My Word: Hiss and tell
I used to believe that when it came to serious security issues – and a possible preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities falls into this category – those in the know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know. But now I know better.
Netanyahu Photo: REUTERS
I used to believe that when it came to serious security issues – and a possible
preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities falls into this category – those
in the know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know. But now I know
Everybody’s talking. On record, off record; in public, in
private; in the security cabinet and very definitely out of it. The art is to
understand the underlying messages; who’s against whom.
not-quite-unprecedented low came last week when Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu felt obliged to cancel the second part of what were meant to be
two-day confidential talks on the subject because of a leak from the previous
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying that
“the security of the state and its citizens depends on the ability to hold
confidential and in-depth discussions in the Security Cabinet. There, all the
facts are shown, all opinions and all implications. This is a basic work
tool in managing state security...
“I have no claim against the media;
they are doing their job. I do have a claim against whoever violated the most
basic trust needed to hold Security Cabinet discussions on matters having to do
with Israel’s security, and undermined the ability to hold confidential
Leaks are not unique to Israel. Enjoying the reruns of the
British comedy series Yes, Prime Minister, on Israel’s Channel 23, I find part
of the fun is watching the manipulation of information deliberately let loose by
the premier’s adviser.
But there’s a difference between being able to
laugh at a leak on a comedy show and watching the same thing on the nightly
When I worked as the Post’s parliamentary reporter, I participated
in what amounted to a ritual: Bloated with self-importance (or maybe the burekas
they had eaten), certain members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense
Committee would rush to tell reporters the contents of the meetings (off the
record, of course). I won’t name names (some of us can keep a secret) but I can
tell you who wouldn’t leak – ever – MK Yael Dayan on the Left and Bennie Begin,
now a minister without portfolio, on the Right.
As the prime minister
pointed out last week, whoever shared the contents of the discussion “violated
the most basic rules regarding the conduct of Security Cabinet discussions. He
also hurt the good name of those present at the meeting who did not leak its
The general public, however, not only feels it has a right to
know, there is a growing feeling that it has the right to determine whether or
not an attack should take place. In the reality-show era, when audience
participation is an essential element of success, some people seem to think that
the country’s security policy should be decided not by a secret ballot in the
election booth but by SMS.
During a visit last month to the RAF Museum in
London, I noticed a Second World War-period poster warning “Careless talk costs
lives.” What’s going on in Israel at the moment is not careless, it’s deliberate
– and that’s what’s most disturbing.
The members of the top echelon of
the country’s political, defense and intelligence establishment not only have
the right to tell the prime minister their views, it’s their duty. Netanyahu’s
job is to listen – whether he likes what he’s hearing or not. But there is a
time and more importantly a place for airing and sharing these views. If
contents of the discussions constantly leak out, some officials might be afraid
to speak their mind. The only one with nothing to fear from the leaks is Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, no doubt also following the reports with interest.
when Menachem Begin ordered the strike on Iraq’s nascent nuclear facilities, the
operation was carefully kept a secret. The Post later reported, for example,
that the information had been kept from then-Opposition leader Shimon Peres to
prevent him deliberately torpedoing it.
With the relatively limited
communication networks of the time, news of the operation did not get out. When
its success was conveyed to Israel Radio, the newsroom staff were so surprised
they prevailed on journalist Emanuel Halperin to call his uncle, Begin, to check
it wasn’t a prank call.
Today, it’s not hard to imagine an invitation to
follow the action via Twitter.
When protesters recently rallied in Tel
Aviv against a possible strike on Iran they carried placards proclaiming: “Don’t
bomb. Talk!” I don’t think they meant to prevent a military campaign through
leaks, but in view of what happened last week, their message could easily be
construed that way (especially as the Iranians aren’t exactly listening to
requests to drop their nuclear program and won’t even meet Israelis, let alone
talk to them).
Netanyahu was apparently angered by the lead headline in
Yediot Aharonot on September 5, which read “Disagreement about Iran among the
intelligence agencies.” According to the report, members of the security cabinet
were shocked to hear that the various intelligence agencies – the Mossad, Shin
Bet, and Military Intelligence – do not agree about the Iranian issue,
specifically at what point the Iranians will have progressed so far that an
attack would not be effective.
I’m disconcerted – though sadly not
shocked – by the fact that a member of a panel dealing with highly classified
material chose to leak it. I’m less concerned (or surprised) by the differences
Intelligence is a matter of interpretation. It is only
natural for each body to view the material through its own prism. That’s
precisely why they need to share the information and their understanding of
The talk on Iran might not cost lives, but it does carry a price –
not least, the possibility that the final decision on a strike could be based on
the consideration of preempting the public debate or that an operation could be
canceled because of the nonstop discussions. Similarly, if the prime minister
cannot trust those ministers and defense officials to share their thoughts with
him behind closed doors rather than behind a microphone, he might refuse to
listen to what they have to say.
The unbearably hard decision whether to
attack – let alone details of how and when – falls primarily on Netanyahu, after
he has heard (in confidence) the facts (and fears) presented by those with the
relevant information and experience. Ultimately, he is the one who has to
determine whether the possible nightmare scenario the day after an Israeli
strike is worse than the possible future consequences of Iran achieving full
nuclear capability, given that it already arms so many of the terrorist
organizations in the region.
Netanyahu, too, must decide when and where
to talk about the Iranian situation. Threatening to strike without taking any
action also reduces deterrence, not only in Tehran, but again among its
Whatever decision Netanyahu ultimately takes, he can
be sure that his opponents will accuse him of basing it on pre-election political
calculations. It’s disquieting, to say the least, when you discover that the
psychological warfare is being waged not against the Iranian regime, but among
those ostensibly sitting at the same, somewhat crowded, cabinet
The hiss-and-tell nature of the leaks could be the kiss of death
to informed decision-making. And you don’t need to be a genius or a member of
the intelligence community to figure out who loses when that happens.
writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.