Secret Agent Schmuck

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

According to Larry Johnson, who worked on counterterrorism for the CIA and the State Department, all it takes to disprove Aviv's claims is to consider that he supposedly worked for the Mossad in the late 1960s and early '70s. But Aviv was born in 1947. In 1972, he was only 25 years old. "Right—they're gonna put somebody that young and inexperienced to be the lead Mossad assassin? It's bullshit," Johnson tells the Voice.

Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist who specializes in intelligence issues, has written in Haaretz and The Guardian that Aviv was not only never in the Mossad, but he even failed basic training as an Israeli Defense Force commando. When asked to comment, Aviv told the British newspaper The Independent that Melman is angry because Aviv refused to cooperate with him on a book project. Melman promptly called Aviv a liar—again.

According to Interfor's public-relations director, Stephen Braswell, Aviv has been "traveling" and is unavailable for comment. However, Braswell added, Aviv stands by his claim to have been an Israeli intelligence agent, just as he stands by his investigation of the Pan Am 103 bombing. But it's his work on the Lockerbie affair that has led so many intelligence officials and investigative reporters to denounce him as an unscrupulous fraud.

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

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am 103 was directly over Lockerbie en route to New York when roughly one pound of Semtex explosive detonated in the forward cargo hold. The explosion punched a hole in the fuselage, and shock waves tore the plane apart, killing 259 passengers and crew, including at least four CIA agents.

Law-enforcement agencies scrambled to investigate. Meanwhile, families of the victims sued the airline, claiming that Pan Am officials had ignored key security procedures and let the unaccompanied suitcase containing the bomb onto the plane. As Pan Am's lawyers began preparing their defense, they hired Juval Aviv to investigate the bombing.

Aviv submitted his report a few months later. It was a masterpiece of boilerplate spy stuff, with unnamed intelligence sources, a secret drugs-for-hostages swap overseen by rogue CIA elements, and a multilateral terrorist network that Aviv dubbed the "Interterror Group." According to Aviv's report, a Frankfurt-based CIA group had cut a deal with the Syrian arms and drug smuggler Monzer al-Kassar (for more on Kassar, see the recent Voice story "Busting the Merchant of War," July 24), in which the rogue CIA group would let Kassar ship drugs to America on Frankfurt Pan Am flights in return for his help securing the release of American hostages in Beirut. Kassar also allegedly used his drug profits to finance the shipment of arms to the Nicaraguan contras. Meanwhile, Aviv wrote, Kassar's terrorist friends decided to exploit his access to Pan Am cargo holds to smuggle a bomb on board one of the planes.

As the terrorists carried out their operation, West German intelligence agents allegedly warned the rogue CIA group that a bomb was about to be placed on a Pan Am flight. But the group did nothing to stop it. Why? Aviv suggested that a second CIA unit had gotten wise to the drugs-for-hostages deal and was flying back to Washington—on that very flight—to rat out their colleagues and even go to the press, if necessary. The implication was clear: An outlaw group of CIA spooks let the plane be destroyed in order to cover up a vestigial limb of the Iran-contra scandal.

Despite the outlandish claims and the lack of named sources, Aviv suggested that his story could play very well in the national media. "From the perspective of journalists," he wrote, "it is publishable speculation." Sure enough, Time magazine published a version of this very story a few months later, headlined "The Untold Story of Pan Am 103." But after a little digging, reporters with the English Sunday paper The Observer claimed that almost all of Aviv's "inside" information about Kassar had been cribbed from a recently published German book about the arms dealer. Aviv, they concluded, "had pieced together known events and facts in a wild conspiracy." (Interfor representatives defended the Pan Am report in an e-mail message to the Voice but didn't go into detail.)

Pan Am eventually dropped the Aviv defense and was found liable in federal court for willful misconduct. According to plaintiffs' attorney Jim Kreindler, the Interfor report seriously damaged Pan Am and Aviv personally. "He made up all this nonsense and then leaked it to the press," Kreindler says.

Pan Am wasn't the only one embarrassed by Aviv's work. In 1992, Steven Emerson, a former CNN correspondent who specializes in security and terrorism, wrote a detailed Washington Journalism Review account of just how Time, NBC, and ABC had bought into Aviv's story. When told that Aviv now regularly appears on national television as a credible terrorism expert, Emerson was flabbergasted. "It's amazing to see how many times he fooled people," he says. On the other hand, Emerson adds, television news bookers have neither the time nor the procedures to vet the "experts" who show up at their studios: "It's so easy to go on the air and pretend you're something you're not. . . . The trick in television is just to fill up the time."

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