The spy and the reporter: Ben Zygier had contacts with journalist before arrest

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Did Israel suspect Ben Zygier of betraying Israeli intelligence because of conversations with a reporter?

This February 14, 2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview with Beirut-based Australian reporter Jason Koutsoukis suggests his conversations with Zygier in late 2009-early 2010 may have been one reason Israeli intelligence became concerned. While Zygier strenuously denied in the conversations he was a spy, Koutsoukis said, he did speak with the reporter three or four times over the course of two months before his secret arrest; whereas another Australian-Israeli suspected of Mossad links contacted by Koutsoukis cut the reporter off and never spoke with him again.

Zygier’s last conversation with Koutsoukis was in early-mid February 2010, Koutsoukis said. Zygier was arrested around February 23rd, and commit suicide in his prison cell December 15, 2010 during negotiations over a plea bargain.

Transcript excerpts of the ABC Lateline interview below, emphasis added by the Back Channel on details suggesting the conversations with the reporter may have come on radar of Israeli intelligence and possibly contributed to Zygier’s legal predicament:

JASON KOUTSOUKIS: Well, I was contacted in October of 2009 by an Australian intelligence source who wanted to alert me to what he believed was a pattern of Israeli intelligence exploiting Australian law to obtain new sets of identity documents. […]

And one of those people that I was told had been doing this was Ben Zygier. So we began working on the story in October and it took quite a long time to try and firm up different details that I was given and in December I felt I was in a position to try to contact Ben Zygier and I was able to get a number for him in Israel.

I rang that number for the first time, I think, around December 8 or December 7 and I had a conversation with him and that was the first of three or four conversations that we had. […]

And Ben Zygier, he listened to me. It seemed clear to me that he knew who I was, which is unsurprising given that he’s from Melbourne and that I had written for The Age for a long time.

So he listened politely to what I had to say and it was, even to me, an outlandish story, what I was putting to him. And at the end of what I had to say, he responded and denied it as strenuously as he could possibly deny something like that. […]

He was just incredulous and then we wound up the conversation. I found him to be very convincing and then I went away and tried to do more work on the story and it wasn’t until January, mid-January that I contacted him again and in the subsequent conversations that we had he just grew increasingly exasperated at my inability to accept his denials. […]

I had a couple of different sources…to confirm…that these three people had changed their names and that they had used these travel documents to go to ..these sensitive countries, sensitive for Israel, countries such as Iran and Syria, but I could not be sure what exactly Ben Zygier was doing in those countries.

It seemed to me that he was doing some kind of intelligence-gathering, but I couldn’t be more certain than that. And as I’ve said, I found his denials to be very convincing.

TONY JONES: Jason, one of your old colleague at Fairfax, Phil Dorling, has tonight posted a story suggesting that unnamed security officials have said that Zygier may have been about to dump, if you like, on the Israelis […]

JASON KOUTSOUKIS: Well, he certainly didn’t give an indication that he was going to do that to me. But I contacted one of the other people, one of the other names that I’d been given and that person behaved very differently. He didn’t listen to me really at all. He just cut me off and I was never able to contact that person again. Whereas I guess Ben Zygier did listen to what I had to say and he kept taking my calls.

I thought at the time that perhaps Israeli intelligence were aware of our phone conversations. There were a couple of strange incidents that happened around my home in Jerusalem which I didn’t really take seriously at the time, but in hindsight I think, well, it is possible that they were monitoring our conversations and maybe – I can’t remember or pinpoint the exact last time that I spoke to Ben Zygier, but I think it was probably in early to mid-February and so it’s quite possible that they were aware that he was talking to me and became concerned, but really that is just my own speculation. …

Zygier denied the spying allegations to Koutsoukis. But Koutsoukis already had quite a lot of information–names, aliases, methods, shell company information, sensitive countries allegedly visited, etc. — from Australian ASIO and other sources, for a story he was proceeding with. And while Koutsoukis doesn’t say it outright, the fact that Zygier kept talking to him even as he denied Koutsoukis’ claims he had reason to believe Zygier was a spy who had traveled undercover to Iran, Syria, and/or Lebanon, the very fact that Zygier kept listening to him as Koutsoukis pursued his story may have given the claims a kind of credence.

It would not seem implausible that Mossad had ordered Zygier and the others not to speak with the reporter, even to reiterate denials. And that the three or four conversations Zygier had with Koutsoukis from December 7/8, 2009 through mid-February 2010 may have added to authorities’ suspicion of Zygier and where Koutsoukis had gotten his information.

Zygier was secretly arrested around February 23, 2010, and agreed to be held under a “John Doe” alias for national security reasons, reports said. Koutsoukis, presumably unaware of Zygier’s arrest, published his report on the ASIO investigation of Australian-Israelis suspected of Mossad links on February 27, 2010.

Among the interesting details in the piece, Koutsoukis wrote that, according to his sources, one of the three Australian-Israeli dual nationals identified to him as suspected Mossad spies had sought Australian consular assistance in Iran in 2004.

Update: Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in an interview with ABC Monday that he “suspects” Zygier would have had to have committed a “far more serious” betrayal than divulging secrets to Australia’s security services.

Also on Monday, Israel released the previously classified findings into Zygier’s death on December 15, 2010, finding that he commit suicide by hanging himself with a bedsheet in his prison cell bathroom, and that small amounts of tranquilizer were found in his blood.

(Photo of reporter Jason Koutsoukis from ABC’s Lateline.)