AG Seeks Prosecutorial Power Over Chatty Cops

Under draft directive, police officers, prosecutors and court employees who obstruct justice by leaking information from ongoing investigation could face criminal charges

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on January 16, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

The Attorney General’s Office is working on a new directive under which law enforcement personnel who leak information from criminal or security investigations would be subject to criminal charges, rather than merely to disciplinary proceedings, as they are today.

Deputy Attorney General Ran Nizri announced the proposed change on Tuesday at the Israel Bar Association’s annual conference in Eilat. He said a draft of the directive has been submitted to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who must decide whether to approve it.

The order would cover police officers, prosecutors and court employees. The main reason for the change is concern that leaks from an investigation can obstruct the investigation.

Nizri said that leak investigations would focus on the leakers themselves, but that journalists who published leaked information were liable to be questioned or asked to testify in such cases. He insisted that the authorities would know how to balance journalistic privilege against the needs of the investigation, and that only in extreme cases would journalists themselves be investigated.

The directive is meant to apply specifically to cases in which leaks from an investigation risk obstructing the investigation itself, he added.

Nizri’s comments followed remarks by MK David Amsalem (Likud), who said he was working on a bill that would require police officers to undergo polygraph tests in the event that material was leaked from an investigation in which they were involved while the probe was still in process.

In January, when the criminal investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were at their height, Mendelblit announced that his office would begin work on a directive to cope with leaks to the media by means of “an expansion, albeit cautious, of the enforcement policy toward those who divulge information that shouldn’t be divulged.” He stressed that he had “no complaints against the media, which is doing its job”; rather, he said, the target would be people in positions of trust “who betray that trust.”

Mendeblit said on that occasion that because leaks from investigations can undermine vital interests, there is a public interest in enforcing the ban on leaks. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, “instituting criminal proceedings over leaks is a complicated matter. First, before taking such a step, the need to protect the public’s right to know and freedom of the press, which are fundamental principles in a democracy, must be taken into account.”

“The need for this balance has led the prosecution, until now, to take a cautious, minimalistic approach toward leak investigations,” Mendeblit continued. “Nevertheless, after I looked into the matter, inter alia by examining various incidents in which complaints about leaks arrived on my desk, I found that there are cases in which it’s impossible to accept the damage this practice causes. Therefore, even though the enforcement policy on this issue must continue to be cautious and minimalistic, I concluded that there is room to expand it somewhat.”