Knesset switches to fighting for more Shin Bet surveillance

Panel ignores expiration of authority in January.

Israel's Knesset (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israel's Knesset
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee attacked the Health Ministry and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) on Monday for not implementing coronavirus surveillance for vaccinated civilians aggressively enough.
The Shin Bet and the Health Ministry “are concealing information from the public” when they choose not to inform vaccinated persons that they have come into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus, committee chairman Zvi Hauser said.
Vaccinated persons are presumed not to be in danger, and if they are sent into quarantine, this could hurt the vaccination rollout campaign, the Health Ministry said.
Even if vaccinated citizens are not forced to go into quarantine, they must be informed about their contact with an infected person so they can make their own decision, Hauser said. A small percentage of vaccinated persons could still get sick, and no one knows scientifically whether vaccinated persons might still spread the coronavirus to others, he said, adding that the current policy “borders on criminal negligence.”
The Health Ministry and the Shin Bet should immediately review and adjust their policy to inform vaccinated persons who come into contact with infected persons, Hauser said. The current policy “places doubt about whether the policy is implemented in good faith” or is being influenced by politics, he said.
Overlooked in this debate was that the Shin Bet’s authority to conduct coronavirus surveillance expired on January 20.
The committee voted 3-0 to extend Shin Bet surveillance until March 3 with no permanent deadline in sight, meaning it could be extended indefinitely for three-week periods.
Unlike prior hearings, opposition MKs did not attend to advocate ending the surveillance program. The High Court of Justice has also been silent on the issue.
On January 17, an expanded seven-justice panel of the High Court heard a series of petitions to end Shin Bet surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens as unconstitutional. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut suggested a one-month extension to the government, which was noncommittal.
In addition to the broader question of whether the Knesset law empowering the Shin Bet to perform surveillance operations on civilians could ever be constitutional, the High Court was in the odd position of having to decide whether to extend the law beyond its January 20 expiration date, given that the Knesset ignored the expiration date it mandated last July.
The Shin Bet has always focused only on terrorist threats and nearly always has been instructed to stay away from ordinary civilian surveillance.
Given the strong opposition to civilian surveillance, the Knesset believed it was necessary to ensure that this power was temporary and only valid during the COVID-19 crisis.
However, after the Knesset suddenly dissolved in December, it did not get around to extending the expiring law.
Shosh Shmueli, a lawyer from the Attorney-General’s Office, on January 17 told the High Court a temporary law could automatically be extended until July 2021, based on a general principle that important time-restricted laws can remain in force until a new government is sworn in to address them.
The judges seemed unimpressed by this idea. Hayut, as well as Justices Hanan Melcer and Neal Hendel, suggested that such a thoughtless automatic extension of an extreme and unusual law would double the time that it was meant to exist.
Yet, since that hearing, the High Court has been silent, which essentially means it has endorsed an automatic extension of citizen surveillance well into the next few months, until a new government is established.
There have been indications that both the Knesset committee and the High Court conceded their opposition to extending Shin Bet surveillance after coronavirus infection rates spiked beyond what had been expected.
Hauser suggested to Health Ministry officials Arik Hass and Talia Agmon that their assertion that the Shin Bet had tracked down 28% of those infected was a mischaracterization of the facts. The Shin Bet recently caught 13% to 15% of those infected on its own, he said.
The 28% figure represented the total number of cases traced through epidemiological probes, but the Shin Bet uncovered some cases faster, he added.
Despite his critique, neither Hauser nor anyone else seemed prepared to set a new surveillance expiration date. Furthermore, while in past hearings, the Magen 2, application of the “traffic light” system and more epidemiological probes were discussed, there was no real debate of these alternatives to Shin Bet surveillance.