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News :: War and Militarism
Death of a perfect spy
06 Jul 2007
"About the book" was one of the codes Mossad agent Dr. Ashraf Marwan used to identify himself in conversations with Israeli historian Dr. Aharon Bregman. Two more messages were left during the subsequent hour and a half. Immediately upon his return to his home in a London suburb, a short time later, Bregman returned his call. They decided they would meet the following day, and arranged that Marwan would phone to set up the exact place and time. That was their last conversation. The following day, June 27, Marwan's body was found under the balcony of his apartment...
Last update - 22:17 06/07/2007
By Yossi Melman
LUGANO, SWITZERLAND - The first of three messages was left at 1:52 in the afternoon. "Hello. Hi. It's about the book. Call my mobile. Thanks."
"About the book" was one of the codes Mossad agent Dr. Ashraf Marwan used to identify himself in conversations with Israeli historian Dr. Aharon Bregman. Two more messages were left during the subsequent hour and a half. Immediately upon his return to his home in a London suburb, a short time later, Bregman returned his call. They decided they would meet the following day, and arranged that Marwan would phone to set up the exact place and time. That was their last conversation. The following day, June 27, Marwan's body was found under the balcony of his apartment, in the Mayfair neighborhood of London. The circumstances of his death are not clear.
Until the day he died, Marwan - an Egyptian businessman and a Mossad agent during the four years prior to the Yom Kippur War, a man who provided Israel with early strategic warning about Egyptian plans to attack - could not understand why former Military Intelligence head Eli Zeira and a number of journalists had chosen to reveal his identity. Surprisingly, he became friendly with Bregman even though he had been the first to mention his name explicitly in the media and the two conducted a relationship, mostly by telephone, during the course of the past few years.
This past Tuesday, London police announced their determination that there was no evidence of a crime in the circumstances of Marwan's death, and they closed their investigation. Three possible explanations remain: The first is that he stumbled on the balcony (and anyone who has seen the high railing of the balcony will find it hard to accept this explanation); the second is that he was depressed and took his own life because the security, intelligence and legal authorities in Israel did not prevent the publication of his name; and the third is that senior people in Egypt had hinted that they knew about his betrayal of the homeland and "advised" him to commit suicide. Many top Egyptian government officials, including Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, participated in his funeral in Cairo last Sunday. That was a sign of the honor they attributed to him, showing that they were ignoring the reports that he had spied for Israel.
"If it emerges that this tragedy occurred as a result of the publication of his name, I will have to undertake a reckoning of conscience," says Bregman, in an exclusive interview with Haaretz, in which he reconstructs his conversations with Marwan.
He is 49, a researcher for the BBC, the author of books about the Middle East and a lecturer in the war studies department of King's College of the University of London. The conversation with him takes place in Lugano, where every summer for several years now he has been teaching a course on the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. On the table sits the recording tape of a telephone answering machine, which still holds the messages left by Marwan on the day before his death. Bregman has kept it, in case he is required to testify to the police, but he has not been asked to do so. "It is clear to me from my acquaintance with him," he says, "that the fact that he called me three times within an hour and a half could testify to distress. His tone was not like it had always been. He didn't sound like the Ashraf Marwan I knew."
About a week earlier Bregman had sent Marwan an envelope containing articles (among others, by the writer of these lines) that dealt with the legal arbitration that had ended last month in the matter of a libel suit filed by former Military Intelligence head Eli Zeira against former Mossad head Zvi Zamir. In media interviews, Zamir accused Zeira of having leaked Marwan's name to journalists and writers, and of thereby revealing state secrets. Zeira denied this.
The arbitrator, retired Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, rejected Zeira's suit and ruled that he had indeed revealed Marwan's name. Assuming that no official Israeli authority had maintained contact with the Egyptian agent in recent years, Bregman was the only Israeli who had spoken with him during that period.
And this is how their last conversation went:
Bregman: "Hello, how are you?"
Marwan: "I'm okay. How are you? I received your envelope."
Bregman explained to Marwan the outcome of the mediation affair. At one stage, he relates, Marwan asked him: "What is the bottom line?"
Bregman: "The bottom line is that the judge also published your name. It's true that you haven't yet seen his report [the arbitration ruling]?
Marwan: "No, no, I haven't seen it."
Bregman: "I have his report, but I can't give it to you. I don't want the authorities in Israel to accuse me of doing things that maybe I'm not supposed to do."
Marwan: "I understand."
Bregman promised that he would bring the ruling with him to their next meeting and would let Marwan look at it.
The conversation ended with the following exchange: Bregman: "And in general how are you?"
Marwan: "Just fine. Except for this headache" (a reference to the publication of reports about him).
The relations between the two began in an atmosophere of mutual suspicion. "It all started with a childish quarrel," says Bregman, "when in 2002 I published a book in which I implied that Marwan was a double agent, who had deceived Israel and had not passed along the precise hour at which the 1973 war was supposed to break out. But later, we had a sulha," he notes, using the Arabic word for "reconciliation." Zeira began to develop the "double agent" theory after the Agranat Commission, which investigated the blunder of the Yom Kippur War, found him responsible for the intelligence failure. Zeira insisted, up until a few hours before the war, that there was "a low probability" that Egypt and Syria would dare to attack. Zeira tried to cast the blame for the intelligence failure on the Mossad, which was responsible for running agents. He was the only senior intelligence officer who convinced himself that Ashraf Marwan was a double agent.
Marwan was born in Egypt in 1944, the son of a man who later became an officer in the Presidential Guard of leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. After his military service, the son studied chemistry at university and at an early age he married Nasser's daughter Mona. According to Israeli sources familiar with the case, despite Marwan's hopes of becoming the president's right hand, Nasser did not take his son-in-law seriously. Marwan then turned to a career in business.
In 1969 Marwan entered the Israeli Embassy in London and volunteered his services to the Mossad. He met there with an intelligence-gathering officer of the agency, whose job it was to determine who he was, what his connections were, what information he had, how much money he was asking for and so on. At the end of the conversation, and after details were exchanged and a contact procedure established, the Egyptian was told, as is usual, that if the Israelis were interested, they would be in touch with him.
After a thorough check, it was decided not to contact Marwan. There were several reasons for this. The first is that, in general, in the world of intelligence, there are reservations about walk-ins, and suspicions that they have been sent by a rival organization, but the second and principal one was that he did not seem to have any valuable information in his possession. A background check suggested that this situation was not likely to change in the future, either. Marwan, nonetheless, was determined.
Several months later he came to the embassy again, this time with more impressive information. After a further check, it was decided to work with him after all. "D.," an experienced Mossad case officer, was assigned to operate him.
During the years Marwan was run by the Mossad, he had a number of code names, among them "Babylon" and "The Angel." Once every two or three months, he would meet D., in London or in other cities in Europe. He was quickly promoted to a "warning" agent, whose role is above all to provide Israel with a warning of intended war. The quality of the information he provided was so high, that in a rare step, Zamir decided to meet him personally.
Adviser to Sadat
In 1970 Nasser died, and was replaced by Anwar Sadat. Marwan became very close to the new president and his aides, and his status back home improved immeasurably, as compared to the attitudes he encountered during the reign of his father-in-law. Thus, alongside his private businesses, he also served as an adviser to Sadat, accompanied him on trips within the Arab world, was present at meetings and obtained a great deal of access to diplomatic and military materials of a strategic nature. By 1971, Marwan was providing his operators with strategic information that indicated that Sadat and his people had made the decision to go to war with Israel in order to get back the Sinai peninsula.
On the evening of October 4, 1973, two days before the war broke out, Marwan contacted his case officer, using an emergency procedure. In his message, he asked to meet with Zamir, and he set the time and place for a meeting. From the communications procedure, it was clear that the Egyptian had very crucial information about an imminent war.
Zamir and D. set out for London the following morning. At 10 P.M. (midnight Israel time), they met with Marwan. A senior source who is familiar with the subject has told Haaretz that at the meeting, which lasted for about an hour and a half, Marwan said that war would break out the following day, Saturday. However, according to this source and contrary to previous reports in the media, Marwan did not give the precise hour for the launch of the attack - neither at 6 P.M., nor "at nightfall" or "at sunset." The gap of several hours between the time the Egyptians actually attacked (2 P.M.) and the evening hour mentioned in his alleged warning is what nourished the main suspicion that Marwan was a double agent.
At the end of the meeting, Zamir called his bureau chief from a public phone, as he had arranged in advance, and reported to him in agreed-upon codes on his conversation and the information he had received. The message was immediately passed to prime minister Golda Meir. It was 3:40 A.M. There was still enough time for Israel to launch a preemptive strike, but Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan decided not to order it.
The next day the war broke out. Marwan returned to Egypt a few days later. The connection with him continued "on a low burner," but gradually flickered out altogether. According to various assessments, the Egyptian altogether received about $1 million from the Mossad for his work.
In 1993, Zeira published a book about the war with Yedioth Ahronoth Books, edited by Rami Tal. An updated edition came out in 2004. In his books, he developed the theory of "the double agent." At the end of the 1990s a number of journalists in Israel and abroad, among them Bregman, became aware of Zeira's theory. According to Bregman, he came upon the story by chance: "My interest was not connected to research for a specific book I was writing. It was just curiosity and interest." He denies that he talked with Zeira about the subject: "I did research, I put things together bit by bit, I thought about it and I got there."
In his testimony at the arbitration hearing before Justice Or, Bregman tried not to reveal his sources, but in the end he had to admit that he had met with the editor of the book, Tal: "We had a cup of coffee," he related in his testimony. "I said to him 'Ashraf Marwan,' and I could tell by his body language." Or stated that "the witness understood from Rami Tal's reactions that Marwan is the person."
Bregman was the first to start to scatter hints publicly about the agent's identity. In his 1999 book "Israel's Wars," he referred to him as "President Sadat's right-hand-man"; in another book he published in 2002, and in an article in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth that same year, he called him "the son-in-law."
"The nickname was my own invention," relates Bregman. "I invented it as an exit, as a line of defense. I thought that if Marwan were to sue me for libel, I would say that his nickname in the Mossad was 'the son-in-law,' and not that he himself was the son-in-law."
In December, 2002, Marwan told an Egyptian newspaper that Bregman's version of events was "a silly detective story." Bregman hastened to respond in an interview to the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram: "I met with their reporter in a cafe in the neighborhood where I live, and there I revealed that the 'son-in-law' I had hinted at was Marwan and that he was a double agent. In the interview I appealed to Marwan: 'If you are not the spy, show me your passport, where you were on October 5.'"
Three weeks later Israel's military censor allowed Haaretz to publish an article on the subject, with a quotation from the Egyptian newspaper. Thus Marwan's name was published for the first time in Israel.
How did the connection between you and Marwan begin?
Bregman: "I sent him every article and book of mine. I sent him my first book with a dedication, 'To Ashraf Marwan, hero of Egypt.' After the interview in Al-Ahram he called me. 'This is the man you wrote about speaking,' he said. He never identified himself by name. We spoke for a while and then he said, 'I want to say three things to you: One, I am not arguing with you [about the double agent claim]. Two, you have your enemies and I have mine. Don't listen to my enemies. Three, we have to meet.'"
In a further phone call, half a year later, Marwan asked Bregman a question that repeated itself many times afterward: "Why are they doing this to me?" According to Bregman, he was referring to "Israel in general and the Mossad in particular. He thought it was the Mossad that was leaking his name and spreading the double agent story. He asked again and again why they were looking for revenge. He nearly cried."
We are all responsible
On October 23, 2003, Bregman met Marwan, for the first and last time. "I walked to the meeting through small streets to see if I was being followed. In retrospect it sounds like a cheap movie thriller, but then I was very suspicious and I didn't know what to expect. I knew that he was angry at me for publishing his name." When he arrived at the lobby of the hotel where the two were slated to meet, relates Bregman, "I saw him walking back and forth. He was very tall, thin and impressive. He was wearing a suit with a red scarf. I brought him a number of articles that had been written about him in Hebrew and that I had translated for him. He told me that he was writing a book, but that it would take a while. 'I'll consult you from time to time,' he said, and asked me to bring him up to date on the case in Israel."
"It seems to me that he wanted to hear what they were writing about him and what they were saying about him in Israel. I asked him about Egypt and how they had reacted to the story there, and he replied: 'We [the Egyptians] don't talk about this.'"
Bregman goes on to read from a memo about the meeting: "He is a bit worried about Howard Bloom [an American journalist who had also revealed Marwan's name and had written that he feared for his life] and his hints that the Mossad would assassinate him. He chose his words very carefully and was a bit edgy. When I touched my tie he looked anxious, apparently suspecting that I was secretly photographing him or recording him."
Did you ask him explicitly whether he was a Mossad agent or a double agent?
"No. I didn't pressure him because I knew that this was very sensitive. But I did ask him about the warning that he did or did not give before the war, that it would start in the evening."
Today it is known that this assumption is incorrect. It has been written about explicitly [in Hebrew] by Dr. Uri Bar-Yosef in his book "The Watchman Fell Asleep" and by senior Mossad officials David Arbel and Uri Neeman in their book "Unforgivable Delusion." Ashraf Marwan did not mislead the Mossad.
"I don't know whether it is correct or not. But Marwan answered me: 'A few hours? What difference does it make?'"
Bregman says that Marwan ended the conversation by saying that he would like "the whole thing to die."
Bregman tells of another phone call, in October 2006: "Ashraf rang out of the blue this time, without my having sent him anything. He was in the United States for medical treatment. That was a 40-minute conversation. He used the old trick of ringing and silence. After he heard my voice he hung up, and then he phoned again. He asked for the title of the new book by Aryeh Shalev [head of the research division of Military Intelligence during the Yom Kippur War and Zeira's deputy, who was also found to share responsibility for the intelligence failure]. He said: 'They can say whatever they want; the outcome speaks for itself. Golda Meir wanted to commit suicide. The Israelis lost hundreds of tanks during the first days of the war. I am not Superman.' He told me that he wrote all of Sadat's speeches and that they were a team of 40 people with the aim of 'feeding the concept to the Israelis.'"
"To restore to Israel the feeling that Egypt was incapable of going to war. And then he said the sentence that I will never forget: 'There was no double agent. There was all of Egypt.'"
Here we are: This is the proof that Ashraf Marwan himself said that he was not a double agent - aren't you convinced?
"This can be understood in a number of ways. Including the opposite. Since the tragedy of his death, every time I try to think about whether he was a double agent or not; I say to myself that it really doesn't make any difference. Whenever I was asked why I revealed his name, I said that everyone has to do his job: The spies' job is to spy and the journalists' job is to expose them. Marwan spied and I exposed. Each of us did his job. Nevertheless this case is making me think again. Maybe it all got out of control."
Did you ever think that maybe it would have been better not to reveal his identity?
"Of course. [But] I thought that even if I were to publish that he was an agent, his situation would be secure. Al-Ahram called him the perfect spy and the national hero. But now the whole business of the double-agent thesis suffered a blow, because its standard-bearer, Zeira, lost, and now Ashraf has become less of a double agent than he seemed to be when I exposed him."
Do you feel responsible for his death?
"No. The responsibility will be shared by a number of people. If his death is at all connected to the revelation of his name - there are still doubts as to whether it was an accident - we [everyone who revealed his name] are all responsible. But I am not going to mention names. Everyone can do his own soul-searching. My bottom line is that I'm finished with spies. As far as I'm concerned, Marwan was one spy too many."
This work is in the public domain