Journalists as a Security Valve in a Defense Regime

One day, when the settlers and their allies who now control the government take over the Shin Bet and IDF, too, those white cars can roll up to Saladin Street with handcuffs that are measured to fit the wrists of the attorney general and state prosecutor.

An ordinary-looking white car enters the gates of the Justice Ministry building in East Jerusalem. A similar car carrying bodyguards to protect the other car drives up right behind. Two men, one carrying a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, go up the stairs leading to the state prosecutor's office.

Soon they make their way to the attorney general's office, located one floor below. The scenes are identical at both offices: The handcuffs are removed, the briefcase opened, the documents taken out and perused by senior jurists, who make notations and sign on the dotted line. The documents are returned to the briefcase and the handcuffs are slapped back on. Finally, the two white cars head for Tel Aviv. If only the passersby on Saladin Street knew what was hidden in that briefcase. If only they knew the information that has been absorbed into the brains of the state prosecutor and attorney general.

When legal issues are to be resolved regarding operations, the most guarded secrets of the Mossad, Shin Bet security service and Israel Defense Forces are shared with key figures in the Justice Ministry, from whom advice and approval are sought. These ministry officials are now persecuting journalists suspected of possessing highly classified material. The jurists are appalled, for even they - the chief of staff, his generals and the Shin Bet chief - are all prohibited by law from bringing such sensitive documents home to work on.

Only one species in the Israeli universe - the homo-journalisticus, gatherer of information and revealer of misdeeds - is exempt from this prohibition. He is able to conceal the roster of Mossad spies operating in downtown Mombasa. He can hide the exact coordinates of the secret weapon that can glue a whole formation of planes together in mid-air. He can keep the materials in the wooden shack where he sleeps, or the creaky apartment near the central bus station that lacks window bars, just waiting for the foreign intelligence agent, terrorist organization or plain burglar to steal them. This isn't journalism, but wholesale commerce.

A number of state lawyers believe that the appropriate balance between security and democracy has been maintained. It is this balance that compelled the Supreme Court to restrain itself in pursuing cases involving information passed by word of mouth. The lawyers, however, strongly denounce the possession of these documents, be it in electronic form or hard copy. It is, they say, a crack in the wall of protecting state secrets.

This narrow, professional approach is understandable, but naive. It reflects an ignorance of history and the dangers inherent in a regime governed by defense secrets. The current generation of district prosecutors is not adequately aware of the transgressions committed by defense officials in the past.

There is no guarantee that these transgressions will not happen again - such as operations beyond the state's borders without authorization from superiors. There is no guarantee that devious actions designed to mislead the people won't be used - a people that will then be called on to kill and die for the state - like the events and retaliations that were used to justify the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. A preemptive exposure of these plans by journalists would have saved hundreds of Israeli lives. It would have been beneficial to state security, not harmful.

Those in the know on the inside, who are shocked by the vigilante-like operations that are akin to military coups or capricious policy against hoodwinked citizens, do not protest through official channels. Their complaints will be buried alongside the people who lodge them. Rather, they prefer to whisper their complaints to journalists and back them up with documents. These sources, after all, are subject to lie-detector tests in the most restrictive country for truth-tellers this side of North Korea. It's better to have leaks that save lives and prevent the oncoming flood.

The challenge before Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador is to huddle with the Israel Press Council and agree on a formula that will give civil society the tools to supervise the intelligence agencies and armed forces that are liable to rise against civil society. This can be done without legitimizing any illegal activity.

Legal supervision over these bodies depends in large part on their goodwill, since this supervision is imposed from the bottom up rather than the top down. One day, when the settlers and their allies who now control the government take over the Shin Bet and IDF, too, those white cars can roll up to Saladin Street with handcuffs that are measured to fit the wrists of the attorney general and state prosecutor.