The KGB's Middle East Files: Agents in positions of power
In 1992, Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist, defected to the West with a trove of top secret documents from the Soviet intelligence agency, which helped expose many Russian agents and assets in Israel and elsewhere. This series of articles explores these documents and brings to light the secrets they revealed. Part 3 of 5.
On one thing there is no dispute: The Mitrokhin documents show that from Day One, the State of Israel has been a top target for the Soviets.
"The Soviet Union voted in favor of the establishment of Israel in the hopes that the young country would become pro-Soviet," confirms former KGB general Oleg Kalugin. "When that hope was dashed and Israel developed good ties with the West, it became a very important target for infiltration."
The KGB didn't always operate directly. Sometimes the espionage in Israel was performed by intelligence agencies belonging to other countries in the Soviet bloc.
One of the major recruitments at the time was Levi (Lucjan) Levi, who was a member of the Shin Bet's "Birds" operations unit from 1950 until his capture in 1957. Levi was an agent of the Polish intelligence services, revealing all of the Shin Bet's planned operations against the KGB to the Soviets.
The Bulgarian intelligence service, meanwhile, was able to send no less than 36 recruited Jews into Israel as its agents.
The Mitrokhin documents mentioned one of them (whose name is withheld by the Israeli Military Censor) who worked as a journalist for a while and then got a job in the office of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann. For the Russians, this was a successful recruitment of an asset located in a major intersection of information.
Another Bulgarian agent, who received the code name "Peretz," is an example of a different kind of modus operandi of the Soviet intelligence services: recruiting activists from Communist parties worldwide.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, Peretz's real name is Shlomo Shmali, a member of Maki's (the Israeli Communist Party) Central Committee and a close friend of Maki leader Meir Vilner. Shmali was "born in Sofia on March 14, 1922, and was a Bulgarian agent until 1975."
Shmali and other members of Maki recruited by the Bulgarians are described as "good and loyal agents" in the documents.
Maki was not the only target. In the beginning of the 1950s, the Russians launched a wide-scale operation codenamed "Trest" to infiltrate Mapam (the United Workers Party). According to the Mitrokhin documents, they were quite successful: The KGB recruited Ya'akov Riftin, who was a Mapam member of Knesset from 1949 to 1965.
One of the documents mentions that Riftin was a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. According to the Mitrokhin documents, he regularly passed on classified documents, including top secret ones, to the Soviet Embassy.
Another Mapam politician, who according to the Mitrokhin documents provided the Soviets with information about Israeli foreign policy, was Moshe Sneh, who was the head of the Hagana's national staff and later a prominent public figure. The information Sneh allegedly passed on further confirmed to the Soviets that Israel was developing a special relationship with the United States.
For example, in August 1952, the Soviet Embassy sent a report to Moscow that was based on the information Sneh allegedly provided, according to which Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Moshe Sharett, believed Israel should follow the US without preconditions or reservations.
Another Mapam MK that appears in the Mitrokhin documents under the code name "Grant" was described as living “in Kibbutz Shoval, near Be'er Sheva." According to the documents, this was writer and senior politician Elazar Granot, who also served in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and as the party's secretary-general. After retiring from the Knesset, Granot served as Israel's ambassador to South Africa.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, Granot was recruited right before the Six-Day War, and contact with him was cut when the Soviet Embassy was evacuated in 1967.
It's important to note that the documents don't mention exactly what kind of information Granot provided the KGB with. The line between "conversations among intellectuals" and espionage is a thin one, and it is possible that Granot—and other figures mentioned in the documents—believed he was having legitimate intellectual conversations with a Russian diplomat.
Spying on Israel's water project
In 1953, construction began on the National Water Carrier, the most important civilian national project in Israel's first few decades. The details of the project were classified as "secret" and were kept under wraps for many years, leading the KGB to issue an urgent order to try and recruit assets that could provide credible information on the project.
These efforts were successful. In 1956, an agent was recruited and given the code name "Boker." His real name was Yaakov Vardi ("who was born in Sarajevo in 1919," according to his KGB file), an engineer, part of the leadership of the Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and one of the founders of Israel's water system.
Vardi was among the heads of the Tahal Group (Israel Water Planning), where he worked until 1987, and played a central role in the planning of the National Water Carrier. He was also a senior advisor to the ceasefire talks with the Arab nations in 1967, in which some of the discussions revolved around the issue of water. One of the bridges built over the Jordan River was even named after Vardi, in his honor.
During the late 1970s, Israel held secret talks with Jordan on the division of water in the area. The participants thought the Soviet Union did not know of these discussions on an issue that is particularly sensitive in an area of the world where water is the most precious resource. But thanks to Vardi, word of these talks reached Moscow.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, during the time he was active, Vardi had three different senior handlers from the Soviet intelligence agency's branch in Israel, which indicates his importance to the KGB.
One of these handlers, Ivan Dedyulya, was promoted upon his return to Moscow, especially because of his recruitment and running of "Boker," and was appointed as the assistant on intelligence to the chairman of the KGB. The website of the SVR (the successor of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB since December 1991) has a page dedicated to his memory.
But "Boker" wasn't the only engineer recruited by the KGB, according to Mitrokhin. Another agent emigrated from Moscow to Israel in 1970 and was very important to the Russians—"Megresko." He studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and even volunteered his services to the Nativ Liaison Bureau—an Israeli intelligence organization that maintained secret contact with Jews living in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and encouraged immigration to Israel. Nativ was a prime target for the KGB and "Megresko" was ordered to join it in an effort to obtain more information about the bureau and sabotage its operations.
At the time, the Russians noted another success when they recruited a Foreign Ministry official, the economist Ze'ev Avni (born Wolf Goldstein). Avni was caught, interrogated, confessed and prosecuted under the cover of great secrecy.
It is only now, with the revelations from the Mitrokhin documents, that the full scope and sensitive nature of the information Avni passed on and the damage he caused can be truly assessed.
Avni, codenamed "Check," may have been employed by the Foreign Ministry, but starting in 1952 he was sent by the Mossad to Brussels, Belgrade and Athens. The KGB documents describe him as a "commercial attaché in Israel's Embassy in Belgrade and an operative of the Israeli intelligence in Greece and Western Germany."
The operations Avni carried out for the Mossad provided him with information on the intelligence agency's activities in Europe. According to the Mitrokhin documents, between 1955 and 1956, Avni provided the head of the KGB branch in Belgrade with the radio codes (OTPs, in intelligence jargon, meaning "one-time pad" or key) of Israeli communications. In addition, he passed on a lot of information about Mossad operatives and agents in Europe.
Recruiting an IDF major general
The KGB operated out of the Russian Embassy building in central Israel. Additional intelligence activity was conducted in the Russian Consulate in Jerusalem and in Sergei's Courtyard in the Russian Compound in the capital.
The Shin Bet developed a sort of test regarding the embassy staff: If the "diplomatic representative" lived outside the embassy building, it means that the Russians trusted him—in other words, it is very likely that he was KGB. And if the representative lived inside the embassy, where it was possible to "keep an eye on him," it was more likely that he was a real diplomat.
In late 1963, the embassy received a new "cultural attaché" named Yuri Kotov, who rented an apartment in Jaffa with his wife, Galina. It was immediately clear to the Shin Bet that Kotov was a KGB agent, and the couple's apartment was under constant surveillance.
Kotov did not make a particular effort to hide the fact that he engaged in spying: At the time, the imperative to bring Soviet Jews to Israel was a sort of "guarantee" that the Israeli authorities would swallow quite a few of these bitter pills.
Kotov's biggest achievement was the recruitment of an IDF major general from the General Staff.
The Mitrokhin documents, which arrived in London in 1992, contained information regarding that major general. The British intelligence passed on the information to Israel, where the Shin Bet was entrusted with the handling of the investigation.
Yaakov Kedmi, the head of Nativ at the time, recounts, "The Shin Bet didn't tell me the name of the major general, but I understood from them how great the shock upon receiving the update from the British was. From a later report I learned that the man, who was already old at the time, was summoned for questioning and that he in effect confessed to having communicated with Kotov. He claimed, however, that they only had general conversations about the situation in the Middle East and the possibility of reconciliation with the Palestinians, and that no actual information was passed on.
"Because of that major general's health situation, and I believe also because of the embarrassment the IDF and the State of Israel would have suffered had this story come to light, a decision was made not to take action against him and not to prosecute him. He passed away shortly thereafter."
The inside man
But the IDF major general was not the only impressive agent the KGB had in Israel's defense establishment.
The Mitrokhin documents also mention the code name "Malinka," who is one of two agents the KGB had in the "Counterintelligence Division," apparently from the Shin Bet. If the KGB did indeed have agents in the Shin Bet, it would be the kind of achievement any intelligence agency dreams of: planting a spy in the place where they catch spies.
But there were those in the Shin Bet who suspected the agency had been infiltrated by the Soviet intelligence service. One of the members of the Eastern European desk at the Shin Bet's Counterintelligence Division, a skilled intelligence officer called Yair Telem, suspected for a long time that there was a spy in the division and decided to make the exposure and capture of that spy his life's mission.
For four years, Telem gathered information, analyzed it, and dissected all of the espionage affairs uncovered in the division. He gathered it all into a top secret report. Telem believed the document he authored had enough to lead the reader to the clear conclusion that one of the top counterintelligence officers in the Shin Bet—who was also one of the agency's pillars—was a Russian spy.
One of the main arguments Telem used to support his theory was the story of the inexplicable decision to arrest the commander of the KGB's Operation TN, Yuri Linov, before he could incriminate his agents. The mole "Malinka," Telem argued, would have an interest in cutting short the surveillance on Linov so the latter would not incriminate him. The officer Telem suspected of being "Malinka" was indeed the same one who ordered Linov's premature arrest. Furthermore, the Mitrokhin documents reveal that one of the agents Linov was supposed to contact was the very same "Malinka."
Telem went over his commanders' heads and took his report directly to the director of the Shin Bet at the time, Yossef Harmelin. During that the meeting with Harmelin and his deputy, Avraham Ahituv, Telem presented his report and demanded to immediately open an investigation against the senior intelligence officer he claimed was the mole.
"You have a Soviet spy here, at the top of the Shin Bet command," he told Ahituv and Harmelin with the utmost certainty.
This was a very dramatic and monumental moment: A rather senior Shin Bet operative claiming that someone very high-up in the organization—who also happens to be one of Telem's superiors—is a Russian spy, supporting his accusations with a thick report packed with details and case studies.
Shortly before his meeting with Harmelin, Telem shared his suspicions with Aryeh Hadar, the head of the Shin Bet's Investigations Division at the time.
"He presented me with a series of arguments and case studies to show how the Russians managed to recruit that senior officer," Hadar recalls. "It was quite the bombshell."
Harmelin picked up the thick report Telem had laid on his desk and started reading, every now and again shooting a sour look in the direction of Telem himself, who was impatiently waiting to hear what the boss would say. When he was done going over the report, Harmelin informed Telem that this was "a load of nonsense" that did not conform to reality and demanded him to cease all handling of the matter.
"I remember Telem as a serious man," Hadar says, "but perhaps also obsessive about that senior officer, so we didn't entirely know how to treat these allegations, which would've caused an earthquake in the agency had they been (proven) true. Ahituv was convinced this entire thing was a fantasy (of Telem's) and that even just discussing the matter could lead to instability in the entire agency."
In a recent conversation I had with Telem, he remembered that meeting well. "My advantage was that I wasn't dependent on anyone—not economically or socially—so I could've said whatever I wanted," he said. "In my nature, perhaps because of my upbringing, I've always brought things to the surface, and that's why I was a 'pain in the neck' for some of my bosses. It doesn't mean I wasn't right on that matter. To this very day I believe I was right. I went there, put everything on the table, all solid facts. Unfortunately, it didn't interest anyone. What can I do? I can't run the world."
The senior Shin Bet officer that Telem is convinced was a spy passed away a few years ago, taking his secrets with him to the grave.
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