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 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: 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 better.
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.
A 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 day’s meeting.
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 discussions.”
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 news.
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 contents.”
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.
In 1981, 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 of opinion.
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 it.
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 terrorist friends.
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 table.
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.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.