Should the Shin Bet be heard?

How open should heads of secret state organizations be? Is it acceptable for them to talk about private details in documentaries?

March 14, 2013 23:12
'The Gatekeepers' filmmakers

'The Gatekeepers' filmmakers 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn)

Protect and not be seen. This has been the motto of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) for many years.

These words embody the essence of the organization, the unseen shield of the state’s security. Its professional excellence and ability to carry out successful operations are unmatched. And yet, it has managed to remain extremely discreet, secret and, most important, loyal.

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During Ami Ayalon’s tenure as head of the organization, a Shin Bet protocol was drafted and implemented that codified its basic values. Since then, these values have guided Shin Bet leaders and staff in everything they do.

Loyalty and restraint top the list of values.

We must commend Shin Bet employees, who have followed the most stringent ethical codes and values before, and especially since, the 1984 Bus 300 incident.

This document hangs on the wall in every Shin Bet office, and appears on its website. These are the values that guide the agency.

But lately something has been changing.

A number of incidents have caused Israel’s citizens, the media and even Shin Bet employees, to ask themselves: Are these random coincidences or the results of an ongoing process? The first incident was the release of Dror Moreh’s TV documentary The Gatekeepers (which I must admit was very good), which was nominated for an Oscar award. It is an extraordinary and unique documentary in which six former Shin Bet chiefs speak with rare candor about the dilemmas that accompanied them throughout their tenure, especially regarding the sensitive relationships with the politicians who are responsible for the organization and give it instructions.

For the first time, viewers are being exposed to the content and issues featured in the film. They admire the artistic and documentary value of The Gatekeepers, but at the same time are a bit uncomfortable watching it. They’ve never been exposed to such open debates between Shin Bet leaders and heads of state. The Shin Bet chief has never before been heard directly or indirectly criticizing the actions of political superiors.

The media are also not used to covering conflicts or disagreements between secret organization heads and their superiors – in this case the prime minister. The film’s greatest advantage is that it covers past events, operations that have been completed, arguments that have ended, frustrations that have been forgotten and assassinations that have already taken place.

Another dramatic event that happened recently, and that is still making newspaper headlines, is former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin’s remarks criticizing the prime minister and defense minister. This occurrence was publicized in an exceptionally large, two-page Yediot Aharonot weekend article, and followed by dozens of op-eds in various media. It received sharp criticism from numerous commentators and former Shin Bet chiefs. Most of the criticism did not refer to the content of Diskin’s remarks, but rather to the way in which they were expressed, to the degree of exposure they received, and to the reasons they were made at that specific time.

But more than anything else, journalists have struggled with the following question: Is it proper and legitimate for the former head of a secret state organization to openly and flagrantly speak out against state leaders under whom he served? Is it right for him to publicly expose meetings between the heads of intelligence agencies and the prime minister that took place behind closed doors? Is the type of drink or brand of cigar that the prime minister and defense minister drank and smoked during these confidential meetings relevant information? These two events necessitate holding a public discussion regarding heads of organizations’ loyalty toward the political leadership in a democratic country that expects absolute loyalty.

It is important to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with the relative openness that the Shin Bet has been offering the media. The hard beginnings of this process began during the tenure of former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri, but have matured into an organized media arrangement (that was inaugurated in 2000 by the author, in an organized and orderly process and was approved by the Shin Bet). The agency is complying with this arrangement with the media with integrity and absolute credibility, as well as the values espoused by all Shin Bet units: loyalty and restraint.

How open should heads of secret state organizations be? Is it acceptable for them to talk about private details in documentaries? These are some of the questions that the public has been debating following Diskin’s remarks about the prime minister.

In the past, I had the honor of participating in these discussions and in extremely intimate late-night meetings held by then-prime minister Arik Sharon.

No more than four people would participate in these gatherings, during which there was always a full platter of food on Sharon’s table including hotdogs, rolls, vegetables, humous and cookies.

We did not believe that his choice of food affected his judgment or decision making process as prime minister. Not one of the heads of organizations, who were subordinate to the prime minister, considered offering the media a glimpse into which foods the prime minister offered at these meetings that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. We all knew, especially the Shin Bet leaders and staff, that what happens inside these walls stays inside these walls.

Today, many people are asking: If the former head of the Shin Bet is doing this, then is every employee of an organization allowed to settle accounts with former employers, to openly discuss company practices and how they were treated, and openly discuss details of the organization? Is it legitimate to publicly discuss issues that were brought up in private discussions behind closed doors? If it is, then is it proper to detail which foods were served during the most secret discussions, or how a certain leader was sitting, or the scathing and embarrassing way in which a senior leader addressed a subordinate? Do these details affect a senior leader’s ability to professionally and correctly manage an organization or the state? Do they harm his judgment? We know where this all began, but have no way to predict where it will end.

The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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