Open the doors

Last Tuesday, Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On petitioned the Supreme Court to require the Winograd Commission to hold most of its hearings in open session. The commission, tasked with probing the military and political echelon's conduct of last summer's Lebanon conflict, is currently scheduled to produce a report that will be entirely classified. The Supreme Court has issued an injunction ordering the commission to explain by midweek why its proceedings must be held entirely behind closed doors. Gal-On asserted that keeping the citizenry essentially in the dark negates the raison d'etre of the commission's mission, i.e. to discover what went wrong, expose the errors and name those responsible for them. "The covert way the committee goes about its business violates the right of the public to know," Gal-On maintained, "and only serves the purposes of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the interests of other high-echelon figures who bear the onus for the war's results." Gal-On demanded that the commission release for publication its protocols at the end of each session. The only exceptions, she agrees, would be specific items of information which could palpably harm Israel's security, mostly material involving technical matters, weaponry or battlefield tactics. Other than that, she argues, there is no justification for overall shielding of everything aired in the committee. It is difficult to fault Gal-On's logic, a fact which wouldn't necessarily, however, guarantee success for her bid to open up the inquiry and especially make sure that upcoming testimony by the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister aren't suppressed by blanket imposition of confidentiality. The Winograd Commission is not the first in this country to operate behind a screen of secrecy. We are indeed a country at war, which also happens to be a small society in which it's increasingly hard to keep much hush-hush. Israel is often plagued by too many loose tongues and sometimes even alacrity to tell all. But surely any commission worth its salt, and the Winograd Commission pledges seriousness and professionalism, can differentiate between what's legitimately kept under wraps and away from enemy ears, and what should be disclosed and available for public scrutiny. Military secrecy is indispensable but too much secrecy is bound to raise suspicion. The IDF, which on the one hand leaks uncontrollably and harmfully, is equally disposed to burying information for no apparent rhyme or reason. To this day it's exceedingly difficult to get hold of the full Agranat Report on the Yom Kippur War, despite the time which has elapsed and the Supreme Court decision declassifying it. A pertinent example of how to respect the public's right to know without betraying vital secrets was provided just recently by the Zeiller Commission looking into the ties between high-ranking police officers and suspected crime lords. This inquiry handled the most sensitive material imaginable, much of it from undercover sources, yet it successfully delineated and adhered to its golden mean. If the Winograd inspection is not carried out with even a modicum of transparency, the upshot would be to undermine the commission's undertaking. This is so basic that it's little wonder Gal-On received considerable support not only from her colleagues on the left side of the political divide, but from throughout the political spectrum. In the balance here are not just technical lessons to be learned by the IDF and implemented. The civic side of the coin is to allow the electorate to evaluate the capability and competence of the nation's topmost leadership. Without credible transparency there is no reliable accountability. The people's faith in the inquest was already compromised by the fact that the commission charged with conducting it was hand-picked by Olmert, whose own actions and decisions are now under this very same commission's review. Public trust is too valuable a commodity to squander, especially after the loss of faith engendered by what was broadly perceived as the abandonment for weeks of the North's civilian population to its fate under Hizbullah rocket fire, inexplicable vacillation at the highest level, logistical sloppiness and lackadaisical vigilance. Most vulnerable in this episode is the public trust, which remains most in need of reassurance and restoration. Even the impression of a cover-up would be detrimental to the extreme.