Evaluating the tragic episode of former Mossad officer Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in an Israeli prison two and half years ago, a select committee from Israel’s Knesset has told the Mossad – Israel’s foreign espionage agency – that it has to improve its recruitment process and streamline its contacts with the media.
Zygier’s detention and death have been the subject of international speculation – including false reports – since the story emerged. Local media were barred from publishing about Zygier’s case but elements of the case, including untrue details, were leaked and published by Israeli and international media outlets.
While awaiting his trial Zygier was kept in isolation – he spent ten months in secret detention and was known to prison guards only as “Prisoner X” – but was granted full legal rights. He had access to his lawyers, he was visited frequently by his wife, and he was allowed to make phone calls from his secluded cell to his parents in Melbourne.
He was also examined by prison psychologists and social workers. He told them about his suicidal tendencies but they did not take sufficient notice of his depression. In December 2010 he hanged himself in his cell. An investigation by the police and a judge accused some prison guards with negligence but established that he was not murdered, as some conspiracy theorists had claimed.
In April 2013 a special report by Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) named “Prisoner X” as Ben Zygier and shed some light on the affair, leading to the inquiry by the Knesset sub-committee.
The probe into the affair was carried out behind closed doors by members of a sub-committee of the Israeli parliament’s Security and Foreign Affairs. Among the members who looked into the matter were Yaacov Peri, a former head of Israel’s domestic Shin Bet security service and now a cabinet minister, and former defense minister Benyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer. The committee criticized the Mossad for its failure to detect flaws in Ben Zygier’s personality and behavior.
“He should not be recruited in the first place,” said a source familiar with the investigation who spoke with The Tower. The committee’s report, which was completed recently, also reprimands the Mossad for ignoring indications that Ben Zygier was not behaving in a manner expected from intelligence operatives.
Most of the secret findings deal with operational details, and thus will never be published, but the Mossad was also told that it should consider appointing a press officer similar to that of the Shin Bet. The current head of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, appeared alongside othersenior officials of the organization before the inquiry committee, granting investigators full cooperation. The source praised the officials’ transparency and added that Pardo said that operational and other lessons had already been drawn and fully integrated into the organization’s standard procedures. At the time of the affair, the head of Mossad was Pardo’s predecessor, Meir Dagan.
Ben Zygier, an Australian born Zionist moved to Israel in 1994 at the age of 18. He Hebraized his family name to Alon and served in the Israel Defense Forces.
A decade ago he was approached by the Mossad, went through the standard yet rigorous psychological and aptitude tests, and joined the secret agency in 2003. His assignments reportedly tended to involve efforts to penetrate Iran.
Zygier was discharged by the Mossad in 2008 with no hint of suspicion or scandal. Nonetheless sources said that he was no longer considered suitable for his tasks. In 2009 he returned with his family to Australia to study for an MBA.
There he reportedly became talkative. He boasted about his intelligence work not only to friends but also, unintentionally, to agents of Israel’s enemies. Upon returning to Israel in January 2010 he was arrested and subsequently charged with espionage.
[Photo: Tariqabjotu / Wiki Commons]