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Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi tends to be quite sparing with praise for his officers. Thus it is particularly notable, say some who are present at discussions led by the chief of staff, when he offers frequent accolades to Brigadier General N., commander of the Intelligence Corps Unit 8200.

The chief of staff, like a few dozen officers in the General Staff, Military Intelligence, Air Force, Navy and special units, lives in a shadowy world of covert operations. Apart from military personnel, this world is also populated by civilians from the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad and sometimes the police as well as a handful of ministers and aides from the political echelon.

To this world, which has always existed, has recently been added the field of military activity concerned with communications networks and computers, for which the IDF is considering instituting a new framework. The person who heads it could essentially be called the "GOC Darkness Command." No one has yet been designated for the position, but Brig. Gen. N. is leading the race.

N., in his late 30s, is a veteran of the general staff's elite special-operations force Sayeret Matkal and other sensitive units in Military Intelligence. For one operation deep in hostile territory, he was awarded a citation by the chief of staff. A few years ago, he was appointed deputy commander of Unit 8200, which handles electronic intelligence gathering.

Brigadier General Danny Harari's tenure as the 8200 commander is not considered a shining success, and this year Ashkenazi and Military Intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin decided to appoint N. to command the unit. The only precedent for such a transition from special operations to heading 8200 occurred in the previous decade, with the tenure of Pinchas Barel-Buchris, currently director general of the Defense Ministry.

Unlike most of his predecessors at 8200, N. comes from the operations sphere, which puts him on an equal footing with intelligence clients who have infantry and armored brigades and divisions behind them. Ashkenazi's attitude toward Brigadier General N. is liable to be Military Intelligence's winning card in a hitherto hidden struggle that has been going on in the defense establishment over a key organizational issue: Which body will be authorized to coordinate the cyber combat. Two weeks ago, in a speech before the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and head of an intelligence squadron in the air force, decided to drop plenty of broad hints.

He spoke about the need to preserve the technological disparity in Israel's favor, a supremacy most evident in its intelligence and air force capabilities, and in combining the two with precision-guided armaments to attack targets "that will have a decisive impact." The capabilities of Israel's enemies, said Yadlin, are still far from matching those of the IDF, but they are "defensively and offensively challenging our technological supremacy by means of precision missiles, computerization, anti-aircraft weapons, GPS and pilot-less aircraft."

Thanks to software companies in the West, which have made computer capabilities that were once preserved for superpowers into products available off the shelf to any government or organization, the enemy is now equipped with much more information and encrypting ability.

Yadlin calls this a "dramatic revolution" in cyberspace, which is the fifth dimension, after land and sea (up until the early 20th century), and later air and space. Air power as an arm of combat got off to a modest start as a mode of intelligence gathering; later it gained a defensive aspect (downing observation planes) and finally an offensive aspect (strategic bombings). It took decades for the intelligence and precision weapons technologies to come of age to the point at which they were used in the wars of the late 20th century, in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Given his experience as a fighter pilot who continues to believe in aerial power, Yadlin asserted that even if it is hard to say whether cyber power is now at a point similar to that of the air forces in World War I or World War II, "there is no question that cyber power has taken off as a military dimension in all three areas - intelligence gathering, defense and attack."

Yadlin advised his listeners to think carefully about their personal computers, cell phones and Internet habits, including files of pictures that indicate fields of interest, professional documents and whatever a stranger might be able to learn from their bank account information and reservations made for flights abroad. "Anyone who is able to hack into there ends up knowing quite a lot," warned the Military Intelligence chief, "if you catch my drift."

Even more than the intelligence gathering and attack capabilities ("Just imagine the damage a single skilled hacker could cause if he penetrated the systems of the infrastructure, transportation and communications companies,"), Yadlin is concerned about the potential defensive capabilities. "Many people believe that defense must go hand in hand with intelligence gathering and attack. Cyber power gives the little guys the kind of ability that used to be confined to superpowers. Like unmanned aircraft, it's a use of force that can strike without regard for distance or duration, and without endangering fighters' lives."

And discussion of these matters, the man responsible for secrets in the IDF added surprisingly, needn't be confined to private forums.

Besides Military Intelligence, the other main contender for the cyber crown is the Teleprocessing Branch, a more modern incarnation of the Communications Corps and the youngest of the branches of the General Staff, which will celebrate just its eighth birthday two months from now. Military Intelligence, meaning Unit 8200, and the Teleprocessing Branch - through its Teleprocessing and Information Technology Unit (known by the Hebrew acronym Lotem). Part of Lotem's duties is to safeguard military data and it includes the Center of Encryption and Information Safety. The powerful Military Intelligence branch is threatening to deny Lotem the pleasure, which would put a damper on next week's 50th-anniversary celebrations of the unit's Center of Computers and Information Systems.

Cyber wars

In the wake of a series of events in the past two years (Estonia, Georgia, the Pentagon being attacked by a computer virus), governments, armies, police forces and intelligence communities have awakened to the dangers emanating from the direction of China, Russia, terror groups and criminal gangs. The fall of the barriers between telecommunications, Internet and television, and the total dependence on computer networks, to which entire economies and populations are exposed and have come to rely upon to the point of addiction, has spawned new organizations. The aim of these groups is to operate within this sphere that blurs the old inner-outer, military-civilian, security-criminal lines, or to coordinate the actions of existing groups.

In Britain, the government secretariat is to include a section to coordinate government, military and civilian cyber policy. The British counterpart of Unit 8200, in Cheltenham, will "host" the new Cyber-Security Operations Centre, in addition to its regular duties.

The American situation is more complicated. Last week, President Obama appointed a cyber-security czar, Howard Schmidt, who has experience in the defense and technology fields (and is a former eBay and Microsoft executive). On the operational level, responsibility for cyber-security is divided between the NSA (army and intelligence) and the Department of Homeland Security (administration and economy). "Our friends in the world share the unease," said Yadlin in his lecture, citing the Americans' cyber command. "It fits with Israel's conception of security. No great natural resources are required. It's all available right here, without any dependence on foreign aid, in an area with which Israeli young people are very familiar. Staying ahead of the game is important in light of the dizzying change of pace in the cyber world: at most, a few months in response to a change, compared to the years that pilots had."

Yadlin concluded with some words of praise for his underlings in Military Intelligence: "Every day I meet the soldiers and officers whose job is to march us confidently ahead into this new world. With them," referring to Brigadier General N. and his colleagues in Unit 8200, "we will be able to compete in the cyber Premier League."

At the end of the summer, N. visited NSA chief General Keith Alexander and came back determined to be appointed, like him, a commander of the cyber battle. Alexander, meanwhile, is due to receive a fourth star when he assumes command of the cyber division being established by the Pentagon at the instruction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But copying a foreign structure like this to IDF conditions would necessitate some adjustments. Nor is it clear where the Shin Bet, which is legally mandated as a "national authority for the securing of data," fits within the boundaries of this new sector.

A reservist general who is well versed in the matter expressed concern this week that expanding 8200's field of responsibility to cyberspace will adversely impact the unit's core intelligence skills. But another former senior Military Intelligence officer believes there is no other practical solution: With all due respect to the Teleprocessing Branch and to Lotem, it would be easier to attract the best recruits to 8200, he says.