Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1998, Pages 13-14

The Ostrovsky Files—Part 1

Israel's "False Information Affair" Sheds New Light On Troubled Israeli and U.S. Relations With Syria

By Victor Ostrovsky

Someone once said that the shadow cannot stand alone. A single match, well placed, can make it disappear. When it comes to matters of intelligence, however, it may take a generation before that match is struck.

The simile is apt in the startling case of Yahuda Gill, a Mossad case officer who has been exposed as having fed totally false information about Syria to his superiors in Israel for 20 years. His fictitious reports once triggered a national mobilization in Israel. He apparently was exposed only because of the coincidental juxtaposition of two factors. First, officials of the American CIA complained that reports they were receiving about Syria from the Israeli government were radically different from those turned up by their own sources. Second, when outside investigators came into the Mossad to begin investigating the botched assassination attempt in Amman in October, Mossad officials began voicing their concerns about the Syrian "intelligence."

The need for reliable information is at the heart of any nation's security. The contemporary intelligence community gathers its information from various sources or, as they are known in the jargon, disciplines of intelligence. The larger part of the data is gathered by listening in on the enemy's communications and watching his movements from satellites or high-flying airplanes. That kind of intelligence describes precisely what is taking place in the field. But it offers no explanation as to the purpose of the action observed, or the intentions of those taking it.

If, for example, the Syrians decide to move a tank battalion from one location on their border with Israel to another, there is no way for the Israelis to know what are the Syrian intentions behind that move. That is where Humint (human intelligence) comes in. Even though the Humint discipline gathers less then 10 percent of the intelligence mass, it is the most significant part of the material. The other intelligence disciplines may supply the where and the when, but only the human agent who has access to the circle of decision-makers can provide the why.

As Israel's Humint agency, the Mossad is therefore its most important intelligence-gathering body. That is why the head of Mossad is also the head of the joint chiefs of intelligence. Realizing all that, one can understand the significance of what Israel's media have dubbed "the false information affair."

Gill's fictitious reports once triggered a national mobilization in Israel.

In December it was discovered that a veteran Mossad case officer (katsa, in Hebrew) had been feeding his superiors false information he supposedly had been receiving from a high-ranking Syrian agent he had been running for more than 20 years. As the information he was bringing in was considered of great value, the case officer, Yahuda Gill, was given large financial bonuses to pass on to the agent. Gill kept these for himself. Also, because of the stream of information he was providing, Gill had developed a reputation throughout the Mossad as a top case officer.

Gill is not the first Mossad katsa to pocket money meant for agents. I knew of several instances in which case officers were running agents who did not exist, and pocketing all the funds directed to those agents. The art of espionage, especially in the Humint aspect, is very delicate.

A katsa must make contact with a member of the enemy and convince him to betray his country. In order to do that, the katsa will try various methods. He may attempt to play on the target's ideological inclinations. A member of an oppressed minority is a particularly good candidate for such an approach.

In most cases, however, greed is the best lubricant to start a person's initial descent down the slippery slope of espionage. Once the agent had been recruited or hooked, and he starts to provide the information, he is financially rewarded. The higher his rank, the larger the sums he is given.

The agent is well aware of the hangman's noose hovering in his vicinity—and getting closer with every bit of information he sells to his katsa. It is only the trust he has in the case officer who recruited him that gives the agent the courage to keep on working. (It also is the fact that only the katsa enjoys that trust that gives the case officer latitude of action within his own agency.)

The most difficult phase in the running of an agent is when the need arises to change the katsawho is running him. It is at that point that the agent realizes he is a commodity, a tool. If until that moment he was under the illusion that it was close friendship with the case officer that underlay their mutually beneficial relationship, the change brings reality to bear.

There is always the risk that when such a switch is made the agent will stop cooperating and, as has happened many times, just not show up for the second meeting with his new case officer.

Preserving the Source

Therefore, when the agent is a high-ranking member of the enemy government or military establishment who has access to information Mossad deems important, the case officer will not be changed. Rather than risking the loss of the agent, the katsa will be left in place to keep working with him.

This was the case with Yahuda Gill. The agent he was running was of great significance and Gill told his superiors that the agent would not accept a change of case officers. So when it was time for Gill to retire in 1989, he was placed on a special contract to continue handling that particular agent.

That is standard operating procedure in the Mossad. In fact, many case officers who see retirement approaching get their good agents to "tell them" that they will not accept a change ofkatsas, thus guaranteeing themselves an all-expense-paid trip abroad every few months—a nice way to break up the humdrum of retired life.

How many of these agents are real is hard to tell. It is also a rule in the Mossad that, if the agent is of high enough rank, he can refuse a meeting with anyone except his own case officer. That means that there can be no second person present in the meeting.

Now that the Syrian case has become public, Mossad chiefs are saying that Gill refused to allow a second person in his meetings and that is why there was no way to verify what the agent was saying.

I know, however, that this is not true. In fact, in 1995 Yahuda's agent was brought secretly to Israel, where he was greeted as a hero and even taken on a helicopter tour of the country.

As to the allegation that Yahuda Gill was frustrated because he was not promoted, the facts are different. During his long career Yahuda Gill had refused at least three times to be advanced to a cushy desk job. It is ludicrous to hear his lawyer say now that he did what he did because of the frustration of being passed over in favor of younger members of the Mossad.

In fact, Yahuda Gill was a legend in the Mossad and, for that matter, in the larger intelligence community. He was commended over the years by every Mossad chief and by all of the heads of military intelligence for bringing in the goods. Gill could have had any job he wanted in the Mossad but, as he told other cadets and me when he was training us in the art of deception, he wanted to stay in the field.

Since now even he has admitted that he had been fabricating information for over 20 years, this contradicts his lawyer's statements. He had not been passed over 20 years ago.

Since Yahuda Gill's confession, leaders of Israel's intelligence community now are saying they did not believe the information he was bringing in. That is one of the strangest statements I have ever heard.

Here is a leading Mossad case officer who brings information, supposedly from the horse's mouth, that Syrian leaders do not really want peace and that they are preparing for war. The prime minister of Israel breaks off all peace talks with Syria because, he says, he has good reason to believe Syria does not really want peace.

Now they say they did not believe him? Who are they trying to fool? They grabbed every morsel of information Gill brought and regarded it as a gift from God. They planned their policies accordingly and were grateful to him for providing the rationale they needed to stop the peace negotiations.

Yahuda Gill, it turns out, was a right-wing zealot. (I was not aware of that at the time.) He was a card-carrying member of the extreme right-wing Moledet Party of Rehavam Ze'evy. (The party is also known in Israel as "the transfer party," as it advocates the forcible "transfer" of all Arabs from the occupied territories and from inside Israel's Green Line over the border and outside Israel.

Knowing Gill's political background and realizing also that he did not spend the money he received on behalf of his agents but kept it for himself, one has to wonder as to his reasons and motivations. (Gill says that "those who need to, know I did not spend the money.") Israel's leadership prefers that instead of examining those motives, the outside world should believe it was greed or frustration that motivated Gill to do what he did. They would prefer that we not think about the possibility that he provided his fellow right-wing zealots with the ammunition they needed to kill the peace process.

In fact, Yahuda Gill raised a false alarm in the late '70s that brought about a general mobilization and military call-up and almost started a war. He repeated the false alarm in 1986 and again in 1994. How many times does it take for the rest of the country to realize what is going on?

Members of the Mossad are saying now they have been suspicious of Gill since 1990. They will not say, however, why they didn't act until now. In fact, the false information Gill provided affected not only the Israeli outlook on the Middle East but U.S. policies toward the region as well.

As a recipient of Israeli intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community gave Mossad great credence. Thus the false information about Syria passed on by Israel greatly influenced American policies toward Syria as well. The resulting U.S. actions caused the Syrians, along with other Arab countries, to doubt U.S. integrity.

Realizing what has taken place, one cannot but wonder where Netanyahu got his "secret information" about Arafat's "support" of terrorism. The same doubts arise about persistent Israeli reports of the danger Iran poses for the world, along with Hamas and Hezbollah.

What is real in the Israeli intelligence briefings Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is receiving and spreading around? And what is wishful thinking by right-wingers in the overlapping Israeli intelligence and military establishments, who would not be at all averse to involving Israel—and the United States—in yet another war against a Muslim nation, or nations, in the Middle East?

Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad case officer, has written two books about his experiences, By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer and The Other Side of Deception: A Rogue Agent Exposes the Mossad's Secret Agenda. Both are available through theAET Book Club.