Spies and secret agents may lead adventurous and extraordinary lives, but they are just like everybody else in at least one way: they have a deep desire to talk about their accomplishments and to feel that people understand them. This is one of the conclusions I reached after viewing Imperfect Spies, Duki Dror’s fascinating yet troubling film about Israel’s Mossad, the government agency responsible for overseas intelligence gathering and clandestine operations including assassinations.
The Mossad first came into the international spotlight in 1960 when a Mossad team led by Rafi Eitan successfully kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of Nazi Germany’s extermination of six million Jews and brought him back to be put on trial in Israel. That daring feat was significant not only because of its operational success but also because few questioned its moral justification as Eichmann was given a chance to defend himself in a court of law. But in the years since, the Mossad has carried out many operations in which terrorists and individuals considered to pose a lethal threat to Israel have simply been killed. Eitan, in the film, describes one such instance, in which an Israeli army officer who was discovered selling military secrets to an enemy Arab country, was kidnapped in Europe, and his body disposed of by being dropped from a plane into the Mediterranean Sea.
Eitan, 91, along with another retired Mossad director Zvi Zamir, 93, seems to relish the opportunity to talk about all of the things that for many years he has been forced to remain silent about. It could be that they both may have been miffed by all the attention received by their rivals in another film, The Gatekeepers. In that widely-acclaimed 2012 documentary, the former heads of Israel’s internal secret service agency, known as the Shin Bet, candidly discuss their successes and failures. In Imperfect Spies, filmmaker Duki Dror also seems to have shrewdly anticipated that elderly veterans like Eitan and Zamir would have little to hide and a few axes to grind.
Zamir seems particularly eager to vindicate the blame he received for failing to alert the Israeli government of Egyptian and Syrian plans to attack Israel in 1973. Zamir asserts unequivocally that he provided the Israeli cabinet with a compelling intelligence report of the imminent Egyptian-Syrian attack well in advance of the war. According to Zamir, his reports were ignored. The subsequent surprise attack caught the army off-guard and led to the death of more than 5,000 Israelis.
Many of the dozen or so former Mossad agents who participate in the film seem to shrug off the notion that some of their activities may have had dubious moral justification. Particularly disturbing is the account of Mossad agent who recruited a Bedouin shepherd in Lebanon to work as a double agent. The shepherd alerted his Mossad handler that a Lebanese terrorist gang was planning to cross the border for an attack inside Israel. But when the double agent was suddenly forced by the terror gang to join them in the attack, the Mossad agent failed to take the steps necessary to save the shepherd’s life.
One dramatic episode that calls to mind John le Carre’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is told by Tamar, a female Mossad agent who worked in Egypt along with a fellow male agent apparently under a cover story of the two being a wealthy French couple. As le Carre foretells in his novel, working together in such a close way under great tension for such a great time eventually leads to a real romance between the two of them. Yet when the couple return to Israel, despite Tamar’s objections, their commander insists that they discontinue their relationship. As another Mossad agent puts it, in the world that they live in, people are often just a pawn in the game.
Despite the unseemly picture the film presents of many of the Mossad’s activities, several of the agents suggest – fairly convincingly — that the alternative to some of their extrajudicial executions would be nothing less than a war in which far more people would be killed. And contrary to the notion that security experts who are trained in the use of force might be inclined to favor use of that capability, as was shown in The Gatekeepers, they often recommend restraint rather than action.
This is the case in an incident described in Imperfect Spies in which it is actually Mossad officials that prevent Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu from taking military action against Iran.
According to the Mossad official, when he became concerned that Netanyahu would go ahead with an attack on Iran’s nuclear-bomb-producing facilities, he met with his American counterpart in the CIA, and encouraged the CIA to push US President Obama’s initiative to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran. Signing that agreement removed – at least temporarily — the possibility of Israeli military activity.
The film’s title, Imperfect Spies, an apt twist on le Carre’s novel A Perfect Spy, does indeed tell the story of what life is like for people working in an unusual and imperfect profession in general and in Israel in particular. In the film’s explicit description of moral dilemmas, even staunch defenders of the right of a small country imperiled by a large number of enemies to defend itself, will find Imperfect Spies a bitter pill to swallow.
Unable to rely on other countries to ensure its existence, Israel is likely to continue to use the Mossad as a key player in its defense arsenal. And now that the lid seems to have been taken off the telling of insider spy stories – some of them even about recent incidents—one may expect to see more in this genre, not just from Israel.