Mossad Psychiatrist Speaks of Operatives’ Recruitment Process

April 2013

“The most difficult to foresee is the ability to deal with failure,” a well known Israeli psychiatrist said to me over coffee.“Some of them come to us with genuine confidence; others may exhibit it but really depend on ‘The Job’ to bolster their self esteem, to define who they are in their own eyes, to validate their personality.”

‘The Job’ my interviewee refers to is the desirable position of a Mossad operative. This well established practitioner and respected professor holds a job on the side, unknown to his colleagues and friends, as a consultant to Mossad, one of a few dozen psychologists and psychiatrists who take part in the screening process of Mossad candidates.

We were talking, of course, about Ben Zygier. After his story broke out in Israeli and international press, and two full years after his demise, the Mossad was pressured into starting an investigation of his recruitment process. Many of the critics commented, in hindsight, that his weaknesses should have been detected earlier, and this great tragedy could have been prevented by Mossad personnel, but the internal investigation found no fault in the recruitment process, my sources tell me.

The person I was talking to was not personally involved in the recruitment of Zygier, but many other candidates visited his private clinic in hope of becoming secret agents. He felt confident enough to rally behind his colleagues and say that the fault wasn’t in Zygier’s pre-recruitment psychological analysis.

“When screening for a place of employment, as you do in admissions committees for Israeli intelligence agencies, one has to allow for some flexibility. It is impossible to see everything and sometimes the candidates are sophisticated enough to hide problematic traits. The chances of predicting that a person will collapse under the strain of failure, or develop negative emotions towards the organization, are very slim.”

The psychiatrists meet the candidates on several occasions during their screening process, first of all in a one on one session meant mainly to detect negative traits that may disqualify them. “You are looking, for example, for signs of instability,” he says. “Let’s say someone has changed his place of employment too often. You need to find out why, and how does the candidate explain this failure to himself. Sometimes those candidates are simply not intelligent enough. Others are very intelligent, but don’t posses the flexibility that is required in order to take on a false identity.”

Sometimes, a single quality can be both good and bad. For example, the ability to lie is paramount for assuming a false identity, but any sign of dishonesty in reporting to your superiors is grounds for dismissal. That is why the criteria in the preliminary stages are not very strict: “It would be easy simply to disqualify everyone, but then the Mossad won’t have any recruits. You have to use a relatively wide funnel, through which people who posses mild imperfections can also pass on to the next levels.”

The next time he will see the recruits is in simulation tests, known in Mossad as ‘Evaluation Centre’. The simulations are carried out in front of a number of evaluators, amongst them psychiatrists and psychologists, but also officers of the relevant Mossad units to which the recruits may be assigned. “The officials who come from the units themselves have an advantage over me”, says the Mossad psychiatrist. “I don’t know exactly what’s the nature of the assignment. They don’t tell me, and the truth is I don’t really want to know. I’m only required to know the general outline.”

For those who make it through the screening process “in any case, there’s still a long training period ahead, and many tests the recruits must pass before they go out to the field in the name of Mossad.” Unfortunately for Zygier, his weaknesses weren’t detected during training either. Or if they were, his assets – foreign passport, look and behaviour, weighed in and he was assigned to a high stress undercover assignment.

Q: so what becomes of those who made it through, and can now call themselves Mossad operatives ?

“When they achieve their goals and build up a series of successes, their confidence is built correspondingly. For them, the job is extremely rewarding. But if they fail, it could be disastrous. Especially in a relatively small organization like Mossad, where every failure is known to everyone. You get marked as a failure, and this ‘tag’ sticks to you, and it proves difficult to shake off.”

This comment is a mere hint of what, from all accounts, Mossad life is like. Unlike what one might expect, for various internal reasons Mossad has actually relaxed its internal compartmentalization rules in recent decades, allowing many of the employees to be informed of operations they are not involved in. This means failures and successes have immediate impact on an operative’s social ranking, let alone their promotion. A Mossad veteran once said to me: “it’s like walking around with an electronic billboard that flashed your ‘score’, and believe me, Mossad people are ambitious, they are not graceful winners, and they are not kind to losers.”

That, in essence, is what Zygier had to face when his poor performance in the field landed him a desk job. His lifelong dream to become a super agent was shattered, leading to the tragic outcome. Mossad internal investigation now claims could not have been foreseen or prevented.

The full report of Zygier requirement by Mossad was published in “7 Days”, the weekly magazine of “Yedioth Ahronoth” on April 5, 2013

Read the first post in this series: “The Prisoner in Cell 15 – Investigating the Story of Prisoner X