"James Bond, No Big Deal": Technological Aspects of Mosad Operations Viewed

by Dan Yahkin
Globes (Tel Aviv)
19 April 2001

Here is a hi-tech company that might not issue options, but whose chiefs believe that there is no other company that can provide greater interest for its employees. We are talking about a well-established government-owned company that bears the name "Institute for Intelligence and Special Duties," better known simply as the Mosad. At the start of the week, the company took the tabs off its technological unit for the first time.

The personnel recruitment campaign for the Mosad's technological unit is the second instance in which the Mosad's name has fluttered over the recruitment columns, following last July's campaign to recruit agents for its operations units. Until recently, such advertisements were concealed under titles such as "graduates of fighting units wanted for government institution." Although it seems likely that many people had no trouble deciphering who was behind the amorphous descriptions, that policy of ambiguity continued for a long time.

There are two factors behind the decision to change their line. First, the Mosad has in any case been undergoing a process of gradual opening up to the media in recent years -- in the same way as have the Shin Bet and various military units, only slower. Second, and this is apparently the more important factor, the Mosad must offer some competition to the temptations offered to the elite of hi-tech employees in the civilian sector. And it is not easy to do that without publicity, even if it is minimal.

"In the last two decades, most of the personnel have been soldiers," says Or (pseudonym), a computer engineer who formerly served in the Mosad's technological unit, "but the unit doesn't want to rely only on soldiers. The previous method was to send letters to citizens, and there was also the 'member brings a friend' method. That's anachronistic, so you just have to move away from that way of thinking.

"It's no secret that they do all sorts of cunning things in the Mosad. The sort of cunning thing I decided to get involved in is a secret, but the fact that I exist is known."

Or came to the Mosad's technological unit as a graduate of a military school program, which trains small classes of soldiers in multi-disciplinary research and development for military and defense system requirements. Graduates of the program, says Or, are integrated after a training period in various military jobs, civilian organizations, such as RAFAEL [Armament Development Authority], the nuclear research center, and the Mosad.

Or joined the Mosad at the start of the 1990's and served in it for five years in a permanent capacity and for a further two years as a civilian. After leaving the Mosad, where he continues to do reserve duty, Or established a start-up company.

Gil (pseudonym) took a similar path to that of Or -- he reached the Mosad's technological unit as part of the military school program and served there for a number of years. He left in 1997 and established a start-up in the field of telecommunications. "There are others like me," he says, "although there are quite a few who leave. We were among the first to leave, and among the few."

Like a Start-Up

"The field that I came to work in was technical-operational, which was very promising, but no one knew what to do with it," says Or of his service in the unit. "Everyone was saying that this is where the future lies, but beyond that slogan, they didn't quite know what to do. They were doing amazing things in my field, but on an ad hoc basis. I was the first to be recruited to work on this subject alone, and we were essentially the only unit that was not established in an ad hoc way, but in order to develop a planned fighting doctrine. Up to that point, most of the departments in the unit met operational demands and requirements as support bodies.

"They didn't quite know how to handle it during the first year, but we grew afterwards and we started to define fighting and work doctrines. We worked really hard - each of us like 10 people -- and we were very independent, and relations between the office and my department were like those between investors and an enterprise, except that the investment was in personnel, not money. There was a mixture of confidence and lack of it, as there is in every relationship with a good investor. They gave us a lot of credit, but we didn't believe that we'd manage to do it. It spurred us on."

Or obviously cannot reveal too much about the activities of the department (in which he later served as a sort of team leader). He only says that "it's an operational field, and very technical," developing other technological activities being carried out in the Mosad in a distinctive format.

"In my department, we were involved in wireless communications," says Gil of his experiences of the service. "We developed various communications systems, such as those that supported Mosad operations abroad. The work is done in a small group supplying a solution for requirements and working on the assimilation of solutions, while being very involved in the operational activity and working closely with the operational unit.

"That was a period of work characterized by the feeling of being on a mission and great privilege. There are few people who get the right to be involved in this. It is strenuous work, which sometimes depends on an operational window of opportunity that is created, which itself requires a large mobilization of resources for work in a very short time span so as not to miss the opportunity."

"Beyond the technical and management experiences, the experience taught me how to be audacious and think outside the normal framework," Or relates. "Much of the Mosad's power derives from a capacity to do things so audaciously that the enemy can't imagine such things would be done to him."

"There are a number of ways of doing things. If I want to infiltrate a base, for example, I can break through the gate, dress up as an officer, or crawl under the fence. In the first year, there were attempts to develop the weapon we developed in the department using a more power-oriented approach. Nothing came of that, and we realized pretty quickly that we had to be audacious, and the more cunning we were the greater our chance of success. It is also more appropriate to the spirit of the place and its operational capabilities."

That understanding, and the development work that came in its wake, won Or the Israel Security Prize three years ago. "There are two winners every year," Or relates. "The second project that won, which was also a stunning one, belongs to Intelligence Corps. But there were only 20 people working in our group, while there were some 500 in the project that took second prize, working over 4 years. The strength of what we did lay in its cunning, and that's very typical of the Mosad's work."

[Globes] Just like a start-up.

[Or] It is like a start-up or an independent company. The structure of the unit I served in is one of departments where each has professional technical responsibility. The department that I worked in uses joint infrastructures on matters such as personnel, for instance, but from the operational and technological viewpoints it is a department within a unit, supplying all its needs. The independence also comes through in development people being given the possibility to initiate things.

There are very sophisticated systems. For example, there are departments involved more in electronics -- from VLSI to embedded and RF systems. In my department, 20 percent of the people were involved in electronics and 80 percent were dealing with computers. In other departments, there are other ratios of electronics and computer people and physicists. [end Or]

Gil explained that "It's similar to a start-up in spirit -- the informal way it goes along, working as a team, processes where there's someone who leads but no hierarchy, and a really large field of view. The difference lies in the motivation and the added values. In the Mosad, we're talking about a sense of mission and commitment to something bigger than you, while in a start-up the motivations are different -- a desire to succeed economically and maybe realize a dream."

Audacious Reality

[Globes] What sort of people work in the unit?

[Or] People attracted by cunning, for whom self-realization and proving themselves is important. Most of the people in the unit are young, and it's fairly similar to the average age in start-ups. They're people who've been in the army, completed their studies, or who were reservists and were released at the age of 25. There are also many other soldiers of a younger age, who are recruited into the unit after being spotted from among those who have done a degree before their army service.

The kind of people in the unit is similar to the kind of people you find in good start-ups, although with more youngsters and a very high level. The Mosad and Intelligence have a monopoly on quality personnel aged 18, or reservist personnel aged 21. The technological unit of the Mosad is smaller than the parallel Intelligence unit, but it generally has preference in choosing people. These are very talented people from the technological point of view, but also very independent and creative, in whom responsibility comes from inner motives.

[Globes] Are the advertisements now being published designed to recruit more experienced people compared with the youngsters already working in the unit?

[Or] I understood that they're looking more for electronics people than programmers. In any event, there's no requirement for them to be experienced since there's in-house teaching anyway. An employee comes to the department, gets an instructor, works for three months, and develops under guidance. Only then does he move over into major projects. Unlike a start-up, the view is very long-range, but there's immediate satisfaction because when you're talking about an operational matter, you see results.

[Globes] Do these operational matters create a feeling of pressure?

[Gil] The criteria are sometimes very harsh because you plan a system for a certain requirement, and then the window of opportunity closes. There's a lot of uncertainty and that causes pressure, but in the positive sense because all resources are mobilized. Unlike a start-up, the pressure isn't economic, and that helps you devote yourself to meeting targets. There's also the consideration of personal satisfaction and the desire to succeed, but there's no economic dependence as in a start-up.

[Or] There was an atmosphere of a lottery in a start-up about 18 months to 2 years ago - you're sure to win without the need to make a great effort and. Now everything's turned upside down. There's an extreme and exaggerated change of atmosphere in the world of start-ups today, while in the Mosad there's an atmosphere of uncertainty, which is more like the atmosphere of 'mission impossible.' You're doing really secret things, and there's pressure on you because it seems impossible.

In my case, no one believed that two people could do what we did. When we brought the project out, too, we still had our fears. After a month, we saw that this project was successful over time. But there are still a few moments of trepidation.

[Globes] Sounds like James Bond.

[Or] Even more than that. All the things you see in James Bond are no big deal because everyone sees them. Five percent of the things you see in the movies are not possible physically speaking. All the rest are possible, and reality generally overtakes them. When you see James Bond, you say 'right, we did that here -- but in a far cleverer way.' If something's possible physically, then it's apparently existed for some time, but been done far more audaciously.

That, by the way, characterizes Israel in comparison with the Americans. We're an audacious country, and you see that in start-ups. What a few people develop here takes hundreds of development people to work on in the United States.

[Gil] There are some very good movies, but reality is as it is -- and it is sometimes even better. Israeli courage and audacity are things that are far in the lead, making amazing things possible. What really draws the line is the difference between the supply of means for operational requirements, and the development of technologies that lead operations, or that permit the creation of platforms to attain intelligence. [end Gil]

Not A Catholic Wedding

Or and Gil served in the Mosad in one of the most difficult periods the organization has known. In recent years, the Mosad's name has been connected with a number of embarrassing events -- such as the arrest of the agents in Switzerland and the failed attempt on the life of Khalid Mash'al. These placed the Mosad at the center of media attention and did almost unprecedented damage to its image.

"True, there are failures, but they're exceptional," says Gil, who claims that the atmosphere inside the Mosad was not overly influenced by those events. "At the end of the day, it's the failures that come out, while the successes are not revealed. Those inside know the positive events that provide the balance, so their sense of proportion is quite different. As someone who has seen things and understands the risks involved in them, you're also aware of the possibility of failure and the damage that it will do to the image. But you have to see the bigger picture. It's part of the work."

[Globes] Hi-tech people can break a contract and move from one company to another in order to improve their conditions. Can you break a contract with the Mosad in the middle of service?

[Or] This isn't a Catholic wedding, and you can break a contract. There was someone we took on in the third year of studies, we financed the studies, and he signed a contract to work for a specific period of time. At a certain point, he received a proposal from a start-up and left. Obviously we were angry with him, but just like any company when an employee leaves.

It's not like in movies such as Nikita, where they start monitoring people. The job of people in the Mosad is to fight enemies abroad, not its own people. Furthermore, there's less exposure to highly classified things in the first stage of the work.

[Globes] The secrecy clause probably has a special character because it's Mosad work.

[Or] It's no different from what happens in the army. Thousands have passed through units, such as Unit 8200. It's not a Catholic wedding, they won't track you, nor search your trash, nor carry out wiretapping. First, because the Mosad doesn't do that. Second, because you need so many licenses to do such things that it's just not worth it.

[Globes] Are the salary and conditions in the Mosad equal to those in the market, or are the conditions inferior, with a sense of Zionism making up the difference?

[Or] First of all, there is Zionism. But the conditions are now equal to those in the market. There are personal contracts that are in line with the upper 20 percent of salaries in the market. It may not be the top of the market but it's definitely up there near the top. Today, with the start-ups cutting back salaries and the inflation of hi-tech salaries coming to a halt, the conditions being offered by the Mosad are those of a normal workplace. [end Or]

Life In Civilian Society

After seven years' service, Or left the Mosad and established a start-up, which has already raised some $15 million and employs approximately 70 workers. The reason for the move from the secret world to the start-up world, according to Or, was a feeling of having achieved what he had set out to do. This shows that it is possible to carry on innovating even if your first venture was in the Mosad.

"We'd proved ourselves," says Or, detailing his motives for leaving, "and while the investors provided limited resources at the start, they started to provide as many people as needed. It was no longer a start-up, but a unit that maintained itself. From my personal point of view, the exciting thing for me -- in the Mosad as well as in a start-up -- is to do the impossible from the position of underdog."

Yet the situation in the world of the start-up has made it difficult for Or to enjoy that excitement: things succeeded too easily. But that problem has also been solved. "We started about 18 months ago, with an original idea," he says. "We raised money easily, but six months later we discovered another company working on exactly the same idea, except that it had started six months before us. A number of other companies then started doing similar things after us.

"I started enjoying it thanks to the competition. Until then, I'd had a permanent feeling of unpleasantness, of a kind of opportunism trip that didn't appeal to me. It was too easy."

[Globes] There are many people in industry who boast in their curriculum vitae that they served in units such as Unit 8200 and MAMRAM [Hebrew acronym for Computerized Data Processing Center]. Are there many ex-Mosad people who have integrated themselves in the market and about whom we don't hear?

[Or] Yes. I personally know 10 such people, and there are many others who have left other units in the Mosad. That's exactly as it is in Unit 8200 and other units.

[Globes] Doesn't it bother you that you can't boast about that in your curriculum vitae as they can?

[Gil] It doesn't bother me, although it's a subjective thing. In the end, you turn up for an interview, and then you can present your abilities and the things you've done -- and show your understanding of civilian systems. After all, the Mosad does deal with these systems, and that gives you a good understanding of the market and standards.

[Globes] Are there technologies or working methods that you learned in the Mosad and that you have implemented in the companies that you've set up?

[Gil] There's a connection, but the most important things are the values of sticking to the task and the belief in the ability to do the impossible. The recognition that the distance between the fantasy and the reality can be closed is one of the assets with which I've emerged. As well as the point that you can achieve great things by virtue of trying and daring. There are failures on the way, but you learn to live with that.

There's less of a connection at the technological level. It's chiefly the systematic experience of touching on many technologies and systems, which gives you a very good basis. In the Mosad -- and in many intelligence units that follow a similar path -- the advantage for the engineers lies in their exposure to the most advanced technologies. That's an environment where success sometimes has no price, and that's why the resources at your disposal are unlimited. [end Gil]