Secrecy in the Service of Advocacy

Yarden Vatikay, who served as Head of the National Information Directorate for more than a decade, reveals in a special interview how Israel converts secret intelligence into public campaigns in support of its interests


 Prime minister netanyahu reveals the iranian archives. Photo: AP

"On April 30, 2018, at 20:10 hours, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped on the podium in VIP Hall No.3 at the Kirya in Tel-Aviv and delivered to dozens of reporters a dramatic presentation that exposed the Iranian nuclear archive. The press conference was broadcast live by the leading TV stations in Israel and around the world, as well as by websites and social media, viewed by millions of viewers and followers. The press conference was the conclusion of a preparatory effort that had lasted about two months, by a small team of intelligence, public information, and policy specialists. The hallmark of the preparatory effort was the constant tension between the public information considerations and the intelligence considerations." This paragraph opens the article by Yarden Vatikay and Col. A., titled "When the Intelligence Specialist and the Public Information Specialist Meet."

Vatikay, who has served until recently as Head of the National Information Directorate at the Prime Minister's Office, explains that this media event is an excellent example of the way in which sensitive intelligence information is used for effective Israeli advocacy. In this case, it was the Iranian nuclear archive obtained by the Mossad. Such public information activity raises numerous complex questions regarding the use of the secret information gathered by the intelligence services of the State of Israel, which, in effect, becomes public knowledge and receives extensive media coverage. How do you select the appropriate intelligence? How do you prepare the materials? How do you prevent the enemy from learning about the methods of operation and exposing sources? And primarily – how do you convey the message, based on highly sensitive information, so as to serve the State of Israel in the most effective manner?

"It all starts with specifying your objective," explains Yarden Vatikay, who has been one of the closest associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since he was appointed as Head of the National Information Directorate in 2008. "Israel has conducted several major campaigns over the years. One of them is the campaign against a nuclear Iran, for more stringent sanctions, and against Iran's regional domination. This includes diplomatic activities and kinetic operations. Another campaign is the one against Hamas. Almost all of our work is a part of these campaigns," he says in a special interview with IsraelDefense.


Diving into 100,000 Documents in Farsi

"Consequently, the question of using intelligence materials is derived from the campaign you are conducting. The campaign involves various activities. It begins with what I want to transmit to my target audiences. The State of Israel transmits to and conducts dialogues with three types of target audiences – the Israeli audience, the international audience, and the regional audience. All of our systems are constantly geared toward communicating with them – we speak the different languages, our social media, the materials we distribute," says Vatikay, who had served in a variety of spokesperson and media consulting positions.

Vatikay explains that once the objective and the target audiences have been specified, the tools to be used are selected. "With the Iranian nuclear archive, for example, we addressed an international target audience. Once this event had taken place, our objective was to find materials out of the 100,000 documents we had there, to find relevant materials that would serve our message, which says 'Iran lied all along.' It was a treasure trove of material, all in Farsi. The Mossad did a tremendous job. They had to be searched by a small team, along with Mossad specialists, for relevant materials that would serve us," he says.

"After that, you have to declassify them," Vatikay outlines the complex process of converting top-secret material into information that may be publicized. "Some of the materials are problematic with regard to declassification. You do it together with the organ in charge of the materials. It may be the Mossad in the case of the Iranian nuclear archive, or the IDF Intelligence Directorate in the case of the uncovering (by the IDF Spokesperson) of the Iranian missile precision factories in Lebanon.

Yarden Vatikay with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Kobi Gideon - GPO

"You go to the source of the information, mainly the intelligence agencies, and engage in a dialogue with them. This dialogue also takes place between us, professionals, and the intelligence elements as well as with the political echelon. Eventually, some things get approved, and some things remain impossible (to publicize). There were many things that we wanted and eventually decided not to publicize because of such issues as keeping the confidentiality of sources, or information like the nuclear archive, which contained a lot of data on how to manufacture nuclear weapons. You do not want this information to become readily available to the entire world," says Vatikay.

In the context of this work, as the public information man who shared the greatest secrets told us, there are many intelligence or technological details which, even if the enemy had obtained them, it does not mean that other elements have them. "For this reason," he stresses, "You must immediately think about how it should go public and how to prevent it from serving the interests of hostile elements. All of the professional specialists sit and work on these materials. We worked two months in advance on the materials of the (Iranian) archive, it was a day-to-day, Sisyphean effort. You must never take these things lightly."


Attacking on Multiple Fronts

But working on campaigns that combine intelligence and public information is not confined only to such organizations as the Mossad or the IDF Intelligence Directorate, and is not aimed only against Iran or Hezbollah. The Palestinian arena is one of the most complex arenas opposite which Israel operates in the field of public information and advocacy, during military operations as well as between operations. One major organization with which the public information elements cooperate closely is the Israel Security Agency (ISA). "This is a highly refined and sophisticated organization, even for the public information service. They possess a lot of information and often release information," says Vatikay.

For example, during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip (2008), a rumor started to spread that Israel had killed dozens of Palestinians in an attack. The newspapers published headlines accusing Israel of having killed dozens of innocent Palestinians. "The ISA called me and released undisclosed information about what had actually happened there. The incident in question involved two terrorists who were brothers. The ISA reported that they had fired from a specific point, and the IDF fired back in the direction of that point. They explained the situation to me, and Palestinian allegations turned out to be completely false," says Vatikay.

"As soon as we had that information in real time, during the fighting, we were able to change the headlines. From an incident that could have evolved into another Kafr Qana incident, it turned out to be a less remembered incident as it had not passed the threshold and the narrative changed." This disclosure, says Vatikay, prevented a very serious image crisis for Israel.

In another situation, intelligence information led to the exposure of Hamas having taken control of the infrastructure of an international aid organization operating in the Gaza Strip. The organization in question was World Vision, one of the world's largest Christian welfare organizations. They had poured a lot of money into Gaza and maintained a branch there. The ISA discovered that Hamas took control of this organization in a very clever way. The head of the organization was a Hamas man. "A decision was made, at the initiative of the ISA, to go public with this story," Vatikay recounted. "We launched a media operation opposite several target audiences and the story exploded. This capability of Hamas was eliminated. This exploitation of the organization that had poured a lot of money into Hamas – that capability was eliminated. The organization had been duped. This situation involved the exposure of hard-core intelligence material regarding that particular infrastructure of Hamas."


Constant Tension

Along with numerous campaigns involving intelligence information that was publicized, there were many cases over the years where the public information people had wanted to use intelligence information, but that option was not granted to them. Vatikay elaborates on the constant tension between the need of the public information interest to go public and the need to safeguard the sensitive information: "For example, we wanted to publicize information associated with the Iranian nuclear program, to expose additional sites and all sorts of other examples. Eventually, we did not use that information. We wanted to use IDF materials during events such as Operation Northern Shield. We could not always use those materials, owing to confidentiality restrictions.

"A healthy, positive dialogue is conducted here, which sometimes frustrates us as professionals. There is constant tension, and there are also situations where the intelligence elements object and the public information interest prevails. Eventually, if there are difficult questions regarding the need to go public, the Prime Minister will be the one making the final decision. In a situation of flat-out objection on the part of the intelligence elements, where they would not compromise, the decision was to go with them. But it is not 'all or nothing.' Eventually, it is presented to the leader, to the Prime Minister, personally."

Sometimes the issue of the timing of publicizing the information is criticized. During the last two election campaigns, such criticism has been directed toward Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to those claims, the publications were intended to gain political capital. Yarden Vatikay, who was, as stated, one of the closest associates of Netanyahu for more than a decade, has a very clear view on this matter: "As a matter of principle, these allegations are incorrect. When you speak about that, you must be familiar with the system or the processes through which these things work.

"So many professionals are involved in these processes, that it is hard for me to believe that the output is merely political. No one can suspect the intelligence elements of being political elements, so their considerations are always to the point. Secondly, I cannot recall many cases where the intelligence elements got up on their hind legs, and the leader came out and said, 'I will go public despite your objection.' If there is an incident where the intelligence element got up on its hind legs, the leader will not go ahead with it against their view. There are different opinions everywhere, but in the end, there is an organizational leader who should make a decision."


The Ability to Prevent War

The former IDF Spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said a few months ago at his retirement ceremony, "Our activity (the public information activity) led to a change in enemy deployment. I am confident that level-headed and responsible advocacy succeeded in preventing wars and confrontations whenever it was possible to do so." Vatikay, who had also served in senior positions with the IDF Spokesperson's Unit, is totally in agreement with the statements made by Manelis. "If you are in a position to prevent a certain event by political means, then you must do it. Take the 'Golan File' – the exposure of the Hezbollah infrastructure on the Golan Heights. They started building a very extensive infrastructure opposite us. In the past, various operations in the area had been attributed to Israel, but the decision to expose the story had its effect."

"The objective was to shatter it by publicizing it. Had we not publicized it, we would have attacked," states Vatikay. "Would this have led to escalation? You can never know. During Operation Northern Shield, there was a range of options, and we decided to prevent it using diplomatic and public information means. Such activity enables you, first and foremost, to avoid a kinetic operation – which is always a good thing. It also enables you to consolidate international support. The world and your partners, the Americans and the Europeans, will always think that non-violent action is preferable. In this way, you also avoid eliminating the evidence. If you were to bomb the tunnels from the air, Hezbollah would have said that you had no proof. Once you initiate such exposure and invite foreign elements to the spot, you have won this diplomatic battle. UNIFIL has already reported to all of its elements that Israel was right. In cases like the 'Golan File,' preferring exposure as the right way to go had been planned in advance."

The diplomatic campaign issue is highly complex. Convincing the Americans, but mainly the Europeans, is a day-to-day task, and the use of intelligence is reflected effectively in the diplomatic meetings of the Prime Minister. In his meetings with senior officials around the world, Netanyahu normally delivers a presentation based on secret intelligence details that were declassified. "The Prime Minister, in every one of his meetings with heads of state, and he has about 300 such meetings every year, speaks through an informative presentation I had been responsible for producing. I prepared it with him," Vatikay told us.

"This presentation incorporates numerous intelligence materials. We would do most of the work with the Prime Minister's intelligence aide, depending on our objective. If our objective was to produce transparency on the subject of the Iranian missiles, then it would include intelligence materials. Eventually, these materials will become unclassified, but it begins with deliberation as to what we would like to show. The intelligence elements deliver the materials, we screen whatever we can use, and – naturally – how to present them. It will not be helpful if you deliver excellent information as is. If it does not have a clear form that conveys the message effectively, it will be worthless," he says.


Fighting Fake News

Just as the Prime Minister's presentation is kept up-to-date, so the media map keeps changing, as does the toolbox used in campaigns that incorporate intelligence information. The tools that were relevant to the media world in 2008, the year Vatikay entered his position at the National Information Directorate, are different from the tools of 2019. One of the primary changes has been the emergence of social media. "It is a challenge as well as an opportunity," says Vatikay. "There is a lot of information. You do not know what the sources of that information are, how credible it is. A lot of fake news. There are many elements out there who are involved in it against us. On the other hand, it also enables us to reach audiences that are very hard to reach through the traditional media, which is often critical of and hostile to Israel. You can direct information, you can promote things you want to promote in specific places."

The digital platforms of the National Information Directorate, which include such organs as the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Defense, the IDF Spokesperson Unit, and others – receive fairly substantial exposure. "All in all, the exposure through the official platforms is very high, but there is a lot more than this out there against you. The numbers are not in our favor, even though we are constantly improving and developing new platforms, the campaigns against us are still much more substantial. Their motivation for action is much higher," says Vatikay.

"COGAT (the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) created, over the last few years, a platform named Almunasiq (= the Coordinator), which speaks 'over the head' of the Palestinian Authority. This platform provides positive information, like information about goods that have been delivered, as well as negative information regarding Hamas seizing goods and humanitarian supplies intended for the local population. In this way, you can expose to the Palestinian population whatever Hamas keeps hidden, and you can only do it through social media. This platform provides us with an opportunity to speak to these populations in the Judea and Samaria district as well as in the Gaza Strip. Avichai Edrei, the IDF's Arabic-speaking spokesman, is a star in the Arab world, even if his feed contains infinite enmity, he is still a very important personality. He conveys a very important message. In the endless sea of enmity of the Arab world, we manage to create very few voices that speak for us, like Avichai or Ofer Gendelman."


"Intelligence Information" in Social Media

Vatikay explains that the various organs are not only responsible for responding and distributing information through social media. A highly important tool, which could, in many cases, constitute a kind of "open-source intelligence," is the monitoring of accounts and "incriminating information."

"You have surveillance organs that monitor social media. We actually assign teams that perform three tasks: they monitor the media very closely to determine where you have problems, they can respond to unfolding events, and they can derive useful data. For example, photographs taken on the border when dealing with the riots along the border fence. You do not have too many photographs from your side. Although we had deployed a massive amount of resources attempting to obtain incrimination, most of what we have is from the Palestinian side. When you see such things, for example, a Palestinian on the fence during the riots, wielding a machete, you can expose their true face.

"During the fence riots, there were numerous disinformation and misinformation reports. For example – reports according to which we had killed disabled individuals or a female paramedic. Somebody saw a disabled individual and said that Israel had shot him. You do not know what had actually happened there. There are tens of thousands of people there, and the IDF sometimes uses riot control measures. You face information distributed on the web, and some of your evidence consists of intelligence information or visual information you can present, for example – of an armed detachment that attempted to intrude into Israel. All of this is an on-going war on social media.

"It is very difficult to deal with those fake news. You can only do it by assigning a team to constantly monitor the media, by using technological resources, understanding that you are facing a crisis, responding promptly (which is not always possible), exposing intelligence materials – this is the only way you can deal with these things," concludes Vatikay.


Not Just a Hacker War

Another field that would have to be dealt with in the future is an arena with which we have not had much experience – cyberspace. For example, during the Eurovision Song Contest held in Israel in May 2019, the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation KAN came under a cyberattack. The various organizations involved provided a technological solution, a response to the press – and the event came to an end. Later on, a senior media official said in an interview that the attack had been staged by Hamas. As soon as he said that, his statement was quoted in dozens of reports worldwide. Suddenly, it evolved from a cyber event to something with a name, the attacker had a name, and the story became a media drama. Vatikay explains that this type of event can be managed differently.

"I accompanied the National Cyber Directorate since its establishment to these days. During that period, you realize what an important world exists within its public angle, within its public space. When we talk about cyber, it always appears to be a war between hackers. There is an attacker and there is a victim. The solution of the various systems for events of this type is a technological solution. There is a hack – so you add more security resources. But as you delve deeper into it, you realize that the management of the media space with regard to this issue is very important. The damage to the image is often much more serious than the technological damage sustained as a result of the attack," explains Vatikay.

"Look at the story of the Sony Pictures hack," he demonstrates. "The attacker was allegedly North Korea. The damage to Sony's image was more serious than the physical damage. In many cases, we managed to prevent image-related problems and stopped events from being publicized. They did not accomplish a substantial consciousness effect as those attackers had intended."

The success stories notwithstanding, Vatikay stresses that the field of cyber crisis management should be developed further. "Campaign managers should realize that they conduct a media campaign opposite the public, opposite the shareholders, opposite the attacker as a deterrent, and opposite other audiences within the public space. We are still at the outset of this era. We are gaining quite a lot of experience, as Israel is attacked intensively, but we have not gained sufficient experience in large-scale events. We are developing the knowledge but have to assimilate the public information campaign element as well. We still have a lot of developing to do," concludes Vatikay.

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