Secrets? What Secrets?

"Come quick! This looks interesting," yelled Alon, my instructor in the traffic accident investigation division at Tzrifin army base. As I entered the office, Alon put two pages of carbon paper on the desk and turned on the light. The typewritten headings jumped out at me - "Protocols of meeting with the Mossad head," and "Meeting memorandum with Shin Bet chief."

We grew excited - there's something intoxicating about finding state secrets. It was the summer of 1984, Shimon Peres had just taken office as prime minister of a national unity government, and here were the memoranda of his meetings with the heads of the secret services, figures whose names, at the time, were kept secret. The record of the meeting with the Mossad director mainly included code names of secret operations and instructions to continue hunting down Nazi war criminals. The one featuring the Shin Bet chief was more absorbing - Peres had ordered surveillance of lawmakers from the Progressive List for Peace, a fringe party then holding talks with the PLO leadership in Tunis.

How did such sensitive material reach the hands of two Military Police corporals who had undergone no vetting or security clearance? Simple - the chauffeured vehicle of Peres' military secretary had been involved in a minor collision and its driver filled out a triplicate form as required. In those days before computer, printer and compact discs, the driver had asked clerks in the office for copy paper, and they gave him papers used earlier to record the prime minister's secret meetings.

As traffic accident investigators, our work was mostly thankless and administrative - completing forms and signing off on authorizations to fix cars after fender benders. Only occasionally did we encounter a serious accident. To overcome the boredom we collected military secrets, competing against one another to see who could enter more high-security intelligence and air force bases. Once I went to investigate an accident at just such a base. I didn't see a thing other than a pretty view and nondescript offices, but what did it matter? On my return I had a story for the guys.

I thought back to those experiences this week when I read about the "astonishment" Judge Zeev Hammer expressed at the "data security failures" in the office of then-GOC Central Command Yair Naveh that allowed Anat Kamm, a soldier with no security clearance, to copy hundreds of military documents to her private computer. The judge apparently forgot that this is the IDF, not some European or American army with discipline and regulations and starched uniforms. No one here takes bombastic headlines about security clearance seriously, instead trusting that "everything will work out fine." That's apparently what Anat Kamm believed as well - that like every other "security source" who gives information to journalists, she could trust the military censor to prevent any real damage to national security.

Let's keep things in proportion - the "it'll be fine" mentality wasn't invented in Naveh's office. In a country where everyone serves in the army, all are exposed to sensitive information that cannot be erased or forgotten. Every plane of Israeli tourists abroad carries far more state secrets than Kamm's lost compact discs. Even employees of the Dimona nuclear reactor travel the world, and are not imprisoned in a closed city with a barbed wire fence for fear that they will chat with the locals or be kidnapped.

The Israeli security apparatus was born in the underground, and for years nurtured an inflated sense of secrecy. Its leaders and units exulted in various code names, and its bases were situated "somewhere" in the country. That secrecy didn't prevent security lapses, but simply encouraged the curious to rummage around in drawers and computer folders in search of state secrets. Aside from a handful of incidents (an intelligence officer stationed on Mount Hermon fell into Syrian captivity in 1973 and divulged data-collection methods to his captors in fine detail), it is hard to identify significant damage to national security caused by leaked secrets, other than damage to the defense establishment's prestige. Even Kamm's detractors are having trouble pinpointing the damage she supposedly caused, and are thus content to denigrate her as a "thief."

Even the closest-guarded secrets seem ludicrous in hindsight. The heads of the security services are now known to all, and the same Shimon Peres who ordered the Shin Bet to monitor peace activists Uri Avnery and Matti Peled more than 25 years ago received the Nobel Peace Prize a decade later for forging contact with those same PLO leaders.