Israel probes war 'leaks'

2006-10-19 17:33
Tel Aviv - Israel's army said on Thursday it was investigating officers over leaks to the media during the Lebanon war, prompting journalists to accuse the top brass of trying to stifle criticism of its poor performance.

An army statement said several commanders could face disciplinary measures for wartime communications with the press that "potentially exposed Israel defence force troops to mortal danger". Past such cases have led to officers being discharged.

The announcement stoked debate in Israel about the inconclusive 34-day campaign against Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, and on whether the government and military chiefs have been fully brought to account for how they handled it.

While a UN-brokered truce on Aug 14 largely banished Hezbollah from the Jewish state's northern border, many Israelis were disappointed not to see the Iranian-backed group routed.

There has also been domestic criticism directed at local news media for coverage that often included details on the sites of Hezbollah rocket strikes and troop-deployment in Lebanon - information that some Israelis suspect harmed the war effort.

Witch-hunt

But Israeli defence correspondents rejected the army's security arguments, saying they believed the real objective was weeding out officers critical of the top generals' conduct.

"The feeling is that there's a witch-hunt on," said Felix Frisch of the mass-circulation daily Maariv.

Military sources said leak investigators had requisitioned hundreds of cellphone records of senior officers to see who had spoken to journalists.

Alon Ben-David, Israel analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, said it would be impossible to determine retroactively whether classified matters had been discussed in those conversations, and questioned the wisdom of such sweeping measures.

"We are talking here about brigadier-generals who in many cases command entire divisions - that's 10nbsp;000 men," Ben-David said.

"Are Israelis really expected to believe that people with such responsibilities can't keep secrets?"

Some officers see good relations with the media as a stepping-stone toward a future career in politics, but Ben-David said the high levels of accessibility were a cultural norm.

Security vetting

"The IDF is not a separate cadre of Israeli society, but part of it.

Almost everyone does mandatory service, and soldiers come home regularly to mix with friends and family," he said.

Frisch said Israeli defence correspondents had, until 2003, been required to pass security vetting before securing their jobs, but the practice was abolished.

"The really important military secrets remain secrets," Frisch said.

"Even if we come upon something sensitive, we will go to the censor with it first, or just keep it to ourselves."

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