Australia and Israel trade counter-accusations about “Prisoner X”

“Prisoner X”

Yesterday it was reported that Canberra was seeking answers from Israel over the “Prisoner X” affair – the secret arrest and apparent suicide of Ben Zygier in an Israeli jail 2 years ago.

Australia has asked Israel to explain the mysterious death of an Australian-Israeli citizen and alleged Israeli spy in an Israeli prison two years ago, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr last week ordered his department to report on its handling of the case of the man dubbed Prisoner-X in the media, who died in an Israeli prison in December 2010.

[...]

Carr said on Sunday that Israel had been asked to contribute to his department’s investigation report.

“We have asked the Israeli government for a contribution to that report,” Carr told reporters.

“We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about,” he said.

[...]

Critics have accused the Israeli government of trying to cover up the affair and are demanding a full investigation, fueling a debate about balancing national security and freedom of information in a country that prides itself as a vibrant democracy.

The sensational saga has dominated public discourse in Israel since it was first reported by ABC on Tuesday last week.

The Australian broadcaster ABC has speculated that the reason for Zygier’s arrest was that he was leaking Mossad secrets to the Australian intelligence services.

ABC, which originally broke the story of Zygier’s suicide in an Israeli jail under a fake name last week, reported Monday that Zygier gave detailed information about various Mossad operations, including a major operation in Italy, that had been planned over a period of several years.

According to the report, Zygier had applied for a work visa to Italy on one of his trips back to Australia.

ABC emphasized that it was not clear whether Zygier or ASIO had initiated the contact.

Veteran Israeli military correspondent Ron Ben Yishai in a damning report accuses the Australian ASIO for “burning” Zygier, thus leading to his suicide. The story reads like something out of spy fiction:

The ASIO is tasked only with foiling subversive and terrorist activity against Australia. Apparently, the intelligence agency had no evidence indicating that the passports issued for Zygier were used illegally. It is also possible that the Australian government chose to turn a blind eye for the benefit of the close ties between Mossad and ASIS, Australia’s intelligence agency that operates overseas.

But at least some ASIO officials apparently had their own agenda, and they were not willing to give up on the Israeli prey so easily – perhaps due to frustration, damaged professional pride or simply because they were anti-Israel. Or maybe they realized that Zygier was the weak link in the story and thought that more pressure would break him and cause him to reveal all of his activities on behalf of Mossad. It appears that the two other Australian Jews who were interrogated did not disclose enough information, prompting the ASIO to use the media as a tool to apply more pressure.

The plan was to have the media attack Zygier in order to convince him that his activities had been exposed and there is no point in getting in trouble with the Australian authorities by continuing to conceal them. The ASIO investigation was launched in the summer of 2009. Mabhouh was assassinated in February 2010. At the end of that month The Age published an article on how three young Israelis holding Australian citizenship were given passports with false names which they used to enter Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

The reporters who wrote the article were Jason Koutsoukis and Jonathan Pearlman, who had visited Israel for work and were familiar with the Israeli scene. Koutsoukis did not try to hide the fact that their source was an Australian intelligence officer. To justify the surveillance of the Jews with the dual citizenship, reporters were told that as a student, Zygier was in contact with students from Saudi Arabia and Iran. The reporters were essentially being told that Zygier was spying for Israel on Australian soil and should therefore be followed.

Zygier was in Israel when the Australian intelligence officer leaked the information to Koutsoukis. According to all accounts, he returned to Israel willingly and even reported to his superiors in Mossad that he was interrogated in Australia. It is safe to assume that he also informed Mossad that his colleagues had been questioned as well. But even before the Mabhouh assassination, Koutsoukis called Zygier and asked about the passports and his activity in the service of Mossad. Koutsoukis claims an “anonymous source” in Israel gave him Zygier’s phone number. It is entirely possible that this source was not Israeli.

In any case, in his conversation with the reporter Zygier denied working for Mossad, but Koutsoukis got the impression that Zygier would eventually tell him the entire story. The reporter continued to call, and Zygier may have softened and told him of his work for the Israeli intelligence agency.

At a certain point it was decided that there was enough evidence to justify an arrest and an investigation. The rest is known. Zygier was held in isolation under an assumed name because the names on the various passports, including his real name, were known. Zygier was not a senior Mossad operative. It is not surprising that Zygier, a passionate Zionist, could not bear the guilt and committed suicide. He did not betray the country; he simply could not live up to his own expectations and those of his family and his surroundings. The burden became too heavy for his tormented soul.

The question is why ASIO leaked the story to the press. By doing so, the agency knew it was “burning” an Australian citizen and putting at risk the life of a colleague from a friendly intelligence service that assisted Australia, directly and indirectly. Did the ASIO receive authorization to leak the story, or was it a vengeful anti-Israeli act initiated by one or several people in the agency who acted independently? Why do people from within the Australian intelligence community continue to leak details on Zygier’s actions to this day?

Will we ever learn the real truth behind this mysterious case? I doubt it.

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