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Ron Ben-Yishai  

 

ASIO 'burned' Zygier

Analysis: Australian intelligence agency's conduct played key role in Mossad operative's decision to commit suicide

Published: 02.17.13, 12:10 / Israel Opinion

Ben Zygier was a victim. From details that have already been published by British and Australian media we learn that he was a victim of his own personality and also of the over-enthusiasm and lack of caution on the part of his handlers in Israel. Most infuriating is the fact that people who worked for the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) purposely got the Mossad operative in hot water and indirectly contributed to his decision to commit suicide.

 

According to the details that have surfaced so far, Zygier and two of his colleagues, who were also born in Australia and held Australian citizenship, were recruited to Mossad at the beginning of the last decade. After a few years of service in Europe, the three were sent back to Australia to obtain new, authentic passports. Australian law allows a person to change his name and have a passport issued under the new name every calendar year. The three took advantage of this law, ASIO claims, to obtain a number of passports under various names that concealed their Jewish identities and presented them as Australians with an Anglo-Saxon background.

 

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Zygier, for instance, had four passports issued during the four years he had spent in Australia. The Australians claim Mossad needed these passports to allow fighters and spies to enter enemy states such as Iran and Syria and carry out missions under false identities. Apparently Zygier and his friends were not sent on missions in these "target states" themselves, but their passports were used by other people who operated under assumed names. Zygier was not in Dubai, as the Kuwait newspaper claimed.

 

These events occurred at the time of the al-Aqsa Intifada, when Mossad increased its activity regarding the monitoring and thwarting of the Iranian nuclear program, and at the same time prevented the smuggling of weapons and terror attacks initiated by Iran – such as the transfer of arms and aid to Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian organizations. This activity increased significantly after then-prime minister Sharon appointed Meir Dagan as Mossad chief in 2002 and instructed him to focus on Iran.

 

During this time a number of embarrassing work accidents occurred that angered some of Israel's allies. One such incident occurred in 2004 in New Zealand, one of Australia's closest allies. Another incident was the assassination of Mabhouh, Hamas' smuggler, during which it was revealed that Mossad operatives made extensive use of authentic passports belonging to Jews, including Australian Jews - at least this is what the Dubai police chief claimed. During this time, the ASIO also claimed that an Israeli diplomat from the embassy in Canberra took advantage of romantic relations to gather information on the activities of the Australian government. The diplomat, Amir Laty, was deported from Australia in 2005. Against this background, Australian government offices were apparently instructed to raise their level of alertness regarding Israeli activity to gather information, and in 2009 the government office in charge of issuing passports warned of the frequent name changes by Zygier and his colleagues.

 

The warning was relayed to ASIO, which apparently began to follow the three and later summon them for questioning. According to Australian newspaper The Age and another newspaper based in Brisbane, Zygier became the main suspect following things he said during the interrogation or due to details revealed by one of his colleagues. However, this occurred before the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Australia that broke out following the Mabhouh assassination. Seemingly, there was no reason for Australia to act against Zygier because he did not commit any acts of espionage on its soil or collect any information on the country.

 

The ASIO is tasked only with foiling subversive and terrorist activity against Australia. Apparently, the intelligence agency had no evidence indicating that the passports issued for Zygier were used illegally. It is also possible that the Australian government chose to turn a blind eye for the benefit of the close ties between Mossad and ASIS, Australia's intelligence agency that operates overseas.

 

But at least some ASIO officials apparently had their own agenda, and they were not willing to give up on the Israeli prey so easily – perhaps due to frustration, damaged professional pride or simply because they were anti-Israel. Or maybe they realized that Zygier was the weak link in the story and thought that more pressure would break him and cause him to reveal all of his activities on behalf of Mossad. It appears that the two other Australian Jews who were interrogated did not disclose enough information, prompting the ASIO to use the media as a tool to apply more pressure.

 

The plan was to have the media attack Zygier in order to convince him that his activities had been exposed and there is no point in getting in trouble with the Australian authorities by continuing to conceal them. The ASIO investigation was launched in the summer of 2009. Mabhouh was assassinated in February 2010. At the end of that month The Age published an article on how three young Israelis holding Australian citizenship were given passports with false names which they used to enter Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

 

The reporters who wrote the article were Jason Koutsoukis and Jonathan Pearlman, who had visited Israel for work and were familiar with the Israeli scene. Koutsoukis did not try to hide the fact that their source was an Australian intelligence officer. To justify the surveillance of the Jews with the dual citizenship, reporters were told that as a student, Zygier was in contact with students from Saudi Arabia and Iran. The reporters were essentially being told that Zygier was spying for Israel on Australian soil and should therefore be followed.

 

Zygier was in Israel when the Australian intelligence officer leaked the information to Koutsoukis. According to all accounts, he returned to Israel willingly and even reported to his superiors in Mossad that he was interrogated in Australia. It is safe to assume that he also informed Mossad that his colleagues had been questioned as well. But even before the Mabhouh assassination, Koutsoukis called Zygier and asked about the passports and his activity in the service of Mossad. Koutsoukis claims an "anonymous source" in Israel gave him Zygier's phone number. It is entirely possible that this source was not Israeli.

 

In any case, in his conversation with the reporter Zygier denied working for Mossad, but Koutsoukis got the impression that Zygier would eventually tell him the entire story. The reporter continued to call, and Zygier may have softened and told him of his work for the Israeli intelligence agency.

 

At a certain point it was decided that there was enough evidence to justify an arrest and an investigation. The rest is known. Zygier was held in isolation under an assumed name because the names on the various passports, including his real name, were known. Zygier was not a senior Mossad operative. It is not surprising that Zygier, a passionate Zionist, could not bear the guilt and committed suicide. He did not betray the country; he simply could not live up to his own expectations and those of his family and his surroundings. The burden became too heavy for his tormented soul.

 

The question is why ASIO leaked the story to the press. By doing so, the agency knew it was "burning" an Australian citizen and putting at risk the life of a colleague from a friendly intelligence service that assisted Australia, directly and indirectly. Did the ASIO receive authorization to leak the story, or was it a vengeful anti-Israeli act initiated by one or several people in the agency who acted independently? Why do people from within the Australian intelligence community continue to leak details on Zygier's actions to this day?

 

One of the leaked details was the fact that Zygier and his colleagues worked for a communications company that was based in Italy and sold electronic goods to Iran. Is it these same people who brought this old story back to the headlines? An ABC reporter claims the source was Israeli, but there are reasons to believe that an Australian, or Australians, also had a hand in the preparation and publication of the article. We may never know the answers to these questions, but it is clear that at least one Australian intelligence organization played a significant role in the tragedy of Zygier and his family.

 

 

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