An Israeli journalist’s guide to handling IDF obfuscation
Waste and institutional corruption connected to the bloated defense budget have been on the the Israeli public agenda for some time. However, the defense establishment’s political clout has always helped nip any reform initiative in the bud.
This year (2009), the public debate on the issue has been particularly angry. Defense Minister Barak’s lavish stay in Paris during Aeronautical Salon provoked an already incensed media into a frenzy of muckracking. One result was the exposure, in late November, of the fact that MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) was receiving a full IDF pension, even though he served only three years of regular duty (as IDF spokesperson in the early ’90s.)
Globes columnist Matti Golan, who I have disparaged in the past as grumpy conservative, has proven for the third time in two-weeks (see also here and here) that he is a hard-nosed independent journalist. Instead of taking the easy path and blasting Shai, he decided to find out who exactly in the IDF made the decision to award the extraordinary pension. Since many Israeli politicians (Barak, for example) held senior IDF positions at the time, this is not a trivial question.
The IDF Spokesperson, unused to questioning of his statements, was caught off guard. Golan’s December 4 2009 column is a blow-by-blow account of how a journalist can sink his teeth into a defense bureaucrat’s calf and hold on like a bulldog. Here’s a choice passage (full text after the jump.)
The spokesman’s office asked what I mean. They are right. They are used to telling journalists “competent authorities” and the journalists repeat it like parrots without unnecessary questions. After I clarified my intention, I received another phone call with an answer contingent on being “off the record.” I asked what I was supposed to do with that answer? They said: write it in the name of “military sources.” I said: “I don’t want to. I sent you a written question, the simplest factual question possible. I demand a written answer.” Apparently they are not used to such obvious demands from journalists either.
Why don’t other journalists display the same kind of tenacity on other pressing issues where the IDF effectively operates free of any civilian oversight, such as Palestinian civilian deaths? To be fair, in Shai’s case, the spokesperson could not credibly hide behind security-related secrecy. But I don’t think that is the entire story. There’s also sheer fatigue and an unhealthy, incestuous relationship. The Israeli journalists who should be doing most of the questioning are defense correspondents. In the Israeli media culture, they are dependent on a constant drip feed of leaks from the IDF, with the Spokesperson does much of the leaking. Hardly a day goes without some leaked security item topping the news agenda. Even a few days beyond the IDF Spokesperson’s pale, as “punishment” for being over inquisitive, could end a career.
International journalists are not trapped in this relationship. They should do better.
The IDF’s conniving
Just who are the “competent authorities” who approved Nachman Shai’s inflated pension?
Column, Matti Golan, Globes, December 4 2009
In the newspapers the story was called “the Nachman Shai affair.” Actually, the affair can be called “how the Army fools the treasury and the public.” The story is that till this day MK Shai is receiving a full IDF pension, even though he served as IDF spokesman for only three years while the law requires at least eight years to qualify.
So how did this happen? The IDF decided that the five years after Shai’s discharge were unpaid vacation. Why? Because when Shai was appointed to the job, he was promised eight years’ service in the IDF, whether as spokesman or in another appropriate position. After no active position was found for him, the Army created a new military job for Shai: unpaid leave.
Shai claims he was willing to accept an active job in the Army but none was offered to him. When the IDF offered him the contract arrangement, he actually did what any other person would do — accepted. The problem, therefore, is not in his accepting but in those who gave. Did the IDF break the law? If it didn’t break it, it surely walked around it in ways normally called “fraud.”
The natural thing would be to open an investigation. But that is not going to happen because on the legal front the IDF is covered, as we saw in the case of Chico Tamir. Besides, everyone understands that such an investigation could reveal dozens if not hundreds of other cases like this.
“I demand a written answer”
Now let’s see what happens when the IDF is asked to explain its actions. In the Army’s response to this affair it said: “Shai’s entitlement [to a pension] was approved by the competent authorities of the time in the IDF.” Reactions like that give me an allergy, because it is clear from them that somebody thinks we deserve to be made fools of. Therefore I went to the trouble of sending a query to the IDF spokesman asking: “who are the competent authorities?” and “who are the competent authorities who provided this specific approval?”
The spokesman’s office asked what I mean. They are right. They are used to telling journalists “competent authorities” and the journalists repeat it like parrots without unnecessary questions. After I clarified my intention, I received another phone call with an answer contingent on being “off the record.”
I asked what I was supposed to do with that answer? They said: write it in the name of “military sources.” I said: “I don’t want to. I sent you a written question, the simplest factual question possible. I demand a written answer.” Apparently they are not used to such obvious demands from journalists either.
I have a grave suspicion
In the end an answer came, this time “on the record,” saying: “Since the retirement occurred 13 years ago, addressing the details requires finding and examining all of the relevant material. After the material is collected and examined we will be able to comment on its contents.”
I urge you to take a good look at that answer. It says that in the computer age, the body with the biggest budget in the country, the body that should be the most sophisticated technologically, the one that manufactures rockets and airplanes, that Army has trouble finding material from 13 years ago. I remember answers like that in the days of the archaic archives.
But moreover: according to this answer, the IDF does not even know who approved the arrangement with Shai. And if it doesn’t know, how does the IDF know that those anonymous parties were competent? What we should learn from it is that when we are told “approved by competent authorities,” we must check. Because very often that statement is used to cover up and whitewash.
I sent another e-mail: “I would appreciate your telling me approximately when the relevant materials will be found: in a week, a month, a year or what?” I haven’t received a reply to that e-mail yet. Meanwhile I made a note in my diary to call every week because I have a great suspicion nobody is planning to look. I suspect they know full well who was responsible for that arrangement. I suspect they don’t want us to know too. I suspect they hope I get tired of the subject. Well, they’re wrong.