Should the Mossad's Legal Adviser Intervene in Operational Affairs?

Was the recent dispute between Meir Dagan and the Mossad's legal adviser connected to a demand for an external probe of an agency operation?

A serious dispute arose recently between Mossad chief Meir Dagan and H., the organization's legal adviser. The disagreement was so profound that it was brought to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein for resolution. It revolved around a matter of principle: To what extent can and should the legal adviser intervene in clearly operational issues?

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Dagan and others involved in operations argued that beefing up the legal adviser's supervision of the agency would cause it to undergo a process of "legalization" that could undermine its core operational activity. Both sides made their cases to the attorney general. It is not clear whether Weinstein has already ruled on the issue. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been briefed on it and supports the Mossad chief's position.

This incident occurred against the backdrop of the prime minister's deliberations regarding how long Dagan's tenure should be extended, after he has already headed the Mossad for eight years, but Dagan himself acts and speaks with confidence that his term will be extended.

At least three Mossad department heads are competing for his job, as is Hagai Hadas, currently the prime minister's point man for negotiations over kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and T., who until a few years ago was Dagan's deputy, but resigned when he realized that Dagan would not promise him the top job afterward. Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence, is also interested in the job, and it's possible that a retired Israel Defense Forces general, or one who is about to retire, might apply as well.

H. is the first legal adviser to be appointed to the job from outside the ranks of the organization. Until the mid-1970s, the Mossad had no legal adviser. Then the job was given to M., who studied law while working in the organization's computing department. As an insider, he was attentive to the agency's needs and protected it from all attempts at outside intervention in issues of a clearly operational nature, even if they also touched on legal questions.

H.'s relatives include a district court judge and a law professor. She was brought into the Mossad about eight years ago, at around the same time that Dagan was appointed to head the organization. Prior to that, she served as a junior prosecutor in the Central District Prosecutor's Office, where she dealt with civil cases under the supervision of prosecutor Rachel Shilansky.

She mainly handled cases involving labor law, and in that context dealt with several labor disputes within the Mossad and monetary claims against it by Mossad employees. This slight acquaintance with the Mossad ultimately netted her the job as its legal adviser. In accordance with her terms of employment, she was appointed a unit head, and she occasionally participates in meetings of the organization's department and unit heads, which is the Mossad's highest forum.

H. has represented the Mossad in most of its legal discussions with outside parties. She maintains an ongoing relationship with the Justice Ministry and the Attorney General's Office, and has represented the agency in court on issues such as suits against Mossad employees who transgressed or media requests to remove gag orders.

In addition to its internal legal department, headed by H., the Mossad also uses external legal advisers, most of them famous attorneys from large firms. In the past it has used the services of attorneys Yehoshua Rotenstreich, Yehoshua Gelbard, Amnon Goldenberg and Reuven Bachar. Among other things, these attorneys provide legal advice relating to Mossad operations abroad. They also serve as liaisons when the agency needs to hire lawyers in countries where Mossad agents were caught and put on trial.

Over the past decade, Mossad members have stood trial in Switzerland, Cyprus and New Zealand, accused of espionage, wiretapping, identity theft and violating those countries' sovereignty. Recently, an alleged Mossad agent who called himself Uri Brodsky was put on trial in Poland, and then extradited to Germany, on suspicion of obtaining a passport fraudulently. The Dubai police claim he is connected to the assassination of senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, which was allegedly carried out by the Mossad.

This week, the Arab media reported that a Mossad agent involved in the Dubai killing was arrested in Canada. If so, an Israeli attorney is presumably being used to contact a Canadian lawyer in this case as well.

In another incident, in 1990, Amnon Goldenberg advised then-Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit to try to prevent publication of a book by Mossad cadet Victor Ostrovsky by applying to the courts in Canada and the United States. The attempt failed, and Ostrovsky's book received tremendous international exposure, became a best-seller and earned its author hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Goldenberg also conducted the negotiations with the son of Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki, whom the Mossad assassinated by mistake in Norway in 1973. Some 25 years later, the organization agreed to pay compensation to the murdered man's family without admitting responsibility for the killing.

Earlier this week, Channel 1 television reported that Dagan had thwarted an effort to appoint an external investigative committee. As far as is known, this would not have been an investigation by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's subcommittee on the secret services, but a probe by another party, apparently the Justice Ministry or some other government agency. Dagan argued that there is no need for such an inquiry, because the Mossad itself conducts thorough internal investigations.

It is possible that the failed initiative to launch an external probe is related to the dispute between H. and Dagan.

American blogger Richard Silverstein hastened to interpret Channel 1's report as referring to a demand for an external inquiry into the operation to assassinate Mabhouh. It should be noted that various foreign publications claimed the Mossad used the passports of Israelis with dual citizenship in this operation. After the Dubai police published their names, some of these citizens claimed their passports had been stolen.

In at least two instances in the past, operational hitches by the intelligence community have led to outside probes. In 1985, after the arrest of Jonathan Pollard on charges of spying for Israel in the U.S. and after the 1997 failed assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, an external inquiry committee as well as a special investigative panel of hte Knesset Foreign Affiars and Defense Committee published reports.

The Prime Minister's Office responded on behalf of the Mossad that "the Mossad does not discuss what is done by or attributed to it." The Justice Ministry said "the information is inaccurate, but beyond that we are unable to comment."