Israeli National Intelligence Culture and the Response to COVID-19
More than 2,600 Israelis (in a country with a population of around 9 million people) have already died from COVID-19. The government is now beginning to ease the lockdowns implemented after a second wave tore through the country. Restrictions are hard to enforce. Israel has a dedicated “coronavirus government cabinet,” but decisions are made under dramatic political pressure.
The Israeli intelligence community plays an active role in the fight against the pandemic. It analyzes the infection trends of Israeli civilians and recommends necessary national measures, provides surveillance over infected individuals, and even produces and provides necessary medical equipment. By contrast, the American intelligence agencies have played a different role in its country’s pandemic response. The intelligence community has broadened its traditional scope to include medical threats, or as the director of national intelligence has said, its focus will be “directed to the geopolitical and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its origins.” But Israeli intelligence exhibited a totally different paradigm. It leveraged its skills, rather than adhering to its formal roles.
Intelligence in Israel is focused on practice — and theory is sometimes considered a luxury. I should know. I have been encultured in this system through more than 25 years of service in the Israeli Defense Intelligence.
What is the “Israeli idea of intelligence?” In what way do Israelis perceive and practice intelligence different than Americans or Brits? What perceptions and beliefs underlie the way Israel refers to intelligence? I believe that cultural explanations can enrich our understanding of Israel’s intelligence community and foreign policy, which are two topics of great importance. This can be gained through understanding Israeli national intelligence culture.
The active role of Israeli intelligence can be seen as a manifestation of this culture, which is inclined towards action and direct influence, rather than towards structured reflection and “distance” from decision-making. In Israel, intelligence does not end with a finished analytical and objective product (although objectivity is still considered valuable). It has to provide recommendations for action, and it is often used as a tool to shape events.
Israeli intelligence tends to use friction in the Clausewitzian sense, rather than reflection. It is inclined towards understanding the environment by engaging it, not merely by analyzing it and anticipating future outcomes. Moreover, it mobilizes when national crises arise. This is how it usually acts and thinks regarding traditional national security issues, and this is how it acted vis-a-vis COVID-19.
Israeli Intelligence Fighting COVID-19
Israel’s intelligence community is comprised mainly of the Israeli Defense Intelligence (Aman), the Mossad, and the Israeli Security Agency (Shabak or Shin Bet). Aman is a directorate in the Israeli Defense Forces that also provides national- and defense-level intelligence. By contrast, the Mossad is subordinate to the prime minister’s office and is in charge mainly of special operations and intelligence activities outside of Israel. For example, it was recently involved in the peace accords between Israel and Arab countries. Shin Bet is also subordinate to the prime minister’s office, but it is in charge mainly of counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, and counter-espionage inside Israel.
In Israel, unlike in the United States, there is no director of national intelligence. The American national intelligence estimates and intelligence community assessments are produced by the National Intelligence Council, which is under the office of the director of national intelligence. But in Israel, there is no one head of the intelligence community, at least not formally. When the intelligence services conduct and present their national intelligence estimates, each service has its own “slot.” Aman is considered to be in charge of the national intelligence estimate, although this has been challenged and debated over the years.
Despite the lack of organizational centralization, however, my personal experience has shown that the Israeli intelligence community maintains a high level of coordination and cooperation. This is probably more like birds flying in a focused, V-shaped “organic order” than as a disciplined structure with a well-defined leader. Discipline can hardly be considered an Israeli feature, but focus can.
Israeli intelligence agencies are indeed very focused on fighting the pandemic. The Israeli Defense Forces as a whole are a major participant in this fight. This is also very typical of Israeli security and defense systems, which are considered by Israelis not just as providers of defense but also as the core of Israel’s national security. Hence, it is not surprising that Israeli intelligence has performed much more than merely “medical intelligence” — an issue that is receiving much academic research lately. It has mobilized its capabilities and skills to conduct analysis of the spread of the pandemic inside Israel, and to actively fight the pandemic.
Aman is leading, alongside the Ministry of Health, the national Israeli COVID-19 research center, and practically providing civilian and health recommendations. According to Israeli media, this was an initiative of a colonel in Aman’s research and analysis division who offered to leverage Aman’s capabilities for the national fight against COVID-19. Aman’s technological and special operations units have provided technical assistance regarding ventilation machines. In September 2020, the Israeli government expanded the scope of information about Israeli civilians provided to military intelligence. Mossad has procured and provided crucial medical equipment, while Shin Bet is monitoring COVID-19 infections throughout the country.
Many of these activities are beyond the agencies’ moral, legal, or professional scopes, at least formally. Aman is prohibited from dealing with internal Israeli matters. Shin Bet has developed its technologies to counter terrorism and insurgency, not to monitor Israeli civilians. Mossad conducts operations like obtaining Iranian nuclear archives more often than purchasing medical equipment abroad.
Moreover, a vibrant discussion is being conducted in Israel about whether providing an early warning for a global pandemic and analyzing it is an issue of national security, and therefore of national intelligence. Some Israeli scholars claim this is not the case, since not all analysis is intelligence analysis, and intelligence ultimately engages security matters and deals with secret information. Even the former head of the research and analysis division in Aman, Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, claimed that this issue should be handled by a civilian and national intelligence entity. Although military and defense intelligence in Israel is practically also national intelligence, monitoring global pandemics does not seem to fall within the intelligence community’s scope. Instead, Israeli intelligence focuses on more traditional national security issues, with an overwhelming regional emphasis on the Middle East.
Scholars and practitioners in Israel have begun to discuss ethical and professional dilemmas stemming from the Israeli intelligence community’s active role in fighting COVID-19, especially in terms of civil-military relations. One major ethical dilemma concerns the “red line” between military intelligence and internal monitoring. More specifically, are Israelis willing to have their military officers conduct internal and civilian operations? One major professional dilemma concerns the very definition of “intelligence.” Is the Israeli intelligence community expected to monitor and analyze the effects of the pandemic worldwide? What skills does it have for this role? Brig. Gen. Shalom seemed to be aware of all these challenges, and so are the intelligence officers who practically conduct the analysis alongside the Ministry of Health. But still, it is hard to imagine a national task in Israel in which its intelligence agencies do not participate, even if this means confronting new challenges and creating a new paradigm for the practice of intelligence.
In the United States, the role of the intelligence community is rather different, and providing intelligence to policymakers on global health crises is fundamentally within its remit. Given the global span of U.S. interests, this is exactly what U.S. intelligence agencies should be doing.
And indeed, American intelligence probably provided an early warning for the emergence of COVID-19, and tried to understand its sources. It executed its traditional roles of collection and analysis and applied them to the medial issue. One exception might be the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activities’ call for developing advanced technologies to fight the pandemic. But still, one can hardly imagine the Defense Intelligence Agency conducting data analysis of the pandemic’s spread in New York City.
Israel’s National Intelligence Culture
Israeli intelligence favors innovation and adaptation over stagnation, informality over formality, action over reflection, initiative over protocol, result over process, and practice over theory. Although I have been a part of this culture for more than 25 years, I probably had to retire from active duty to fully grasp the importance of this cultural perspective. A few years ago, I began to conduct some theoretical work focused on strategic intelligence and Israeli national intelligence culture. I discovered a gap in the extant literature about this topic, since the cultural perspective is rarely used to analyze Israeli intelligence’s actions. I think this needs to change.
On the one hand, numerous studies have been written about Israeli intelligence, which is a major pillar of Israel’s (unwritten, unpublished, and informal) national security strategy. These studies include books and articles about the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and research conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv about the intelligence community and its challenges. Moreover, scholars have debated the subject in Intelligence – In Theory and in Practice, a journal published by the Center for Study of Intelligence Methodology in Ramat Hasharon. There are also lessons to be learned from memoirs of former intelligence officers. Moreover, Israeli scholars contribute to intelligence studies, such as Uri Bar-Joseph, Isaac Ben-Israel, Abraham Ben-Zvi, Shlomo Gazit, Yehoshafat Harkabi, Zvi Lanir, Ephraim Kam, and Shlomo Shpiro. Former senior Israeli intelligence practitioners, such as Brig. Gen. (res.) Itai Brun, have written about intelligence in recent years, bringing together theory and practice.
On the other hand, studies focused on Israeli national intelligence culture per se are scarce. National intelligence culture is a broad topic, with research gaining momentum in recent years. Current research is still focused on the United States and the United Kingdom, although this is also beginning to change. National intelligence culture can be characterized as a nation’s unique set of beliefs, values, and concepts that create the context for the theory and practice of intelligence. It encompasses all three aspects of intelligence that Sherman Kent, the dean of U.S. intelligence analysis, pointed to: organization, product (knowledge), and process. National intelligence culture can be thought of as having reciprocal interactions with strategic, political, military, and organizational cultures.
Naturally, there can be many cultures of intelligence inside one nation, with divergences between organizations, periods in time, and different roles of intelligence (collection, analysis, and operations). But writ large, one can find at least some common ground for the theory and practice of intelligence, which is characteristic of a specific nation.
The American intelligence culture, for example, is considered to be “truth-seeking.” The main role of the American intelligence community is to be objective, reveal the truth, and transmit this to decision-makers. Interestingly, this traditional view of intelligence is open for debate, and has been challenged lately, even in War on the Rocks.
The Israeli national intelligence culture is different. It seems that Israeli intelligence is in a constant state of change and revolution, albeit without always having the relevant theoretical foundations. One could argue, of course, that the American intelligence community is also in a constant state of reforms, especially since the terrorist attacks in 2001. But in the Israeli case, this seems to go beyond merely adapting to a changing environment of nation-state militaries, global terrorism, cyber warfare, military organizations, and advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence. Israeli intelligence seems to be constantly looking for new paradigms.
In 2007, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yosef Kupperwasser, the former head of the research and analysis division in Aman, described major reforms that were conducted in the Israeli intelligence. These were fundamental changes in the process, product, and organization of intelligence: close collaboration between collectors and analysts, strong interactions between intelligence and policy, use of systemic thinking rather than merely inductive reasoning, and digital intelligence products. In 2013, David Siman-Tov and Ofer G. (a former and acting military intelligence officer writing anonymously) recommended a new paradigm for intelligence — focusing on implications of the Web 2.0 phenomena, and on better collaboration between collectors and analysts. In 2014, then Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the head of Aman (and currently lieutenant general and chief of general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces), portrayed a “permanent change in a changing reality.” He discussed fundamental changes: the new concept of “intelligence-based warfare,” a new approach to the cyber dimension, and a great emphasis on jointness inside Aman. The 2016, 2017, and 2018 journals of the Center for Research of Intelligence Methodology focused on jointness, change, and big data. Just recently, Brig. Gen. Shalom published an article describing the “multi-dimensional intelligence” — a new concept Aman has begun to implement, manifesting a rather revolutionary interaction between collection and analysis. These are all illustrations of a culture constantly seeking adaptation and revolutions, acting in a fast-changing reality, and not resting on its laurels.
In addition, the Israeli intelligence community seems still to be recovering from the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The war represents the greatest intelligence failure in Israeli history, as Syria and Egypt conducted a surprise attack on Israel, thus leading to a deadly war with more than 2,700 Israeli casualties. While I was born after this war, I felt the echoes of the war every day of my quarter century of service in Israeli intelligence. The trauma of a surprise attack that threatened Israel’s existence was a haunting one and was a formative experience for Israel’s security establishment. In interviews given by acting and former Israeli intelligence officials, one can hardly find an absence of references to the Yom Kippur War.
During my service, I was taught to implement the lessons of being your own devil’s advocate (a new unit with such a role was formed after the war inside Aman, with similar roles to a red team); scrutinizing the analysis and decision-making of colleagues, even of higher ranks; being open to different analytical judgments and methods; allowing junior officers access to the highest ranks in government and military; and thinking independently while remaining infused with a sense of national responsibility. This is how Aman perceives the major lessons of the 1973 failures. Many of my colleagues were educated in a similar manner. These traits have also become prominent aspects of the Israeli intelligence culture. Independence of thought, creative thinking, and showing initiative are all considered important imperatives. I believe these too were manifested when fighting COVID-19.
In Israeli intelligence, practice usually precedes and outweighs theory. An interesting example of this is the Israeli approach to the revolution in intelligence affairs. The revolution in intelligence affairs is a term receiving some scholarly attention in the last decade, relying on the theoretical foundations of the revolution in military affairs. It describes new concepts, organizations, and technologies that fundamentally change the way that intelligence is practiced. This is a new paradigm for intelligence, not just incremental changes. In the United States, experts have been writing about the revolution in intelligence affairs since 2005, and have currently emphasized the role of machines in this revolutionary intelligence. But in Israel, based on some media reports and articles, such a revolution is already taking place.
All these cultural aspects resemble the way Dima Adamsky has described Israeli strategic culture and its approach to military innovation. I believe these were also salient in the Israeli “campaign between the wars.” This campaign is an innovative concept, practiced by Israeli security services in recent years but conceptualized only in hindsight, describing active (kinetic and non-kinetic) efforts to counter Israeli adversaries’ force build-up efforts. Eliot A. Cohen, Michael Eisenstadt, and Andrew J. Bacevich have described Israeli military culture in a similar way — claiming that Israelis usually defer to innovation rather than to tradition. This is probably one of the reasons that Israel is considered a start-up nation. And adding to that, Avi Kober has claimed in the past that Israeli military thought and theory are underdeveloped, and are underestimated compared to military practice.
Leaning on these strategy and military cultural aspects, new challenges are often addressed by Israeli intelligence mainly through friction and engagement, which allows learning and adaptation through action and not through reflection. Interestingly enough, the current chief of Aman, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, wrote an article a few years ago about learning processes in the Israel Defense Force’s general staff. Likewise, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yossi Baidatz, a former head of the research and analysis division, published a study about strategy as a learning process. In the business world, Henry Mintzberg would have probably called this “the learning school of strategy.” Such engagement through action and friction was also the case with COVID-19.
Israeli intelligence services leveraged their skills, which were developed for traditional national security matters, to fight COVID-19. These skills include data mining and analysis, technological monitoring, covert operations, and providing recommendations for national decision-making. Israeli intelligence also leveraged its ability to adapt, improvise, and act quickly. This combination of skill and spirit seems to be a manifestation of Israel’s national intelligence culture, and more broadly, of Israeli political, strategic, and military culture. Since the strategic and operational environment in the Middle East is so volatile, perhaps this is what it takes.
However, such an intelligence culture also has its downsides. For example, surprisingly for a country that gives such importance to intelligence and to higher education, the academic status of intelligence studies in Israel is low compared to other Western countries. I see this as an example of Israeli aversion towards theory and academia. In Hebrew, “academic” oftentimes means “non-practical.” However, without proper theory and academic research, I believe that an adaptive culture of practice might not be sufficient for future challenges.
There is also a potential for ethical pitfalls. There are already signs, for example, of criticism in Israel about military intelligence reports discussing medical issues. Israelis, and especially former intelligence officers like myself, are not used to seeing officers in uniforms discussing the financial aspects of easing the lockdown in the Israeli education system. It is potentially awkward to see intelligence officers providing recommendations pertaining to controversial issues in Israeli society, such as lockdowns with dramatic financial repercussions, or limitations on prayers in synagogues. It is more natural, or even more ethically appropriate, to see them discuss Iran and the Palestinian Authority.
To sum it up, Israeli intelligence played and still plays an active and public role in fighting COVID-19. This can be seen as a manifestation of the Israeli national intelligence culture that usually favors practice over theory, friction over reflection, initiative over protocol, and adaptation over stagnation. American and British intelligence communities have different intelligence cultures, and indeed acted differently in the wake of the pandemic. I believe they also act differently when it comes to traditional national security matters.
As the pandemic continues, Israeli intelligence might face more ethical and professional challenges. But I believe that the adaptive and proactive nature of Israeli intelligence culture will meet the challenge head on. When facing new threats, Israeli intelligence tends to act first, then take time for reflection later. But action in the Israeli way inherently creates opportunities for learning and adaptation. Theory will be developed later on.
Itai Shapira is a retired colonel from the Israeli Defense Intelligence (IDI), with more than 25 years of service on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Itai is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leicester. He has published several articles about intelligence in Intelligence and National Security and Strategic Assessment, as well as commentary about the Middle East.