Secret Agent Schmuck

The spooky truth behind the media's favorite 'spy'

It was a morning a little more than a year ago: A dapper, gray-haired gentleman was discussing his recently published novel with the two hosts of Fox & Friends, the morning show on the Fox News Channel. Anchors Tiki Barber and Kiran Chetry appeared enthralled by the author, Juval Aviv, who said that his book was actually a barely disguised account of the life and alleged 1991 murder of millionaire media tycoon Robert Maxwell.

Aviv provided his bona fides: He runs a Madison Avenue corporate-espionage firm named Interfor and had been hired to investigate some aspects of Maxwell's complex finances. But during his investigation, Aviv had discovered explosive truths. Maxwell, Aviv said, had actually been a spy for the Russian, British, and Israeli intelligence agencies, and had paid with his life when his spymasters discovered that he'd double-crossed them. Aviv claimed to his Fox News hosts that the revelations in his book were so stunning that he'd had to novelize the tale to protect himself. If he'd told the actual truth, he hinted, he'd have been killed.

"I couldn't write it as a nonfiction," said the Israeli man in his accented English. "It had to be fiction. I don't think I would have survived the nonfiction version of it."

Juval Aviv on Fox, Your Turn 12-4-06
photo: Staci Schwartz
Juval Aviv on Fox, Your Turn 12-4-06

Barber and his co-anchor looked duly impressed. And why not? Here was the real deal, a former Israeli spy who had reportedly spent the 1970s hunting Palestinian radicals around Europe and the Middle East, whose life story was so terrible that he could only allude to it. "You were a top assassin for Mossad, which is Israel's secret service," said Chetry. "In your book, the main character has a situation where he's supposed to knock off 12 leading terrorists and kill them."

"Yes," Aviv said.

"How realistic is that?"

"It's very realistic." Laughing modestly, he added: "I can't talk about it."

It was just another day in the life of Juval Aviv, an "international security expert" and post-9/11 media celebrity who has parlayed his mysterious past into countless appearances on local and national television. Most famously, Aviv has promoted the idea that he was the lead Mossad assassin tasked with avenging the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in a secret operation that was portrayed in Steven Spielberg's 2005 film Munich. It was Aviv that actor Eric Bana was supposedly playing, though his name in the movie was "Avner."

At least that's what Aviv wants people to believe.

Aviv has chatted on air with ABC's George Stephanopoulos and CNN's Mary Snow. Bill O'Reilly has consulted Aviv on preparedness and homeland security. Fox business anchor Neil Cavuto has often invited him onto his show Your World with Neil Cavuto to discuss everything from Middle Eastern politics to the latest dispatch from Osama bin Laden.

Thanks in part to Aviv's high TV profile, his company Interfor has won some of the most lucrative corporate-espionage contracts in the business. Earlier this summer, for example, Hollinger hired Aviv to trace assets allegedly hidden by the disgraced media tycoon Conrad Black. Life as a former spook is apparently very lucrative.

But throughout Aviv's rise as one of New York's biggest corporate spies and as a terrorism expert on television, there have been nagging questions about his legitimacy. Is this guy really who he says he is? Officially, the Israeli government says that Aviv is full of it. According to a 1990 letter from Yigal Carmon, then the Israeli prime minister's counterterrorism adviser, Aviv was never an assassin, let alone the person chosen by Golda Meir to avenge the Munich massacre. "Aviv does not work and has never worked for the Intelligence Community of the State of Israel," Carmon wrote in response to an inquiry from the U.S. government.

A still from Munich -- Robert ( Mathieu Kassovitz) and Avner (Eric Bana.) Juval Aviv claims that the part played by Bana is actually based on Juval Aviv's real life story.
photo: Universal Studios and Dreamworks LLC
In fact, Carmon added, the closest that Aviv ever came to intelligence work was as a security official for an El Al office in New York. "His work in that capacity was terminated at the initiative of the employer because of unsuitability resulting from negative character traits," Carmon wrote. "During the course of his work Yuval [sic] Aviv was found to be unreliable and dishonest."

Nonetheless, Aviv has built a remarkable career for himself. In 1989, following the Pan Am 103 bombing that killed 270 people in Lockerbie, Scotland, airline officials hired Aviv to investigate the incident. His report—alleging that the bombing was a CIA gun- and drug-smuggling operation gone terribly wrong—was leaked to the press, reportedly by Aviv himself. News outlets like Time, NBC, ABC, and Barron's picked up the story. But as more skeptical journalists began to examine Aviv's report, Pan Am officials suddenly dropped their plans to use it as a defense, and the media outlets that had run Aviv's allegations squirmed under the scrutiny. A Brooklyn federal magistrate later found Aviv's report to be utterly without merit.

Today, American intelligence officials who were charged with investigating the Pan Am 103 bombing are still furious with Aviv—and they fume over the fact that national television outlets treat him as anything but a fraud. "This crud, this piece of dirt, went around inventing stories about how this plane got destroyed, because he was paid money to do so," says Vincent Cannistraro, the former chief of operations and analysis at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. "The man is not worth being in human company, frankly."

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