Why Did a Top Israeli Intelligence Officer Join the KGB?

Shimon Levinson was convicted of spying for the KGB in 1991 and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The Shin Bet security service has for the first time gone public about the Shimon Levinson spy case, posting details about the affair on its official Web site. Levinson, a senior Israeli intelligence officer, was convicted of spying for the KGB in 1991 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was released after seven years, and in 2003, he moved to Thailand, where he works as an agricultural consultant.

"The nightmare of every intelligence organization is to find an enemy agent at the heart of its own intelligence community, inside the working environment of the highest-ranking decision-makers in the country," the Shin Bet site says. "Such an agent has access to extremely sensitive information, including strategic plans, to which he is liable to cause damage. The affair of Shimon Levinson - a retired army intelligence colonel, a former member of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, and a chief of security in the Prime Minister's Office - was a case of this nightmare coming true."

The story the Shin Bet has now published is based on its interrogations of Levinson and on court proceedings that were held behind closed doors and cloaked in secrecy. The case had already been written about in the Israeli press, but this is the Shin Bet's official version. And though the material has been censored, and is also intended to serve the Shin Bet's public relations, it contains details that have never come to light before. Their publication is part of a recent Shin Bet policy of revealing selected episodes of its history.

The corrupt colonel

Shimon Levinson was born in Jerusalem in 1933 and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces in 1950. He retired from the IDF in 1978 after having held a variety of positions: He was a member of the Israeli-Jordanian armistice committee, an army attache in Turkey and also served in Military Intelligence's documentation center. Though he failed his officer exams several times, he was repeatedly promoted, eventually reaching the rank of colonel.

In 1963, Levinson was recruited by the Shin Bet and served in the security vetting team in the Jerusalem area. Two years later, the army agreed to his request to transfer to the Mossad, where he worked in a similar capacity. He ultimately became head of the Mossad's Tevel station in Ethiopia and was in charge of the secret military aid that Israel gave the army of Emperor Haile Selassie in his war against Eritrean rebels.

In 1973, Levinson returned to Israel and to the IDF. He became a liaison officer with the UN, with the rank of colonel, and remained in this job until he retired in 1978, out of frustration over then-IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan's refusal to promote him further.

Upon his retirement, Levinson exploited the connections he had developed with senior UN officials and arranged a dream job for himself in Bangkok, with a hefty salary and accompanying perks, running a UN agency fighting the drug trade in East Asia. The position was meant, inter alia, to help him out of financial difficulties caused by his business failures. This is also why he decided to offer his services to the Soviet Union's secret service.

The motive: money

In April 1983, Levinson entered the Soviet embassy in Bangkok and offered to spy on Israel. During his interrogation by the Shin Bet, Levinson said his sole motive was money, and he had hoped his Soviet operators would reward him well. Only later did he learn the facts of life: It is hard to become a millionaire by spying. Over seven years, Levinson received only $31,000.

After some hesitation, the KGB decided to take Levinson on and sent him to Moscow for tests and a crash course in the art of coded messages, radio communications and secret rendezvous. While in Moscow, he was also told what type of information the KGB was interested in.

After returning to Israel, Levinson tried to rejoin the Mossad but was rejected. This time, unlike in the past, the Mossad understood that he was a problematic individual, to say the least.

But the red lights that lit up at the Mossad went unnoticed by the Shin Bet, which agreed to a new and surprising appointment for him: In May 1985, his old friend Maj. Gen. (ret.) Avraham Tamir, then director general of the Prime Minister's Office, gave Levinson the important and sensitive position of chief security officer. Among those who recommended Levinson were then-prime minister Shimon Peres and former army and Shin Bet officers. During this time, Levinson was exposed to all the prime minister's secrets - which bolstered his status in the eyes of his KGB handlers.

'Grave damage'

According to the Shin Bet Web site, the information Levinson gave the Soviets was comprehensive. It included:

The structure of Israel's intelligence community and its various units, including Military Intelligence, the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the police's special operations unit and Nativ, the liaison bureau for Soviet Jewry. The information included details about each unit and sub-unit, the names of their chiefs and their methods of operation.

The structure of the Prime Minister's Office, its methods of operation, and key personalities.

Information about the Foreign Ministry, which included passing on original documents.

Information about American intelligence officers in contact with Israeli intelligence, including names, positions and specialties.

"Due to his varied background, his familiarity with and his access to top-secret information, Levinson - who is considered one of the highest-ranking KGB agents in Israel - caused grave intelligence damage to Israel," the Shin Bet concluded.

Levinson served only seven years of his 12-year sentence, as he was given a third off for good behavior.

The report on the Shin Bet's Web site ends in an uncharacteristically personal and gossipy tone: "During Levinson's time in prison, his wife left him and his friends and former colleagues severed their ties with him. He was also expelled from organizations of which he had been a member, such as that of army retirees. Upon his release, he lived in a rented apartment in Jerusalem, an outcast from his social environment, in search of work."

What the Shin Bet Web site does not reveal, however, is that Levinson's incarceration in May 1991 was made possible by information that reached the Mossad from a foreign source. Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit hastened to inform Shin Bet director Jacob Perry. The latter then ordered an investigation that was code-named Eshel Hamidbar ("Desert Tamarisk").

Shin Bet interrogators were particularly concerned that Levinson might have planted bugs in the Prime Minister's Office, which would have enabled his handlers to listen in on all the most sensitive and secret cabinet decisions. But after repeated grillings that included several lie detector tests, Levinson was able to convince them that he had not done so.

The Shin Bet also refrains from saying that during the trial, some of the spy's best friends in the army and the security services came to his aid. Among those who testified on his behalf were Ariel Sharon and Rafi Eitan - a close relative of Levinson as well as a legendary Mossad and Shin Bet operative who until recently was a cabinet minister.

But what hurts most of all is the absence of the one sentence that must be said: Shimon Levinson was the most despicable spy Israel has ever known. He betrayed his country out of pure greed. Neither ideology nor blackmail made him do it, just greed.