The Further Fictions and Half-Truths of Mossad Agent, Michael Burrows
I wrote a blog post last month about a Canadian Christian who emigrated to Israel in the 1980s and joined the Mossad (or so he claimed). He wrote the book, The Volunteer under the pseudonym, Michael Ross. Over the past weeks, a flurry of Twitter correspondence has exposed the rather seamy side of his life since he left the Mossad. This included sexual flirtation, lies about his past, and much braggadocio about his exploits.
I chronicled much of this in that post based on tweets and research by others who took umbrage at his odd behavior. Among other things, they exposed his true identity: he is Michael Burrows and lives in British Columbia.
But I wanted to try to pin down whether any of his claims about Mossad service were true. In Israeli media reports by Yossi Melman and Mishka Ben David, they accepted the notion that he was a Mossad agent, though Melman in particular took issue with many of “Ross'” claims about his achievements as an agent.
Israel’s leading intelligence correspondent, Ronen Bergman, spoke to me about both Burrows book and his career in the Mossad. The Israeli journalist confirmed Burrows was an agent, but denied that he’d ever served in what the Mossad calls a “target” country. That is, a country that is the “target” of Mossad hostile activity such as an Arab state or one having no relations with Israel. Burrows served in “base” countries. That is, countries deemed friendly to Israel who could serve as a “base” for its other activities in “target” countries.
In The Volunteer, one of only two books I know written by Mossad agents about the agency, Burrows describes many feats of derring-do performed supposedly by him and the team with which he worked. These included operations in Morocco, Iran and other Muslim countries. Though most of the events did happen and some of ways he describes them happening are true, Burrows was never there nor directly involved. Bergman noted that agents in base countries often may perform missions in their assigned territory that supports missions in target countries. As such, they may learn about these missions as the support team.
My understanding of these matters is that base agents do not perform missions in target countries. Hence, I would say Burrows claims of his own direct personal involvement in exploits in Arab countries are invented.
Excluding such claims of personal participation, it appears Burrows has taken some pains to describe events as factually as he could (though even here he made some errors). In his life since he left the Mossad, he appears (at least if his Twitter life is any indication) to have thrown caution to the winds and become a sexual braggart and borderline megalomaniac. His over-arching need is to puff up his ego and make himself look important. Which is why he’s published op-eds in the Canadian National Post over the years and given interviews about his days in the Mossad to Blogs of War.
If you examine Burrows’ qualifications closely you won’t find much there. He has no particular expertise or academic background as an analyst. He has what many of us have, a great curiosity to study and understand the Middle East and to make sense of what happens there. But unlike the rest of us, Burrows has a need to embellish himself and his record to magnify his achievements.
Yossi Melman’s 2007 article about Burrows’ book revealed that his Mossad superiors didn’t find him an especially good field operative. His first assignment in the prestigious Caesarea unit ended with him being reassigned to a desk job back home in Israel. Finally, he was assigned an even less distinguished post working as liaison between the Mossad and Diaspora Jewish communities. This unit has since been disbanded. So all in all, Burrows had a less than stellar career. By his own account, he left the agency in anger when he was passed over for promotion.
Hence the writing of the book. To justify spending thirteen years of his life in a job that turned out to offer less than he’d hoped, he wrote an expose that he knew would rankle his former colleagues; and would also make him a hero in his own mind and the minds of those who believed him.
I don’t imagine the Mossad was terribly happy when they found he was writing a book about his service. They surely tried to dissuade him. But when they learned he would not back down, they reached an agreement with him that ensured his book would not be the sort of no-holds barred tell-all that Victor Ostrovsky’s book became. That is why The Volunteer is a book that flatters the Mossad and advances its claims of being omniscient and omnipotent as far as its enemies are concerned. This too is the weakness of the book because it has to pull punches about certain issues in order to protect the agency.
Finally, anyone who is tempted to read The Volunteer must know that it is not what it claims to be. It is not a memoir of the exploits of a Mossad agent. It is a book of fiction with some fact thrown in for good measure. Even the facts are not as described, because Burrows’ claims to have witnessed or participated in any of these events (the ones in Arab countries at least) is false.
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The competing narrative is pretty common in books on military or intelligence subjects where it is very hard to get reliable information; one writer will make Unit X look like James Bond, the other will make it look like Inspector Clouseau. I think the most extreme case of this was Vladamir Bogdanovitch Rezun (Victor Suvorov), a defector from the Soviet military. In 1981 he came out with “The Liberators”, a narrative of life in the Soviet Army in the 1960s and 1970s which pretty much went against the official narrative in Washington of an all-powerful red military force; it was allegedly the first book in English to talk about hazing (dedovshchina) in the Soviet military. In 1982 he produced “Inside the Soviet Army”, which was its complete opposite; the military is again competent in the extreme. I think Suvorov saw where the wind was blowing and he wanted to make a living publishing books on the USSR, which he has, more-or-less; he worked with Sir John Hackett on the sequel to Hackett’s world war III book (“The Third World War: The Untold Story”) before grinding out books on the GRU, Spetznaz, and promoting his theory that Stalin was going to attack Nazi Germany in 1942, so Barbarossa was a preemptive invasion.
Two members of an SAS team which failed to properly plan their operation in the first Gulf War, resulting in prompt disaster, have subsequently enjoyed successful careers churning out overt fiction on the back of “factual” and mutually contradictory accounts of their heroism during and after the cock-up. They write under the names Chris Ryan and Andy McNab.
Another SAS man and historian, Michael Asher, was persuaded to investigate their accounts, as he had done for T.E. Lawerence’s “The Seven Pillar’s of Wisdom” and a former regimental sergeant major of the SAS seems to have encouraged Asher to do this. Probably to protect the regiment’s integrity.
While Saddam was still in power, Asher went to Iraq with a film crew and visited the locations described in these accounts of derring-do, and spoke to many locals who’d witnessed the actual events (where there were any) upon which they were based. His conclusion was that they’d actually made a mess of everything and their stories were really attempts to salvage their reputation. He also concluded that some things simply hadn’t happened at all.
Asher once tried to prove that Lawrence could have made his famous forced march in exactly the way he did, by trying to do it himself, followed by increasingly worried Arab historians who tried to tell an exhausted and bewildered Asher that by exaggerating a little Lawrence was only following Arab custom and he was still a great man. Typically, Asher tried to retrace every one of Ryan’s alleged footsteps and, somewhat more quickly, realized that there was even less substance to the tale than there was with Lawrence, who probably only distorted the time taken for the trip and the circumstances rather than whether it really happened.
At best, Burroughs is an Andy McNab or a Chris Ryan, and simply needs a Michael Asher to check out his tale. But I think it’s worse than that and he’s more of a Jeffery Archer: fictionalizing his own biography completely in order to further his writing (and political, in Archer’s case) career.
If Burroughs is not a con-man in the financial sense, he’s a sexual con-man. And only rarely do sexual con-men fail to prey on their victims in the financial sense once they’d conned them into bed. It wouldn’t be in the nature of such a man for the “Mossad Agent” to be the only false persona, so everyone should watch out.
(“Ryan” and “McNab” were members of 22 SAS, which are the hairy-chested saboteurs and gunmen that the Murdoch press loves so much. Asher, a former paratrooper, was in 23 SAS, which specializes in very long-range reconnaissance on foot, where a single man will slip undetected deep into enemy territory, see what the drones and satellites do not, and hear what’s not being said over any form of electronic communications. I’d be of the opinion that the latter was of far more actual military value. It’s got more to do with Orde Wingate than David Stirling.)
Unlike Mossad, MI5 has now started to issue public warnings about conmen pretending to be agents or former agents. Especially when they want something…