Release the transcripts

The administration can no longer expect blind trust from the public or dodge accounting to it.

olmert peretz 88 (photo credit: )
olmert peretz 88
(photo credit: )
Earlier this month the Supreme Court ordered the Winograd Inquiry Committee looking into the Second Lebanese War to release censored transcripts of the testimonies it heard prior to the projected late-April publication of its interim report. The most keenly awaited statements are those of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and ex-chief of General Staff Dan Halutz. These were due to be posted on the Commission's Web site Sunday. They still might be, but only if the committee runs out of feasible legal means to avoid so doing. Hectic consultations and negotiations were under way over the weekend to discover options for deferring disclosure. The committee even considered a new appeal to the Supreme Court to reconsider its two consecutive rulings ordering it to make the transcripts available to the public once military censors remove classified information whose revelation could be detrimental to Israel's security. The committee clearly stands little chance of changing the court's mind, especially after the court rapped it hard on the knuckles when handing down its second ruling. It took the Committee severely to task for ignoring the first ruling and judged that the committee came "extremely close to contempt of court." All the committee could achieve with a further appeal would be to win time, which might bring it disconcertingly close to contempt yet again. Its first release of three, relatively minor, testimonies last week was done reluctantly enough and after committee chairman Eliyahu Winograd deleted even more passages than the censor initially had. Yet the embarrassment caused Shimon Peres, when it transpired that he told the committee he wouldn't have gone to war had it been up to him, created such a stir as to unsettle both the Prime Minister's Office and the committee. Both decried the court's decree, arguing that the transcripts could damage state security, foreign relations and the dealings between officials or government institutions. Peres admitted he might not have said what he did had he known his testimony would be publicized. Witnesses undoubtedly speak more freely when protected by a thick veil of secrecy. Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, however, testified after Meretz MK Zehava Gal-on had already petitioned the Supreme Court for the release of the transcripts. All three might reasonably have conjectured that there was some likelihood that what they stated might get out. But the issue goes deeper. Witnesses testify under oath and pledge to tell the whole truth, not just what suits them or would spare them discomfort (in Peres's case, with a premier who might feel betrayed). First and foremost, they owe allegiance to the public - the politicians' ultimate boss. That's what transparency and accountability are all about. The committee's very task is to foil cover-ups, ferret out the truth and let the citizenry know what went wrong last summer. The Winograd Committee's birth was controversial. Olmert, staunchly opposed to a state inquiry committee, himself appointed the panel entrusted with examining his own conduct. Yet the committee can vindicate itself by rising above its dubious origins and unequivocally demonstrate that the obfuscation and disregard for the public that was possible in the state's earlier days is impossible today. Public figures may be right to feel uneasy because their testimonies cannot be kept under wraps, yet they need to realize that the rules of the game have changed. Nine years ago, in fact, Peres and others voted for the Freedom of Information Act, which stipulates that any Israeli is entitled to any information held by any public authority, except in case of military secrets or invasion of privacy. When he and other elected representatives are called to account for their actions, they must assume that the right of the public to know supersedes their personal interests. No administration can any longer expect blind trust from the public or to be able to dodge accounting to it. This is the hard lesson that is being learned these days both by the Winograd Committee and the government.