In a sensational new book, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response, Aaron J. Klein, Time Magazine military and intelligence affairs correspondent, mines newly declassified documents and over 50 interviews with high ranking Israeli intelligence, military, and political figures to finally tell us what really happened at the 1972 Munich Olympics—and after.
Striking Back is authoritative and definitive—if by necessity somewhat incomplete. It will be many years before all the details are revealed, but Klein manages enough to tell a gripping story, and give a good overview of one of perhaps the 20th century's highest profile terrorist act, and its aftermath.
Because they could operate abroad without fear, Palestinian terrorists became bold and audacious by 1972, culminating with the atrocity in the Munich. In response, Israel's military and intelligence special units conducted a series of assassinations. These were set up by spies, planned by top-level officers and carried out by highly trained commandos.
Striking Back blows away the central conceit of Stephen Spielberg's implausible film Munich and Vengeance, the single-sourced book by George Jonas on which the movie is based. Namely, that the Mossad -- recognized as one of the world's most effective and skilled intelligence agencies in 1972 -- sent a team of guilt-ridden, kvetching amateurs into the field to hunt down terrorists, and relied on a French crime family out of a bad Robert Ludlum novel for information.
The reasons for the assassinations of PLO members involved in terrorism went far beyond mere vengeance, Klein writes. It was the only way to disrupt terrorist networks. In most Western European countries, terrorism against Israeli targets drew no real punishment. Participants could expect maximum sentences of 3 or 4 years -- if the police or security forces bothered to catch someone.
It wasn't just the heinous Munich Massacre that motivated the Israelis to put together their counterattack, which became known as Ceasarea. Equally disgusting was the Germans' incompetent and cowardly response to it during the initial standoff and afterward. Klein details how the first priority of the Germans and the Olympic Committee was to get the hostages off campus so the games could go on. Worse, Germany had no military or police counterterrorist unit; in the end, the federal police handled the situation worse than any small town police force in the United States could have done in its worst nightmare.
Munich galvanized the government and security forces of Israel in much the same way that 9/11 did in the United States, including finger pointing by the opposition party (though the report, unlike the 9/11 commission's document, was classified until recently and is summarized in Striking Back's appendix ).
And there was plenty reason for finger pointing. First, Klein reveals, the head of the Israeli Olympic delegation was scorned for protesting that the accommodations were the least secure in the complex. Second, he details the way in which different Israeli intelligence and security agencies did not communicate with one another, much like U.S. agencies before 9/11.
For Ceasarea, there were three assassination teams for logistics, surveillance, and assassination, each with about a dozen members. "The logistics squad drove the cars, spoke the local language, and was in charge of communications… The surveillance team, frequently the largest, had many female members (who often acted as parts of 'couples'). Their job was to blend into their surroundings…The final component of each group were the assassins. They were combatants who trained in pairs… generally well-prepared young men from top flight army units."
The assassins employed various methods from pistols to car bombs, from bombs in beds, to in one case, a full blown military commando operation launched from the sea.
What they did NOT do—memo to Academy Awards nominating committee-- was sit outside KBG safe houses all day in their cars, waiting for the target to show up, then jump out and start shooting.
Klein takes a skeptical view of Ceasarea's claims of success, weighing their plusses and minuses dispassionately. He points out the early targets were chosen not because of their importance or their connection to the massacre but because they were "soft" targets that were easy to reach. He discusses whether some of the more peripheral Palestinian radicals were worthy of full-blown assassination missions, although he doesn't feel bad for any of them. (If you're going to run around advocating the murder of the innocent and assist anyone who actually carries out an attack, you become fair game.)
Klein also discusses at some length the botched mission in Lillehammer, Norway, where a waiter was misidentified as Ali Hassan Salamah, one of the prize Black September targets, and killed by mistake. Several Israeli agents were arrested and convicted in Norwegian courts. The sloppiness of the mission showed that the Israelis had grown complacent and arrogant about their successes. After that, of course, the politicians pulled back farther than necessary, and the Mossad began refining both its target list and opting for less spectacular assassinations.
Not only does Klein name names when it comes to several of the missions supposedly run by the assassin called "Avner" in Speilberg's film, but he notes that the most important hit -- the interagency strike on Beirut that took out several important terrorists in a place where they felt safe -- was led by Ehud Barak, a future Israeli prime minister.
And while Spielberg and radical screenwriter Tony Kushner say in Munich that terrorism increased as a result of the hit teams. Klein proves that the opposite is the case. In fact, most of the highly visible terrorist acts that happened after the launch of Ceasarea had been planned months earlier. By the time a year passed, the disruption in the PLO networks due to the loss of key players and a shift to defensive mode led to an undeniable lull in Palestinian terrorism. Within a few years, terrorist acts against Israelis abroad had all but ceased.
So much for "the cycle of violence."
After reading this book it is hard not to conclude that Speilberg and Kushner drew all the wrong lessons for all the wrong reasons. Terrorism cannot be treated as a law enforcement problem. War is messy and imprecise, and that cannot be used as an argument against waging it. It's not whether specific missions are successful or the target is important, but whether the effort itself bears dividends.
When the film Munich falsely says every act of terrorism that happened after the assassinations was in answer to the Israeli response, it is an argument that is forced onto the story to make a case against George W. Bush's war on terror—especially in Iraq. It's impossible to imagine the something the professionals we meet in Striking Back sitting at the dinner table and dithering over whether their targets are guilty enough to hit—that's the soft privilege of American liberals safe in their Hollywood mansions.
With his concise, exciting and informative book, Aaron Klein strikes back against a cause celebre fraud against Israeli (and American) counter terrorism. It should settle the argument, but it won't. After all, evidence matters little to the people still maintain Sacco and Venzetti were framed, Stalin opposed Hitler out of principle, and the Israelis botched their revenge against those who murdered their athletes and then beat themselves up to boot.