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IDF Chief Threatened Journalist With Espionage for Exposing Rampant Military Corruption

Before you begin reading this major scoop, I want to tell you where you won’t find this type of reporting.  Not in the New York Times, nor Haaretz, or even The Nation.  Hell, you won’t even read it at Electronic Intifada.  Only here.  That’s where you’ll find this reporting.  So I ask you to think about supporting my work.  Just as spring turns young men’s (and women’s) fancy to love, the holiday season turns the hearts and minds of those who want to change the world to supporting what they believe in.  I know you believe in my work or you wouldn’t be here.  I hope you will click on the WePay or Paypal links and make a generous end-of-year gift.  If you know others who should be reading my work or who can fund it, tell them as well.

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ronen bergman

Israeli intelligence correspondent and investigative journalist, Ronen Bergman

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time will not be surprised to learn that the IDF is not just a powerful military force, but also a national institution riven by corruption, petty jealousies, and naked political ambition.  So much so, that at times you wonder how it actually defends the homeland given the level of dysfunction within.  I’ve documented most of these themes before in a number of posts.  But recently, I learned about a scandal which, though the events transpired over a decade ago, was only exposed in 2011 with the publication of Ronen Bergman (his website) and Dan Margalit’s book, Ha’Bor (The Pit–this is the link to the relevant chapter from the Hebrew edition).  Since the book hasn’t yet been translated into English (Bergman is working on a new book for Random House, a history of Israeli intelligence), some of the incidents described in it are almost unknown outside Israel.  The hysterical reaction Bergman received to the book from the IDF itself isn’t even well-known inside Israel.

The general overview of the story comes from Uri Misgav’s Haaretz piece linked above.  But some key details below are reported for the first time based on my own interview with Bergman.  I thank him for sharing it with me (and you).  It begins with one of the most secretive and highly sought-after units in the IDF, the Special Operations Executive (מערך המבצעים המיוחדים) within the military intelligence division, AMAN.  SOE includes Sayeret Matkal, the élite special forces unit, which has produced many of Israel’s prime ministers and defense ministers.  About a decade ago, a whistleblower came forward from within the SOE and exposed massive corruption within its technology unit.  Not only was the sheer volume and types of corrupt acts extraordinary, the amounts involved were  eye-popping.

To understand the story, we have to take a step back and understand who these soldiers are serving in this unit.  The SOE is the forward-intelligence unit which plans and executes some of Israel’s most dangerous and most controversial acts of espionage, sabotage and assassination.  They infiltrate hostile countries, plant surveillance devices, sabotage facilities, and murder key targets among the enemy.  Think Iran, think Lebanon, think Syria.  They work in the most secret and sensitive of units.  They risk their lives regularly.  They see and do things that most Israelis hopefully will never do.  Because of this, the nation largely gives these men a pass when it comes to monitoring their behavior.  They have carte blanche to spend what they want, do what they want, take what they want–as long as they get the job done.  It reminds me of what they say about sausage: it tastes good but you don’t want to know how it’s made.

When the SOE whistleblower came forward he did so within the IDF.  The Israeli public still didn’t know a thing about the scandalous behavior he revealed.  The IDF doesn’t like to wash its dirty linen in private, let alone in public.  So the military criminal investigations division (CID) did open an inquiry into the charges.  And they were unbelievable: millions of dollars were spent every year with virtually no oversight.  Using U.S. military aid, they bought an entire gym and sauna in the U.S., imported it to their base, and restricted its use to only the most senior officers.  An officer charged unit expenses on his personal credit card, on which he earned tens of thousands of points which he redeemed for luxury vacations.  Agents extended their visits in foreign countries in order to have time to “play” and shop.

Luxury furniture, sofas, beds and other goodies were purchased for the offices and living quarters of the officers.  When an officer didn’t like to color of an armoire purchased for him, they bought new paint and had it repainted.  Outside contractors laid down new lawns and built pergolas for the grounds of the base where SOE was housed.  Contractors threw free parties for the children of officers. These contractors often didn’t charge for their services because they had lucrative inside deals with unit personnel.  Often a son of a current or former member of the unit owned the company and either gave or got a sweetheart deal.

For the unit’s operations, it purchased high-end vehicles which were only meant to be used for official purposes.  Yet, the officers took these luxury SUVs and sports cars to and from work so they could enjoy the thrill that their everyday personal vehicles couldn’t give them.

Expenditures for the unit which exceeded $2,500 needed a higher level of authorization and received more scrutiny.  In order to avoid this, the personnel regularly split purchases into smaller amounts that were under the $2,500 threshold.  Those within SOE who were supposed to authorize the spending either didn’t know what they were signing or left it to their subordinates to do the dirty work.

ashkenazi barak

Israel’s odd couple: Ashkenazi and Barak

Aside from these shenanigans, there is one important figure in the mix: Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz.  He was the operations officer for SOE.  He was a combination of a fixer, improviser, and conjurer.  His job was to make things happen.  If you think of the novel Catch 22, Harpaz is Milo Minderbinder.  The former will figure largely in a later scandal in which he allegedly forged a memo that was intended to buttress the chief of staff candidacy of a candidate favored by then Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.  The memo was also meant to smear then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, who was in the midst of a scorched-earth campaign against Ashkenazi.

Though Barak hated anyone sharing the limelight with him and resented Ashkenazi’s efforts to burnish his own image in the media, the chief of staff harbored his own grandiose vision of his worth.  Unlike past chiefs of staff, who understood that they served at the pleasure of the defense minister, Ashkenazi mounted what might be called a coup.  At first, he sought an extra year to his term (chiefs of staff generally serve four years and then retire from service, where they turn their experience and connections into lucrative consultancies for security or energy companies).  When Barak denied him that, Ashkenazi began a campaign to sabotage the defense minister’s preferred candidate, Yoav Galant (who Ashkenazi despised).  That is how the forged memo came into the picture.

Returning to the SOE scandal, Bergman says that up to $20-million yearly was spent each year on these unconventional purchases.  Though not all of the money involved corruption or abuse, certainly a substantial portion of it did.  While $20-million is a large sum to you or me, within the overall expenditures of AMAN it was exceedingly small potatoes.  At the time of the original corruption investigation, the IDF wanted to keep the lid on things.  So it refused to file any criminal charges despite the massive amounts of evidence uncovered.  Only two officers were disciplined, one of whom quit the IDF.  Though scores of others were involved, no one else faced any penalty.  All this would’ve stayed quiet had not Boaz Harpaz taken it upon himself to “help” his boss, Ashkenazi to get his man promoted to chief of staff.

Why is all this so important to any of these IDF officers?  Because, as I mentioned, the army is a good old boys club.  If your guy becomes chief of staff, that translates into millions of dollars in business deals you can expect throughout the rest of your career.  Not to mention the other prestige and status being associated with the right people affords.  You get invited to the right clubs, the right parties.  You enjoy that privileged lifestyle accessible only to the golden boys of Israel.

Another IDF odd couple.  Body language reveals how much these two, Ashkenazi and Yoav Galant (Barak’s failed choice for chief of staff), detest each other (Eliyahu Hershkovitz)

We don’t know who first told Bergman about this scandal, but I can guess that it was likely someone close to Ehud Barak.  With Ashkenazi undermining his authority as defense minister and an all-out war between them, Barak would’ve felt either angry enough or threatened enough that exposing the SOE scandal, linked as it was to Boaz Harpaz, would cast dirt on Ashkenazi.

Whoever was Bergman’s source, Ashkenazi was not happy when he learned that Harpaz was the villain of the journalist’s new book.  Bergman was summoned to Ashkenazi’s office for a meeting with his chief of staff and Ashkenazi’s public affairs officer, Avi Benayahu.  The latter is a legendary character: rotund, with a few strands of hair he combs over to mask his balding pate.  He’s also a bluff, blustery character known to make loud threats against anyone who crosses him.  At this meeting, Benayahu and the chief of staff presented to Bergman top-secret documents which they attempted to use to defend Ashkenazi’s reputation.

They also informed the journalist that when Ashkenazi left the army, he fully expected to become the next prime minister (this aspect of the meeting is reported here for the first time).  As hard as it may be now for anyone to believe that the chief of staff and his hangers-on could believe something so incredible, at the time it seemed credible, even inevitable–at least to them.  As they posed it to Bergman: Ashkenazi would be a leader without a party seeking a party without a leader (an ironic twist on the classic Zionist maxim: “a land without a people for a people without a land”).  The not so hidden message: cross a man who’s about to become the next prime minister at your peril.

When they couldn’t move Bergman to back off his investigation, they threatened to charge him with espionage (this is the first time this aspect of the story is being published outside Israel), one of the most serious offenses in the Israeli criminal code.  They not only threatened, they actually pressured both the Shabak and attorney general to open an investigation.  They charged that Bergman was in unauthorized possession of the very documents they had shown him in their office!  Those two bodies, however refused to accede to chief of staff’s wishes.   Bergman wasn’t investigated or charged with any crime.  I’m guessing that at least one of the reasons for this might have something to do with a certain senior minister who didn’t want Bergman to face criminal prosecution.

If any of this seems far-fetched to you, even in the Israeli context, let me remind you that weighing heavily on Bergman’s mind was the fact that Uri Blau, another brilliant Israeli investigative journalist, had been forced to flee the country to avoid prosecution on a very similar charge.  Blau had received top-secret IDF documents from Anat Kamm which he’d used to publish an article which tarnished the army’s reputation.  Eventually, Kamm was convicted of a criminal charge and imprisoned, while Blau was forced to cop a plea and served four months community service.  So espionage was no idle threat to Bergman.

Ironically, Harpaz himself was forced to leave the IDF when he was discovered with top-secret military documents on his own personal laptop which was not secured or encrypted.  He faced no other charges for this behavior, which leads you to believe that there is one standard of justice for the officer élite (like Harpaz) and another entirely for the lowly privates (like Kamm), and the journalists with whom they collaborate.  Indeed, powerful Israeli ministers and journalists handle such documents virtually every day.  If you got them from the right source, you were golden.  If you were promoting the agenda of the right powerful person, no one would harm you.

But if you had guts and values, if you crossed the wrong person, then you were fair game.  This is what also happened to Haaretz military affairs correspondent Reuven Pedatzur.  In 1994, he too suffered a year-long investigation in which he was charged with espionage and possession of top-secret documents.  During that time, Pedatzur’s phone was tapped and the most powerful security agency in the country brought its full weight to bear against him.  So again, Avi Benayahu was not posing an idle threat against Bergman.

Israel already ranks quite low among the ranks of so-called democratic nations for its level of press freedom.  In Reporters Without Borders 2013 report, it dropped from 92nd (last year) to 112th (this year) out of 179 countries ranked.  RSF should include the bullying and threats I’ve noted here when they produce their next report.  Israel is a country in which reporters are free to report what the powerful want them to report.  If you want to cover what they don’t want you to report, then you are at the mercy of the security services and all bets are off.

There is an overall moral to this story: not only does absolute power corrupt absolutely; when a State’s citizens give over their liberty and security to a group of men who are unaccountable to anyone, then the same thing happens.  Think about these soldiers of the SOE.  Their lives on base were swathed in presumptions of privilege.  They were the kings of their domain.  No one questioned them.  They got what they wanted when they wanted it.  If their lives on base could be so corrupt, imagine how they’d behave when they were on active duty in enemy territory.  Imagine to what levels of depravity they might stoop to get the job done.  Imagine the corners they’d cut.  Imagine the cheapness of the lives they’d take.

There is an arrogance at the root of the behavior of the SOE.  But it isn’t just the smugness of this one élite unit, as great as that might be.  The corruption within this one unit is writ large in much of the behavior of the IDF.  There is a similar code of privilege and impunity in virtually everything the IDF does.  It explains why it mounts endless wars that offer Israel no more security than before they started.  It explains why virtually no soldier is ever held accountable for his behavior.  It’s why six times more Palestinian civilians are killed than Israeli civilians.  It’s why an IAF commander can say the only sensation he feels before he kills a Palestinian is the shudder of the plane just after it fires its missile.  It’s why another AMAN interrogator can sodomize a Lebanese suspect in hopes that he might reveal the whereabouts of a captured Israel airman, and then sue the State after being drummed out of the IDF.

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{ 22 comments… add one }
  • jg December 20, 2013, 3:59 PM

    Hi Richard,
    I just want to tell you, your latest post came in my spam box, that never happened before. I am not bothered, and will read your post a little later and access from an earlier post.
    I know little about these things, and I’m sorry to bother you with it. I hope you don’t mind me sharing. Thank you.

    • Richard Silverstein December 20, 2013, 5:40 PM

      @ jg: If you know how to use your e mail program’s spam rules you can mark e mails from me or from my domain as not to be filtered as spam. That would prevent this from happening again.

  • Major Scoop December 20, 2013, 8:28 PM

    Where is the scoop ?
    Dan Margalit and Bergman himself have been publishing the same since 2011. Margalit referred to the story in one of his latest Friday pieces in Israel Hayom.
    Old News.

  • Richard Silverstein December 20, 2013, 9:58 PM

    @ Major Scoop: It may be difficult for you to follow the nuances of the post. However, the elements that are new are that the IDF sought to file espionage charges against Bergman, and that Ashkenazi and his staff believed he would become the next Prime Minister of Israel after leaving the IDF. That’s news!

    I never claimed that everything included in the post was original. You might want to read with a bit more care next time.

    • Major Scoop December 21, 2013, 3:19 AM

      As i stated, Margalit published all of it.

      • Richard Silverstein December 21, 2013, 3:17 PM

        @ Major Scoop: As you stated gornisht. A lie. Why would Ronen Bergman come to me to publish material he’s already published with Margalit? Your claim doesn’t even pass the smell test. So first of all, Margalit did not publish the fact that Bergman was threatened with a charge of espionage. Nor did he publish that Ashkenazi’s staff told Bergman that the chief of staff expected to be Israel’s next PM.

        I dare you to find anything in any source you can dig up that reports what I wrote above. If you can’t shut up and stop nattering away here. If you can, do it. If you publish another comment in this thread other than offering a source that reports the two major originals details of my post, you will be moderated or banned.

        • Major Scoop December 21, 2013, 8:13 PM

          Here it is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO4k308jqgo (time marker 25:47) Boaz Harpaz tells Ayala Hason “At the end of 2009, begining of 2010, There was a group of people created around Ashkenazi who wanted to see him as the prime-minister of Israel this was the great startup” (Ayala Hason) “while he was the chief of staff ?” (Harpaz) ” Yes during the time he serves as chief of staff, and if you’ll cover newpapers from that time you can see which politician and news reporter were involved” (if you are wondering it was Shimon Peres)

          As for Espionage, Bergman himself told the story in an interview he gave Lady Globes back on April 6 2011 in which he said there was an attempt to charge him with espionage. Bergman said “At some point I asked them (the censor) to check themselves, because it made no sense that i would submit information to their inspection as a law abiding citizen and they would turn around and try to pin espionage charges on me, using the information i provided”
          “בשלב מסוים ביקשתי מהם שיבדקו את עצמם. בלתי אפשרי שעיתונאי יעביר חומר לצנזורה כאזרח שומר חוק, ואחר-כך החומר הזה שהוא העביר עושה סיבוב ומשמש כדי להגיש תלונה נגדו על ריגול חמור”
          http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1000636531

          • Richard Silverstein December 22, 2013, 3:59 AM

            @ Major Scoop: You may be forgetting that I write in English and that no English speaker knows what Ronen Bergman told Lady Globes. In other words, no one outside of those few who read Lady Globes (and no one in the U.S. or anywhere outside Israel) knew he’d been threatened with espionage. Further, even Lady Globes doesn’t say who specifically threatened him with espionage. I did.

            The YouTube video again isn’t relevant to my argument since I’m reporting that Ashkenazi’s men used the threat of Ashkenazi becoming prime minister to bolster their threat against Bergman. Again, this isn’t in your video and has not been reported anywhere.

            No more comments from you in this thread. Move on or be moderated.

    • Major Scoop December 21, 2013, 1:08 PM

      It was published November 1st. In Israel Hayom and in the Friday Yoman of channel 1 during an interview Boaz Harpaz gave Ayala Hason.
      http://www.israelhayom.co.il/article/128825

  • Pip December 20, 2013, 10:17 PM

    “.. I learned about a scandal which, though the events transpired over a decade ago..”

    Boring!

    • Richard Silverstein December 21, 2013, 12:46 AM

      @ Pip: News flash! This is going to comes as a BIG shock, but I don’t write this blog for you, nor do I care what you think. In fact, if you said something I’d know pretty much the opposite was the case. So thanks for confirming my editorial judgment that this was a big deal. Not to mention when one of Israel’s best investigative journalists comes to me with a story, I sit up and take notice. Further, I trust his judgment about what’s a good story more than your own.

      As I said, it’s gonna come as a shock, but I trust you can handle it.

  • Oui December 21, 2013, 4:07 AM

    Difficult to find an archived version of interview as original Haaretz article has vanished …
    A conversation with Ronen Bergman by David B. Green

    Ronen Bergman can be influenced by the mist of being an insider to the Israeli military leadership as I reckoned in January 2012 …

    Selling the views of Israeli hawks on Iran

    (The Guardian) – Clearly, Israeli has a motive in conveying the impression that an attack might be imminent, to stir up urgency in the West to confront Iran. Ultimately, as Bergman admits, only Netanyahu and Barak really know how much is bluff and how much real intention.

    That is a lot more interesting stuff in Bergman’s piece. He is bringing out a book this month, called The Secret War with Iran, (clarification: an updated English version of his 2007 book of the same title) which sounds like it will be a gripping read, and of course the NYT article helps drum up interest and sales.

    [The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World's Most Dangerous Terrorist Power by Dr. Ronen Bergman]

    • Richard Silverstein December 21, 2013, 3:22 PM

      @ Oui: I have a complex relationship with most Israeli security journalists. They either hate me, tolerate me, or grudgingly respect me. My relationship with Ronen has been through some of those vicissitudes as well. I criticized a piece about Iran he wrote in the NYT Magazine which clearly seemed to be sourced by Ehud Barak. But Ronen’s recent piece in Foreign Policy on assassinating Hezbollah leaders ended with a terrific critique of the effectiveness of targeted killings.

      Any security correspondent in Israel is going to have to maintain relationships with security sources. So you are dancing with the devil. The question is: is the devil malevolent or benign? Some security reporters manage to walk a fine line and don’t cross over into being stenographers for the security services. Some sell their souls to that devil completely. I don’t think Ronen is in the latter category.

  • Ray Hanania December 21, 2013, 6:07 AM

    Corruption is corruption no matter the amount. The whole story is astounding but not surprising. SO glad you are able to break this story Richard, since most others are afraid of challenging Israel’s government. It used to be a lot like that here in the US when the Soviet Union and the Communist Hordes were the Demons of America. The government and the military was able to do everything. Now one might understand why the Israeli military establishment doesn’t want a peace to be finalized with the Palestinians. If they can have one Demonized people left, their continued corruption, immoral behavior and criminal conspiracy can continue in the shadows without anyone caring. Until someone like you helps to bring it out. Great job! RAY HANANIA

  • Zozo December 21, 2013, 10:40 AM

    The threats against Bergman were published in Ha’aretz about three weeks ago here:
    http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/.premium-1.2178100

    Ashkenazi’s Prime Ministerial ambitions have been common knowledge for a while now, published, among other places, in thel Channel 1 interview with Boaz Harpaz last month

    • Richard Silverstein December 21, 2013, 3:29 PM

      For everyone out there who doesn’t understand nuance (which appear to be 2 or 3 of you): there is no mention anywhere in any publication including the one to which you linked that state that Ronen Bergman was threatened in a meeting with Erez Weiner and Avi Benayahu with being charged with espionage. THAT is a scoop. “Threatening” someone as Uri Misgav reported is one thing. Telling them they’ll be charged with espionage is much more frightening & hence newsworthy.

      As for Ashkenazi’s prime ministerial ambitions: there is quite a difference between having such ambitions and being convinced that you will be the next PM of Israel. Again, you may not get the nuance, but most others will. I ask you to stop nattering on this subject and move on.

      • Pip December 21, 2013, 10:21 PM

        I get the nuance. And it doesn’t reflect well on you, Richard.

  • ToivoS December 21, 2013, 6:34 PM

    I can’t read Hebrew so I cannot offer much on this debate between Richard and his detractors on the facts. However the exchange reminds me of something that happened last June. Edward Snowden revealed through Glenn Greenwald a major story on NSA spying on the American people. I thought it was a bombshell story. However, throughout the Obama Dem blog sphere we heard voice after voice denigrating the revelations as old news that “everyone” who counted already knew it. Remember that?

    Of course we all know today that the story was not just a bombshell but probably the biggest story in the last fifty years. The NSA

    • Oui December 22, 2013, 4:42 AM

      Yep, don’t rock the Dem boat as it may reflect on Obama. Secrecy and covert action is what will damage anyone’s “legacy.” Quite easy to attack the messenger and avoid the underlying message. Not even surprising smear tactics were used by “progressive, liberal bloggers.”

  • free man December 22, 2013, 4:17 AM

    Dr. Ronen Bergman for you.

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