Talking Tech, Social, and Security with White Canvas Group Founders Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry

wcg Talking Tech, Social, and Security with White Canvas Group Founders Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry

Jon Iadonisi is the founder of White Canvas Group (Twitter) and leads the innovation and application of new products and solutions for all clients. He blends over 15 years of diverse experience in computer science, cyber security, and applied creativity into solving tomorrow’s challenges. He is regularly sought by the Department of Defense, various Intelligence agencies, members of the US Congress, industry conventions and popular media outlets to provide expert opinion and briefings on information age unconventional warfare. Prior to joining the private sector, Jon served as a Navy SEAL, where he designed, planned and led various combat operations that integrated innovative technologies and tactics into the operating environment, ultimately creating new capabilities for the Special Operations Community and Central Intelligence Agency. He is a combat-wounded and decorated veteran who earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the US Naval Academy, and M.S. in Homeland Security from San Diego State University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Criminal Justice from the University of New Haven, focusing his research on the emerging field of cyber crime. Jon is a guest lecturer at San Diego State University and Georgetown Law School and is an academic and athletic all-American who participated in the 2000 Olympic Rifle team trials.

Tim Newberry is the co-founder of White Canvas Group and is responsible for day-to-day operations and sustained client engagement. Tim’s 15 years of identifying, developing, and executing projects in areas ranging from computer science to nuclear engineering has helped him hone a process-oriented delivery model that ensures clients’ objectives are met on time and on budget. Prior to joining the private sector, Tim spent eight years as a Naval Submarine Officer and Nuclear Engineer. He has a master’s degree in engineering from Catholic University, and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the U.S. Naval Academy. Tim is currently pursuing a PhD in Criminal Justice from the University of New Haven in Connecticut, with an emphasis on understanding the intersection between cyber technologies and new age media with justice.

John Little: White Canvas has been involved in lot of interesting projects from crowdsourced crisis communications products like GridMeNow, to social media analysis, to your longtime involvement in the hacker conference scene. Can you briefly tell us where White Canvas is devoting most of its energy at the moment and where you see yourselves headed in the next 3-5 years.

Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: John, first, thank you for hosting us in this forum. We’ve been a big fan of yours over the years and actually think we’ve got quite a bit in common with your content pursuits. As you allude to in the question above, we’ve been accused at times of being a bit unfocused and spreading ourselves too thin. We couldn’t disagree more.

Everything we do, day in and day out, now coming to the end of our fifth year, connects. It connects by focusing our efforts at an intersection between technology and people. Behind every social media account, keyboard, and mobile phone is a person. Our expertise is technology development but our focus is to serve people with that technology, with each one of our projects combining elements of design, science, and functional solutions.

Right now, we’re focusing on a handful of projects. We like to describe ourselves as a privatized DARPA (most of your readers will probably understand that analogy), except we like to produce a bit faster and be a bit more practical in solving tomorrow’s problems today. You’ll see GridMeNow spin off into its own company in the coming months as customer growth and demand warrants. 2013 will also see a renewed focus for WCG on the human factor in cyber security and digital operations for private and government customers. Our other significant energy focus will be an elite performance training system for military and law enforcement personnel, customizing systems currently used by professional and Olympic athletes.

Clients contact us regularly seeking other paradigm-shifting solutions, and we’re dedicated to evaluating those potential opportunities for future growth.

John Little: I know you guys were looking at the national security implications of social media, especially web video, well ahead of the Arab Spring. Has the marketplace for these concepts changed completely over the last three years or is it still an uphill battle with some customers?

Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: Both. The Arab Spring undoubtedly caused global shifts in power but more critically, it caused a shift in the perception of what power is and who has it. Social media certainly helped those events transcend local boundaries onto the global stage; and the pressure of that elevated visibility shaped public opinions and corresponding ground action in near real time.

Video social media is the most important form of user-generated content when influencing someone to do something. That journey from being compelled or inspired to do something to taking action on that inspiration happens much quicker with video as opposed to just text, pictures, or audio. Video compels, inspires, incites action. That’s why we focus there, because it is the most potent form of influence, whether you use it for marketing or organizing. Further, the social technologies at play in these cases (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) offer a transformative experience for the user/viewer because they instantly provide context (via comments, likes and shares), and connect users/viewers to wider online audiences via their own social presence. The video footage of the January 25 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt compelled a global audience in seconds. You personally could watch the event unfold via social media virally while other 1.0 organizations usually tasked with monitoring and analyzing these events (e.g. intelligence agencies, news bureaus, etc.) totally missed the boat. And in this case, the compulsion caused by the social video experience resulted in a united narrative promoting a regime change.

It’s still an uphill battle—that’s going to be the case for years, and unfortunately more so within the confines of government. But, we’re getting better at it – after all, the Internet is only about 20 years old.

John Little: It seems like with all the hype around social media and the internet in general that mobile gets overlooked as a driver. Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t be full of compelling real time content from Tahrir Square without the global spread of affordable hardware and networks. It’s really the convergence and ubiquitous nature of these technologies that is creating something special isn’t it?

Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: The quick, simple answer is “absolutely” – I think we’ve heard recently that in many parts of Africa, cell phones and internet connectivity are more prevalent than running water. But the harder-to-measure second and third order effects this creates involve how PEOPLE are changing with this new dynamic. This is where we at White Canvas Group spend most of our time: helping people to navigate this new digital world order. Consider the fact that reliable, real-time information is being delivered via an underground Skype connection in Syria, which is then broadcast by the global news network powerhouses. It’s an inversion of power and influence. Many people don’t buy goods or services based solely on advertisements: they spend money based on peer recommendations or social network validation. These changes are only enabled by the convergence and spread of affordable connectivity. We think we’ll start seeing many more innovative uses of mobile technology in the future as burgeoning youth population bubbles reach critical mass inside the regions you mention and others.

John Little: You have a long history of participation in the hacker community through events such as DEFCON. And lately I’ve seen the two of you discussing cyber security on Fox Business News, CBN News, Government Computer News, C-SPAN and other media outlets. Cyber has been a beltway buzzword for some time now but it seems like, especially in the political arena, the threat is often hyped or mischaracterized, while real vulnerabilities are overlooked. It drives a lot of the information security professionals I know crazy. How can we move beyond the extremes of hype and apathy to implement the kind of broad and sustained effort needed to secure our digital infrastructure?

Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: This transition will be lengthy, and in many ways similar to the societal adjustment towards terrorism post-9/11. Simply put, a broad sustained effort will not be embraced until either a generational change in the political landscape or a 9/11-scale cyber event. Until then, private businesses, institutions and individual American citizens will have to hold their own. We hate to be the bearers of doom and gloom, but the fact that those inside this professional industry are more focused on the context of a word instead of the practical manifestations of that word frankly says quite a lot about how much most people in this community care about it. Towards that end, and in the context of what the “industry” deems cyber security, we’re focused on providing tools, technologies, and perspectives that will help to fill that void; hopefully enabling individuals, companies, and organizations that are taking it seriously the ability and confidence to hold their own.

John Little: I know you guys are always looking forward and you can find opportunity almost anywhere. Are there any anticipated technological/social developments on the near horizon that you’re really excited about?

Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: Unfortunately, innovation is a cliched term these days. We really enjoy following the modern day Da Vincis and Edisons. People who aren’t afraid to challenge the norm and risk changing the world. For example: Salvatore Iaconesi, diagnosed with brain cancer who instead of giving up hope, coded his medical records in a structured format, enabling thousands of people to help him successfully find a cure, which he did. Stories like his remind us that computing power, when used as a tool, enables creators a chance to globally impact our world. We’ve got a couple of promising projects we’d like to launch against Leukemia, and perhaps have a chance to impact the world. Until then, all we can do is fearlessly dream, and that begins like all of our projects: on a white canvas.

Interview: Phillip Smyth on Syria

phillipsmyth Interview: Phillip Smyth on Syria

Phillip Smyth is a researcher specializing in Lebanon, Syria, and the broader Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the region and has been published by a number of publications including the American Spectator, the Counterterrorism Blog, the Daily Caller, Haaretz, MERIA Journal, The National Review Online, NOW Lebanon, PJ Media, and Voice of America. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipSmyth.

John Little: We’ve seen countless accusations of chemical weapon use from both the regime and opposition forces. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have been overflowing with that content but most of it has been way off the mark. Some of the content creators are genuinely confused and many (on both sides) are pushing poorly constructed propaganda. I’ve consistently maintained that there is no upside to chemical weapons use by Assad. Using them on a large scale would be suicidal. Do you think that logic will prevail? What is the likelihood that Assad would do the unthinkable?

Phillip Smyth: If the regime openly uses chemical weapons (CW) (e.g. as Saddam did in Halabja) it will most likely result in a “Game over” situation for them. In that case, the “red line of red lines” would have been crossed and would probably lead to some variety of intervention involving external actors. Presumably, such an action may force the hand of even the most unwilling actor.The rebels understand this, as does Assad. It certainly accounts for numerous (generally erroneous) rebel reports of Assad having already used chemical weapons. It also serves as a main reason why Assad is not using them. He gains much more leverage from having his finger on the button than from pressing it.

There have also been numerous charges the Assad regime has already transferred some of these weapons to Hizballah in Lebanon. I have my doubts regarding those accusations aswell. Why hand off the keys to the castle before one has vacated the premise? For Assad, CW serve as the regime’s joker card–There are pluses and minuses. Thus, Assad understands that CW are best used as a strategic bargaining chip in the great game of retaining his hold on Syria.

Another oft-repeated line we hear is how “desperate” Assad has become. This is often described as a reason for certain actions executed by the regime (i.e. his launching of ballistic missiles). The message can be read as: “If he’s crazy and desperate, he can and will do anything”. However, there’s a huge difference between launching missiles and using the strongest, most deadly, and most internationally disapproved weapon(s) in his arsenal. Assad still has a functioning military, irregulars, and external help. This force is launching a number of counteroffensives now and Assad is not making a run for the hills.

Still, no one should discount the possibility of some type of chemical agent being used on a small scale to “Test the red lines” or accomplish other tactical tasks. Nevertheless, save for some cataclysmic collapse of the regime, I am hesitant to say Assad would use the weapons as an intrinsic part of a strategy to retake the country.

John Little: When the uprising started most expected the Syrian regime to have significant staying power and it has. However, we have seen a number of high profile defections, regime military installations are falling to the rebels, and Damascus is threatened. Where does the regime take it from here? Is their downfall now certain with only the timing and body count in question or is it still too early to tell?

Phillip Smyth: Assad’s downfall is an ongoing process–I believe that on the battlefield there may eventually be a major tipping point. This point has yet to be reached and the battle for supremacy in the country is currently a piecemeal one. The rebels lack game-changing tactics and weapons, are disparate, and still learning effective strategies. Assad is also continuing to hit back. Remember, Bashar’s father did not retain his position in the country through not building a working army capable of crushing dissent, a network of thugs, and duplicate intelligence agencies. Thus, Assad’s end–while coming into view–still requires a pair of high powered binoculars. Assad is in the battle to win, and right now we are still looking at a draw.

Body count is certainly a factor, but this too can go a few ways. Assad’s primary and most loyal fighting forces come from a minority group–his minority group–the Alawites. They understand the region’s zero-sum politics (there’s no such thing as “power sharing” and there will always be a dominant group and one or more under that group’s foot) and have tasted power; Their resolve to win or retain as much power as possible will be a hard nut for rebels to crack. There may come a time when Alawite mothers of sons, who continue to die in battle for Assad, become loud enough to affect change. Nevertheless, as with many Middle Eastern minorities, the communal survival mentality could and will likely override such sentiment.

The bigger issue is how many trained, loyal, and equipped fighters can and will Assad continue to throw into a multifaceted and geographically diverse front line? I expect that those numbers are not as high as Assad truly hopes for, but they are still strong enough to hold key strategic urban areas (such as Damascus, parts of Aleppo, and sections of Homs and Hama).

Assad’s viability also depends on what one defines as a “High profile defection”. None of Assad’s inner-Alawite circle of advisers or people in true power positions have left the regime or joined the rebels. This reflects the tightness of his ranks. Some have described Assad’s rule of Syria as reminicent of a mafia-don. It’s a bit more complicated and dependent on broader concentric and connecting circles of family, clan, sectarian, and business based loyalties. Hafiz Assad and Bashar both did a nice job cultivating links to and cutting in many urban Sunni bourgeois and like it or not, many of these links still exist, albeit at reduced levels.

I hate to continue statements which seem to push the narrative of sectarianism, but like it or not, it’s a reality. To which sect did “High profile defectors” Ryad Hijab (prime minister) and Manaf Tlas (general in the Republican Guard) belong? They are all Sunnis.

Additionally, Syria is awash with generals, so another “General’s defection” is hardly the equivalent of say Ulysses S. Grant joining forces with Robert E. Lee.

I also recall an article in the Arabic daily, Al Hayat from the summer of 2012. It discussed the “Highest ranking Alawite to defect”–Apparently, a leader of Assad’s air force intelligence special forces. His rank was not mentioned and he never gave his full name. He is just a small fry in a large pond of people actually running Assad’s show.

Regardless, it gives us some insight into the amount of security agency duplication found in Assad’s and even other dictatorial regimes. One force spies on the other, which spies on the one spying on it, which is spied on by another, which has 49 “commanding generals” who do little beyond sit at a desk and report on their juniors and seniors. At the end of the day, the Assad family and broader clan still run the show.

Howver, there’s no doubt in my mind that these defections did and continue to rankle a good number of Assad’s people in Damascus. Yet, those defectors are not leaders, per say. To paraphrase Alex Karras (Mongo) in Blazing Saddles, most of these “High ranking” defectors are, “Only pawn[s] in game of [the Assad regime's] life”.

So is Assad’s collapse a “Sure thing”? It’s certainly growing more possible and has been growing for a year. It is my contention that when Damascus falls, for all intents and purposes, so does Assad. He needs the capital city for ideological and social reasons. Without it, he’s just a former ruler-cum-warlord. Yet, even in that scenario, there’s the potential that he is still around controlling some chunk of territory. I just do not feel we are going to see a Libyan-style end a la Qaddafi in Sirte for Assad in Syria.

John Little: What options do you think Iran is considering as they contemplate a post-Assad Syria? They won’t have a lot of friends in the mostly Sunni opposition but inaction isn’t exactly an option for them – nor would it be expected.

Phillip Smyth: It really goes without saying that Syria is a strategic linchpin for Iran’s regional policy. The Iranians are doing their best to continue propping-up the Assad regime. Simultaneously, they are also creating sub-networks among their coreligionists (Syria’s Shia community); In much the same way they did in 1980s Lebanon and more recently in Iraq.

Iran has been rather public in their announcements that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force is operating inside Syria. The same thing goes with Lebanese Hizballah, which has been reported guarding important Shia religious sites and fighting rebels in many locations. Iran is also ferrying Iraqi Shia fighters (from groups Iran helped create, like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah, and from allies like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Liwa al-Yom al-Mauwud–formerly known as Jaysh al-Mahdi) into Syria. When Richard Engel was kidnapped, he reported his captors were Shia and they were trying to gain the freedom of pro-Assad/pro-Iran Lebanese Shia actors held by the Syrian rebels.

Thus, in a post-Assad Syria, it can be assumed Iran will attempt to draw the country’s Shia under their protective wing, likely creating proxy militias on the ground while backing any remnants of the Assad

At the outset, it would appear Iran is playing a strictly sectarian game and will not be able to draw any support from Syria’s Sunni majority. Many analysts argue Sunni sectarian anger against Iran and the Shia as a whole is too great. However, this neglects the region’s constantly morphing multi-polarity.

Iran has a lot of money, arms, and strong forces. In any coming Syrian anarchy, all militias on the ground will need capital and support–Even if it is covert. The Iranians will reach out to just about anyone who takes their hand. Many speak of the “Sunni-Shi’a split”. Unfortunately, they forget that Iran has made some incredible inroads among a variety of groups. Of course, not many Sunnis (especially now) would wish to publicly recognize they get support from Shia Iran, but they do.

At this moment, Syria has around 1000 militias. Post-Assad (and even now) they will all be fighting for a slice of the pie. In keeping with the Middle Eastern version of the “Golden rule”, Iran is “The one with the gold [who] makes the rules”.

A great example to look at regarding how Iran will inject itself and retain some level of presence in Syria, are their (often via Hizballah) moves in the predominantly Sunni, Tripoli, Lebanon.

For all of the talk about sectarian fighting (between Alawites and Sunnis) going down in Tripoli, there are quite a good number of Sunnis–especially militiamen–who are or have been on Hizballah’s payroll. Some of these fighters continue to battle the city’s Alawites (Hizballah’s allies), but due to their economic conditions, they can be called to fall in line when Hizballah asks them to.

In the past some have even been wooed over using the plea of “‘Islam’ must unify in the face of Western enemies and Israel”. This is the kind of ideological logic pro-Iranian Sunni Islamist groups, like Tripoli’s Tawhiid Movement, use (i.e. “Sunnis and Shia are both Muslims and should not fight each other, but the greater foes). Nevertheless, I am guessing such a strategy will only have a limited effect in the near-future.

Hizballah and their Iranian paymasters also are not simply calling for their Sunni proxies to battle other Sunnis or fight directly on the side of Hizballah. They work slowly, giving some of Tripoli’s poorer Sunnis a financial cushion and aid them in other ways. In that way, Iran slowly embeds itself into the community. The potential for Iran/Hizballah is that this builds a lot of long-term influence in key areas among groups of people who should despise them. I cannot see why they wouldn’t try the same thing in Syria.

Wars make strange bedfellows and sands can shift at a moment’s notice. In a Syria sans Assad, Iran’s influence will be diminished to a great extent. However, they will not cease their attempts to gain connections whenever or wherever they can.

John Little: What is your take on the more Machiavellian view held by some that it is in the West’s interest that this conflict enters a sort of long-term standoff where Assad remains weakened, but in control of his arsenal (especially his chemical weapons), and the conflict churns through the more radical parts of the opposition?

Phillip Smyth: I hold a mixed interpretation of that viewpoint. The war on the ground is devolving into what has been termed a “Spanish Civil War” style conflict. It would appear to many that it is counterproductive to jump in.

On the sidelines such a scenario may be a wonderful thing to watch: Assad, Al Qaida, and other radical Islamist groups beating each other senseless–It also couldn’t happen to a nicer collection of foes. However, the situation on the ground isn’t always that simple and often a sequence of events does not always play out how one may have hoped. Even in an environment pitting just radical Islamists against Assad–with both forces lacking any love for the United States–the risks are just as high as the benefits.

As of right now, despite the fact that radical groups are taking center stage and getting a lot of coverage, it doesn’t mean they make up the majority of the Syrian opposition. Watching from the stands may result (as it has in the past) in even more polarization. Such a situation would not be good for the U.S. or region in the long-run.

Radical Sunni Islamists have already demonstrated that no matter where they spring-up, they don’t stay put. They will continue to spread problems to the region around them, even if engaged in an ongoing conflict. Case in point: Jabhat al-Nusra, which was spun from a very busy Al Qaida in Iraq. It’s a fallacy to believe they will simply be sucked into the Syrian conflict and just wear themselves down. In fact, I’d say they’ll use the conflict like they tried to use Afghanistan or Iraq. Only, this time, they won’t be facing a high-technology enemy which can more effectively check their growth. They will sharpen their skills, expand in size, and may spread like a virus to neighboring areas.

Let’s say Assad starts to triumph over the disparate rebels and radical Sunni Islamists. We will then see an emboldened Iran. If Assad is left in place during a stalemate, the pro-Iranian set will be shaken, but won’t be out of the game. In that case we will have two radical anti-American foes in control of large chunks of the Levant. Sure, they would be fighting one another, but that does not mean they will cease their other activities in the region.

Remember, in the early and mid-1980s, when Iran was “Tied down” fighting Iraq, they still found enough time to build Hizballah, bomb the Marine Corps. barracks in Beirut, attack some embassies, and hijack a few aircraft. Just as the “War weary” Saddam Hussein–after almost a decade of fighting Iran–Invaded Kuwait.

I for one do not see a scenario like you describe really playing out. There are too many variables which would be immediate regional game-changers in such an environment. Who says Assad, after a few more months or years of brutal fighting, can really hold onto his strategic weapons? Can Assad really “Churn through” the radicals, or will the conflict resemble something closer to the Lebanese Civil War with internecine fighting and defacto cantons? It’s really impossible to know.

I would leave with this: The U.S. needs to tread carefully but realistically assess its interests. Do we want Iran to hold onto a link to the Mediterranean and Hizballah? I don’t feel we should. However, does this mean it would be acceptable to have Al Qaida managing swaths of territory in a strategic Middle Eastern country? Absolutely not. Thus,I don’t believe it would be very prudent to just let the two foes kick each other into oblivion. There’s too much room for something blowing-up in our faces.

There are many covert, more quiet, and cost-effective ways to affect change. Nevertheless, right now, the United States is sitting on its hands in near bewilderment with no real policy to speak of.

John Little: Can Russia remain relevant as Syria descends into chaos? Could they still possibly broker a political solution to this crisis or is it just too late to engineer a smooth transition of power?

Phillip Smyth: As early as summer 2012, we heard many calls that Russia was essentially irrelevant. This was mainly due to the fact that it was doing little more than equipping Assad and attempting to buy him some breathing space in the international community and with the rebels. Certainly, few consider Moscow to be an unbiased actor.

Recently, rebels (with Khatib) and Assad rejected Russian overtures–Overtures that I’m sure were little more than additional feet-dragging measures and likely seen by rebels as nothing more than bolstering for Assad’s position. The Russians will continue to throw out offers for peace talks, but the writing on the wall says that calls for “Political transition” will amount to very little.

Realistically, Moscow remains relevant insofar as how much backing they continue to offer for Assad. Nevertheless, one must consider who is pushing Russia as a potential peacemaker. Ironically enough, it’s the United States. For months the U.S. has been promoting a policy of using the Russians to establish a “Political compromise”. Will that policy work? No. Is there any hope for Russia to mediate a transition? It’s doubtful.

John Little: Russian foreign chief Sergei Lavrov recetnly warned that a protracted stalemate could lead to the breakup of Syria. Does that seem like a plausible outcome to you?

We’re already seeing the “Break-up” of Syria. When you have 1000 militias on the ground all holding different positions. If we thought 1985 West Beirut was bad, this will be worse.

However, it’s important to remember that Lavrov is using a narrative first honed in Damascus by Assad. It’s the typical pan-Arabist line which encourages autocratic-central governance over a diverse population while simultaneously threatening a potential break-up if any movement exists countering the aforementioned central authority.

Regardless, in terms of an officially recognized “Break-up” of Syria (i.e. an internationally recognized Alawi state/Kurdish state), my position is a mixed one. I believe that on a defacto level, in a post-Assad atmosphere, large chunks of Syria will be dominated by certain ideological, ethnic, and religious groups . We are already seeing what can be termed as “general autonomy” for Kurds in the northeast. However, it’s really up to how all factions decide to play these developments in the long-term.

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?