"Weapons of Mass Deception"


Israel’s Mossad looks to leaner, meaner future

By Dan Williams
THEY’RE whispering about “terminations” again behind the high walls of Mossad headquarters. But nowadays the term is as likely to refer to staff lay-offs at the Israeli foreign intelligence agency as to assassinating enemies of the Jewish state.

As many as 200 spies, among them several section heads, have quit or been fired in the two years since retired general Meir Dagan took over Mossad with a mandate to hone the hunt for Islamist militants and track Iran’s atomic programme. “Dagan needs to get results, which means emphasis on major missions at the cost of more passive information-gathering,” a senior intelligence analyst told Reuters. “For some of the old hands, that’s just too much to ask.” The shake-up has spawned public squabbles, long unthinkable for the ultra-covert service, with regular media leaks by the Mossad chief’s backers and detractors. Dagan has stayed in the shadows. But an interview he gave while serving as a government counter-terrorism adviser pointed to an approach very different from the back-door diplomacy championed by his Mossad predecessor Efraim Halevy. “In my opinion, no terrorist should feel immune, anywhere,” Dagan told Channel Two television in 1998. “I see a person’s life as forfeit the moment he decides to adopt terror tactics.” Such attitudes suit hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who parachuted Dagan, an army comrade, into Mossad - a break with the tradition of agency apparatchiks assuming the top job.

After al Qaeda blew up an Israeli-owned hotel and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Kenya in Nov. 2002, Sharon ordered Dagan to take the fight to Israel’s foes abroad. Car-bombing campaign: Three Lebanese guerrillas and a leading Palestinian militant in Damascus have since died in car-bombings blamed on Mossad. Sharon’s office did not deny the allegations.

Indeed, Israeli security sources, in an unprecedented admission, took credit for the Syrian assassination last September. Media reports say Mossad has thwarted four attacks against Israelis abroad, three in Africa and one in Southeast Asia - but without providing details or independent confirmation. Israeli leaders have also voiced satisfaction with efforts by the agency to boost scrutiny of arch-enemy Iran’s atomic reactors. Tehran denies having any hostile design. “As someone who is privy to the facts but not at liberty to divulge them, I can say with complete authority that, under Meir Dagan, Mossad has been revolutionised in terms of organisation, intelligence and operations,” said Ehud Yatom of the Israeli parliamentary panel on secret services. “And he is far from done.” Yet with Israeli prestige battered by Sharon’s tough handling of a four-year-old Palestinian revolt, some espionage experts question whether Mossad can afford to revive the deadly missions for which it was famed in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Israel has no capital punishment, but makes little secret of feeling free to kill its enemies abroad. It is a paradox that does not necessarily serve the country well,” said Gad Shimron, a former Mossad field agent who now writes on defence issues. He noted the belief among many Palestinians that their leader Yasser Arafat died in a Paris hospital last month after being poisoned by Mossad. Israel insists it was not involved, and French and Palestinian officials also say there was no evidence of foul play. I

mage concerns: Mossad has been under pressure in recent years. The agency was excluded by the United States and Britain from advance information on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s pledge last year to abandon his quest for weapons of mass-destruction. Mossad and Israeli Military Intelligence were both rapped by parliament for overestimating Iraq’s capabilities before the US decision to topple Saddam Hussein. According to Mossad veterans, the agency long ago lost its pride of place to the well-funded Military Intelligence, whose commander, a serving major-general, meets weekly with government ministers and has final say on security chiefs’ recommendations.

Military Intelligence has so far resisted a parliamentary proposal to turn its mammoth electronic eavesdropping and research unit, known as 8200, into a civilian body which Mossad would share. That, sources say, led Dagan to conclude Mossad should focus on classic intelligence-gathering - by spending more of the agency’s estimated annual budget of $350 million on spy missions worldwide rather than relying on satellite images and wiretaps.

Sacrificing some of Mossad’s vaunted mystique, he opened a Web site where would-be spies can apply for “special tasks”. “There is the sense that Dagan wants to jolt Mossad back into leading the fray, by getting rid of those staffers who are more interested in consensus-thinking and pensions,” the senior analyst said. But such a rush to action can prove rash.

Relations between Israel and New Zealand were strained last July when two suspected Mossad agents were convicted of trying to illegally obtain a New Zealand passport. Authorities in Auckland were alerted to the scam after a passport officer reported the foreign-sounding accent of one of the Israelis, who also failed to spot a police surveillance team assigned to trap them. Israel did not comment on the affair. “When you are under pressure to perform, professionalism suffers - not to mention prestige,” said Yigal Eyal, a former Mossad agent who lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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Milton Frihetsson, 14:23


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