The extraordinary efforts of the Israeli government to suppress U.S. and Canadian publication of a book about its secret service, the Mossad, would seem to be pure folly. The book--banned Wednesday and then freed for distribution in the United States by a New York appeals court Thursday--has become a cause celebre, guaranteeing wide publicity for its disclosures.
It doesn't take prolonged study of the book, "By Way of Deception," by former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky with Canadian journalist Claire Hoy, to see why the Israeli government panicked.
Some of the disclosures lend substance to what many have suspected. The book says that, contrary to numerous denials, the Mossad does have an elite team operating inside the United States; that its agents bug phones and routinely filch government documents. Ostrovsky describes how aides to U.S. senators on military committees are enlisted to monitor materials of interest to Israel: "If an aide was Jewish, he or she would be approached as a sayan, " later defined by Ostrovsky as "a volunteer Jewish helper outside Israel." The Mossad has always strenuously denied use of sayans, for obvious reasons. But the dynamite comes in the final chapter, "Beirut."
In 20 terse pages Ostrovsky states that:
--The Mossad withheld from the CIA information in its possession on the whereabouts of U.S. hostages in Beirut and the identity of their captors;
--The Mossad knew from its agents in Beirut that Shiite Muslims were, in 1983, preparing a truck for a suicide bombing but deliberately withheld from the U.S. military details of the truck's precise appearance that would have enabled sentries to spot it, stop it and thus save the lives of 241 U.S. Marines.
These claims are political dynamite. U.S. hostages still languish in Beirut and U.S. troops are, just as the Marines were in 1983, deployed in the Middle East. Suppose the Mossad knew of an impending terrorist attack; would it sit on its information?
Even with unimpeded distribution of "By Way of Deception," the Israeli government and the Mossad are certain to challenge fiercely Ostrovsky's assertions, although the very efforts at suppression lend credence to the charges.
Ostrovsky is specific. On the matter of the Beirut truck, he says that an informant "told the Mossad about a large Mercedes truck that was being fitted by the Shiite Muslims with spaces that could hold bombs . . . even larger spaces than usual for this, so that whatever it was destined for was going to be a major target. . . . The question then was whether or not to warn the Americans to be on particular alert for a truck matching the description."
Ostrovsky says that whereas Israeli installations were given "specific details" about the truck, Mossad, "in refusing to give the Americans specific information, said, 'No, we're not there to protect Americans. They're a big country. Send only the regular information.' " By "regular information," he meant vague warning about the possibility of an attack. Even before the Israeli government's attempts to stop the book, its publisher was exercising caution. Earlier this week, my colleague Art Winslow, the Nation's associate book editor, got a letter from the publicity director of St. Martin's Press, saying that the uncorrected proofs already sent out "contained a small quantity of information that will not be included in the final published version." She enclosed four replacement pages. What had been excised, Winslow found, were all assertions by Ostrovsky that there had been a high-level Israeli go-ahead for the 1982 massacres by Christian Lebanese forces at the Sabra and Chatilla Palestinian camps.
The president of St. Martins Press, Roy Gainsburg, told me Thursday that lawyers were concerned about Gen. Ariel Sharon's lawsuit against Time magazine, which had made assertions about Sharon's role in the massacre. (A jury found Time's report to be false, but also found that there was no malice, so no damages were assessed.)
Ostrovsky asserts that he is going public about what he learned in his four-year stint in the Mossad because the agency has "betrayed" its trust and set Israel "on a collision course with all-out war."
Today, many suspect that the Israeli government would like all-out war as soon as possible between the United States and Iraq, with Israel possibly using this as a pretext to expel Palestinians from the occupied territories into Jordan. Some even fear that Israel could engineer a provocation to start a war. The Mossad described by Ostrovsky is capable of such an act. Perhaps that is why such efforts have been made to keep Americans and Canadians from reading this book.