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Journalist Uri Blau to stand trial for holding leaked documents

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced on Wednesday his intention to indict Uri Blau, one of Israel’s top investigative reporters, for possession of classified materials without permission. The materials in question are documents given to Blau by whistleblower Anat Kamm; Kamm, then a conscript clerk in the office of GOC Central Command, copied them from the GOC’s computer, believing they constituted evidence of war crimes carried out in defiance of international law and Israel’s own Supreme Court, including summary executions of terrorism suspects who could have been detained.

Kamm is presently serving a four and a half-year prison sentence following a plea bargain in which she admitted to possession and transfer of classified documents.

The decision today marks a crucial milestone in a process that has been dragging on for more than two years, as prosecutors considered the implications of indicting a journalist for doing something well established in his trade. Almost every journalist with claims to be anything but a stenographer for the army spokesman has held onto classified information – written or otherwise – that was received outside official channels, without authorisation.

Although Blau, in the early days of the investigation into the leak, had already given over to the state all the documents he used to publish the story on summary executions, the state demanded the rest of the cache. During the investigation, Blau spent time in political exile in London, waiting while his lawyers negotiated with the state the terms of a deal under which he would not be prosecuted. Once the deal was struck and Blau did his part, however, the state got greedy, and demanded full access his entire archive, amassed over a decade of investigative work. Then it said it might prosecute him anyway. Blau remained in limbo, his ability to work severely curtailed: few sources would go out on a limb for a journalist likely to be tightly monitored by the security agencies. He only began writing regularly a few months ago, publishing a few stories on the behind the scenes workings of the Israeli right, mostly through deft use of freedom of information requests.

Obtaining and retaining classified information is the bread-and-butter of a civilian journalists monitoring the country’s most powerful and insulated institution – the military. Although Israel has no laws to protect journalists, in most cases (barring one prosecution concerning the revelation of cooperation between the Israeli and Morrocan intelligence agencies half a century ago, and an attempt to prosecute a senior military correspondent after the Gulf War for revealing the regrettable fact the much-lauded “Patriot” missiles failed to intercept a single SCUD), the state has not gone after journalists for doing something so essential to their work – until now.

According to a Justice Ministry press release [Hebrew] announcing the decision, principles of press freedoms were taken into account in the decision to indict Blau, but the nature and quantity of the documents, along with Blau’s attempts to hold onto them, led the attorney general to the conclusion that there was “no correlation whatsoever” between Blau’s possession of the documents and proper journalistic practice. “Blau held, knowingly and without supervision, hundreds and thousands of documents classified as ‘secret’ and ‘top secret,’ which were stolen from the Central Command by the soldier Anat Kamm, and he violated his obligation – and later his obligation before the state authorities – to stop holding them… Their exposure to, or potential acquisition by hostile entities would have caused damage to the security of the state and endangered the lives of IDF soldiers,” reads the press release.

Danny Zaken, Chairman of the Jerusalem branch of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), released a statement condemning the decision. “The decision of the attorney general to file an indictment against Uri Blau brings Israel back a generation, and casts into doubt its definition as a real democratic state. The decision joins a string of legislative moves designed to harm the status of journalism and its critical role in ensuring the existence of a democratic regime. Uri Blau’s articles went through the censor, and the Haaretz journalist did what any good journalist must do: expose to the public what is being hidden from it, for it to judge.

“It is disappointing that the attorney general is joining the ranks, through his decision, of those who hurt freedom of expression, instead of being the one to defend it from governmental forces seeking to restrict it. The Union will work to reverse the decision and will use all of the tools at its disposal to protect Blau and free journalism in Israel,” the statement continued.

Noa Yachot contributed to this report

For background on how the case unfolded:
TIMELINE: The Anat Kamm affair

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    1. max

      A slightly different presentation may provide a significantly different impression.
      Thousands of documents, incl. secret and top-secret ones, many with operational nature, have been stolen and provided to Mr. Blau, who kept them with no security measures.
      When suspected, he ‘returned’ 50 documents, claiming that’s all he had, and received from the state a new computer, after his was destroyed. No legal follow up ensued.
      The ‘deal’ was broken when the investigation revealed that Mr. Blau received not 50 but 1,800 document; that he kept copies of those he returned; and escaped to London when asked for interrogation.
      In the second agreement with him, there was no clause about dropping charges.
      Rating and professional advancement considerations are likely reasons for Mr. Blau’s actions; unless someone claims that journalists are above the law, I don’t see why he shouldn’t face charges, and defend his points.
      From a journalistic point of view, Mr. Blau and Haaretz have failed miserably to protect their sources (and this isn’t the first time for Haaretz).
      I also wonder how common it is for a newspaper to ‘negotiate’ the law as they’ve done later.
      In parallel, it’s obvious that the military system has failed to protect its information.
      I’d also be interested to find out whether the issues raised by Mr. Blau, including no less than the IDF head of staff have been addressed.

      Reply to Comment
    2. I wonder whether the Haaretz owners had any prior warning of this. In recent months they have it seems to me been adopting a much more conciliatory line vis-a-vis what passes for Israeli normality — introducing a regular religious section for instance. There is also the recent changes in ownership to consider: As of Jun 2011, the Schockens own 60% and DuMont Schauberg and Leonid Nevzlin own 20% each.

      Reply to Comment
    3. charles

      This journalist knew what he was doing when he took the documents from Anat Kam. Israel is a country at war and the stolen documents were the property of Tsahal.
      Uri Blau is lucky because in any other country, this cost 20 years in prison in case of a democraty of course.
      Both Anat Kam and Uri Blau acted arrogantly and stupidly. More than Uri Blau a journalist who will recover from the blow, Anat Kam’s life is finished, nobody in Israel will want to employ her or work with her or whatever.

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    4. Philos

      @ Rowan Berkeley, you only have to read to Ari Shavit the last couple of months to notice the change of tone over at Ha’aretz. Shavit is one of the most belligerent and scare-mongering of Israel’s journalists on the Iran issue, and has taken a harder line against the Palestinians. See his op-ed that the Palestinians should basically shut up about the Nakba because they lost so they’re responsible and it’s their fault there are no negotiations. I found it quite surprising.

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    5. And they’re clambering onto the Syria bandwagon too. But the point of this Uri Blau/ Anat Kamm case is the same as the point of the Julian Assange/ Bradley Manning case. In both cases, the material was leaked as an act of conscience by insiders who were disgusted by the evidence of military murder revealed in them. The purpose of the prosecutions is to demonstrate that the fact that the leaked documents contain evidence of illegal acts by the state will not be regarded as a legal excuse for leaking them, although in international law, evidence of illegal acts by the state does constitute a valid legal excuse for whistle-blowing regarding them.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Piotr Berman

      Perhaps it is an important step in returning Eritrean refugees to Eritrea. It cannot be done if Eritrean government is unreasonably repressive. But if it does not do anything that Israel does not, there will be no basis to think that Eritrea is unreasonable!

      Eritrea is still at war with Ethiopia and it cannot tolerate security breaches on the pretex of freedom of expresion and persecutes journalists. Similarly, it keeps people in military against their will for very long periods of time, a necessity well understood by GoI. Israel should upgrade domestic repressions to Eritrean standards and help Eritrea in bringing their Gulag to Israeli standards, and also expand to accomodate return refugees (or, more properly, deserters, traitors and misguided young people that should be re-educated).

      Reply to Comment
    7. Y.

      Can we please lay down the ridiculous excuses regarding ‘[alleged] war crimes and violations of the Supreme Court’s rulings’?
      Remember, per this Court’s standing doctrine, _everyone_ posting in this thread (including Dimi and even Kamm from her jail cell) has standing to stand and sue at the Court, telling them: ‘um, guys, they’re violating your rulings [not to mention various international standards], go do something about it’.
      Why, given the above, nobody bothers to do anything to verify the truth (not even write a detailed article about supposed crimes which are supposedly so revolting)?
      Is it because verifying the facts would leave Kamm and Blau with even less excuses? Or is this because no one on the far Left really cares or even really outraged by said actions? In any event, this is evidence no. 1 Kamm was no whistleblower (In order to be one, there’s a need for a crime, and to be motivated by it – the second is obviously false given her actions, and the first is very likely to be false as well).
      This is not really about Kamm or the excuses used for her leak, is it? If it were, you’d care more. This is about Blau, about trying to get exemption from the law for members of the journalistic elite, and about abolishing any secrecy the IDF has (after all, in any large cache of documents, one can always concoct some pretend crime and use it to justify leaking everything). Fortunately, not even our ineffective attorney general will let Blau and co. get away with them.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Charles: “Uri Blau is lucky because in any other country, this cost 20 years in prison in case of a democraty of course.”
      During the Vietnam war, a real war, where many Americans were killed, Daniel Elsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Included in these papers were results of role game simulations, conducted by upper command, in which the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese always won. Elsberg, a Pentagon employee, felt that this information should be known to the public, considering how many Americans had died, and could be expected to die. The government claimed that publising these results would give aid and comfort to the enemy, for now the enemy knows it will eventually win. Think about it.
      The government tried to prevent publication; the NYT proceeded. The government sued–and lost. In the United States, a country Isreal relies on for political and financial support, a journalist cannot, as a matter of constitutional law under the First Amendment, be imprisoned for publishing information leaked to her or him, save for an imminant danger exception where the journalist has knowledge of an immediate danger to others.
      Get your law right before praising Israel in this matter.
      The doctrine of general standing is currently in retreat in the High Court. In any case, the State would accept no discovery in the suit, claiming it would jeopardize national security. If I were arguing before the Court (and I am a nobody) I would say that if the State’s hands are tainted, if in fact the documents reveal that the State violated Israeli law or Court decisions, then the State has not standing to prosecute. The doctrine of tainted hands exists in Anglo common law, absorbed into Israel via the protectorate. It holds that when one sues on an issue while having violated the law in the particulars of the suit itself, one loses standing to sue. Your hands come tainted; leave.
      I have argued for some time here than the lack of a constitution is hemorrhaging your law. The ruling polity thinks that what they do is lawful because they do it. At every point you speak of security, infiltrators, disloyals. The recent hysterical call by a Likud MK, previously IDF spokeswoman, to place leftists in detention camps reflects a pure populist view of democracy and the law which, in outcome, kills–kills–indpendent thought. You will pay for traveling this road, and the very people you condemn will have to pull you out.
      You have four branches of government: Knesset, Ministries derived from the Knesset, the High Court and lower courts, and the IDF. And the stark truth is that the IDF is rapidly becoming immune to High Court decision. I continue to see only one path out: declare your Declaration of Independence a constitutional document. Otherwise, you will be fighting yourselves and your surround unendingly.

      Reply to Comment
    9. max

      @Greg, seems like you can interpret, generalize and apply the constitution with no help – well done!
      I presume that the stand against Assange is only due to the fact that he’s not protected by the constitution, right?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Charles

      @ Greg,
      Thank you for your feedback, you want to make the debat interesting, that’s good.
      I accept your comment but we are not in the US, we are in Israel, not yet the 52th US state.
      During Vietnam war, the US did not fight for their survival, it fought for ideas and supremacy over the communist model.
      In Israel the situation is more complicated, we are not even as big as a big US city and surrounded by countries who are dreaming about a middle est without Israel. If we loose a “real war” as you say we are done. We can’t let it happen. We already lost half of the jewish population during WW2.
      We don’t have a constitution due to many reasons (I let you investigate) but we do have constitutional laws, a high court and a supreme court.
      In a few words, your model don’t apply to us but your comment was interesting anyway.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Y.

      There’s no need for discovery here. Even Dimi thinks the published documents are enough to prove the point. And general standing is still in vogue.
      Not that the chance of loss or rejection should really deter principled leakers vs ‘war crimes’. After all, if the state violates any reasonable standards it will be embarrassed (perhaps deterred) at the very least. The simple point is this has nothing to do with leaking (it’s as if Elisberg never cared about the Vietnam War). This is a spying case whose treatment was ridiculously lax.
      Now, most Israelis support a constitution, and I’m sure we’ll get one sooner or later. We do not need to be ‘rescued’ by those who have little connection to Israeli reality.
      P.S. The unclean (not ‘tainted’) hands doctrine is inapplicable to this case (it applies to actions during an investigation or a lawsuit involving the litigants, not alleged violations of an area of the law).

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    12. max

      How will a constitution solve Israel’s problems? How did it solve America’s problems? How did it eliminate America’s human-rights abuses over the past 100 years? How different are constitutions from each other? How different is a constitution from a set of base-laws?
      Did you know that America’s constitution isn’t anymore the model for new constitutions?
      @Y – if you think that there’s enough commonality among the political streams in Israel (assuming that religion should play no cardinal role) to come up with a meaningful enough constitution (actionable, easy to interpret, ‘timeless’ principles), why do you think it hasn’t happened yet?

      Reply to Comment
    13. Y.

      Well, as a rule, constitutions are written mainly in exceptional circumstances. In the 40s-50s there was an opportunity to do it, but several factors intervened. First, the British Mandate’s heritage involved no constitution. Second, the socialists believed constitution didn’t matter but rather the ‘production mode’ of the country. Third, the ruling MAPAI party didn’t quite like the idea of limiting its power. Fourth, the religious parties opposed and MAPAI found them useful partners (moreso than USSR-influenced MAPAM).
      Today, there’s little pressure for it since people had gotten used to the current situation. Indeed, in theory it allows every institution to bask in its supremacy. Furthermore, such a process is inherently unpredictable, and the extreme opponents are stronger.
      That said, I’m pretty sure we’ll end up there – what would be considered exceptional circumstances elsewhere is not so uncommon here, and there are strong political interests at play which will favour this eventually (I don’t expect a too deep discussion, so we’ll end up with a mediocre result. But nevermind that, after all, USSR and SA had great constitutions on paper).
      Anyhow, it would hardly solve all (or most) of Israel’s problems. But it would stabilize politics a bit, and that’s something too.

      Reply to Comment
    14. AYLA

      GregPollock–thank you. i’ve learned there is very little true understanding of democracy from people born here even among the left. it is not their fault; if you grow up hearing that you are the only democracy in the middle east, you believe it. what saddens me more is the way that american jews who know better actually side with what they believe is israel’s right to defend herself over democracy here.

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    15. max

      @Y – thanks!
      I find it fascinating when I hear about the unity between democracy and constitution, between constitution and justice, and about America and its poor relatives “it is not their fault”.
      I know, America is big and not everyone there gets to think of all aspects of American life…
      More interesting – now that we covered The Constitution (and I wish – with you – that the commonality be formalized and built upon): what is it with Democracy that has become the ultimate goal of every thinking person, almost as if it were a McDonald’s? More specifically: where does the contempt in “they believe is israel’s right to defend herself over democracy here” come from?

      Reply to Comment
    16. FancyNancy

      I find it fascinating to read people supporting the prosecution of this reporter (and the others who have given time to expose war crimes and listened to whistle blowers).

      I suppose they will be the same people who cry in dismay when they’re lives are governed by an ever increasing fascist state.

      Of course it doesn’t occur to everyone that a military that is acting illegally doesn’t deserve and doesn’t get loyalty from it’s citizens. I never really understood how Germany divided into Nazi and opposition populations. Why didn’t everyone immediately become opposition? It didn’t make any sense to me. I guess now it does. Authority is respected by some, unquestioningly. And others, authority has to be earned legitimately.

      I feel sorry for the former group. They are never on the right side of history and there must be something in their character that is lacking, that they can accept any immoral and unethical action, so long as it is committed by those in power.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Examinator Ant

      One is mindful of the old adage that if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.
      History makes it abundantly clear that deterrents simply don’t work! Like locks they only deter those who don’t have a reason to ignore them.
      If anything, it proves that security is only as good as the weakest link …. a conscripted clerk good grief.
      On the other hand a kilo of prevention is better than a ton of cure.
      Simply put if the government (et al) is concern about it’s dirty secrets getting out it’s best defence is not to have any!
      And if s*etc happens then deal with it don’t sweep it under the carpet.
      As for jailing the Journalist (unless he can be proven to conspire (spy)) for having receiving said dirty secrets….one has to ask isn’t that what he’s SUPPOSED to do in an ALLEGED Democracy? This strikes me as simply vindictiveness ( petulant retribution)

      It seems to me that whistle blowers should be charged if what they leak is
      a. untrue/misleading
      b. malicious.
      c. Or isn’t illegal.
      In a democracy we the CITIZENS have the right to know when those who are acting in our name Ether screw up or break the laws, otherwise it SIMPLY ISN’T A DEMOCRACY!!

      Reply to Comment
    18. Y.

      The concept of “democracy” in Israeli internal discussions has very little to do with any actual concept of democracy. It’s usually a codeword for what the author likes/dislikes, or as opposed to ‘Jewish’ in the state’s definition.
      It’s desired. in part because it has been redefined to suit everyone’s values in the immediate term, in part due to the zeitgeist, and in part because of genuine support.
      Since the term has not so much to do with its general meaning, the contempt comes from other reasons, like general social tensions (or in a certain case, more likely just general haughtiness).

      Reply to Comment