By Dan Williams
A pocketful of receipts helped blow the lid off Israel’s most notorious intelligence bungle.
It was in 1973, after spies dispatched to Norway killed a waiter mistaken for the Palestinian mastermind of a raid on the previous year’s Munich Olympics where 11 Israeli athletes died.
The assassins might have gotten away, except that one of them was not a trained member of Israel’s spy agency Mossad but a Danish-born volunteer brought aboard for his language skills.
Hoping to recoup expenses, he had kept his receipts. Once detained by Norwegian police, he provided a paper trail that led to the capture and prosecution for murder of the rest of the team.
So when director Steven Spielberg, in his new film on the post-Munich reprisals, showed a Mossad case officer ordering agents to hoard receipts while in deep cover abroad, eyebrows were raised among veterans of the intelligence service.
“It’s an absurd version of the modus operandi,” former field agent Gad Shimron said when asked about the thriller “Munich.”
“Agents are expected to account for their expenses, but not if it means incurring the risk of discovery. They can just as easily declare their expenses from memory when they return home, and it’s accepted on trust,” he told Reuters.
That is just one of a list of complaints made about “Munich” by those with direct knowledge of the Israeli reprisal campaign.
Spielberg’s version paints a grim picture of what befell five men sent by Israel to track and kill members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) blamed for the Olympics raid.
The film is based on “Vengeance,” a 1984 book purporting to chronicle the confessions of an assassin who broke ranks in protest at Israel’s two-fisted tactics. It portrays a hit-team unleashed on Europe and the Middle East with little supervision, torn by self-doubt and on the run from Palestinian gunmen.
Spielberg was careful to add the disclaimer that the film was merely “inspired” by real events, but many Israelis say they are disappointed in the Hollywood director famed for his fastidiously researched Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List.”
“I think it is a tragedy that a person of the stature of Steven Spielberg, who has made such fantastic films, should have based this film on a book that is a falsehood,” said David Kimche, a senior Mossad official in the 1970s.
CHOSEN BY GOLDA?
“Munich” shows the Olympic attack, followed by another established fact: Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir instructing Mossad to track down and kill the Palestinians held responsible.
In the film, Meir goes further, personally recruiting the hero, Avner, to lead the team. Shimron said this was unheard of.
“I know it’s tempting to see Golda as a sort of Zionist version of ‘M’ from the James Bond films, but she had nothing to do with Mossad personnel,” he said.
Spielberg shows a hit-team isolated in the field for months, and including a forger and bomb-maker so it can function alone, but Mossad veterans say the reprisals, like all top-priority missions, were executed by a large number of agents, in stages.
First, case officers posted abroad were told to look out for Palestinians on the hit-list. Information came from a variety of sources, the most important being paid PLO informers; the Munich raid was carried out by Black September, a PLO splinter group.
Once the targets were found, specialized agents went through elaborate practice runs in Israel to prepare the assassinations.
“We would set up ‘models,’ by choosing areas in Israel that resembled the place where the person in question would be hit. Then we would drill to make sure the mission went without a hitch,” said a retired operative on condition of anonymity.
“The hit-teams were assembled and sent out on an ad hoc basis. Everything was in place for them, so they never spent more than a few days — or, at most, weeks — in the field. They were monitored and withdrawn as soon as each mission was over.”
The assassins in “Munich” are shown as occasionally inept, especially when it comes to planting novel booby-trap bombs.
But Shimron noted that by the 1970s Mossad had perfected this tactic. As for having a forger, Shimron doubted this would be considered for such short-term missions as no forger would be able to produce high-quality documents under such conditions.
Shimron was more damning of the all-male makeup of the team. “It’s standard practice to include female agents in such operations,” he said. “Anyone who has been on a stakeout knows that having a lady on hand helps you avoid being spotted.”
TOUGH GUYS DON’T DOUBT
Much of the criticism from Israelis in the know focuses on the film’s depiction of the moral debates that burden the team.
A former Israeli special forces officer who took part in a Mossad assassination in the 1980s called this fanciful.
“Look, we all did mandatory military service, we all had combat experience, and we all accepted the necessity of hitting out at our enemies. Israel is a country at war,” he said.
“So you go, you do the job, and you hope you’ll be back in time to eat breakfast with your kids and take them to school.”
Shimron said Mossad provides in-house psychologists to help any agents who develop doubts about their work.
“Munich” also shows three assassins being killed. Other accounts do not mention this, although at the time the PLO did strike at Mossad case officers permanently stationed in Europe.
Michael Bar-Zohar, who wrote an authorized history of the operations, said two officers were shot in Madrid and Brussels.
“But as for Black September, it was wiped off the map for months,” he told Israel Radio.
Bar-Zohar noted Spielberg shows the hit-team hunting 11 Palestinians, and said this built an overly simplistic moral symmetry with the number of Israeli athletes killed in Munich.
Historians say the final Palestinian death toll may have reached as high as 18. In 1981, Black September mastermind Mohammed Daoud survived a shooting attack at a Warsaw hotel. In 1992, PLO official Atef Bseiso was shot dead in Paris.
Israel neither claimed nor denied responsibility for those operations, but Mossad veterans said that prior to 1993 there was no reason for the post-Munich reprisals to be called off.
That year, Israel and the Palestinians signed an interim peace deal in Oslo, near the site of the botched 1973 hit.
“We decided then that as long as they are not killing us, we would not kill them,” said the retired senior operative.