Inside The Mossad
Dan Raviv is a Washington, D.C.-based national correspondent for CBS and host of its “Weekend Roundup.” He is also known for co-authoring “Every Spy A Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community.” He posts weekly on his blog at israelspy.com. The JT recently caught up with Raviv to talk about his new book, “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”
JT: How did you first become interested in Israeli intelligence and the Middle East?
Dan Raviv: I was a writer for CBS Radio in Boston and then in New York. … CBS sent me to Israel in July of ’78. I heard CBS wanted to beef up its Middle East coverage because Anwar Sadat had just visited Prime Minister Menachem Begin [in 1977]. There was a great CBS investment in the story, and radio news was going to hire another person for the Tel Aviv bureau. I volunteered right away and got it.
Three of your books are co-authored by Yossi Melman. How did that partnership develop?
I met Yossi [when he] was working in London for an Israeli news station. We began writing articles about things people didn’t really understand. At one point, we realized we could probably put a lot of those stories together and write a book. Together we wrote, “Behind the Uprising” about Israel’s secret relationship with the king of Jordan. We began to touch upon secrecy and spies, which later became our specialty.
“Spies Against Armageddon” is about Israeli intelligence agencies and operations. How do you research something shroud in secrecy?
It’s all about people and not much about documents. It is people telling their stories. We went through this with “Every Spy A Prince”  and decided to revisit the subject 22 years later because so many other things have happened. A lot of them were retired and ready to get their touch on history. It all is about people trusting you and telling you their stories. Since it is espionage, there are a lot of people who would not talk to us. Yossi is an Israeli, and our sources know his track record of being careful and accurate while still being patriotic. None of our sources want to harm Israel.
Has the landscape of Israeli intelligence changed since 1990 when “Every Spy A Prince” was published? Have recent developments affected the goals and operations of the Israeli intelligence community?
The basic layout of the Israeli agencies hasn’t changed, and it seems to work [with the] three [major] agencies: Shin Bet [domestic], Aman [military] and Mossad [worldwide].
A decade ago, Ariel Sharon felt the Palestinian issue wasn’t progressing and was convinced that Iran was becoming more dangerous. Iran was already on Israel’s radar, as were indications that Iran was working on a nuclear bomb. … The [real] change, as seen in our 1990 and 2012 books, was from Palestinian terrorism to tackling the Iranian issue.
Israeli intelligence operations are often seen as violent and deadly. Why?
Most intelligence operations are about collecting information, eavesdropping and having an eye on open sources. Israeli capabilities for a small country are simply amazing. We calculated that over the 60 years of the Mossad’s existence, about 50 assassinations have taken place. The image seems to be that thousands of enemies of Israel have been assassinated.
What can Israel do to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?
When Director [Meir] Dagan retired at the end of 2010, he did not hide his boast that the Mossad had postponed a nuclear bomb by at least 10 years. Yossi and I … found out that explosions, assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and the introduction of computer viruses like Stuxnet … were used in recent years. Dagan has hinted that there is a lot more sabotage to do with the eventual hope that the government might change.
Do you think there is a global misconception about the Mossad?
To the extent that the world thinks that the Mossad is frighteningly efficient, I do not think that’s a misconception. The Mossad [is] excellent at what it does, with the occasional errors. Critics of Israel make the Mossad sound like an assassination squad, and that may be a misconception; it’s far more subtle than that. Some people don’t realize that there is a Jewish component, too. Out of sentiment and tradition, the Mossad has often embarked on missions that are aimed at rescuing, protecting and avenging Jews.
The situation in Syria brings fear of the unknown to an already unstable and historically dangerous neighborhood. Still, does a broken and divided Syria provide an opportunity for Israel?
When I spoke to people in Israeli intelligence at the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, they said it was great that [Bashar] Assad is probably going to fall. … Now, Israeli intelligence seems to be divided. In a coldhearted way, one of them recently told me, it is in Israel’s best interest is for things to continue as they are. However, after a moment of silence, [the source] added, “Don’t get me wrong … it is terrible that so many people are dying within kilometers of our boarders.”
Mossad agents make tremendous sacrifices in order to secure Israel. Why?
Intelligence people feel like they are fighting every day to keep Israel safe. … I recently spoke to a woman who is currently in the Mossad, and she told me, “I don’t do it for [Binyamin] Netanyahu or for whoever is in power; I do it for my kids.”