Israel Doubled the Budgets of Shin Bet and Mossad in 12 Years to $2.4 Billion

Most of the growth in funding has been directed to technology personnel ■ Senior official: Payback on the investment greatly outweighs the cost

Mossad head Yossi Cohen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, at a Hanukkah ceremony in 2016. Cohen is considered a confidant of the PM
Kobi Gideon / GPO

The annual combined budget for Israel's Shin Bet security service and the Mossad espionage agency will be 8.6 billion shekels ($2.4 billion) in 2018, double what the two intelligence entities received 12 years ago and 10 percent more than this year's budget of 7.8 billion shekels. In 2016, the combined funding for the two agencies was 7.5 billion shekels.

The Finance Ministry does not publish separate budgets for the Shin Bet and Mossad, but the Shin Bet is the larger agency, as is its budget. The budget figures, which have grown considerably since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in 2009, don't include the cost of pensions for staff who have retired from the two agencies, which amounts to approximately a billion shekels a year.

Sources who asked to remain anonymous told Haaretz that a considerable portion of the increased funding has been for the Mossad. The current head of the agency, Yossi Cohen, enjoys Netanyahu's complete trust, allowing him to expand the Mossad's operations. The sources noted that there are visible signs of the physical expansion of the Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv to accommodate new staff. One senior official told Haaretz that intelligence operations now require more resources than before, adding that the payback on the investment greatly outweighs what is spent.

Most of the growth in personnel at the two agencies has been for staff dealing with technology. The Shin Bet and Mossad have to compete for staff with major civilian high-tech companies, and offer them high salaries. Sources also acknowledge that there might be major duplication in the technology related work of the Israeli army, the Shin Bet and the Mossad. That's because the agencies work separately under a veil of secrecy and there is no entity coordinating their activities with an eye to combining operations.

Job postings for the Shin Bet and Mossad on the internet reflect the recruiting efforts that they are making to find cyber-technology experts. The Shin Bet has just launched a staff recruitment drive in the field, while the Mossad postings state, for example, that it is looking for a cyber-related development engineer, for someone with responsibility for defensive cyber-infrastructure and for college students to work in cyber-related operations. The agencies also compete with one another on cellular technology.

Intelligence agencies in Western countries are in a race to crack the encoding of a range of technology, including smartphones. At a Congressional hearing in the United States this week, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, James Comey, noted that his agency had not managed to break into 46 percent of the electronic devices that it had seized.

Over the years, the Israeli government has hidden the Mossad and Shin Bet budgets from the public. At the beginning of this year, the budget was included in the "general reserve" budget line, with a request submitted later to the Knesset Finance Committee to transfer it to the two intelligence agencies. In the past, their spending was included in the defense budget, even though the agencies report directly to the Prime Minister's Office. There was criticism over putting the amounts in the defense budget, which was inflated in the process.

In wrangling over the defense budget in the prior Netanyahu government that was in office before the 2015 election, the finance minister at the time, Yair Lapid, and the Defense Ministry director general then, Dan Harel, agreed to remove Shin Bet and Mossad funding from the defense budget. It has since been designated at the Finance Ministry separately as "Code 31." In the budget for 2017 and 2018, funding for the intelligence agencies is more easily identifiable as "various defense costs."

While the intelligence agency budgets are no longer buried in the "general reserve" budget line, Israel has still refrained from disclosing the cost of running the reactors at Dimona and Sorek and related operations, although the budget for the salaries of the staff at the reactors appears as "salaries at associated units" in the Defense Ministry budget. Last year that budget line was 1.2 billion shekels. The budget of the Atomic Energy Commission is also public. It is 147 million shekels. And in 2014, Harel, the Defense Ministry director general at the time, told Haaretz there was also a 5 billion shekel budget line simply dubbed "special."