Former Shin Bet deputy director speaks out about secret operations

"Only high-level morals can allow a detective to understand when the suspect before him is making a false confession."

Former Shin Bet deputy-director Yitzhak Ilan (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Former Shin Bet deputy-director Yitzhak Ilan
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post's sister publication Maariv, former Shin Bet deputy director Yitzhak Ilan opened up about the Israel Security Agency's (ISA) operations and what makes a good Shin Bet agent.

"I have written an article called 'the philosophy of criminal investigation,'" Ilan said when asked what makes a good detective. "A detective has to be smart and wise. Very creative, curious, very critical - toward himself and others. One that can disagree with his superiors and fight for his stances," he said.

"But most importantly, [he has to be] moral." Ilan continued. "It is a threshold condition. Only high-level morals can allow a detective to understand when the suspect before him is making a false confession," he added.

"Believe me, it is very tempting to accept a false confession," Ilan continued. "You crack the case and go home. It is very tempting to use the incredible power you possess in the interrogation room, for the detriment of the suspect."

According to Ilan, detectives have a set goal of "preventing terrorist attacks and protecting citizens. When you get a false confession from a suspect and imprison him, you cause double damage - you make a new enemy while the actual terrorist in the field keeps carrying out attacks and the security forces' alertness drops because you supposedly caught the terrorist."

Born in Surami, Georgia as Yitzhak Debrashvili, Ilan became known in Israel's security services as "the Georgian." He is considered to be the living Israeli who has investigated and interrogated the largest number of terrorists.

He was a Shin Bet detective in Ramallah during the First Intifada, the head of Shin Bet's Samaria division in the Second Intifada, the head of the counterterrorism unit in Gaza and the head of the Investigations Department.

Ilan, who will be 64 in July, was supposed to be appointed the the ISA's new director after Yuval Diskin, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to give the position to Nadav Argaman in 2016 led to him retiring.

"Let me give you an example of a false confession and its potential damage," Ilan said. "Remember Oleg Shaichat, the soldier who was kidnapped and murdered? I was the head of Shin Bet Samaria. Shaichat was abducted near Nazareth, around Kafr Kanna, in 2003," he recalled.

"After a long, tiring investigation, we managed to arrest three suspects. They confessed, were indicted, and in the meantime we discovered their confession was false," Ilan continued. "We notified State Attorney Edna Arbel," he added.

"We were wrong, but what's important is that we realized our mistake. They confessed and reenacted [the crime], but it was all fake," he recalled. "We decided to release them. Meanwhile, North District police commissioner, Yaakov Borovsky, organized a show, called photographers, told the family, and so on."

Arbel, says Ilan, did not agree to release the suspects. "She blasted us, saying 'how is it that only now you say it is a false claim?' Avi Dichter, the head of Shin Bet, was forced to tell her, 'Madam State Attorney, we will have to go to court and say that we believe they did not murder the soldier and that it is a false confession.'"

Ilan was then appointed head of Investigation Department. "I went over this whole story personally," he recalled. "I went to the field, scouted, went over all details all over again, including 'concealed details,' which are usually the key to solving a crime. A suspect's confession can only be confirmed using concealed details the one confessing knows. Especially if they are 'novel concealed details.'"

According to Ilan, novel, concealed details are not only ones never published, but "ones the investigators themselves, meaning police or Shin Bet, did not know about. If the suspect adds such a detail from the crime, you cracked it."

In the days of the suspects' trial, Ilan recalls, "we were talking with Edna Arbel and I reported we were in the midst of an effort to catch Shaichat's real killers. She paused the discussion and tells Dichter, 'do you hear what your Investigation Department head is saying? I am putting the soldier's murderers on trial in these very days and he is searching for them.'"

Not so long afterwards, "the head of the Northern Investigations Department calls me and says, 'Yitzhak, there has been contact. Terrorists opened fire on a Border Police force that raided them. There is a dead terrorist and a wounded one, it is near Kafr Kanna. We found an M16 near the one that was killed.'"

According to Ilan, "at that moment I knew they were the murderers. We sent the firearm to the Forensic Investigations Department and the answer was clear: it was the rifle of Oleg Shaichat."

Translated by  Leon Sverdlov.