In an interview with Ilana Dayan on Channel 12’s “Uvda” documentary series Thursday night, recently retired Mossad chief Yossi Cohen spoke with unprecedented detail and candor about his career, actions to thwart Iran, his ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and more. What follows is an English transcript provided by Channel 12 with highlights from the program. (Dayan’s questions are in italics.)
The operation to retrieve the Iranian nuclear archives: The material was transferred digitally immediately after the break-in, even before the operatives left Iran.
This is possibly the moment that defined his term – partly because of the actual operation, but even more so because of what happened following it.
It happens on the last day of January 2018. Yossi Cohen sits in the Mossad’s Command Center in Tel Aviv and eagerly awaits a report from the field, while a Mossad force is preparing to break into a complex on the outskirts of Tehran, where the Iranian nuclear archive is stored. Now, for the first time, he speaks openly about the details of this operation: That night, we discover, is the highlight of an operation started two years prior, when the Mossad gets information according to which the Iranians are storing the nuclear archive in an unknown complex.
The force that was to carry out the operation included some twenty agents, none of whom is Israeli. Shortly before the operation, an identical complex is built in a different country; that is where training for the operation takes place. “We understood the internal structure of the site, and the order of containers,” Cohen remembers.
On the day of the operation, the team is set to break in at 22:00. “We had seven hours to complete,” Cohen explains. “In the morning, trucks, guards and workers arrive. There is an audience and you can’t jump over fences and break walls.” Now, Cohen reveals that a moment before breaking into the complex, a report was received about a new development that put the whole operation at risk. “We had a problem’, Cohen says, “something we didn’t know about appeared.” Despite the problem, Cohen decides to allow the operation to go on as planned and to authorize the Mossad team to break into the complex.
In the Tel Aviv command center, the sounds and images arrive in real-time. “Only when we broke into the massive safes and we started getting the images and descriptions in Persian that we read online, we understood that we had what we wanted: we are looking at the Iranian nuclear military plan.”
Cohen makes the phone call to the Prime Minister as the agents exit the complex. “I inform him that the first part of the operation is complete, now we are bringing it home, under this chase.”
Mossad agents use digital means to transfer to the command center part of the materials stolen, while they are on the move, fearing they will be caught before they can cross the border. The materials, in their entirety, reach Israel, but it takes time for them to cross the border. When asked if all the members of the force made it safely out of the operation, Cohen replies: “They are all well, they are all alive,” but confirms some agents had to be rescued from Iran.
The press conference that revealed the operation: “A decision like that is bigger than the Head of the Mossad”
On 20 April 2018, three months after the operation, Netanyahu convenes a press conference that makes headlines all around the world. When he reveals the dozens of binders and over 100 discs, the Prime Minister tells how Mossad agents stole the Iranian nuclear archive and informs the world – “Iran lied”. The exposure causes great criticism of Cohen, for allowing the Prime Minister to use a field operation for political gain. Cohen refutes the criticism and says: “I don’t remember who was the first to come up with the idea to expose the operation.”
Did the idea come from the Mossad?
“It doesn’t matter now. It’s exciting that the idea was brought up, I thought it was a wonderful idea. However, he confirms that the decision was not his: “It was not a matter of my decision, exposing this kind of material is bigger than any head of Mossad. There was a discussion on the Heads of Services Committee, at the Prime Minister’s office.”
Did any of the heads of services object?
“Quite the opposite.”
Was there a discussion about it within the Mossad?
“Of course there was a discussion. and none of the heads of services objected.”
In relation to the criticism directed at him, Cohen says: “I can claim professional integrity. I believe that the exposure of the intelligence, and not the operation, should have been done in the way that it did.” It was important to us that the world sees it. But this thing should also have resonated with Iranian leadership. To tell them, “Dear friends, one – you are vulnerable. Second – we see you. Third – the time of hiding and lies has ended.”
In recent years, Cohen has become the close partner in secret of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He accompanies him on every important trip, and acts as political envoy for special matters, a Foreign Minister and advisor in one. “I think we are thought of, not as a single unit, but as…”
It that something you are uncomfortable with?
“I am very comfortable with it. The very helpful trust there between myself and the Prime Minister helps both the operational activity of the Mossad, and its development, but I also know at the most intimate level with myself, that I pay a price for that”.
To the repeated claim that Cohen has given up the independence of the Mossad in order to become close to the Prime Minister, Cohen replies: “If you saw our heated discussions in which I find myself, there is no need to prove I am my own man, because I am. My work is a mission, I don’t work for a Prime Minister.”
As to the criticism against him when it was discovered last March he acted to arrange a visit in the Emirates for Netanyahu, he dismisses it. “The Mossad work plan is not affected in any way by the political situation or elections”.
But the calendar doesn’t lie, you sweat to get the Prime Minister a visit in Abu Dhabi the same weeks as the elections.
“This visit was supposed to take place on a number of occasions since August 2020. It simply didn’t happen mostly due to COVID-19 and lockdowns. I tell you – I wish the visit had taken place. the King of Bahrain was also supposed to arrive. Yes, so they will say ‘The Head of Mossad works for…”, let them say it. It’s not that I am unaware of the criticism in Israel, I think that despite it I always look at what it right for the State of Israel.
The battle against Iran: Sometimes we offer scientists a change of career.
In the last year there have been two explosions at the enrichment plant in Natanz, causing significant damage to the site, and believed to have been caused by Mossad. In the first case, last July, a table exploded in the upper hall. In the second, last April, an explosion in the electrical system, destroyed a large part of the centrifuges. Both operations caused severe damage to the site, Israel didn’t take responsibility for either.
If we were to land at Natanz, where would you take me first?
“To the cellar. Because that is where the spinning centrifuges are located”, says Cohen and specifies: “Those that used to spin. Nowadays, the cellar doesn’t look like it used to.”
At the end of November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of the Iranian nuclear bomb was killed as he traveled in a guarded convoy with his wife. Foreign press told of an operation that could have been taken out of a movie: A heavy machine gun, placed on a Nissan truck parked at the side of the road, was activated remotely, and self-destroyed after killing the top scientist.
Cohen does not take responsibility for a specific operation, but reveals, for the first time, the behind-the-scenes. “If the scientist is willing to change career”, Cohen explains, “and will not hurt us anymore, than yes, sometimes we offer them.”
Did you ever approach an Iranian scientist – I just give an example – and he understood who was approaching him and says: ‘Dear friend, perhaps you want to become a piano teacher?”
Do they understand the alternative?
“They see their friends.”
Do they know who approached them?
“Even if they don’t, they understand what’s behind it.”
The check by billionaire James Packer: I was wrong, the money will be returned.
Yossi Cohen, Head of Mossad, admits he was wrong to accept from billionaire James Packer a gift worth 20,000 US Dollars for his daughter’s wedding – as exposed by Haaretz journalist Gidi Weiss. For the first time he talks about the incident, claims to have accepted the funds after consulting the Mossad’s legal advisor, and commits to return the gift.
Over the years, questions have been raised about the close relationship of Cohen with several moguls. One of these, is his friendship with Australian gambling giant James Packer, who became known as the person who supplied a steady flow of gifts to the Netanyahu’s, together with Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, as indicated in Case 1000.
Cohen confirms he was a guest at Packer’s luxury suite at the Tel Aviv Royal Beach hotel, while Packer was there, and that he considered an offer to enter a partnership with Milchan and Packer in a cyber-firm they established, for a $10 million signing bonus. To our question about whether he felt his connection with Packer was problematic, Cohen replied: “If I felt this was a problem, I would avoid any contact. Business people who are in contact with heads of organizations or heads of state, are part of the social milieu of all us. including my own milieu”.
The agreement with the Emirates: It was necessary to neutralize the Mabhouh bomb during the negotiations.
The personal relationship with Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was nurtured by Cohen through secret trips in private planes. But before that, a painful subject had to be resolved: The elimination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the top Hamas operative in his hotel room in Dubai, that was believed to have been carried out by the Mossad. That elimination ended with the exposure of the agents who participated in the operation. Cohen reveals that the exposure “totally changed the way undercover organizations work.” As to the way the al-Mabhouh elimination affected the connection with bin Zayed, he says: “We completed that first.”
Did you know in advance this was an obstacle you would have to overcome?
“Yes. Clearly this issue had to be on the table, and it was. And we took care of it. and removed this obstacle.”
The battle against Hamas: I was wrong to transfer the Qatari money to Gaza.
Cohen admits that after the Hamas attack last May, he changed his opinion on the way the issue of the Gaza Strip should be handled. Cohen, who had a significant role in creating the infrastructure that allowed the transfer of money from Qatar to Gaza, now sincerely says ‘I was wrong’. “I can say what I thought. I thought we had an agreement. I believe that I truly thought that is the population in Gaza will get used to living in even slightly better conditions, allowing improvement of their civil infrastructure, not their military one, I thought their lives would improve, and their motivation for conflict and war will decrease. I was probably wrong. I was wrong.”