From Anat Kamm to Edward Snowden: Like U.S., Israel Has a Problem With Security Leaks

Unlike the U.S., however, 'secret' info gets to local media but causes more embarrassment than danger: a look at the security leaks in recent Israeli history.

Amos Harel
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The hornets' nest stirred up by U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who revealed the extent to which American intelligence agencies have invaded the privacy of citizens of the United States and other countries, has several implications. One is the increasing media interest in the Obama administration's efforts to hinder leaks.

In this context, as we discover more details, they add to the depressing picture of the figure of the president looked up to by liberals. Like his predecessors, and perhaps even more than they, it appears that U.S. President Barack Obama obsesses about preventing leaks and finding the perpetrators in his administration. The excuse, as always, is national security, but the preventive action spills over into areas where the connection to national security is slight at best.

First the McClatchy newspaper chain revealed that Obama ordered the creation of a new initiative last year with the primary purpose of hunting leakers. The program, called Insider Threat, is quite sweeping. It doesn't cover just the various branches of national security and intelligence, but also civilian forces and the departments of education and agriculture, as well as Social Security. The documents that were revealed emphasize the threat of leaks of classified information, but the definitions are formulated in an expansive manner that grants different agencies expanded powers against disciplinary offenders of almost all types.

In an unprecedented manner, administration employees and outside contractors are requested to display alertness to dangerous behavior by their colleagues that could point to a data security risk. If they do not report these risks in advance, such people risk being hit with criminal indictments. Several days later, it became clear that an investigation was being conducted against Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on suspicion that he leaked to a New York Times journalist classified information about the cyber-attack that inserted the Stuxnet virus into the computers of the Iranian nuclear program.

While the Americans are afraid of in-house revelations, this week the Knesset State Control Committee met to discuss the state comptroller report regarding the Harpaz document. The forged document was at the center of the 2010 scandal surrounding the competition among IDF generals to succeed then IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot reported to two Knesset members that two IDF committees, each chaired by a major general, are examining conflicts of interest and suspected infractions in units of Military Intelligence after the scandal broke. Eizenkot also said the army increased the number of polygraph tests for officers to 3,000 per year and that the number of such tests would be doubled within several years. Here too the principal matter for the army is to prevent harm to national security, but along the way it is trying to fight against media leaks, which officers will also be questioned about during polygraph tests.

Crackdown after 2nd Lebanon War

The turning point in army-media relations occurred during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, after which the strength of the ties between army officers and journalists was revealed. Even though the high command pretended to be shocked, it had a direct role in the creation of an organizational culture in which correspondents accompanied the army's work from up close during the second intifada and disengagement from Gaza. Then-IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and his interlocutors had an interest in looking the other way because the close media coverage served his goal of jumping into politics (and even running for prime minister ) at the end of his term.

Of course, the failure in Lebanon upset this plan. Then Halutz began an extended witch hunt under the guise of preventing security leaks. In practice, it was an attempt to halt the wave of harsh public criticism against him and his management that was unleashed from within the General Staff. On August 15, 2006, a day after the cease-fire, the chief of staff assembled the generals, reprimanded them for the leaks and announced that he had outgoing call data from the officers' cellphones that enabled him to figure out who among them had spoken with which journalist. This reprimand was also leaked, of course, the following day. Later it was reported that an examination of telephone conversations involving combat officers ranked major and higher showed that during the war, there was a day in which more than 400 officers spoke with journalists.

The investigation of information security moved on and became more extensive until it spilled over into the term of Halutz's successor, Ashkenazi, after Halutz resigned in February 2007. Some officers were reprimanded, others had their promotions delayed and a few officers who had chattered were forgiven. The chiefs of staff did not touch the generals. As a rule, the leaks have diminished since that time, both because of the atmosphere of making amends in the army after the relative failure in the war sharpened organizational commitment, and also because of the fear of getting caught.

But the army's claim was unfounded that in Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009, the leaks stopped entirely. In Lebanon, the officers were surprised to find out that their cellphones were in fact owned by the IDF, which is authorized to probe their phone calls. People who still wanted to keep in touch with journalists found indirect ways to do it. The command style of the current chief of staff, Benny Gantz, is more lenient than that of his two predecessors. The rate of leaks remains lower than it was during the war in Lebanon, but it seems that the hunt for the leakers has also calmed down somewhat. On the scale of security organizations, the army is less porous to the media than the police (where the district spokesman's only assignment is to get his commander promoted to district commander), but more than the Shin Bet and the Mossad.

IDF uncontrollable

In both of the latter entities, whose personnel is believed to number a few thousand each, organizational control is tighter and backed up by regular polygraph tests. The IDF, as noted, will try to tighten its hold over its officers by means of the polygraph threat, but success is expected to be only partial. The IDF is simply too large and the number of its interfaces with civilian society too great (parents, politicians, reservists ) to hermetically seal it.

In looking at leaks, we have to differentiate between reports that hurt organizational pride or awareness of confidentiality, and leaks that cause real damage. A good example of the latter is the segment published a month ago on the Channel 2 investigative journalism show "Uvda" about the 1988 killing of Fatah military chief Abu Jihad. The broadcast of the recordings from the elite Matkal communications network (in which the current defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, known by his nickname, "Bogie," was called "Bogart") added a dramatic and exciting element to the report, but infuriated the elders of the intelligence community. Never, they claimed, had there been such anarchy.

The censorship authorities were less upset; they did not find in the mysteriously leaked recordings anything currently damaging. Therefore the military censor allowed them to be broadcast. And yet, despite the relative security calm and the temporary time-out between the army and the media, we must assume that it will not go on forever. The length of the chief of staff's term (which will probably be extended to a fourth year at the end of the summer), battles over succession, limitations on funding and specific failures that will yet occur - all of these could lead in the future to more leaks, and new hunts for the leakers.

A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden, Hong Kong, June 23, 2013.Credit: AP