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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Shin Bet security service four months ago to launch an undercover investigation into leaks of sensitive diplomatic and security information. The probe targeted several of Netanyahu’s closest advisers.

After being questioned and taking polygraph tests, they were cleared of all suspicion.

A source in the Prime Minister’s Bureau said Netanyahu requested the probe after several reports about sensitive diplomatic and security issues appeared in the media very close together.

“These leaks caused damage to the State of Israel,” the source said.

One such leak apparently dealt with diplomatic talks between Netanyahu and a foreign leader.

The Shin Bet questioned several Netanyahu aides with access to the information: National Security Advisor Uzi Arad, military secretary Yohanan Locker, diplomatic advisor Ron Dermer, Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and media advisor Nir Hefetz.

Netanyahu’s bureau said the prime minister was not involved in the probe and did not tell the Shin Bet whom to question. The agency also questioned several people outside the bureau, it noted.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office denied that one of Barak’s advisers had been questioned in the case.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein approved the probe after being convinced that it served a genuinely vital public interest. He also laid down rules for the inquiry, including banning wiretaps of the suspects.

Though the probe concluded that the leaker was definitely not anyone in Netanyahu’s bureau, it left open who the leaker was. The Shin Bet’s findings have been given to Weinstein, and he must now decide how to proceed.

The inquiry, first reported on by Army Radio, attests to the atmosphere of suspicion that has characterized Netanyahu’s bureau for the past year. Leaks were also investigated under former premiers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, but not in such a sweeping fashion.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has complained about leaks and threatened an investigation, but it is apparently the first time the Shin Bet has conducted one on his behalf. During an official visit to Moscow 10 months ago, for instance, the prime minister was furious at Haaretz’s report that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had promised not to sell S-300 missiles to Iran. He summoned all his advisors to his hotel suite, demanded to know who had leaked the story and threatened to get the Shin Bet to investigate. In practice, however, he never did so.

Associates of Netanyahu said yesterday that he has “full confidence” in all his advisors and considers them “outstanding people,” but the Shin Bet insisted that everyone be questioned.

They also dismissed recurrent reports of tensions and conflicts between his aides, terming this mere “gossip.”

The Justice Ministry declined to respond to Haaretz’s questions about the apparently sweeping use of polygraph tests in the probe, beyond saying that the investigation was conducted within the boundaries set by Weinstein.

But a previous attorney general and current Supreme Court justice, Elyakim Rubinstein, ruled in 2003 that polygraph tests could not be used against “all those potentially involved” in a leak, but only against “a concrete suspect or suspects.”

One particularly bizarre sidenote of the story was last week’s report in a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Jarida, that Hefetz had been forced to quit his job after failing a polygraph test over the leaks and that Hauser was soon expected to quit for the same reason.

The report proved to be false. But it seems likely that it stemmed from a manipulative leak by someone else in the bureau with a score to settle. The incident is doubly bizarre because Al Jarida is a fairly marginal paper in the Arab world.