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Mossad: From Zion to Gehenna : BY WAY OF DECEPTION The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer By Victor Ostrovskyand Claire Hoy (St. Martins: $22.95; 371 pp.)

October 14, 1990|James Bamford | Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace," an examination of the U.S. National Security Agency, is the Washington investigative producer for ABC News

At 1 o'clock on a September morning, a group of lawyers for Israel emerged from the home of Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Dontzin. As they stepped out onto Fifth Avenue, they had reason to celebrate. For the first time in U.S. history, a judge had banned a book at the request of a foreign government. Only a week before, Israel had also succeeded in getting the book banned throughout Canada.

But the victory would be short-lived. On Sept. 13, less than 48 hours after the sleepy New York judge issued his injunction, an appeals court threw it out. "By Way of Deception" thus has become an instant best seller, making its co-author, former Israeli intelligence officer Victor Ostrovsky, at once very rich and very nervous. Earlier, he said, he had been visited by two Mossad officials who offered him both money and then threats to get him to stop publication of the book. A short time later, Ostrovsky went into hiding.

William J. Casey, the late CIA director, had a favorite quote from Frederick the Great: "It is pardonable to be defeated, but never to be surprised." A few weeks ago, the highly secret Israeli intelligence organization known as the Mossad was both defeated and surprised. Surprised that one of its former members was about to publish a book detailing the inner workings of the reclusive spy agency; defeated when they attempted to have the book banned in the United States.

Co-authored by Canadian writer Claire Hoy, "By Way of Deception" details Ostrovsky's brief three-year career in what often has been called the best intelligence service in the world. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, to Jewish parents, Ostrovsky bounced back and forth between Canada and Israel, serving in both the Israeli Army and Navy before being selected for service in the Mossad in January, 1983, and eventually becoming a katsa , or case officer.

In his book, Ostrovsky travels a long and painful road from ardent Zionist, believing that "the state of Israel was incapable of misconduct," to what he calls "the present-day nightmare." Along the way he found the Mossad to be an organization of "twisted ideals and self-centered pragmatism," combining "greed, lust, and total lack of respect for human life."

Unfortunately, Ostrovsky offers little to back up his harsh charges, thus leaving the reader wondering whether his book is an act of revenge, possibly for being fired: He was dismissed following an unsuccessful attempt by Mossad to capture a planeload of high-ranking PLO officials. The capture was successful but the plane contained no one of diplomatic importance. Ostrovsky claims he was used as the scapegoat for the failure.

Nevertheless, while Mossad's secrecy has made it next to impossible to confirm Ostrovsky's specific claims--e.g., that the agency runs a clandestine espionage team (known as Al) in the U.S.--many of his allegations appear to fit a long pattern of similar activity by the agency.

Also lending weight to this book's credibility is the fact that Israel has gone to such unprecedented lengths to prevent its publication. One attorney representing Israel inadvertently gave additional support when he said Ostrovsky "prefers his credibility to the lives of others."

Some have argued that Ostrovsky was both too junior and too new to learn all that he is reporting, but the author claims that he was able to access Mossad computer files containing information on past operations. The attorney representing Israel in a way confirmed this when he admitted that even as a low-level employee, Ostrovsky could have had "access" to important secrets.

The first half of "By Way of Deception" takes the reader through Ostrovsky's recruitment and training, serving as a veritable manual of Mossad craft: how to establish a cover, evade surveillance, plant a bug and all the other tricks of the trade.

But the real substance comes in the last half of the book, which outlines a number of highly questionable operations. Most serious is his charge that a Mossad informant in Beirut passed on information about a Mercedes truck being outfitted by radical Shi'ite Muslims to carry an exceptionally large quantity of high explosives. Because of its unusually large explosive capability, Mossad officials felt that there were "only a few logical targets, one of which must be the U.S. compound." But rather than pass on these details to their U.S. counterparts, Mossad decided to send only a standard warning which was all but useless.

"We're not there to protect Americans," Ostrovsky quotes Mossad director Nahum Admony as saying. "They're a big country. Send only the regular information." On Oct. 23, 1983, a similar truck smashed into the Marine barracks, killing 241 servicemen. "The general attitude about the Americans," wrote Ostrovsky, "was: 'Hey, they want to stick their nose into this Lebanon thing, let them pay the price.' "

Far more damaging to Israel than the words between the covers of Ostrovsky's book is the fact that it could have been written at all. The violent tremors caused by the country's iron-fist policies in the occupied territories have now penetrated even the Mossad's heavy black cloak.

"The intifada and resultant breakdown of moral order and humanity," Ostrovsky concludes, "are a direct result of the kind of megalomania that characterizes the operation of the Mossad. That's where it all begins. This feeling that you can do anything you want to whomever you want for as long as you want because you have the power."

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