Opinion | Opinion

Secret prisons: Security run amok

(Miami Herald) While stories about the formidable Mossad, Israel’s parallel of the CIA, endow the agency with a nearly mystical aura, Israelis, ever quick to slaughter a sacred cow, tell this joke:

A Mossad agent is sent to London on a covert mission. His contact in London is a certain Cohen, and the code word for recognizing him is “White Rose.” However, upon arriving at the given address, he realizes that there are three Cohens living in the building. Trying his luck, he pushes the intercom button of the first one and says, “White Rose,” to which a man answers, “Oh, you’re looking for Cohen the spy; he lives on the sixth floor.”

Not so funny was the case of Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew who had supposedly been recruited by the Mossad. Something went wrong, and Zygier, who for unknown reasons may have become more of a burden than an asset to his operators, was incarcerated in 2010 at a secret facility in Israel. The Israeli public knew nothing about this case until earlier this month, when some Knesset members, using their parliamentary immunity, exposed the fact that Zygier, in December 2010, hanged himself in his cell.

The Israeli government reacted clumsily, by calling an urgent meeting of news editors and trying to hush up the story. Of course, it failed. In the world of free social media, once the story is out, there is not much a government can do to suppress it.

Cynics may suggest that the main goal of intelligence agencies is to embarrass their governments.

Indeed, before the troubling case of Zygier, which put a strain on Israeli-Australian relations, there was the 2010 killing in Dubai of Hamas chief Mahmoud al-Mabouh by Mossad agents using passports of several countries. The operation, while achieving its goal of eliminating an arch-terrorist, put Israel in a delicate situation vis-à-vis some of its best allies.

However, the real mission of intelligence agencies and secret services is to protect countries and their citizens from their enemies. Since the enemies become more dangerous and more elusive, fighting them effectively calls for unconventional methods. The issue here is not whether to use such methods, but what restraints a democracy imposes on itself in doing so.

It was the former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who had said that democracy must fight terror with one hand tied behind its back — but one hand only, definitely not two. This implies that yes, sometimes dirty tricks must be used, and freedom of information has its limits; and there must be times when security issues get higher priority than others. The question is how to balance this with core democratic values and human rights, without getting on a slippery slope to a secret security regime.

Curiously enough, for a country which has been facing an existential threat, Israel offers a reasonable answer. Unlike the United States, which overreacted out of rage after 9/11, and “took off the gloves” in imprisoning and interrogating suspects, Israel took a more cautious approach. Even in this instance, it turns out that Zygier’s case was reviewed by a judge, he was in contact with his family and lawyers, and under the veil of secrecy, Israeli human rights organizations were able to express their concerns about him.

What a difference from the grim picture revealed earlier this month by a report of the Open Society Foundation, titled Globalizing Torture, which claims that following 9/11 the CIA developed an international network of kidnapping, detention and torture sites where some 136 people were kept for a time, and that no less than 54 governments collaborated with this sinister scheme.

As the report’s author, Amrit Singh, said on Huffington Post, “(T)he whole point of secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations was to insulate the CIA from any kind of accountability or review.”

Since English is not my mother tongue, I looked at dictionaries and did some research to learn that “rendition is the practice of bypassing due process to seize a suspect in a foreign country and transport him to another country where there is a warrant for his arrest. Extraordinary rendition is the practice of seizing a suspect and transporting him to another country for interrogation, even though he is not wanted for a crime.” I see.

One would expect Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt and such to be on the list of the 54 collaborators, and sure enough, they are. But Austria? Finland, hailed as an example for human rights at their best? Canada? The United Kingdom?

And guess who is not on that inglorious list? Israel, the country most threatened by terror.

I’m keeping that list. The next time the hypocrite Brits criticize Israel in their newspapers, portraying it as a pariah state, I’ll remind them of how they helped the CIA in kidnapping people in the Far East and bringing them to Libya for torture.

Thank God for small graces.

Uri Dromi is the executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club and was the chief spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments. He is a colonel in the Israeli Air Force Reserve and teaches military history at the Command and Staff College.