Ross, Michael with Jonathan Kay, The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2007. 278 pp.
Recommended by Ishmael Jones, author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Culture, reviewed here on chicagoboyz.
In late 1982, 21 year-old Michael Ross arrived in Israel to escape cold weather. After a three year hitch in the Canadian Army, tackled right out of high school, he was on vacation. Backpackers visiting Europe on a budget often traded their wintertime labour at Israeli kibbutzim for free room and board. Michael was soon headed for one in the Beit Shean valley.
Hailing from Victoria, British Columbia and a mildly Anglican religious background, even being in Israel was a stretch. Far more likely that he’d be kayaking, or mountain-biking, or growing dope up in the Rockies. Short of the North Island of New Zealand, or perhaps Marin County, California, there’s hardly a more heavenly place in the English-speaking world than the Gulf Islands between the city of Vancouver and Vancouver Island. It’s “Lotus-land” to eastern Canadians. A young man just out of an army should have found all the pleasure and excitement he could want in the Pacific Coast lifestyle.
Michael’s background certainly didn’t suggest a future in one of the most respected, yet constantly imperiled, clandestine services in the world — the Mossad. Nor could it predict that he would take a side in one of the nastiest confrontations between the modern industrialized world and its neighbours. Yet for almost two decades “Michael Ross” was to serve in a variety of military and intelligence roles for his adopted home under conditions of unimaginable danger. How he came to do so is both fascinating and rather unsettling.
It all started, as much of life does, with a girl. By marrying an Israeli girl, having a child, working on a kibbutz, learning Hebrew, and converting to Judaism, Michael Ross also took on the obligation of service in the Israeli reserves. In this book, he contrasts his basic training in the Israeli Defense Forces with what he received in the Canadian military. While the Canadian army is professional force with a noticeable distance between officers and men, the reserve forces in the IDF are known by name to their commanders and the men themselves form life-long bonds in the small country. Unbeknownst to most of his Israeli compatriots, however, Michael Ross had already served in Canada’s 2nd Special Service Force … a unit (since disbanded) which provided the bulk of commandos for the Canadian military. While maligned on occasion by Canadian newsmagazines as “lethal Boy Scouts” in comparison to the UK’s SAS , membership in the SSF nonetheless marked Ross as much more than an ordinary young soldier. His strength and exceptional marksmanship soon put him in charge of his platoon’s machine gun, one of three in his 150-man reserve company. With completion of his active service, he was transferred from a “regular combat engineering post” to a demolitions platoon in a reserve unit of the Golani Brigade. Again, this isn’t the mark of a JAG — just another guy. By 1985, he was deployed into south Lebanon for operations to ambush Hezbollah fighters.
Active service in IDF over, he was able to return to his young family and the kibbutz and spend time amongst the orchards and fields tended by his community. It was then he received a nondescript letter from the Israeli government inviting him to interviews for a government job. The interviews were unusual and the questions he was asked appeared aimless at times. His own imminent plans were to head back to British Columbia with his family. He was given a card with a number to call if he was still interested in a job when he returned to Israel.
A two-year stint in Vancouver with his family eventually left them homesick for Israel and when Ross returned to the country in the summer of 1988, he called the phone number on the card. He was 27.
He was invited to begin training with “The Office” as those in Mossad refer to the organization. The chapters that follow in The Volunteer describe his initial training in creating “covers” … being dropped in the midst of a group of people and making up plausible identities and experiences which seemed consistent but which couldn’t be casually validated. Sustaining such covers on the streets of Israel, while performing simple intelligence work such as information-gathering and surveillance, was no mean feat. Because of a long and deadly domestic bombing risk, ordinary Israelis are naturally suspicious and quite willing to quiz strangers on their business. For a novice clandestine intelligence agent, the streets of any Israeli city were as fine a training ground as any in the world.
Within months, Ross was ready for a second phase of training which involved specific fake missions, still within Israel. In some cases, his own superiors would surreptitiously use officers from the Israeli internal security service, Shin Bet, to arrest Ross and aggressively interrogate him to see whether he could maintain his cover during unexpected disruptions to his make-believe intelligence activities. Ross was being groomed for one of the most dangerous assignments in the Mossad, active duty in “The Unit” — cryptonym “Caesarea” — which is the foreign clandestine group tasked with working undercover in other countries. Caesarea was compartmentalized even from the rest of Mossad. Agent identities were scrupulously hidden from everyone but the Unit’s managers.
The chapters in Ross’s book which describe his training are in marked contrast to Ishmael Jones’ descriptions of his preparations for the CIA’s clandestine service in The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture. While Jones was always being trained in classes of trainees, and regaled with tales of CIA derring-do from the Cold War, the Mossad trained Ross in very small groups with a shifting array of specialist teachers … almost a “bespoke” method of creating an intelligence agent, one person at a time. The two books turn out to be complementary to each other. The Mossad is portrayed as small, intense, parsimonious, and very concerned with quality. They would appear not to have the resources or time to be sloppy in training.
By the summer of 1989, Ross had met with the head of Caesarea and was assigned to become a businessman based in Europe. A crash course in economics and business prepared him for an entirely new existence. Soon after the birth of his second son in Israel, “Michael Ross” (codename: Ridley) was leaving his family behind to create a new persona, living, working and spying in the cities of Europe. Before he left, he swapped all his identification (and any indication that he’d ever visited Israel) for his assumed identity. Once abroad, he set about filling out the details of his identity with an office space, secretary, and casual acquaintances near his residence. And he began to learn the subtleties of meeting with embassy staff and other Mossad agents in circumstances that wouldn’t attract attention. To all intents and purposes, he was an up-and-coming Yuppie, keen to create international business opportunities wherever he could find them.
In tandem with a partner, “Charles,” he began a six year assignment deep undercover which took him around Europe and the Mediterranean, gathering intelligence and performing dangerous missions which included attaching explosive devices to ships and vehicles, and conducting preliminary reconnaissance for insertion of Israeli special forces. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Ross’s introduction to the world of intelligence included trips to Tunisia, Morocco, Iran, and Sudan. His cover as a Western businessman was the foundation of his continued survival. Discovery as an agent, let alone an Israeli agent, would lead to torture and death.
The handful of assignments which Ross describes are hair-raising when the reader imagines the risks, but the author relates his tale in a straightforward manner that belies the exceptional personal qualities that Mossad must have spotted years earlier. His life required extended absences from his family (unlike the overseas family life that Ishmael Jones maintained with his wife and family while undertaking clandestine work for the CIA). At one point, Ross was permitted to move his family to France but couldn’t live in the same city as them.
Mossad’s small size seems to also carry the risk of interpersonal friction and incompatibilities. Ross’ partner was something of a “golden boy” in the organization and Ross found it increasingly difficult to deal with him personally. After six years in the field (unusually long by Mossad standards), Ross asked for a transfer from “Caesarea.”
Back in Israel, back to a normal salary (instead of the triple salary of a foreign clandestine posting), Ross was to join “Tevel” — the department of Mossad that deals with other intelligence agencies around the world. Being Canadian, Ross was a natural fit for the North American department and liaison with the CIA and FBI (both in Tel Aviv and in Washington DC). Through 1997 and 1998 he was to work closely with the Americans on counter-intelligence in the US (Hezbollah procurement agents living and working in America) and on providing background information during Dennis Ross’ negotiations on behalf of Bill Clinton between the Israelis and Palestinians. The bombings of African embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam occured while he was in Tevel, as did the abortive assassination attempt in Jordan on Khaled Mashaal by the Kidon branch of Mossad. Canadian passports were used by Israeli agents at the time. Ross also tries to resolve the “Mega” Israeli agent story generated by the Washington Post in 1997 — it turns out “Megazoid” was the Mossad cryptonym used for the D.C. CIA liaison officer and the communication was entirely aboveboard. Michael was also instrumental in allowing the CIA to nab significant Al Qaeda agents in Baku, Azerbaijan and forestall a meeting they were scheduled to have with Iranian intelligence agents.
As a side-note, Ross indicates that the entire Mossad Washington DC bureau at the time was two people, while the CIA alone had 30 in Tel Aviv. It’s a reflection of the relative scale of the bureaucracies used by the two countries to fight their intelligence battles.
In late 1998, Ross transferred from Tevel back to undercover counter-terrorism in southeast Asia and Africa. He joined a department known as “Bitsur” which had responsibility for developing local intelligence assets in foreign countries. It also has responsibility for helping persecuted Jews around the world. From 1998-2001, Ross was the only Mossad agent in sub-Saharan Africa apart from liaison staff in Nairobi and Pretoria. He was able to arrange a small exodus of Jews from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe that were being lined up for extortion and abuse. As a “jumper,” someone in Mossad who worked in foreign countries but staged his activities out of Israel, he was also involved in a number of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) counter-proliferation activities … passing along information to media and government departments on scientists or military people in Russia and India … under the guise of working on a documentary.
Finally, Ross discusses a harrowing trip to South Africa to intimidate Iranians agents, pretending to be a South African intelligence service member. The action involved Ross directly in “rough stuff” and it would seem that it turned his thoughts to retirement. He’d come to the end of his emotional rope in the work that he did. Over the course of a few months in early 2001 and mid-2001, he began breaking in his replacement for his work in southeast Asia and Africa. 9/11 found both he and his partner in Asia, making a rapid trip to the Australian embassy to make secure contact with Israel and get instructions on what to do next. Despite an intensive round of interviews with the local Asian intelligence assets, nothing of significance was discovered.
Ross was ready for retirement. In the midst of a divorce and a mid-life crisis, he found himself missing Canada. His estranged father was experiencing poor health and Ross saw a final opportunity to form an adult relationship with him. And Ross began to see the stresses of Israeli life in a different light … the terrorist explosions, the traffic, the taxes, etc. The mental burden of living in the country finally caught up with him after almost twenty years.
He retired on October 1, 2001 … just weeks after 9/11. By his own account, he had no more to give. Returning to Canada, he’s had a chance to watch the coverage of events in the Middle East from the outside. Not surprisingly, it differs dramatically from what he knew of the attitudes to civilian casualties amongst the different parties in the region. Ross concludes his book with comments about jihad and Islam as experienced by those who are its daily victims.
And he continues to comment on world events in the National Post, a Canada-wide newspaper, sometimes as a co-author with Ishmael Jones.
The final chapter of the book broaches the question that repeatedly occurred to me while reading through the book “why did he write it?”
He’s not boastful about his actions, despite plenty of evidence of his intelligence and courage throughout. While perhaps due to using a co-author, surely the writing style was partly by the author’s intent. Ross is quite revealing when he describes training and assignments as a “combatant” (as Mossad clandestine agents are known) but he clearly didn’t intend to write a “tell-all” book. Like Jones’ The Human Factor, The Volunteer is (for me) a disturbingly useful sociological document on how the Mossad operates. And as mentioned earlier, it’s a vivid contrast with the often self-serving bureaucratic behemoth that’s the CIA.
So if the book wasn’t about self-aggrandizement, or about scandal-mongering and money-making, why do it?
As Ross tells it, his desire to write the book was first driven by an appetite to get his experience on paper. He also believes the world will be a safer place if people more widely understand Israel’s experiences dealing with terrorism. Though he feels he owes the Mossad much, he doesn’t feel the book will hinder the organization. Fair enough. But he returns to his home country which has a post-WW2 tradition of valuing nothing more highly than “a quiet life.” As a result, it’s become a global magnet for organized crime and international terrorists … who have a hankering for the “quiet life” as well.
I think back to Michael Totten’s recent interview on Pajamas Media with an Israeli who talks about “wanting to be where the action is.” I can get that completely. Israelis are personally appealing because they are wide awake. You can see 100% of their intelligence at work, moment by moment. They don’t have time for BS, and they’re perfectly willing to look at life “with the bark on” in ways that North Americans (and North American Jews) can barely fathom. So I can imagine why Ross chose Israel when he did and how he did. But I wonder, as he lives out his life on the west coast of Canada, whether he’s picked a place to live that’s also decided on “retirement.” No one seems wide-awake in British Columbia except the business people in downtown Vancouver and the Asian gang-bangers in the suburbs. And they’re mostly doing their business elsewhere.
The other people who are wide awake are the alphabet soup of jihadists in Canada who surely would love to bag an ex-Mossad agent who writes letters to the Editor. The details that the author gives about his operations in North Africa and the Middle East in The Volunteer seem entirely sufficient to track him down in Victoria, BC. Unless he’s changed his appearance dramatically or taken unusual precautions in his daily life and telecommunications, I think his book has placed him at some continuing risk.
Mind you, if his intent was to wake Canadians to the dangers of the wider world, he can rest easy. Canadian businessmen, at least, around the world will be living closer to the edge. Canadian passports are already well-established as the document of choice for the nefarious (on both sides of the law). Ross’ account now gives every Muslim intelligence agency license to grill Canadians without regard to whether they “look Jewish.” Cultural mannerisms that were entirely protective for Ross (as a Mossad agent) in the past are no longer protection at all for hapless civilians. Canadian consular services will be getting a regular work-out, one assumes, in the future.
For me personally, reading The Volunteer was all rather unsettling. Ross’ biography overlaps my own at several spots. I’ve worked and studied where he grew up. I was raised in a Canadian military family which had ongoing friendships with active-duty IDF members. I wrote essays on the Six Day War in school as a kid. As an adult, I’ve worked closely with Israelis and with North American Jews from a wide range of family backgrounds. He and I are roughly contemporaries … but I can’t say there was ever a time in my own life when I even imagined stepping into the Middle East and its conflicts. A wife and kids is an obvious motivation but clearly Michael Ross had a rare constitution for adventure, risk, and disciplined study. He doesn’t toot his own horn, but his biography (read carefully) speaks very loudly indeed. Why did he take such astonishing risks? Why did he return to sleepy, oblivious, ignorant Canada … and not become disenchanted? There are plenty of mysteries to mull over when the reading is done.
Inadvertently, I’ve found myself writing mini-book reviews by a bunch of risk-takers over the last six months. The youthful drama of Michael Yon’s training in the US Special Forces. The “slumming with the troops” hair-raising account of one year at war in the Korengal Valley with Sebastian Junger. The bureaucratic rat’s nest of the CIA’s clandestine service by Ishmael Jones. And now, the matter-of-fact derring-do of a Canadian in the sharpest end of the espionage business.
What have I learned? Mostly gratitude, I think. It’s our good fortune to have individuals who will take on these tasks, by circumstance or by nature. But I came to these books with one personal understanding … “you may love the job but the job doesn’t love you.”
All these individuals have paid a price for their exceptional physical and mental gifts. Society found ways to use these young men and reward them (at least temporarily) for that use. A faceless, less-adventurous reader can only hope that they find peace and happiness, either in the midst of the fray when the adrenaline is running high. Or at the end of the day, when there’s nothing left to give.
Of all the fiction authors who’ve addressed these issues, the one I’ve found most insightful in recent years is science fiction author Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels set in the distant future are filled with protagonists who are trained for “special circumstances” and cast amidst pre-modern or quasi-modern societies to try to make things better. The endings aren’t always happy. We can only hope our societies can continue to raise kids with the appetite and dedication for international service in an affluent society that won’t ever value their efforts enough.
The Volunteer is highly recommended for those interested in the Mossad.