Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel on Monday rejected an NGO’s petition to compel the Prime Minister’s Office to reveal the number of warrants the prime minister issued over the past five years to carry out Shin Bet wiretaps.
The petition – filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) with the court in its administrative capacity in September 2013 – also sought the revelation of the “number of people – and the number of the Israeli citizens and residents – covered by such warrants” and the “guidelines that guide the prime minister in exercising this authority.”
Sobel rejected the request on multiple grounds.
He said that the information was inherently exempt from the FOIA since it pertained to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and national security concerns.
Based on that argument, he did not inquire into whether the specific information would or could endanger national security in practice.
He added that ACRI had not convinced him that the FOIA applied by virtue of the Shin Bet being an extension of the Prime Minister’s Office, since the Shin Bet still had a distinct security-focused identity, and no one in the Prime Minister’s Office (besides the IDF’s attaché, who also has a special status) possessed the information.
Sobel also said that ACRI was not trying to obtain the information to resolve a concrete complaint of abuse of wiretapping, implying that if there had been such a complaint, his decision might have been more complex.
ACRI had complained that “security wiretaps,” used by the Shin Bet, as opposed to criminal wiretaps used by police, are carried out under more secretive procedures and said they are not subject to judicial review.
According to ACRI, the Shin Bet requests authority for a wiretap from the prime minister, “who must report only to the attorney-general and a combined committee of the Constitution, Law and Justice and Foreign Affairs and Defense committees, whose hearings are held behind closed doors.”
The petition had claimed that the Prime Minister’s Office has “not given proper weight to the public’s right to information,” which ACRI said was a right “directly connected to the freedom of expression.”
An ACRI lawyer had said, “It is intolerable for such sensitive power to be exercised without the public having the minimum tools needed to discuss the fundamental questions that surround it.”