I was woken up one Thursday morning late last December by my phone ringing and beeping. While still partially asleep I saw that my dad and my lawyer had each called several times, as well as some fellow journalists.
I answered my dad’s next call, and he broke the news to me: a decision in the civil lawsuit I had filed against Haaretz—Israel’s most respected, acclaimed newspaper—had been decided in my favor. It represented the end of a six-year battle that everyone, including me, considered a losing one.
In an 83-page-decision, Justice Rahamim Cohen ruled Haaretz and Uri Blau—one of their leading investigative journalists—were responsible for disclosing my identity as a source who gave them classified documents. Haaretz and Blau didn’t do enough to protect me and will have to compensate me for the damages my exposure caused. (The exact amount is yet to be determined, but they have already notified me of their intention to appeal.)
The story behind this moment began more than a decade ago, when I was working as the personal assistant, during my mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces, for the chief-of-staff to Major General Yair Naveh, the commander who oversees Jerusalem and the West Bank among other areas.
Because the West Bank is still an occupied territory, the army is legally in charge of the area. So many of the issues and decisions — all the tiny problems that make up the day-to-day functioning of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict — passed across my desk, and were stored in my computer.
Most of the things I saw in those documents weren’t so dramatic. But I thought the portrait of the Israeli occupation that they painted was new, and worth writing about. I didn’t have to break into anyone’s office, or hack anything. I just passed a thumb drive of documents to Blau.
He published a few articles based on the documents. In one of them, Haaretz also posted scanned documents marked “Top Secret.” Yuval Diskin, head of the Israel’s security services, the Shabak, at them time, later said this triggered the investigation because “it was like sticking a finger to our eye.”
People often ask me why I did it. More than ten years after the act itself, more than five years after being released from prison, I’m not sure I have a good answer. It depends on my mood at the moment and on who’s asking. I am sure, though, that had I known the outcome I wouldn’t have done it. The personal price was, and is, too heavy.
After the articles were published I got a call from a a guy who named himself as Rani from the Shabak. He invited me for a “conversation.” He wouldn’t tell me over the phone what it was about. My curiosity overcame my better judgment and I went to meet him. (Blau wasn’t available when I called him beforehand. A mutual friend told me he was on a private trip and could not be reached.)
I was 22, but found myself sitting alone in front of three well-built, middle-aged men. I did not consult a lawyer. I was terrified and cooperated as best as I could. I voluntarily gave them my laptop, which I had with me because I was at university that day. I invited them to search my apartment without waiting for a warrant, because I was afraid of having to explain a search, and its associated mess, to my roommate.
I asked Rani if the Shabak had followed me. “I can’t answer that,” he replied, instantly making me more paranoid. I asked if I could smoke. He said yes, but that I could not go and get my cigarettes. He handed me some of his, which were Marlboro Lights—the same brand I smoke. I wondered if he had prepared them in advance.
Eventually Rani said something like, “I want to ask you about your military service at the office of Yair Naveh.” I’m pretty sure that the discomfort I showed gave me away, but I tried to play the game a little longer, hoping I could just deny everything and leave. It was pointless.
After several formal interrogations, the case was transferred to the prosecution and I was and restricted to my parents’ house under a heavy gag order until further notice. I was allowed to tell my bosses I couldn’t come to work, and ask my friends at Tel Aviv University to take notes for me, but I could not tell them why.
During my trial, investigation materials were made available to my lawyers. I found that, several weeks before the Shabak called me, Haaretz and Blau had signed an agreement to return secret documents in his possession to the authorities.
The agreement was signed on September 2009 and was the first of its kind, as far as I know. Its second paragraph states as follows: “Documents which your client (Mr. Blau; AK) will turn in will not be used as basis for a criminal investigation against him. It is hereby clarified that should an investigation to identify the source start, your client will not be interrogated as a suspect and will not be questioned about his sources regarding these documents.”
Haaretz did not wait for a court order to return the documents they got from me. It did not appeal to a higher body in an attempt to protect me, or raise public opinion against such a tyrannical demand. Despite having documents from other sources he had gathered over the years, Uri returned only documents I had shared—as good as pointing the Shabak directly at me.
People often ask me why I did it. More than ten years after the act itself, more than five years after being released from prison, I’m not sure I have a good answer.
The paper fully backed Blau through the entire affair. He was paid while he stayed abroad, as his lawyers—on the newspaper’s retainer, of course—negotiated with the authorities over his returning terms. I was not offered any help, legal or financial. (I could not help but notice that, by contrast, The Intercept had paid for the legal defense of one accused leaker, Reality Winner.)
I was eventually indicted and charged with two counts of espionage, and convicted in both as part of a plea deal. The judges sentenced me to four years and six months in prison, subsequently reduced by a year on appeal, of which I served two years and two months.
It was an unprecedented punishment. I didn’t sell a secret missile technology to the Iranians. I gave documents to an Israeli journalist whose publications were approved by the military censorship policies which Israeli media companies abide by. They were embarrassing, no question, but were never a threat to national security.
I felt betrayed by the way Haaretz had acted. And the feeling would not go away, especially when I realized that the two years of house arrest, the endless court appearances and the brutal media coverage were only the beginning.
My family and I decided that Haaretz itself needed to be held to account. We sent a letter to Amos Schocken, the newspaper’s publisher, to ask for compensation for the damage to my life his publication had caused. Schocken is well respected in Israel and abroad; he’s open about his politics, attentive to his readers’ comments, and is considered brave when it comes to challenging the authorities. I couldn’t believe he’d abandon a source.
He never responded. We waited for the Supreme Court’s decision about my final sentence—the exact damage to my name, my career, my life was all function of the length of my incarceration—and then on April 3, 2013 we filed a lawsuit.
Nearly six years and countless hearings, motions and documents later, on December 27 2018, Justice Cohen determined that Blau did not act as required and expected in the way he handled the documents. The judge gave special attention to the differences between Blau and me, in knowledge and experience.
“The plaintiff’s risk assessment is not equal to the risk assessment Blau should have done,” he said. “Blau’s and his colleagues’ risk assessment was not reasonable given the fact that these are a newspaper and a reporter with a years’ long experience in stories about national security.” He also mentioned the fact that Blau never informed me about the risks, and clearly did not get my full, acknowledged consent.
In Israel, where there isn’t a constitution which defends the freedom of speech and there aren’t laws which protect journalists from disclosing their sources’ identities, this ruling stresses unequivocally that media outlets are committed to stand behind their sources. Not a vague, open to interpretation imperative “do not give your sources away,” but a clear pointing at what Haaretz did wrong in my case and how they could and should have acted differently, and how media outlets should act from now on regarding their sources.
Haaretz did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story. But its lawyers, Tali Lieblich and Zeev Liond, published their response to the ruling on the paper’s next day issue (to their credit, they reported about the ruling in a fair way). “There’s a deep concern,” they wrote, “that this ruling will create a chilling effect towards the investigative journalism in general and the national security reporters in particular, an effect that will deter them from publishing stories based on leaks.”
It is unfair to hold the newspaper and reporter responsible for the exposure of a source, they wrote, “under circumstances in which the investigation authorities perform unprecedented actions to break the reporter’s privilege, and while the reporter himself is a suspect—is unreasonable.”
“A source who keeps holding classified documents illegally,” they concluded, “even after the publication of which he was satisfied, and who was quick to confess his actions during the interrogation, can’t pass the buck to the newspaper of which he asked to publish the documents.”
I am obviously not unbiased. But I disagree. As Justice Cohen wrote, “defending the journalistic confidentiality enables independent investigative journalism in matters the public eye is not exposed to and that the oversight on them is minor, such as governmental, security and military affairs. Therefore, keeping the confidentiality of the information sources is the very essence of free press and damaging it means hurting free speech.”
Now I hope, for the first time in history, sources who work with the Israeli press know someone has their backs.