Meir Dagan: The Spy Who Learned the Limits of Power

April 14, 2016

On March 17, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan passed away at the age of 71. An examination of Dagan’s career illuminates how creative thinking and bold approaches can enable intelligence organizations to adjust to changing environments, while at the same time demonstrating that the use of power has its own limitations. It also sheds light on several key issues regarding the relationship between policymakers and senior intelligence officers and how politics is always a part of the equation.

Dagan began his military career in Israel’s Paratroopers Brigade and participated in the Six-Day War. In 1970 he was directed to establish the controversial “Rimon,” a special operations commando unit that focused on fighting terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Dagan continued climbing up the military ladder; among his various roles, he was one of the founders of the South Lebanon Army, a militia which operated in southern Lebanon with Israeli support. After 33 years of active service, he retired and began working closely with several prime ministers — including Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. The latter appointed him as head of Mossad in 2002, and his term was extended both by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and later by Netanyahu. In 2011, he retired after serving almost 50 years in the Israeli security world.

Dagan was one of the most courageous, resourceful and successful heads of Mossad. During his eight years at the helm, he brought about deep changes in the structure and operations of the agency. He adjusted the Mossad to a new set of challenges: new types of sophisticated terror, arms smuggling, the cyber domain, and (above all) the attempts to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities. During his term, the Mossad focused primarily on the operational aspect of intelligence work — i.e., covert (though sometimes loud) operations.

Dagan was known as a “political animal” who could work closely with the Israeli leadership despite his sometimes belligerent character. As required, he worked closely with Sharon and Olmert, with whom he kept excellent working relations. His relations with Benjamin Netanyahu and former Minister of Defense Ehud Barak were not so close. According to interviews he gave after his retirement, he frequently clashed with the two, mainly around the issue of a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Dagan believed that Netanyahu and Barak’s plan to attack these facilities would damage Israel’s strategic interests, as it would give the Iranians justification to turn onto a nuclear military path and would push Tehran to retaliate via its Hezbollah and other terrorist proxies.

As his views on Iran suggest, instead of emphasizing massive military power, Dagan was a man who emphasized covert and surgical operations. Inspired by his days in the Gaza Strip back in the 1970s, where he used covert practices to combat terrorists, he believed that new types of threats require innovative countermeasures. One of the WikiLeaks papers reveals that in 2007, Dagan recommended that the Americans combat Iran by supporting dissidents and minorities within Iran. In addition, during his term at least five Iranian scientists linked to the nuclear program were assassinated, and mysterious events of sabotage against equipment related to Iran’s nuclear program occurred — for instance by way of the Stuxnet virus. In addition, according to WikiLeaks papers and reports by prominent media outlets, during Dagan’s term the Mossad was also deeply involved in the 2008 assassinations of Hezbollah “Minister of Defense” Imad Mornina and Muhamad Suleiman, a special advisor to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad who was in charge of Syrian military support for Hezbollah. Though Israel never claimed responsibility for these acts, it is likely that Dagan was the driving force behind them. Dagan’s last year in office was linked to the death of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas military commander, in Dubai — an event attributed to the Mossad that caused serious diplomatic tension between Britain, Australia and Israel after the Dubai police revealed that the assassins had used forged U.K. and Australian passports.

Despite these tactical successes of Dagan’s Mossad, one can rightly question the success of the overall efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. After all, despite the almost unlimited resources the Mossad had received in order to stop Iran’s nuclear plan, it was international economic pressure that convinced the Iranian leadership to engage in talks with the West and stall its nuclear race.

After retiring from the Mossad, the tension between Dagan and Netanyahu became more public. Dagan became a loud critic of Netanyahu’s foreign and domestic policy, especially with regard to the prime minister’s plans (or the lack thereof) for the Palestinian issue. In an aggressive speech in 2015, Dagan attacked Netanyahu’s lack of leadership and his unwillingness to engage in a peace process with the Palestinians. Dagan claimed that the prime minister’s policy would turn Israel into a binational state, bringing about the end of the Zionist dream. He also criticized Netanyahu’s behavior towards the United States in general, and President Obama in particular. Such an attack by a former head of Mossad is extremely rare, but not totally unprecedented: Yuval Diskin, who served as head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) in parallel to Dagan has also harshly criticized Netanyahu’s policy regarding the Palestinian and Iranian issues.

The nature of Dagan’s leadership and strategic vision come further into focus when one considers his successor as head of Mossad: Tamir Pardo, who has just recently retired. Pardo was the exact opposite of Dagan: more conservative and more collegial with his bosses, though he did not always see eye-to-eye with Netanyahu on Israel’s strategic challenges. However, unlike Dagan, who brought this debate out into the public, Pardo was and still is discreet, keeping his critique behind closed doors. The two also represent different approaches to the profession of intelligence in general: While Dagan strongly believed in old-school covert but kinetic operations (e.g., assassinations), Pardo invested a great deal of effort and resources in the cyber domain, believing it to be Israel’s main future battlefield. While Dagan’s term was characterized by significant structural, personal and organizational changes, whose main purpose was to promote the agency’s operational capabilities, Pardo reacted differently and strived to improve the agency’s technological capabilities.

There is no dispute that it is high time for a significant transformation of the Israeli intelligence community. The rapid pace of change in the strategic environment, the growing dominance of the cyber domain, new forms of enemies (e.g., the Islamic State), new sources of information and information overload, the convergence of the public and the private sectors, and new ways to conduct intelligence analysis all are changing the profession of intelligence. Coping with these challenges requires brave and innovative leadership able to bring the Israeli intelligence community into the 21st century. With new heads of the Shin Bet, Mossad and the Research Division of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate (AMAN) — all appointed in recent months — there might be a certain momentum and willingness for this kind of change. Given the conservative nature of the community, it needs both more brave managers like Dagan and more updated and technologically oriented approaches such as those of Pardo.


Dr. Shay Hershkovitz is Wikistrat’s Chief Strategy Officer. He is also an adjunct professor at the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University and at Bar-Ilan University.