Sensory Overload

It may have dropped out of the headlines, but behind the scenes, the State Comptroller's Office continues with an unprecedented investigation into the Harpaz affair.

The draft of the state comptroller's report on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza is only now being circulated, a little more than a year after the events on the Mavi Marmara. Based on this, one can hazard an educated guess that the draft of what is likely to be the far more volatile report about the Harpaz affair, and its implications concerning the appointment of the chief of staff, will take about as long to be completed: Israelis learned about what was at first erroneously dubbed the "Galant document" from Channel 2 News last August, and apparently a draft copy of the report about the affair will indeed be distributed in the middle of August.

When Micha Lindenstrauss succeeded Eliezer Goldberg as state comptroller in 2005, he stressed the need to carry out his audits in real time, to wage a battle against corruption, and to assign personal responsibility to people involved in acts deserving of serious rebuke. This combination of objectives mandated a process that would be conducted according to the rules of natural justice - that is, a process that safeguards the rights of those liable to be harmed by the findings of the comptroller's reports.

Illustration (Amos Biderman)
Amos Biderman

This is certainly a central concern in a highly charged affair like the one involving the Harpaz document, its composition and dissemination, and in which there is fierce enmity between the two main adversaries: Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. At the moment, both view Lindenstrauss as the final arbiter, who will confirm their innocence. That approach will change, of course, once the comptroller takes a position that will be interpreted as strengthening the arguments of one of the sides. The full draft will eventually be circulated among those chiefly involved, but many dozens of supporting actors in the affair and its offshoots will also receive the excerpts relevant to them.

It is reasonable to expect that the final report will be published three to four months after the draft is sent out. In the interim, the comptroller and his staff will hear the objections of the main protagonists - a complicated and prolonged process, which is likely to be carried out on the legal plane as well. In light of the many leaks the affair has so far seen, almost none of which were based on information in the possession of the state comptroller, we can expect a war of leaks to be waged by confidants on each side, in which excerpts from the draft that are seen to "incriminate" the other side will be disseminated.

The State Comptroller Law prohibits publication of the contents of the draft report, but ways have been found to circumvent this ban in the past. The comptroller has in the past weighed the possibility of taking steps against those who leaked such draft reports, but the view of the professional echelons in the Shin Bet security service and in the police is that any such attempt is doomed to failure.

With respect to the Harpaz affair, Barak, for his part, believes devoutly in the "putsch in the Kirya [defense headquarters in Tel Aviv]" version of events, which Haaretz commentator Aluf Benn has described in these pages. The defense minister also yearns for personal vengeance against Ashkenazi. The latter understands that a cloud is hanging over his head now. First, because of his close and lengthy association with Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz, who admitted that he forged a document that was sent to Ashkenazi, outlining a scheme to advance Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant's appointment as next chief of staff. And also because Ashkenazi knows he was not particularly forthcoming with the General Staff or the public at the beginning of the affair, when he was asked about his connections with Harpaz.

In the past year Ashkenazi and Barak have both held briefings for journalists - separately, of course. What has been billed as a background talk by them that is supposed to last an hour usually stretches to an hour and a half or two hours; discussion of weighty strategic issues is abandoned within minutes as the speaker reiterates, for the thousandth time, his version of the Harpaz affair, together with a good many assumptions (some of them off-base ) about the machinations of the rival side.

Ashkenazi and Barak are not alone: Also waiting for the state comptroller's findings is Galant, although he completely lost any trust he had in Lindenstrauss after the hasty report the comptroller issued about the affair involving the "land grab" on Moshav Amikam - a report that sparked the last-minute cancellation of Galant's appointment as chief of staff. Also waiting are aides and advisers, along with retired senior officers and Harpaz's buddies in the special ops unit of Military Intelligence.

The report might also address the behavior of journalists, who sometimes crossed red lines in their coverage of the affair. Lindenstrauss has apparently not yet decided whether to cover this aspect of the case in his report - though he has accumulated a large amount of information about it - or will address it in some other framework, perhaps the press council.

The group that is waiting most anxiously for the Harpaz affair to be over is the top brass of the IDF, headed by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. In private conversations, Gantz - whom everyone agrees was one of the few who behaved with complete integrity throughout the affair - is emphasizing the need to make all the details known to the public. He more than others seems to be aware of the corrosive effects the case has had on the trust that officers place in the system in which they are serving, and in the probity of their superiors. His demand "to clear the air of the smell of the carcass" remains unchanged.

Exposing the strata

Details about the state comptroller's investigation, being published here for the first time, suggest that Lindenstrauss and his staff have carried out archaeological-like excavations, at each stage revealing more strata and possible ramifications. It was only recently that a decision was made to stop digging, because the report has to be drawn up; the draft's opening section alone is likely to run to a few hundred pages. Lindenstrauss' persistent cajoling of his staff to hurry up has led them to liken him to the Roman statesman Cato the Elder; at the same time, he insists that the conclusions must be credible and accurate.

The State Comptroller's Office considers the Harpaz investigation to be the most complicated it has ever carried out. It is being conducted by the head of the office's security division, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Or. In coordination with Lindenstrauss, Or embarked on a personal examination of the affair last October, about two months after the existence of the document was made public. Although Or first heard about the "Harpaz document" at the same time as everyone else, when it was reported on the news, already months prior to that various testimonies had accumulated in his office about the breakdown in relations between Barak and Ashkenazi and its implications for national security. Once the story broke, Or and his aides became used to the phenomenon of senior officers, both serving and retired, submitting complaints in secret about one of the sides in the affair, in some cases accompanied by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and allegations of corruption.

Last November, Or received a full mandate to investigate the affair. He formed a small team consisting of two of the four heads of branches in the security division and four other outstanding staff members. The intensive occupation with the report is holding up part of the ongoing work of the division, which is also engaged in a number of other investigations.

Due to the sensitivity of the affair, and particularly the potential consequences in terms of intelligence (Harpaz was apparently involved in an astonishingly complicated and extensive web of connections and intrigues in MI ), it was decided that only a few people would have access to the evidence. By comparison, 60 people in the State Comptroller's Office worked on the special report about the performance of the home front in the Second Lebanon War. In any event, Lindenstrauss receives constant updates about most of the details of the investigation, and is frequently asked to rule on critical points.

By the end of December, the team realized that the volume of material was larger than anticipated. This past February particularly problematic information related to the affair, and involving MI, was transferred to the police and the Shin Bet for a separate investigation. At the same time, MI carried out an internal examination aimed at eliminating the flaws that had been revealed. The Defense Ministry also set up a team, headed by Brig. Gen. (res. ) Shmuel Zucker, which looked into aspects of the affair relating to its work procedures.

In retrospect, officials in the State Comptroller's Office say, it was probably a good thing that the Harpaz affair exploded, as it uncovered serious shortcomings in a great many areas, some of which would not have been discovered in other circumstances. Problems involving life-and-death matters were found, which the system should have resolved by itself long ago, but which until then it did not know about, the officials say.

The comptroller and his staff have interviewed more than 200 witnesses, some of them more than once. The witnesses include Barak, Ashkenazi, Galant, Gantz, GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot (who was also Galant's rival as a candidate for chief of staff ) and others from the General Staff. Because of the senior rank of those involved, Lindenstrauss himself took some of the testimonies.

Few documents

Apart from the tape recordings made in the offices of the senior army officers and other officials, the "Harpaz document" affair has not actually yielded many documents. Much of the evidence exists only in the form of the oral testimony that witnesses gave to the comptroller or the police (which transferred to Lindenstrauss' office almost all the findings it collected during its own inquiry into the document Harpaz forged ). Many of the witnesses are not civil servants, and the state comptroller has no power to subpoena them, but no one who was summoned refused to testify. Many of the civilian witnesses did refuse, however, to have their identity revealed in association with their testimony.

The state comptroller and his staff also listened to tapes and read transcripts of a number of conversations held in the bureaus of the defense minister and the chief of staff. One member of the staff calculated that if the present team had to listen to every tape from the offices of the senior figures - this alone would take two years.

There is a sensitive seam line between the State Comptroller's Office and the State Prosecutor's Office, and prolonged consultations were required so that the two could demarcate the boundaries between them, in this case. Even though the prosecution conducted a hearing involving Harpaz, who admitted to the police that he had forged the document, it has made no official decision about whether to indict him. Meanwhile, the possibility still exists of a plea bargain being worked out with him.

"Everything in the final version [of the report] has to be verified and carefully detailed," says a member of the State Comptroller's Office staff. "Probably part of the material will not be made public due to the sensitivity of the intelligence issues, some of which already harmed state security when they were exposed in the media. The bottom line is that we cannot leave things vague or ambiguous. The truth has to come to light."

Our guess? Two people, Lindenstrauss and Or - and maybe the members of the team - will know the whole picture. We will know about half of it, but even that will be disturbing and sometimes frightening, and will not improve the average citizen's opinion of those tasked with making decisions that sometimes involve life and death.