ANALYSIS / Olmert Probe Shows the Media Really Is the Message

The media midwifed the affair, kept it from dying and has turned itself into the arena for the coming rounds.

The time: Thursday, May 1, 3:30 P.M. The place: the police commissioner's bureau at National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem. The host: Police Commissioner David Cohen. The guests: Police Spokesman Rafi Yafeh and spokespeople for the force's districts and departments. On the agenda: a discussion about the police's relationship with the press.

Channel 2 television was hours away from airing a sensational report on the urgent summoning of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for questioning in the framework of a new criminal investigation against him, but the meeting's participants were not in the loop. On Cohen's orders, the probe was strictly compartmentalized. The spokeswoman for the Investigations and Intelligence Department, which is handling the probe, was kept in the dark, and so was Yafeh, a senior officer, who was thereby subjected to the indignity of being portrayed as someone whose commanding officer does not trust him to keep a secret.

But this policy of compartmentalization did not work. Olmert's associates responded to the news about the investigation in a way that led viewers to believe that the information had been leaked by the police.

The investigation into Olmert's relationship with the man dubbed "Mr. T" has once again proven two ancient truths about the media. One is that "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan averred in his classic work, entitled Understanding Media. The other is that the presence of the observer alters the outcome of the experiment he is there to observe. The proof can be found in the surprising twists that the press has woven into the story's plot by reporting on it. The media midwifed the affair, kept it from dying and has turned itself into the arena for the coming rounds.

Last week, on the eve of his interrogation, Olmert and his associates needed every bit of information they could get to help them prepare for the grilling and construct a credible account. The most effective, legal - and possibly desperate - way of obtaining this information was to leak the story, in the hope of putting the competitive and quick-acting media on its trail. That way, Olmert's team would have 12 hours, the amount of time between publication and the premier's interrogation, to find out how much the police already knew and what they were seeking to discover.

For the past week, the investigators and the suspects in the case have been engaged in a war of wits that has been conducted away from the public eye. From Syrian President Bashar Assad's nuclear reactor to Olmert's pockets, the State of Israel has become infatuated with gag orders. Instead of being a light unto the nations, we have national news blackouts.

The main developments in the case have been as follows: It began with an investigative report by Gidi Weitz that was published in the Haaretz Week's End supplement in August 2006. The report concerned the dealings between Olmert, back when he was industry and trade minister, and his friend, supporter and former partner, attorney Uri Messer. The affair then landed on the desk of the state comptroller, who in April 2007 recommended that the attorney general consider initiating a criminal investigation into Olmert's actions.

Thereafter, the case was the subject of months of head-scratching and soul-searching by the State Prosecutor's Office and the police. Eventually, further journalistic prodding helped the authorities resolve the hiccups, burps and filing errors surrounding the case, and the officers and attorneys finally managed to insert the proverbial key into the ignition.

The filing errors, as it turned out, were the fault of the police, who failed to properly examine the material they had received from the State Prosecutor's Office. The most damning piece of evidence in the file had been overlooked, until the press started sniffing around again.

The document that the police had overlooked originally came from State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who found that while Olmert served as trade minister, his ties with Messer - who represented an entrepreneur seeking a grant from the ministry's Investment Center - raised suspicions of impropriety. Lindenstrauss noted that Olmert had "a decisive involvement in the case despite his conflict of interests."

Lindenstrauss gave his material to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz on April 25, 2006. But 11 months and one day passed before the ice broke under Olmert's feet, on March 26, 2008.

In the first week of April, Mazuz was still dismissive about the Investment Center case. By the third week, he had run out of snickers. Israel did not manage to come to Mr. T., but Mr. T. came to Israel. He is a clever Jew who knows the difference between killing time in New York and doing time in Ma'asiyahu Prison. Moreover, the money trail could very well lead to North America, and Mr. T. may be even more afraid of the FBI than of the Israeli police. Whatever the reason, he did not exercise his right to remain silent.

But this triad of Olmert, North America and money is not the only possible combination. When the gag order is lifted, it may turn out that campaign finance also plays a serious role in the case. If Olmert ever admitted taking money illegally, he would rather claim the money was for political purposes than for his own use. After all, an election scandal is better than being thought a thief.