Spy Versus Spy Can Leave Israel Blind

Newly released historical documents highlight the folly of overestimating the importance of military intelligence - a lesson that is all too valuable today.

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Ashraf Marwan, right, shaking hands with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser during Marwarn's wedding to Nasser's daughter, Mona, July 1966.
Ashraf Marwan, right, shaking hands with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser during Marwarn's wedding to Nasser's daughter, Mona, July 1966.Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Israel’s Military Intelligence beat its counterparts in the West in being the first to predict, according the IDF General Staff, that Russia was planning to intervene in Syria militarily.

Correct forecasting is a professional achievement, but intelligence is only a traffic signal, not a barrier or a catalyst to any particular action. A traffic signal can’t determine whether the driver will heed a red light or brake at a green one, despite the risk of collision, or what he will do when faced with a flashing yellow light. The tendency to ascribe extraordinary powers to military intelligence smacks of megalomania. Frequently things work just the opposite way, with reality unfolding differently than expected. The most typical example of such an about–face is the story of Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan (who was recruited by the Mossad but may also have been working for Egypt as a double agent.) He was “a hen laying golden eggs," in the words of Shmulik Goren, a major player in recruiting Marwan — part of the inner circle of the Egyptian elite — to the Mossad. But a hen is never attached to a polygraph. And today it is still not clear who deceived whom with regard to Marwan (who warned Israel of the imminent 1973 Yom Kippur War, but gave his handlers the wrong hour for the planned Egyptian and Syrian offensive). Did Israel fool Anwar Sadat or did the Egyptian leader pull the wool over Israel's eyes by using the spy?

A newly released American document strengthens the suspicion that Sadat knew that Marwan was somehow connected to Israel. Thus, in coordination with Marwan or by using him as a puppet, Sadat transmitted to the Mossad and through it to then–Prime Minister Golda Meir a diplomatic and military scenario whose purpose was to convince Israel to withdraw from Sinai through an agreement, lest he implement his much-derided threats to thaw the diplomatic freeze through war.

Circumstantial proof of this lies in talks held by the U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and the Soviet ambassador in Washington Anatoly Dobrynin on March 17, 1972. The two were preparing a summit meeting in Moscow between President Richard Nixon and President Leonid Brezhnev, one aim of which was to agree on a deal to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. While they were at odds over many issues, Nixon and Brezhnev also had a strategic alliance with which they managed world affairs, sometimes even at the expense of client states that helped them tactically in the confrontation between the superpowers.

In the fall of 1971 then-Prime Minister Golda Meir transmitted to Nixon and Kissinger alone, through the Mossad’s links with CIA chief Richard Helms, some exceptional raw intelligence that had been obtained from Marwan. These were verbatim exchanges between Sadat and Brezhnev (in October 1973, while talking to Kissinger at the Mossad guesthouse, Golda told him that “we have a source” in Sadat’s close circles). American leaders got a rare glimpse into the considerations of the decision-making Soviet echelons, straight from the bear’s mouth. Kissinger was intoxicated by the material, but grasped its significance. Anything that Nixon and Brezhnev agreed on and transmitted to Sadat would come to the attention of Israel, which would then use American Jewry to block unwanted moves on the eve of U.S. presidential elections. Kissinger, a tough maneuverer in the game of nations, warned Dobrynin that the Egyptian leadership had been penetrated by Israeli intelligence. The missing link that leads from assumption to certainty is the path this warning took, from Dobrynin to Brezhnev, and from him to Sadat.

Among the revelations of the Nixon administration documents now coming to light is a report by Helms to Kissinger in October 1970 regarding the first contact between the CIA and delegates of Yasser Arafat, who proposed creating an entity that would live in peace and cooperation with Israel. From an intelligence perspective, the White House had a very accurate picture of the PLO-Jordan-Israel triangle. As always, the decisive question is basically political, relating to what one does, not what one knows.

To help those in the know sober up from an inflated sense of self-importance there is nothing better than a document from March 1963 that has just come to light, from the daily intelligence briefings of President John Kennedy. The ambassador in Cairo, John Badeau, reported the movements of Nasser in Yemen, based on “a good source, who has previously been right 50 percent of the time.” An intelligence source that is as good as the flipping of a coin.

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