David Barnea is going to walk softly and carry a big stick — or so he’s been saying to Mossad’s workforce and alumni.
The new head of Israel’s storied foreign intelligence agency recently sent a stern directive to its former senior intelligence officials: Keep your mouths shut until I say you can open them.
According to Yossi Melman, a veteran intelligence reporter for the independent Israeli daily Haaretz, Barnea warned former senior Mossad officials that he would punish anyone who speaks to the media, either on or off the record, about current or past Israeli spy operations without his prior permission.
“Which he probably won’t grant,” Melman told SpyTalk.
In Israel’s closely-knit society, directives from the head of the Mossad apply to anyone in the agency’s orbit, including the so-called “formers.” Barnea’s omerta order most likely means the details of past Mossad operations will remain shrouded in secrecy under his leadership. It also suggests that the agency’s background briefings for reporters about current operations — rare in the best of times — also will be cut.
Since taking the helm of Mossad in June, Barnea has rejected all requests for media interviews.
“He plans to bring Mossad back to the old days when silence was golden,” Melman says.
The order also represents an abrupt pivot away from the high public profile of Barnea’s predecessor at the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, who frequently briefed reporters on current intelligence matters and gave public speeches. Cohen even allowed himself to be photographed as he met separately last year with the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to negotiate what eventually became their diplomatic recognition of Israel.
Unlike Cohen, whose dark good looks and penchant for tailored suits invited comparisons by the Israeli media to James Bond, Barnea, 56, prefers to remain in the shadows. In the few photographs of him that have appeared in the Israeli media, the graying, slender spymaster has bland, unremarkable facial features that make for the ideal spy — what former CIA Director William Colby once called “a face a waiter would forget.”
But like Cohen and the late Meir Dagan, another former Mossad chief, Barnea is aggressively action-oriented, which sets him apart from most previous Mossad directors, says Ronen Bergman, author of “Rise and Kill First,“ a book that details the Mossad’s history of assassinations.
Those previous spymasters saw the Mossad’s main mission as “the collection of intelligence and the preparation of capabilities to be used in special operations as a last resort,” Bergman told SpyTalk, whereas Barnea “focuses more on the collection of more immediate intelligence that can be translated into tactical operations aimed at achieving strategic change.”
Translation: assassination and sabotage operations against the key figures and facilities of Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel regards as an existential threat.
David Barnea was born in 1965 in Ashkelon, an Israeli port city on the Mediterranean a few miles north of the Gaza Strip, to a moderately religious family. His father was a toddler when his family fled to British-Mandate Palestine from Germany in 1933 following Hitler’s rise to power, changing the family surname from Brunner to Barnea, after an ancient town in biblical Israel. Barnea grew up in middle class surroundings outside Tel Aviv, where his father, a retired army lieutenant colonel, directed a communications company. His mother, a Holocaust survivor from Europe, worked as a school teacher.
Nearly all young Israelis are obligated to sign up for military service, three years for men, about two years for women. In a sign of things to come, Barnea was assigned to the Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. Service in the special ops unit has been a highly respected credential among top Israeli political and national security figures, Ilana Dayan, a prominent Israeli investigative reporter and military veteran herself, told SpyTalk. To help prepare for the unit’s rigorous physical and mental requirements in 1982, Barnea and a blind army veteran rode a tandem bicycle from Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea port, to the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh on the southern tip of the then-Israeli-occupied Sinai peninsula — and then back, a roundtrip of roughly 310 miles.
After finishing his active duty army service in 1986, Barnea came to America to study economics and finance at the New York Institute of Technology’s School of Management, which was followed by an MBA from Pace University. Returning to Israel, he worked for several years as an investment banker in Tel Aviv. But according to people familiar with his background, Barnea grew bored with banking, and in 1996, shaken by a series of terrorist bombings and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a rightwing Jewish extremist a few months earlier, he joined the Mossad.
Barnea trained as a case officer, or spy handler, for a year and half before Mossad sent him to Europe, where he excelled in recruiting agents, according to friends. He spent more than a decade in human intelligence operations, rising to become Mossad’s European station chief, the agency’s busiest operations station. Barnea’s experience as an investment banker boosted the quality and scope of his intelligence work, helping him set up front companies in Europe and South East Asia to infiltrate spies into Iran, says Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of “Spies Against Armageddon,” a history of Mossad.
Barnea returned to Israel to serve several years as the deputy chief of Mossad’s Keshet unit, whose highly trained technical teams specialize in surveillance, break-ins, bugging, safe-cracking and sabotage operations in both hostile and non-hostile countries.
In 2019, Barnea was tapped to head all of Mossad’s operations worldwide, which made him the agency’s principal deputy director under Yossi Cohen. In that capacity, he assisted his CIA counterparts in the U.S. operation that targeted Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, fabled leader of the elite Quds special operations forces of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Soleimani had built the network of pro-Iran Shiite militias responsible for attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and against Israel from bases in Lebanon and Syria. On January 3, 2020, an American drone, reportedly guided by Israeli agents on the ground, killed Soleimani and an pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leader in a missile strike at Baghdad International Airport.
“David was an exceptionally supportive partner in important joint work then underway by the U.S. and Israeli services,” Stephen B. Slick, a 30-year veteran of the CIA who knows Barnea personally from his stint as the agency’s station chief in Tel Aviv, told SpyTalk. He characterized Barnea as “an impressive intelligence professional with deep experience in field operations.” He declined to share any additional details.
Likewise, other CIA “formers” contacted by SpyTalk declined to venture beyond generalities when asked about Barnea. “He is a serious officer,” retired senior CIA operations official and Iran specialist Norman Roule said. “Experienced, a good manager, and capable of leading Mossad well as it confronts regional challenges.”
Unlike some of his predecessors, Barnea had no public profile before he was named Mossad chief, notes former Mossad officer Avner Avraham.
“He operated over the years in secrecy, and his name was revealed to the public [only] after his appointment,” Avraham told SpyTalk. But the media landscape today is far different than just a few years ago, he says, when Israelis were told little about their national security agencies, much less the name of their chiefs. Now, “they have an official website through which you can contact them,” said Avraham, founder and chairman of the international agency Spylegends.com.
Still, Barnea has already amassed a legend. As Mossad’s operations chief, Barnea is also credited with supervising the November 2020 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as he drove his car in small resort town just east of Tehran.
According to a recent account of the assassination in the New York Times,the operation used a computerized machine gun tricked out with artificial intelligence to account for gun sight recoil, plus multiple cameras to positively identify Fakhrizadeh and keep watch for any interference. The weapon’s computer was linked via satellite to a sniper in Israel, who remotely squeezed the trigger more than a thousand miles away. Three bullets to Fakhrizadeh’s spine killed him instantly, according to the account. The accuracy of the weapon left Fakhrizadeh’s wife, who sat beside him in the car, untouched.
Fakhrizadeh’s high-tech assassination exemplified what Barnea’s colleagues call his “out-of-the-box” approach to Mossad operations. It also underscored his fascination with technology and gadgets and his determination to upgrade Mossad operations with more use of them. Though he’s only been in the director’s chair for four months, Barnea has already begun to create new units that place a heavy emphasis on cyber and high-tech, Melman said. In that, he’s much like the bosses of the CIA and other spy services worldwide.
Fakhrizadeh was the sixth and highest ranking Iranian nuclear scientist to be killed by the Israelis since they began their ruthless shadow war against Iran and its nuclear program more than two decades ago. Barnea also directed the sophisticated cyber attack on Iran’s primary uranium enrichment facility in Natanz in April of this year. That attack knocked out a power station some 150 feet underground, destroying or damaging thousands of centrifuges.
Only the Beginning
When Barnea took up the Mossad director’s post in June, he warned more attacks were coming.
“The Iranian nuclear program will continue to be met with the full power of the long arm of the Mossad,” Barnea said in a statement at his induction ceremony, which was released to the press. “We are very familiar with the different components of the nuclear program, and we are very familiar personally with the officials involved in it and also with the officials who direct them.”
Barnea’s muscular approach, which is shared by Israel’s current government and defense establishment, has highlighted a gap between the Israeli and U.S. strategies for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.
The Biden administration seeks a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, negotiated during the Obama administration, under which Iran curtailed its nuclear program in return for a lifting of international sanctions. Israel opposed the accord, arguing it did not provide Israel with enough security from the possibility Iran could still develop a nuclear bomb after the accord’s provision expired in 10 years. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vociferous public criticism of the accord, his collaboration with Republican lawmakers to kill it in Congress, and his efforts to drag the United States into a war with Iran deeply angered and alienated the Obama White House.
In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord, and at Netanyahu’s urging, implemented a so-called “maximum pressure” policy of crippling economic sanctions in an attempt to force Iran to abandon both its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and end its support for its proxy militias across the Middle East. At the same time, the Mossad stepped up its shadow war against Iran, attacking its uranium enrichment facilities and killing its nuclear scientists.
But Iran refused to buckle and stepped up its nuclear program, advancing its uranium enrichment closer to the 90 percent level needed for weapons grade nuclear fuel. Iran also cited the Israeli attacks as a pretext to halt United Nations nuclear inspections.
With Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, U.S. policy shifted to a diplomatic effort to return to the 2015 nuclear accord. The U.S. and Iranian officials appeared close to a deal after six rounds of indirect negotiations in Vienna. Meanwhile, Israel’s leadership also changed earlier this year as a national unity government comprised of rightwing and leftwing parties took power. The new government also opposes the 2015 nuclear agreement, but it has agreed to voice its objections in private while retaining the right to act independently against Iran. That’s where Barnea comes in.
In June, Iran’s leadership changed as well as President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and former head of Iran’s judiciary, was elected. So far, his new negotiating team has not said when it will return to the Vienna talks. According to U.S. officials, it is also unclear whether they will accept what was previously agreed upon.
In Washington earlier this month, senior U.S. and Israeli officials held strategic talks about Iran’s nuclear program, which is now enriching uranium to the 60 percent level, a short step away from weapons grade nuclear fuel. Meanwhile, Barnea, who takes his orders from the prime minister, appears to be holding off on further operations against Iran while the officials try to reach agreement on a common approach.
With the Vienna talks stalled, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has told U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan that Israel fears Iran is becoming a “nuclear threshold state” and has urged the Biden administration to intensify sanctions and sabotage operations against Iran before it’s too late. Israel also has asked the administration for a deadline for its decision on what policy it’s going to adopt.
The administration is now weighing its policy options. While it recognizes the need to counter Iran’s latest nuclear advances, U.S. officials say they’re concerned the kind of pressure Israel is proposing could backfire, provoking Iran into further expediting its nuclear program. So for now, joint U.S-Israeli working groups are assessing Iran’s economy to identify vulnerabilities and which pressure points could end up being counterproductive.
Jerusalem has told the administration it understands its position. “We know they are looking for the right balance, but we want to know how long it’s going to take,” an Israeli official told Axios‘ Barak Ravid.
But with Iran’s nuclear clock ticking, that’s a question that Barnea and his superiors aren’t likely to leave unanswered for very long.
Jeff Stein also contributed to this story.
This article by Jonathan Broder first appeared on Spytalk.co.
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