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?
'The Gatekeepers' filmmakers Photo: 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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division
head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Translated by Hannah Hochner.