Dr. David A. Tenenbaum, son of a Holocaust survivor and a married father of four, is a civilian mechanical engineer who works for the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM).
Yet while his title sounds impressive, for decades, he says, he has been given low-level assignments with no opportunity for advancement—ever since he was wrongly accused of spying for Israel, and even though he was eventually exonerated.
“Within the government itself, I’m a persona non grata. I’m the mistake they made. This never should have happened,” he said.
In February 1997, after working for 13 years at TACOM, Tenenbaum’s life was turned upside down when he was “falsely accused of being an Israeli spy by a known anti-Semite and several other anti-Semitic coworkers,” he said.
He was suspended from his job until an 18-month FBI investigation concluded that he was not guilty, but he was never compensated.
He recalls that during a polygraph test, carried out in isolation, the examiner told him, “I have done other Jews before and gotten them to confess, and I’ll get you to confess too.” Tenenbaum said he came out clean, but the examiner “claimed that he lost his notes.”
Tenenbaum wrote a book describing the ordeal and its devastating impact, titled “The US Army’s Witch Hunt for a Jewish Spy: Accused of Treason.” Published by Post Hill Press, it is due for release on March 10.
“The FBI conducted a full-scale criminal investigation of Tenenbaum and his family. It resulted in an official report to FBI Director Louis Freeh, that there was no evidence Tenenbaum had ever done anything wrong,” Post Hill explains in a press release ahead of publication.
“In fact,” the release continues, “Tenenbaum was not even working on classified programs. Instead, he was concentrating on an approved and unclassified program known as the Light Armor Systems Survivability (LASS) to up-armor the Army’s HMMWVs (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles) because, following Somalia, it was a known fact that the HMMWVs were death traps.
“The Tenenbaums’ federal lawsuit for religious discrimination was dismissed after the Army falsely claimed that they ‘would not be able to disclose the actual reasons or motivations for their actions without revealing state secrets.’ Senator Carl Levin ordered the IG-DOD [Department of Defense Office of the Inspector-General] to investigate the Tenenbaum case and determine if the Army was guilty of anti-Semitism.”
Army refuses compensation
After over two years, the IG-DOD issued a report which confirmed that the U.S. Army was guilty of anti-Semitism, saying that the allegations were “false and initiated with a discriminatory intent.’”
“To this day, the Army refuses to make Tenenbaum whole and compensate him for the false accusations against him. Tenenbaum is one of the only persons for whom a favorable Inspector General report has been issued to not be compensated. The government has never been held accountable for their anti-Semitism,” the Post Hill release says.
During the Jewish Sabbath in February 1997, the FBI raided Tenenbaum’s home and seized, along with files and computers, even his children’s coloring books and other personal belongings. Tenenbaum said that the “psychological warfare” to which he was subjected affected not only him, but also his family, who were placed under 24-hour surveillance for several months.
At the time, the Tenenbaums had two small children—a 1-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. The latter was old enough to feel the trauma and remembers the raid to this day. For months, she was terrified by surveillance cars that followed her to school and when she played outside in her front yard.
“For years, we [my wife and I] went outdoors to speak to each other because we were worried the house could be bugged,” said Tenenbaum. “We lost time with friends because of the emotional turmoil. We were constantly worried. We knew I could end up in jail.”
There was also the public humiliation. Tenenbaum was labeled a spy because the government “conveniently forgot to seal the search warrant.” There were anonymous death threats against him and his family, he said.
A resident of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Southfield, Mich., Tenenbaum noted one silver lining. “The community was terrific, even though they were harassed,” he said. “Anyone who kept company with us was investigated.” Some were subject to middle-of-the-night visits by police.
He recalled that “once, at a kosher restaurant in Cleveland, when I went to pay, they saw my name and asked if I was the alleged spy. They said, ‘We’ve been praying and saying Tehillim [Psalms] for you.’ ”
“Someone left a pork rind at my desk.”
According to Tenenbaum, the anti-Semitism at his place of employment had been going on for years even before the accusation of espionage was made, and it continues to this day. For example, “someone left a pork rind at my desk,” he said. There have also been comments suggesting there was a Jewish conspiracy behind his defense and allegations of dual loyalty, he added.
When suspended in 1997, TACOM also dismantled his LASS program, which was designed to save the lives of U.S. soldiers, Tenenbaum said. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have claimed the lives of more than 3,000 American soldiers and wounded more than 33,000; more than 2,550 were killed specifically by IEDs, and more than 1,500 have lost a limb.
Asked if his program could have saved lives, he replied, “I’m not a prophet, but I believe it would have. I know that if you don’t do anything, It isn’t going to help … I told them in 1996 that they didn’t have the proper armor on the military vehicles. … We established that there was a problem. We were determined to fix it.”
Tenenbaum says that many have compared his case to the famous Dreyfus Affair, when, in the late 19th century in France, Capt. Albert Dreyfus, a Jew, was falsely convicted of treason.
He has also been compared to Jonathan Pollard, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. government who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel. Pollard was given a life sentence but is now out of jail and under house arrest. He is the only American to receive a life sentence for giving classified information to a U.S. ally.
However, comparing Pollard to Tenenbaum, who never carried out acts of espionage, seems unfair.
“I never did anything wrong,” said Tenenbaum, while acknowledging that the punishment Pollard got was grossly unfair.
He wrote a book about his experience, he said, not for revenge but to get the story out.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” he said, pointing to the rising anti-Semitism in the United States and worldwide. “Either we fight it or we stick our heads in the sand.”
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.