This article was originally published on IsraelSpy.com and edited for CBSNews.com.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a half-hour report on February 12 that identified a so-called "Prisoner X" in Israel, a man jailed in secrecy and found hanged in 2010, as an Australian-Israeli dual citizen who was born in Melbourne. The scoop was scored by Trevor Bormann for the Australian ABC series "Foreign Correspondent" and revealed that the mysterious inmate was an undercover Mossad operative named Ben Zygier.
A recent follow-up by Bormann suggests that the late Zygier's alleged crime stemmed from spilling Israeli secrets to his native country's intelligence agency, the Australia Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). Bormann's original report was unable to establish what Zygier -- who renamed himself Ben Alon after moving to Israel, and is said to have used other names -- may have done to anger his bosses at the Mossad.
Would Israel's security authorities -- both in the Mossad and in the domestic security agency Shin Bet -- lock up one of their own covert operatives, on suspicion of revealing secrets to a basically friendly country such as Australia? Would such an arrest be kept totally secret, with a judge issuing a gag order to ensure that the Israeli news media would never mention the case?
The answer is yes. If, as the new report by Bormann suggests, the Mossad had an ongoing operation against Iran, then silencing any leaks would be a high priority. Based on precedents, one may speculate that Israel would not kill or imprison forever such a person. Keeping him out of the picture for a few years would suffice from an operational point of view, and Israeli prosecutors and judges might add more prison time for punishment and to deter other Mossad people from spilling secrets.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is calling on "everyone" to stop revealing information about the case. As translated by Joel Greenberg of the Washington Post:
The security and intelligence forces of Israel act under the full supervision of the legal authorities... In this combination of maintaining security and abiding by the law, freedom of speech is also maintained -- but overexposure of security and intelligence activity can damage, sometimes even seriously damage, national security."
Netanyahu added -- and referenced what makes Israeli intelligence and its challenges so unique: "We are not like other countries. We are more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we must maintain proper activity of our security agencies. So I ask everyone: Let the security forces carry on their work quietly, so we can continue living in security and tranquility in the State of Israel.
Many intelligence and defense commentators in Israel who were gagged from mentioning the case in any way for over two years are critical, now, of government authorities who seem to be ignoring the fact that information circulates around the world in the internet age. Until last week, the judicial order prevented Israeli newspapers, radio, and TV from even repeating what Australian television had said -- even though Israelis could read it on many websites.
The co-author of books I've written about Israeli intelligence, Yossi Melman, comments, "If authorities try to treat every piece of information as though it's top secret, then they'll lose the ability to protect the things that really should be kept secret."