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Israeli Intelligence Officer's Death, Veiled in Secrecy, Raises New Questions

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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Military prosecutors during a hearing about the dead intelligence officer's case.
Military prosecutors during a hearing about the dead intelligence officer's case.Credit: Moti Milrod
Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

In his new book “Restricted Data,” the historian Alex Wellerstein examines the birth of a new kind of secrecy, a type unknown in the United States prior to the development of the atomic bomb. Its objects were the scientific and technological discoveries and developments of the Manhattan Project. Its subjects were the roughly 500,000 people who staffed the atomic project’s secret research and development sites.

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Creating an environment of secrecy for brilliant scientists – people whose work is nourished by the free flow of information – was a major challenge for the project’s commander, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, and his security officers. Robert Oppenheimer, the project’s scientific director, warned Groves that any attempt to impose rigid information security rules would not only fail, but would undermine the work itself. This created inbuilt conflicts between the scientists and the security officers.

As a solution to this problem, Oppenheimer proposed setting up Los Alamos as a secret research and development town in the heart of a New Mexican desert. It was necessary to build a geographic working environment for the scientists whose very existence would contain the secret. Maintaining information security was essential to the work, but it was also essential not to alienate the scientists doing it.

Wellerstein reveals that there were numerous information security incidents at Los Alamos. But none of the scientists was ever court-martialed, nor was anyone ever jailed for information security offenses.

Creating a secure work environment when the people with the knowledge are brilliant, creative, ambitious and sometimes eccentric, young people who see their military service as an entry ticket into the world of technological entrepreneurship and innovation, is as challenging for their commanders today as it was for the heads of the Manhattan Project. Stringent information security is necessary. So is understanding and sympathy for the openness essential to doing innovative R&D.

It was in this twilight zone, between the demands of security and those of technological creativity, that the initial short circuit, and then the outright failures, which led to the death of a Military Intelligence officer occurred. The tragic ending to his life – which still hasn’t been satisfactorily explained – touched sensitive nerves in Israeli society.

A gifted young man was entrusted to the army and came back home in a body bag, yet his parents were not told a thing. The more the Israeli military entrenched itself in its refusal to reveal details about the officer – a refusal that struck many people as a desperate effort by the system to cover up its own shortcomings – the more information and buzz there was on the internet. The gag order became a joke.

Some of the information on the web is solid and credible, such as the officer’s impressive LinkedIn page, which included letters of recommendation with amazing details about his professional capabilities. It was impossible to read this vast amount of documentation without feeling pain at the young life that was truncated prematurely because somebody decided to show a gifted officer and his peers what happens to a criminal against information security when the army decides to bring the full force of the law to bear on him.

In the end, the army softened its position and began to release information. The Israeli Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit confirmed that the security crimes of which the officer was suspected weren’t the most egregious type: treason, espionage or contact with a foreign agent. Moreover, it said, the motive for the crimes wasn’t financial (greed), ideological (he wasn’t an Israeli Snowden) or support for the Palestinian cause (he wasn’t a radical leftist). The unit termed his motive “personal,” without elaboration. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi called him “a golden officer ... an outstanding officer” who, nonetheless, committed “the most serious crimes knowingly and deliberately, for reasons I don’t know how to explain.”

Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, last year.Credit: Haim Hornstein

Kochavi added that the army intends “to keep the big secret that he almost undermined, and at the 11th hour, we prevented that.”

Actually, the chief of staff’s remarks contradict the army spokesperson’s statement that the indictment was a serious one because of “the significant damage his crimes caused, prima facie.” Kochavi amended that, indicating that the officer hadn’t actually caused damage. Either way, everyone agrees that he was a “golden officer” who may have knowingly committed information security offenses, but did so accidentally, and that any fallout from his actions was prevented in any case.

If so, a critical question arises: Was it necessary to deal with him so harshly? The IDF didn’t want to hold a trial and reveal all the evidence, yet it kept the officer in jail throughout the proceedings against him. The case was sent to mediation, but the mediation went nowhere for months, apparently because the army insisted that the officer had to serve 10 years in jail.

Sometimes, the IDF can be merciful and humane to people who err. But it can also be cruel and vengeful. In this case, somebody in the IDF decided it was necessary to break the spirit of an officer whose world was already destroyed, to get him to agree to the vengeful sentence that the system wanted to impose on him.

This seems to be what ultimately led the officer to commit suicide, if that’s what happened. It’s impossible not to be chilled by the fact that there’s only a narrow line – the commander’s whim – between a reprimand, and years in prison.

Or, perhaps the commander’s vengeful stance wasn’t a whim, but was intended to cover the fact that his unit lacks clear, orderly procedures and an effective oversight system governing what is allowed, and what isn’t, and especially where the elusive line between classified and unclassified runs? Granted, the officer ostensibly committed information security crimes, but is what he did greatly different from what others do, either toward the end of their service or immediately after their service ends? Have others who acted similarly received golden parachutes that helped them enter civilian life?

The grave of the dead Israeli intelligence officer.Credit: Rami Shllush

Or perhaps this officer for some reason irritated his superiors? Did an element of personal vengeance turn a human error into an indictment? And why did the IDF insist on such a long prison sentence?

Maj. Gen. Ilan Schiff, a former judge advocate general, proposed this week that to restore the army’s damaged integrity, an independent examination of every aspect of this affair is necessary. It should be conducted by a former military judge, or perhaps a panel of former military judges, who examine every aspect of the case. I might also suggest that high-level experts with the requisite security clearance conduct an independent investigation into the question of what harm, if any, was done.

One thing is clear: Israel lost a promising young man who was crushed by the system to which he devoted his few years of adult life. If a punctilious investigation of the case reveals that an injustice was committed by the state and the IDF, it will be necessary to publicly apologize to his family and find a way to restore the officer’s good name posthumously.

Perhaps there should be something like the state’s 1949 apology to the family of Meir Tobianski, who was wrongly executed as a traitor during the War of Independence. Or like the British government’s apology for the shameful conduct that caused mathematician and logician Alan Turing, who headed the codebreakers who broke the Nazis’ Enigma code, to commit suicide following his conviction for homosexuality.

The intelligence officer’s story has only just begun. And the public won’t rest until it gets satisfactory answers from the IDF.

Avner Cohen is a professor of nuclear history at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. He is spending this semester as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Tel Aviv University.

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