December 11, 1997
The Mossad Spy Who Turned Bad
Graham Greene and John Le Carré have been there before: A shadowy source with access to the highest reaches of an enemy regime. A vain, furtive secret service handler with a chip on his shoulder, who insists that the informant will speak to no one but him. A steady flow of alarming exclusive reports, plausible but inherently uncheckable. An intelligence community more concerned with protecting its turf than investigating all the way when suspicions were first aroused.
This time, though, it was not Greene's Havana vacuum cleaner salesman or Le Carré's tailor of Panama who fed self-serving lies to his masters; it was the handler himself. And his phony warnings, over two decades, twice nearly brought Israel to war. Most recently, in autumn 1996, he predicted a Syrian attack. Military intelligence disagreed. Fortunately, its assessment prevailed, and the Mossad began looking again at its operator.
Yehuda Gil, a 63-year-old Mossad veteran, has finally confessed to his duplicity. He will be put on trial later this month, charged with supplying false information, and perhaps also with espionage and provoking an attack on Israel -- although legal experts recognize that it will be harder to make the last two stick.
After first denying all, Gil led investigators to his house in Gadera, south of Tel Aviv, where they found a cache of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars that he had neglected to pass on to his source, reportedly the relative of a Syrian general. The investigators are still trying to trace another $150,000.
The story, revealed in a series of scoops by Ha'aretz's military editor, Ze'ev Schiff, deals a debilitating blow to the Mossad's reputation, already dented by its botched attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan in September.
Israel's renowned external-security service has had its failures before. The successes, its admirers like to say, are the ones you never hear about. Maybe, but the Gil affair is particularly destructive because it strikes at the credibility of Mossad information, its stock in trade in essential dealings with the Central Intelligence Agency and other friendly services.
"The Mossad's mission," the military affairs commentator Ron Ben-Yishai wrote in Yediot Aharonot, "is to warn about the possibility of war, to relay to the government information which can be used as Israel appeals to other countries for assistance, and to collate information which the Mossad can exchange for information in the possession of other intelligence agencies. The data supplied by the Mossad must be reliable. Now, it will be much more difficult for the Mossad to persuade other governments and intelligence agencies that it is, in fact, the best agency in the world for collecting information from human sources."
Insiders acknowledge the damage but contend that it is neither permanent nor irreversible. "Our ratio of failures to successes over half a century is negligible," Reuven Merhav, a former senior Mossad officer, told me. "The Gil affair damages an image which has already been greatly tarnished in recent months, but steps have been taken to neutralize the damage."
Foreign professionals, he maintained, understood that such debacles could happen, to them as easily as to the Mossad. "Show me one serious intelligence agency, including the CIA, which has not suffered such a failure," he said. "If you can find even one, we'll send them straight to sing with the angels in heaven. None of us are angels."
The question remains: What made Yehuda Gil, whose patriotism is not disputed, do it? His lawyers say that it was not the money, though he enjoyed the high living of a lightly supervised field officer. Politicians as diverse as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor opposition leader Ehud Barak deny that he was ideologically motivated, though he worked after retirement for retired Gen. Rehavam Ze'evy's ultranationalist Moledet party.
The more plausible theory is a wounded self-importance. Gil immigrated to Israel in his youth from Libya. He speaks fluent Arabic and several European languages. By all accounts, his trade craft was superb. The Mossad is said to have used him to lecture its new recruits on the art of lying.
"Despite the disturbing reports," one of his former Mossad colleagues, Gad Shomron, wrote in Ma'ariv, "I must confess I admired him. Yehuda Gil came up with the founding generation of Mossad field workers. Tales about his exploits were part of the heritage they tried to bequeath us. He was a professional, courageous and inventive, of the rare breed which helped the Mossad to acquire its reputation as the world's leading intelligence organization in dealing with human sources....
"Yehuda Gil is one of those people whom the Creator blessed with the ability to pinpoint within a few seconds his interlocutor's weakness. This talent, along with his high intelligence, diligence, amazing skills with language and his impressive patience, caused him to be promoted quickly."
Not, it seems, quickly enough or as high as he thought his due. "Gil became embittered," Shomron testified. "He believed the Mossad top brass did not sufficiently appreciate his talents." So, according to this interpretation, he embellished his reports to remind them how good he was -- and, after retiring in the early 1990s, he forced his way back by claiming that his Syrian source had come back on stream but would talk to nobody else. Yehuda Gil missed the action.
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