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By Ami Dor-On
One of the most frightening intelligence organizations ever known to the intelligence community was hidden for many years behind the mundane-bureaucratic name “National Security Board”. Those who were exposed to the board’s activities, though, knew very well that it was the murderous, deadly arm of the communist regime in the USSR – the KGB. The KGB extended its tentacles all over the world, recruited spies using money or ideology, hid and later activated sleeper agents, and collected any information that was important to the USSR: Nuclear weapons development, the production of weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological, and all sorts of “gossip” on what went on behind the scenes in political arenas.
To tell the truth, the KGB was successful many times, even in Israel. For example: Dr. Israel Behr, who was Ben Gurion’s confidant; the spy Dr. Marcus Klingberg, director of the Nes-Ziona Biological Institute, which developed chemical and biological weapons and defensive measures; Shabtai Kalmanowitz, who was involved with Jewish organizations in the USSR; and, of course, Prof. Kurt Sitte, a member of the Israeli Nuclear Energy Board.
Even though the USSR disbanded, and even the KGB disappeared, at the end of 1991, Russia’s intelligence gathering activities never stopped. A new intelligence service called SVR (Foreign Intelliegence Service) replaced the KGB, to become Russia’s counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence service. One of the stated goals of this organizations, which is the Russian equivalent of the American CIA and the Israeli Mosad, is to infiltrate terrorist organizations and study their methods and intent.
The SVR’s basic tactics haven’t changed – bribes, extortion, and recruiting and activating “sleeper” agents when necessary. One thing did chance, however – the SVR now targets other countries that may hide important information, and activates agents in those countries.
One of the countries targeted is Israel. The entrepreneurial Israelis have a lot of advanced data having to do with satellites, UAVs, missiles, remote control of warfare systems, high-tech, protecting digital databases, and much more.
In a way, Israel is a potential center for field intelligence activities unlike any other. About twenty years ago the gates of the Soviet Union opened, and a million Jews crossed the Iron Curtain and immigrated to Israel. They were absorbed well in Israel and access to them is relatively easy because Russian is their mother tongue. Only fools would believe that the massive immigration wave didn’t include any “sleeper” agents. It’s also likely that some of these sleepers are still active today and work with their operators, and others are still waiting for their day of activation, when they will start collecting the valuable information. It’s also very likely to assume that Israeli counterintelligence services spend a lot of time and efforts to locate these foreign agents before they do too much damage, but it’s unclear if Israel treats this issue seriously enough in terms of resources and manpower.
Awareness of the severity of these dangers prompted U.S. authorities to establish the Homeland Security Agency, and to enact laws that would define its responsibilities and resources. Israel still does not have this kind of legislation and no organization coordinates all such activities, which are today scattered in many government agencies – which do not always act with the necessary coordination.
To recognize the dangers, to understand how the Russian system works and how to prevent damage, the following three examples can be presented: Dr. Marcus Klingberg, Shabtai Kalmanovitz, and the most important – Professor Kurt Sitte.
Prof. Marcus Klingberg reached the esteemed position of the head of the Nes Ziona Biological Institute. After many years of imprisonment he gave an interview on Ilana Dayan’s Uvda, in which he hypocritically claimed that he wasn’t even a spy. According to him all he did was meet once in a while with his KGB operators, and tell them some “harmless stories”. The fact that he reached a public office, in which he had access to secret strategic-military information, seemed to skip his mind. He also seemed to forget that he vowed to keep these secrets and knowingly broke his own vow.
Klingberg’s psychological and practical motivation is difficult to assess. According to him he never received any payment for the top secret information he revealed, but the readers can choose not to believe him. Everyone who is familiar with KGB procedures knows that money and ideology are currencies used to operate spies. Money was probably transferred to secret offshore bank accounts, and the “honorable” Professor was perhaps awarded with medals of honor and heroism in secret meetings. Only Klingberg knows the truth.
During this entire affair, and even during the media coverage after his release from prison, no one actually explained what exactly did “grandpa Marcus” sell to the Soviets. It’s true that this fascinating area, Israel’s biological and epidemiological research, is still a well kept secret. But these days, when panic intensifies among Israelis due to “friends” using weapons of mass destruction to the east and to the north, we should be able to understand the biological threat more completely. Some see it as a more severe threat than that of nuclear weapons, and the public should know what part did Klingberg play in revealing critical secrets to all of Israel’s enemies.
Biological and Chemical weapons research includes both offensive and defensive measures. Development of defensive measures includes understanding the components of the enemies’ WMDs and the correct means of defending against them – whether by mass immunizations or other ways. Offensive measures are mostly meant to be deterring threat against the chemical-biological threats of enemy countries. Offensive research includes the development of new biological warfare agents, highly toxic and resistant to known biological defenses. According to foreign reports the Nes Ziona Biological Institute does exactly this kind of scientific work, and these are exactly the areas in which Markus Klingberg specialized in for many years.
And so, with an almost holy naivety, Klingberg admitted to Ilana Dayan that he did tell his operators “a few stories”. What he didn’t say, but clearly understood as a scientist, that the secrets he revealed or sold were a multipurpose key – a key that exposed the weaknesses of the Israeli defenses and cleared the path towards the destruction of Klingberg’s own people, the Jews.
Shabtai Kalmanovich was another type of traitor, a spy who operated in Israel for the USSR, also under the guise of a businessman. Kalmanovich was born to Jewish parents who were not allowed to immigrate to Israel. The KGB agreed to provide exit papers to the parents if their son cooperated, and the son, Shabtai, accepted their offer.
After reaching Israel Kalmanovich joined the immigrants division of the Israeli Labor Party. He had access to infromation having to do with Nativ (“path”) activities, the bureau in charge of contact with Jews in the USSR. For unknown reasons Kalmanovich agreed to serve as a double agent, acting as an source for the Israel General Security Service on events beyond the iron curtain. The double agent game was apparently too much for him, and eventually he was arrested and imprisoned for nine years based on his admissions. He was released after five and a half years and spend the last years of his lives in Moscow, where he was considered a “wealthy businessman”. Whatever the truth may be, on November 2nd 2009 he was shot and killed in central Moscow. His assassins surprised him, opening fire with automatic weapons as he was driving in his car.
As to why he was murdered, only his murderers know – by there are two probable causes. The first: His activities as a double agent; the second: A business deal gone bad.
The Russian spy who dealth the highest amount of damage – and specifically damage to the development of the “nuclear options” of the young Israel – was the nuclear scientist Kurt Sitte. His activities can shed some light on KGB procedures and ways to counter them.
Ever since work began on the Dimona nuclear reactor, in the 1950s, David Ben Gurion’s government decided that the young state’s most hidden secret project must be heavily protected. In order to keep the secret as safe as possible a new intelligence agency was established, under the mundane name “Scientific Relations Bureau” (LKM). It had one initial goal: The secure the work done on the new nuclear reactor and verify the backgrounds of project members. Another, secret mission given to LKM agents was to covertly acquire sensitive nuclear technologies from around the world, that were otherwise inaccessible.
A lot of effort went into securing the project in those early days, but the LKM agents – even with all their sophistication – didn’t take the Russian KGB into account, even though it operated all over the world. This mistake by the LKM allowed the Soviet Union to infiltrate the Israeli Nuclear Energy Board. The Russian mole was a good friend of Prof. Ernest David Bergmann, chairman of the nuclear energy board and Ben Gurion’s right hand in all areas having to do with nuclear energy. That mole was Prof. Kurt Sitte, a Czech-born, world-renowned nuclear physicist, who served as the head of the Technion Institute of Nuclear Physics since his immigration to Israel in 1954 and until his arrest in 1960. Years later it became clear that the Soviet KGB was very interested in the Israeli nuclear project – even while the state was being established: They wanted to know if Israel was merely interested in nuclear energy production or if it was also developing military applications.
Ben Gurion was obsessed with developing “the nuclear option” in order to prevent a second holocaust of the Jewish people. When reading through Ben Gurion’s diaries one can see how important this issue was to him. Even while the Independence War was raging, Ben Gurion met one of France’s leading nuclear scientists, a man involved in building the first French nuclear reactor. His name was Morris Sordin, an alumni of Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya, the son of the Atlit Salt Company founder and the brother of Dina Wert, who later was appointed head of the IDF’s Women’s Corps.
Sordin later described the meeting, which was set up by Prof. Aharon Katzir: “They brought me to see Ben Gurion in secret. He was very interested in the nuclear issue, and really wanted me to go into details. He kept stressing that fact that many Jews around the world are experts in this new area, and help develop it further. We talked about the many options nuclear power can give.”
Sordin wasn’t the only scientist Ben Gurion met. Over the years many prominent researchers visited his offices, from the U.S., France and even Israel. One of the top researchers, who was appointed as chief of Israel’s Nuclear Energy Board after the state’s establishment, was Professor Ernest David Bergman.
In those early days everything having to do with nuclear development was considered the most sensitive secret. Shortly after Israel was established a French-manufactured nuclear reactor was installed in the Dimona Nuclear Research Center, known today as “the Dimona reactor”. The center was then called “Dimona Textile”, as if it was a textile factory meant to provide empolyment to Dimona residents. Some vague details about this were leaked by French nuclear scientist, many of whom were in on the Israeli secret, and eventually word reached the soviet spies and their global information network. These spies were everywhere, infiltrating even government organizations, and they wanted to know what Israel’s intentions were when it came to nuclear energy.
In order to get more information KGB agents recruited “the first atomic spy”, Professor Kurt Fritz Sitte. Sitte served as the head of the Technion Nuclear Physics Institute, was considered an international authority on cosmic radiation, served on the Israeli Nuclear Energy Board and was close to the board’s chief, Prof. Ernest Bergman.
Who was Kurt Sitte? How did this Christian scientist reach Israel? Why did he spy for the eastern block, how was he captured and what was his fate – this is one of the most fascinating stories from the annals of the shadowy Israeli nuclear experts community, people who, over the years, implemented Israel’s “nuclear option”.
Kurt Sitte was a Christian-German, born in Reichenberg, Austria, in 1910. After WWI the area was transferred to the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. Before WWII, when the armies of the Third Reich “annexed” Czechoslovakia, Sitte was already a promising physicist and a lecturer at the University of Prague. Sitte, however, wasn’t just a scientist – he was also flesh and blood. At this point in his life, when the Nazi movement was already stirring, young Kurt fell in love with a woman he should have left alone – a young Jewish resident of Prague – later marrying her. His personal happiness was short lived, however. When the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia Sitte was expelled from the university and transferred to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp together with his wife. The couple spent a few years there, and according to one story survived because Sitte wrote scientific papers for his guards – papers which got them academic degrees.
After their release Sitte and his wife moved to England, where the young expert was trained by the bext English physicists. After his training ended Sitte got a teaching and research position at the Sircause University in the United States, and started research in his own area of expertise – nuclear physics and cosmic radiation. Althought he stood by his wife and suffered the degradations of Nazi rule, she didn’t return the favor. After the couple moved to the states his wife fell in love with an American physicist, her husband’s colleague from Siracuse University, and later divorced him.
No one knew why back then, but Sitte later approached the FBI and offered his services. He was accepted into the serviced and was an operative for two years. What made Sitte join the FBI? There are many possible answers, and according to one of the most plausible ones he was ordered to do so by his handlers – Czech or Soviet. Isser Harel later presented this theory in his book “Soviet Spies in Israel”. The FBI suspected something and cut its ties with Sitte, in a not-very-friendly way. Sitte was forced to leave the U.S., and a short while later found a research position in his field of expertise, in the Sao Paolo University in Brazil.
The Americans considered Sitte to be a serious security risk, as can be seen in the next example, an event that occurred a little while after he was deported. During his “scientific” journeys Sitte flew out of Sao Paolo to Rome. His plane made a stop in New York, and Sitte asked to stay in a hotel for the night. The American authorities refused to accept his request to stay in the U.S. as a “transit passenger”. Under heavy FBI guard, Sitte was placed on another flight that same day and forced to return to Brazil.
In those days, the early 1950s, the management of the Haifa Technion looked for a well known expert, one who had the skills necessary to establish a department of nuclear physics. Back then the area was very popular and highly sought-after by students. There weren’t many “free” nuclear scientists back then, and the Technion management quickly found Sitte. They quickly came to an agreement on his terms of employment, and Sitte came to Israel – first as a tourist with a foreigh passport. As of October 1954, the beginning of the academic year, Sitte was already a member of the Technion’s academic staff.
He was everything the Technion’s management hoped for. Sitte helped establish the nuclear physics department in the most respected scientific institution in Israel, and already in 1955 he was appointed as the president of the Israeli Physicists Society. He would meet many of the people who carried Israel’s nuclear secrets, in both professional and social circumstances. Through these contacts Professor Sitte was exposed not only to all the research in the Technion itself, but also to all the scientific work done at the Weizmann Institute of Science – where a lot of work was done in the field of nuclear physics – and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Eastern block agents again made contact with Sitte late during the summer of 1955. Sitte, with his thin frame and very high forehead, made his way by foot from the old Hadar Hacarmel Technion to his home on the higher Carmel slopes, where his lived with Yehudit Arnon, one of the founders of the Rambam Hospiral Institute of Physiotherapy and later his second wife. While walking through one green boulevard he met a young man, who approached Sitte and, much to his surprise, greeted him in Czech. The man politely introduced himself as a Czech embassy consular attache, and made Sitte an apparently harmless offer. “Please meet with one of my superiors”, said the man. Without taking any elementary precautions Sitte met one of these “superiors” in public, and later they even met in his apartment. From there on, for five years, Sitte held dozens of meetings with his operators – in his apartment and in different Haifa coffee shops. Later, during his trial, it became clear that the General Security Service began recording these meetings after a few years. For example: One meeting took place at the Krips coffee shop on March 22nd, 1960, at five p.m, and another was held that same year on April 19th, at the Sternheim coffee shop. They also met in the nearby Binyamin Garden.
For half a decade Sitte gave his Czech contacts everything they asked for. In return, his operators arranged tours abroad for him, disguised as “scientific activities” at the Czech Academy of Science and other institutes. During these visits Sitte met his aging father and his sister – who also married a Jewish man. During every one of his three visits to Czechoslovakia Sitte met with “The Commissar”, the codename of the spy in charge of the Czech intelligence network in the Middle East, one who maintained constant contact with top Soviet military intelligence officials. The Commissar wasn’t a simple spy, he also had a background in physics and engineering. He knew exactly what to ask and how to ask it. He wanted to know how much help were Israeli research institutes getting from the U.S., but was especially interest in the Israel Nuclear Energy Board. One detail was already known to The Commissar – he knew that the Israeli Nuclear Energy Board’s chief was german-born Ernest Bergmann. In this context he need to know one thing: Was the Israeli board part of a military organization, or part of a civilian one. In fact, he needed to know if Israel was merely interested in nuclear energy or was actively developing military applications.
Sitte was a spy, that fact is clear. It seems, though, that he wasn’t gifted with the secretive nature that a good spy needs. A few of his actions were too conspicuous; the first took place in late 1956, when Sitte left Israel as a protest against the Sinai War and returned after a few months. Another action: Sitte loved living somewhat extravagantly. During one of his trips abroad he purchased a new Swiss car, and later brought it back to Israel with him. The car had a Zurich license plate. In those days foreign plates were extremely rare, drawing too much attention as far as spies were concerned. When Sitte was asked why does he drive a car with a Swiss licence plate, he answered “economically it’s easier to own a car as a tourist and replace it every two years, without paying taxes, than to purchase a car as an Israeli citizen.” He was right, but still managed to draw a lot of public attention.
At some point, it seems, Sitte began suspecting he was being watched. After apparently consulting with his operators, he decided to create an “alibi” for himself. Sitte appriaced the Technion president Yaakov Dori, the first IDF Chief of Staff, and told him about his contacts with the Czech delegates. Sitte presented Dori with falsified “facts”. “All the wanted was for me to go back to Czechoslovakia,” he said, and continued to hide the truth.
Apparently Sitte realized that his so-called “alibi” can’t fully protect him, and continued to meet with his Czech embassy contacts in extreme secrecy. He never used the mail service, or phones, to set up meetings and information transfers. Sitte and his operators used to set up personal meeting spots. If something went wrong Sitte simply wouldn’t come, and the spies had waiting times and alternative meeting places set up ahead of time. When one of the conspirators didn’t make it to the meeting, those involved would know that the meeting was canceled, leave, and wait for the next scheduled meeting.
Sitte’s last important act of espionage took place in September 1959. The “cosmic radiation expert”, as he liked to refer to himself, the spy who suspected he was being followed, left to a “scientific convention” in Moscow. The identity of the people he met with is unknown, but one fact remains clear – a short while after his return to Israel the General Security Service already had enough evidence to arrest him.
Sitte was arrested on June 14th 1960 in his Haifa apartment, when General Security Service officers suddenly stormed his home. The servicemen thoroughly searched the apartment and confiscated many items, including Sitte’s journals – which included information about his secret meetings with the Czech embassy workers. The professor, who knew very little Hebrew and spoke mainly German and English, was taken to an interrogation facility and vanished from the face of the earth. His colleagues found out he was arrested only two weeks later, on charges of spying for the eastern block intelligence services. They were told that he was kept in isolation in the Damon Prison, on the western slopes of the Carmel, next to Beit Oren.
Top Technion officials were afraid the scandal would harm their institute, and called for Sitte’s deportation. Some, including Professor Eri Jabotinsky – one of the heads of the Technion’s academic personnel organization – tried intervene on Sitte’s behalf, attempts which ended in failure. Iser Harel, head of Israel’s security services at the time, said that “the Technion management and many respect scientists put a lot of pressure on the Prime Minister (Ben Gurion), and asked him to intervene in order to put a stop to the legal proceedings against the suspected spy. Ben Gurion asked for my opinion, and I told him that no, you can’t treat VIPs any better than other suspected spies. The courts should decide whether they are guilty or not.”
Sitte’s trial began on November 5th, 1960, six months after his arrest. The trial was closed to the public, and took place at the Haifa District Court. The judges who presided over the trial were Yaakov Azulai, future High Justice Iosef Cohen, and future Haifa District Court President Eugenia Vinogradow. Professor Sitte was charged with transferring potentially helpful information to enemies, and transferring secret information with the intent of harming national security.
The three judge panel sentenced Sitte to five years in prison. “The current case and his special circumstances are very hard to compare to any similar cases handled by the Israeli judicial system,” said judge Yaakov Azoulai. “His acts and the punishment they entail are severe – maintaining contact with foreign agents for four an a half years.” Despite the relatively lenient sentence – which remained unchanged even after the case was brought before the High Court of Appeals – Sitte’s attorney, Jakob Salomon, continued his efforts to get his client a pardon, but to no avail. Prime Minister Ben Gurion write to the Haifa attorney: “We can’t give special treatment to a professor. On the contrary, as a scholar his sin is greater than that of a simple man. Sitte enjoyed our country’s hospitality, but betrayed it and spied. He must endure his punishment like any other criminal.”
Even after the trial, Sitte’s motivation remained unclear. Why would a man in his position spy and deliver highly sensitive information to foreign agents? Attorney Jakob Salomon claimed that the communist block intelligence services blackmailed Sitte, and threatened to harm his father and sister in Czechoslovakia unless he cooperated.
Iser Harel, however, goes even farther. He claims that Professor Sitte was a communist intelligence agent the whole time. “He befriended other prisoners in Buchenwald that later reached high positions in the Czech secret services. In the years 1945-1948 he served in a special section of the Czech intelligence. In 1948 he left to the west, masquerading as scientist who decided to leave his communist country. Sitte received a research grant at the University of Edinburgh, and later began working at the University of Manchester. From there he left to the United States and worked as a physics professor at Syracuse University. In fact,” Harel added, “the Czech secret service let Sitte enter the west and began contacting him as soon as he reached the United States, where he had to reveal information about the American scientific potential. The FBI suspected Sitte, interrogated him and try to employ him for a while as a double agent. Eventually his American operators decided that he couldn’t be trusted, and Sitte was forced to leave the U.S.”
Eventually Sitte, who had German citizenship, got out of prison on March 26th, 1963, after a third of his term was deducted for good behavior. A short while later he left Israel and moved to Germany with his wife, Yehudit Arnon. The two settled in Freiburg and Sitte was accepted as a researcher at the local university. He never set foot in Israel since. A few years before he died Israeli journalists tried to contact him by phone. He politely refused, saying “ever since I left Israel the entire affair only hurt me. I want to spend my last years in peace, together with my wife. Leave me be.” Sitte died in the early 1990s.