Orthodox Jew Falsely Accused of Treason
For years Dr. David Tenenbaum has worked to clear his name.
Dr. David Tenenbaum, an expert in armor and survivability, worked for 14 years as a civilian engineer in the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) in Warren, Michigan, researching ways to improve combat vehicles’ ability to withstand blasts. An observant Jew, he stuck out at work as one of the only identifiably Jewish employees on the base, where he was subjected to anti-Semitic comments and actions.
Once, he found pork rinds on his desk. Another time, a colleague gave him literature about Christianity. A woman at work once patted him on his head and asked why he wore “that thing,” gesturing towards his yarmulke. But all that is minor compared to the false accusations leveled against for spying for Israel, and the ensuing nightmare that he and his family went through. Dr. Tenenbaum details the abuse in a shocking memoir, Accused of Treason: The US Army’s Witch Hunt for a Jewish Spy (Post Hill Press, 2020). He recently spoke to Aish.com.
As the rumors spread, malicious coworkers speculated that David was spying for Israel.
In the early 1990s, some of David’s colleagues began to make up bizarre rumors behind his back about the unusually large knapsack he brought to and from work each day. He explains that he needed it as he brought a kosher lunch and Jewish books to study during his lunch break. Noting the hefty bag David carried with him, some of his colleagues began to spin untrue rumors that his knapsack contained classified documents. As the rumors spread, malicious coworkers speculated that David was spying for Israel.
In 1992, a disgruntled colleague made a secret complaint about David, alleging that his knapsack was stuffed with classified documents. The colleague had heard David speaking with an Israeli liaison officer on the base, and in his complaint he leapt to the wild, unsubstantiated idea that they were somehow colluding against the United States.
The colleague embroidered his report with other inaccuracies; he accused Dr. Tenenbaum of saying disparaging things about the United States (David maintains he never did), and that David suggested that US government employees become overly close to Israel and Israelis. (Again, David denies that claim.) The official complaint went nowhere, but his colleagues continued a whisper campaign behind David’s back, accusing him of being more loyal to the Jewish state than to the US. The rumors went on for years.
In 1995 David became one of the key developers of a major new project, the “Light Armor Systems Survivability” project (LASS), a US Army program to make Humvees more “survivable” in the face of explosives. With US troops facing improvised explosive devices in the Middle East, the project was urgent. From the beginning, David and LASS partnered with engineers in Israel and Germany, two key US allies with extensive experience in making vehicles safer in the event of explosions.
Fluent in Hebrew and one of the founding engineers within LASS, Dr. Tenenbaum explains that one of the reasons he was hired was because he was able to liaise with Israeli engineers. In 1995 he traveled to Israel – on a trip that was approved by the US Government – to attend an international ballistics conference. It was the third trip to Israel that the US Army sent David on – it “enabled me to confer with world experts in the ballistics and survivability/armor field,” David explained in an exclusive interview with Aish.com.
The conference was uneventful, except in one respect: civilian employees of David’s level were meant to be debriefed after returning from international travel. Weeks, then months passed, but nobody contacted him to debrief him about the conference. In time, he forgot about it as LASS continued to grow; David found himself ever busier at work, and the details of his latest Israel trip faded from his memory.
Dr. David Tenenbaum outside the TACOM base
Eventually, more than nine months after the Israel conference, David received a phone call ordering him to report for a debriefing with Military Intelligence officials. The debriefing went horribly. After so many months, David couldn’t remember the name of the hotel he’d stayed at in Israel. He had the feeling that his interrogators mistrusted him and were trying to trip him up.
A few months later, in 1996, David’s boss asked him to submit paperwork for a higher level security clearance. He now feels that request was a ruse to allow him to be questioned again about his ties to Israel. “They were using the pretense of a security clearance upgrade as a ruse to interrogate me without having an attorney present as they suspected me of being an Israeli spy,” Dr. Tenenbaum recalled.
His interrogation was overseen by Lt. Col. John Simonini, a virulent anti-Semite who voiced lurid fantasies about Jews’ supposedly evil.
This interrogation was overseen by Lt. Col. John Simonini, the head of the Security and Counterintelligence Office at David’s base. Though David didn’t realize it at the time, David now says that Lt. Col. Simonini was a virulent anti-Semite who regularly voiced lurid fantasies about Jews’ supposedly evil and all-encompassing tendencies. He seemed to have David in his sights as an Israeli spy.
The meeting began with “good cop, bad cop,” and became combative after a lunch break. They accused David of being uncooperative and said he’d passed classified information to Israel. They told him he could either take a polygraph test or be fired, and implied that they would seek to prosecute him as a spy. In one afternoon, David’s career as a trusted civilian employee with the US Army seemed to be in danger of crashing down all around him.
David eventually went home, unaware of the shocking recommendations Lt. Col. Siminoni was making behind his back: Siminoni told the FBI that David had compromised himself in the debriefing interview, and asserted that the Army now had new information to add to the baseless and secret 1992 complaint against him. With no proof, Siminoni was accusing David of spying for a foreign country, a crime that can carry the death penalty in the United States.
A few weeks later, David agreed to undergo a polygraph exam. The exam took many hours and was harrowing. The examiner called David a liar and falsely claimed that “he had gotten other Jews to confess and he would get Tenenbaum to confess too”, David described. David kept saying that he had nothing to confess, as he had done nothing wrong. Shockingly, David later found out that far from recording David’s assertions of innocence, the polygrapher lied and falsely told the FBI that Tenenbaum had confessed to being a spy.
Far from recording David’s assertions of innocence, the polygrapher lied and falsely told the FBI that Tenenbaum had confessed to being a spy.
The questioning continued. The next day, February 14, 1997, FBI and other federal agencies came to David’s workplace and interrogated him again. What about the Hebrew phone calls his colleagues had overheard him making, they asked. Was he passing along official secrets during these Hebrew language conversations?
For David it was a terrible moment. Had his own colleagues turned on him, assuming that he was committing treason every time he spoke Hebrew? “I speak to my children in Hebrew,” he explained. “I want them to be bilingual.” Even though dozens of members on David’s international team of engineers regularly spoke foreign languages at home and even at the office – Dr. Tenenbaum jokes that his office used to be known as “the UN” because of its highly international diverse nature – his use of Hebrew had seemingly raised suspicions about his loyalty to America.
The next day on Shabbat, during lunch with their two children and guest, half a dozen FBI agents raided the Tannenbaum home in the heavily Jewish suburb of Southfield, Michigan. The details of that day remain vividly lodged in his memory.
David had just come home from synagogue. His wife Madeline had just set cholent on the table. Their kids gathered round, and David was about to make Kiddush. Suddenly, three cars pulled up to the house. FBI agents knocked on the door, showed the family a search warrant, and proceeded to comb through every room of the family’s home with a fine-tooth comb. Though some of the agents seemed zealous in their search, the lead FBI agent, Special Agent James Gugino, kept muttering, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, I told them not to do the search.”
Madeline watched in horror as FBI agents looked through her personal belongings and the couple’s children cowered in fear. Their oldest child, Nechama, remained deeply fearful of strangers for years afterwards.
The FBI agents took David’s computer away – as well as some of their children’s coloring and musical books, saying that there could be some secret codes within these children’s items.
After the search, David hired a lawyer and began a years-long campaign to clear his name. Dismissing the allegations of spying that were leveled against him, David notes that “if I’d ever done what some of these newspapers said, you and I wouldn’t be talking right now – I’d be in jail.” David is clear: “I never did anything wrong, which by the way was substantiated by (Lt. Col.) Simonini’s right hand man, Paul Barnard, in a sworn deposition... I never ever gave any classified materials, deliberately or inadvertently, to Israel.”
The Army suspended David from February 1997 until May 1998. He eventually was ordered back to work, but endured years of suspicion and repeated questions about his loyalty. “You have no idea what it was like,” he said, likening his stressful situation to the sword of Damocles, as he waited for a resolution in his case.
FBI agents followed him “24/7 for months”, interviewed his neighbors, and leaked details about suspicions against him to the press. Dr. Tenenbaum believes that the case of Jonathan Pollard, a civilian Navy employee who, as part of a plea bargain, pleaded guilty in 1987 to passing classified information to Israel about Arab nations, might have helped create an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion around him and other Jewish civilians working for the US military.
“Let me clarify that there were never any charges against me,” David stressed. “There were baseless anti-Semitic slanders.”
After he was completely cleared of the horrific crime of treason, he was forbidden from working with Israelis.
Nevertheless, once he returned to work after he was completely cleared of the horrific crime of treason, he was forbidden from working with Israelis, despite the fact that Israel is a leader in the field of armor and survivability and despite the fact that he had done nothing wrong.
After years of harassment, David was finally given back his security clearance in 1998. “They even upgraded my security clearance,” he noted, yet for years he never received a formal apology. Anyone looking him up on the internet would find a host of misleading news articles about him, detailing unproven allegations and smears that he was a spy.
Throughout, his Orthodox Jewish community and his Jewish faith helped sustain him. David’s father was a Holocaust survivor and his harrowing history also helped David keep his own travails in perspective. “My humor keeps me sane.”
David’s attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal court in Detroit to force the US Government to apologize for their treatment of him, but the case was dismissed after government lawyers argued that the case couldn’t be tried because it involved “state secrets”. In 2006, then US Senator Carl Levin of Michigan managed to get the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (IG) to review David’s case.
In July 2008 the IG’s office released a report saying that David finally got vindication: the report admitted that he’d faced discrimination based on his religion and ethnicity. David used the report as evidence in a new lawsuit against the US Army in 2009, seeking damages. This case was dismissed, again on “state secrets” grounds.
David has become a government whistleblower. He wants the US public to know about his ordeal and learn two key things. One is the anti-Semitism he faced from within the US Army. He still hopes to receive an apology for the way he was treated.
His whistleblower status reflects his desire to alert the public that LASS, the Humvee program he helped direct, came to end when he was charged with espionage. Years later, he’s still upset about the effects of closing the program: “There were thousands of casualties because of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which might have been fixed if the program hadn’t been shut down.” He wants the US public to know that the persecution he faced might have weakened programs that would have protected American troops.
For the past thirteen years, David has been teaching a class at his local synagogue and he tries to apply the lessons he’s learned. “We all face our own life trials and challenges, and it’s up to us how we react to those trials and challenges. We teach our children that there are consequences to their actions and we also need to be held accountable for our actions. The government has never been accountable for their horrific behavior.
“It’s not the tests you go through in life that define you,” Dr. Tenenbaum said, summing up his hard-learned wisdom after years of struggle to finally clear his name. “It’s our reaction to those tests that defines who we are.”