Suspect, Cleared in Spy Case, Claims Army 'Profiles' Jews

Lawsuit Charges Conspiracy Over 'Religious Beliefs'

Amy Klein - The Forward - October 13 2000

DETROIT — On a Saturday afternoon in February 1997, eight federal agents burst into David Tenenbaum's Southfield, Mich., home and turned it upside down, searching for evidence of espionage against the United States.

His family's life was changed forever, Mr. Tenenbaum said. His daughter Nechama Eta, now 8, is frightened of strangers coming to their door. His wife Madeline, 36, has only recently recovered from clinical depression brought on, they say, by the 24-hour surveillance, media stakeouts and fear that her husband could be arrested at any moment for espionage.

But for Mr. Tenenbaum, a 43-year-old civilian United States Army engineer, that spoiled Shabbat lunch was only one episode in what he terms a "Jew-hunt" against him that began in 1992 and has yet to end. Even though the FBI and the Department of Justice conceded in February 1998 that they had "insufficient evidence" to support allegations that for 10 years Mr. Tenenbaum passed classified information to Israel, they have neither reinstated his security clearance nor admitted any error.

This week, a federal court in Michigan will rule on the government's motion to dismiss the first part of a $100-million civil rights discrimination suit filed by the Tenenbaums against the U.S. Army and its officials. The suit alleges a conspiracy to charge Mr. Tenenbaum with espionage because he is a religious Jew with ties to Israel.

The suit comes as federal prosecutors and intelligence officials appear to be on the defensive over what some call "racial profiling" of employees handling sensitive material. Alleged victims include Taiwan-born Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was recently freed from jail after the government dropped all but one of 59 security violation charges against him and former CIA attorney Adam Ciralsky, who has filed suit claiming the CIA investigated him for espionage because he is an observant Jew.

A Defense Department memo profiling country counterintelligence efforts that came to light in 1996 noted that Israeli intelligence personnel are "always seeking to recruit knowledgeable human sources with access [to scientific and industrial] information. Recruitment techniques include ethnic targeting, financial aggrandizement, and identification and exploitation of individual frailties." The memo mentions the case of Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who pled guilty in 1987 to spying for Israel.

Information in Mr. Tenenbaum's suit, obtained in discovery, is likely to prove even more embarrassing to the government. An FBI agent said in his deposition that a polygraph examiner believed that "because of his devout religious beliefs and strong affinity toward Israel, Tenenbaum would have provided restricted information to the Israelis based on his belief that the U.S. government should fully share information with one of its closest allies."

Also included is a sworn deposition by one of Mr. Tenenbaum's former supervisors. The affidavit states that Mr. Tenenbaum had been singled out for investigation at least partly because he is Jewish, speaks Hebrew, wears a yarmulke and had an "obvious love" for Israel.

In his first major interview, Mr. Tenenbaum, sporting a salt-and-pepper mustache and a black knitted yarmulke, recounted the events of the past three-and-a-half years.

Since 1984, Mr. Tenenbaum has worked as a civilian mechanical engineer at the U.S. Army Tank Automotive and Armaments Command (Tacom) headquarters in Warren, Mich. In that capacity, he often was in contact with liaison officers from countries working jointly with the U.S. on improving land-combat vehicles, including Israel, Germany and Great Britain. On February 3, 1997, he was summoned for a seemingly standard background interview, part of a process of upgrading his clearance from "secret" to "top secret."

"In the middle of it," Mr. Tenenbaum told the Forward, "the [interviewers] came back after lunch and said, 'Mr. Tenenbaum, we find it very difficult to believe you are not passing on information to the Israelis.'" Mr. Tenenbaum flatly denied the allegations, he said, and wondered aloud why the investigators were focusing on Israel, as he dealt equally with other countries on upgrading military equipment. They asked him to take a polygraph test. "What if I don't take it?" Mr. Tenenbaum replied. They told him he would lose his job if he didn't.

As Mr. Tenenbaum would find out much later, the FBI and Army counterintelligence had already opened an investigation focusing on his ties to Israel. According to depositions obtained in Mr. Tenenbaum's lawsuit, investigators were concerned that Mr. Tenenbaum traveled to Israel on military business a number of times, and also had social contact with Israeli officials in America and Israel. He spoke to them in Hebrew, as he does to his children. He traveled to Israel on El Al Airlines, as opposed to a U.S. carrier as required by governmental officials. While in Israel, he did not stay with other U.S. officials and took extra vacation time. His wife also has extended family there.

On February 13, 1997, polygraph examiner Albert Snyder attached Mr. Tenenbaum, who had not yet sought legal counsel, to a polygraph machine and interviewed him for over six hours. "[Mr. Snyder] said to me, 'I want a confession from you' and I said, 'I haven't done anything wrong — I've nothing to confess to.' I was floored. This wasn't the interview I expected." That night, Mr. Tenenbaum, shaken, and for the first time, scared, went home and told his wife, "They think I did something very bad at work and I didn't do it," Mrs. Tenenbaum recalled him saying.

When he returned to the base Friday morning, he faced what he now calls a "Valentines' Day Massacre": his computer was missing and his access to the main computer system denied. After he reported the missing items as stolen, Mr. Tenenbaum went back to his cubicle. In the open hallways, in view of his colleagues, several FBI, Defense Department and military intelligence agents surrounded him, took him into an open conference room and confronted him. The bulk of the most incendiary charges against Mr. Tenenbaum came from the polygraph examiner, Mr. Snyder. Lead FBI agent James Gugino said in his August 1999 deposition that the polygraph analyst had found Mr. Tenenbaum's answers "deceptive" when he was asked if he had passed classified information to the Israelis. Among other allegations, Mr. Snyder said that Mr. Tenenbaum had confessed to passing on "Star Wars" technology for laser countermeasures against Patriot missiles.

According to an affidavit filed by the FBI with Eastern Michigan's United States District Court, the polygraph examiner had gone further, reporting to the FBI that Mr. Tenenbaum had actually "admitted to divulging non-releasable classified information to every Israeli Liaison Officer assigned to Tacom over the last ten years." Mr. Tenenbaum insists he never confessed to any such action, and has named Mr. Snyder in his suit. He says he ended the questioning after realizing it was not a standard security check. He emptied his desk and left the premises. He was promptly suspended with full pay.

At noon on February 15, as the Tenenbaums and their guests ate Shabbat lunch, federal agents drove up to the peach-colored brick house in three cars and presented a search warrant. After a search that lasted until sunset, the agents carted out computers, financial records, boxes of papers, sheet music and children's drawings.

Within a week the Detroit News broke the story: "FBI agents found boxes of classified military documents stashed throughout the Southfield home of an engineer suspected of sharing military secrets with the Israelis," the News reported, based on documents that should have been sealed. The FBI now claims it had "forgotten" to seal the affidavit and the warrant.

As it turned out, the FBI never charged Mr. Tenenbaum. They returned all the confiscated materials, which turned out not to be classified. On February 3, 1998 they forwarded him a copy of a letter sent by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Saul Green, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Leibson, stating that their office must decline prosecution due to "insufficient evidence." The letter closed with the line, "there is no question that if evidence existed which would prove this case, then these agents would have found it."

Nonetheless, the media coverage guaranteed that in the court of public opinion, it was all over for the family. "I hid at my friend's house, and when it was dark we ran in; there were reporters' cars out on the block and I told Dovid not to come home," said Mrs. Tenenbaum, a massage therapist whose two eldest children at the time were ages 4 and 1. The 24-hour surveillance and the media, she said, "were terrifying. We didn't know if our bedroom was bugged. It was a horrible, horrible way to live."

The way they lived for the next year — under suspicion and full-time surveillance for four months (later reduced to spot checks) — is the basis for the suit's claim for damages from "mental anguish, emotional distress, humiliation, fright and shock; pain and suffering."

By April 1998, 14 months after being suspended, Mr. Tenenbaum was ordered back to work. He was not allowed to return to his old position and projects, and was not given any work with Israelis, whose projects were terminated in July 1997. His security clearance, suspended during the investigation, was in the process of being revoked. Without it, his future in the defense industry did not look promising.

"Everything was taken away, I couldn't go back to my own group, and people still thought I was a spy that passed on classified information," he said. He considered quitting, but didn't want "to let them win." Shortly after, Mr. Tenenbaum and his wife decided to sue the secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera, and other army officials.

Mr. Tenenbaum's lawyer, Juan Mateo, obtained Army and FBI files concerning Mr. Tenenbaum, and deposed dozens of intelligence officers and Army officials. He discovered that investigations of his client had begun as early as 1992, and that "those investigations were always based on anti-Semitic remarks being made about David because he's an Orthodox Jew that works with Israeli liaisons assigned to the base," Mr. Mateo said.

According to statements in the depositions taken by Mr. Mateo, in 1992 a coworker called Mr. Tenenbaum "our little Jewish spy," and other colleagues said things to the effect that anything given to Mr. Tenenbaum would be passed on to the Israelis. Two investigations found no substance in allegations that Mr. Tenenbaum spent an unusually large amount of time with the Israeli officers on the base.

This week the case will be heard for the first time in federal court in Michigan, after two years of bureaucratic wrangling and jurisdictional disputes. Judge Robert Cleland will rule on the government's plea to dismiss the suit. The same judge will also hear a second part of the case in coming months dealing with Mr. Tenenbaum's claims of discrimination. Mr. Mateo will try to establish that there was a longtime conspiracy to investigate Mr. Tenenbaum because of his religious and Zionist background.

According to Mr. Mateo, Mr. Tenenbaum's supervisor put him in for an upgrade to "top-secret" security clearance as a ruse to obtain an interview and polygraph test that they would not have been able to do unless they informed Mr. Tenenbaum he was the subject of an investigation.

"Before David was subject to this polygraph it was already decided to subject him to a criminal investigation. What they did is that they created a confession, and they used it to authorize a search warrant, which never would have been done if the court knew the truth," Mr. Mateo said.

The lawsuit quotes Agent Gugino's memo, based on his discussion with the polygraph examiner, Mr. Snyder: "It is the opinion of Snyder that because of his devout religious beliefs and strong affinity towards Israel, Tenenbaum would have provided restricted information to the Israelis based on his belief that the U.S. government should freely share information with one of its closest allies. Snyder commented that the priorities of the plaintiff are, 1) his religious beliefs and cultural heritage, 2) his children, ages 16 months and 4 months old, 3) his wife, 4) his work."

The U.S. attorney's office in Michigan, which is defending the government, declined to comment on the case because it is still in progress. The defendants deny the allegations of conspiracy and racial profiling, insisting in their depositions that they were motivated by security concerns. But whether those concerns were based on Mr. Tenenbaum's behavior, his religious and Zionist affiliations or counterintelligence profiles of Israelis and Jews as potential "security risks," is a question that the courts will be forced to decide.

Others in the case stated in their depositions that Mr. Tenenbaum was singled out because of his religion and love of Israel. One of his first supervisors, James Thompson, cited religious practices, such as leaving early on Friday, as causing problems: "The culture is not familiar with particular Orthodox Jewish requirements and ways of doing things. And that tends to be a source of friction."

Another supervisor, Richard McClelland, stated in a deposition that Mr. Tenenbaum's strong Jewish affiliation "played a part" in triggering the investigation. "The desire to make frequent trips to Israel," he said, "[the] desire to associate with people of the same culture which includes Israeli citizens as well as Americans. Taking vacations there, all of those things that go with being an Orthodox Jew. So, yeah, if being a Jew is a package deal, because he is a Jew he wants to do all these things and he does all of these things with his family and, yeah I think that played [a part]."

The director of intelligence and counterintelligence at Tacom, Lt. Col. John Simonini, another defendant, wrote a memorandum in January 1997 which stated that Mr. Tenenbaum was "at best an unwitting accomplice, at worst, he may be knowingly assisting a foreign government which is known to exploit nationalistic and religious tendencies."

According to Mr. Tenenbaum, the intelligence community's suspicion of Israelis and American Jews is what propelled the investigations. He noted that not one allegation against him had ever been proven, and all the information he allegedly passed on was either part of a U.S.-approved program, nonexistent or inaccessible to him.

Agent Gugino, who called the allegations "circular reporting" and "circumstantial," said in his deposition, "I believed there was an intelligence operation at work here and I think he was an unwitting pawn in a far bigger, very wide-ranging intelligence scheme." After his meeting with Mr. Tenenbaum on Valentine's Day 1997, Mr. Gugino had tried to postpone the Saturday search in order to corroborate what he thought were suspicious polygraph results, but another investigator obtained the warrant, and set into motion the events that changed the Tenenbaums' lives.

"It's not just a Tenenbaum issue, it's a Jewish community issue," said Mr. Tenenbaum. "If this was a simple espionage investigation, it's one thing, but it's the story of how the U.S. government profiles and monitors people based on their race."

Mr. Tenenbaum, who still goes into his office at Tacom and tries to find work on non-classified projects, still fears he is under investigation. "Am I paranoid? I have been under investigation since 1992. I think it's possible something is going on now," he said. "I would warn any Jew that works for the [U.S.] government and deals with Israel or has been to Israel, I would tell them that there is a good chance they have been investigated or looked into. There's profiling going on and I fit the profile."

  • The Adam Ciralsky page