Spies Against Armageddon–and towards a Moral Morass?

Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, a real life “thriller” about the exploits of Israel’s intelligence agencies,  has been making headlines since its publication on July 9. Not only do its authors, CBS News’ Dan Raviv and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, confirm widely held suspicions that Israel was responsible for the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists and for interjecting the Flame and Stuxnet viruses into the computers that control Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but they make the case that  Israelis–not local lackeys or political dissidents such as the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK)–carried out the assassinations on Iranian soil:

“For such a sensitive dangerous and daring mission as a series of assassinations in Iran’s capital, the Mossad would not depend on hired-gun mercenaries,” Raviv and Melman assert. “They would be considered far less trustworthy and there was hardly any chance that the Mossad would reveal to non-Israelis some of its assassination unit’s best methods.”

Unnoticed in the effusive advance praise promoting the book is that much of Spies Against Armageddon is a rehash of Raviv and Melman’s earlier collaboration Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community, published in 1990. Although the authors state that they have updated, revised and amplified their previous work in light of new documentation that has become available, large chunks of text–for example, the extensive section on Jonathan Pollard–are incorporated practically verbatim. Chapter titles have been tweaked slightly, and in some cases the chronological order has been reshuffled. Both books conclude with a chapter whose heading is “Into the Future,” and with the identical closing sentence: “The community’s history has demonstrated both the maximal achievements and the inescapable limitations of intelligence.”

But the intent of Every Spy a Prince was to provide a warts-and-all portrayal of Israel’s intelligence, as an LA Times review pointed out when it was first published. Its title in Hebrew was The Imperfect Spies, and the authors set out to challenge the notion “that intelligence agencies can solve anything, that the Mossad (Israel’s foreign intelligence agency) can reach out to any country and take care of any problem. But the world has become more complicated than that.”

The choice of title for their latest collaboration, however, beyond its potential as a marketing strategy to entice Christian End Time rapturists to read it, appears to reflects its authors’ belief that these Israeli intelligence operatives are engaged in an apocalyptic confrontation, on the side of good against the forces of  evil personified by Iran, and various militant groups acting to the dictates of their Iranian “masters.” In this battle there is very little margin for error:

Armageddon, in Christian lore, is said to be the site of a final battle between good and evil. While the location is reputed to be a hill near Megiddo, in the Valley of Jezreel in northern Israel, Jews do not expect or seek an apocalyptic event. Yet, Israel’s intelligence community—time and again—has had the task of waging secret war aimed at pulling its country back from the brink of an awful situation. Making mistakes in the current campaign against Iran’s nuclear program could be highly destructive.

Most of the revelations about Iran are found in the first chapter of Spies Against Armageddon. In the process of integrating old and new material and structuring the book around the imperative of dealing with the threat posed by Iran, Raviv and Melman provide a historical survey of  the Israeli-Iranian relationship, including aspects of the regime of the late Shah of Iran that most neoconservatives and war hawks have preferred to ignore or dismiss as unverified speculation slandering the Jewish state, such as:

1. The Shah of Iran had a nuclear program, which he developed for military as well as civilian purposes with the assistance of the U.S. and Israel and Shimon Peres offered to enhance it (I have written about this in depth here):

Then came Shimon Peres, the defense official—and future prime minister and president of Israel—who was one of the creators of his own nation’s secret nuclear program. Peres offered the Shah nuclear technology and the use of Israel Atomic Energy Commission experts.

Fortunately for Israel, the Shah turned down Peres’ offer, sparing Israel “deep embarrassment and regret” decades later:

The Israelis would have been helping their future arch-enemy go nuclear. The Shah said no. He did not need the Israelis’ help. He already had American, French, German, and Canadian companies queuing up for big contracts with him.

2. While the Islamic regime in Iran today has an appalling human rights record, Iran under the Shah was hardly a bastion of civil liberties. In 1957,  American and Israeli intelligence agents helped establish the SAVAK, the Shah’s personal secret security force. Iran became a full-blown police state complete with thousands of informers, censorship, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and widespread torture and assassination of political opponents. A censorship office monitored journalists, academics and writers, and kept a watchful eye on students. The penalty for possession of forbidden books included interrogation, torture and long term imprisonment.” Iran had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief,” according to an Amnesty International report in 1976. “No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.”

Raviv and Melman confirm that Israel was implicated in these human rights abuses, but don’t seem terribly bothered by it. They shift attention immediately to the advantages to Israel allying with the Shah:

Israeli intelligence trained Savak, the Shah’s brutal secret police and espionage service. As part of the compensation, the Shah allowed the Mossad to operate on his soil as a base for recruiting agents in Iraq and other countries. Iran even provided documentation to enhance the Israelis’ cover stories.”

3. Raviv and Melman assert that following Khomeini’s death, in the early 1990s, Iran renewed its atomic bomb-building program, aided by Russia, China, and “above all from Pakistan’s notorious nuclear traveling salesman, Abdul Qader Khan” and that the “Israeli intelligence and the defense ministry did not perceive Iran as a threat” at that point. On the contrary “[t]hey even allowed Israeli companies and middlemen to sell security and military gear to the ayatollahs” secretly to “hide them from the United States” who “would have vigorously opposed such deals.”

Nevertheless, when Nahum Manbar, an Israeli businessman attempted to replenish Iran’s depleted weapons supplies at the end of the Iraq-Iran war by supplying Iran with Polish weapons, and supplied raw materials from China and Hungary that Iran used to make chemical weapons, the Mossad and Shin Bet put him under surveillance, “(i)n part because of concerns expressed by the United States.”

Manbar was brought to Israel and  tried in 1997. A gag order and military censorship prevented  any mention of the case in the Israeli media.”The muzzling was a fairly routine way of handling a case involving espionage agencies and sensitive foreign affairs. Manbar was sentenced to 16 years in prison for doing business with an enemy nation.” (Oddly, although Spies Against Armageddon includes numerous incidents and investigations whose scope extends into 2012, Raviv and Melman don’t mention that Nahum Manbar was released from prison early, in October 2011.)

Intentionally or not, Spies Against Armageddon brings to light significant differences between Israeli and U.S. intelligence priorities that emerged during consultations between the Mossad’s previous Director, Meir Dagan, and the CIA:

At first, under the spell of the 9/11 tragedy in the United States, he [Dagan] made the Mossad’s top mission the monitoring of—and battle against—what Israeli intelligence called “global jihad,” meaning al-Qaeda and other loosely affiliated Islamist cells all around the world.

Quite soon, however, Dagan and analysts in the Mossad’s research department realized that networks inspired by al-Qaeda were not seriously interested in battling Israel and the Jews. Their main priority was and has been causing bloody trouble to America and pro-Western Arab regimes.

Thus a change in the Israeli calculus:

Dagan had to consider re-ordering priorities again. In light of Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, plus the rhetoric of its leaders who declared Israel an illegitimate state to be wiped off the map—it seemed wise to place the Islamic Republic at the very top of the priority list. Intelligence collection and analysis aimed at Iran would be more than doubled.

One is also reminded by Raviv and Melman that Israel has been at the technical forefront of drone research and development and pioneered their use for assassinations two decades ago. In 1992, a decision was made by Israel’s intelligence community to kidnap Abbas Musawi, Hezbollah’s newly designated secretary-general. When a Lebanese newspaper item disclosed that Musawi would be visiting a Shi’ite village in southern Lebanon, an Israeli air force drone “flying undetectably high above” monitored Musawi’s group before the order to “destroy the entire convoy” was carried out by an Israeli attack helicopter:

[The Israeli pilot] was not told beforehand who the main target would be, and he said “professional behavior” meant not asking questions. “We knew they weren’t sending us out for nothing,” he said. The five-minute attack was like a shooting gallery. Four helicopters fired missile after missile to liquidate all the Hezbollah targets. The gruesome results, shattered and smoking remnants of expensive German- and British-made vehicles, formed a killing field.

Women and children were not spared in what Israel would later legalize as “targeted prevention”:

The death toll included Musawi, his wife, their son, and at least five security guards. This was the first assassination by Israeli attack helicopters, several years before the practice—officially aimed at blocking future terrorism—became legalized by an attorney general as “targeted prevention.” America would come to call the method “targeted killing,” when aimed against al-Qaeda years later.

For the sake of argument–and in order for the authors to evade the charge of being trendy, lefty, soft hearted, soft-headed, Kantian universalist blindsided by postmodern blather about ethical relativism–let us accept as axiomatic that any individual who affiliates with a militant organization is a “terrorist.” Let us further posit that terrorists forfeit all rights to due process under the law and to life itself if they jeopardize the well-being and security of anyone on “our side.” Let us extend that forfeiture to the members of their families, young or old, friends, associates, and even to anyone unfortunate enough to be in their vicinity at the wrong moment–just by being there those people become “collateral damage” anyway.

Still, there remains the dilemma of who ought to have the moral and legal authority to take the lives of human beings and whether that authority should be permitted across the board internationally. President Barak Obama has recently come under criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for making and taking responsibility for such judgment calls. Should we accept his actions as justifiable and even commendable because they were allegedly carried out to serve our interests? Does the executive branch of government involve God-like authority? Should the executives of other countries be allowed to act according to the same logic?

Should every country be permitted to engage in assassinations, sabotage, clandestine nuclear development and the interjection of infectious malware into vital computer infrastructure in defense of their own interests and to enhance their national security? Does every country have a right to decide and declare who is and who is not a terrorist? Or should that right be granted solely to Israel and the U.S.? From Raviv and Melman’s choice of title, the answer–grounded in their implicit belief in Israeli exceptionalism, warts and all–is clear. Ultimately, their greatest concern seems to be that despite the best efforts of intelligence agencies and the operatives who carry their instructions, such actions may prove insufficient in protecting Israel’s security.

A more important concern that Raviv and Melman do not consider, however, is whether the actions of these spies battling against Armageddon are propelling the world toward a moral morass from which there is no exit.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


One Comment

  1. Raviv and Mehlman’s assertion that the US government would have disapproved of Israeli supplies of weaponry to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War is belied by the fact that the Reagan Administration did, in fact, approve of that arms traffic.

    The various investigations of the 1980 October Surprise scandal may not have absolutely and conclusively proven that the October Madrid and Paris meetings between Reagan campaign figures and representatives of Ayatollah Khomeini occured, but those investigations did unearth undeniable proof that the subsequent Israel-Iran arms sales were approved by high level Reagan administration officials.

    Secretary of State Haig stated that Reagan’s National Security advisor, Robert McFarlane, urged him as early as February 1981 to approve transfers of US-made weaponry and spares through Israel to Iran. Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State to the Middle East, conducted his own investigation of the arms traffic and concluded that it was approved at the highest levels of the US govt. Various Israeli officials – including Ariel Sharon and Moshe Arens were quite insistent that all Israeli transfers of US military supplies to the Islamic Republic were US-approved.

    The FBI’s 1986 bust of the General Bar-Am’s trafficking ring would seem to be one instance that contradicts this, but it is apparent from a close reading of Oliver North’s “Private Blank Check” memoranda that the Bar-Am ring was being run by North’s NSC cohort Michael Ledeen as a scheme to enhance Israel’s influence on Iran’s upper echelons, and North wanted to eliminate that competition in order to enhance the leverage of his arms-for-hostages scheme.

    The fact that the traffic was official – if covert – is lent further credence by a number of other close military allies of the US, including Britain, Greece, Belgium and West Germany that became involved in the US arms to Iran pipeline.

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