Back in my CIA days we sometimes used to describe our opponents in the KGB as "ten feet tall." It was, in truth, a tribute to their tradecraft and ability to operate in largely hostile environments. Soviet case officers were sent overseas meticulously trained in both the local culture and language, remained in a country for as long as they continued to be effective, and would engage in hours long "runs" to detect and eventually evade surveillance before making their meetings with their agents. They also drank heavily. We Americans, meanwhile, normally did two of three year tours, were frequently language deficient, and often spent a good deal of our time worrying about where we would be going next rather than concentrating on the job at hand. We also drank heavily. In a sense, the KGB and CIA officers were products of the cultures that had created them, the Soviets exhibiting caution and patience because they knew they were in for the long haul while the Americans were more focused on getting their ticket punched for promotion so they could buy a new Oldsmobile when they eventually returned home to Reston.
Alas, neither the drone happy CIA nor the KGB’s successor organization the SRV are what they once were. The Russians sent a bunch of amateurs to the US in the Anna Chapman spy operation while CIA has bungled its way through a series of misadventures, including but not limited to the Abu Omar snatch in Milan in 2003, the deaths of 7 officers by a triple agent suicide bomber in Khost Afghanistan in 2009, and the Raymond Davis killing of two Pakistanis in Lahore in 2011.
To be sure, intelligence agencies derive much of their mystique and elan from review by peers but even more from the popular perception of their derring-do and effectiveness. The British service, MI-6, is indeed one of the world’s finest but where would it be without the legend of James Bond? In truth the Bond books are pretty much a joke in terms of the espionage activity they describe, not to mention some of the ridiculous movies they have spawned, but much of the world will always regard Her Majesty’s Secret Service with awe because of them.
These days perhaps no intelligence agency benefits more from a media enhanced reputation than Israel’s external service Mossad. A new Mossad book has just come out, by the same authors who wrote the old Mossad book, and the inevitable spin has begun. An article on March 2nd in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s website was headed "Report: US pressures Israel to halt assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists." Haaretz wisely called it a "report," perhaps to distance itself from what was described, instead attributing it to CBS News the day before. If one goes to the CBS story "US pushing Israel to stop assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists" one would find the story credited to CBS correspondent Dan Raviv, whose updated "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars" co-authored with Israeli journalist Yossi Melman has recently been published. The authors claims to have "sources close to Israel’s intelligence agencies" but admit their account is a mix of facts and opinion.
Raviv reported that President Barack Obama would raise the assassination issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their March 3rd meeting at the White House. The book also repeats previous claims that Israeli spies who were possibly drawn from Persian Jews who had emigrated to Israel had infiltrated Iran and, using a string of safe houses and some help from friendly Iranians, had managed to kill five scientists. The authors have added the new information about the White House talks, noting also that Netanyahu has already decided to end the program because of the risk to Israel’s "most talented and experienced spies," choosing instead to focus Mossad efforts on proving that the Iranians are cheating on their nuclear program.
The motto of Israel’s foreign intelligence service the Mossad translates as "By way of deception you shall make war," and one might modify that a bit to claim that "by way of deception you can sell books." The whole story, intended to create some buzz for the new edition while at the same time touting the invincibility of Israeli intelligence, smells. It is the kind of narrative that is impossible to check. The sources are "secret," Israel has never admitted its involvement, there is no indication that the president and prime minister actually spoke regarding the assassinations, and there is no suggestion why Obama would have any motive raise the issue. The Iranians are not demanding any action from Washington regarding the killings as part of the ongoing nuclear negotiations, so why would Obama even mention it?
The White House probably could care less about a few Iranians being murdered and may even approve of the practice since Obama has been ordering a few assassinations himself. If the president does indeed have a small problem with Israel’s killing Iranians it probably would have something to do with their hit teams using US passports to provide false flag cover while they make the arrangements, an issue that presumably was dealt with some time ago by the respective intelligence agencies after it was revealed by journalist Mark Perry.
Indeed, the Mark Perry account explains all. Israel operates against a foreign "hard" target the same way any other serious intelligence agency operates. You don’t send your own people in, you recruit locals to do the dirty work for you. The false flag operation using US passports was, for example, an attempt to recruit Jundullah dissidents and send them on terrorist missions inside Iran.
There is no doubt that the killings of the scientists took place and that Israel had a hand in it, but the almost heroic narrative is not credible and might well be designed to make the Iranian authorities nervous, resulting in wasting of time and resources looking for Israeli agents and safe houses that do not actually exist. In some circles inside the Iranian government there will certainly be fear that the Israelis do have extraordinary capabilities and a fifth column working on their behalf, leading to confusion and frantic demands for more resources dedicated to national security.
Israelis operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan undoubtedly have worked with indigenous Iranians who could easily blend in back home and are willing to carry out operations either for money, for ideological reasons or for revenge. Realistically speaking, the only place to find such Iranians would be among the adherents of the Mujaheddin e Khalq (MEK), an organization that has been much in the news recently, sometimes eulogized by congressmen and former senior government officials as the legitimate Iranian resistance. MEK also comes fully equipped with its own infrastructure of supporters inside Iran capable of providing accommodations, equipment, and false documents as necessary. You then launch the operation and, if all goes well, the target is killed.
And the flip side of the coin about Mossad is the history of its failures, which the authors are not too keen to describe. One might well recall the Jordanian Mossad operation in 1997 in which Hamas official Khaled Mashal was poisoned. The Jordanian authorities caught the two Israeli spies and threatened to try them if the Israelis did not provide the antidote, which they did to avoid a scandal. Two Canadian passports featured in the botched assassination attempt. An investigation carried out by the Canadian authorities revealed that Canadian Jews emigrating to Israel were routinely required to turn over their passports for Mossad use. In 2004, four suspected Mossad operatives were arrested while engaged in a similar operation seeking to obtain genuine New Zealand passports by applying in the names of local people who were either invalids or dead.
The better known Dubai 2010 Israeli assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is a classic example of intelligence blundering and overkill. The Israelis used genuine British passports "borrowed" from citizens of that country who had emigrated to Israel. A German passport also used in Dubai was obtained fraudulently in the name of an Israeli rabbi who actually carries an American passport. After the killing, the Dubai authorities were able to piece together the involvement of at least eighteen Israelis from hotel CCTV footage and also from the immigration and customs records, eventually compiling a film showing the amateurish antics of the assassination team. The Israelis should also have realized that the true names and numbers on the passports would inevitably lead to identification of the source of most of the documents, in this case British, which would inevitably involve the UK government, legally and morally bound to protect the integrity of its passports.
The Mossad operation, which appears to have involved eighteen officers, was not exactly picture perfect and as it followed on a number of other bungled Mossad operations, it tarnished the Israeli intelligence service’s reputation for efficiency. It also resulted in blowback, ending the friendly though low-keyed intelligence sharing relationship between Dubai and Tel Aviv. And the only gain from a major operation was the killing of a mid-level Hamas official who may or may not have been in Dubai to arrange to buy weapons from Iran. Hardly a big fish and hardly worth it, even from the Israeli point of view. Which is the problem with intelligence operations, even for Mossad. They play much better in books than they do in real life.