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News :: International
26 Oct 2004
How I found the Egyptian agent's name

By Aluf Benn
Last Update: 26/10/2004 04:14

I don't know Eli Zeira, the head of Military Intelligence during the Yom Kippur War. Nor do I know Zvi Zamir, the director of the Mossad during the war. Once I tried to interview Zeira, and was rewarded with a polite slam of the phone receiver. As far as I can recall, I have never spoken with Zamir. Nevertheless, it would be worthwhile for the state attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, to hear my version before he handles the complaint brought against Zeira by Zamir and two of his colleagues. They allege that Zeira leaked the identity of Ashraf Marwan, who was the Mossad's "top agent" in Egypt in 1973.

As a reporter for the local weekly Ha'ir in the late `80s, I was very much interested by intelligence, which at the time was a big taboo, and subjected to heavy censorship. Someone told me about the mysterious agent, who told Israel on the morning of that fateful Yom Kippur: "War will break out today." He was a high-profile individual in his own country, who had previously turned up at an Israeli embassy in Europe and offered his irreplaceable services. I didn't have the nerve to ask who the agent was, but I was enormously excited. Finally I'd become party to a covert state secret.

A few years passed, and the affair was brought up at a dinner with another person. "He now lives in Britain, he's a big-time businessman. I read about him not long ago in the Financial Times," said my dinner companion. By now, I had the marvels of technology at my disposal. At home, I hooked up to a computerized data bank (this was in the pre-Internet days), and typed in the words "Egypt," "Britain" and "businessman." Bingo! The computer found an article in which one Ashraf Marwan was mentioned. I was familiar with the name from the memoirs of General Shazli, the former Egyptian chief of staff, who described him as a close adviser to president Anwar Sadat. There was no need for further questions. In any event, I was too afraid to even say the name out loud.

One day I read an article in Maariv by Oded Granot, who quoted from an Egyptian newspaper a story about this same Marwan, who had supposedly passed Israel information on a different affair. I was shocked at the revelation, and when I met Granot on a joint working visit to Cairo, I told him, in the corridor of the Egyptian presidential palace: "Do you know just what you've uncovered?" He responded with a smile. He knew what and whom I was talking about.

A few more years passed. As head of the news division of Haaretz, I took part in an editors' meeting in the room of then editor-in-chief Hanoch Marmari. There was a discussion about articles for the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. "Maybe we should write about the agent that disclosed the war?" I suggested. "He lives in London now, and his story has not been revealed." "And you know who it is?" asked Marmari. "Yes." "What is his name?" I hesitated for a moment - it isn't every day you reveal a secret like that - and said, "Ashraf Marwan."

The story was assigned to Ronen Bergman, who at the time was a reporter for Haaretz Magazine. He went to work on the project with characteristic assiduousness and wrote a fascinating, detailed article. Marwan didn't want to talk with him, but Israeli intelligence community veterans revealed the entire story to him, including the argument over whether he was a double agent. The article did not specify the identity of the agent, adopting instead the code name "Bavel," but it did raise the matter onto the agenda. About two years ago, researcher Aharon Bregman published Marwan's name abroad, and the matter gradually developed into the current disagreement between Zamir and Zeira.

By the nature of their vocation, members of the intelligence community tend toward conspiracy theories. In their world, every published report is necessarily the handiwork of a vested interest who has leaked the information for a purpose. Real life is grayer, and involves a great deal of luck and random cross-referencing of information. No one told me who "Bavel" was, but I found him nevertheless. Maybe others did the same. I only hope Mazuz will busy himself with more important matters, and leave stale generals' wars to the historians.

This work is in the public domain