Ben Zygier was not suited to work for the Mossad

Amir Oren writes: Ben Zygier found the perfect cover for a Mossad agent: claiming to be a Mossad agent. Who would believe someone who bragged about his work for the Mossad actually worked for the Mossad? The guy would have to be a liar or a blabbermouth, two character traits that at first glance would disqualify someone from intelligence work. He must certainly be unemployed, a sanitation worker or, the lowest of the low, a journalist – anything but an actual Mossad agent.

That, among other things, is what went through the head of one of Zygier’s acquaintances from the short time he lived on Kibbutz Gazit in the north. Zygier and his friend, a demobilized soldier from Sayeret Matkal, the general staff’s elite special-operations force, once bumped into each other at the airport. In response to a not particularly prying question about what he had been up to, Zygier bragged about his secret institutional association. Perhaps Zygier had assumed his kibbutznik friend’s belonging to an army intelligence unit made him a partner to Zygier’s own secret. But the friend felt uncomfortable with the information and shared his surprise with others.

Another former kibbutznik who is from Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael and today lives in Kiryat Tivon, had his own hard-to-explain experience with Zygier. The friend studied with Zygier in Melbourne while his own parents were posted to Australia. When Zygier immigrated to Israel and was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, he and the friend renewed their acquaintance. Zygier told him that his job in the military included providing security to Shin Bet security service personnel operating in South Lebanon. Last week, the friend recalled that in 1997, “Ben left the army and told me that he had been compelled to kill a boy and girl while providing security for an operation in Lebanon. He told me he was hospitalized for a month with shell shock. Afterward he went back to Australia and several years later returned to Israel. I don’t know whether it was something he made up or not. It astounds me if that could really happen. If so, how did they recruit him into the Mossad?”

To this nagging question there are two partial, complementary answers. One is more general and touches on the desired character traits in security organizations like the Mossad. The second answer is more personal, not with reference to Zygier, but to Meir Dagan, who was head of the Mossad between November 2002 and January 2011.

The Mossad is an umbrella organization for different work groups that require employees with different characteristics for very dissimilar roles, from data analysis to intelligence theft. There are “fighters” in the Mossad, or to use the more modest terminology, “operational employees.” These employees work beyond Israel’s borders, in base countries (for example, in Europe) and especially in target countries. Along with these Israeli handlers, there are non-Israeli agents who work with them. The popular reference to Zygier as an agent is misleading. It would be more accurate to characterize him as an operational employee. Even the description of Zygier as a prisoner is also not entirely accurate. At the time of his death, his case was being tried before the judges Avraham Tal, Zecharia Caspi and Liora Brody. He was “under arrest until the end of legal proceedings,” not imprisoned.

Agent handlers or intelligence gathering officers, who work in an organizational branch referred to internally as the “Intersection, “are types whose expertise is zeroing in on human weaknesses and exploiting them for the purposing of enlisting a source to betray their country or organization. These people are endowed and instilled with cunning, the ability to sweet-talk and enough cruelty to figure out who can be bought and how (usually with money or some equivalent, but also with medical treatment or by providing status or satisfying any inclination or weakness). They learn who can be pressured and how. Betrayal is their specialty. They entice sources to betray and sometimes to betray the betrayers, although not in a way that if exposed would deter new traitors.

Fighters in the “Keshet” and “Caesarea” branches are marked by their inherent ability to blend into the background and need nerves of steel to escape by the skin of their teeth from unexpected situations that threaten to blow their cover, lead to their capture or result in their death. As with agent handlers, these traits are a double-edged sword. Someone who becomes used to supplying falsehoods and taking an adversarial role is likely to deceive his superiors. And someone who is used to having a license to kill enemies is capable, due his moral and emotional insensitivity, of turning against his own nation and colleagues.

There were past problems in the Mossad efforts to locate and identify problematic employees (for example, in the cases of Victor Ostrovsky and Yehuda Gil), but under Dagan’s leadership they intensified. Dagan received a massive budget, greatly expanded the Mossad’s manpower, broke internal organizational compartmentalization and promoted expanded operational capabilities at the expense of secrecy. A thorough investigation would have had to disqualify someone with Zygier’s personality for service in the Mossad. But when a prospect’s cultural identity is made more important than the person, the acceptance bar is lowered.

Maj. Gen. Dagan came from the army to teach the Mossad how to operate. It was a fundamental mistake. The Mossad is a centralized, military-like body, but its activities are based on a fighting doctrine learned over decades of trial and error that cannot be implemented in the spirit of a commander, who simply wants to win the battle. That is because in the Mossad, the supreme goal above any operational objective is not to be discovered. The mentality is not Samson’s “Let me die with the Philistines,” as he knocks down the temple pillars, but rather “the Philistines will never suspect that I visited them.” There were mediocre Mossad directors who grew within the organization and excellent Mossad directors who came from the army (like Meir Amit and Yitzhak Hofi), but the latter, especially Hofi, possessed a willingness to first learn and not just to teach.

Dagan’s eighth year at the Mossad, 2010, was a threatening one. Following the assassination of senior Hamas militant and arms procurer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, which Dubai’s police chief attributed to the Mossad, some of the methods and employees of the Mossad were uncovered in a ruinous and paralyzing manner.

Zygier’s treatment might have been more humane and logical had Dagan not panicked at the time and had his friend Yuval Diskin not been appointed chief of the Shin Bet. Diskin’s aggressive treatment of Israelis was reflected in his abusive behavior toward National Security Council head Uzi Arad when he carried out a leak investigation against him (and in other cases that were only hinted at in public). The Dagan-Diskin alliance was a plus in curbing military adventurousness toward Iran but a minus when Diskin collaborated with Dagan in a reign of terror in and around the Mossad by playing on the legal establishment’s fear and respect for the almighty spy agency. It would have been possible to keep Zygier isolated in a Shin Bet safe-house, if not a Mossad “guesthouse.” There was no reason to impose a preliminary punishment on him, which ended up being a death sentence.

The investigation of the cause of Zygier’s death by the Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai has concluded. Following the inquiry, it appears that at most a criminal or disciplinary hearing will be held for mid-ranking people at Ayalon Prison, such as the major who was the shift supervisor and didn’t diligently keep watch over Zygier during the fateful period when he committed suicide. The two-fold scandal of the Mabhouh affair and the Zygier case in 2010 won’t be investigated at the institutional level. But it should be. Such an investigation need not be conducted in public. It would be enough for it to be led by a judge – and there are Israeli judges with intelligence backgrounds – alongside a former Mossad director and an experienced police officer.

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