As Israel Tries to Smother His Book, a Former Mossad Spy Spills Some Dark Secrets of That Shadowy Service

updated 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Victor Ostrovsky stops and stiffens as he spots a young couple passing on an Ottawa street. He watches until they are safely out of sight. "I know when I am being followed," says the former agent of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. "I have been trained to know. If there are 15 people on me, I can tell. I can see the patterns developing. I can detect it. But I have a limit. If they put one extra agent on me, I can't tell anymore. It's past my limit." Then Ostrovsky, who recently outraged the Israeli government with his book By Way of Deception, an alleged exposé of some of Mossad's dirtiest little secrets, smiles ruefully and says, "The trouble is, they know my limit."

Although a high Israeli source insists the book is a fraud, Ostrovsky, 40, claims he has been under round-the-clock surveillance by Mossad for weeks and that the offices of the Canadian publisher of the book he co-authored with newspaperman Claire Hoy were illegally entered. The Israeli government also obtained a court order temporarily outlawing the book in Canada and—briefly—in the United States, arguing that its publication would endanger agents in the field. But a four-judge appeals panel in the U.S. quickly overturned the temporary restraining order that had been granted the Israelis after an unusual late-night legal petition, saying that Israel's argument was groundless. Since then By Way of Deception has been "leaping off the shelves," according to Ostrovsky's American publisher. "We've never experienced anything like this," says St. Martin's Press President Roy Gainsburg, who reports that 255,000 copies of the book are in print after a first printing of only 42,000 and that bookstores are clamoring for more.

Among Ostrovsky's more shocking allegations are that Mossad failed to share with the U.S. detailed intelligence that might have averted the 1983 suicide bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks that killed 241 U.S. servicemen; that Israeli agents in New York City bugged conversations between former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and ambassadors from Syria and Kuwait; and that Mossad promiscuously assassinated enemy agents. "What's striking is the wealth of detail." says David Ignatius, who covered the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal, of the book. "He didn't make it all up." The U.S. government has not commented officially on these charges, though a spokesperson for the State Department said unofficially that the Israelis would have been smarter to ignore the book.

The author is inclined to agree. "[Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir went against all his advisers when he ordered legal action against me," says Ostrovsky, who is living with his wife, Bella, 40, and his two daughters, Leeorah, 16, and Sharon, 20, in a rented house on the outskirts of Ottawa in his native Canada. "If they wanted to give me publicity, they couldn't have planned it better."

Israeli authorities have acknowledged that Ostrovsky—a former naval commander and weapons specialist—did work for the highly regarded Israeli secret service from 1984 until 1986 but downplay his importance and question his motives. "He was very junior—a clerk," says one Mossad source, adding that Ostrovsky was also "very left-wing and very hungry for money."

Ostrovsky shakes his head at such claims. "It is an old story," he says. "They want to destroy my reputation. But the fact is that last week, two [Israeli] agents showed up at my door and offered me any amount of money, any amount at all, if I would not publish the book. If I was interested in money, wouldn't I take it from them? I don't care about money. I wrote the book to attack a runaway organization. They [Mossad] are costing Israel friends, and more than any other weapon, Israel needs friends."

Ostrovsky comes from prickly Zionist roots and spent his youth shuttling between Israel and his father's native Canada. His father, Syd Osten (anglicized from Ostrovsky), flew fighter planes during Israel's War of Independence; his mother, Mira, drove supply trucks for the Israeli Army. They divorced when Victor was a child, and both began to spend time back in North America, leaving their son in Israel in the care of his grandparents. "My grandfather was an auditor," Ostrovsky recalls. "Very honorable. He would not get me a job, although he knew many people in the labor unions. So I got a good job on my own. He made me quit because it might look like he got me the job. I got another job. They called me the Bobo, one of those dolls that keeps bouncing up when you knock it down."

At 18, Ostrovsky became an officer in the Israeli Army. "I was a Zionist and idealistic," he says. "I was taught that we must have purity of arms, we must be clean." He was in and out of military service for the next 18 years before being recruited by Mossad. As part of his training, he learned of the great feats of Israeli intelligence—foiling a plot by the PLO to kill Golda Meir in 1973, rescuing the hostages on a hijacked Air France plane at Entebbe in 1976. But he was offended, he says, by the corruption of Mossad's leaders—men who he claims held orgies with young secretaries and ordered the slaughter of PLO suspects. He says he was horrified to discover that Israeli agents knew in advance specific details about the planned terrorist attack on the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983 but gave only vague warnings to their closest ally.

Ostrovsky's disenchantment was shared by his wife, Bella. Childhood sweethearts, they have been married for 21 years. "I read some books about how we treated Arabs, and it opened my eyes," says Bella. "I spoke to Vickie and I told him, 'How could we do this?' "

Ostrovsky left Mossad in 1986 under circumstances that are unclear. He claims he made enemies of important officials with his impertinent questions; a Mossad source says he was kicked out after bungling an assignment. Ostrovsky denies it. In any case he emigrated to Canada, where he convinced Hoy, author of the 1987 bestseller Friends in High Places, an exposé of political intrigue in Canada, to tell his story. An accomplished artist, Ostrovsky, subsidized by book revenue's can now paint full-time. If he ever tried to return to Israel, he fears, he might be prosecuted for treason. Yet Ostrovsky insists he wrote his book out of loyalty to his early Zionist ideal. "How could I remain silent?" he asks. "I am a patriot."

—Ken Gross, J.D. Podolsky in New York City

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