TEL AVIV, Israel -- In the space of three days, a two-year-old mystery about an unidentified prisoner who hanged himself in a high-security Israeli prison has become a scandal for Israel’s vaunted Mossad spy agency. Many here are predicting that it will cost some top officials their jobs.
The Israeli government now acknowledges that Prisoner X was an Australian citizen named Ben Zygier who was held in solitary confinement for eight months in this country’s notorious Ayalon prison before he hanged himself. But the details of Zygier’s life as a Mossad agent are still emerging, and with each new fact, analysts find a pattern of a spy agency that let down its guard and then perhaps went to extremes to cover up its responsibility.
"This is not an affair, it’s a catastrophe," Uri Misgav wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. "The real issue is the state’s spiriting away an Israeli-Australian citizen, who worked for it, and locking him up hermetically until he died in strange, suspicious circumstances."
Some wonder how a man whom friends described as a braggart who liked to show off that he was in the Mossad not only joined the spy agency but also likely turned into a double agent.
For two years, the Israeli government used its censorship authority to keep the story out of the headlines, banning mention of the suicide at Ayalon of an unidentified prisoner. The case was considered so sensitive that even mentioning the publication ban was prohibited.
But the details of Zygier’s life have poured out since the government partially lifted the gag order in response to an Australian television investigation into the case.
Numerous friends and soldiers who served with him in the Israeli army have confirmed that Zygier, whose parents were prominent in Jewish causes in Australia, joined the Mossad and was proud of his work as a spy.
"He liked to talk about it. Sometimes it was hard to take him seriously, because you thought, ‘Why would a spy admit to being a spy?’ But yeah, he was really proud," said Adam, who served with Zygier as a combat soldier and asked not to be further identified out of fear of breaking Israel’s censorship law. "Over the years he would come and go, so part of me thought, ‘Well, maybe he is a spy.’ But that’s always a joke with somebody who travels a lot in Israel."
Records show that Zygier took advantage of an Australian law that allows citizens to change their names once a year. He took out at least three additional passports, using the names Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows. Zygier used those passports to travel to Iran and Syria, among other countries, and he applied for a work visa for Italy, according to public records in Australia.
Israeli officials have confirmed that that "job" for the Mossad was probably to set up a straw company in Italy that sold electrical equipment to Iran. In those shipments, intelligence officials add, he could have sent other equipment necessary for Mossad operations in Iran.
"Let’s say that you wanted to plant a bomb on a car. How would you get the explosive material into the country? Or let’s say you wanted to bug something. What better way than to send in appliances that already carried the bug?" one Western intelligence official told McClatchy, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "Iran depends on these companies, because it is the only way it can do business around the sanctions, and that makes it vulnerable."