Israel Secret Services Severely Shaken by Probes Into 2 Scandals
Israel’s secret services are under siege these days, not by Arab enemies but by investigations into two scandals that, as they unfold, are offering a rare glimpse at the murkier side of Israeli intelligence operations, both at home and abroad.
While it is not clear whether both scandals will ever be fully probed, security experts say the Israeli intelligence community already has been profoundly shaken by the two investigations and the classified information that has become public over the past two weeks as a result of them.
The two scandals have also been deeply embarrassing to the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Depending on how many of the allegations printed or hinted at in the Israeli press prove true, they could also be deeply damaging to several senior ministers in the coalition Cabinet.
2 Terrorists’ Deaths
One scandal involves allegations that the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the FBI, ordered and then covered up the killing of two Arab terrorists captured on April 12, 1984, after Israeli troops retook a bus that had been hijacked.
The two, photographed alive and on their feet immediately after their capture, were turned over to Shin Bet officers who marched them to a nearby field, where they died moments later.
Two commissions investigated the incident and concluded, largely on the basis of evidence furnished by the Shin Bet, that the fatal blows had been struck by Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, commander of the paratroopers who stormed the bus. Mordechai, who had maintained his innocence, was later acquitted by a military board, which ruled that he had acted in the passion of the moment.
Now, however, three former Shin Bet officials who say they were either fired or forced to resign for not going along with an elaborate cover-up of the affair have alleged that Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom had ordered the prisoners’ deaths.
Their testimony has been partly supported by others who witnessed the incident. One former high-ranking security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Times that he stood next to Shalom in the field where the terrorists were beaten by Shin Bet interrogators.
The official said he turned away and left the scene when it became clear “they were being beaten to death.” The only question, the source continued, “is whether Shalom explicitly ordered them to be killed or merely bore responsibility for their deaths by virtue of being the officer in charge.” Late last year, the three Shin Bet dissidents, who were then still members of the secret service, took their allegations to Peres. He reportedly refused to listen to them.
Other Cabinet members who may be more deeply involved in the affair include Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Minister without Portfolio Moshe Arens. Shamir was prime minister at the time of the incident and was in close telephone contact with officials at the scene. One of those was Arens, then defense minister.
There have been numerous reports in the Israeli press that both men knew about and perhaps even participated actively in the cover-up, which included falsifying evidence, suborning witnesses and withholding crucial documents from the inquiry commissions.
The other scandal, which surfaced at about the same time as the Shin Bet affair, stems from an FBI investigation of an Israeli spy ring in the United States, which U.S. officials now believe was larger and more lavishly financed than Israel has yet admitted.
According to federal indictments filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday, Jonathan Jay Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, sold suitcases full of military secrets to Israel between mid-1984 and last November, when he was arrested.
Linked to Eitan
Shortly after Pollard’s arrest, it was disclosed that he had been recruited by an until-then secret branch of Israeli intelligence run by one of Israel’s top spy masters, Rafael Eitan, a former adviser on terrorism to two prime ministers.
Known by its Hebrew acronym LEKEM, the small but evidently well-financed and supported agency within the Ministry of Defense appears to have specialized in spying on friendly countries. Published reports and information from other sources have indicated, for instance, that LEKEM may have been involved in the theft some years ago of plans of the French Mirage fighter plane from a Swiss company--plans that are said to have been used to help produce Israel’s Kfir jet fighter.
Denying all knowledge of the affair at first, Israel later admitted involvement but insisted--and still insists--that it was a “renegade” operation undertaken by Eitan without the knowledge or approval of the Peres government, which has stated that it would never knowingly try to steal secrets from such a close ally and large benefactor as the United States.
Announcing that LEKEM’s U.S. operations had been disbanded and that Eitan had been relieved of his duties as a result of his “unauthorized” activities, Israel promised to “cooperate fully” with a U.S. investigative team sent to Jerusalem in December to look into the affair.
The investigators left Israel apparently satisfied with those explanations and with Israeli assurances to have made a clean breast of things.
However, subsequent evidence has led Justice Department officials to assert that Israel misled the investigators and is still trying to cover up the true dimensions of the affair, its pledges of “full cooperation” notwithstanding.
At the time of the initial inquiry, only three Israelis were said to have been involved--Eitan and the Israeli science attaches in New York and Washington, Joseph (Yossi) Yagur and Ilan Ravid, both of whom hastily returned to Israel after Pollard’s arrest.
Several Others Involved
However, according to the indictment returned against Pollard, several additional persons both “known and unknown” were also involved, including Air Force Col. Aviem (Avi) Sella, identified as Pollard’s Israeli case officer, Irit Erb, a secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and another Israeli official identified only as “Uzi.” All of them, with the exception of Ravid, were named as unindicted co-conspirators in the court documents.
The indictment said that Erb copied secret documents brought to her Washington apartment by Pollard, while Eitan and Sella promised him Israeli citizenship, gave him an Israeli passport under the alias of “Danny Cohen” and promised to pay him $300,000 in 10 yearly installments in addition to about $45,000 allegedly given to him by Yagur.
All of this, U.S. investigators have alleged, indicates a network broader and better financed than any “renegade” operation could possibly have maintained.
Deeply embarrassed by the affair, Israeli officials have refused to comment on the latest disclosures except to repeat that their government is still “fully cooperating” with the United States.
Under Diplomatic Cover
However, a senior Israeli source did admit to The Times that Yagur, the New York science attache, and Erb, the embassy secretary, were operating under diplomatic cover but were in fact employed by a “separate unit” that had “nothing to do with the (Israeli) Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
In both the Shin Bet and the Pollard affairs, what Israel regarded as highly classified information has leaked to the press.
In the Shin Bet scandal, Shalom’s heretofore secret identity as head of the internal security organization has been exposed. And in the wake of the Pollard affair, it has been suggested by some investigators that Eitan also may have been connected with an earlier controversy involving allegations that Israel stole 200 pounds of enriched uranium from a Pennsylvania processing plant in the 1960s. That uranium is widely believed to have been used by the Israelis to manufacture atomic bombs.
Declassified FBI documents indicate that a Rafael Eitan, who listed his profession as chemist and his birth date as Nov. 23, 1926, was a member of an Israeli delegation that sought to visit the Pennsylvania plant around the time that the uranium reportedly was stolen.
Refuses to Answer
Although Eitan refused to answer questions about the affair, highly reliable sources close to him confirm that he has the same birth date as the “chemist” cited in the FBI document. He is also known to have been with the Mossad, Israel’s version of the CIA, at the time.
Citing what he maintains is the irreparable harm that could be done to Israel’s security by these and further disclosures of classified information, Peres has sought to remove both affairs from public scrutiny.
While that may not be possible in the Pollard case, which involves an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, the Israeli Cabinet has moved to shift the Shin Bet affair from the limelight back into the shadows of official secrecy.
Attorney General Replaced
Last week, the Cabinet voted to replace Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir, who, against the government’s wishes, had been pressing for a police probe into the allegations against Shalom.
Zamir had served notice several months ago that he wanted to resign but had agreed to stay on indefinitely pending the selection of a successor. Although a Cabinet spokesman denied there was any connection between his replacement and his insistence on the police probe, until the Shin Bet affair erupted, no candidates for attorney general had been publicly mentioned. It appeared obvious that the choice was, in the end, hastily made.
Peres and other officials have stressed that the new attorney general, Tel Aviv Circuit Court Judge Yosef Harish, has not and will not be pressured into dropping the investigation.
Secret Panel Urged
However, they have also argued that the need to preserve security dictates that the probe should be taken away from the police, whose investigation is likely to result in further leaks. It recommends instead setting up a secret commission.
Harish, upon assuming office Wednesday, appeared to agree with the Cabinet consensus.
“We are in the midst of a very tense situation. . . . My desire is to take this off the agenda as soon as possible, to find a proper solution so that justice will be done and security maintained, with all matters of state protected for the good of everyone,” he told reporters.
Criticism of Zamir’s hasty departure--he was only informed of his ouster a few hours before his successor’s name was publicly announced--has been surprisingly mild, in part because the normally fractured partners in Israel’s coalition Cabinet are nearly unanimous in their opposition to further public airing of the Shalom affair.
A poll taken shortly after the affair erupted also indicated that most Israelis seemed to back Peres’ argument that vital security secrets ought not to be compromised by an investigation into the deaths of two terrorists who were clearly guilty of hijacking the bus and killing an Israeli woman soldier.
A Minority View
However, a small minority backing Zamir has argued that even high-ranking security officials must not be placed above the law when allegations as serious as murder and perjury are involved.
Critics also suspect that the government is seeking not merely to protect vital interests of security, but the political interests of senior Cabinet members who, it has been alleged, might also be implicated in the subsequent cover-up of the Shin Bet affair.
Foreign Minister Shamir has been asked whether he sanctioned the cover-up and, on security grounds, declined to deny the charge specifically. Asked last week how much he knew of the affair at the time, Shamir replied angrily that “I knew what a prime minister ought to know, and I acted accordingly.”
Three Officers Ousted
Peres, though he had no role in the original incident, was reportedly offered information about the affair by three dissident Shin Bet officers about six months ago. However, he took no action, and the three officers were subsequently either fired or pressed into resigning.
“Both Shamir and Peres are in the same boat. They are fighting for their lives over this,” said an Israeli political analyst and former security official who has intimate knowledge of the Shin Bet affair.
This analyst, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, shared what seems to be the prevalent view that some way will have to be found to reconcile security concerns with legal ones, perhaps through a secret probe that might result in more resignations from the Shin Bet or at least tighter control over its actions in the future.
But he added, “Whether the truth will ever come out, that is another question. Personally, I doubt it.”
‘Both Shamir and Peres are in the same boat. They are fighting for their lives over this.’