Engineer David Tenenbaum: Hired because He Knew Hebrew,
Suspected of Espionage because He Was Jewish, Now Suing for Millions
June 1999 - Susan L. Rosenbluth, Editor, The Jewish Voice and Opinion
More than two years ago, David Tenenbaum, a 41-year-old
Orthodox-Jewish chemical engineer who works for the US Army in Detroit,
was investigated by the FBI for allegedly passing classified documents to
Israel. After a 14-month criminal inquiry, which cost the federal
government at least $2 million dollars, he was cleared. The Justice
Department, working in cooperation with the Department of Defense (DoD),
concluded not only that there was insufficient evidence against Mr.
Tenenbaum, but that if there had been any evidence against him at all,
"these agents would have found it."
But that official dismissal seems to have meant nothing to the US
Army. In March of 1998, Mr. Tenenbaum was informed by the army that he
could return to work, but, he soon learned, the military was continuing
its investigation. Mr. Tenenbaum's security classification has still not
"I sit at my desk, but I am unable to do anything meaningful. I
am forbidden to speak with Israelis. My friends in the office where I've
worked for 15 years won't speak to me. They're afraid to be seen in my
company. They all have the feeling I'm guilty but that there's not enough
evidence against me. My career is destroyed. My reputation is ruined.
They're not willing to admit they made a mistake and I'm not a spy.
They're, in effect, pressuring me to quit," he says.
But Mr. Tenenbaum is not a quitter. The Southfield, Michigan
resident has filed suit against the government and against a number of
officials in the American security and defense establishment for $110
Last month, in the first major decision in the suit, Federal
Judge Victoria Roberts ruled against a government motion to have the case
In his suit, Mr. Tenenbaum has accused the government of
maintaining a "Nazi-esque" counterintelligence policy that targets Jews.
Pollard and Ciralsky
Jonathan Pollard, now in his 14th year of a life sentence on
charges of having spied for Israel, and his supporters have long
maintained that anti-Semitism played a role in influencing the way the
government has dealt with him.
Just recently, 28-year-old attorney Adam Ciralsky filed suit
against the CIA, accusing the agency of anti-Semitism which cost the
young lawyer his job. According to his attorney, Neal Sher, Mr. Ciralsky
was placed on leave from the agency in October 1997 because, while
undergoing a routine polygraph exam, he did not disclose visits he and
his family had made to Israel or that his family supported the UJA.
At least one official document seems to back up the charges made
by Messrs. Pollard, Ciralsky, and Tenenbaum. In 1996, the Jewish magazine
Moment published an article about a DoD advisory the publication had
obtained. In it, the DoD warned American defense contractors to keep an
eye out for Israeli spies and their "ethnic" allies.
According to the advisory, "Israel aggressively collects military
and industrial technology" and "the United States is a high priority
collection target." This collection effort has been "very productive," in
part, says the DoD report, because of "the strong ethnic ties to Israel
present in the US."
The report goes on to say that "Israeli personnel are always
seeking to recruit knowledgeable human resources with access" to the
information it wants.
"[Israeli] recruitment techniques include ethnic targeting," the
report says, adding that Israel has also achieved "great success" by
"placing Israeli nationals in key industries."
While the "most highly publicized incident involving Israeli
espionage" is the Pollard case, DoD cites other "documented incidents" of
Israeli industrial spying. According to the report, in one 1986 case,
Israel paid an Illinois-based contractor $3 million for the damage it
The DoD also reports one 1993 source as saying that "Israeli Air
Force personnel have repeatedly gained access to top secret military
research projects by paying off Pentagon employees."
The DoD advisory warns that "US firms engaged in [relevant]
research, development, and manufacturing," may be "high priority
collection targets" of the Israelis.
According to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Israeli defense
personnel serving in the US "have the most explicit and categorical
instructions forbidding them from receiving classified material unless
it's authorized or through official channels established by the two
Hired for Hebrew
Mr. Tenenbaum, an expert in the protection of armored vehicles,
began working for the US Army Tank-Automatic and Armaments Command
(TACOM) in 1984 in Warren, Michigan. Fluent in Hebrew, Mr. Tenenbaum told
his recruiters he had spent time in Israel studying at a yeshiva in
Jerusalem. Mr. Tenenbaum, who also has a black belt in karate, believes
his Hebrew helped him get the job with the agency which coordinates
procurement, storage, and maintenance for tanks and other military vehicles.
"They hired me largely because of my Israeli background. They saw
me as an asset because of my connections with Israel," he says.
As part of his job, Mr. Tenenbaum was sent to Israel for six
weeks to inspect an Israeli project for protecting armored vehicles. His
goal was to ascertain whether it would be useful to the Americans.
"My Hebrew helped me to write programs that were to the benefit
of the US. I learned things that the Israelis freely me about. The
Americans knew there were things to learn from the Israelis' combat
experience," he says.
Saving Time and Money
According to Mr. Tenenbaum, his final report on the project saved
the US a great deal of time and money in research and experimentation.
As time went on, Mr. Tenenbaum met and maintained working
relationships with many Israeli military personnel. His position required
him to visit the Israeli Embassy in Washington, but, he says, each time
he went, it was with the full knowledge of his superiors.
"My job was to be in contact with foreign armor officers,
including Germans, British, and Dutch. Israelis, too, but not
exclusively," he says.
"Entertaining" during Shiva
In the course of its investigation into his activities, the army
accused Mr. Tenenbaum of "entertaining" Israeli military personnel in his
home. According to Mr. Tenenbaum, the visit to which the army referred
was actually a shiva call paid by a member of the Israeli military when
Mr. Tenenbaum's father passed away.
"The Jewish community here is very united and very supportive.
When a Jew arrives here from anywhere in the world, everybody adopts him
as part of the community and helps him out. When the Israeli attaché
arrived and didn't speak English, I helped him become acclimated. When an
officer wanted to make a bar mitzvah for his son but didn't know where, I
arranged it for him in the synagogue. When you have work connections, you
know that you work for the government and you know what the limitations
are. Outside of work, I'm allowed to meet friends any time, at my house
or theirs. Everything was done in the open and with the knowledge of my
superiors," he says.
In retrospect, Mr. Tenenbaum says, there were signs that
something was not right at work by the mid-1990's. During the Gulf War,
his office asked for volunteers. Mr. Tenenbaum responded, but his
superiors said his skullcap was an impediment.
"They said I'd come back in a box," he recalls.
He then volunteered to go to Israel to help protect the operators
of the Patriots missiles. "Some people were afraid to go to Israel, but I
wasn't. I even got a gas mask and all the other equipment. But they never
got back to me," he says.
In 1993, he again asked to go to Israel to participate in an
engineer-exchange program. "But the papers got stuck somewhere again," he
But, Mr. Tenenbaum, he did not suspect anything was wrong. "I was
always different because of the kippah," he says.
During this period, one of his co-workers cautioned him to "be
careful who you work with." When Mr. Tenenbaum asked for clarification,
the co-worker said, "Make sure you're working for the United States and
not for Israel."
"That was a warning posed as friendly advice, but I was naive and
didn't pay much attention to it because I knew I had sworn loyalty to the
US government, something I took very seriously," he says.
In 1996, the project to which he was assigned was not classified
at all. "It was an international program with Israeli and German
participation. Everything was done in the open," he says.
But by the end of 1996, Mr. Tenenbaum asked and was turned down
for permission to travel to Israel or even to a conference in San
Antonio. He did not know it, but the army was already at the height of an
intense investigation against him.
Setting the Trap
In January 1997, the investigators set their trap. Mr. Tenenbaum
was summoned for an interview which they said would raise his security
classification. Although he had not submitted a request for a change in
security clearance, he agreed, he says, in order to be able to perform
Before the interview, he was asked to send them a detailed report
of his entire life history, including everything he had ever done and all
of his meetings. "I did not know that this whole interview had nothing to
do with my promotion. It was meant to trap me. They thought I was a spy,"
During the interview, he was asked about phone calls in Hebrew
that he made from the office. He explained that he often spoke to his
children in Hebrew. He was asked in-depth questions about projects he had
worked on and all of his connections.
After a lunch-break, one of the two investigators said, "Mr.
Tenenbaum, it's hard for me to believe you haven't passed secret
information to Israel."
Shocked, Mr. Tenenbaum believed there had to be a
misunderstanding. "I thought I could convince them. I did not understand
that these men had come with the supposition that I was a spy and that
they were going to prove it," he says. "They didn't want to hear the
truth. They wanted a confession."
According to Mr. Tenenbaum, the investigators then accused him of
espionage and asked for his resignation, which he refused to tender.
"They threatened that if I didn't resign, I would wind up in jail," he says.
They then told him his choices were to take a polygraph exam, be
fired, or go to prison. "I was shocked and angry at the affront to my
integrity and the contempt for the dedicated work I had done for the
army," he says.
Feeling he had no choice, he agreed to submit to the polygraph
exam, which was administered two weeks later. During that time, he told
no one what had happened. "I didn't want to scare my wife, and I felt
certain the polygraph would prove my innocence," he says.
According to Mr. Tenenbaum, the exam was a nightmare. The two
agents arrived with Albert Snyder, a DoD polygraph examiner who
immediately announced that he "knew" Mr. Tenenbaum was a spy and that he
"would break" him.
Mr. Snyder intimated to Mr. Tenenbaum that he was the examiner
who "did" Jonathan Pollard. "He said he 'did' other Jews who gave him a
confession and that he was going to get a confession from me as well,"
says Mr. Tenenbaum.
Mr. Tenenbaum refused. "I thought I was going to leave that
office in handcuffs, but they told me to go home and think about it and
get back to them," he says.
Preparing for Trouble
That night, he told his wife what had happened and that they were
The next morning, a Friday, he arrived at work to discover his
computer had been removed. Soon a group of about a dozen investigators
"Things were said openly now, with all my co-workers standing
around," he says.
The agents told him they had discovered espionage at the plant.
"Am I the spy?" asked Mr. Tenenbaum. He stood up and told them, "If you
want to arrest me, go ahead and arrest me, but, if not, I'm getting out
They told him they were not accusing him of anything, but then
they asked if they could search his house. Mr. Tenenbaum told them that
would be all right.
"I knew I could be arrested at any minute. I couldn't believe I
would make it out of there," he says.
Stripped of Security
On the way to his car, a policeman stopped him and removed the
identification tag from his shirt which enabled him to enter and leave
the plant. Then the officer scratched off the parking sticker from Mr.
"It was really demeaning. It seemed as if the whole base was
watching me through the office windows. I didn't believe I would make it
home safely. The trip home took 15 long minutes. I glanced in the mirror
every second to see if someone was going to order me to stop," he says.
When he arrived at his home, he and his wife spoke to an attorney
for the first time.
Shabbat Search Warrant
On Shabbat, he arose at five in the morning and began reading
Tehillim. "I pray in shul every morning, but this was the first time I
had ever recited the entire Book of Psalms in one sitting," he says.
Around noon that day, he and his family along with some neighbors
were sitting at home when the house was surrounded by cars. Seven or
eight investigators knocked on the door, presented a search warrant, and
proceeded to tear the house apart.
"They turned the house upside down for four hours. They looked
inside mattresses, took my four-year-old daughter's drawings and her
music books. This was a traumatic experience that my wife, my children,
and I have still not gotten over," he says.
The investigators also took two computers-one was his wife's
eight-year-old machine and the other was Mr. Tenenbaum's from work. He
had brought it home with certified permission, but the investigators
accused him of stealing it. Later, in court, Mr. Tenenbaum was able to
produce a certificate in writing from his superiors proving he was
permitted to take the computer home.
Before the investigators left-with seven boxes of records-they
informed Mr. Tenenbaum that he was suspended from work but that he would
continue on salary.
"When they left without arresting me, I breathed easy, but then
Madeline and I had to discuss how we would finance the lawyers' fees. We
thought we would have to sell our house," he says.
"Like the Movies"
By the next day, Mr. Tenenbaum was certain he was being followed.
"Just like in the movies," he says. "There were three or four cars lying
in wait in the vicinity. For three or four months, my wife and I were
followed 24 hours a day."
Asked why he thought the surveillance finally stopped, he says,
"I guess they got tired of doing carpool."
On the Tuesday after he was suspended from work, Mr. Tenenbaum
left his home to run some errands. When he called his wife to tell her he
was on his way home, she informed him that the house was surrounded by
reporters and photographers, some poking around their mailbox and others
trying to peek through the windows.
"One of my lawyers later told me that criminal search warrants
are supposed to be confidential. He was amazed to discover that, in a
case of suspected espionage, the officials had not asked for the
documents to be sealed," he says.
Mr. Tenenbaum hid out at a friend's house, where he stayed until
a few days later when a heavy rain storm chased the media away. He
managed to sneak home at three in the morning.
Very quickly, the story, with information leaked by the
government, appeared in newspapers and on television. The headlines
declared that the FBI was accusing Mr. Tenenbaum of leaking secrets to
Israel via military attaches in the US.
According to the articles, the FBI was declaring that Mr.
Tenenbaum had "admitted to inadvertently giving classified information
about Patriot missiles and armor for battle vehicles to Israeli liaison
officers assigned to TACOM."
Further, the FBI was stating that, during the search at the
Tenenbaums' home, agents had seized "tax records, earnings statements,
address books, notebooks, torn documents relating to armor systems, books
from a tank command armor conference, two computers, and disks."
Mr. Tenenbaum calls the stories "rubbish." "As part of my job
description, I shared unclassified information-with official
permission-with Israeli officers, as well as officers from Canada, Great
Britain, Germany, and other US allies," he says, adding that nothing
taken from his home during that search was classified or in his
Mr. Tenenbaum is also suing the Detroit News and its parent
company, Gannet Newspapers, for slander. In stories about the case, the
paper used headlines such as "Leak Damage Hard To Gauge" and "Search
Yields Classified Items."
"The media reported that I leaked documents, that I lied on the
polygraph exam, and that I was arrested. These are completely false. It
amounts to 'media McCarthyism,'" he says.
Threat of Prison
The threat of prison hanging over his head was serious. Had he
faced prosecution for violating laws against gathering and delivering
defense information to a foreign government, he could have been
threatened with life imprisonment or even execution.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the ordeal was watching his
children suffer. After the FBI confiscated scrap paper her father had
given her to draw on, Mr. Tenenbaum's daughter was afraid to go into her
room or answer the doorbell.
In many ways, the entire Orthodox community of Southfield
suffered along with the Tenenbaums. The community, like the Tenenbaums,
are convinced his experience was a result of anti-Semitism.
The community has banded together to raise the money to pay Mr.
Tenenbaum's legal bills.
"Profile of Honesty"
The local Southfield Jewish News ran an article on Mr. Tenenbaum
which the paper titled "A Profile of Honesty." According to Mr.
Tenenbaum's neighbors, the engineer is the quintessence of honesty, a man
who would not cross the street against the light because it was illegal.
"My gut reaction when I heard this was it sounds like they got
the wrong person. He's so straight, so honest. He's not the type of
person who would do what was considered not right," said Reggie Tovbin, a
Rabbi Yerachmiel Stewart, another neighbor, agreed. He called Mr.
Tenenbaum "more than honest."
For a while, Mr. Tenenbaum and Rabbi Stewart played bar mitzvahs
and weddings together in a band they called Segulah."
At the Young Israel of Oak Park, Rabbi Steven Weil told the paper
about Mr. Tenenbaum's involvement with Matan B'Seder, a local charity
that provides clothing, food, and utilities expenses to needy families.
"All expenses incurred are paid by David and other members of the
group," said the rabbi, explaining that the recipients and the donors do
not know each other.
The rabbi described Mr. Tenenbaum as "modest about his charity
work and his learning." "He's a very fine human being," he said.
When reports about the supposed espionage began appearing in
local papers, Mr. Tenenbaum, at his lawyer's suggestion, put himself
under "house arrest," refusing to leave home.
Rabbi Weil used the occasion to address his congregants about the
meaning of the mitzvah "B'tzedek tishpot amitecha."
"Every human being is a judge and the courtroom is our mind. We
have an obligation to judge a human being meritoriously. I said that
before anyone jumps to any conclusions, to remember that mitzvah," he said.
Waste of Money
It probably would have been better-and cheaper-for the government
to have remembered it, too. In his lawsuit, Mr. Tenenbaum is accusing the
government not only of anti-Semitism, but also of leaking false reports
to the media.
Before submitting to the polygraph text with Mr. Snyder, Mr.
Tenenbaum asked to tape-record the session. Permission was refused. To
this day, the government has not permitted Mr. Tenenbaum to see the
results of his polygraph exam, but the courts may soon force the FBI to
Besides the $110 million Mr. Tenenbaum says the government owes
him in compensation for his suffering, the engineer says he is now being
paid to do virtually nothing.
After he was cleared, the government ordered him back to work.
"They ordered me back to my place of work, but not back to work," says
Mr. Tenenbaum. "They took away all my programs, and they don't let me do
anything, not even menial tasks. What a waste of taxpayers' money."
These days, he spends his time at his desk learning Torah,
reading books, or sketching.
"They destroyed him. No one will ever hire him as an engineer,"
says Juan Mateo, one of Mr. Tenenbaum's attorneys.
While the federal prosecutor's office would not comment on the
case because of the litigation, an Israeli reporter working on the story
says he was able to reach a former federal investigator who told him, off
the record, that, in the Tenenbaum case, "we messed up big time."
But, pointing to his family responsibilities, Mr. Tenenbaum says
he will not quit. "Where should I go? I didn't do anything wrong. I've
worked here for 15 years. I always helped the army. I brought in money,
and I saved money, and did nothing wrong, but I will continue to be
suspect in their eyes because I am a Jew and I have a connection to
Israel. It's true that it's very difficult to go to work under these
conditions. There is always tension. They're always looking for me. But I
can't just get up and leave. I have a responsibility to provide for a
family, and I have a responsibility toward myself and my good
reputation," he says.