Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Israeli Spy

To hear Israeli intelligence chief Meir Amit tell it, the 1967 clash that established his country as the most fearsome military force in the Middle East wasn't a Six Day War after all.

On June 5, 1967, Israel's air force destroyed Egypt's air force on the ground in a series of morning bombing raids that represented as much an intelligence victory as a military one. It was the culmination of years of careful work penetrating the Egyptian armed forces. The results were decisive and swift.

"Don't call it the Six-day War, call it the three-hour war," Mr. Amit, the Mossad's chief from 1963-1968, told a conference held to mark the 1967 war's 25th anniversary in Washington. "And I must take pride in the intelligence."

In one spectacular operation in 1966, Mr. Amit engineered the defection of an Iraqi fighter pilot who landed his MIG-21 at an Israeli air base. The plane -- among the most modern of the U.S.S.R's fighters -- was immediately shared with the Central Intelligence Agency, helping to cement the bonds between the two nations' intelligence agencies.

The Iraqi pilot was inspired to defect by someone he took to be his American girlfriend but who was actually a Mossad agent.

Mr. Amit "pioneered the use of female agents, the 'honey trap,'" says Dan Raviv, author of "Every Spy a Prince," a history of Israeli espionage.

A patron called to reserve the book a couple of days ago.

He sometimes meditated on the gestalt of intelligence, which could be "boring" because it took years to build up a useful picture of the enemy, yet had moments "far beyond" the most gripping John Le Carre novel. And to Mr. Amit, success could breed failure. He believed the 1967 victory, for example, spawned a dangerous complacency.

"After the war we succumbed to the disease of arrogance, of 'We know better, we are the best, far above the others,'" he once said.

A great insight.

Shai Tsur, Mr. Amit's grandson, says his grandfather believed "the failure of the 1973 war, especially on the part of military intelligence, was a direct product of this 'konseptziya,'" the idea that Israel was so strong that its neighbors would never attack.

In recent years, Mr. Amit warned of the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran and served as chairman of Israel's Center for Special Studies in Tel Aviv, which maintains a giant sandstone monument in the form of a maze as a cenotaph for the nation's fallen intelligence agents.

In a statement Tuesday, Israel's president, Shimon Peres, said, "Generations of Israelis, entire generations of children owe Meir Amit a debt of gratitude for his immense contribution -- a large part of which remains secret."

Some secrets can never be revealed, certainly in Israel.

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