Israel’s intelligence community had quite a scare when it became known that an American intelligence officer had “defected” and was said to be seeking asylum in Israel. The mere thought of the media circus that would converge on such a scandal conjured up memories of a Ghost of Espionage Past.
Before the stench could hit the proverbial fan, the Israeli government issued an uncharacteristic denial, expressing its concern lest this turn, unjustifiably, into another “Pollard affair.”
The entire incident quickly was calmed down, with the “defector’s” return-“of his own free will”-to the U.S. By the end of the following week what could have been a public relations catastrophe had been turned skillfully-to a point-into a bizarre episode involving “a lone crazy spy.”
So what really happened?
Before plunging into the realm of speculation, we must first anchor our feet securely to the ground with the facts at hand.
“Authoritative sources” said that American naval intelligence officer Lt. Col. Jeremiah Mattysse, a convert to Judaism, had fallen in love with an Israeli woman.
It was also said that Mattysse had access to top-secret information that would under any “normal” circumstances be of interest to any intelligence agency. (One must always remember that intelligence agencies have an insatiable appetite for information, and more so for information obtained and processed by other intelligence agencies-just as carnivorous animals feast with delight on the intestines of their prey, as those organs contain the highest nutritional value.)
Finally, it was said that, when he defected/went AWOL, Mattysse had taken with him a large number of duffel bags containing top-secret information, and that he had brought that “load” with him to Israel.
It is at this point that the story starts to take on the eerie sounds and smells of the twilight zone. Mattysse’s Israeli lover, Rivka Nir, volunteered to the press-while authorities were still “searching” for him-that her lover had attempted to make contact with the Israeli intelligence services and offered them the material he had brought with him, which he had placed in bank vaults for security. Israeli authorities, she said, had turned him down flat.
While this story was gaining steam, Israeli authorities were engaged in a massive search for the missing American officer. When he was located at a hostel in the southern Israeli town of Mitzpe Ramon, Israel announced that he would not be deported to the U.S. Just as that decision was about to turn into a secondary incident itself, Mattysse said he wanted to return to the U.S. to face his accusers.
Finally, just before the entire “case” was laid to rest, the Israeli government issued an official statement intended to calm American media suspicions of foul play on Israel’s part. The statement proclaimed that, after the Pollard affair, a decision had been made at the highest levels that “Israel will not conduct espionage efforts in the U.S. or against American citizens.”
Sounds simple enough. So what’s wrong with this picture?
For starters, one must realize we are talking about “fortress Israel” here. No one carrying a series of document-filled duffel bags can simply enter the country undetected. Before clearing the airport’s security mechanism Mattysse would have had several interviews with the intelligence agents situated at all entry ports, waiting to snare any and all bearers of information.
Even the idea that the Israeli intelligence community-or, for that matter, any intelligence agency in the world, with the possible exception of Canada’s-would have the “integrity” or be sufficiently brain dead to turn down flat information which appears to be genuine is ludicrous.
The first step that Israel would have taken and probably did take was to analyze all the material at hand and ask Mattysse to tell them whatever it was he wanted to. They then would have secured several copies of the information he carried, before handing him over to be questioned by experts in whatever fields Mattysse appeared either to have had information on or access to.
All of the above would have been handled swiftly, with one side of the intelligence community pumping the man dry while the other side was building a cover story to provide “plausible deniability.”
Two questions present themselves at this point: If Israel really did not want the information Mattysse had to offer-a possibility more remote than that pigs can fly-why did it not hand the documents over to the Americans, or inform its ally of what was going on?
Secondly, where did this newcomer to Israel get access to bank vaults large enough to hold such a large volume of documents? Israeli banks have the same small safety deposit boxes as American banks do.
When the story broke and Israeli authorities finally “found” Mattysse, who as a Jew was eligible for Israeli citizenship and protection, the intelligence agencies realized that to deport him would look very suspicious. Instead, therefore, they convinced him to leave voluntarily.
At the same time, one has to conclude that the Americans were just as happy as the Israelis to get this incident behind them. It’s hard to believe the American intelligence community wanted to have to deal with another “leak” of information at this particular juncture.
It would not be at all surprising to me if Mattysse were the subject of a Mossad recruiting operation that went haywire. I suspect that at some point, as the recruiting operation was moving along, the potential future agent decided to take things into his own hands and come over lock, stock and barrel, leaving his potential handlers holding an enormous timebomb. Once Mattysse was in Israel and out of his intelligence environment-the Army Reserve Intelligence Center in San Antonio, Texas-his information was of little use to the Mossad.
Still, one must wonder about the level of intelligence in the Israeli “intelligence” community. For one thing, its memory, if not defective, is quite selective. The post-Pollard statement that Israel would not spy on the U.S. or American citizens was identical to the statement issued by the Israeli government in the 1950s, when the Mossad and CIA agreed to cooperate on intelligence-gathering activities. Following Jonathan Pollard’s capture at the gate of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, the Israeli government made it abundantly clear that the LAKAM , the agency that ran Pollard, was an out-of-control, rogue agency working on its own. That description had to be modified, of course, after Jonathan Pollard forced the Israeli government, through the Israeli courts, to admit he was in fact spying on its behalf.
Knowing personally quite a few of the players in the Israeli intelligence community, I can say with some authority that they will continue to provide us with “entertainment” of the dumb and dumber kind.
Former Mossad case officer Victor Ostrovsky is the author of By Way of Deception and The Other Side of Deception, both of which are available on audiotape through the AET Book Club.