Ask anyone in the Middle East why something, almost anything, has happened and chances are you will get a one word answer: Mossad.
The Mossad is Israel's intelligence agency, and its reputation borders on the mythological. It has been so secret that the name of the Mossad chief was only made public in 1996. The man who led the Mossad for the last four years retired a few months ago and sat down with Bob Simon for a rare interview.
He talked about, among other things, spycraft, Saddam and Sept. 11. The name Ephraim Halevy may have been made public, but his face was kept in the shadows.
"I never had a problem moving around the world as head of the Mossad and concealing my identity," he says.
Did he ever use disguises? "I used whatever was necessary."
One wouldn't expect a man who looks like a college professor to talk like James Bond. But, for 40 years, this British-born, soft-spoken gentleman has been one of the world's master spies. For four years, as Mossad chief, he controlled the agency's operations worldwide.
It was a lonely job. "You are sitting here in Israel, and people are operating in all kinds of places around the world, and you know very well that your capability to control what is happening is limited to what you instruct a, b or c to do. And I have often said to people, 'You know, in your bag, which you are carrying all the papers and instructions, you're carrying my head as well.'"
But over the years, it was more often other heads that have rolled, and that's what has given the Mossad its mystique: The capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina; the assassinations of PLO terrorists who massacred Israeli Olympians in Munich; the infiltration of Arab governments at the highest levels. But according to Halevy, there is so much more we'll never know.
"Not one big success of the Mossad has ever been made public," he says.
Among insiders, the Mossad is respected not just for its daring operations but for its intelligence gathering, and, for its predictions. Halevy has his share of these. He says, for example, that the year 2003 will be the most critical in Israel's life and that it will not be a good year for two of Israel's arch enemies, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat.
"I think that within the year, Arafat will not be in the position he is in today. Neither he nor Saddam Hussein are going to live out this year as leader of their countries and peoples."
He says he would bet 70 percent of his savings that both will be out by end of the year. "I don't have such a big bank account, but i'd put 70 percent," he says.
Saddam will not go quietly, Halevy believes, and for an American operation to be successful, he should go quickly.
As for Arafat, Halevy used to believe that he should be removed from power but not from the region. He thought Arafat was less dangerous locked inside his compound on the West Bank than he would be in another country. But Halevy has changed his mind on that. He now thinks the Israelis should send Arafat on a long trip with no return ticket.
"I think if I say a particular country immediately probably there will be howls of protest from people in that particular country," he says.
Back to Tunis? "I wouldn't, I don't want to compromise the Tunisians. I don't want to say it."
The Israelis happen to be a lot more worried about Iran than they are about either Arafat or Saddam. And they think the Americans should be, too. But Halevy, the ex-Mossad chief, thinks there will be good news here. The ayatollahs may be marching towards nuclear weapons, but they may also be marching off stage.
"I have a minority opinion of one in this country, and I believe that there is a chance that, there is a possibility that there will be a change in Iran, and that there will be a regime change from within Iran," he says.
Halevy believes that once protesters take to the streets, and manage to stay there, a totalitarian regime's days are numbered. And restless Iranian students are spending more time on the streets every year.
"I think that one of the defining dates is going to be 2004, when you have the election for the new Iranian President," he says.
So by 2004, he predicts, Arafat is not going to be in power, Saddam is not going to be in power, and the mullahs might not be in power. A new Middle East may appear, he says.
Halevy thinks new governments in Iraq and Iran will send a message to their troublesome neighbors. "I think things are happening, which are much more profound than the ordinary man in the street believes are happening or is capable of feeling," he says.
Halevy agrees with President Bush that there is an axis of evil. But he thinks the list should be longer.
"Shall we say the adjuncts of this axis?" he says. "Syria, unless it changes its ways, yes," as well as Libya and Sudan, unless they change their ways.
The war on terror, Halevy says, is the equivalent of World War Three. Osama bin laden? Halevy believes he is alive and well and living in northwest Pakistan. And there is an irony here. You may believe that bin Laden was behind Sept. 11, but millions of people in the Islamic world believe the man responsible was Halevy. Such is the reputation of the Mossad in the Middle East. Many Arabs believe it was a Mossad plot to give the Arabs a dirty name.
"Needless to say, this is not just a big lie. I think this is really also a travesty of any vestige of truth," he says.
"I think that unfortunately I am not sure that this only comes from the masses. I am not sure that there hasn't been a nod and a wink coming down from high levels in the countries you mentioned to let this lie be disseminated," he adds.
But disseminated it is and Halevy doesn't think there's much you can do about it. The question remains, however: how did the 9/11 terrorists manage to plot their attack undetected? Halevy believes we haven't gotten to the bottom of the intelligence failure yet. But he thinks it would be too easy to blame it all on the head of the CIA.
The key, he says, is not who went wrong, but what went wrong. "It's so superficial to say: OK, something went wrong, off with his head"
Halevy really didn't answer the question, clearly didn't want to criticize the CIA. But he says modern intelligence in general has become over-reliant on electronic surveillance. Good old fashioned spying, he says, remains the core of espionage. And the heart of the matter is convincing another man to betray his country.
"In order to accomplish this, you have to invest into this an enormous amount of emotion. It's not simply cold blooded, it's a battle of wills, it's a battle between you and the other person. You want him in the end to do what you want him to do, on a one-on-one basis."
This is the battle Halevy engaged in for 40 years. The battle to make men betray everything they believed in. It would make a riveting memoir, but it's a memoir he'll never write.
What moment is he most proud of?
"This is something I can't talk about unfortunately. I am sorry about that," he says.
"So am I," Simon answers.
"I am sure you are," Halevy says with a laugh.