Following a long court battle, the Mossad, Israel's espionage agency, has released a document from its archives for publication. Haaretz published yesterday the formal order to establish the Mossad - issued by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, 60 years ago. Similar requests made by Haaretz journalist Yossi Melman, seeking the release of documents from the archive of the Shin Bet security service and the Atomic Energy Commission, are under evaluation and pending approval.
The Mossad, the Shin Bet and the AEC answer to the prime minister, and their archives are closed to the public. Valuable documentation of important events and processes in the country's history are kept there, but remain unavailable for historical research on the grounds of secrecy and security. For years the three organizations have refused to apply the law of archives to their own collections, as this would bring them under the control of the state archive; the law also includes regulations on the removal of security classifications and the release of material for publication - as is done with the Israel Defense Forces archive and that of the defense establishment.
Six months ago, the three organizations responded to a petition that Yedioth Aharonoth and Haaretz had filed with the Supreme Court, and agreed to place their archives under the state archive, but without providing any details as to their location, the hours of operation or the regulations that would govern access to the material. Following this agreement, the Mossad approved the release of the Ben-Gurion document.
Most of the activities of the Mossad and the Shin Bet are secret, while the AEC is bound by the policy of "nuclear ambiguity." Their demand for secrecy beyond that of other government and defense-related bodies is understood. However, they do not exist in a parallel world - they are part of the state mechanism, with their budget provided by taxpayers. Therefore, they are obligated to obey the law and also report to the public, within reasonable restrictions.
There is no justification for keeping documents that are decades old, that can in no way harm security if published, classified - except, of course, the desire of the intelligence and nuclear services to enjoy excess privileges and prevent any peeking into their backyards. The public deserves access to details regarding the role the three organizations played in the establishment and development of the state, and these should be brought forward for historical scrutiny.
In Britain and the United States, the intelligence agencies employ historians who chronicle the background of the organizations, their operations and their assessments, with declassified versions of their research published. In Israel, the writing of intelligence history is carried out in secret, but veterans of the services whose secret memoirs are kept in safes and are released to only a small forum of readers are privy to these secrets. There is no reason not to gradually publish sections of the internal history. Why not present an authorized account of the capture of Adolf Eichmann, of bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel, or even embarrassing affairs - like the surveillance the Shin Bet conducted against politicians during the first years of the state? No harm will come from any of this, and Israeli democracy will only become stronger as more information regarding the state and its institutions is released.
The release of a 60-year-old document should be the first step in controlled exposure of the history of important state institutions, which are not operating above the law.
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