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David Tenenbaum. Credit: Detroit Jewish News.
David Tenenbaum. Credit: Detroit Jewish News.

Falsely accused of spying for Israel, Jewish engineer seeks long-awaited redemption

For the past 33 years, David Tenenbaum has worked as a civilian engineer at the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command. During a significant part of that time, Tenenbaum says he was subjected to vile anti-Semitism from co-workers and from the Army itself. He recounts how he has been harassed, intimidated and accused of spying for Israel.

In his 21-year battle for redress from the U.S. Army, David Tenenbaum has enlisted some powerful new advocates.

Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Michigan’s Democrat Sen. Gary Peters, a committee member, have sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis, urging him to provide closure and relief for the 60-year-old Tenenbaum, a resident Southfield, Mich. A response is expected soon from the Department of Defense.

For the past 33 years, Tenenbaum has worked as a civilian engineer at the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM). During a significant part of that time, Tenenbaum says he was subjected to vile anti-Semitism from co-workers and from the Army itself. He recounts how he has been harassed, intimidated and accused of spying for Israel. And, he says, he was subjected to an extended and intrusive FBI investigation that made his life a living hell.

Tenenbaum’s effort to seek a remedy in the federal court system was thwarted by the government’s unsubstantiated claim Tenenbaum’s persecution couldn’t be discussed because of “state secrets.” As a last resort, Tenenbaum has convinced Senate Homeland Security committee members to take up his case. His effort is bipartisan, according to his legal team. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the committee chair, and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa also support the cause.

Tenenbaum, a chemical engineer, was hired at TACOM partially because of his familiarity with Israel and his ability to speak Hebrew with Israeli counterparts. One area of his focus at work was the survivability of the troops in combat. He became aware of how susceptible soldiers riding in Humvees (large, jeep-like vehicles) were to rocket-propelled grenades. In 1995, Tenenbaum began a project to retro-fit Humvees to protect defenseless soldiers riding in them. His “Light Armor Survivability Systems” project included experts from Israel and Germany. As part of his job, he spoke Hebrew with his Israeli counterparts and traveled to the Jewish state.

Everything fell apart, however, when some of Tenenbaum’s local co-workers falsely accused him of spying for Israel in 1996. Tenenbaum later discovered they had been secretly accusing him of such spying as early as 1992. He found out they would observe him—an Orthodox Jew—carrying his kosher lunch to work daily in a backpack, and they would fantasize that the backpack could be used to smuggle classified documents out of the building. Some co-workers made anti-Semitic remarks behind his back, and a bag of pork rinds was once placed on his desk. He says one reason people suspected him of spying for Israel was that he spoke Hebrew—ironically, one of his major qualifications for being hired at TACOM in the first place.

Phony charges

Tenenbaum says his antagonists at TACOM surreptitiously set him up for false spying charges. Having no legitimate factual reason to have him investigated, they went to a high-level official at the command who suggested having Tenenbaum considered for a higher security level where he could be interviewed without an attorney present. Tenenbaum likened this to an interrogation.

He was then told to take a lie detector test. The polygraph operator, however, destroyed his notes and then wrongfully reported Tenenbaum had confessed to spying for Israel, according to Tenenbaum. Based on the co-workers’ allegations and the bogus report of a confession, the FBI initiated a full criminal investigation.

It was Shabbat lunchtime Feb. 14, 1997, when FBI agents raided the Tenenbaum house, seizing his computer and stripping the family residence of many personal effects, including drawings made by his then 4-year-old daughter. The girl remained terrified for months afterward, Tenenbaum says.

For half a year, FBI agents staked themselves out in front of the Tenenbaum home in an unsuccessful attempt to turn his Jewish neighbors against him. To intimidate him, he says, they followed him wherever he went. They leaked misinformation to the news media that he was an spy for Israel, just like Jonathan Pollard, who had been jailed a decade earlier. Tenenbaum estimates the government spent millions of dollars in its efforts to investigate him.

The investigation ended a year later. “I was cleared of everything,” Tenenbaum says. “They said to me I did nothing wrong, and that mine was one of the most investigated cases ever done.”

“No one has been held accountable,” he adds. “In fact, many of the instigators have been promoted. In private industry, no one would stand for this discrimination, anti-Semitism and false accusations. So, why isn’t the government held accountable?”

In April 1998, Tenenbaum returned to his job at TACOM. All his projects, however, were canceled, including the one to provide armor for Humvees. This proved ultimately disastrous for the rank-and-file soldiers, Tenenbaum recounts. When military action was taken against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s, a new weapon was used against U.S. troops—the improvised explosive device (IED). These IEDs were roadside bombs detonated by booby traps or remote control. As the Humvees drove by, the bombs penetrated the unprotected vehicles.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers were killed or maimed, Tenenbaum says. His project, if not canceled by the Army some seven years earlier, could have provided protection. The Army later did devise alternative protection, but it was too late for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Seeking justice

In 2000, attorneys Mayer Morganroth, Jeffrey Morganroth and Daniel Harold joined Tenenbaum’s cause. A lawsuit had been previously filed in federal court in Detroit, but in 2002 the government managed to get the case dismissed. The government claimed that the alleged anti-Semitic actions against Tenenbaum couldn’t be explored because of “state secrets.”

In 2006, then-U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan was instrumental in finally getting Tenenbaum’s case investigated by the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General. That office issued a report in July 2008 finding discrimination against Tenenbaum based on religion and ethnicity. But despite the best efforts of Inspector General Claude Kicklighter, anti-Tenenbaum elements within his office managed to greatly water down the report, Tenenbaum says.

In 2009, Tenenbaum again sued the Army, seeking money damages and using the inspector general report as evidence. This effort, too, was dismissed on the Army’s argument that the inspector general hadn’t investigated the so-called “state secrets” issue.

Tenenbaum says the report should have been enough to require action, but the Army refused to abide by its own report and provide a remedy. The plea for justice from the senators to the current secretary of defense is perhaps his last avenue of relief.

An end in sight?

Tenenbaum remains on the job at TACOM, but says he has been purposely underutilized and remains a pariah.

“David has to scratch and claw for everything,” said attorney Daniel Harold. “Over the past several years, David has created some programs or tried to create programs. Sometimes he gets the runaround, and the programs are not given the go-ahead. Other times, as soon as they are ready to be successful, they are taken away from him.”

Many others have advocated on Tenenbaum’s behalf. A “Justice for Dr. David Tenenbaum” petition can be signed online. The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC of Metropolitan Detroit have expressed their support.

Tenenbaum’s cause has also been aided by the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. Moral support has been provided by Dr. Michael Engleberg of the New York Center for Civil Justice, Tolerance & Values in Woodmere, N.Y.

In a letter of support for Tenenbaum, Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, says that if the government doesn’t make amends with Tenenbaum, “then the not-so-subtle message is that Jewish Americans, especially Orthodox Jewish Americans, can never be trusted within the Department of Defense. As you can well imagine, this message is devastating.”

Attorney Harold says, “We’re hopeful that through the senators we can finally get a remedy to David and bring a formal end to this whole horrible situation.” Indeed, the Defense Department’s impending response could agree with the senators’ letter as well as provide Tenenbaum with an apology and financial compensation. Or, it could decline to give him relief.

For now, Tenenbaum waits for words of redress from his government.

“Thank God we were able to find the right people to help us,” he says. “I feel that there’s a lot I can give in terms of work….I don’t want to fight to work. I would like to get work done.”

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