SAVYON, Israel — Should a journalist accept and use stolen goods?
I say, “no,” whatever the circumstances or context.
This issue came up when a dubious and unwarranted gag order issued by an Israeli court was lifted belatedly and the public learned that a recently discharged female soldier allegedly stole 2,000 secret documents from the army’s Central Command headquarters.
During the month or so that 23-year- old Anat Kam was under house arrest and before she was identified by name as an employee of the Walla Web site owned by the daily newspaper Haaretz, word spread that her incarceration was an attempt by the authorities to suppress proof of Israeli “war crimes” against West Bank Palestinians.
A story to that effect somehow found its way into the British press and echoes of it were picked up and published in the United States by Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times.
It was only after Kam appeared in court to face charges of espionage and treason — the state prosecutor’s inept and inaccurate definition of her alleged transgressions — that the true details came to light.
She was said to have told police interrogators that before ending her two years as an IDF clerk with access to top secret military documents she managed to transfer more than 2,000 of them to her personal computer and subsequently gave all or most of them to Haaretz staff writer Uri Blau. Blau evidently used several of them in a story published in his newspaper two years ago and kept the rest presumably for future stories.
It took two years for the Shabak, (the Hebrew acronym for Sherut Bitahon Klali, Israel’s general security service and roughly equivalent to the FBI) to identify Kam as Blau’s source. Its agents were said to have struck a deal with him, according to which he would surrender the documents and thereby be immune from prosecution. The Shabak reportedly agreed to give him a new computer to replace the one containing the textual contraband.
By then, Blau managed to ensconce himself somewhere in London and to stay there with all expenses paid by his newspaper. According to leaks planted in the local news media. He withheld 50 of the documents and was therefore liable to face extradition proceedings and arrest upon arrival in Israel.
Haaretz not only backed him to the hilt, but also cast his benefactor, Kam, as an “idealist” motivated by reasons of conscience: the purported need to expose supposedly unjustifiable acts of violence by Israeli military personnel against Palestinian civilians (including murder).
If the newspaper’s rationale were accepted it would be tantamount to saying that the arrest of Jonathan Pollard for stealing secret documents while serving as a U.S. Navy analyst and handing them over to Israeli agents was unwarranted and his prison sentence excessive if not inhumane. The documents Pollard stole evidently related to American military assessments of Iraq’s military capabilities during the regime of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Painful as it is to say or read this, that analogy is valid. The punishment meted out to him may indeed be extreme, vindictive and merciless, but the fact that he committed a crime and violated the trust invested in him cannot be denied.
Whatever Kam’s personal views may be with regard to Israel’s military activities in the West Bank and its treatment of the Palestinians there, they do not empower her to steal classified, secret or top secret documents from the military headquarters in which she served until three years ago. And when they were offered to Blau, he should have asked how they were obtained and insisted that they be given back immediately.
Journalists, whether they work for marginal online services or distinguished newspapers, are not above the law. Those documents were, and some of them still are, stolen goods; it is unethical for them to be kept by unauthorized persons regardless of their profession.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)