Earth & Conservation

Why Are Israel's Spies So Controversial?

Out of the world's spy organizations, Israel's Mossad is one of the most secretive. So how much do we know about Mossad and its operations?

Read enough spy novels and you'll get the distinct impression that Israeli's foreign intelligence service Mossad is a formidable entity. It's the spy agency that other spy agencies are afraid of.

In this Seeker Daily report, we ask ourselves -- quietly, nervously: What do we really know about Mossad?

Well, we know it has a very controversial reputation. Mossad operatives have been implicated in everything from the deep-cover infiltration of other governments to highly disturbing extrajudicial executions.

As with most spy organizations, specific details are hard to come by. Mossad is one Israel's five major intelligence agencies and is considered the primary foreign intelligence service. As such, it's enormously secretive and reports directly to the Israeli prime minister.

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It's believed that the agency was founded around 1950, and is relatively small for a global intelligence gathering operation. Compare Mossad's estimated 1,200 personal to its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, which has upwards of 20,000 employees.

One of the agency's primary tasks involves the exfiltration of Jewish refugees from countries where they are persecuted or attacked. In recent years, Mossad has helped thousands of Jews escape countries like Syria, Iran and Ethiopia, and emigrate to Israel.

The Mossad has also rather famously tracked down many Nazi war criminals who escaped Germany and other Axis countries after World War II. In one of its most famous operations, Mossad operatives found Adolf Eichmann hiding out in Argentina, 15 years after the end of the war. Eichmann was tried in Israel and hanged in 1962.

However, human rights groups have harshly criticized Mossad for its unsettling record of extrajudicial assassinations. In 2006, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that its foreign agents were allowed to kill suspected terrorists as a legitimate form of preemptive self defense. Mossad agents have been suspected of killing many high-ranking members of Hamas and Hezbollah, both considered terrorist groups by Israel and the U.S.

Mossad's secrecy is legendary, so we may never know the true extent of the agency's reach and power.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

Encyclopedia Britannica: Mossad

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Aliyah Bet

University of Pennsylvania: Israeli Targeted Killing Case

The Gaurdian: Adolf Eichmann's capture, as told by the Mossad, in Israel exhibition