The motto of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, translates as “By way of deception you shall make war.” As every intelligence officer knows, covert actions aimed at deception are force multipliers, enabling a weaker party to create confusion and uncertainty in a stronger opponent. Sun Tzu called deception in military campaigns the key to victory.
Traditionally, a deception operation is carefully planned and executed, requiring patience and painstaking attention to detail to sustain the false narrative. In today’s instant news cycle fueled by the Internet, however, deception is no longer necessarily a laborious process involving carefully placing bits of information that initially appear to be true to establish bona fides, eventually resulting in the false intelligence that leads the target down the wrong road. Far better than dropping disinformation bon mots on various websites, it is now even possible to write a self-published or online-generated book to do the job more comprehensively.
A recent book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, appears to be just such a narrative, mixing the certainly true with the plausible and then with the certainly false to create a disinformation package designed to woo the reader into thinking that the Israeli intelligence service is invincible. The book was written by Israelis Yossi Melman, a leading journalist, and Dan Raviv, a political correspondent employed by CBS, both of whom are regarded as experts in military intelligence. Armageddon came out in English last Monday from an obscure New York-based publisher, Levant Books. Parts of it have reportedly become instant samizdat-style best sellers in Tehran, where the sections relating to Iran were quickly translated into Farsi. Iranian readers believe that the book is in part a leak of an accurate account of Israeli intelligence operations directed against their country, a conclusion that is precisely what the two authors and their supporters inside the Israeli intelligence service might well want them to embrace.
Among other hagiographic accounts of Mossad derring-do, the book maintains that Israel was directly responsible for the killing of five Iranian nuclear scientists over the past five years. It claims that the assassinations were carried out by Persian Jews who had emigrated to Israel. The authors, who refer to the book as a synthesis of fact and opinion, do not cite their sources for the information that they claim to have obtained. But they imply that they are well connected to senior Israeli officials, which is certainly correct as the book quite plausibly might have been orchestrated by Mossad itself as a bit of self-promotion.
Consider for a moment what the authors are claiming about intelligence operations against Iran. They are asserting that Mossad employed actual Israeli citizens born in Iran (referred to in the book as “blue and whites”) as their agents to carry out the killings, exploiting a string of safehouses maintained in Iran since the time of the Shah. The safehouses served as bases for the clandestine operatives who were smuggled into the country from places like Iraqi Kurdistan before identifying, locating, and targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. They then planned and fine-tuned operations that must have involved numerous participants for surveillance and execution. The Israeli agents, who were able to obtain sophisticated bombs and in one case used carbon dioxide as poison to carry out the attacks, were able to kill the targets and escape from the country without being apprehended. And they did it all five times.
There is no doubt that the killings of the scientists took place and that Israel had a hand in it, but the almost heroic narrative about the achievement of the Israeli intelligence officers does not ring true and might well be designed to make the Iranian authorities nervous, resulting in wasting time and resources looking for Israeli assets that do not actually exist. The search for the safehouses is almost certainly proceeding, even though the Israelis probably have no such facilities. There will also be an extensive Iranian review of immigration records to determine who might have entered the country using false documentation. In some circles inside the Iranian government there will be fear that the Israelis do have extraordinary capabilities and a fifth column working on their behalf, leading to confusion and frantic demands for more resources dedicated to national security.
To put things in perspective, the CIA in my day had no safehouses inside Iran and almost certainly has none today. Running a network of safehouses in a hostile environment would pose massive security problems and would be extremely cost and resource inefficient, beyond the capabilities of any intelligence service currently operating. If an intelligence service wanted to carry out assassinations in Iran similar to those of the nuclear scientists, it would first have to go through a laborious process to identify the targets. That would most likely require debriefing defectors who had been in or around the nuclear program, some of whom would be accessible to Washington through friendly services in places like Egypt and Turkey but not to Israel unless CIA were providing Mossad with the information. Next would be the selection and training of indigenous Iranians who could easily blend in back home and were willing to carry out such a risky operation. Using one’s own citizens would be a non-starter because of potential compromise and blowback if one of them were to be arrested. Realistically speaking, the only place to find such Iranians would be among the adherents of the Mujaheddin e Khalq (MEK), an organization that has been much in the news recently, sometimes eulogized by congressmen and former senior government officials as the legitimate Iranian resistance. MEK also comes fully equipped with its own infrastructure of supporters inside Iran capable of providing accommodations, equipment, and false documents as necessary. You then launch the operation and, if all goes well, the target is killed.
Israel, with its more limited capabilities, would rely on the U.S. for information on the Iranian nuclear scientists and also for its initial access to MEK, which was under the protection of U.S. forces inside Iraq until the end of last year. While it is true that Mossad supplied the training, the planning, and the funding for the operation, the actual execution would have been in the hands of native Iranians. Iran is far from a police state, but it is not conceivable that a series of such operations could have been carried out by anyone unfamiliar with the environment if they wished to avoid detection and arrest. And if anyone thinks that MEK is incapable of such sophisticated and murderous operations, it is only necessary to look at the group’s record in the assassination of Americans in the 1970s during the time of the Shah. Indeed, a number of suspects in the scientists’ killings have been arrested, and one has already been executed by the Iranian authorities. They are all ethnic Persians.
The disinformation contained in Spies Against Armageddon will undermine the Iranian regime by creating fear that Israel can run intelligence operations throughout Iran without being detected. The book will require the Iranian government to waste more of its meager resources on what will undoubtedly be seen as a new threat from Israel. Uncritical readers in America and elsewhere will believe everything contained in the book and think that the Israeli intelligence service is almost superhuman. Given all of that, Spies Against Armageddon is undoubtedly a Mossad best seller even if no one buys it.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.