More Bang for Mossad Shekel

Anyone who drives along the main road that passes by Mossad headquarters will have difficulty not noticing another few buildings of three or four floors that were added to the compound in the past year. Even without knowing the Mossad's budget, which is kept under wraps, the cost of these new buildings can easily be estimated at several hundred million shekels. In so doing, the Mossad followed in the footsteps of the Shin Bet security service, which added two large new buildings to its north Tel Aviv headquarters over the past few years, at the price of hundreds of millions of shekels. Officials of both intelligence organizations have explained that the accelerated building is aimed at relieving some of the congestion and overcrowding, adding both offices and storage space, which were in chronic undersupply for many years.

The construction work is yet another expression of the high status of the intelligence community in the eyes of the prime minister, the defense minister and the cabinet, the three instances that have approved the significant increases in the intelligence budget in recent years. Ahead of Rosh Hashanah, media reports quoted outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert as saying he was proud of having approved almost any operation the Mossad asked him to sanction - even more so than his predecessor Ariel Sharon. The prime minister's boasting, whether exaggerated or not, recalls days gone by, when members of the intelligence community used to say that "intelligence has no price." Such cliche-filled slogans repeatedly advocated that when it comes to state security and because of the need for intelligence information (to serve as a warning of war, to thwart terror or to beef up the state's deterrent power - including by means of assassination operations, such as that of Imad Mughniyeh, which foreign sources have attributed to the Mossad), it was "worth paying any price for intelligence."

Even though the budgets of the intelligence community are fixed in two separate offices - the Shin Bet and the Mossad in the Prime Minister's Office, and Military Intelligence, like the rest of the Israel Defense Forces, in the Defense Ministry - their layout is similar. They are based on three central parts. The first is the current budget, earmarked mainly for paying salaries - almost 50 percent of the Mossad and Shin Bet's budgets go to salaries and accompanying benefits. This allocation is smaller for Military Intelligence, because most of its manpower is made up of conscripts, estimated to cost some NIS 60,000 a year for a male soldier and NIS 55,000 for a female soldier. The second part relates to development (building and logistics), while the third is actually a separate budget for operations, including the development and production of the technological gadgets required for operations, for example the production of special wiretapping equipment.

However, cost considerations are increasingly important for intelligence operations. Several facts contributed to this concept shift. First and foremost were the defense budget cuts of the 1990s, in the wake of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Several expensive operations that relied on advanced technology, especially in the sphere of wiretapping, did not produce the required intelligence results despite the large monetary investment. In addition, several graduates of the intelligence community - most renowned among them those of Unit 8200 (the central collection unit of the Israeli intelligence community) - established high-tech companies, whose business acumen, now focused in costs, gradually began to seep into their original units. Social and professional ties outside the army as well as continued reserve duty helped reinforce this phenomenon.

This shift is multi-faceted. If field security permits, the production of some of the equipment needed for operations is outsourced, thereby reducing costs. In addition, greater stress is being put on developing equipment and "generic" measures that can be used in several operations, not just on a one-time basis. For example, if an antenna and other reception equipment has to be put up to receive signals and pictures from satellites operated by Israel, efforts will be made to ensure that it will be able to receive signals from more than one country.

In training courses, commanders, unit heads and station chiefs of Military Intelligence, the Mossad or the Shin Bet are taught how to prepare a budget and meet it - a policy much different from the past, where many times the budget was mere fiction. The head of a Mossad overseas branch, for example, did not hesitate to overstep his budget, even by millions of shekels, knowing full well that his excuse of "operational needs" would always be accepted. In various organizations, efforts to professionally oversee the budget and the way in which it is spent have been stepped up. Thus, for example, as early as the 1990s, the commander of Unit 8200, Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash (who later became head of Military Intelligence) set up a body under Nir Lampert, whose purpose was to examine the feasibility of operations and the use of technology as a derivative of the financial investment.

In Military Intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet, committees have also been set up with a view to examining, using mathematical models and matrixes (such as those in use in the United States and Britain), the questions of "what is the price of an intelligence report?" and "is it worth the money to be invested in it?" This is not a simple mission and there are no ready answers. Obviously, the financial consideration is still secondary to the need to acquire information, for example, about Iran's nuclear program or the plans of terrorist groups, and the means to thwart or, at least, to disrupt them - but all the same, it would be worthwhile for the intelligence community to pay attention to this issue and, perhaps, even to set up an extra-organizational oversight body, free of conflicts of interests, which can deal with the issue.