My Word: Questions and secrets

The end of the world is what happens when Israel’s enemies get hold of military secrets. The classification “Secret” is not a recommendation; it is, in effect, an order.

Anat Kamm stands inside a courtroom in Tel Aviv 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Anat Kamm stands inside a courtroom in Tel Aviv 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Anat Kamm got off lightly. And that was before the court handed down its sentence last week. Kamm was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, having made a plea bargain reducing the severity of charges which included stealing thousands of classified documents from the office of the head of the IDF’s Central Command, where she served as a soldier, and passing hundreds of them on to Haaretz journalist Uri Blau.
Instead of expressing shock at her sentence, her supporters might wonder at the leniency that allowed her to spend the period of the investigation, trial and pre-sentencing in the comfort of her own home. House arrest might not be pleasant but it obviously beats the alternative. Being denied access to a computer or the ability to have a coffee out with friends is a real drag; for a pampered 20-something-year-old living in North Tel Aviv, it must have seemed like the end of the world. But it wasn’t.
The end of the world is what happens when Israel’s enemies get hold of military secrets. The classification “Secret” is not a recommendation; it is, in effect, an order.
Israelis, even soldiers, don’t like taking orders, as we all know.
They do like taking things home with them. Not work. Equipment. In 2002, I wrote about one of the IDF’s periodic campaigns encouraging people to return “borrowed” IDF property.
The IDF stuck by its promise that no questions would be asked.
Much of the equipment that had gone AWOL (more than NIS 1 million worth, actually) comprised clothing, boots and everyday items like water bottles and flashlights. The returned loot also included 14 tents and a mattress.
Among the returned equipment, however, was a fully functional missile launcher that, judging from the telltale signs of soil and leaves, had been used as a plant holder, and an old lady gave back – carefully – two hand grenades. Someone had taken a pair of handcuffs. (Don’t ask what for.) And a reformed, would-be one-man army returned RPGs, mortars, machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and grenades, accumulated over several years.
Why do I mention this? Because obviously it shows that the IDF is interested, above all, in getting most of this materiel out of people’s houses.
Some of this equipment had ended up in the homes of normative citizens due to either an oversight (an extra pair of uniform pants or so) during IDF regular or reserve duty, or because of the chaotic conditions in war.
Nonetheless, it was clear that in many of the cases people set their sights on the guns and stole them on purpose.
I know the IDF promised no questions, but I can’t resist asking why would any normal law-abiding person take home a machine gun in the first place?
And the same question applies in the Anat Kamm Affair.
She didn’t accidentally come across the documents, copy them, and take them home (although she did accidentally lose some, worryingly enough).
Kamm didn’t see the files and think: “These would look good on my PC.”
She stole them on purpose.
She didn’t do it because she was young, naive or stupid, as her defense attorney would later have us believe. She did it, as she reportedly told Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) investigators, because: “There were aspects of IDF operations which I thought should be brought to the attention of the public.”
Why the public first and not to the attention of her commander or the Military Police is another question that begs to be asked.
This was a calculated risk on her part. But she was taking a risk at the expense of all of us.
She might not have been able to give the documents back without facing a lot of questions but she could have destroyed the copies. Instead, she sought a journalist who would unquestioningly accept them – a sort of publish-and-be-damned philosophy that has become dangerously fashionable.
When the courts last week handed out a 12-year sentence to a hit-and-run driver, there were some who queried the severity of the punishment. Tal Mor had been driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol when he ploughed into cyclist Shneor Cheshin, without bothering to stop and help.
Kamm coldly and soberly stole the documents with her eyes wide open. Four and a half years, under the circumstances, does not seem to be an overly harsh sentence. True, she didn’t kill anybody – as far as we know. The problem is, even she doesn’t know what became of the material she stole.
LAST MONTH, the Justice Ministry announced that it had cracked a massive information theft case, in which a former employee of the Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry stole and copied the personal details of millions of Israelis and sold the data to a private buyer. The investigation also reportedly turned up data related to national security, as well as voter-registration lists.
Both the Kamm case and the Social Affairs Ministry incident should raise serious questions concerning the Interior Ministry’s plans to pilot a biometric database.
Being better at responding to emergencies than preventing them is, unfortunately, one of Israel’s national characteristics: But don’t say you weren’t warned. Apparently, the country that pioneered PC anti-virus software is also leaving its most sensitive material there for the taking.
The Kamm case, and the light sentence, reminded me of the Liora Glatt- Berkovich affair in 2003. Glatt- Berkovich, who worked in the Tel Aviv District Prosecutor’s Office, leaked the story to Haaretz that then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was being investigated for corruption. She claimed she did it because her son was about to go into the army, and she was worried the country might go to war if Sharon was reelected. Under a plea bargain, she received a suspended eight-month jail sentence and a NIS 10,000 fine, and she still occasionally turns up in TV studios as a legal expert. Chutzpah, too, is something of an Israeli specialty.
Perhaps I’m also guilty of it – chutzpah, that is, not leaking national secrets. As a journalist I can appreciate the value of leaks, but the hunger for a scoop should never let a reporter avoid the questions of who is behind the leak, and why they are leaking it.
I don’t think, for example, we have really uncovered what lies behind Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.
Above all, the media also need to take into account the results of publication.
The revelation of classified material can indeed encourage officers and soldiers in the field to act with extra care and avoid civilian casualties. It can bolster democracy. It can also put those soldiers in the field at ever greater risk. Ditto the general public. And it can be used to destroy democratic principles – something Glatt- Berkovitch might never publicly admit to being guilty of, but nonetheless an obvious conclusion in her case.
The public has a right to know, but not everything, at any price.
I sleep better knowing some things are secret.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
[email protected]