What secrets lie behind the concrete walls and electric fences of the Israeli Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) of Nes Tzionah near Tel Aviv? Although few people know for sure, it widely suspected that this place is one of the main centers of Israel’s chemical/biological weapons (CBW) research. Another presumed task of the institute is to discover vaccines and design monitoring systems to safeguard Israel’s population against enemy attacks using unconventional arms. The secretive place attracted an unwelcome jolt of publicity when its deputy chief, Professor Marcus Klingberg, mysteriously disappeared twenty-two years ago.
After Peter Pringle, a British reporter, attempted to trace Klingberg’s whereabouts in 5735/1985, the trail ran cold. Everyone he questioned would not, or could not, tell him anything. In 5753/1993, Israel’s Supreme Court finally forced the government to reveal his whereabouts after the Schocken Media Group petitioned that the public had “the right to know.”
It turned out that Klingberg had been arrested ten years before and was sitting in a high-security Israeli jail. His crime was espionage for Soviet Russia. How did an internationally renowned scientist become a spy?
A TERRIBLE CHOICE
Marcus Klingberg was born in Warsaw into a Torah-observant family but threw off most of his religious training at an early age. In 5699/1939, his world was shattered when the Nazis stormed into Poland. Klingberg had a terrible choice – to flee east to Russia, or to remain behind in Poland with his mother who could not leave her elderly parents. Klingberg took the first option and fled, taking with him almost nothing except his rarely-used tefillin and a load of guilt.
After studying medicine in Minsk, Klingberg served as a military epidemiologist (disease specialist) in the Red Army. His years in Russia turned him into a dedicated Communist. After the war, Klingberg returned to Poland hoping to find a remnant of his family but like so many others, he found no one. After his attempts to immigrate to America failed, he immigrated to Israel, which had just declared its independence, and joined the army’s medical corps. At the completion of his military service, he became one of the founding members of the IIBR in Nes Tzionah and, by the 5730s/1970’s, he was its deputy director.
RECRUITING A SPY
One day in 5717/1957, Klingberg arrived at the door of the Soviet Embassy in Tel Aviv to get copies of his medical diplomas. The Soviet Embassy in Tel Aviv, like those worldwide, served double- duty as an office for the KGB and Klingberg was too big a fish to be cast back into the sea. He was informed that, as he had skipped a year during his medical studies in Minsk, he was not really qualified to be a doctor at all. As such, he was given a choice. To get his papers, he must supply the Soviets with IIBR’s secrets. Klingberg’s Communist leanings made it easier for him to do such as deed. In fact, he subsequently retracted this version of his recruitment and testified that he agreed to spy for Russia of his own volition and never took a penny for his services.
Later, on a trip to Europe, Klingberg was taught the tricks of the trade – how to use invisible ink, how to take micro-photos and how to carry out mail drops. Klingberg then returned to Israel and spied so discreetly that it took Israel’s Secret Service twenty years to catch up with him.
In the 5720s/1960s, suspicions arose that something fishy was going on in the IIBR but Klingberg passed polygraph tests with flying colors. When the Soviets stopped diplomatic contact with Israel after the Six-Day War, Klingberg began traveling to Switzerland under the guise of attending to his health or international conventions, all the while conveying information to spymasters over there. He arranged meetings with his handlers in restaurant and cafes, sometimes a Soviet biological expert was there to ask the right questions.
In the course of about twenty such meetings, Klingberg reportedly handed over such sensitive information that he may have the dubious distinction of being the most important Soviet spy Israel ever caught. It is assumed that the Soviets handed over their information to their Arab client states.
The senior security officer of the Biological Institute was convinced for years that Klingberg was responsible for infor mation leaks. “I tell you he’s a spy,” he claimed time after time. But no one would listen to him. Nothing concrete was pinned to Klingberg even after a Mossad operative trailed him in Switzerland.
THE TRAITOR UNVEILED
Finally Avraham Shalom, the new head of Israel’s Secret Service, decided that the solution was to subject Klingberg to some “shock treatment,” and an elaborate psychological plan was set into motion.
Israel’s Supreme Court gave the Secret Service sanction to arrest Klingberg for thirty days without trial. An apartment was hired in the center of Tel Aviv and set up with cameras and microphones, a few chairs, a table and a bed. All that remained was to lay out the bait.
Soon afterwards, a Secret Service man introduced himself to Klingberg and told him that there had been a chemical explosion in Malaysia.
“Israel has no formal links with Malaysia,” the secret agent explained, “and we need you to go there unofficially and help. The trip must be kept absolutely secret. Not even your wife must know where you’re headed for.” Klingberg agreed to the plan and, after a few briefings, he packed his bags, said farewell to his family one morning, and went downstairs to a car waiting below. Instead of heading for the airport, the car sped into the middle of Tel Aviv and stopped at a nondescript building.
“We’re stopping here first,” Klingberg was told. Klingberg climbed up the stairs and was herded into the prepared apartment where a Secret Service operative, Chaim Ben-Ami awaited him and accused him of selling out Israel to the Soviets.
Despite a merciless grilling, Klingberg held firm and refused to admit anything. Time was running out. According to law, a relative was already supposed to be informed of his arrest. However, Ariel Sharon, then the Minister of Defense, waived this injunction and the interrogation continued.
After six days of pressure, Klingberg broke down and confessed. Afterwards, he was taken to a Tel Aviv hotel where he committed the history of his espionage to writing. Klingberg’s wife was informed about what had happened and was sworn to secrecy. In June 5733/1983, he was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, the same sentence as was handed down to Mordechai Vanunu three years later, in 5736/1986.
Klingberg languished in jail for ten years, much of it in solitary confinement, under the pseudonym Avraham Greenberg, until the Israeli newspaper, Ha’Aretz, published by Schocken Media, appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court and received permission to reveal the episode. A few years later, Klingberg began to complain that his health was failing.
A Beersheba court ruled that “the state must bear in mind humanitarian considerations and not merely security” and Klingberg was allowed to serve the last five years of his sentence under strict house arrest. Two male housekeepers, approved by the Secret Service, were hired at his expense to listen in to every word he said. To foil them, Klingberg took to talking in Yiddish and Russian until a Beersheba judge made a special injunction to stop this. Klingberg completed his sentence over a year ago and joined his daughter, Sylvia, in Paris. She is married to Udi Adiv, who was found guilty of spying for Syria some years ago.
In 5747/1997, Israel unwillingly revealed its biological/ chemical know-how in a botched attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political bureau head. A Mossad squad was sent to Jordan armed with a poison spray and, as Meshal emerged from his offices in Amman, the two men gave him a dose. Unfortunately, Meshal’s bodyguard and a chauffer caught the two Israelis and King Hussein threatened to break off diplomatic ties with Israel because of the incident. To appease him, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was forced to release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas from an Israeli prison, and send a medical team with an antidote to save Meshal’s life.
THE AMSTERDAM CRASH
The next major crack in the IIBR’s secrecy came in October 5759/1998 when an El Al Boeing 747 was taking off from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. At 6,500ft, a jet engine fell off the wing and broke off another engine in the process. While reducing speed for the final approach, the plane went out of control and crashed into an apartment building in the Bijlmer suburb of Amsterdam.
During the next few years, rescue workers and people living near the crash site came down with mysterious ailments, including skin rashes and cancer, raising suspicions that it may have been caused by a toxic cargo on board the plane.
Israel admitted that the plane had been carrying 190 liters of dimethyl methylphosphonate, a chemical that can be used to produce sarin nerve gas or utilized in building materials as a flame retardant. Despite the Israeli government’s insistence that the chemicals were non-toxic, El Al admitted that the plane was carrying dangerous chemicals.
On top of that, the plane’s freight documents indicated that the chemical cargo was on its way from an American factory to the Nes Tzionah institute. The Nes Tzionah mystery continues. May the day soon come when we beat our swords into ploughshares and chemical/biological research is devoted to solely peaceful ends.