Mossad man’s history of bungles

An Israeli spy sent packing by New Zealand had a history of getting caught. NICKY HAGER on the failings of a divided Mossad.

DON’T EXPECT the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to be named in an apology about the Israeli spy scandal, but it was indeed Mossad at the centre of the affair. And the spy at the centre of last year’s New Zealand passport scam had made a hash of an earlier Mossad operation too.

The man who commanded the New Zealand operation, long-time Mossad officer Elisha Cara, had headed an intelligence mission to Cyprus that went spectacularly and embarrassingly wrong two years before being put in charge of obtaining illegal New Zealand passports. Since serving three months in prison in New Zealand he has returned to Israel, resigned from Mossad and recently been appointed to a job as a manager in the company Visa Israel.

Details of the case and the agent’s Mossad background have been leaked by western Europe-based foreign intelligence sources.

In the late 1990s Cara was head of a specialist surveillance unit in the agency’s Neviot department, which collects intelligence for Mossad by break-ins, street surveillance, installing listening devices and other covert methods. In Hebrew, Neviot means a spring of water.

In late 1998, while head of the Neviot unit, Cara dispatched two Mossad officers, Udi Hargov and Igal Damary, on an ill-conceived intelligence-collecting mission to Cyprus. While staying in a fishing village called Zigi on the southern coast of Cyprus, the owner of the holiday flat the agents were renting became suspicious and called the police.

The police found radio communication scanners, a laptop computer, cellular phones and eight maps of Cyprus in their flat. The agents were arrested and charged with conspiracy, spying and illegal possession of telecommunications equipment. The police prosecutor argued that they were spying on a “very sensitive army operation” at the nearby Vassiliko port.

The case, which has similarities to the New Zealand affair, caused major controversy in Cyprus. The pair pleaded not guilty and then there was behind-the-scenes pressure to have the charges dropped.

In the end the government dropped spying and conspiracy charges, choosing instead a minor telecommunications charge and a charge of approaching a restricted area. The agents were sentenced to three years in prison then pardoned by president Glafcos Clerides after serving nine months.

The inside story, according to the intelligence sources, is that Cara had sent the two agents to Cyprus to conduct surveillance of a Lebanese Hezbollah target. The operation was of course a complete failure. It was not surprising they were caught, the sources say, because Cara had sent two men with no operational experience – one from the headquarter’s finance department and the other from research.

They say that after such a failure, the result of “very poor judgement”, any normal security agency would require the head of the operation to resign. But they say Mossad has a strong culture of “personal favours” between long-term colleagues, where people are promoted according to factions and friendships.

In Cara’s case, after the “Cyprus fiasco” he was moved sideways into a job in the staff department and later promoted again by senior Mossad official and long-time friend Hagai Hadas. It was Hadas who arranged for Cara’s promotion to head the “New Zealand Australia operation”.

The intelligence sources say that Cara’s promotion to the New Zealand operation, after botching the Cyprus one, is symptomatic of poor decision making at the top levels of Mossad.

The Israel newspaper Haaretz – in a feature article last week entitled “Spy vs Spy” – reported bloody power struggles occurring within Mossad. It said there are two senior staff vying for the position of deputy director and thus being in line to become director of Mossad in September 2007.

They are “H”, the director of Headquarters Directorate, and “N”, head of the Tsomet department that collects intelligence by having well-placed spies on the payroll in foreign countries.

The director of Headquarters Directorate (“H”) is – according to the sources – Hagai Hadas, the man who promoted Cara to the New Zealand passport operation. The article said he is central to the power struggles occurring inside Mossad (which is officially called the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations).

In the 1990s Hadas (a former army paratrooper) was head of the top secret “Kesaria” (or “Massada”) unit, which “together with its assassinations unit Kidon is the `holy of the holies’” in Mossad. Kesaria is responsible for running Mossad’s most secret agents, known as “combatants” (Lohamim in Hebrew). These are Jewish people, usually of Arab origins and Arabic speaking, who are sent under “borrowed identities” to conduct special operations in the most hostile Arab countries.

After helping Cara, Hadas left the agency after more than 20 years and briefly tried a job in business. When the current director, General Meir Dagan, was appointed in September 2002, he rehired Hadas to fill the No 3 position at Mossad, responsible for non-operational units and long-term planning (Dagan had restructured Mossad into two halves, operational directorate and Hadas’ headquarters directorate). Hadas is now hoping to replace the current deputy director, Tamir Fredo – with other senior staff “very nervous” about the outcome. A climate of backbiting, disappointment and resignations exists in Mossad.

The outcome of the power struggles will have implications for Middle East politics.

Dagan was appointed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he served under in the Israeli Army. In the 1970s Sharon had appointed Dagan to head an undercover commando unit “to seek out, arrest and liquidate” Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. He later had the same role in Lebanon. Dagan subsequently headed Sharon’s election-day headquarters when he became prime minister.

A former Mossad officer quoted in Haaretz said that when Dagan arrived at Mossad he announced that rather than reading intelligence reports, “from tomorrow I want only a list of targets for liquidation”. Former staff are concerned about Mossad increasingly becoming “a Mafia-style Murder Inc”.

The foreign intelligence sources argue that Dagan has a “tendency to adventurism [and] a lack of understanding of intelligence collection methods”. As a result Mossad is “in deep trouble” and “less and less appreciated by its foreign counterparts”.

It is, they say, typical of the Mossad culture that there was no serious internal inquiry into the “botched” operation in New Zealand, just as there was none into the Cyprus one. Instead, according to Haaretz, when the New Zealand passport scandal broke Dagan simply “ordered division heads to make their staff sign a secrecy document pledging they would not talk” about the affair.

The sources fear that a Hadas-run agency would continue the paratrooper approach to intelligence.