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Another Operative Is Outed -- but in Israel This Time

October 05, 2003|Howard Blum

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 5, 1973, an encrypted "Flash" message arrived at Mossad headquarters outside Tel Aviv.

The In-Law, a longtime spy planted deep inside the Egyptian government, wanted an emergency meeting in London. When the In-Law arrived that evening about 11 p.m. at the safe house in Mayfair, the Mossad director, Zvi Zamir, was there to greet him. For nearly an hour, Zamir and his most valued agent sat in the well-furnished living room. Hidden recorders picked up every word as the spy revealed that Egypt and Syria would attack Israel the next day -- Oct. 6 -- "at sunset."

On the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, that fateful meeting between a master spy and his handler just hours before the Arab states launched their simultaneous invasions has taken on a new and controversial significance. Not only has the name of the spy been revealed, but now it also has been charged that he was actually a double agent, the linchpin of a shrewd Arab deception that for four years leading up to the October invasions fooled the Israelis into believing war was unlikely.

And further exacerbating the already heated debate in Israel are accusations that those responsible for revealing the identity of this agent have behaved recklessly, even possibly treasonously.

In the years leading up to the Yom Kippur War, the In-Law's influence was extraordinary, as a result of the insights and purloined top-secret documents he provided. But his information was also the foundation upon which Israel's decision-makers came to believe, wrongly, that the Arab states had neither the capability nor the inclination to wage war.

On the night of Oct. 5, when Israel was at last becoming concerned about enemy troop movements along its borders, the information the In-Law gave about the attacks was also inaccurate. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and the Syrians smashed through the Golan Heights the next day at 2 p.m., not sunset -- and caught Israel totally unprepared. Wary of revealing that they had advance knowledge of the invasions, the Israelis had planned to move their tanks into front-line deployments at 4 p.m. But by 4 p.m. on Oct. 6, it was too late. The Israeli positions were already overrun, and the Arabs were advancing undeterred.

For three anxious days, Israel teetered on the verge of defeat, but then, against seemingly insurmountable odds, it struggled back. In the war's aftermath, a shocked nation tried to understand how it was caught by surprise. A primary culprit, according to an official commission of inquiry, was Gen. Eli Zeira, the head of military intelligence. Zeira, however, insisted that the Mossad's spy had been a double agent who for years had lulled Israel into a false sense of security. At the emergency London meeting, the double agent had delivered the final piece of disinformation, Zeira claimed.

A Mossad committee investigated the charge and concluded their agent was genuine. But Zeira was unpersuaded. He continued to argue his case and, as the decades passed, began to offer clues to the spy's identity.

Last winter, spurred by leaks believed to have come from Zeira, the Egyptian press revealed the spy's name: Ashraf Marwan.

Marwan, the husband of Gamal Nasser's third daughter, is alive and, after several heart operations, relatively well at 60. He is a wealthy international businessman who owns 3% of the Chelsea football team and had been involved in an acerbic struggle against Mohammed Fayed for control of Harrods, the London department store.

When I spoke by telephone to Marwan, he refused to either confirm or deny that he had been a spy. "People can write or say whatever they want. It's not my problem." However, he sent me a fax of a 1976 Egyptian newspaper report describing the award he had received from President Anwar Sadat for his "splendid achievement" in the October war. The implication was clear: He had been a double agent who had fooled the Mossad.

In Israel, the anger has focused not on Marwan or his allegiances but on those who revealed his identity. "There is no question that, in the future, anyone who is asked to help Israel defend itself will think twice," fumed Zev Schiff, an Israeli journalist.

And in the United States, the renewed controversy surrounding a 30-year-old spy drama has also attracted the attention of intelligence operatives, but with a different emphasis. "It's not just whether Israel got fooled by a double," one high-ranking U.S. official said. "If they can't get any answers after three decades, how long will it be until we're finally able to find out what we did or didn't know before the morning of Sept. 11?"

Howard Blum is the author of "The Eve of Destruction: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War" (HarperCollins, October 2003).

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