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It’s still unclear why Israel’s Mossad jailed Prisoner X, Ben Zygier

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, at 3:45 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 25, 2013, at 3:49 p.m.

— The most commonly repeated story about why Israel’s Mossad spy agency nabbed one of its own and threw him into prison, where he hanged himself, is probably false or at least only part of the truth, according to people familiar with the way the Mossad operates. In the murky world of espionage, even what comes out in the news is subterfuge, they caution.

Right now, the facts about Ben Zygier, aka "Prisoner X," are few: He grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Australia, moved to Israel, served in the Israeli army, married and was found dead at 8:19 p.m. Dec. 15, 2010, in his cell at Israel’s Ayalon prison. For more than two years, Israeli journalists were prohibited from reporting on his death. That ban was lifted earlier this month after the Australian Broadcasting Corp. aired an investigation into his death.

The Israeli government, while acknowledging that Zygier is Prisoner X, has said nothing about why he was arrested. At the moment, the most widely accepted story is that he’d turned double agent after his native country, Australia, confronted him about changing his name and getting a new passport three times in three years to travel to countries that included Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The story goes that Israel found out Zygier was reporting on his duties in the Mossad to the Australian government, and locked him up.

But those closest to the Mossad say that while it’s possible Zygier gave information to Australian spy agencies, there’s no way that sharing information with a "friendly nation" such as Australia would lead Israeli officials to respond in the manner they did.

"Knowing the Mossad, I don’t think they would be so harsh on someone who committed a mistake like talking to the Australian security services. I don’t think that talking to a friendly security service would earn him this kind of treatment, so it has to be something more than that," said Yossi Melman, who co-wrote the book “Spies Against Armageddon,” a recitation of the Mossad’s triumphs and defeats, with Dan Raviv of CBS.

One Mossad officer, who agreed to speak to McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter, said it would take a grave offense for the Mossad to treat one of its own in the manner Zygier was treated: arrested and then held and tried in secret.

"There are cases of agents being quietly removed – retired early, as we say – or receiving other punishments. For an agent to be put in solitary confinement under a false name would mean a very, very serious offense. Endangering fellow agents, hurting an active mission, selling secrets to one of Israel’s regional enemies . . . these are the kinds of things that would warrant that sort of response, in my experience," he said. "I don’t know what Zygier did, and if I did I wouldn’t tell you, but what it was was serious."

A lawyer for Zygier told McClatchy that a plea bargain offered to his client carried a mandatory minimum prison term of 10 years, a harsh sentence that would suggest a serious crime had been committed.

Zygier was arrested in February 2010 shortly after he returned from a trip to Australia. He was held under a false name, and he killed himself just days after his 34th birthday by hanging himself in a shower with a wet bed sheet.

For two years, he was known only as "Prisoner X" in the few blogs that wrote about a mysterious prison suicide in Ayalon’s highest-security cell. His identity, and part of the story behind his arrest, were revealed only this month, after the Australian telecast. Israeli courts lifted part of their gag order earlier this week, when they revealed that an inquest into Zygier’s death had found negligence on the part of the Israel Prison Services, which runs Ayalon.

“All the evidence ruled out the involvement of another person in (his) death," said a report by Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai, who led an investigation into Zygier’s death. "There was no dispute that it was a willful act of the deceased which brought about his death by suicide."

The coroner did note a light abrasion on Zygier’s left forearm and a "small quantity of a sedative that was found in his blood, not alcohol or drugs," but concluded that neither had contributed to his death.

Kedrai wrote that evidence suggested that prison officials had been negligent. "The guards ignored special instructions they had been issued to prevent a suicide,” the judge wrote. Zygier used a "window of opportunity to take his own life."

Melman has followed the case since 2010, when as a reporter for the newspaper Haaretz he petitioned the Israeli courts to lift the gag order on Zygier; first in June 2010, when Zygier was still alive, and then in January 2011, after Zygier was dead.

From an operational point of view, Melman said, Mossad would be careful to keep under wraps the true story of Zygier’s espionage activities and subsequent imprisonment. By now, he said, the spy agency probably has dissected what went wrong and thought hard about how to avoid it in the future.

“They are very rigorous in their soul searching when it comes to the briefings and internal investigation of operational aspects,” he said. “Whether they are big successes or failures, this is one thing that is done in house.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf

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