Israeli Security Officials Speak to TIME of Their Own Snowdens

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Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu in the grounds of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem on March 14, 2005

In Israel, the headlines call Edward J. Snowden “the American Vanunu,” which perhaps sounds like an island nation in the South Pacific. Mordechai Vanunu is the Israeli man who in 1986 left his job at the nuclear power complex, carrying with him photographs and papers indicating something that up to that point had been widely rumored but never proved: that Israel possesses nuclear weapons.

Like Snowden, Vanunu left his home country before sharing his cache of documents with a British newspaper.

Unlike Snowden, he did not then remain spectacularly at large.

Even before the London Sunday Times got its story (“Revealed: The secrets of Israel’s nuclear arsenal”) into print, Israeli intelligence had lured Vanunu to a Rome apartment where Mossad agents overpowered him, injected him with a paralyzing drug and carried him to a beach in an embassy van disguised as an ambulance. A waiting speedboat shuttled him to an Israeli naval vessel disguised as a merchant ship, anchored just inside international waters. The day after publication he arrived in Israel, where he served 18 years in prison, and still is not allowed to talk to foreigners.

But you’ll hear no Israeli tongues clucked as the American Vanunu hopscotches around the globe, just beyond the reach of a mightily peeved U.S. government. Israel’s own security establishment has been embarrassed too often itself to rub salt in the wounds of its most valued ally. “This kind of thing can happen,” an Israeli intelligence official tells TIME. “It happened to them. It’s happened to us.”

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More than once. Within months of Vanunu’s expose, a Mossad case officer named Victor Ostrovsky left the spy agency and set to writing By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer. The book details an array of unsavory events, including heroin trafficking to raise funds. Israel was so alarmed by its contents that it took extraordinary step of seeking an injunction against its publication in the U.S. — and succeeded, if only for 48 hours. Then the Manhattan judge was overruled by an appeals court, and the resulting publicity helped boost it to the top nonfiction position on the New York Times best-seller list.

“There is no system that would give 100% protection from this kind of thing,” says the intelligence official, one of three who spoke with TIME about the Snowden affair, all on the condition they not be identified. “To professional people here it was not a surprise.”

Israel takes considerable pride in its security services, whose reputation for effectiveness — if not omniscience — is counted as a force multiplier even for a small nation accustomed to punching above its weight. But Israeli intelligence runs the same risks other countries’ face, and serving a democracy with a largely unfettered press is accustomed to seeing its embarrassments become public.

The Jewish state even has its own version of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private now on trial for downloading hundreds of thousands of secret documents and passing them to WikiLeaks in 2010. Two years earlier, Anat Kamm, a private in the Israeli Defense Forces, downloaded 2,000 documents from a computer at the Home Front Command and passed them on to a reporter for the leading daily Haaretz, which printed a story alleging commanders were ignoring a Supreme Court ban on targeted killings of Palestinian militants who could be safely arrested. Kamm was sentenced to four and half years for espionage and the Israeli army altered its computers so none can accept a thumb drive or disk.  (The Mossad’s never could.) The reporter, Uri Blau, was sentenced to community service.

And this year brought the Prisoner X scandal, which began with the word that a disgraced Mossad agent had hanged himself in the solitary cell of a prison wing he had entirely to himself. As the case unfolded, the agent was identified as Ben Zygier, an Australian-born “combatant,” as Mossad calls operatives who put themselves at risk in the field, who had apparently told several people what he did for a living, including intelligence officials for the Canberra government, who were grilling him over his numerous passports. Western intelligence officials tell TIME Zygier’s indiscretion caused the Israelis to abruptly abandon several ongoing operations and recall agents who might have been in danger. A Knesset inquiry reportedly found “serious systemic failure” in the agency’s recruitment and handling of Zygier, who was 34 when he died.

The Prisoner X case pivoted on the same issue that drives all the other exposures: trust, and how to divine its presence or absence in the human beings who work in intelligence agencies. The Israeli security service veterans who spoke with TIME emphasized the importance of vetting new hires and monitoring employees once they’re on board. The officials said they were not alarmed by the information or methods Snowden has revealed so far, like the PRISM program that routinely vacuums up vast amounts of user data from services like Google. “Every terrorist is living under the assumption that the Americans or others are trying to get them through mobiles or computers,” says one official.

But Snowden was a system administrator, with far greater access NSA computers than almost anyone else, and the Israelis assume there is more to come. “The big question,” the official says, “is how much more he knows and hasn’t revealed so far.”


@MaxBlumenthal @karl_vick I was lucky enough to meet Vanunu back in '05 in Jerusalem. He's as humble as he is resolute.

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YehudaElyada 1 Like

Vanunu isn't a Whistleblower. He is an old fashioned traitor who did his best to betray his country secrets after vowing to keep them undisclosed forever. He took the vows in order to get a well paid job in a top secret facility, run by the defense establishment clearly designated as center for nuclear defense research. He disclosed the information after being estranged from the Israeli society, emigrating and roving overseas, converting to Christianity and being seduced by a British newspaper with far more than 30 pieces of gold. His actions were crimes against a country that gave him a chance to conduct a free and secure life within reasonable restrictions of loyal behavior. Israel has no obligation to satisfy anyone's curiosity regarding its nuclear status, as it's not a signatory to the relevant international treaties. The government of Israel has legal rights to designate the relevant information Top Secret and impose legal sanctions on its employees who break the implied regulations. The Israeli government decision to "fog" the issue of nuclear capabilities was taken in strict adherence to the country laws, in a democratic process, and reaffirmed again and again by some dozen different cabinets, under Left and Right prime ministers. No single citizen has the right to judge this decision unbinding, especially not one who took the vow of secrecy of his free will. On one can claim that his sense of moral is above the considerations of a democratically elected government operating within its sphere of authority. Frustrating the actions of a legitimate government in a highly sensitive homeland security subject is treason. Vanunu might feel morally superior to the average Israeli citizen, but his self-centered prosecution feelings do not make him a God send evangelist of latter days, nor do they put him beyond the reach of courts of laws of the country he has betrayed.


@TIME @TIMEWorld (Israeli security) I want to see people around the world reading about Israeli wikileaks, for once almost. TY

wearewideawake 1 Like

@ClassicalMp3sic @TIME @TIMEWorld We are at TNT formerly known as FREE Mordechai Vanunu until we got hacked!


@wearewideawake @TIME @TIMEWorld Thank you Eileen. But I was talk about "todays" "Israeli security", no one there wants to be a world hero?


@wearewideawake Poor man, wish he will be free. But, I know by my own mind the ipotetic plans to anex Middle East to Israeli empire.Hope not


@wearewideawake Ouch! I don't know how awful is liberty in some places, but people are everywhere and information is not read by robots only

EileenFleming 1 Like

Today, Vanunu wrote: "Just to let you know, the police had questioned me twice in last months.for meeting foreigners, April 21 and June 23, about why I am continuing to meet foreigners. I told them, 27 years in israel prison is enough time for israel to end this case 1986-2013. My lawyer Avigdor Feldman writing new appeal to the court against the restrictions not to leave the country, soon he will send it to the court. Freedom Now Firsrt-FNF. VMJC "

Adam_Smith 2 Like

Information leaks are an emotional issue for the officials responsible for instituting, authorizing and enforcing the security measures intended to prevent them. It is clear that the treatment of leakers, (at least those who are not themselves highly placed politicians), is not designed to simply meet the requirements of the law, or even the requirements of security, but the requirements of revenge.

EileenFleming 2 Like

Correction required RE: Vanunu "still not allowed to talk to foreigners."

On November 24th, 2006 Vanunu wrote:

"My lawyer succeeded to reveal a few very important facts: This General of the Army also was not allowed to see all the secrets that he is required to protect by these restrictions that they claim I know them. So, he gave orders of restrictions without knowing what he is protecting or that he is also following orders blindly, and Mossad Sheen Bet using its authority for just punishing me.

"He testified that it is not a crime for me to talk with foreigners in general anywhere. He testified that I can speak freely to any Israeli citizens about anything; it is not his concern what I am saying to them. These Israelis can give this information to any foreigners. It was difficult for the Judge to understand why this dichotomy exits between foreigners and Israelis. It means that it is not about secrecy but about something else."

In 2004, Yossi Melman wrote for Haaretz:

"This is the secret that hasn't yet been told in the affair: the story of the security fiasco that made it possible for Vanunu to do what he did, and the story of the subsequent attempts at cover-up, whitewashing and protection of senior figures in the defense establishment, who were bent on divesting themselves of responsibility for the failure...

russello 1 Like

Mordechai Vanunu's treatment has nothing to do with security. It is all about revenge. He has absolutely no current information about Israel's nuclear stockpile. However, his constant forced presence in Jerusalem serves as a reminder to the world that Israel has never owned up to its own nuclear arsenal, but wants the rest of the world to prevent any other nation from arming itself to deter Israel's use of these weapons.