Last week, the Australian press broke the story of “Prisoner X,” a Mossad officer named Ben Zygier, who reportedly took his life in an Israeli prison in 2010. Already Israel's media have started a campaign to impugn Zieger’s character with Haaretz, not surprisingly, leading the pack.
In the interest of full disclosure, I received the same treatment at the hands of Haaretz the very same week my book was published in 2007. My 13-year career in three operational divisions of the Mossad was ridiculously minimized, only later to be cited in a subsequent Haaretz article as the person responsible for bolstering intelligence ties between Israel and Azerbaijan. (I did a lot in the field but very little of it was aimed at "bolstering ties" between Israel and Azerbaijan.) I encourage readers of articles on intelligence matters—and especially concerning the Mossad—to remember that journalists can only write what they are told, not what they are able to find out. And often the person leaking information to the journalist has their own reasons for doing so; either because they have an ax to grind, or they're sending a message at the behest of the organization. I never met a journalist from Haaretz who graced the Mossad's corridors nor participated in any of its operations overseas.
In a ham-handed display of armchair expertise consistent with reporting on the Mossad, Haaretz's Amir Oren continues the paper's tradition of getting it wrong in a disgraceful piece entitled, “A liar or a blabbermouth? Ben Zygier was not suited to work for the Mossad.” For starters, Oren doesn't get the terminology correct. Ben Zygier was not an “agent” or a “fighter” but a “combatant,” and yes there is a difference to the initiated. Nobody in the Mossad uses the term “fighter” when discussing the combatant role. Agents, or sources, are the people that Mossad collection officers (case officers) spot, assess, develop, recruit, and handle to provide them with human source intelligence. Combatants are members of an elite cadre of highly trained deep cover operatives that conduct extremely sensitive and often highly dangerous covert operations in the most hostile of milieus. Some of the most successful collection officers and indeed, senior management in the Mossad, are former combatants who like myself, joined Mossad HQ as tenured officers. Other articles have described Zygier as a “support operative.” He was nothing of the sort. He was at the very sharp end of Mossad operations, and from what I am able to ascertain, had a far riskier career than I did. It takes a staggering amount of arrogance to state that Zygier—who operated in the hellholes of the Near East for almost a decade—was not suited to work for the Mossad.
Zygier would have undergone an extremely rigorous recruitment process comprised of many different phases to test his mental and physical suitability as well as his ability to keep his cool and function under extremely stressful circumstances. After his recruitment, Zygier would have completed a combatant's course (usually on his own facing any number of nameless instructors constantly assessing his performance and mental state while living in isolation) that is lengthy, difficult, and has a high attrition rate. People are not graduated unless they make the grade. Sweeping statements in Oren's article about the Mossad lowering the bar because of Zygier's cultural background (read: Australian upbringing) are both insulting and erroneous.
In fact, this statement in Oren's article is particularly revealing because there is a perceptible undertone of resentment specifically directed at Jews who emigrate to Israel from the Anglosphere. Whether out of deep-seated envy or the myth that Anglo-Saxon Jews are “soft,” the Mossad—while less so than other Israeli institutions—is not immune to this phenomenon. I know all this because Zygier and I belonged to the same sub-unit of the “Caesarea” special operations division mentioned in Oren's article. While we were both recruited because of our very non-Israeli backgrounds, that was by no means the sole criteria for our recruitment—and more importantly—successful completion of our training course.
I'm not expecting the Israel media to lionize Zygier. I do, however, expect them to show a modicum of respect to his family for their sacrifice on Israel's behalf. If the journalists writing these articles were truly “experts” on the Mossad, then they'd be less willing to engage in postmortem character assassination. Yes, he volunteered to do this job, but he could have also chosen to become a successful lawyer and lived a life of comfort and security with his family in the leafy suburbs of Melbourne.
The only thing Oren has correct in his article is that whatever transpired between the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Mossad, there was no need to lock him up in solitary confinement. If guilty, Zygier could have been quietly dismissed and sequestered to one of the Mossad's many safe houses until the issue could be resolved between services. ASIO's sister service, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, tasked with intelligence collection outside Australia's borders (and close ally of the Mossad), must be very unhappy with ASIO's decision to leak the Zygier affair to journalist Jason Koutsoukis in some ill-conceived attempt to punish Israel over a few passports. The resulting damage to the joint Iran issue can be nothing less than catastrophic for everyone.
I have no doubt that Zygier, like all people in this business, had his faults. This is a business of people and therefore subject to all the failings and mistakes that human beings make. Having said that, Zygier was hardly living what could be considered a normal existence; he spent long periods under cover doing dangerous work that would certainly lead to his incarceration and death. How very sad that this is exactly how he ended his days and at the hands of the very people he was risking his neck for.
Michael Ross is a former Mossad operations officer.