There is a mythical aura surrounding Israeli intelligence. Much of it is
well-deserved, as a string of spectacular covert operations has consistently
shown in the decades since the formation of the Jewish state.
Feats such as the 1967 destruction of the Egyptian air force, Operation Entebbe
(1976), the destruction of Osirak (1981) and, more recently, of the Syrian
plutonium reactor (2007), have enshrined the central role of the intelligence
arm in Israeli military strength and deterrence.
Not to mention a chillingly successful abductions and assassinations program,
whose most famous targets range from Nazi criminal against humanity Adolf
Eichmann to Palestinian Black September terrorists to Israeli nuclear
Mordechai Vanunu to Hezbollah arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh (2008).
Nevertheless, no spy agency is infallible, and recent events have revealed
gaping holes in the formidable Israeli intelligence apparatus. Firstly, the
killing in January in Dubai of a senior Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh
(all but unanimously attributed to the Mossad), however well executed, blew up, and this by definition detracts from a covert operation's
success. There were some tangible negative consequences for the Jewish state,
such as increased international criticism and the expulsion of an Israeli
diplomat from London.
Secondly, if the indictments filed against Israeli journalist Anat Kamm on
Wednesday prove true, it would appear that about 2,000 classified Israeli
military documents, including 700 marked "secret" and "top secret", were copied
and remained undetected in private possession for years. These are all
documents whose content could "gravely damage state security and endanger the
lives of both soldiers and Israeli civilians", in the words of
counter-intelligence agency Shin Beth's chief, Yuval Diskin.
According to a report in leading Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth, this affair is
likely the "most severe in Israeli history as far as the damage it could have
caused to the country's security". Needless to say, it constitutes a blow to
Israeli deterrence at a time when tensions in the region are high and rising.
What is publicly known of the storyline - parts of the affair are still secret
and "said to be enormously sensitive", according to New York Times' Judith
Miller - is the following. In 2007, Anat Kamm, a conscript office clerk at the
Israeli Central Command chief's (then Yair Naveh) office, made illegal copies
of over 2,000 classified documents. These, according to Yediot Ahronoth,
included "operational military information, security and situation assessments,
meetings' minutes and protocols, highly sensitive intelligence information,
orders of deployment and battle, drill briefings, and warfare doctrines for the
In 2008, Kamm offered the documents to two Israeli journalists: first to Yossi
Yehoshua, and later, when that initial contact fell through, to Ha'aretz's Uri
Blau. Blau used the information to write a number of stories, including a
highly critical of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) series on targeted assassinations of terrorists that he published in late 2008. An excerpt from the most widely
quoted piece, "A License to Kill", reads:
A Ha'aretz Magazine
investigation reveals for the first time operational discussions in which the
fate of wanted men and innocent people was decided, in apparent disregard of
the High Court decision. Thus it was revealed that the IDF approved
assassination plans in the West Bank even when it would probably have been
possible to arrest the wanted men - in contradiction to the State's statement
to the High Court - and that in cold military terminology the most senior IDF
echelons approve, in advance and in writing, the harming of innocent
Palestinians during the course of assassination operations. Moreover, it turns
out that the assassination of a target the defense establishment called part of
a "ticking infrastructure" was postponed, because it had been scheduled to take
place during the visit of a senior US official.
publications caught the attention of the chief of staff and the attorney
general, who ordered the counter-intelligence services to investigate. Almost a
year later, in September 2009, Uri Blau made a deal with the Shin Beth, whereby
he surrendered about 50 documents in his possession alongside his personal
computer in exchange for immunity from persecution and a pledge that the
materials will not be used to locate his source. Nevertheless, Shin Beth was
quick to locate Anat Kamm, placing her under house arrest in December and
formally indicting her last Wednesday.
This is where the affair gets truly fuzzy. It was after Kamm's arrest,
apparently, that the magnitude of the intelligence leak was discovered. Kamm
allegedly admitted to copying the information and claimed that she had
transferred "many of" the documents to Blau. "The Shin Beth," writes The
Jerusalem Post, "realized that there was a major gap between the number of
documents Blau had returned and the number Kamm said she had given. Additional
intelligence obtained by the Shin Bet reinforced suspicion that Blau was still
in possession of hundreds of documents classified as top secret."
Meanwhile, Blau had left the country. He claims it was by chance that he went
abroad shortly before Kamm was arrested: "When I left Israel I had no reason to
believe our planned trip would suddenly turn into a spy movie whose end is not
clear," he wrote in a Ha'aretz article on Friday. He is currently in London,
negotiating his return to Israel after a strenuous journey that apparently also
included China and Thailand.
The relationship between Kamm, Blau and Yossi Yehoshua, to whom Kamm initially
offered the documents, remains unclear. Yehoshua's name appears on the list of
witnesses against Kamm, and it is reasonable to assume that he bears some
responsibility for her arrest. Blau claims he is being persecuted "only because
I published reports that were not convenient to the establishment".
Similarly, Kamm claims that she acted because of ideological persuasion, but
not to hurt Israel's interests. "She's a Zionist," her lawyer, Eitan Lehman,
told The Jerusalem Post. "[And she] denies that any damage was done to the
security of the State of Israel or that it was ever her intention to do so."
Moreover, Lehman expressed concerns that the process was "damaging to the
democratic status of the State of Israel".
To add to the donnybrook, Ha'aretz complained in an editorial on Friday that
"Shin Bet broke its deal". In all, it appears that the media attention is
currently shifting toward a debate on free speech and the democratic values of
Israel, which, however important for Israeli society, is missing the point from
a strategic perspective. 
It is hard to avoid the sobering fact that, in Debka File's concise summary,
"this soldier's ability to photocopy and filch 2,000 top-secret documents from
an army facility over a two-year period ranging from 2005 to 2007 demonstrates
the vulnerability of the highest command levels in the IDF to infiltration by
hostile elements and the free availability of their most secret documents".
Attesting to their shock and therefore to the sensitivity of the scandal, the
Israeli intelligence services kept a gag order in place preventing Israeli
media from publishing any information about the affair even weeks after foreign
media had discussed it openly.
To top it off, less severe similar incidents have been reported consistently
over the past few years. Last year, for example, a number of low-security level
classified documents were found abandoned near a trash can, and, moreover, were
again found lying around days after the initial signal was given. More
recently, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's credit card data (and according to
unconfirmed reports some classified military data) was stolen.
All this signals a gaping hole in Israel's information security, and, by
extension, in its intelligence apparatus. The recent incidents - including the
Dubai affair - confirm that while Israeli spy agencies are ever-more adept at
penetrating their enemies' ranks and security defenses, they have neglected the
home front, so to speak, and are increasingly vulnerable to leaks. This is bad
news for Israel at a time when tensions with Iran are nearing their peak - in
intelligence matters as much as in pure military terms. Iranian spy services
have registered a few spectacular coups of their own as well.
A month and a half ago, they captured the most wanted man on Iran's terror
list, Jundallah's leader Abdulmalik Rigi, in a complex covert operation that
included the interception of a civilian airliner bound for Dubai. According to
Asia Times Online's M K Bhadrakumar:
The Iranian performance stands out
in sharp contrast with the fallout from the Israeli intelligence operation in
Dubai ... Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar made this clear
when he said, "Such an operation by the Islamic Republic's security forces
indicates that the country's intelligence and security have the upper hand in
the region." 
Overall, almost overnight, Israel's
formidable intelligence agencies have lost some glitter. This, from the point
of view of Israeli security, spells trouble for Israeli deterrence, and raises
the likelihood of an enemy attack. Ironically - or not - it might make Israel
itself more aggressive in the short term.