Earlier this month, for the first time, a foreign state sued in a U. S. court to prevent publication of a book. At issue was an expose of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, by an former agent who had served with the Mossad for only two years.
Victor Ostrovsky, a 40-year-old Canadian-born Israeli, catapulted into the headlines--and best-sellerdom--when the government of Israel filed suits against Stoddard Publishing Co. in Toronto and Ostrovsky's American publisher, St. Martin's Press, to ban publication in Canada and the United States of "By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer." Israel argued that the book would damage Israeli security and endanger the lives of Mossad agents.
Additional publicity ensued when Ostrovsky briefly went into hiding, saying that Mossad agents visited him at his home in Ottawa on Sept. 12 and attempted to frighten him into withholding the book. The legal attempts at stopping publication were defeated in an Ontario court and the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, and the book was freed for publication on Sept. 14.
According to reports on Wednesday, Ostrovsky's book will be No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list on Oct. 7. Stoddard Publishers spokeswoman Sally Tindal said there was a 50,000-copy press run in Canada. At Ostrovsky's American publisher, St. Martin's Press, assistant director of publicity Diane Higgins said as of Friday the print run was 312,000, with 290,000 already shipped to stores. She said St. Martin's is getting between 25,000 and 100,000 orders a day.
In Israel, as reflected in the Hebrew-language press, there is widespread opinion that the government botched "the Ostrovsky affair" by generating the storm of publicity with its attempts to halt publication. Interest in the Mossad is high. The recently published history of the agency, "Every Spy a Prince," by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman has been on national bestseller lists since mid-August.
"I have nothing but love for Israel," said Ostrovsky, who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and became head of weapons testing in the elite Israeli Navy before being recruited in 1984 as a Mossad case officer. "But the Mossad is not Israel," he said, in a telephone interview. "It operates with virtually no governmental supervision (it is answerable to the prime minister)."
The Mossad's "twisted ideals and self-centered pragmatism" became evident in information Ostrovsky said he chanced upon during his two years of training and service. He makes the following accusations in his book:
* That in 1983 the Mossad deliberately failed to warn its American counterparts of the impending Shi'ite attack on the Marine garrison in Beirut that cost 241 American lives. Ostrovsky said the Mossad withheld the intelligence to protect the agent who obtained the information.
(Avi Pazner, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's media adviser, said through a statement relayed by the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles that the prime minister rejects this as a "baseless lie." Pazner's statement noted that Israel had frequently shared such information with other countries, including the United States, even at the risk of endangering its sources, and would assuredly have done so in this case.)
* That the Mossad in contrast to stated policy recruits and exploits Israeli sympathizers in the United States and other countries friendly to Israel.
* That the Mossad has ignored the laws of even its closest allies.
* That the Mossad has illicitly interfered in Israel's domestic politics by leaking damaging information about former Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin and forging the signature of Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.
* That Ostrovsky himself witnessed top Mossad officials having sex with young women soldiers at the agency's headquarters.
Neither Ostrovsky nor his wife, Bella, both avowed Zionists, feel that they can return to Israel. Ostrovsky's rank in the Israeli navy has been revoked. His name, reputation and patriotism are being impugned daily in the Israeli press in what his Canadian co-writer Claire Hoy describes as an intentional disinformation campaign waged by the Mossad. Defense ministry sources quoted in the Israeli press say Ostrovsky was a clerk with the Mossad. Quoted government sources have called him an alcoholic, mentally unstable, sloppy in dress and manner and left-wing.
Ostrovsky never claimed that two years with the agency made him an an Israeli master spy, and he said he and Hoy took pains not to exaggerate his own role in the organization.
Some of what is in the book came from listening, Ostrovsky said. The Mossad is small, totaling some 1,200 members. And among the members--many of whom establish their place within this closed and elite pecking order by virtue of the information they can demonstrate is at their command--there was more than a fair amount, said Ostrovsky, of idle talk.
Ostrovsky also said he had access to Mossad computer files. Intelligence sources quoted in the Israeli press say that this is not possible.
In 1986, according to his book, only a few weeks after graduating training, Ostrovsky was assigned to Cypress.
A Libyan jet allegedly containing top Palestine Liberation Organization officials, among them Ahmed Jibril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was slated to fly to Damascus. Israel wanted to intercept the jet and force Jibril, the mastermind behind the Achille Lauro hijacking, to justice. Ostrovsky's job, he wrote, was to take a call from an agent indicating that the plane had taken off, and to relay that information to Israel.
Ostrovsky wrote that he learned from a Palestinian acquaintance that the flight was a ploy to embarrass the Israelis. Ostrovsky tried to pass this information to his superiors, but alleged that they wouldn't take his calls. He got through to a Mossad official, who promised to pass his message along. The next day, however, the call claiming that "the chickens have flown the coop" came and Ostrovsky passed it along.
The jet was forced down near Haifa, and the Israelis discovered the extent of their faux pas; there were only minor Lebanese and Syrian officials aboard.
When Ostrovsky got back to headquarters, he wrote, no one would listen to his account of events. He was advised to quit the agency, which he did.
The next day, Ostrovsky said, he received orders assigning him to South Lebanon on reserve duty. Ordinarily, agents who leave the Mossad are permitted at least five or six months before their files are submitted to the army for call-ups. "It was obviously a punishment," said Ostrovsky, "and of course, if something happened to me there, who would know?"
Ostrovsky said he forged a document indicating his release from reserve duty and returned to Canada the next day with his wife and two daughters.
Soon after arriving in March, 1986, he looked up Hoy, who had written a best-selling and unflattering account of Canadian Premier Brian Mulroney's Conservative government, "Friends in High Places" (Key Porter Books). "Victor called me in April, saying he had asked around about me, and heard I was honest and not easily intimidated," Hoy said. "He said he had an international story I might be interested in.
"The question for Victor was whether good men seeing things done wrong should remain silent. And let's face it, someone's traitor is another's patriot."
Ostrovsky said he believes there ought to be a Mossad. It's a dangerous world out there for tiny Jewish states. But not this Mossad, which he said is the cause of declining morality and a dissipated sense of purpose within Israel.
"It's a trickle-down effect," said Ostrovsky. "The absence of moral vision works its way down from the country's institutions into the society-at-large--not the other way around."
Ostrovsky hopes his expose will cause the country to try to rein in the Mossad. Israeli newspaper reports from government leaks say that the Mossad is "drawing conclusions" from the current imbroglio.
Ostrovsky thinks it possible the Mossad will do more than revile him. The day will soon come, he said, when the media have fallen silent, and when his book will have been forgotten.
"At that point," said Ostrovsky, "there will only be them and me. I know a few tricks--they taught me well. But when the lights go out, there are going to be a lot more of them than of me."