Harpaz in America

In Israel, we've repeatedly said of the Harpaz affair that 'this couldn't happen in America' - referring to the relationship between the military and the executive branch.

Robert Welander was an outstanding commander in the U.S. Navy. He was disappointed when, on one of the ships he commanded, he failed to sign up a talented signal corps officer for career service. The young officer, who only wanted to complete his compulsory service, dreamed of becoming a journalist. His name was Bob Woodward.

Welander was the Joint Chiefs of Staff's liaison officer in the White House's National Security Council during the Watergate affair. But he was also at the center of a separate scandal in the Nixon administration.

I only mention this because, in Israel, we've repeatedly said of the Harpaz affair that "this couldn't happen in America" - referring to the relationship between the military and the executive branch. And if it did, the penalty would be something on the order of President Harry Truman's firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. This second scandal happened six months before the break-in into the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate building, which made Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein famous and brought down President Richard Nixon.

The "this couldn't happen in America" argument is obviously groundless. MacArthur, commander of the Korean War, provoked Truman, disobeyed him, argued with him in public on policy issues and had presidential aspirations himself.

In the Nixon administration, Welander served as a tool for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Thomas Moorer. The serial leak of embarrassing documents to the investigative journalist Jack Anderson prompted Nixon to sic his "plumbers" - who also operated the Watergate burglars - on people with access to secret material.

Later, investigators found that a low-ranking but well-placed soldier, a subordinate of Welander, would photograph National Security Council documents that were supposed to be concealed from the military. The documents were secretly transferred by Welander to Moorer, whom Nixon wanted to keep out of the loop. The likable soldier, who volunteered to help the busy secretaries deliver mail to the building next door, was also sent abroad with delegations as an assistant, where he saved documents from destruction and sent them to his commanders via diplomatic pouch.

Nixon wondered what to do with Moorer, who claimed in the investigation that he received mountains of documents daily and didn't bother to check their source. The president decided he couldn't afford to fight with the military. Not only did he not fire Moorer, he added two years to his two-year term. Welander received a senior appointment and retired honorably. Still, something had to be done. So the soldier was sent to a remote naval base on the West Coast.

American democracy survived. It could distinguish between Truman's principled stance and Nixon's caprices, and its checks and balances protected it from a situation in which the boss goes crazy. Toward the end of the Nixon era, military commanders were warned (by Defense Secretary James Schlesinger ) not to obey his orders to move forces or open fire.

In Israel there have been cases of cross-border military action without the cabinet's approval. Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, GOC Northern Command Yanush Ben-Gal and local commander Meir Dagan ordered attacks in south Lebanon without the knowledge or approval of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was also defense minister. (The moves were concealed from Military Intelligence chief Yehoshua Saguy. )

There have also been officers who refused to obey a rash order. One of them was southern-front commander Yisrael Tal, who thwarted the order from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff David Elazar to renew the fighting in the Suez area at the end of the Yom Kippur War.

These are serious matters compared to the colorful but lightweight Harpaz story - which involved the forging of a document in a bid to influence the selection of the next chief of staff. Yet the state comptroller, in his misdirected eagerness to see the Harpaz affair as the be-all and end-all, pushed aside the thorough examination he had intended to carry out into the IDF's relations with the political leadership. His report's impact will be measured by the next chief of staff's appointment; the next chief of staff takes office in February 2014 - a few months after the Knesset elections, if they are held on schedule.

The prime minister and defense minister have failed twice in appointing the 20th chief of staff - Yoav Galant as a permanent appointment and Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh as a temporary one. The comptroller's report will be seen as a failure unless it helps establish a system to prevent the prime minister and defense minister from perverting the appointment process of the 21st chief of staff, too.