December 28, 2004

Talking about a secrecy revolution

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is pushing for an overhaul of Knesset confidentiality measures

By Gideon Alon

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is the only Knesset committee that holds its meetings behind closed doors, far from the media eye. Its six subcommittees hold their sessions in conditions of absolute secrecy. Even the scheduling of their sessions is a secret. No one, aside from its members and professional staff, knows when the committees convene or what topics they discuss. Everything takes place under a heavy shroud of secrecy.

But the chairman of the committee, MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and the committee's professional staff have reached the conclusion that security and secrecy parameters have to be toughened up to prevent leaks of state secrets. This is why the committee's vault, which Steinitz calls "one of the best in the country," was recently upgraded. The vault is used for storage of documents, protocols, diskettes and recordings.

Members of the committee will be required to sign a written pledge not to leak information from its sessions to the media. They will be asked to turn off cellular phones during sessions, and remove the batteries from them. Members of subcommittees will be allowed to review classified, sensitive material only in the committee's conference room, and will not be permitted to give interviews to the media next to the committee room while sessions are in progress. The security precautions are overseen by a veteran field-security officer, Colonel (res.) Shmuel Letko.

An internal document prepared by the committee's professional staff, headed by the committee director, Admiral (res.) Avriel Bar-Joseph, entitled "Structure, purpose and tasks - founding document," which was distributed a few days ago among members of the committee, determines a ranking system for the level of security classification of discussions in the committee and subcommittee plenum.

Hearings of the intelligence and secret services, security perception, state of alert and field security and personnel in the IDF subcommittees were classified as "top secret." Members of these subcommittees will not be permitted to rotate their position with other Knesset members from their faction during their first year on the subcommittee.

Stringent directives

Moreover, the document lays down some particularly stringent directives: a security inspection will be carried out every morning in the committee chambers by the Knesset Guard; items such as computers, furnishings or air-conditioning will not be installed without permission from the Knesset officer; an annual "bug inspection" of the premises will be carried out by the Shin Bet; no classified material will be found in the committee chambers without the direct supervision of one of its employees; the alarm system will be armed every night; entire staff of committee members and stenographers will have adequate security clearance; all classified material slated for destruction will be shredded; classified documents will be distributed only through a courier or by means of a "red fax"; classified material will not leave the Knesset grounds.

Why was it decided to toughen up the security precautions of the committee? Were there leaks of sensitive material from the sessions? "To the best of my knowledge, there have been no leaks of classified material from the committee since 1994," says Steinitz. The fact that Shin Bet director Avi Dichter recently said at a cabinet session that the only forum before which he is prepared to reveal everything is the subcommittee for intelligence and secret services, because truly secret material has never been leaked from it.

If that is the case, why toughen up the security precautions?

Steinitz: "I reached the conclusion that the way that some of the sensitive and secret materials are currently handled is inadequate. The current treatment is such that holes in the system are liable to be made, and foreign intelligence services - should they go to great effort - would be able to gain possession of classified information. You must not forget that the Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry, the Shin Bet and the Mossad are closed, and few people can enter them. Conversely, the Knesset compound is open to nearly everyone. Almost anyone can enter the Knesset and make their way to the proximity of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. I therefore felt that tighter security precautions should be adopted."

Currently, whenever Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, Mossad director Meir Dagan, or IDF Military Intelligence (MI) director Major General Aharon Ze'evi arrive for subcommittee sessions, they walk through the Knesset corridors. Any sharp-eyed observer can learn where and when even the most secret meetings are being held. Steinitz states that as part of the planning for the construction of the Knesset's new wing (which will apparently be completed in 2006, and into which all of the committees are supposed to move), it was agreed with the architect that a separate entrance into the committee's conference rooms would be built, to enable high-ranking MI, Shin Bet and Mossad officials to enter the building without having to pass through the Knesset corridors. Additionally, an exceptionally secure room will be built, which would be used for secret sessions. The complex of committee rooms would be some distance away from the chambers of the other committees, to enable them to hermetically sealed off and be declared a "sterile zone" if the need arises.

The second part of the document is intended to serve as a set of regulations governing the work of the committee and it determines the functions of each one of the subcommittees. According to the new regulations, the Intelligence and Secret Services Subcommittee (the most prestigious and highest classified subcommittee of all), which provides oversight of the Mossad, Shin Bet, MI, Malmab (the Defense Ministry security department), Mazi (Ground Forces Command field security) and the National Security Council must hold 32 sessions and tours throughout the year, and, among other things, must meet twice a year with directors of the security services.

In the framework of its sessions, the subcommittee would engage in annual intelligence estimates, information-gathering plans, structure of units and bodies of the intelligence committee and their suitability for tasks, information-gathering projects in the developmental stage, security of information and censorship, prisoners of war and MIAs (missing in action), etc.

In the framework of its activities, this subcommittee is authorized to review all intelligence publications of the intelligence committee, to study and learn intelligence assessments regarding various threats, to keep track of budgetary allocations, to be involved in the state comptroller's work regarding the intelligence establishment, and to approve the annual budget of the Shin Bet and the Mossad.

The regulations also detail the primary duties of the Subcommittee on Security Perception: control and oversight of decision making on issues pertaining to major decisions on the amassing of power, examination of defense and national infrastructures, their condition, value and future plans as they correspond with the security perceptions of the state. This subcommittee maintains oversight of the Defense Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces, the Arms and Technological Infrastructures Development Administration, the defense industries, Sibat (the Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Organization of the Defense Ministry) and defense-related aspects of the National Security Council. In the framework of its work, it would conduct bimonthly tours of defense industry plants (Israel Aircraft Industries, Israel Military Industries, Rafael, Elbit, Elta, Tadiran, et al) and attend IDF training drills and exercises.

As for the Subcommittee on State of Alert and Field Security, whose duties are to address issues of ongoing security such as protection of soldiers, training accidents, operational accidents and defense of the home guard, it was determined that it has to hold a tour every two months, and oversee various departments of the Defense Ministry, the Public Security Ministry and the Israel Police, as well as in the IDF.

No clear procedures

As regards the three other subcommittees - IDF personnel, foreign affairs and publicity, and legislation - the regulations detail the primary tasks placed on them and the required rate of work expected of them. Another subcommittee will be established soon, based on the recommendations of the Rubinstein Committee (headed by Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, which scrutinized the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's oversight of defense establishment, the recommendations of which will be made public tomorrow). The new special subcommittee for the defense establishment budget would be responsible for approving the budget each year.

Steinitz says he decided to draft regulations to govern the committee's work because, "until now, there were no clear procedures for the work of the subcommittees. There were periods in the previous Knesset in which some of the subcommittees only existed on paper, without any members. In my opinion, the work of the subcommittees is of critical importance, and we therefore felt a need to anchor the rules in written statutes, in order to create a reference standard for achievement. It is important that every subcommittee chairman read the rules, know what is expected of him before he enters the office, and decide in light of that knowledge if he is willing to take it upon himself."

Steinitz feels that as opposed to other committees, in which various groups in Israeli public life participate in oversight and control capacities, on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, for reasons of secrecy, only the members themselves can perform these functions. Therefore, the responsibility placed on them is much greater. Thus, for instance, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is subject to the oversight of the academic world, the Movement for Quality Government, B'Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the media, "but in our committee, we are the sole public eye, so we have to control our activities in a more fundamental and penetrating manner. Therefore, we have to have much more binding norms here."

Steinitz considers the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a sort of "miniature Knesset," in which the activity of the subcommittees has greater significance than the plenary debates (in which closely guarded secrets are not usually revealed; rather, periodic surveys are given by the prime minister, defense and foreign ministers, chief of staff and director of MI, as well as high-ranking general staff officers). Now the question is whether new rules, which will soon be brought up for approval in the committee plenum, will be observed or whether they will gather dust on the shelves and will never be seriously regarded.

Not a word about the Dimona reactor

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, through a very limited number of individuals, also oversees the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Nevertheless, there is no mention of this in the "founding document" that it drafted.

Why isn't your oversight of the reactor mentioned in the document?

Steinitz: "There are sensitive issues that we decided to include in another document, to be disclosed only to a limited staff. Some of the rules of secrecy will be included as part of this internal document."

Are your oversight procedures for the reactor included?

"Oversight of the reactor is carried out according to tradition, by the chairman of the committee. Since I entered office some two years ago, I have been overseeing this subject. I visited the reactor accompanied by experts, and I gained the impression that it is in good hands, in terms of safety. After the issue was raised in the Knesset plenum by MK Zahava Gal-On of Yahad, I pledged to look into it again in the near future, with the focus of my examination being the reactor's ability to withstand earthquakes and aftershocks."

Copyright 2004 Haaretz