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Middle East

Feb 19, 2013

Zygier scandal: the journo in a deadly game of spy v spy

Not much is known about how Australian Ben Zygier ended up dead in a cell in Israel. But some of what we do know comes from a Fairfax journo unwittingly entangled in the spy scandal, writes Tom Hyland.

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What little we know about the life and death of reputed secret agent Ben Zygier reads like the plot of a spy novel. If it were fiction, you might think it improbable — the characters implausible, the stakes too high, the intrigue between supposed allies too treacherous.

What is on the public record is enough to raise questions about the methods of Australian and Israeli intelligence agencies and the rivalry between them — a rivalry in which Zygier appeared to be fatally entangled. We’re unlikely ever to be told the full story. Significant details surrounding events leading up to the death of the Melbourne boy turned Mossad agent are on the public record — yet they risk being lost in the surge of speculation triggered by this case.

The source for these details is Jason Koutsoukis, former Middle East correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a central — if perhaps unwitting — player in Zygier’s sad story. What Koutsoukis has written and told interviewers about this affair raises the suspicion that he was used by ASIO in an operation targeting Zygier and his assumed Israeli spy masters.

Koutsoukis says he was contacted by two Australian intelligence officials in October 2009 when he was based in Israel. They told him in specific detail an extraordinary story. It was one that any reporter with a nose for news would chase.

The officials told him Zygier was one of three men with dual Australian-Israeli citizenship suspected of using Australian passports to spy for Israel in high-risk countries like Iran, Syria and Lebanon. They gave details — people, places, the name of a front company.

The way Koutsoukis has told it, this was not a chance encounter at a diplomatic cocktail party between a spook and a correspondent, where both trade tidbits of gossip. According to Koutsoukis, the Australian officials sought him out, to alert him to their suspicions in a series of conversations.

Given the sensitivity of what they were doing, let’s assume the officials acted with approval from the highest levels in Canberra. Why would officials in one of the federal government’s most publicity shy agencies, based in one of the most murderous regions in the world, seek out a journalist and share with him what must have been classified information, including the names of people who were the targets of an Australian counter-espionage operation?

People speak to journalists when they want to get news out. In this case, the likely motive is they wanted Koutsoukis to report their suspicions, so as to warn Zygier and Mossad to stop entangling Australia in Israel’s high-stakes secret operations.

“What are the chances the internal review into this tragedy, ordered by Foreign Minister Bob Carr, will answer any of these questions?”

Like the news hound he is, Koutsoukis followed the trail. In early December 2009 he called Zygier, who dismissed the line Koutsoukis had been given. At the time he made this call the game of spy versus spy was about to turn nasty.

Mossad was planning an operation targeting a senior Hamas official who was assassinated in Dubai the following month. The team that carried out the killing had Australian and other non-Israeli passports.

At this stage — January 2010 — Koutsoukis had still not reported the suspicions that the Australian officials had shared with him three months earlier. But the Hamas killing, and the diplomatic fallout that ensued once the Australian passport connection was revealed, gave the story the momentum it needed.

Koutsoukis has told interviewers that when he called Zygier in mid-January, his earlier measured denials were replaced with a tone of increasing exasperation. Given all that was going on around him, it’s safe to assume that having to deal with a pesky reporter was not the sole source of Zygier’s agitation.

Koutsoukis says his last conversation with Zygier took place in early to mid-Febuary 2010, when Zygier told him to “f-ck off”.

The journalist’s first story on the affair, not naming Zygier, appeared in Fairfax papers on February 27, 2010. Koutsoukis may not have known this, but just three days earlier Australian intelligence had been informed, by Israeli intelligence, that Zygier had been arrested. He remained in secret and anonymous detention for 10 months until he is said to have killed himself in a cell that is described as suicide-proof.

Based on what Koutsoukis has written and said about this case, he has simply done what any smart journalist would have done in similar circumstances: followed leads pointing to an important news story.

So here are some local questions that go beyond how and why Zygier died. Whose idea was it to use the media in a dangerous tug-of-war between ASIO and Israeli intelligence? Who authorised the release by ASIO officers of classified information to a reporter? Was Zygier compromised by Koutsoukis’ phone calls? Why did the federal government not tell the public that an Australian citizen had died in secret Israeli detention, until the news was reported by ABC television last week?

And what does it say about Australia’s relationship with Israel, a supposed friend, when officials from both sides were unable to end this treacherous stand-off before it reached its fatal conclusion?

One other question: what are the chances the internal review into this tragedy, ordered by Foreign Minister Bob Carr, will answer any of these questions?

*Tom Hyland is a former foreign editor at The Sunday Age

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