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Israel Struggles to Keep Spy Story Cloaked in Secrecy

By VOA News, DEBKAfile, The Times of Israel, Israel Hayom &

The mysterious death of an Australian prisoner in Israel has put the spotlight on a military-run censorship system that is finding it harder to black out secret information often only a mouse click away on the Internet.

The case involves a man reported by Australia's ABC channel on Tuesday to have been a member of Israel's Mossad spy agency ( According to the report, he committed suicide in prison in 2010 in an isolated top-security wing originally built for the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Why the man, identified by ABC as Ben Zygier (aka Ben Alon) an immigrant to Israel, was jailed is still a closely guarded secret, and reports dealing with matters of state security must be submitted to military censors for vetting.

In a highly unusual move within hours of the ABC broadcast, Israeli editors were summoned to an emergency meeting in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office and asked not to publish a story "that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency," Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper reported. Israeli news outlets that had carried the report scrambled to remove it from their websites, but that only drew attention to the case. Chatter ran rampant on Twitter and Facebook, offering polyglot Israelis links to foreign news sites.

For decades, journalists in Israel have been required to sign an undertaking to abide by military censorship rules when they apply for accreditation from the government press office. Reporters risk being denied press cards and, in the case of foreigners, work visas if they violate the regulations. "You either work with us, or you work abroad," a military censor, cautioning against reporting where Palestinian rockets were landing in Israel, warned a Reuters correspondent during an eight-day Gaza war in November.

In the age of the Internet, efforts by Israel to put the genie back in the bottle proved fruitless. "People in the state, in the Shin Bet [internal security agency] and the courts conduct themselves as if we were still in the Stone Age," said Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli attorney whose clients have included nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.

Vanunu, a former technician in Israel's top secret Dimona nuclear reactor told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper in 1986 that atomic bombs were produced at the facility. He was jailed as a traitor and served 18 years in prison. "These things are ultimately revealed. People talk, and not just on the Internet," he told Reuters. "The tight-lip that once typified this country is no longer ... all the gag orders just shame the courts and the country."

Aluf Benn, editor of Israel's left liberal Ha'aretz newspaper, said Israeli security authorities and judges who issue gag orders at their request find it hard to come to terms with the concept of a free media operating in a democracy.

"For [Mossad chief Tamir] Pardo and his ilk, the Israeli media are a branch of the state ... that is why we are forced absurdly to quote foreign news sources about military operations, intelligence snafus and clandestine trials," Benn wrote in a commentary in his newspaper. "Generation after generation, the military censor has explained to reporters that anything published by an Israeli outlet is seen by the international community as an official statement, whereas reports by foreign news sources are not."

So when controversial incidents take place, such as an attack on Syria last month that the Damascus government said was carried out by the Israeli air force, Israeli media are banned from publishing their own information. And while Israel's nuclear arms have been an open secret for decades, reference to the arsenal has always been attributed in the local press to "foreign reports."

Curiously, the case of "Prisoner X" was deemed so sensitive that for almost 24 hours the authorities tried to prevent any word seeping out into the local media. They finally raised the white flag after left-wing and Arab legislators used their parliamentary immunity to demand explanations about the affair on the floor of the Knesset, enabling Israeli papers to at least allude to the story.

On Tuesday the gag orders were eased to allow the media to carry foreign reports of the case, but the censors told journalists not to identify the dead man's wife and two children — information that is readily available on the Internet.

Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer who writes on intelligence matters, told Reuters he had no knowledge about Zygier, "but in the 21st century, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, I simply don't believe such secrecy can be maintained."

Zygier, an Australian citizen and Mossad agent, was not the first Prisoner X to be held secretly in an Israeli jail. Double agents caught after turning traitor or crossing the lines into crime for personal motives are the exception - but not unknown in most spy agencies. In the 1950s, Israeli agent Mordecai (Mottele) Kedar was secretly incarcerated for many years for betraying his mission.

The Australian ABC went to great lengths to uncover the story of the Israeli-Australian double citizen who committed suicide on December 15, 2010 at the age of 34 in a top-security, suicide-proof cell of Ayalon Prison in Ramle where he was held in solitary confinement and under constant surveillance. A former inmate of that cell is said to have been Yitzhak Rabin's assassin Yigal Amir.

According to ABC, after his death, his body was flown to Melbourne, Australia, where his family, active in the local Jewish community, buried him one week later. The headstone on his grave bears his name and the dates of his birth and death. The ABC investigation disclosed that an autopsy was conducted by the Israeli Forensic Institute which issued a death certificate listing the cause of death as asphyxiation by hanging in the name of Ben Alon. Also found was a second Australian passport in the name of Ben Allen.

An Israeli organization called ZAKA, religious volunteers known for recovering the remains of Jewish terrorism victims, arranged for the body to be flown to Melbourne.

A senior Israeli intelligence official, who remained anonymous, told Australian TV that if what Ben Zygier did and knew were made public, it would pose an immediate threat to Israel as a nation state.

International protocols demand that when a foreign national is jailed or dies, their diplomatic mission must be informed. The Australian new investigators assumed that whatever crime or sin Ben Zygier committed, it must have involved espionage, possibly treachery, and very, very sensitive information endangering Israel. Still, despite their best professional efforts, ABC's reporters did not find a single lead to the mysterious story of Prisoner X or verify any wild conjectures. One tied him to various episodes in which Israeli Mossad undercover agents were found operating on Australian passports; another, to the Iranian defector, Gen. Ali Ashgari, who disappeared from his hotel in Istanbul with suitcases full of Iranian nuclear secrets.

One of the many questions still open is how was he able to commit suicide? Warren Reed, a former Australian secret service agent, disclosed that not only are cameras installed in this type of cell, but sensors which measure the inmate's heart, respiration and perspiration rates. How did his watchers fail to notice that he had stopped breathing and his heart was no longer beating? One possible answer is that in the Mossad training courses he underwent, he was taught how to take his own life under the noses of his captors, and used this method to kill himself.

Jason Koutsoukis, a reporter for Australian's Fairfax newspapers, began an investigation into Ben Zygier — aka "Prisoner X," in 2009, when an anonymous source fed him information regarding a Mossad front company that was operating in Europe and selling goods to Iran, the Guardian reported Wednesday evening.

According to the Guardian report, the source gave Koutsoukis the names of three Australians with joint Israeli citizenship who were working for the Mossad. The alleged agents were said to be selling electronics to Iran through a company based in Europe.

In 2009, Koutsoukis said, he contacted Zygier at his home in Jerusalem and confronted him with allegations of the story. "The company did exist," Koutsoukis was quoted as saying. "I also managed to establish that Zygier and another of the individuals had worked for it. I wasn't able to confirm the third name."

According to Koutsoukis's account, Zygier changed his name four times in Australia. Although Australian law permits changing one's name legally once a year, Australian authorities grew suspicious and were beginning to close in on Zygier, Koutsoukis said,

After a Mossad hit squad reportedly killed senior Hamas weapons importer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010, Koutsoukis decided to confront Zygier and telephoned him, the Guardian report said.

"When I spoke to him he was incredulous at first and said f*ck off – but what was interesting was that he did not hang up," Koutsoukis said. "He did soundly genuinely shocked. But he listened to what I had to say. I still wonder why he didn't hang up. He denied everything, however. He said he hadn't visited the countries it had been claimed he had. I tried calling again but in the end he told me to buzz off."

Koutsoukis said he also had a series of bizarre exchanges with the CEO of the alleged front company. "He seemed a bit weird. He denied all knowledge of what I was talking about, but then wanted to talk to me again and make an arrangement to meet up," he said. Koutsoukis claimed that a senior government official later confirmed the story, even though he had the opportunity to refute it.

Zygier was reportedly imprisoned later in 2010, a fact the Australian spy agency was aware of, according to The Australian. An Israeli TV report Wednesday said the Australian security services had "burned" Zygier by leaking the story to an Australian journalist. The report didn't divulge whether the journalist in question was Koutsoukis.

His family refused to comment on the case this week. "I really don't want to talk about it," his father said. "I've lost my son."

Israel has admitted to a basic set of facts in the shadowy "Prisoner X" episode, confirming that a top-security inmate had indeed been held under an assumed name and committed suicide in 2010.

The "Prisoner X" episode took center stage at the inaugural deliberation of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday, with MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud-Beytenu) saying that the case shouldn't be discussed in public so as not to compromise Israel's security interests.

After the publication of the initial Australian report on Tuesday, several MKs requested clarifications regarding the gag order preventing the release of details from the case, sparking a torrent of reports in Israeli and international media.

Prisoner X was under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), an Australian newspaper revealed on Wednesday. According to the report, ASIO had suspected Zygier of using his Australian passport to spy for Israel.

The story of the so-called Prisoner X first surfaced in May 2010 when Israel's Ynet news ran a story in which it alleged that a prisoner was being held in top-secret conditions, whose identity and crime were not known even to his jailers. The story, however, was quickly taken offline due to an Israeli government gag order.

A court ruled on Wednesday evening that media outlets may reveal that there was indeed an Israeli citizen, who held foreign citizenship as well, who was held in an Israeli prison under a false name. The prisoner was given a false name for security reasons.

While the prisoner was given a false identity while in jail, his real family had been informed of his whereabouts. He also had lawyers – attorneys Roi Belhar and Boaz Ben-Tzur – who were aware of his situation.

Australian media outlets began reporting on the Prisoner X affair two days ago. Reporters managed to find the prisoner's parents, who confirmed that "Prisoner X" was their son but declined to speak about his death, saying it was too painful to discuss.

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