Have you heard about Israel's Prisoner X affair? I can't tell you about it, because it's secret. Actually, I will tell part of the story in a few moments, because secrets do get out, or at least pieces of secrets.
First, I'll mention that the official mechanism for keeping the media in the dark was once more blatant. In my early days in Israeli journalism, in the mid-1980s, I was a night news editor at the Jerusalem Post. Every night we had to send anything related to defense and security to the military censor's office. We'd get it back either approved or with some sections blue-penciled or, on rare occasions, with the whole article censored. The process turned nerve-wracking when U.S. intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard was arrested as an Israeli spy in 1985. Because of the seven-hour time difference with Israel, the Post's Washington correspondent, Wolf Blitzer, filed every night at the last moment. We would design one front page with his story at the top, and another without it, in case we couldn't publish enough. When we got the article, it was usually too late to send it by messenger to the censor, so an editor would read it over the phone to the duty officer. One night, the officer said "No!" a bit louder after every paragraph till he was shouting at me. As I recall, there wasn't enough of the article left to publish.
Those were the bad old days. The chummy relations between newspaper editors and the government, a leftover from pre-independence times when the press saw itself as part of the national struggle, have since faded away. In 1989, Israel's Supreme Court sharply reduced—though did not eliminate—the powers of the military censor. Henceforth, the censor could only block publication of material posing "a near-certain threat to state security." The major problem today is the implausible ease with which courts issue gag orders at the request of security agencies. "Alternative censorship has been created by means of the courts," leading legal commentator Moshe Negbi charged this week. A small news item about a media organization challenging a court order is the seismic tip-off of a major scandal about to erupt. All of this seems obsolete when any Israeli can read foreign news sites, blogs, and tweets anytime he wants.
Gag orders are central to the Prisoner X affair. At first glance, the case proves that in the Internet era, secrecy is obsolete. At a second look, it shows that even now, the public gets only part of the picture, and the part we get should be treated with healthy uncertainty.
On Tuesday, reports appeared in the Israeli media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to resurrect government-media collaboration with a panicked request that the country's top editors meet at his office so he could ask them to help suppress a security scandal. In the Knesset, it was reported, a legislator asked Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman about an Australian news story that an Australian had died in an Israeli ultra-high-security prison in 2010. This, in turn, revived interest in an item that appeared on an Israeli news site three years ago and then vanished, an item about a Prisoner X being held in solitary confinement, whose name, imprisonment, and alleged crime were all being kept secret.
Since Tuesday, while gag orders on the case have remained in place in Israel, citizens have watched details come out abroad, especially in Australia: The man's name was originally Ben Zygier. He was from Melbourne, had moved to Israel at age 24 and become a dual citizen, changed his name to Ben Alon, married, and had kids. He'd also apparently become a Mossad operative, and returned to Australia to get a new passport under the name Ben Allen, which would not identify him as a Jew while using the papers of an innocuous country to travel to Iran or in the Arab world.
Yesterday, as pressure grew, the Israeli Justice Ministry sent journalists a fresh court decision releasing shards of information: An unnamed dual national had been arrested and held under an alias for security reasons. His family was informed and he had lawyers representing him. He died in prison. A coroner's inquest held behind closed doors ruled his death a suicide, and a judge ordered an investigation of possible negligence by the prison service. Obliquely, the court decision also confirmed an online report that he hadn't yet been tried, but was negotiating a plea bargain.
You can see why a government might find this embarrassing. On a foreign-relations level, the affair renews attention to the Mossad using friendly countries' passports. On a human-rights level, it raises the harsh question of how somebody can be secretly jailed—essentially disappeared. It also raises the question of why the government is still hobbling coverage, especially when the effort appears useless.
As an aside, the particulars of this scandal are Israeli. The practice of violating human rights in the name of security is more universal. Were an American diplomat to confront an Israeli one over the case, the latter could respond, "Gitmo. Renditions. Drones. Clean your own house," but diplomats don't say such things.
There are a lot more questions about the affair itself. What was Zygier-Alon's alleged offense? If he was charged with working for an another country, or handing over secrets, why did his arrest have to be hushed up? Arrests of spies have been publicized in the past. Was the goal preventing a public tiff with Australia, or even hiding Australian acquiescence? This week Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr first denied his department had known about the arrest, then confirmed some officials had been informed, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. Was Canberra part of the cover-up? On the other hand, how did the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's reporter get to the case? Who provided all the unattributed details, and why?
The most logical hypothesis about the disappearance of Zygier-Alon is that the Mossad (if indeed that was his employer) believed the very fact of his arrest could endanger ongoing operations, and perhaps agents in the field, if it got out. There's a very rough parallel to the Pollard case here: One explanation raised for the U.S. government's consistent refusal to reduce Pollard's highly unusual life sentence is that he knows things that could still compromise U.S. intelligence activity, perhaps even sources who are still out there.
But don't expect to know for sure what happened in the Prisoner X case, even though much more will be published. When intelligence officials give information to the media, they do so for a reason, and the reason is not the public's right to know. Information—and misinformation—are tools of the trade. The documents that could fill in the blanks will remain out of researchers' reach. Israeli archival regulations keep the files of intelligence agencies classified for 70 years. That's unusually strict. In the United States, the maximum for keeping documents secret is 25 years—but there's a long list of exceptions, including papers that would "demonstrably impair" foreign relations. I haven't seen Australia's regulations, but I suspect that if Canberra has material that gets to the heart of this affair, it won't be declassified soon.
In the midst of this, the tentative itinerary for President Obama's visit to Israel has been released. Thank heavens that not everything's secret. On the first afternoon, the schedule includes a meeting with a "small delegation" of officials to discuss Jonathan Pollard. That means another request to free him. Obama could say, "Prisoner X, disappearance, gag orders. Clean your own house," but he's too diplomatic for that.