After several weeks of relative quiet, new remarks by Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev have again managed to spark the next controversy.
The minister was interviewed on Tuesday by Israel's Kan public broadcaster, in the runup to Memorial Day and Independence Day, and was asked to recall those amongst his friends or soldiers under his command who were killed in defense of the country.
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In 1984, Bar-Lev was the commander of the Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli military's elite special-operations force. One of the soldiers in the unit, Staff Sgt. Barak Sharabi, was killed in a secret operation penetrating deep in Syrian territory, Bar-Lev said. A few kilometers away from the border, the jeep the soldiers were in flipped over while they crossed a bridge, killing Sharabi and injuring eight others.
The Syrian forces deployed to that area saw them and started closing in, but according to officers serving in the unit at the time, the commander of the force, Shahar Argaman, demonstrated level-headedness and rare resourcefulness and managed to safely rescue the other soldiers and bring them back to the Israeli border without an exchange of fire.
Until now, almost nothing about the operation had been cleared by the Military Censor’s Office for publication. Bar-Lev’s comments rightfully startled reporters, some of whom knew the story and had been barred by the office from reporting its details in the past due to security considerations. As usual, several intelligence veterans who view themselves as the guardians of state secrets also jumped in alarm.
In practice, however, even though the details had indeed been barred for publication, it’s difficult to speak here about concrete harm, or harm of any kind, to state security. After all, the Syrians knew about the incident in real time and what happened there. They were also aware in general terms of the nature of the activities of Sayeret Matkal and perhaps other units beyond their lines.
Bar-Lev lifted the veil of ambiguity, presumably without giving it too much thought and certainly without advance permission. Bar-Lev’s policy regarding interviews is a matter for him to clarify with his media and political advisers, but this time, it appears that the holy wrath against Bar-Lev has been sparked over nothing more than a storm in a teacup.
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The fact that Bar-Lev explicitly mentioned the name of the enemy country – Syria – and said that things transpired deep into the territory doesn’t really matter one way or another when it comes to the adversary’s knowledge of IDF activities.
However, the minister’s slip of the tongue could unintentionally provide an opening for renewed discussions regarding what still remains within the realm of state secrets decades after military action, and for what specifically does the censor require continued protection. This case, like other concealed intelligence incidents, is evidence that the veil of protection is too broad and too protracted. There are many events over which this obscurity is not justified and is only maintained out of inertia.
The best example of this was from four years ago, when the media was permitted to report the details of the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor – 11 years after the fact. The basic considerations in shrouding the operation in uncertainty (a policy of vagueness from fear that reporting the strike would have led to a military response by Syria's president) may have been relevant in the initial months following the operation. But over the years, the publication ban remained in place due to a combination of political considerations and a lack of flexibility on the part of the defense establishment.
It was actually the Military Censor’s Office that gradually softened its stance ahead of some of the other officials who had dealt with the issue. And all of this happened while the foreign media had long ago reported most of the details of the air force's operation. The censor’s office must concentrate now on protecting the core of the secret – the things that are really important for the defense establishment to keep in the shadows, with an emphasis on concealing information that could surprise the enemy in the future. The fixation on instances from the distant past is needlessly excessive and unjustified.
This incident and several other operations that ended with mixed results caused a crisis in Sayeret Matkal at the time and not a small one. The Sayeret Matkal commander after Bar-Lev – Moshe Ya’alon – invested a lot of time and effort in bringing about a more orderly military pattern of conduct in the elite unit. But all that is considered distant history. Since then, the nature of the unit’s operational activity has changed in a number of respects. Nearly 40 years later, Israeli intelligence gathering is based in large measure on advanced technology, notably cybertechnology penetration, which does not require endangering the life of a single combat soldier.
The special operations network in every intelligence community is at a crossroads, and those in leadership are deliberating regarding its future and the nature of its use: Whether and when it’s still right to deploy combat soldiers beyond the lines. Whether it’s at all still possible to act freely in a reality of biometric passports and cameras on every corner.
These are the big questions today, and they’re light years away from the activity that Bar-Lev spoke about that happened somewhere in 1984.