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 been reinstated.

"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.

$110 Million

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 million.

Last month, in the first major decision in the suit, Federal Judge Victoria Roberts ruled against a government motion to have the case dismissed.

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.

"Ethnic Ties"

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." Other Incidents

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 caused.

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 countries."

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. Signs

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 says.

But, Mr. Tenenbaum, he did not suspect anything was wrong. "I was always different because of the kippah," he says. Warning

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 more duties.

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," he says.

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.

No Misunderstanding

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 in trouble.

The next morning, a Friday, he arrived at work to discover his computer had been removed. Soon a group of about a dozen investigators confronted him.

"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 of here."

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. Tenenbaum's car.

"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.

Leaked Information

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." Slander

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 possession illegally.

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 neighbor.

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." Modest

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.

Remembering Mitzvoth

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 do so.

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.

Doing 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.