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Telling tales out of the service

Published Oct. 18, 2005

BY WAY OF DECEPTIONBy Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy

St. Martin's Press, $22.95

Most people have heard of the Mossad, Israel's legendary spy agency, but few have had any direct dealings with it. The few who have are usually unwilling to talk about it.

One person who knows the Mossad well and is talking about it a lot these days is Victor Ostrovsky, A Canadian-born Jew who grew up in Israel and became a agent in the mid 1980s. With the help of Canadian author Claire Hoy, Ostrovsky has written a book about his experiences, one that's already generating a lot of controversy and sales.

It's a fascinating book, full of intriguing details about the spy trade _ how you get to be one in the first place, the best way to lose somebody who's following you, even the Mossad's theory about who really killed President John F. Kennedy. There's also a lot of juicy gossip _ orgies among the head office staff, blackmailing wealthy Saudi Arabians with photos of their kinky sex escapades, even a story about what was supposed to have been a long-running love affair between the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and one of her Cabinet members.

The problem with all this is that the entirety of By Way Of Deception seems dedicated to getting back at the Mossad for what Ostrovsky sees as his unjustified dismissal from the spy agency in 1986.

Many of his amusing anecdotes are no doubt true, but are all of them? If not, which ones? Throughout the book, you have a nagging feeling that there's a lot here you're not being told, and that the things you are being told are twisted around to fit some hidden agenda. Much of what's related raises more questions than it answers. Some of it is just plain unbelievable.

One of the few things you can accept without question is that Ostrovsky is the real thing _ a former Mossad case officer, or as they're known in the agency, a katsa. We can be sure about this because the Israeli government went to court in Canada and the United States to get the book suppressed and in the process admitted that Ostrovsky was once one of theirs.

By itself, the fact that a Mossad case officer is spilling the beans is news enough to ensure big sales for this book. The Israeli government's ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt to get it banned only guaranteed that By Way Of Deception would climb high on the best-seller list.

But however plugged-in Ostrovsky may have been in the Mossad, however titillating his anecdotes, however shocking his tales of immorality and barbarism, you always come back to that nagging feeling about the truth in all of this, the suspicion that the whole thing might be some big con job.

You can blame Ostrovsky for that because he spends a lot of time in the book bragging about what an imaginative liar he is, about how he whizzed through Mossad training by coming up with the most plausible falsehoods at the right time. That fact alone makes you wonder about some of the allegations he makes.

Start first with why he was bounced from the agency soon after completing its lengthy and expensive training program. According to Ostrovsky, he had frequent clashes with his superiors because he questioned some of the agency's more questionable practices. The final straw, as he puts it, came when he rejected the homosexual advances of a fellow Mossad trainee. No more explanations, just that. Within days, he says, he was blamed for an embarrassing intelligence failure, on the run to the United States and hidding out from possible Mossad hit teams.

Ostrovsky's dismissal from the Mossad is one of the most crucial elements in this book. Without a plausible explanation of what was behind it, his more controversial allegations about the agency tend to look like so much malicious gossip.

So what are these allegations that have made so much news and got Ostrovsky's book a lot of television time in recent weeks:

That in October of 1983, the Mossad learned from an informer that Lebanese terrorists had loaded a Mercedes truck with explosives to destroy a large target and failed to warn the American contingent in Beirut about it. The subsequent bombing of the U.S. Marine compound killed 241 Americans.

That the Mossad got Israel's friends in Congress to block the sale of reserve fuel tanks for F-16 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia on grounds that the planes equipped with the tanks could attack Israel. The book alleges that the real reason the sale was blocked is that Israel Aircraft Industries was already selling its own copies of the fuel tanks to the Saudis through a front company in Europe and didn't want the Americans horning in on their business.

That the Mossad engineered the dismissal of America's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, by leaking a transcript of a bugged conversation he had with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization in New York.

That the agency brought about the downfall of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1977 by leaking the fact that his wife had a bank account in the United States. Foreign bank accounts were illegal at the time under Israeli law. The fall of Rabin, then leader of the relatively moderate Labor Party, opened the way for the government of Menachem Begin, a right-winger considered much more congenial to the Mossad.

The stories about Rabin and Andrew Young have been floating around for years and are generally accepted as facts. The accusation about the Beirut Marine barracks bombing has been around for a while too, though it's hard to judge its accuracy. Many of Ostrovsky's other allegations are no doubt true.

But again and again, you come back to those nagging doubts. Maybe it's that ex-spies are the worst possible people to write about the spy business. There's always a suspicion that somebody who made his living through lies, con games and deception may not know when togive it up.

If you want to read something more comprehensive about the Mossad as well as Israel's other intelligence agencies, another book on the subject has just been published. It's Every Spy a Prince by American television correspondent Dan Raviv and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95).

This one's a straightforward history and is more in the standard tradition of

books about Israel's intelligence exploits. There are long chapters aboutthe agencies beginnings, the capture of Adolf Eichmann in South America and the raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue Israelis hijacked by Palestinian guerrillas. Very pertinent these days is a discussion about the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East.

But even though Every Spy a Prince is less critical, less entertaining and certainly less controversial than Ostrovsky's book, at least you're not constantly asking yourself: Is this really true?

Jack Payton is foreign editor for the St. Petersburg Times.