Women warriors of the Mossad
For the first time, women who command some of the Israeli secret service's most daring operations speak about their work and their lives.
Their brains invent daring and ingenious operations that make the difference between success and failure. They bring to bear a capacity to improvise, rare expertise, sophisticated weaponry, command of languages, and psychological insight. They have to get inside the mind of the other.
These women working in secret are senior operatives of Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, an organization that needs no wordy introductions about the cunning and boldness of its operations.
They live under threat to their lives, to their families, and to their freedom. They disappear from their homes, emerge under various identities, conceal themselves, rub shoulders with the enemy. It's hard to grasp the price they pay. A spy who is captured in an enemy country can expect tough interrogation, torture, and execution.
The Mossad has a large headquarters staff, but the spearhead in the field is very small. There are cells in which women make up half the force. There are operational units that have a woman as their commander.
Even in the most prestigious units there are women agents who are no strangers to the use of sophisticated weapons. There are also those who work in tracking, surveillance, and other forms of intelligence gathering operations. The intelligence that needs to be obtained from hostile countries includes signs presaging war, warnings of terrorist attacks, information on the plans of Syrian president Assad and Iranian president Ahmadinejad intelligence through divining intentions. The aim is to discover tactical intentions (a terrorist attack) and strategic intentions (nuclear weapons). The Mossad seeks to frustrate by whatever means possible any plotted evil. Terrorist attacks and forbidden deals on the one hand, and strategic moves like the Iranian and other nuclear weapons programs and the arming of Hezbullah and hostile countries with long-range missiles on the other.
The target moves, and the Mossad moves with it. Everything looks like happenstance, but behind the scenes massive intelligence gathering activity is going on, at the end of which, of course, comes the operation to thwart the threat.
The women agents live chameleon lives. One day they walk around in sharply tailored clothes like senior businesspeople, and the next they are ragged street sellers. These are women without offices. They work on the outside. Homeless in a suit. On the streets all the time, all the time changing identities, and all this in enemy countries.
Their work is highly physical, and utterly unpredictable. A woman operative can end up spending five days and nights without sleep tracking someone. She is locked onto the target, for she must ensure that it doesn't disappear on her watch. She takes care to stay on the lookout, she must not fall asleep, she must not be caught.
The Israeli army is nourished by an ethos of male heroism. In the Mossad, female heroism is no less powerful, but, under the cover of secrecy, historic justice has been denied generations of female warriors. We have not been exposed to the strong women of the world of security. They act without seeking recognition.
Now, for the first time, after much complicated negotiation, special permission has been obtained to interview five senior Mossad women agents. All the interviewees have ranks of commanders, equivalent to colonel and brigadier-general in the IDF. For the first time in the organization's history, women agents on active service speak.
Meeting them is a surprise. They are different from anything one might imagine. All of them, it should be pointed out, are mothers, and at the same time command teams of agents in different areas: tracking, surveillance, contact with the hostile entity, access to the target.
Agents operating in enemy countries are at much greater risk than those in base (non-hostile) countries.
Efrat: "If I'm operating in an enemy country, then if I'm caught, my life is over. That's no different from someone apprehended in a friendly country who will spend the rest of her life in jail. Readiness for sacrifice for the sake of the security of the country is something we all have in common."
Efrat is deputy head of a division, the most senior female commander in the Mossad. She has commanded male graduates of elite army commando units and even combat pilots. She met the man who eventually became her husband on an operation. The couple have had three children while on active service. She has received the Israel Security Prize for her achievements.
Yael: "The women operatives in the Mossad, who do their work outside of the State of Israel in any place, in any weather, even if there's a sick child at home, know that they are endangering their lives and their freedom."
Yael is a legendary agent in the Mossad ("This girl has been in every place on earth, and has carried out operational missions with great courage, whether alone or as part of a team, over very many years. She has marvellous intelligence achievements to her name," they tell of her). "I fought hard to continue on operational duty even after I gave birth," she recounts. "When I started out in the Mossad, the moment you became a mother, you turned into a plant-pot in the room. It took me several years until they agreed to send me on active duty overseas. The commander said to me, 'I'm not prepared to take responsibility for a mother failing to return.'"
Shira: "It isn't easy to recruit Israeli women to the Mossad. When they come married, the potential for opposition at home is much greater. When their partners agree, they don't know what they're doing. Or else they lay down impossible restrictions."
We've become tough, hard
In recent years, women have reached very high ranks in the Mossad. The most senior was deputy director under Shabtai Shavit, who was director general of the Mossad from 1989 to 1996. Experience has taught the organization that women have a special contribution to make, and today they want to see greater female representation there.
Is there a pay diferential?
Ella: "There is no difference in pay between men and women, down to the shekel."
Efrat: "I would even do it voluntarily. Anyone who joins the Mossad takes a salary cut in comparison to what they did before."
Ella: "There's no discrimination in the organization. You have to understand that one of the most important elements of this work is total commitment. It's very committed work, and for a long time. It's a lifetime career. This is a hierarchical male operational organization, and it’s a tough organization. You leave after a day's work and feel you have put in enormous effort. You have to exert strength to achieve your goals."
How has this extreme experience changed you?
Ella: "Over time, we have become tougher, harder, and actually that disturbs me. The standard here is high. Outside, you are perceived as very decisive, because you learn to make decisions fast. If you hesitate, you're torn apart."
She is 38, a mother of three children. "I leave all the pleasantness and the warm home and go to endanger my life and my freedom and to leave my husband and three small children, who are sleeping securely in their beds, and tears well up in my eyes and I get a lump in my throat. This contrast between the warm, cozy, calm home and the operational activity we have been put in charge of clutches at the heart, and assumes clear and deep significance. On Lag Ba'omer, I left operational duties to be with my children, if only for a few hours. I was the only woman round the bonfire in heels and tailored clothes, and I thought to myself that, on the other hand, I'm probably the only mother here who serves in the Mossad. For me, that's a very great privilege. We have been given a great honor, and with it also heavy responsibility."
Efrat: "This is the only framework in the state that enables women to make themselves felt in a combat role, to realize their ability to defend the country in way equal to men, like a woman combat pilot. In no other place have they managed to make this possible."
Shira: "It's living in a movie, sky high all the time. It's crazy. I say to myself, 'It's unbelievable that I'm doing this.' I always thought that only Superman could do this, only very very special people, and suddenly I find myself doing things you only see in a spy movie. It's the most amazing thing in the world. I say that whoever has the ability and the chance should do it."
Ella: "Take just about any spy movie of a high standard that also has action. In our reality, that's what happens, and much tougher. I've been in movies that they haven't made in the cinema yet. I've taken part in operations far more dangerous than what you see in the movies. In a film, you see activity that lasts five minutes. With us, it lasts for months. It's a challenge, physically, intellectually, emotionally. In your head, you are at war with the enemy the whole time. You think about how to overcome obstacles and do the impossible."
Efrat: "They taught us that nothing is impossible. There's only a situation to which we have not yet found a solution. The desire to break through your own limits and be better and do what's called 'the impossible' daily and find it fun, and do it willingly. If you don't enjoy it, you can't do it."
Ella: "You finish an operation and fly out of the arena with a tremendous level of excitement."
Nirit: "In my family they couldn't understand why, just when I received my doctorate, I decided to stop and embark on operational work in the Mossad."
Yael: "When they recruited me, they told me, 'There's a job that no paratrooper or Air Force pilot can do, and that you can do.' I said, 'What's that?' They told me, 'You will be the eyes of the state in enemy countries.' That excited me. I saw in it a great opportunity."
It takes you to the extreme
You endanger your lives, make sacrifices, pay such a heavy price, and almost no-one is aware of what you do. How does that feel?
Yael: "It's hard. When you live in such a 'show pony' society, when everyone brags about what they do, and we don't."
Nirit: "It gives a very very strong feeling of value, and so there's no need for external validation. So you can live with the feeling that that's what you do, even without external glamour."
Shira: "Contrary to what you say, in my view this is very egotistical work. My feeling inside is that I'm in the best place there is. It raised my confidence. Before I came here my self-confidence was way down. If I came into a place where there were people, I would hold tight onto my husband's hand. After I passed the selection process, my confidence soared.
"This work has radically changed my personality. It develops your abilities in every area to an extreme. Today, in every area, I know what I want, I'm not anxious. It's easier for me to make decisions, and to make myself felt."
"Not focused on fear"
You get into terrifying situations. How do you shut out the fear?
Efrat: "They teach you that nothing is impossible that counters the fear. In the course of an operation, you're not focused on fear, but busy making a success of it, otherwise the fear becomes paralyzing."
Nirit: "Fear is a form of protection. If you know that there's a threat and that you have to deal with it, the fear prevents you from doing something stupid. You concentrate on what you are doing. Your confidence is built on the fact that you have learned that you know how to cope with the dangers."
Things can go wrong that cause panic, leading to failure of the operation, and even loss of life.
"In the field, things never go as planned. You constantly encounter situations in which, although you sat day and night and constructed scenarios, something else happens. You have to overcome the obstacles and find your way out of situations you didn’t expect. Gradually, you build the confidence that you are capable of dealing with the unexpected."
Yael: "The innocence you radiate in situations of danger, the calm, the lack of pressure, that's your weapon. Your enemy isn't looking for you in particular. He's looking for the enemy he has in his mind. The image of the enemy is of someone sophisticated who, if he's caught, will be under pressure. Here women have a great advantage."
Because they are not the immediate suspects?
"Right. A woman can get much further at points where a man would be stopped after three minutes by the opposing side. A man who wants to gain entrance to some place where he's not supposed to go the chances that they'll let him are smaller. For a woman who comes along and smiles there's a greater chance of success. If they catch a man sitting on a corner at two in the morning in a slightly strange place, they'll suspect him straightaway. If it's a woman standing at the corner, they'll approach her and ask if she needs help."
Ella: "When surveillance takes place at night, a man on his own arouses suspicion. A man and a woman is more natural. A woman softens the picture."
Nirit: "It's a fact that our forces have been killed in base countries. Someone was called to a meeting with a source and took a bullet in the head. In enemy countries, they'll kill you if they catch you speaking a sentence in Hebrew."
Efrat: "I wasn't sure that I would get out alive from every place I have operated in. If they'd caught me, I'm not sure I would have returned."
Have you tried to leave?
"It's a drug. It's addictive. This way of life in which you are on the move the whole time, the adrenalin, it's something that is very very hard for me to do without. In a period when I switched to office work at the Mossad, it was the end of me. It was hard for me; I asked myself, what's the point of living?"
How do you survive the failures?
Efrat: "There are failures too. Then you stop breathing. In the end, things happen, and that's part of the game. It has happened that I send people out and they don't succeed. As a commander, the sense of failure is much greater. But they taught us that whoever doesn't fall doesn't rise. You mustn't be afraid of failure. Failure is the best learning experience."
You spend most of your lives under assumed identities. Doesn't something in you rebel?
Ella: "You live in two worlds all the time: in reality, and in a parallel world that the situation creates, and you know how to move between the two. Everyone around you is an actor in your operation. When you sit in a café in whatever country it is and the waiter shares some information with you, he becomes part of your operation without even knowing."
Yael: "You enter the character. At the beginning, I worked as the wife of another agent in an enemy country. I was single, but for a long period I played the role of someone's wife. I had to be able to read social and operational situations, to know if they suspected that I wasn't his wife, to realize this in time and to act accordingly. When you live in an enemy country together with a partner in one house, and there are servants living with you, it's clear that they report to the authorities, because you're foreigners. You have to think at every moment whether your behavior matches what they have seen in other families."
If you don't know how to lie, you don't stand a chance?
Shira: "It's an essential condition. You have to be able to tell the cover story calmly and with a high degree of self-confidence. All of us here are certified as confirmed liars. You have to be very sharp in the ability to lie externally and report the truth internally. That is an absolute principle. In 99% of the cases in which I slip up, only I know , but the degree of honesty required is to go and report. Anyone who doesn't report the truth is out straightaway."
What were the moments of crisis?
Efrat: "The low points come when you make bad decisions for others. In one operation there was a problem that we didn’t know if we had been discovered, and we had to decide whether to escape. We managed to escape, but the way I chose put the team in danger. This was a hard dilemma that has stayed with me to this day. To this day, I live with it."
Ella: "My moment of crisis actually came at the end of an episode. We finished an operation that had lasted a certain time, and I returned home. I asked my commanders what was next, and they told me: 'There's no next. You were part of this operation, and we can't endanger you in another operation. That's the end of the matter. You have the option of a staff job.'"
How did you feel?
"Anticlimax, heavy disappointment. I became the first woman to serve as a trainer among very chauvinistic males."
"We're an army"
How is it to live with the assassinations?
"An army goes out and shoots? We're an army. We may be an army of the shadows, but we're an army. We reach places the army can't reach. We're the first line of defence."
How did the gender transformation happen in the Mossad?
Ella: "At first, women were brought in just as decoration. They called the women escort girls. Today, it's the other way around. Sometimes we bring men along as props. In recent years there has been a significant change."
Yael: "In the past few years we have had female operational commanders. When I grew up in the Mossad, we didn't even fantasize about that. The usual expression was: 'You're a pair of phantoms. He's number 1 and you're number 2.'"
"The riskiest thing to fly to Israel"
From where do you summon the motivation when you reach breaking point?
Efrat: "It's a great thing not to work for shareholders but for an aim I believe in. I had a very tough course; I was the youngest, 20 years old. At one stage I wanted to say 'Enough, that's it, I can't take any more.' But then I thought: 'If everyone who has defended the country broke down when it got tough, where would we be today?'."
What is the greatest risk you have guarded against?
Yael: "In my most dangerous period in an enemy country, the greatest risk was at the airport. To board a flight for Israel was very dangerous for me, and so I cut down, even though it was my connection to the truth and to home."
You can't talk about and share your extreme experiences with those around you. It could send you insane.
Yael: "There are things that I can share with my husband, and there are things that to this day I can't share with anyone. The security of the country is in my hands, and if I tell certain things, it could be dangerous. Nothing in the world will get those things out of me."
How did female Mossad agents acquire the image of honey traps?
Yael: "Even Cindy wasn't a honey trap. There was a whole team that was looking for Vanunu. And Vanunu was the one who homed in on Cindy and approached her. From that point, a whole operation developed that adapted itself to the situation that had arisen."
Efrat: "We use our femininity, because all means are fair. But even if we should think that the best way to get to our target would be to sleep with Ahmadinejad's bureau chief, no-one in the Mossad would allow us to do that. Even if we were prepared to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of the homeland. Women agents are not used for sexual purposes. There are games of temptation, there is use of sexual allure, there are attempts to arouse the other side, but the borderline is actual sex."
Is it possible to learn to be daring? Is it an acquired skill?
Ella: "The greatest and most unbelievable ability I acquired is that I am capable of daring."
Yael: "I learned to obtain things from people who seemed inaccessible. At age 20, they sent me in training to get a cheese cake recipe from a senior woman in WIZO. After I managed to do that in an unobtrusive and natural way, they said to me, 'You managed to get something from Mrs. WIZO, tomorrow it could be Mrs. Sadat.'"
What's the most daring thing you've done?
"Most of the time you stay within the cover story, which allows you to keep going. Only part of the time do you change to having a knife between your teeth. The active operation only lasts a few moments. A second later, you return to the cover story, which is well protected, which conceals you. Most of the time you are exposed to view, and only a small part is covert. The dangerous part is in switching from one to the other."
Who are these women who manage to overcome all these impossible hurdles?
Senior Mossad officer: "They have abilities that ordinary human beings don't have, I admit. They learn espionage skills. They are more sophisticated, tougher, ultra-sensitive to their environment. They develop powers of recall that most people don't have. They learn to communicate with facial expressions or hand signs."
Remaining calm is one of the most important skills they acquire. When something unexpected happens, they must not become embarrassed or express surprise. "They teach you the ability to reach the point where the work is to be done with a very high pulse rate, because that is inevitable. The pulse rises on every operation, but externally no-one will notice a thing."
Where it gets hot
The agents of the Mossad are credited with a long list of recent operations. Among other things, the foreign press attributes to them a daring role in the attack on the nuclear reactor in Syria and in the intelligence gathering that made the destruction of the reactor possible.
The organization is also credited with assassinations of leading terrorists overseas. One of the best known is Imad Mughnyeh, the military commander of Hezbollah, killed in Damascus. The killing of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai has also been attributed to the organization.
A large part of the Mossad's activity is dedicated to thwarting Iran's nuclear weapons program. According to reports in the foreign press, thanks to undercover operations by its operatives, smuggled into Arab and Muslim countries under assumed identities, Israel has managed to penetrate to the heart of the Iranian nuclear program, to gather intelligence about it, to eliminate some of the senior scientists working on it, and to introduce the "Stuxnet" worm into the computers controlling the centrifuges at the uranium enrichment installation in Natanz, causing delay to the program.
"They are our sources and they don't know it"
Interview with Mossad agent Nirit, who holds a Phd in the humanities: "I never imagined that there were limitations I could exceed"
"I had the privilege of being the first woman in a challenging role in the Humint (human intelligence) division. It started in Shabtai Shavit's time. He wanted women in this role, because there had been none up until then. They first approached me when I was demobilized from Military Intelligence. They offered me a job as a secretary. I said that that was of no interest, and that when they had something serious, they should call me. After I completed my doctorate, at age 26, they approached me, and I began the course."
Why does the assessment center register as the strongest experience?
"It's the first time you enter a world that is so extreme and different. I learned to do things there that I never thought I was capable of. It proves to you that you are always capable of more. I knew that I was intelligent, I knew I was brave and that I like excitement, but I never imagined that there were limitations I could exceed."
What is the strongest skill you have developed?
"You use muscles you didn't know existed. To obtain something I couldn't obtain myself, I used someone else to do it for me. I turned him into an extension of myself. That's a skill. I learned what it is to make someone else work for you. He thinks he knows who you are, he relies on your judgment, and you're a stranger. It's amazing that it’s possible to do that."
How is it done?
"By always going roundabout, the long way, building a relationship of many years of trust, and only at the end saying what you want, but not why you really want it. They are our sources, and they don't know it. They don't know that they're working. In the past, they thought that women couldn't do this with men in enemy countries, they looked on them just as sex objects. But later they realized that our forces were more chauvinistic than the other side, which treated me as a person. Every man has a mother, a sister; a woman doesn't have to be a sex object, and then the position you take vis-a-vis the other is more authoritative."
Aren't you afraid of being caught?
"I rely on the drills and procedures that reduce the risk. On rare occasions foul-ups happen, and then we rely on our ability to cope. The ability to deny gives us a further protective buffer.
"In a career spanning many years, I was only afraid once. I have learned to trust my strong intuitions, and one time I entered a place where my gut feeling told me: Look out, there's something dangerous around you. I had a dim sense that I wasn't alone there, that they were around me in the room, counterparts from other secret agencies. I left the place. On the other hand, there were situations in which others would have abandoned and not stayed, and I wasn't afraid at all."
You have to learn thoroughly a great deal of unfamiliar material.
"You meet politicians, people from many areas, and you're supposed to conduct an intelligent conversation about their profession. You have to tell them a story that will make them want to work with you. For that, you have to learn a new lot of material every time."
Does the ability you have developed give rise to a sense of omnipotence?
"Slightly. That's something that mustn't happen. There's a great deal of arrogance on the part of some of the people here because so few get to their position. You feel capable, powerful. That makes you feel very good about yourself, and it's very dangerous, so from time to time you need an outright failure."
What most surprises you about the skill of obtaining information?
"You learn that you can invent a reality and people will believe you. Women are good at that, because they read people better. They are more vulnerable, and so more cautious and catch on faster."
You know how to see and feel the person opposite you?
"I have an excellent sense of the other, and I don't get it wrong."
What was the peak of your activity so far?
"One evening, which was the peak of my career as far as I'm concerned, I sat with four people who are our most bitter enemy. We had an amazing conversation, personal, professional, and I discovered that our worst enemy is intelligent, charming, amazing. They suspected me, and tested me out. For half an hour they asked me questions, and I answered the opposite of what was logical, relying on intuition. I passed the test and they stayed with me another two hours. That brought me to the peak of my abilities."
What did you learn from it?
"That even a people considered our worst enemy could be our best friend under different leadership. But once I sat with an enemy, and he of course didn't know I was Israeli. He told me how appalling and terrible Israel was and how he hated us to the depth of his soul. Anti-Semitism exists. I hear the things no-one else hears."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 20, 2012
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012
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