Jewish Journal


6 Quick Comments on the Prisoner X Scandal

by Shmuel Rosner

February 13, 2013 | 4:56 am


As all readers should understand, there are limitations to what can be written about the story of the "Australian prisoner who reportedly committed suicide in an Israeli jail in 2010". Quoting Australian television reports, we can say (but not confirm) that the prisoner, Melbourne-native Ben Zygier, was a Mossad agent, that he was arrested and was kept in prison without anyone being informed about it, and that he is now dead- "According to the report on Australia’s ABC television, Zygier went by the alias Ben Alon in Israel. The channel reported he hanged himself in a cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995".

Jodi Rudoren of the NYT summed it up aptly:

"The story had all the trappings of a spy thriller: an anonymous prisoner linked to Israel’s secret service, Mossad, isolated in a top-security wing originally built for the assassin of a prime minister. A suicide — or was it a murder? — never officially reported. A gag order that barred journalists from even acknowledging the gag order. And a code name to rival 007: Prisoner X".

The press loves such stories, and is going to busy itself with this one for a while. As for the public – I'm not sure whether the public really cares.


One should know that in stories of this sort people usually play the roles they are used to playing. Without naming names or giving too much detail I believe I could comfortably say that:

  • Security officials tend to try to keep things secret where it's necessary but also where it's not. They also try to keep things secret where they have a realistic chance of succeeding but also where they don't.
  • The courts tend to be slow in understanding what they can and can't control by way of censoring public debate and limiting public knowledge.
  • The Israeli press is of two minds: it wants to be kept in the loop – but also wants to hype the scandal. Scandals are good for ratings, and fighting the evil forces of censorship is good for journalistic morale.
  • The foreign press is the great laundry factory through which stories are disseminated – some true, some half-true, some false.
  • As we all know, junior politicians would use anything to draw attention, and with such stories there are two ways of doing this: One is leaking, hinting, provoking, and wearing the mantle of 'Knights of human-rights'; the other is denouncing and inciting against those knights and wearing the mantle of patriotic 'Knights of national-security'.
  • Senior politicians just want to distance themselves from the story. There's nothing they can benefit from being associated with it.


You can usually guess in advance which media outlets are more likely to be receptive to the requests of officials and keep these stories under control, and which are more likely to over-hype it (the Israeli press went nuts this morning with the story). They all have roles to play: the insider, the rebel, the righteous, the mature, the knowledgeable, the dissenter. Just remember that the insiders aren't necessarily cooperating with evil-forces, and that the rebels aren't necessarily as brave as they'd want you to think. The press in Israel is free, and journalists – even the more provocative ones – don't usually pay a high price for sharing secrets with the public.


Of course, the press loves stories like these for two reasons:

A. The lesser reason: It is a sexy story about the shadowy world of espionage.

B. More importantly: It is a story about the press- the press fighting the establishment, revealing secrets and exposing the dirty secrets of the of the security apparatus.


About those "evil security forces": When they try to prevent the leaking of a story, it seems that they can generally be one of three things-

A. Evil.

B. Truly attempting to guard Israel's security.

C. Just plain dumb.

In other words: security apparatuses can be evil, but might have other motivations as well (and you don't always have to opt for the worst available explanation).


What's going to happen with this story pretty much depends on the reasons for which Prisoner X was in prison. If it turns out– and this is of course speculation – that Prisoner X was mistakenly arrested and then committed suicide without anyone having a chance to save him from this fate, then public demand for investigation is going to grow and the story will not go away. If, on the other hand, Prisoner X did something really bad – like spying for the enemy or something of the sort – then the public won’t care as much about the story as the press does at the moment.

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