Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad
by Gordon Thomas
St. Martin’s. 354 pp. $26.95
In this book, Gordon Thomas, a Welsh journalist living in Dublin, claims that long before Kenneth Starr had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, Israel’s intelligence service was in possession of tapes containing 30 hours’ worth of intimate talk between President Clinton and his young intern. Thomas also asserts that Jerusalem was holding these tapes either for possible blackmail or to protect its mole in the White House, code-named “Mega.”
Thomas’s allegations first surfaced several months ago, and the White House promptly dismissed them as “nonsense.” (“To tell you the truth,” sneered one administration source about Gideon’s Spies, “booksellers ought to consider selling it in the fiction section.”) In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman David Bar-Illan likewise characterized Thomas’s charges as “beyond the pale and beneath contempt,” wondering aloud how anyone “can take seriously such unmitigated drivel.”
Who is to be trusted? Administration officials have lied too often for their word to be taken at face value, and Israel has not exactly been in the business of acknowledging its spy operations. Then, too, the Starr report itself records Monica Lewinsky as saying that the President “suspected that a foreign embassy (he did not specify which one) was tapping his telephones.”
All of which, especially in a culture that has become increasingly receptive to tales of Israeli mischief, makes it important to look a little more closely at Gideon’s Spies.
The book certainly contains many eye-popping claims. Thomas holds Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, responsible for the deaths of Princess Diana (whose driver it supposedly pressured to the breaking point); the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell (whom it supposedly murdered); 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983 (about whose planned fate at the hands of Hezbollah it supposedly had advance knowledge); and William Buckley, a CIA agent (whom it supposedly let die so the PLO would take the blame). Thomas’s “secret history” also reveals that the Mossad helped the (failed) putsch of Soviet hardliners against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, and purposely destroyed the CIA’s network in South Africa.
Nor, preposterous as it sounds, is this all. Gordon goes on for many pages about a remarkable computer program, Promis, which the Mossad allegedly bought in 1981 from a U.S. corporation named Inslaw. This software, according to Thomas, can “electronically probe into the lives of people in a way never before possible.” During the intifada, the 1987-92 Palestinian uprising against Israel, Promis gave Israel the means to “lock on to computers in the PLO’s seventeen offices scattered around the world”; Israel’s intelligence service could thereby learn what “aliases and false passports” Yasir Arafat was using and track his phone bills and the numbers he called, with the result that, wherever he went, “Arafat would be unable to hide.”
More broadly, by following a terrorist’s “every step,” Promis allowed Israel to know “exactly when and where” terrorist operations of any kind would occur. And, still better, after reverse-engineering the program and adding several features, including a “trapdoor” microchip, Mossad’s technicians could sell Promis to others—like Jordanian and Soviet intelligence—and track what they were up to in precise detail.
There is much more in Gideon’s Spies along the same or similar lines. It is, of course, impossible to confirm or disconfirm so-called findings based on secret tape-recordings or miracle computer programs manufactured by corporations obscure except to conspiracy theorists. All one can say is that, if Israel’s intelligence capacity were really what Thomas alleges it to be, the intifada would have been stopped dead in its tracks, and the problem of anti-Jewish terrorism in the world would have long since subsided.
In any case, when it comes not to unverifiable assertions but to known and checkable facts, Thomas can hardly be said to inspire confidence. A few examples must suffice.
Thomas’s command of Middle East realia is faulty in the extreme. He makes up Arabic words (no dictionary of mine has the word mafafeth, which he mistakenly believes means a meeting house) and mistranslates others (abu, or father, as “voice” being only the most egregious instance). He also routinely garbles common names, referring to Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics as Marionites, to the Iranian arms dealer Ghorbanifar as Thorbanifar, and to Saddam Hussein’s brother Sab’awi as Sabba’a. Chronology poses a particular stumbling block: Thomas misdates the Mossad’s earliest roots by decades, has Richard Helms filling the position of director of Central Intelligence in 1957 (he actually took over in 1966), and calls the Yom Kippur war of 1973 the “second full-scale Arab war” with Israel, somehow forgetting 1967. And so forth.
The book contains raging inconsistencies. On one page Thomas asserts that Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel, “had the highest possible U.S. intelligence-community security clearance”; a few pages later, it turns out that Pollard’s security clearance “had not been enough” to obtain the documents his handlers requested. In one place, we are told Charles de Gaulle stopped all arms shipments to Israel in 1965; elsewhere, the same event is recorded as having taken place in 1968.
Ignorance is never far from the surface. Thomas refers, for example, to “a tribesman of the Sarami, the oldest of the Islamic Sufi sects,” but Sufi orders are not sects, and the Sarami order, far from being the oldest, does not even exist. If we are to believe Thomas, whirling dervishes come from Africa (not Turkey), the Pope today is an “absolute ruler,” and the CIA has “hundreds of thousands” of employees. Other statements simply boggle the mind, as when Thomas confidently asserts that the head of the Mossad paid informers “a bonus of one U.S. dollar” for “each terrorist killed by Mossad.” Now there was an inducement.
On page 56 of Gideon’s Spies, Thomas deals with the catastrophic explosion on TWA flight 800 in 1996. The idea that there may have been a Middle Eastern connection to this tragedy—an idea picked up by “thousands of media stories”—was, Thomas asserts, a product of Israeli disinformation. He quotes James Kallstrom, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, who allegedly told his colleagues in private: “If there was any way of nailing those bastards in Tel Aviv . . . , I sure would like to see it happen. We had to check every item they slipped into the media.” The only problem is that Kallstrom, with whom I have spoken, characterizes this story as “total nonsense” and categorically denies ever having said any such thing. In fact, he told me, the Israelis were “extremely helpful” in the investigation.
When it is not indulging in “total nonsense” of this kind, Gideon’s Spies offers an unexceptionable if banal and derivative account of well-known Mossad undertakings, including the placement of Eli Cohen in Damascus in the late 1950’s and the 1976 rescue of hostages at Entebbe. But even here, Thomas inexplicably omits some of the organization’s truly great feats—notably, its success in securing a copy of Nikita Khrushchev’s secret party speech in 1956 repudiating Stalin.
In brief, what is reliable in this book is old-hat, while what is new is utterly unreliable, a mishmash of blather and fantasy. Yet Gideon’s Spies is also a dangerous book, and one that is likely to have a continuing impact.
For one thing, Thomas is hardly the first to tread this particular path. Prior books “exposing” the Mossad include the pseudo-insider Victor Ostrovsky’s duo, By Way of Deception and The Other Side of Deception, and the ravings of Ari Ben-Menashe, about whom Thomas accurately says that “few could tell a tale better.” Thomas praises each of these fantasists for the “hard information” they supply about the Mossad, and even invokes an unrelated but no less conspiracy-mad study, Government by Gunplay (1976) by Sidney Blumenthal (who has since gone on to other if not higher things). Tellingly, however, his bibliography omits solid works like Anita Engle’s The Nili Spies (1959, reissued 1997) or Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman’s Every Spy a Prince (1990).
Not only does Gideon’s Spies take its place within a well-established genre, it recycles a number of equally well-entrenched ideas. Thus, Thomas interweaves a tale about Israeli arms-sales to Iran with the thesis of an “October Surprise” involving the incoming Reagan administration in 1980, a canard that has been proved false by no fewer than two congressional panels and a roster of journalists. And he rehashes other old myths as well—that Israeli intelligence staged the attempted bombing of an El Al airliner in 1986 (it was in fact the work of Syria), or that a “rogue CIA group” carried out the Pan Am 103 bombing two years later.
But if in essential respects Gideon’s Spies resembles its predecessors, making basically the same case for the proposition that the Mossad is an octopus whose tentacles reach into all the world’s power centers, it also makes that case more effectively. For Thomas, a credentialed journalist, advances his arguments not in the form of a crabbed, hate-filled diatribe issued by a fringe publisher but in what is, on the whole, a jaunty, well-written, and handsomely produced book bearing the imprint of a reputable house. In contrast to the others, moreover, Thomas does not seem to hold any obvious grudge against the Mossad, an intelligence service he dubs “more formidable than any other in the world.” (His true feelings do occasionally slip out, though, as when he compares Israel’s response to the intifada with Nazi actions in France.)
What the surface reasonableness of Gideon’s Spies serves to mask, however, is the extent to which Thomas, exactly like every other conspiracy theorist, seeks to persuade us that political realities are the opposite of what we know to be the truth (for instance, that Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was a “virulent” anti-American who would “do anything” to reduce Washington’s influence in the world). In this crucial sense, Gideon’s Spies fits not only into the recent genre of books about the Mossad but into a vast, two-century-old literature promoting the idea of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. Pseudo-factual writings of this sort may look risible, but they are not. To the contrary, they form a necessary background to retaliatory action against those identified as the guilty party.
Thus, the late-19th-century florescence of writing about a Jewish world conspiracy, culminating in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, laid the basis for the later Nazi assault against the Jews just as surely as Communist literature targeting the bourgeoisie laid the groundwork for the terror-to-come of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, or the anti-Kurd spoutings of Saddam Hussein’s regime prepared the way for genocide in the north of Iraq. If conspiracist tracts of this nature cannot be entirely discredited, it is nevertheless of critical importance that they be exposed and denounced. At the very least, one can thereby hope to minimize the damage they are likely to do.