“How can tyrants safely govern home I Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?”—William Shakespeare

There is something compelling in reading about spies and something compelling as well about spying, or we would not have so many spies to read about, fictional or not. Our century has been a century of spies: Stories of espionage since the late 19th century have been told many times as entertainment, and as history as well. Scholarly books emerging now, such as Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by Haynes and Klehr, and The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives by West and Tsarev (both from Yale University Press), have taken the study of espionage to a new level. Gordon Thomas’s new book on the secret history of one of the most paradoxically famous and secret espionage organizations is not a scholarly book, but it is based on research and interviews. Perhaps the most striking implication of Mr. Thomas’s work is that, like Soviet espionage, Israeli espionage in America has been aided and abetted by Americans. The complex senses of embarrassment with which Mr. Thomas’s book must be read also include a struggle to distinguish between the story he has told and the way he has told it.

Mr. Thomas has a way of regressing to a vulgar pseudo-fictionalized method to recount episodes and dramatize tales—a habit which might well be counterproductive to his aims, if these could be identified. If nannering on about Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky is a surefire way to sell tabloids, then Gordon Thomas has not neglected an opportunity. But what, after all, is the point? The Mossad was running Henri Paul, assistant chief of the Ritz in Paris, because they wanted a handle on particular guests, such as Middle Eastern arms brokers. The subsequent disaster had a lot to do with Henri Paul’s driving and drinking, little or nothing to do with the Mossad, so why bring it up in the first place? Thomas’s speculations about what Henri Paul “may have” thought is destructive of the author’s credibility, whereas an aside about the destruction of the reputation and career of Jonathan Aitken (a minister in Britain’s last Conservative government), engineered by the Mossad through the Ritz, speaks directly to themes that would have lent cohesion to the narrative.

But a larger problem with Thomas’s book is the question of point of view, of perspective. Since his interviews with former heads and operatives of the Mossad are tied to the history of Israel and, therefore, the Zionist cause, many episodes seem incongruously crafted, so much so that I was baffled as to what the author might actually have meant to convey—until I began to realize that Mr. Thomas has written not a “Secret History” but a postmodern masterpiece of black humor. Everything falls into place if we read Gideon’s Spies as a fiction by Thomas Pynchon or a movie by the Coen brothers. If as a history Thomas’s narrative waffles between celebration of past coups and recitals of contemporary gaffes, as an absurdist neo-noir the spectacle is nevertheless engrossing. The Mossad was glorious, but the glory is departed, in large part due to the ineptitude of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and even to the interference of his wife, Sara, who, claiming to follow the example of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s interest in the CIA, particularly interested herself in details of President Clinton’s sexual activities. This offhand non-point is made early to foreshadow the revelation that the Mossad intercepted phone-sex calls between the President of the United States and Miss Lewinsky — as Clinton himself indicated to Lewinsky, referring to a “foreign embassy,” as is confirmed in the Starr report. But this bombshell about the portly pepperpot is itself contained within the larger story of how the Mossad protected “Mega,” the second Israeli spy, highly placed in the White House, who had helped handle Jonathan Pollard. Thomas does not say that the Lewinsky tapes were used to blackmail the President or to protect Mega, but he has taken care to establish the possibility of such a thing, as well as to imply that Mega is still active. He has also shown, without noting the point, precisely why the Lewinsky matter was an impeachable offense, in addition to offering a hint at why that offense did not in fact lead to impeachment.

Thus we can see that discussion of the Mossad leads to all kinds of problems of focus, spying being by definition entangled with complicated politics. No wonder, then, that Gordon Thomas was challenged in his exposition. But if we regard Gideon’s Spies as a problem in reading rather than in writing, we have less of a difficulty than the author did. For my own part, I have found that the comic or absurdist reading is the most comfortable and useful approach. Perhaps a couple of small examples will show the merits of the angle I am suggesting.

We can easily imagine that a reader’s threshold of exasperation might be crossed in his attempt to absorb the material having to do with the Mossad’s disinformation campaign that distorted the treatment of the TWA Flight 800 disaster of July 17, 1996. Thomas has indicated that the LAP, the Mossad’s Department of Psychological Warfare, using a “global network of media contacts,” interfered in the FBI investigation of the crash. As speculation spun wildly, the LAP mounted a campaign in the media to blame Iran and Iraq, those inveterate enemies of Israel. After extensive investigations and much wasted time following false leads suggested by the Mossad, the FBI ruled out any terrorist bomb. Similarly, when a bomb went off during the Olympics in Atlanta, the LAP raised and broadcast the specter of terrorism associated with Lebanese bombmakers; again, the story came to nothing after a considerable waste of time, energy, and money. Perhaps these small examples suffice to show that it is better to laugh at the spectacle of the Mossad pursuing its own agenda through media contacts, confusing American investigations of disasters on American territory, than it is to choke on the reflection that such acts of sabotage were and are subvented by hefty infusions of American tax dollars. Think instead of those FBI agents and grieving relatives and a nervous public—all of them being made fools of by those sly but lovable rascals of the Mossad. Couldn’t Hollywood do something with this comic material? Maybe a special on HBO? This thing has potential. It has legs. I wonder why more has not been done with it already.

Once the reader understands how to approach Gideon’s Spies, he is in a position positively to enjoy tales more important than little ones about wasting the FBI’s time and money and manipulating the anxieties of the American public. Cordon Thomas, like the Mossad, has bigger fish to fry. One of those big fish has to do with Lebanon in the early 80’s, and the subsequent Irangate fiasco. Mr. Thomas is entirely credible as he describes his interview in 1986 with a deteriorating William Casey, the 13th head of the CIA, who recounts the betrayal by the Mossad of William Buckley, the CIA agent kidnapped and murdered in Beirut. Nahum Admoni, the head of the Mossad at that time, had promised to help, but was “in bed with that thug, Gemayel.” The Mossad deceived the CIA, indicating that the PLO was behind the kidnapping:

What we didn’t know was that Mossad had also been playing real dirty pool—supplying the Hezbollah with arms to kill the Christians while at the same time giving the Christians more guns to kill the Palestinians.

The comic element of this story is enhanced not only by the awareness that Israel was undercutting its ally as well as its own best long-term interests, but by consciousness of the even richer jest that America and Israel would soon be parties together to the clandestine operation known as the Iran-Contra affair! The betrayal of Buckley and the gross deception of American intelligence did not hold President Reagan or his advisors back. Neither had the Mossad’s foreknowledge and monitoring of the truck-bombing of 241 U.S. Marines in 1983. Victor Ostiovsky, a former officer of the Mossad, said the attitude was that “They wanted to stick their nose in this Lebanon thing, let them pay the price.” The complicity in the murder of Buckley was another integer added to an imposing toll, but nothing could stop the party. Israel’s successful policy was to get the United States out of Lebanon, but not so far out of the Middle East as to cease to be altogether useful—or so far away that those checks would bounce.

Mr. Thomas relates numerous riveting stories of cloak-and-dagger episodes. I appreciate, for instance, the way that he shows the destruction of the Egyptian air force on the ground in 1967 to have been as lunch a triumph of intelligence as it was a feat of arms. Other stories are rather less satisfying to contemplate. The account of the late British publisher Robert Maxwell shows him to have been not only a corrupt and irresponsible man but an agent of the Mossad who, as he spun out of control, was finally targeted for termination. Maxwell looted the pension funds of his employees to support the Mossad, which finally turned on him. At Maxwell’s funeral on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, declared, “He has done more for Israel than can today be said.” What Israel had done to him could not be said either, of course. Nor, finally, what is implied by the presence of such a grotesque and deceptive man as a major figure in journalism.

Again and again, the manipulation of the media recurs as a theme in Thomas’s study. Cozy images crafted for public relations are not among those supplied by Cordon Thomas. Take, for example, what he has to say of Yitzhak Shamir. According to Thomas’s account, Shamir personally authorized the transfer to the Soviet Union of some of the documents stolen by Jonathan Pollard, in part because of his hatred of the United States. Shamir believed that, because Roosevelt had failed to come to terms with Hitler, the United States was partially responsible for the holocaust—a belief which, whatever its merits (though not exactly befitting an ally), is perfect nevertheless in the context of the absurdist soap opera or endlessly rerun situation tragicomedy of our time. After all, why should the prime minister of Israel not despise the United States? Americans do it all the time. But Americans do not hate Israel.

Quite the contrary. Indeed, some Americans love Israel to the point of idolatry. Thomas has shown that the Mossad has long known how to take advantage of that great affection. The network of sayanim, or volunteers assembled by Meir Amit (director general of the Mossad, 1963-68), is an imposing one. “In 1968 there were over four thousand sayanim in Britain, almost four times as many in the United States. . . , costing several hundred million dollars a month to maintain. Thomas describes in detail some of the coups of the sayanim and the Mossad, including the theft of 100 pounds of fissionable material from the Numec plant in Pennsylvania in the 1960’s. He has also detailed the treachery of Jonathan Pollard, whose purloining of 360 cubic feet of documents for Israel was denied by one Israeli government and then claimed by another. Jonathan Pollard is now a declared citizen of Israel, whose government routinely pressures ours to release him. Do the Zionists not remember the context of Zionism itself? Theodor Herzl conceived it in reaction to the infamous Dreyfus case, and I hope I am not alone in remembering that Dreyfus was innocent. The Pollard case, absurdly recycling, is an outrageous inversion of the Dreyfus affair, but nobody seems to get the joke.

What does it all add up to? Gordon Thomas thinks that the next thing for the Mossad is another bungle, but the newspapers, those founts of truth, indicate that there is a new prime minister of Israel and a new peace initiative. We may wonder how “new” that is going to be. According to Uri Dan, the Mideast correspondent for the New York Post, the new initiative is going to be expensive for America, requiring “massive” U.S. financial aid. Prime Minister Barak has already broached the point of the billion dollars attached to the Wye accords, so get out your calculator. But it is nice to know that peace can be even more expensive than war and, whichever it is, the check is in the mail. My only suggestion is that electronic transfer might save the price of those pesky postage stamps as we pay off all sides for not going to war with the weapons we sold them with our own money. Marxist analysis—Groucho Marxist, I mean—can clarify even this muddle.

However that may be, the Friends and Families of the Victims of Oslo, a Brooklyn-based association, has upbraided President Clinton for interfering in the recent Israeli elections, declaring that “Clinton has made a mockery of the sacred principle of non-interference in our allies’ [sic] domestic affairs.” Gordon Thomas’s book on the Mossad refutes that claim by showing how Israeli interference in American domestic affairs has been Israeli state policy for nearly 50 years.

Gideon’s Spies will not be the last word on the Mossad, but it is the latest. The book is important not so much for what it says about spying as about the underlying realities of international relations: I have derived from it two conclusions, though I am not sure they are the ones the author intended to convey. The first leads me to redouble my skepticism concerning our sources of news, or even of facts; the second strengthens my conviction that neither the Israeli nor the American people has been well served by its government—those politicians, elected by bluster and lies, who preempt the concept of nation and put themselves on television waving flags and making with the pieties. The Mossad is responsible directly to Israeli prime ministers; one American president was a former head of the CIA. Today, as never before, there is a radical and dangerous disjunction between the citizens of nations and those who affect to represent them. Is it possible—in the Middle East, in America, and elsewhere—that human beings might take responsibility for their “foreign” relations themselves, in spite of the mass societies they inhabit, without the distortion of governmental institutions and agendas? That is doubtful—but as Herzl said, “If you wish it, it is no fairy-tale.”


[Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, by Gordon Thomas (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 354 pp., $25.95]