True Spies Episode 70: Operation Bullwinkle
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 70: Operation Bullwinkle.
RONEN BERGMAN: Then he tells me that in 1982, early 1983, the Israeli Minister of Defense, Ariel Sharon, ordered the Air Force to take out a commercial airline with hundreds of passengers on board above the ocean in order to kill Yasser Arafat. The chief of the Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO] was on board.
NARRATOR: This story begins in an ordinary commercial building, early in 2010. And it is ordinary - there’s no facade, no hidden depths. Welcome to the tasteful, well-appointed offices of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest book publisher. Today, the company’s editor-in-chief has a meeting penciled in with a best-selling author in their non-fiction stable. He’s also one of Israel’s best-known investigative journalists.
RONEN BERGMAN: My name is Ronen Bergman. I'm an Israeli journalist. I work for The New York Times and Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest daily.
NARRATOR: Ronen, like many journalists, has a pet subject.
RONEN BERGMAN: I have been writing on Israeli intelligence almost since I started writing.
NARRATOR: Now, the publisher calls on Ronen to write a book that only he can write.
RONEN BERGMAN: I was asked by Random House to write the secret history of the Mossad and its use of targeted assassination as the main weapon. I happily accepted.
NARRATOR: But this is no ordinary book. To write it, Ronen had to track down members of one of the world’s most effective secret services - the Mossad. More than that, he had to get them to talk.
RONEN BERGMAN: There is an active, I think two active military censors, that are able to screen, prepublication, anything that is published on any kind of topic related to national security. And until the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, it was forbidden to say the name or to acknowledge the existence of the Mossad.
NARRATOR: It’s a mission that tested the limits of Ronen’s resources as a journalist.
RONEN BERGMAN: I told Random House you can write in the contract it will take me a year.
NARRATOR: This timescale proved to be optimistic.
RONEN BERGMAN: They said: “Maybe we should write a year and a half so you will not be in breach of the contract.” I said: "Well, you can write whatever you like, it's still going to take me a year. I'm very, very precise and I know how long things take me to write.” And they said: "Okay." They did not comply with what I said. And they wrote [down] a year and a half. I came to speak with 1,000 interviewees. All of them spoke with no permission. All of them spoke with no guidance or restrictions from the intelligence community. And, after that, I was six years delayed.
NARRATOR: The book was published in 2018, under the title Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. But what’s in a name?
RONEN BERGMAN: One of the only people who were privy to read the millions of words of transcripts from all those 1,000 interviews that I have conducted... he said: “There is a sentence in the book, that is, a sentence in the transcripts, many of your different interviews keep on repeating. It is a quote from the Babylonian Talmud. Where they say, ‘Whoever comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.’” This sentence was used in those interviews, not in order to impress me with their knowledge of Jewish scripture. They wanted to explain their mindset when taking those responsibilities, when conducting those operations way beyond enemy lines including the use of ethically, and legally, and morally questionable weapons, like torture, like infiltrating databases, like targeted assassination. Is it legally and morally justified to kill people without a trial? And the use of that sentence is their answer. I'm not saying if it's true or not saying this was the answer that they have been given. Whatever comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.
NARRATOR: This scriptural quote would have been close to the hearts of Israel’s first leaders. The country declared independence in 1948, only a few years after the end of the Second World War.
RONEN BERGMAN: Each country, each nation, each people work and carve their future based on their history. And the history of the Jews is the Holocaust. My parents, both of them Holocaust survivors, came from Europe after the Second World War. They joined the Jews who were already in Palestine. And I think that the lessons that they drew from the Holocaust, if to summarize, there was that one: there will always be someone out there who is after us, to kill us, to complete the final solution, to perform a second annihilation.
NARRATOR: At the time of its founding, the young country was beset on all sides by its enemies in the Arab world. Its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, realized that in the absence of a powerful army, Israel would need to rely on covert methods to survive.
RONEN BERGMAN: So from early on, three weeks after the country was established, David Ben-Gurion established the Israeli intelligence community, which is - more or less, the names were a little bit different - the intelligence community that we know today: the Mossad, working outside, the foreign intelligence agency [and] the Shin Bet, the general security agency working inside Israel. So, sort of an equivalent combination between MI5, and the FBI, and military intelligence or Aman, helping the military conduct its operations.
NARRATOR: Each Israeli agency has its opposite numbers all over the world. But look more closely at their operational strategies and you’ll see that they’re rare beasts in the world of secret intelligence.
RONEN BERGMAN: Unlike most of the intelligence communities in the world, at least in the West, the Mossad and the other intelligence agencies are not just bringing their intelligence, but also translating that intelligence - the same information that they collect - to pinpoint operations way beyond enemy lines in order to divert, distort, destruct, prevent any kind of hostile operation against Israel. Now, I don't want to spoil or to disappoint any of the listeners to this podcast. But there is no James Bond, James Bond in the movie, and there is no 00 program at MI6. And I think MI6 does not do assassinations. And Mossad is one of those very few intelligence agencies that is involved with actual operations.
NARRATOR: So, when you think about the Mossad, think of an intelligence organization with the international reach of the CIA, coupled with the training and firepower of Seal Team 6. It’s made up of men and women who will take decisive and sometimes pre-emptive action against Israel’s enemies.
RONEN BERGMAN: The Magna Carta, the list of topics for Mossad, is not just defending the state of Israel, its borders, and its citizens, but it's to defend Israeli citizens all over the world, wherever they are. But not just Israeli citizens, also Jews. The Mossad, the defender of Jews all over the world, even if they are not Israeli citizens.
NARRATOR: The machinations of the Mossad, which translates literally to ‘The Institute’, have been the defining obsession of Ronen’s professional life. And it started early.
RONEN BERGMAN: Okay, Israel is a small country and everybody knows someone in the intelligence agencies or... the high-rank [officers], so I think when I was in the Boy Scouts, the woman, or the young teenager that was our guide, someone came to me one day and said: “Your Boy Scout’s guide, her father is a Mossad agent.” And, of course, once I knew that, I looked at her in a very different way. I know that one day her father came to pick her up, taking her home or somewhere, and I got a good look at his face and I was slightly disappointed. He looked like everybody else. I think it was one of my first lessons to understand that the real world of Israeli intelligence is both less interesting or more interesting than the world of intelligence that we see in the movies or in TV series.
NARRATOR: And this was by no means his last brush with the Mossad. Ronen’s not a spy - but he came pretty close.
RONEN BERGMAN: In 1997/98, I did my legal internship with the attorney general after finishing the first degree in law. When I finished the internship and passed the bar exam for becoming a lawyer in Israel, I was approached by the Mossad. I had a relative who served there and he suggested that I start the screening process to become a Mossad operative.
NARRATOR: In the end, Ronen declined the offer. The Mossad’s strict working environment wasn’t quite to his taste. Instead, he ended up following his passion for a different kind of intelligence gathering, journalism.
RONEN BERGMAN: I have been a journalist since I was 15, and, well, even earlier since I was 12 for youth papers. And then, when finishing my obligatory military service, I joined Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent to The New York Times. And there, from very early on, I decided to cover and write extensively - first on Israeli intelligence services, and then on national security and intelligence in the Middle East.
NARRATOR: But Ronen’s relationship with Israel’s intelligence community hasn’t always been harmonious.
RONEN BERGMAN: In one of the attempts of the Mossad to smear me, they spread a rumor after one of my very critical stories criticizing the Mossad and its chief at the time, this was in 2005, Meir Dagan was the chief. And I published a story criticizing him and his leadership. Dagan spread the story, or he got the Mossad employees gathered, and he said: "Why is [he] writing all those things against us? It's not because he has true facts against the Mossad or against me. This is because he was a cadet in the Mossad. And close to the end of the course he failed and didn't finish the course, so he has a grudge against us and this is why he's doing that.” Those people know how to create a rumor that would harm you or your prestige.
NARRATOR: And, when the time came to write Rise and Kill First, the secretive organs of the Israeli intelligence community mobilized against him once again.
RONEN BERGMAN: As early as June 2010, so only three months after starting to negotiate the book with Random House, Mossad was already running secret meetings [about] how to prevent me from writing the book. During the process of working on the book, the chief of staff was asking the attorney general to prosecute me for treason. They were trying to prevent me from getting access to sources, threatening myself, threatening sources. My phone was bugged. My emails were hacked. So, in some cases, evidence was presented to the court in cases of prosecuting my sources of files that were taken from my computer. So it was clear that my computer was either hacked or that people were actually approaching the computer and being able to copy material from it.
NARRATOR: Even so, Ronen doesn’t condemn the Mossad outright - just its approach to transparency. Revealing its secrets has become more than a journalist’s beat. It’s a moral stance.
RONEN BERGMAN: I do believe that Israel enjoys one of the best intelligence communities in the world. But, in contradiction to that, the inspection and oversight mechanism that the state instituted to supervise the intelligence community, to make sure that the spies are not going beyond the borders, to make sure that its agents and chiefs are complying with ethics and with democracy are very weak in this situation. We journalists and historians have an obligation, almost a sacred obligation, to make sure that those spies who are working in order to keep Israel safe are also keeping Israel, as we say, the only democracy in the Middle East.
NARRATOR: Ronen has spent his career building a network of contacts within the Israeli intelligence community, and before he began writing, he already had hours of interviews on record. So why did this book take the best part of a decade to write?
RONEN BERGMAN: I decided to completely disregard everything that was written on Israeli intelligence [so] far, because it was unreferenced with no footnotes, with no attribution to sources, all anonymous.
NARRATOR: Remember, if Ronen’s going to write this controversial book, he needs to back up his claims.
RONEN BERGMAN: I decided to put all of that aside and start from the beginning. Go back to interview everybody, even in cases where everything allegedly was already known. And hoping that, while doing that, first I'll get the facts right. And second, hopefully, we'll get some new scoops. And that turned out to be a bombshell, that was a gold mine.
NARRATOR: Ronen’s meticulous approach paid off in spades. Not only did he uncover new details about missions that he’d already researched, but he also encountered entirely new information - information that he could scarcely believe had been kept from the public for so many years.
RONEN BERGMAN: I was taught, for the eight years of writing this book, I was taught the most severe lesson of humility. I thought that there couldn't be an important event in the history of Israeli intelligence that I didn't know about. Just to be disappointed and surprised and happy - again and again and again - to find out how wrong I was.
NARRATOR: Ronen remembers one of the first true bombshells he uncovered during his research.
RONEN BERGMAN: In 2012, I was sitting with a high [ranking] Air Force officer and we were discussing all sorts of operations. And, at a certain point, he said: "Ronen, you know what, you have gained my trust. And I'm going to tell you the most secretive story in the history of the Israeli Air Force.” But he said: "You need to promise me before that you will comply with one condition that I have - to publish it. "
NARRATOR: Ronen leaned in. This sounded promising.
RONEN BERGMAN: Of course, I said: "Yeah yeah, whatever" because I wanted to hear the story. And he said: "My condition is that after I tell you this, you will go to another officer - high, very high-ranking officer - in the Israeli Air Force. And only if he tells you the story and only if he tells you the story on the record, then I am allowing you to publish it."
NARRATOR: A journalist, especially one as invested in ethical concerns as Ronen, takes these promises seriously. Put yourself in his shoes for a moment - would you want this kind of responsibility? The kind of knowledge that requires top-level clearance before it sees the light of day? And if you’re forced to take it off the record, keep it to yourself… well. Could you look yourself in the eye?
RONEN BERGMAN: And I said: “Yeah, sure.” And he said: “No, promise me that if he does not you will bury the secret. You will never tell the story.” And I said: "Okay, sure.”
NARRATOR: Whatever Ronen was expecting to hear next, it wasn’t this.
RONEN BERGMAN: Then he tells me that in 1982, early 1983, the Israeli Minister of Defense, Ariel Sharon, ordered the Air Force to take out a commercial airline with hundreds of passengers on board, above the ocean, in order to kill Yasser Arafat. The chief of the Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO] was on board.
NARRATOR: Ronen was practically dumbstruck. But at the same time, his instincts told him that this was a once-in-a-lifetime scoop. The Air Force officer continued.
RONEN BERGMAN: And that the Supreme Command of the Air Force rebelled against the Minister of Defense. They jammed the communication. They disrupted the operation in order to make it impossible. And they decided among themselves that they will prevent Israel from being stained forever with this war crime and prevented that from happening.
NARRATOR: The Israeli state had almost downed a commercial airliner in the pursuit of one high-value target. Only an insurrection from the inside had averted a disastrous loss of civilian life.
RONEN BERGMAN: Hundreds of people in military intelligence and the Air Force were aware or participated in that. Nothing was ever published. And I already saw the chapter, I already wrote it in my head when he spoke, because I realized the gravity of such a drama, the order, and then, of course, the rebellion from the Air Force. But when he was done, he said: "You promise me you’d go to the other officer and he will only tell you that on the record, with the permission to use his name, you will be able to promise me.”
RONEN BERGMAN: And I said: "But how can I convince him?”
NARRATOR: Ah, now that’s the $1m question, isn’t it? Even at a remove of some 30 years, this information could be damaging to the Israeli government. Why would anyone talk about it on the record?
RONEN BERGMAN: “That other officer that you mentioned, he's the old type, the old guard. He will never speak with me. He hates journalists.” And so the source says: “I don't care. You promised me.”
NARRATOR: With a heavy heart, Ronen went to visit the senior officer who, he hoped, would grant him permission to publish the story. He wasn’t expecting this encounter to go his way. But, nonetheless, he had to try.
RONEN BERGMAN: So I went to the other officer and I tried to go and speak with him. I didn't say what I wanted to speak about, but I tried to approach that area, in time and operations, from that direction. And the other then, at a certain point, that second officer said: "Ronen, why exactly did you come here? Why are you here? Why? What are you trying to ask me?” So then I asked him specifically: “Was there an operation when you were ordered to take out a commercial airline?”
NARRATOR: You’ve tried the softly-softly approach, but now you’ve been forced to show your hand. This could end in one of two ways - win or lose. But it’s not up to you. It’s up to him. All you can do is watch as he makes his decision.
RONEN BERGMAN: Then his gaze changed. Again, this was 2012 talking about 1982. And he looked at me and he said: "You know what? For 30 years, I have been waiting for someone to come and ask me this question. Wait here.”
NARRATOR: The officer rose, and walked to the other end of the room. He moved a chair, and then a cupboard, revealing a safe.
RONEN BERGMAN: He opened the safe and he came back with the whole log and all the different documents of that operation and he gave them to me and said: “These were waiting here for you.”
RONEN BERGMAN: And the detailed account of those days in the underground subterranean bunker of the Air Force under Tel Aviv are, the details, are coming from that notebook, those documents that he had in his safe. And so, sometimes those people, the source does interviews, waiting for someone to ask.
NARRATOR: Sometimes, the burden of history weighs heavily enough that it only takes the slightest push to get a source to talk. But not everyone that Ronen spoke to gave up their secrets as easily.
RONEN BERGMAN: Mossad, those people, the case officers and the operatives, they are trained in the art of recruiting agents, of turning them against their country, their organizations, their friends, subordinates, comrades. And, in short, they are the masters of making people talk. And now you have those masters in front of you, and you need to do to them what they have been doing to people all of their lives. You need to profile the profiler. You need to be the case officer of the case officer.
NARRATOR: If you’ve heard this podcast before, you’ll know what Ronen’s talking about. The long, slow work of a case officer grooming an asset. Building trust, learning what makes them tick, and gently squeezing them for intel. Fortunately, he’s been doing what he does for a while now. Ronen’s spent years cultivating his sources in the world of Israeli intelligence. And, of course, every asset is different; their interests, their backgrounds, their passions - they all vary. Keeping track of them, and adapting your approach to fit, is a job in itself. But when he’s at a loss - when every avenue is exhausted - Ronen has a trump card to play.
RONEN BERGMAN: When I brought the manuscript to Random House the editors there were amazed that people were willing to speak, most of them on the record, none of them with any authority to do so or any consent from Israeli administration. And they asked me: “How? How did you convince them to talk?” And I said: “No, not all of them agreed, but when a source or interviewee was not very enthusiastic to speak, I did to her or him the one thing that makes Israelis more angry, more furious, more ballistic than anything else.” I... coincidentally when speaking, I told them that someone else took credit for his operation. That usually did the magic. There is nothing that Israelis hate more from being what is called in Hebrew ‘sucker’ - freier, that's the highest degree of sucker, if someone took credit for their operation. So they usually say: “Oh, he said he did that? He was in Syria that night. No, I was there. And now I will tell you the truth.” That usually opened them up and gave me what I wanted.
NARRATOR: When in doubt, go for the ego. Which brings us to our next point. Using a spy’s own tradecraft against them is one thing but you need to make sure that you’re not being manipulated in kind. After all, sources aren’t just sources. They’re people with their own agendas. And they know that a journalist in search of a scoop might be susceptible to misinformation.
RONEN BERGMAN: In one of my encounters with a high-ranking Mossad official not long ago, he said to me: “Ron, you really did a good job with me. I'm your best agent. I'm your best source.” And I said to him: “Yeah, sure, of course.” This is the trick that you all learn in the second class. The second lesson in the academy in the course of case officers, is to tell someone that you just recruited that, in fact, he recruited you to lower his defenses. And you need to be very much aware that they might manipulate this information, and always have that in the back of your mind.
NARRATOR: So, if you’re dealing with spies - slippery characters at the best of times - how do you make sure your facts are straight?
RONEN BERGMAN: Try to bridge that fear, that you are a victim of misinformation or disinformation, of lack of information by corroborating as many sources as possible, by trying to differentiate what sort of interests those people have. And always, always suspect them - do not be enchanted by the fact that you are exposed to those most secretive operations and you are privy to know the most secretive information in the history of your country. Just look at the facts and try to understand and make sure that they're accurate.
NARRATOR: For civilians, the world of espionage is, undoubtedly, exciting. The opportunity to enter that world, even tangentially, is tempting. Maybe tempting enough to make a person careless. But as an intelligence gatherer - be that a journalist, a detective, or spy - the unsexy business of objectivity, sourcing, and research is the key to real success. Sometimes, that can mean interviewing several people about the same sequence of events. That was the case for another highly classified episode in Mossad’s history, which Ronen managed to eke out from a variety of sources.
RONEN BERGMAN: So the first person who told me about this was Rafi Eitan but then I interviewed, I think, another maybe 20 people connected. And more important than that, I was able to recruit the source who was able to bring me the secret - top, top, top-secret - dossier, special research the Mossad history division wrote about the affair with all the original documents. This is an operation that occupied most of the Mossad from 1962 until 1966.
NARRATOR: This story begins in the early ‘60s. At the time, Israel’s main opponent in the Arab world was President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
RONEN BERGMAN: And in 1962, Mossad, in its - maybe best of times, after capturing [high-ranking Nazi officer, Adolf] Eichmann and doing some other very successful operations - Mossad was shocked. The Israeli citizens were shocked when Nasser paraded, in the streets of Cairo, a fleet of missiles, surface-to-surface long-range ballistic missiles, with which he said he's going to destroy Israel.
NARRATOR: This on its own would have been bad enough but it gets worse. The Mossad discovered that the people who built the missiles were none other than the German scientists who had worked on the deadly V1 and V2 rockets during the Second World War.
RONEN BERGMAN: They offered lucrative tradecraft to Nasser, and said: "We can build you a fleet of missiles that are capable of reaching Israel and are capable of being armed with a nuclear warhead.” And now imagine the extent of hysteria in Israel in 1962, Israel, before the Six-Day War zone with very, very, very small, self-confidence, before having a nuclear arsenal of its own with the streets of Israel filled with Holocaust survivors. And now, learning that scientists who used to work for the SS-run factory in Peenemünde, used to work for Hitler, are now working for the new Hitler, as Ben-Gurion used to call him - President Nasser of Egypt.
NARRATOR: As the Mossad saw it, if ever there was a moment to rise up and kill first, this was it. Just 17 years after the fall of Nazi Germany, the young state of Israel could be facing a second nuclear Holocaust. But simply assassinating the scientists would prove harder than they had anticipated.
RONEN BERGMAN: After trying to kill some of those scientists and failing, Ben-Gurion fired the chief of Mossad and then had to resign himself because of the catastrophe, the political catastrophe, that followed the revelation of those missiles and scientists in Egypt.
NARRATOR: Clearly, a new approach was in order.
RONEN BERGMAN: He stepped down, a new prime minister and a new chief of Mossad. And the new chief of Mossad, Meir Amit, called for the cessation of assassination and said: "Before we kill anyone more, we need to understand what exactly is happening among the Nazi German scientists in Egypt. We need to recruit one of them.” But how do you recruit a Nazi when you are a Mossad officer?
NARRATOR: How indeed? Fortunately, the Mossad had no shortage of young men with big ideas.
RONEN BERGMAN: And one day, a young case officer of the Mossad called Raphi Eitan, he was commanding the operation to capture Adolf Eichmann. He came to the Mossad chief office and said: “Chief, I think I have an idea but it has a little difficulty.” Now when you step into the Mossad chief's office, discussing what is seen as the most crucial existential threat to your country, and you say: “I have a little problem,” it means that it's everything but little. So the Mossad chief, amused, said: “Okay, what's your idea?”
NARRATOR: Raphi Eitan’s idea had a name. Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny was a former SS officer, and one of Hitler’s personal favorites. He’d led a number of high-profile special operations against the Allies during the war. Now, Eitan was suggesting recruiting Skorzeny as an asset for the Israeli government. This was, you’ll note, problematic. Nonetheless, the young officer continued.
RONEN BERGMAN: “He's not a scientist himself, but he is very close to those former colleagues from the times of the SS. And I think if we recruit him, we will be able to get to them. But there's a little problem.” Mossad chief said: "Yes, what is the problem?” “It's that this guy, Otto Skorzeny, he's an avid anti-Semitic. He was running the SS battalion during Kristallnacht in Vienna. A true Nazi. And he's very rich, so he doesn't need money.” And so, Mossad chief asked Raphi Eitan: “And you think that you will be able to recruit this, Otto?” So Eitan said: "Yes, I think I have the way to get to him.” And Mossad is very famous for giving a very long leash to those crazy ideas of young people, so our Mossad chief said to Eitan:”You know what? Fine with me. You go and try and play your games. But look at me. You will be able to recruit Otto Skorzeny, the general of the SS, the commander of special operations of Hitler when I'll have hair growing in the palm of my hand.”
NARRATOR: Luckily, Raphi Eitan liked a challenge.
RONEN BERGMAN: Now, long story short, little details and a long recruitment, a series of one person leads to the other, but at the end of the day, the Mossad ended up meeting with the wife of Otto Skorzeny, Countess Ilse von Finckenstein.
NARRATOR: Skorzeny’s wife, Countess Von Finckenstein, was a dubious character in her own right.
RONEN BERGMAN: She was the niece of the Treasury secretary for Hitler, she was selling arms and forged documents to Nazi fugitives.
NARRATOR: And there was another important thing to know about the Countess.
RONEN BERGMAN: Also Mossad learned that she and her husband, Skorzeny, were having something I think is named today as ‘open marriage’.
NARRATOR: An open marriage, for the uninitiated, is a union in which both husband and wife are able to take alternative lovers. For Nazis, Mr. and Mrs. Otto Skorzeny were surprisingly open-minded in this respect. The Mossad saw an opportunity in this thoroughly modern arrangement.
RONEN BERGMAN: [A] Mossad operative who is described in Mossad dossier as young, tall, charismatic, with a known influence on women at a certain age - very un-politically correct… this is how they wrote it - approached the Countess Ilsa von Finckenstein. And the urban legend in Mossad was that he spent a long night with her, and, how would I describe it? He sacrificed himself.
NARRATOR: The young man in question - the honeypot, if you will - was another Rafi - Rafi Meidan. Ronen met with Meidan as part of his research on this story.
RONEN BERGMAN: The legend in the dossier, the description of the operation, it just says that 'he spent a long night with the countess'. “But the legend is that you shut your eyes, you thought of the queen and you did what needed to be done in order to recruit the countess.” And Raphi looked at me and smiled - he was already 94 when I interviewed him, he passed away since with advanced Parkinson's - but he looked at me and smiled and said: "Ronen there are questions a gentleman should not answer. And with all due respect, gentlemen should not ask. But if you already ask, let me tell you, it was a very long and nice and enjoyable night.”
NARRATOR: Shortly after Rafi Meidan’s evening with the Countess von Finckenstein, Meidan had managed to persuade his new lover to arrange a meeting between her Nazi husband and ‘a friend from the Israeli Defense Ministry’. You might find Meidan’s forthrightness surprising but there’s something you should bear in mind. In 1960, just a few short years before this operation began, Mossad operatives had tracked down and captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. In 1962, he was hanged after standing trial in Israel. And if the Israelis could get Eichmann, hidden half a world away in Argentina, then they could get anyone, anywhere. Best, perhaps, to cooperate.
RONEN BERGMAN: Rafi Meidan and the Countess traveled together to Madrid to meet with Otto Skorzeny, the special operations chief for Hitler, and joined by another case officer of the Mossad. And then happens, I think, the most dramatic moment in the history of the organization - when the Mossad is able to recruit the special operations commander for Hitler and they use it while not using any kind of a false identity or cover story. They understand that if they would say that they are Nato officers, this is a trained intelligence officer, he would call the bluff in a minute. They said that they are from the Mossad. They said that they want to recruit him. They said they [wanted] to make him a Mossad agent.
NARRATOR: Like his wife before him, Otto Skorzeny decided to work with the Israelis - although, perhaps, not quite as enthusiastically.
RONEN BERGMAN: And he agreed, not because of money, but because they could offer him something that nobody else could. Life without fear. And in exchange for his services he received money but, more importantly, a new Austrian passport and a letter of immunity from the Prime Minister of Israel promising him that Mossad will stop chasing him and will not harm him or his family. In exchange for that, he became, I think, the most valuable asset in that decade, working for the Mossad, the most important agent, and he solved the problem of the German scientists working in Egypt without the need to fire even one more single shot.
NARRATOR: Skorzeny used his former status as an arch-Nazi to seed rumors among the German scientists in Egypt that he was working to establish a secretive Fourth Reich. Many of the scientists, still bound by the oaths they had taken during the war, were taken in. Intimate details about their professional and personal lives were then passed on to the Mossad, who used them to intimidate the scientists. Soon, the Egyptian rocket program began to crumble from the inside. Eventually, Israel was able to lean on the West German government to end the involvement of German citizens entirely.
RONEN BERGMAN: They were infiltrated and convinced to go back to Germany after Shimon Peres, the Israeli minister, deputy minister of defense, agreed with the German prominent politician, Franz Josef Strauss, each scientist to come back to Germany will enjoy a special stipend for the rest of his life.
NARRATOR: In both of the previously classified stories we’ve heard in this episode, a solution has been reached without bloodshed. Targeted assassination, one of the main weapons of the Mossad, proved to be flawed or ineffective. But make no mistake, the Mossad has carried out successful assassination operations in the past. Ronen believes that during the last decade, The Institute has been behind a series of operations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. This isn’t history. This is contemporary politics.
RONEN BERGMAN: So when they commissioned the first operation to try and kill Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the professor for nuclear physics and the top nuclear scientists of the Iranian atomic project, a young woman, an intelligence officer, stood up at the headquarters of Mossad, and said: “We are discussing the killing of this scientist.” “My father,” she said: "Works for the Israeli Atomic Energy Committee, [he is a] very senior official there. And if we determine that Israel is entitled to kill Mohsin Fakrizadeh, the meaning of that is that my father is also a legitimate target of Iran. And if we kill him, that could legitimize killing my father. And from an ethical point of view, what's the difference? Killing scientists is always the hardest challenge.”
NARRATOR: Israel’s actions against Iran’s scientists were, allegedly, put on hold after the US and Iran signed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - that’s the Iran nuclear deal, to you and me. However, Ronen believes that the Mossad followed through on an earlier plan to eliminate Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior official in the Iranian nuclear program. On November 27th, 2020, Fakrizadeh was moving with a heavily armed convoy through a small village outside of Tehran, the Iranian capital.
RONEN BERGMAN: A sniper machine gun opened fire from a vehicle stationed just by the main road and was able to take out Fakhrizadeh alone - just him - his wife, or the bodyguards or stray dog that ran around, none of them was even scratched. Only he was killed. And Iran believes, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard claimed, that it was not humans who killed him. But it was a killer robot.
NARRATOR: In this instance, ‘killer robot’ means ‘satellite controlled machine-gun turret’. Which sounds a little less far-fetched. Ronen thinks that the Revolutionary Guard might be onto something.
RONEN BERGMAN: And I said to someone, speaking about this operation not long ago, I said: “Those Revolutionary Guards, they are lying all the time. Including stories about me, because they don't understand how a journalist can be independent. You know, a journalist writing on intelligence, according to the way they see the world, has to be part of the intelligence, or claiming that I am part of the Mossad.” But because they are lying all the time, nobody believes them, and in this one specific... like a jammed watch that tells the true time twice a day, one incident when they are telling the truth, nobody believes them. This is a story to be revealed in detail and I hope that it's not long before we are able to do so. Israel planned and executed the killing of Mohsin Fakhrizadeh, who since a decade is the second-most, was the second-most guarded person in Iran after the Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei, because the Iranians figured out that the Israelis are still after him to kill.
NARRATOR: Right now, Ronen Bergman is probably the world’s leading expert on the subject of targeted assassination. He’s interviewed hundreds of former operatives, devoured thousands of pages of research. Even so, his feelings on the topic are best described as mixed.
RONEN BERGMAN: Two questions I have in mind that summarize most of the dilemmas here. One, is it effective? Does the world become a better place the day after? And second, is it legally and morally justified? And so, when comes the first, is it effective? I have clear evidence on many cases and many eras in history when the use of targeted assassination brought solution to challenges, severe challenges to Israeli national security and the stability of the region. And, just imagine - and I know that professional historians are always against playing the games of counterfactual history - but let's say that [Claus] Von Stauffenberg was accurate in where he put the bomb and killed Hitler. Wouldn't that shorten the war? Wouldn't killing Saddam Hussein save the world from some of the atrocities that he has been conducting? And when it comes to legality, ethics, and morality, I must say that I do not accept any kind of acceptance of collateral damage. I think that if you are aiming to kill an enemy, then you need to make sure that only the enemy is killed. You do not risk any citizens. But we're discussing the morality of killing an enemy that you cannot arrest, then I understand the difficulty. I understand the challenge.
You have a person who recruits a terrorist to go and perform suicide bombing in your country. He's in a foreign country. You cannot arrest him. And if you send a battalion of tanks to arrest him, he will run away and in the way many civilians of both sides will be killed. So the only way is either to accept what he's doing or to kill him. Then what do you do, you accept that he will continue to recruit poor people and send them to explode themselves in kindergartens or shopping malls or aboard buses? And then even those people who object to targeted killing, and I respect that, and I understand that the claim that democracy cannot do things like that and it cannot rule the verdict of the person without a trial, a death verdict. But when you ask them: “Okay, what do you do instead?” They say: “No, but the country cannot kill anyone.” I say: “Okay, but what do you do? We understand what you wouldn't do, but let's say that you are the prime minister of Israel. And you need to make a call. What to do with that perpetrator, what do you do with this recruiter of suicide bombers?” Then they usually get stuck.
NARRATOR: Are you convinced? Where do you stand? How far do your democratic ideals go before they meet the demands of grim practicality? You can learn about more episodes in Mossad’s chequered history and the ethical dilemmas they pose in Ronen’s book Rise And Kill First. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for more revelations with True Spies.
Ronen Bergman is a senior political and military analyst for Isreali newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. He has also written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and Newsweek and published several books involving corruption in the Palestinian Authority, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Iranian nuclear project.