Partial Exposure of what ‘Prisoner X’ who Committed Suicide Did to Anger Mossad — Not Quite What Recent Newspapers’ Probe Suggests

by DAN RAVIV in Washington

According to well informed Western sources in the security and espionage field, the Australian-born Israeli citizen who was found dead in a high-security prison cell in Israel did — in the Mossad’s view — endanger some Mossad operations.  That is why Ben Zygier was locked up in early 2010.

Ben Zygier (from Australia’s ABC)

An official Israeli investigation declared that Zygier hanged himself, in the bathroom portion of his cell in Ramle Prison, in December 2010.  He was 34 years old.

Investigators could not explain why Zygier chose to end his own life, and senior Israelis were unwilling to state officially what the man did that angered the Mossad, the domestic security agency Shin Bet, and prosecutors.  He was held anonymously in the prison and was nicknamed Prisoner X.

Officials do confirm that Zygier, who for a while as an Israeli citizen renamed himself Ben Alon, was an operative of the Mossad, which is responsible for foreign espionage operations.

The Western sources say that Zygier seemed almost the perfect kind of person to be recruited by Israeli intelligence.  As a teenager in Melbourne, he was active in a Zionist youth movement.  One source said that Zygier took part in training to help the Jewish community with self-defense.  That kind of training has been, in many nations, arranged by Israeli government security officials.

He moved to Israel — or, as many Jews put it, “made aliyah” — in 1994, at age 18.  He served in the Israel Defense Forces (the IDF, or Israel’s army) and was noticed as a potential recruit for intelligence work.  Among other positive attributes, he had a genuine foreign passport which could help a covert operative establish his “legend” – his cover story.

The sources say Zygier/Alon was approached by the Mossad, went through the standard yet rigorous psychological and aptitude tests, and joined the secret agency in 2003.  His assignments tended to involve high-tech knowledge, apparently including a placement with a company in Europe that did its best to penetrate Iran.

He was discharged by the Mossad in 2008, with no apparent stench of suspicion or scandal, but the sources say he was considered no longer suitable for his tasks.  In 2009 he returned to Australia to study for an MBA — apparently with his wife and one daughter (a second daughter was born shortly before Zygier’s death).

According to the sources, he was excessively talkative back in Melbourne.  Rubbing shoulders with fellow students from many nations, he openly spoke of his Mossad career.

For reasons not so clear as portrayed recently in Australian newspapers and Germany’s Der Spiegel, he was so talkative that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) heard about him — wondering if he was a boastful Australian citizen, or a truly imprudent Israeli intelligence officer.

The Mossad also learned that Zygier was blabbing, which is not a professional term but summarizes what Israeli intelligence was said to be hearing.  Examining who was having conversations with Zygier, the Mossad concluded that some of its operations were endangered by his revelations.

On his very next visit to Israel (and it is not clear if the Mossad somehow arranged an excuse or invitation that hastened Zygier’s flight to Tel Aviv), he was arrested.

Recent articles by Der Spiegel and some Australian and Israeli newspapers stated that Zygier’s leaks put Mossad agents in extreme danger — specifically, Lebanese inside the Hezbollah organization who were secretly working for Israel.  The latest sources disagree with that.

Still, Israeli security officials wanted Zygier locked up and silenced — though they did not mean that they intended his death.  The sources say that after his arrest, which was not announced publicly, he was interrogated and confessed that he had violated his lifetime secrecy pledge.

Prosecutors commenced discussing a plea bargain with attorneys for Zygier and with the prisoner himself.  One of the lawyers said that a “double-digit” prison sentence — at least 10 years — was being discussed.

The sources said that, in the Mossad’s view, Zygier did do damage — and some operatives could have been in danger because of what he revealed — but they refute the claim that the operations concerned were aimed at Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Officials also seem convinced that if similar circumstances were to recur — with a former or current Mossad operative, no matter where he had been born, being perceived as dangerously talkative — then Israel would probably handle things almost exactly the same way: Get the suspect to Israel, arrest him, and make him vanish.

But this time authorities would take more care to ensure that the suspect not commit suicide — and might reconsider the wisdom of imposing a complete blackout regarding the person’s identity.

April 5, 2013

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