Monthly Archives: January 2013

Life at Mossad Headquarters – A Discussion with Former Mossad Officer Michael Ross

michaelross31 Life at Mossad Headquarters   A Discussion with Former Mossad Officer Michael Ross

Michael Ross was born in Canada and served as a soldier in a combat unit of the Israel Defence Forces prior to being recruited as a “combatant,” (a term designating a deep-cover operative tasked with working in hostile milieus) in Israel’s legendary secret intelligence service, the Mossad. In his 13 year career with the Mossad, Ross was also a case officer in Africa and South East Asia for three years, and was the Mossad’s counterterrorism liaison officer to the CIA and FBI for two-and-a-half years. Ross is a published writer and commentator on Near Eastern affairs, intelligence and terrorism. He is the author of The Volunteer: The Incredible True Story of an Israeli Spy on the Trail of International Terrorists. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrossletters. John Little tweets at @blogsofwar.

John Little: There are a few intelligence agencies with high profile headquarters and the CIA leads the pack in that regard. Mossad facilities have a much lower profile (outside of Israel at least). Can you talk a bit about the size and scope of the Mossad’s headquarters – and the environment?

Michael Ross: I am prohibited from disclosing the Mossad’s HQ actual location but it is convenient and well-situated to meet the needs of the organization. It has a very modern (but highly secure) university campus feel about it and the grounds and gardens are quite beautifully maintained. It is a sanctuary from the greater hustle and bustle of Israel. There are even works of sculpture by some renowned artists that adorn the landscape. It is quite self-contained with indoor shooting ranges, meat and dairy dining rooms (the Mossad is “kosher”), fully equipped fitness center and an outstanding gymnasium (where I used to play inter-mural basketball).

It’s not large given the small size of the organization but it is a busy place. The parking lots start filling up early and the lights are always burning at all hours somewhere in the complex. As with any top tier intelligence service with a global footprint, It never actually goes to sleep.

Also like other services, the really interesting activity is conducted off campus where specialized units are maintained in out-stations. The Mossad is very strict about compartmentation so operational personnel do not interact with the HQ component on the main campus. I was in the Mossad for about 7-8 years before I ever set foot in the main HQ campus.

John Little: So it sounds very different from many other agencies that rotate officers in and out of HQ assignments then?

Michael Ross: Very, we have no cubicles and people can, and often do, spend their entire careers overseas until retirement. Some come back to HQ after many years overseas to take up senior management roles. There is also a population of operational personnel that live in Israel but travel to assignments all over the globe on a regular basis and for many years.

John Little: Overall, how did you feel about your interaction with HQ when in the field? Complaints about disconnects and micromanagement are common in intelligence literature. Is life in the Mossad any different?

Michael Ross: One of the great axioms of secret intelligence services is the sniping that goes on back and forth between HQ and the field and the Mossad is not immune to this side of HQ-field unit interaction. Given our flatter bureaucracy and overall size (and compartmentation) there is probably much less of it but it does exist. We have also made significant headway in divesting ourselves of the embassy station system. This makes for a more fluid (and less hierarchical) management style less conducive to counter-productive turf wars.

When I was in the field we used to think that some HQ requests were unreasonable and did not take into account the reality of our working environment. When I was in HQ, I thought some of the people in the field were high-maintenance prima donnas, so it works both ways. One of my great lessons was that HQ always has the big picture in mind so I came to realize that my quibble with some strange tasking did not always take into account the fact that what I was doing was a piece of something much, much bigger.

Our organizational culture is based on our management layers being populated by people whose resumes contain many years of operational experience in the field. If you don’t go overseas, you don’t get promoted in the Mossad. This helps mitigate any HQ-field disconnect because the people giving you taskings and orders at HQ have been there, done that, and worn the t-shirt.

John Little: Was your time at headquarters a nice change of pace or a shock to the system? I can imagine the office politics and rigidity being a bit off-putting after someone has spent many years in the field.

Michael Ross: It was actually an environment that I never really embraced nor felt comfortable with. Suddenly there were all these protocols and yes, a certain degree of rigidity to the proceedings. I was also an unknown because I came from this highly compartmented existence (people serving in the Mossad who are not members of the unit have no idea what my former operational division, “Caesarea”, does in the field). One of the hardest parts of being in HQ however, was the reduction in pay given that being in the field includes all kinda of extra allowances.

So I suddenly show up and everyone pays you a much respect because you were a combatant in the flagship unit of the Mossad but they also say, “You have no clue how things work here, so you better get up to speed and quickly.”

I also realized that all my report writing, cable communication overseas, etc. were all now to be in Hebrew. Both Hebrew and English are official languages in the Mossad meaning you can use either one, but nobody is going to use English because nobody else does. I’m fluent in the language but having been under cover for several years, did everything I could to forget it. Now I’m in a milieu where the majority of people are highly educated native Israelis and the writing and communication standards are very high. When I was in the field, I did all my reporting in English (for obvious reasons).

Luckily, I was placed in a staff officers course right after entering HQ. It’s an advanced course that people wait years to get on and I was able to jump the queue because of my time in the field. Combatants achieve rank at an accelerated pace over their peers in other operational and support divisions and so I entered HQ with the equivalent military rank of Major and left as a branch head at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel (the ranking is military equivalent as our salaries, benefits, and pension are indexed against the IDF).

It was a real education and I was able to work with some terrific people in the CIA and FBI but after 2.5 years, I could not wait to get back into the field as soon as possible. I don’t have a personality type that thrives in an overly structured environment. I also found the politics of working with the vast and Byzantine U.S. intelligence community frustrating. In retrospect I was probably better suited to working a liaison role with a country whose intelligence service has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

John Little: Were your options limited to domestic postings or liaison roles at that phase of your career? It sounds like, generally speaking, once you are called back to headquarters your operational work is done.

Michael Ross: Typically if you come from one operational division’s field component, you return to its HQ counterpart but I did something different and tossed myself into the deep end by joining a division that didn’t know me at all: The Liaison and Special Political Operations Division known as “Tevel” which is Hebrew for “World”. While liaison work seems cushy, it’s not at all and almost all my colleagues were former case officers or combatants. One of my colleagues was a deep cover combatant for many years and took part in the operation to assassinate Abu Jihad in Tunisia.

Some of my colleagues joined the HUMINT division so coming in from the field doesn’t necessarily ground you in any way. You can go back to a posting in the field almost immediately if you want.

The truth of the matter is that HQ doesn’t need more people to fill roles at the office. Support people can be hired fairly easily. What the Mossad always has in short supply are officers that can be deployed in the field under foreign cover. If you come from an operational background, there are always opportunities to go back out until you return take up a management role at HQ or retire.

John Little: So what was a typical day like for you at headquarters? Was it a constant grind of 16 hour days and layers of bureaucracy to navigate or different?

Michael Ross: It started with 05:30 wake-up to beat traffic and a 45 minute commute to the office where I’d hopefully score decent parking.

Days at work in the office started by reading cable traffic from our Washington station (always entertaining) and meetings both internally and with our liaison partners from either the local CIA station or FBI Legatt (but never at the same time!).

As the CT liaison officer to the U.S. IC, I was constantly exchanging material and data on terrorists and their targets with both agencies, but a huge part of my job was dealing with attack alerts. Israel and the U.S. are main focal points of every potential terror attack on one of our many missions, schools, and military installations worldwide. A source report of an impending attack on a U.S. target would have me coordinating the transfer of said warning to my U.S. counterpart together with our CT division and the division responsible for the source of the warning. I’d call the CIA station on the “STU” (secure telephone unit) connecting the station with Mossad HQ. Together, we’d make sure that all the relevant security functions knew about the warning, it’s viability, and any other relevant intelligence. It was a fast-paced, dynamic position where delay could cost lives. I greatly enjoyed working with my American counterparts and I think it was mutual. Beyond terror attack alerts, we worked on joint operations, exchanged delegations on many mutual subjects and basically kept the relationship on track. I especially remember the period where the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked. Not only was I involved in helping the U.S. immediately after the attacks, I represented the Mossad as part of the CIA team that captured some of the main players in Baku in 1998 (based on our intelligence provided to the CIA). That was a “full circle” moment when I realized how important and powerful liaison relationships can be between two top tier services working together.

I normally worked a 12-14 hour day, but if the terrorist attack threats were coming thick and fast (either sourced by us or from CIA sources) I’d be dealing with them at all hours. It’s ironic, but when I was living under deep cover, I got way more sleep than I did when I was working in HQ. After doing this job, was it any wonder I couldn’t wait to get back to the field?

A Case of the Intelligence Officer “Mondays” by Sean P. Sullivan

Sean P. Sullivan has over 15 years of Federal and Military experience in the US Navy and within the CIA’s Special Activities Division of the National Clandestine Service. Mr. Sullivan is now an intelligence, security, and surveillance systems consultant. You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website. You can follow him on Twitter @haplesspursuer.

This is about “a day” at the Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters Building. In the following piece, I will attempt to shed light on what an average day might look like for someone who is on rotation at Headquarters. Before you become disappointed, this isn’t about the Jason Bourne’s, James Bond’s or Jack Ryan’s of the intelligence world. The Central Intelligence Agency is housed on a compound in the Washington Metropolitan Area (WMA) located in the middle of some of the worst traffic areas (it gives the 405 in Los Angeles a run for its money) and most diverse populations in the country. If you are interested in a career in the National Clandestine Service, expect to spend a few years at Headquarters, which will include very long days, a never ending cycle of priorities and the joy of everyone in the area intent on playing “spot the spook” with everyone they encounter. Mix that in with a career destined to stress the family out from the inevitable home time interruptions and limited days off.

I was a Paramilitary Officer in Special Activities Division (SAD) of the National Clandestine Service (NCS). I spent all of my time in the NCS and my experience with other Directorates comes from my many interactions and projects with them. I spent some time in the Iran Operations Division, Information Operations Center, and National Resources Division but the majority of it was in SAD. Special Activities Division is an amazing place to work because, not only is it full of professional and mission focused Officers, those Officers exude the same code of ethics and camaraderie (but on a higher level since these Officers, with few exceptions, are picked from the best this country has to offer) that I missed since departing the Military. My time there was a blur of hard work, great people, constant internal/external pressure, and far more travel than I did while in the military.

The Agency houses some of the most intelligent and hard-working people, but even those premier Officers can’t escape a case of the “Mondays”. These Intel Officers attempt to protect US citizens and national interests (often times in spite of the bureaucracy that pretends to guide it) at a great personal sacrifice of personal time, social life, and public acknowledgement of their service. The truly amazing work of the CIA is as humbling as it is frustrating since you are constantly battling between effective mission completion, the Teamster style legal team that constantly looks over your shoulder, management, the ever evolving interests and focus of Congress and Senate (oversight and funding), and finance who dash your hopes of ever getting your operation off the ground if the decimal places don’t line up. The paramount responsibility is always the safety of your fellow Officers as well as that of the agents who risk their lives (and many times that of their families) to provide HUMINT in order to fill the intelligence gaps designated by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

On any given day the random Intelligence Officer wakes up before the club crowd gets to bed so he/she can get to the office before traffic and the Agency parking lot tempts them to request a mental health day. The awe of passing through the gates of the George Bush Center of Intelligence (a unique government building and living history museum rolled into one) quickly fades when one looks for one of the few remaining parking spots in the back 40 of the immense Agency compound. After the cross country trek to your office in the bowels of the Agency’s Old (or new) Headquarters Building and finally sitting at your desk in one of the endless cube farms, a sinking feeling, that your emails and morning meetings will result in 18 to 20 hours of work that needs to be crammed into the next 8-10 hours, quickly settles in. All of this happens while prepping for your upcoming TDY. You open your email and find that while you were spending the precious few hours with your family, others were diligently typing more than 50 priority emails that require your immediate attention (aside from those patronizing – you’re a good kid – ones from the ODNI). While deep in your latest mental rant about being tasked with something that is actually handled by another office, you mentally calculate which would take longer: explaining the actual process to the one tasking you AND the office that should do it, or just doing it yourself. The meeting results in task changes to many of the items you completed yesterday and adds a few management fires which easily puts your day at about 22-24 hours of actual work, including the paperwork, constant emails and instant messages needed to clarify and re-clarify your tasks, requests, responses, trip plans, and remaining meetings. After your seventh meeting and 63rd email, you realize that you missed your window to eat lunch by 2 hours and the resultant hunger delusions make you rationalize with yourself “its ok, you can just leave early since you didn’t spend your mandated 30 minute lunch time eating”.

After grabbing something from one of the many vending machines that adorn every floor of the building, you rush off to meet with someone from another office that may have some vetting info for one of your cases. On the way there you run into an Officer from another office who needs to ask you a few questions regarding one of his cases and get your thoughts on a request he needs to route for some resources your office controls. You finally finish and get to the intended office only to see your “contact” leaving. Chasing him down is the only option so off you go until you catch up and lay out your needs. A colleague from your office catches up to you and indicates that something has come up and a meeting has been called which you need to attend. An hour later you appear with new tasking to head a planning group which in two days, can have an effective rough draft of a plan that can be briefed to senior management in case the new potential hotspot becomes an actual. This involves pulling other Officers from their schedules, requesting information on resources, planning logistics and searching for assets in a location that hasn’t been dealt with in quite some time due to its low key, low priority status from the NIE and congressional funding. It is now 5 o’clock and you realize that if you leave now, you might be able to sit down and eat while your family sits in front of their already cleared places at the dinner table but that won’t happen because your boss calls your office in for a “quick” meeting to brief the results of his meeting with the Group and Branch Chiefs.

The quick meeting lasts about 45 minutes and concludes with immediate taskers for you to reach out to the field and other Divisions in order to coordinate some changing priorities. A renewed sense of urgency drives you to jump right in because these changes relate to a case you have been working on for several months which, until now, looked to be stagnating. You finally conclude your last instant message conversation and send your last email. You log off with a sigh, a stretch and begin to walk out when you hear “have a good night” from your boss’ office. When you peek around the corner he is typing emails and checking off items on what looks to be a very long list. You then realize he is going to be there for a few more hours. You say good night and walk out the door, then past security and out into the dark. It is then that you realize it is after 8pm. Cell phones are not authorized in the building and because you were either on the phone or away from your desk basically the entire day, you have had no contact with home. As you begin the drive home, you are sure that all you will get when you try to explain why is the all too familiar rolling eyes.

Cheer up though… its only Wednesday!!!

Take the Military Ethics Twitter Course with Dr. Rebecca Johnson

Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College. Prior to joining the faculty in 2009, she taught at The Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University and the School of International Service at American University. Dr. Johnson has spoken on topics related to military ethics across the services in the United States and at service schools abroad. She has published numerous articles and book chapters and is currently writing a book on emerging trends in military ethics. Her most recent work, “The Wizard of Oz Goes to War: Unmanned Systems in Counterinsurgency” is forthcoming in Strawser (ed.) Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military. The announcement of this class is cross-posted on Blogs of War with her permission. If you’re interested in military ethics you will also want to read her recent Blogs of War interview.

Military Ethics Twitter Course

We’re getting ready to start our electives period at the Command and Staff College, where I have the good fortune of teaching 17 Majors, Lieutenant Commanders, and GS-14s about military ethics. The course runs 10 sessions over five weeks, and as I’ve been preparing I had one of those ‘flash of the obvious’ moments:

I love teaching. I love military ethics. I love twitter.

Would it be possible to combine the three? I honestly don’t know, but I figure we might as well take a crack at it.

Here’s what I propose:

1.  You can see a readings list at Twitter Military Ethics Course. Very graciously, @khanserai has created a googledocs that has the readings for the first couple of weeks. For the others, you’re smart; you can find them. If you have better ideas for readings, videos, etc., lemme know and I’ll update. Nothing like crowd sourcing learning!

2.  I intend to loosely mirror the same pace as my seminar course, which means we’ll cover 2 topics per week. Unlike seminar, we’re not constrained by a two-hour window. We’ll have roughly 3 days to develop our thoughts (in 140 character chunks!).

3.  All are welcome. Come and go as you please.

4.  I’ll post a brief backgrounder on this blog at the start of each topic to kick things off. Then I’ll tweet specific learning points and questions with the hashtag #METC. All you need to do is follow along and ask me questions or give your thoughts on the questions I ask. Just make sure to use the hashtag #METC so everyone catches it. I’ll do my best to storify conversation threads as we go.

5.  Since I’ve never done this before, I expect there will be a pretty sharp learning curve. Apologies in advance for whatever I mess up; please let me know how I can help make it more productive for you! Always remember: you get what you pay for.

6.  There will be an honor grad. There will be an honor grad prize. That is all I have decided so far.

Any questions? Hit me up at @johnsonr. Here are the general windows for each topic:

Class 1: Introduction to Professional Military Ethics (January 21-23, 2013)

Class 2: Moral Dilemmas (January 24-26, 2013)

Class 3: Motivating Moral Behavior (January 28-30, 2013)

Class 4: Setting the Command Climate (January 31-February 2, 2013)

Class 5: Moral Development (February 4-6, 2013)

Class 6: Targeted Killings (February 7-9, 2013)

Class 7: Emerging Issues – Unmanned Systems (February 11-13, 2013)

Class 8: The Stoic Warrior (February 14-16, 2013)

Class 9: Responding to the Command Climate (February 18-20, 2013)

Class 10: Ethical Fitness (February 21-23, 2013)

February 25, 2013 GRADUATION!!!