Secret Agent Schmuck

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

"This guy's full of shit," says Larry Johnson, who served in the CIA and as a deputy director in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. "What's true is, yes, he has a security and corporate-intelligence firm, and he's big at playing up the Israeli mystique. If you say it with a foreign accent, you're good to go."

Aviv, these senior counterterrorism officials insist, is no terrorism expert; instead, he's a liar who's been spreading falsehoods about his résumé and his prowess as an investigator.

But even Aviv's most virulent critics express astonishment at what he's been accused of doing lately.

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

Court documents allege that in 2003, Aviv signed an intelligence contract with the NXIVM Corporation, an Albany-based company that offers seminars in achieving personal and business goals, and whose devotees include heirs to some of the richest fortunes in America and Mexico. In the last few years, former members of NXIVM have come forward to claim that the company is in fact a predatory personal-growth cult that subjects its members to intensive brainwashing and requires them to swear their lives to its leader, an accused pyramid-scheme operator and self-styled genius named Keith Raniere. According to court papers, NXIVM hired Aviv to dig up dirt on someone that Raniere considered an enemy: New Jersey–based cult expert Rick Ross, a controversial figure himself who is also a frequent guest on television news programs.

Ross had been working with people who wanted his help to get family members out of NXIVM, and had been posting damaging news stories about Raniere on his website.

Ross is now suing NXIVM and Aviv, claiming that over the course of several months, Aviv and Interfor compiled an extensive report on him that included private financial and telephone records—information that Ross says was illegally obtained. Ross complains that he was even the target of an elaborate sting operation orchestrated by Aviv on behalf of NXIVM, which involved trying to lure him onto a ship in the Caribbean.

NXIVM and Raniere have denied the allegations and are suing Ross as well, charging him with copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and product disparagement. But the Voice has learned that Aviv has done other work for Raniere, an odd figure who requires his followers to refer to him as "Vanguard." The Voice has obtained evidence that Aviv agreed to investigate Raniere's ex-girlfriend, a woman who says she has been systematically harassed, intimidated, and terrorized by members of NXIVM.

Juval Aviv: trusted Fox News terrorism expert, or a fraudulent tale teller willing to hire himself out to a thuggish cult leader? It's a question that is at the heart of three lawsuits in two jurisdictions, with as many twists and turns as an espionage potboiler.

Much about Aviv's life remains a mystery, but here's what he's claimed. Born in Israel in 1949, Aviv supposedly became a major in the Israeli Defense Force and joined the Mossad in the late 1960s. After spending a few years doing spook work for Israel, a disillusioned Aviv left the Mossad and was banned from re-entering Israel for a time. So he stayed in New York and drove a cab while he figured out how to put his life back together. In 1979, Aviv founded Interfor, which today says it has 500 employees and 23 offices worldwide.

The notion that Aviv was the leader of a Mossad assassination squad that murdered the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre dates back to the mid-1980s, when Canadian journalist George Jonas wrote Vengeance, a nonfiction account of the killings that later became the template for Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner. Jonas gave the name "Avner" to the person he said he relied on for his account, the person he claimed was the lead assassin of the group. After the book's publication, Aviv claimed that he was in fact the "Avner" character. But Jonas later denied that he and Aviv ever collaborated at all.

These days, Aviv is more coy about his Munich claims. Last year, when Aviv was hawking his Robert Maxwell novel, correspondent Andrew Billen of The Times of London asked him if he'd led the Mossad team. "I can't tell you that," Aviv replied. "Let me just tell you one thing. There is no statute of limitation to the events in the book Vengeance and in the movie. It has become a popular thing lately for families of those who were killed to sue Israeli officials and ex-Mossad agents."

Indeed—and if Aviv really were the "Avner" figure portrayed in the movie, one would expect the Mossad to deny that he had been an assassin on its payroll. But investigative reporters and CIA officials have strenuously challenged Aviv's claims since as early as 1992. Producers for the CBS show 60 Minutes, for example, initially considered Aviv a treasure trove of intelligence, and planned to put him on retainer as a consultant for their stories about Pan Am 103 and international terrorism. But after vetting his background, they dropped him as fast as they could. "He comes across as very believable and can cite all kinds of people that he knows," says the 60 Minutes producer who worked with Aviv (and who refused to be identified). "But when you start checking, you find out it's not there."

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