For many, the “Prisoner X” incident illustrates the desperate need to update our
outmoded military censorship rules. But it also underlines the difficulties of
conducting a clandestine war against terrorism in an age when Internet-borne
social media and news media make it nearly impossible to keep anything secret
for very long.
Australian media broke the story about the alleged former
Mossad agent Ben Zygier, who reportedly committed suicide in Ramle’s Ayalon
Prison two years ago.
And within a short time the story was being
reported extensively locally as well.
Revamping the laws governing
military censorship might help improve Israel’s image in the world. After all,
attempts to maintain a gag order on a story that is being widely reported on the
Internet by news outlets based outside Israel, and widely talked about inside
Israel, makes little sense.
We should keep in mind, however, that it is
not always an altruistic pursuit of truth that is behind the tremendous media
coverage given to sensitive intelligence information potentially damaging to
Sometimes the motivation is a desire to hurt
Similarly, MKs Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al), Zehava Gal-On
(Meretz) and Dov Henin (Hadash), who used their parliamentary immunity to bypass
the gag order and broke the news about Prisoner X in the Knesset might have been
genuinely interested in investigating the ethical questions surrounding the
None of us should accept with equanimity that in Israel of 2013
a man can be arrested, imprisoned, die in prison and simply disappear without
the wider public knowing anything about it. But as members of the opposition, it
seemed that the three were no less interested in exploiting the imbroglio to
attack the government and further their own political agendas.
effective in the battle against terrorism, Israel and other Western governments
must work outside wider public scrutiny. Secrecy is the cornerstone of the
West’s war against terrorism, whether it be the US’s clandestine drone attacks
against al-Qaida operatives – including American citizens – in Afghanistan or
Yemen; covert operations inside Iran such as the “mysterious” explosions or
assassinations of nuclear scientists, aimed at setting back Iran’s atomic bomb
program; or the elimination of the masterminds of terrorism such as Hezbollah’s
Imad Mughniyah in downtown Damascus in 2008 and Hamas’s Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a
Dubai hotel in 2010.
The same is true of the Prisoner X incident. As
former Australian Secret Intelligence Service agent Warren Reed noted, judging
from Israel’s desire to maintain secrecy surrounding the incident, Zygier
probably committed treachery that endangers Israel’s security.
betrayal could have ramifications for future operations. Reed said that Zygier
might have been involved with the maintenance of long-term, ongoing security
programs that will be essential to Israel’s security for the next 20 to 30
Channel 10 News said the exposure of the alleged agent and his
movements on behalf of Israeli intelligence in Iran, Syria and Lebanon could
have “very significant” consequences for ongoing work. In countries such as Iran
and Syria, the authorities would now be checking through their records, working
out if Zygier entered and if he did, who accompanied him, and whom he met
Apparently the potential for real damage to Israel’s security was
so high that the Supreme Court, hardly suspected of taking lightly suppression
of free speech, was convinced that a gag order was in order, according to Chief
Censor Col. Sima Vaknin-Gil.
Perhaps, in hindsight, however, more thought
should have been given to differentiating between aspects of the story that
truly present a danger to Israel’s security and those that do not.
in Israel of 2013 a man can be arrested, imprisoned, die in prison and disappear
without the wider public knowing anything about it should make all of us take
pause. But we should remember that decisions by democracies to use
non-democratic methods such as imprisonment without trial are not made
Rather, it is the price the societies of Israel and other
Western countries pay as part of the never-ending war against terrorism.