Master of Deception: The Tale of Yehuda Gil

 

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In the mid-1990s, a precocious young journalist named Stephen Glass was building a reputation as one of Washington D.C.’s hottest new journalists. His articles were appearing in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and the late John F Kennedy Jr.´s publication George. However he was most known as the New Republic´s plucky young staffer. His abilities to sniff out stories made him the envy of his colleagues, and numerous publications itched to feature his work. Glass was on his way to cementing himself as a firm fixture in Washington´s competitive journalistic world. Yet others in the business winced at Glass´s confidence and impudence. He could write articles at the speed of lightning and unearth scoops that had escaped everyone´s attention. However there was a simple reason for this:  Glass was a master of deception. Over the course of three years, he had simply concocted story after story, and proved  adept at covering his mendacity by producing reams  of  notes  while talking to alleged sources, or attending events which in fact never took place. It was only after careful detective work, carried out by a Forbes‘ journalist named Adam Penenberg that Glass was found out.  His ability to deceive his colleagues and work diligently to cover his tracks, ensured that the whole affair would go down as one of the most infamous cases of fraud in US journalism. One should not forget that the New Republic  was considered at the time as a stickler for journalistic integrity. Yet not one of their numerous fact checkers or editors were capable of reading between the lines of Glass´s articles. The whole episode was later immortalised in the 2004 film Shattered Glass. Hayden Christensen plays the role of the anxiety-prone Glass.  What the film reveals is how inexplicable it seems that so many intelligent and critically minded people could be fooled so easily.

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In 1970, a 36-year-old Libyan-born Jewish recruit named Yehuda Gil joined the ranks of Israel’s external intelligence agency, Mossad. Not long after immigrating to Israel, Gil enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces.  It was there that his gift for foreign languages was noted by his superiors who saw to it that he work in military intelligence. This then led him to Mossad. Over time Gil would go on to qualify as a trainer and his lectures were peppered with anecdotes about his colourful experiences. One of his popular courses was entitled, “Lying as an Art”, in which students learnt how to maintain their spy covers and cope with stress during intelligence missions. Gil’s primary role in the  agency was as a human intelligence collection officer or (‘katsa’). Mossad’s main focus has always been on gathering human intelligence ( ‘HUMINT’) and a katsa is expected to recruit and run human sources.  Their activities are overseen by the division known as Tzomet (Hebrew for ‘Juncture’).

Since the beginning of the 1970s, Gil had spent considerable time working his way into the Syrian social scene, portraying himself as a business man. It was in 1974 that he was alleged to have recruited the assistance of a Syrian general, whom he handled as a source for decades on Syrian-related activities. Contact with him was likely to have taken place on a territory neutral to both parties i.e. somewhere in Europe. Since Israel’s establishment, Syria had been unrelenting in its opposition towards reaching a peace deal. This was mostly down to the status of the Golan Heights. According to writer Bruce Madd-Weitzman, there were widespread rumours that after the success of Israel’s peace treaties with some of its neighbours, Syria may  choose to launch an attack against Israel as a means of forcing it to the negotiating table. Yet by the mid-1990s, and more crucially at the end of 1995, a series of talks took place between the two sides. There was a degree of confidence that some resolution could be hammered out.  Haifa University’s Uri Bar-Joseph says that following the First Gulf War, it was thought Hafez al-Assad would be ready to talk and make a strategic shift. In other words, to improve Syria’s relationship with the US, Assad thought it necessary to reach out to Israel in some way.

Meanwhile in August 1996 Mossad received news via Gil’s Syrian source that despite the tempered mood, Assad had not given up on the war option and was planning to use his 14th Special Forces Division to launch an offensive action against northern Israel. The word was an attack was imminent “pending weather”. Gil at this time had already retired from the Mossad, but due to his years of experience, was called back to work as a consultant. On hearing the news of Syria’s plans, Mossad chief, Danny Yatom, thought something didn’t smell right. His suspicions were aroused further when Amnon Lipkin Shahak, Israel’s Chief of Staff, was of the opinion that nothing significant was brewing. He was even prepared to put his career on the line if he were proven wrong.  It added traction to Yatom’s concerns that something was afoot.  In any intelligence agency, a source can have numerous handlers, since the value of a source can last many years, beyond the career of an intelligence officer. Gil’s source from the outset had been adamant that any information he shared, would be with Gil, and Gil alone. Such an arrangement, while not unheard of, did raise questions over the authenticity of the news. Yatom was not the only person to have suspicions. Brigadier General Amos Gilad,  director of military intelligence, also shared Yatom’s reservations about the likelihood of a Syrian attack. Signal intelligence did not tally with Gil’s assessments. Also the Americans were not convinced.

It was decided that it was necessary to ask permission from the Israeli attorney general to take a closer look at the comings and goings of agent Gil. With discretion and careful planning, Mossad found evidence that Gil had fabricated a meeting with his source and lied about its contents. In other cases, he was simply economical with the truth. It became clear that the Syrian general, who Gil depended on for information, had in fact retired years ago. What’s more, according to reports, the man in question had never been comfortable giving information away, but instead was happy to accept the expensive goods that Gil could offer. In reality, whenever a meeting with his source was due to take place, Israeli military intelligence would brief Gil on the subjects they wanted clarified. With this information, along with the help of his personal trove of military and open source material, he was able to draft reports. It took one year for Mossad to gather sufficient evidence against Gil. Through their investigations, it was discovered that Gil had hidden wads of cash in mattresses in his apartment in the town of Gadera, south of Tel Aviv.  Money that was meant for his Syrian source. In the meantime, Amos Gilad successfully dissuaded Israel’s defence minister at the time Yitzhak Mordechai from moving troops to the Golan Heights.

The news of the Gil affair stunned the agency, which in 1997 was dealing with a number of high-profile scandals. Dr. Ahron Bregman from King’s College London remembered it being a` big shock, that someone who was regarded as one of the best Mossad operators ever , and trained many would be spies, could act in a way that endangered Israel so much, bringing it to the brink of war with Syria´. Perhaps the agency could have absorbed the shock more decisively if it had not occurred only months after two Mossad operatives failed in their mission to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan.  At the same time, in Switzerland, four Mossad agents were discovered setting up wire taps under an apartment belonging to a Hezbollah activist and one was captured by local police. Nevertheless, the shock of the Gil reverberated around the country, and the Prime Minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, was quick to allay concerns, noting that Mossad never relies on one source alone for its intelligence assessments. Gil himself was given a five-year sentence on charges which included relaying information with the intention to “harm state security, theft and fraud”. In 1997, he told the newspaper, Yediot Ahronoth, ‘I know I did something that should never have been done´. However in a 2010 article in Haaretz, Gil told journalist and intelligence expert Yossi Melman, that he was innocent of any wrong doing and it was in fact Yatom who tried to frame him. Melman said it was easy to be persuaded by him, but after listening to the advice of the newspaper’s editors, the story was killed.

There was enormous speculation over why Gil did what he did. Some believe he was motivated as a result of his affiliations to the right-wing Moledet party, which was notorious at the time for advocating land transfers.  Prof. Bar Joseph suggests that it was down to his ego, while Melman believes that Gil may have suffered from a personality disorder.   Yet others say that the culture of the Mossad helps in part to explain why Gil chose to take such extraordinary risks. According to Dr. Tamir Libel of University College Dublin, an “old school network” existed in Mossad, and not wanting to let the side down, Gil perhaps believed it was better to carry on. In fairness, few people believe that Gil’s erroneous intelligence caused Israel real harm; however what is or was alarming was how he managed to evade scrutiny for so many years. He was not a lowly operative, but a highly respected individual who must have felt the strain of fabricating lies. ´Spies lie all the time – they have to. And when you lie all the time you sometimes do not know when to stop. And if you’re good at it – Gil was very good at it – then you think you can lie forever´, says Dr. Bregman. In the years following the Gil scandal, Bregman notes that Mossad handlers were instructed to secretly record their conversations with their sources in order to have some control over the information being passed. Recruitment practices changed and Gil´s story is now a test case for students in the agency. Nevertheless, ´there will always be Gils. Organisations like the Mossad, CIA, MI6 and so on, attract many eccentrics and these people are often unpredictable and difficult to control,´ he says. Unfortunately it is often these characteristics that are the key ingredients in creating the perfect spy.

 

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