tip off

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.

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

10
  • 1
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    And of course it raises numerous questions about Israel’s justice system.

    Zygier’s suicide looks suspicious if not unlikely. Even if he did die ‘by his own hand’, Zygier was held in such inhumane conditions that he could barely be held responsible for his acts let alone thinking that he may have exercised anything like free will.

  • 2
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    This story has so many more questions, all dealing with this country’s subservience to the Israeli government being one (whichever side of the political divide). Alex Downer was on the ABC today trying to explain how the Israeli government used Australian Passports (no explanation of how wrong this is in so many ways), and he carried the piece of limp lettuce he scolded the Israeli Foreign Minister with in 2010. It was the stuff cringing is made of, lickspittle that he is.
    At least the current government sent back one of their consular staff.
    The other question is; allowing dual nationality for nationals returning to the mother country to spy for a foreign government…just what nationality was Zygier?
    Travelling to the Middle east? Don’t present an Australian passport and expect to have the identity accepted on face value I would suggest.

  • 3
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    WEll we know that Australian citizens will not be helped by Australia at any time except if they are young and pretty girls, and that didn’t even help Corby.

    Being an Australian citizen is not worth the stat. dec. it is printed on.

  • 4
    Robbob
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Julian Assange knows all about abandonment by the Australian Government as well. The Australian intelligence community has not lived up to its nomenclature in this case, it seems.
    Going overseas ? My advice is stay at home……

  • 5
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Lord Bunter of Baghdad also referred to the use of Oz p/p in the “..assassination of the Palestinian..” with that sneering tone with which his then colleague the Cadaver referred to a suffering child behind the wire as “it”.
    Such charming types and, if polls are to be believed, the left overs and dregs of the Rodent’s regime are due to resume their Born-to-Rule right, after this distressing, democratic, interregnum.

  • 6
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Dual citizenship has always been a tricky policy, with many foreseen pitfalls about conflict of loyalties.
    St Paul said it first: it is not possible serve two masters at the same time.
    The best outcome would be to abolish dual citizenship, even though that will cause an outcry from the usual suspects.

  • 7
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 20 February 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Out of curiosity, for those in other states, how long did it take your local Limited News fanchises to show an interest in this “ABC/Fairfax initiated report”?
    Up here in Qld; our Curry or Maul took a few days to get aroused.

  • 8
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Wednesday, 20 February 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Note to the Israeli & Australian Governments:

    Show us the CCTV vision of the Zygier killing himself..or stand accused of murdering him.

    Simple really.

  • 9
    Scott Robson
    Posted Thursday, 21 February 2013 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    The problem here is not dual citizenship. One can easily feel like they belong in two places - as someone who has lived away from Australia for over a 1/3 of my life I experience this first hand. The problem is the wisdom of employing someone like Zygier (or myself) in intelligence circles. What intelligence organization would do that?

    Israel risk a lot when they do so. Should they really be surprised if a person like Zygier talks to Australian intelligence if he believes it is for the benefit of his birth country? If they are, they foolishly rely way too much on the strength of Jewry. I would argue that they clearly don’t rely on that strength but instead rely on their ability to catch people who fall through the cracks and then ‘silence’ them in criminal ways. I would also argue that if Australian intelligence knew about his work for Israel the only rational response would be to cancel his passports and revoke his citizenship of Australia. Because that didn’t happen I’m sure ASIS/ASIO had bigger plans for him.

    It’s a dirty game, intelligence. Spy agencies across the world are foolish for employing people with diverse national identity - and act illegally when they try to bury the story (looking at you Israel _and_ Australia).

  • 10
    Chris Williams
    Posted Tuesday, 26 February 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Scott (9) makes good points but I can’t agree that dual citizenship is benign. Your argument that revocation of one’s Australian citizenship should be used once it becomes clear an Australian is working for a foreign government indicates your see a signficant problem but want to wait til it emerges and is known before taking action.

    There is abundant evidence in the US today is that there are many dual US-Israeli citizens in positions of power in the government who work essentially for the interests of Israel and effectively against the interests of the US. they have been able to achieve these positions of power because there has been no proof of this. We need to guard against this eventuality. The decision to allow dual citizenship in Australia to all countries was only introduced on 4 April 2002 (though there had been an earlier period of dual Australian /British dual citizenship as I recall).

    So this is not some venerable old practice - indeed it is not one I recall there being too much national debate about at all! Australians should demand and end to it from parties to the next election.

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