Investigating the Story of Prisoner X

March 31, 2013


In mid 2010, a source told me that a ‘Prisoner X’ was confined in seclusion in Ayalon prison, his name unknown even to my source, but rumour amongst Mossad employees was that he’s an Australian who served in an extremely sensitive position until he turned out to be an Iranian spy.

Such scandalous story seems almost unlikely at first, but there seemed to be some essence of truth in it because an attempt to get it past military censorship failed miserably. Ironically, for an Israeli journalist that’s always a sign you might be on to something.

A few month later I heard that the same ‘Prisoner X’ has committed suicide in prison, before the end of his trial. We now know that on December 15th 2010 Zygier lawyers were negotiating a plea bargain but their attempt to secure a short prison sentence for their client was unsuccessful. Zygier was facing 10 years in prison, once he pleas guilty of high-treason. On that day he had a long talk with

his mother, the contents of which she would not reveal to the press, and a few hours later he took his own life.

Even after his death military censorship still claimed his mere existence, let alone details of his arrest and alleged crimes, remains a matter of national security. At this point my newspaper Yedioth Aharonot in collaboration with the Association for Civil Rights and other media outlets decided it was time to take it to court. Our claim was that after his death circumstances changed and no longer justify such a sweeping gag order.

Our suspicion was that beyond the wishes of Mossad to defend its operatives and ongoing operations Zygier may have been involved in, it was also looking to simply cover up an embarrassing affair, and further to that, the Prison Authority that was harshly criticised in previous cases of prisoners committing suicide on its watch was also keen on keeping the whole affair quiet. All of those, we claimed in court, are no ‘national security concerns’, and the public has a right to be informed.

This, unfortunately, did not convince the President of the Central District Court, Judge Hila Gerstel who ruled that “Indeed, it is correct that situations may arise wherein the death of an accused person will bring about a change in circumstances and justify a reduction or cancellation of a gag order, but the present case does not fall in the category of such cases. The death of the accused in this case does not affect in any way the need for a suppression order covering all details concerning the accused, the case, the death of the accused, and even the existence of the suppression order itself.”

Once again bound by the gag order, we had nothing to do but wait for another change of circumstances. This came in the form of the first publication of some details of the story in Australia by ABC, who was soon followed by many others by Australian and international media. The accounts of what exactly Zygier was employed to do were many and some conflicting. We now know that many of the more daring accounts – like those portraying Zygier as a super agent who travelled to Iran under cover, actually originate in Zygier himself, and the tales of heroism he told while on paid leave in Australia.

In Israel, this was the beginning of one last round of fighting to get the story officially published. On the one corner stood a new generation of young, new media savvy journalists and editors, lead by Ha’aretz editor Aluf Ben, and on the other corner the ageing security establishment, that never realised there were new rules to this game.

Their first move was to summon the ‘Editors Committee’, an age old forum that includes all the biggest newspaper editors in Israel, which was set-up in the 1950′s by David Ben Gurion as a forum where the establishment share sensitive secrets with the editors in exchange for their promise not to publish anything about some topics. In this forum the government representatives announced that although the story is already out, making headlines all over the world, the Israeli press is instructed to completely disregard it, and is not allowed even to simply quote the Australian publication. They were reminded that an official gag order was still in place.

What they didn’t expect was Ben’s next move – unable to refer to the real affair, he quickly ran the story that the Editors Committee was gathered and instructed not to publish a story that might embarrass a government establishment. With the Australian story all over the internet, there was no doubt in anyone’s heart what story this headline was referring to.

This quickly brought down the last defences. Within hours the gag order was relaxed (although not completely removed), and on the next few days the Israeli government released several statements that confirmed the arrest and suicide of Ben Zygier.

However, details of his real Mossad role, his crime, and the circumstances that lead him to commit it remained uncorroborated and sketchy. It was then decided at Speigel to assemble a team of journalists to investigate, lead by Holger Stark, it included Speigel’s Julia Amalia Heyer, Ulrike Putz, the Australian Jason Koutsoukis (who actually spoke with Zygier in 2010), and myself.

Together, we spent the last month working with sources and collecting information in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Italy, the UK and Australia. This is one of the most sensitive cases concerning state secrets of Israel. It was very difficult to get people to talk, even off-the-record. It seemed that someone makes a big effort behind the scenes to silence anyone who is involved in the affair – family, lawyers, friends and even remote acquaintances.

We learned for example that Ben Zigier was a member of Hashomer Hatzair ” [The Young Guard] in Melbourne, a Zionist youth movement, by which he was invited to spent some time in a Kibbutz in Israel in 1994. The emissaries from the youth movement who met him in Australia back than now live in a Kibbutz in Israel.

After the affair was published, this couple was interviewed for their kibbutz’s Friday night video newsreel where they talked at length about the late Zygier. They said the last occupation that they would imagine he was suitable for was a secret agent or a member of the intelligence community in any capacity at all. This interview was edited for transmission but was never broadcasted, withdrawn by the couple themselves. In a phone conversation with Spiegel they declined to comment on why they decided not to discuss a person they last met almost 20 years ago, and had no ties with since.

But fortunately there were others who were willing to talk among them a neighbour of Zygeir from his time in the Kibbutz who remained a close friend and was also one of the few Israelis who travelled to the secret funeral in Australia; people who went to the University with him on his paid leave from Mossad, former and current members of the organization, as well as sources from other Israeli agencies; we met with one senior psychiatrist who frequently works with the IDF and the Mossad who took us through the long process of personnel screening and the training to become a Mossad operative; and in a scene that felt like it was written for a Hollywood thriller we were taken from a remote parking lot, leaving all electronic equipment behind, in a black van with dark windows to meet with a high ranking official, who spoke off the record about the affair.

You can find the results of this adventure, and many more interviews we made together, in the final piece on Speigel’s site.