A Bestseller, by Way of Deception?

Recalling the infamous Ostrovsky affair, another Mossad officer of Canadian origin has now published a book about his secret service career without receiving authorization from the organization.

In 1993 two businessmen, one British and one Canadian, flew to Tehran. From the airport they went to their hotel and after they settled in to their rooms, they took a taxi to a meeting with representatives of an Iranian company. When they returned to their hotel they took out a shortwave radio set and listened to a brief transmission. The two men were not really businessmen but Mossad agents under assumed identities, on a secret mission. The radio set enabled them to receive encoded transmissions from Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv. When the message that had been agreed upon in advance at headquarters came through, they split up and each of them set about his task.

One of the agents rented a car and drove from Tehran to Natanz, a distance of 250 kilometers. The cover he adopted was of an innocent tourist on his way to visit a picturesque desert oasis, not far from Natanz. His real mission was to photograph the area and take soil samples, which he concealed in a pair of shoes he carried in his suitcase. His mission and that of the Briton, his partner, who flew out to another city, was accomplished uneventfully. They returned to their hotel in Tehran and from there they flew back to Europe and thence to Israel. The hero of this daring plot, if indeed it really happened, writing under the pen-name Michael Ross, has recently published a book called "The Volunteer: A Canadian's Secret Life in the Mossad."

The book and its author bring to mind the affair of Victor Ostrovsky. And indeed, there is a great deal of similarity between "The Volunteer" and Ostrovsky's book "By Way of Deception," which kicked up a storm when it was published in 1990. Like Ostrovsky, Ross received the help of a senior Canadian journalist, Jonathan Kay, in publishing his real and imagined adventures. Ross, too, is liable to reveal modes of operations, like the use of shortwave radio sets for sending encoded transmissions, operations like that in Iran for collecting soil samples and more. He explains with great detail the cooperation between the Mossad and foreign espionage organizations, especially the Central Intelligence Agency, and talks about joint operations against Hezbollah terrorists, including operations on United States soil.

Like Ostrovsky, Ross did not receive authorization from the Mossad or from the ministerial committee for authorizing publications (as a former government employee) to publish his book. In this he has violated the law and his contract, in which he swore to keep the organization's secrets and not to publish them without permission or authorization to do so. He has also violated his loyalty oath to the Mossad.

Another point in common: Like his predecessor, Ross magnifies and glorifies his adventures and claims to have participated in operations in which it is doubtful he was involved, even on their margins. This includes the operation in Iran. Haaretz has learned from sources who knew him in the Mossad that Ross was never in Iran and it would have been highly unlikely to send an agent to collect soil samples at a time when Iran was not yet involved in enriching uranium at Natanz. He was an operations man (a "combatant," in Mossad language) in base countries (countries with which Israel has relations) and not in target countries (an Arab country or Iran).

It is very doubtful that in 1993, when Iran was just beginning to climb to the top of the Israeli intelligence community's list of priorities, the Mossad would have risked two of its agents in an operation like that. Moreover, on the face of things, there is no logic in sending an agent to collect soil samples from a site that was then only in the planning or initial construction stages, where there were no radioactive materials.

Yet, nevertheless, there are some differences between the two. Ostrovsky, for example, did not hesitate to publish his memoirs under his own name, whereas Ross is not the author's real name. Ross was a Canadian Christian who lived in Israel and married an Israeli woman, whereas Ostrovsky was an Israeli whose parents immigrated to Canada. But above all, it is possible to form the impression that Ross, unlike Ostrovsky, is not imbued with hatred for the Mossad. He is not motivated by an urge for revenge and he does not badmouth his colleagues in the organization.

Another difference: Ostrovsky was expelled from the Mossad two weeks before the end of the training course, which lasts for about a year and a half. Ross served in the Mossad for 13 years, though in the end he left the organization bitter about not having been promoted and under a cloud because of discipline problems. Nevertheless, Ross says of himself: "Though I am proud of what I've done, and have few regrets, the fact is that the secret life I chose comes at great human cost. Estranged children, divorce, depression, anger, compulsive behaviors, post-traumatic stress syndrome and general alienation are all too common among covert agents." Nevertheless, he asserts his love for Israel and his admiration for the organization.

Work in 'international cooperation'

In his book, Ross relates that he was born in 1961 in British Columbia and served for three years in a special unit of the armored corps of the Canadian army. After his army service, at the age 21, he set out to travel through Europe and from there he came to Israel. He claims this choice was only based on the comfortable weather and after he had heard that it was possible to volunteer at a kibbutz in return for bed and board, and save a little money. He lived at a kibbutz, the name of which he does not mention, in the Beit She'an Valley. He fell in love with Israel and also with an Israeli woman, whom he married and with whom he had a baby.

The formative moment, according to Ross, occurred when he met a Holocaust survivor on a bus on the way to Haifa. In the wake of that encounter, he decided to convert to Judaism. Ross received Israeli citizenship and enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1984. He did an abbreviated service in combat engineering in the territories and reserve duty in Lebanon. In 1985 he completed his military service and went back to Canada.

Before he left Israel, Ross received a summons to a meeting with someone "from the Israeli government" in an apartment in Tel Aviv. The man with whom he met offered him a job working for the country in the area of "international cooperation" and gave him a card with a telephone number. Ross ignored the request, but two years later he returned to Israel with his wife and child and decided to call.

That was in 1989 and the phone number was of course that of the Mossad. Ross was invited for an interview and went through an exhausting security check, at the end of which he was accepted into the Mossad training course. Ross describes the training period in great detail: missions to make contact with foreigners in hotels, the study of methods of surveillance, shaking surveillance and more. At the end of the training, he became a "combatant" in the Caesarea unit, he writes. This is the main operations unit of the Mossad, which at the time was headed by "Avi."

According to Ross, after seven years in Caesarea he stopped being a combatant and was assigned to a junior desk position at Mossad headquarters in the Tevel division, which was headed at the time by "Yoram." One of the former heads of Tevel was Yoram Hessel. Tevel is the division responsible, among other things, for maintaining secret relations with countries and organizations that do not maintain official relations with Israel and for cooperation with its counterpart intelligence organizations. Ross' position was in the North America department, which dealt with coordination with the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Heading the department was "Uri," whom he describes as a neurotic fellow, for whom the smallest issue became a huge crisis. Uri Chen, who eventually became the head of the Mossad's intelligence division, was at some point the head of the North America department.

The author also reveals Israeli intelligence eavesdropping on Iranian communication, which led to the exposure of terrorist networks in Azerbaijan. Ross boasts that he himself went to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in order to participate in the operation. Again it is doubtful whether a minor headquarters official, no longer a "combatant," would be sent out on such a delicate mission.

From the Tevel division Ross moved to the Bitzur unit, which was headed by "Michel," a psychologist who had immigrated from France. Bitzur, which the Mossad has considered closing several times, is the small unit responsible for maintaining contacts Jewish communities worldwide and seeing to their safety. Here, too, Ross exaggerates his minor role.

Lack of confidence

In response to a request from Haaretz, the Prime Minister's Office has stated that, "the Mossad does not customarily convey information about its employees or its activities." However, people who have retired from the Mossad vaguely remember an employee of Canadian origin, Jonathan, whose operational name was Rick, who indeed was a combatant for about seven years in a base country. They tell of an individual who lacked self-confidence and did not stand out. This is supported by the fact that he remained in a junior position even after 13 years and was not promoted, which was also one of the reasons for his retirement in 2001. In the book, Ross writes that he resigned because he felt "fatigue" and thought that at the age of 40 he would still be able to develop a new career.

The writer refused to be interviewed for this article on the grounds that he would not do so until he found a publisher in Israel. "I know that the biggest question that I'll be asked is 'why did you write this book?'" In his book, he writes: "My answer is simply that part of me being myself is putting what happened to me in my previous life down on paper - I am sure that they (the Mossad) will not exactly relish the fact that I have written this memoir ... They will react in their best interest, as they have when other former agents have written their own accounts."

Perhaps in his heart, Ross is hoping that the Mossad will try to prevent publication of his book and help him promote its sales, as was the case with Ostrovsky. But this will not happen. This time the Mossad is acting sensibly, keeping silent, not reacting and ignoring him.