Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin
Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin Photo by Maya Levin / Jini
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August. Along the border. Thick foliage impedes vision. Soldiers on one side go out to prune the trees. There is no surprise in this. Everyone knows about it in advance, but a disagreement arises and the other side attacks - first verbally and then with devastating force, hitting two officers. The violence does not develop into a general clash. The tree-trimming recommences, in part to prove the attacked side has not been deterred.

It was August 18, 1976, when the "axe murder incident" occurred in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. U.S. intelligence, which focused on alerts of a northern invasion of the south, had not predicted such a possibility. American and South Korean officers were supervising workers who, in prior coordination with the north, were pruning and cutting down trees. Initially, they were observed by North Korean soldiers armed with axes, but suddenly the commander of the latter demanded that the Americans stop the work, because the tree had been planted and nurtured by the great leader, Kim Il-Sung. When the American commander, Capt. Arthur Bonifas, ignored the demand, the North Korean soldiers were ordered to follow their officers in an attack on the workers and their superior officers. Bonifas was killed in the incident and platoon commander 1st. Lt. Mark Barrett was mortally wounded.

The Americans did not concede. Later that week they organized large forces of infantry, engineers and armored corps soldiers, as well as bombers and fighter planes for cover and deterrence, and completed their mission.

And another August. A high-ranking officer in the Israel Defense Forces intelligence branch either gives excuses for failures or warns of possible future mishaps - or both. This is Lt. Col. Yehoshafat Harkabi, deputy head of IDF Military Intelligence, protesting proposed changes in the authority of the various services involved in intelligence. The year is 1953.

"When the relationship concerning intelligence between the various institutions were defined, they were defined in a different way," protests Harkabi. "Here it states in writing: 'The police are entitled to operate intelligence beyond the border, in close contact with the MI Department.' What does this mean, 'Close contact with the MI Department'? The moment there are two authorities operating along the front, the two authorities will become rivals and step on each other's toes. The Arabs know there are two institutions. They report to two places, get money from two sides and each side lies to the other. In this way they are also liable to get caught."

The head of the MI directorate has a hard life, these days. The technology and the priorities it employs have changed drastically over the years. Indeed, Harkabi was talking about spying by means of human sources - "HUMINT" - before the tremendous flourishing of intelligence gathering by electronic means, "SIGINT." But the risks, the failures and the excuses have not changed.

The sniper attack in the north this week, undertaken on the orders of a company commander in the 9th Brigade of the Lebanese Army, flew under the MI radar. The work of intelligence would be simpler, by definition if not in practice, if it faced only a defined enemy and had an orderly command structure, with clear ranking and regular communications and signs indicating a transition from routine to emergency situation.

But the danger lurks in the branches and the cracks, with individuals and organized groups on the margins of - and even in opposition to - the system. In 1981, MI examined the Egyptian Army's activity through the lens of the diplomatic process and also possible renewal of belligerent tensions. It did not see the organizing of Khalid Islambouli's fanatical underground, which assassinated Anwar Sadat. The failure of Egypt's internal security services was of course greater, but that is no consolation.

For the second time in slightly over two months, MI has failed with respect to an issue that is at the bottom of its list of priorities. First there was the raid on the Turkish flotilla. The failure there occured because Turkey and its IHH organization were not considered threats that would justify diverting Israeli resources away from keeping track of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and other more constant and immediate threats. This week, it was the Lebanese Army. This army is known, of course, to be one of the players in the regional arena, but was considered a secondary one, like the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Accordingly, the level of concern about it was low.

The upshot, in both cases, was that what was supposedly a marginal element led, in a seemingly tactical incident, to a development that has strategic implications.

The MI directorate was not sufficiently prepared to produce intelligence to help prevent these negative developments. If, as usual, one looks for partners to share the blame, one can find the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service, naval intelligence (which also slipped up in the surprise of Hezbollah's land-to-sea missile, which hit the missile boat Hanit in July of 2006, killing four Israel soldiers ) and the intelligence department of the Northern Command. And if one wants to go down a level or two, the intelligence on the division and brigade level. Or, if one wants to move sideways, the Combat Intelligence Corps, appended to the ground forces.

Heavy weight

The head of MI can only droop under the heavy weight of dealing with his roles and superiors. He is supposed to provide intelligence to political leaders, officers and fighters, build up military intelligence in general, and express his professional, and sometimes personal, opinion as a veteran and experienced member of the General Staff. It isn't true that he is the "servant of two masters" - he has three: the chief of staff, the defense minister and the prime minister.

And the burden keeps getting heavier, with the weight of the past and the desire to avoid the fate of other heads of MI (whose end was more bitter than their start ), combining with worries about the future, of how the MI chief will be remembered in the history of intelligence and what job he will be given as a sign of gratitude and esteem. For example, head of the Mossad or head of the National Security Council.

The sniper attack in the north this week, undertaken on the orders of a company commander in the 9th Brigade of the Lebanese Army, flew under the MI radar. The work of intelligence would be simpler, by definition if not in practice, if it faced only a defined enemy and had an orderly command structure, with clear ranking and regular communications and signs indicating a transition from routine to emergency situation.

But the danger lurks in the branches and the cracks, with individuals and organized groups on the margins of - and even in opposition to - the system. In 1981, MI examined the Egyptian Army's activity through the lens of the diplomatic process and also possible renewal of belligerent tensions. It did not see the organizing of Khalid Islambouli's fanatical underground, which assassinated Anwar Sadat. The failure of Egypt's internal security services was of course greater, but that is no consolation.

Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin's balance sheet is mixed. His supporters, both at the directorate and outside it, say that the balance is positive, in his favor, and there are those who would say "very positive." But this is just one measure. Another measure involves attitudes toward him in light of the intelligence failure to warn of the abduction near Zarit on July 12, 2006, and the dearth of essential information transmitted to the forces in the field. But thanks to the generally forgiving attitude - relative to the excessive stringency toward army commanders and others who benefit from his intelligence work - Yadlin has survived another four years and can present the above-mentioned, positive balance sheet.

Yadlin has been lucky. As a colonel in the air force, he assessed that his path of promotion was pretty much blocked and amused himself by competing for the position of military spokesman. However, sudden mishaps involving two base commanders with the rank of brigadier general - Amiram Eliasaf and Uzi Rosen - created new opportunities. Afterward, in his final position as a military attache, then-chief of staff-designate Dan Halutz recruited Yadlin to head the MI Directorate. And had Moshe Kaplinsky not refused Ashkenazi's offer to head MI, toward the end of 2008, Yadlin would have already retired.

Change of structure

In the wake of changes in the entire IDF General Staff, which at the end of the last decade transitioned to a structure imitating that of the air force command, with a deputy chief of staff dealing with the building of the force and a head of the Operations Directorate who deals with implementation, Yadlin changed the structure of the intelligence directorate after he arrived from the air force. Alongside the chief intelligence officer, a brigadier general who is supposed to deal with the traditional weakness of MI - the nurturing of an officers' cadre - Yadlin created a new position, head of operations. In that he had one general aim - improving the efficiency of MI's various elements - and one specific one - helping himself, with his pilot's background, command secret operations, such as those carried out by the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit. To this end, one after the other, three Sayeret officers were appointed to be head of operations: Nitzan Alon, Herzi Halevy and Lior Carmeli.

The question of the success of the operations division, in, for example, the Turkish flotilla affair, is controversial and this week was at the center of an internal investigation at the MI Directorate. On the assumption that Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi will be Yadlin's replacement, a certain shrinkage in the status of the head of the operations division is expected, in light of Kochavi's rich experience in planning and commanding special operations.

MI has two important brigadier generals: the head of the research division and head of Unit 8200 (which is essential and even crucial today to the Shin Bet's activity ). With all these elements and officers, and above them Yadlin, the directorate failed to read the signs indicative of an intention to deviate this time from the routine of the tens and hundreds of previous defoliations, and thus to spark an incident. Even if it is correct to divide responsibility between MI and the Northern Command - at a sensitive moment for the latter, when its commander, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, is vying for the position of chief of staff - this could cast a pall on Yadlin's balance sheet.

Once the shooting, which killed Lt. Col. Dov Harari and wounded Capt. Ezra Lakia, occurred, however, Yadlin's situation changed. From that moment on, he played a moderating and calming role in the gray area between his responsibility for interpreting national intelligence, on the one hand, and his involvement in the large issues of security and policy, on the other. When the head of the MI Directorate tells the political echelon, and through it also the public, that he does not see clear Hezbollah fingerprints on the incident, he is sending a message to the hotheads among the decision makers that those eager for an escalation in the north will not be able to hide behind his back.

Ashkenazi and Yadlin have similar personality traits. They are centralist administrators who hate to lose control. Both of them are cautious and suspicious, knowledgeable and curious. They both have broad horizons and tend toward pessimism. Therefore they aim, although not always successfully (for example, this week ), to prepare for the unanticipated. And the moment trouble appears, their dislike of showy moves - the initial enthusiasm for which, they have learned by experience, generally dissipates as the complications deepen - places them on the side that seeks to restrain from hastiness and foolhardiness.

With the political scene manned by problematic figures, the presence of a chief of staff and an MI head (as well as a GOC Northern Command and others among the top brass ) who are restrained and sober could tip the balance toward moderation.