Israel has been captivated by the story of Ben Zygier, who hanged himself in 2010 in an Israeli prison after several months of solitary confinement. For the two years since his death, Zygier’s case has been kept under wraps, a silence enforced by Israel’s military censor. Finally, thanks to a report by Australia’s ABC station, it seems the story is starting to come to light.
Called Prisoner X by the Israeli media, the 34-year-old Australian-born Zygier emigrated to Israel in 2000 and allegedly became a Mossad officer. By all appearances, he was a deep cover combatant risking life and limb operating in target countries like Iran and Syria in an effort to conduct covert operations. I also served as a deep-cover combatant in the Mossad, and though I never knew Zygier, I think I have some insight as to what happened. Indeed, if the stories published in the Australian Age newspaper and the Israeli daily Haaretz are to be believed, then Zygier is the victim of an Australian cover-up as much as he is an Israeli one.
Like all complicated espionage dramas, the story would seem to have its roots in a seemingly unconnected incident that goes unnoticed by those examining the case. The beginning of this tragedy perhaps starts in 2004 in New Zealand.
If the Mossad has an Achilles’ heel that no other top tier foreign intelligence service possess, it’s with travel and identity documents. Unlike their British, German, French, and American counterparts, Israeli operatives cannot travel on Israeli documents to where the real work of espionage is being done in places like Iran,
Syria, and Lebanon. It’s for this very reason that the Mossad has to be creative in securing foreign identities for its operatives. All intelligence services use naturalized citizens from other countries of origin and even on occasion, foreign documents; but certainly not with the frequency or constraints required of the Mossad.
In a widely reported 2004 Antipodean scandal, two Mossad officers were caught in New Zealand (one of whom who was based in Australia) attempting to secure passports via people with severe health issues who would be unlikely to ever travel. The incident erupted after a doctor in New Zealand noticed a discrepancy in one of the passport applicants and the actual identity of the person in whose name the
application was made and reported it to the authorities. As one of the Mossad officers arrested was based in Australia and given the bilateral security-intelligence relationship between Australia’s ASIO and New Zealand’s SIS, it would be safe to say that whatever New Zealand discovered in the course of their investigation was immediately shared with their Australian counterparts. This would set the stage for ASIO to increase its coverage of all Australian Jews travelling back and forth to Israel, and what’s more, scrutiny of their passports and name change applications.
This intensified monitoring of passports would have increased exponentially after it was determined that Australian passports were involved in the assassination of Hamas’s weapons buyer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010 (after Zygier’s suicide). Australian media is reporting that Zygier was under investigation since 2009 after returning to earn an MBA at Monash University.
It is speculation, but I suspect that ASIO approached Zygier during this period and notified him that they had compelling evidence he was a Mossad operative. From here on in, it could be that by using whatever leverage at their disposal, ASIO “turned” Zygier and he essentially became caught between the two services. Perhaps in return for not making the story public, and as a means to protect his family, Zygier elected to spy for Australia reporting on his activities within the Mossad. It may also be conjectured that through some incident, his activities drew the suspicion of the Mossad and his role as a “double” was revealed. It would appear that whatever transpired was as much an embarrassment to
Australia as it was for Israel.
Australian press reports are stating that Australia was notified of Zygier’s arrest in 2010 by the Israeli government and yet no mention was made of his fate until Australia’s ABC network reported on the affair yesterday. This of course begs the question as to why the Australian authorities were complicit in keeping the story under wraps. When a citizen is arrested abroad, most western countries do not attempt to hide the fact. Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, has admitted that the foreign ministry and another Australian government agency (a euphemism for ASIO) indeed knew of his arrest in 2010.
This case will no doubt continue to provide many unanswered questions: Why wasn’t a better deal worked out between two friendly services? After all, Australia and Israel’s intelligence communities enjoy a robust working liaison relationship in many areas of common interest. How long did both countries think that “Prisoner X” would remain anonymous? Why was Zygier sent back to Australia when Israel had already experienced a high profile scandal involving passports down under? Why did Australia hang him out to dry and not seek his repatriation if indeed he was working for them? Why didn't they go public as they did with the 2004 passport scandal? Where was the due process that is afforded a citizen of a country governed by the rule of law?
We may never know what really happened to Ben Zygier. It appears that he will join the ranks of a long line of shadow warriors whose tale will never be told. What ever the truth may be, there can be no doubt that he was let down by both countries.
Michael Ross is a former Mossad operations officer.