Top secret

The Intel gathering process is continuous and professional, and requires tremendous resources, manpower and technology.

Network cables connected to routers (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Network cables connected to routers (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
"Information is power.”
Everyone knows this saying, but intelligence information is much more than just power. Intel is different from information in a number of ways. Whereas regular information can be acquired by anyone through study, reading, hearing or even theft, intel that is gathered is for the most part secret information that is guarded obsessively by its owner for fear that its exposure might cause security related or strategic harm.
The Intel gathering process is continuous and professional, and requires tremendous resources, manpower and technology.
So, what lies behind the alleged information President Trump leaked to Russian officials? Already in the Torah, our forefathers were aware of the importance of gathering hidden intel. In the Torah portion Shlach Lecha, which we read in the synagogue two weeks ago, Moses sends out 12 spies to explore the land surreptitiously and dig up any intel they can about its inhabitants and cities. The reason for this was simple: the capability of an undercover agent embedded in the field is much greater than that of a person who is open about his identity.
Undercover agents are more likely to succeed in penetrating an enemy’s natural protective shield, and uncover secrets that would not normally be revealed to strangers.
Since biblical times, a lot of water has flowed down the Jordan River, and technology has advanced in leaps and bounds. The main principle in intel gathering, however, remains the same. The central condition for the success of any intelligence mission and the ability of agents to gather sensitive information, is for their identity to remain secret. Even in this modern age, the value of good intel remains as high as ever.
All countries maintain a number of intelligence organizations that are responsible for collecting intel inside and outside of the country, which is needed to maintain state security and ensure military and technological superiority vis-à-vis adversaries.
Organizations and corporations also employ professionals who are responsible for preventing theft of secret information or industrial espionage carried out by rivals.
Because intel gathering has always been a necessary part of every society, governments have constructed entire intelligence transmission networks that operate through individuals, organizations and countries. Most organizations share a certain amount of intel with other friendly organizations, with the understanding that cooperation and strategic alliances are of utmost importance because information that they receive in return is vital to retaining strategic superiority.
It’s important to understand that the real heroes behind all this intel gathering are the agents themselves. They are the ones engaging in surveillance and taking advantage of technological advances in cameras, listening devices and specialized software.
Without the expertise and courage of these individuals, the intelligence agencies wouldn’t have anything upon which to base their strategic decisions.
Intelligence agencies have developed various methods of conserving information, and especially of retaining sources.
One way of accomplishing this is through strict compartmentalization between units within the same organization, and limiting access to confidential information to specific levels.
In the Mossad, there’s an entire wing responsible for intelligence cooperation with the intelligence agencies around the world, and the trade of bits of intel. The Shin Bet has also developed a clear process vis-à-vis parallel intelligence organizations in other countries. The US and Israel have had an extremely clear-cut working relationship for many years now, which has stood the test of time and survived many difficult times due to the fact that neither country has ever exposed sensitive information it received from the other.
Notwithstanding all this, we must admit that the intelligence relationship between the US and Israel has never been perfectly symmetrical. Israel has in the past – and still does in the present – provided the US with more intel than it receives in return, but this asymmetry is justified since the US contributes to Israel’s well-being in other ways. Although it is much rarer for the US to disclose confidential information to Israel, the US does safeguard the intel it receives from Israel.
Israel passes on intel to the US through its regular channels and contacts only after it’s received all the necessary permits required to maintain security and protect the source. Highly sensitive information is of course presented to the highest-level decision-makers, including the heads of the FBI and the CIA, as well as the US president, secretary of defense and secretary of state.
Problems begin when any factor in this delicate equation is altered.
Sometimes, a leader fails to recognize the significance of keeping confidential information secret except when it’s explicitly necessary to divulge it. We might never know what took place in the meeting between Trump and the Russian officials, and how much sensitive information was revealed. It is also difficult to determine whether and to what extent the sources of the sensitive information were revealed, which could affect their ability to continue providing such important intel.
But what’s important to understand is that political leaders are not professional secret agents, and should therefore be required to undergo a preparatory course that will tech them how to handle confidential information and prevent serious mishaps, such as the one that recently took place. There’s no doubt that such a blunder could dramatically affect the transmission of information between the two countries.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.