The spy _ and the man she busted

Published March 21, 2004|Updated Aug. 27, 2005

She drives a red Cutlass convertible and lives in a gated community. Like thousands of others, she worked in that quintessential Florida profession _ selling real estate.

At 44, Cheryl Hanin leads an unremarkable life. It is a far cry from the past, when she was known as "Cindy" and had a very different career:

Spying for the Mossad, Israel's crack intelligence service.

In 1986, Hanin was an undercover agent when a British newspaper published a sensational story about Israel's vast and secretive nuclear weapons program.

Posing as an American tourist, "Cindy" lured the whistle-blower _ a former nuclear technician named Mordechai Vanunu _ from London to Rome. There, other agents drugged him, chained him and shipped him back to Israel to stand trial.

Vanunu was convicted of treason and espionage. After 18 years in prison, he is due for release next month _ raising a fresh storm of controversy about Israel's nuclear program and one of the most notorious cases in modern spy history.

To many, Hanin was a hero who helped bring a turncoat to justice. Without her, they say, Vanunu might have continued to spill secrets that threatened Israel's national security.

"His reputation is very bad," says Yossi Melman, who covers security issues for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "He is considered by many as a traitor."

But to his legion of supporters in the United States and elsewhere, Vanunu is the true hero, a peace-loving man who thought the world had a right to know about the huge nuclear arsenal Israel was developing. His admirers _ who repeatedly have nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize _ charge he was illegally seized on foreign soil by a spy agency that knows no bounds.

"This woman destroyed Mordechai's life," says Peter Hounam, the reporter who first interviewed Vanunu in 1986. "He trusted her, she deliberately placed him in a position where his defenses were down. He was lonely, and she and her Mossad team took advantage of that. I have nothing but contempt for what she did."

Neither Hanin nor Vanunu has ever spoken publicly about the case. That has sparked the inevitable questions:

Does Vanunu still have warm feelings for Cindy?

And is Cindy still working for the Mossad?

"A woman has skills'

Born in 1960, Cheryl Hanin grew up in Pennsylvania and Orlando in a Jewish family that owed its affluence to tires.

Her father, Stanley Hanin, founded Allied Discount Tires, a chain of stores best known for its shrill ads with a tipsy pitchman:

"Tahrs ain't pretty, but you gotta have them!"

Hanin attended Orlando's Edgewater High, where she joined Jewish youth clubs and served on the yearbook committee. In a foreshadowing of her future cover as a spy, she even appeared in a yearbook ad for an Orlando beauty salon.

Other photos show her as plump but attractive, with round cheeks, full lips and plucked eyebrows arching like half moons.

As her parents went through a bitter divorce, Hanin had her own life-changing experience: She spent a semester in Israel, studying Hebrew and Jewish history. She was so captivated by the country that upon graduation in 1978, she joined the Israeli army.

In 1985, Hanin married Ofer Ben Tov, a stocky officer six years her senior. And at some point, her good looks, keen intelligence and passion for Israel also attracted the attention of the Mossad.

Started in 1951, three years after Israel became a nation, the Mossad ranks as one of the world's most skilled and daring intelligence agencies. Among its legendary exploits were the 1960 capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, then living under an alias in Argentina, and the 1976 commando raid that freed 100 Israeli passengers on a French jet hijacked to Uganda.

As a Mossad recruit, Hanin would have gone through a regimen designed to test an agent's mettle under the most challenging of circumstances.

She learned to draw a gun while sitting in a chair. To memorize as many names as possible as they flashed across a screen.

"She was sent on practice missions _ breaking into an occupied hotel room, stealing documents from an office," wrote Gordon Thomas in Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad. "She was roused from her bed in the dead of night and dispatched on more exercises: picking up a tourist in a nightclub, then disengaging herself outside his hotel. Every move she made was observed by her tutors."

Hanin's gender was an asset. As Meir Amit, a former Mossad director, put it: "A woman has skills a man simply does not have. The history of modern intelligence is filled with accounts of women who have used their sex for the good of their country."

After her training, Hanin joined the Mossad unit that worked with Israeli embassies, where she posed as the wife or girlfriend of other agents. In 1986, she got the assignment that would be the highlight _ and the end _ of her undercover career. She was to go to London and catch the eye of a slight young man with thinning hair. Mordechai Vanunu.

"Bigger than Watergate'

Vanunu was born in the Arab nation of Morocco but immigrated with his family to Israel in 1963.

Although he got top grades in school, he failed the test to become an air force pilot, his dream. He joined the army and did well enough to be asked to make it a career. But Vanunu wanted to pursue his education, another goal that eluded him when he flunked tests required for a university physics program.

Discouraged, he returned home to Beersheba in southern Israel. There he learned that the Negev Nuclear Research Center, in nearby Dimona, was advertising jobs in its control room.

Ever since construction began in 1958, rumors abounded that the center's true purpose was not to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as Israel insisted, but rather to make nuclear weapons.

In 1976, Vanunu was accepted as a trainee and began a crash course in nuclear physics and other subjects. He was required to sign the Official Secrets Act, which forbade disclosure of sensitive material.

Vanunu spent the next eight years at the center, working in increasingly sensitive areas and making good money. He also completed a philosophy degree at Ben-Gurion University, where he became active in student politics and supported Palestinian causes. As a Jew born in an Arab country, Vanunu felt he himself was looked down on by Jews of European descent.

Repeatedly, officials at Dimona told him to halt his political activities. He ignored them.

"The warnings added to his feelings of discontent, and the nuclear issue weighed on his mind," wrote Hounam, the British journalist, in his 1999 book The Woman from Mossad. "He worried about the monumental destructive power of the weapons he was helping to supply."

By 1985, Vanunu had already decided to leave Dimona when he was told he was being laid off. But first, he clandestinely took dozens of photos in the complex, including models of different types of bombs.

With a backpack and the two rolls of undeveloped film, Vanunu left Israel in early 1986. He wound up in Sydney, Australia, where he got a job driving a taxi and began to attend an Anglican church.

Even as a boy, forced to memorize the Torah in religious school, Vanunu had questioned his Jewish faith. Now he found a welcome by parishioners, who, coincidentally, were debating whether the church should oppose nuclear weapons.

Vanunu told his story about Dimona, although he did not develop the film. He also converted to Christianity, a move that would shock his father and other Jews almost as much as divulging Dimona's nuclear secrets.

Wrote Hounam: "Vanunu was now on a collision course with his fellow countrymen who, when they found out, would take it for granted that he was deliberately mocking his country's two most cherished beliefs _ its religion and national security."

Among Vanunu's new friends was Oscar Guerrero, a flamboyant Colombian who had been painting the church. Guerrero, realizing an expose of Israel's nuclear program could be a gold mine, told Vanunu he was an "international journalist" who could help get the story published. At the Colombian's urging, Vanunu developed his film, and Guerrero shopped the story to news organizations.

"This is bigger than Watergate," he dramatically announced.

Rejected by Newsweek and others, Guerrero approached London's Sunday Times in August 1986. Hounam, then a reporter, was assigned to determine if his story was credible.

Guerrero was full of bluster, but a British physics professor said the Dimona photos appeared genuine. Based on that, the Sunday Times sent Hounam to Australia to talk to Vanunu directly. He seemed to be telling the truth, admitting when he didn't know something, and over two days described a far more extensive weapons production program than anyone had realized.

"These were weapons that could obliterate a major city _ they had no sensible battlefield application," Hounam later wrote. "I was utterly absorbed in the wealth of detail he was able to supply."

The Sunday Times, burned a few years earlier by fake Hitler diaries, decided to fly Vanunu to London so experts could probe his story. Under their agreement, he would not be paid for information he gave the paper, but would get $100,000 from a book deal and serialization in a German magazine.

As the vetting dragged on for days, Vanunu grew increasingly bored and lonely despite the paper's attempts to keep him entertained (including a trip to the opera, his passion). And while the Sunday Times urged him to stay in his hotel room, he persisted in roaming around London.

It was in Leicester Square, the heart of the theater district, that Vanunu first saw her _ a slightly plump but attractive blond, with full lips and heavy makeup. She appeared to be in her 20s. Their eyes met, and on a whim he spoke to her:

"Are you a tourist like me? Why don't we go for a coffee?"

The woman called herself "Cindy" and said she was a beautician on vacation from America. She suggested they meet the next day at the Tate Gallery; Vanunu, pleased she shared his interest in the arts, agreed.

Although he did not realize it, Vanunu had fallen into a classic "honey trap." The Mossad, familiar with his desires and weaknesses, knew exactly how to lure him.

Frustrated with the Sunday Times' delays, Vanunu began seeing more and more of Cindy. The paper's reporters observed them together but almost none but Hounam had any suspicions.

"Morde," he said, using Vanunu's nickname, "this woman might be lying. She might be a Mossad plant."

Don't worry, Vanunu assured him, "she is just a tourist who is critical of Israel. I think you would like her."

They made plans for Vanunu to bring his new friend to dinner at Hounam's home that night. But Vanunu called to cancel because he was "going out of the city."

Then he disappeared.

"He should never have been allowed to wander around London on his own," Hounam says. "But there was this problem in that he hadn't actually signed the contract and we had no hold on him."

The fact-checking finally complete, the Sunday Times went ahead with publication even though Vanunu had vanished. On Oct. 5, 1986, readers picked up their papers to find a front-page photo of the Dimona reactor. The accompanying story, spread over three pages, revealed Israel had an arsenal of as many as 200 devices, ranking it as a major nuclear power.

The program "is considerably more advanced than indicated by any previous report or conjectures of which I am aware," one expert told the paper.

Israel did not deny the story, and refused to say anything about Vanunu. It was not until he was led into an Israeli court in December _ two months later - that he used an ingenious way of letting the world know what had happened.

"Vanunu M was hi-jacked in Rome. ITL. 30.9.86. 21.000. Came to Rome by fly BA504," he had written in black ink on his hand, held up so photographers could see.

From that shred of information, Hounam slowly pieced together the story of a kidnapping:

As Vanunu grew increasingly frustrated with the Sunday Times, Cindy _ Cheryl Hanin _ had urged him to go with her to Rome, where she claimed her sister had an apartment. She even bought him a business-class ticket on British Airways Flight 504. On Sept. 30, they flew to Rome. A friend met them and drove them to an apartment where a dark-haired woman opened the door.

Two men struck Vanunu and pinned him to the ground, while the woman injected him with a hypodermic syringe. From there Vanunu was taken to a speedboat, then transferred to an Israeli navy ship disguised as an old cargo vessel. Hanin accompanied him _ crew members later complained she was rude, bossy and took freshwater showers although the water supply was limited.

A week later, the ship reached Israel and Vanunu was deposited in a cell at Mossad headquarters. A man tossed a copy of the Sunday Times at him and said, "See the damage you have done."

Why didn't the Mossad nab Vanunu before the story could be published?

Hounam thinks the spy agency began trailing Vanunu in Australia, but didn't have enough time to set in motion a plan to kill or kidnap him there. And Britain also posed problems _ Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres didn't want to embarrass his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, by seizing Vanunu on British soil.

"They therefore had to lure Mordechai out of the country and do the dirty deed elsewhere," Hounam says. "This was a time-consuming operation. It is probable that Cheryl was not the only Mossad Mata Hari lurking around and flashing her eyes in Morde's direction. It all depended on Morde believing he had made the first move."

"They're attracting fire'

The most serious charge against Vanunu was treason, which carried the death penalty. His lawyer argued he didn't commit treason because he did not share information with a hostile foreign government. Instead he went to the press in a case of the public's right to know.

The three-judge court, which conducted Vanunu's trial in secret, didn't buy it. By revealing information to a newspaper, the court said, he made it available to foreign governments, including Israel's Arab enemies.

Vanunu escaped death, but was sentenced to what many felt was an unusually harsh sentence of 18 years. He spent the first dozen in solitary confinement.

Among the few visitors allowed are Nick and Mary Eoloff, antinuclear activists from Minnesota who adopted Vanunu after his father renounced him because of his conversion to Christianity. The Eoloffs say an English-speaking guard writes down everything they say and warns them not to discuss the kidnapping, Dimona or the trial.

"If we began to talk about that, they would end the visit," says Mary Eoloff, a retired teacher.

As his April 21 release nears, debate has flared in Israel over whether Vanunu continues to pose a security risk and should be held longer. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will be released on schedule, but subject to restrictions that might include denying him a passport or permission to travel abroad.

Vanunu, in a statement issued recently through his brother, said he remains opposed to nuclear weapons and has a "right like all others to express my stand." But, he stressed, he knows nothing about Dimona beyond what he told the Sunday Times 18 years ago.

Melman, the Ha'aretz reporter, thinks the government's real concern is not that Vanunu will reveal anything new, but that his case focuses unwanted attention on Israel's nuclear weapons program at a time when Iran, North Korea and other countries are being pressured to abandon theirs.

Israeli officials "want to lower Israel's profile but by talking about what they would do (to Vanunu), it's a boomerang, they're attracting fire," Melman says.

Scores of supporters are expected to be on hand for Vanunu's release, including Irish peace activist Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who won the 1976 Nobel Prize and nominated Vanunu for the award in 2001. Now 49 and nearly bald, Vanunu "just can't wait to get out," his adoptive mother says, and would like to move to the United States and teach history.

And, more than anything, he hopes to marry and have a family.

Over the past 18 years, Vanunu has rarely mentioned "Cindy," beyond insisting that the woman he met in London was not the one shown in a Sunday Times sketch.

"Some people suggested he was trying to protect her, maybe he was still in love with her," says Melman. "But at the time he said that, he was going bananas and on the verge of insanity" because of his solitary confinement.

Vanunu's brother, Meir, says Vanunu now realizes Cindy was a Mossad plant. Hounam, the British journalist, has his doubts.

"He still says he doesn't think I have the right person. There's an element of denial on his part. For a time, he even entertained the idea that she might be an innocent dupe as well."

"An overseas assignment'

After Vanunu's capture, Hounam tracked Cheryl Hanin to Netanya, a city on Israel's Mediterranean coast. She and her husband were living in a shabby bungalow.

"I deny it, I deny everything," she shouted when asked if she was "Cindy." Before leaving, Hounam snapped a few photos that showed Hanin's distinctive cheeks and eyebrows, but with her hair its natural brown.

By that night, the house was deserted. Hanin and Ben Tov disappeared from public view for several years: Some thought they went to South Africa, others wondered if she had been murdered by Vanunu's supporters.

In 1997, another Sunday Times reporter found Hanin back home in Orlando, in a "secluded villa." Again, she said little except to voice concern that any story about her should not "harm her position in America."

According to the paper, the couple also had a villa in Israel, in an area that is home to many security officials. Hanin "continues to work for Mossad, according to her Israeli neighbors," the Sunday Times said. "She and her husband, they believe, have rented out their house, while she is engaged in an overseas assignment, and are expected some day to return."

Today, Hanin and Ben Tov, parents of two daughters, seem firmly rooted in Central Florida. They live in Alaqua, which bills itself as "Seminole County's most exclusive estate home community." Their 4,000-square-foot golf course home _ purchased in Hanin's name in 1998 and assessed at $528,000 _ is among the more modest in a place where custom residences sell in the millions.

Now 50, Ben Tov is a trainee appraiser for one of Orlando's largest real estate appraisal firms. Among the company's clients have been military bases and local governments.

The burly Ben Tov, dressed in khakis and a maroon knit shirt, declined a request for an interview when a reporter visited the firm's headquarters in downtown Orlando. "So long, see you later," he said, and quickly retreated to his office.

Hanin's brother and his wife, Cindy _ from whom Hanin got her Mossad cover name _ also declined to talk about Hanin, as did her mother. All live in the Orlando area.

Until recently, state records showed Hanin had an active real estate sales license and was employed by CFI Sales & Marketing of Orlando. But CFI, whose Westgate Resorts is one of the world's largest timeshare companies, said Hanin was terminated in 1997, the same year the Sunday Times found her in Orlando.

CFI president David A. Siegel said Hanin likely was fired because she did not meet sales goals. He said he had heard about the Vanunu controversy, but had no idea Hanin was involved.

"We had someone like that working for us?" he asked.

After the St. Petersburg Times began looking into Hanin's background, state records were changed to show her license is inactive, with no reference to CFI. Officials could not say who requested the change: CFI says it did not.

Could Hanin still be working for the Mossad?

"No way," says Melman of Ha'aretz. "She was burned _ her identity was revealed and she was too prominent."

But Hounam, the former Sunday Times reporter who became one of Vanunu's staunchest supporters, is not so sure.

"I think she probably is still doing some stuff for the Mossad . . . because once you train someone to do a job like this, you don't want to lose them. . . . The only satisfaction I've had in 18 years is being able to track her down and expose her identity, which means her future career was damaged," he said. "Indeed, she was not able to travel to the (United Kingdom) again in case the British authorities might have tried to arrest her."

And what did Hanin have to say, reached by phone at home one morning?

"I have no interest in talking," a brusque voice replied.


Times researchers Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at