The Intolerable Ease of Leaking Classified Israeli Intelligence Information

The espionage indictment against radical settler Ya'akov Sela, an army intelligence NCO, contends he systematically penetrated the secrets of the Shin Bet security service unit that deals with Jewish suspects.

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Israeli soldier Ya'akov Sela in custody in March 2015.
Israeli soldier Ya'akov Sela in custody in March 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The full report of the indictment against the soldier Ya’akov Sela on Monday shows that the affair now seems even more serious than it appeared at first. Not only are the charges very grave against Sela, a non-commissioned intelligence officer – two counts of aggravated espionage, no less – but there is the matter of the enormous amount of information, some of it highly classified, which he saw without authorization. The depth of the failure of the monitoring system in the military has also come to light.

The indictment claims that over a period of three months, Sela, a corporal, opened more than 15,000 documents in the computers of the intelligence office of the Etzion Brigade headquarters (in Bethlehem) and went through the material they contained.

The man apparently had a lot of spare time on his hands. But while many bored employees take the time they have to surf websites of a more or less dubious nature, Sela simply systematically penetrated the secrets of the Shin Bet security service unit that deals with Jewish suspects. He also looked at many very sensitive documents in other fields to which he was not supposed to have any access.

The affair once again illustrates the intolerable ease with which military documents can be rummaged through. From the moment soldiers are drafted and make it through the initial vetting process that allows them to be posted to an intelligence position, almost everything is open to them – and no one later checks whether they overstepped their authority.

Technological developments of the past few decades have made access very easy, even at end-user stations in military computer systems, to huge quantities of material. In recent years the Intelligence Corps has also undergone a conscious and intentional process of removing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to allow relevant information to move relatively quickly, both across the ranks and upward.

And yet, compartmentalization should have been in a plan that would stop a curious soldier (and in this case, apparently, a soldier with clear ideological motives) from getting into places he was not authorized to go.

There should also be a probe in the Shin Bet whether there really was a need to bring Central Command military intelligence into all the secrets of the activities of Shin Bet’s Jewish department, to the point where they reached a corporal from the settlement of Bat Ayin.

Entire system is daydreaming

Between the lines, the indictment reveals that the entire system is daydreaming. An energetic intelligence non-com browsed through material for three months without any of his superiors checking what he was doing. Clearly Sela’s commanders saw no warning lights for a long time, nor did the Israel Defense Forces field security, which is still apparently more occupied with scaring soldiers away from prohibited contacts with the media. (The indictment against Sela also contains a relatively minor charge, of leaking information to the right-wing media outlet Hakol Hayehudi.)

The prosecution claims that Sela methodically gathered prohibited information, informed individuals suspected by the Shin Bet of violent acts (“price tag” attacks – politically-motivated violence by Jewish extremists), passed on secret information to them, revealed the Shin Bet’s methods and even tried to connect the code names of operatives in the Jewish sector with their real names.

Did he also burn intelligence sources? When an extreme right-wing activist received an update that reflects what the Shin Bet’s Jewish unit knows about him, we may assume that he tries to reverse-engineer the information about his actions to find out its source.

Even if the Shin Bet refuses to confirm that sources were burned, it is clear that real damage has been done here, in a realm where the Shin Bet and the police have for years had trouble penetrating and drafting new agents. This is a grim picture – the Shin Bet can only be grateful that sheer luck prevented something similar happening in the Palestinian sector.

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