JERUSALEM -- The most powerful members of the Israeli intelligence establishment past and present came together in clandestine conclave on a barren hillside last week -- to plant a tree.
The head of the pathologically secretive spy agency, the Mossad, was there, as was his counterpart with Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service. Five former heads of those agencies and three former military intelligence chiefs were also present. Their mission: to pay final tribute to a beloved member of their covert fraternity -- the late CIA chief of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton.
The tree planting, a traditional ceremony of reverence here, took place at noon at a site about 10 miles west of here. Eventually there will be hundreds of trees at the spot, just across the road from a similar forest dedicated to the late Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan.
Following the planting, the group gathered again in Jerusalem behind the King David Hotel at a scenic spot not far from the walls of the Old City that Angleton often visited on his trips here. There they dedicated a memorial stone that read, in English, Hebrew and Arabic: "In memory of a dear friend, James (Jim) Angleton" but that gave no indication of who Angleton was or what he did.
The ceremonies symbolized the respect and affection that the Israeli intelligence community holds for Angleton, who died eight months ago of lung cancer at age 69, 13 years after he was forced to retire from the CIA by then-director William Colby.
Although his name appears in few history books about Israel, Angleton played a crucial role in the early years of the young Jewish state. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when most of official Washington was wary of -- even hostile to -- Israel, he helped forge links between the Mossad and the CIA that established the basis for cooperation in intelligence gathering that still exists today.
The relationship was one of mutual aid that helped the Mossad establish a reputation as a player in the major leagues of intelligence. Angleton reportedly aided Israel in obtaining technical nuclear data. For their part, the Israelis reportedly provided Angleton with a major intelligence coup -- a copy of the text of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin.
Angleton "was a friend you could trust on a personal basis," said Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who spoke at the tree-planting ceremony. Rabin knew Angleton from his days as Israeli Army chief of staff in the mid-1960s and later as ambassador to the United States.
Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who rose from his sickbed to attend the ceremonies, told the small crowd, "We commemorate a great friend, who saw Israel-U.S. relations through their most difficult period in the 40 years of Israel's existence."
Normally, no government official sneezes in this city without a press release being issued. For the Angleton ceremonies, however, even though several prominent public figures attended the two ceremonies -- including Rabin, Kollek and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering -- the camera-shy Mossad insisted that both events remain secret. "I guess the reasoning is that if the tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to see it, it didn't happen," said a spokesman for Pickering who was himself not informed of the events.
Still, two Israeli reporters were tipped off and managed to evade a phalanx of plainclothes security men and police to attend. This report is based on the account of one of them, Andy Court of The Jerusalem Post, as well as details provided after the event by city officials.
Those who attended, according to Court, included the current heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet, neither of whom can be named under government security laws; former Mossad chiefs Meir Amit, Zvi Zamir and Yitzhak Hofi; former Shin Bet chiefs Avraham Ahituv and Amos Manor, and former military intelligence heads Aharon Yariv, Shlomo Gazit and Binyamin Gibli.
Angleton's widow Cicely, a daughter and a granddaughter were part of the crowd of about 60 people. Several American intelligence representatives here were also said to be present.
Despite the professional interest of most of the group, Court said most of the talk concerned Angleton's love of handmade jewelry and orchids -- the lady-slipper was his favorite -- rather than spy craft. Some spy masters recalled that even after Angleton's forced retirement, they would make the long pilgrimage to his ranch in Tucson whenever they visited the United States.
Some recalled how Washington used to think of Israel as a hotbed of Soviet and East European spies in the 1950s because of the large, left-oriented immigrant population from those areas. The early chill in relations was not helped by Israeli involvement in the 1956 Suez War, for which John Foster Dulles, then secretary of state, never forgave Israel.
Despite his intense anticommunism, Angleton saw the potential advantages of forging ties with Israeli intelligence. For years he jealously guarded his responsibility for liaison with the Mossad even after he became head of counterintelligence and the CIA's chief "mole catcher." His wife told Court that Angleton developed an intense affection for the Israelis that may have been inspired by deep feelings about the Holocaust.
In recent years, ties between the intelligence services have been strained by incidents such as the Jonathan Pollard spy affair and Israel's involvement in the Iran-contra arms affair. Neither of those subjects was alluded to at last week's ceremonies.