Better late than never

The attempt to cover up the Zygier/Alon affair caused Israel more harm than good

Zygier's gravestone (photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
Zygier's gravestone
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
The Mossad intelligence agency and the judiciary system finally came to their senses last week – albeit some two years, or 36 hours at least, too late – conceding that Prisoner X (the Australian Jew known as Ben Zygier or Ben Alon) had indeed been held in an Israeli jail, and had been afforded all the rights to which he was entitled as a prisoner, including legal representation. His family had been notified, and he had been granted visitation rights; he had also appeared before a judge and had benefited from legal proceedings.
Australian media had identified Zygier as the man who died in an Israeli prison in 2010. Israel broke its official silence February 13 over the reported suicide in jail of an Australian immigrant recruited to the Mossad, giving limited details on a closely guarded case. After appeals by local media chafing at censorship of a story broken by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a District Court allowed publication of six paragraphs of an approved text. The text said an Israeli with an unspecified dual nationality had been secretly imprisoned “out of security considerations,” only to be found dead in his cell 26 months before, in what was eventually ruled a suicide.
It’s just a shame, however, that the affair was kept under wraps from the outset, thereby prejudicing Israel’s image as a democratic nation. The attempt to cover up the affair, coupled with the deafening silence of the authorities, made Israel look like a dark nation whose citizens can simply disappear off the face of the earth, as happens under tyrannical regimes. The truth is quite different; Israeli institutions do not murder people and then dispose of their bodies. The problem is that the security establishment and its judiciary system create “dark” secret files.
In 2006, Amos Manor, who headed the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) for 11 years, beginning in 1953, told me that since the War of Independence in 1948, no prisoner suspected of security offenses has been executed in Israel. Neither has one been detained without trial, even though the Mossad’s director during Manor’s tenure at the Shin Bet, Isser Harel, was pressured to kidnap and secretly kill traitors and spies, or to detain them without trial and without informing others.
Nevertheless, even in the Israel of the 21st century, there are still classified cases, cases that involve security prisoners, most of whom worked for the Mossad or other Israeli intelligence agencies. These cases are not numerous, but they do exist; and over the decades, prisoners have been detained in isolation during their interrogations, and have subsequently faced charges of espionage – contact with a foreign agent, providing confidential information and sometimes even treason.
In the 1950s and 60s, Mordechai Kedar was recruited by Military Intelligence to operate in Egypt as a secret agent. He never got there. He was suspected of murdering his Jewish helper in Argentina, where he had gone to establish his cover story. But Kedar was eventually tried for lesser crimes. Another case from the same period involved Avri Elad, who operated a spy ring of young Egyptian Jews. Elad was alleged to have betrayed them and turned them over to the Egyptian authorities. In this case, too, insufficient evidence led to Elad being convicted of other crimes, including contact with a foreign agent. And Zeev Avni, who was sent by the Foreign Ministry and the Mossad to Europe in 1952, was convicted in 1956 of spying for the Soviets. All three, Kedar, Elad and Avni, were kept in isolation cells, separated from other prisoners and were forced to use borrowed identities, exactly like Ben Alon half a century later.
This unlawful practice continued also in the case of Professor Abraham Marcus Klingberg, who served as deputy scientific director of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona (near Tel Aviv). Klingberg was arrested in 1983 and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.
The common factor in all of these and other cases was that in order to maintain secrecy, the prisoners were obliged to use aliases within the prison walls. Their interrogators threatened them that if they failed to follow these guidelines, they would be deprived of various rights, such as family visits.
Klingberg’s name, for example, was changed to Greenberg.
The ties that bind the intelligence community, defense establishment and lawenforcement authorities (police and Shin Bet), the attorney general and the courts are too tight. Too many judges have their fingers on the trigger and impose gag orders even regarding items that have already been publicized overseas. This creates a situation in which people around the world are aware of incidents that have occurred in Israel, while Israeli citizens remain in the dark.
The Justice Ministry’s announcement on Alon/Zygier came not only to repair the damage to Israel’s image, but also had a more practical purpose – to bring this painful and controversial affair to rest. The ongoing probing into the affair was not in Israel’s best interests, since it was likely to reveal vital secrets, assuming the foreign reports are correct. After all, the Mossad is fighting a holy war – gathering intelligence and engaging in special operations against our greatest enemies, Iran and Hezbollah, among others.
But the Mossad brought all this upon itself.
If the story of Prisoner X had been publicized in a sanitized and limited version when it actually occurred, the report would not have dominated the news for quite as long and the affair certainly would not have attracted so much international and national attention. But the military censor’s and the courts’ insistence that local media refrain from reporting anything about the affair, or even quoting foreign media, is an anachronistic approach that proves that it does not understand how mass media operates, especially new outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, as well other websites and blogs.
The Mossad is one of Israel’s most outstanding organizations. It is well organized and has a splendid corporate culture. Due to its good screening and assessment processes and terms of service, the Mossad can recruit the best of the best. However, every once in a while, a rotten apple gets picked. For example, Victor Ostrovsky, a Mossad cadet who was ousted in 1990, published a book revealing Mossad secrets (mostly fabrications).
He should never have been recruited to the Mossad in the first place, since he was a swindler who was caught in a fraud scam.
And there was Yehuda Gil, a case officer who, for years, sent fabricated reports about meetings with an agent who was a Syrian general. It turned out, however, that Gil never even asked if the Syrian was interested in spying for Israel.
The Mossad knows how to carry out daring, sophisticated and dangerous operations, in which its field operatives risk their lives behind enemy lines. It knows how to gather information. It knows how to wage psychological warfare involving the dissemination of disinformation and rumors.
Unfortunately, however, the Mossad does not appear to be well versed in handling crises involving the mass media. Trying to prevent stories from coming to light in this day and age is like the story of the little Dutch boy who plugs a dike with his finger.
There’s no chance that it will work, and it only causes damage. Attempting to conceal information only serves to stimulate interest and draw even more attention. By treating every bit of information as a national secret, the Mossad and the censor have caused the number of secrets to multiply. And trying to protect all of these secrets has made it difficult for any secret to remain intact, including ones that really deserve to be.
The way in which the Mossad has handled the Alon and previous affairs is reminiscent of what was said about the French House of Bourbon – that they’ve learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The Mossad tried to prevent Ostrovsky from publishing his book, which resulted in it becoming a bestseller in the United States and made the writer a rich man.
Why did this happen? First and foremost to blame has been the agency’s arrogance and we-know-best attitude. Secondly, no organization wants bad and embarrassing publicity – and a story about a treacherous Mossad agent is embarrassing and damages the organization’s image. Under such circumstances, all organizations, not just secret ones like the Mossad, would make every effort to conceal information about a mishap.
In principle, the Mossad, along with the defense establishment in general, always has the privilege of being able to cover up any mishap with the excuse that “it was for the good of the country” or that allowing a certain item to become public knowledge would “undermine the security of the state.” Other common arguments include, “The public does not understand security matters” or “Silence is golden.”
If Ben Zygier did really work for the Mossad and did in fact play a part in secret missions, the operation should have been terminated the moment he was arrested and all those involved should have been warned of the danger. And if this did not happen, the Mossad was doubly negligent.
But I’d like to give the Mossad credit and believe that its damage-control system was put into action the very day that Zygier’s actions were discovered – actions that have not been made public (and that Zygier himself denied). Reiterating foreign stories in the Israeli media could not have caused damage.
And so, despite the delay in the Mossad and censor’s response, it should be commended for trying to repair the damage. Better late than never.
Yossi Melman is the commentator on security and intelligence affairs for the news website ‘Walla’ and author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars’.