New York Times Book Review of "By Way of Deception" by Victor Ostrovsky: What Did Mossad Know, and When?
David Wise - The New York Times - October 7, 1990
David Wise is the author of ''The Spy Who Got Away" and other books about intelligence and espionage.
BY WAY OF DECEPTION - By Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy.
371 pp. New York: St. Martin's Press. $22.95.
Victor Ostrovsky, the former Israeli intelligence officer, has certainly revised one literary maxim: it is a far, far better thing to be banned in New York than to be banned in Boston.
It was not until New York State Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Dontzin convened his court at 1 A.M. on Sept. 12 in his Fifth Avenue apartment and, at the request of the Israeli Government, barred publication of "By Way of Deception" - an astonishing ban reversed by an appeals court the next day - that people began buying the book like chunks of the Berlin wall.
The Government of Israel, doubtless prodded by Mossad, the intelligence agency that formerly employed Mr. Ostrovsky, had accomplished in just a few moments, albeit at an odd hour for judicial decision, what the publicists for St. Martin's Press could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. Who needs Donahue and Oprah if you've got Israel?
Intelligence agencies have a lot of trouble with books about themselves. They don't like them. Their first instinct is to try to ban them, and I speak from experience, since the C.I.A. tried some years ago to stop publication of a book of which I was a co-author, thereby catapulting it onto the best-seller list.
But a Surgeon General-type warning is in order. Readers who purchase "By Way of Deception" expecting to acquire an Israeli "Spycatcher" will be disappointed. Victor Ostrovsky is not Peter Wright, the author of the book that so upset Margaret Thatcher that she foolishly banned it, thereby making Mr. Wright a millionaire in his golden years in Tasmania. Mr. Wright was a high-level official of M.I.5, the British internal security service, for two decades. Mr. Ostrovsky was a case officer, or katsa as he tells us they are called, for 14 months, according to the Israeli Government.
Given his relatively brief length of service and his position, Mr. Ostrovsky would not be expected to possess the broad range of knowledge about Mossad operations that he claims. His answer to this obvious question is twofold: While he was a trainee, his instructors talked in detail about operations they had carried out. "In addition," he writes, "my open access to the Mossad computer allowed me to build up a vast knowledge of the organization and its activities."
Perhaps. "By Way of Deception," written with Claire Hoy, a Canadian journalist, describes, in minute detail, Mr. Ostrovsky's training as a fledgling case officer. How to detect surveillance, how to meet an Arab agent in a cafe (and how not to), how to recruit an agent and so forth. This portion, the first half of the book, has the ring of a firsthand account.
With some exceptions, the second half of the book discusses operations in which Mr. Ostrovsky did not participate and which, in many cases, had occurred years before he joined Israeli intelligence. Since these operations are also presented in abundant detail, with descriptions of complex events complete with dozens of names and dates, it appears that the authors relied, at least in part, on published sources.
While it is difficult to judge the accuracy of many of these stories, one should bear in mind that although the Government of Israel has validated Mr. Ostrovsky's identity - its lawsuit confirmed that he is who he says he is - it has not validated his information. Avi Pazner, a press adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, has called the book "an amalgamation of very few facts and a lot of lies." Isser Harel, a former chief of Mossad, has said in an affidavit that the book, by naming names of intelligence officers, has placed them "in a life-threatening situation."
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Mr. Ostrovsky's most sensational charge is that Mossad, having learned from an informant in Beirut in 1983 that a Mercedes truck was being prepared to hold bombs, guessed that the target might be an American installation there but never gave this information to the United States. Instead, he alleges, Nahum Admoni, the Mossad chief, decided to pass along only a "general warning" that someone might be planning an operation against the Americans. On Oct. 23, a yellow Mercedes truck crashed through the flimsy barriers of the United States compound and blew up a barracks, killing 241 United States Marines.
If the book's allegation is true, it is a nasty business indeed. On the other hand, security was so incredibly lax at the Marine barracks that nothing short of a specific warning about not only the type of vehicle, but also the date and time the terrorists would attack, would have made a bit of difference. After the attack, Gen. James M. Mead, who was the Marine commander in Beirut, said that he had received dozens of warnings about white Mercedes vehicles that might be carrying bombs. "We were told this every day," he said.
A second allegation that has made headlines is Mr. Ostrovsky's charge that Israel has a spy network in the United States known as "Al." The name aside, that general assertion can hardly be challenged. Although both Israel and the United States officially expressed astonishment when Jonathan J. Pollard, a Navy intelligence analyst, was arrested in 1985 as a spy for Israel, both countries know that Israel has spied on the United States for years, just as the C.I.A. spies on its friends and allies. A secret C.I.A. report dated March 1979 (made public by Iran when militants seized the American Embassy there) says that Israel has used bugs, wiretaps and attempted blackmail and bribes to gather intelligence in this country.
Less persuasive is Mr. Ostrovsky's claim that Yitzhak Hofi, the head of Mossad, personally participated in the murder of two minor Palestine Liberation Organization representatives in Athens in the mid-1970's. That the chief of Mossad would risk exposure of himself and Israeli intelligence by serving as a hit man strains credulity, as does much else in the book.
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MR. OSTROVSKY'S account of why he left Mossad in 1986 is also troublesome. As he tells it, he was sent to Cyprus as part of an operation to capture some top Arab terrorists who were believed to be flying from a meeting in Libya to Syria. His job, he says, was simply to relay a signal by radio after receiving word that the plane had taken off from Libya. He says he not only did so, but also informed Mossad that the terrorists were not on the plane. How did he know? By remarkable good fortune, he writes, he met a "very well dressed" Arab in the lobby of his hotel in Cyprus, whom he got drunk, and who just happened to know that the P.L.O. was about to trick Mossad. But Mr. Ostrovsky says his warning was brushed off.
On Feb. 4, 1986, the suspect Libyan plane was forced down by Israeli fighters, in the mistaken belief that Abu Nidal and other top-ranking terrorists were aboard. Israel was greatly embarrassed when it found no terrorists. Mr. Ostrovsky says Mossad made him the scapegoat in the affair. But since his sole job, by his account, was to send a radio signal, and he did so, it is not entirely clear why he would have been blamed. There seem to be some missing pieces here, and the whole tale, like other episodes in the book, remains murky.
There is not only violence in this book but enough gratuitous sex (poolside orgies, a female officer hanging upside down by her ankles while performing acrobatic erotic exploits) that the authors seem undecided whether Mossad is made up of sadistic killers or of full-time satyrs. Much of "By Way of Deceit" reads like a supermarket tabloid. Mr. Ostrovsky and Mr. Hoy spare us no mayhem, torture or gore. Or speculation. Amiram Nir, an Israeli official deeply involved in the Iran-contra scandal, was reported killed in a plane crash in Mexico in 1988. We are reminded by the authors that "one unnamed intelligence official was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying that he did not believe Nir was dead. Rather, he said that Nir had likely got his face surgically altered in Geneva, 'where the clinics are very good, very private, and very discreet.' "It is "highly likely," the authors claim, that Prime Minister Shimon Peres faked Nir's death as a favor to President Ronald Reagan, so that Nir would not have to testify about Iran-contra.
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