Open Zion

02.21.13

The Many Scandals Of The Prisoner X Affair

There is a joke among spies that the worst curse you can bestow on a colleague is, "I hope to read about you in the newspapers one day." In the tragic case of Ben Zygier, the curse wasn't a joke, and he had to die for it to become a reality. Needless to say, the gallows humor that is a hallmark of my former profession has lost much of its luster.

In a piece in these pages entitled "What Prisoner X Scandal?", Professor Gil Troy argues that Zygier was the author of his own demise—both figuratively and literally—and that his treatment at the hands of the state was decidedly unscandalous and in accordance with all the norms associated with a liberal democracy.

I would strongly disagree with Troy, and go so far as to say that what is unfolding in this case is more than just one scandal but a culmination of many. I also take strong issue with Troy's observations about Zygier's state of mind and motives for committing suicide.

I know what it was like to walk in Zygier's shoes (and he in mine, since I preceded him by a decade). I served in the Mossad for 13 years and the first 7 of those as a member of the same covert operations unit that Zygier belonged to. For a short while, we would have even been in the field at the same time (albeit in different units) at that stage of my career. Like Zygier, I grew up in the Anglosphere, with all the inherent cultural differences separating me from native-born Israelis. In my case however, I wasn't even born Jewish and my family had settled in Canada long before Confederation (Troy—an expert on the War of 1812—may be interested to know that I am a direct descendant of Laura Secord). All the psychobabble of divided loyalties and identity crisis were never a part of the equation for me, nor any of my colleagues. We got on with the business of being at the sharp-end of Mossad operations because we knew what we were doing was important and engendered universal values that apply to any Western democracy. I do not see any evidence that Zygier was any less dedicated to this ideal.

I find the circumstances of Zygier's incarceration in solitary confinement—ostensibly as a means to "protect him and others" for reasons of national security—scandalous. Zygier was tucked away by the state after a bout of closed-door legal proceedings. The two main criteria a prosecutor must consider when assessing a case is whether the prosecution is in the public interest and whether it has a good chance of being successful. It is clear that this case was not in the public interest and bears all the worst elements of legal expediency excused by national security interests. Zygier did not present any danger to the public and could have been summarily dismissed, placed under house arrest, and the matter dealt with internally. This was an exceptional case requiring an exceptional solution and I see little in the way of critical thinking on behalf of those who decided to remand him in solitary for an indeterminate time.

The management of Zygier's cover by his Mossad commanders is no less scandalous. Zygier was placed in an untenable situation that was prone to his being compromised when the decision was made to dispatch him to Australia on several occasions to alter his name and passport. These decisions were all made on the heels of a very public scandal that put Australian Jewry and their travel documents under the spotlight in 2004. The other scandal is the churlish and clearly vindictive behaviour of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), who decided to leak Zygier's name and details to a journalist presumably with a view to embarrassing its ally into "good behavior." There are flaps and deconfliction issues all the time between allied intelligence services, and they are worked out behind closed doors. The Mossad has on more than one occasion been the aggrieved party in these cases and solved the issue with the offending service out of the public domain. These scandals both large and small have caused serious damage to the Mossad's operational capability, the Jewish community in Australia, and more importantly, Zygier's family.

I also take issue with Troy's assertion that Zygier lacked the mental toughness for the job. Living and working in hostile locales for long periods under cover is, with all due respect, very different from the globe-trotting escapades of an academic with dual citizenship. Building cover is a long and painstaking process that involves more than remembering not to use a Hebrew word here and there. Hollywood notwithstanding, cover is an operative's first, last, and only line of defense against a visit to the "fingernail factory" and an unpleasant death. To suggest that Zygier did not possess the mental scaffolding necessary to cope with the stresses of his job is wholly without merit.

While Zygier's cultural background was attractive to his Mossad recruiters, all the passports and clean identities in the world are worthless if the person using them does not possess the mental acuity for the job. The Mossad devotes an exceptional amount of time and effort determining if an operative possesses the "right stuff." That isn't to say that this lifestyle takes its eventual toll. Zygier was living his cover for almost a decade and it was up to his commanders and the unit psychologist to look for signs of burn-out and the fatigue that occurs in people much as it does in aircraft that is flown too hard, too fast, and for too long.

I am loathe to speculate why Zygier hanged himself. I can come up with any number of reasons including the simple fact that his second child was on the way and he never saw her. Perhaps the thought of her first visit to him as a father would be while he was in jail and this was just one burden too many to bear. A significant part of Zygier's training and conditioning would involve doing whatever necessary to avoid finding himself behind bars and yet that's exactly where the state put him. I don't know how much Zygier betrayed but it's painfully obvious that he was betrayed by both countries, each in their own reckless way. Perhaps this is the real scandal that eludes Professor Troy.