Prisoner X

Judging from Israel’s desire to maintain secrecy surrounding the incident, Zygier probably committed treachery that endangers Israel’s security.

February 14, 2013 23:43
3 minute read.
Screen shot of ABC program identifying mysterious prisoner

Screen shot of ABC program 370. (photo credit: Screen shot ABC News)

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 Israeli security.

Sometimes the motivation is a desire to hurt Israel.

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 incident.

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.

To be 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.

And his 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 years.

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 with.

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.

That 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 arbitrarily.

Rather, it is the price the societies of Israel and other Western countries pay as part of the never-ending war against terrorism.

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