Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Prisoner X' Raises Questions About Israel's Secrecy


In Israel the case of Prisoner X is raising new questions about secrecy and censorship. A Mossad agent by the name of Ben Zygier faced secret charges three years ago, was jailed under a false name and committed suicide in prison. From Jerusalem, NPR's Larry Abramson has a story that until recently was kept secret by military censors.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Ben Zygier is not the first person held under a false name in Israel. There was Marcus Klingberg, a high-ranking scientist who was unmasked as a Soviet spy in 1983. Author Michael Sfard says security forces required Klingberg to keep his identity completely secret from his fellow inmates and from guards.

MICHAEL SFARD: He couldn't even disclose to the doctor in the prison that he himself has medical experience and knowledge.

ABRAMSON: Sfard helped Klingberg get released from prison. He says the Israeli government lifted the veil from Klingberg's case and from several others in the 1990s. Even though these secret prisoners had legal representation, Michael Sfard says a secret legal process can never be just.

SFARD: One of the basic principles of a liberal democratic justice system is that a criminal trial is held with the presence of three parties: the defense, the prosecution and the public.

ABRAMSON: These Prisoner X cases are apparently rare, but secrecy is a daily affair here. The country's military censorship system helps decide what Israelis read in the newspaper or hear from TV and radio. Every story must go to the censor if the piece touches on national security issues.

Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Haaretz newspaper, says it actually helps his reporters. Government sources, he says, are much more open with them because of the censor.

ALUF BENN: Because they can play good cop and trust the censor to be the bad cop down the road and stop whatever they were telling you from publication.

ABRAMSON: Benn says his reporters also know they can't face prosecution for passing on sensitive information if the censor gave the OK. The downside, he says, is that people self-censor.

BENN: They know that some stuff will not see the light of day. So why bother even researching it?

ABRAMSON: Benn himself was involved in an important court case years ago that limited the censor's reach. In response, security agencies in Israel have also turned to the courts. They got a legal gag order to silence any leaks about Australian Ben Zygier.

That gag order has only been lifted in part, even though the rest of the world is talking openly about the case. In his cabinet meeting this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still wouldn't talk directly about Zygier. But he justified the exceptional secrecy Israel uses.


ABRAMSON: We are not like other countries, Netanyahu said. We guard the rights of defendants and individual rights no less than any other country. But we are also more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we have to ensure the proper operation of our security branches.

While many Israelis acknowledge those security needs, some are asking what purpose was served by keeping Ben Zygier a secret all this time. Dan Yakir with the Association of Civil Rights in Israel says he heard about the existence of a Prisoner X two years ago.

DAN YAKIR: We addressed the attorney general and raised our concerns about the prisoner being totally isolated from the world.

ABRAMSON: But because of the gag order, Yakir could do nothing else. Instead, Israeli news organizations had to wait years for foreign outlets to put the story together. It will be up to the Israeli media to decide whether to challenge a system that they, and the entire country, have grown up with. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Jerusalem.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.