Ariel Sharon was revolted by the quiet, diplomatic manner of the Mossad as led by Efraim Halevy. He asked to appoint a new director “with a dagger between his teeth”, as he explained to one of his associates. Meir Dagan was exactly what Sharon was looking for.
The Prime Minister apparently saw himself in Dagan, who was younger by a generation, when he met him at the end of the 1960s in Sinai. At that time, he appointed Dagan to head the secret assassination unit, Zikit (Hebrew for chameleon the code name for the commando unit Rimon – ed.), which operated with great success against the PLO in the Gaza Strip.
At the time of Dagan’s appointment to head the Mossad in 2002, I met Sharon and asked him if he really believed that Dagan—who had a reputation for being a daring fighter but also a wild card with a trigger finger—would bring the Mossad back to its glory days. Sharon replied that he had no doubt about Sharon was well aware of Dagan’s character and abilities, and he considered that he would provide the Mossad with the daring, professionalism and aggressiveness that it was lacking. In that respect, he was right.
Dagan entered his office in the Mossad’s “Lobby” building and immediately got to work, but not with a fervor to engage in a wide-scale confrontation with the enemy. Quite the contrary, Dagan espoused his belief that Israel must do everything it can to avoid an all-out military confrontation with its neighbors, a confrontation which it would not be able to decisively win. “The task of Israel’s security establishment”, he lectured his new subordinates in the Mossad, “is to do its utmost to push the next war as far off as possible, all the while using secret methods in order to hit the enemy in a targeted manner.”
Quarrel at the top
Dagan completely changed the Mossad, and in a short period of time he instilled a new spirit of initiative and achievement into the organization. In a series of conversations that have yet to be published held in 2013, he spoke respectfully of the Mossad heads who preceded him: “They each did the best they could.” Somehow, coming from him, it didn’t sound like a compliment.
Dagan decided to take the Mossad apart and to put it back together according to his own design. In his estimation, he had “the highest legal responsibility” to protect Israeli citizens from a series of dangers and threats. To avoid those dangers, Dagan turned the Mossad into an organization which primarily gathered information. These operations entailed sabotage and the physical elimination of the enemy.
Dagan recounted his first few days as the Mossad’s director: “I told Arik (Sharon) that in my opinion a deep change had to be made to the organization. ‘But you have to decide, ‘ I warned him, ‘if you’re willing to pay the price, since journalists and other such types will jump on me, on you, and on the Mossad. It will not be easy. Are you willing to pay the price?’ He told me that he was. Arik knew how to back someone up.”
Dagan began to frequently visit the Prime Minister’s office to obtain authorizations, and he doubled the amount of operations undertaken compared to his predecessor. A senior official in the Mossad at that time said, “Those were days of hysteria. Dagan would get to work early in the morning, and he wouldn’t stop screaming at everyone that they are not producing the goods and that they are worthless until the evening.” Mossad agents throughout the world, who were used to seeing the director once every few years—if at all—suddenly saw Dagan appear at their doorstep three or four times a year.
Dagan used to come to the Mossad branch that handles foreign agents, sit with the agents’ operational dossiers , and demand explanations as to why everything was taking so much time. His management style was brief, aggressive, and accompanied by much fist-banging on the table. “Suddenly the agent handler realized that the Mossad director cared about his operations, would question him and check on him, knowing that he would have to report back and that it would not be possible to talk nonsense.”
Dagan understood the organizational disorder that ensued when department heads considered the director’s orders as mere recommendations that one could evade, so he changed the inner hierarchy of the Mossad, making the operational departments answerable to one deputy and all the other departments to a second deputy. They—and only they—had to report to Dagan, and he didn’t back down on this.
Another change was reducing the list of goals. According to the Israeli intelligence community’s internal procedure, at the end of each year, he Directorate of Military Intelligence’s (AMAN) Research and Analysis branch gives grades to the various intelligence-gathering bodies based on whether or not they achieved their goals.
Dagan at that time said to one his close associates, “This is what destroyed the Mossad. Efraim (Halevy, the Mossad chief before Dagan) related to Aman’s grades as a student does at the end of the school year. The Mossad can’t do everything, and I don’t care to please AMAN.”
Dagan announced that from now on the Mossad would deal with only two issues: the Iranian nuclear program and the terrorism that occurs outside the boundaries of the State of Israel, namely Iran’s and Syria’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic jihad. Resources are limited, said Dagan, we are not the United States, and if we continue to suppose that we can do everything, in the end, we won’t be able to do anything.”
Almost anything that wasn’t connected to these subjects – even if it was a potentially significant intelligence achievement – “imposed upon Dagan extreme fatigue, ” in the words of someone who was present at the command meetings. “You could bring him a senior Arab official, and he would rap the table and say ‘not interesting.'”
At the same time, Dagan set up a new unit, “Tovna” (Insight), designed to “streamline inter-organizational cooperation.” In reality, it was designed to provide strict oversight for all requests by the various intelligence agencies for Mossad assistance, especially from AMAN.
Dagan placed a trusted ally at its head, requiring everyone to refer to him by the code name “Mr. K, ” including during closed meetings. Mr. K., who was considered a particularly difficult person, started a figurative war between the Mossad and AMAN SIGINT unit 8200.
Mr. K. approved almost exclusively operations that touched on subjects that Dagan had defined. Mr. K almost exclusively approved the operations which met Dagan’s criteria of importance. In other words, if 8200 requested Mossad assistance regarding a subject which Dagan did not view as important for Mossad operations, the request wouldn’t be approved.
It got to the point that officers from other organizations in the intelligence community were ordered not to go to Mossad headquarters to attend Tovna meetings, and to address Mr. K. by his first name in order to annoy him.
Dagan’s changes to the Mossad were far reaching, and within a year and a half, the entire organization was restructured to his liking, despite his bellicose style.
As a tank occupies a hill
But the real revolution in the Mossad deals with another aspect entirely, and will be felt for many years to come (positive or negative, depending on whom you ask). Dagan acted contrarily to most of the heads of the Mossad when he decided to change dramatically how the organization cooperated with foreign intelligence services.
For years, the Mossad avoided intimate contact with most foreign services in most operations. While there have always been close relations with some foreign agencies, such as with the US and Germany, the UK, France, and other Western European nations, theMossad gave out very little information from its end.
Then Dagan came along. “He came with the mindset of a tank battalion commander that needs to conquer a hill, ” said a former Mossad official. “It’s clear that not all the tanks will arrive, and it’s clear that some of our soldiers will be hit from friendly fire, but for him, as long as the tanks thundered onward and attained the target at the end, it didn’t matter. Therefore, every time people came to Dagan and spoke with him about the dangers of cooperation with foreign agencies, such as information leakage, exposing secrets and things like that, he would say, ‘I don’t want to hear your nonsense; go work with them.”
In Dagan’s perception, the Mossad must cooperate with governmental agencies in foreign countries, because only with cooperation can the Mossad obtain the information required. Dagan also recognized that times had changed, and he had an historic opportunity in front of him: in the past, Israel’s enemies weren’t necessarily Europe’s enemies, and certainly not the enemies of Israel’s neighbors (as in the case of the PLO), but, in Dagan’s era, the interests were sometimes identical—everybody hated Bin Laden and his ilk, the whole world loathed Iran’s support of Hezbollah, and nobody wanted the Ayatollah’s regime to have a nuclear bomb.
Dagan’s determinedly imposed his will on the rest of the Mossad and proved within a short time that he was correct. Cooperation with intelligence agencies all over the world, including other Middle Eastern intelligence agencies, became one of the Mossad’s fundamental achievements under Dagan. On the other hand, some claim that a demand for payment will come one day, and that the Mossad will be publically exposed.
“We will fail to maintain the secrets we have managed to keep under the auspices of Israeli solidarity over time, and the long-term damage will be enormous, ” one of Dagan’s opponents told me in 2009, prior to the failed assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a failure attributed to Dagan.
But these concerns were of no interest to Dagan. The Iranian issue was at the forefront of his priorities. He saw this matter as a threat to the State of Israel’s existence and ordered every resource to be focused on obtaining information about the goings-on there.
It didn’t take long to see the results, with a series of operational successes in delaying Iran’s nuclear project and thwarting a series of weapons transfers to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. According to non Israeli reports, these delays include sabotaging arms shipments to Iran, as well as explosions at nuclear plants, the creation and implantation of sophisticated malware in Iranian computer systems, and the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientists.
Above all these successes stood a single operation: the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh that was attributed to the Mossad, a blow that Hezbollah hasn’t recovered from.
This intrepid operation integrated Dagan’s operational capability, inventiveness, uncompromising push to the top of the hill, and a deep understanding that victory is also symbolic. There is no doubt that in the Israeli and international intelligence community, already filled with legendary personalities, Meir Dagan was extraordinary in his audacity and his irreconcilable quest to achieve the objectives he set for himself. Due to his ability to think outside the box, he reshaped the Mossad’s perception of special operations and became one of the most influential people in its history.