This is a slightly expanded version of the story published at Mint Press News last week:
א. א., בכיר במוסד (“האסיר איקס 2”), ריגל עבור איראן ונשפט בחשאי למאסר 14 שנה
Israeli intelligence has a vaunted reputation for being the most sophisticated, aggressive, and sometimes most brutal in the world. It protects the interests of the nation with great vigilance. The exploits of it’s intelligence agency, the Mossad in particular, have been the subject of countless Hollywood films and thrillers. The Israeli heroes are always courageous, resourceful, and duplicitous. They will stop at nothing to succeed in their mission.
Yet one almost never hears of the Mossad’s failures, including the missions which were aborted, the agents who failed. One especially never hears about the traitors who betray their country for principle or money. Such people do exist, though, and not in any small way. Some were caught and killed. Some caught and imprisoned. One of them is the subject of this story.
‘Mistake piled on mistake’
The year 2004 was a mixed bag for Iranian espionage. A high point was “rolling up” an entire CIA spy network through the bungling of a Langley-based junior communications officer. Yet it was also the year that Iran lost one of its most senior Israeli agents, a high-level Mossad agent betraying his country, a knowledgeable Israeli security source informed me.
In his 2006 book “State of War,” James Risen relayed the amazing tale of the CIA operative who, instead of sending a message to a single Iranian agent, broadcast it to the entire spy network inside that country. Coincidentally, one member of the network was a double agent who worked for Iranian intelligence while pretending to work for the CIA. This spy reported the communication to his or her superiors, betraying the entire network.
The New York Times journalist wrote:
“The CIA officer had made a disastrous mistake. She had sent information to one Iranian agent meant for an entire spy network; the data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran.
Mistake piled on mistake. As the CIA later learned, the Iranian who received the download was actually a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to ‘roll up’ the CIA’s agent network throughout Iran. CIA sources say that several of the Iranian agents were arrested and jailed, while the fates of some of the others is still unknown.”
Thus, at a critical period when the Bush administration was trying to determine Iran’s nuclear intentions, it had no footprint on the ground, no sources of human intelligence inside the country. The only resources it had were non-human forms of intelligence, which sometimes are misleading without the ability to corroborate independently. As a result, there was no HUMINT element in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which reported that Iran had ended its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003, the same year Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proposed the Grand Bargain that was summarily rejected by the Bush administration.
Israeli intelligence: A history of betrayal
According to Israeli reports, 2004 was also the year that the Shin Bet’s investigations unit, headed by Yitzhak Ilan, exposed a mole inside the Mossad. The unit functions much like the FBI in terms of counterintelligence activities.
Historically, there have been very few such incidents. Though little-known, these incidents are incredible stories of betrayal and state vengeance, with often disastrous consequences.
In the period leading up the 1948 War, Capt. Meir Tobianski was an officer in the Israeli Haganah, the pre-statehood military organization. When the British appeared to have access to information they should not have had, other officers pointed the finger at Tobianski. He was brought before a drumhead court martial in the summer of 1948, convicted of spying for the British, and executed by firing squad.
An investigation conducted some months later confirmed that Tobianski was not a spy and had not compromised Haganah operations. The state apologized the following year and attempted to make amends to Tobianski’s family. The members of the court who committed this legal abomination later went on to senior roles in the Israeli Defense Forces.
In 1954, another IDF officer, Capt. Alexander Israel, was caught selling secrets to Egypt and trapped through the use of a honey pot in “Operation Bren.” After being apprehended in Europe, he was drugged and hauled onto a plane intended to bring him back to Israel. The plane needed to make several refueling stops on the way, which lengthened the trip considerably. As a result, the Mossad’s medical doctor on call had to administer multiple doses of barbiturates to Israel to keep him unconscious. In the process, the IDF captain overdosed and died.
Unwilling to face the consequences of this disastrous incident, Iser Harel, the head of the Mossad at the time, directed the pilot to return to the air and dump the body into the Mediterranean Sea. Israel’s family was never told what happened to him and they were never compensated for the horror inflicted on him.
Decades later, in 1983, the most damaging spy in Israel’s history was arrested. Marcus Klingberg was deputy director of Israel’s Nes Ziona chemical weapons lab and a world expert in the field of fungal toxins. Unknown to Israel, before he made aliyah, he’d been recruited by the KGB, the Soviet spy and state security machine, to spy on Israel. He did his job exceedingly well and performed it for almost three decades before he was betrayed by a Soviet double agent working for the Mossad.
The story of another Mossad officer is even more complicated. It’s not believed that Yehuda Gil had spied for an Israeli enemy, but he was an ambitious agent seeking promotion and admiration from his colleagues. To achieve his goals, Gil spent decades manufacturing scores of agents he’d allegedly recruited in Syria and elsewhere in the region. He also concocted reports about their revelations to him. One of those reports was so ominous that the IDF actually prepared for war against Syria. Luckily, the commanders stood down at the last minute and war was averted. Gil was exposed by the head of the Shin Bet’s interrogation unit, a man known as “Sherif” (his real name is under Israeli military censorship and hasn’t been reported publicly).
Considering the potential damage Gil could’ve done to the nation, it’s astonishing that when he was exposed, tried and convicted of espionage in 1999, he served less than three years before being released. Gil claims that even now he is asked to help train future Mossad agents.
Considering the long sentence meted out to others who betray Israeli secrets (Ben Zygier, whose story follows below, faced a 20-year sentence before he committed suicide in prison), such a light sentence is extraordinary. It’s possible the Shin Bet was afraid of other damaging secrets and information Gil could reveal.
Sherif, who stepped down from his post in 2002, didn’t catch the Iranian mole in the Mossad’s midst. Yet this failure wasn’t for lack of trying: Reports indicate that hundreds of Mossad staff were forced to take polygraph tests. Credit for exposing the spy went to his successor, Ilan.
A confidential Israeli source reported to me during the last transition to a new Shin Bet chief, that Ilan had won the job. But he had one problem. Since he’d worked in the Jewish terror unit monitoring settler criminal activity, Sara Netanyahu didn’t like him. She preferred Yoram Cohen, an Orthodox Jew, whose ideological views and personality were more conducive to her. Incredibly, in today’s Israel a prime minister’s wife can derail a candidacy for a senior intelligence job based on her petty dislikes.
In a development that shocked the Israeli media and the intelligence community, Cohen got the job. Not surprisingly, Cohen’s prosecution of Jewish settler terror has been lackluster at best. That may be just the way Sara prefers it.
Though Ilan’s rise to the top of Israeli intelligence was stymied by a demanding prime minister’s wife, his career may be revived. Israeli media reports that he is one of four candidates being considered by Defense Minister Yaalon for the position of ministry chief of security operations (Malmab). This agency ensures the security of Israeli military cyber operations and the security of IDF facilities. It determines what material is held secret and protects it from exposure. Among others, this includes the Dimona nuclear reactor, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, the Nes Ziona chemical and biological warfare lab, and military industrial plants.
Let’s return to the Mossad mole, Prisoner X2: Ben Zygier had betrayed his country, exposing a major Mossad penetration of Iran, though others have reported that the operation penetrated Hezbollah. In early 2010, Israel “disappeared” Zygier, arresting and imprisoning him in secret. Later that year, he was found hanged in his cell. I reported this story in June 2010, without knowing Zygier’s real name. In the media, he was known as “Prisoner X.” It wasn’t until the Australian media broke open the story in 2013, identifying him as an Australian national, that his name became known.
Haaretz reporter Amir Oren noted that the report of the judicial inquiry into Zygier’s death included an appendix which referred to another apparent high-level security prisoner held in the same unit as Zygier. That prisoner, later dubbed Prisoner X2, had been in the prison unit for some years before Zygier arrived. The revelation in the judicial report drove Oren to publish the first report, in July 2013, on the Israeli double agent.
Oren followed the initial story with a profile of the then-imprisoned agent and interviewed his wife, asking if she would speak on her husband’s behalf. After consulting attorneys, she declined. Oren wrote an impassioned defense not so much of the Mossad double agent, but of freedom of information, transparency, and the public’s right to know. Without directly denouncing the intelligence services, the reporter made clear that their cult of secrecy damaged national interests.
This story so troubled the censorship unit, headed at the time by Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, that Haaretz was forced to pull it from its website after just a few hours. It was never published in the print edition.
Yet anyone who wishes may find it archived here. The original story is pictured here (in Hebrew). I’ve translated most of the story into English, and it can be found here. My purpose is to preserve it for posterity and ensure that someone, someday may be held responsible. This begs the question: What’s prompting the charade in which the censor “disappears” a story which virtually anyone with access to Google can find?
In the report, Oren intimated that the former Mossad agent’s initials were א.א. (Aleph Aleph). His report did not note that the agent had spied for Iran. If Oren knew this information, the censor certainly would never have permitted its publication. (My source offered that additional information and I am publishing it.) But the Haaretz journalist did note that א.א. was a senior agent and that he had done major damage to Israeli intelligence operations.
A currently serving Mossad agent (in Hebrew), using the pseudonym Jonathan de Shalit, published a new Hebrew-language thriller this year, “Traitor” (בוגד) which is purportedly inspired by the Prisoner X2 story.
I’ve never heard of any active-duty Israeli intelligence officer writing a book and identifying himself publicly as a Mossad agent as part of the book’s promotion. I’m betting that he’s done so, and his superiors have permitted him to do so, in order to glorify the character of Yitzhak Ilan, who caught the mole. This will reassure the Israeli public that despite a few bad apples, the agency runs a tight ship. Such heroics will also pre-empt any negative fallout when the real story of א.א. breaks (which it assuredly will).
De Shalit also regularly reviews books, particularly thrillers, for the pro-settler newspaper, Makor Rishon.
Now let’s return to 2004. The U.S. spy network in Iran was exposed that year, as was א.א. Is it a coincidence that these two events unfolded within the same year? Or did א.א. play some complementary role in exposing the spy network, which caused him to be caught? If so, might א.א. have helped recruit the Iranians on behalf of the CIA? Or might the two agencies have shared intelligence at this time in a much closer collaboration than was hitherto known? Of course, all of this is speculation, but it’s still worth considering.
We also know that א.א. was sentenced (again, in secret) to 14 years in prison. That would bring his release date to 2018 (there is no early release provision for security offenses, except in rare cases).
Lest we think these two stories have exhausted the list of those guilty of betraying Israeli intelligence, Zygier’s attorney, Avigdor Feldman, insinuates that there may be even more such cases unknown to the Israeli public. Which raises the question: How many people can a nation “disappear” before it sheds the pretext of democracy and becomes a national security state, at best, or a police state, at worst?
Feldman also claims that א.א.’s case was so embarrassing to the Mossad that intelligence officials would be fired if it was known. Apparently, the prosecution offered the former agent a reduced sentence if he promised to keep his mouth shut. The possibility of such a “deal” is reinforced by the 14-year sentence given to a high-level Mossad agent who betrayed his country. It was lighter than the 16-year sentence given to Nahum Manbar, a civilian Israeli weapons merchant accused of dealing arms to Iran, in 1997.
There are several broader conclusions to be drawn from the story of Prisoner X2. There may be those who are shocked and disturbed that an Israeli would be recruited to spy for Iran. Someone like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would shout, if he dared, that it proves Iran’s ongoing perfidy and untrustworthiness. But just as Israel and the U.S. have espionage programs targeting Iran (e.g., Stuxnet, “Operation Olympic Games”), so Iran has similar ones targeting Israel and, allegedly, the U.S. (in fact, in his 60 Minutes interview, Pres. Rouhani intimated that U.S. journalist Jason Reizian, imprisoned in Iran, might be exchanged for Iranian prisoners held by the U.S.) This is the way the world works today and what’s good for the goose can’t be denied to the gander.
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.