Authorities on Thursday finally lifted the veil on a dramatic case that has made headlines overseas, involving alleged espionage, drastically-breached IDF security, and the conflicting demands of national security and freedom of the press.
At an extraordinary press conference, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced that it now planned to accelerate its investigation of Haaretz reporter Uri Blau, who is believed still to be in possession of hundreds of top-secret classified military documents that were stolen from the IDF by a former soldier, Anat Kamm.
With the whereabouts of most of the documents still unknown, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin warned of a direct, ongoing threat to national security, and said his agency should have “taken the gloves off” long ago in pursuing the culprits.
According to the Shin Bet, in a case that was shrouded in secrecy for months until a court-imposed gag was lifted on Thursday, Kamm copied more than 2,000 documents when she was assistant to the bureau chief of OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh between 2005 and 2007.
Kamm, who has been charged with espionage, is under house arrest in Tel Aviv, and Blau is in London, having refused to return to Israel to face investigation.
The stolen documents contained top-secret information concerning General Staff orders, personnel numbers in the Central Command, intelligence information, information on IDF doctrine, and data pertaining to sensitive military exercises, weaponry and military platforms.
The files also contained details on steps the Central Command takes in the event of a major military escalation, including how it deploys forces throughout the West Bank.
“This posed a direct and real threat to the lives of IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens,” Diskin said at the media briefing on Thursday.
He added that in the entire investigation to date, the Shin Bet had operated with utmost sensitivity due to the involvement of journalist Blau. Every step of the probe, he said, had been taken in conjunction with the attorney-general and the State Attorney’s Office.
Throughout its investigation, the Shin Bet reportedly infiltrated Blau’s computer and listened to his phone conversations.
On July 15, 2009, the Shin Bet signed an agreement with Blau under which he handed over 50 documents that he had allegedly received from Kamm, as well as his laptop computer, which was destroyed in his presence. The Shin Bet financed a replacement. Under the agreement, the Shin Bet was not allowed to use the documents returned by Blau to locate or track the source of the leak.
The agreement also stipulated that in the event that the journalist wanted to use information gleaned from the documents in the future, it would be done with the approval of the Shin Bet’s legal department. The Shin Bet also agreed not to launch a criminal investigation against Blau based on the information he had provided.
At this stage, the Shin Bet did not know who had leaked the documents. A short time later, the agency identified Kamm, now 23, as the source of the leak. During her interrogation, she confirmed that during her army service she had collected thousands of documents containing sensitive material. Toward the end of her service, in 2007, she burned them on a CD and transferred them to her computer at home.
In the summer of 2008, Kamm tried to interest another journalist in the documents; he was interested, but talks with Kamm fell through. Between July and October 2008, she transferred the documents to Blau. Diskin said that Kamm’s motivation for stealing the documents was “ideological.”
Upon receiving them, Blau went on to publish several articles based on the information. One article, published in Haaretz in October 2008, accused the IDF of defying a Supreme Court ruling against killing wanted Palestinian terrorists who could have been captured alive. The story, which was approved for publication by the military censor, suggested the military had unilaterally loosened its rules of engagement and marked terrorists for assassination.
Following the publication, which included the publication of army documentation, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi – with permission from then-attorney-general Menahem Mazuz – asked the Shin Bet and police to open an investigation to discover who had leaked the documents Blau had cited.
The purpose of the probe was twofold: to discover the identity of the source, and to recover all the documents in the journalist’s possession. In early 2009, the IDF’s field security unit, together with the Shin Bet, began the investigation.
On January 14, 2010, an indictment, including the severe charge of espionage, was filed against Kamm. She has been held under house arrest for five months.
During the investigation and following Kamm’s interrogation, however, the Shin Bet realized that there was a major gap between the number of documents Blau had returned and the number Kamm said she had given him. Additional intelligence obtained by the security agency reinforced suspicions that Blau was still in possession of hundreds of documents classified as top-secret.
Blau is currently living in London, after leaving the country in December.
Diskin said Blau was wanted for interrogation, stressing that the journalist must immediately clarify the whereabouts of the additional documents that the Shin Bet suspected were in his possession. Diskin said that in the coming days, the Shin Bet would “accelerate” its investigation, with the goal of obtaining and securing the documents as soon as possible.
“The risk is great, since we do not know where these documents are,” he said. “We have reasonable grounds to suspect that Blau has additional documents in his possession.”
Explaining the need for the publication ban that was lifted on Thursday, Diskin said that until Tuesday, the Shin Bet had conducted negotiations with Blau’s attorney in an attempt to reach an arrangement under which the documents would be recovered. As a result, the Shin Bet had maintained the ban, deciding to lift it after receiving a negative answer from Blau’s attorney regarding the request to return all documents remaining in his possession.
“From a security perspective, and due to the needs of the investigation, after much consideration, we found it necessary to maintain the gag order until today,” Diskin said.
He added that Kamm had undergone checks for security clearance before
being appointed to the sensitive position in Naveh’s office. He also
said that after Kamm was discovered as the source of the leak, the IDF
had made several changes and improvements to its information security
apparatus to prevent recurrence of such incidents in the future.
While calling the investigation of journalists a “minefield,” Diskin
said it was possible the Shin Bet had been overly sensitive when
conducting its probe of Blau.
“We carried on with this investigation too long,” Diskin said.