BY WAY OF DECEPTION: THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF A MOSSAD AGENT By Victor Ostrovsky, New York: St. Martin's Press, 371 pp., $22.95 FORMER Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky draws on the unlikeliest source - Warren G. Harding - for the moral of this gripping, controversial expos'e of Israel's famed spy agency.
``Do not do an immoral thing for a moral reason,'' America's 29th president once advised. In Ostrovsky's hands the admonition becomes a chastening light, exposing the dark underside of the shadowy agency that for 40 years has been crucial to the security of the Jewish state.
For two brief years Ostrovsky was one of the handful of Israeli ``katsas,'' or case officers, whose exploits, like the daring 1976 rescue of 100 hostages at Entebbe, Uganda, have contributed to the Mossad's mystique. But if being in the company of Israel's best and brightest initially provided a ``feeling of power that's hard to describe,'' in the end it left his Zionist idealism in tatters.
Ask any intelligence expert and you will learn that Mossad agents are as smart, tough, and often ruthless in the business as any. Ample testimony on the point is provided in the book's first chapter, an absorbing account of how the Mossad tricked an unwitting Iraqi nuclear physicist living in Paris into providing information that enabled Israeli pilots to target and destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
But whether Ostrovsky himself is a reliable witness to the Mossad's inner workings is another matter. Intense controversy has surrounded the book since its publication two months ago.
Ostrovsky insists that even though he was only a junior officer, he had access to sensitive information, including classified computer files, than would have been attainable in a larger organization like the Central Intelligence Agency or Soviet KGB.
Angry Israeli officials describe the book as an act of revenge prompted by Ostrovsky's dismissal from the Mossad after less than two years of service. Nor is the Canadian-born Israeli a reliable source, Israeli officials say, since he was not actually party to most of the events he describes.
Whatever the merits, attempts by Israel to ban publication of the book in the United States and Canada have boomeranged, catapulting ``By Way of Deception'' to the top of the bestseller list.
The book's most sensational claim is that Israeli intelligence had advance warning of plans by Shiite Muslims in Beirut to launch a major terrorist attack in the summer of 1983. Instead of issuing a special warning to the US, the Mossad sent only a routine alert. The result was the death of 241 US Marines and 500 French paratroopers in twin attacks on Oct. 23.
``We're not there to protect Americans,'' Mossad head Nahum Admony shrugged, according to Ostrovsky. Israel has denied the account as a ``baseless lie.''
In another case, Ostrovsky charges that the Mossad was teaching guerrilla tactics to Tamil rebels fighting the Sri Lankan government at the time it was providing antiguerrilla training and weapons to Sri Lankan government forces - without either side knowing about the other.
Ostrovsky and co-author Claire Hoy, a Canadian journalist, also charge that the Mossad operates a secret division called ``Al'' (``above'' or ``on top'' in Hebrew) that conducts sensitive spying operations in the US. Al's 25 US operatives gather information on the PLO and the Arab world, and also engage in industrial espionage designed in part to give Israeli companies the edge in competition for US defense contracts, the authors allege.
Perhaps the most authentic part of ``By Way of Deception'' is Ostrovsky's detailed account of how he was trained to become a katsa, learning how to avoid surveillance, lure unsuspecting people into becoming informants, and harness ``sayanim,'' the thousands of Jews living abroad who provide an informal network of services for Mossad operations.
But as the technical skills of fresh Mossad recruits were honed, Ostrovsky says, their moral sensitivities were blunted by the Mossad's prevailing ethic of arrogance and hubris and its belief that it operates above the law.
Given the veil of secrecy that cloaks the nether world of espionage, no lay reader could hope to pass judgment on whether ``By Way of Deception'' is a work of fact or fiction. It should be taken rather as something suggestive, as a highly readable, vastly entertaining account of the way nations operate in a realm where democratic values often take a back seat to national security concerns.