Mossad veterans and experts question the authenticity of Munich

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Fact may be stranger than fiction, but when it comes to espionage, fiction makes for better storytelling. That was the conclusion drawn by many veterans of -- and experts on -- the Israeli intelligence service Mossad when they heard about Steven Spielberg's new thriller "Munich," which opens Friday in North America. "The basis for this film has no relation to reality, though it may be a cracking tale," said Eitan Haber, a Mossad historian.

In his portrayal of the Mossad's retaliation for the Palestinian terrorist attack on its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spielberg has drawn on the book "Vengeance," despite the fact it has been discredited in Israel and abroad.

The killing of senior Palestinians blamed for the Munich massacre, in a series of shootings, booby-trap bombings and commando raids in Europe and the Middle East, is beyond dispute.

What irks those few Israelis with direct knowledge of the top-secret missions is the way Spielberg's Mossad hit team functions, a depiction they say owes more to a romantic idea of the Zionist fighting ethos than to accurate historical research. "The modus operandi is entirely wrong," said Gad Shimron, a former Mossad operative turned journalist.

Spielberg insists that he consulted with a former Israeli agent for "Munich," and he opens the film with the disclaimer that it was inspired by real events. Like "Vengeance," Spielberg's film focuses on an Israeli assassin, Avner, who suffers a crisis of conscience over his country's reprisals policy.

Spielberg shows Avner's doubts growing over time and under operational duress. "Munich" posits that the hero was the leader of a diverse group of agents assigned to track down a rogue's gallery of wanted men from the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

For dramatic effect, the assassins are isolated in the field, left to their own devices by an Israeli high command loath to risk exposure. But such a set-up flies in the face of logic as well as logistics, according to Israelis-in-the-know.

"There was never a single list of targets drawn up, and certainly never a single hit-team assigned to handle them," a retired Mossad deputy chief said on condition of anonymity. "It was a matter of putting out the word to our people who were posted in various countries to look out for top Black September members. When these were located, then we sent out the right agents to take care of business, on a more ad-hoc basis." "Munich" rightly notes that Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister at the time of the Olympics attack, authorized Mossad to go on the offensive -- this was an executive decision.

But the film has elicited strong doubts in Israel by showing Meir personally recruiting Avner for the mission. "C'mon, like any intelligence agency we had the right people trained and ready to go. The idea of a prime minister meeting with a junior field agent is unthinkable -- it's bad for secrecy, for a start, not to mention completely unnecessary," said one veteran of the Mossad operations at the time. When asked about the Mossad's criticism, Dennis Ross, the former U.S. Middle East envoy, characterized them as fair.

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