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Israeli Intel Officer’s Tragedy Exhibits the Damage that One Appointment Can Cause

The intelligence officer who was arrested secretly and died in prison last month, under circumstances that have not been clarified in full to the public, this week became almost a popular hero.

Many remain uneasy about the episode. How did it happen that a brilliant, highly motivated young man who was serving in the heart of the Israel Defense Forces’ technological system ended his life this way, with no one being called to account in the meantime?

Cpt. Tomer Eiges

The officer’s name and photograph remain under a gag order.

The blackout is presently “at the family’s request”, as the army has withdrawn its opposition to the publication of these details. But a short cruise in the social media networks will reveal both items, together with additional details and a range of conspiracy theories, most of them groundless. Some people switched their photographs on the web with a photo of the late officer, as a mark of solidarity.

Many Israelis are convinced that this episode is more than a tragic set of events.

They believe that a terrible injustice was done.

Some go so far as to view the events as a planned scheme by the defense establishment to get rid of the officer – as though we’re talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who incarcerates his rivals and then has them poisoned.

Press coverage of the affair remains under onerous restrictions.

We are shackled not only by the instructions of military censorship, but also by gag orders which have only been partially narrowed through appeals by Haaretz and other media. There are also restrictions related to individual privacy.

Some of the delaying and obscuring by the defense establishment at the start, and more intensely after the officer’s death on May 17, was exaggerated and unwarranted.

At the same time, on the basis of knowledge of the complex aspects of the affair, it appears that there is some substance to the defense establishment’s claim that the full revelation of the circumstances of the officer’s entanglement is liable to cause significant damage to the state’s security in critical, strategic areas.

Nevertheless, it is wrong to accept in any way the concealment of information from the family and the public about the circumstances of the officer’s death.

The findings of the investigation must be completely transparent – and it would be best if this were handled by an external investigator, such as a civilian judge, and not by the IDF Internal Investigations Unit.

The leading direction of the investigation into the cause of death is suicide by swallowing psychiatric pills, which were provided to the officer by authorization and which he secretly accumulated. Although it’s difficult to prevent the suicide of a prisoner who is determined to take his life, the army was duty-bound to ensure that a person at the heart of such a complex, roiling affair was under tighter supervision.

The internal probe “has so far not turned up findings of abuse or harsh treatment of the officer in prison”. He was moved between two military prisons, and died in Neve Tzedek, a new, recently inaugurated facility. The officer had two cellmates, and his occupancy of a cell with them was authorized by Military Intelligence.

The officer was incarcerated under his real name, not an alias. The prison administration knew where he had served and that he was suspected of serious security offenses, though they didn’t know their exact nature. He took part in work shifts and was in contact with other inmates. A psychiatrist saw him every so often, and, as far as is known, did not report any unusual expression of distress or suicidal tendencies on the officer’s part. As part of the investigation, his cellmates, the guards and the psychiatrist were questioned, and footage from the security cameras in the prison was scrutinized.

Series of mistakes

The affair of the officer is a sad, snowballing event that ended tragically. There is no doubt that the IDF made a series of mistakes in dealing with the matter, across its length and breadth. We will try to map them and describe how the events unfolded, under the restrictions of the existing orders, in the knowledge that the result will be only partial.

Red lights started to flash in Military Intelligence, indicating that something fundamental might have gone awry in one of the units of the technology system.

The gravity of the suspicions became clear along with the complexity of the investigation that was required. Additional people were updated at a relatively early stage.

The officer was arrested, as has been previously reported, while riding a scooter on a Tel Aviv street. He was transferred for investigation by the IDF. His family was informed about where he was, but not about the nature of the suspicions against him.

The picture we have at present is incomplete, not least because we cannot hear the officer’s account.

If he had remained alive, his trial would probably have taken place on camera, and the verdict would have been handed down without being reported in the media.

Even after his death, his parents may not comment on the accusations against him as they appear in the indictment. It was only this week that they were permitted to peruse a censored version of the indictment, although the scope of the details that were removed from it was very much diminished. Their lawyer is now focusing on demands to apprise them of as much information as possible and to investigate the circumstances of his death.

According to senior officials who dealt with this, the officer confessed to the suspicions against him within a relatively short time in his interrogation. They say that the offenses to which he confessed were extremely grave and included damage to national security.

The officer was aware of the potential damage in his activity (which, however, did not come to pass). The official statements issued by the IDF stated that the officer was not run by a foreign agent, was not in contact with hostile elements and operated independently out of personal motives, “not from ideological or economic motives.”

But once more, the blackout makes it possible to say only what did not happen here, without permitting publication of the specifics of what did happen. After the indictment was filed, a mediation procedure between the sides went on for several months, with the aim of arriving at a plea bargain.

The military prosecution strove for a punishment of about 10 years in prison – a harsh sentence compared to most of the indictments filed in the IDF.

It was acknowledged this week in the IDF General Staff that the army’s handling of the media in the case was faulty, and that speedier action should have been taken to lift part of the blackout on the details, in places where no security risk loomed. This tardiness occurred partly because the officer died during the fighting in the Gaza Strip. On the day after the operation ended, the commander of the officer’s unit visited the family at their home and gave his parents a partial report about the details of the episode.

Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on Wednesday broke his silence about the affair in a speech he delivered at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, held in memory of one of his predecessors, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

It was apparent that Kochavi’s words were carefully formulated, following consultation with legal experts and spokesmen.

Kochavi said the dead officer was “my soldier, the soldier of us all, even if he committed an extremely grave offense.” He admitted that “he should never have died in prison, and that has to be investigated trenchantly, deeply and thoroughly.”

But, according to the chief of staff, the offenses were perpetrated “intentionally, for reasons I can’t say. Everything we did [the arrest and the conditions in which he was held] was done in order to safeguard him [and] his family’s privacy. And at the same time we wanted to safeguard a big secret which he almost harmed. We stopped it at the last minute.”

Despite the clear and telling differences, the affair raises echoes of Edward Snowden.

In 2013, Snowden, an employee of the U.S. National Security Agency, leaked extensive details about NSA secret activity dealing with monitoring cyber and SIGINT (signals intelligence, meaning wiretapping conversations). Snowden gave the details of the NSA’s secret surveillance programs to two newspapers, left the United States and today lives in Russia, where he was granted political asylum. The American intelligence community condemned his actions and a severe indictment was filed against him in his absence.

Friends and family of the Israeli officer describe him as a brilliant youth whose singular skills were apparent early on. In his military service, too, he was noted especially for his outstanding performance in the professional realm. Kochavi said he doesn’t know why the officer acted – knowingly, he added – as he did.

Several other people who are knowledgeable about the investigation asserted that the principal motive for his irregular actions was indeed personal.

In their view, the possible background is competition with other individuals in the technology unit, and subjective feelings harbored by the officer of being discriminated against, and of not receiving from the commanders the esteem due him for his skills and achievements. The discovery of the offense was a surprise to Military Intelligence, to the point of shock.

The officer, it’s said there, sidestepped all the controls and supervision mechanisms. The fact that one individual was capable of bringing about damage like this has caused consternation.

A person who held senior technology positions in the defense establishment told Haaretz, “The greatest threat today to security organizations that deal with technology arises, in the end, from those who are part of the organization – an embittered worker or one who acts maliciously. A lone worker with the appropriate clearances to engage in secret activity is enough. A worker like that, who is very knowledgeable about what goes on in his unit, can do as much damage as a hostile power. From the moment that extraordinary capabilities are liable to lurch out of our control, the potential harm to the state is enormous.”

Another senior figure explains that the procedure for locating candidates for the technological units is complicated and involves tests and a psychological assessment: “The thing is that unusual qualifications in this field often come in one package with a complex personal character, which challenges the rigid, secret security system in which the brilliant young man or woman will be serving.”

The IDF tries to examine whether the young technology experts are fit to work on a team and to take orders in a military hierarchy under considerable pressure. Those who get low grades on the scale aren’t accepted, even if they display advanced skills. In cases that are considered borderline, the candidate’s file is examined by a committee headed by a senior officer from the technological branch, before a decision is made about whether to draft the candidate. That was the case with the officer – and his assignment was approved.

An individual who will here be called A. served for several years as an officer in the technological branch, in a similar position. His description, which does not touch on the practical content of the work, is illuminating. A. talks about an assignment that is the fulfillment of all the dreams of the technology buffs who are drafted. “You get unlimited resources, time and power. All you have to do is carry out the mission. For young people that’s a tremendous, riveting challenge. You have a great deal of power, with the aim being to work on behalf of the state’s security. People get really fired up over that.”

But in retrospect, from a distance of a few years, A. also discerns the weak points. “There is barely any talk about the boundaries of what’s permitted and what’s forbidden in that job. I remember one class about ethics, on the first day of the course. Most of the people who were with me didn’t remember anything that was said there. It doesn’t come up a lot along the way, either.”

He is also bothered by other aspects of the position, despite the abilities he acquired during his years of service. In his view – which is confirmed by other officers and soldiers who served in the technological branch – the psychological attentiveness that is given to those who deal in sensitive tasks is not tight enough or effective enough. The system is insufficiently aware of the psychic price paid by those who engage in this work, and they don’t always have a suitable character to cope with the difficulties involved.

Another blatant vulnerability, which comes up repeatedly in conversation with former personnel of the technological units, relates to the excessively blurred boundaries with civilian industry. Even though senior figures in Military Intelligence emphasize that the rules are clear and rigid, the younger officers think that the doors revolve too easily between the civilian and military spheres. The realms they deal with are quite similar, and there’s constant apprehension about inappropriate use, for civilian purposes, of means that were developed in the IDF, despite all the regulations and modes of supervision laid down to prevent it.

The huge economic temptations involved – immense salaries for young people in their twenties – complicate the situation further and make it difficult for those who served in Military Intelligence to show selectivity. This is particularly disturbing in the case of companies, most of which rest on personnel who served in Military Intelligence and the Computer Service Directorate, that are engaged in technological activity in gray areas, and that sometimes sell the services to dubious regimes and organizations, entailing violations of human rights.

The IDF has never dealt with this publicly in a satisfactory way, in part perhaps because some of those companies assist the defense establishment in various tasks.

The affair of the Military Intelligence officer will require extensive self-examination in the IDF in every area involved. It will be necessary to reexamine the tools of selection for sensitive positions, the nature of the requisite psychological profile and the attentiveness and supervision provided after the draft. Recently cameras and appropriate monitoring devices were installed in the relevant places, with the aim of improving the supervision of the activity in the units themselves.

But the IDF will be making life unduly easy for itself if it makes do with only technical measures. The episode exposed serious lacunae in what the chain of command knows about the activity of the young officers on the cutting edge of technology. It’s probably impossible to eliminate these gaps altogether, but a more serious attempt to prevent them in advance is needed. And there remains the issue of the prison itself, of course: the way the officer was treated, the kind of supervision he was under, and whether it wasn’t possible to prevent his sad, unnecessary death.

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ

Header: The grave of the murdered officer, last week. Credit: Rami Shllush