Military Intelligence Chief Misled Israeli Leaders Ahead of 1973 War, Declassified Doc Reveals

'Special means' that could have foretold the Yom Kippur War weren't employed – but intel chief made political leaders believe otherwise, a newly discovered document shows

Ofer Aderet
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Israeli soldiers taking cover from Syrian bombers in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973.
Israeli soldiers taking cover from Syrian bombers in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973. Credit: GPO
Ofer Aderet

“Severe professional failure.” With those three words, the Agranat Commission summed up a key chapter in its report on Israel’s intelligence failure before the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

This chapter, which addresses Military Intelligence’s “special means” of collecting intelligence, remained classified for nearly 50 years. Few people even knew of its existence. Only recently, during research by the Yom Kippur War Center, was it found in the Israel Defense Forces’ archives.

The chapter’s conclusions are “unequivocal,” says Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph, a member of the center who has written several studies on the intelligence failure of 1973. “They settle all the disputes that existed on this issue once and for all.”

The Agranat Commission’s bottom line was that MI’s director, Eli Zeira, erred by not activating these “special means” in time, even though they could have warned about the Egyptian offensive that launched the war.

“It was his obligation to enable contact to be made with these sources so as to do everything possible to determine the enemy’s intentions,” the document reads. “A mistake that leads to the non-utilization of a vital intelligence source when it is most needed is a severe professional failure.”

But the criticism didn’t end there. The commission believed that Zeira misled Israel’s military and political leaders, including Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar and Prime Minister Golda Meir, into thinking he had activated the “special means,” even though he hadn’t.

The exact nature of these means remains unclear to this day. Various reports, both in Israel and abroad, say they were sophisticated listening devices that could record telephone calls by Egyptian army officers. On the eve of the war in October 1973, Israel’s decision-makers were sure the technology would give the country a 48-hour warning.

“The logic behind putting faith in these means was clear,” Bar-Joseph says. “No army can launch a major, complex war without maintaining regular contact with combat units in the days before the shooting starts.”

And because the Egyptians were aware of Israel’s ability to monitor their radio chatter, MI knew that sensitive information would only be conveyed by phone, not by radio. The special means were meant to solve this problem.

IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar, right, with MI chief Eli Zeira and other top brass during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973.
IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar, right, with MI chief Eli Zeira and other top brass during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973.Credit: IDF Archives, Defense Ministry

‘Excellent access’

Some researchers say a special-means warning could have given the IDF enough time to prepare for war. Others say this shouldn’t be exaggerated.

But the newly discovered document shows that the Agranat Commission attributed great importance to the technology. The six-page document (some of which is still censored) was discovered by Or Fialkov, a volunteer at the Yom Kippur War Center.

Under the heading “Contact with Sources,” it says: “MI had a source of information with excellent access to affairs and very high credibility” that could have provided a warning.

Zeira even told the commission that the day he took office, he “made a special effort to make contact with these sources ... on the assumption that from them, Israel would ultimately obtain a warning.” He considered the material these sources could provide “indisputably credible,” Zeira added.

Still, the document said, “The problem was that contact with these sources was extremely sensitive.” In other words, employing the means posed the risk of exposing them.

Zeira told the commission he thought they should be used in situations of “uncertainty,” “serious doubts” or “the lack of an explanation.” As he put it, “In a situation where I felt I didn’t understand what was happening, I decided I had to take the risk.”

But starting on October 1, a few days before the war, Zeira rejected repeated appeals to activate the special means.

Yossi Langotsky, who commanded the unit responsible for deploying the technology before the war, said that both Menachem Digli, the head of MI’s intelligence gathering unit, and Yoel Ben-Porat, the headed of MI’s main wiretapping unit, both urged Zeira to activate the special means.

They argued that the need for a warning outweighed concerns about the security of these sources. But Zeira refused.

On the night between October 4 and 5, Zeira allowed a test of the technology, but didn’t let it be used to collect information. “The main concern was fear of burning the contact,” the commission wrote.

Zeira tried to explain to the commission why he delayed an activation of the technology.

“This wasn’t a situation where I felt I lacked information; I had information in great abundance. The situation was that I lacked an explanation for it – that because of it, I had serious doubts .... I felt I had a lot of information ... so my mode of thinking was how to interpret what I had, not how to look for what I didn’t have.”

When the commission asked him why he didn’t consult with Elazar, he replied, “My nature doesn’t lead me to shunt responsibility upward.” But the commission criticized this approach.

“There’s a positive aspect to this willingness to accept responsibility upon himself and ease the responsibility on his superior ... but in the circumstances of this case, it doesn’t seem to the commission that this general tendency should have been decisive,” it wrote.

“Regarding a decision of such great importance to the chief of staff’s steps, the chief of staff would have been willing to hear the MI director’s recommendation and then ... express his own opinion.”

Moreover, testimony to the commission indicated that military and political decision-makers were misled to think that Zeira had no second thoughts because he had used the special means. According to the document, Golda Meir “testified that it was entirely clear to her that he was receiving intelligence via contact with the said sources.”

Meanwhile, the document states that Dayan, the defense minister, asked the MI director on October 5, the day before the war, “if there was nothing special” from these sources. “The MI director responded that he had a lot of intelligence and that he was utilizing all possible intelligence sources and warnings.”

According to the document, Zeira “testified that it was reasonable that the defense minister was referring in his question to all sources, and didn’t think for a moment that the intention was precisely the said sources.”

The commission criticized the MI director on this point. “Zeira, who closely and constantly deals with this subject, should have been aware that his statements would lead the defense minister to understand the situation regarding the conducting of contact with these sources.”

That is, the committee concluded that the MI director led the decision-makers to believe that the means were working, but that they did not indicate war.

Belated action

Forty-seven years after the war, historians, military experts and intelligence experts are still divided over several basic questions regarding the use of the special means. The fact that some of the information is still censored has made it hard to get to the full truth and contributed to the publishing of half-truths, contradictions and lies on the matter.

The key issue then was if, when and how the technology would be operated. Did it have the power to provide sufficient warning to prevent a surprise attack? Also, did Zeira lie to his superiors when he let them think the means were operating correctly?

According to Bar-Joseph, the document provides answers that make the reader wonder. “The means weren’t activated in the week before the war,” he concludes. “Zeira let his superiors understand that the means were activated but didn’t indicate anything.”

In the end, just hours before the war broke out on Yom Kippur morning, October 6, the special means were fully activated. But at this point their contribution to the intelligence assessment was negligible. The head of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, had already provided proof that war was imminent – from Egyptian agent Ashraf Marwan.

The question remains whether the special means would have provided a warning if they had been activated earlier. The Agranat Commission concluded that it was impossible to know “what intelligence they would have provided had the contact using them been maintained.”

It’s possible, for example, that the Egyptians would have made sure their phone conversations were difficult to decipher. The commission members, in any case, wrote that they wouldn’t engage in “speculation.”

At the bottom lies a paradox. The special means, which were established to prevent the possibility of a surprise attack, actually made one more possible. The decision-makers were misled to believe that the technology had been activated, so they believed that there couldn’t be a total surprise. The commission ended the document with a warning to all intelligence officials.

“Maintaining sources is not an end in and of itself,” the commission said. “If the fear of maintaining them overrides the readiness to use them at the time of need, they lose all value, and a mistake that leads to the non-exploitation of a vital intelligence source at the time it is most needed is a grave professional failure.”

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