These days we can get almost any information at any given moment by simply using a search engine on the internet. In fact, if you want to keep the American NSA or the British MI6 agencies from surveilling our calls or digital correspondence, it's best remain silent and to pass notes to each other and destroy them after reading such that they can't be reconstructed.
Spying or, alternately, information retrieval of any kind, not just by government organizations, has become routine, has become part and parcel of our lives, has lost any of the romance once associated with it in, for example, some of Alfred Hitchcock's films; and have turned us all into intelligence agents operated by Google, Facebook and various intelligence agencies unbeknownst to them.
About sixty years ago, information or intelligence gathering started accelerating even though it was still new among established nations and every tiny bit of intelligence that was gathered about neighboring countries was considered big. This was the case the story of Massoud Buton, a fighter and Israeli spy who was active in the years 1954-1961 and who died about three years ago.
About two years ago, I contacted one of the well known and admired journalists of Israel, Ronni Shaked. I had never met him, but was a frequent and enthusiastic reader of his articles. I contacted him to invite him to the book launch of a mutual friend, a retired spy, who published his book with my publishing house. The result of our introductory conversation was a surprising offer from Ronni.
"How would you like to publish a book about a spy who worked for the state if Israel in Beirut and Damascus, long before Eli Cohen, who was caught and executed by Syrians?"
Of course I agreed.
In short shrift, I was introduced to a story that was censored and hidden from the Israeli public for years. I was even told about a figure that was almost completely unmentioned- the woman who loved the spy.
Massoud Buton was born in the old city of Jerusalem in 1924. In time, he joined the "Irgun Tsvai Lohem" (Military Fighting Organization) abbreviated "Etzel". This organization operated alongside the "Hagana" (Jewish Defense) to end the British mandate in Palestine and to establish a Jewish state.
In one of his actions as an "Etzel" fighter, Massoud Buton was captured by the British and brought to trial. To his great fortune, he was cleared and let go, while two of his comrades were sentenced to death. Years later, after the establishment of the state of Israel, while he lay on the grass enjoying the sun at his kibbutz (a cooperative communal settlement, common in Israel for many years), an unidentified man approached Massoud and after a short conversation recruited him to the Israeli intelligence. Massoud was recruited to a secret unite which in time came to be known as "unit 131", which assigned fighters with false identities to operate behind enemy lines.
The state of Israel of the fifties and early sixties was still in its infancy. The dangers to its existence were real against the backdrop of the dark shadow of the holocaust which the Jewish people underwent in Europe. In those days, the state of Israel needed every drop of information, every morsel of intelligence in order to identify in the enemy tendencies or actual offensive plans of operations. The fact that one of the Israeli fighters/spies succeeded in getting into the offices of president of Egypt at that time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was in itself a huge accomplishment. Also gossip like what is the favorite food of the head of Syrian intelligence, or who is the concubine of the Lebanese foreign minister, we're phenomenal achievements.
After he was recruited and underwent arduous and intensive training which included learning Arabic language and Moslem culture thoroughly, methods of sabotage, broadcasting on a Morse code device etc., Massoud Buton was sent to Algeria to acquire a counterfeit identity.
Buton succeeded beyond all expectations and in adopting the fictitious identity of a Lebanese merchant named Mustafa Taleb Talai, he succeeded in getting to Beirut and Damascus and living there and occasionally sending intelligence to his officers. The fact that this activity was in its infancy to a certain extent was expressed in his officer's Morse code response to Buton's first transmission:
"You are plowing in virgin soil. The results of your tilling will determine your fate and the fate of the unit."
Buton demonstrated independent survival capabilities, and in one of his visits to Rome, in order to strengthen the false identity he adopted, he met a young Italian woman called Sormarie, who ran a small pension named "Maria Theresa" with her mother near the Piazza Vittorio. Shortly thereafter Sormarie fell in love with the Lebanese merchant and the latter invited her to come and live with him in Beirut.
Buton took advantage of the young Italian woman's innocence and love and even got her to become Moslem and married her before a qadi (Moslem minister/judge) in Beirut in a religious and official ceremony. Now the Israeli fighter/spy could operate in peace and work towards intelligence retrieval. No longer did anyone suspected the rich Lebanese merchant who was married to a beautiful Moslem woman, who showed the friends with whom he met a good time.
He prayed everyday in a Mosque, fasted in the Ramadan, made friends and business with government officials and army officers, and even participated in the Lebanese election campaign.
It's entirely possible that this story and this activity of Buton's could have continued for years if it weren't for the fact at his officers felt he wasn't providing the goods he was supposed to. Buton's information apparently did not especially impress his superiors and in particular his direct officer, who at a certain point instructed him to finish up his activities and pack up his belongings and depart for Israel via Europe without raising any suspicions. Buton did as requested, explaining to his friends that he had to do it because his business wasn't doing well in Beirut and that Europe again looked tempting.
At this juncture, I should point out that Buton, who operated on his own, was married throughout this period to a Jewish woman living in Israel with their two children. His wife had not the slightest hint of what he was doing and certainly not that he was married to another woman, albeit as part if his job, but simultaneously with her marriage to him. Of course, Sormarie didn't realize she was sharing her bed with an Israeli fighter/spy.
In 1961 Buton returned to Israel and reunited with his family, his wife, his daughter and son. He saw to it that Sormarie returned to Rome and promised her he would follow. However Buton was about to be bitterly disappointed. His officers decided to terminate the contact with him and Buton was suddenly unemployed.
The Eli Cohen affair, the story of the Israeli spy who was caught and hanged in Damascus, infuriated Buton, since he claimed adamantly that he was sent to prepare the false documents for Cohen and that he returned and warned his officers that Cohen's cover was not perfect and that he might get found out. National security officials in Israel did accept Buton's claims and ignored him.
Bitter and offended, Buton took his family and flew to Strasbourg, France, settled there and eventually died there. The book "Israeli Agent in Damascus - Intelligence agent behind enemy lines," published by Lavi P. Enterprises ltd., tells Buton's story in the first person. The book describes the daily life of an Israeli agent in Beirut streets and bazaars of Damascus and gives an opportunity to look at the early days of the Israeli intelligence and activity behind enemy lines.
Regarding the second wife, on his way to Strasbourg Buton stopped in Rome with his two children, met with Sormarie and introduced them to her as he told her the truth about his being an officer in the Israeli army and was operating as a spy. The infuriated Sormarie took her wedding ring off and threw it at Buton.
Today, no one knows what happened to Sormarie. For sure, this young woman who wasted the beautiful years of her life on a man she loved, has been traumatized. We guess that she is still alive but all our efforts to track her down have come to naught.
Do any of the readers know this woman? I'd love to know.