Mysterious death of an Israeli intel officer poses urgent questions for army

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The arrest and death of a military intelligence officer, with only parts of the affair released from a gag order on Monday evening, appears to have been a long, tragic saga. The IDF, according to the accumulating evidence, made mistakes in its handling of the officer and, indeed, the entire affair. The prolonged, comprehensive gag order on the details of the affair, particularly in the three weeks following the officer’s death while under detention, sparked a wave of fragmented information and false rumors, which spread throughout the country and from there, in a disjointed fashion, to international media outlets.

The attempt to impose a total gag order, even when done for the sake of protecting sensitive security information, greatly aggravated the problem. Since the affair seems to reveal suspected failures on the part of the military system, the sweeping ban was perceived as an attempt to shove things under the carpet. The attempt to keep the stable doors shut after many of the horses (i.e., secrets) had fled reflects a lack of understanding of the reality of current modes of media operation, and of the impact of social media on media reports and the pace at which things move today.

The officer was detained on suspicion of committing grave transgressions, with the potential and actual damage to state security deemed to be particularly heavy. After intense media pressure, the IDF said last week that suspicions did not include treason, espionage or contact with a foreign agent. As revealed on Monday, the officer operated out of personal motives that were not, as the army defined them, “ideological, ultra-nationalist or financial.” The man’s acquaintances describe him as having exceptional capabilities, and the fact that he served in a technological unit allows one to imagine the parameters in which the damage was done.

Obviously, detention under such circumstances is a reasonable, even self-evident tool of interrogation. The nine months that elapsed between his arrest and death attest to the fact that the army attributed great seriousness to his offenses, although the long duration with no indictment or plea bargain, even though he confessed to many of the accusations, is highly unusual. In contrast to claims made in recent days, the officer was not made to disappear, as in benighted dictatorships. Jurists accompanied the entire process. He had a lawyer and his family talked to him and visited him frequently.

But this is all that can be said in the army’s defense. Beyond that, many questions arise. What is the quality of monitoring the interface between technological units and the outside world? Were there clear work guidelines? Perhaps more importantly, while the IDF extracts from these technological geniuses the methods and tools that are so vital to Israel’s security, does it also make sure to maintain some balance and see that its officers do not undergo personal crises, given the burden of responsibilities and the missions they are charged with?

The detention facility where the officer was being held.Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

Other critical questions relate to what transpires behind prison walls. The circumstances of the officer’s death are still unclear. A few months ago, he was transferred to a new prison. The IDF boasted about the improved conditions in this facility and the up-to-date network of surveillance cameras meant to prevent abuse or suicide. And yet, even though this affair is particularly sensitive, the officer collapsed under the eyes of his jailers.

Work conditions and the atmosphere in his unit, the degree of oversight of its operations, what transpired inside the prison, all of these point to mistakes and failure on the part of the army. The IDF response, as soon as suspicions surfaced, was total silencing. A sweeping gag order was imposed and the family was intimidated to prevent any scrap of information from leaking out. Not only did this not work, it continued after the man’s death, when details were concealed from his family.

Beyond the secret at the core of the affair and the information the officer mishandled, it’s hard to see a reason for all the secrecy. His parents sent a skilled, healthy youth to the army. They’re entitled to a full explanation, as much as is possible, regarding what happened, even if the suspicions were warranted.

The rear-guard actions by those responsible for security of information in the IDF, with the delay in releasing information and waiting for the slow pace of military courts to proceed, are irrelevant in the current media environment. There is no vacuum. When there is no reliable, authoritative information, wild conspiracy theories jump in. Thus, serious people propounded nonsense for days, such as that the officer revealed information about the coronavirus vaccine or that he was spying for Russia.

The IDF must protect its sensitive information, but it must also give an accounting to the family and public. The fact that a temporary solution was found on Monday shows that with more effort and understanding, it could have been reached earlier. The information released so far is not sufficient, and there is certainly no justification for concealing the officer’s name for security reasons, days after it was revealed in foreign and on social media.