Israeli Lawmakers Back Bill Allowing Shin Bet to Wiretap Workers Handling Sensitive Intel

Two former Shin Bet heads on panel express concerns over overly invasive law

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman during his overview to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday.
Emil Salman

The Knesset’s defense committee approved a bill Monday that would allow the heads of the Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence to order wiretaps on the phones of employees who handle sensitive security information, in order to prevent leaks.

The bill now goes forward to the Knesset for its final readings, even though committee members said they considered the bill overly invasive.

The bill amends the Wiretapping Law and for the first time permits the monitoring of text messages, WhatsApp messages and emails.

The monitoring of employees has some limits: an employee can be monitored for two periods of up to 15 days each. Further monitoring of the employee will require permission from the attorney general.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Avi Dichter (Likud) and MK Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid), both former Shin Bet heads, told the hearing that in the combined 12 years they’d headed the Shin Bet, they had never made use of a similar, albeit more limited, authority that already exists because it was problematic in nature.

Under the new amendment, these officials can request the monitoring of any defense or security worker who is exposed to sensitive security information using a device given to him by his employer for recording, transmitting or broadcasting.

In the survey prepared by the committee’s legal adviser, it was made clear to the panel members that this definition would allow the monitoring of any cellphone, smartphone, email, text message and message sent by instant messaging apps or social media.

When the employee begins such a classified position, he will be informed in writing of this possibility and must sign that he had read and accepted the conditions. He will get a reminder every year of his signed acceptance of these conditions. People already employed in such sensitive positions will receive and have to sign this document within two weeks if and when the law goes into effect.

Both Dichter and Perry, along with MKs Eyal Ben-Reuven (Zionist Union), Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu), Anat Berko (Likud) and Amir Ohana (Likud), considered the bill overly invasive. Committee members thus insisted that these conditions be made clear to employees, and added to the bill a requirement that the intelligence directors consider alternate measures before using their authority to wiretap – and if they do wiretap, to ensure employees’ privacy is undermined as little as possible.

The current law requires that the prime minister or defense minister permit the Shin Bet or Military Intelligence head to eavesdrop on the conversations of a defense employee on an employer-issued wireless communication device or cellphone for the purpose of preventing or identifying the source of information leaks that could damage state security.