Prisoner X, front companies, and spying on Iran

In the midst of an escalating international row with Australia, the Israeli government has been forced to admit that it secretly imprisoned a “dual-nationality” citizen – known as “Prisoner X”

Earlier Tuesday, Israel partially lifted of a gag order over the investigation into the death of the prisoner, concluding that he hanged himself in his cell in December 15, 2010 by the use of a bedsheet.

Australian media have said the man, identified as 34 year old Ben Zygier, was an Australian immigrant to Israel who served in the Mossad spy agency at the time of his death in December 2010. The report added that he may have also been working for Australian security services. Zygier reportedly was imprisoned in Israel in 2010.

Zygier was arrested by the Mossad after they suspected him of telling Australia’s domestic intelligence agency about his work for the Israelis. Without naming its source for the information, the program said that Zygier set up a communications company in Europe for the Mossad along with two other dual Australian citizens. Their goal, it said, was exporting electronic components to Arab countries and Iran.

According to reports earlier in the week, Zygier had been held in circumstances of such secrecy and isolation that even his prison guards did not know his identity or alleged offence.

The document released admitted that an inmate was registered under a false identity “for security reasons”, but added that his family in Australia – who have refused to comment on the case – were notified immediately upon his arrest.

It added that the secret detention of Prisoner X was authorised by the most senior officials in Israel’s justice ministry; and that the prisoner – referred to as “John Doe” – had been represented by three Israeli lawyers. The document did not make clear either the charge he faced or whether the lawyers were appointed by the state in secret.

Israel’s belated admission of the existence of Prisoner X follows a two-year effort to gag any media reporting about the controversial case which saw the office of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, threaten editors with fines or jail if they disclosed details about the case earlier this week.

That effort backfired as Israel faced a deluge of embarrassing revelations about the case which appeared to expose the detailed workings of its overseas intelligence agency in the most graphic detail, as well as the growing irritation of Israel’s allies over the Mossad’s behaviour.

The disclosure came at the end of a day of extraordinary new details about the alleged double life of Zygier. It emerged that Zygier had been confronted shortly before his arrest by Australian journalist Jason Koutsoukis of Fairfax newspapers, who accused him of being a spy.

He also said Zygier was under investigation by the Australian intelligence services and was close to being arrested for using his Australian passport for espionage.

As the scandal over Zygier’s treatment and suicide in Israel’s Ayalon prison continued to grow, the Australian government was forced to admit that Israeli officials had briefed Australian diplomats over the case. Previously it had been claimed they knew nothing of Zygier’s detention and death until his family asked for help to repatriate his body.

In an embarrassing about-face on Thursday, Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, said his country had been made aware of Zygier’s detention in February 2010. He said Australia had been given assurances by Israeli intelligence sources about Zygier’s safety.

“The Australian government relied on these assurances. At no stage during his detention did the Australian government receive any request from the individual or his family to extended consular support.

“The Australian government was advised through intelligence on 16 December 2010 of this individual’s death on the previous day and the deceased family had been notified by Israeli authorities.”

According to the secretary of Australia’s department of foreign affairs, Peter Varghese, who is carrying out a review of how the Zygier case was handled, the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv had not been involved in the Zygier case but instead communications were carried out through intelligence channels.

“The decision to continue communications through intelligence channels rather than to deal with this as a more normal consular case, can only I assume reflect a judgment that, given the nature of this case and that the charges pertained to national security issues, the more effective means of continuing to communicate would be through intelligence channels,” Varghese told a Senate committee.

Zygier, who was married to an Israeli and had two young children, was found hanged in his cell in late 2010. His body was flown to Melbourne for burial the following week.

While the case remains murky, the new revelations will be deeply embarrassing to the Mossad, not least because they shed new light on how the Israeli spy agency acquires cover identities for agents.

In the last three years the Mossad department charged with providing cover identities has been caught out in a series of high-profile bungles as it has been found to have been improperly using foreign passports for its operations.

According to Australian media reports, Zygier had applied for Australian passports using three identities over the years – those of Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows.

Zygier’s many aliases were made easier by Australian rules that allow one name change a year. Since the name “Zygier” might appear Jewish, he was encouraged to pick names like “Allen” and “Burrows” that did not, which allowed him to travel to countries like Iran and Syria under false pretenses to spy on behalf of Israel.

But in 2009, his frequent name-changing – and the fact that it was common knowledge that Israel’s spy agencies recruit Jews in countries like Australia in order to take advantage of their passports – piqued the interest of Australia’s intelligence service. In late 2009 Australian reporter Jason Koutsoukis, then working for Fairfax, received an anonymous tip that three Australians were using their identities to work for the Mossad, which had a front company selling equipment to Iran.

At the time Zygier said: “I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to, I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.”

In recent years the issue of the Mossad operations involving citizens of friendly nations and use of passports of allies has become a source of serious friction with governments usually friendly with Israel.

“There are informal rules,” said one person familiar with intelligence co-operation arrangements. “You inform your allies if you want to speak to someone or do something. There is a feeling the Israelis don’t play by the rules.”

The Mossad’s use of foreign passports led to an international storm not long before Zygier’s secret arrest and detention when it was revealed that the spy agency had used almost a dozen such passports in its assassination of Hamas’s Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel, in January 2010.

In seven cases it turned out that the passports used were in the name of Jews who had moved to Israel from Britain and Germany and had no knowledge someone using their identity had visited Dubai.

In a further deeply embarrassing development for the Canberra government, Carr was forced to revise his claims that the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv knew nothing of the case until after Zygier died when his family, a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne, asked for his body to be repatriated.

Carr’s office now admits an Australian diplomat (not the ambassador) was aware Zygier was being held.

The case has provoked a host of unanswered questions, as Zygier’s family and friends in Australia remained tight-lipped about the circumstances of his death, refusing to discuss the case with the media.

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