October 2, 2019

Miniseries Review: "The Spy" (Netflix - 2019)

Eli Cohen was arguably one of Israel's best, if not the best, intelligence assets in its relatively short history. This new miniseries certainly highlights his value as an Israeli agent who penetrated the highest levels of the Syrian government. The producers attempted - with a modicum of success - to tell Cohen's story.

Most people are aware of the basic facts of this case: Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born son of Syrian Jews from Aleppo, immigrated to Israel, where he twice applied to work for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. While working as an accountant, he was finally offered employment with Mossad in 1959. Cohen's assignment was to penetrate the Syrian political and military establishments.

The Israelis developed a legend (that's the technical term for a cover story) using the name Kamil Amin Thabit. The legend had Cohen/Thabit move to Argentina, where he posed as a businessman. He made it known that he was anxious to "return" to Syria. He soon befriended military attaché Colonel Amin al-Hafiz at the Syrian embassy in Buenos Aires.

In 1962, Cohen made the move to Damascus, where his extravagant spending and parties gained him popularity among the wealthy and influential in the country. As luck would have it, Colonel al-Hafiz returned to Damascus, after which he participated in the 1963 Ba'th Party coup and later became the president of Syria.

You would think as an intelligence operation, it doesn't get any better than that. Actually, it does - later in the operation, Cohen became a senior adviser to the Syrian minister of defense. This gave him access to particularly sensitive military information. In the series, Cohen was named deputy minister of defense - just one of the theatrical licenses taken.

In the end, Cohen was captured and executed. I won't spoil the how and why for those who have not seen the miniseries.

My comments. I enjoyed the history, but not the theatrical license the producers took to tell it. The ridiculous story of the Israeli farmer on the border and the cameo appearance by a 7-year old Usamah bin Ladin are two such examples. They were both contrived and unnecessary - the actual story is compelling enough.

I have always been interested in the Eli Cohen story, on a professional and personal level. Professionally, I had hope to see more of the tradecraft used by Cohen - his communications systems, secret travel to/from Israel, use of dead drops if any. There were instances in the series where Cohen took photographs of classified Syrian military documents. How did he get the photographs back to the Mossad? Gathering information is sometimes the easy part, it's the getting it to headquarters that's hard.

On a personal level, when I was assigned as the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I visited what we called the "Eli Cohen apartment" in the Abu Rumanah section of the city. In fact, the embassy leased the apartment as part of the housing pool. It was fascinating to stand there on the balcony that looks over what was the Ministry of Defense compound in Cohen's time.

As for history, we often visited Marjah Square, the site of Cohen's public execution. By the time I was there in the 1990s, public hangings had been moved to the much larger 'Abbasiyin Square. As with Cohen, the bodies of those executed were allowed to hang for hours, ostensibly as a deterrent.

It is an interesting story. I'd recommend it with the caveat that there is more sensationalism than needed. This is a real-life drama that would have stood on its own. That said, I think Sacha Baron Cohen gave a good performance. It is available on Netflix.