basic psychology. Also, you come up with a cover story. In this case, for example, I came to this apartment and knocked on the door. I said, “I am the representative of a production company and we want to make a film. We need a place to put the camera for a wide-scope scene of the square. We want to put the camera on your veranda. Of course, we’ll pay for it - because bulls*** talks, money works - we will come, maybe tomorrow, with the camera and take a shot and see. And. Oh, by the way, it's very hot today. May I have a glass of water?” And bingo.
RORY BREMNER: So, God, you were, in a sense, a willing recruit. But if we come to your, perhaps, most celebrated documentary - the Green Prince - the man who Mossad managed to recruit to infiltrate Hamas. This was a Palestinian recruited to work for the Israelis, not just any Palestinian either. I mean, tell us about who the Green Prince was.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: His father was one of the seven founders of Hamas. So he was groomed to be possibly one of the next leaders.
RORY BREMNER: And he was working for the Israelis.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: He was brilliantly recruited because one thing that they do really well is to be able to detect what they call, in Hebrew, it's called your ‘scar’. Each one of us has a weakness. Each one of us wants something that we cannot get. It's a psychological one. We want to be admired. We want to be loved. We want the love of [our] father. We want material success. And they are masters at detecting that scar and convincing you that you are doing it for the benefit of your own people.
RORY BREMNER: So what was Mosab [Hassan Yousef’s] scar?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: Mosab's father was such a powerful figure. He was like an oak tree, and nothing grows under an oak tree. So that is one side of it. But humans are multifaceted. During filming, we uncovered another story that could also have had an impact on his decision. He was sexually abused as a child by an uncle. And he didn't feel protected by his family. The family just swept it aside. It's something that happens often in that society, I guess. And no justice, in his eyes, was given to that act. He felt betrayed, maybe on a very deep level. So that could have also played a role. But he's an extremely intelligent young man. He grew up in a fundamentalist Muslim world. And they exposed him to Greek thinkers, French thinkers, British philosophers, art, and paintings. They gave him a sense that there was a whole world of influence, and they started to influence it, by thinking. Listen, in his eyes, he wasn't betraying his family. He was doing the right thing, okay? And of course, there are perks. You're working for the empire. you can move freely. It gives you power. You have money for things that other people don't. And he was recruited as a very young man, as a late teenager almost. So it gives you a sense of power also. So all those things. Humans are complex, but the Shin Bet is very good at identifying what makes you tick, and what you want, and feeding into that.
RORY BREMNER: What's striking about the Green Prince as well is the footage. There's so much security footage and CCTV footage. I mean, going around, running around Ramallah and these places. And I wonder if you are a fan of Fauda in that there's a series set there. This is a very complicated, dark world.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: One of the makers of Fauda, Avi Issacharoff, was very instrumental in the making of the Green Prince because he was a journalist himself, and he was a journalist who was covering Palestinian issues for whichever media he was working for at the time. And he developed a long-standing relationship with Sheik Hassan Yousef, Mustafa's father, and Mosab, who he knew as a helper, as the right-hand man of his father. So he communicated with them while Mosab was an operative. And when Mosab came out and broke his story, I think he called Avi. Avi, one of the creators of Fauda, was the first one to get a call from Mosab to expose the story.
RORY BREMNER: Mosab manages to make his way to America, and he wants to stay in America. He's ostracized by his family, obviously, because it's the worst thing that you can do. And so, there he is in America. But the Americans see he has a record of gunrunning in his past and they're about to deport him. And what comes back from Shin Bet? Silence. It's almost like he's disowned after all that he's done - betraying his father if you like. They disowned him. And it was only when Gonen himself, the handler, intervened and said, 'Look, this man worked for us for 10 years in the most dangerous of circumstances' that things happened behind the scenes.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: He was given permission to stay because he became a person without a nation. There are people like that who lose their citizenship. You're a citizen of no country. And most were like that. And when you don't have a passport, when you don't have identity papers, you're very vulnerable. And he would have been sent back to Palestine, which was a death sentence.
RORY BREMNER: Do you feel a responsibility as well after that, as a filmmaker, for his safety?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: Tremendous. Yes. I made three documentary films and all three of them are about spies and terrorists. And all three of them have taken their protagonists 180 degrees. And you feel a tremendous responsibility. Luckily with The Green Prince, the film was extremely well received in Israel. I think it was made compulsory viewing inside the Shin Bet, and it changed the attitude of the organization towards Mosab and towards Gonen, who was persona non grata. And then he became more accepted. He's very active today, actually, in politics. So the film itself had an impact on their lives.
RORY BREMNER: You're currently working, I know, with Roberto Saviano on a Gad Hafi project and he made a film called The Gomorrah about Naples.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: And when I went to meet Roberto for the first time, he was living outside of Italy because there was a death sentence from the Gomorrah on him. So he was living outside and I had to travel across the world to sit and work with him. There are a number of journalists in Italy also who are being protected by police.
GAD SHIMRON: May I say something about the case of the Green Prince? They say that the Israeli intelligence, one of the good sides of the Israeli intelligence, is its ability to recruit agents, what we call HUMINT, human intelligence. Unlike the Americans who work like an electronic vacuum cleaner - they drop everything in the world they hear, I mean, very often they don't even have time to analyze what their ears all over the world have recorded. And one of the reasons that HUMINT is so important, let's say there is a phone conversation between two Syrian generals and one is telling the other: “Okay, tomorrow we are going to screw General Hamid.” Now, if you’ve got it from a recording, you don't know what they are talking about? But if you have a human source, let's say the driver of one of those generals is an Israeli agent, and the Israeli handler comes up to him and asks him: “Okay, what do they mean when they say, ‘Let's go and screw up General Hamid,’ what are they talking about?” And he’ll say, “Oh, it's nothing, it's a poker game tomorrow night.” Do you see? So this is the difference. This is really the clear edge of Israeli intelligence. It is the ability to get the human story behind everything. And I think that the Green Prince is a very good example of that.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: I was amazed, Gad. I met at a party - a couple of years back - I met an American gentleman here in Germany who was working for a private intelligence company, for an intelligence firm. And I'm like, “How does that work?” He's like, “Well we outsource our intelligence - information that we gather from different sources - and we send it back home to be filtered.” And I'm like, “But you're in Germany with sources.” And “We have sources all over the Middle East.” Like, “What sources? How do you [do it]?” And the guy's more like an executive, I guess. And he ends up telling me that they are basically paying agents in other security companies across the globe for information, things that they're interested in that they do as a gig, as a side gig, they get paid. They collect all the information and it seems to be the most useless information that you can get. You paid for it. It comes from an agent from another country. And you send it back home to somebody who has no relationship whatsoever to that source country and cannot interpret it. And it gets put into that mess. That's why Palantir then came in and, I guess, invented new software and has probably other software out there which are helping them make sense of it. But as you say, without the human aspect, it's senseless. It seems like a massive waste of taxpayers' money. But hey.
GAD SHIMRON: They say in Arabic, ‘there is no custom on words’. You can say whatever you want. I know a very famous anecdote with the former German Chancellor [Helmut] Schmidt, who didn't believe in intelligence organizations and the BND [Bundesnachrichtendienst], which is the German MI5 because it's true at the time they were there - we are talking about the Cold War - they were doing very badly. And they said that every morning when he had his meeting with the chiefs of intelligence, he would look at them, say, “What can you tell me that I haven't read already in the morning newspapers?” A very famous Russian Soviet spy during the Second World War, they were in Switzerland and they gathered information from local German newspapers because in those local German newspapers at the time, whenever somebody from the village or the town fell on the Russian front or somewhere else, there was an announcement in the newspaper - families sadly announcing the death of Lieutenant So-and-So, and so on, from the second division. They gathered all this in about half a year. They managed to map the structure of the whole German Army. Sometimes information is there. It's only just to process it, analyze it, and you have great stories even today. I think a lot of information about big intelligence organizations is coming from open sources. I believe 80 percent if you ask me.
RORY BREMNER: Let's talk about your greatest achievement. You mentioned earlier on, secret services are supposed to operate on a small scale in the background underground. But your story famously features, surely, the only example of an actual holiday resort being opened by the security services. So we could do a whole episode on this. In fact, our sister podcast, True Spies, talked about this, but this is… what? The early 1980s? You had this tribe of Ethiopian Jews. They're fleeing civil war, famine, and persecution in Ethiopia. And now thousands of them are trapped in refugee camps in Sudan. How did you come to hear about them?
GAD SHIMRON: There was a very courageous Ethiopian Jew by the name of Farida. He fled from Ethiopia to Khartoum. And from Khartoum, he managed to send an SOS postcard, actually, to Europe, and from Europe, it was conveyed to Jerusalem. And then the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, the new prime minister, we are talking about the elections of ‘77, he called the chief of the Mossad and told him, “Look, we got an SOS cry from Jews in Africa. Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia.” And, therefore, they started the whole operation. I am not going into details because for this we need the whole night. But, in the end, the guy who was sent down is very courageous, he located an abandoned Italian diving resort on the Red Sea, about 40 kilometers north of the main harbor of Sudan, Port Sudan. It was abandoned because it was impossible to run. There was no running water, no electricity, and no road leading to it. And he just started working with the Sudanese government. We leased it for $300,000 with the big promise of putting Sudan on the map for international diving adventures. And as I said before all “Bulls*** talks. Money works.” It helped. And it was a perfect cover story because it enabled us to move around Sudan. And Sudan at the time was a third-world country. There was one road leading from Khartoum, one road in the whole country. There was one paved road from Khartoum leading to the Red Sea, something like 800 miles long, no gasoline station, no garage, no hotels, nothing. But anyhow, we had this cover story and slowly we built it up as a cover story. And after a while, it started making money, which is a big problem for an intelligence organization. I mean, all the cover stories in the history of the Mossad lost money. By tradition, they lose money. And this one started making money because it became the hot spot for ex-pats in Sudan to be in.
RORY BREMNER: It was wonderful. I've seen the brochure. I mean, this was just a perfect cover because you could drive trucks around. You'd be delivering equipment and you had the boats as well. You could take them out to ships in the Red Sea, take them to the coast and take them back to Israel. I mean, it's genius.
GAD SHIMRON: It was Danny Limor. That's his name, he deserves all of the credit for that. It was a great idea and it worked very well. And by the way, not only the Marina operations. After a while, we had a shoot-up with the police and the Army, and some of us were arrested. We moved to aerial operations. We landed in the middle of the desert. We landed Israeli Air Force cargo planes and direct flights from the desert to Israel. One night, we were the busiest airport in Sudan because we landed three Israeli Air Force planes, one after the other in the middle of the desert. I have done many operations in my life, and I must admit most of them I don't remember anything anymore. It's like one big mushroom soup. But in this operation, I remember every minute of it because it really was a unique operation in the history of intelligence organizations. There's a rule in the Mossad. It says ‘no target is impossible to get’. What you need are good intelligence resources and good documentation. And then you can get almost everything.
RORY BREMNER: You were interrogated, weren't you, at one stage and the mission was at risk? And you came up with a story about reading a book about birds.
GAD SHIMRON: Improvisation. There's a saying in Hebrew… the difference between getting a medal and being demoted to private. I had a lot of luck. It's true. We were stopped on the way to the job because of some blunder from headquarters. They gave us the wrong orders and we were arrested. And I'd been taken for interrogation and I was lucky, first of all, because they didn't know that I speak Arabic. And the two interrogators were consulting between themselves about what to ask me. And I knew already what question was coming up. Of course, I played the European idiot. “What am I doing here? I mean, I'm working for the Sudanese government. I'm building a diving holiday resort. Why are you asking me these questions?” I also had a very good cover story and after a few hours of interrogation - by the way, I wasn't tortured or anything, it was a very professional interrogation - I must say. I know what interrogation is. And, after a few hours under interrogation when they ran out of questions, they asked me: "Why did you come to Sudan? What do you do here?" And I said: “Oh, and then [I recalled] a book I read a few years ago written by a Sudanese author, called The Migration of the Birds to the North.” Or something like this. And I saw the colonel smiling and he asked me: "Do you know who wrote it?" And I told him the name. And he smiled and said: "My cousin." This was the end of the interrogation, okay? Now, this is a sheer point of luck. Napoleon, there's a story that his generals were very, very unhappy with one of his generals promoted to marshal. And they said: “He's an idiot. He has nothing but luck. And Napoleon said: “I love lucky generals.”
RORY BREMNER: So there we are. You see, spies [utilize] patience, total honesty, improvisation, and luck. That's the big thing, isn't it? Nadav, you see these people all the time and you incorporate them into your stories. Do you find common characteristics?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: Yes, actually, I do. First of all, being a handler, which is a very specific form of the agent, is very similar to being a film director as we spoke about. It's about finding the weakness, the psychological need of the subject, and playing on that and getting them to do things and pushing them into a corner and getting them to do things. You're ultimately giving them what they want. When you work with an actor, the actor wants to be successful as an actor, but in order to do so, they have to expose themselves. They have to maybe go to very uncomfortable aspects of their personality. But that is, funnily enough, or ironically, is going to get them what they want. So, as a director, yes, my job is to create an environment that allows for happy accidents. Okay. So luck. God speaks about luck. It's not luck. It's the whole creation of him as an operative that prepared him for that moment. So, he's not lucky. He's prepared. And he was able to pull that thing off. It's almost mystical that one thing. [The book] happened to [have been written by] the cousin of the guy who interrogated him. And in cinema, it was Orson Welles who said our job as directors is to create, to orchestrate happy accidents. One thing which I find extraordinary about Mossad, which separates it from all other intelligence agencies, is its ability to do mise en scene (staging). Mise en scene is to - how do you say - to make-believe, to direct it. They make movies, they create a reality that is bigger than Hollywood sets and Hollywood movies. And so God has the story of the Red Sea Diving Resort. There are many other stories just for the sake, sometimes, of recruiting a person. They build a police station or they build things and everybody becomes an actor. And it's like making cinema.
GAD SHIMRON: I have a theory about why spying is so popular with the general public. I think you can find it in the opening of the Old Testament when God created the sky and Earth. And then at the end of this sentence said, 'There shall be light.' Right? The spying world is in the darkness. And I think this is one of the reasons why people like spying because they take a nerd like me and after a year make him a thief. I had a permit from the government, from a sovereign government, to be a criminal on its behalf. And this is one of the reasons why spying is so popular. I must tell you something about intelligence communities, and I've struck a very friendly relationship with Markus Wolf. He was the chief of the East German foreign intelligence service. They say that the John le Carré type is based on Markus Wolf. He penetrated West Germany like Swiss cheese. I met him later in the ‘90s when I was a journalist in Germany and we struck up a very interesting relationship. And he told me once: “Gad, it's my firm belief if they take today all their organizations - the intelligence organizations in the world - and they cut the budget by 80 percent, and fire 80 percent of the agents, the result would be the same. Actually, there's a lot to do about nothing.” In a way, they are building a fire and making it bigger and bigger and bigger by themselves. And if you look into history, how many stories are there of perfect intelligence given to the decision-makers who've done nothing with it. [Markus’ belief], “Cut them by 80% and nobody will see the difference.” I disagree, but there is a point.
RORY BREMNER: You've got to know which 80 percent to cut.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: If you cut the Americans by 80 percent, you're still in the trillions.
RORY BREMNER: The American budget. So it's a £600 billion ($750 billion) defense budget. It's unbelievable.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: But it's crazy. After 911, they were so shocked that they threw money at it and they created 112 different agencies whose job was to gather information and funnel that information back. But they're all competing with each other and they're not sharing the information. So then came all the software, plug-ins, etc. but what a waste.
RORY BREMNER: We did a documentary about the time of the Iraq war, and I think we worked out that if you'd spent $26 billion every day since the birth of Christ [you’d] still spent less than the Americans had since the end of the Second World War. Yeah, it's just phenomenal.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: I know mercenaries who made a fortune in Iraq just delivering Coke cans to the American troops - $5 a can.
RORY BREMNER: Have you ever been in fear of your life?
GAD SHIMRON: Rory, if I would have told you how many times… Of course, anybody going into this profession who tells you he is not afraid, he's lying. And I think also, somebody who is fearless is very dangerous to himself and to the organization. Yes, you should be afraid, but you should be able to control your feelings. This is a difference, I think, between the professional and nonprofessional.
RORY BREMNER: So what was the closest you came?
GAD SHIMRON: Oh, I've been interrogated. I've been shot at. I've run through roofs because the guardsman came at the wrong time. There were shaky moments in this. But it's all gone. They say: “Yesterday's history. Tomorrow is a mystery. That's why today's called the present. So let's enjoy the present.”
RORY BREMNER: We talked about the discipline that you need to keep those lives apart. There's another book that you wrote about The Execution of the Hangman of Riga. Tell us a little bit about it. He was a Nazi war criminal, wasn't he? Herberts Cukurs, who had fled to Brazil.
GAD SHIMRON: Yes. His real name is Yaakov Meidad. At the time we wrote the book, we had to cover his real name. But today we can reveal it because he passed away six years ago... At his funeral, the former chief of the Mossad, Efraim Halevy, said that this guy, Yaakov Meidad - Meio, was his nickname - held the unofficial record of Mossad false identities. He had over 160 different cover stories in his long career. Among other things, he was a member of the team that kidnaped Adolf Eichmann in 1960 from Argentina. He was also there. I mean, he looked the opposite of James Bond. He was short. He had a small belly. He used to pass his fingers over his bald head and his belly and say, “This is my cover story.” And the truth is that in 1964 he was given the mission of getting close to Herberts Cukurs who was a Latvian Nazi criminal, unlike Eichmann. Eichmann was a desk criminal. Eichmann didn't kill anybody during the war. He gave orders to kill millions of people. This guy Cukurs - by his own hands - he killed over 30,000 Jews of Riga in 1941. It was a local SS man, and he ran away after the war to Brazil. He didn't hide his identity, by the way. And the reason that it was decided to try to go after him - and here I'm going to break a myth. There is a myth that Israel was running after Nazi criminals. It's not true. There were no resources. The Mossad at the time was very small. There were more urgent missions to do so there was not one single Nazi except Cukurs who had an untimely death by the Mossad. He's the only case. It was decided to go after him because at the time in Europe - we are talking about 1964, ‘65, 20 years after the end of the Second World War - they were talking in Europe of making an end to all the persecution of Nazis. And in Israel, it was decided, no, we should make some kind of an uproar.
RORY BREMNER: How do you decide, Nadav, whether to go documentary or whether to make it a feature film? A movie?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: Real-life stories are always much stronger than fiction. So, if I were to tell you that an unhappy television presenter, heir of a real estate empire with the help of a KGB, became the president of the United States 15 years ago, you would have said: “Get out of here.” In my first film, The Champagne Spy, he wrote a fictional account of his life and the way he saw himself. And he got me. I wanted to make a fictional movie about himself, and only when I met Oded, his son, and when Oded told me his version of the story, and I started understanding the complexities, that it came alive. And that was a documentary, no doubt. And for me, documentary or fiction, they're the same as storytelling. We're storytellers, writers or podcasters, or whatever. We're storytellers. So what is the best way to tell the story? What is the story that I want to tell on a very deep emotional level? And what is the best way to tell the story? Is the best way to tell the story. Using the real character, is he still alive? I mean, Waltz with Bashir did an extraordinary job telling his own story using animation so, the documentary is a very plastic art. You can use so many different things. You can use interviews and real-life footage and dance and animation and you can do so many things. You're free. It’s freedom. Fiction is much more restrictive, right? And it's made for a different kind of audience if you want. So it's really what is the story that I want to tell and what is the best way to tell it? The number one rule is: “Don't be boring.” You're making a film for an audience. I didn't really go to film school so Billy Wilder was my film school, and I was grabbed by him by the throat and he never let go. And then… they love you forever and that's it. Don't be boring. So listen, as I said facts can be embellished and facts don't really matter in my films as much as the emotional truth. Emotional truth resonates right? So did he go here or did he go there? Did this happen before this? Who cares? What really matters is the emotional journey of the protagonist and the protagonist in my documentary films really undergo emotional journeys. So that is true. That is real. And does it resonate beyond just the story of the film? So the Green Prince is the story of the best of enemies. Two people who decided to go against their own systems, Gonen went against the Shin Bet, Mosab went against Hamas and they became dependent on each other. It was the story of a relationship. So it's a bigger story than just the spy story, right?
Or The Champagne Spy is a story about a father and a son. And that resonates way beyond. Gad was saying, “Why are people fascinated with spy stories?” And he was saying it's because of the darkness. I think that what's fascinating about spy stories… the ability to become somebody else. And we are all spies. When somebody goes to the office and leaves his wife or his husband and his family at home and goes to work, he puts on a mask. He becomes somebody else. He's not the same person that he's at home. So he's, in effect, playing another role. And that's why we love it because we love to be other people. We want to be other people. We want to portray ourselves in different ways. And I think that's why we're fascinated with spies.
RORY BREMNER: Gad, do you watch a lot of this stuff? Do you watch a lot of spy fiction or documentaries, and do you sit and watch some of them and go: “Oh this is just not believable?”
GAD SHIMRON: Well, you mentioned Fauda before, this Israeli TV series. There was also an American series called The Americans. But in general, Hollywood has the right to take a story and make a film out of it. There are very, very few books and movies that are getting close to the real thing. I think John le Carré, he really portrayed the intelligence world in a way that is almost true.
RORY BREMNER: Well, Red Sea Diving Resort. I mean, you've had a film about what you did. Have you seen that one?
GAD SHIMRON: I can tell you that it was shown to a group of about 20 members of the team, and we were given a special show of the movie when it came out. And at the end, we booed it. The producer and the director have the right, of course, to make a movie out of it. But what really made us unhappy is the fact that they downgraded the heroism of the Ethiopian Jews, who - we being there - we really knew they are the real heroes, not the Mossad people and not the Air Force.
RORY BREMNER: Nadav, have you ever had a film where the preview audience booed?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: No, I had the opposite effect. I mean, I was really surprised when I did my first film, The Champagne Spy, which was the story of Wolfgang Lotz and the story of the family. But it was ultimately about: What lies beneath? What is the personal cost of espionage? How much, you know?... And we were invited to show the film in a closed room, and maybe Gad was there, but the audience of about 400 people were all intelligence operatives and their spouses. And after that, I was sitting on a panel with a former operative who had been captured and had to come back to normal life. There was a Mossad psychologist, or an intelligence branch psychologist, who was talking about all these things, and they used the film as a trigger in that forum to discuss these things. And that's why I felt really privileged when we came back from filming The Champagne Spy.
It was the first film that I'd ever done, and I was approaching it on a very instinctive level because I wanted to tell the story. My crew was laughing at me because I was, all the time, reading about how to make a documentary film as I was making the movie and they were laughing at me. But I approached it very instinctively and to connect to one of Gad's earlier anecdotes, I wanted to rent the apartment where he lived in Paris when he was spying. Find an apartment, rent it - whatever it takes - kick the people out. I put a camera there. And they did. They found it and we brought Oded back, the son of the spy, 40 years later.
And I said, “Don't tell him anything. Just drop him at the end of the street from the airport. Drop him there, let's see what happens.” And we were there with the camera in the apartment where he lived as a kid, and you see him coming out of the taxi and you recognize the street where you lived as a kid, and you start walking like a ghost towards that apartment where the whole story happened. And he goes up the stairs and he's so full of emotions. And I sit him down in the chair and I start to interview and he starts crying. They never laughed at me again after that, the crew. So I didn't plan it. You do it. It's instinctive. And you create the circumstance for people to tell their story.
RORY BREMNER: We have to wrap up. I could talk forever, but your next projects. Nadav, German Moon?
NADAV SCHIRMAN: Well there are a few things, I think. There's a fictional series based on one aspect of The Champagne Spy in the works. There's Ghadafi, which we're excited about. German Moon is also in the works. There are a few projects.
RORY BREMNER: Gad, what's next for you?
GAD SHIMRON: Well, I wrote a book based on a true story, a German Waffen SS soldier who, after the Second World War, looked around, and decided the best place to hide away is in Palestine among the Jews. And he took up a Jewish name and came up to Palestine, to Israel as an illegal immigrant. He fought in the War of Independence and was a very good soldier - he became an officer in the Israeli Army. Yaakov Meidad, the guy who went to Brazil to get up the Nazis, was his commander in the Israeli Army. It's called, in English, Fatal DNA.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: Great name.
GAD SHIMRON: I took the real story.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: You've just given me the rights, yeah?
GAD SHIMRON: I took the real story. And I made a fiction story out of it.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: Fascinating.
GAD SHIMRON: Because the funny thing is, he came back. He was kicked out of the Army because of improper conduct. And he went back to Europe and he came back to Israel as an Egyptian, an Iraqi spy under a third identity. It's an unbelievable story.
RORY BREMNER: I can't tell you how fast Nadav is writing all this stuff. So, look, here's what happened. We've introduced you now. We've got the documentary maker. We've got the former operative who has got so many stories to tell. I think you guys, we just put you together. You keep making the films and just give us a share of the royalties. But it's been a joy. Thank you so, so much. I look forward to your new films Nadav, of course, and Gad you're going to be writing for the rest of your days. I don't know if I put you back into spy territory. Where's the biggest threat at the moment? Would you say China or is it Russia? Where's the next one coming from?
GAD SHIMRON: Space. Well, Nadav has already gotten there with the German scientists working on NASA.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: How do they send Mossad agents to space, like Mossad agents trying to infiltrate alien societies?
RORY BREMNER: They're already Nadav. Don't blow their cover, for heaven's sake. And so it takes a lot of work to get into those Martian suits.
JODI MAY: Next time on The Spying Game, Rory is joined by former US Secret Service special agent and Medal of Valor recipient Evy Poumpouras and Line of Duty and Bodyguard creator Jed Mercurio.
EVY POUMPOURAS: The number one thing to being a good reader is to stop thinking about yourself and really look at the human being across from you. And they're going to show you everything. And that's how you figure out motives, values, what they think, what they feel. And the best part, the number one thing I tell people is, "Shut up and let people talk."... I didn't know the tower was going to fall. Who would have thought that back then? But I think when you're in it and you see your fellow human beings dying, how can you leave?
RORY BREMNER: Did you send the first episode of Line of Duty to the Met?
JED MERCURIO: Yeah, that didn't go well, because in the opening sequence, an innocent man is shot in a counterterrorism operation. They were saying that was not something they would do.
EVY POUMPOURAS: I don't want to rely on anybody to take care of me - I take care of me. I guess rather than going in, being like, ‘Oh, I'm the only woman.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm the only woman.’
JODHI MAY: The Spying Game is available now wherever you get your podcasts. Or, you can listen to episodes a week early for free by subscribing to SPYSCAPE+ on Apple Podcasts.
SPYEX Consultant Gad Shimron (pictured) was born in Tel Aviv. During his long career he has worked as a journalist, military commentator, and as a Mossad spy stationed in Sudan. He helped smuggle persecuted Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the early 1980s but it was slow going - less than 10 people a week. Mossad was getting impatient. That's when Shimron and his colleagues developed a plan to ramp up the extractions.
Born in Israel, Nadav Schirman grew up in various parts of the world, moving with his diplomat father. After military service, he embarked on a career in filmmaking including The Champagne Spy, his debut feature as writer and director.
Top storytellers and spies break down what we see on screen, to separate the fact from the fiction. Hosted by Rory Bremner.