After ‘Prisoner X’ Hanged Himself, Mossad Recruitment Changes Are Underway

The Mossad has to improve its recruitment process.  That’s one of the major conclusions of a Knesset select committee which looked into the tragic episode of Mossad officer Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in an Israeli prison on December 15, 2010.

Ben Zygier (from Australia’s ABC)

The parliamentary probe was carried out behind closed doors by members of a Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee. Among the members who looked into the matter were Yaacov Peri, a former head of Shin Bet (the domestic security service) who is now a cabinet minister, and former defense minister Benyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer.

The committee criticized the Mossad (responsible for foreign espionage and special operations) for its failure to detect flaws in Ben Zygier’s personality and behavior.

“He should not have been recruited in the first place,” said a source who is familiar with the investigation.

The committee’s report also reprimands the Mossad for ignoring indications that Zygier, a Jewish immigrant from Australia, did not function as should have been expected from an intelligence operative.

Another recommendation is that the Mossad consider appointing a press officer — as Shin Bet has done. All the security and intelligence agencies used to offer only a stony “no comment” when asked questions by the media, but the domestic security service does now respond to inquiries. The Mossad, formally part of the Prime Minister’s Office, doesn’t answer — and it’s up to the PM’s spokesman whether to offer any responses.

Most of the Knesset panel’s secret findings deal with details of Mossad operations involving Zygier and thus will never be published. The reasons for Zygier’s fall from grace — including his arrest, imprisonment as the so-called “Prisoner X,” and plans for a trial — have not been disclosed.

Tamir Pardo

The director of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and senior officials of the organization appeared before the inquiry committee and fully cooperated with it. Our source adds that Pardo said that operational and other lessons have already been drawn from the Zygier affair — and are fully integrated in the organization’s standard procedures.

It should be emphasized that at the time of Zygier’s secret missions and his arrest, the Mossad director was Pardo’s predecessor, Meir Dagan.

Ben Zygier moved to Israel from Melbourne in 1994, at age 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 psychological and aptitude tests, and joined the secret agency in 2003. His assignments generally involved efforts to penetrate Iran.

He was discharged by the Mossad in 2008, with no apparent stench of suspicion or scandal, but sources say he was considered no longer suitable for his tasks. In 2009 he returned with his Israeli wife and child to Australia to study for an MBA. There he became talkative, well informed Israeli sources say: boasting about his intelligence work, not only to friends but also to agents of Israel’s enemies — though he did not know their true identities and affiliations.

Upon returning to Israel in January 2010 he was arrested and then charged with violations still not publicly specified. He spent ten months in secret detention, and a court order prevented the media from publishing anything about the case. A few, partially inaccurate, leaks did get into the Israeli and international media.

While awaiting trial, he was isolated but was granted “full legal and social rights,” as officials put it. He had access to his lawyers, was visited frequently by his wife, and was allowed to make phone calls from the prison to his parents in Melbourne.

He was also examined by the prison psychologists and social workers; and he told them that he was thinking about suicide. In retrospect they were not attentive enough to his severe depression.

On December 15, 2010, he hanged himself in his cell. He was 34 years old.

An investigation by the police and a magistrate judge accused some prison guards of negligence but established that Zygier was not murdered — despite claims by some conspiracy theorists.

The publicity spotlight began in February 2013, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) broadcast a Foreign Correspondent report that named Prisoner X as Ben Zygier and shed some light on the affair. That led to the inquiry by the Knesset subcommittee.

June 29, 2013

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