For the past year or so, Israeli media have featured a few tantalizing stories about a mysterious case of Prisoner X2. You’ll recall that after I first exposed the suicide death of another Israeli prisoner, who I first called “Mr. X” and who eventually came to be called “Prisoner X,” his real identity was exposed as Ben Zygier. When Avigdor Feldman, who presumably was his defense lawyer, exposed the existence of Prisoner X2, the ears of every Israel journalist (and yours truly) perked up. Everyone would like to discover who Israel has kept under wraps for this long and why.
We know that he was convicted of treason, the gravest Israeli security offense, which compromised Israeli secrets and his Mossad comrades. Since he worked for Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, the betrayal likely involved selling secrets to a foreign power. The list of who would be interested is potentially endless. Russia or China (and any close allies) might be at the top of the list. Even the U.S. is a possibility–though after Pollard, I’d imagine the CIA would be leery of recruiting Israeli spies.
We know X2 has been in prison for at least ten years. We also know that his crime, arrest, conviction and imprisonment were all conducted in secret. This means two things: like Zygier, Prisoner X2 embarrassed the Israeli national security state by showing that even those who hold the keys to the kingdom, the nation’s secrets, are human and fallible. It means the Mossad, which appointed X2 to a position of trust, made a fatal error in not detecting his betrayal until grave damage had been done. The security services never admit mistakes. Thus aberrations like this one must be hushed up. They of course would argue the case must be handled in secret to protect the security of the state. But that’s false, it must be done in secret to protect the professional reputation of the security services
Now, there is a new development in the case of Prisoner X2. You’ll recall the important Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, which featured six former Shabak chiefs talking candidly (mostly) about the most sensitive and vulnerable issues of their tenures including torture, targeted killings and other grave moral breaches. Among the interviewees was Avi Dichter, Shabak chief from 2000-2005.
In a new book, which is an expanded version of the film, Dichter has this tantalizing, candid comment (page 76, Hebrew edition) about a security disaster during his tenure:
I’m familiar, to my sorrow, with several very grave examples of traitors to the State of Israel over the years. These examples make our hair stand on end when we consider what happened. Some of them are known, some not yet known.
A confidential Israeli source has confirmed definitively that Dichter is speaking of Prisoner X2. My source also affirmed for the first time that this case is “no less grave than that of Marcus Klingberg.*” This new information pinpoints the scandal to the term of Shabak director, Avi Dichter, since the spy has been in prison since 2003-2004. That may explain why Dichter has been relatively forward in speaking, even elliptically, of the case. It’s like reverse case of “Who lost China.” In this case, the guy (Dichter) who caught the Mossad double agent looks awfully good in the public’s eyes. Conversely, the Mossad chief who shepherded the traitor’s career is going to look mighty bad. I don’t yet know who takes the blame. Ephraim Halevy was the director till 2002, when Sharon replaced the cerebral pipe-spoking intellectual with the knife-in-the-teeth Dagan. X2 went to prison around 2003. So either he was caught in 2002 or 2003. My guess is that Halevy is the likely fall-guy for this one. But if it happened on Dagan’s watch, then it would be the third disaster of his tenure–the other two being Ben Zygier and the al-Mabouh assassination (we might also add the Mavi Marmara to this list).
* Marcus Klingberg was the deputy director of Israel’s Nes Ziona WMD research institute, who for nearly two decades was Russia’s chief spy within the Israeli establishment. Klingberg exposed more Israeli secrets than any other spy in the nation’s history. He was arrested, tried and imprisoned in secret and released after concluding his sentence. Unlike, Mordechai Vanunu, Israel didn’t attempt to confine or restrict Klingberg. So he’s written an autobiography with Michael Sfard. It will be published soon in German, but unfortunately doesn’t yet have an English publisher.
Yossi Melman wrote about Klingberg:
There have been few spy cases like his in the modern era. Klingberg’s success is one of the greatest in the history of Soviet intelligence and one of the greatest failures in the history of the Shabak. There’s never been one like it.
This is the sort of story which whets the appetite of the journalist. Careers are made on such things. The only thing of which we can be sure is that Prisoner X2’s identity will become known. When it does, it will cause grave embarrassment to Israel’s security services. The shame will no doubt be ten or one hundred times worse than it was regarding Ben Zygier. A large part of the tragedy and suffering of this breach will be directly attributed to the culture of secrecy under which Israel conducts its national security policy.
The cases of the Rosenbergs, Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard all caused immense damage to America’s national security in their separate ways. But these scandals were lanced like boils by the transparency (with the exception of the first case) with which they were handled at the time they were exposed. As a result, the damage is behind us. The reputations of the agencies whose secrets were betrayed have been repaired. Sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant. Israel has never learned this lesson and likely will never. As a result, its scandals will fester and become infected. Secrecy in such cases is a breeding ground for suspicion, cynicism and dysfunction.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.