Commentary Magazine


By Way of Deception, by Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy

By Way of Deception.
by Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy.
St. Martin’s. 371 pp. $22.95.

When the government of Israel asked a Canadian court to prevent the publication of By Way of Deception it guaranteed a succès de scandale. The book has sold some 500,000 copies, its authors have been interviewed around the world, and its message—Israel is evil and no friend of America—has spread. Yet the book is so badly written, its logic is so tortured, its evidentiary base is so lacking, that if not for the scandal, no serious reader would have paid to plow through it. The Israeli government obviously wanted to prevent the revelation of the names of some of its own intelligence operatives, and the identification of some of its agents in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. It should have known well enough to cut its losses.

Victor Ostrovsky was a trainee in the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence-collection and covert-action agency, between January 1983 and March 1986. His knowledge of intelligence in general and of the Mossad in particular is limited to what he picked up in training courses and in lunchroom talk. Nor does he integrate that little amount of special knowledge into a lucid picture of the world. Nor does Claire Hoy, a journalist, bother trying to make a coherent account of what Ostrovsky has told him. They simply dump observations on the reader pell-mell.

The book really has only two parts: Ostrovsky’s first-hand account of his time as a Mossad trainee, and a description of ten events in which the Mossad played a role. The first part—although it contains a lot of wild speculation on things Ostrovsky knows nothing about—is obviously based on lecture notes and course handouts. This is thin, banal gruel (“The days were divided into five blocks, from 8 to 10 A.M., 10 to 11, 11 to 1, 2 to 3, and 3 to 8 P.M. We had regular 20-minute breaks, while lunch was between 1 and 2 p.m.”), but as a narrative still connected to reality. By contrast, the accounts of world events are on a level somewhere between the National Enquirer, Mother Jones, and Lyndon LaRouche—that is to say, it is difficult to figure out what parts of his stories are for real, if any.

Since the book has no footnotes, the reader must take the authors at their word, or not at all. A reader both serious and reasonably well-informed will quickly find enough outrages to fact and logic to warrant doubting everything the book says. According to the authors, for example, the Mossad’s expert opinion is that Lee Harvey Oswald could not possibly have shot John F. Kennedy from the Texas Book Depository building. Why? Shooting a similar target 88 yards away with a high-powered rifle fitted with a 4x scope proved beyond the capacity of every Mossad man who tried it. Well, any hunter knows that is a no-miss shot. Again, according to the book, a large plastic-wrapped container (which Ostrovsky was not allowed to examine), being flown from the Far East through Israel to Panama, contained drugs. The evidence? “We weren’t middlemen for weapons from the Far East. It couldn’t have been anything else but drugs.” Then there is the story about the Mossad informing Western intelligence services that certain types of locks are unpickable. But anybody who knows anything about locks knows that professionals rate them by numbers that stand for the seconds required to pick them. And how about this for logic? The Mossad “had a man with a British passport living in Djakarta, for example, working under cover. That means the Indonesian government knew he was with the Mossad.”

Ostrovsky’s general contention is that the Mossad is made up of a bunch of semi-competent but wholly amoral people whose devotion to Israel is so selfish that anyone, especially Americans, with whom they get involved stands a good chance of getting hurt. Some of the “counts” against the Mossad are of the dog-bites-man variety. Thus the evil Israelis would get a third-world government “hooked” on arms supplies, and then the “Mossad man” would tell the country’s leader “that he must take, for instance, some agricultural equipment as well.” Equally shocking is the disclosure that the Mossad keeps detailed track of the movement of PLO officials throughout the world. (Perhaps it should be tracking the migration of storks?) With regard to the use of deadly force, the Mossad teaches that “you have to forget everything you learned about fairness.” In other words, “in a situation where there is going to be shooting, . . . a bystander will be witnessing your death or someone else’s . . . in these situations it’s kill or be killed.” Ostrovsky and Hoy take this as evidence that Israel’s rule is “screw somebody else”; others might take it as simple common sense.

The events the book describes are bizarre. According to one story Ostrovsky and Hoy tell, for instance, the PLO planned to assassinate Prime Minister Golda Meir by shooting down her plane with SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles as she was to land in Rome to meet the Pope. The Mossad, with only peripheral help from the chief of Italian counterintelligence, located the terrorists and nearly all of their missiles—including some sticking out from the top of a food-vendor’s van. One Mossad car rammed the van, others careered outside the airport, four people were shot to death, and the Italian police never found out, thanks in part to the help of local Jews.

When the Italian magazine Panorama asked Ostrovsky to justify this “exaggerated” story that “resembles a novel” and that features an Italian official with a name—“Amburgo”—nonexistent in Italy (General Ambrogio Viviani denies any knowledge of the matter), Ostrovsky answered that he got the name out of the Mossad’s computer, and that it is mangled because the computer files names according to a peculiar phonetic system geared to Arabic. One wonders whether the same computer also told him that SA-7 missiles can be fired vertically. Anyone in the least familiar with them knows that they must be kept pointed at the target.

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The story which has contributed most to the sales of this book is that the Mossad had learned about the plan to blow up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983, but failed to tell the U.S. about it. Ostrovsky and Hoy claim that an agent who regularly reported on smuggling operations informed the Mossad that a Mercedes truck

was being fitted by the Shiite Muslims with spaces that could hold bombs. He said that it had even larger than usual spaces for this, so that whatever it was destined for was going to be a major target. Now, the Mossad knew that, for size, there were only a few logical targets, one of which must be the U.S. compound.

The authors go on to charge that the director of the Mossad refused to tell the Americans about the truck, saying: “No, we’re not going to protect the Americans. They’re a big country. Send only the regular information”—meaning a warning that a vehicle bomb might be coming—“while all Israeli installations were . . . warned to watch for a truck matching the description of the Mercedes.”

First, if there really was a report at all (and Ostrovsky gives no details as to the source), there would have been no special reason to associate the truck with bombing rather than with smuggling. Second, Ostrovsky could not have known what the director of the Mossad did or did not do with an item of information. Third, there is no evidence that the Israelis then in Lebanon were themselves on the lookout for this particular truck. Fourth, Mercedes is the most common brand of truck on the streets of Beirut, so a warning to “watch out for a Mercedes truck bomb” would have been worth as much as the message that Ostrovsky says that the Mossad did send—watch out for a truck bomb.

Yet all of this is beside the point. The biggest warning had been delivered in April, when a similar bomb hit the U.S. embassy. Bombs in Beirut are to be expected as much as rain in Seattle in January. Without warning of time and place—which Ostrovsky does not claim the Mossad could have given—there are still countermeasures the U.S. Marines could have taken, such as building serious roadblocks defended by .50 caliber machine guns; these would have stopped any truck, Mercedes or not. But the U.S. commanders, like people who go to Seattle in January without an umbrella, did not take the proper precautions. That, not the Mossad, was the cause of the disaster. In sum, the book’s most clamorous charge is an unsupported allegation that a report was not passed which, had it been passed, would surely not have been useful.

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Ostrovsky’s second-most clamorous charge is of the same kind: that the Mossad knew where, in Beirut, American hostages were being held, but defied the Israeli Prime Minister’s own directive to cooperate fully with the U.S. in finding them. According to Ostrovsky, the then director, Nahum Admony, said that “he had no intention of helping them,” and that—in part because his (alleged) mistress was having her period, and in part because of just plain Israeli meanness—his decision, “only slightly exaggerated” by the time the rumors about it reached the Mossad cafeteria, was: “Those fucking Americans. Maybe they want us to get the hostages for them too. What, are they crazy?” So the Mossad lied to the Americans, and did not even let them see the face of one of its katsas, or case officers. Ostrovsky says, paraphrasing the Book of Exodus, that the Mossad’s policy in this regard amounts to something like, “Thou shalt not see the face of a katsa and live.” This is blatant nonsense. CIA liaison people, and lots of other Americans, have met Mossad case officers regularly. More to the point, nobody in the CIA ever complained about receiving less than the fullest cooperation in finding the hostages. Unfortunately, the information always pointed to this block or that end of the street; this would have been good enough if Beirut had been in friendly hands, but Beirut was not in friendly hands. In sum, the charge consists of one supposition laid on another, laced with anonymous cafeteria talk, and based on patent untruths.

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Ostrovsky is obviously ignorant concerning matters of intelligence. He expressess boredom with those parts of his training course that dealt with recognition of enemy military equipment, and writes of the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor as if U.S. satellite photography had played no role in the determination of its function, state of completion, vulnerability, or precise location. He grossly underestimates the number of case officers the Mossad deploys in the world. He asserts that the Mossad prepares intelligence analyses for the Israeli government, whereas only military intelligence does that. He berates the Mossad for inflicting “pain and misery on others,” while citing things like the recruitment of a Saudi attaché in Japan. Perhaps a half-dozen death warrants may have been signed as a consequence of this book. To what good has Ostrovsky sacrificed these lives? One doubts that he gave it a thought.

By Way of Deception is the sort of exercise—conspiracy theory incoherently expressed—that usually causes sophisticated people to turn away in disgust. Yet it is referred to in the press in hushed tones of respect. That can only be because it is now chic to think of Israel as evil. Insufficient in so many ways, Ostrovsky nonetheless has shown himself a shrewd judge of the people whose money he is taking.

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