It was an act of pure political theater in a country known for flamboyant public drama, although this time around the play is shaping up as a tragedy rather than a comedy. On Tuesday the mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot published a front-page article by former New York Times journalist Judith Miller with an almost entirely blacked out text. The parts that were left legible made no sense at all - and neither does the legal case it was pretending to describe.
Anat Kam is a 23 year-old journalist working for the Israeli web portal Walla! who is accused of having secretly photocopied hundreds of confidential documents at Israeli Central Command during her military service and passing them along to investigative journalist Uri Blau for a special report in the Israeli daily Haaretz. The content of the documents: explosive secret briefings regarding illegal targeted killings of militants by IDF soldiers in the West Bannk in 2007. She may also have leaked documents to other journalists as well, but this has yet to be proven.
Israeli journalist Anat Kam
Blau's article, which he published in November, 2008, was a true scoop. "The Israel Defense Forces has assassinated wanted men in apparent defiance of High Court of Justice guidelines for such operations," Blau wrote. "The documents reveal that the IDF approved assassinations in the West Bank even when it could have been possible to arrest the targets instead, and that top-ranking army officers authorized the killings in advance, in writing, even if innocent bystanders would be killed as well."
The Israeli Security Agency Shin Bet tracked the source of the leak for over a year before finally arresting Ms. Kam in December and placing her under house arrest. She will be put on trial for treason on April 14. Uri Blau is currently residing in London and waiting to see how events unfold before attempting to return to Israel.
Kam's case probably would not have received its global notoriety if not for the shroud of secrecy the government has hung over it. Not only is Kam's detention being treated as a state secret, her name has not been printed and the entire case offically does not exist. A secret gag order - recently leaked to blogger Richard Silverstein - has stifled all discussion of the matter on the basis of state security. The order, issued by career military judge Einat Ron at the District Court in the town of Petach Tikwa on January 1 and only lifted this morning, states among other things:
Publication of any sort about this investigation or any detail concerning it is likely to damage state security, to damage and frustrate the gathering of evidence, and the ability to prove criminal acts. ...
To prohibit publication about the investigation or that it even exists, and on the judicial discussion of the matter and legal decision rendered by the court which have been and will be conducted…
We seek that the gag prohibits publication even about this application for a gag order, its content, and even the existence of a gag order in this case; and any other publication likely to identify the respondent, witnesses, suspects or others engaged in the investigation, including publications of their images, addresses, or other identifying details.
Copy of the gag order against reporting on the Anat Kam case
(Source: Tikun Olam)
As a result, literally nothing salient has appeared in the Israeli press. The international press is playing catch-up as well - Silverstein notes that the New York Times waited weeks to pick up on the story and that the article it finally published on April 6 did not include a byline. It appears that having your name connected to the affair doesn't do much for your career. (Writing this post probably isn't helping mine much either, come to think of it.) This leaves detailed reporting on this issue to the blogosphere. Silverstein's dedication to this issue has been particularly valuable, as have Max Blumenthal's posts. Open Salon's own RickyB presented an excellent overview of the case yesterday.
Haaretz was scheduled to challenge the gag order in court on April 12. However, the authorities lifted the embargo this morning, allowing Haaretz to resume full coverage of the issue.
But the press's hesitation about transforming the Anat Kam case into a cause célèbre is not just an example of journalistic cowardice but also one of journalistic restraint. Kam is facing a treason charge after all (you can see her extensive charge sheet here), and she is certainly aware that another whistle blower, Mordechai Vanunu, spent eighteen years in jail for blowing the lid off of Israel's nuclear arsenal back in 1986. She herself faces up to fourteen years and Shin Bet is determined to see that she gets it. According to Wikipedia, Ms. Kam has been begging her friends and supporters not to publicize her case and persuaded the Hebrew Wikipedia site to take down the article about her. She clearly has no desire to play Joan of Arc in this drama, and so all efforts to help her out should respect her wishes. For more about the efforts on her behalf, check out the "We Want the Truth About Anat Kam" Facebook site.
Anat Kam's case clearly raises serious issues about press freedom, democratic values, and the rule of law. But is there even more at stake? In statements to the German news website Welt Online, veteran Israeli journalist Usi Bensiman has suggested that the case has less to do with a sinister government conspiracy to commit illegal murder than with an effort to protect the officers in question. This could be true. But coming in a time of increased tensions with Hamas, and just a week after Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz proclaimed on Israeli radio that “Sooner or later we will liquidate the military regime of the pro-Iranian Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip,” the case has a decidedly sinister ring to it. Clearly if the Israeli government seriously plans to carry through with such a liquidation plan, with all the consequences that would entail, it will need fewer Anat Kams rather than more.
Israeli Judge Einat Ron
(Source: Tikun Olam)
For the rest of us, however, the outcome of the Anat Kam case will say a lot more about the future of Israel and the Middle East than Judge Einat Ron's musings on the exigencies of "national security."