New Lessons From 1973: Is It Acceptable to Lie During Times of War?

The Yom Kippur War constitutes an interesting laboratory for exploring the truth – and more specifically, to whom it is permissible to lie in wartime.

Amir Oren
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Amir Oren

“Red Toad,” was the notification sent by the report and circulation section of the Military Intelligence Directorate to the operations department − the nerve center of the underground facility at General Staff headquarters. And also, “Red Frog.” The time was 14:07 hours on Saturday, October 6, 1973.

Those code words have been largely forgotten since then, as have those used to denote the actual systems ‏(“Deganit” and “Kalanit”‏) that set off the warnings. Apparently, the reference that day was to the takeoff of fighter aircraft from Egypt and Syria en route to attacking Israel Defense Forces targets on the Sinai and Golan Heights fronts. The message was duly noted, in the name of preserving proper order, which wasn’t so proper during those hours and days.

For a quarter of an hour, a war had been going on, one totally different from the war that began on the morning of June 5, 1967, with another red code, “Red Sheet,” denoting the movement of ground forces from the Negev into Sinai. Israel swallowed plenty of toads and frogs in the Yom Kippur War, and saw a lot of red.

According to the study by the General Staff’s history department, which was also turned into a definitive book entitled “Milhama Beyom Hakipurim” ‏(“War on Yom Kippur”‏), by Shimon Golan, the chief of staff, David Elazar, received the news at 13:55 hours that the war had begun from Israel Air Force chief Benny Peled, who reported to him the discovered takeoff of a quartet of Sukhoi fighter aircraft in Syria “and in parallel takeoffs of fighter aircraft in Egypt .... Maj. Gen. Peled informed the chief of staff he was launching most of the aircraft to defend the country’s skies.”

Monitoring the activity of the Arab countries’ air forces involved central players in the Israeli intelligence community, including the Mossad, the intelligence department of the air force, and the Military Intelligence unit ‏(504‏) which was in charge of running agents. The core of the activity, however, fell to the signal intelligence ‏(SIGINT‏) unit 848 − now called 8200. The unit’s commander during the war, Col. Yoel Ben-Porat, later expressed remorse for having remained obedient to the chain of command; he regretted not going over the heads of his commanders in the Military Intelligence Directorate and warning Elazar directly, on the chance that might have altered the chief of staff’s position.

The man whose story has barely been heard is that of Ben-Porat’s predecessor as head of 848, Shlomo Inbar, now 84 and a former head of research and development, as well as an attache in Washington.

At the memorial site for the fallen soldiers of the Signals, Electronics and Computers Corps, in Yehud, Inbar walks by the impressive displays as he begins to talk about the close affiliation between the signals and intelligence setups. One of the most interesting items on display is the tall antenna that rose above 848’s Bavel base in Um Hashiba, Sinai, with its face − and ears − aimed at the wide-open spaces at the southern Suez Canal entrance, up to the Cairo road, Egypt’s Third Army headquarters and air force bases.

Inbar, a veteran signals corps officer who was known to be a thorough organizer and adept at securing budgets, had not been at all familiar with what is now unit 8200 before he was yanked by Haim Bar-Lev, the chief of staff during the War of Attrition, from his post as head of the planning department in the Quartermaster’s Branch. Inbar arrived at the unit’s headquarters at Glilot, north of Tel Aviv, and encountered neglect. The unit had scored important achievements ahead of the Six-Day War, but, according to him, in the late 1960s, it became “more Arabist than technological.”

In his three years as commander of 848, Inbar upgraded the SIGINT system and created the necessary fusion between his unit and the intelligence corps. He dismissed the claim that an earlier or more prolonged activation signal intelligence measures would have made for a more effective warning during the first week of October 1973.

Exploring the truth

The Yom Kippur War constitutes an interesting laboratory for exploring the
truth − and more specifically, when and to whom is it permissible to lie in wartime. We are not talking about intelligence cover stories, strategic scams and tactical misdirection that come under the heading “trick.” It is a given that, in a time of danger, there is no obligation to reveal, to any person, all the truth and nothing but the truth. The disagreement is over context and circumstances.

The IDF almost always encouraged positive, mission-guided lies. For example, by switching off the radio of a raiding or intelligence unit that is nearing its destination but is running late, and is worried that the chief of staff sitting in the forward command group on the Israeli side of the line will abort the operation and bring it home. Likewise, encouraging a besieged, bleeding, starving and exhausted force to hang in there, because the rescue unit ‏(which is still far away and yet to be organized‏) will be there in a few minutes, will win praise. In these cases, the end will justify the means − if the two forces, deep in the field or under siege, ultimately survive.

But there are also more dubious examples, so much so that it seems the truth has become a doomsday weapon, only to be used when all other means have run out: Dado ‏(Elazar‏), who distinguished between routine “incidents” and full-scale war; Ariel Sharon, who could not manage to kick an “addiction” to non-truth ‏(as David Ben-Gurion once scolded him‏); Benny Peled, who explained that in order to spur an indolent chief of staff, the air force is allowed to exhibit a fateful weakness; Golda Meir, who claimed she was incapable of lying − and at the next opportunity forgot to say the truth.

Elazar ‏(“I took care not to lie”‏) justified the IDF Spokesman’s lies during the war by the need to appeal to various audiences supposedly cut off from each other and from the news. “In incidents, we always say the truth,” Dado claimed on October 9, before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where he came under attack for a press briefing ‏(“We’ll break their bones”‏) that contradicted in tone the justified gloominess around him.

“I think that in wartime you cannot say the truth,” he said. “There are loads of Arabs in the country, who are incited all day long on the radio to begin a rebellion. I want them to have the feeling that everything is in hand and it’s going to be fine. ‘We’ll screw the Arabs, and don’t you dare lift your heads.’ I couldn’t give a sophisticated commentary on television, so that [Jordan’s King] Hussein wouldn’t gain an impression from the pessimism and jump on the bandwagon. I address the soldier on the Golan Heights, who will hear that things are good at the [Suez] Canal and say, they’ll be good by me, too.”

Sharon’s “disputes with the truth” − also in wars, from the Sinai Campaign of 1956 to Lebanon 1982 − are among the most famous. In 1973, a hefty chapter was added to that volume. The following exchange, from October 9, is an indication of his reputation.

Elazar: “Gorodish [GOC Southern Command Shmuel Gonen] says, I asked him [Sharon] a few questions, so he answered me, so I didn’t believe him. I listened in to his network. I saw he was lying to me − that it’s exactly the opposite.” [Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan: “It is not a surprise that Arik lies.”

Two other deviations from the truth, of the air force chief and of the prime minister, have to do with the de-facto Israeli surrender to Egypt on October 12, 1973. Meir accepted Elazar’s recommendation at the time to strive for a cease-fire, in a military situation where there was an Egyptian advantage, and cabled her decision to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger through the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Simha Dinitz. Shimon Golan admits in his book that, “it is clear beyond a doubt that the chief of staff saw a speedy cease-fire as a vital necessity ... One of the considerations on which his conclusion was based was the data Peled presented regarding the air force’s order of battle.

Peled claimed after the war that he had presented that data ‏(on the air force’s loss of power, in Phantoms and mainly in air crews‏) to lead the chief of staff to decide on crossing the canal soon. In a letter to Golan, in 1984, Peled claimed that the knowingly misleading data he presented “were for the purpose of energizing the system that was scared of the terrible enemy − to recover and take an immediate offensive initiative, before the gloom and doom leaked out and contaminated the fighting forces.” A somewhat peculiar statement, seeing as a spirit of gloom and doom arose from the fear Peled expressed. Most astonishing, though, is the authority he gave himself to twist reality, in order to manipulate the government and chief of staff in a particular direction.

In 1978, as well, when these matters came out, Meir and those close to her − including those who had been involved in the events − denied the truth of the report about Israel’s willingness to strive for a cease-fire on October 12, 1973.

“Regarding the cease-fire, it is not yet time for us to decide,” Meir told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a week later, on October 19, after the IDF had crossed the canal. “If we had sat down a week ago and
talked about a cease-fire, the tone would have been a lot more ‘minor,’ and rightly so. Now, thank God, it is otherwise. A few days ago, we were in such a situation, in Syria we were beyond the line, and down south, they were beyond our side. I broke my head over what would happen if they were to say the cease-fire goes into effect at that earlier line. Then Egypt does not have to do anything and we would have to stand. Now we do not have such a dilemma.”

On October 22, the day of the cease-fire ‏(the first one, which was violated‏), she added a blatant lie, maybe because her rivals, led by Menachem Begin, were waiting to hear what she had to say, ahead of the Knesset elections: “As you know, we did not ask for a cease-fire and did not ask someone to ask for a cease-fire on our behalf. There were pretty hard and grave days, but there we did not go.”

Meir spoke like a veritable lie-detector. When she preferred not to question the reason given for the delay in reporting the Soviet-American coordination on obtaining a cease-fire, she said, “Of course, to whatever degree it is even possible to believe a human being, I am convinced that Kissinger is not lying; at any rate, not to us. When I asked him why the material from Moscow had been disrupted and held up, he replied, ‘I told my friends there was one person in the world who would not believe me, and that is you. The special instruments broke down [on the plane]. Believe me, out of contact for five hours.’ I said to him, ‘I know you, we have come a ways together on important matters. I do not believe you would cheat me.’”

On October 19, 1973, MK Mordechai Ben-Porat suggested to the prime minister, in a utilitarian gesture meant to recognize the “rehabilitated” Arab side, to say that the Arabs had fought bravely this time and to hint about a chance for peace, at least with Egypt. “I must say, I am mentally today unwilling to use psychological warfare,” Meir objected. “If I were to say what Ben-Porat suggests I say, it would be a lie.”

She was not willing to engage in such a lie because of the many soldiers who fell in battles with Arab armies: “What shall I tell them, that they are heroes? You fought splendidly this time? I cannot say that. I will not say that. With this psychological warfare I am not prepared to go along” − and mainly, because she was a woman of truth. “I have not yet managed to lie to someone without his telling me it is a lie,” she confessed. “Since I know it is so, I try not to lie.”

At least Meir tried, even if she did not always succeed.

Inspecting the troops on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, from left: Yitzhak Rabin, Avner Shalev, David Elazar and Shlomo Inbar.Credit: Eytan Harris/GPO
Peled claimed the knowingly misleading data he presented "were for the purpose of energizing the system that was scared of the enemy."Credit: Yaakov Saar/GPO

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