Inside Intel / Our Man in Havana

Nir Baruch, a Shin Bet official posted to Cuba in the 1960s in order to forward information to the CIA, died recently.

Nir Baruch, a senior Shin Bet official in the 1960s and 1970s, passed away some five weeks ago. Alongside a handful of friends and relatives at his modest funeral in Kibbutz Einat, a few Shin Bet representatives attended as well - led by Reuven Hazak, the former deputy chief of the security service. They came to pay their last respects to the gentleman, who died at 88.

During the last three decades of his life, after leaving the service, Baruch worked as a businessman to advance Israel's political, cultural and economic ties with Bulgaria, his native country. He was also especially attentive to expressions of anti-Semitism and fought with all his might against them.

Nir Baruch in 2003
Reproduction

Born in Sofia in 1922, he was named Nansen, after the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who was also a member of the League of Nations and worked on population transfers between Turkey and Greece after World War I. Baruch was a member of the Betar youth movement and up until his very last breath worked to preserve the complexity of Bulgaria's connection to the Holocaust.

On the one hand, he recalled that the country's leaders - the head of the church, parliament members and public figures - saved the 50,000 Jews there. Contrary to King Boris, who collaborated with the Nazis, they prevented the dispatching of Bulgaria's Jews to the extermination camps in Poland. On the other hand, Baruch did not forget that Bulgarian policemen sent some 11,000 Jews from Thrace (Greece ) and Macedonia (Yugoslavia ) on Bulgarian trains and ships to their deaths in extermination camps; the two provinces had been given to the king as a favor by the Nazis in recognition of his collaboration and annexed to Bulgaria.

After immigrating to Israel via Turkey in 1944, Baruch changed his first name from Nansen to Nir. In 1953 he joined the Nativ organization, which was responsible for ties with the Jews of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and he was sent to serve as its representative in the guise of a diplomat in the Bulgarian capital. During his service there, he went through the severely traumatic experience of dealing with the El Al airplane shot down in August 1955 by Bulgarian fighter jets, after it accidentally strayed into Bulgarian airspace due to a navigational error. Fifty-eight passengers and crew members were killed in the crash.

Nir Baruch never forgot what he saw when he arrived at the morgue to identify the bodies. "The sight was shocking," he told me. Some 50 years later he wrote about the incident in a book called "Flight XAKC4" (published in Bulgarian ), in collaboration with a Bulgarian journalist. After Baruch returned from his service in Bulgaria, Shin Bet chief Amos Manor drafted him into the organization.

Spy catcher

Most of Baruch's professional career was spent in Headquarters 2, which eventually became the counter-espionage and infiltration prevention unit. He was involved in the Shin Bet's prominent counter-espionage operations against the Soviet KGB and its subsidiaries in Eastern Europe, including the capture of the Technion's Czech professor Kurt Sita in 1961, and of the Samuels, a Romanian couple who were both spies, in 1965.

In 1972, by which time he was already the head of the unit, Baruch oversaw the operation to capture Col. Yuri Linov, the only KGB officer on active duty who was planted and captured in Israel. The assignment given Linov, who was posing as an Austrian businessman, was to renew ties with the Soviet Union's spying networks with which contact had been broken due to the Six-Day War in 1967. Linov was arrest and sentenced to a lengthy jail term, but after two years he was released in a complex spy-prisoner exchange deal. The Soviet Union released from jail Zionist activists Sylvia Zalmanson, her husband Eduard Kuznetsov and their colleagues, Russian Jews who had tried to hijack a plane to fly it to Israel. The United States also freed a Bulgarian spy it had arrested.

But the highlight of Nir Baruch's achievements, which he was never publicly interviewed about, came in 1961 - when he was sent to serve as deputy head of Israel's diplomatic mission in Cuba, after Fidel Castro's revolution.

"Manor instructed me to gather information that would be forwarded to the CIA," Baruch told me and made me promise this information would only be published after his death.

It was five years earlier that the Shin Bet, under Manor's leadership, transferred to James Angleton, the CIA's head of counter espionage, who was in charge of the "Israeli file," the secret speech of Soviet communist party leader Nikita Khrushchev which revealed and denounced the crimes of Josef Stalin. Obtaining that secret document raised Israel's standing in Washington's eyes and became the cornerstone in developing the strategic alliance between the two countries.

Baruch, incidentally, suspected that the speech's arrival in the hands of Polish-Jewish journalist Viktor Grayevsky was not coincidental. He believed it to be an intentional leak by the Soviet Union, which wanted the speech to reach the West.

The assignment to serve as an authorized spy by Manor for the CIA in Cuba was nothing new for Nir Baruch. That is what he did years before in Bulgaria, when he photographed military sights and the images were relayed to American intelligence. Baruch arrived in Havana two weeks before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 organized by the CIA, meant to overthrow Castro. Very quickly he discovered that the Soviet Union had sent its experts to deploy missiles on the island. He conveyed that information to the CIA.

"Without time to prepare, I began operating immediately after the invasion," he later told me. "In accordance with Manor's directives, I reported directly to the Mossad representative at the Israeli embassy in Washington about the Russian military people who arrived on the island. One of my sources was close to Castro, and I became friendly with him. I know the reports were relayed to Angleton.

"At a certain stage, in order to shorten the processes, the Americans supplied me with a more sophisticated coding device," Baruch continued. "A few times I flew to Washington and met with Angleton. On several occasions he asked me to be a courier and meet with CIA agents in Cuba, but I declined. I thought this was too dangerous."