The real story behind Israel’s ‘Prisoner X’

An investigation by Der Spiegel reveals that Ben Zygier aka “Prisoner X”, who committed suicide while being held in solitary confinement in December 2010, had divulged to Hezbollah the identities of Mossad’s top two informants in Lebanon. As a field agent Zygier had been “neither especially good nor especially bad, just mediocre,” and was thus assigned to a desk job. The story is complicated, but this is what landed the Australian in jail:

Zygier, frustrated by the setbacks and what he felt was a demotion, tried to find new sources — presumably in an effort to rehabilitate himself and prove how valuable he was. According to the investigation, Zygier admitted during several interrogations that, prior to his departure for Australia, he had without authorization met with a Hezbollah associate in Eastern Europe to recruit him as a source.

What Zygier didn’t know: The Hezbollah associate reported the meeting to Beirut and began playing a double game. He persuaded Zygier that he was interested in working with him, but he coordinated every step he took with the Hezbollah intelligence service. Even [Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan] Nasrallah himself was informed.

The contact between Zygier and Hezbollah went on for months, and at some point it was no longer clear who was managing whom as a source. The Lebanese official lured Zygier, and he asked for proof that the Australian was indeed working for the Mossad. The investigation report indicates that Zygier began supplying the Lebanese with intelligence information from Tel Aviv, including information relating to the spy ring of Ziad al-Homsi and Mustafa Ali Awadeh, the Mossad’s two top informants in Lebanon, who were exposed as a result.

When he was arrested, the agents found a CD with additional classified information that was apparently from the Tsomet department [which manages sources and analyses information], say Israeli officials with access to the investigation. Zygier never managed to deliver the CD.

Tel Aviv, early March 2013. “Zygier wanted to achieve something that he didn’t end up getting,” says a senior government official who is familiar with the investigation. “And then he ended up on a precipitous path. He crossed paths with someone who was much more professional than he was.” At some point, says the Israeli, Zygier crossed a red line and went to the dark side.

The Australian government also launched an investigation. If it was true that Zygier had used his passport “for the work of the Israeli intelligence service,” it would raise “significant questions,” a report by the Australian Foreign Ministry reads.

Israeli informants have certainly changed sides in the past. But a regular Mossad employee has never done what Zygier did. It is a bitter defeat for Israel, but for Hezbollah it is one of the rare instances in which an Arab intelligence service prevailed over its Jewish counterpart. Zygier’s betrayal is also a heavy blow to the Mossad because it raises doubts as to the integrity of the agency’s own people — and the manner in which it recruits employees.

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