In the mid-1990s, Army engineer David Tenenbaum noticed that the Army’s lightweight trucks, like the famous Humvee, were woefully lacking in protective armor. At his base in Michigan, Tenenbaum began researching new ways to protect the vehicles, but the project was cut short in 1997, when he was accused of being a spy for Israel.
Tenenbaum, 47, was later exonerated, but the program was never revived. The continuing problems with the armor on lightweight vehicles was brought to the world’s attention last week, when a national guardsman asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld why soldiers had to sort through trash heaps to armor their trucks.
Tenenbaum feels a special pang of anger and regret each time he hears about another soldier meeting his death on a roadside somewhere in Iraq, crushed in a Humvee.
“Because they did not continue that program — by going after me,” Tenenbaum said in an interview with the Forward, “soldiers have died.”
Tenenbaum’s lingering resentment toward the Army extends far beyond the failed armor program. The consequences of the espionage accusations leveled against him are a daily matter. He still faces suspicion when he goes to work at the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Mich. And until last week, Tenenbaum was pressing a costly lawsuit for discrimination against the Army and his former supervisors. Tenenbaum says he was accused for no other reason than that he was an Orthodox Jew with a love for Israel.
Two lower courts dismissed Tenenbaum’s discrimination case, arguing that the Army could not defend itself without divulging state secrets. The Supreme Court decided November 29 that it would not hear an appeal of the case. Tenenbaum is left, for now, with little more than bad feelings.
The accusations against Tenenbaum are by now as familiar to him as his children’s names. He was called in for a security clearance upgrade in February 1997, about a year into his work on the vehicle armor program, known as the Light Armor Survivability Systems. In the course of a polygraph test, Tenenbaum says the examiner, Albert Snyder, suddenly began grilling him about trips he had taken to Israel for work, and about his relationship with the Israeli military officers who worked on the Michigan base. Because he speaks Hebrew, Tenenbaum frequently had been assigned to work with Israelis.
After the polygraph test, Snyder told FBI agents that Tenenbaum had confessed to “inadvertently” giving classified information to the Israeli Liaison Officers. There was no tape recording of the session, and Tenenbaum denies he said anything about giving up information. But a day later, the FBI submitted an unsealed affidavit with Snyder’s charges, which the local press promptly got a hold of. On the Sabbath, FBI officers raided the Tenenbaum’s home and took away carloads of material.
Eighteen months later, the U.S. district attorney said that “insufficient evidence” against Tenenbaum was found. The case was dropped. In the interim, Tenenbaum was put on administrative leave, and when he returned to his job, he says that a higher-up on the base told him, “Your career is over.” Later Tenenbaum learned that there had been two earlier investigations into his work with the Israelis, both of which were dropped. Each time, he says, the case against him had been based on his religious observance and on his close work with Israeli officers — to whom he had been assigned. The last such project was the Light Armor Survivability Systems. This was designed to be collaboration with the German and Israeli armies, but Tenenbaum had only met with the Israelis by the time it was dropped.
It is not clear if this program might have lessened the dangers faced by troops in Iraq today if it had been allowed to run its course. In the case of the soldier who raised the issue of vehicle armor with Rumsfeld last week, the problem was not the lack of armor technology but rather the shortage of armored Humvees being produced. Currently about 8,000 of the 30,000 vehicles in Iraq have no armor at all, according to a military spokesman.
Tenenbaum is confident that if he had been allowed to continue his work, the situation would be different today.
“If this program would have gone through,” Tenenbaum said, “we would have known the problems, and we would have fixed the problems.”
Tenenbaum is not the only Jew whose work for the American government has been cut short because of suspicions of Israeli espionage. In another high-profile case, Adam Ciralsky was put on leave from his position as a lawyer at the CIA in 1997. Ciralsky, who was also exonerated, is currently pursuing his own discrimination case against the government. Tenenbaum and his lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, say that they have heard from “more than a handful” of other Jewish government employees who are facing similar situations.
Morganroth says he is concerned that because of the state-secrets defense used by the army in Tenenbaum’s case, no one ever will be able to challenge any antisemitism confronted in the governmental workplace.
“They can just keep persecuting and discriminating against Jews,” Morganroth said. “You can get away with anything you want if you want to put a veil over it.”
Given what they see as a growing problem, both Tenenbaum and his lawyers say they were disappointed by the lack of financial or legal support they were given by American Jewish organizations, which generally steered clear of the case. Tenenbaum is currently weighted with thousands of dollars in legal debts.
A number of congressmen, including Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have expressed an interest in trying to win Tenenbaum some compensation through a legislative act. Right now, though, Tenenbaum says the main thing he wants is some recognition of his problem, or at least a forum in which to tell his side of the story.
“I was accused on the front page,” Tenenbaum said, “but I was cleared in the obituary section of a newspaper. People don’t care that you’re cleared.”
Tenenbaum is still working at the base in Michigan, and now he is stationed at the National Automotive Center. In April 2003, Tenenbaum finally was given the top-secret clearance he began working toward in 1997, and he says that his current co-workers treat him with a great deal of respect. But Tenenbaum knows there are many people on the base who still do not trust him, and many projects he still will not be allowed near.
“There may be a justice system,” Tenenbaum said, “but that doesn’t mean there is justice.”