The US Army’s top lawyer is disputing a critical government report that concluded faith instead of facts drove the investigation of a civilian employee wrongly suspected of spying for Israel.
The report by the Pentagon inspector general found the employee, David Tenenbaum, an Orthodox Jew, was targeted by counterintelligence agents because of his religion. The conclusion vindicated Tenenbaum, who was never charged with a crime and has spent a decade trying to clear his name.
The case demonstrates how difficult it can be to reconcile suspicion and reality within the murky counterespionage world.
Indeed, the Army still maintains it was right to go after Tenenbaum. In a 23-page response to the inspector general’s findings, Army General Counsel Benedict Cohen says that report is filled with errors. It was Tenenbaum’s suspicious behavior and, later, his “deceptive responses” during a lie detector test “that led the Army to conclude he may have been passing classified information to Israel,” according to the response, obtained by The Associated Press.
The investigation of Tenenbaum played out during the mid-1990s, when the shock of major spy scandals was still being felt. In 1985 — dubbed the “Year of the Spy” — more than half a dozen agents were arrested. Among them was Jonathan Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy who was sentenced to life in prison for selling secrets to Israel, a US ally.
By 1995, the Defense Investigative Service, now the Defense Security Service, was warning that Israeli intelligence officers were trying to exploit the “strong ethnic ties to Israel present in the United States.” In that environment, Tenenbaum, who regularly wore a yarmulke and would eat only in kosher restaurants, became a bull’s eye.
Missing from the picture was evidence he had done anything wrong.
Like Steven Hatfill, the government scientist wrongly implicated of masterminding the 2001 anthrax attacks, and Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused of the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Tenenbaum’s guilt was presumed.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, the Army still draws a hard line. There was no religious discrimination, Cohen argues. With a few minor exceptions, the inquiry was done by the book. Tenenbaum is still an engineer at the Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command near Detroit, Cohen adds, proof that he has been treated “fairly and consistently.”
Cohen’s stance in the wake of the inspector general’s withering appraisal has outraged Jewish groups. The Army needs to acknowledge it was wrong, they say, and restore Tenenbaum’s reputation.
“I think this is an attempt at covering their tracks,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York. “Why can they ruin a person’s life on no grounds?”
It is unlikely Tenenbaum will ever get an apology, however. The back and forth indicates Army officials in Washington are more concerned about blocking any future lawsuits he might be contemplating than repairing the personal damage caused by the inquiry.
“It’s a legal strategy,” Scott Silliman, a law professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, said of Cohen’s remarks. “To accept the inspector general’s report opens them up to litigation.”