Operation Red Falcon
April 4, 2015 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Early on the morning of September 1, 1996, the Israeli military began moving troops to the Syrian border in preparation for a war they were convinced was imminent. The military’s actions were based on top-secret intelligence—that Syria was about to launch a surprise attack—passed on by an informant, a general at the center of Syria’s Supreme Military Council, code-named Red Falcon. Red Falcon’s information had caused panic at the highest reaches of the Israeli Defense Forces, and senior military officials and Mossad officers were urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an order to the IDF to launch its own offensive before the Syrians could launch theirs.
The attack never materialized, and the people of Syria and Israel never knew how close their countries had come to a devastating war. More than a year after that tense alert, in November 1997, I met in secret with a senior member of the Israeli intelligence community, who told me a story I found nearly impossible to believe at the time. It would soon become one of the most infamous spy stories in modern history. A legendary Mossad operative, he said, had been arrested on suspicion of fabricating the intelligence that had brought Israel to the brink of war.
article by Ronen Bergman

The Yehuda Gil scandal- or Gil Affair- was touched on by Yossi Melman in 1998.

Syrian Spy Story Finds Its Heroes
posted by the man of twists and turns (17 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Bergman, previously: The Dubai Job
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:31 AM on April 4, 2015


Amazing read. I can't even begin to fathom the set of systems you need to put in place in a spy organization to minimize internal deception and double-spying. Is that even completely possible? At some level it seems to boil down to trust between individuals in a world where everything is an illusion and anyone could be an enemy.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:34 AM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fascinating. Bergman has a real talent for explaining complex intelligence operations.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:38 AM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't even begin to fathom the set of systems you need to put in place in a spy organization to minimize internal deception and double-spying. Is that even completely possible?

Coupling that with the fact that there are people in positions of authority for whom the prospect of peace is far more horrifying than sane people find the prospect of war, and it's amazing that the entire world isn't an unbroken field of smoking ash at this point.
posted by mhoye at 10:46 AM on April 4, 2015 [14 favorites]


Is that even completely possible?

No foolproof solution exists.

At some level it seems to boil down to trust between individuals in a world where everything is an illusion and anyone could be an enemy.

On the contrary. It boils down to not trusting. Intelligence agencies (the ones I'm familiar with, anyway, and *vastly* oversimplifying here) are built of multiple layers of spies and counterspies. When the system works, counterspies are operating under the assumption that any bit of intelligence is invalid, and attempting to prove that. The system breaks down when the people acting on that intelligence start ignoring the contra opinion because they've decided that a particular actor is above suspicion (see: Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames).
posted by kjs3 at 2:56 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


What an amazing story. An utterly gripping read. Thank you so much for posting this.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:09 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've met a few people who claimed to be working for intelligence services. I don't believe any of them were telling the truth, but they all shared Gil's manner of putting himself forward, inserting himself into affairs, making you feel privileged to receive his confidences. I can see how those skills would be useful in many fields, not just espionage, but it's a double-edged sword: how do you know someone employed for these talents isn't using the same techniques against you?
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:58 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow, what a terrific story; thanks for the post. One minor point:
They were welcomed in the new country by Gil’s uncle, a former member of Etzel, the extremist guerrilla militia that fought against the British Mandate and the Arabs before the State of Israel was established.
"Etzel" is a Hebrew abbreviation for the organization usually known in English as Irgun. I'm surprised an editor didn't catch that.
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on April 5, 2015


That really was a great read. And what a doozy. It touches on so many topical spook issues from the last decade or two:

- Intelligence agencies getting fixated on one particular source to the point they create a feedback loop, and start influencing the intelligence they themselves are collecting

- The seeming, outsize influence of "star power" in intelligence circles - when doing that kind of difficult work it seems all too easy to fixate on single sources or individuals who seem to be "punching above their weight." Interestingly, this happened with Edward Snowden, who while wildly intelligent was basically given the keys to the kingdom, with predictable results

- The difficulties of HUMINT work, especially when those intersect with trust and morale issues within a given agency

- The problems caused to the intelligence cycle by direct political pressure from above (*ahem*)

Gil certainly seems talented, and arrogance often comes with that territory. While he seems like a true patriot (and every country not only is allowed to have them but needs them) there's a few things beyond what the article makes explicit that raise some questions: if it really was rare for Syrian generals to travel to European countries in which they're more vulnerable to recruitment, prudence says Gil should have been suspicious that his efforts worked so well. According to both Mossad and himself, Gil makes no mention of anything like this. He was probably all too ready to believe in his own success after the honey trap failed (after all, he's THE BEST who succeeds where others fail), but assume the Syrian general was a plant: money is more likely than sex or emotions to sustain a long-term, let's-feed-the-Israelis-bullshit op. So if the Syrian general was a fake, the situation would play right into *Gil's* weakness. Failing to even consider that seems to be arrogance at work, but on the part of both Gil *and* Mossad. Gil's personality is covered adequately, but Mossad wanted so desperately to have a source like RF that they were all too willing to believe what was presented to them.

Mossad also loses points for two other things, in my wild-ass opinion. First, giving him a pass and not raising more of a stink the first time his intel resulted in a call-up. Fool me once, etc. Second, despite Gil's arrogance, and (perhaps) theft, and (at best) over-identification with his source, and EVEN IF Gil fabricated his personal background out of a need to seem important, he still dedicated his life to the defence of his country. It would be a little odd if a large portion of that life he deliberately made up. And to label him a sociopath is highly disingenuous: he's a fucking foreign intelligence officer, what were you expecting?

Of course, the question seems to be whether that "sociopathy" drove him to the unthinkable: misleading the very agency and country he worked for. First: who benefits? I have a hard time believing Gil does, since he was previously in the IDF, his son was currently in the IDF, and presumably Gil values his reputation (since he seems narcissistic). Israel certainly does not benefit, and Gil comes across as fiercely nationalistic.

I wouldn't wager more than $5 on it but I'd say there wasn't one big lie, but a lot of factors that combined to create a clusterfuck (which would mean that the Syrian was either a plant or was turned at some point or, more simply, got the jitters when Gil was replaced with another handler).

This is all wild-ass speculation based on a single article and I won't subject y'all to more, but for more on spook background anything by Allen Dulles is a good read.
posted by iffthen at 9:07 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


In the end, what did Red Falcon accomplish, except to engage and monopolize the time of a gifted intelligence worker and watch the ripples?
posted by Oyéah at 9:17 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


iffthen: " if it really was rare for Syrian generals to travel to European countries in which they're more vulnerable to recruitment, prudence says Gil should have been suspicious that his efforts worked so well. "

This is a really good point. And yet Gil met with Red Falcon in Paris constantly. Was Red Falcon really the only high-ranking Syrian officer who regulalry went to Europe? If so, why didn't that raise suspicions among the Israelis?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:38 PM on April 5, 2015


I figured it wasn't strange for him to go to Paris so often given that he had a daughter going to university there. It seems like a reasonable thing to say to his gov't for Red Falcon, and a rational reason he'd be in Europe more often for Mossad. Presumably they'd be able to monitor his daughter if they were financing her education and make sure she was still there. Also Gil mentions her being there at some meetings, so there's that.
posted by neonrev at 4:33 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


In the end, what did Red Falcon accomplish, except to engage and monopolize the time of a gifted intelligence worker and watch the ripples?

Well, he got a scholarship for his daughter, some American appliances, loadsa cash ...

If RF was a double agent I presume he'd have avoided making Gil think that Syria was about to attack. It seems more than likely that RF was using Gil even more than Gil was using him.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:08 PM on April 5, 2015


I figured it wasn't strange for him to go to Paris so often given that he had a daughter going to university there.

But she probably wasn't going to university there for over twenty years.
posted by entropone at 7:53 PM on April 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's not clear that RF told Gil much of anything. It seems more likely that Gil made up the story about the invasion. Being an expert handler, he would have sensed something was off and warned about the lack of RF's reliability. Probably, the information from RF wasn't actually that valuable and Gil embellished it to enhance his career and get attention or due to other psychological issues. Otherwise, why wouldn't he just come clean in the investigation? He must have made serious lies to be given such a serious sentence. But the story is hard to believe no matter how you look at it.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:08 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]




neonrev: I agree it would have seemed normal for the general to be in Paris once the cover story/situation with his daughter was established. But the article says Mossad initially targeted him when he was staying in Europe for an extended period, and that unusual Europe sojourn happened before the "recruitment", not after. The article depicts Gil's and Mossad's attitude toward this as "well this is a lucky opportunity." Really? I'd have thought a bunch of spies would be more paranoid than that, but that's just me...

Oyeah with accent: Yes exactly. I have a strong conclusion but I'm not spelling it out, you seem like you might have the same conclusion.

Golden Eternity, also CCOO: "It's not clear that RF told Gil much of anything." No, that's the problem with being an non-spook observer to intelligence operations :o)

the man of twists and turns: Aaaaand here's another spook article when I should be doing other things! Seriously, thanks for this article too, another good read. I said I won't subject anyone to more wild-ass speculation but you seem to be inviting me to, so I'll bite.

"Iranian government hit teams" - not to be accepted at face value but it checks out.

"the American Case Officer made the mistake of trying to go through an airport metal detector with a pen clipped to his jacket, leading to a request to empty his pockets that produced eight false Iranian passports" - that that kind fuckup occurs is what informs my conclusions about the original article in this thread. Seriously guy. WTF.

MOTAT, what's interesting in your article generally is that all of the intelligence agencies mentioned assume competence on the part of the other agencies - except perhaps Mossad, who seem to be doing whatever the hell they want. That perspective finds evidence elsewhere: Dubai, for instance. I've always viewed Mossad as highly competent. Are they really a bunch of loose cannons, like it seems?

Other than that no real disagreements with the article. Giraldi seems like an interesting guy, I'd kinda like to buy him a beer...
posted by iffthen at 11:10 AM on April 6, 2015


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