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Journalist Details Israel’s ‘Secret History’ Of Targeted Assassinations

Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman, says that Israel has developed the most robust streamlined assassination machine in history. His new book, based on a thousand interviews, chronicles decades of shootings, poisonings, bombings and drone strikes. The targets were perceived enemies of the Jewish state, ranging from British colonial officials in the 1940s to leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO to Iranian nuclear scientists. Bergman describes the planning and approval process for targeted killings, which typically involved young military and intelligence operatives making the case for a strike to the country’s prime minister.

Bergman writes that Israeli assassination teams were effective at eliminating their targets but often at a moral and political price their leaders would only come to understand years after their missions.


.. DAVIES: And to what extent do you think the Israeli willingness to embrace targeted assassinations is rooted in the horrors of the Holocaust and a determination to avoid that ever happening again?

BERGMAN: Profoundly. David Ben-Gurion, the most important Jew in the last 1,000 years at least, objected the use of targeted killing. He said this is not the weapon that the Jewish people should embrace, but that changed after the Holocaust, even before Israel was established as a state. I think that the new Israelis – those who build the nation, those who built Israel, those who established Israeli Defense Forces and intelligence community – and for that sake, all Israelis – I myself, I’m the son of both Holocaust survivors, both my parents are Holocaust survivors – the new Israelis came from the Holocaust with three main lessons.

The first is that there will always be a gentile, a goy, who is after us to kill us. The second is that the – all the other gentiles, the goyim, are not going to help us. They’re going to stand aside, if not helping the first one. And the third is that we should do everything to have a safe haven, to have a homeland, to have Israel and defend it with whatever price.

DAVIES: There’s the moral question of the shedding of innocent blood. There’s also the strategic question of, are you doing more damage than good if what you do creates such bitterness and hatred and more people determined to strike back?

BERGMAN: I agree. And I think that much of what Israel has done in the occupied territories in Gaza in the last 50 years just created more bitterness and the feeling of vengeance and the eagerness to kill Israelis. The problem was that – especially during these times when suicide bombers were exploding every day in the streets of Israel to the peak of March, 2002, when more than 150 Israelis were killed in one month, something has to be done. Israel had to make a call, and they made a call that had a significant moral and legal price attached to it.


.. You make an interesting observation here that most of the people involved in planning and carrying out these missions were relatively young, under 30, including people that were making presentations to the prime minister, who would have to sign off on each targeted assassination. I’m wondering how you think the relative youth of these participants affected, you know, the consideration of these issues.

BERGMAN: This is something very unique to Israel. You have the chief of that intelligence organization who needs to go to the only one who is authorized to give an OK to assassination, which is the prime minister. Now, this is done in very small group, of course highly secret. But he doesn’t know the details, so he’s bringing with him very young people. Almost all of them are under 30. Some of them are under 25. They are the intelligence officers, the pilots, the desk people and the operatives. And they go to the prime minister to convince him to execute someone without a trial because that someone, if he’s not killed, is going to kill more Jews tomorrow.

This is a unique scenario and usually happened in the private house of the prime minister in Balfour Street in Jerusalem because it was so secret. Now, during time – during history, some of the people actually crossed that room and became the prime minister or the minister of defense. Ehud Barak…

DAVIES: You mean, like…

BERGMAN: …Benjamin Netanyahu…

DAVIES: …Later in their careers, you mean, yeah.

BERGMAN: Yes, yeah.

DAVIES: Do you think they were more inclined to endorse the use of force because they had engaged in it themselves?

BERGMAN: And they saw it works. But they got the wrong conclusion. Summarizing the story of the book is that the Israeli intelligence community, arguably the best one in the world – no offense to the CIA or MI6; they’re all fabulous – but Israel has a vast experience of successes. Israeli intelligence community was able to provide Israeli leaders sooner or later with almost all solutions to all problems they thought exist.

But that led Israeli leaders to the wrong conclusion. They felt that at the tip of their fingers, they can hit someone way beyond enemy lines, deep in the enemy state and solve the problem, and therefore, they do not need to turn to statesmanship or political reconciliation. And therefore I think the story of the use of these special means is a series of extraordinary tactical successes but, at the same time, a disastrous political failure.

DAVIES: You know, I think maybe the – one of the most powerful things I have ever seen on a screen was the movie “The Gatekeepers” by Dror Moreh, the Israeli filmmaker. And I’m sure you’re familiar with this. He interviews all of the living heads of Shin Bet, which I guess is the internal intelligence service in Israel.


DAVIES: All of them in their later years felt that the violence and retribution which they had engaged in earlier had to be stopped, and there had to be a negotiated arrangement with the Palestinians. Did you find that in – among the intelligent professionals that you spoke to as they grew older?

BERGMAN: Yeah. The same five that are interviewed in “Gatekeepers” are extensively quoted in “Rise And Kill” as well, as well as many, many others – the chiefs of the intelligence. And you’re absolutely right. They rule. The rare exception is that all the chiefs of Israeli intelligence and military commanders and operation commanders all believe that there’s no other way but a two-state solution and a political discourse with the Palestinians.

The problem is that I think when they were on duty and the political level above them opposed such a path, they usually stayed silent or, you know, in a very quiet voice say, well, maybe there’s another way. But once they were ordered to confront the problem by force, they did that with whatever they could. And they supplied the solutions that just prolonged the problem. They supplied the solution for many, many, many years that kept the Palestinian population in the occupied territories relatively quiet.

And that – and I’m quoting one of the chiefs of the – of Shin Bet. And that enabled the government basically to do whatever it wanted because they were not confronting a lot of riots or demonstration or terrorism. And they could build settlements, and they could enjoy the cheap labor. And they didn’t need to understand and confront the problem of occupying another nation, another country and another people.


..  In 1974 after Yasser Arafat spoke at the U.N., he was removed from the top of the list for targeted assassination and replaced by a guy named Wadie Haddad. He was in the Arab world, and there were concerns about trying to shoot him or kill him with the bomb in an Arab city. How did they accomplish this mission?

BERGMAN: So then what I was trying to do in the book hopefully successfully was to describe the real intelligence world because it’s not what we see in the movies. It’s not even what we see in movies that pretend to describe reality like Steven Spielberg “Munich.” It’s very different. It’s not less interesting or more interesting. It’s just very, very different.

One of the most important difficulties that Mossad faces is how to act inside hostile country because it’s very hard to maintain a cover story there, shoot someone and then have enough time to run away when of course the local authorities closed down all the seaports and the airports. Wadie Haddad lived in Lebanon or in Baghdad, both enemy countries to Israel – very hard to deal.

And what Mossad was able to do instead of just shooting him was to get very close to him and replace one of the things that he uses frequently with the same substance but mixed with poison. They call the poison the potion of gods. That was the nickname. And they poured that into his toothpaste which he used quite frequently. Then he got the ill. Nobody knew what happens to him. And the physicians in Baghdad couldn’t do anything.

Yasir Arafat ask Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, to hospitalize him. He was flown to East Berlin, hospitalized in a Berlin military hospital – the best one they could get for him. And the best physician tried to treat him for 10 days. They did everything they could. And also, they agonize his body and his soul with the worst performances and worst tests. But it was all in vain. And with great misery, he died. They performed an autopsy, and they describe that he dies from something that looks like a blood cancer. But they really couldn’t understand what is – what actually happened to him.

DAVIES: Well, this wasn’t the only case where people died apparently of natural causes. There was another assassination in a hotel in Dubai where the victim was found in his room, but in fact he’d been injected with a paralyzing substance from the Israeli agents. Did people figure out that it was really the Israelis who were behind these?


.. BERGMAN: Israel is a pioneer of drones. They were the first to use that in battle, use that in intelligence collection. And in fact, the way that they first have the drone participate in a targeted killing operation in February of 1992 when Israel assassinated the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh al-Musawi, the video of that killing was presented to the Pentagon and convinced the chief of the CIA, as he told me, Robert Gates, to have more effort into developing the American version of that drone later to be called the Predator.

.. The Israelis thought that they would use drones as the secret weapon of the next war. They thought that they would use the drones to hit tanks in what they thought would be the future battlefield between Israel and Syria. But when Hamas launched the suicide killing campaign – the suicide bombing campaign, Ariel Sharon called the Air Force and said, listen; we have decided to start the targeted killing operations. We cannot use snipers because this is hostile ground. We need to take the drones and have them, put them, deploy them against human targets.

The Air Force objected. They said, but this is the secret that we are preparing for the next war. Ariel Sharon said, Jews are being killed now. We are going to use them now and in future war.

We’ll take care of this when that happens. And so from that point, somewhere in 2001, most, I would say, of the targeted killing operations – sometimes up to four a day – were with the drones at their peak, at the forefront of them.


.. BERGMAN: The modern assassination machine, the most robust and extensive ever created on Earth that Israel established – as technology advanced, it included more people. It’s just – it’s not just a sniper James Bond-type who is going to shoot the target. We’re talking about dozen and sometimes up to hundreds people involved where the intelligence officer inside the bunkers miles away from the enemy lines – they have a more profound and important task in identifying the target. They know more than the pilot in the cockpit.

And one of these people in the unit 8200, which is the signal intelligence unit, SIGINT, of Israeli military intelligence who is supposed to deliver information for a targeted killing operation in 2003, said, I’m not going to do so. You want to destroy a building belonging to the Fatah, one of the Palestinian factions in Gaza. You want to destroy it, he told his commanders, because there are people inside but not specific people. You just want to destroy it with people in order to send a message to the Palestinians. I think this is forbidden. This is illegal, manifestly illegal. This is a war crime. And he declared…

DAVIES: And just to clarify a couple of the facts about this, this was a building that was used for just ministerial stuff, like, you know, welfare checks and that kind of thing. It wasn’t a military operation. And the attack was to take place during the day when the building was occupied, right?


BERGMAN: Yeah. Until that time, Israel was bombing these buildings at night, making sure there’s no one inside just to send the message that Israel sees the Palestinian Authority as responsible for everything happening there, including what Hamas is doing. But at that time, after a horrific suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that took place just hours before, the chief of staff ordered to destroy a building with someone inside. Someone – doesn’t matter who – has to be killed as a – sort of a message sent to the Palestinians. And that junior brave intelligence officer says, this is the line. I’m drawing it here. I’m not going to do so. This is war crime. This is illegal.

DAVIES: You know, military organizations assume that people will follow orders, whatever qualms they might have. What was the fallout of this refusal to carry out this mission?


.. BERGMAN: The echoes that there’s was a mutiny in Unit 8200 – which is considered to be creme de la creme, prime of Israeli intelligence – immediately reached every corridor of the – thundered through the corridors of the military and reached the prime minister himself. No one could believe that these people, the intelligence officers could ever rebuild. People at the chief of staff said this guy should be court martialed. And someone said, even, he should be shot. But I think the IDF didn’t want this to be brought to trial because they understood that the order, from the beginning, was illegal. So they just dismissed the junior officer. They didn’t want to deal with that.

But they were afraid that it will lead to a wave of other people refusing to take orders, so they preferred to hushen (ph) that. And – well, they couldn’t do this for a long time because here it is in the book. We – I have interviewed all the people involved from the Ministry of Defense downwards and of course that junior officer who is using a false name. He didn’t – he still, even today, doesn’t want to be identified because he understands that some people in Israeli society would judge him for that. And he doesn’t want to have problems in his civilian life.


.. You know, you’ve written that the United States and the Israeli intelligence services have developed a very close set of joint operations and exchange of information. And of course earlier this year, there was a huge controversy when President Trump apparently revealed information in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador which betrayed some Israeli sourcing. Where do things stand with these relationships between American and Israeli intelligence in the Trump administration?


.. BERGMAN: Well, Dave, just a year ago, I published a story that created a lot of controversy. I said – and I was surprised to hear that from my sources in the beginning – that a group of American intelligence officers, in a regular meeting with the Israeli counterparts, just before Trump was elected and before the inauguration, they suggested that the Israelis stop giving sensitive material to the White House. They said we are afraid that Trump or someone of his people are under leverage from the Russians. And they might give sensitive information to the Russians who, in their turn, would give that to Iran. They said we have evidence that part of the material that Edward Snowden stole from the CIA and NSA – and was not yet published – found its way to Iran. And we believe, of course, that he gave everything he had to the Russians.


.. And the Israelis were shocked. They have never been in such an occasion. They have never heard Americans say something of that kind about their chief and commander – about the president. And when, just few months after that, it turned out that everything – all the predictions that the Americans have made to the Israelis as warnings – not because they knew it was going to happen but they thought it might – everything came to be true. And President Trump apparently gave secret information. And I know the nature of that information. It is indeed delicate and very, very secret.

It just instilled a sense of miscomfort (ph) inside Israeli intelligence. And I think, if I recall something that I heard just recently, they feel – Israeli intelligence feel that the American administration is in chaos – is in havoc. It’s not function properly – not intentionally, but that lead to further leaks. And they are very hesitant with sharing everything they have, as they did in the past, with their American counterparts.


.. And there is a very unique Israeli contradiction here. On one hand, everything is secret – top secret. And on the other, I had 1,000 people speaking from prime minister and minister of defense, chiefs of staff, chief of the Mossad to the actual operatives and assassins.

So why did they talk? There are different reasons. And we have to bear in mind that intelligence officers as well as politicians are the masters of manipulation and disinformation. So you have to be very careful on how you treat what they say. And of course they were also trying – some of them were trying to manipulate me. And I think that by – I hope that by having so many interviews and having so many thousands of documents that were not declassified or were not published, I could corroborate and make sure that I’m not manipulated.