No one seemed to suspect the mustachioed elderly man walking on the streets of a capital in the Baltics, towards the British Embassy’s gates.
Years of skillfully concealing his feelings successfully covered up his internal storm of emotions. He had already tried to interest the Americans in the secret documents in his possession but had failed: The CIA representative at the US Embassy had thought his story was so far-fetched that they suspected it was all a deliberate KGB ploy and sent him on his way. Would the British be the ones to accept the secret project of his life?
He entered the British Embassy and quietly mumbled to the clerk, “I want to talk to someone with authority.” Several minutes later, he was approached by a young woman who appeared to be a junior diplomat and was asked for his name.
“Vasili Mitrokhin,” the man replied, and he began telling her his incredible story: how he had become a senior employee at the KGB archives and was privy to operation files and top secrets; how he copied thousands of sensitive documents over the years and smuggled them from KGB headquarters; and where that massive treasure was now.
The young British diplomat stared at Mitrokhin in amazement, but despite having just heard one of the most extraordinary stories in her life, she responded in the appropriate British manner: “Would you like a cup of tea?” She had understood the meaning of his story. If what he was saying was true, this could be one of the greatest leaks from any intelligence organization ever. But what if it was all a lie? And what if it was actually a Russian ploy?
She asked for proof, and Mitrokhin presented some of the documents in his possession, which included details about the “illegals”—the KGB’s elite spies. These documents, which included some of the top secrets of Soviet intelligence, along with a photo of Mitrokhin that the diplomat took, aroused great interest in London.
At the next meeting, about a month later, he brought about 2,000 documents. A higher-ranked representative from Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (more commonly known as MI6), who had come in especially from London, reviewed the material and realized that the man in front of him was nothing less than an intelligence gold mine.
Within a short period of time, the MI6 launched a secret operation in which Mitrokhin and his family were smuggled to Britain. They landed in the country along with the KGB’s top secrets: tens of thousands of documents that Mitrokhin had copied and hidden in milk barrels and other containers in the floor of his two dachas, one of them in the suburbs of Moscow. Only a few people in Britain—led by then-Prime Minister John Major, who personally approved the operation—were aware of the package that had landed in their country that day.
This took place in 1992. Intelligence experts began analyzing the documents immediately and uncovered more and more revelations from Mitrokhin’s milk barrels. They included the wiretapping of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s phone, stolen US nuclear secrets, and the deep and incredible infiltration of Germany and France’s political leadership.
As a result of these documents, KGB agents were apprehended all over the world, secret operation methods were exposed, and espionage operations—some dating back many years—were thwarted. The impact in Britain, the United States, and countries across Europe was immediate. The intelligence tumult that broke out affected Israel as well, but most of Mitrokhin’s documents about the KGB’s extensive activity in Israel have never been published. Until now.
A lot has been said about Russian espionage against Israel and the Jews—in books, articles and films. Most of the testimonies are from Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency) officers who captured Soviet spies in Israel. The public has never before been exposed to what these operations looked like from the other side—from the eyes of the KGB.
This unprecedented peek has been made possible thanks to Vasili Mitrokhin and the documents hidden away in barrels under the floor of his dacha.
Mitrokhin was born in 1922 in Yurasovo, a town in the Russian Plain’s Ryazan Oblast. In 1948, he joined the MGB, the organization which would later become the KGB. After his training, he participated in several operations abroad, but he quickly abandoned field work. Instead, thanks to his broad education, his knowledge of multiple languages, his phenomenal memory and his attention to detail, he was stationed at a strategic junction: the archive of the First Chief Directorate, which was located, at first, at KGB headquarters in the notorious Lubyanka Building.
Outwardly, Mitrokhin was an outstanding and dedicated worker, but under his tough and strict exterior dwelled a rebellious, sensitive and tormented soul.
“I began reading about the mass cleansing and the horrible means of oppression used against the Soviet people, and I could not believe such evil,” he would later tell Prof. Christopher Andrew of Cambridge’s Faculty of History, one of the most important historians investigating the world of intelligence and the historian of the British intelligence community. “It was all planned, prepared, thought out in advance.”
The documents rattled Mitrokhin. “I saw horrors… I saw horrors and still suffer from nightmares,” he told Prof. Andrew.
What agonized Mitrokhin most were the KGB’s operations against dissidents. In its successful efforts to suppress the Prague Spring in 1968, Mitrokhin learned, the Soviet spy agency ran more undercover agents of its prime league than in any operation against the West.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for Mitrokhin was KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov’s Order No. 0051 from mid-1968, in which he called for further aggression against political dissidents within and without the Soviet Union. This order led to the operation that made the KGB archivist’s blood boil. Mitrokhin was a lover of dance and an ardent fan of the Kirov ballet company, and he was very upset when the company’s legendary star, Rudolph Nureyev, defected to the West in 1961. But when he read a classified document revealing that Soviet intelligence was planning a “road accident” for Nureyev which would cripple him, something inside of Mitrokhin finally snapped.
He was determined to do something “so that the world would know about the horrors committed by this organization.” He decided to start copying segments from the sensitive and extremely classified documents passed through his hands so that they would one day reach the West and be published. Mitrokhin knew very well that if he were caught, there would be only one fate in store for him.
He had two methods of operation. The first was scribbling numerous notes throughout the day, seemingly to help him with the filing. Every time he was done, he would demonstratively throw the note into the trash can. At the end of the day, when no one was watching, he would approach the trash can, collect the notes and shove them into the soles of his shoes. This method worked, but it was too slow, and Mitrokhin began copying entire documents in his home after smuggling them out of the archives in his shoes.
He then reached the conclusion that his handwriting was insufficiently legible, and he knew there was a reasonable chance he would not be around—or even alive—to interpret it, so he began transcribing the material with a typewriter. This created a new problem, however: In the Soviet Union, typewriters’ ink tape was subject to supervision, and the names of those who bought it were reported to the Second Chief Directorate, which was responsible for internal security. Mitrokhin knew that if he bought large amounts of ink tape, he might raise suspicions. Instead, he would break open pens and extract the ink that he would then use to wet the tape so he could reuse it again and again.
And so, with a lot of determination, laborious efforts and constant fear that he would be caught and executed, Mitrokhin copied thousands of documents over the years and secreted the information in the sealed milk barrels. He hid them in the filthiest, dampest spaces between the ground and foundations of his dachas, where no one would want to look for anything. As there were no documents missing and the information was not leaked, no one suspected him.
“Vasili was a very skilled and professional intelligence officer and archivist,” Prof. Andrew said. “He didn’t mix his personal views in with what he read in the files, except for once or twice when he wrote ‘on the trail of filth’ in the margins of the page. Because of this professionalism, we received the documents as they were, just the fact, without any commentary.”
In 1986, after nearly two decades of copying, Mitrokhin retired and began looking for ways to transfer his treasure to the West. The collapse of the Communist bloc shortly afterwards opened a window of opportunity for him. Mitrokhin traveled to Riga. At first, he tried to get the Americans interested in the documents, but they suspected the papers were fake. Then he marched to that meeting at the British Embassy. On November 10, 1992, Mitrokhin, his family and the precious milk barrels landed in England.
MI6 put Mitrokhin up in a tightly secured house and appointed a special team to deal with the documents. A number of intelligence organizations in the West received access to part of the information as well. The Israeli defense establishment also received a few of the Mitrokhin documents, which British authorities thought to be highly important. They included information about an IDF general and a senior counterintelligence officer who were recruited by the KGB , as well as about a powerful political advisor who was planted in Israel in the early 1970s and went on to become a prominent figure in the country’s centers of power. It was only a drop in the ocean.
Four years after he arrived in Britain, the story about Mitrokhin was leaked to the European media and created a large buzz. At first, the SVR—the Russian intelligence agency established out of the KGB First Directorate—attempted to downplay the event and even mock the Mitrokhin documents, but as the media coverage provided more and more details, there was no longer any doubt that this was one of the greatest leaks in the history of intelligence. Estimates are that the Mitrokhin documents have so far exposed some 1,000 agents around the world.
On October 17, 1995, Prof. Andrew was summoned for a meeting at the MI6 headquarters in London, where he was let in on the secret of Mitrokhin and his archive. Several weeks later, he met Mitrokhin himself at a secure location, and they began writing a book together based on the leaked documents.
“Vasili very much wanted the documents to be published, but attached little importance to his personal story and the way the archive came to be. It wasn’t easy to convince him to include that information in the books as well,” Prof. Andrew recounted.
The first book was published in 1999 and generated wild international reactions, causing the KGB unprecedented damage.
“The information copied by Vasili,” Prof. Andrew told me in a recent conversation at his home in Cambridge, “revealed most clearly how the KGB was used as a main tool in the ideological subversion of the USSR, and how obsessed the organization was in its attempts to act against anyone it viewed as dissidents posing a threat to the communist regime. It’s hard for me to think of a lesser threat for the regime in Moscow than the small, weak group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia. But the KGB thought differently, and it’s amazing to learn what an effort they made in trying to hurt them.”
The second volume was published in 2005, a year after Mitrokhin’s death, and dealt with the KGB’s operations in different areas of the world, including several chapters about the Middle East and Israel.
Several months ago, the Mitrokhin archive was lodged in the reserved section of Churchill College’s library in Cambridge. For the first time, and under the strict supervision of an anxious team of librarians, one can access the secret files.
Over the past six months, we have been photocopying the material, translating it from Russian, sorting it, processing it and cross-checking it with additional data, including some 40 sources and interviewees. The main points will be presented in a special series of articles in the following weeks.
A few important notes about the extent of the Mitrokhin documents:
Not all of the information that appears in the documents can be published. British intelligence barred the publication of several of the important documents that were given to us that concern the State of Israel. The Israeli Military Censorship also had a say on what can be published and what cannot.
It appears that the insistence of these two intelligence services to prevent the publication of some details—despite the fact the information comes from the KGB’s archives—indicates, more than anything else, how important these details are—even years after the events in question took place.
Additionally, this is by no means the entire KGB archive, but only what Mitrokhin saw as important and had the time and ability to copy. There are many affairs the files do not refer to at all.
Nonetheless, the information we are about to publish from the Mitrokhin Archive about Israel is enough to help us understand the huge intelligence effort that the Soviet Union invested in the Jewish state. Furthermore, we learn that this effort in many cases—perhaps too many for Israel—undeniably bore fruit.
In October 1970, the office of Yuri Andropov—the head of the KGB at the time and later the general secretary of the Communist Party—issued an operational order at the agency’s highest classification level. The order specified the first stage of what was codenamed “Operation TN”: “Division C,” it stated, “is required to start launching ‘illegals’ on short trips to Israel.”
In Soviet intelligence lingo, “illegals” are the organization’s elite, like the “fighters” of the Mossad’s Caesarea division. The “illegals” underwent exhaustive training, which included learning foreign languages, guerrilla warfare, undercover activity and additional intelligence training. At the end of their training, they underwent a special ceremony, which was performed for each agent separately for compartmentalization purposes. The highlight of the ceremony was a melodramatic oath, in which the trainee declared, “As a worthy son of the homeland, I would rather perish than betray the secrets entrusted to me… With every heartbeat, with every day that passes, I swear to serve the Party, the Homeland and the Soviet people.”
Division C operated the “illegals” and was considered the most secret and important division in the organization. The Operation TN order continued: The “illegals” “will work in Israel and develop a network of contacts and an infrastructure for operations in a bid to establish an ‘illegal base’ in Israel and to send ‘illegals’ to Israel for a long stay.”
Operation TN was the result of the Russians’ ongoing frustration. For years, the KGB saw Israel as a prime target for collecting intelligence and deployed a network of agents to the country, which was operated from the Soviet Embassy and consulates across the country. Many of the Soviet “diplomats” in Israel were intelligence officials who recruited and operated a large number of spies.
But this intelligence heaven ended on June 12, 1967. After the Six-Day War, all members of the Warsaw Pact (apart from Romania) severed their ties with Israel.
Gen. Oleg Kalugin, formerly one of the heads of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate—the organizational division responsible for collecting intelligence and special operations outside the Soviet Union—described the situation to me as follows: “We were suddenly blind to what was taking place in Israel, and that greatly hindered our ability to operate in the Middle East.”
Soviet intelligence tried to operate through the Russian Church in Jerusalem, but this route was too slow for Andropov. While one of the most important agents, Dr. Marcus Klingberg of the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona, occasionally traveled to conferences abroad where he continued reporting to the Soviets, contact with most of the other agents faded away.
And that is why Andropov decided to launch the intelligence offensive created by Operation TN. He allotted five “illegals”—four men and one woman—to the project. This is an unusual number in the world of intelligence: Building a cover story for each agent is a complicated logistic and intelligence operation, which requires great means. When an operation includes five agents at once, it can mean only one thing: It’s very, very important to the boss. Or to the boss’s boss.
The operation file describes the selected “illegals”: Codenames “Karsky,” “Patriya,” “Run” and “Yoris,” who posed, respectively, as citizens of Canada, Spain, Mexico and Finland. They were all senior KGB officers, and they each had a long and detailed cover story tailor-made for them to explain their stay in Israel. In 1971, the four toured the country to further establish their cover story. This entire activity took place under the nose of the Shin Bet, which was unaware (possibly until now) of the espionage operation.
The person in charge of the four fighters, as chief commander of Operation TN, was an outstanding senior agent who had already been sent on several secret missions. His codename was “Kravchenko,” and his real name was Lt. Yuri Fyodorovich Linov. He was 34 years old at the time and spoke eight languages. He was supposed to serve the KGB in its infiltration of America but—to his resentment—was shifted to Israel. Linov received the cover story of an Austrian insurance agent living in Ireland, named Karl-Bernd Motl.
Linov and the four agents under his command were meant to pursue contact with the network of KGB assets that had already been recruited.
The list, as revealed in the Mitrokhin documents, is still astonishing. It includes two Knesset members, one of them a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; a veteran IDF general who served as a member of the General Staff not too long ago; two foreign ambassadors; a senior employee at the German Embassy in Israel; one of the founders of Israel’s water system, who played an important role in the establishment of the National Water Carrier (an issue the KGB saw as strategically important); a prominent intellectual; several media personalities; and two agents from within the intelligence community, one of them under code name “Malinka,” likely a senior official in the Shin Bet’s Counterintelligence Division. And this is just a partial list.
Commander Linov arrived in Israel twice to explore the country. On the second time, in June 1971, he even attended a Hebrew-language school in Jerusalem and graduated as the class’s top student.
He used his visits to tour places near strategic sites, including the reactor in Dimona, military bases and the National Water Carrier facilities. The information he collected was broadcast to his operators through a radio receiver hidden in the room he rented at Tel Aviv’s Grand Beach Hotel.
The third time Linov landed in Israel, in February 1973, he began his main mission: Renewing contact with the network of agents.
But Linov did not get much done. The first agent he met, codenamed “Leon,” who was actually one of the least important ones on the list, told a friend about his encounter. He did not know that his friend knew someone from the Shin Bet, and “Leon” was taken in for questioning. The Shin Bet suggested that he cooperate in exchange for a lenient prosecution, and “Leon” gave in and agreed. His next meeting with Linov was secretly monitored by members of the Shin Bet’s operations unit “Birds” (tziporim in Hebrew).
“The plan,” recounts a Shin Bet official who was involved in the operation, “was to continue following Linov for a long time, and thereby to collect the information about his activity and the network he was supposed to operate.”
But then, for reasons which veteran Shin Bet officials disagree with to this very day, the order was given to arrest Linov—immediately. Before the Shin Bet operatives were able to break into his hotel room, Linov managed to destroy his files, throwing them into the toilet.
“Our big hope, to expose the network of agents, went down the drain because of that bizarre order,” says the Shin Bet official.
Linov admitted in his interrogation that he was indeed a KGB “illegal,” spoke about his career in the organization and even revealed some of his activity in Israel. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison but was released the following year as part of a prisoner-exchange deal.
Although the Shin Bet took a lot of pride in capturing Linov, the most senior KGB operative to ever be caught in Israel, the early arrest caused a lot of damage.
When Linov returned to the Soviet Union, he was treated in a tough and humiliating manner because he had been caught and was suspected of disclosing many of the secrets he knew. But he did not, in fact, turn in the other four “illegals” to the Shin Bet and maintained secrecy regarding almost all of the remaining assets at their disposal. “Malinka,” for example, the spy who was planted deep inside the Shin Bet’s Counterintelligence Division, was free to continue his activity undisturbed.
On one thing there is no dispute: The Mitrokhin documents show that from Day One, the State of Israel has been a top target for the Soviets.
The Soviet Union voted in favor of the establishment of Israel in the hopes that the young country would become pro-Soviet,” confirms former KGB general Oleg Kalugin. “When that hope was dashed and Israel developed good ties with the West, it became a very important target for infiltration.”
The KGB didn’t always operate directly. Sometimes the espionage in Israel was performed by intelligence agencies belonging to other countries in the Soviet bloc.
One of the major recruitments at the time was Levi (Lucjan) Levi, who was a member of the Shin Bet’s “Birds” operations unit from 1950 until his capture in 1957. Levi was an agent of the Polish intelligence services, revealing all of the Shin Bet’s planned operations against the KGB to the Soviets.
The Bulgarian intelligence service, meanwhile, was able to send no less than 36 recruited Jews into Israel as its agents.
The Mitrokhin documents mentioned one of them (whose name is withheld by the Israeli Military Censor) who worked as a journalist for a while and then got a job in the office of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. For the Russians, this was a successful recruitment of an asset located in a major intersection of information.
Another Bulgarian agent, who received the code name “Peretz,” is an example of a different kind of modus operandi of the Soviet intelligence services: recruiting activists from Communist parties worldwide.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, Peretz’s real name is Shlomo Shmali, a member of Maki’s (the Israeli Communist Party) Central Committee and a close friend of Maki leader Meir Vilner. Shmali was “born in Sofia on March 14, 1922, and was a Bulgarian agent until 1975.”
Shmali and other members of Maki recruited by the Bulgarians are described as “good and loyal agents” in the documents.
Maki was not the only target. In the beginning of the 1950s, the Russians launched a wide-scale operation codenamed “Trest” to infiltrate Mapam (the United Workers Party). According to the Mitrokhin documents, they were quite successful: The KGB recruited Ya’akov Riftin, who was a Mapam member of Knesset from 1949 to 1965.
One of the documents mentions that Riftin was a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. According to the Mitrokhin documents, he regularly passed on classified documents, including top secret ones, to the Soviet Embassy.
Another Mapam politician, who according to the Mitrokhin documents provided the Soviets with information about Israeli foreign policy, was Moshe Sneh, who was the head of the Hagana’s national staff and later a prominent public figure. The information Sneh allegedly passed on further confirmed to the Soviets that Israel was developing a special relationship with the United States.
For example, in August 1952, the Soviet Embassy sent a report to Moscow that was based on the information Sneh allegedly provided, according to which Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Moshe Sharett, believed Israel should follow the US without preconditions or reservations.
Another Mapam MK that appears in the Mitrokhin documents under the code name “Grant” was described as living “in Kibbutz Shoval, near Be’er Sheva.” According to the documents, this was writer and senior politician Elazar Granot, who also served in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and as the party’s secretary-general. After retiring from the Knesset, Granot served as Israel’s ambassador to South Africa.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, Granot was recruited right before the Six-Day War, and contact with him was cut when the Soviet Embassy was evacuated in 1967.
It’s important to note that the documents don’t mention exactly what kind of information Granot provided the KGB with. The line between “conversations among intellectuals” and espionage is a thin one, and it is possible that Granot—and other figures mentioned in the documents—believed he was having legitimate intellectual conversations with a Russian diplomat.
Spying on Israel’s water project
In 1953, construction began on the National Water Carrier, the most important civilian national project in Israel’s first few decades. The details of the project were classified as “secret” and were kept under wraps for many years, leading the KGB to issue an urgent order to try and recruit assets that could provide credible information on the project.
These efforts were successful. In 1956, an agent was recruited and given the code name “Boker.” His real name was Yaakov Vardi (“who was born in Sarajevo in 1919,” according to his KGB file), an engineer, part of the leadership of the Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and one of the founders of Israel’s water system.
Vardi was among the heads of the Tahal Group (Israel Water Planning), where he worked until 1987, and played a central role in the planning of the National Water Carrier. He was also a senior advisor to the ceasefire talks with the Arab nations in 1967, in which some of the discussions revolved around the issue of water. One of the bridges built over the Jordan River was even named after Vardi, in his honor.
During the late 1970s, Israel held secret talks with Jordan on the division of water in the area. The participants thought the Soviet Union did not know of these discussions on an issue that is particularly sensitive in an area of the world where water is the most precious resource. But thanks to Vardi, word of these talks reached Moscow.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, during the time he was active, Vardi had three different senior handlers from the Soviet intelligence agency’s branch in Israel, which indicates his importance to the KGB.
One of these handlers, Ivan Dedyulya, was promoted upon his return to Moscow, especially because of his recruitment and running of “Boker,” and was appointed as the assistant on intelligence to the chairman of the KGB. The website of the SVR (the successor of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB since December 1991) has a page dedicated to his memory.
But “Boker” wasn’t the only engineer recruited by the KGB, according to Mitrokhin. Another agent emigrated from Moscow to Israel in 1970 and was very important to the Russians—”Megresko.” He studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and even volunteered his services to the Nativ Liaison Bureau—an Israeli intelligence organization that maintained secret contact with Jews living in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and encouraged immigration to Israel. Nativ was a prime target for the KGB and “Megresko” was ordered to join it in an effort to obtain more information about the bureau and sabotage its operations.
At the time, the Russians noted another success when they recruited a Foreign Ministry official, the economist Ze’ev Avni (born Wolf Goldstein). Avni was caught, interrogated, confessed and prosecuted under the cover of great secrecy.
It is only now, with the revelations from the Mitrokhin documents, that the full scope and sensitive nature of the information Avni passed on and the damage he caused can be truly assessed.
Avni, codenamed “Check,” may have been employed by the Foreign Ministry, but starting in 1952 he was sent by the Mossad to Brussels, Belgrade and Athens. The KGB documents describe him as a “commercial attaché in Israel’s Embassy in Belgrade and an operative of the Israeli intelligence in Greece and Western Germany.”
The operations Avni carried out for the Mossad provided him with information on the intelligence agency’s activities in Europe. According to the Mitrokhin documents, between 1955 and 1956, Avni provided the head of the KGB branch in Belgrade with the radio codes (OTPs, in intelligence jargon, meaning “one-time pad” or key) of Israeli communications. In addition, he passed on a lot of information about Mossad operatives and agents in Europe.
Recruiting an IDF major general
The KGB operated out of the Russian Embassy building in central Israel. Additional intelligence activity was conducted in the Russian Consulate in Jerusalem and in Sergei’s Courtyard in the Russian Compound in the capital.
The Shin Bet developed a sort of test regarding the embassy staff: If the “diplomatic representative” lived outside the embassy building, it means that the Russians trusted him—in other words, it is very likely that he was KGB. And if the representative lived inside the embassy, where it was possible to “keep an eye on him,” it was more likely that he was a real diplomat.
In late 1963, the embassy received a new “cultural attaché” named Yuri Kotov, who rented an apartment in Jaffa with his wife, Galina. It was immediately clear to the Shin Bet that Kotov was a KGB agent, and the couple’s apartment was under constant surveillance.
Kotov did not make a particular effort to hide the fact that he engaged in spying: At the time, the imperative to bring Soviet Jews to Israel was a sort of “guarantee” that the Israeli authorities would swallow quite a few of these bitter pills.
Kotov’s biggest achievement was the recruitment of an IDF major general from the General Staff.
The Mitrokhin documents, which arrived in London in 1992, contained information regarding that major general. The British intelligence passed on the information to Israel, where the Shin Bet was entrusted with the handling of the investigation.
Yaakov Kedmi, the head of Nativ at the time, recounts, “The Shin Bet didn’t tell me the name of the major general, but I understood from them how great the shock upon receiving the update from the British was. From a later report I learned that the man, who was already old at the time, was summoned for questioning and that he in effect confessed to having communicated with Kotov. He claimed, however, that they only had general conversations about the situation in the Middle East and the possibility of reconciliation with the Palestinians, and that no actual information was passed on.
“Because of that major general’s health situation, and I believe also because of the embarrassment the IDF and the State of Israel would have suffered had this story come to light, a decision was made not to take action against him and not to prosecute him. He passed away shortly thereafter.”
The inside man
But the IDF major general was not the only impressive agent the KGB had in Israel’s defense establishment.
The Mitrokhin documents also mention the code name “Malinka,” who is one of two agents the KGB had in the “Counterintelligence Division,” apparently from the Shin Bet. If the KGB did indeed have agents in the Shin Bet, it would be the kind of achievement any intelligence agency dreams of: planting a spy in the place where they catch spies.
But there were those in the Shin Bet who suspected the agency had been infiltrated by the Soviet intelligence service. One of the members of the Eastern European desk at the Shin Bet’s Counterintelligence Division, a skilled intelligence officer called Yair Telem, suspected for a long time that there was a spy in the division and decided to make the exposure and capture of that spy his life’s mission.
For four years, Telem gathered information, analyzed it, and dissected all of the espionage affairs uncovered in the division. He gathered it all into a top secret report. Telem believed the document he authored had enough to lead the reader to the clear conclusion that one of the top counterintelligence officers in the Shin Bet—who was also one of the agency’s pillars—was a Russian spy.
One of the main arguments Telem used to support his theory was the story of the inexplicable decision to arrest the commander of the KGB’s Operation TN, Yuri Linov, before he could incriminate his agents. The mole “Malinka,” Telem argued, would have an interest in cutting short the surveillance on Linov so the latter would not incriminate him. The officer Telem suspected of being “Malinka” was indeed the same one who ordered Linov’s premature arrest. Furthermore, the Mitrokhin documents reveal that one of the agents Linov was supposed to contact was the very same “Malinka.”
Telem went over his commanders’ heads and took his report directly to the director of the Shin Bet at the time, Yossef Harmelin. During that the meeting with Harmelin and his deputy, Avraham Ahituv, Telem presented his report and demanded to immediately open an investigation against the senior intelligence officer he claimed was the mole.
“You have a Soviet spy here, at the top of the Shin Bet command,” he told Ahituv and Harmelin with the utmost certainty.
This was a very dramatic and monumental moment: A rather senior Shin Bet operative claiming that someone very high-up in the organization—who also happens to be one of Telem’s superiors—is a Russian spy, supporting his accusations with a thick report packed with details and case studies.
Shortly before his meeting with Harmelin, Telem shared his suspicions with Aryeh Hadar, the head of the Shin Bet’s Investigations Division at the time.
“He presented me with a series of arguments and case studies to show how the Russians managed to recruit that senior officer,” Hadar recalls. “It was quite the bombshell.”
Harmelin picked up the thick report Telem had laid on his desk and started reading, every now and again shooting a sour look in the direction of Telem himself, who was impatiently waiting to hear what the boss would say. When he was done going over the report, Harmelin informed Telem that this was “a load of nonsense” that did not conform to reality and demanded him to cease all handling of the matter.
“I remember Telem as a serious man,” Hadar says, “but perhaps also obsessive about that senior officer, so we didn’t entirely know how to treat these allegations, which would’ve caused an earthquake in the agency had they been (proven) true. Ahituv was convinced this entire thing was a fantasy (of Telem’s) and that even just discussing the matter could lead to instability in the entire agency.”
In a recent conversation I had with Telem, he remembered that meeting well. “My advantage was that I wasn’t dependent on anyone—not economically or socially—so I could’ve said whatever I wanted,” he said. “In my nature, perhaps because of my upbringing, I’ve always brought things to the surface, and that’s why I was a ‘pain in the neck’ for some of my bosses. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t right on that matter. To this very day I believe I was right. I went there, put everything on the table, all solid facts. Unfortunately, it didn’t interest anyone. What can I do? I can’t run the world.”
The senior Shin Bet officer that Telem is convinced was a spy passed away a few years ago, taking his secrets with him to the grave.