Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Secrets and Lies

One thing is clear: Ben Zygier is dead. But even that was not clear until recently, by which time he had been dead for three years.   Ori Golan

First things first. I am going to spill the beans: I am not a Mossad agent, nor an ASIO operative, or a spy on an assignment for the FBI. I don’t even work for the Committee for State Security - known as the KGB. The reason I don’t work for these secret services is due largely to the fact that I cannot read a map, have no sense of direction and could never pass for a native speaker of whichever language I speak.

I do speak a number of languages, that much is true; I have also travelled the world, lived in different countries and, yes, I have dual nationality and - can you believe it? - have also changed my surname. And if that's not enough, I am also a bit of a lone wolf – a trait which tends to add a dimension of mystery, secrecy and enigma to my life. Few know that I usually spend much of my time reading. (For the record, I have never read James Bond, John le Carré or any spy novels.)

So now that we have this out of the way, I feel entitled to speak about Prisoner X, known everywhere outside of Israel as Ben Zygier from Melbourne.  Since everyone else has had their thoughts aired, whispered or shared across the desk station, I feel entitled to air mine too.

Since the news broke out, four days ago, every day brings with it new revelations, new twists and turns to this tale of spying and counter intelligence. With each morning a new layer is uncovered in this murky world of grainy photos, codenamed operations, anonymous sources and vaguely alluded-to covert missions. Each plot gives rise to a subplot; each revelation begs more questions.
One thing is clear: Ben Zygier is dead. But even that was not clear until recently, by which time he was dead for three years. The reasons or circumstances which led to an Australian-Israeli national commiting suicide in a top security prison in Israel, are largely unknown. They may never be known. But that doesn’t stop journalists, editors, and the lady in my grocery store from speculating, conjecturing and opining.

A column by Ron Ben Yishai in the Israeli daily, Yediot, caught my imagination this morning. It, too, uncovered another layer and put an unexpected spin on this story. While public opinion in Israel was already frothing in the mouth, waiting in line to malign Ben, accusing him of the worst of possible charges, namely treason, another story was unfolding. It emerges that ASIS, Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service, knew only too well who Zygier was and what he was doing. The facts – as far as we can ascertain that they are in fact, facts, can be read in English too.  

I heard Ben Yishai speak in Sydney last year and he comes across as modest, knowledgeable, professional and responsible. All the hallmarks of an excellent journo.  So it is surprising that the language he employs in this piece is rather emotive. In many ways it detracts from it. For example, he labels ASIO as putting a Mossad operative in hot water, describing Zygier as easy prey and putting down ASIS’s motives to “frustration, damaged professional pride or simply because they were anti-Israel.” One could just as reasonably have described Zygier as an Australian who ordered at least 4 false passports in 4 years and handed them over to a foreign government (albeit an ally).  
Maybe Ben Yishai has excellent sources here in Sydney too – he certainly does in Israel – or maybe he is letting his own bias get the better of him. The bottom line is,  despite Attonery-General Mark Dreyfus's efforts to deny it, that ASIS were ‘on to Zygier’ (as well as two other Australian nationals) for the abuse of his Australian passports. By way of retaliation, if it is to be believed, Australia's secret services engaged in a persistent torrent of leaks to the media in order to expose Mossad’s operatives. This was well before Ben Zygier was found dead in his cell, so such pressure cannot be imputed to a concern for the death of an Australian national. If anything, assuming Ben Yishai’s analysis is correct, it was a contributing factor to his death. It now appears that he was hounded by Australian journalists – one of whom is specifically named: Jason Koutsoukis from Fairfax media. What emerges is that Zygier caved in to this pressure - a development which ultimately led to his untimely death. It is not the way to deal with disagreements between two friendly countries.
That the media now is obsessed with what state secrets Zygier may have revealed, or was about to reveal, is both understandable and very worrying. Israel and Australia have much in common where national security is concerned; they share common enemies and these have their sights on Australia and Israel. They train their cameras - and not just their cameras - on sensitive installations, iconic landmarks, populated areas and innocent civilians, ready to shoot. Here, and there.
In that sense, as well as in many other senses, Israel is an ally to Australia and ASIS has a vested interest in collaborating with Israel's intelligence services, or at the very least resolving disputes through diplomatic channels. ASIS declares publicly that its aim is "to engage other intelligence and security services overseas in Australia's national interests". Personally, I do not believe that some high ranking officer in ASIS  ‘has it in’ for Israel. I do believe that Israel’s secret services ‘over-did’ the passport procurement, thus exposing their methods and placing their agents in dangerous situation.

Many years ago, Nadia Cohen, widow of Israeli spy in Syria, Eli Cohen, lamented the same to me in interview. “They squeezed him to the last drop”, she told me, “even when they knew his life was in imminent danger”. Her husband was caught red-handed while transmitting to his handler, and executed in Damascus, in 1965.  

No doubt, there are lessons being learnt right now, behind closed doors. And as this sordid tale unfolds, my mind is taken to a family in Melbourne, the Zygier family, whose grief in the midst of this media frenzy  – three years after the event – still can’t be told and whose mourning has to be done in private, in secret, behind closed doors.


Anonymous said...

Quite right. In all this circus and behind this story is a family in grief. My heart goes out to them.

Leora Ronel said...

Great post - it's been difficult to wade through the mire of speculation - and not to forget that a young man died here and his family might never know why. Thanks for reminding us.