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There have always been journalists who "crossed the lines" and switched to being spokespersons, advisers or investigators of bodies that were previously the object of their coverage and commentary. There have presumably always been journalists whose work serves as a cover for clandestine work, but only a few are willing to admit it. One such person is Herbert Pundik (Nahum Pundak), a veteran Israeli-Danish journalist with an international reputation who a week ago in an interview with the Danish daily Dagbladet Information said that for about 10 years, he worked for the Mossad while doing his journalism job. His admission sent a shock wave through the serene Scandinavian country and aroused considerable media interest.
"Yes, I was a Mossad Agent," said the headline of the comprehensive interview with Pundik by journalist Lasse Ellegaard. The newspaper is identified with the left, and its origins lie in the Danish resistance to the Nazis. And this is how the reporter introduces him:
"We know a great deal about Herbert Pundik. He volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. In the past he passionately defended Israel and today he criticizes the country to the same degree. He constitutes a model for emulation for journalists writing about the Middle East. He has tremendous knowledge and admirable analytic ability. He is considered a moral authority because of his critical sense. But only a few know that Pundik once worked for the Mossad when he was employed by the Information and the [Danish newspaper] Politiken."
Pundik admitted to his interviewer, in response to a question, that during his travels and his assignments in the 1960s in Africa, he provided information to the Mossad (and also reported to Davar, the now defunct daily of the Histadrut labor federation, and to Danish public radio). But he added that "this connection was severed in 1970, when I was appointed editor-in-chief of Politiken."
"I traveled all over Africa under the cover of [being] a journalist," said Pundik. "In general, where is the boundary between espionage and journalism? For example, I wrote a detailed analysis of the tribes in Somalia and their attitude toward political parties, I investigated the political situation in northern Nigeria. These were things that the newspaper was also interested in."
Is that intelligence work? the interviewer pressured him. "Yes, in large part it was intelligence work, and I did it on one condition, which I was glad was fulfilled, that my reports be transferred to Denmark as well. The late Peter Isloe, who was no. 2 in the Danish military intelligence, received copies of my reports from the Israelis."
Pundik said he did not send the reports to Isloe, but he knew Isloe received them because they were friends. "I was a double agent in a sense, if you will," he said. "The Information was a poor newspaper and when I told them 'pay for my plane ticket and I'll pay for my expenses,' it worked." Pundik doesn't say so specifically, but we can assume from that sentence the Mossad paid part of his travel expenses and the rest was probably paid by the media that employed him.
Pundik said he was not asked to spy against Denmark. "Denmark is not important enough, and the Mossad has a basic principle: They don't enlist Jews to spy against their own countries. The Mossad has a principle of not compromising Jews in relation to their countries of origin." That is an interesting statement in view of the claims in the wake of the assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, that the Mossad, if it was behind the operation, used the identities of Israelis with dual citizenship.
Herbert Pundik was born in 1927 in Denmark. He immigrated to Israel in 1948 and volunteered to serve in the army. Since 1954, he has been living in Israel, while also editing the Politiken (for 23 years) until 1993 and turning it into a profitable daily with the widest circulation in Denmark. In the 1960s, he was the editor of the weekend magazine of Davar. He is the father of peace activist Dr. Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, who today serves as the director general of the Peres Center for Peace.
Herbert Pundik returns to Israel from a trip to the Far East this week, but it is doubtful he will agree to explain why he agreed to work for the Mossad, how that squared with journalistic ethics and why he decided to admit it now. His son said that as far as he knows, his father is not interested in being interviewed on the subject.
Pundik's admission resulted in a tempest in Denmark. The present editor of Politiken, Toger Seidenfaden, said he understands Pundik' motives to help Israel. Other editors and journalists, including Information editor Palle Weis, believe it was an unethical act.
Pundik's case should provoke discussion in the journalistic community here, too. It's no secret the Mossad has used the services of foreign correspondents. For example, when Israel wanted to bring the remaining Yemenite Jews to Israel in the 1990s, journalists who were allowed to visit Yemen were asked to make contact with the Jewish community there. However, with a few exceptions in the 1960s, the Mossad has refrained almost on principle from using Israeli journalists.
In the 1960s, Mossad chief Isser Harel used a few journalists, including Yeshayahu Ben Porat and the late Uri Dan, for the purpose of finding the addresses of German scientists who had helped Egypt's missile program. When the addresses were obtained, the Mossad waged a scare campaign on their families and sometimes even sent explosive packages and tried to assassinate the scientists. However, such use of Israeli journalists angered then prime minister David Ben-Gurion (against Harel) and was discontinued.
Even if they aren't working for the Mossad, many journalists still have overly close relations with the defense establishment. Several Israeli journalists were formerly officers in Military Intelligence, the Mossad or the Shin Bet security service. There are former journalists who switched to the Mossad, and there have been isolated cases of journalists who offered their services to the Mossad while they did their journalistic work and were turned away.