No Need to Know

Qassams keep falling on Sderot, and now a Katyusha on Netivot, but if silence has worked well for Barak, why not for Olmert?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 9, 2007.)

In safeguarding confidential or secret information, the principle of “need to know” is usually applied. Access to this information is restricted to those who need to know the information while pursuing their duties. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir broke new ground on this subject when he on occasion would say that “whoever does not know does not have the need to know.” After many years in the underground and then in the Mossad, he was naturally very protective of information he considered to be secret. But restricting access to only those who already know such information might seriously impair the functioning of government and obstruct public discourse that may be of great importance for the public supervision of government.

There no doubt are security secrets that should be withheld from public knowledge for the benefit of the state and its citizens. These include capabilities, technology and weapons in possession of the Israel Defense Forces, which for good reason should be kept from the eyes of the enemy. Also certain activities of the IDF or security services directed at gaining intelligence should not be disclosed, for the benefit of all the country’s citizens. Or certain decisions taken in the inner cabinet whose public disclosure might prejudice the execution of the government’s plans for defending the country. Only those with “a need to know” should have access to this kind of information. But these should be the limits of the application of secrecy and censorship.

Now how about the action by the Israel Air Force over Syria a few weeks ago? Should this remain a secret from the Israeli public? Initially, there might have been some justification for the government not revealing the IAF’s involvement in this action. They might have believed that the identity of the attacking air force could be kept secret and should be kept secret.

Once the identity of the attacker had become public knowledge, there might have been concern that an Israeli announcement would trigger a knee-jerk Syrian retaliation. But once the Syrian president himself announced that the IAF had attacked a target in Syria, what reason could there have been for the Israeli government to maintain a veil of secrecy over the target? If the Syrians are trying to build a nuclear capability, this is something the Israeli public and the world should know, and if the Syrians are not involved in such activity at this time, that too should be public knowledge. If Israel really had no choice but to take this extreme measure, the public should know this. What kind of danger are we facing? This should not be kept from the public.

It seems that Ehud Olmert’s government has adopted silence as a strategy. Keeping his mouth shut worked well as a political strategy for Ehud Barak during the Labor Party election campaign. He has continued with this strategy after becoming defense minister, and so far it has worked. Qassams keep falling on Sderot, and now a Katyusha on Netivot, but the defense minister does not utter a word about his position on a matter for which he carries direct responsibility. If it works for Barak, why won’t it work for Olmert?

It works because after the torrent of endless talk the public has been subjected to from politicians over the years, silence seems golden. When it comes to defense matters, the silence envelops the government’s actions and inactions in a veil of mystery, leaving the public to believe that the government must be doing good things that are better left unsaid.

But what about transparency and a democracy’s need for public discourse on the merits and faults of the government’s action and inaction? The public has a right to know – yes, the need to know – the dangers we are facing. And the right to express its opinion on what the government is doing to meet these dangers.

Of course, there is the standard Israeli response to such reservations. Trust us. Everything will be all right.

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