Spielberg Could Be on the Wrong Track

Steven Spielberg's upcoming movie about the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics is based on a book that is apparently strewn with mistakes.

At the end of the year it will become clear whether Steven Spielberg has fallen into Yuval Aviv's trap. In December, a new film by famed director Steven Spielberg is due to be released, telling the story of a Mossad hit team that attacked the terrorists from the Black September organization after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

This story has already been told quite a few times in books and in investigative newspaper articles, and has also been filmed a number of times. Swiss Jewish producer Arthur Cohn won an Oscar for his 1999 film "One Day in September," a docudrama about the murder of the athletes. The problem that Spielberg and the producers of the new film have is that of the wealth of available information on the subject, they have chosen the most controversial book, "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team," by Canadian journalist George Jonas, which was published in 1984. According to reports, "Vengeance" is also the provisional title of Spielberg's film.

The book, upon which a film screened on the American HBO television channel has already been based, tells the story of "Avner," who heads the hit team. The book is strewn with mistakes. Some of them are obvious: For example, Avner tells how he was summoned to prime minister Golda Meir's office and assigned the mission of heading the unit.

Incorrect depictions

In reality, it is not possible a prime minister would summon a Mossad agent of non-senior rank. But there were also incorrect depictions in the book that seemed reasonable, certainly to an American public that is unfamiliar with the intelligence community's operating methods, especially the Mossad's. And indeed readers, television viewers and critics in America found the book and the film to be credible.

The problem arose five years later, in 1989, when a third party claimed in a lawsuit that private investigator Yuval Aviv, an Israeli, was Canadian journalist George Jonas' source. In the lawsuit, Jonas identified Aviv as a key figure in the book and argued that Aviv had dishonored an agreement and prevented him from receiving royalties due to him from the profits of the film.

After this identification, the international press began to publish articles about Aviv. Investigative reports about him revealed that he represented himself as a Mossad agent even though he had never worked in the Mossad and certainly had not participated in operations to kill those involved in the athletes' murder. Aviv, as he emerged from these investigative reports, had a special fondness for conspiracy theories, and it turned out that he was willing to hire out his services to anyone who was willing to pay, even to both sides of the same dispute.

Aviv was born in Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in 1947 as Yuval Aviof. He enlisted in the naval commando but did not complete the training program and transferred to the Armored Corps. A few years after his military service he went to the United States. He worked as a cabdriver and as security guard for El Al in New York; apparently this is his only "security experience." Senior security sources have told Haaretz in the past that they do not know anyone named Yuval Aviof or Aviv. "Had he been in the Mossad or involved in the operation, we would know him," they added. Zvi Zamir, who was head of the Mossad during that period, has also stated on several occasions (including to this writer) that he has never known Aviv and that there is no connection between what is related in Jonas' book and what really happened.

Aviv's breakthrough into the public's consciousness came in 1989, after the crash of the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland. The plane crashed after a bomb placed aboard by Libyan espionage personnel exploded, killing 275 people. Aviv offered his services as an investigator both to the families of the victims, many of whom had been students at Syracuse University, and to Pan Am's insurance company. A report he wrote for the insurance company was aimed at helping it and the airline divest themselves of responsibility for the security negligence.

Media star

According to the report, a secret unit of the CIA, in cooperation with German intelligence, used the services of a Syrian arms and drug merchant, Munzat al-Qasr, to carry out a secret deal with Iran that would lead to the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The unit did not report its activities to other units in the CIA. Qasr was convicted of smuggling narcotics via drug-runners and a number of Turkish porters at the Frankfurt airport. At one stage, Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the Popular Front - General Command, made use of the services of the Syrian drug merchant, who instead of a suitcase filled with drugs smuggled a suitcase of explosives onto the plane. In the summation of the report, Aviv recommends to the Pan Am people that they leak its contents to the public and file a suit against several federal agencies.

Pan Am and the insurance company did as he recommended and filed a suit against the CIA, the FBI and four other administration agencies. The report made Aviv a media star in the United States: Time magazine quoted him extensively and he appeared as a fighter against terror on all the leading television programs.

Aviv's report angered the victims' families, who embarked on a campaign against him, in which they revealed that Aviv had previously contacted them and offered information that would prove that Pan Am had been negligent in not preventing the disaster. They said they had rejected him only because they had already signed contracts with other advisers.

Later, in various investigative reports, it emerged that Aviv's report regurgitated things that had been published in Middle East Insider, a journal that came out in Wiesbaden, Germany, and belonged to the sect of the American Lyndon LaRouche, a former Trotskyite and runner for U.S. presidency in the 1970s who had adopted proto-fascist ideologies and gathered around himself and his wife disciples who worshipped him. In their journal they disseminated anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda, which claimed the existence of plots and conspiracies that even conspiracy theory experts found difficult to follow.

In this case as in other cases when doubts were voiced about the reliability of Aviv's reports, he claimed there were many documents that back his information. The problem was that in most cases it was impossible to evaluate the reliability of the documents he cited because, he said, they were "secret."

Following the revelation of the problematic aspects of his professional functioning, Aviv was beset by troubles and conducted various legal battles. He gave several vague versions of his security past and did not provide evidence to back his original story that he was had been in the Mossad. After a while, the American media ceased to take any interest in him.

Back in the headlines

Now he is back in the headlines, and respectable media like The New York Times are again taking an interest in him, although the focus of this interest is Spielberg's film. The many questions that are being raised by the journalists are putting Spielberg in a defensive position, and his spokesman Martin Levy said this week that the director had done comprehensive research and did not base himself only on Aviv.

"The content of the film has been taken from many sources. We expect it will be a balanced film," said the spokesman, who refused to divulge the identities of these sources because of a commitment to preserve their anonymity. However, sources in the production team admit in private conversations that most of the film script is based on Jonas' book.

Sources at the Prime Minister's Bureau, which supervises the Mossad, say that so far no requests for help for a film about the murder of the athletes at Munich and its aftermath have been received. Zvi Zamir reiterated this week to Haaretz that Yuval Aviv is not known to him and added that no one on Spielberg's behalf has contacted him with a request for information about the subject of the film. "If it is indeed true that Spielberg is basing his film on the book, I am surprised that a director like him has chosen, out of all the sources, to rely on this particular book."