For the past decade, someone using the alias Michael Ross has made the rounds of the media and publishing world claiming to be a former Mossad agent. The story he told was impressive…on the surface. In the book, The Volunteer and numerous articles in pro-Israel media outlets like Canada’s National Post, he regaled readers with his tales of derring-do on behalf of the Jewish State.
His Wikipedia article, which now should be labelled fiction, presents a suitably flattering portrait:
Ross was born and raised as an Anglican in British Columbia. Following high school, he joined the Canadian Forces, and served in the since-disbanded 2nd Special Service Force at CFB Petawawa. After he was discharged, he toured Europe.
In 1982, he arrived in Israel, planning to volunteer on a kibbutz before returning to Canada. After living in Israel…Ross decided stay and convert to Judaism, and he subsequently married an Israeli woman…Ross was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces and assigned to the Combat Engineering Corps. He served in the West Bank, where his unit conducted patrols and searches for wanted terrorists and terror cells. In 1985, he was transferred to a demolitions platoon of the Golani Brigade and deployed to the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon. His unit was tasked with keeping the roads free of ambushes and IEDs. His only combat experience was when he participated in an ambush on two Hezbollah vehicles, during which eight militants were killed.
Here is how he describes his recruitment to, and service in the Mossad:
After the end of his military service, the Mossad recruited him. After repeated interviews, a medical examination and a polygraph test, he was put through an intense training program, and in 1989, he was accepted into the Mossad. As part of his preparation for service in the Mossad, Ross attended The London School of Economics. He served under a form of non-official cover, which involves working under covers other than as an Israeli diplomat and therefore lacks diplomatic immunity, a status which the Mossad refers to as “combatant.” Ross’s background and language skills gave him excellent access to sources of intelligence and the ability to travel without suspicion of being an Israeli officer.
For many years, Ross was the Mossad’s man in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although primarily a field operative, Ross also served in an official liaison position working with the American Central Intelligence Agency and FBI Counterterrorism Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2000, Ross was awarded a divisional citation by former Mossad Deputy Director and Head of the National Security Council, Ilan Mizrahi. Ross left the Mossad under honorable circumstances in late 2001 with the equivalent military rank of Sgan Aluf (Lieutenant-Colonel). He subsequently returned to Canada.
Ross’s work with the Mossad was spent almost entirely in counter-terrorism. Ross played an integral part in the investigation and subsequent joint operation with the FBI that resulted in the capture of Fawzi Mustapha Assi, a Hezbollah operative procuring weapons technology in the United States. Assi was procuring weapons material at the behest of senior Hezbollah leaders, Imad Mughniyeh and Hassan Hilu al-Lakkis.
In addition to sub-Saharan Africa, he served in the Mossad’s CAESAREA division in Syria, Azerbaijan, North Africa, and Iran. At Mossad headquarters he was involved with the TEVEL division, responsible for liaison relationships with allied governments on counter-terrorism, specifically in prevention and investigation of attacks upon embassies. Ross played an integral role in the capture of the al-Qaeda confederates responsible for the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He later served in the Mossad’s BITZUR division, responsible for prevention of terrorist attacks upon Jewish communities worldwide. Ross assisted the escape of Jews from Zimbabwe threatened by the Robert Mugabe regime. Ross is credited with bolstering intelligence ties between Israel and Azerbaijan and the interception of two Iranian agents attempting to procure weaponry in South Africa.
Which is all very good, except that some or all of it is a fraud. For one, a Mossad agent, especially in the days before 9/11, would not have liaised with the FBI. He would only interact, if he did at all, with the CIA. While he boasts about attaining the “equivalent” rank of Lt. Col., it’s known that he resigned from the Mossad because he had a relatively low level position and was passed over for promotion (see below). So we should doubt this claim as well.
What do we really know about “Ross?” He did serve in the Mossad in some unspecified capacity. But the exploits in his biography appear largely or wholly fictional.
Ross had a nasty habit of “coming on” to female Twitter followers**. He picked attractive, conservative, articulate, high-achieving women to approach with provocative banter. He was a Twitter Lothario, a la Anthony Weiner. In the past week, Twitter users exposed Ross as a fraud. Here is one he cultivated (here and here). He bragged on his defunct Twitter account that he had attended the prestigious private school, St. Michael’s University School in Victoria, BC. Even featured pictures of himself standing before its trophy case. At SMUS, he’d supposedly befriended the future NBA star, Steve Nash and the future founder of Flickr, Stuart Butterfield. He actually attended Mount Douglas High School, a quite ordinary public high school. So much for Burrows pretensions of grandeur.
“Ross” was in reality, Michael Burrows, and he was married, which hadn’t deterred him from his Twitter-based flirtations. That didn’t sit well with those he’d flirted with.
Among the material a Twitter user tweeted was this 2005 article published by Burrows under his real name in the Canadian National Post (a pro-Israel paper formerly owned by the right-wing Asper family). This earlier version of his bio refers obliquely to his alleged Mossad service:
Michael Burrows is a Victoria-based writer. He formerly served with the office of Israel’s Prime Minister and served in both the Canadian Armed Forces and the Israel Defence Force.
Israel’s intelligence agencies, the Mossad and Shabak, are technically supervised by the office of the Prime Minister. Hence, someone who wanted to allude to intelligence service might refer to their service in this veiled way.
Jonathan Kay, an editor at National Post, where Burrows published regularly until about a year ago under the alias “Ross,” co-authored Burrows’ book, The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad with him. I understand that Kay is no longer featuring that credit on his CV. When I contacted Ross’s Random House editor, Doug Pepper, and queried him about the level of due diligence he’d done in vetting the material in the book before publishing, Pepper replied he was aware of the concerns expressed by myself and others, but hadn’t yet had time to look into it. I suggest that Random House may have a budding author scandal on its hands.
In this biographical reference, Burrows added several new academic degrees to his CV:
Ross is a graduate of Political Studies from Bar Ilan University and the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and studied economics and international trade at the London School of Economics.
This Amazon review by someone with genuine intelligence experience who emphatically debunked a number of the claims in the book. Burrows’ claims about serving in Canadian Special Forces is a fraud as well, as Canadian military headquarters in Ottawa denies he served.
In a 2007 book review, Haaretz’s then intelligence correspondent, Yossi Melman, in a restrained manner debunked and downplayed many of the claims in Burrows’ book. Though he never denied that the Canadian served in Mossad, he dismissed many of Burrows claims of service and declared that he overstated his background and achievements. For example, he mentions “Ross’ real and imagined adventures.” Melman further disparages him:
Ross magnifies and glorifies his adventures and claims to have participated in operations in which it is doubtful he was involved, even on their margins. Haaretz has learned from sources who knew him in the Mossad that Ross was never in Iran…He was an operations man…in base countries (countries with which Israel has relations) and not in target countries (an Arab country or Iran).
Melman, after consulting Mossad contacts, receives this account of Burrows (whom he mistakenly calls “Jonathan”):
…People who have retired from the Mossad vaguely remember an employee of Canadian origin, Jonathan, whose operational name was Rick, who indeed was a combatant for about seven years in a base country. They tell of an individual who lacked self-confidence and did not stand out. This is supported by the fact that he remained in a junior position even after 13 years and was not promoted, which was also one of the reasons for his retirement in 2001.
All of this is somewhat ironic coming from Melman, who himself has published several books recounting Mossad derring-do in a breathless, credulous manner. Not to mention writing profiles of anti-Iran frauds, hacks and megalomaniacs like Raymond Tanter and Reza Khalili. But whatever criticism one might have of Melman, he’s certainly no fantasist as Burrows appears to be.
A former high-ranking Mossad official, Mishka Ben David, said in a Maariv interview (Hebrew) that despite the fact that he converted to Judaism, that didn’t make Burrows “one of us.” That was why Burrows could angrily blame the Mossad for betraying Ben Zygier. After writing The Volunteer, the Mossad told Burrows he was forbidden to return to Israel. If he did, he would be arrested. This seemed to be the Mossad’s way of saying: “Go away flea and stop bothering me.”
However, the Mossad too is damaged by such individuals. After all, it hired them. It in some way turned them into the person they are today. It nurtured some of the very same “skills” he uses today in his various subterfuges. Burrows’ confidence game, whether the Mossad understands this or not, reflects upon it and damages its reputation.
Another example of this sort of megalomania endangering affairs of state is the case of Yehuda Gil (Hebrew and an English language source), a former Mossad officer who may or may not have had a genuine Syrian general as an informant. The information the alleged informant proffered concerning the alleged intent of Assad to attack Israel based on Syrian troop movements in Lebanon in 1996, brought the two nations to the brink of war. The aftermath brought Gil to court and prison for his inventions. The Syrians were accused of paying Gil $200,000 for his troubles. An interesting footnote: Gil taught a special course to Mossad recruits entitled, Lying as an Art. Hmmm.
The larger problem is that the Mossad is composed of many Gils, Burrows and Zygiers. Many poseurs, charlatans and con men. In fact, one such former Mossad official has, in service to the agency, duped me into publishing at least two stories which turned out to be false (he’s no longer a source). It’s a confidence game for them.
The Mossad’s recruitment process, which has come under severe criticism in a Knesset report on the tragedy of the Australian-Israeli spy, either excuses or ignores the personality defects of such individuals. Rather, it seeks to exploit the opportunities that these candidates offer. As with Zygier, Burrows offered a fresh-faced, non-Israeli profile that would not draw undue attention. He had that extremely useful Canadian passport. The result is tragedies like what befell Zygier. In the case of Ross, no great harm was done other than his defrauding the faith of those who believed in him.
Only a few days before Twitter users outed him, the noted security blog, Blogs of War did a multi-part interview in which Burrows used all of his charm to effect a supremely confident erudite demeanor. The aftermath of all this is this post written by John Little in which he opaquely refers to his being “taken” in by Burrows. My only problem with this is that, while I understand the embarrassment one feels from having been fooled, the hoaxsters must be outed with full force, which Little didn’t do. He lets Burrows off far too easily.
I say this as someone who myself has been fooled. Not often, but once is one than enough. I find the best policy is to explain what happened and why, and not mince words.
Just as Twitter users were cutting up Michael “Ross” and serving him for dinner in their Twitter feed, he closed his Twitter account (shades of Anthony Weiner). Though it’s doubtful you can keep a con man down for long. Expect him to reappear somewhere else like mushrooms after a spring rain.
NOTE: **A Twitter user who, in my judgment, played an important role in outing Burrows, after sharing a great deal of her research on the subject in multiple e-mails, has threatened me with legal action if I associate her name with the first phrase of this sentence. But the role she played and judgments other Twitter users already published about her role are freely, publicly available online. In this case, discretion is the better part of avoiding lawsuits, frivolous or otherwise.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.