On the afternoon of June 27, 2007, a man plunged to his death from the fourth-floor balcony of an upscale London apartment building. The dead man was quickly identified as Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser who had been revealed in 2002 as Israel’s most senior spy in the upper echelons of Egypt’s government. Whether he fell or was pushed has never been definitively established.
On the very day of his death, Marwan, 63, had been scheduled to meet with Dr. Ahron Bregman, the Israeli academic and journalist who had exposed him. In a 2002 interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, Bregman had identified Marwan as the long-rumored Egyptian agent, “Angel,” who warned Israel of a looming Egyptian attack on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. In fact, Bregman claimed in the interview, Marwan was a double agent, whose loyalty to Egypt prevailed at the moment of truth in 1973, so that he gave Israel deliberately inaccurate information about Egypt’s war plans.
Now, five years after Marwan’s death, Bregman is consumed by regret over his actions. In a telephone interview with The Times of Israel from London, Bregman describes exposing Marwan as a spy as “a tragic, colossal mistake.” But, he argues that others — members of the Israeli security establishment — should share his guilty conscience and have a great deal to answer for. For it was an Israeli security chief who formally confirmed that Marwan had spied for Israel, and who publicly battled with a rival Israeli security chief over whether Marwan’s loyalties lay primarily with Israel or Egypt. And Marwan met his death days after a leaked Israeli legal document that included his name was published online.
Ashraf Marwan’s death, in circumstances befitting a John le Carré thriller, was the culmination of a saga that had begun almost 40 years earlier, and has repercussions that are still being felt. A legal battle surrounding Marwan’s identity, and his loyalties, was resolved only last week.
Nasser’s son-in-law telephones
One day in 1969, a young Egyptian press secretary working in London called the Israeli Embassy. He claimed to be married to Nasser’s daughter Muna and offered his services to Israel. At first, the Mossad was wary of the dashing, self-confident Marwan, but after he produced the protocols of secret Soviet-Egyptian arms talks in Moscow, Mossad’s Europe chief Shmuel Goren became convinced of Marwan’s credentials and sincerity. He began working for the Mossad later that year and reportedly continued to do so well into the late 1970s.
It was in 1999 that Bregman began to suspect Marwan was the agent referred to as “Angel” in Israeli literature surrounding the Yom Kippur War. For three years he worked tirelessly to connect the dots and prove that Marwan and “Angel” were one and the same. During this period, he says, he sent Marwan a series of articles and documents implicating him, but received no response.
“I would send him articles I wrote about him, hoping that he would respond by saying I’m wrong,” says Bregman, “but he never responded. He actually knew me, without ever speaking to me, for three years.”
In September 2002, Bregman published a book titled “Israel’s Wars,” in which he all but identified Marwan. He wrote that the Egyptian “super spy” was a relative of president Nasser’s nicknamed “the son-in-law.” The Egyptian press turned to Marwan — the obvious man in question — but he denied Bregman’s allegations, calling them “a stupid detective story.” It was at that point, Bregman says, that he decided to expose Marwan conclusively in Al-Ahram.
‘It was a tragic, colossal mistake to expose him,’ says Bregman. ‘I was a big hero when I exposed him, but a very small one after he died’
“The immediate reason for exposing him was that I was deeply offended by what he had said,” Bregman acknowledges. “He had been my main project for three years. Here I am, trying to expose the most important spy in the Middle East. I was busy with other things at the time, but what really interested me was cracking this nut. Suddenly, here comes ‘the nut’ and calls my work a stupid detective story.”
Marwan’s statement was also a sign of weakness, says Bregman. “He blinked first.” Bregman had anticipated Marwan would deride the accusation and threaten legal action. “I had expected him to say ‘I am suing you for libel.’ But he didn’t say that, and I was later proven to be right,” says Bregman.
With no legal threat, the temptation to name Marwan proved irresistible. “He was the most important spy. Everyone spoke about him: [Moshe] Dayan, Golda [Meir], [Henry] Kissinger. He was the man. And here I was, someone who came out of nowhere. I had [the information] in my hand, and I simply had to reveal it. I couldn’t help but expose his name; it is the most primitive journalistic instinct.”
But it was an impulse, Bregman says now, that he should have resisted. Once he had identified Marwan in Al-Ahram, on December 22, 2002, he began to fear that the spy would be harmed — and “that’s exactly what happened.” Bregman doesn’t say definitively that Marwan was murdered, and he has no evidence, he says, as to who might have killed him if he was.
The concern for Marwan’s welfare became personal because, having ignored his correspondence since 1999, Marwan telephoned Bergman after the Al-Ahram interview appeared. The two men would maintain an improbable contact until the day of Marwan’s death, when they were supposed to meet at Kings College, London, where Bregman still teaches.
“It was a tragic, colossal mistake to expose him,” says Bregman. “I was a big hero when I did so, but a very small one after he died.” One of the lessons journalists must learn from this affair, he adds — stating something banal with the weary sigh of a man who internalized it too late — is to beware of exposing living spies, because of the high risk to their safety.
But Bregman refuses to carry the burden of guilt alone. He accuses the heads of Israel’s security apparatuses at the time of the Yom Kippur War, Mossad director Zvi Zamir and Military Intelligence director Eli Zeira, of squabbling over their honor at Marwan’s expense. Zeira confirmed that Marwan was a Mossad spy — and said he was a double agent — in a 2004 Israel TV interview. Zamir, who to this day believes in Marwan’s loyalty to Israel, went on the same show a week later to slam Zeira for citing Marwan’s name, ostensibly compromising Israel’s ability to recruit agents. Zeira sued Zamir for libel, prompting a court-ordered arbitration process that was settled in Zamir’s favor in early June 2007.
Following Marwan’s death, the Shin Bet began investigating Zeira over the TV interview. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided to close that case just last week.
The debate between Zamir and Zeira cuts to the core question of which Israeli intelligence agency was primarily to blame for Israel’s failure to preempt or even anticipate the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Agranat Commission, tasked with investigating the war, put most of the blame on Military Intelligence and its chief, Zeira. By arguing that Marwan was disloyal to his Mossad handlers, Zeira could hope to exonerate himself, at least partially.
Proponents of the “double agent theory,” including Bregman himself, claim that Marwan misled Israel on more than one occasion, most notably regarding the exact time of the Egyptian offensive across the Suez Canal, marking the start of the war. For what it’s worth, president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s wartime air force chief, denied that Marwan was an Israeli spy.
A leaked verdict
When Bregman notified Marwan that Zeira and Zamir were about to begin arbitration surrounding his case, Marwan was incredulous. “He responded with one word: ‘never’,” says Bregman. “He couldn’t believe that two generals who knew him would bicker openly like that. He was completely shocked by their behavior.”
The arbitration verdict was leaked to the Internet days before Marwan’s death. Bregman said he was flabbergasted to find an official arbitration document implicating Marwan as a “spy” in plain view online. When Marwan learned about this 10 days later, he called Bregman in a panic, leaving three messages on his answering machine. They scheduled an appointment to discuss the ruling the following day — the day Marwan died.
“Marwan felt abandoned by the Israelis,” Bregman says. “Marwan, who was a very wise man, turned me into his source. It was important for him to know what was being said about him in the Israeli press following the exposure… I also think he remained in touch with me in order to vent his anger at Israel. He couldn’t talk about this with anyone; not with his wife or kids. The only person to whom he could express his rage about the exposure was me” — ironically, the very man who had exposed him.
‘Marwan couldn’t believe that two generals who knew him would bicker openly like that. He was completely shocked by their behavior’
Bregman will not specify precisely how he worked out that Marwan was “Angel.” He flatly denies receiving Marwan’s name from Zeira, adding that the spy’s identity was independently known to many Israeli journalists, who refrained from revealing it for reasons of self-censorship.
“In Israel, journalists are first Israeli patriots and only then journalists,” says Bregman, who holds a doctorate in war studies and worked as an associate producer and academic consultant on the BBC series, “Israel and the Arabs: The 50 Years War,” in 2004. “After 25 years in England, I act differently. Here the borders of censorship don’t exist in the same way.”
Five years after Marwan’s death, the inner workings of his psyche remain a mystery, even to the man who exposed and knew him. So Bregman has launched a new campaign. He is calling on Marwan’s sole Mossad handler, whose name is protected by military censorship, to step forward and disclose his information on Marwan, settling once and for all the debate surrounding the spy’s ultimate loyalty.
“It is very important that [Marwan’s Mossad handler] speaks,” says Bregman. “I believe he was misled by Marwan, and that led to the whole tragic chain of events.”