Why, if there is an Israeli journalist somewhere in London who has in his possession thousands of top-secret IDF documents, would Israel’s security agency want everyone to know?

Wouldn’t this information, disseminated around the world over the Internet, radio, TV and print, paint a big, bright bulls-eye on Haaretz journalist Uri Blau, waiting out the storm in London? Wouldn’t it make Blau an attractive target for enemy intelligence agencies and terrorist groups operating in the UK?

It’s almost as if Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, by releasing all of this information Thursday, was saying to Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Hizbullah and Iranian intelligence agents in London: “Yalla, be our guests, go get Uri Blau.”

And then, by this reasoning, wouldn’t Blau, sitting in a quiet café in Islington or Belsize Park, suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to make a beeline for the Israeli Embassy and seek safety within its walls?

Over the past few weeks, there were those who said that if it weren’t for the gag order placed on the Anat Kamm case – or, as it was dubbed in Israel, “the security case we can’t tell you about” – it would not have been a major story; that it would have been a medium-sized blip on the frenetic Israeli news cycle.

There were those who said Israel was persecuting journalists and denying its citizens the right to information that is in the public interest. They said that Israel was becoming like Iran and North Korea, that it was absurd, a farce, to maintain a gag order in Israel when the whole world could read about the story by typing “Israel journalist” into Google News.

These may all have been valid interpretations of a story whose details were only partially known. But the fact is that there are some 2,000 sensitive military documents, ranging from the relatively mild “secret” to the highest-level “top-secret,” that are in the hands of someone other than the Israeli security establishment.

Nor does the security establishment know where they are, whether they were given to third parties, or whether they have been copied and transferred electronically and disseminated to God knows where and whom.  That in itself should worry every Israeli citizen, and one hopes that the IDF has learned its lessons from this affair.

According to the Shin Bet, Kamm, a young soldier who served as an assistant to the bureau chief of the OC Central Command between 2005 and 2007, scanned, copied and smuggled out a huge amount of top-secret material and gave it to a journalist, and maybe to others. In a word: espionage.

The documents contain detailed military operational plans, both from past operations and for future ones; defensive measures; deployment orders; intelligence methods and practices; names, places; weapons types; and pretty much everything you ever wanted to know, but were too afraid to ask. The documents lay bare the army’s secrets and put soldiers’ lives at risk, and as such, they need to be retrieved.

However, they also reportedly point to serious infringements of Israeli law on the part of the army, and the press has a responsibility to uncover such stories and expose them. Haaretz says it is justified in fighting the gag order and seeking to investigate the army’s wrongdoings. And none of the stories it published under Blau’s byline have endangered state security, as evidenced by their passing military censorship. But Haaretz also has a national responsibility to safeguard lives if it can, and it should seriously consider handing back to the state any material that, should it fall into the wrong hands, could lead to loss of life.

The vast majority of the documents given to Blau, according to the Shin Bet, deal with sensitive military operational orders. Call it the dream of every foreign intelligence agency, especially Arab intelligence agencies: To get their hands on this kind of information, spy services and terrorist organizations would go to extreme lengths and spare no cost. Call it the nightmare of any counter-intelligence agency: that these types of documents would be smuggled out of a highly sensitive computer, from a supposedly secure military bureau, and passed to unauthorized sources.

So on Thursday, the Shin Bet called in the editors of all major Israeli news media, as well as military analysts, and laid out the entire story – almost. Diskin called the incident “extremely grave” and said it posed a “very serious threat to the security of the state.”

There were details that Diskin would not reveal, saying their disclosure would harm his agency’s investigation. But during the briefing, it quickly became clear that now, after several months of a localized and highly criticized blanket gag order, the Shin Bet wanted to expose as much of the story as it could.

This is conjecture, but Diskin’s atypical candor and the wry smile on his face Thursday seemed to speak volumes. It appears Diskin wants to make Blau sweat.

Diskin asserts that the Shin Bet, through its legal adviser, conducted negotiations with Blau’s attorney over the terms of the return of the stolen documents. Diskin says a deal was reached between the agency and Blau’s attorney on September 15, 2009, wherein Blau would hand over all the documents in his possession in exchange for a commitment not to be asked who his source was.

Haaretz says Blau gave over 50 documents to the Shin Bet, and Blau was present in the room when agency officials destroyed his personal computer (the Shin Bet paid for a new one), which housed the documents, as hard disks are impossible to erase completely. Once the deal was done, Blau went on vacation to China.

Soon afterward, Kamm was arrested and, according to Diskin, told her investigators that she had given Blau more than 50 documents – much more.

The Shin Bet feels it was very generous with Blau, even agreeing that should the reporter publish stories in the future based on the documents in his possession, he could do so in coordination with the agency’s legal adviser. The Shin Bet could have taken another, more aggressive tack, like Israeli security services once did to a man who had stolen nuclear secrets. But because a journalist was involved, it took a much more measured approach.

Haaretz, on the other hand, feels that the deal it was offered provided Blau with no real immunity whatsoever. It also feels that the Shin Bet violated the terms of the deal by using the documents obtained from Blau to track down Kamm – a charge the agency denies.

According to a draft of the deal released by the Shin Bet on Thursday, Blau was to have handed over the documents in his possession relating to security and defense matters. But the Haaretz interpretation of the wording of the deal – which does not include the word “all,” as in “all of the documents” – is that Blau need only hand over the documents requested by the agency.

The Shin Bet, on the other hand, feels the spirit of the deal meant that Blau should have handed over all the documents he had.

Diskin says Kamm gave Blau thousands of documents, but Blau says he only had the 50 from the destroyed computer, so there is a vast discrepancy here. Diskin says he has very plausible reasons to believe that Blau has many more documents than he says he does, but he won’t reveal those reasons.

As noted above, Haaretz also believes that the Shin Bet got to Kamm through the 50 documents it received from Blau, which, it states, would constitute a violation of the deal to protect Blau’s source. The agency, however, says it did not get to Kamm through Blau’s documents, but through other means that it won’t reveal.

The negotiations between the two sides, which didn’t trust each other, then broke down, and the Shin Bet decided to try again and offered Haaretz a second deal.

Haaretz, for its part, says the Shin Bet radically changed its tone from the first deal to the second attempt and became much more aggressive, again affording Blau no real immunity.

The agency says that while it was waiting for a response from Haaretz’s legal counsel, the gag order remained in place. Once Haaretz came back with a negative answer to the offer, according to Diskin, the Shin Bet removed its objection to the blanket gag order and decided to spill most of the beans.

The Shin Bet’s No. 1 priority is to retrieve the documents and get them back to Israel. After that, there can be an assessment of the damage already done.

The Shin Bet doesn’t yet know to whom else Kamm may have given the documents. Its version of events is that Kamm first approached another journalist – possibly Yediot Aharonot military reporter Yossi Yehoshua – with an offer to take the documents. This unnamed journalist refused, and Kamm then went to Blau, who accepted them.

The Shin Bet, mandated with guarding the country’s secrets, says it treated the whole affair with kid gloves because journalists were involved. Diskin said Thursday that if it hadn’t been journalists, but ordinary citizens or foreign spies, the Shin Bet would have acted much more aggressively, and much more quickly.

Now that most of the story is out, the agency will do so, he added.

“We acted with restraint in this case; we were perhaps too sensitive with this investigation, and we took too long. Dealing with journalists is a minefield,” Diskin said.

Obviously the danger that foreign elements will want to obtain the documents increases now with the publication of the story, as does the potential danger to Blau himself.

Haaretz has to protect its reporter, and the Shin Bet has to guard the state’s secrets. Both sides are doing what they believe is right.

But the equilibrium between state security and press freedom needs to be restored as quickly as possible.

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