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.
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?