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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not sick with the flu yesterday, as his bureau announced to explain his absence from the office. At dawn, he slipped out of his farm, hidden by a tarp concealing the rear of his farm manager's pickup, and was driven to the Hatzerim air force base, wedged into the rear seat of an F-15i like Vladimir Putin on a sudden sortie to Chechnya, and flown to Tehran for a secret meeting with Ayatollah Khamani, to make a deal with Iran - dismantling the Hezbollah, returning Ron Arad and selling weapons to Iran through the mediation of an old friend of Sharon's. The press was not suspicious, the surprise was complete.

Was the earlier report about Sharon being ill a lie? The conventional answer to such a question is yes or no, but it's not so bad, because it was a cover story for a passing operation. Senior officers in the general staff say the Israeli press is petty, self-righteous, and harmed them by presenting them as liars in the matter of the use of the secret weapon for the air assassination in Gaza, compared to the American press' admiration for President George Bush's deception so he could fly to Baghdad. The officers' blindness to the difference guarantees they'll make the same mistake again.

In any given political, security or even economic (for example, devaluation) event, secrecy can be tolerated for some time, to keep the operation safe. But such a narrow perspective can miss the broader context - the trust of the public, its elected officials and the press. The press does not hire its leaders, officials and officers to lie to it - on the slippery slope of national needs, the organizational need to get resources, and the personal need for survival and career progress. The IDF, the biggest of the secret-keepers, is also the organization that shouts loudest when suddenly, without any joint staff work, the treasury drops on it a secret plan to cut the defense budget.

Bush hid his travel plans from his parents, who were invited for Thanksgiving dinner, from most of his top administration officials and half his personal security force. The journalists summoned to accompany him signed a confidentiality agreement believing the truth was a lie, that they were being tricked. It was cover for the coverage, in the double sense of the term - reporting and camouflage - and with the knowledge that the embargo on the story was very short term, just 12 hours away. The planning of what could be reported was included in the cover, if the secret had been kept after the visit, there wouldn't have been any point to the trip.

The American 3rd Army's report on the war in Iraq shows the army's commanders dared deviate from a ban on exposing classified information from some 100 reporters from some 60 different news outlets, who were embedded in the army during the war. The battle plans were presented to the reporters two full days before the start of the ground offensive, on the assumption that anyone risking their life with the forces would have the sense to shut up - fearing his colleagues' wrath as well - and that prior recognition and understanding of the issues would prevent an innocent leak of a secret detail. The gamble paid off. No secrets leaked, and the reporting was sympathetic to the forces and their operations, therefore, by implication, to the goals of the war.

As in the case of the unnecessary attack two years ago on the headquarters of Jibril Rajoub, a foreign force but one less hostile than others, with its cover story about assassinations, the IDF managed to blow up a bridge to a group that had been more skeptical than suspicious up to that point - the military reporters - losing them for the sake of zealously protecting an operational secret. The cover story about the means of an operation turned the coverage - the lie, and the suspicion that is characteristic, not a deviation - into a more important story than the operation.

The IDF needs a different structure for its relations with the public, the Knesset and the media, a single branch of the general staff that includes the spokesman, JAG, the chaplain, the women's affairs adviser and ombudsman, and the chief education and reserves officers. There's no need to form a new branch. The Planning Branch, which was thinned out for the sake of the Defense Ministry, but will continue to maintain the army's political connections, could house all those whose job is to look outward and who should only speak the truth.