Censorship Instead of a Ban

Former Chief Censor, Brig. Gen. (res.) Sima Vaknin-Gil in an exclusive end-of-tenure interview: about the leaks during Operation Protective Edge and about the plan she had formulated that attempts to adapt the Israeli Military Censor’s office to the era of free information
 
Just before the Jewish New Year, 2015, Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil stored her uniforms after 31 years of service in the IDF. During her ten-year tenure as Chief Military Censor, she was compelled to deal with information leaks that were far more serious than the famous interview granted by IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. The dilemmas she faced and the attempts to stop information that has already become available in the public domain led her, toward the end of her term in office, to consolidate a proposal for a revolutionary change of the censorship arrangements.

The Israeli press is traditionally blamed for leaking unnecessary information about the activities of IDF. Is that true?

“Over the years I learned that it was not really the case. Surprisingly, I found out that the party demonstrating a higher degree of responsibility were the journalists, rather than the people in possession of the information that should be kept secret. More than just once or twice, the parties in possession of such information had it published without any regard to the real considerations of how seriously it would damage the national security and the chances that the information would reach hostile elements,” she told
Israel Defense during an exclusive retirement interview.

Did you have a demonic image of the press before you came to know it up close?

“Yes, I had an image which changed dramatically, almost by 180 degrees, with the emphasis, incidentally, on the military correspondent chamber. Naturally, I did not know the chief editors, and the image I had of the press in general was the one every intelligence professional comes to know over the years – people who only care about rating and scoops, regardless of what they burn along the way, who could not care less about national security. That was the perception I had grown up with, and I definitely realized that it was wrong.

“I do not intend, even for a minute, to make it sound as if the reporters are not doing their job properly. You know that they will fight with the Military Censor’s office and argue that a publication that had been rejected would not adversely affect national security, but all in all, there is a sense that the press wants to do its job and really function as the ‘fourth branch of government’, and not on account of the State of Israel. There are exceptions to this rule – on the side of the press as well as on the side of the parties possessing the information – but it is the job of the press to extract information from people, and it is the job of the various public officials to ensure that even when they provide information, they should observe a certain line that must not be crossed, and that line is crossed fairly often.”

The general sense today is that everything is exposed. Are the real secrets of Israel still safe?

“Absolutely, yes. People always ask me how secrets can be kept in the era of the Internet and the overflow of information and so forth, but anyone who really knows what a secret is – and these are not such amorphous matters as a battalion’s number – also knows that the secret core of Israel is safe. Those involved in special operations, in the defense industries, in the sensitive activities of the Mossad or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will not speak with you about those subjects even with a wink, and even if they do speak (about it), the press will not publish it.”

Vaknin-Gil spent most of her military career in the IAF, and more specifically in the IAF Intelligence Group. “I was attracted to the world of intelligence since I was four years old,” she recounts with a smile. “I remember myself at that age watching people in the street, until finally I was beaten up by a couple I had spied on while they were hugging and kissing.”

Vaknin joined IDF in 1984 and was trained as an IAF flight controller. “I was sent to the officer training course and when I graduated, I applied for a position with the IAF Intelligence Group (LAMDAN), to fulfill my childhood dream. My assignment was so fascinating that I asked myself: if this is what I do as a second lieutenant, what will I be doing when I am a lieutenant-colonel? The tremendous interest as well as serving under commanders of tremendous stature, made me want to remain in the military for the long run.”

In the mid-1980, IAF was called upon very frequently to perform numerous missions such as intercepting foreign aircraft, attacking an extensive range of objectives and participating in covert operations. “We were all very busy, and as a young officer I had the feeling that I was the center of the world and that everything depended on me personally. When they suggested I enroll in academic studies in preparation for a significant regular service period, I was very proud. I said yes immediately.”

Vaknin-Gil entered the first Gulf War, in 1991, as Head of the Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) Section – a position which up until then had not been regarded as a significant one. Owing to the circumstances of that war, whose primary characteristic – as far as the State of Israel was concerned – were missile attacks against population centers, Vaknin-Gil once again found herself at the "heart of business", working closely with US officials and the highest ranking officers of Israeli intelligence.

Her next position was as Head of the IAF Intelligence Program at the Ouvda airbase in southern Israel. The base commandant had asked her to establish an IAF officer training school, and she rose to the challenge and managed that school for four years. From Ouvda, Vaknin-Gil returned to the Kirya (IDF GHQ) compound in Tel-Aviv and became the first woman lieutenant-colonel holding a position within the operational world of IAF.

Her final positions with the IAF Intelligence Group were in the Target Intelligence Department, where she dealt with matters regarded as top secret and led a number of technological projects. Subsequently, she enrolled in studies at the National Defense College, graduating at the top of her class. She was selected to head the IAF Infrastructure Branch and was already in the middle of an opening conversation with the people of that branch, when a telephone call arrived, announcing that her military career was being diverted in a new direction. “The Commandant of IAF in those days, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi, informed me on the telephone that Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz had decided to appoint me to the position of Chief Military Censor. I went back to the people of the branch and told them that our opening session will become our closing session, too.”

You had no relevant background qualifying you for that position…

“Correct. The world of the Military Censor’s office relates to operations, the media, the legal system and intelligence. With the exception of my intelligence experience, I had no background in those fields. What led to my appointment was the reputation I had established within IAF, as an officer who would create something new wherever you may post her. Generally, what the Chief Censor needs, first and foremost, is sound logic and the ability to make decisions and resist pressure. It is important to understand that the Military Censor’s office is not a part of the military, but an organ subordinated directly to the Minister of Defense; the Chief Censor may be a civilian from the outside, not necessarily an IDF officer.”

Nevertheless, you had arrived from a completely alien world, and all of a sudden you were required to confront the chief editors of the Israeli media…

“More than that: I had come from a place where merely speaking to a reporter was considered an offense, to a situation where sitting with a reporter and eating cookies together was perfectly legitimate. Two things were particularly difficult for me at the outset – reading a newspaper during my working day, and speaking to the reporters. Surprisingly, the third thing I had feared – the consultation sessions with the top ranking officials of the defense establishment, including the Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, the Chief of the Mossad, the Head of ISA and the Chief of the IDF General Staff – turned out to be something I could handle without any difficulty.”

Unique Israeli Mechanism

The Israeli Military Censor, as a public organ and binding mechanism, operates in Israel in a unique manner. No other western-democratic country has such an organ, and it is the outcome of the British mandate of Palestine. The authority of the Military Censor’s office derives from the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945. These regulations provide almost draconic authoritative powers to the Military Censor’s office, in the context of which that office can block or completely close any mass communication body.

In a previous interview to Israel Defense, Vaknin-Gil told us that “The legal basis in view of which the Military Censor’s office operates is an agreement of understanding signed between the Minister of Defense and the editors of the media. The foundation of that agreement is the assumption that we are working together on the basis of a shared interest. The function of the Military Censor’s office is to safeguard national security while the journalists do their work fairly freely, never wishing to damage state security. In accordance with the agreement and the regulations, the media submit to the Military Censor’s office, in advance, their intended publications on a series of relevant issues, and the Military Censor’s office rejects only details it can prove are likely to damage national security. If the medium which is a signatory to the agreement violates the instructions of the Military Censor’s office, no criminal proceedings will be initiated against him, but instead, it will be subject to fines and penalties through a process of joint arbitration. The latest version of the agreement of understanding between the Military Censor’s office and the Israeli media was signed in 1996, when Shimon Peres was Minister of Defense.”

Eventually, almost any decision made by the Censor will upset someone – either within the defense establishment or in the media…

“I learned that fact very quickly. There are no situations where everyone will come out happy, and one of the parties will always feel upset, but our criterion for success was this: if, in the long run, we are being criticized by both sides – once by the defense establishment and once by the media – it means that on the whole we are maintaining a proper balance.”

Calculated and Mistaken Risk

Like the image of the media in the eyes of people entrusted with the secrets, the widely accepted image of the people of the Military Censor’s office as oblivious "silencers" is far from the truth. Vaknin-Gil, during her tenure as Chief Censor, established personal relations with hundreds of media people that were based on mutual appreciation. Those personal relations helped resolve quite a few crisis situations and confrontations between IDF and the press.

IDF entered the second Lebanon war with a media concept of tremendous openness, led by IDF Spokesperson Miri Regev during the time of the pullout from the Gaza Strip. “During the pullout it was OK, as you operated vis-à-vis colleagues. But in Lebanon we were facing a sophisticated opponent who studies you constantly even if you do not hand him any gifts. We are familiar with Hezbollah and with their high learning abilities. They can identify a highly specific element within a small niche, and reach very accurate conclusions.”

She remembers very vividly an incident where a reporter for an Arab TV network called her and said that his station was broadcasting live images of IDF units crossing the border. “When I wanted to stop that broadcast, I was told that it had been authorized. There was also an incident where a very senior IDF officer briefed a group of journalist, and alongside the military reporters who could be relied upon were the representatives of Al Jazeera, Alhurra and Al Arabiya. That officer explained where the IDF elements were located and where they were going to be on the following day, he actually gave them the entire battle plan, and I heard this and realized that it would be impossible to chase that information and stop it.”

The general sense during that war was that everything was leaking…

“Despite all of the faults, not everything leaked. After the war, the IDF Information Security Department conducted an analysis and found that the Military Censor’s office had fully accomplished 10 out of 11 information concealment objectives. The problem was that the one objective we had not fully accomplished was the primary objective of denying information about operational activities.

“If I were forced to put my finger and name the primary cause of our inability to control the public discourse around the military activity, it would be the fact that IDF had opened itself up almost uncontrollably. The sentiment was ‘let’s get the media in on whatever’s happening’ – possibly as a policy, owing to poor corporate culture, a mode of operation initiated by the IDF Spokesperson or the result of processes that were on-going for a long time. The concept was that this would actually help the war effort, and in retrospect we realized that not only had it not helped, but in certain cases it was actually damaging.”

Toward the end of the war, just before the ground maneuver into Lebanon began, Vaknin-Gil and Ram Dor went to the IDF Chief of Staff. “We told him that the situation was one of promiscuity and lawlessness. Even if it did not damage us directly, it was enough to make the troopers on the ground feel vulnerable. During the war, I had many conversations with parents who felt that their children were vulnerable because the media was blabbing itself to death. The fact that reporters were teamed up with combat elements and reported from the ground was another gift to the enemy.”

Were any people injured or killed because of a media report that should not have been authorized?

“IDF and the Information Security Department are unable to point out any such case. The conclusion of the second Lebanon war indicated that not a single trooper had paid a price owing to reports in the media. Anyone who’s familiar with the modes of operation of Hezbollah knows that they do not operate that way. Even if we announce the precise location where a rocket had hit, it will not affect the next rocket in any way. On the southern front, when we realized that Hamas operated differently, we changed our concept and did not allow reports regarding the points where rockets had hit.

“During a war I am not concerned about such definitions as high probability or low probability for damage to the national security. Our only concern is that no trooper would be hurt, and the freedom of the press is pushed aside During Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge, everything was different. Admittedly, those operations were conducted within a more restricted space; admittedly, the enemy was different and everyone had internalized the lessons of the past, but the important thing is that when we worked cooperatively with IDF, we managed to produce complete success.”

Was there any information that you had cleared for publishing, and in retrospect turned out to have caused actual damage?

“That is an interesting question. Before I concluded my tenure, I checked whether anything I had signed could have damaged our national security, as in many cases the defense establishment and myself did not see things eye to eye.

“Let’s take the most recent significant incident, the tapes of Ehud Barak (who, among other things, described the discussions around a possible Israeli attack in Iran – A. R.). There was much displeasure about my clearing those tapes for publishing, but I still stand behind my decision. Out of the things Barak said, almost everything had already been published.”

Don’t you think that publishing those things right out of the mouth of the former defense minister gives more information to the Iranians, for example?

“What, isn’t it clear that the other side knows that things are raised for discussion by the ‘forum of eight’, at the Prime Minister’s office, at the Defense Minister’s office and by the ‘kitchenette forum’? What in the things Barak said could damage our national security? Israel has left the military option on the table anyway. The state itself announced that this option was still relevant. Things to that effect had already been said by Meir Dagan, the former Chief of the Mossad, back in 2011. When I authorize this in 2015, what does the Iranian know that he did not know before? Possibly that (Minister) Yuval Steinitz objected, too. That does not amount to damage to national security.

“Does that Iranian knows now how and when we are going to attack? No. Does he know anything about the defense coordination? What weapon systems will be used? Does he know anything in principle about the decision making regarding the issue of the attack? No. So what happened? Those who panicked when they heard Barak saying those things in his own voice must have forgotten the things that had been published on this subject in the past.

"It reminds me of what happened during Operation Protective Edge, when during the actual fighting reports were being leaked from ministerial discussions.”

In retrospect, some people said Hamas knew that Israel would not go "all the way" and would not enter Gaza in force, mainly because of the leaks from the cabinet…

“And that much is true. I think that leaking information from the cabinet in a time of war is much more serious than the Barak tapes. To all of those who shouted now ‘Why did the Chief Censor authorize the publication of the tapes?’ I say – where were you during Operation Protective Edge? Why didn’t you shout back then? Why, while the soldiers were on the ground, the Censor found herself chasing senior officials and ministers?”

In the age of WhatsApp, high-speed Internet and a countless number of media channels, there are many who believe that censorship has become obsolete. Vaknin-Gil does not deny that, she simply thinks that the Military Censor’s office should change and adapt itself to the present era, not by rummaging through WhatsApp messages, but using a new model she had consolidated and presented to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

“My proposal claims that the ‘preventive model’ according to which the Military Censor’s office reviews (intended) publications and decides whether to authorize them is not suitable for a democratic country. In a defensive democracy it is appropriate to leave only a few core issues under the concept of ‘advance prevention’, and that includes intelligence, nuclear arms and operations, as in those areas we will not be able to pay the price of an error. All of the other issues handled by the Military Censor’s office – and there are 36 such issues – should be reduced. We should give up the broad preventive model and assign the responsibility to the editors on the one hand and to the people in possession of the secrets on the other hand. You should know that if you talk, what you say might go public without anyone preventing it. The editor should know that he/she is responsible for anything he/she publishes.

“At the same time, we should take all of the procedures and agreements and draft a new statute that will adapt itself to the era of 2015. That statute should be much more open and specify a normal offense limit – not every act should be regarded as spying – and a reasonable penal range. That statute should maintain a proper balance. You may contact an advisory organ regarding the materials you intend to publish, and that way you will be protected.

“In emergencies, and I regret to say that we have many emergencies, we will revert to full prevention. We are conducting a war over our home here, so in an emergency we will take no chances."

What does the Military Censor’s office look like today?

“The office has very few people, 34-36 censors who monitor every security-related material issued in the State of Israel or overseas and regarded (as far as we are concerned) as ‘potential’. We hardly ever miss anything regarding which we had indicated that we would like to know when it is published. We reached that point through a combination of advanced technologies. Over the last decade, the Military Censor’s office developed four state-of-the-art systems – one for knowledge management, one for monitoring TV and radio, and two highly advanced systems for monitoring the Internet.

“Now every bit of security-related information we had defined as possessing censorship interest will ‘jump’ right in front of us. These systems are so advanced, they were adopted by leading elements within the defense establishment. They are based on smart algorithms, a work concept that is suitable for the Military Censor’s office, and mainly on highly sophisticated censorship-related intelligence.”

Was it developed especially for the Israeli Military Censor’s office?

“Yes. It was produced by a company that has been working with us for the past four years.”

 

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