Knesset Panel on Prisoner X: 'Serious Systemic Failure' in Mossad's Handling, Recruitment of Zygier

Inquiry committee examined what led up to the death of Ben Zygier in an Israeli prison cell in 2010, however, most of those involved in recruiting him to the Mossad are no longer in the Israeli intel agency.

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An inquiry panel from the Subcommittee for Intelligence of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has determined that the process of recruiting Ben Zygier to the Mossad, as well as the course of his handling in the organization, constituted a "serious systemic failure," according to an MK involved in the draft copy of the panel's report. The MK spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

On February 17, five days after the Australian Broadcasting Company broadcast about Ben Zygier – Prisoner X – the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee announced its Subcommittee for Intelligence would conduct "an intensive examination of all the aspects of the affair of the prisoner who was found dead in his cell in December 2010."

The inquiry panel was headed by MK Aryeh Deri of Shas, who was joined by former Shin Bet security services chief MK Yaakov Perry of Yesh Atid, and MK Zeev Elkin of Likud. Committee Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman also participated in some of the panel's discussions. After the formation of the new government on March 18 the composition of the committee changed, because some of its members were appointed ministers or deputy ministers.

Last week Israel's Ch2 Knesset reporter Amit Segal reported on Channel 2 that the committee would criticize "the manner in which Zygier was recruited and handled." Israel journalist Ben Caspit reported in Sof Hashavua, the Hebrew-language magazine of the Jerusalem Post group, that some of the MKs criticized the fact that Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo did not give them precise details regarding the failure to report Zygier's arrest to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in real time. The committee heard testimony from Pardo and other senior Mossad members, Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen and senior members of his organization, leading Prison Service officials and Zygier's attorneys, Roy Blecher, Moshe Mazor and Boaz Benzur.

It is still unclear when the inquiry will submit the summary report, whose draft version is ready. An MK who was involved in the work of the panel told Haaretz that the draft maintains that there were "systemic failures" in the process of recruiting Zygier to the Mossad and in his handling afterwards. Another MK who was involved noted that the main failure lay with the Mossad's personnel department and those responsible for selecting and screening candidates. He said Pardo admitted these failures in his testimony before the committee, but emphasized that there has been a significant reform in selection and screening methods since 2003, when Zygier was recruited to the Mossad.

The committee is not expected in its summary report to point to guilty parties or individuals in the Mossad who are personally responsible. One of the MKs noted that the affair started and ended before Pardo or Cohen took up their positions.

The MK says that "most of those involved in the affair who were responsible for the failures are no longer on active service in the Mossad." One of the MKs noted that every one of the representatives of the organizations that appeared before the panel claimed that his organization was not the one responsible for Zygier's death in the isolation cell in Ayalon Prison. "Everyone blamed the Prison Service," he said.

Two MKs said that the committee had ruled that there was nothing amiss about Zygier's conditions of imprisonment and that keeping him in isolation was reasonable and was carried out under proper supervision of the State Prosecutor's Office and the attorney general. They said that Zygier's attorneys also testified to the committee that they did not oppose the imprisonment conditions. A significant portion of the inquiry panel discussions deals with the Mossad's handling of the media from the moment it learned of the Australian Broadcasting Company's intention of airing the report on the subject.

The panel discovered during its work that the Mossad knew about the anticipated broadcast about a week before it was aired on Australian television. However, the Mossad took no steps ahead of the broadcast, other than relying on the gag order that was issued after Zygier's arrest two years earlier. One of the MKs said that Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo admitted to the committee that the Mossad's handling of the media was wrong, and said that he hadn't properly assessed the widespread coverage of the affair in the Israeli and international media.

During the panel's discussions several MKs claimed, to the Mossad chief among others, that the Mossad should have hired a special media adviser to handle the crisis even before it was publicized. The MKs maintained that the Mossad does not adapt its work to the present media reality, as opposed to the Shin Bet, which several years ago implemented a reform in its handling of the media. Some of the MKs told Pardo that the Mossad must seriously consider appointing a spokesperson for the organization, which would be a first since its establishment. 

The mock-up of Ben Zygier's passport.Credit: Screenshot ABC
Ben Zygier's grave.Credit: AP

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