Seeking An Ethics Verdict On Rafi Eitan [Updated]

“In principle, when there is a war on terror you conduct it without principles. You simply fight it.”

So said Rafi Eitan, the legendary Israeli spymaster and Mossad operative in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in 2010. Is that the credo of a hero or a villain?  When he died last week at the age of 92, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Mr. Eitan “among the heroes of the intelligence services of the State of Israel.” Is “hero of intelligence services” an oxymoron? Eitan’s credo certainly justifies murder, torture and extra-legal activities; indeed, it justifies almost anything. That’s not ethics, it’s the opposite: the ends justify the means, tit for tat, vengeance, and  scorched earth warfare without the inconvenience of a formal declaration of war. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert eulogized Eitan as “a smart, cunning and sharp person, who remained capable until his last day”, and praised him as one of “the most intelligent, competent, responsible and creative ministers in the government.” Boy, he sounds like a great guy, if you forget about all the killing.

Eitan, his various obituaries tell us, counted among his more spectacular exploits in support of his nation such operations as  the surgical strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the systematic assassinations of the Palestinians responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and the theft of at least 100 pounds of  enriched uranium from a nuclear fuel plant in the Pittsburgh area to assist Israel in its atomic bomb program. Eitan was the handler of Jonathan Pollard, the traitorous American Navy intelligence analyst who turned  over thousands of classified documents to Israel as its spy, and architect of  the operation that has been most celebrated in the various articles in the wake of his death, the capturing of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960.

Hero or villain? The attack on Iraq was a violation of international law. The Palestinian terrorists were murdered—executed?— without a trial.  Theft is theft; stealing another countries secrets is illegal. Eitan’s kidnapping of Eichmann, who was secretly spirited out of that country, was condemned by Argentina as a violation of its sovereignty and  international law, because it was. If we judge these activities as ethically acceptable, then the slippery slope leads straight down; it is no longer a slope. For example, the Times obituary, noting Argentina’s objections to having foreign agents illegally grab a resident and smuggle him to another country to be hanged, writes, “but [the operation] was met with deep satisfaction and vindication by tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors.” Oh! The illegal act was met with satisfaction by those who had good reason to want Eichmann dead! That makes it’s OK then!


There are too many movies, novels, factual histories and philosophical treatises to count on the topic of how international intelligence  is an ethics-free zone, but what are the implications of that condition? I’m not suddenly addicted to rhetorical questions: I really don’t know. The argument made by the spies, assassins, spooks, and spymasters is that civilization is impossible without these dark ops patriots who shy away from nothing to foil enemies who are similarly unbound by principles of decency, fairness, or restraint. They become monsters to fight monsters; they sacrifice their humanity to preserve humanity.

That makes them heroes—martyrs—right? Yet necessary evils are still evil.

I don’t have an answer for this conundrum, and I have been thinking about it for a long time. I only know this: a society that regards a man like Rafi Eitan as a hero isn’t just looking into Nietzsche‘s abyss, it’s already in it.

23 thoughts on “Seeking An Ethics Verdict On Rafi Eitan [Updated]

  1. Well, when you put it that way…

    Reminds me of how I describe DCF (Dept. of Children & Families); a necessary evil, but pure, unadulterated evil nonetheless.

  2. Intelligence work, which involves finding out secrets in a secretive way, and clandestine operations, whose name says it all, are both by nature morally and ethically in a gray area. That goes double when you’re fighting a low-level or asymmetrical conflict, like the Peninsular War, like the Anglo-Irish War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, like the low-level brush wars in Central America, and like what’s still going on with ISIS and in Afghanistan.

    It would be easy to dismiss a lot of this by saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” and indeed Michael Collins and crew are thought of as national heroes by some, even though they used terroristic tactics, but that’s just moral and ethical abdication.

    The best I can do is to say, as has been pointed out in the past here, that no system of ethics or morality is perfect, and sometimes it comes down to weighing the good to be done by the end against the dirty or wrong nature of the means. The objective in war and diplomacy is to guard your interests and if necessary to win, not to lose ethically. Too often there’s too much to lose and too many to get hurt if you fail. Too often the truth is important enough that it needs Churchill’s “bodyguard of lies.” Unfortunately, too often the battle is only won by being ruthless, and it’s your job for the people counting on you to be ruthless enough to win.

    Now, we talk about who is a hero. When I was about 26 (so about 1996) and had spent only a year in the real world after 20 years of school, I made a list of who I thought were the 30 most evil villains to blight this world. I made a list of the 30 greatest heroes at the same time as well. I thought then that it was very easy to define heroes, while villains were more complicated in terms of their motivations, origins, and so on. Maybe it is – when you’re not that far removed from your teens and comic books and summer blockbusters, where the central figure is always the great fighter, great leader, and great lover – he’s the one you want to be. Who wouldn’t want to be the one who solves all the problems, deals the bad guy a deserved beating or worse, and gets the hot girl in the end?

    Much later in life, having learned as much or more than I learned in a few years in an academic fishbowl, and having largely seen through storytelling and drama for what they are, I have come to know that defining heroism in the real world, away from the Russell Crowes and the Ryan Goslings, is a much more complicated undertaking. No one’s whole life and worth can be encompassed in a two-hour film, and almost no one’s life spun out that neatly. Many in history performed heroic acts, but to live heroic lives, worthy always of emulation? That’s another matter altogether, and almost placing the bar too high.
    This is without even going into the question of what constitutes a heroic act or heroic behavior, which is largely about personal interpretation. Is it more heroic to actually fight the enemy down in the dirt, or to command a huge army perfectly? Is it more heroic to get the information that makes the victory possible at the risk of life and limb? What about explorers who challenge the unknown, not knowing if they are going to return? Emergency workers who dash into flames or collapses that everyone else is fleeing from? The list goes on and on.

    The list I made back then was one you might expect from a conventionally educated person who read somewhat outside the box, but was of the opinion that only conflict produces heroes: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, George Patton, Charles De Gaulle, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Joshua L. Chamberlain, Godfrey de Bouillon, Richard I Plantagenet (aka Lionheart), Henry V, Ferdinand III, Spartacus, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Judas Maccabeus, Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Count Camillo di Cavour, Rodrigo de Bivar (aka El Cid), Kemal Ataturk, Josef Pilsudski, Alexander Nevsky, David Farragut, Horatio Nelson, John J. Pershing, Ferdinand Foch, and Brian Boru. It’s also definitely a list compiled by an American, who just happened to be in touch with his Italian heritage, to have read up on medieval Spain, who believed in the Crusades, and who thought he knew more about the WWI period than others. Other folks might have very different lists. Not a single woman or person of color made my list (unless you count Ataturk). Five are kings. Many more are generals. I might well reconsider some of these folks as being morally not right or of insufficient continuing influence to make the list. There are some other folks I would add, but a list of 30 isn’t a list of 50.

    Heroism can’t be defined one way or by one list so short. At a bare minimum it needs several lists: for kings, for high commanders, for actual warriors, for those who fight in the sea, the sky, and the shadow, for explorers, for first responders, and so on. Apropos of this discussion, there is and should be a place for what I termed here the heroes of the shadow – the spies, intelligence officers, and so on, who work in the shadows either to get the other heroes the information they need, or who take direct action in secret when overt action would be counterproductive. Without them, the others would have great trouble doing their jobs, and subacute problems could become acute. They DO sacrifice a part of their humanity to do their jobs, but they are necessary jobs. Something dies in you when you successfully deceive your way into stealing a key piece of information, or betray a confidence because it’s your job to get into someone’s confidence and pass along what he tells you, or you shoot a designated bad guy from a distance and never let him see the bullet coming, because your assignment is to neutralize him. However, other folks might die for real if you don’t pass that stick drive along, or get your “friend” to tell you all he knows, or take out that bad guy. It’s a dirty, ambiguous, but necessary trade to make, because we saw what happened when Frank Church tried to trash the intelligence capability of this country. It is not good and not desirable.

    In the end intelligence people like Rafi Eitan are professionals who have a job to do, he did it exceptionally well, and he served his nation’s interests. I say leave the anti-intelligence sentiments to the campus activists and ivory tower academics. In the real world there are shadows, shades of gray, and choices that sometimes can’t go morally. I better stop there, or I might start my Jack Nicholson impression and recite the “world with walls” speech from A Few Good Men.

    • Well stated, Steve. You have mentioned that list before, and the idea of composing such a list has been bouncing around my Rush-addicted brain. My list includes some of the names on your list (e.g., MacArthur, Churchill, Patton, Lincoln, Reagan, King, Twain); my list also includes many musicians who have changed the ways we listen to and appreciate music (e.g., Les Paul [quite possibly the most important performer/inventor of the 20th century] and Mary Ford [who could match Les’ skills note for note], Mozart, Segovia, Romero, Rush [the superlative Canadian Triumvirate at the mention of whose name all knees should bend]).

      As you noted, defining someone as a “hero” is like taking a leap of faith. For instance, Gandhi is admired for his work in Indian independence from Great Britain using non-violence. Yet, his life is much more complicated considering his relationships with his wife and children. Dr. King is another example of an extraordinary individual who had many, many flaws. Patton, as well. These are people of great vision and personal strength who changed the course of history in no small way. Is it similar to “when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend”, a quote attributed to Larry McMurtry, a legend in his own right.


  3. I suppose that man who is a slave to ethical behavior risks becoming a slave to the man who is not. What separates the hero from the villain is knowing when ethical behavior must be paramount.

  4. A man like Rafi Eitan has chosen to make himself a tool of a larger cause, entirely submitting his ethical agency to the judgment of those he served. Future generations will most likely judge him according to the sympathy they have for his cause’s virtues (or lack thereof). In that way, he joins the ranks of such famous figures as Otto Skorzeny, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, or Robert E. Lee, people known for their services to causes that some consider heroic and others condemn as foul.

  5. Eitan appears to have been influenced by the French approach in Algeria, which they described as well as practised in a similar way.

    Eitan, his various obituaries tell us, counted among his more spectacular exploits in support of his nation such operations as … the systematic assassinations of the Palestinians responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 … The Palestinian terrorists were murdered—executed?— without a trial. …

    Don’t forget the Palestinian waiter with the same name as one of those, either.

    How does Venezuela feature in all this?

    • Eichmann was grabbed in Argentina. Apart from that little bit of do-it-yourself extradition, his rights were respected – once he arrived in Israel (he got a trial with counsel, etc.).

      As for the waiter, well, in war there is collateral damage and the other side’s people are legitimate targets, as one of my colleagues who’s a big time Irish/Hibernian person said about the assassination of Mountbatten (who was 80+ and actually in favor of greater independence from Ireland).

      Funny though, the question of who’s a martyr and who’s just a casualty of being on the unjust side in a war is pretty much dependent on which side you come down on in the war.

      I think Richard the Lionheart is a hero. To the Arabs he’s the boogeyman “El Malik Rik” who kills children who wander too far from home at night. I think Ferdinand III of Castile is a hero completely worthy of being “San Fernando” for taking back Cordoba and Seville. The Moors think he’s basically a thief and a bully who stole their cities. That’s because I am a Catholic who dislikes the Muslims and thinks their values are incompatible with Western ones.

      To the Irish Michael Collins is their George Washington, the man who finally led them to independence. To the British he’s a magnificent bastard (charismatic villain who’s very good at what he does). To me, an outsider, he’s a nationalist leader who was VERY good at making up his own rules for war and making them happen, but also a dirty tactician who relied on moles passing him information, shooting the other side in the back because it was easier and less dangerous than shooting them in the front, and targeting specific people for assassination. To the Irish he’s a martyr who signed the treaty granting Ireland dominion status knowing full well he was likely to be murdered, sacrificing himself for others’ peace. To the British he’s someone who lived by the gun and died by the gun, when what went around came around. To me, an outsider, he was initially an idealist who stirred up a lot of passion in his cause’s name, who later tried to make a practical resolution when he saw the damage already done and knew the alternative – total war – was unwinnable, and was murdered for it by the idealists he was happy to have on his side originally.

      Of course don’t try to tell Irish-Americans that, same as don’t try to tell us Italian-Americans that Columbus was really a bad guy. Frankly it isn’t good that an Irish-American will punch your lights out or an Italian-American will throw you through the door if you touch their triggers. It should be possible to have a civil conversation about difficult topics. However, civility is considered weakness now.

      • To summarize your point in jaunty verse, I recommend the song “Professional Pirate” from the Muppet Treasure Island adaptation, where the indomitable Tim Curry offers:

        “So take Sir Francis Drake- the Spanish all despise him!
        But to the British he’s a hero and they idolize him!”


        • Drakey’s in his hammock and a thousand miles away,
          Grenville’s Revenge is at the bottom of the bay.
          Many’s the famous sailor never came home from the sea,
          Just take my advice, Jack, come and follow me.

  6. Well, there’s always “Turnabout is fair play.” And “They started it.”

    Say what you will, this guy certainly looked the part. I guess when you’re an anti-guerrilla spymaster, there ain’t much to being an anti-guerrilla spymaster.”

  7. I doubt that many here — unless they are Jewish — would be well able to understand what happened in the Jewish mind after the events of WW2. You wish to talk about ‘existential crisis’? Many Jews choose ‘not to be’ as a response. (Committed suicide when they faced a God that would allow that).

    To put it in the simplest terms what happened as a result is that it was decided that the tactics of Rafi Eitan would be used to defeat enemies real . . . but also perceived. If once ‘self-annihilation’ in the face of that was seen as an option, to come back into life involved a radically opposed solution: securing power.

    This has been a tough area for me. In fact, my involvement with ethics really stems from my former ‘defense of Israel’ stance (which I inherited of course). How could I defend the indefensible if I did not resort to the Thasymachus Argument?

    If you can understand that ‘Rafi Eitan’ (here I make it a general symbol, a kind of existential choice) represents how Jews (I mean really an upper echelon) see themselves in this world as-against what opposes them, you might be able to see that there is no limit to what they will do, or what they are capable of doing, to secure what it is they feel they need to survive. Rational planning taken to the farthest extremes.

    Now, if you take that understanding of the potential in Israeli-Zionist machination (the Heideggerian sense is meant here) you will also quickly see that any sort of action, operation, or plan will be seen as potential and also necessary.

    For example you could see — I suggest this just as a ‘thought-experiment’ — that to secure a safe Jewish or Israeli future — that even a major terrorist event against an ally could be encouraged, assisted or even directed by Mossad-like forces in order to move in the direction of securing the interests of the Israeli state.

    But to see that you’d have to consider as a possibility a very very ‘cold’ sort of mind and planning. One that is unemotional and one that is not concerned for ‘ethics’ at any level — not as it pertains to the largest issues and concerns. It reduces to a question of power & survival: the most essential concerns of Jews when they consider their ‘historical trajectory’.

    Similarly, at the upper echelons of American power (all power I suppose), the closer you get to the center of power, to raw power, to the ‘power principle’, the farther you get away from the possibility of genuine ethical actions. You might have ethics in your family, or perhaps in your neighborhood. Your municipal laws might have a solid ethics base. Et cetera.

    But Power in it largest use and manifestation surpasses ethical considerations. They become like a child’s rhyme: a joke.

    Let Power flow through you! Ally yourself with the Nation! March Forward! Conquer! Then demand that ethical civilization be established. And don’t nick that cookie or you’ll get a spanking!

  8. When I look at the Munich Olympic Massacre, it just seems like a bad movie script. The Israeli’s really were in a bad position. Their athletes at the Olympics were captured and tortured. The West German government refused all offers of help from Israel and others. The response team from “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” may have been more professional and effective than the one the Germans put together. The media callously broadcast the German police plan, in real-time, to the PLO terrorists. When the bad plan went really bad, the hostages were killed. The surviving terrorists were eventually released to Libya by the West German government, where they received a heroes’ welcome.

    The international community failed Israel in that incident. With mounting terrorist pressure, increasing terrorist incidents, and hostile governments all around them, what should they do to protect their country and their citizens? It is a hard question. Countries typically go to war over such issues. Our first war was with the Barbary pirates over similar circumstances. But these are terrorist groups, how do you go to war against a terrorist group?

    An interesting side note: The Mossad has sold the Beretta 71’s used in this time period. If you are a collector and want a relic from this bloody period in history, a few are still available (the suppressor is fake tube required to get an import permit).

    • West Germany blew it there. They were so busy showing the world they were demilitarized and de-Nazified they let security be TOO weak and released the terrorists ASAP so they themselves, with their weak security, wouldn’t become targets. Not too different than New Zealand now or Denmark in the early stages of WWII, conquer yourself so that the would-be conqueror doesn’t have to. The Danes have since admitted that their weak response to the Germans was morally unacceptable (the story that they all threatened to don the star to keep the Germans from going after their Jewish population, and the Germans folded, in one of those great events that show How Powerful Non-Violence Really Is, is nonsense), and the Germans have since created suitable military and police units and policies for dealing with terrorism, but I don’t think NZ is going to change direction any time soon.

      • They released the terrorists because more terrorists took an airliner hostage and demanded the release of the previous terrorists. Israel was really dismayed by this rapid surrender to the demands of terrorists and wondered where the cycle would end.

  9. The attack on Iraq was a violation of international law

    If only “international law” weren’t such a joke, I might be impressed by that. Unfortunately, I am not. Not a single country I know of obeys international law when it’s inconvenient enough for their government, including the United States.

    Yes, I know this is the “everybody does it” defense. But when laws cannot be enforced, are they really laws, or suggestions?

    There are too many movies, novels, factual histories and philosophical treatises to count on the topic of how international intelligence is an ethics-free zone, but what are the implications of that condition? I’m not suddenly addicted to rhetorical questions: I really don’t know.

    I don’t know either, but here’s what I do know — when it comes to survival, and I mean real-life kill or be killed in small engagements, ethics go out the window, and its largely the law of the jungle. Anything goes, especially in very small-scale engagements over very high stakes.

    I know I would prefer this to an all-out war with those rules. Different engagements have different stakes, and different rules are commonly applied, ethical or not. It’s not something I could call “ethical” or even “good” or “acceptable.” Maybe it’s best described as an unavoidable evil.

    So what is this guy? Well, since time immemorial, the human race has used special forces, covert agents and spies to achieve national goals, often involving assassinations, property destruction and even wanton small-scale killings that would be domestically described as mass murders.

    Eitan was one of those rough men who kills others, breaks their things and steals their secrets before they can kill his countrymen. Every country, including ours, has these people. Most citizens are happy not knowing about them, what they do, what they’ve done. But they are happy not to pay the price they prevent. Ethics does not apply to their world, except in the abstract.

    Best not to recognize them at all except in private. Some may see them as heroes, but of a sort none of us would want to acknowledge as reflective of our principles. But we’re all happy to reap the benefits of their stealthy savagery.

  10. I know that I am hitting on a couple of rationalizations here (its not the worst thing, the ends justify the means, etc.), but as my Israeli friends tell me:
    “When you live with your back to the sea, surrounded by seventy million or so people that want you dead, your perspective changes”,

  11. This is always going to be a gray area as long as we differentiate between the actions of states (or their agents) and those of individuals. As a general condition, I don’t see that ever changing; James Bond will have a “licence to kill”, Al Capone will not.

    Still, that only exacerbates the danger that any particular individual or group will unilaterally decide that their “superior” moral stance on an issue is all that is necessary for them to pursue any course of action they wish. This produces lynch mobs and unabombers. In the current U.S. political climate, it also gives us the likes of Antifa, and their apologists who literally say of their violence: “It’s OK because they’re fighting Nazis”.

  12. In the end intelligence people like Rafi Eitan are professionals who have a job to do, he did it exceptionally well, and he served his nation’s interests. I say leave the anti-intelligence sentiments to the campus activists and ivory tower academics. In the real world there are shadows, shades of gray, and choices that sometimes can’t go morally. I better stop there, or I might start my Jack Nicholson impression and recite the “world with walls” speech from A Few Good Men.

    Your expression here is the very core of what I see as ‘the problem’. I describe that problem as ‘complicity’. The less one is complicit, the more one can take a moral or ethical stand (against some activity). The more one is complicit, the more one will rationalize and justify oneself, and rationalize and justify what one does (or accepts as done by others).

    Here, one encounters the essence of the Christian problem. That problem is, of course, that by ‘gaining the world’ one ‘loses one’s soul’. It is the Devil’s Bargain.

    What I find interesting — I will boldly mention it specifically on this Blog made up, largely, by American Conservatives — is to note that to a man you-plural resort to this sophistic argumentation that has been meshed with your patriotism.

    The more complicit, the more sophistical. But the more interesting feature is when complicity is an imagined variety, and is not real ownership interest. When the patriotic view, a form of sentiment, is expressed by a person who has little ownership interest and does not (significantly) benefit from that interest.

    That is the point where a person weds the defense of some activity (say invasion of Iraq or many of the numerous incursions by the US in the Postwar as it worked to consolidate its neo-empire) to a personalized aspect of their own self. They say “We needed to do this …” (the rationalization then follows) as if they themself had made the difficult ethical choice and voted in its favor! But they have nothing to do with it, nor the benefits of it.

    Note that the term ‘campus activists’ and ‘ivory tower academics’. This really is insulting and profoundly cynical, though I do understand why it is said, to the intellectual core of the Nation and to the possibility of sound ‘moral’ reasoning and consideration! They are just irrational activists, children really, who do not understand the ways of the world (like Jack Nicholson does).

    This could mean that no academic can be trusted, ever. Or that only certain academics can be trusted. But what about the ‘campus activists’? What about the ‘campus activists’ that took a stand against Nazi machinations?

    “Oh, that was good and proper! Yes, I certainly support them! Ra! Ra! Ra! But, I am an American and I am above the law! I don’t have a Law to serve, I am the Law!”

    This opens up into levels of profound complicity, profound self-deception, and a complete moral failure. Ethics becomes meaningless!


    One of the main things I have learned here on this Blog is HOW TO STRUCTURE A LIE and real experts are my ‘teachers’.

    This cannot be seen as ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘proper’. At the very least those without direct complicity and are in a position to say something, should work to modify the activities of those who have total complicity and zero scruples. There has to be a relationship between the two camps.

    “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”.

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