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Journalist Details Israel's 'Secret History' Of Targeted Assassinations


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman, says that Israel has developed the most robust streamlined assassination machine in history. His new book, based on a thousand interviews, chronicles decades of shootings, poisonings, bombings and drone strikes. The targets were perceived enemies of the Jewish state, ranging from British colonial officials in the 1940s to leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO to Iranian nuclear scientists. Bergman describes the planning and approval process for targeted killings, which typically involved young military and intelligence operatives making the case for a strike to the country's prime minister.

Bergman writes that Israeli assassination teams were effective at eliminating their targets but often at a moral and political price their leaders would only come to understand years after their missions. Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, the country's largest daily newspaper, and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book "Rise And Kill First: The Secret History Of Israel's Targeted Assassinations."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Ronen Bergman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why do you think it's important to write about this subject, about targeted killings?

RONEN BERGMAN: Because this tool has been used by Israel for a long time. The history of Israeli intelligence secretly but profoundly affected the history of the country and the history of the region and sometimes the history of the world. And targeted killings were the main tool that was used. That's the first. And the second because other countries nowadays are using this kind of way, especially the United States. And I think the United States has a lot to learn from the operational and intelligence vast experience of Israel but also from the moral price that Israel has paid and still paying for use of such an aggressive measure.

DAVIES: You describe an operation in October of 1982. Israeli military and intelligence forces were trying to assassinate Yasser Arafat by shooting an airplane out of the sky over the Mediterranean. Arafat then, of course, the head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Tell us what happened here.

BERGMAN: The hunt for the person who was codenamed The Head of the Fish, Yasser Arafat, was the most extensive and long term in the history of Israeli intelligence. It started back in 1964 and lasted for decades. Israel tried to kill him numerous times. Most of them happened just before, during and after the Israeli invasion to Lebanon in 1982. Now, there was one point when Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised President Ronald Reagan not to hurt Yasser Arafat. And that was the point when Arafat willingly was - accepted the sort of cease-fire and evacuated Beirut in August.

Just after that, the defense minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon - who was, I would say, obsessed to kill Arafat - ordered Israeli intelligence to trace him down and the air force to take out airplanes in which Arafat was. That day, in October, the Mossad identified Yasser Arafat going on a Buffalo cargo airplane from Athens to Cairo. They said the target - the Head of the Fish - has grown beard to conceal himself, but it is Yasser Arafat. The chief of staff, General - Brigadier General Eitan ordered the chief of the air force, Iviry, to take down the airplane. But he had his own doubts. He said, I don't get it. I don't understand why Arafat, who wasn't supposed to be in Athens, would go to Cairo, where he doesn't have anything to do at that time. And also, why would he go in this kind of airplane, which is not distinguished enough for a person of his prestige?

Then, under severe pressure from the Ministry of Defense and the chief of staff, the chief of the air force had to stall for time. The F-15 were already in air. They saw the Buffalo cargo plane with the alleged Yasser Arafat. But the chief of the air force demanded for more time and more corroboration and all checks by the Mossad, Israeli military intelligence. And only the very last minute, it turned out that Arafat was on board but it was not Yasser. It was his brother, the chief of the - Fathi Arafat, the physician, a children's doctor who was the head of the Palestinian Red Crescent and was mobilizing 30 wounded children from Athens to be treated in Cairo. So on the very last minute, his life and the lives of these children were saved.

DAVIES: What were some of the ways that they tried to assassinate Arafat over the years?

BERGMAN: One of the most unexpected attempts was when an IDF - an Israeli Defense Forces psychiatrist said to the committee that was supposed to approve the assassination of prime targets in Israeli intelligence said, I saw that movie, "The Manchurian Candidate." I am able to do the same. I'm able to take a Palestinian, hypnotize him and convert him to be something like Jason-Bourne-type programmed killer.

They chose a Palestinian prisoner. That psychiatrist hypnotized him for a few weeks. Then he said he's ready. They got him to go over the Jordan River, swim over. He had a gun. He had a bomb. He had a radio. And he says, I'm going to kill Yasser Arafat. Only a few hours later, it turned out that he went straight to the local Jordanian police and said, these stupid Israelis, they thought that they hypnotized me. And, in fact, I am loyal. I want to go to Abu Omar, to Yasser Arafat, and swear my allegiance to him.

DAVIES: Were there also plans to actually shoot down civilian airliners that might be carrying Yasser Arafat?

BERGMAN: Yeah. When it turned out that Yasser Arafat is using private cargo and commercial airlines in the time after he evacuated Beirut, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon ordered to take out whatever airline in which Arafat is located. Now, of course, this could be a severe war crime. And it did not happen thanks to the bravery of a few senior officers at the higher echelon of the Israeli air force who said, we are not going to do that. They went to the chief of staff and said, this is a war crime. We are not against killing Arafat. Arafat was seen as a legitimate target at that time as the prime Israeli enemy. But killing civilians? This is unheard of. And if you, the chief of staff, cannot stand in front of the minister of defense, we would just make sure that the operation wouldn't go through.

And they jammed the communication. They fed the intelligence circuits with disinformation. They make sure to stall time until it was just unripe from the intelligence and operational point of view to execute. And thanks to the bravery of these officers who guarded the ethical code and the moral code of the military, all of Israel was saved from being involved in a horrific war crime.

DAVIES: You know, you opened the book describing a meeting with Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, who makes an argument for the morality of targeted assassinations. You want to just summarize that for us?

BERGMAN: His doctrine said that Israel should not go to all-out war and should do that only - quoting him - "when the sword is on our neck" because it cannot sustain war and because the killing of civilians during this war is, of course, immense. Meir Dagan believed that wars - almost all of them, if not all of them - can be won with pinpoint focused operations way beyond enemy lines - sabotage, malware, computer viruses and targeted killing. The military leaders and the main operatives of the enemy should be traced down, identified and then killed. And in that way, you would save, of course, the agony and the huge killing of an all-out war. Therefore, the use of targeted killing, according to him, is much more moral than regular war and battle techniques.

DAVIES: You describe these targeted killings as they develop over decades. And one of the questions that occurred to me was, how much of the motive for these killings - as targets are selected - is actually making an operational attack on terrorists who would seek to kill Israelis as opposed to retribution, sending a message to anyone that if you kill Israelis, you will pay no matter where you run or how far you go?

BERGMAN: On the face of it, if you go to most of the interviewees, they would say no revenge, no message, just operational considerations. We see someone who is threatening us, we kill him. When you have a deeper conversation and they trust you more, they will be more candid. They will say, yes, we thought that some people should be killed as a revenge. Yes, the people who were involved in what was seen in Israel as iconic terrorist operations, like the killing of the athletes in the Munich Olympics 1972, we think that these specific people should know that even if they leave terrorists aside, we will hunt them down because they have Jewish blood on their hands.

And we will hunt them down until the end of times and also to send a message to say to people if you were involved in terrorism, we will never forgive or forget. And we will get to you - maybe not now, maybe in a year, maybe in 20 years. You know that one of the people who the Mossad thought was involved - Atef Bseiso is his name - was involved in the Munich terrorist attack in 1972 was killed exactly 20 years afterwards in Paris, in 1992. Just the Mossad trying to send a message - we did not forget.

DAVIES: While there's - are advantages that might be gained from a targeted assassination - operationally and in sending a message - there is also, of course, the damage that occurs when innocent civilians or family members are killed in the operations, which can generate popular opposition and, in fact, create future terrorists. And I'm wondering how that enters the calculus in these cases.

BERGMAN: The general assumption in Israel was always to try and diminish the collateral damage as much possible. In fact, Golda Meir, who was the prime minister during the early '70s, called the chief of special operations of Mossad to our house once in north Tel Aviv. She offered him a cup of tea. And she said, listen, you are going to kill that PLO operative in Paris. I'm ordering you to make sure that not even a hair splint from anyone else would fall due to the need to kill that someone. And if you think that you're going to harm any French civilian then abort. Do not do that. That hand on the trigger when it came to operatives in Arab countries was lighter, unfortunately.

And when it was assassination or targeted-killing operation in Beirut or Damascus, more civilians were killed. But the problem was - especially during the huge campaign of suicide bombers that attacked Israel in what was termed as the Second Intifada starting from September 2000. The operatives - not the suicide bomber, the operatives - above them in the hierarchy of Hamas and the Palestinian-Islamic Jihad - the drivers, the manufacturers of the bomb, the commanders, the military leaders, those who recruit them - they were all convinced that they would be protected from Israeli attacks if they moved with their family, their wives and kids.

And that, of course, presented a problem with Israel. You have that window of opportunity to kill that person whom you know is going to kill more Israelis tomorrow if you don't hit him today. And there were times that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with other ministers, decided that they are going to risk civilian lives - usually members of the families of the target, that Hamas commander - in order to kill him. And there were times when these people were indeed killed. This is a diabolic dilemma. How do you make a call? How do you choose that one blood is more red than the other? What's the equation there? And I'm not jealous with those people who had to make these decisions.

DAVIES: And to what extent do you think the Israeli willingness to embrace targeted assassinations is rooted in the horrors of the Holocaust and a determination to avoid that ever happening again?

BERGMAN: Profoundly. David Ben-Gurion, the most important Jew in the last 1,000 years at least, objected the use of targeted killing. He said this is not the weapon that the Jewish people should embrace, but that changed after the Holocaust, even before Israel was established as a state. I think that the new Israelis - those who build the nation, those who built Israel, those who established Israeli Defense Forces and intelligence community - and for that sake, all Israelis - I myself, I'm the son of both Holocaust survivors, both my parents are Holocaust survivors - the new Israelis came from the Holocaust with three main lessons.

The first is that there will always be a gentile, a goy, who is after us to kill us. The second is that the - all the other gentiles, the goyim, are not going to help us. They're going to stand aside, if not helping the first one. And the third is that we should do everything to have a safe haven, to have a homeland, to have Israel and defend it with whatever price.

DAVIES: There's the moral question of the shedding of innocent blood. There's also the strategic question of, are you doing more damage than good if what you do creates such bitterness and hatred and more people determined to strike back?

BERGMAN: I agree. And I think that much of what Israel has done in the occupied territories in Gaza in the last 50 years just created more bitterness and the feeling of vengeance and the eagerness to kill Israelis. The problem was that - especially during these times when suicide bombers were exploding every day in the streets of Israel to the peak of March, 2002, when more than 150 Israelis were killed in one month, something has to be done. Israel had to make a call, and they made a call that had a significant moral and legal price attached to it.

DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter Ronen Bergman. His new book about targeted assassinations by the Israeli military and intelligence services is "Rise And Kill First." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Ronen Bergman, a veteran investigative reporter in Israel. His new book is "Rise And Kill First: The Secret History Of Israel's Targeted Assassinations."

You make an interesting observation here that most of the people involved in planning and carrying out these missions were relatively young, under 30, including people that were making presentations to the prime minister, who would have to sign off on each targeted assassination. I'm wondering how you think the relative youth of these participants affected, you know, the consideration of these issues.

BERGMAN: This is something very unique to Israel. You have the chief of that intelligence organization who needs to go to the only one who is authorized to give an OK to assassination, which is the prime minister. Now, this is done in very small group, of course highly secret. But he doesn't know the details, so he's bringing with him very young people. Almost all of them are under 30. Some of them are under 25. They are the intelligence officers, the pilots, the desk people and the operatives. And they go to the prime minister to convince him to execute someone without a trial because that someone, if he's not killed, is going to kill more Jews tomorrow.

This is a unique scenario and usually happened in the private house of the prime minister in Balfour Street in Jerusalem because it was so secret. Now, during time - during history, some of the people actually crossed that room and became the prime minister or the minister of defense. Ehud Barak...

DAVIES: You mean, like...

BERGMAN: ...Benjamin Netanyahu...

DAVIES: ...Later in their careers, you mean, yeah.

BERGMAN: Yes, yeah.

DAVIES: Do you think they were more inclined to endorse the use of force because they had engaged in it themselves?

BERGMAN: And they saw it works. But they got the wrong conclusion. Summarizing the story of the book is that the Israeli intelligence community, arguably the best one in the world - no offense to the CIA or MI6; they're all fabulous - but Israel has a vast experience of successes. Israeli intelligence community was able to provide Israeli leaders sooner or later with almost all solutions to all problems they thought exist.

But that led Israeli leaders to the wrong conclusion. They felt that at the tip of their fingers, they can hit someone way beyond enemy lines, deep in the enemy state and solve the problem, and therefore, they do not need to turn to statesmanship or political reconciliation. And therefore I think the story of the use of these special means is a series of extraordinary tactical successes but, at the same time, a disastrous political failure.

DAVIES: You know, I think maybe the - one of the most powerful things I have ever seen on a screen was the movie "The Gatekeepers" by Dror Moreh, the Israeli filmmaker. And I'm sure you're familiar with this. He interviews all of the living heads of Shin Bet, which I guess is the internal intelligence service in Israel.


DAVIES: All of them in their later years felt that the violence and retribution which they had engaged in earlier had to be stopped, and there had to be a negotiated arrangement with the Palestinians. Did you find that in - among the intelligent professionals that you spoke to as they grew older?

BERGMAN: Yeah. The same five that are interviewed in "Gatekeepers" are extensively quoted in "Rise And Kill" as well, as well as many, many others - the chiefs of the intelligence. And you're absolutely right. They rule. The rare exception is that all the chiefs of Israeli intelligence and military commanders and operation commanders all believe that there's no other way but a two-state solution and a political discourse with the Palestinians.

The problem is that I think when they were on duty and the political level above them opposed such a path, they usually stayed silent or, you know, in a very quiet voice say, well, maybe there's another way. But once they were ordered to confront the problem by force, they did that with whatever they could. And they supplied the solutions that just prolonged the problem. They supplied the solution for many, many, many years that kept the Palestinian population in the occupied territories relatively quiet.

And that - and I'm quoting one of the chiefs of the - of Shin Bet. And that enabled the government basically to do whatever it wanted because they were not confronting a lot of riots or demonstration or terrorism. And they could build settlements, and they could enjoy the cheap labor. And they didn't need to understand and confront the problem of occupying another nation, another country and another people.

GROSS: Were listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, author of the new book "Rise And Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations." After we take a short break, they'll talk about how drones have been used for assassinations. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a reissue of guitarist Wes Montgomery on his only European tour. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Ronen Bergman, author of the book "Rise And Kill First: The Secret History Of Israel's Targeted Assassinations." The targets were perceived as enemies of the Jewish state ranging from terrorists to Iranian nuclear scientists. Bergman says that Israeli assassination teams were effective at eliminating their targets but often at a moral and political price their leaders didn't understand until years after the missions. Bergman is a senior military and intelligence correspondent for Israel's largest daily paper and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.

DAVIES: I want to talk about a few of the operations that you described in the book because they're really fascinating stories. In 1974 after Yasser Arafat spoke at the U.N., he was removed from the top of the list for targeted assassination and replaced by a guy named Wadie Haddad. He was in the Arab world, and there were concerns about trying to shoot him or kill him with the bomb in an Arab city. How did they accomplish this mission?

BERGMAN: So then what I was trying to do in the book hopefully successfully was to describe the real intelligence world because it's not what we see in the movies. It's not even what we see in movies that pretend to describe reality like Steven Spielberg "Munich." It's very different. It's not less interesting or more interesting. It's just very, very different.

One of the most important difficulties that Mossad faces is how to act inside hostile country because it's very hard to maintain a cover story there, shoot someone and then have enough time to run away when of course the local authorities closed down all the seaports and the airports. Wadie Haddad lived in Lebanon or in Baghdad, both enemy countries to Israel - very hard to deal.

And what Mossad was able to do instead of just shooting him was to get very close to him and replace one of the things that he uses frequently with the same substance but mixed with poison. They call the poison the potion of gods. That was the nickname. And they poured that into his toothpaste which he used quite frequently. Then he got the ill. Nobody knew what happens to him. And the physicians in Baghdad couldn't do anything.

Yasir Arafat ask Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, to hospitalize him. He was flown to East Berlin, hospitalized in a Berlin military hospital - the best one they could get for him. And the best physician tried to treat him for 10 days. They did everything they could. And also, they agonize his body and his soul with the worst performances and worst tests. But it was all in vain. And with great misery, he died. They performed an autopsy, and they describe that he dies from something that looks like a blood cancer. But they really couldn't understand what is - what actually happened to him.

DAVIES: Well, this wasn't the only case where people died apparently of natural causes. There was another assassination in a hotel in Dubai where the victim was found in his room, but in fact he'd been injected with a paralyzing substance from the Israeli agents. Did people figure out that it was really the Israelis who were behind these?

DAVIES: Not at first. You know, he died - this guy, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, he died twice. The Mossad first tried to kill him few months before in a visit to Dubai. They had a poison mixed to his drink. But you know, poisoning apparently is not an exact science. He got ill. He went back to Damascus, hospitalized himself in a local hospital. They diagnosed him with mono, and he recovered. And he didn't even know that he was that close to being killed.

Mossad, frustrated for not killing him, made sure that next time they just stand by him until he's dead. They stripped him. They put him in a pajama in his hotel room, and they put him in bed. The cleaner lady who found him in the morning didn't think that something is odd of course that he died apparently of natural causes.

But Hamas, his bosses, thought that something is wrong. That led to an inquiry by the police of Dubai, which revealed many, many, many of the details. The assassins thought everything went well. They just didn't know that shortly afterwards, the whole world is going to watch the CCTV video that document what they had done.

DAVIES: How did drones change the targeted killing program?

BERGMAN: Israel is a pioneer of drones. They were the first to use that in battle, use that in intelligence collection. And in fact, the way that they first have the drone participate in a targeted killing operation in February of 1992 when Israel assassinated the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh al-Musawi, the video of that killing was presented to the Pentagon and convinced the chief of the CIA, as he told me, Robert Gates, to have more effort into developing the American version of that drone later to be called the Predator.

The Israelis thought that they would use drones as the secret weapon of the next war. They thought that they would use the drones to hit tanks in what they thought would be the future battlefield between Israel and Syria. But when Hamas launched the suicide killing campaign - the suicide bombing campaign, Ariel Sharon called the Air Force and said, listen; we have decided to start the targeted killing operations. We cannot use snipers because this is hostile ground. We need to take the drones and have them, put them, deploy them against human targets.

The Air Force objected. They said, but this is the secret that we are preparing for the next war. Ariel Sharon said, Jews are being killed now. We are going to use them now and in future war. We'll take care of this when that happens. And so from that point, somewhere in 2001, most, I would say, of the targeted killing operations - sometimes up to four a day - were with the drones at their peak, at the forefront of them.

DAVIES: You write about an operation in 2003 in the Gaza Strip that - and I guess this is one of the scoops in your book - that provoked a little rebellion of sorts among some of the personnel involved in authorizing that attack. What happened?

BERGMAN: The modern assassination machine, the most robust and extensive ever created on Earth that Israel established - as technology advanced, it included more people. It's just - it's not just a sniper James Bond-type who is going to shoot the target. We're talking about dozen and sometimes up to hundreds people involved where the intelligence officer inside the bunkers miles away from the enemy lines - they have a more profound and important task in identifying the target. They know more than the pilot in the cockpit.

And one of these people in the unit 8200, which is the signal intelligence unit, SIGINT, of Israeli military intelligence who is supposed to deliver information for a targeted killing operation in 2003, said, I'm not going to do so. You want to destroy a building belonging to the Fatah, one of the Palestinian factions in Gaza. You want to destroy it, he told his commanders, because there are people inside but not specific people. You just want to destroy it with people in order to send a message to the Palestinians. I think this is forbidden. This is illegal, manifestly illegal. This is a war crime. And he declared...

DAVIES: And just to clarify a couple of the facts about this, this was a building that was used for just ministerial stuff, like, you know, welfare checks and that kind of thing. It wasn't a military operation. And the attack was to take place during the day when the building was occupied, right?

BERGMAN: Yeah. Until that time, Israel was bombing these buildings at night, making sure there's no one inside just to send the message that Israel sees the Palestinian Authority as responsible for everything happening there, including what Hamas is doing. But at that time, after a horrific suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that took place just hours before, the chief of staff ordered to destroy a building with someone inside. Someone - doesn't matter who - has to be killed as a - sort of a message sent to the Palestinians. And that junior brave intelligence officer says, this is the line. I'm drawing it here. I'm not going to do so. This is war crime. This is illegal.

DAVIES: You know, military organizations assume that people will follow orders, whatever qualms they might have. What was the fallout of this refusal to carry out this mission?

BERGMAN: The echoes that there's was a mutiny in Unit 8200 - which is considered to be creme de la creme, prime of Israeli intelligence - immediately reached every corridor of the - thundered through the corridors of the military and reached the prime minister himself. No one could believe that these people, the intelligence officers could ever rebuild. People at the chief of staff said this guy should be court martialed. And someone said, even, he should be shot. But I think the IDF didn't want this to be brought to trial because they understood that the order, from the beginning, was illegal. So they just dismissed the junior officer. They didn't want to deal with that.

But they were afraid that it will lead to a wave of other people refusing to take orders, so they preferred to hushen (ph) that. And - well, they couldn't do this for a long time because here it is in the book. We - I have interviewed all the people involved from the Ministry of Defense downwards and of course that junior officer who is using a false name. He didn't - he still, even today, doesn't want to be identified because he understands that some people in Israeli society would judge him for that. And he doesn't want to have problems in his civilian life.

DAVIES: Ronen Bergman's book is "Rise And Kill First." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Ronen Bergman. He's a veteran investigative reporter in Israel. His new book is "Rise And Kill First: The Secret History Of Israel's Targeted Assassinations."

You know, you've written that the United States and the Israeli intelligence services have developed a very close set of joint operations and exchange of information. And of course earlier this year, there was a huge controversy when President Trump apparently revealed information in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador which betrayed some Israeli sourcing. Where do things stand with these relationships between American and Israeli intelligence in the Trump administration?

BERGMAN: Well, Dave, just a year ago, I published a story that created a lot of controversy. I said - and I was surprised to hear that from my sources in the beginning - that a group of American intelligence officers, in a regular meeting with the Israeli counterparts, just before Trump was elected and before the inauguration, they suggested that the Israelis stop giving sensitive material to the White House. They said we are afraid that Trump or someone of his people are under leverage from the Russians. And they might give sensitive information to the Russians who, in their turn, would give that to Iran. They said we have evidence that part of the material that Edward Snowden stole from the CIA and NSA - and was not yet published - found its way to Iran. And we believe, of course, that he gave everything he had to the Russians.

And the Israelis were shocked. They have never been in such an occasion. They have never heard Americans say something of that kind about their chief and commander - about the president. And when, just few months after that, it turned out that everything - all the predictions that the Americans have made to the Israelis as warnings - not because they knew it was going to happen but they thought it might - everything came to be true. And President Trump apparently gave secret information. And I know the nature of that information. It is indeed delicate and very, very secret.

It just instilled a sense of miscomfort (ph) inside Israeli intelligence. And I think, if I recall something that I heard just recently, they feel - Israeli intelligence feel that the American administration is in chaos - is in havoc. It's not function properly - not intentionally, but that lead to further leaks. And they are very hesitant with sharing everything they have, as they did in the past, with their American counterparts.

DAVIES: So if I understand it, you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?

BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature. And that information could jeopardize modus operandi of Israeli intelligence.

DAVIES: And this is different from what was publicly reported at the time. There were some question about, you know, plans for, I think, laptop computers on airlines. This - you're referring to something that we don't yet know.

BERGMAN: Most of it, we don't yet know. And there were conflicting reports. I cannot - in order not to be part of disclosing secret information and jeopardizing Israeli and the U.S. ability to track down terrorists and proliferate, I prefer not to go into the details of that.

DAVIES: Fair enough. But it raises a question I had anyway, which is - how do you do this work? I mean, you're constantly threading a needle between, you know, too much information and discretion, maintaining trust and providing public disclosure. Do you ever worry for your own safety or just get caught up in dilemmas of how much you know?

BERGMAN: I think that if you start to be worried for your safety every day, then you end up doing nothing. If you start to take irrelevant consideration, you end up with doing nothing. Of course, I am concerned. And the Israeli administration has done quite a lot to stop my work, to intimidate myself or my sources. There were times where my computer was hacked and I was followed. But, you know, that's part of the game. Every organization has the tendency not to disclose its secrets - of course not the ones who embarrass him.

And there is a very unique Israeli contradiction here. On one hand, everything is secret - top secret. And on the other, I had 1,000 people speaking from prime minister and minister of defense, chiefs of staff, chief of the Mossad to the actual operatives and assassins.

So why did they talk? There are different reasons. And we have to bear in mind that intelligence officers as well as politicians are the masters of manipulation and disinformation. So you have to be very careful on how you treat what they say. And of course they were also trying - some of them were trying to manipulate me. And I think that by - I hope that by having so many interviews and having so many thousands of documents that were not declassified or were not published, I could corroborate and make sure that I'm not manipulated.

But the main reason, I think, that led most of these people to speak was that after so many years in the shadows - after so many years in secret, they wanted to tell people how they defend Israel, how they were the guards on the wall. And they thought that I'm writing - not the authorized of course. I'm not working for the administration, but this is the unauthorized, unofficial - but the history of Israeli intelligence. And they wanted to make sure that their footprint is set upright in this book.

DAVIES: I have to ask, what did you do when you learned your computer had been hacked and you'd been followed?

BERGMAN: I just took more precautions to defend these sources that needed to remain classified and secret. You cannot defend everything. Once you have an intelligence organization working against you, there's very little - it's limited to what extent you can keep things secret. So you need to choose whatever - like these few main clandestine activities - and guard them and do whatever you think can be done first to protect the identity of the sources. This is much important everything else. Even if I don't publish, even if they interrogate me or try to have me arrested, first I need to protect the sources. And I must say that in most, if not in all cases, I was successful. And people were not put to trial because of speaking with me.

DAVIES: Well, Ronen Bergman, it's been really interesting. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BERGMAN: Thank you, Dave. Thank you for inviting me.

GROSS: Ronen Bergman is the author of the new book "Rise And Kill First." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new reissue of guitarist Wes Montgomery performing "In Paris." This is FRESH AIR.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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