Spooks Swallowing Their Own Tall Tales

Intelligence organizations treat the media as a tool in the game against rival intelligence services, rather than as a representative of the public's right to know.

One of the serious maladies of the Israeli media is its tendency to cite news items from the foreign media regarding sensitive security issues, without checking them. It's enough for some foreign newspaper to mention the Mossad or the reactor in Dimona for the item to be the top story on Israeli news broadcasts. This happens even when the information is clearly false: Does anyone really believe that the Mossad's secret plan to attack nuclear sites in Iran reached a German news weekly, as publicized last weekend? And if the information is correct, where are Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein and all the investigators of leaks? After all, people are reprimanded and deposed and prosecuted for much less.

The "foreign news" disease was born in the dark days of censorship in the 1950s, and has, since then, been fueled by the magical image of the secret services, which have served as the sources of the information. But the war in Iraq demonstrated that intelligence is liable to make big mistakes, and to mislead in a big way.

Over the years, the intelligence communities in the West have disseminated a collection of guesses, fairy tales and exaggerations about Saddam Hussein and his regime that they called "intelligence information." The decision-makers and the media relied on them as proven facts. And then the Americans occupied Iraq, and didn't find anything - neither weapons of mass destruction, nor Saddam's famous bunker. This is not a case of an error in assessment, as in the Yom Kippur War, but information that was exaggerated and, in part, even false, and made the rounds among the various intelligence services.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is now investigating the astonishing and serious intelligence failure in Iraq, and is also reviewing whether the Israel Defense Forces' Military Intelligence and the Mossad were fed with planted news items that were disseminated in the international media and reabsorbed here as intelligence information (directly and via foreign services).

The mistake is not only an Israeli one; the intelligence community on a whole is prone to such mistakes due to its cross-involvement in information gathering, assessment and public relations. Military Intelligence disseminates propaganda material against the Palestinian Authority and Syria. The Mossad, which avoids the Israeli media, "plants" stories among foreign reporters.

The stories are usually based on a core of truth that can be checked, with an attempt to blur the source, attributing things to "intelligence elements in the West" or to a similar vague source. British and German newspapers, which are fond of conspiracy and intelligence, are a more convenient target for planting stories than the American media, which are scrupulous about attributing their sources. But there have been achievements in the American field as well.

The justification for these tricks is that disinformation and psychological warfare are legitimate tools in the conflict against cruel enemies such as Iran, Saddam's Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah. It's difficult to maintain the distinction between information and nonsense, when the foreign stories are cited and published with great fanfare in Israel, thus adding to their credibility abroad. This is what happened this week to the report about the "plan to bomb Iran."

And so, the public relies on false presentation and exaggerations, instead of on verified information. In the case of Israel, inflation of the Iraqi threat "only" aroused anxiety among the public and led to the unnecessary provision of gas masks. The United States and Great Britain suffered greater damage: They went to war in order to destroy imaginary weapons arsenals, and became entangled in occupation, terror attacks and political problems. One justification for the attack was the story of the nuclear transaction between Iraq and Nigeria that was based on a primitive forgery of documents. The lie was included in President Bush's State of the Nation address, and is now haunting the White House.

Intelligence organizations treat the media as a tool in the game against rival intelligence services, rather than as a representative of the public's right to know. A headline published in London or in Hamburg that will embarrass Iranian President Mohammad Khatami or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is more important than the reliability of the report. It's important to remember this when one encounters bombastic headlines about the frightening threats around us, or about the successful response that Israel is developing to combat them.