Spymaster behind the capture of Adolf Eichmann dies aged 92
Rafi Eitan was linked to a daring theft of uranium from a nuclear plant in Pittsburgh, and was unmasked as handler of Jonathan Jay Pollard, who passed US secret documents to Israel
Rafi Eitan, who was a member of the Mossad team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. He was a legend in Israel because so many feats of espionage and international intrigue seemed to bear his fingerprints. Photograph: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Rafi Eitan, the Israeli spymaster who commanded the Nazi-hunting team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, and many years later was unmasked as the handler of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the US Navy intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty to passing on more than 1,000 secret documents to the Israelis, died on Saturday in Tel Aviv, Israel. He was 92.
The death was confirmed by the Ichilov Medical Center, where Eitan had been hospitalised, Israeli news organisations said. In a statement, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Eitan “among the heroes of the intelligence services of the State of Israel”.
Eitan, a bespectacled man with thinning hair, was a legend in his country because so many feats of espionage and international intrigue seemed to bear his fingerprints. He played important roles in the strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the theft in the late 1960s of at least 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear fuel plant in the Pittsburgh area that helped Israel’s atomic bomb programme, and the assassinations of the Palestinian commandos who carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
“In principle, when there is a war on terror you conduct it without principles,” he said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2010. “You simply fight it.”
No single deed garnered as much attention as the kidnapping of Eichmann, the SS official who drew up plans for the Final Solution, the mass deportation of Jews to camps for extermination. Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, had learned from a German prosecutor that a young German woman in Buenos Aires had befriended a young man there named Nicolas Eichmann, who lived with his family in a suburb of the city. His father, it was determined, was using the alias Ricardo Klement.
Through surveillance, Eitan and his team established that Klement, who appeared to be Eichmann, returned home from work by bus each day. On May 11th, 1960, Eitan and his team, pretending to be a group of men fixing a stalled car, snatched Eichmann after he got off the bus. “I grabbed him by the neck with such force that I could see his eyes bulge,” Eitan recalled. “A little tighter and I would have choked him to death.”
They drove three miles to a safe house, where Eichmann was kept for seven days, during which he admitted that he was indeed Adolf Eichmann.
“We did not want to show Eichmann how nervous we all were,” Eitan told an interviewer. “That would have given him hope, and hope makes a desperate person dangerous. I needed him to be as helpless as my own people were when he had sent them in trainloads to the death camps.”
The team dressed Eichmann in the outfit of an El Al airline crew member, forced him to drink a bottle of whiskey to make him wobbly, and escorted him onto a departing airplane as if he were an under-the-weather steward. An actual El Al crew member remained behind in Buenos Aires so that there would be no discrepancy in the manifest.
The team was also aware of the Argentine whereabouts of the demonic Nazi medical experimenter Josef Mengele, but Eitan had blocked any attempt to seize him because it could have jeopardized the capture of Eichmann. The kidnapping was condemned in Argentina as a violation of that country’s sovereignty and of international law, but it was met with deep satisfaction and vindication by tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors.
Eichmann faced a trial in Jerusalem that drew renewed attention to Germany’s systematic genocide. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was executed by hanging in 1962. In his book Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad (1995), British author and investigative journalist Gordon Thomas wrote that Eitan spoke to Eichmann in the execution chamber. “Eichmann looked at me and said, ‘Your time will come to follow me, Jew,’” Thomas quoted Eitan as recalling, “and I replied, ‘But not today, Adolf, not today.’”
Rafael Eitan was born on November 23rd, 1926, in the British Mandate of Palestine to Zionists who had immigrated from Russia three years earlier and lived in a small settlement near Tel Aviv. Not yet a teenager, Rafi joined the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israeli army, to defend the settlement against Arab attacks and was later recruited into its more elite branch, the Palmach. With Jews pressing the British for an autonomous homeland, his most dazzling venture was to crawl through sewers to blow up a British radar installation on Mount Carmel. It earned him the sobriquet “Rafi the Smelly,” to distinguish him from another Rafael Eitan, who went on to become chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
Eitan also played an important role in smuggling Jewish refugees from Nazism into Palestine.
Eitan was wounded twice in the 1948 war for independence. After telling his superiors that it was difficult for him to run in the field, they assigned him to an intelligence unit. His spying career had begun, though he took time to earn a degree from the London School of Economics. Over the next few decades he served as operations chief at Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, and as Mossad’s deputy operations chief. In 1965, posing as an Israeli government chemist, he visited a nuclear fuel plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. It was later discovered that a large quantity of enriched uranium had vanished.
Some American analysts concluded that it was more than a coincidence that Eitan’s visit had occurred around the time of the theft.
In 1985, Pollard, an intelligence analyst for the US Navy assigned to monitor classified materials on global terrorist activities, was arrested on charges of spying for Israel and turning over thousands of documents to it. He confessed and was sentenced to life imprisonment. After serving 30 years, Pollard, now 64, was granted parole and released from prison in 2015.